A sideshow is a diverting incident or issue that distracts attention from something more important, the real show. In Buddhist practice, we strive to understand the sideshows we are often presenting to ourselves and to the world. What’s the real show behind the sideshow?
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 101. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about sideshows. Specifically, what is your sideshow? As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are.
Now, I’ve been interested in talking about this topic, this concept of a sideshow. It’s been on my mind for a few weeks. The definition of a sideshow is a diverting incident or issue, especially one which distracts attention from something more important. Think of it as the distraction. In Buddhism, we talk about the eightfold path, and the first of the spokes on that wheel of the eightfold path is wise or skillful view, or sometimes interpreted as understanding, so skillful view or skillful understanding.
To me, this is essentially being able to see past the sideshow, past the thing that’s distracting me from the more important thing, and I like to apply this, as I always do internally, right? This is about me understanding me, and when it comes to the things that I think, or say, or do, I’m trying to understand it, “Is there a sideshow? Am I running a sideshow here that’s distracting from the more important thing that often goes unnoticed, unnoticed by me or you as the person who’s running the sideshow, but also to the audience that sees the sideshow and doesn’t see the more important show taking place behind the curtains?” I like that concept a lot, and there’s a quote that I want to share from Alan Watts where he really alludes to this idea, but he’s talking about it in the context of fear, but I think it’s relevant, so I want to share that with you. The quote goes, “But you must remember that the secret to all this is not to be afraid of fear.”
“When you can really allow yourself to be afraid, and you don’t resist the experience of fear, you are truly beginning to master fear, but when you refuse to be afraid, you are resisting fear, and that simply sets up a different show.” This is the sideshow, right? A different show. “Being afraid of fear and being afraid of being afraid of fear”, those are the two shows. “Then, you try to obliterate fear, you’re working in the wrong way. To attack fear is to strengthen it.”
That’s the quote by Alan Watts, but what really stood out to me is his, the verbiage here that you set up a different show. I think a lot of times, we go through life, setting up a different show, and in this case with fear, it’s like being afraid of fear. That’s one show, but being afraid of being afraid of fear, that’s a different show. That’s the sideshow. It’s a whole different thing, and we may spend all of our time in the sideshow, the being afraid of being afraid of fear, all the while unaware of the more important show, which would have just been being afraid of fear and working with that. Other examples where I think this concept really makes sense, at least to me is when I’m thinking of things like love.
I remember, I must have been in middle school perhaps, maybe … Yeah, probably around middle school, but those of you who don’t know, I’m a twin, and my twin brother and I, he seemed interested in dating and girls long before I did. It took me a while to warm up to that, but I remember an incident in middle school with a girl that liked him, and he didn’t seem interested or maybe he did. Actually, I may be remembering this wrong. It may have been backwards, but either way, the story was she liked one of us, and that didn’t work out well, so then she liked the other one, but I remember when she liked me, I remember it occurred to me, this concern I had was, “Well, how do you know …” Because she said, “Oh, I love you.”
This is middle schoolers talking, so it’s not a big deal, but when she said that, I remember responding and saying, “How do you know that you love me? Is it that you love me, or maybe you’re just in love with the idea of being in love?” I think that gets right to the heart of this sideshow, right? Like, how often do we go through life doing similar things thinking, “Oh, I’m in love,” when really, I was just in love with the idea of being in love, and those are two different shows. Another area or aspect where I think this manifests, at least it did for me is the recognition of the comfort that I feel or felt at one stage in my life concerning my worldview. I think I have experienced just through observation that at times, people are comforted by their beliefs, but it seems more often to me that people are comforted by the fact that they have beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs may be.
On the surface, it may seem that there is a really strong connection to the person and their belief, when in reality, the connection is to the person, the illusion of certainty that arises from having a belief, something firm to stand on, a solid ground that gives that sense of certainty or hope that I know how the world works or how the universe is working because I believe that this is how it works. It’s not necessarily the belief that’s comforting me, it’s the fact that I have something to stand on that’s comforting me. I’ve recognized that in my own life in different instances with different views and beliefs that I have, but again, it’s the setting up of a different show, the sideshow, this being comforted, analyzing the belief and why a belief comforts me is very different than recognizing that it doesn’t matter what the belief is. I’m just comforted because I have something to believe. That’s the secondary thing.
