Changing Poison Into Medicine, Redux


Photo: Beverly and Pack

What’s the worst problem you have right now? Have you lost your home? Your job? Are you worried you might? Or are you facing a terrible illness?

From the Buddhist perspective, all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how awful or tragic. Unlike the idea that every cloud has a silver lining—that something positive can always be found in everything negative—the principle of changing poison into medicine explains that we can transform even the most horrific tragedy into something we need to become happier than we currently are.


We tend to label any event “bad” that makes us suffer and seems unsolvable, believing we can see at one glance with perfect clarity the entirety of our lives from beginning to end and know the final value of any event the moment it occurs. In believing ourselves to be endowed with this perfect vision, however, we fail to recognize two important things:

  1. The significance of any event changes depending on the circumstances surrounding it. A professional football player might judge a career ending injury to be unequivocally bad until the plane he otherwise would have taken with his teammates crashes on its way to a game.
  2. The significance of any event changes depending on what we decide to do next. Our greatest failure can, and often does, plant the seed for our greatest victory. One could argue that Barack Obama would never have become president of the United States had he not suffered a devastating loss in a House race against Bobbie Rush.

Typically, we try to solve our problems using strategies we think have the highest likelihood of success. If Solution A doesn’t work, we try Solution B. And if Solution B fails, we turn to Solution C. And if Solution C fails then…we turn back to Solution A. Which almost certainly still doesn’t work, leading us to try Solution B again, and so on. We continue to cycle through all the solutions we’re willing to try and that we can think to try until learned helplessness ensues and depression sets in.

Many times, however, the true answer is Solution D. Solution D is often something we’ve either dismissed as unworkable or that literally hasn’t ever occurred to us. But Solution D is the one thing that can enable us to achieve the victory for which we were hoping or a victory far greater than we even imagined.

How, then, do we identify Solution D? It’s not easy. We might think we’re near to finding Solution D if the solution we’re contemplating seems too hard, if not impossible, to implement, risks something valuable we don’t want to lose, or requires more courage than we think we have. But a given solution may exhibit all of those characteristics and still not be Solution D. Sometimes Solution D isn’t hard, risky, or scary, but just doesn’t yet exist as a possibility at the time the problem first presents itself. Or sometimes Solution D may not mean changing our outward circumstances at all.


But how can we claim we’ve changed poison into medicine if our outward circumstances don’t change?

The answer involves recognizing that getting what we want isn’t the only way to achieve victory. Not to diminish in any way the seriousness of some of the problems we face, but often what we want isn’t what’s actually best for us, or is literally impossible to achieve (bringing back a loved one from the dead, for example).

This is not to say that changing poison into medicine means rationalizing failure or accepting a consolation prize. It means true victory often comes to us in an unexpected form.


But what other outcome besides the one we want could enable us to become happier than we were before the poison entered our lives? Achieving another favorable result we hadn’t foreseen? Possibly. But favorable circumstances can’t create lasting happiness because favorable circumstances are always temporary.

We could, however, claim genuine victory if in trying to change our outward circumstances instead we gain wisdom. Wisdom does creates lasting happiness because, unlike favorable circumstances, it can’t ever be taken from us.

What’s required, then, for us to attain wisdom? From the Buddhist perspective, we gain wisdom by freeing ourselves from delusion. But we only relinquish our delusions when the pain that comes from continuing to believe them exceeds the pain of letting them go—and that only happens when circumstances stir them up. If we never suffered the pain of a break up, for example, we’d never have the opportunity to discover we don’t need anyone’s love but our own to be happy. If we’d never lost our job, we’d never have had the opportunity to confront the truth that we hated it and stayed in it only out of fear. So, in fact, from the Buddhist perspective difficult circumstances are necessary for us to become happy. Difficult circumstances are actually our good friends. A famous Buddhist quotation states:  “When obstacle arise, the wise rejoice while the foolish retreat.”


Some struggles, however, take years or even decades to win (one of the titles bestowed upon the Buddha was “He Who Can Forbear”). But as long as we refuse to give in to despair and firmly resolve to take concrete action until we either win or die, victory is always possible. And as we take that action, whatever it may be, we’d do well to remember Paul Newman’s example (shown here) as he faced a much larger George Kennedy in the boxing scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke. No matter how many times you get knocked down, always get up!

