The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them | Book Notes #3

What one thing in your life that you did not want to end, but did anyway?

Think back… how have you managed to deal with it?

Things ending is one of life’s givens – or things in life we cannot change.

What Is A Given?

The use of the term given is apt because it fits its two definitions, one is that a given is something that happens that we do not have control over and the other is it’s something bestowed to us. How we view these givens matters because it will determine if we carry them as gifts or as burdens.

There are many givens in life but the five discussed in the book are the ones we tend to want to run away from, deny or ignore because going through them can be brutally painful and devastating. But Dr. Richo gives us new ways on seeing them as ingredients to our growth, a way of seeing them as gifts instead of burdens.

His radical approach as how to do that? Is for us to embrace and accept them and feel them fully as best we can. He combined concepts from psychology, psychotherapy and Buddhism to give us new perspectives and tools on how to handle them when them come.

Why Do We Try Runaway From These Givens?

According to Dr. Richo, we try to runaway and deny these givens because of our neurotic ego’s FACE –  Fear, Attachment, Control, and Entitlement. We fear uncertainty, pain and loss, we get attached to specific outcomes, we want to control everything to fit our wants and we feel entitled to pleasurable things. As he put it,

“Our ego is indignant about its having to kowtow to conditions that do not safeguard its entitlement to fame, fortune, health, happiness, and invincibility.”

We waste energy in struggle and denial because in the end it cannot reverse a given when it already happened nor can it hold it back indefinitely. All it does, is succeed in keeping us in a loop of suffering. But when we accept we put all that energy in better use, as it can change the FACE of our ego,

“The energy in its fear becomes excitement about challenges and caution about dangers. The energy in its attachment becomes commitment. The energy in its control becomes the ability to get things done. The energy in its entitlement becomes a healthy sense of justice that works indefatigably for what is right but never stoops to retribution as a solution.”

So what are these givens, how can we see them in a new way and what can we learn from them?

The 5 Things We Cannot Change

  1. Everything changes and ends
    • Our relationships, our bodies, our possessions and everything else changes and ends. No one and nothing is exempt from this.
    • Endings bring new beginnings, it’s a cycle, a renewal.
    • When we experience loss, we can let ourselves grieve and feel the loss fully. It could help us heal. When we need help, we could ask for support from others as we go through our grieving process.
    • Since everything changes, that means we too, as human beings ( with beliefs, attitudes, personalities, etc.) are in constant state of change. We are not yet final, we are all works in progress.
    • Learn to let go, because permanence is an illusion. “We let go so we can be happy.Letting go is not a loss but an emancipation.”
  2. Things do not always go according to plan
    • We need to learn to not get attached to particular plan or outcome, and the need for things to go perfectly. Not every plan will go our way, regardless of how much thought or effort we put into it. There are just variables that are just not under our control.
    • We can open up to synchronicities or meaningful coincidences that happens long the way, it could open up new possibilities that we may not have encountered had our plans succeeded. Who knows, we may not get what we want, but we might just get what we need.
    • We can view mistakes as a way for us to learn not as a catastrophe.
    • We can do the best we can, and learn to face whatever the outcome maybe.
  3. Life is not always fair
    • We are naive if we only expect fairness and justice. We need to look at things as they are, not as we want them to be.
    • When we experience unfairness, commit to non-retaliation and forgiveness. “We seek amend when others treat us unfairly, ask for redress, if this doesn’t work, we let go and our hearts do not close”. Forgiveness isn’t just for the person who treated you unfairly, it’s for us because we can finally let go of the heavy burden of consuming anger and need for revenge that we carry around when we don’t forgive.
    • Choose restoration over retribution. An example of this would be “If someone treats us unfairly in our personal life, the challenge is to make sure something changes in our relationship- not to make sure the person is punished.”
    • We can cultivate the “you win some, you lose some” attitude.
    • We can accept that life isn’t always fair, and at the same time seek to change it, work for fairness and justice.
  4. Pain is a part of life
    • When pain is inevitable, we must remember that “pain is not punishment and pleasure is not a reward. The are simple features of existence”.
    • Though pain is inevitable suffering is optional. We can experience pain as it is, without adding the negative layers that causes us to suffer.“We all have to face pain, and we experience it mindfully, we simple feel it as its. When we add the ego layers, the mindsets of fear, blame, shame, attachment to an outcome, complain or obsession, we make things worse”
    • Pain can be a catalyst for growth, we can learn from it and let ourselves get stronger for having gone through it.
    • We can learn compassion for others, because we can now relate to others who are experiencing the same thing, we are now in a position to understand and help them as best we can.
  5. People are not always loving and loyal
    • We can’t control other people’s feelings or actions, we can’t  expect them to act or feel the way we want, they don’t solely exist to make us feel loved just because we love them.
    • Don’t expect other people to complete you, instead  “Begin to configure other people as fellow pilgrims not as shrines meant to give comfort or answers. The shrine is in your own heart. Other people can relate to you helpfully but not complete you”
    • If we can’t get what we want from others, we can learn to give it to ourselves.
    • Redefine soul mate:  “A soul mate is not the one who says he or she is your other half but the one who says you that you are whole”
    • Love unconditionally, you can love others regardless if they love you back or not, but set boundaries and commit conditionally. “Our commitment is conditioned by how cooperative our partner is and how reasonable the demands of the relationships are”
    • When we love unconditionally we stop asking “what can I get out of this?” and instead ask “what will it take to be a contributor here?”.

