Year: 2016

33 – Heaven and Hell (Here and Now)

Heaven and Hell are real, they are the contents of everyday life. They are states we experience in the here and now and WE are the gatekeepers. In this episode, I will discuss the Zen koan called: the gate of paradise.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 33. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about heaven and hell.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” If you’re new to secular Buddhism or you are interested in learning more, check out my book Secular Buddhism Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available as paperback on Amazon, ebook, Kindle, and ibook on iTunes. Also as an audio book on audible.com. For more information and for links to the book versions, visit secularbuddhism.com.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. The last couple of weeks I have been reading a booked Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose. It’s been a fascinating experience to become familiar with zen koans. On the website elephant journal, Don Diande talks about koans and says, “The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner. Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, ‘Aha. The answer is three.’ They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths, the inner regions beyond knowing.”

Essentially what that means is the koan is meant to help break out of the conceptual way of thinking and into more of an experiential understanding of a specific topic. The specific koan that I read this week that really resonated with me and stuck with me and I decided I wanted to share it in this podcast episode is a koan called the Gate of Paradise.

A soldier comes to visit a famous zen master Hakuin. And the soldier asks, “Is there really a heaven and a hell?” The zen master replies, “Who are you?” The soldier says, “I am a samurai.” “You? A samurai? What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar.” The soldier starts to get angry and becomes so enraged that he’s about to draw his sword. The zen master continues and he says, “Oh, so you have a sword. It’s probably too dull to even cut my head.” At this point, the soldier is just indignant and he brandishes his sword. The zen master says, “Here. Open the gates of hell.” And the soldier immediately recognizes the wisdom in those words and he puts his sword away. The zen master says, “Here, open the gates of heaven.”

It’s just a short story that’s kind of conveying the idea, the Buddhist understanding of heaven and hell. I love the way the zen master does this because rather than answering the question, he shows the soldier these states. He induces them into the very mind of the questioner. Rather than having a theoretical discussion of what is heaven or what is hell, he’s showing him the reality in that moment by allowing the soldier to experience his anger and turning that anger almost into hatred. When he realizes that that’s what he’s doing, he instantly is able to sheath the sword or to control his anger and that’s also the experiential understanding of what it is to be in heaven. To be able to control your emotions.

Gyomay Kubose in his book goes on to say about this koan that heaven and hell are the contents of our everyday life. Here we have this neat little story that I think does a really good job of helping us to understand the understanding that heaven and hell are here and now. These are states that we experience in the present moment. Furthermore, we are the gatekeepers of, you know, the gate to heaven or the gate to hell. I thought about this a lot, many times, when I felt just like that soldier. You know? I think every time that I’ve ever felt that, it was my ego that was being offended or hurt or criticized or questioned. I love knowing that I myself am the gatekeeper of my own paradise and my own hell.

What’s interesting when I think about instances in my life when I felt like that, every single one without exception that I’ve been able to recall or think about is an instance where it’s my ego that’s on the line. It’s the ego that is so sensitive to being criticized. You know for someone like the zen master to say, “Who are you?” It’s like the ego is like, “Who are you to think who am I?” It’s when the ego-self is attacked that way, we instantly start to experience what in this koan is kind of described as that sense of hell.

I bring up the example many times about getting cut off by a car because it’s something that we’ve all experienced. If you think about it in that moment, usually what makes it so frustrating, it doesn’t have to do with time. We might think that it does, but I don’t think that what’s happening is we get cut off and we’re all thinking, “Hey, you just robbed me of five seconds.” We know that we can make up that time by increasing our speed for the next minute or something. It’s not about that even though it may seem like I’m in a rush. If you’re honest with yourself, when I evaluate myself in this example, I think what’s really happening is you’re thinking, “How dare you do that to me. Like don’t you know that I’m an important person and you shouldn’t just be cutting me off. Because I’m me. I’m right here. What are you doing?”

It’s an attack on me, the ego me, not just the me that’s driving along. When that ego is removed, you start to look at a scenario like that and what is there to be offended at? I got slowed down. It doesn’t matter if it was person or if it was something that got in the road. A tree that fell or an animal that got in the road. The results in all those scenarios could be the same. I had to stomp on my brakes or I had to swerve and now I’m five seconds behind the schedule that I was on. When it’s a person, this is an attack on what I perceive as my ego, my self, the sense of self. I think that’s what makes it so difficult to work with in these scenarios.

In my understanding, that’s probably what this soldier was experiencing. It’s an attack on his ego. I think that’s a very quick to open the gates of hell so to speak.

I would invite you to take a minute and think about instances in your life when you felt like this soldier. When you felt any form of anger that’s at risk of turning into hatred and see if you can pinpoint in what way is the ego attached to that story. Is the ego the culprit of feeling so hurt or offended or whatever emotion you were experiencing with that? Criticized. See if like me you find that the ego is what was attached there that’s kind of the common denominator in these instances. We’ve all experienced anger. Every single one of us. You’ve probably also heard the expression that’s often attributed to the Buddha, however it’s not an actual quote from the Buddha. The quote says, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the only one that gets burned.”

The expression I think comes from a monk named [Buddhaghoṣa 00:09:16]. He was discussing anger. He says by doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink. I like Buddhagosa’s version because I think it’s easy for us to imagine somebody right there next to you holding a hot coal, waiting to throw it at someone. The burning ember. But it’s hard to see how that really effects me. If you’re standing right next to me, you’re holding this coal cause you’re angry at someone and you’re waiting to throw it at them. I could be looking at that scenario and thinking, “Well, that’s unfortunate. You’re burning your hand. You know if you would just let go of that, it would stop hurting.”

I like Buddhagosa’s cause he mentions not just the burning ember, but also excrement and how he makes himself stink. That to me is a little bit more indicative of what it’s like when someone is around me for example if I were experiencing this type of anger that I’m holding onto that I want to let go of. The stink that he talks about. Now that effects the people around you. I think we all know someone like this. Who maybe is holding onto anger or is vengeful or has you know their anger makes them difficult to be around in the same way that it would be uncomfortable being around someone who smells of excrement. You’d say, “That’s affecting me now because I’m standing too close to you.”

I think anger can cause a similar aversion almost. Where you’re like, “I don’t want to be around this person cause they’re not pleasant to be around,” in the same way that it would not be pleasant around someone who’s stinky. I kind of like that correlation of the ember. It’s burning me if I’m holding it, but I’m also the stinky one if I’m holding onto it. Others around me are going to start to notice that and they may not want to be around me so much.

Don’t pick up the burning ember. Don’t pick up the excrement and make yourself stinky. Now sure this a lot easier said than done, but how do we go about actually not doing it? Well that’s the tricky part. I think this is where it becomes a matter of introspection for you. How do you drop that coal, that burning ember or that excrement? That’s for you to decide. I think that’s kind of the point of this koan. The soldier was able to experience what did it feel like to sheath the sword, to put the sword back and say, “Huh. I’m not going to allow myself to go that far.” That’s when the zen master says, “Here, open the gates of heaven.” Because the soldier was noticing, “Wow, I have the ability to calm myself down and not want to chop your head off. I’m putting the sword away and that’s the start of it. That’s the gate.”

You are the gatekeeper of your own heaven or hell. That to me is the essence of what’s being taught here. Now that can only be experienced by you. You know when you’re one place or when you’re in the other. It’s not about someone telling you, “You should feel this way or you should feel that way.” Because then you could pretend, but pretending doesn’t get you there. I could pretend I’m in no longer in this state of hell. I’m putting myself in this state of heaven and pretend that all I want, but if I’m not actually there I’m not actually there. That’s kind of what this koan is trying to get us to experience is that in a very experiential way we know when we’re in one or when we’re in the other, but only we know.

The answer to you know how do we actually get there? To me that’s the part of the koan that’s for you to figure out. I think meditation plays a big part here. You know we talk about this often with the whole premise of mindfulness is creating that space between stimulus and reaction. That space is where we have the freedom to decide well here’s the trigger but I choose how to react here. I’m not going to allow my habitual reactivity to put me in a state of anger that puts me at risk of experiencing hatred because that’s entering my own hell. You know, what mindfulness allows us to do is to have a greater sense of understanding of what’s happening and to remove the ego from that equation. At that point, like we say, “No self, no problem”, right? If I can remove my ego from that equation, well then what is there to even be offended?

You know, you could call me whatever you want to call me and I’m not going to respond to it. Not because I’m pretending and saying, “Huh, that didn’t bother me.” You know, if it’s bothering you, it’s bothering you. Rather than pretending it’s not, that’s where you want to get very introspective and say, “How interesting. This is really affecting me. Why? Why does it affect me if somebody calls me this? Or if somebody does that?” You know, that’s for you to analyze and become introspective with. I think the threefold mindfulness meditation is a powerful technique to be able to do that. My question for you and question for myself is, “What gates are we opening today? What gates are open right now?”

Only you know where you stand and only you have the keys to open and close the gates to heaven and hell. I like a quote by Pema Chodron who says, “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” Because isn’t that the truth? I think about that a lot and the difficult times that I’ve experienced, not all of them, but many of them I can look at and say, “Huh. In what way have I given myself these difficult times?” Like I said, this isn’t always the case, but in many times it is the case. Hopefully, I like to imagine now and knowing that if I’m the gatekeeper and I’m the one who holds the keys, now the responsibility is on me. Rather than blaming circumstances or blaming specific people. I’m the one who decides when I’m going to open and walk through the gates of heaven or the gates of hell.

That’s my invitation to you with this koan like the zen master who allows the questioner to experience in a very experiential way what heaven and hell actually are. The question of what is the reality of is there really a heaven and hell. Ask yourself that. Is there? I’m sure you know the answer because you’ve been in both. You’ve experienced both at one time or another. What caused you to feel in one versus the other? What I found, again for me personally, when the ego is not attached those are the moments that I would equate to being in heaven. These are moments where you’re kind of in a state of flow almost or suddenly it’s not about me. It’s about something greater than me. You know, these are moments where holding a newborn or doing humanitarian work or doing something that puts me beyond just me. These are moments that you experience just joy and happiness and contentment in a way that it has to be because the ego has been so detached in those moments.

It’s not about me. The moments where I feel the opposite, what I would equate to hellish moments. Like I said earlier, every single one that I’ve analyzed I’ve concluded it’s because the ego was very attached to that moment. The suffering that was coming from it was almost a direct attack on the ego itself. Like how could this person have done this to me? Don’t they know who I am? How dare you call me that or cut me off? Me or mine always fits in very nice with these scenarios of hellish moments or hell.

Those were the thoughts that I wanted to share with you guys. I think this is kind of a shorter episode, but I wanted to make sure that I shared something this week. Again, ask yourself, “In what way am I the gatekeeper to my own heaven, to my own hell?” And when you’re experiencing these in day to day living, see if you can make that pause between the stimulus and reaction. Oftentimes it’s right after the reaction that you can pause and say, “Oh, that’s what I just did.” But that’s still good, because noticing that you just noticed is a form of awareness. Ask yourself, these moments of heaven or these moments of hell that happen in the here and now and the present moment, what are they for me? How do I experience one? Why do I experience the other? Be introspective with it. What are the causes of these moments when I experience this feeling or that feeling?

See what you can find. This koan is here for you to get introspective and to find the answer yourself. Something that I wanted to end with in this podcast episode that I really enjoyed is a statement of intent rendered by Sharon Salzberg. She’s a Buddhist teacher and does a lot of writing for Lion’s Roar. I can’t remember exactly where I came across this, but it’s a statement of intent. It’s kind of a thought that you keep with you. Rather than having like a form of prayer, like the Buddhist form of prayer is usually something like this. A statement of intent that’s kind of internal. It’s a reminder of me, of what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. This statement of intent, she says, “May the actions that I take toward the good, toward understanding myself, toward being more peaceful be a benefit to all beings everywhere.”

I really like so I wanted to share that with you guys. As always, if you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. Of course, if you’re in a position to be able to, I would appreciate if you could consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button on the top of the web page. That’s all I have for this week. I will look forward to recording another episode next week. Until next time.

32 – How to Meditate

In this podcast episode, you will learn how to practice Threefold Mindfulness Meditation (Calm, Observe, and Analyze). This meditation technique is aimed at training the mind to overcome our habitual reactivity. The goal of this meditation technique is to learn to create a space between what happens (stimulus), and how we react to what happens (response).

Subscribe to the podcast on:
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Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode #33. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about threefold mindfulness meditation.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are”. If you’re new to Secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, check out my book “Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds”. It’s available as paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle, and iBook on iTunes. It’s also available as an audio book on Audible.com. For more information and for links to those book versions, visit Secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. So, before we get started I want to remind you that this content is also published on my website Getmindful.org. Two common questions I receive quite regularly are, “Why do we meditate?” And second, “How do we meditate?” So, I wanted to address this.

