104 – A Limited View

In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist teaching of the Elephant and the blind men and how my understanding of having a limited view affects the type of questions I ask about myself, others, and life in general. I will also talk about how I use Facebook as a place to practice mindfulness.

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Transcription:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 104. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about our limited view. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this stuff to learn to be a better whatever you already are. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of a limited view in regards to the questions that we ask. So one of my favorite stories in Buddhist teachings is the story of the five blind men or six blind men, I can’t remember now, but the blind men explaining or describing an elephant to each other. I’ve talked about this before in the podcast, so I don’t think I need to go into detail about the specific details of the story, but the gist of it is imagine five blind people describing an elephant to each other or to everyone else.

The moral of that story is that we all have a limited view, a limited understanding and the one who may be describing one thing accurately is totally missing this other part because the complete picture is an impossibility, and so it is with life and with reality. I recently came across this notion again just in the world that I reside in, the paragliding world. We fly different types of paraglider wings and there are probably a dozen or more major brands, manufacturers who make these wings and then inside of each of those brands you have some of them five to 10 different wing models and styles for flying. So like a beginner wing versus an intermediate wing or a wing that’s made for slalom flying versus one that’s for cross country flying and so on. So you can get the idea pretty quickly that there are a lot of different wings out there. I’m talking probably hundreds if not more.

I always find it to be interesting when in the paramotor or a paragliding forums online, people ask the question, “Hey, which is the best wing?” It’s always like, “What do you mean the best wing? The interesting thing is so many people who chime in, “Oh it’s this wing. Oh I fly this wing and I’ve been really happy with it so this is the best wing.” When someone asks me that question, it’s like, “Why, I don’t know because I’ve only flown a handful of wings and I can tell you between those which ones I liked, the pros and cons. But even the one that I fly doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better than this other one that I flew that I no longer fly. Just it’s based on the style of flying, where you fly, how much experience you have flying and so many other factors.”

But that got me thinking along the lines of what responsibility do we have to be more skillful in the type of questions that we ask. It got me thinking, if … It’s probably not skillful for a new pilot to get on a group and ask what is the best wing or what is the best motor or what is the best whatever, because that’s just not the right question. So again, that got me thinking, well, in what areas of my life do I do the same thing? I ask unskillful questions because of my lack of understanding of the nature of how things are. That’s what got me back to thinking of this, the teaching or the parable of the blind men describing the elephant. So I wanted to highlight a couple of things about that. I think, first of all, the wisdom of asking skillful questions. What does that mean? How can they be more wise than the type of questions that they ask?

I think very similar to the mistake that’s made with asking what is the best wing or what is the best flight school or what is the best whatever. We do this in our day to day lives when we’re wondering what’s the best job or what’s the best career path or what, where should I be living or, I’m trying to think of other examples of this, with relationships. What’s the best, how do I know that I have the best relationship or what’s the best partner for me when I’m searching for a partner and a relationship or things of that nature. We do this all the time and it makes me wonder, is there wisdom to be had in understanding first that life is the big elephant and from our vantage point, we’re all the blind people, we’re all the ones trying to describe it. Sure you can become an expert at this one area that you encountered of the elephant.

Let’s say it’s the elephant’s foot, and that’s where you spend all your time. I can give a a semi decent opinion on what I’ve learned about the elephant’s foot, but then what a mistake I make if I am asking bigger questions beyond what I understand about the elephant’s foot, if I’m starting to ask questions about what are the implications of the elephants eye based on what I know about the elephant’s toenail or something. But I think we all get caught up in that in our day to day lives. For me, this has come with the big existential questions, right? I’ve gone through quests in my life where I’m thinking, what is the best ideology, the best religion or the best … Is it no religion? Is it an absolute abandoning of beliefs or whatever? Then you kind of find that this thing that works for you, whether it’s something big like an ideology or religion, and you think this works for me, therefore, if someone asks you what’s the best religion, well then you apply that same logic, right?

It’s like, Well, it’s this one.” Well, how do you know that? Have you tried every single one out there? Have you tried to live according to every single school of thought or philosophy that is available that mankind has come up with? Because if you have, then maybe it’s a slightly better opinion, but still that’s … It’s impossible, right? That’s not doable. It’s not realistic. It simply cannot be done. I think it goes back to, well then was it even skillful to ask that question in the first place? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer and there isn’t a right answer to that question. So with paramotoring or with paragliding, when that question is asked, I usually try to reverse it because I interact with new pilots all the time as a flight instructor. Well, a student will say, “Hey, what’s the best wing?”