Next Week: Never Be Defeated, Redux

20 comments to Changing Poison Into Medicine, Redux

  • Melode Kornacker

    Put another way, PAIN is inevitable, and required for growth, but SUFFERING is only one way to meet it.

  • Loving this one, Alex. My favourite line is where you say: “But we only relinquish our delusions when the pain that comes from continuing to believe them exceeds the pain of letting them go—and that only happens when circumstances stir them up.” How true, how true and how hard fought the battle sometimes is.

    Reminds me of Anais Nin who so eloquently wrote: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

    I think Buddhist practice is powerful (& sometimes painful) because it shatters these delusions and removes our subconscious and karmic excuses for being unhappy and/or disrespectful to others.

    Unfortunately our delusions do not dock up with a stark health warning stamped on their foreheads; they come instead seductively packaged and full of whispered promises. The familiar witty comfort of the cynic. Delicious but destructive addictions. The belief that it is your wife or husband’s job to make you happy. Or your role to make them happy. The belief that longer pleasures equal deeper happiness. Delusions that may have served us well in childhood, or further back, in our caveman days, when survival was everything.

    The other point to add perhaps is that the “medicine” we develop from Buddhist practice can help other people get better. Like “turning karma into mission,” like Nelson Mandela describing imprisonment as 28 years “preparing to be President.” Most people would have found that a bad event, but he used it to change the world.


    David Hare
    The Buddhist Life Coach

  • kymberly

    Perfect timing. I needed to read this, right at this moment in my life.

    Seven months ago I lost my wonderful husband tragically. I am now a 32-year-old widow. We were together 11 years, so I had formed my identity around him. Now facing this world alone without my “other half,” frequently I ask “Why?” This question does not need answering. Not just because it will never be answered but because its apart of my “tragic strengthening.” I am now awakened to a new chapter to my life. I need to know he is at peace and I need to find peace in knowing that fact.

    The whole world lies ahead of me. What shall I do with this fact, I do not know yet. But because of this wonderful article, I can now start to see my “lining,” whatever color that may be. Thank you greatly for your insight and NAMASTE.

    Puyallup, W.A.

    Kymberly: My condolences on your loss. You are very wise to avoid seeking an explanation for your husband’s death. Studies show that the attempt to “make sense” of tragedy often only puts us at risk for prolonged grief. “Benefit finding” is a type of meaning-seeking that is far more likely to help you eventually recover from tragedy. I wish you great strength.


  • I tried for years to “solve the problem” of my son’s autism by trying to find a cure. I thought the only good solution was one that made him not autistic. Well, you can imagine how successful I was with that approach! I’ve learned the hard way and the long way that your words here are the only way. In fact, I’m going to share this post with some people I know could benefit from it. Thank you!

  • Ann Elizabeth Grace

    What a wonderful post, Alex. One of my favorites. The message of changing poison into medicine reminds me of your book as well, which I am greatly enjoying. Thanks for all you do.

  • rdp

    Wonderful. Two thumbs (and toes) up.

  • Pawan

    Hi Alex,

    I loved this post. However, I would like to here from you on how to develop the characteristic of patience in life, so that once you have attempted something, you should wait for results to show up, or when someone says something you listen and then respond to it. If you have some suggestions, past blogs, etc. please mention or write a new one (as I know you can). Thanks. Pawan

    Pawan: You might try reading this.


  • Mare

    Things got a lot better for me in the last month. I filed for bankruptcy and as a result have now qualified for disability and low-income housing. I will stop paying my rent next month at my current place (where I have been since 2005) and allow my landlord to evict me. Despite being unemployed for well over four years, Ive never missed a rent or any other bill payment in 20 years, so losing my savings and giving up the responsibility I’ve always had for myself and having to declare bankruptcy and accept public assistance was incredibly hard but it seems its for the best. I won’t be able to keep my car, my laptop or my cell phone, so it will also be hard to be immobile and isolated from friends and family.