That’s the other layer or the sideshow. For me, this has been a neat topic to explore and to ask myself, “What is my sideshow?” Oftentimes, these sideshows emerge in moments where I’m feeling strong emotions. Something will take place in the way that my emotional response kind of arises out of that situation. I’ll pause and ask myself like, “Why is this bothering me so much, or why do I feel such a strong emotional response to this thing that’s taking place?”
Then, I’ll follow that up with some exploration of, “Is there a sideshow here? Is there something that I’m unaware of? If I peek behind the curtains, will I see the real show that’s taking place?”, because all of this that seems real may not be real. This may be the sideshow. This is a concept that I first listened to or explored, reading Rebel Buddha by Dzogchen Ponlop.
I think I came across the concept in there, but then, soon after I attended a workshop, a weekend workshop or seminar series called Landmark, and they call it the Forum, and in that Forum, in that Landmark Education, they talked about a lot of Buddhist teachings, but using a different language, and one of the concepts that they used that I actually really enjoyed was the concept of running a racket. The idea is essentially that when someone’s running a racket in the olden days, think of the … I don’t know when, the mobsters in the ’20s or ’30s or whenever people were running rackets, I guess they kind of always are, but this is mobster language to me in my head. They would have a store, and the front that they put on is that this is, let’s say it’s a laundromat, and they do laundry there. That’s the front, but the racket is what takes place behind.
You go past the first set of doors, and there, they’re doing laundry, but you go past the second set of doors, and back in the back, they are laundering money or doing something entirely different from what’s taking place in the front end of the store. That’s the racket, what’s taking place in the back. What they talk about in the Landmark Education is that we’re all running rackets. We’re all putting up storefronts or fronts that say, “This is what I’m doing. This is why I’m acting the way that I am.”
“This is why I’m upset at you. This is why I took this job.” Whatever that reason is, that’s the front, and if you can be skillful and honest enough with yourself, you can open those doors and see what’s really happening behind the scenes and what’s the racket that’s going on. That was a really powerful concept. I remember when I first went to that forum and did the Landmark course, it was unnerving and a little bit …
It was unnerving, but it was also kind of embarrassing to realize, “Wow, what racket am I running?” I had … I was confronted with a situation right there, right then and there on the spot that was like, “Well, why am I even here? Why did they come to this thing? Whoa, but this thing’s happening in my relationship because my wife is this, this and that, or she’s hard to communicate with,” or whatever the reason was, and I had to look behind that and look behind that, and suddenly, I realized I was running a racket. I was caught up in the sideshow, and it was very liberating to get to the heart of the real matter. If we use the language or the definition of the sideshow, the diverting incident or issue is distracting attention from something more important, and I love that.
Something more important is the real thing, and I think we all do this. We all encounter situations where unknowingly, we’re caught up in the sideshow, the front that we put up for people. I’ve done this in my career. I’m in this career, and I’m doing this because I’m, whatever the reason is, and then I dig deeper and I realize, “No, that wasn’t the reason.” The real reason was something deeper that I didn’t understand.
I’ve alluded to this before with the idea of being an entrepreneur, and it’s like, “Oh, there is a deeper reason why I was doing that.” I was really trying to just prove my sense of self-worth, and that was the real show, but I didn’t know that that was the real show. I was running the racket, or running the sideshow. I was caught up in the sideshow. Anyway, that’s kind of the concept I wanted to explore a little bit in this podcast episode.
I think the reason I wanted to bring this up here because when we approach Buddhist practices, it’s common to encounter people … Perhaps you yourself will notice this about you, where you start to understand a little bit more about these teachings, about these concepts, and then there’s this moment of, “Oh wow, I’m really peaceful. I’m really getting this.” If you’re like me, I remember early on as I was really getting all of this, it was like, “I need to make sure the world knows that I’m getting all of this,” and there I was, caught up in the sideshow. The sideshow was concerned about how people perceive me, so if I was understanding Buddhist teachings, what really mattered is that you see that I’m understanding Buddhist teachings, and to be quite honest, that may have even been the catalyst to set up my first few books and the first podcast, and I don’t know at what point in that entire process or transition I was able to finally see, “Uh-oh, I’m running.”