I’ll say, I like to help them understand a more skillful question and say, “Well, what is the best wing for you? Let’s talk about that. How much do you weigh? Where will you be flying? Is it mountainous terrain? Is it high wind terrain, like on the beach? What style of flying do you think you’ll be doing? Then with a more complete assessment we can answer the question of this is probably not the best wing but this is an appropriate wing for you.” Then I can give several opinions there but I try to eradicate that thought of which is the best wing because there is no best wing. It’s fun to think about that. Well which is the best anything, right? Which is the best marriage? Which is the best way of parenting? Which is the best diet? Which is the best job? Which is the best car? All these things that we get caught up in, you can apply that same thinking to all of those.

I don’t know what the ideal marriage looks like. There is no ideal marriage. There are marriages that work and there are marriages that are dysfunctional, and then there’s a huge gray space in between. It’s been more healthy for me using the marriage example because I kind of fit in that category where people ask, “How does a marriage work where you have two different ideologies or different political views or different whatever that we have in our marriage?” I like to say, “Well, I don’t know if that’s the right question. I don’t think the question is what’s the best way to make your marriage work?” There’s a lot of good ways and there’s a lot of bad ways, for lack of a better word. Let’s again got a skillful and unskillful.

So what I wanted to share is this way of thinking that the limited view that I have kind of invites me to want to be more skillful with the type of questions that I have, questions about myself, questions about others, questions about life, questions about the nature of reality. We spend so much time focused on the answers. Who has the right answers? What are good answers, what are bad answers? But how often do you spend time asking, well, what are good questions and what are bad questions? Because those start with me. What are the skillful questions that I have? What questions that I have are unskillful when it comes to myself and others in life and career and relationships and all the real, the meaningful day to day things that we all interact with?

Because one thing that I think gets lost sometimes in this mindfulness practice, this way of wanting to be more mindful in our lives is that we apply it to the really big upper level things, a mindful way of living as a philosophy or as it pertains to worldviews. Those are big things. But the day to day nitty gritty is how does this apply to my satisfaction with my job or the healthiness of my relationship or the way I interact with people at the store or at work or the feelings and emotions that arise when I’m driving my car on the street, inside of the day to day approach to living which is really where we all are. That’s the nitty gritty, right? That’s what really matters. What kind of questions do we have? How things are, how things should be, why it should be this way, why it shouldn’t be that way.

Inside of all of that, there are a lot of questions and those questions come from us. We’re the ones asking the questions. Do we focus a lot on the answers or have we ever spent time … What would happen if we spent a little bit of time scrutinizing the questions? Do I have skillful, useful questions and could the problem with the answers not be the answers, but actually all along it was the questions that I have? That’s been a fun and fascinating experiment for me over the past few days and the past week as I’ve explored this concept is what kind of questions do I have. Again, understanding the questions that they have ultimately gives me a slightly better and more accurate picture about myself as I’ve mentioned before, the the ultimate aim of all of this for me is that I’m getting to know me. I’m not finding any big secrets out, but I’m definitely learning a little bit more everyday as a practice about understanding the nature of me, where my questions come from, why do I have that question, why does that even matter. All of that kind of stuff.

So again, the challenge for me is to understand what are the questions I have and then to ask myself are these skillful questions to have and apply that to any area or aspect of your life. I think that’s a fun way to take a big teaching like the blind men and the elephant and apply it into a little day to day thing, what does that mean for me on a day to day basis in the ordinary ways that I interact with life. So that’s my invitation to you as you explore this concept, to think about that in terms of I have a limited view and if that’s makes sense to me that I have a limited view, then what does that say about the questions I have about that view? Can I be more skillful in the way that I approach the questions I have about everything, anything and everything in life? So that’s one of the things I wanted to talk about.

Piggybacking on that just a little bit, another concept I’ve been wanting to share for awhile, but it was kind of a short one and I didn’t think it would make its own podcast episode. This topic I just talked about is pretty short too. So I thought I would combine it with something else, which is how to practice mindfulness with Facebook as the tool. Facebook seems to be the place where I see and I experienced myself, the rise and fall of emotional states. Now, you can be browsing and you see something that makes you feel a certain way and then you scroll just half an inch later, there’s a post that evokes an entirely different emotion and now you’re feeling a whole different feeling. I’ve thought about why is it that Facebook seems to bring out the ugly or the bad in us, but also you can see so much good there.

So I’ve had this thought, how would you practice mindfulness in the age of Facebook? How can you use Facebook as a place to practice? Now, some people, I’m sure you yourself may have gone through this, but we all know somebody who signed off and said, “All right, I need a break from Facebook. I’m going to get off of this.” Well, I mean, I’ve done that too, and I’m on Facebook quite regularly posting about the businesses that I do. I do social media for clients. But also just from my own personal life, I’m always posting pictures and videos of paramotoring and flying and stuff. But when I’m on Facebook for a long time, I always find it fascinating the wide range of feeling one way and immediately feeling another way and thinking, “Oh, I need to unfollow this person. I don’t like how that makes me feel.”

