In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of attachment in relation to the Buddhist notion of groundlessness. I will discuss how our strong attachment to things can often cause more discomfort than the comfort we thought we were getting from the thing in the first place.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 114. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about falling rocks. Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this to learn to be a better, whatever you already are.
Before we get going, I have a little bit of housekeeping. I want to give you a quick reminder about language. It’s common when learning about Buddhism to hear words like “skillful” and “unskillful” being used when referring to aspects of the Buddhist path. This comes from a Sanskrit expression that is common in Buddhism. The expression in English is “skillful in means,” skillful in means. Skillful means is a concept that emphasizes that a Buddhist practitioner may use his or her own methods or techniques on the path to enlightenment depending on his or her own specific set of circumstances. The Buddha was known for adapting his teachings to a specific person or audience that he was addressing, and taking into account the listener’s specific needs and skill level. In this way, we can adapt Buddhist practices to conform to our own individual needs and circumstances. This is considered skillful means.
Now, considering the idea of skillful means, in last week’s podcast episode, I spoke about the idea of right speech, one of the spokes on the eightfold path. I want to remind you that, first, these ideas that I share about iMessages, they’re just meant to be tools to help you to be more skillful with your communication. Communication that is formatted and the iMessage formula, that doesn’t mean, in and of itself, that that is skillful speech. It’s just a tool, and any tool can be misused or abused. And if someone were to take advantage of the iMessage format and used it to try to manipulate their listener to act a certain way, then that is certainly not right speech.
So keep this idea of skillful means in mind anytime you’re learning about Buddhist concepts or ideas or teachings, and especially keep this in mind when I’m sharing something on this podcast. Nothing I share is meant to be authoritative in the way of, a final way of saying, “This is the way.” It’s only meant to be shared as another way of thinking, “Here’s another way,” a way. This is a way of thinking of things, it’s not the way of thinking of things.
So right speech is a very broad topic that could be talked about for hours upon hours, and probably have an entire book written about it. And what I shared in one short podcast episode last week is not meant to be a definition or the definitive way of understanding what right speech is. The whole goal of what I was trying to share is, this is a tool. It may work for you and your circumstances. It may not. And the whole point of it, as an exploration, isn’t about deciding this is how someone else should or shouldn’t be speaking. This is meant to be very introspective. This was meant to be presented so that one could look inward and say, “Am I being as skillful as I can in the way that I communicate myself to others?” So make this very much about you and how you communicate, not about saying, “Well, that’s not the right way,” if others are using it or not using it.
There’s just so much complexity to this one topic, and I want to be careful because I understand that this isn’t right speech, right? Like, “Oh, well, I speak in these new iFormat formulas where I feel this when you do that, therefore, can you please … Ah, boom. Now I’m using right speech.” It’s not that. It’s meant to just be one more tool in your quiver of tools to be able to understand yourself more. And you can ask yourself, “Am I speaking skillfully? Do I understand what I am really trying to communicate, and why I’m communicating it, and where, and when, and to who, and how?” All of those things, combined with many, many other factors that I was not able to mention in the podcast episode, will help you to determine if you are being as skillful as you can in your way of communicating with others.
So I wanted to clarify that and add that, because I acknowledge and I recognize that this, and any other topic, could be easily hijacked, and somebody misuses this tool or this concept, and then the claim could be made, “Well, that’s not right speech.” And you would be absolutely correct. That is not right speech.
So, as Forrest Gump would say, “I think that’s all I have to say about that.” So that’s the little bit of housekeeping I wanted to mention. Now let’s talk a little bit about the Zen koan that I shared in last week’s episode, “No cold and heat.”
As a reminder, this is a monk who asked Tozan, “How can we escape the cold and heat?”
Tozan replied, “Why not go where this is no cold and heat?”
“Is there such a place?” the monk asked.
Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold. When hot, be hot through and through.”
Now, for me, this koan is about the poisons of desire and aversion. If you’ll recall the concept of the three poisons in Buddhism, two of those are desire and aversion. And it’s important to note here that there’s nothing wrong with being cold. There’s nothing wrong with not liking being cold. But the moment that I feel aversion to the cold, I am adding a new layer of suffering, because I’m cold and I’m upset that I’m cold, or I’m cold and I’m feeling that I shouldn’t be cold, or … It’s like the second arrow. It’s like you’re adding more arrows than necessary. It’s okay to just sit there and be cold. It’s okay to just sit there and be hot. But it’s that desire, right? Desiring for things to be other than how they are, adds a new layer of suffering on top of whatever you’re suffering by just being cold or just being hot.