Practices for Acceptance

The five givens are not easy to accept, but there are practices we can do to help us handle them.

  1. Mindfulness – is a practice on being in the present moment.
    Mindfulness as a meditation practice means sitting daily for at least fifteen minutes focusing on our breathing. When the mind-sets of ego-fear, desire, judgement, plans, fantasies-interrupt, we gently return our attention to the here-and-now reality of our breath. This is mindfulness as yes to the present moment.
  2. Two Handed Practice – is a practice of holding the difficult situation on one hand and your ability to work with it on the other.
    A useful spiritual practice in any predicament is to hold both hands out, cupped, palms upward and imagine them holding just such opposites. We feel the light and the equal weight of both, since our hands are empty. We then say, for example, “I can serenely hold both my need for relationship and my not having one right now”

When we accept things as they are and let go of the things that don’t serve us, we will become enlightened, which he describes beautifully when he said,

“Enlightenment is ordinariness loved, amor fati.”

Amor fati, means love of one’s fate. The practices will help us face life’s challenges with equanimity, instead of asking “why me?”, we now say, “yes this happened, now what?”.

Every time we experience a given, we can further ask “what can I learn?” and  “how does this serve?”. Every experience then becomes a contributor to our growth.


Book Summary of The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them

  • Life’s givens are inevitable experience we will all experience that happen whether we like it or not
  • We try to ignore and deny the givens because of our ego’s FACE (fear, attachment, control, entitlement).
  • Life’s given 1: Everything changes and ends – we can mourn to cope with the loss, and look forward to a new beginnings.
  • Life’s given 2: Things don’t always go according to plan – we can let go of perfection and just try our best and when needed, look out for synchronicities.
  • Life’s given 3: Life is not always fair – we can forgive and practice non-retaliation, seek change instead of punishment, fight for fairness when we see injustice.
  • Life’s given 4: Pain is part of life – we can choose not to suffer, but instead learn from it and grow stronger. Use it to learn compassion for others.
  • Life’s given 5:People are not always loving or loyal – we can practice unconditional love but conditional commitment.
  • We can use mindfulness and the two handed practice to help us accept the 5 givens.

What I thought about it

I’ve read this book several times now, and every time I do, I get something new from it. The givens are not something new or unknown to us, but I think we only know it on a superficial level. They fade in the background when we are going about our day to day living. But once they hit you,  you find out they are not easy truths. It’s very human to find meaning in what’s happening to us, and I think reading this while going through tough times can provide some meaning and consolation. I don’t think this will resonate with everyone, some books need to catch you at certain periods in your life, but I would recommend reading it at least once,  take what lessons you can from it and save it for the rainy days or in some cases storms in life.

Actionable Takeaways
action steps to take to translate what I learned into action

  1. Reflect back on past painful experiences and ask where do they fall in the five givens, how I handled them and how I could have handled them differently now after reading this book.
  2. Check in my life where I am feeling a lot of fear, attachment, control and entitlement and see if practicing acceptance would make my life better or easier.
  3. Try the mindfulness or the two handed practice for a week, and see what happens.

Simple Rules
→ short, easy-to-remember rules I can set for myself to follow the principles of the book

  • If something is happening that I don’t like or want, then I will pause, take a breathe, and then accept that it’s happening, do my best to handle things I can control and let go of wanting to control everything else.
  • If something undesirable happens, ask what can I do now and what can I learn, not why me.

Interested in finding out more? Here are some helpful links … 

  • Human Becoming – it’s a free pdf ebook by Dr. Richo, it contains excerpts from his books.
  • Dr.Richo’s website which contains lists of his other books that is in similar vein to this one.
  • If you are interested in meditation, I recommend listening to Tara Brach’s talks as an additional resource.
  • Check out this infographic that explains how meditation can make you happier.