Transmuting lead into fool’s gold

Awakening is a centreless experiencing of this present moment (Dhamma in Buddhism). There’s a profound peace that replaces the ego-focussed goals of trying to become something, get something new or avoid some looming challenge.

It’s not will-based, there’s no real effort involved. The present moment beingness, experiencing the now, pulls on our attention like bungee cords, bringing us back each time we wander off into thought; bringing us back to ‘just this, just this’. I say this because it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that thought is wrong and feelings are somehow to be discarded. It’s not that at all, there’s a realisation that a thought is just a thought, a feeling just a feeling. Attention finds nothing compelling or fascinating in the content of either and so makes its way back to the spacious peacefulness of just being. In this experiencing thoughts and feelings come and go, sensations come and go but they don’t mean anything, or rather there’s no tendency to attach meaning to them.

There’s no part of this unfolding that is awakening that is about labelling thoughts or feelings as somehow being wrong and trying to get rid of them. There’s just no need to take that position. But of all the obstacles that clutter our path, thoughts are perhaps the trickiest to deal with. They have the greatest capacity to fool us and can do so quite unknowingly until we become aware of the views and assumptions that have become established throughout our life and that we still hold to without really noticing.


When these come to our attention, when some cherished viewpoint gets challenged and we find ourselves reacting it provides an opportunity to investigate and to uncover something not previously seen. If we approach this the right way, openly and with a genuine sense of inquiry we can ask, ‘Yeah, why do I think that? Why do I believe that’s true?’ or ‘Why do I need that to be true?’ If as a result there’s a letting go that takes place then we find a little more freedom opening up, a little more flexibility gained.

However, such an inquiry into thoughts and past events brings with it a subtle risk. Any life experience that involves a lot of challenge will in the fullness of time lead us to reflect on what took place and see again our part in it, our reactions and our feelings. We might get to the stage of letting go of any judgement around these as we see clearly our motivations whether they were coming from a place of self-view or out of a genuine effort to do the best we could.

That’s all well and good, the risk doesn’t lie in the inquiry, it comes from the process itself. What we find is that the most challenging and difficult aspects of these experiences are the ones we process first. We go through all of the really tough bits and along the way we glean insights and learning. What we end up with over time is the filtrate of the experience, the learning and the positive aspects, because every experience has the potential to teach us and enable us to grow even if it’s only to say we survived it.

Now if we’re not careful and if we attach to that ‘filtrate’, to those hard won and perhaps beautiful insights, we can mistakenly start to think that experience was somehow ‘worth it’. Having processed all the difficult bits and set those aside, if we attach to the good bits – the learning and insight – we can adopt the view that ‘it wasn’t so bad after all’. If we’re not careful in some circumstances this can lead us to repeat a mistake we’ve previously made; go back to a disastrous relationship, take on a role not suited to us or place ourselves back in a risky situation we were fortunate enough to get away from.

It’s always good if upon looking back on past events we can take away some genuine learning from a difficult stage in our lives, but it’s a mistake to then think the unpleasant was okay, the bad was alright or the unskilful was somehow worth it. It’s rarely wise to try to go back. We may not know what the future holds and be allured by the familiarity of the past, but it’s helpful to recognise that the future is only ever a reflection of our actions in the present and if in our lives we’re trying to act skilfully and with the best intention, then however it works out it is nothing to be afraid of.

3 thoughts on “Transmuting lead into fool’s gold

  1. Nice post 🙂

    Could you point me towards some sources that expands on the approach of inquiry and learning from past events – transmutation?


    • Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. I would suggest that the best way to engage with our inquiry is to work with what shows up in the present. So if that’s an experience that’s happening now then try to be mindfully aware of how that experience is received. If it’s a thought about the future, notice the nature of these thoughts i.e. pleasant or unpleasant etc. Notice feelings that arise, elements where there’s a tendency to attach or identify. The same with thoughts of past events that show up. In short, work with what’s present whatever that is. When our capacity to notice and be mindfully aware of these elements of experiencing in the moment develops we can start to see the judgements that are present in response to feelings we have now or might invoke through the arising of a thought or memory. When we see the arising of judgement we can let these go and simply be present with the feelings of anger, remorse, grief, jealousy etc. What we find is in being present with them, simply allowing them space to be, they arise and then fade. This paves the way for our practice of being present with the experiencing of this moment in a non-attached way – feelings come and go, thoughts arise and change, sensations are present then pass. In terms of other sources of material, I can’t think of anything specific but you may find the teachings of Ajahn Sumedho useful. His collected writings are on the forest sangha website and much of it is available at no cost. Hope this helps. A

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