Month: May 2016

17 – Who are you?


Who are you? Who you were yesterday, may not be who you are today. Our true nature is that we are continually changing, evolving, and growing. There is no fixed permanent you. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist concept of “no-self”.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 17. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about our sense of self.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. Before we start, I want to mention something that I mention every single time I record on of these podcasts and that is a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I’m excited to continue along the lines of what we discussed in last week’s podcast episode. The last podcast episode, I talked about the concept of truth being relative in space and time and the implications of that understanding. If reality or truth is relative in space and time, what does that mean for us individually. This is where the concept, the Buddhist Doctrine of No Self, comes in.

I’ve talked about this before in one of the earlier podcasts, but I would like to discuss this in a little bit more detail here mostly because it’s coming right off of the heels of the understanding that truth is relative and if truth is relative, then the self is also relative. I want to discuss that a little bit and hopefully this makes sense.

In Buddhism, there’s the term “Annatta” or “Anatman” and this refers to the Doctrine of No Self. That is that there is no unchanging permanent soul in living beings and this is a central Buddhist Doctrine and it appears in several of the old original teachings of Buddhism and you’ll find this concept taught within every Buddhist tradition out there now.

The reason this is so important to understand is because we have the tendency to relate to ourselves, this sense of self as a permanent fixed thing, and that can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and for others and I wanted to get into that a little bit and see how does this actually apply in our day to day living.

In the West, Western psychology views the function of the mind that helps us to, or that creates the sense of self, as it’s just a simple function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences and it takes all the raw data or memories and all of our cognitive functions and it puts them into this recognizable narrative.

This narrative is what allows us to feel such a strong sense of self. If we didn’t have this strong sense of self, we wouldn’t really be able to make sense of anything as it’s happening to us. That’s the way psychology in the West treats the concept of why we have this sense of self.

In Buddhism, the sense of self, the answer to “There is no self” isn’t that you don’t exist. I mean, that’s obvious that we do because here you are experiencing life through the lens of your own collection group of memories and experiences and emotions and it’s all unique to you, but that doesn’t mean that there is a you that’s permanent inside that is a fixed thing.

One way to view this, there are two analogies that I like to use. One of them is fire. We’re all familiar with fire and if you have the right elements in place to create fire, fuel, oxygen, and then the process of actually lighting the fire, whether it be flint or however you start it, the moment you have fire, fire remains as long as the elements, or the causes and conditions, required for fire to exist remain. As long as you’ve got that fuel to burn, like wood for example, and oxygen to combine with that, then the fire keeps going.

At the same time, fire is not a fixed, permanent thing. You can’t freeze it and then look at it and say, “There it is. That’s fire.” Fire is the constant process of the causes and conditions that are enabling fire to exist. The flickering of the flame, it’s a constant change.

Another analogy here is when you think of a river and I like this one because a river’s a fixed thing in our mind. Think of the Mississippi River or the Nile River and it’s this fixed entity, but when you look closely, there is really no aspect of it that’s entirely fixed. The water that flows to create a river is continually changing. The water that was flowing in the river 10 years ago is not the same water that’s flowing there today.

Even the banks of the river, or what you would say are the edges, what defines the shape of the river changes and evolves over time. The sand on the banks of the river is continually being washed away and then there’s new sand that forms the edge of the river.

Sometimes even the direction can change. If you have a big storm and the water rises in the river, it may carve an entirely new path and then as the waters recede, the old path of the river was replaced and now there’s a new path on that specific leg of the river. Almost every aspect of the river is continually changing and yet when we think of a river, we think of it as this fixed thing. It’s always the Mississippi, but there’s no aspect of it that is fixed or permanent.

The Buddhist view of the self is very much like that river. We are a collection of many things that make us us. Our memories, where we raised, how we raised, the experiences that we have, the DNA that we have is inherited from our parents and from our ancestors. Every aspect of us is constantly changing and yet it’s in the present moment that the culmination of all these things allow us to be experiencing life through the specific lens that we’re experiencing it.

We’re like the Mississippi River right now. In its present form, it has a defined shape and it has a defined direction and a pretty regular water level height, but all of this is changing. None of it’s fixed or permanent and our sense of self is the same. Our memories are continually changing, we’re continually adding new ones, we’re continually forgetting old memories. Our emotions are constantly changing.