So for me, I think this has to do with the relationship that I have with the feeling. And you see this every year, at least in terms of cold and hot, I see this every year because I live in a place where the climate, we have all four of the seasons, and it seems like as soon as summer comes around, everyone’s all excited that it’s summer. But give it a month or so, and then people are complaining about how hot it is, or just complaints about the heat. Or backwards, where I live, most likely it’s going to happen backwards. It’s the cold, maybe by the end of summer and people are like, “Oh, I can’t wait for that first snowfall.” And as soon as it snows and they’re posting pictures, give them a few weeks and then they’re talking about how they can’t stand the winter and how miserable it feels to be cold, and they can’t wait for summer or for spring. I see that all the time. And I often feel that even myself.
So there we are, always wanting things to be other than how they are. And I think that’s what this koan is trying to do, at least that’s how I interpret it. This is an invitation for me of, why not just be with whatever it is that you’re with right now? And for me, this koan is an invitation to be with whatever is there.
And I think that’s especially relevant when I think about and apply this to the idea of emotional states, not necessarily physical states like feeling hot or feeling cold. I think the koan could just as easily say, a monk asked, “How can we escape happiness and sorrow,” and the reply would also have been, “When happy, be thoroughly happy. And when sad, be sad through and through.” Whatever I’m experiencing, I try to allow myself to fully experience it.
And I found myself thinking about this koan. This is one of the things I like about this new format of sharing the koans, you’re kind of thinking about it all week. And this week, that was the case for me, thinking about, “Well, what does this mean for me, the concept of hot and cold?” And I found myself experiencing several moments of discontent and suffering, you could say, this week, over small little things because I had several things going wrong. And one of the big things I’ve been working on since I got here is trying get my voter’s registration card, because I have one that I got in Guadalajara, the city where I lived before in my life. And now that I live here, this is a different state of Mexico, and I’m trying to get a local one here because you get discounts to the big theme parks.
So I’ve been working to try to get that, and it has been obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. I’m going on five months now of trying to get this, and it’s been roadblocks. I ran into the first one realizing that the name on my Mexican nationality is missing my second last name. And here in Mexico, we use two last names, your paternal and your maternal last name. So you have two last names. Well, on my official paperwork, I only have one. So that proved to be problematic because, on my Mexican passport, I have two, and on my voter’s registration from the state of Jalisco, I have two. So when I tried to switch it to this state of Quintana Roo, where I live now, they ran into this problem where they’re like, “Well, the supporting documentation you have for your proof of Mexican citizenship only has one last name. Oh, it’s a quick problem, all we have to do … or a quick solution, all we have to do is get, instead of using your letter of nationality, let’s just get you an actual Mexican birth certificate.”
So I submitted everything for that, and that was a long process because I submitted it, and it can’t be that one, it has to be … there’s the long format and the short format. So to order the long format from the state of Texas where I was born, that was a two-month process. And then that arrives, “Oh no, it has to have an apostille, “apostillado” is what they call it in Spanish, where it’s certified to be used for international purposes. And that took time and that took money. And then when it arrived, it had to be translated by a certified translator. And that took time and that took money.
And then I turned it all in, and come to find out that the last name on my birth certificate from my mom, she has her first name and her middle name reversed. So on all of her official paperwork, she’s Maria Teresa, and on my birth certificate, she’s Teresa Maria. And that caused … I went to pick things up on Friday, again, five months in the works here, and finally I’m going to get my birth certificate. And I go to pick it up, and I can’t pick it up because they detected this error, and now they’re saying, “Well, you’ve got to change your last name.” And I called the state of Texas, and they’re like, “Well, that’s a three to four-month process.” And I was just immediately feeling a lot of discontent and a lot of frustration because I was so close to finally having this.
So this was one of those moments, I’m feeling really hot and I don’t want to feel what I’m feeling. And I was like, “Why is this bothering me so much?” And I just allowed myself to sit there and really feel it. And it took a few hours of just stewing over this, and realizing the irony of the entire thing is the only reason I’m trying to get my voter’s registration isn’t to go vote, it’s so that I can go get a discount at these theme parks. And the amount of money that I’ve paid and the entire process to get this new voter’s registration is already more than I would have paid had I just gone to the park and paid full price 10 times. And it is almost comical to think … Once again, Pema Chodron’s quote pops into my head, that, “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” And that allowed me to kind of break out of that funk and realize, “Okay, I just need to sit here and be with what I’m experiencing, which is frustration at a never-ending road of obstacles.”