    I’m glad to be moving on rather than hanging on to this hopeless situation and I guess I will be starting a new chapter. This will also be the last time I can get onto the Internet as I will be losing my Internet service, email and laptop soon, so probably my last comment unless I can find access at a local library.

    Mare: I hope you find a way to stay connected. Whether or not we hear from you here, I will be wishing you the strength you need to face the trials you have ahead. You can do it!


  • Mare

    Do what exactly? I have stopped looking for a job and discovered I was overqualified for job training. I just count as permanently displaced and unemployed. There will be no financial recovery for me. I wrote three books and over fifteen tv series all of which failed. There is nothing else for me to do.

  • Josee

    Hi Alex,
    Thank you for your honest writing. The timing was very good for me tonight. What a disaster of a time lately. I came to your site trying to convince myself that suicide was a particularly bad idea. Your anti-suicide page was interesting. It’s the first time I see someone in your profession take a humanistic approach to “modern” healing. I’m glad someone is figuring out the greater dimensions attached to healing in a “real life” way, not just as a theoretical discussion in a classroom.

    Thanks again, keep up the honest and relatable writing.


    JB: I’m so glad you found it helpful.


  • Caroline Clark

    I don’t know if this will post . . . Mare ~ you have gone through a tremendous amount of difficulties (to put it mildly) and yet you’re still hanging in there with determination, even though there is a flavor of hopelessness. My guess is that you are severely depressed, and would benefit from a consult with a good psychiatrist. My husband is continually depressed, and finds it very hard to see the bright side of any situation—and your posts sound a great deal like my husband’s comments. I do hope you can see your way to taking medicines that can improve your chemical balance in your brain. Yes, I know very well that this takes a long time to show results. Nonetheless, it’s well worth the effort and patience—and you end up feeling a whole lot better, and other folk enjoy your company again.

  • Mare

    Thanks, Carolyn, but I already tried several medications, talk therapy, and acupuncture over a period of 5 years and they did not work. I also did a study at the University here and initially did not qualify because I don’t seem outwardly depressed until they are aware of my circumstances. Anti-depressants don’t alleviate long-term family dysfunctions and other problems related to that. I was also a marathon runner for over 15 years, and kept my weight around 140 lbs for 5-9 woman. So, no health problems and no reason for me to be depressed.

    I’m not hopeless at all. If people can accept me as a failure and don’t look down on me for accepting public assistance then I will be fine as is. I have no interest in resuming the life I had. It was awful and I have no interest in going back to it.

  • Josee

    Mare 🙂 You know I’ve been studying Buddhism—brings me a lot of peace. Peace is sort of the goal, right? I think when people say they goal of life is to be “happy” they are setting their bar VERY low. The goal of life is to be able to accept the trials that will inevitably fall at our feet with deference and peace. So, when you say “If people can accept me as a failure”…my heart hurts for you because I have certainly felt this “at the end of my rope.” But…it’s not true. There is no such thing as failure 🙂 Accepting who you are, what you do and what you think without JUDGEMENT…is the ticket. Was for me anyways…hope you find your way out. Peace.

  • M ~ CA

    I drove south Sunday morning from Northern CA thru Marin, across the bridge and continuing. As I said goodbye to my husband, a fleeting evaluation of accidental ending passed thru my mind. On the radio was a talk subject of hope. The discussion of the faith of a mustard seed and how small that was, how tiny the amount of hope is needed to hold on to transpired. The morning and views were so spectacular, I had to move on from that fleeting evaluation and just keep going forward.

    Having an illness with much unknown and not a happy outcome, I get bogged down with the penalties of this illness. The early deprivation of a sex life, the constant awareness of my illness and calibration of daily living, the loss of the ability to enjoy emotions and the essence of who I am much less physical capability—to work, to have fun. The realization that my husband’s possibilities for traditional happiness in life trickle by him… so much is forfeited. I could just transition to monk, as that is what my illness has consigned me to—and oh, the eternal blessings of THAT! Great, if that is your heart’s desire.