“I’m caught up in my own sideshow. Why am I really doing this?” That was a pivotal moment for me. It happened early on in the podcast where I was like, “Why am I really doing this?” I recognized the part of me was doing it because I wanted to be looked at like someone capable of being totally peaceful, and content, and mindful, and zen and whatever.
The moment I was able to see that, the game was over. It’s like, “Ah, I see you,” and it’s like I’m the … I’ve talked about the cat and mouse, right? It’s like the cat and mouse game was going on there, and I caught myself. “Ah, okay. Well, now that I see that, I know the sideshow I’m running.”
“Now, I’m not going to take myself so seriously because I know what I’m trying to do,” and then I started to dig deeper. “Well, where does that come from? Why would I even feel the need for that?” The more I was able to be honest with myself and dig deeper and dig deeper and dig deeper, it’s been the result of everything here is I’m getting to know myself, and it’s making it harder and harder for me to one-up myself where I’m like, “I know why I’m really doing this,” and that’s really skillful to know, not … I don’t view it as, “Oh, I’m surpassing all that and I’m going to overcome that ego.”
No, I don’t view it that way. I’m trying to catch myself in the act. “Why do I do, and say, and think the things that I think?” That’s what has fascinated me so much about this entire journey, is that the more I practice, the more I understand myself, and the more I see that rascal behind the curtains, that’s the things that’s running the show, and then it’s not, and then sometimes it is, and then it’s not, and it’s because you’re constantly peeking behind the curtains and you’re catching yourself. That has been fascinating, and it’s like I’ve said multiple times, this is just an inward journey, right?
I’m not trying to be anything to anyone. I’m just trying to understand myself because the end result of all of this, the cycle of catching myself, and then one-upping in myself, and then catching myself, the cat and mouse game that’s taking place, the ultimate result is contentment, and peace, and joy, and serenity, and almost a sense of humor as I realize the, I don’t know, the ridiculousness of it all. In the middle of all of that, here I am. I’m just living life, and I’m doing my thing, and I’ve let go of so much of the image that I’ve wanted to put out there. I’ve noticed that specifically with career choices where I would only do this, I will never do that, and silly things like that, where now, I feel like, “It doesn’t matter what it is.”
I’m just fine. Whatever life throws my way, we got it, and it’s going to be good.” Speaking of, just a quick update, some of you may know this if you follow me on social media, I recently completed a move to a new country. I’ve been living in Kamas, Utah, where my wife is from, and we’ve been talking since we first got married about one day, giving our kids the experience of living overseas, specifically somewhere Spanish-speaking because my mom is Mexican. I am a Mexican citizen, and I had the opportunity of growing up and doing my formative years of schooling. All of my middle school and high school was in Mexico and Guadalajara, Spanish-speaking, and I felt like if I don’t do something about it, my children, their connection to Mexico and the culture and the language will end.
It’ll end at their generation, and I wanted to try to get it one more generation, so we’ve moved to Mexico, and now we live in Playa del Carmen, which is south of Cancun, and our plan is to live here for at least a year, and our kids are going to go to school and Spanish, all Spanish. Our whole family is going to be heavily immersed in just Spanish for the next year, and that’s going to be beneficial for my wife who wants to be better at Spanish, but also for my kids so that they feel a sense of connection to the culture and the language that they’re inheriting from my side of the family. As part of that whole process, I’ve passed along the Mexican citizenship to them, so they are dual citizens now, just like I am. Anyway, I say all that because that’s where we are now, and that’s why I’ve been MIA for the last couple of weeks because it’s a long move. It took me, it was 3,100 and some odd miles driving, and I drove here.
My family flew down, but it took me five days of driving, long days, 10 to 12-hour days of driving, so that was long and draining, and I finally got here, and then we had to move into the house, and I’ve just had a lot going on, but we are totally settled in a new place, living this experience down here for a year, so if any of you ever find yourselves in the Riviera Maya, in the Cancun, Yucatan Peninsula part of Mexico, reach out. Let me know. It’d be fun to meet up and say hi, and I can take you to the cool sites around here that might be a little bit off the beaten path. Again, going back to the main topic, the sideshow, what is your sideshow? This is what’s fun about all this.