The reason we meditate – Our minds are engaged in an ongoing process of assigning meaning to events as they unfold. We create stories about ourselves and others. The guy who cuts us off in traffic. The strange look on the face of the clerk in the grocery store. The tone used by a co-worker and so on. We’re generally not even aware of this process and yet these stories that we create in our own minds can end up being the greatest source of stress in our lives. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as a tool to help us move beyond those stress inducing thoughts and into a more peaceful state of awareness that’s anchored in the present moment. And when practiced regularly, meditation has been proven to increase positive emotion, emotional intelligence and self control, while at the same time decreasing depression, anxiety and stress. I have links to all of the scientific research on Getmindful.org. So you can visit that and click on those links and see what the research shows about how meditation makes a difference.

So, the next question – How do we meditate? So, the reason that we meditate, as I mentioned, can be to obtain more calm or peace. But how do we accomplish that, because like exercise meditation may be simple but it’s certainly not easy. And the secret is to develop a consistent practice. Meditating for five minutes everyday is better than meditating for one hour every month. And threefold mindfulness meditation is a technique that I’ve developed to make meditation easier to practice.

So, threefold mindfulness meditation only takes 15 minutes and it’s broken down into three 5 minute parts. And if you give it a try – I challenge you to try meditating for 15 minutes a day. Try this for 14 days in a row. That’s two weeks. You’re going to notice a difference. I’m going to create a 14-day meditation challenge and by the time you’re listening to this podcast, hopefully you’ll see the link to join that 14-day meditation challenge on Getmindful.org.

I want to talk about the three parts of the threefold mindfulness meditation technique. Part one, I call “Calm the mind”. The mind is a lot like a jar of murky water. Constant agitation and movement of the jar causes the water to remain murky, but when you keep the jar still for long enough, the sediment will settle to the bottom and you’ll have a jar of clear water. In order to be able to gain insight into the nature of your mind, you must learn to calm the mind before it becomes clear. So, the first 5 minutes of the meditation technique are dedicated to calming the mind by focusing on your breath.

There’s a powerful breathing technique used by free divers to lower their heart rate and to reduce stress as they prepare to hold their breath to go underwater. Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies on the divers ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than the use of a breathing apparatus like scuba gear. So, I learned this technique while I was training for four days with the U.S. free diving record holder, Ted Harty. What he taught me is this technique that works like this. You inhale through your mouth for 2 seconds. Then you pause and hold for 2 seconds. Then you exhale over the course of 10 seconds. And at the end of the exhale you pause or hold for 2 more seconds. Then you repeat the whole process.

So, the way it works – kind of counting it out, you would start with the inhale. So, it’s (inhaling) through your mouth – one, two; 2 seconds. And then you’re going to pause and hold your breath for 2 seconds. And then you exhale over the course of the next 10 seconds. And to do that, the secret is if you exhale through your nose, that might be easier. If you do it through your mouth, you have to use maybe your tongue kind of tucked behind your teeth; almost like you’re going to do a “s” sound or a “Shhh” sound. And that will restrict how much air comes out, because you need to restrict the air flow so that you don’t just – you know in the first 2 seconds of exhaling all your air is gone. You’re not going to make 10 seconds, so you have to exhale slowly. You don’t necessarily have to make a sound, but it is easier if you make a sound.

via GIPHY

Then as you practice it, you’ll get more and more familiar with it and you won’t have to make a sound as you exhale. You’ll just know what the right pressure is of the exhale to ensure you’re going to last 10 seconds. And more often than not, the first time you do this – every time I do this, the first round, I can’t hit 10 seconds. I can probably do 6 or 7. And then on the second round I can do 7 or 8. And on the third round of doing this, I can do 9 or 10 seconds. Once you hit 10 seconds, you can do 10 seconds. And you are going to repeat this process over and over and over for the first 5 minutes.

And the way it works is your focus is on your breath, because you’re counting it. So, this is focusing your mind on an object. The object is your breath or staying on pattern. But what’s happening physiologically is because the exhale is longer than the inhale, your body is going through the physiological change of saying, “Okay, we need a – “. Ted told me this is called the mammalian reflex. What’s happening is your body is gearing up to be able to stay underwater longer, so it starts to put in place the systems it needs to ensure that it can last longer holding your breath, so it lowers your heart rate.

The crazy thing – in the professional world of free diving, the number one thing that will ensure you can hold your breath longer than normal is lowering your heart rate. People who tend to go into it with a strong Type A personality of “I’m going to hold my breath as long as I can”, tend to perform less well than somebody who goes in with a very calm mind. Because the more calm you are, the less your body needs oxygen. At least that’s how he explained it to me. So, I found that to be quite interesting. So, in a physiological way, we are calming the mind by slowing down the heart rate. And we are focusing the mind on a single object, which is the breathing pattern that we’re trying to stick with.

Now, what’s interesting is when you do this, after 5 minutes you will notice physically a sense of calm comes over you. This is a really cool technique that I like to use when I’m transitioning back from work to home. If I have a couple of minutes I’ll sit down and just practice this breathing technique for a minute or two. And it makes a big difference. It really does calm the mind. So, that’s Part One. We’re calming the mind using this breathing technique.

Now, I’ve made an audio track that’s 15 minutes long. You’ll see that as the next episode in the podcast. That’s going to be available for you as an MP3 to download it to use it as a guide so you can listen to this and follow along. The first 5 minutes has a metronome spaced out at 1 second intervals so that you don’t have to count in your head. You can just listen to the metronome and stay on track with the pattern. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know if you’re actually holding it for 2 seconds or if when you’re exhaling for 10, was it really 10, or are you just counting fast. So that audio file will be available and that will be very helpful for you.

Part Two is observing the mind. Meditation can help you to change the way you perceive and react to the moment to moment events as they unfold. So, this shift takes place when you go from thinking to observing. It’s by observing that you learn to create a space or a gap between stimulus and response. So, imagine you’re driving and suddenly you get cut off. That’s the stimulus. You’re walking and somebody gives you a dirty look. That’s the stimulus. How do you react? That is the response. So, habitual reactivity is when you react to an event without even having the time to decide how you want to react. This happens to us all the time.

There is no freedom in habitual reactivity. It’s in the space or this gap between what happens to you and how you react to what happens to you that you have the freedom to choose. And this is the second part of meditation. So, the first part is learning to calm your mind. But the second part is learning to practice a technique that reduces our habitual reactivity. And this is the phase of the threefold mindfulness meditation technique that’s designed to train your mind to practice observing your senses, thoughts and emotions.

The technique works likes this. You practice observing your physical senses first. So, you can scan your senses from top to bottom of your body. For example; starting with your head, try to observe and ask yourself, “What does my head feel like?”; “What do my ears hear?”; “What is my nose smelling?”; “What does my back feel like? Is it sore?”. You’re just observing. You’re not answering these questions. You’re trying to get in the mindset of observing. “What does it feel like to observe my body breathing?” You’ve just been doing 5 minutes of breathing where you’re trying to stay on a pattern. There’s a lot of observing that can be done there. “What do my legs feel like? Are they going numb from sitting here with my legs crossed?” “What do I feel in my feet?” And so on. Again, you’re just observing things here.

Then you move on to your thoughts. You can imagine that you are sitting in a field and you are observing the clouds passing by in the sky. When you look at clouds, do you ever see a misshapen cloud? No. Because there are no misshapen clouds. When you’re observing your thoughts, it’s the same way. It’s not about right or wrong thoughts. What you see is just what is. So, apply this to the meditative process of observing. Just observe your thoughts, but don’t judge them. And don’t think that there’s something you’re supposed to or not supposed to be thinking while you meditate. Because remember it’s thinking mind that we’re trying to get out of and observing mind that we’re trying to get into.

So next, I want you to practice observing your emotions in the same way you would observe clouds. Notice how if you are feeling an emotion, like anger for example, you are not actually angry. You are experiencing anger. This is creating a little bit of separation between your emotions and you. So, two key findings should emerge when we’re consistently observing our senses, thoughts and emotions.

One is that they are impermanent; meaning they are always changing. They arise. They linger. They go away, just as the clouds in the sky do.

And number two is that they are interdependent; meaning they have causes and conditions. For example; if you sit long enough and your leg goes numb, the cause of the leg going numb is that I’ve been sitting here. There’s a cause to it. And the cause has its own cause. And that goes on and on. Every cause has its cause. So during this part of the meditation you’ll notice how quickly your mind shifts from observing back into thinking; making meaning. And when it does, just bring your attention back to the practice of observing. Remember, observing that you’re no longer observing is still a form of observing, so don’t be harsh on yourself.

The whole goal of this part of the meditation is to practice observing. That’s what creates space between stimulus and response. It’s our ability to remove ourselves from the thinking mind into the observing mind and that will create that space between stimulus and response. You choose how you respond.

So, part one is calming the mind. part two is learning to observe, and what we are observing specifically are senses, thoughts and emotions. And now we’re going to talk about part three.

Part three is called “analyzing the mind”. After observing that the nature of our senses, thoughts and emotions is that they are impermanent and interdependent. Now, we want to analyze the implications of these observations. So, if you are experiencing an emotion, such as anger, this is where you get to spend time analyzing it now. For the second part, if you were noticing or observing your emotion, you’re not doing anything with it. You’re just observing it. But for this part, we are going to analyze it. So you could ask “What are the causes and conditions of this emotion?”. And when you find the causes, “What are the causes of those causes?”  What you should find, if you are analytical enough and you spend time with it is that everything that has a cause, has a cause. And that cause also has a cause. And this goes on and on. And this process can go on forever because all things are interdependent; all things have causes.

So, if your senses, thoughts and emotions are not permanent, what about your sense of self? What is the “self”? The Dalai Lama practices this form of meditation, called analytical meditation, which I have incorporated to be the third part of threefold mindfulness meditation. So, it’s in this phase of meditation, he asks himself the question, “who am I?” And this is what you’re going to do, too. Ask in the context of observing the nature of my mind, being impermanent and interdependent, then “Who am I?”. And if you can observe your thoughts, then you must not be your thoughts, so perhaps you’re the observer of your thoughts. And if you can observe that you’re observing your thoughts, then maybe your not the observer. You’re the observer of the observer. This gets crazy, because this can go on and on.

If you can observe your emotions, then you are not your emotions. Are you the observer of your thoughts and emotions? So, the ultimate aim of meditation is to arrive at an understanding of the nature of reality; the nature of the self. And that is that the sense of self we experience, like all other things, is impermanent and interdependent. It’s constantly changing and it has causes and conditions. So, whatever it is you’re experiencing, try observing it and then analyzing it for its causes and conditions.

One of the secrets of meditation is that you don’t will yourself to be calm or peaceful by meditating. It cannot be forced. And I think there’s a misconception here, because people spend time meditating thinking what I’m doing is I’m sitting here and pretending to be peaceful or calm hoping that if I fake until I make it, eventually I will be. And that’s not how it works. The key is that you learn to understand the nature of your anguish; the nature of your anger or your discomfort, or whatever emotion it is that you’re experiencing.

Understanding the nature of yourself brings about peace naturally. It’s not forced. When you understand your anger and its causes, then you become liberated from it. And it’s not because you force it to go away, but because you allow it to be the impermanent emotion that it is. And by the very nature of being impermanent, before you know it, it’s gone. And when it comes back, because it will, you can greet it like an old friend. But this time you won’t be trapped by your reactivity to it anymore. Freedom from habitual reactivity is the essence of what it means to be mindful. What it means to be awakened or enlightened.  And it’s something that we can practice. We do this over and over, day after day, until we’re free from our habitual reactivity. This is the goal of threefold mindfulness meditation.

We learn to calm the mind. Then we observe the nature of the mind. Finally, we analyze it, so that we can gain insight about ourselves.

So, to make this meditation easier,  I mentioned before, I’ve created a 15 minute audio track to help you through each phase. The first 5 minutes have a 1 second metronome to help you stay on track with the breathing pattern. At the end of part one, you’ll hear a bell. This bell indicates that you’re now entering part two. During the next 5 minutes, practice observing your senses, thoughts and emotions. Over time, you’ll get back into thinking mode, where you start making meaning of things. Gently return to being a neutral observer; like watching the clouds. When you hear the bell ring again, you’ll know that now you’re on part three.

