6 Pointers for Making a Positive Life Change

Josh Korda shares six pointers on how to cultivate the patience and support to make postive changes in your own life.

Josh Korda
1 August 2017
Photo by Arnold Exconde.

Find Work That Benefits Others

A meaningful life is one that connects you with others in a way that contributes to their lasting happiness, as well as your own. The keyword there is lasting; work that does not really contribute to the well-being of others, even if it makes them happy in the short term, won’t contribute to your own happiness either; selling crack and candy won’t make you feel good.

A practitioner should be able to discern unskillful livelihood as unskillful livelihood, and skillful livelihood as skillful livelihood. What is unskillful livelihood? Work that schemes, insults, corrupts, deviously influences and focuses on pursuing personal gain for the sake of gain. This is wrong livelihood. In skillful livelihood one is mindful of self and others. (As attributed to the Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya 117)

Start Small and Build Up

While I was an attendant at a retreat, Thanissaro Bhikkhu once said to me, “If you make too many changes at the same time, how will you know which one is creating positive results? If you try out too many things at once, you won’t know what’s working and what isn’t.” And sure enough, I found that bringing about my own change had to be a step-by-step, one-day-at-a-time process.

I spent thousands of hours over the following years learning to present the Dharma, figuring that even if I never got the opportunity to teach, at least I’d thoroughly achieve a new skill. Of course I’d already spent many years studying the Dharma and had met with Noah Levine for his insights, but knowing how to give a Dharma talk naturally was quite a different matter. After a while, I realized that I benefited more from transcribing Dharma talks than from reading. Fortunately the average advertising workday has empty, dull stretches. During the off times, I’d find a talk by a Dharma master on the web, listen to a sentence, hit pause, and then rewrite it out verbatim, as best I could. Over the years I must’ve transcribed hundreds of talks.

Even when you fall short, it’s still always better to handle yourself with care and be kind to yourself.

Once you have your own one thing to do, it’s helpful to dedicate a limited amount of time to that one thing. You can start out by committing just a few minutes a day to an activity and slowly build up. In my case I devoted no more than ten minutes a day to my transcribing practice; I didn’t want to set too high a goal, which might set me up to fall short of the mark and quit out of defeat. Doing only small bits at a time lets you accumulate momentum without putting yourself under too much pressure.

Lastly it’s helpful to ritualize the activity; doing the activity in the same way, at the same time, same place, etc., will help reinforce it as a habit. There you have it: One thing, done the same way, a few minutes a day.

Rely on Wise Friends

Surround yourself with trustworthy, empathetic people: warm and wise people you can be open and honest with, who don’t try to “fix,” “solve,” or “shame” you. It is important to have people like this: people you can turn to when experiencing difficult emotions so you can express them safely, people with whom you can talk about your difficulties, who can hold your emotions and allow you to process them. The Buddha said that these kinds of people are the “whole of the path.” The Buddha taught:

Choose your friends wisely, for we become like them; someone who wraps rotting fish in grass makes the grass smell foul. Likewise fools leave their mark. But one who wraps powdered incense in the leaf of a tree makes the leaf smell appealing. Likewise the wise leave their mark.

Put Yourself on the Line

It can be helpful to make a formal commitment to change in front of those you care about, the people whose opinions matter to you. It will encourage you to live up to your word.

When I decided to finally give up drinking, in 1995, I realized that making such a dramatic change was likely to fail, as it had in the past. To prevent this I told people close to me—my kalyanamitta—of the commitment and created a sense of accountability. I’d also check in with my friend Craig, who was starting to give talks at the time too, so we’d keep ourselves on track with our progress of becoming Dharma teachers as well. Social support like this can be invaluable when it comes to learning new behaviors. If I failed I would have failed not only myself, but all of those other people, too.

For others that sort of thing might apply too much pressure and attention, but it is very motivating for me. If this sort of accountability seems right, I encourage you to use it.

Be Nice to Yourself

It’s important throughout your transformation that you use the carrot, not the stick, to motivate yourself.

While trying to change yourself for the better, you might find that your inner voice, rather than encouraging you along, is criticizing you and shaming you for every misstep: “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you doing better?” This is the stick. Motivating yourself with this kind of internal prodding creates stress. Eventually you come to associate that stress with the goal itself and you begin to procrastinate to avoid the discomfort. That procrastination is sure to hinder your progress.

In order to build enthusiasm, instead use the carrot: Reward yourself with positive experiences and kindness. As a reward for working on a résumé or application, I would allow myself to indulge in some idle internet meandering, or, more skillfully, I’d walk to a favorite spot, take a break with a warm cup of tea, or listen to my favorite music. Even when you fall short of the mark, though, it’s still always better to handle yourself with care and be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up will not only cause you unnecessary pain but will hinder your progress as well.

Remember That Change Can Be a Lifelong Practice

Don’t expect transformation or success to happen quickly. Some of us may find meditation to be easy at first, especially in its simplest forms of observing the breath or repeating phrases, but while such practices can provide some immediate payoffs, such as serenity, the real insights take many years, if not decades, to experience. If you want to see how well your practice is going, take an overview every ten years; any sooner is impatience. It’s better to prepare yourself for the long haul by thinking of this change as a lifelong practice. If you try to make progress on a short timeline, it’s easy to get discouraged when we don’t see the results that we want—as quickly as we want to see them. The truth is that your commitment is not about measurable progress and timetables. You’re not finishing a project; you are pursuing a calling.


Adapted from Unsubscribe: Opt Out of Delusion, Tune In to Truth, by Josh Korda, with permission of Wisdom Publications.

photo of Josh Korda

Josh Korda

Josh Korda has been the teacher at New York Dharma Punx since 2005. He has also taught at New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and New York Insight Meditation Center.