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'The Familiar Becomes New, the New Becomes Familiar': Changing Your Life Habits

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In one of his Dharma speeches, my teacher Son Master Songdam uses the phrase "The familiar becomes new, the new becomes familiar" to describe the changes that occur through Son meditation practice. He says:

An ancient one has said, 'Where it is familiar becomes new. Where it is new becomes familiar.' That which is accustomed becomes unaccustomed and new. That which is new ripens. This is what has been said.

Son Master Songdam goes on to explain that as beginning meditators we are accustomed to dwelling on our endless mental associations. But meditation is new and unfamiliar to us. However, he tells us, if we practice meditation long enough, the habit of plunging into our random thoughts and emotions will eventually become unfamiliar, unaccustomed, and finally forgotten. Meanwhile, the meditation practice which now seems so unfamiliar and new will become familiar and accustomed.

Although the terminology is ancient, Son Master Songdam is actually talking about what is now called the evolution and transformation of consciousness. In our current primitive state of mind, what Buddhists call the "unenlightened" state, we reflexively pursue pleasure and recoil from discomfort. Although we often give ourselves great credit for our intelligence and cleverness, our actual behavior is not so different from that of the animals we so often look down upon.

However, according to the Son Buddhist tradition, through meditation practice we can elevate our consciousness to a higher level of perception and functioning. A more evolved level in which we no longer flinch and grasp at random stimuli. We may achieve a refined state of consciousness in which the keenness of emotional and physical experience are heightened without an attendant loss of clarity and judgement. In fact, we become more intelligent, more aware, and more alive. Happiness, joy, and satisfaction are delivered to us by this very state of consciousness itself rather than from the brutish yet fleeting sensations we're currently so accustomed to pursuing. In this way, our mind evolves and the way in which we live is transformed.

Right now for beginners like us, however, the Son Buddhist prescription for self-transformation may seem too abstract and idealized. We may feel that this teaching simply has no connection to the conflicted and often stressful world in which we must live our lives. A world where we're constantly worried about our money, our health, our jobs, our relationships, and our homes. A society in which unkindness and selfishness can often seem to be the norm. How can we possibly evolve to become the angels of our better nature in such a world?

It's important here to understand that the purpose of Son Buddhist teachings is not to present a theory of human development. Trust me, if you ever get to hear a true enlightened master speak, you'll know that they have no use whatsoever for theories and speculation. What they actually want to give us is hard, practical advice to put to use in our daily lives as soon as possible.
So let me put this idea of "the familiar becomes new, the new becomes familiar" into simpler and more modern terms.

Basically, this teaching means: Whatever you do once, you're likely to do again.

And if you do it a second time, you're even more likely to do it a third time. And if you continue to repeat this action, then eventually you'll do it without even thinking about it.

I know this sounds simple, but trust me, there is a profound and frightening truth hidden here.
What this teaching means is this: Every single thing we do, even the thoughts that we think but don't act upon, creates a possible future.

Our future.

This is why every single day that we live is so important. Every day we are deciding where we will end up finally. Will we become resentful, bitter, and despairing in our old age? Or will we find peace, wisdom, and love at the end of our journey? All of that is being decided today.

Even more frightening: All of that is actually being decided right now in this very instant.

According to Son Buddhist teachings, there is no such thing as an unimportant thought or action. Everything we do, physically and mentally, takes us a small step in a specific direction: positive or negative, evolution or regression, more peace or more pain.

Even doing nothing is a decisive action: It decisively creates the habit of ignoring responsibilities and missing opportunities. You feel like you're staying still when you do nothing, but you're actually going backward. You age, you lose time, but you get nothing in return.

There is no such thing as neutral behavior. We are always creating ourselves in the image of our choices. This is the true law of karma.

So let's use Son meditation or Breath Counting Meditation every day to wake up and clear our head. Let's make even our smallest decisions with care. Let's also perform all of our tasks, even the tiniest, seemingly most trivial ones, with the greatest sincerity and diligence.

Each time we choose to do the right thing, we increase the odds that we'll behave that way again. Each time we perform our task with precision, we become a little more accustomed to the feeling of pride and self-respect at the end. No matter how many times we falter or stumble, we keep trying to live like this, making the right choice and working hard at whatever we do, until all of this becomes a habit. And this life habit will point us in the direction of growth, development, eventual happiness, and, finally, enlightenment.

Palms together,
Hwansan Sunim

For further teachings regarding Son meditation practice, please refer to the Youtube channel "Hwansan Sunim: Son Meditation for the Modern World" and to the Facebook page "Yonghwasa International Seon Buddhist Program." If you have questions for Hwansan Sunim, you may send an email to ask.hwansan@gmail.com.