What’s interesting to me is I think that there is a part of us that actually understands and grasps this concept that we’re not fixed entities. We’re constantly changing and evolving and at the same time, there’s another part of us, the ego, that clings to the sense of self and says, “I am fixed, permanent, and unchanging.”

The example of the part of us that does understand that we’re constantly changing, you see it everywhere, right? You’ve all heard or perhaps even experienced it yourself the idea that, “When I said that, that wasn’t me. I was angry,” or, “When I did that, don’t hold that against me. I was afraid.” When we act under fear or under emotions like anger, we tend to look back on those moments and say, “That wasn’t me.”

Well, the thing is that was you. That was you in this constantly changing state of who you are. That happened to be you ten minutes ago when you were mad, that’s you, and then you get that ten minutes later, the “me” that’s here now and is no longer mad looks back and says, “That wasn’t me.”

That’s right, but that’s how everything is. It’s not just when we’re mad or when we’re angry. I think Snickers has done a really good job teaching this concept and the way they’ve done it in their commercials, if you’ve seen them, you’ll recall they show somebody acting in a certain way and then it says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” and then another character will feed them a Snickers bar and then it goes back to being someone else.

It’s like an entirely different person and the whole concept that they’re trying to insinuate is you’re not you when you’re hungry and that’s true, but the thing is it goes beyond that. It’s not that you’re not you when you’re hungry, it’s that there is no you that’s the permanent fixed you.

The way you are when you’re hungry may be different than how you are when you’re satisfied. It may be different than how you are when you’re completely overstuffed and full. It’s a different you when you’re angry. You’re a different you when you’re happy. You’re a different you if you just found out you won the lottery and you’re a different you if you just found out you lost your job.

Because there is no fixed, permanent you. That’s the idea is that you’re continually ongoing changing process much like the river, the Mississippi River, that seems like a fixed thing. I mean, we call it the Mississippi River. It’s not like we have other names for it. It’s constantly there and yet there’s not one single aspect of it that’s fixed.

With the self, it’s the same. We have a sense of self that seems permanent and fixed when the reality is that there not a single part of you or me that is fixed or permanent. We seem to notice this when we look … If you look back in time, I think it’s pretty clear to say, “The ‘me’ that was me ten years ago is not the same ‘me’ that is me today.”

It doesn’t have to be ten years. It could be if you’re going through a drastic change in your life, “The ‘me’ that was me a year ago when I was in that marriage is not the same ‘me’ now that I’m divorced and single,” or, “The ‘me’ in college that was very active and partying is not the same ‘me’ five years later that has two little kids or three little kids.”

Think about almost any example of yourself extending into the past and you’ll understand that that you is not the same you that you are now. There may be aspects of you that haven’t changed. Certain forms in your personality and that only aggravates this illusion that there must be a permanent, fixed you.

“The permanent, fixed me is this or that.” When the reality is just because a certain part of you hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that it can’t change and I talked about this the first time that I talked this topic because some of the things that we tend to cling to in terms of the fixed sense of identity.

An example of that would be our personality and how we are. Somebody who tends to always be a certain way only feeds that idea of, “Well, then there must be a permanent, fixed me,” but every aspect of you can change. All it takes is a fluctuation in hormones or a change in how your mind works because you’ve been in an accident. A traumatic brain injury can change you.

There are so many things that can change you. What part of you is then actually permanent and fixed? Well, you’re not going to find it because there is no part of you that’s permanent and fixed. You are a continually changing thing very much like a river is a continually changing thing and I think it’s awesome when we think about that.

Now in the world of psychology, this is explored a little bit by Carol Dweck. Carol is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and she’s done a lot of work on the idea of fixed mindset versus growth mindset and I really like what she’s done in her work and I want to talk about this a little bit. The concept of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset is essentially that everything that we do has to do with our mindset much more than it has to do with specific skills and talent.

She did more than 20 years of research to show that our mindset is more than just a personality trait. It’s not a fixed thing and our mindset determines if we become optimistic or pessimistic and it influences our goals, our attitudes, our relationships, how we are, how we raise our kids, and ultimately whether or not we live up to our full potential of how we can be.