And it’s for this last 5 minutes you’re going to practice analyzing the causes and conditions of your senses, thoughts and emotions. It’s amazing how many of us experience emotions without ever really understanding why we’re experiencing them. Are you really mad that somebody cut you off? Or is there a deeper discomfort that’s causing you to react with anger to a stimulus such as being cut off? You can ask yourself, what if it was a duck with its ducklings that’s walking in the road that forced you to slam on your brakes or forced you to swerve. Would you still feel the same amount of anger? Why or why not? Analyze that emotion.  And at the end of the meditation, you’ll hear the final bell that indicates the 15 minute meditation is over. And that’s it. In one sitting you’ve practiced threefold mindfulness meditation.

I would challenge you to make a goal to practice this everyday for at least 14 days and see if you notice a difference in your habitual reactivity. And then after that, keep going. Just make it a daily practice. So think about this for a second. What price would you be willing to pay to be free from your habitual reactivity? The investment is only 15 minutes a day. And I hope the resources I’ve made available to you on our journey to have greater peace and contentment in life will be helpful in that process.

Try using the audio track. I am going to make a guided version of this. And as you use the guided version I think it’ll help you to become familiar with the technique. Over time you may not need the guided version. You can just listen to the audio. The audio helps you stay on track to know when to switch from part one to part two to part three. And how to stay on track with the breathing pattern in part one. And eventually you may not need that one either. You can just do this without any kind of assistance. I’m going to upload the 15 minute audio file to help you as a meditation guide. There will be the unguided version, which is just the music and the metronome. Then you can download the guided version, too. And you’ll be able to download this as an MP3 and save it for whenever you meditate or you will be able to stream it like you would a podcast. I am also going to be uploading that guided version that I told you about. So, you’ll see those on the podcast list soon. And remember, this content is typed out and published on Getmindful.org so you can re-read this to really get a sense for how this meditation works and how to do it.

So, that’s all I have for the podcast episode on how to meditate or an introduction to threefold mindfulness meditation. If you have any questions about it, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can find me on Facebook. We have a Facebook study group called “Secular Buddhism”. We have the Facebook page that’s also called “Secular Buddhism”. And then on the SecularBuddhism.com website, you can always reach out to me through the contact link and it’ll email me. There are several ways to track me down and get a hold of me.

If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. If you are in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com and clicking the donate button on the top of the page. That’s all I have for this episode and I look forward to another one. Until next time.

31 – The Fear of Uncertainty

Why do we fear uncertainty? In this episode, I will discuss how we are hardwired to fear the unknown and how that fear affects our quality of life in the present moment. The problem isn’t that there is uncertainty in life, the problem is that we’re not OK with the fact that there is uncertainty in life.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 31. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about dealing with the fear of uncertainty. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Before I jump into this week’s topic, I’m excited to announce that a book I’ve been working on for the last year or so is finally available for purchase on Amazon, in iTunes, and on Audible.com, several formats of the book.

This is something I’ve been working on specifically as to serve as an introduction to Buddhist thought. I wanted to make it easy for people to be able to go to one source, to this book, and to learn all of the basic concepts pertaining to Buddhist philosophy. So, the idea is that you can take these concepts, listen to it in this book, or read the book, and be able to have a much easier understanding of Buddhist thought. So, if you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, it would be a great place to start to have an introduction and a foundational understanding of Buddhist philosophy. And, I think that will make all of the topics that are discussed in these podcasts a little bit more relevant, and they’ll make more sense because you’ll understand the background of the overall thought behind this world view.

So, if you’re interested, again, check out secularbuddhism.com, scroll down to where it says “Read the book”, and then you can click on “Learn more”, and you’ll see the various formats of the book. The e-book, the paperback, the audio book, and the iTunes version. There’s even a PDF version. Several different versions are available. I would appreciate your support in getting one of those books, and that’s a great place to start with all of this. So, if you have any questions about that, please feel free to reach out to me, but that’s something that I’m excited to announce that is now available. A lot of you have been waiting to have a book or something that would serve as the foundational presentation on overall Buddhist thought. So, that’s a great place to start.

So, now let’s jump into this week’s topic, dealing with the fear of uncertainty. I’ve recently had several podcast listeners reach out to me asking me to talk about this topic of uncertainty, and specifically about learning to cope with the fear that arises from uncertainty. So, why do we fear uncertainty? Well, our brains are essentially hardwired to react with fear to uncertainty. In a recent neurological study, a Caltech researcher took images of people’s brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets. And, the less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. And, you might think that the opposite would be true because you might think that the less information we have, the more careful and rational we’re going to be in evaluating the validity of that information. But, oddly enough, this isn’t the case. And, as the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system which is the place where emotions such as anxiety and fear are generated.

So, uncertainty seems to trigger a battle of sorts between the rational brain and the emotional brain, the rider, and the elephant. And, I can imagine how at one point this was an evolutionary survival tactic. I can just picture early ancestors of ours venturing into an unknown dark cave and immediately feeling that sense of fear, and that sense of caution with their senses being heightened because death was maybe just around the corner. Well, the problem is that in our day and age, rarely does uncertainty mean that our lives are on the line. Yet, we’re hardwired to feel this way because it’s a survival mechanism. So, as we face uncertainty, our brains push us to overreact, and that’s normal. So, how do we work with that? And, is it possible to move beyond fearing change, and furthermore, can we learn to relish and even welcome uncertainty?

Well, I think the key lies in understanding the relationship between the rational brain and the emotional brain, the rider, and the elephant. This is a behavioral psychology mental model that was originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”. He argues that humans have two sides. An emotional side that’s automatic and irrational, this is the elephant, and an analytical side that’s controlled and rational, the rider. So, according to this model, the rider is rational and tries to plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and it’s driven by emotion and instinct. So, uncertainty causes the rider to panic and then the elephant takes over essentially.

From the Buddhist perspective, the elephant could also represent our habitual reactivity, that knee jerk reaction that comes with encountering uncertainty. And, taming the elephant isn’t about eliminating those reactions. It’s more about how quickly can the rider, or the rational mind, regain and maintain control when the emotional mind is trying to take over, when the elephant is trying to take over. So, I want to talk about that just a little bit. First, from the perspective of the wisdom of adaptability. So, it’s seems that the more resistant we are to accepting change, the more we’re going to suffer. Change can be painful, and perhaps that’s why we’re so anxious about uncertainty. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering out of fear of the unknown. They prefer suffering that is familiar.” I think that’s a fascinating thought, that our fear of the unknown, or our fear of uncertainty, could cause us to prefer the suffering that we’re experiencing in an environment that’s familiar. Because, what’s familiar is so much more safe than the unknown, so even though we suffer more in that familiar space, we’re just gonna stay there.

There’s a video that I shared quite a while back on Facebook, and it’s been shared by many people, of a little boy who’s in the water and he’s floating on his back but he’s hanging on to this rope. And, he’s crying, he’s panicking because he’s acting like he’s about to drown. And, then somewhere off to the side the mom, or somebody, walks into the frame and grabs his legs and just puts them down so that he can realize how shallow it is. And, he puts his feet in the water and he stands up, and the water was only to his waist or less that whole time. Of course, he immediately stops crying and the video circulated as a meme kind of saying, “When you overthink this is what overthinking looks like,” or something like that. And, I think that’s a nice visual representation of this concept of we prefer to stay suffering in a state that’s familiar. In this case, floating on your back thinking, “I’m about to drown.” That’s still familiar. It’s full of suffering, but what’s even scarier is deciding, “Well, what if I put my feet down and realize, ‘No, this is deep. I really can’t stand there.'” That uncertainty, that fear of uncertainty, could prevent me from wanting to lower my feet when, in this specific case, the reality was, “Well, just lower your feet,” and it’s actually really shallow.

And, I don’t think the point is to try to highlight here that life is always that scenario. It’s always better than you’re expecting, that’s not the point. The point isn’t that it’s always shallow, the point is that the suffering was there whether or not it was shallow, and there’s only one way to know. Relax, put your feet down. There’s an expression I really like around this thought, and this comes from the Tibetan poet [Shantideva 00:09:06]. And he says, “If the problem can be solved, why worry? And, if the problem can’t be solved, then worrying will do you no good.” And, I really like that because, really, what’s the point of worrying? If you can solve it, then start doing, start focusing on, “How do I solve this?” But, if it can’t be solved, then again, why worry because nothing can be done about it.

I have a good friend of mine, a foreign exchange student who was living with us last year, was talking to me earlier today, well, actually yesterday, and telling me about an incident he had where he was filming several video files that he was putting together, a YouTube video, and when he moved the files over to his computer and started to work with them, the files that he deleted that he no longer needed, ended up being the files that he did need. And, at that point, he had already wiped the hard drive and he was trying to recover those files, and he had to buy software to see if he could recover it, and that wasn’t working and it was a really stressful situation for him as you can imagine. Filming for however long, it was probably hours worth of footage, and you’re trying to put together a video and you realize that you just deleted the files that you needed and you can’t recover them. Even with that software, he wasn’t able to recover it.

And, what was interesting is he was telling me this story later and he was saying how surprised he was with how quickly he found contentment in that situation realizing … He was getting really frustrated until he just accepted, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.” And, it was in that moment that he started to feel that contentment. And, I imagine that contentment was directly correlated with how quickly he was able to accept what was, and adapt to that new reality he was faced with.

I think part of why we fear uncertainty is because we seem to get caught up in this game of thinking that we can actually control life as it unfolds. And, this illusion of control happens because sometimes we do control parts of what’s happening, and I think that makes us forget that we actually don’t control it at all. Sickness, old age, death, and so many other things come in from time to time to remind us that we are simply not in control. So, think about this. The problem isn’t that there is uncertainty in life, the problem is that we’re not okay with the uncertainty that there is in life. Those are two very different things. I think that’s why we fear it. Not because it’s there, but because we don’t like that it’s there. And, the crazy irony in all of this is that uncertainty is the only certainty. It’s always gonna be there, there’s no getting rid of it. So, I guess you could ask yourself, “What would my life be like if I was okay with the uncertainty of it all? What would that look like?”

I had another podcast listener reach out to me, in fact, it was earlier today that I was reading her e-mail and she was concerned about upcoming decisions that needed to be made regarding schooling, having to pick the right school. And again, to me, this is another example of uncertainty. She was wanting to get the right choice. And, I think the fear of uncertainty was, “How can I ensure that I pick the right school?” And, perhaps even a little bit more, “How can I ensure I don’t pick the wrong school?” And, to me, both of those scenarios are really about, “I don’t know what’s going to happen once I pick, and that uncertainty is scaring me.” But, what if it’s not about right or wrong? What if there isn’t a right or wrong pick? It’s only gonna be right or wrong based on perspective, right? Because, I could pick a school and at some point in the future look back and say, “Well, my life has worked out this way or that way, therefore I must’ve picked the right school.” Or, you could look back and say, “I’m not happy with where my life is, I must’ve picked the wrong school,” and both of those could be wrong. Both of those scenarios, I shouldn’t say wrong, both of those could be inaccurate because it’s just gonna be based on perspective anyway.

Alan Watts talks about how faith is an attitude of being open to whatever might be. And, to me, this implies that rather than having faith in making the right decision, I’m placing my faith in my ability to wisely adapt to whichever choice I end up making. ‘Cause, in this sense, faith is not about trying to eliminate uncertainty, it’s about being comfortable with uncertainty. You could almost say that faith is synonymous with uncertainty. So, applying this to that scenario of the school, the fear of uncertainty can be minimized by increasing the faith that I have in myself to be able to adapt to whichever decision I end up making. I hope that makes sense.

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent. This means that all things are continually changing, and this implies that all things are going to be uncertain because they’re always changing. This impermanence is the permanence of an uncertain future. So, fear of an uncertain future affects our quality of life in the present moment. And, I experience this all the time with being a business owner. Uncertainty is scary, but it’s also unavoidable. And, one of the things that I’ve done in my own life is to try to focus on developing my ability to adapt. Because, the quicker I can adapt, the better things go. For example, I’ve had multiple deals that I’ve been working on in the past several years with my business. I manufacture photography accessories, a lot of you know this, and I sell my products to various chains and stores throughout the world, and AT&T Wireless was one of my customers that was selling one of my products in their stores. And one day, out of the blue, after, I think, six or seven months of working with them, they decided to recall one of the products that we manufacture. And, when they do something like that you, contractually, you just have to take everything back.

