Turn Things Around

Practice of the Week
Turn Things Around

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.

Where there's confusion or pain in your life, make use of it instead of trying to get rid of it. Trying to get rid of it usually doesn't work anyway. It only makes things worse. (Of course, if your painful situation can be resolved somehow, resolve it. Spiritual growth and depth is not about acquiescence to bad situations that can be improved; it is about addressing the pesky facts and emotional states that are not so simply removed: grief, fear, and so on.)

There is a slogan from the Buddhist tradition:
"Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue."
"Turn things around" means turning the three objects and poisons into seeds of virtue.

Three objects refers to three categories of objects, and object isn't exclusively a physical object (thoughts and feelings are "objects" of consciousness, as physical objects are objects of perception.) The "three objects," then, are: attractive, repellent, and neutral. Objects themselves do not have these qualities, but our reactions to the objects do. Whatever comes into our consciousness will spur a reaction in us, and this reaction will be one of these three: we will either like, dislike, or be neutral to the object.

Three poisons refers to greed, hate, and delusion. These are the emotional activities we indulge in response to the three objects. We are greedy for attractive objectives; we hate repellent objects; we are confused or indifferent about neutral objects.

The three objects and three poisons describe basic ordinary daily life. "Objects" constantly arise, and we are constantly trying to grab them and make them stay or push them away as soon as possible, depending on the style of our reactivity and emotion. The flow of these objects and emotions goes on constantly, usually below the level of conscious awareness. We wake up in the morning and feel too cold or too hot or just right. This makes us feel pleasant or irritated or neutral. Our coffee is tasty or not so tasty, and we're slightly pleased or annoyed. Our thoughts are pleasant or not so pleasant. All day long objects appear to our perception, feeling, and thought, and all day long we are reacting in simple, basic ways to each and every object: wonderful, let's keep this one; terrible, let's get rid of this one; neutral, I don't care about this one.

All day long this flows on, usually without much discernible problem. But occasionally our likes or dislikes become strongly activated by objects, and then we become powerfully happy or miserable, overcome with lust or desire or anger or fear.

Quite often we cannot avoid losing what we find attractive and having to put up with what we find repellent. And in the biggest picture of our lives, we always end up losing what we want (our loved ones, our health) and having to put up with what we don't want (our aging, our illness, our death, and the loss of our loved ones). If we insist on trying desperately to control things we can't control, we eventually become very desperate and unhappy -- the world begins to seem like a very hostile and unjust place, and we can become quite paranoid and upset about almost everything. Once you decide that the world is a hostile and inhospitable place and the people in it untrustworthy and venal, things begin to get worse and worse and worse. So the three objects and three poisons are lamentable realities. If we don't pay attention to them, if we don't figure out a way to cooperate with rather than resist their pressure, they can ruin our lives.

Three seeds of virtue appear when the three poisons are turned around. We don't have control of much, but we do have control of whether to turn around the greed, hate, and delusion that appears in our lives.

Contrary to what we might think, the three objects and three poisons are not problems and traps. They are seeds of virtue. The basic human mess of likes and dislikes, in which we seem to be trapped and which seems to be so dangerous and troublesome, is actually wonderful, a real treasure. Our messes and our problems are our treasures! Our suffering, our troubles, our problems, the things that we really don't like and want to get rid of but can't, or the losses we feel, the things we wanted to keep and sadly cannot -- all of this is a treasure to us if only we can understand it in the right way. Everything painful and difficult has the potential to bring us great joy and deep spiritual riches.

We can turn toward and appreciate our suffering, our problems, and the suffering and problems of others. Given the power of our likes and dislikes and the intractability of the world (which doesn't organize itself according to our needs), it won't do not to deal with our likes and dislikes in some way other than simply trying constantly to fulfill them. So naturally we imagine somehow trying to modify or eliminate them. But this is not what "turn things around" means. It means something radically different. It means recognizing that our very likes and dislikes and the suffering they bring us, can be the source of spiritual growth.


Write down "turn things around." Contemplate it carefully. Bring it up when you find yourself annoyed or upset by instances of liking and disliking that are causing you suffering. This practice might help you to let go a little in that moment. Even if you don't believe it and are only a little intrigued by it, it can be helpful to practice this slogan. It will have the effect of causing you to stop your lamentation for a moment and recall that it might just be possible that there is something potentially good and positive in this agony in which you are right now enmeshed.

The earlier Practice, "Real Compassion" (SEE HERE), trains us to see and feel that our pain and difficulty in this life, and the pain and the difficulty of others, is the gateway that will lead us down the path of love. We don't need to avoid or protect ourselves from pain. Quite the contrary. When pain and suffering are present, we need to turn toward them, breathe them in. And through this practice of suffering, we can transform it, and transform ourselves. Turning things around -- turning the three objects and poisons into seeds of virtue -- fits with the sending and receiving of Real Compassion.

What a difference this would make in your life if you actually knew that when things happen that you don't like, that are difficult or painful, you don't need to complain and try fruitlessly to change them (when they can't be changed), and that you don't need to find someone to blame and then do battle with that blameworthy person, as if you were a victim, but instead you can have a profound and heartfelt sense of acceptance and love. You can breathe in the difficulty and transform it into ease and healing through your body.

The practice of turning things around requires cultivation over time, persistence, diligence, and strength. It requires keeping up the effort, all of the time, in everything we do.

Suppose you understood all of your pain and suffering as raw materials for transformation and healing. Your life would be completely different.

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Judith Lief, "Three Objects, Three Poisons, and Three Seeds of Virtue" Tricycle.

Three Objects: Labeling our World

One way of looking at this slogan is that it is about the power of labels. It is about the way we categorize our world and what happens as a result. At a crude level and very quickly we are always sizing people up. We put the people we deal with into mental bins such as “friend,” “enemy” or “not worth bothering with.” We do this both individually and collectively.

There are times when this ability to categorize may be crucially important for our survival, which depends on knowing whom we can trust and whom we need to avoid. Simply recognizing that someone is a friend or enemy or neither in that way is not in itself particularly problematic. But what happens is that those labels take on a life of their own. They change from being simple observations of a current situation or interaction to become unchanging definitions of the way things are. They become the world according to us.

Three Poisons: Fixed Reactions to Our Own Labels

When our labels become solid in that way, we can’t see past them, we can only react. And the way we do so, according to this slogan, is in three dysfunctional ways: by grasping, by hatred, and by avoidance or indifference. This trio is traditionally referred to as passion, aggression, and ignorance. As we scan our world, we pick out highlights and focus on those people who further or threaten our self-serving agendas, ignoring the rest. We are always struggling to draw in friends and push away enemies.

Three Virtuous Seeds: Taking Responsibility for Our Own Reactions

We first need to see this pattern at work. Then, when a poison such as hatred arises, instead of blaming the “enemy” that triggered such a response, we can see that hatred and the other poisons are our own creation. We can take full responsibility for them. Without the excuse of an external object, the poison is left hanging, with no support. When the three poisons arise, we can take them in and hope that, in doing so, others may be freed of such harmful patterns. In that way, we can transform the three poisons into the three virtuous seeds.


Pay attention to labeling and notice how tenacious such labels are. When you react, notice what you are reacting to and where you place the blame. Explore the connection between the poison and the object.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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