The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Character as Personal Destiny

I’ve commented before on character as destiny for societies.  Character, or personality if you prefer, determines how we act.  We all know people whose anger, or curiosity, or greed is predictable: people where you know exactly what they’ll do given a particular event.  Indeed, we truly know someone when we can make such predictions and get them right most of the time.

The idea of karma is related to this.  You’re born at a particular time, with a particular personality, to particular parents, in a particular place.  Your nurture and your nature (the personality that even babies have) is predetermined, therefore your life is predetermined, because how you will react to events is a matter of your character, which is your original personality plus the circumstances you grow up in.

The fully enlightened are said to be largely immune to karma.  This is because, often, as you meditate, it becomes clear that personality is a choice.   You don’t have to act in accordance with your personality if it’s not in your self interest.  This is true of everyone, but it’s one of those abilities most people don’t use.  As you meditate you become detached from your own character, it doesn’t seem important to you, and as a result it loses much of its power.  As it loses its power you become free to act as you please, and in that sense you break your karma.  (And by act, I also mean think.  The sort of terrible thoughts that plague many people lose much of their power.)

Some karma is harder to break.  Your body has karma (your genetic endowment, how you treated it while under the sway of your personality), and you can be stuck with that, or at least find it very difficult to change.  But in general, as personality weakens, you become free of what you may have considered most precious about yourself—your personality, which many of us consider to be “ourself”.

Nor will you necessarily bother to change your personality most of the time, because as you meditate such things seem less important: to be sure, the effective strength of your personality diminishes, but you also don’t care. It’s a personality, it’s not you, and why bother to act against it except in the case of important decisions? (And, again,  fewer things seem important.)

Meditation, then, can make you free and rob you of much of the juice required to make use of that freedom.  The less you care, the happier you are (I know many people won’t believe that, I’ll just say that in my experience it’s true, and many other people attest to the same).  I walk around these days, and I have a nice meal and I think “this is wonderful”, and I read a book and “this is great”, and even though my material situation is unsettled and precarious, I have everything I need – food, shelter, internet, books – and that’s enough to be happy (I haven’t been entirely robbed of ambition, mind, but then I’m not super-advanced in my practice.)

Still, I think it’s worth remembering that your personality isn’t anything super-precious, and that it can be your chains. Acting in ways that aren’t beneficial to you (or, often to anyone else) because of your personality serves no one.  Personality is often chains, and yet we treasure it.  If you want to be happier, be less attached to who you are.

(My previous article on the difficulties of meditation, and what it teaches.)

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  1. Naked Mole Gaetti

    Of course, this presupposes some degree of free will. While it’s clear that humans feel as if they have free will—that feeling may, in fact, be a precondition of human happiness, contentment, etc.—it remains very much in dispute.

  2. Gil Gamseh

    Listening to Alan Watts (again) lately. You and he are in sympathy.

  3. steeleweed

    To me, personality and character are two different albeit related things. Personality is a social phenomenon, the presentation of one’s self to others, overtly if often unthinkingly.

    Character is more internal, a representation of what one’s values are, independent of others. (Someone has defined character as who you are when nobody is watching).

    Many people, unfortunately have been so socialized that they are ‘all personality’ with almost no character. Without the feedback from others to establish their identity, they are lost, they haven’t a real identity. When one’s core values depend on how one is perceived by others, those values are shallow and ultimately unsatisfying.

    There’s a difference between carrying about others and wanting to be seen as caring about others.

    Your point of meditation freeing one from the strictures of personality is accurate and it does so partly by mentally (temporarily) divorcing one from interaction with others and the world of otherness. Being free from the limits of personality allows one to live by and manifest one”s character.

  4. George Hart

    Great essay, as always. An FYI– –I often learn something new from David Brazier’s approach–i.e. his practice as he outlines it; meditation and community with a kind of political practice arising from it. I’m not schooled in Buddhism at all, so I don’t know enough to quibble with any of his translations etc. The gist of his approach is sensible to me and offers a mix of warmth and strength.

  5. A very particularly kind of Buddhism.

  6. g.i. gurdjieff’s approach also stresses this – a highly-praised (by some) intro that i’m currently reading is Gurdjieff, A Beginner’s Guide: How Changing The Way We React To Misplacing Our Keys Can Transform Our Lives, by Gil Friedman

  7. Remember that Buddhism in the West is quite different from Buddhism in the East.

  8. Ian Welsh

    View of various Hindu traditions as well. Personality is like a suit clothes the soul (if you believe in such) wears. (The more mystical stuff most people will not believe, nor understand, if they have not experienced it themselves.)

  9. I really like the main tenet of your article, that we can change our personality and character, if we choose to. Of course it’s no easy feat, swimming against decades of conditioning. However like a previous commenter, I don’t see personality and character as the same. Personality to me, is the outward presentation of my character traits. However character to me, is the choice I make about values, ethics and behavioural standards. I can develop my character, in this way we talk of things being ‘character-building.’ Character is what comes out of life experience, from life lessons and regrets that I do not wish to repeat. Perhaps character is the core and personality radiates out from that like a shimmer from the sun. Interesting to ponder. Thanks.

  10. ibaien

    the death of the self is a noble goal, but it won’t put a man on the moon.

  11. Ian Welsh

    Putting a man on the moon is a noble goal, but it won’t result in the death of the self.

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