So, out of the blue, I get this call that thousands and thousands of a certain tripod, or a certain product that I make, were gonna be sent back to me. And, it was devastating because a lot of money had been invested into manufacturing those products and they’re all out there in the market, and to have them pulled that way means I have to take them all back and I have nowhere to sell them because they were the ones selling them. So, immediately this produces a high level of uncertainty. What’s gonna happen with these products? What’s gonna happen with the purchase orders that they had placed that they owe me? I’m not gonna get that money now. How am I gonna pay for all of the manufacturing costs that I had incurred to manufacture these? Right out of the gates it was a lot of uncertainty and it’s really scary.

So, what I’ve found for me, in this experience, what I was able to do right away is just quickly adapt to the new set of circumstances. I think sometimes the suffering that can come with a scenario like that is not accepting the new scenario. It’s like you’ve just been dealt a new hand of cards and you don’t want to accept it. You’re like, “No, this isn’t fair. This can’t be happening.” Sure, I could’ve experienced all that, but it doesn’t help because the reality is that there’s a new reality. Prior to the call, there was a whole different reality. Then that call comes in and everything changes in that instant. And, this is where the wisdom of adaptability kicks in. It’s how quickly can you adapt to the new set of events as they unfold, the new reality that’s constantly changing.

And, this is why I like to compare life to a game of Tetris. Because, that’s kind of the point is that it’s constantly changing. You’re always getting a new shape and you’re always adapting your gameplay to the new reality that’s constantly unfolding in front of you. I think that’s one way to combat the fear of uncertainty is to increase my ability to adapt as the game unfolds. I think there’s always gonna be fear of uncertainty. The point isn’t to get rid of that fear, I think the point is to become comfortable with it and to recognize, “Well, that’s natural. The fear of uncertainty is natural, so I’m gonna move past it quicker because I don’t have to get frozen in that fear.”

And, I think meditation plays an important part here. In a way, meditation is the practice of becoming comfortable with this comfort. Our quality of life in the present moment goes up as we become more comfortable with uncertainty. And, I think that this is practiced directly when we’re meditating. If you think about it, the whole point of meditation is to practice being with what is. It’s not to change reality, it’s to become comfortable with reality. And, if uncertainty is reality, then meditation is a great place to practice being comfortable with that uncertainty. And, I’m going to address in a different podcast a whole method, or a whole set of techniques built around the idea of using meditation as a tool. So, I’ll address that probably in next week or the following week’s podcast. There will be an episode that’s specific around meditation.

So, I want to share a couple of final thoughts on this topic. One, we need to stop trying to have certainty in life. Remember, I’ve talked about the game of Tetris. And, the point is that you don’t know what’s coming next, that’s the whole point of the game. So, what you can practice is just observing. If you’re playing Tetris, what you’re practicing is just observing what you have and, “What do I do with what I have?” You don’t play Tetris trying to figure out how to anticipate what the next five pieces are. You could rack your brain trying to figure that out, but you’ll never figure it out. Because that’s the whole point of the game is that you don’t know.

So, what if you could practice just getting into that mode of observing? So, when it comes to fear of uncertainty, don’t judge the fear of uncertainty, just observe it. Don’t over-identify with the emotions that you experience because remember, you’re not your emotions. Rather than seeing fear as, “Uh-oh, I am afraid,” think of it as, “I am experiencing fear.” Create that little bit of separation between you and your emotions because you’re not your emotions.

And, the final thought is to try to learn to just go with the flow. Be like water. Think of how water adapts immediately to anything and everything. To me, water is the ultimate expression of the wisdom of adaptability. Because, it’s in the fact that water can adapt to anything, that water has the power to change anything. Water in the form of a river flows through a canyon and it adapts to whatever the path needs to be for it to flow, and at the same time, water is what’s carving that path. So, the strength of it is found in its adaptability. And, we can go through life in that same way, we can be like water. We can adapt to the circumstances around us, and at the same time, shape those circumstances. But, we’re shaping them because we are adapting to them.

That’s the paradox, and I think that’s the paradox that sums up this topic of the fear of uncertainty. There’s no need to fear it because uncertainty is the only certainty out there, it’s just what is. And, the sooner we can accept that, and be with that, we can go with the flow and use uncertainty as part of our strategy of playing the game. A lot like playing Tetris. Realizing that the whole point of the game is that I don’t know what’s coming next. That’s the point of the game. So, think about that and ask yourself, “What would life start to look like for me if I didn’t have that fear of uncertainty? What if I was okay with uncertainty because now I understand that certainty is part of the game?” And, like my friend that I mentioned earlier, when circumstances unfold, the quicker you can adapt to those circumstances and accept them using Shantideva’s wisdom, “If you can do something about it, then why worry? If can’t do something about it, then why worry?” In both scenarios, why worry? What would life look like?

So, keep that in mind. And, as I said, I will add to this discussion in a future podcast episode. But, this is all I have for now with this one. So, thank you for listening. Thank you for supporting the podcast, for being listeners. Thank you for supporting the book if you end up getting that and having that as a foundational understanding of Buddhist philosophy. And, just in general, this is a week to be thankful, this is Thanksgiving week. I’m just thankful for all of you, and for your support, and for being a part of this journey with me. So, thank you and until next time.

30 – Why do I do this?

Society tends to want to put labels on people, are you a this or a that? Are you one of us or one of them? These labels can be useful to describe how we are but not who we are. I’ve felt pressure recently to define what I am or what I’m not. This has made me think about why I do what I do. Why do I practice and teach Buddhism? Ultimately, it’s because I’m trying to be a better version of me. I hope you enjoy this update and explanation. I will do my best to keep up with regular podcast episodes from here on out.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
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Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this episode number 30. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about why I practice and teach Buddhism.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. Remember, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” That’s one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama. Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode.

If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Hi guys, it’s good to be back with you. It’s been several weeks since I recorded the last podcast episode. I know this is intended to be a weekly podcast, and I’m trying to do my best to make sure this a weekly podcast, but every now and then other things get in the way and it’s difficult for me to find the time to keep this updated. This is a return episode, where I’m trying to return to my commitment to making this a weekly podcast for you.

Several of you have reached out to me to tell me how much these podcasts mean to you and how beneficial they are, and that definitely helps me to have the determination to do this. It does help having people supporting me for the podcast because I do this on the side, and I have about 10 regular monthly supporters. That definitely helps, it helps to maintain the cost of hosting for the audio files and the website hosting. More importantly, it gives me access to resources to be able to travel and to the workshops that I’m trying to do.

Keeping all that in mind, I wanted to address a topic that has come up for me recently, that has made me really think about why I’m doing this. Why do I teach Buddhism? Why do I practice Buddhism? This has to do with, I think society tends to want to put labels on people. I felt the pressure with this in recent months with me from the standpoint of, are you a this, or are you a that? Are you an us, or are a them?

This is a concept that I’ve wrestled with because something I enjoy so much about Buddhism is how it doesn’t really have the us versus them mentality, at least from the standpoint of the way I’ve been teaching it and presenting it, the way I’ve learned. I wanted to address this a little bit and this starts with the emphasis of explaining what am I, and why do I teach what I teach?

I want to start with a quote that I’ve shared before, which is, Dr Mark Epstein was asked, what is the difference between a Buddhist and non-Buddhist? His response was that the non-Buddhist thinks there’s a difference. I’ve always liked that because I feel like the perspective that I’ve gained from Buddhist teachings, is the understanding of oneness. When we truly understand that, we start to erase these lines between us and them.

I’ve thought about this a little bit more, and I like thinking that the difference between someone who’s enlightened and someone who’s not enlightened is that the non-enlightened, or the non-awake person thinks that there’s a difference. In reality, there’s not difference, there’s really no difference. The enlightened person understands that we’re all the same. This is something that really speaks to me when it comes to why I teach and practice Buddhism.

I understand that we’re all hardwired from an evolutionary standpoint to be social creatures, and for millions of years, our survival literally depended on our ability to have those strong social bonds with others. This comes in the form of our bonds with families, with our communities, and with society as a whole. It depends on individuals who are committed and connected for the well-being of the group, and I understand that.

One of the positive aspects of this hardwiring is that kindness and compassion, these can feel natural towards those that we perceive as members of our in-group. We seem to feel a natural bond or a natural sense of connection with people who are like us. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more we understand, the more we love, and the more we love, the more we understand.” Perhaps it’s because we feel like we understand those who are like us that we feel more inclined to love those who are in our ingroup.

Unfortunately, the other aspect of this social hardwiring is that we tend to classify people into these two overall groups of us and them, ingroup and outgroup. Those who share our views, whether these be political views, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, or even as simple as who we share a sports team with, we tend to create these lines of the people that we see as us, our in-group, and those that we think we understand and, therefore, we feel it’s easier to be closer to or to have compassion for, or to love. Anyone who doesn’t fit into that perceived in-group becomes “them”, so this problem of us versus them.

It’s a lot more difficult for us to love them because we don’t understand them. I think we tell ourselves, how could they possibly not be like me or not be like us, whoever “us” is? We all know them. For some, “them” is the liberals; for some, “them” is the conservatives, the independents. On the beliefs spectrum it could be, us is the believers; them, the non-believers, or it could be the us is the non-believers and them is the believers. This breaks down into specific groups. Us could be the Catholics; them, the Protestants or backwards, or the Muslims or racial groups.

We’re very good at creating these lines of us and them across all kinds of different spectrums, but these ultimately end up being labels. I really like what Neil deGrasse Tyson says about labels. He says, “A label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do.” This goes back to that idea of understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more we understand, the more we love, and the more we love, the more we understand.”

With a label, it creates an artificial understand. I think I understand them, what I really know is that “them” is not us and then I know more about them than I actually do. That false sense of understanding could be the very thing that blinds me or prevents me from being able to have love or kindness or compassion towards anyone in my outgroup who’s not a part of my in-group. The lack of proper understanding is dangerous because we think we understand people, and in reality we don’t. I think following this logic, it seems we can safely assume that any group that we don’t feel fond of is a group that we simply don’t understand.

Think about that for minute. Think of your own in and outgroups. What groups are in, and what groups are considered out? Who’s us, and who’s them, and why? Why would someone be us, and why would someone be them? Think about that in your own life. The goal isn’t to make everybody the same, we know that’s impossible, in fact, I think that would be sad. There was a time in my life when I believed that the key to peace on earth was for all people to believe the same thing. I spent years of my life dedicated to this object of converting people to my way of thinking.

On a trip in Japan many years ago, I took a day in Tokyo to do a tour of the city with a tour guide, a bicycle tour. One of the things that we did is, we stopped at the various Shinto shrines, where the fishermen would go do their morning routine before going out and going fishing. It was fascinating to watch them doing their rituals and their routine. It was a beautiful thing to see a cultural practice that was very different from my cultural norm.

I remember thinking at that moment how sad it would be if all cultural or ritual practices in the world were the same, if we didn’t have that diversity. I remember thinking how sad that there was a time when I would’ve felt like it was okay to eliminate those cultural practices in favor of everyone believing what I believe. Now I view that and think how sad, how bland. It would be like encountering a good meal, a good dish, and then deciding I want everyone in the world to taste this. I don’t think anyone should eat anything else because this is the best.

With food, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to do that. What makes food so good is that there are so many different choices and so many different tastes and styles, we wouldn’t want to impose one on someone else. We’re perfectly content with knowing that your favorite dish can be your favorite dish, and my favorite dish can be mine. Your love for your dish does not take away from the love that I have for my favorite dish. That seems to be very logical, it makes sense with food, but when it comes to ideas and ideologies, it’s a lot more difficult.

I understand some ideas are harmful to others, and I think that’s where a line needs to be drawn, and ideas need to be called out as bad ideas because they’re causing harm on others. I understand that, but overall, what I’m saying is typically we treat our ideas as …

If we were to compare these things to food, it’s like saying, “I’ve discovered this certain dish and I want you to experience what I experience when I taste this, when I eat this. The reality is, you may not. You may taste it and say, “Well, I don’t like that.” For me to feel offended or to think you’ve got to taste it again, you’ve got to get to the point where with is as tasteful to you as it to me, sounds silly when we’re talking about food.

I don’t know why we have such a hard time with dealing with our ideas and with our beliefs in that same sense, we want others to experience our ideas the way we do. We want them to be meaningful to others the way they are meaningful to us. The truth is that, an idea, no matter how good it is, or a belief, not matter how good it is to me, doesn’t mean anything to you if it’s not meaningful to you the way it is to me, and that can’t be imposed or forced.

Going back to the overall topic here, we all have differences. The problem isn’t that we’re different, the problem is that we’re not okay with the fact that we’re different. Those are two very different things. It’s okay that we’re all different, but it’s not okay if I feel that it’s not okay that we’re different, that’s where the problems start. How do we start to understand them, whoever them is?

