Two people emailed me within an hour or so of each other this morning with queries about this quote : “Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful.”
It’s a wonderful quote. It’s true, and it’s neatly packaged in a way that makes it resonate strongly. It just happens not to be something that the Buddha said.
It’s all Demi Lovato’s fault! The American actress, singer, and songwriter included the quotation, attributed to the Buddha, as the epigraph to one of the reflections in her book, Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year, published by Macmillan in 2013.
“Change is a part of life and there’s no way of getting around it. So accept that your life will be filled with all kinds of change, and even though it can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it’s what builds our character and keeps us moving forward,” Ms. Lovato goes on to tell us. It’s wise advice, even if it was, in all likelihood, ghost-written.
This isn’t the first time that Lovato and the Blessed One have crossed paths. In 2012 the songstress announced that she’d taken up meditation in order to help her with an eating disorder, self-harming, and bipolar disorder. I wish her well.
But I also wish she hadn’t attributed this quotation to the Buddha, since her popularity means that it’s now found all over Twitter, Facebook, etc.
What are the quote’s origins? I confess that I don’t know. Perhaps we’ll never know.
In Michael Erickson’s Recovery Cells: Small Groups for People in Recovery (2007) we find a similar quote: “Change is not painful—resistance to change is painful” (page 291). The saying was recorded many years before the book’s publication by a “Patty W.” (now of San Antonio, Texas) who had recorded it in an AA meeting. AA has been the source of other Fake Buddha Quotes. As an essentially oral tradition, these sayings get passed on, refined, and polished, until they become pithy zingers. But we’re often left with no neat citation that we can append to the finished product.
We don’t know the date that Patty W. recorded the quote, but it was almost certainly current by November 28, 1995, when it was recorded in the Los Angeles Times:
“I don’t think change is painful, I think resisting change is painful,” said Kerry Harr, a fourth-grade teacher from Pomelo Drive Elementary School in Canoga Park.
I suspect that Harr had picked up the quotation somewhere, and doubt that she was the originator.
What about the Buddha? He certainly talked a lot about change. Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā [All fabrications are impermanent] is one of the key teachings of Buddhism. (I don’t actually think that the Buddha was fundamentally saying that all things are impermanent — I think he was talking about fabricated mental states — but I won’t go into that here.)
Recognizing change is important in bringing about insight:
For one who remains focused on the inconstancy of all fabrications, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing [vijja: wisdom] arises.
The Buddha also talked a lot about pain (dukkha), and sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā (all fabrications — or fabricated mental states — are painful/unsatisfactory) is another key teaching.
One of the ways that we suffer is when we experience resistance to change.
“Resistance” isn’t a terribly common term in the Buddhist scriptures. Bhikkhu Thanissaro often uses that translation for dosa, although a more common translation of dosa is “ill will” or “hatred.” The Buddha seemed to have something a bit stronger in mind than “resistance” when he talked about dosa.
But Thanisaro also translates paṭigha as resistance, which is much better. Paṭigha is the tendency to push against some painful perception, and it’s paṭigha that leads to ill will (dosa):
And what is the food for the arising of unarisen ill will, or for the growth & increase of ill will once it has arisen? There is the theme of resistance [paṭigha]. To foster inappropriate attention to it: This is the food for the arising of unarisen ill will, or for the growth and increase of ill will once it has arisen.
So, certainly when we perceive change, or the possibility of change, and experience resistance to that change, we end up creating suffering for ourselves.
Once again, there’s nothing un-Buddhist about this quote. It’s just not something the Buddha said. And for those who say “Who cares who said the quote as long as it’s true?” I counter with this: “Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” It’s by Albert Einstein