Her research has found that we essentially have two basic mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is when we tend to believe that all the things that we are, whether it be your talents, your abilities, personality traits, these are all set in stone. Intelligence is viewed as static and that leads to the desire to want to look a certain way. “I want to look smart and then I have the tendency to avoid challenges because I don’t want to fail at something that’s going to change the way I already have my perception of how I’m supposed to be.”

People with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily, they see efforts as fruitless, and they ignore useful negative feedback because it’s negative. With a fixed mindset, you’re continually threatened by the success of others. With a fixed mindset, you generally plateau early and you achieve less than your full potential. You tend to feel that you just are what you are.

This fixed mindset would be … An example of this is, “I am,” and then fill in the blank. Think about yourself here. Think about in what way do you view yourself with a fixed mindset. “I am smart,” or, “I am dumb,” or “I am,” whatever it is.

Now the growth mindset is different. The growth mindset, you view the world and believe that your talents and your abilities and your personality traits, these are all things that are continually evolving and they can be developed. Intelligence is something that’s developed. This mindset leads to the desire to continually learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks and to see effort as the path to success and it’s easier to learn from criticism.

With a growth mindset, you find lessons and inspiration in the success of others and it’s with a growth mindset that you can achieve high levels of achievement.

Dweck’s research with the fixed mindset versus growth mindset has a lot of implications in parenting. This is what interested me as the father of three little kids. The idea here is with your kids, you don’t want to give them the idea that things are fixed. This is the difference of saying, “Good job on your test. You’re so smart,” versus saying, “Hey, good job on your test. You studied really hard and you got a good grade. Good job for working hard.”

One tends to create a fixed mindset that makes people think, “I am this. I am that,” and if you’ve been told your whole life, “I’m smart, I’m smart, I’m smart,” and that’s what’s happening in school, the first time that you fail, instead of thinking whatever other circumstances were involved with failing, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Oh no, I’m no longer smart. This fixed part of me is not what I thought that it was and therefore now I have problems.”

In the last podcast episode, I talked about how there was that Facebook meme or quote going around that says, “What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be.” Well, that same thinking applies here. I think what can really screw us up in life is to have a picture in our minds of who we are and who we’re supposed to be and completely ignoring the fact that there is no fixed version of you. It’s like this growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.

In the growth mindset, or in the Secular Buddhist paradigm of understanding the world, all things are continually changing and evolving, including and especially you, your sense of self. This creates a very, very big difference.

If you were to look at yourself with a growth mindset, a mindset that’s not fixed, nothing’s permanent, and look at how you view your own successes and your own failures. These are fixed, permanent things. The way that we view ourselves can change drastically simply by the understanding that either we are fixed or we’re not fixed, permanent things.

If you spend the time looking for what part of you is a fixed, permanent, unchanging thing, you’re not going to find it and I would hope that you do spend time trying to explore that. If you do find that there is something, you’ll find it’s conceptual. I’ve talked about conceptual and empirical truths in the past and the idea here, again, is you can look for it and you might have an idea or a concept in your mind that, “I am this or I am that,” but it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of psychological evaluation or scientific or empirical research. What you are constantly changing and constantly evolving.

Instead of this being a sad thinking, “Oh no, there’s no self,” it’s actually very empowering to realize, “Wow, what I am is just what I am.” If someone were to ask me, “Who are you,” traditionally I’d say, “Well, I’m my name,” and I’d give them my name, but so what. That’s just what I’m called and in my case, this one’s always been interesting to me because I’m an identical twin and growing up, I’ve always been confused with my brother and we were always called Nik and Noah. Almost like it was one name.

I’ve always had this sense of, “Well, there’s me, but then there’s us,” my brother and I and to this day, if I’m out in public and someone says, “Nik,” I always turn because I think they might be trying to get ahold of me. They just don’t know if I’m Nik or Noah, so I’m both. I’m Nik and I’m Noah. At least when you’re calling that name, I’m going to look at both.