Again, going back to this us versus them mentality. Think of them, whoever pops into your mind as them. Buddhism is a contemplative tradition that teaches us to look inward. In the process of discovering who I am by asking who am I? And, therefore, understanding who are we? We begin to discover a sense of unity in our differences. In fact it’s the very fact that we are different that makes us the same because what you’ll start to understand is, I am one of them to someone else. That means we are also them to someone else, so this whole idea of us and them is, in a way, what makes us all the same because we’re all actually them.

I might be them to someone, you are certainly them to someone, so if I’m them to someone and they’re them to me, then now we’ve got something in common because we’re both them to someone. If we’re all them, then we’re also all us, because we’re all part of a group that is that is them to someone else. I know that might sound a little wonky, but in reality, if you think about that, that is what makes us all the same, it’s that we’re all different.

I think this a key teaching in Buddhism, it’s the discovery of the nature of self. The self is not separate form other, but we’re one with other, we’re the same. The labels that we give ourselves and that we give others are simply that, they’re just labels, and the reality is that we are not our labels.

I’ve talked about this before, I think, in a podcast episode, but I like to think of labels as items of clothing because we all wear different items of clothing, or think of color, the color of a shirt. The fact that I might be wearing a blue shirt doesn’t speak to who I am, it speaks to how I am. I’m the guy in the blue shirt, and you might be the guy in the red shirt or the orange shirt. It would be silly to confuse that and to say, “That is a red shirt person, I am a blue shirt person,” because these labels can change. Most of these labels change over time.

At one point, I was not a dad, and now I am a dad, that’s a label that I carry. A lot of our labels work this way, especially with religious or political ones. They can morph and evolve and change over time, I know they certainly have for me. What if we viewed our labels as descriptions of how we are, but not confuse those with who we are?

There’s a practice in Buddhism called analytical meditation, this is common in the Tibetan tradition. In fact, the Dalai Lama does a lot of this style of meditation, analytical meditation, where you are continually asking yourself, who am I? This sense of self that I have, what is it? Am I my thoughts? Am I my memories? You’re trying to pick apart the question of, who am I? If you do this analytically, what you’ll find is that there’s no part of you that is the you separate from everything else.

The you that you are is the sum total of everything that makes you you, and because you can’t single that out – and I’ve mentioned this before – just like with a car and all of its parts, you can not disassemble the car and say there is the car and go pick one of those parts, because the car is all of them. We’re the same way.

There’s no part of me that’s me without all of me that’s me, so it’s in that sense that I gain a proper understanding of the sense of self. This can extend on to, my understanding of who I am or what I am also influences my view of the group called us, anyone that’s like me because we’re none of those things. What you discover in this analytical process of meditation in terms of the sense of self is that what I am is, I am life, and that’s really all I am.

Having said that, there’s another aspect of Buddhism that really resonates with me, and this the two key things I wanted to address in this podcast. The reason that I’m doing this is, one, to dispel that sense of separation from self and other, to understand that there is not difference, to say I’m a Buddhist because I’m not a Buddhist. The understanding that there is no difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist, that’s really the goal.

I want to teach that because I think what the world needs right now, is that sense of unity. It’s always needed it, it’s especially evident now, but this idea that there’s us and them is an illusion. There is no us and them, there’s only them, which means there’s only us. The second aspect is the understanding that I am the source of it all. This introspection into trying to find the self, what you’ll discover in that process is that I am the source of it all.

Let me explain this a bit. What happened when Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, when he was sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he was seeking an understanding of the nature of reality. He was trying to discover this understanding of the nature of the mind, and where does this sense of self come from? He was asking, who am I? What am I? He asked, why does this sense of self prevent us from seeing our oneness with everything else.

It was in this state of contemplation and self analysis that he discovered that he was the source of his interpretation of reality, that he was the source of his positive and negative emotions, that he was he source of his temptations. It was just him. In that moment, he realized that we are all the source of it all.

We construct our own heaven or hell, and it happens in the here and now. He became aware of the nature of reality, which is, essentially, that there’s reality as it is, whatever it is, and we are the ones who add meaning and add stories to that reality. We construct layers upon layers of reality on reality and, therefore, it’s our individual perceptions of reality that are unique, so my reality is mine and yours is yours.

This self-awareness is what lead him to gain this title of Buddha. The title Buddha just means awakened one, or one who is awake or enlightened. That’s what he was, he was a teacher who taught the nature of reality. What came out of that is his understanding of the nature of suffering and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Coupled in that, was the understanding of all things are impermanent, meaning all things are continually changing and all things are interdependent, all things are connected. Constant change and constant connection are an integral part of understanding Buddhist thought. You combine all this, and this was that sense of awakening that he had, to be able to understand reality as it is.

The discovery that we are the source of it all, is actually incredibly liberating, and it really resonates with me. This is why Buddhism is called the path of liberation because he implication of this understanding, is that if I feel a sense of hatred, I am the source of it. It’s my perspective or my memories, my upbringing, my beliefs, and many other things go into that, but ultimately, it’s all on me. It’s me. There’s no way to scapegoat this, there’s no the devil made me do it or the devil made me think this because in this approach, there’s really just me and my mind, and I am the source of it all.

For me, this is a really powerful way to go about experiencing life, and understanding that I’m in control of it. I am the source of it all. My perceptions influence my reality, but it’s just me. For me, like I said, this understanding is very empowering because not only am I the source of my hatred or jealousy or discontent, but on the flip side of that, I’m also the source of my kindness and peace and joy and my happiness.

This knowledge, coupled with the understanding of impermanence, that all things change, and interdependence, that all things are connected, ultimately gives us freedom. The freedom that we gain is freedom from our habitual reactivity, this is freedom from ourselves. I think if you really explore the root of what we’re all trying to get is that ability to control your own emotions, our own reactivity.

The idea behind habitual reactivity is that there is stimulus, and then there’s a reaction. This is talked about in a lot traditions, but the idea is that something happens and we react. Often, this happens so quickly and so powerfully that we don’t even realize that our reactions are separate from the stimulus that started them. We see them almost as this inseparable chain of events. Something happens to me, and I react to it, almost as if that was the next step in the chain. The reality is that there is space between the two events, the stimulus and the reaction. What we’re trying to learn, to develop, is the ability to increase that gap between the stimulus and the reaction.

The typical example I share about this is the example of being cut off. You’re driving, you get cut off, and you instantly react. That’s not problematic, we’re hardwired to work this way, but there’s no freedom in our inability to control how we react when things happen. This is habitual reactivity that I’m talking about, it’s something happens and boom, I react. What would it be like to go through life gaining mastery over the way that we respond to the events as they unfold? This is freedom, this is what Buddhism is ultimately trying to teach and help us to obtain, that freedom from our habitual reactivity.

Buddhist teachings give us power over ourselves. There’s a quote by Lao Tsu, who so wisely said, “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” I think of all of the things that we seek in life, we’re trying to obtain happiness, but we do that by thinking that we’ll get it by having more power or more wealth or more fame. Those are illusions.

Ultimately, the reward that’s taught through these contemplative practices isn’t about obtaining happiness, it’s about obtaining freedom. Thich Nhat Hanh says that freedom is the only condition required for happiness, so happiness is the result, but it’s not the goal. Freedom is the goal, freedom from our habitual reactivity.

If you think about that, apply it into day-to-day living in a very practical way, what this means is, imagine life being able to unfold for you in a way that you do not have to react instinctively. You would have the ability to determine and have freedom with how you react to the events as they unfold. That’s the freedom that we’re talking about with these practices.

For me, Buddhism is not about changing others, it’s about understanding myself, and thereby, understanding others, but I do that through understanding myself. It’s through understanding that we can learn to love. I mentioned earlier Thich Nhat Hanh says that the more we understand, the more we love, the more we love, the more we understand. It’s through that understanding that we gain love and compassion, compassion for others, and compassion for ourselves.

This idea of self compassion is that I need to understand who am I, and what am I? This is why we practice and we ask that question in the contemplative practice, the analytical meditation I talked about. The continual question that you’re asking is, who am I, or what am I? You’re looking for that sense of self to understand it.

Ultimately, this is why I teach and practice Buddhism, not to make the world a better place, but to make myself a better person in the world. The better we each are, the more kind, compassionate and loving we become individually. The irony is that is what makes the world a better place, not because we’re trying to change the world, but because we’re trying to change ourselves.

Ultimately, that’s my goal, and that’s something I wanted to clarify in this podcast, addressing that question of, why do I do this? Why do I teach this? Why do I practice this? Ultimately, it’s to gain that understanding that the sense of separation between us and them is simply an illusion, there is no difference, there’s just us. We’re all the same, we’re life. In Buddhism, this transcends even the human race, this is sentient beings we’re talking about, all sentient beings.

The second component, like I mentioned, is to gain that sense of empowerment and knowing that I am the source of it all. I am responsible for my positive emotions and also for my negative emotions, and I can’t pin negative emotions like hatred on external circumstances. The flip side to that is that I can also not pin on external circumstances positive emotions like joy and happiness. These things are found internally and not externally.

I think our society tends to function in a way as if these things were external, as if happiness is something that I find out there by changing certain circumstances, when the reality is that it doesn’t work that way. It’s internal. I’ve mentioned this quote before from Brother David Steindl-Rast, who says that gratitude is not what makes us happy, “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful, it’s gratefulness that makes us happy,” and I truly believe that.

Having a contemplative practice that helps focus our understanding of the nature of reality a bit is a form of wisdom that can generate compassion. These are the two things that we constantly strive for in Buddhist teachings, it’s wisdom and understanding. Ultimately, that’s why I do what I do, and that’s what I wanted to share with you in this podcast episode.

As I mentioned before, this is also my commitment to you. I’m determined to get better at recording these podcasts more regularly, trying to do a weekly podcast, so you guys can hold me to that. If a week to two goes by and I haven’t recorded a podcast, send me a message through Facebook, email, something, and remind me and say, “Hey, where’s the next podcast episode?”

I really appreciate your support. So many of you have reached out to me to share your thoughts and your gratitude for specific things you’ve heard in these podcast episodes, and I really appreciate that. That makes a big difference for me, so please continue to reach out to me. I feel this is a journey that we’re all on together, me recording these and getting to know you, the people who listen to these.

Thank you for your support, I really appreciate it, and I look forward to recording another podcast episode next week. Until next time.

29 – What Happens When We Die?

What happens when we die? This is a common question I hear when I’m teaching workshops or seminars. The short answer is “change”. Change is what happens when we die. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist perspective of death and the thoughts behind it.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 29. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about what happens when we die.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. Remember do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. That’s one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. A common question I get when teaching workshops about Buddhism is the question what happens when we die? It’s a big question. It’s a very big question. The short answer is change. Change is what happens when we die. To understand the Buddhist view of death you have to understand the Buddhist perspective of impermanence and interdependence. The Buddhist world view is that all things are constantly changing. This is impermanence so nothing is permanent. Everything is changing. Everything is interdependent. All things are connected to each other.

In the time and space continuum, in terms of time all things are impermanent. In terms of space, all things are interdependent. Things are constantly changing. One moment dies and gives birth to the next moment and this is an ongoing process. In this sense, death and birth are constant. Death is always happening and birth is always happening. Look at the very cells that make up our physical composition. Right now in this very moment, you have cells that are dying and new cells that are generating or being born. They’re continually growing, dying, and being replaced by new cells. In this sense, birth and death is already a constant part of what makes you who you are. Or what makes you, you. What makes me, me.

This is the understanding of impermanence. All things are constantly changing. You can look at this in terms of moment. The moment to moment experience of life. As soon as one moment ends, a new moment begins. Birth and death is a constant cycle that’s going on in the process of life. Now with interdependence, all things are interdependent. Everything has it’s causes and conditions and nothing exists in and of itself without it’s causes and conditions. Your very existence is dependent on causes and conditions. None of us suddenly came into existence of our own free will. We are the result of the actions of others. In that sense, everything depends on everything that allows it to exist.

We have the tendency to view things through the dualistic lens of left and right, wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing, birth death. This dualistic way of understanding the world makes it seem so that death is something that we consider end. Birth was beginning. Death is end. In the non-dualistic view, all of these things are always one and the same because you can’t have one without the other. The minute that we come up with the concept of left, that is the moment that right manifests itself. Same with wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing. I think about this often with the term father and son. You know the moment that I became a father is the very moment that my son became a son. You can’t have one without the other. These things manifest at the same time.