So it’s gotten me thinking a little bit, can we use Facebook as a tool to practice? I think the answer is yes we can. If we understand one thing, that the point of the practice isn’t to change ourselves or others, right? It’s not like, “Hey, I’m going to look at these political posts until they start bothering me.” That’s not going to be helpful. I think the way to approach it is, again for me the practice consists entirely of getting to know myself better and better and better. So if you take that as the goal of the practice and you approach something like, well, how can Facebook be a place where I practice that, for me it’s been helpful to say, “Well, here’s so and so’s posts. There they go again with this specific message,” or political ones are a good one because they’re just so sensitive.

But to say, why does this bothering me so much or why do I feel this way when I see this or I wonder where this deep emotion arises from, what causes to feel this. With that as the premise of the practice then yes, Facebook has been a very good place to practice. I do this specifically on … We have a Facebook group for the podcast. Well, it started as a group. It’s called Secular Buddhism and then it’s morphed into two groups. One is a Secular Buddhism Podcast community, which has meant to be much more tied to the podcast. These are podcast listeners wanting to talk about things that we talk about on the podcast. It doesn’t quite work that way, but then the other group, the more general one, which is the Secular Buddhism group, that one’s kind of morphed into anybody who just wants to talk about Buddhism and specifically from a secular lens.

But when you have an open space like that, you get several personalities and characters that show up in a group like that. Our group has definitely done that. So I wanted to talk about some of the, the roles or the characters that you see on Facebook, but again, using the mirror of mindfulness to say, do I ever see any of these rules in me? Am I ever playing any of these roles? As I’ve done that in our Facebook group, I see there’s the brilliant one who has to come share their wisdom with us and make sure that you know that they’re wise. At least that’s … This is again from my perspective and I’ve seen myself do that and it’s been fun to look for the characters, the roles, and then use that mirror of mindfulness and say, “When have I seen myself do that? That’s been a really skillful way for me to practice getting to know myself. It’s been fun.”

So here’s some of the ones that I’ve come up with that I see on Facebook groups. There’s the aeriodite, right? This is the person that just knows. The thing is there really are a lot of people who know. Sometimes the people who know don’t say much, but sometimes you have people who say a lot because it’s important for them to know that you know that they know, right? This is the aeriodite who has to share their wisdom with us because man, where would we be without their wisdom? Again, I am not making fun in any specific person because I have seen myself do all of these at one point or another. Oh, I better share this and make sure everyone knows that I know this topic. Now I can see it. It’s almost laughable that, oh yeah, I do that too sometimes. So keep in mind, I see myself doing all of these things sometimes and some of them more often. So that’s one. Do you ever see yourself do that, the aeriodite?

The next one I’ve come up with as the peacemaker or the diplomat. You get some kind of a disagreement going in a Facebook group or a Facebook post and there is someone jumping in “Guys. Yeah, but think of this or think of that.” It’s the peacemaker, the diplomat that’s just like, I’m really uncomfortable with contention, so a do whatever I can to minimize it. That’s me personally. So this is one of the characters I play a lot, the peacemaker and the diplomat. But I can step back and see that again with the context of where does that come from, why does it bother me that these two people are going at it on Facebook? Why not just let them go at it? Why is it so important for me to diffuse and say, “You guys, we shouldn’t be … You shouldn’t be failing in about that.” Again, not, not from the perspective of trying to say I should be more of something or less of something. This is all done for me in the in light and in the practice of trying to understand myself and why I have that deep need of being a peacemaker.

Okay. Then there’s the saint or the sage, right? This is the person who, similar to the aeriodite, but it’s less about making sure that you know that I know. This is more, I am so holy, I need to make sure that you, that everyone out there sees that what I am about to post or what I’m about to say … It’s like, wow, look at that person. They really have their life figured out, right? I remember I was on a trip in Bali a few years ago and I wanted my wife to take a picture of me meditating on the beach and at the time seemed like, “That’d be fun. I want people to know that I meditate.” But later as I sat there with it more, I’m like, “Wait, why do I really want to post that?” This was the sage in me, the saint in me that’s saying, “I need you to know that I am super holy and I can sit here on a beach and I can meditate.”

I didn’t see, I didn’t really understand that the later. It’s funny seeing that in me and you see this and others too, right? Like, “Wow. Thank you for sharing your holiness with us.” Again, I’m trying to be careful with this. I don’t want to come across like I’m judging any of these roles because I’m just highlighting that I am all of these things sometimes and because that for me is a form of practice, seeing this and myself.