And I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I think I’m going to continue trying it, because at this point, I just want the ID. I want to have my actual voter’s registration since this is the state where I live now. But I don’t know. I may give it up. I may keep trying. They told me they’re going to let me know on Monday what the next steps need to be, because I told them changing the name on my birth certificate is pretty much out of the options at this point because I know that’s a long complicated process. And we’re in Mexico. I was like, “There’s got to be another way. Come on, you tell me the other way. How much will that way cost? And we’ll figure this out.” And I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see.
But anyway, that’s what I was experiencing this week while keeping in mind this koan of hot and cold, and realizing I’m experiencing a strong emotion. And one of the reasons why the emotion felt so intense was because I’m thinking I shouldn’t feel this way.
It’s like, “Oh, I’m frustrated.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be frustrated.”
“Well, why not? I can be frustrated.”
And allowing myself to be frustrated, allowed the frustration to pass way faster than had I been sitting there, I think probably for days, thinking, “I am such an ungrateful person because I’m allowing myself to get frustrated over something so insignificant and meaningless in the big picture.” Well, yeah, as insignificant and meaningless as that is in the big picture, it still feels frustrating. And why not just allow myself to feel frustrated for a moment? And by allowing myself to fully feel it and sit with that, it was able to pass much quicker than it would have. And I only know that because, like I’ve mentioned many times before, I’ve experienced this with much stronger emotions, like hatred, and allowed that to fester for years rather than just allowing myself to acknowledge that what I’m feeling is hatred, and then it finally went away.
So anyway, that’s what I wanted to share, my thoughts in regards to the koan for the week, with no cold and no heat. So jumping into the topic of the podcast for this week, “Be aware of falling rocks.” What do I mean by that? Well, I’ve used this analogy before. I believe I shared it in the podcast episode of groundlessness. But I wanted to emphasize this and go a little bit further in this whole topic today. So I’m going to repeat the story.
Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a bottomless cliff, and suddenly the rock that you’re holding onto there as you’re looking over the edge, it gives way and you find yourself falling, and you’re grasping that rock. At first, this is a scary ordeal because you’re falling, right? You fell off of a cliff. But with enough time, you relax and you remember this as a bottomless cliff. There’s nothing to stop your fall. And in that moment, you realize that you’re still hanging on tightly to that rock. And the rock does nothing for you other than possibly provide some comfort. So you decide to let it go. And when you do that, you realize that you’re still falling. The rock’s still falling there next to you. Nothing has changed. And yet, you become a little bit more comfortable with the discomfort of not having a rock to hold onto to comfort you doing during your fall.
And in Buddhism, this idea is called groundlessness, which I talked about in an episode specifically around groundlessness. But I think in life, we tend to rely on these rocks, rocks to hold onto or to stand on, and they act as our foundation for comfort. These rocks can be people, relationships, ideas, beliefs. It can be the amount of money we have in the bank. It can be our jobs and our titles. It can be countless other things. But the concept of groundlessness implies that, as long as there is a rock, there will also be the fear and discomfort around losing the rock. So we grip these rocks tighter and tighter, often failing to realize that our tight grip is actually causing more discomfort than the comfort that the rock provides us by just being there. So the idea, instead, is to ease the grip and to learn to let go of the rock.
Now, letting go might be a big radical thing, but it could just be a matter of, for now, what if I loosen my grip on the rock? See what happens. And to experience groundlessness is to have that proverbial rug pulled out from under us, and our new foundation becomes the foundation of having no foundation. And then we become more comfortable with the discomfort of having no ground to stand on, having no rock to hang onto. And ironically, the end result is we have more peace and we have more comfort. We’ve become comfortable with the fact that there we are falling, and that’s it. And no rock is going to change that fact. And add to that, there’s no fear, because there is no fear of losing the rock if you’re not holding a rock in the first place. There’s no fear of having that rug pulled out from under you if you don’t have a rug there in the first place.
So let’s talk a little bit about these rocks. Well, for me, I like to think about the things that I’m not willing to let go of. Now, thinking of the things that I’m gripping to really tight. And I’ve thought about this, this is evolved quite a bit for me in the last few years because I spent a lot of time thinking about these rocks. But you can do this yourself. You can ask, “What does this rock do for me?” I like to picture Gollum in Lord of the Rings where he’s holding onto his precious, right? And doesn’t realize the unspeakable pain and suffering that he’s experiencing because of the attachment he has to this ring, his object, his precious. And he can’t see that in the moment. But as the audience, of course, we can see that, and it’s like, “Come on, let go of that thing.”