The understanding here, the implication I guess I should say is that all things are one. In Buddhism, we call this oneness or suchness. It’s everything just as it is. We get caught up in the dichotomy of creating the view of this and that, me and you, now and then. You know, we create that dualistic way of understanding the world. What does it mean to be able to see things with the lens of understanding that all things are interdependent. Well, for example, when we look at a flower, we see just the flower. What Buddhism is trying to teach is that when you see the world that way, you’re missing what the world is. We need to see everything that makes the flower a flower. You know, when we look at a flower, we should see the flower. We should also see all of the elements that are not that flower that make the flower. For example, the sun, the rain, the soil, the bees that pollinate. All the aspects that are not flower that make the flower a flower.

When you can see that, then you start to understand this idea of interdependence. It’s also sometimes referred to as interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about interbeing, but the concept is this. That if I can only see the flower as a flower then I haven’t actually seen the flower. It’s when I can see things as they are, interdependent with everything that allows that thing to be, then I can start to see the thing as it is. Unless we see it all, we don’t really see it the way that it is. With birth and death and the context of being a part of a much bigger picture, we need to understand that death isn’t the end and birth isn’t the beginning.

This applies to how we view ourselves too. We’re the same. We’re made of everything that makes us who or what we are. I like to say that I’m the sum total of everything that makes me me. Birth is not the start and death is not the end. Think about that for a second because this is a scientific thing. Scientifically, it’s generally understood that matter cannot be created or destroyed. According to the law of conservation of matter, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It just changes states. This is the first law of thermodynamics. It specifies that the total amount of energy in a closed system cannot be created nor destroyed though it can be changed from one form to another.

The short answer, again, to what happens when we die is the change is what happens. This is very difficult for us to comprehend because we have made the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. And that’s it. That’s the start. The end of me must be death. But the reality is that birth wasn’t the start of me. Physically I existed before I was born. I existed in my mom and in my dad. I’m not talking about anything metaphysical here. I’m talking about in a very literal, physical way I existed in both of my parents. If that’s true, where did I start? Did I start when I was in the DNA of my mom or in my dad? Once they combined, then do I start? Well, you know you can argue the start of you is when you’re conceived and the sperm and the egg come together, life starts to create. You know, cells start to split and then there you are as the embryo and the whole start of your journey as a life form. That’s your start.

What Buddhism is saying is, “Well, no. That’s the start of that specific phase of what you are, but you’ve never not been.” You know, at one point, I was sperm and I was egg. I was both. Before that I was, you know, protein or DNA or however you want to think about this scientifically. The reality is you’ve never not existed. You’ve existed in different states and in different things. But we make the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. Think about this for a minute with a cloud because when we look at the clouds in the sky we see a cloud. The reality is that cloud came into existence because the right temperature or the winds were causing the temperature to rapidly change or the moisture levels to change. Something causes a cloud to form. But you can’t look at the cloud once it’s formed and say, “Well, that cloud didn’t exist before.”

Because it did exist. It existed in other forms. Right? The cloud could have been part of the water in the ocean. It could have been part of the oxygen. A cloud is a lot of things. When we see something form, we view that as the beginning of that thing. When a cloud dissipates, whether that be through rain or it disperses back into just being air, we see that as the end of the cloud. But it’s not the end of the things that made the cloud the cloud. This is kind of the difference. This is where if you look at the cloud as a thing that is not interdependent with other things, then you could say, “Well, how sad. The cloud is gone.” But the cloud isn’t gone. It’s just changed into a new form. Now the cloud may be part of the ocean or now the cloud may have, if it rained, it’s part of the forest or whatever it turns into.

All of the matter that was part of the cloud is still there. I love visualizing the clouds because the cloud from the moment it comes into existence. When you look at a cloud, it’s constantly changing. It’s not a static thing. The shape of the cloud is continually shifting and evolving and morphing. At some point, the cloud is gone. There’s no more cloud. Then that process happens over and over and over again. There are always clouds somewhere. They’re never the same cloud. The clouds have never not existed. When they cease to exist, it doesn’t’ mean that those elements are gone. They become something else. It makes sense when you look at this and you see this in nature. This applies to a tree. A tree has never not existed because before it was a tree, it was the seed of another tree. Before it was a seed, it was just a part of the tree. When a tree dies, the tree is no longer there, but the essence of what makes the tree the tree, the matter, continues in that cycle of becoming something else.

What you see in nature is change. We see constant change. Why should it be any different with us? I like to think about that. Alan Watts used to say, “Have you ever seen a misshapen cloud?” I love applying that way of thinking to how we see ourselves and how we see others. Have you seen a misshapen cloud is the teaching that’s saying have you ever seen somebody who’s wrong? Who isn’t who they’re supposed to be? This is a powerful teaching because when we see this in nature we understand. Apply this to a tree. Have you ever see a misshapen tree? No. Some trees are straight. Some have bends. I mentioned this in a previous podcast. It could have an entire like horseshoe bend in it and we don’t look at that and think, “Oh, that tree is wrong. That’s not the right kind of a tree.” Because there’s no such thing as a right kind of a tree.
A tree is just a tree. A flower is just a flower. We don’t look at a flower and say, “Oh, the red flower that’s wrong. It’s supposed to be blue.” There’s no way that a flower is supposed to be. There’s no way that a tree is supposed to be. Apply this to animals. We don’t do this to animals. You know, we don’t look at a certain species of animal and say, “Oh, those are wrong. The fox is supposed to be a wolf.” We don’t say the wolf is supposed to be a bobcat because everything just is what it is. This is what Buddhism is trying to convey to us is the understanding that we’re no different. I am who I am. You are who you are. This idea of suchness is the understanding that there’s no way that you’re supposed to be. There’s no you that you’re supposed to be. There’s only the you that you are.

We’re the ones that make the mistakes of going around through our dualistic thinking and creating concepts. There’s the concept of who you are. Now I have this concept of who I think you should be. You have a concept of who you think you should be and one who you think I should be. This is where we get caught up in all these problems and this dualistic thinking. In the middle of all that, there’s this fear of death. Because death is the end of everything that we know. Everything that’s familiar to us. We create stories and narratives to try to intellectually get around the fear that we have of death. I think death is one of the biggest catalysts of religious narratives because we’re trying to find a way to make sense of the fact that at some point, like a cloud, a cloud ceases to exist and so do we.

That’s only problematic if you think that’s truly the end. It can’t be the end because birth wasn’t the beginning. I like to think about this when I think of music, too. With music life is like music. Think of a song. A song is composed of notes. It’s different notes. They’re constantly changing. A song’s not a song if it’s just one same note that never ends. Nobody would enjoy listening to that. What makes a song beautiful it’s a collection of notes. High notes, low notes, gaps and pauses in between notes. As you listen to a song, you don’t single out the note and say, “Oh, I can’t wait to hit that D sharp again and then never leave that note.” The beauty of the song goes away when you try to fix a part of that song to make that part permanent. That’s the whole point of the song is that none of the song is impermanent.

It’s all these different notes. Even if you hold one note longer, that’s fine, but none of it’s permanent. It’s the fact that it’s impermanent that makes it so beautiful. That’s how we enjoy it. And at some point the song does end. You know a song has a beginning note and it has an ending note. Every note matters. We don’t listen to a song thinking, “I never want to hear that last note.” We may want a song to not end because we’re enjoying it. But again, if it never ended, it’s no longer an enjoyable song. That’s part of the beauty of the song is that a song ends. Every note, including that final note, which in our case we could say is death, it’s a note that’s beautiful and it matters just as much as that first note which would be birth. It’s important to distinguish that there’s a very big difference in understanding that a song may end, but the music never dies.
Music goes on and another song with come. More notes will be played. Then when that song ends the music goes on. At some point, another song starts. That’s the beauty of music. Music goes on and on and on, but songs are not permanent. They’re impermanent. I like thinking about life and associating it to music. Notes and songs and then music as a whole. I think it’s a beautiful way to think about and understand this concept of life and death.

Again, the question what happens when we die? Well, the answer is change is what happens. It’s the same thing that’s happening throughout this whole process. Change is what’s constant. Now it gets difficult when we try to understand what will happen at one of these stages that we haven’t reached. I’ve alluded to this before. Trying to understand what happens when we die is very similar to trying to understand … You know somebody who’s never been in love, trying to understand what it is to be in love. How do you convey that? You know, life is so experiential. As much as you would try to convey to someone or to yourself what a specific phase is like when you reach it, you don’t know until you reach it.

You know, I did not know what it was to be a father until I became a father. I didn’t know what it was like to be married until I was married. I didn’t know what it was like to lose a job until I lost a job. You know, all these experiences in life are experiential. Death is the same. I think it’s in some way silly for us, the living, to assume we know what it’s like to be dead because a caterpillar doesn’t know what it’s like to be a butterfly until it’s a butterfly. The death of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. What we see there is change.

I think about this with seasons. Summer cannot know what it’s like to be winter. Imagine if summer were capable of being introspective and thinking, having consciousness the way we do. It would be entertaining I think to hear summer speculate of what it must be like when I end. When I end, this is probably what will happen. It might paint this crazy picture that’s absolutely nothing like reality. When summer ends, what we experience is change. A new season starts. The death of summer is the birth of fall. The death of fall is the birth of winter. But one cannot experience or know what the other is like because they’re just not same thing. One is one and one is the other.

For us, I think, it’s the same. For the living to know what it’s like to not be living, how can we do that? It’s impossible. I feel it’s unnecessary to even try to speculate or waste time trying to logically understand what it is to not exist because I only exist. To know what it’s like to not be alive is impossible for me because I’m alive. I think with this understanding then there’s no need to fear death because we start to understand that birth wasn’t the beginning and therefore death is not the end. Change is what’s coming. The song may be over, but the music goes on. I love thinking about Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. If you’ve heard this song … I heard it recently when I was in Germany. There are always street musicians playing in Europe and I assume in other large cities in the US as well in subways or in random places.

There was a group there playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Summer. Spring. Fall. And winter. All of the songs are very different, one from another. This is when I was thinking, “This part of the song cannot know what it is like to be this other part of the song because they’re different. They’re just not the same.” Different notes. Different melody. The entire style changes very much like our actual seasons change for those of you who live somewhere where there are four seasons. We have four seasons here where I live and it’s a very clear change when you shift from one season to another. I love thinking about that in life. I think it’s easy to compare the seasons to our seasons in life as well, but even greater than that I like to consider the seasons as the seasons of change in general.

The change of being life to being not life or to being something else. I don’t know what it was like to be what I was before I became what I am. We can’t know that. I don’t know what that was like. At the same time, just because consciousness changes doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think about the very simple change that happens from being awake to being asleep. We don’t go to sleep and you start having some dream. You’re not dreading or lamenting the fact that you’re not awake because you don’t even know that you’re not awake. What happened was change and it’s a total shift in consciousness. I don’t think you look back and think, “Man, if I could just be awake again. I’m so sad now that I’m asleep.” We don’t do that. You just shift into what’s next and that’s the new normal.

With dreams, it can be crazy. You can be dreaming that you’re on the back of a dragon flying over and attacking a castle and you never question any of it because it’s just reality is what it is. Anyway, I guess that’s kind of a tangent on this whole thing. What I want to get at is when we think about death and we think about it as the end. It’s not the end. It maybe the end of what we hold to be familiar, of what we understand, and perhaps it’s our fear of the unfamiliar that makes death so scary. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if anything happens. That’s something that I love about Buddhism, because Buddhism rather than try to answer these existential questions and say, “Well, here’s the answer.” It’s trying to say, “Well, hang on a second. Why is that question so important to you? Why do you feel you need to know? Could you ever arrive at a place where you don’t need to know?” Because that’s where peace is.

That’s where contentment and joy can be found. In this state of mind of, “This is something that I don’t know and that’s okay. I don’t need to know. Because when happens, it’ll happen. Until then, here’s what I do know. It’s here and it’s now and this is what I’m experiencing in life.” Buddhism anchors itself in that present moment, in the here and in the now. Again, the answer to question what happens when we die, change. Change is what happens when we die. It’s been happening all along. Change has never not been happening. It’s really hard to answer that in a simple question answer type setting without giving an entire background of the Buddhist understanding of interdependence and impermanence.

I think when you have a good grasp of interdependence and impermanence then suddenly death doesn’t seem so scary because it’s the one inevitable thing that is certain for us. Is that death will come. And with it comes change. Change is the only thing that will happen. When that times comes, change will happen and whatever it’s going to be like is what it’s going to be like. There’s no need to try to speculate. Maybe some could argue they have hope and the idea of lasting forever or thinking I have a soul and that goes on and that goes to heaven or whatever … It can be comforting to have a narrative that you can believe in, but remember that can become problematic because it’s our beliefs that can blind us from experiencing and seeing reality as it is.