You spending time with yourself, you get to be the one who figures out what your sideshow is. I’ve figured out a lot of my sideshows, and I’m getting better and better at detecting them, “What are the sideshows and what are the real shows?” The real show is the cool one. That’s where you really want to spend time. The sideshow is just a distraction, and my invitation to you with this podcast episode is to spend time and ask yourself, “What is your sideshow?”
When you’re feeling really upset or emotional about something, it may be hard to do right there on the spot, but be introspective about it. It may be in the hours, or days, or weeks, in the aftermath of a conversation with someone, or an argument, or an instance where you felt really strong emotions. See if you can detect if there is anything happening on the sideshow. Was it a sideshow going on, or is it the real show? This applies not just to you, but to others, right?
If somebody comes up to you at some point as you get really skillful with this, you may be able to see right through someone else’s show, and you see that they’re totally caught up in their sideshow, and they’re not catching the important show that’s taking place behind the curtains, and I find it’s a little bit easier to have sympathy and empathy towards people who are caught up in their own sideshow. It’s like, “Well, yeah. Yeah. Here I am with you, but hopefully one day, you’ll see what’s really happening in the show behind because I don’t think this is the show. You’re caught up in your sideshow.”
Again, not to be in a place of judgment when you do that with people, but it is I find that you’ll find that you, yourself, me, myself, we’re always caught up in our sideshows, and then we start seeing other people who are always caught up in their sideshows, and it’s been really fascinating to focus a little bit more energy and attention to the real show, the important show that’s happening often behind the curtains unbeknownst to us because we’ve been so caught up with the distraction of the sideshow. That’s my invitation. What is your sideshow? Explore that a little bit. See if you can find any aspects of your life where you’ve been caught up in a sideshow, distracting you from the important show taking place behind.
I want to end with another quote, talking a little bit about fear earlier with Alan Watts. Here’s a quote by Pema Chodron also on fear. She says, “Usually, we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear,” and I love that. As I was doing my drive down here, I can’t tell you how many people reached out, family and friends with messages of support, but of concern like, “Aren’t you scared taking your family down to Mexico?”
“I would never go down there. Why are you driving, or why are you driving alone?” Like, “Aren’t you afraid?” In five days of driving, I had a lot of time to think about this concept of fear. “Is it scary to move to a new country?” Yeah.
“Is it scary to drive through?” Pretty much the entire … I went from north, all the way to south to the very end of Mexico. “Was that scary? I wouldn’t say it was scary, but do you ever have fear?” Sure. I’m always doing things that evoke a sense of fear. I fly.
I’m a paragliding pilot and a paramotor pilot, and every time I’m up there, I’ll look at those strings that I’m attached to, and I have that moment every single time where I’m like, “The only thing that’s holding me up is a bunch of strings.” Yeah, I’ve become intimate with the fear, but that doesn’t mean … I guess what I’m saying is we’re not brave to do the things that we do because we don’t have fear. I think that can be unskillful at times. I know in flying, it can absolutely be unskillful.
If you fly without fear, you’re not respecting the fact that you’re doing something dangerous, and I tell my students that all the time when they say, “Is this a dangerous sport?” I’m like, “Of course it is. You’re flying. You’re in the air. There’s an amount of risk and danger involved with doing something like that,” but you can be skillful with that, and that fear will remind you where your limits, and I think that applies to other aspects of our life where we can become more intimate with fear. One of the big fears we have is the fear of letting go of the sideshow and getting to the more important show.
For some reason, we’re afraid to open up the curtains and show the world the real show, so we allow the world to just experience our sideshow. Hopefully you can get intimate with that fear, draw the curtains back, show yourself the real show, and then show the world the real show, and not be so caught up in the sideshow that you’re presenting to the world. Thanks again for listening. Now that I’m installed down here permanently for the year at least, I’ve got my microphone and computer and all set up, so I’m going to be caught up on podcast episodes. As always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism, mindfulness, you can always check out my books. No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners is a good starter.
Visit Noahrasheta.com for info on that. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. All those things help, and if you want to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit Secularbuddhism.com and click the Donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.