Well, that’s all of us. We’re all going through life in this free fall. And the journey of life is that free fall, right? Here we go, we don’t know when we hit bottom. We don’t know if we hit bottom. And we’re hanging onto all these rocks. And this is where I like the expression, “Be aware of those falling rocks, because there they are. They’re falling at the same rate that we’re falling. And if I look this way, there’s a rock. Oh, there’s another rock. And I start to see these things, and over time, I’ve clung on to some of them. One of them, I put in my pocket, and the other one, I strapped to my back, and the other one, I tied it around my foot, right? But there are some of them that you’re actually physically gripping and you’re squeezing them so tight that your hands are bleeding and you have blisters, and you don’t realize that the discomfort of gripping the rock outweighs the comfort of gripping the rock.
And that’s when it becomes a really powerful thing to sit and see that, and notice that in ourselves, and say, “Hm, maybe this tight grip is what’s causing me discomfort,” right? There’s already a baseline of discomfort, which is, “Hey, I’m falling.” And we’re all experiencing that. We’re alive. We don’t know how or when the end of this journey comes, but we know that it’s coming, just like that fall. You’re falling and falling and falling, and we all know that eventually you stop falling, or at least that’s what it seems like. So you can pause and say, “Well, why am I hanging onto this so tight?”
And I think this is, if you were to ask, “Well, why do we care about these rocks? Why not just fall holding the rocks?” Well, you can. Now, if I were to, say explore, “Why do I even need to be careful about the rocks that I’m holding,” for me, it goes back to this matter of skillful means. Is there anything inherently wrong with gripping a rock really tight? No, not at all. But what if the rock is causing you more discomfort than it is comfort? Oh, well, now we’ve got something to talk about because we’re trying to live a life of minimal or even, if possible, the elimination of discomfort or of suffering, right, like we talk about in Buddhism.
Well, what if the cause of the suffering is, what if it’s that we’re so desperately clinging to this thing, and it’s been … What’s getting us is we don’t want to feel discomfort so we hang tight to this rock. And yet, that’s the very thing that’s causing you the discomfort, a form of discomfort you hadn’t even thought about, where you could let go of that level of discomfort and then sit with just the original discomfort, which is, “Oh no, I’m falling,” and that one would have been enough. That one’s manageable if you could just sit with it long enough.
That, to me, is where this becomes a powerful way to play with this concept. What if the rock is causing you more discomfort than it is comfort? That’s where the attachment to the rock, to me, seems like a detrimental thing. And I want to highlight here, it’s not the rock that’s the problem. Whatever that rock is, the belief, or the idea, or the opinion, or the relationship, or the person, whatever it is, that is not the problem. It’s the attachment to that thing. Because, remember, you can let go of this thing, and there it is. It’s still there next to you. But the death grip is what was causing so much discomfort, not the thing itself.
So you could ask, “Well, what do we do about these rocks?” Well, the ones that we’re holding and the ones that others are holding, we can learn a lot by just paying attention. That involves becoming familiar with the rocks that you’re holding. And notice them, and just notice and look around, and notice, what are the rocks that others are holding? This is especially relevant among people close in your life, family and friends, right? Loved ones. These are precious items to us, and they’re precious items to others, these rocks. So you can look, and with time and just paying attention, you can look over there and be like, “Oh, uncle so-and-so, oh, I see that’s why he’s gripping that rock so tightly,” whatever that rock is. Or look over here, “Oh, here’s my friend, so-and-so,” or, “Here’s the person at the store, or the neighbor who lives next door,” or, “Oh, here’s my family member,” and look at anyone, really, and you can start to see through this perspective, through this lens of, we’re all just scared of falling. And here we are falling, so we’re gripping things and we’re holding on tightly to things.
And when I start to see that in myself and I start to see that in others, it gives me a great sense of comfort to recognize that their relationship, or their belief, or their political views, or their comforting opinions, they’re clinging to their wealth, their highlighting of their prestigious accomplishments, all these things are their rocks. And the amount, it could be as simple as the amount of likes they’re trying to get on their social media posts, or whatever it is, right? It’s just a rock that provides comfort during the fall. And that, for me, helps me to pause from time to time, not just to look at my own rocks, which ones am I gripping on so tightly today, but also to look at others, and to ask, “Do these rocks provide more comfort than they do comfort?”