For me, that’s always been a fascinating form of introspection in thinking, “Well, I’m Noah,” and I’ve also thought, “What if we were switched at birth? What if I’m actually Nik? What if I’ve always been Nik and he’s always been Noah and nobody knew because when we were born, somebody got confused and didn’t realize which was which and then they just started calling us the other name? What if I was always meant to be Nick and he was always meant to be Noah?”

I don’t know. Maybe those are just some of the things that twins think about, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. It happened later in life with my last name. Only about a year ago, I was doing a lot of family history and research and I’d always known that my last name is Serbian and I felt this strong sense of identity with my last name and what it means and where it came from and all the implications of my last name.

About a year ago, doing ancestry DNA tests and 23 and Me DNA tests and coupling that with everything I knew about my family history, there were aspects that did not add up and eventually what that led to was the discovery that my dad’s mom was not the daughter of who she thought her dad was. She had a different dad and the DNA is what proved all this when I was doing the DNA testing for myself and then for my parents.

It was fascinating to discover this whole sense of identity that I have to a name isn’t even my name. I’m not even supposed to be Rasheta. I’m supposed to be … Moody should be my last name, but it didn’t work that way and I still have a sense of attachment to my last name because that’s the last name that my grandfather gave to my dad when he adopted him, but it’s just a name.

This happens with one name. Three or four generations back, there’s this twist in the story that changes it all. Imagine in your case it’s very similar. If you could go back … We tend to carry one last name with us. It’s always the parental name, at least in our society, and it goes back generation to generation and it’s always one line, but if you were just to go back two generations, you actually have four last names. All four of them are equal parts.

One is the one that you’re going to carry with you, but you are just as much the other three in terms of DNA as you are the one that you happen to use and that’s only two generations back that you’re four. Keep going ten generations back, you’ve got over a thousand people who contributed to your genetic makeup, to your DNA, and out of those one thousand people, perhaps up to one thousand different last names, only one is the one that you carry today and you feel this strong sense of identity to that last name. Like that’s who you are, completing forgetting that you are also all those thousand other ones, but we don’t really think like that. That’s just part of our societal conditioning, I think.

It’s interesting to think about that. Our sense of self tends to want to attach and feel permanent and feel like it’s unchanging and there’s no part of it that is permanent or that doesn’t change.

Think about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset applied to how you view yourself and there should be a sense of feeling liberated or free to be a continually changing version of you. I can’t think of a more exciting thing than to know, “Wow, what I am is just what I am, but it’s not permanent and it’s not fixed. That gives me freedom to work with it and change and evolve. If I have the tendency to always be in a bad mood, I’m going to work towards trying to change that.” There’s a lot of freedom in the understanding that we’re flexible.

While some things are hard coded in us through our genetics, not all things are hard coded or permanent and a lot like the Snickers commercial, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” think about that. You’re not you when you’re mad, you’re not you when you’re ecstatic, you’re not you when you’re afraid. There’s so many versions of you that you would happily say, “Well, that’s not me,” but why stop it with the negative ones. Apply that to everything.

Every version of you under whatever set of circumstances you are, that’s just who you are under that set of circumstances and the “you” that you are right now is the you that you are right now.

With truth, we talked about how what was true yesterday may not be true today. Well, think about the implication of that. That means that the “you” that you were yesterday may not be the “you” that you are today and that is actually very liberating. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom when you understand that you’re not permanent and you’re not fixed.

What I hope you get out of all this is a sense of determination to grow, to have fun, to experience the process of being. I love that human being implies it’s this process that’s grounded in the present moment. You’re being and what you’re being is always contingent on time and what your being is grounded in the present moment.

Play with that and be. Go be and see how you’re being and compare it to different stages in life and compare those stages and different emotions that you’re experiencing and see how those change you and how you can work with those and what part of you evolves and changes over time. It’s a fascinating process and when you can completely allow yourself to just be with the understanding that you’re continually changing, there’s a stronger sense of compassion, self-compassion, because what you start to notice is that I can look back at a previous version of me and I can have compassion for that because I’ll say, “Well, of course I acted the way that I did. Based on what I knew at the time or what I was experiencing at that specific phase of my life, I did exactly what that me would have done. That may not be what the “me” now would do, but I’m not that same person and that person is not who I am now.”

