How to become the person we wish we were...
Tamara once again asked a great question. It's one of those questions you could answer by writing a book: “how do you become the person who would've acted differently?”
The context of the question is that usually when we come to a difficult or troubling decision, what troubles us about it is that what we want to do isn't the same as what we wished we wanted to do. I went into a fair amount of detail in my previous article about how to pass by things we wish we wanted to do that are unadvisable, but for most of us, there is still who we are in practice, and who we would want to be in theory; becoming who we want to be in theory is the primary thrust of many great philosophies.
I think there are two aspects to this. The first is to see our own behavior as clearly and objectively as possible. A meditation and mindfulness practice will really help with this, but it's also useful to keep a notebook and just stop every so often and write down what's been going well since the last entry and what's been going poorly. Look for themes. Be happy when you've done things that you think you should have done; think about how you wound up doing the things you wish you hadn't done, and what you could do differently next time.
If you do this a lot, it will start to become a habit that's just going on all the time. The point isn't to engage in some kind of repression. Just the opposite. This is about who you want to be. One of the things to try to notice in particular is whether, as you do this practice, there is a little angry voice whispering unpleasant things in your mind's ear. Notice this tool Don't hate the little voice—it's you. It's just badly tuned. It wants the best for you, but it's not necessarily all that bright, and sometimes it just needs to be lovingly ignored.
The other aspect is to seek out things outside of yourself that you admire. If there's a philosophy you like, read it. Find people you can discuss it with. Notice how your behavior is consistent with the philosophy, and how it's different. Think about whether that's a problem, but also try to see if it reveals something you missed.
There's a concept that is popular in Zen Buddhism called beginner mind. The idea of beginner mind is that when you approach a question, you try to let go of all your judgments about it and look at it freshly. Notice if there is some preconception you have about it that seems really correct, and see if you can let that preconception drop. Not because it's wrong, necessarily, but just to see what the thing you are considering looks like without it.
Sometimes in order to do this you may have to sit in meditation for an hour considering just that one thing: hold it in your mind and then see what comes up. Let go of everything. Just hold it there, turn it around, notice what comes up, and let go of it. See if anything new pops out. Notice what it is that you are holding. Is everything that you are holding really the thing you are considering? Are there things you are holding that aren't that thing? What are you missing about the thing? What's on the other side of it, the side you never look at? The goal here isn't to be analytical—it's just to notice what comes up when you ask these questions, or when you just sit there silently holding the thing without asking any questions.
But the bottom line of all of this, to try to answer Tamara's question, is that you have to learn to see things with less bias and more clarity. As you do this, it will become clearer to you what behaviors you have that take you away from the person you want to be, and what behaviors you have that need to be reinforced, and also what's missing. These things are never completely clear; what happens is that you notice facets of them. And then you can change a little bit in the direction you think you want to go, and see if it's actually an improvement. Sometimes it's not.
This is a long process. Sometimes you find a low-hanging fruit, and that can be amazing. I started practicing the bodhisattva vows when I was about 32, and a whole bunch of stuff dropped all at once—stuff I was really happy to be rid of. Practicing the death meditation from Sogyel Rinpoche's book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, transformed my relationships. This is why I suggest consulting your favorite philosophy—there is no point in reinventing the wheel.
But no philosophy is ever perfectly expressed, particularly when it's been through several layers of translations by people who understood it imperfectly. So you can't just follow it blindly. You can't say "it's the word of the Buddha." It's not—it can't be. There's a story about the Ten Commandments, that God gave Moses two versions. The first version was written in God's own language, and when you read it the meaning would spring perfectly into your mind, just as God intended it to be understood. But Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. God gave him another set, but it was written in Hebrew, and everybody reads a different meaning.
And so it is up to us to gradually, experimentally, incrementally move in the direction of the meaning that is correct for each of us.