    But on good days, like today—I choose to believe that what you write is true, and I strive to allow it in. I will accept that my spirit gets to take my body’s turn this time around. I don’t know if Buddhists believe in reincarnation? Not sure. I guess that makes me a hybrid whatever. Nonetheless, this kind of thinking and writing does bolster me up. Sometimes spiritual growth is the only choice available. I feel I should declare that joyfully with a pilgrim’s heart, but truthfully, it is not so. Perhaps eventually I will find a more robust spiritual joy after I have really come to terms with the disappointment. Love to all.

  • Siddhartha

    Thanks for such a compassionate posting, Dr. Lickerman! I too am trying to turn poison into medicine. The poison being my son’s autism. Its taken me a lot of time to accept that my child is differently enabled and not a freakshow. While dealing with this complex issue, I got introduced to Nichiren Buddhism. I have been a practitioner for 3 + years. My life has changed for the better. My son who was a non-vocal kid today chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo alongside me. While there are ups and downs and occasional scares, I am confident that there is a beauty behind it/underneath it all that is manifesting with time. My life has changed and my heart has become expansive. An expansive heart has expansive possibilities. An expansive heart has infinite compassion.

    My compassion I think has grown. When I see others going through hell, my problems seem lesser. I reach out more often, extend a helping hand more often and chant/pray for others. Life has crests and troughs. Only if we jump into the troughs will we emerge to ride the waves. I know for certain that my son will take me places and he himself will go places. My poison is churning, karma twirling and the dance goes on. Medicine/nectar is around too, I am sure of that….

    Thanks again, Dr.Lickerman! NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO

  • Felix

    Just found this web site…maybe fate brought me here… I don’t know. Taking an interest in the Buddhist perspective to see if I change the poison that ails me into medicine. Sixty-two years old, blessed with twin three year olds.. heading into a divorce, bankruptcy, and about to retire from thirty-five-year-old career. Troubled waters ahead I fear…I think I will lurk on this web site for a while and let the energy that flows here bathe my soul and keep me energized for the storm am about to face. Love to all and ask for your thoughts and words of encouragement.

    Felix: Hang in there.


  • Dear Felix,
    I have been chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo for 28 years, passing through many challenges with work, relationships, health, etc. but always winning in the end, despite many setbacks along the way. Here is some guidance from Daisaku Ikeda that I hope you will find encouraging:

    “You can overcome all adversity. For the unparalleled drama of the human spirit lies in transforming adversity into profound happiness. Rouse yourselves and struggle courageously for what is right. As long as you live, dare to challenge and triumph over every storm, every raging wave.”

    All the very best, there is loads of brilliant stuff on this site that can help you at this time and Alex’s book, The Undefeated Mind, is also excellent.

    Take care & as Alex says, hang in there!

    David Hare
    Buddhist Life Coach

  • Mare

    Well, I was offered a job today, but not the one I wanted. I applied at national coffee chain for a cashier/barista job. Because of my business experience they asked me to take a one-hour manager test, where I scored 98%. They offered me a slot in management training, but I don’t want that. I just want to make coffee and be a cashier. I want the 5am to 1pm shift, since I have insomnia and can then have afternoons to do other things. The manager job involved managing people, handling customer complaints and doing budgets and schedules. Not my area, I don’t want to go back to more headaches. Also, the hourly rate exceeds what I am allowed to earn. I just moved into the low income housing, where I get subsidized rent and utilities for free; more money means I lose this place and have to go back to a bank account and paying utility bills. No thanks. Looks like I won’t be getting the cashier job, so have to try something else.

  • Siddhartha

    Dear Felix,

    Hang in there. You will win for sure.

    Nam Myoho Renge Kyo

    Blessed Be

  • Lynn

    At age 68 I have learned that life has periods of sheer joy and periods of total devastation the circumstances of which we have little if any control. I find it odd that many of the teachers, prophets, saviors we endeavor to follow are men who adopted a life of poverty and martyrdom. As a woman I was too busy working, raising my children, getting everyone through college, marching for women’s rights, reading anything and everything, dealing with loss of husband, family members and close friends to meditate and contemplate plan D. Much happiness, much sadness. That is life. Aging means facing disabilities as they come, being less useful to others, accepting dependence on others, death. That is life. It is as it should be. There are still moments of sheer joy, lightening bolts of happiness in the storm.

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