Okay, the next one is the warrior. We all know the warrior. These the person who’s got a message and they’ve got to make sure you know what that message is. Thank goodness for the warriors. Warriors make change and, but I’ve seen myself at times being that warrior and this one for me is usually at odds with wanting to be the peacemaker. But the warrior is the one that’s out there that’s really got a cause and they’re going to make sure you know what that cause is.

Then there’s the jester. The jester is the one that’s always trying to make light of things and make it funny. Now this one’s me a lot too. Where someone will post something and my intuitive response is to inject humor into it and to make light of it so that we don’t have to take it so seriously. I do that in a lot of aspects of my life. This is something I’ve seen about myself that I think can be good at times, but also at times it’s like, “Why do I need to try to lighten things up? Let’s just really get deep and talk about it. Why do I feel that need to inject humor?” Maybe, I think for me it stems from my discomfort with confrontation and with contention, like I mentioned before. But we all know someone who’s the jester, right?

Then there’s the cynic and the cynic has reached the point where they’re like, “What’s the point in even trying anything? I’m just going to not say anything.” I think this one can become kind of like the flip side to the peacemaker. It’s like the peacemaker might say, “I might be able to say something to diffuse the situation,” where the cynic is like, “There’s no point. There’s no fixing this. Everything’s screwed up.” I found myself to be that from time to time. It’s not a very common one for me, but sometimes it is. When it is, I feel very cynical about being cynical. So the cynic. How often are you that?

Then there’s the troll. Everyone knows the troll. Of course, the troll is never us, right? The troll is always someone else. But this one has been fascinating to really entertain. Am I ever had the troll? I think more often than not, I’m not a troll. But in my mind sometimes I’m the troll that’s like, “Oh, it would be fun to say this,” and they won’t see it or won’t post it. But every now and then I think there’s the rascal in there that wants to troll people.

So again, are the various types of people who post on Facebook. I am all of those. You are all of those. If you hear any of these and think, “No, I’m definitely never that one. I don’t know about that.” Maybe you are. Look closer. Again, the whole point of this isn’t to say, okay, well then I’m going to change this and I’m going to stop doing that and I’m going to … That’s not what I’m trying to get at. I’m trying to develop a more skillful relationship with myself and with the thoughts and feelings and emotions that are arise in me when I’m on Facebook. From that perspective, I think Facebook has become a valuable place for me to practice my mindfulness. Part of that has been scrutinizing which characters and roles I play in my life, like these that I mentioned.

I think it’s a fun experiment for you to explore for yourself do you ever play any of those rules. So tying these in together. The time that we spend on Facebook and the highly valuable opinions that we feel that we have about certain subjects combined with the limited view that I talked about earlier makes for an interesting case. So Facebook is this big massive elephant. No, life is the elephant, but we’re all on Facebook trying to make sure others know how well we know about the big picture, and that’s the irony is that there is no big picture. None of us have the big picture. We can’t see it. Life is so big and so many topics and it’s just everything is so vast and the one little area we can become experts in, maybe if it’s skillful to share an opinion on that, then do it.

The questions we have about the other areas that we don’t know. Is there a way to be more skillful with the questions that we have? Is there a way to be more skillful or unskillful with the answers that we think we have about the … When we’re describing our area of the elephant? Those are the lines of thought that I wanted to share with you this week that I’ve been thinking about. There are times in this whole way of thinking that kind of leaves me like, “Man, who am I to see anything about anything? I guess the most skillful thing I could do about life in general is just be quiet and not say anything.” But I think silence is also skillful at times and unskillful at times. So I find myself once again in this position where, well, there’s just me and sometimes I share things and sometimes those things can be skillful for … To be shared and sometimes they’re probably not, but I’m just trying to go through life being a little bit a better version of whatever am, which gets right at the heart of the whole point of this podcast for me. So we’re all just trying to become better versions of whatever we already are.

So that’s what I wanted to share into this podcast episode. Facebook as a place to practice, a limited view as the default understanding that I have about life and reality is that I have a limited view and that’s … I’m bound by that. I cannot have the more expansive view because I’m limited in space and time to being me, the me that’s here and now, that’s subject to the conditioning of where I was born, how I was raised, all the views that I have, the beliefs that I have, the beliefs that I don’t have and that’s where I’m bound. In the middle of all of that, can I be a little bit more skillful with the questions that I have? That’s what I wanted to share with you guys. I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode.

As always, feel free to review the podcast, share it with others, give it a rating in iTunes. 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. But that’s all I have for now and I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Thanks for being a part of this journey with me. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.