That’s so much more healthy than to look back and think, “Why did I do this? I was so dumb,” or, “I would have never done that.” Well, of course you wouldn’t because that you isn’t the same you that you are now. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.

Practice this sense of compassion for yourself when you understand that the “you” that you are is not the same “you” that you’ve always been and it’s not the same “you” that it will always be. Where this gets really exciting is when you extend this freedom to someone else.

The person who cut you off on the road and you think, “That guy’s a jerk,” that’s applying a permanent, fixed attribute to someone who’s not permanent and not fixed and it may be that the person who they were in that moment is who they were in that moment and they did what they did in that moment because of all the circumstances going on in that moment.

Think of the Snickers commercial. This may be the easiest way to picture it, but just think, “Oh, they must be hungry. That’s not the real them,” and next time somebody does something, think about that a bit and think, “What could it be? Are they hungry? Are they angry? Are they afraid of something? What part of them is causing them to do this,” and understand that it’s not a permanent, fixed thing. That person that’s doing what they’re doing is not permanent and they’re not fixed just like you are not permanent and you’re not fixed.

I think this makes it a little more easy to have compassion for other beings because we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all being. In the present moment, based on the set of circumstances that are completely unique to each of us, our memories, our experiences, they’re all unique and I think one of the bravest you can do is to just show up and be seen as you and one of the most loving things that you can do is to allow others that same sense of freedom and let them be what they are.

What they are right now is what they are right now. It may not be what they were in the past and it sure isn’t going to be what they are in the future because that’s the nature of continual change. I think it gives us a lot more flexibility with how we view ourselves and how we view others.

That’s what I wanted to discuss this week in the podcast, the concept of the ever-changing self. The sense of self that’s not fixed and it’s not permanent and I think that’s what makes us so beautiful. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.

Hopefully this makes sense to you. I’d love to discuss this further. Those of you who are in the Facebook Secular Buddhism study group, be a fun place to discuss it there or on our Facebook page or on the blog in the comments. Wherever you want to, but I look forward to hearing from you guys and to discussing another topic in the next podcast episode.

Thanks again. If you enjoyed this, please remember to share, give it a rating, a review. I take all of your feedback very seriously and then I’m trying my best to improve these podcasts everyday.

16 – Truth in the Context of Time

What’s true here may not be true there and what was true yesterday, may not be true today. The nature of truth, life, and reality is that they are impermanent. They are ALWAYS changing. How do we make sense of things like promises and commitments in a world that is constantly changing? In this episode, I will explore the concept of truth as being relative to both space and time.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 16. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about truth in the context of time.

Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I’m excited to announce something new. Within the next few weeks the Secular Buddhism podcast is going to be forming part of a non-profit organization called Foundation for Mindful Living. This is something I will be playing a part in, and part of the overall scope of this new entity is to create content and opportunities for people to learn to live more mindfully. This means there will be opportunities for retreats, workshops, books, and many other tools available in the future for anyone who’s interested in learning about Secular Buddhism or just learning to live mindfully. I will update you with information about this as it becomes available. It’s just something I’m excited about and wanted to let you know that that’s in the works so that you know that this entire thing that I’m putting together will be operating under an non-profit organization very soon, so I’m really excited about that.

Then, of course before we start, a reminder, the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is something I ask you to always keep in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in the podcast. Again, if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review or give it a rating.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. In last week’s podcast episode, I spoke a little bit about the idea, the concept of fath and doubt, and specifically the faith to doubt, at least within the Buddhist worldview or the Buddhist concept. Today, all week, I’ve been thinking about truth, which was another podcast episode that was discussed a few weeks ago and I believe I highlighted kind of the difference between what I call conceptual truth versus empirical truths. I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more based on a conversation I had with a friend this week. The idea, just as a recap, is that when we’re talking about truth, there are at least two major kinds of truths the way I like to think about it. These are the truths that are true regardless of what I believe and the truths that are true because of what I believe.

An example of the first one, a truth regardless of what I believe is an empirical truth. This is the type of truth that’s true whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s an easy way to think about it. For example, when the moisture in the air saturates to the point where it can no longer hold moisture, then it starts to rain. That would happen whether or not we believe in that. It’ll happen whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s just something that happens. That’s an example of an empirical truth or, as I mentioned earlier, a truth that is true regardless of what I believe. Most of the truths that we deal with on a day to day basis in our lives aren’t empirical truths.