Just think about that for a minute and ask yourself, “What do I think about death? Do I need to have an answer? Do I need to have a narrative that comforts me? Do I need to have that hope?” Or can I get to the root of why I feel the need to know? That’s kind of where Buddhism goes with all of this. It becomes an introspective process of understanding the nature of the mind. Why do I feel I need to know these things rather than saying here are the answers to these things. That’s what I wanted to discuss in this podcast episode.

Now, next time you hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, this whole topic is going to come into mind. Or next time you look up at the clouds in the sky, this topic might come to mind. Or maybe any music, any song, any note will evoke the memories of this specific podcast episode and the Buddhist understanding of impermanence, interdependence, and the implication that has for life, birth, and death.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please consider writing a review on iTunes or giving it a rating. If you’re in a position to be able to donate, please consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast. Every donation helps. Thank you for your support and taking the time to listen to this. I look forward to another podcast episode. Until next time.

28 – Stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Have you ever felt stuck between a rock and a hard place? It’s difficult to be aware while we’re experiencing difficulties and yet that is the very moment that awareness can change everything for us. In this short episode, I will share the zen story of the strawberry and explain how I view this story to be a powerful lesson about awareness.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 28. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings. Presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast, by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. Have you ever felt like you were stuck between a rock and a hard place? I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. And I think this is something that we all experience from time to time. It’s typically the feeling that we get when it seems like we have no good way out of a situation. And the situation can be all kinds of different things.

I recently experienced this, or have been experiencing this for a while with running my own company. And sometimes the decisions that have to made owning a business and deciding, for example, what to do with excess inventory. Or deciding if I should negotiate a deal with a specific chain of stores. From time to time I’ve had this feeling of feeling like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And recently I was in Germany, attending the world’s largest photography expo, called Photokina, for my work. And I’ve been working on this deal with my suppliers, the owners of the factory who manufacture all of my products. And I’ve been starting to feel more and more this feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Specifically in terms of how I negotiate a deal that I’ve been working on, with regards to: the ownership of the company, how to manufacture the products, who gets to decide who’s selling them to which distributor or which retailer.

And at times this can be a really stressful process for me. It’s probably one of the few areas right now, in my life right now, where I tend to feel a considerable amount of stress. So I’ve been anticipating this meeting with the owners of the factory for months now. And last week, while I was in Germany attending the trade show, we had the meeting scheduled. And I arrived there on a Monday and the meeting wasn’t until Thursday. So I was noticing how the level of anxiety was rising throughout the week, as I approached Thursday.

And it was kind of a fascinating process to experience this. And to notice it as I’m experiencing it. And it reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. That really means more to me now, than it ever has. And I think it’s a story that I want to share with you. And I think the basic lesson that’s generally taught with this story is one thing. But I see another level of meaning with this story. And I want to share that with you.

So this is called, the story of the strawberry. It’s a parable and it’s a Zen story. So the story goes like this: that there was a Zen master who was out walking one day. And he’s confronted by a ferocious tiger. So he slowly backs away from the tiger. Only to find out that he’s trapped by the edge of a high cliff. And the tiger snarls with hunger. And it goes after him. And his only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss of the cliff. Holding onto a vine that’s growing out of the edge of the cliff. So as he climbs down the vine and he’s dangling there. He notices that there’s danger at the bottom as well. There’s another tiger at the bottom.

So he looks up. He can’t climb up because the tiger is there. If he climbs down, he can’t go down because there’s a tiger down there. So he’s kind of stuck. And then in the middle of all that, as if that wasn’t bad enough. Two mice show up and they start gnawing at the vine. And now he knows it’s just a matter of time before the vine breaks. And then he’s going to fall. So as he’s hanging there, dangling by the vine. Death seems imminent. And just then, he looks over and notices a ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. And he plucks the strawberry. And puts it in his mouth. And supposedly, the way the story goes, he says, “What a lovely strawberry this is.” Or this is the sweetest strawberry he’s ever tasted. And in that moment, he was enlightened.

And it’s a simple story. I’ve heard it many times. And it’s so simple, it’s almost silly. And I was thinking more about this specific story, something stood out to me. That I don’t think I had really noticed before. And it’s this idea of experiencing this and having the strawberry isn’t what makes him enlightened. It’s the fact that in the midst of being between the rock and the hard place, the metaphorical experience. In his case, the literal experience of being between the tiger and the tiger and death imminent because the mice are gnawing on the vine. He was capable of doing something that most people are not capable of. He was capable of noticing something.

To me this was a parable about awareness, more than anything. It’s the fact that in that moment, the average person would look and not even notice there’s a strawberry there. Because we’re focused on the situation at hand. Right? The fact that there’s a tiger, there’s a tiger, there are mice, the vine is being chewed on. The last thing that’s going to cross my mind is, “What should I be aware of here? What am I not noticing?”

And in Buddhism, we talk about this awareness all the time. And specifically what we’re trying to be aware of is the fact that there are things that we don’t know, that we don’t know. So it’s not even an awareness of, “I need to be looking for strawberries,” in this case. Because you can’t know, in this story, that he didn’t know what he was going to encounter. But what he was capable of, is being in a moment like that and noticing something. Having that sense of awareness.
So I was thinking about this story in the days leading up to my appointment, my meeting with the factory owners. And I thought a lot about this story. And like I said, the idea of what this story means has shifted over time for me. And I feel it’s become a more meaningful and in-depth story for me. As I realize that the whole point of the story is about awareness. It’s not about the conclusion. And we don’t know what happens. That’s not the point, is to know what will happen. Did he climb up? Did he climb down? Did the vine break? You know, you can draw all these metaphors, but that’s not the point. The point is that in that moment he experienced something because of his awareness.

So on Thursday, the day of the meeting, I had been thinking about this. And I was trying to tell myself, you know, there’s no need to be too stressed. Worst case scenario is that this business deal doesn’t happen the way that I thought that it did. And the best case scenario is that it does happen the way that I thought that it would. And in a way, both of them seemed like the rock and the hard place. Because if it does work the way that I wanted it to work, then I’m bound by these new terms that we’re committing to. And if it doesn’t work, then none of it’s going to work. And I’m free to start doing something else. But that also brings its own bag of new things to worry about.

So as we’re walking out there, I’m thinking of the story of the strawberry. And thinking, okay, for me this is completely metaphorical because there’s really no tiger and there’s no tiger. But it can feel like that. Life can feel like that at times. And I thought, if I were the person hanging on the vine right now. And I’m nervous about what’s going to happen. Am I going to climb up, am I going to climb down? Is the tiger going to get me? Are the mice going to gnaw through the vine? You know, when you’re in that situation. And I was thinking what am I, what could I look around and see that I didn’t notice that I wasn’t noticing?

And again, I’m in Germany. I’m experiencing a really cool vacation, tied in with work. Because it’s a new place I’ve never been. And as we’re walking to where we were going to have the meeting, I paused. And I thought, “What have I not noticed here?” And I just looked around. And as I looked around, this flock of birds flew right over my head. Probably 30 or 40 birds. And it was just a really powerful moment to pause for a second.

And to realize, here are all these birds who are just flying. And they’re completely oblivious to my stresses. The things going on in my life. The fact that I’m walking to a meeting that’s stressing me out. And they just do what they do. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds and thousands of years. In this same little city. Where people are walking to and from the town square. Probably with stresses and moments of failure, moments of success, with all kinds of things. But to them, it doesn’t matter. They’re going about doing their thing. And for some reason that experience for me, really clicked with the story of the strawberry.

And I took out my phone and I started filming. On the iPhone, you can do slow motion video. And I was filming them fly. And I filmed it in slow motion. And then I sat down and I watched the birds flying in slow motion. With their wings flapping and all of it in slow motion. And it just, it hit me with such a strong sense of awareness I think, in that moment. To realize there’s so much that I’m not aware of in a moment like that. When I can feel stress or anxiety, that feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place can limit my ability to be aware of all the amazing beauty that’s happening all around. And in that moment, it happened to be birds.

And I know that there are other things that I’m not aware of. You know? Maybe there were also ants crawling around. Or aside from the animals, just the other people in that same space. You know, somebody was probably walking with excitement in their step, because they had just gotten engaged or they just got a new job or they just bought a new car. At the same time, someone else was walking through that plaza, disappointed because they just lost a job, or they just crashed their car or they’re going through marital problems. I don’t know. And I think that’s kind of the point is, like with the Zen story.
It’s not about the conclusion because we don’t know the conclusion. We don’t know what happened. But it was never about what happened. It’s about what can we notice in the process of just being. And this was really powerful for me because from that moment on, I kind of felt like it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. But what can I notice in this one moment. What can be my strawberry. And my strawberry was seeing those birds. And watching them fly. And I think a part of the reason that stood out to me so much is because I have a fascination for flying.
Flying is a big part of what I enjoy in life. And flying, ironically, was also a big part of why I was there in that moment, having that meeting. Because at one point in my life, I thought I was going to be a pilot, a helicopter pilot. And I spent a considerable amount of time and money to pursue that career. And it just turned out that, that wasn’t the career that worked out for me. Life events changed my plans. And instead of graduating from the school I was going to, and becoming a helicopter pilot. The school closed and went bankrupt. And stole my student loans for my flight money. And propelled me down this whole new path that was unplanned, unanticipated. And here I was in that present moment, the culmination of my desire to be a pilot. Had me standing in a square, in Germany, watching birds in slow motion. And it was just kind of a cool experience.

To me that’s the essence of this story. The story of the Zen master who was capable, in the moment of being between a rock and a hard place, of noticing something. And having a sense of awareness. So that’s what I wanted to share with you this week. Is the topic of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I know you’ve all felt that. I’ve felt that. And if you haven’t or you’re not right now. You will at some point again. It’s part of the experience of being alive. And when that happens, I would invite you to think of this story. Think of the guy dangling by a vine. And looking and realizing, oh there’s a strawberry. And tasting it. And like I’ve said before, this sounds like such a simple silly, almost, story. But it carries a very powerful message.

And it’s the message of our ability to be aware. And I think it’s this person’s ability to be aware in a moment like that. Is what makes that person enlightened. It’s not the fact that he ate a strawberry and that made him enlightened. That would be silly. So think about that. And if you’re going through a situation like this in your life, pause for a moment. And just ask yourself, continually ask yourself, “What am I not aware of not being aware of?” Or “What am I not noticing that I’m not noticing?” And pause for a minute. And look around. And try to capture something going on around you. That can get you out of that sense of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Because there’s always something else. And I’d love to hear your story or your interpretation of this. What this parable means to you. And the comments on the blog or on the Facebook page or in the Facebook group, Secular Buddhism. So, SecularBuddhism.com or Secular Buddhism on Facebook. You can find the study group and the Facebook page. So that’s the story I wanted to share with you this week, the story of the strawberry, being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And remember, awareness is one of the key teachings in Buddhism. And there’s a big reason why. Because wisdom is what we’re after. And the only way to obtain wisdom, in this sense, in the spiritual sense, is learning or becoming aware of the things that we’re not aware of. And it’s with awareness that we can have acceptance. And with awareness and acceptance that we can experience change. Or enact change in our lives. And that’s why awareness is a key part here. And this is why this story, to me, is such a powerful story when you think about it and relate it to a teaching about awareness. So, ask yourself, “What am I not noticing?”

And again, I want to thank you for listening and being a part of this podcast. I’ve mentioned this before, but the podcast is growing at a rate that is quite incredible for me. And is still hard to believe. And I want to thank you all for that. Because it’s because of you that the podcast gets shared and continues to grow. And if any of you are interested in doing any humanitarian work. I’m going to remind you again, of the humanitarian trip we’re doing to Uganda, January 26 through February 4th of next year, 2017. And you can learn all about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

So that’s all I have for this week. Thank you again for listening. And if you have time, please write a review or give the podcast a rating in iTunes, that really helps. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can be reached on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Facebook page. And thanks again, for your continued support. And, until next time.

27 – Understanding Non-Attachment

What does it mean to practice non-attachment? Rather than thinking of non-attachment as not attaching to things, think of it as not allowing things to own you. What things own you? Those are the things you’re attached to. In this episode, I will discuss the concept of non-attachment and I will attempt to make this idea more accessible and easy to understand.

Transcript of the podcast

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 27. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about understanding non-attachment.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings, presented for a secular-minded audience.