Now, I’ve had to let go of some very important and meaningful rocks in my life, rocks that, at times, I would have never … that you would’ve had to have pried it from my cold, dead hands. And yet, because of circumstances or things, at one point, I realized hanging onto this is more uncomfortable than just free-falling. So I let go of it. And I’ve only been able to do that by realizing, again, that the pain of the grip was more than the comfort of holding the rock. And even then, it wasn’t easy to let go because it’s scary. What am I going to do without my rock, right? Here I am falling, I don’t want to just fall alone. And luckily, I found that I’m still here just falling. And so is the rock. The rock that I finally let go of, well, it’s right there next to me. It’s still falling here next to me. But the difference is my fingers aren’t bloody. They’re not bruised, they’re not blistered because of that grip I had to that rock. And that rock is still there.
And again, I want to emphasize here that this isn’t necessarily about letting go of the rock and saying, “I have to let go of it.” This is about changing the relationship you have with that rock. What if it was a matter of letting go of the rock for a minute, spinning it around, and realizing, “Oh, I can hold it now, and I’ve developed a more skillful way of holding this rock that I was falling next to. Now it doesn’t cause me and others so much pain or discomfort, because I switched around the grip that I had on it.” That’s a valid way to look at this too. So you don’t have to let it go.
Now, I do think, in Buddhism, it’s more about, “Well, if that was beneficial and you rearranged your grip, imagine if you didn’t even have to have a grip on it. What if you didn’t have to have the rock at all?” I think that’s a valid position as well. And that’s one that I like to explore. But I’m saying this because it doesn’t just mean you have to let go of the rock. It could be a matter of, “I’m going to see if there’s a more skillful way of holding onto this rock.” That’s a valid step in the right direction too. And I like that.
How do we start to work with these rocks? Again, I don’t think it’s about just throwing the rock away. I think it could be a matter of learning to loosen the grip and see what that does. Do your hands and arms feel better because you loosened the grip? Maybe that’s all it took, a loosening of the grip. It could be an entire letting go of as well. But it’s something to start looking at and exploring.
And I want to highlight, again, we’re all falling, right? And the rocks are all here. And we can be aware of the falling rocks, which ones are worth hanging onto. Is this a really sharp rock with pointy edges that the tighter I squeeze onto it, the more it cuts into me? Some rocks are hard. Some are sharp. Some are smooth. Some are easy to hold onto. Some of them I can hold really tight and it doesn’t really do anything other than make my muscles sore from how tight I’m gripping it.
But there may be some that are still warm like lava, and they’re a little bit painful to the touch. And if I’m hugging it and holding it tight, I may be experiencing a lot of discomfort because of the nature of the rock itself, and not just because of the tight grip I have to it. But I have to be skillful to be able to look at my rocks, and put them there in front of me, and say, “Is this one a good one? Is this one a hot one? Is this a sharp one? Is this a pokey one?” And understand my rocks, “Oh, well this one is … Why am I using that one? Why am I hanging onto that one so tight? That’s a pokey one,” right? It takes skillful means to be able to do that, to understand our rocks.
But all of that starts with the process of being able to acknowledge that, “Here I am falling, and here are all these rocks. And what are these rocks doing for me? The ones that seem to provide me a lot of comfort, well, do they really?” Maybe they do. Or, I may realize, “You know what, as much comfort as I thought this rock was providing, it’s actually providing me more discomfort the fact that I’m still gripping so tightly to this.” That is part of the introspective quest that you have to discover for yourself by looking at your rocks. What are your rocks?
And then allowing other people to have that same sense with their rocks. It’s not fair for you to go along and point out someone else and be like, “Hey, you need to let go of that rock.” What are they going to do? They’re going to hold onto it tighter. “Oh, you want me to let go of this? Yeah, right,” and now I just gripped it even tighter. That’s what happens, right? So we don’t need to go around telling people to let go their rocks. Again, as all the things that I share on this podcast, this is an invitation for you to look at your rocks only. Sure, I think it can be beneficial to look at someone else’s and be like, “Ah, I see what’s going on there. You’re holding onto that thing so tight that your hands are bleeding. But you don’t see that. But I do. So now I’m going to be a little bit more compassionate with how much that rock means to you.” I think we can do that. So those are things to think about.
That’s all I have for this podcast episode. As always, thank you for listening, for being a part of the journey with me. And if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a patron and joining our online community where we discuss these things, the koans, the podcast episodes, I do Q&A sessions. And there’s even a weekly study group. You can learn more about that by visiting secularbuddhism.com.
If you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. But before I go, I’m going to leave you with your Zen koan to work with this week. This is the title of the koan, “Bells and Robes.” The Koan goes like this: “Zen Master Unmon said, ‘The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of the bell?'” That is the Zen koan. Give that some thought for the week. I’ll share my thoughts on it in next week’s podcast episode. Thank you for listening. Until next time.