These are the conceptual truths. These are truths that are true because we believe them. The example I gave of a conceptual truth was the value of gold versus silver, or really, the value of any precious gem. It’s true that a diamond is worth more than a piece of coal, but that’s a conceptual truth. That’s only true because we believe it. There is no inherent value in a piece of diamond versus a piece of coal. That becomes truth and it gains value because, as humans, we have collectively decided that a diamond is valuable and therefore we are going to assign it a specific value. That’s an example of a conceptual truth.

The reason I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more from the previous podcast where I discussed truths was because truths are contingent upon space and time. Buddhism we talk about space and time. Everything exists in space and time, and in terms of space, all things are interdependent. We’ve talked about that. In terms of time, all things are impermanent. Usually when I’m discussing this concept with someone and I talk about the idea of impermanence, we think about the opposite of impermanent being permanent. Yeah, that makes sense, but it’s more than that. I think a better or maybe easier way to understand the concept of impermanence is understanding the idea of something fixed and permanent versus something fluctuating and changing. Impermanence, think about it as fluctuation and change. That’s the way to understand this.

How does that apply to the way that we view conceptual truths? That’s really the heart of what I want to get at today, and the whole way that this conversation started up was in a discussion with a friend in my ministry program about having read an old love letter. My friend read this old love letter and it contained wording that was very compelling to the argument of being in love. Saying, “I’m so happy that we’re finally together. I’ll never leave your side. You’re the soulmate I was looking for,” words like that. She was reading this letter from the understanding that seven months later, after the date on this letter, this relationship had ended and there was divorce. The context of the conversation was in a world where all things are impermanent or all things are constantly changing, how do you make sense of things like love or things like promises, the promises that are made, wedding vows. Any form of a promise that seems long term seems like a permanent thing. How does that work in the context of impermanence.

I wanted to discuss this a little bit because that got me thinking. In fact I had been thinking about this a couple weeks after that conversation. I went through a similar experience to what she went through in my own life. Without really giving any details into my personal life or my experiences with this, essentially what happened is there was a point in my own marriage that was very rocky. There had been a breech of confidence and things got really rocky and I wasn’t sure it was going to survive. Right before entering that difficult phase in my marriage, I had spent some time on Mother’s Day. I got these post-it notes and I thought I would write 100 things I love about you. My idea was 100 things, one per post-it note and I would go put these all over the wall and surprise her. I started working on this and it took me a while and there was no appreciation for it and I felt kind of silly for even doing it.

Didn’t think much of it later because, like I mention, we entered a pretty rocky phase soon after that and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive, the marriage was going to survive. Long story short, many months, maybe even years later, I came across one of those post-it notes. It had somehow stuck in one of my binders or maybe it was in a book as a bookmark. I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but I remember seeing it and when I saw that post-it note, I immediately had this thought of, “Wow, I guess what I wrote back then, all that was fake. It was all a lie because I didn’t know that at the time something was going on in my marriage and my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was. It was a fraud, so to speak.” I had this feeling of a conflict with what was true now versus what felt true then versus what felt true in between now and then.

It was an interesting and fascinating experience for me to sit and contemplate this notion of truth relative to time and I had to analyze and conclude that it wasn’t a lie and it wasn’t fraud because when it was expressed, it was absolutely true. I didn’t know that it was going to be only a month later that it was going to be really rocky and neither one of us were sure we wanted to be with each other anymore. At that point, that was the new truth, the truth that we weren’t sure we even wanted to be to be together, and then years after that, we reached a point where we were committed and decided, you know what, we do want to make this work. That was the new truth. At every point along that spectrum, all of those emotions were true.

It was true that I had this intense desire to make it work and be with my wife and it’s true that at one point I did not want to be with my wife. I didn’t want it to work out. It’s true that at one point I did want to be with my wife and I wanted to make that work. I thought of my friend’s letter. I think we do this a lot in life. We project the truth of the present and we apply it to a truth in the past or even in the future that’s not relevant. It’s taking the concept of something that was true yesterday and understanding that that may not be true today. I think we do this with beliefs and with views and with tastes. It may be that as a kid I liked hot dogs and now I don’t. It’s true that I love hot dogs and it’s true that I don’t love hot dogs. It’s just contingent upon the context of time.