The Dalai Lama has said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I like to emphasize that at the beginning of every podcast episode, so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode, and remember if you enjoy the podcast please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Or if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would really appreciate it if you could make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

So let’s jump into this weeks’ topic “Understanding Non-attachment”. This is a topic I wanted to discuss because it’s come up a few times in recent workshops that I’ve done where the understanding of non-attachment is, I think, a little bit misconstrued. Typically, there’s the response, or asking for clarification, on whether or not it’s okay to be attached. Specifically, usually, referring to loved ones like a spouse, or children, or parents. So I want to clarify this topic a little bit more because non-attachment is a very important part of understanding Buddhist philosophical thought, but I want to be clear about what exactly non-attachment is. Or perhaps more specifically, what it’s not. Because I think when we think of the word attached, and if I were to think I’m attached to my kids or to my wife, we don’t necessarily view that as a negative connotation. And I don’t think we should.

The type of non-attachment that’s being talked about in Buddhist thought has less to do with what you own, or with what you hold on to, versus how that holds onto you. So, for instance, I heard a recent quote that said “Non-attachment doesn’t mean we don’t own things. It means we don’t allow things to own us.” That, in a nutshell, is the type of non-attachment that we’re talking about. A Zen Master put it pretty simply, he said “Everything breaks. Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.”

So, I think, non-attachment really stems from misunderstanding of things being impermanent. When we attach to something we suffer, and others suffer, because we’re holding onto things that are past their time. You remember the raft, the parable of the raft, where the Buddha was with his monks and he asks if somebody were to build a raft and they are crossing the river with it, at the time that they finally make it to the other side, is it wise or unwise to continue that raft with them. And I think this lesson really is talking about the understanding of non-attachment. Letting go of the raft, whatever the raft may be, is a lesson of letting go of things that are past their time. That is essentially the understanding of non-attachment.

This can apply to relationships, friends, experiences. Even our moment to moment experience of living, if we’re attached to it, can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. By excepting the true nature of things as being impermanent we ease our fears and we open our hearts. Then this understanding of impermanence will not only benefit ourselves but will benefit others as well. So don’t think of non-attachment as a form of indifference or a form of self-denial. Think of non-attachment as a way of not allowing things in your life to own you. Giving up the attachment to the permanence of things is the key understanding here.

Because we understand that all things are constantly changing, that all things are impermanent, and because all things are constantly changing, when you hold onto something, and attach to it, it’s detrimental because that thing changes. It evolves and changes over time. Like that quote “Everything breaks.” Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality and you can apply that thinking to almost anything.

In terms of relationship, because that one’s brought up quite often, what does non-attachment mean in terms of how I love my spouse, or my partner, or my children, or my parents, or siblings? Thich Nhat Hanh has a really good quote that I like, he says “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” I think this goes hand in hand with the understanding of non-attachment. Loving in a non-attached way is loving in a way that the person that you love feels free, and to be loved in way that you feel free is a way of being loved without attachment. So it’s not that there isn’t love, or that you don’t want to be with someone, it’s that you don’t allow that person, or that thing, to own you, because that’s attachment. So letting go of attachment is the secret to really enjoying life and to loving others. It’s a way of freedom.

Think about that with relationships like with your children. If you love your children in a way that they feel free, that’s genuine non-attachment. You’re allowing someone to be completely authentic and free as they are. I think this is very pertinent with relationships but it applies to other things too.

I’ve been asked specifically about goals. Is non-attachment meaning I go through life and I don’t have milestones or goals that I’m going to work towards or aspire to? The goals or milestones are not the problems. It’s when we allow those things to own us that it becomes unhealthy so that same form of thinking applies here. I think it’s completely appropriate to have goals, to have milestones, that you set in life, or in your career, or in various phases of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when we become trapped because those things own us.

Jack Kornfield had a quote he put on Twitter not too long ago that said “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” I think, again, that’s a wonderful understanding of the concept of impermanence. So apply that to something like a goal. Having goals can be fine when you understand that goals are impermanent. You work towards it and you either accomplish it and move on, or something changes and it doesn’t work out, and that’s where the wisdom of adaptability comes into play because the moment life presents something new you can adapt and create a new goal. Because that goal didn’t own you, you used it as a tool for you, not an anchor or not something that makes it more difficult for you.

The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. That all meeting ends in parting. Again, I think, in all these examples what stands out to me is the understanding of non-attachment in terms of our understanding of impermanence because the mistake that we make is seeing life as permanent.

One of my teachers, Koyo Kubose, would say “Don’t put a period on it.” He always says “Just keep going.” Our tendency in life is to freeze it and make permanent things, like we do sentences. Then when this sentence is over there’s the period. That thought is done. It’s locked and now I move onto the next one. I think that makes a lot of sense in some ways, especially with writing, but what if life wasn’t about putting periods on things? What if it was always a comma and then you keep going? Then you add another comma and you keep going, like one infinitely long run-on sentence, which I know is really going to bother some of you who are into grammar, but think about that in terms of life.

I’ve compared life to a river. There’s no aspect of the river that’s permanent. The water that’s flowing is continually changing. The very edges and banks of the river are constantly eroding and sand is being carried away. If a big storm comes, and the water rises, the shape of the river can change. The water finds a new path and that becomes the new path of the river. So there’s not aspect of a river that’s permanent. Life is a lot like that. There’s no aspect of life that’s permanent. It’s when we get caught up in those moments of making things in life seem permanent that we run the risk of becoming attached. So when we attach to the permanence of things, then those things start to own us.

Non-attachment could be said that it’s really about not comparing. When you think about this in terms of time, this could be really powerful because think of the present moment. What if we allowed the present moment to be free as it is? Without comparing the present moment to a previous moment, or to a future moment, we just allow the present moment to be completely free to be what it is. Right here and right now. We’re not very good at that. Our tendency is to compare the present moment to a past moment or to a future moment that we anticipate. In doing that we’re not allowing that to be free and it’s without that sense of freedom that we become slaves to these concepts.

That’s the idea of attachment. Not that we’re attaching but they way we understand it, it attaches and binds us almost like shackles or like chains. So think of non-attachment as a form of freedom. The opposite of non-attachment is … Well, I guess, non-attachment could be synonymous with freedom. So think of it that way and the opposite of non-attachment would be a form of being bound or chained to whatever it is. It could be ideas, relationships, the present moment, there’s several things in life that can come up that non-attachment would be a much healthier way to approach it than the path of attachment, which I think in a lot of cases is more common.

The idea of non-attachment and, as I mentioned earlier, what one of my teachers always talks about “just keep going”. I had the experience last weekend, last Saturday, to get together with some friends and try to do a walk, a 50 mile walk. Fifty miles is 80.46 kilometers for those of you who use the metric system, so just to give an idea of how far of a distance that is. We walked that in one day. We started at five in the morning in one city, and walked to another city, from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. It took me just over 19 hours. So I started at 5:00 am and I arrived just after midnight, around 12:30. It was just a long day of non-stop walking and the reason I did it, I was excited to this when I found out that my friend was putting this together, because I knew that at some point I would want to stop. I would want to quit.

I had been studying this concept of “keep going” with my teacher and the idea that sometimes we do things just to do them. Our tendency, I’ve mentioned this in earlier podcasts, is that our utilitarian view of the world is “Well, what’s in it for me? If I’m going to do this there’s got to be a reason why.” Either I get a trophy, or I get even just to be able to say that I did it is still a reason to do it. I thought “What if I did it just to do it?” That’s a long enough walk to where, at some point, you just … Well, I guess you don’t why you’re doing it, but you forget the fact that you’re measuring how long it’s going to be because it’s still so long that you’re not really thinking about that.

I thought it might be a fun exercise to get into the mind set of thinking “I’m just taking one more step. And then one more step. I’m just going to keep going. Practicing this form of understanding and permanence. This moment, this step I’m taking, ends. It ends the moment I take the next step. Then that moment is also impermanent. It ends the moment I take the next step.” Overall, that’s how the entire walk turned out to be for me. This form of walking meditation of just taking one step at a time, having in my mind the attitude of “just keep going”. At times I thought about Dory. I’d gone to see Dory with my kids, from Finding Nemo, and she’s always singing that song Just Keep Swimming. Just Keep Swimming. I had that popping into my mind on multiple occasions during the walk. To just keep going. Just keep swimming.

I finally completed that and for me it was a form of being unattached to the permanence of the situation, of walking. I think it’s easy to think “Okay, here’s the start of the walk and then there’s the end of the walk.” I knew it was going to be about 20 hours was my goal. I think sometimes there’s this attitude, I know that I was certainly thinking this, of enduring. I’m going to endure this. Enduring things in life is one way to view things but I like to think of it as understanding that what I’m going through in the moment is not permanent. This too shall pass. I’ve talked about that. And that ring. The king who was looking for a way to be cheered up when he was down and he was given a ring with the inscription “This too shall pass.” But that also reminded him, when things were good this too shall pass, and it kind of became his curse.

While I was doing the 50 mile walk I thought about that a lot. Especially towards the end when I was starting to feel really sore, and my muscles were really tight, and I was starting to limp, and I was thinking “this too shall pass”. At the first of the walk “this too shall pass” was my comfort level. I was feeling very comfortable, my legs were fine, and I was telling myself, “well this too shall pass”. At some point in this walk this is going to hurt. Then when it was hurting I was telling myself “this too shall pass” and that was to remind me that once the walk was over, at some point my muscles wouldn’t be sore again. That actually took a full week after the walk, so from Saturday, from the moment I was done, the next day I could barely walk. Then it took almost a full week before I could walk without limping. But throughout this whole ordeal it was fun to try to practice the mindset of not allowing any of it to feel permanent. Every day, I was reminding myself, even after the walk, I’m still sore, thinking “well this too shall pass”.

That’s essentially the attitude of non-attachment. It’s recognizing that everything that I’m experiencing is impermanent. I’m trying to face the reality that everything ends. Every start has an ending. I thought about the parable that I’ve shared before about the two monks who where crossing the river because I think that is a wonderful depiction of detachment. So the two monks arrive at the edge of the river and there’s the young girl in the wedding gown. The senior monk picks her up without even thinking. They cross the river. He puts her down and then at some point on their journey, the young monk is just going nuts trying to figure out what he had just seen. He finally tells the senior monk “Hey, what are you doing? We’ve taken vows to not touch a female and you just picked her up like nothing and carried her across the river.” The senior monk pauses and just tells him “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why do you continue to carry her?”

To me that another wonderful example of attachment. When something has gone beyond its time, it’s past its time, we have a hard time letting go because we’re attached. Non-attachment is being able to do what you need to do in the moment, like the monk putting the girl on his back, and then when it was done it was done and he let her go.

I would invite you to think about this topic and ask yourself “What are you attached to?” Maybe an even stronger way to word this, to make it more clear what I’m trying to get at, is “What are the things that currently own you?” What are the things that control and currently own you? This could be emotions, if you’re still angry at something that happened in the past, or at someone. Take a look at your life and ask yourself “What is it that currently owns me?” Because if you feel a sense of something that owns you there’s attachment there. That’s a great place to start with practicing non-attachment. What can I try to detach from? Well, try to detach from the things that you feel that own you. This doesn’t just have to be the negative things, it can be anything that you feel owns you. With relationships, this is incredibly powerful.

If you are able to have a non-attached loving relationship with your spouse, or with your parents, or with your children, what would that look like to love someone in such a way that the person that you love feels free? What would that look like? What would it look like if you felt like you were loved in a way that you felt free? Start by offering that to someone else. Offering that sense of freedom to the person that you love. That’s a form of non-attachment.

I hope that kind of clarifies the topic a little bit about non-attachment. Rather than thinking of non-attachment as “I don’t own anything.” Or “I’m not going to have anything in my life. I’m going to give everything up.” Consider that non-attachment has more to do with not allowing the things that you do have in your life to possess you, or to own you. Think of it that way and then look for what areas, or things, in your life right now feel like they have a sense of attachment for you.
I’d love to hear about this in the comments and see how it goes for you as you discuss this, or as you explore this a little bit. Then I want to remind everyone, only because we’re getting closer to the date of this humanitarian trip that I’m doing next January. January 26th through February 4th. If you’re interested in learning about that, please reach out to me. You can learn about it on mindfulhumanitarian.org or you can reach out to me, I’ve mentioned this a few times but, you can find me on Facebook. My username is Noah Rasheta, so facebook.com/noahrasheta, or on Twitter, or on Instagram. I have the same username in all those places. Or you can always reach out to me by email, a lot of you do and I really appreciate communicating with you. My email address is [email protected] So you can find me on secularbuddhism.com, of course.

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Good luck with trying to explore in what areas of your life you feel that you could practice non-attachment. I’d love to hear what it does for you to think about it like this and to see if you can start to practice non-attachment in different areas of your life.

I wish you all the best. Have a great week. Until next time.