Our tendency is to take the present-day truth and apply that in the extension of time, past and present, and that’s where things can get a little bit rocky. I think that’s where this notion was becoming difficult for my friend to see that letter and think that was all a lie because she knew that seven months later that marriage was going to be over and all those words were now empty and meaningless and no longer true. When the reality is, as hard as it may be for us to accept, they were true. They were just true in the context of the time in which they were written. They’re not true now, but they were true at one point.

I thought about this a lot in other contexts of time in my own life, beliefs that I’ve had. At one point in my life, I believed certain things that I don’t believe now. I’m sure at one point in my life in the future, I may believe things that I don’t believe now, or I may not believe things in the future that I do believe now. These will be my truths, but they’re always going to be relevant in the present moment. When you take a concept like promises, how does this … In a world that’s ever changing, what’s the point of ever making a promise? Let’s say my promise is I want to be faithful to my spouse, for example, or I want to be a certain type of dad for my kids. That’s a long term promise or a long term commitment and why would you make a promise that’s long term in a world that’s ever changing?

I think the answer to that is that you don’t. You don’t make a promise in the long term. I think what that means for me, I don’t view it as, I am eternally committed to my spouse, for example, but what I am is eternally committed in the present moment. Right now, this is the promise and it’s an ongoing promise that’s continually renewed. It’s continually renewed in the moment to moment experience of life. That might seem a little weird because you think, “Well, but it sounds more noble to say I’m going to love you forever,” but if you really think about it, love doesn’t work that way because it’s not permanent. When you fall in love, the person that you fell in love with changes over time and you change over time. You have two people who are constantly changing, living in a world of constant change, and somehow the emotion of love is supposed to be this permanent thing, but it’s not. It’s also changing. It’s fluctuating.

The way it works is you’re constantly falling in love with the person that you’re committed to stay in love with. I think, in fact, that’s what makes it work is realizing that it’s constant and that every day, my spouse is the person that I’m learning to love. Every day, the new version of her. Every hour, every minute. The moment I make that a stagnant thing, it deteriorates the love that I have for her. It would be very easy to say, “Well you’re not the person I fell in love with seven years ago when we got married,” or eight years ago or nine years ago, whatever it is. The thing is, you’re absolutely right. That’s not the same person that you married. Guess what? You’re not the same person that they married. This doesn’t just apply to relationships and to love. This applies to everything.

I think with careers, this is common too. It’s like, well, when I graduated from college, I wanted to be a film maker, and I was for a while, working on television commercial production. One day that evolved and then whatever I was at the time is what I was at the time. That, for me personally, has evolved year after year it seems. I’ve done a lot of different things. You take someone who’s been in a career their whole lives and then they look back one day and say, “I got into the wrong career because what I wanted should have been this or should have been that.” That’s not true because you did exactly what you thought you wanted to do when you did it. The difference is that as you’ve changed and evolved over time, the idea of what you thought you wanted hasn’t.

Then it makes you think that the truth in the present is the same as the truth of the past. That’s where it becomes iffy … I don’t know if iffy is the right word. It becomes tricky to work with the truth of the past, applying it to the present because it changes. The truth is what changes. Maybe truth isn’t the right word here. We could say life or reality. Using the word truth, life, reality, these are all interchangeable, but the concept to grasp here is impermanence. Impermanence means constant change. That means that whatever was true at one point in the past may not be true today. If you really want to be liberated by this knowledge, you need to understand that what you hold to be true today also may not be true in the future.

This is a very powerful way of experiencing reality in the present moment. It’s understanding that I’m experiencing my own conceptual truths in the present moment and they are completely relevant here and now. They may not be relevant in the future and they may not be relevant when compared to the past. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll look and realize, that’s true. That’s exactly how it works because there are so many things in your past that I’m sure are no longer relevant now, ways that you used to be, things that you used to think, beliefs that you used to believe. These evolve and change over time. It limits our ability to grow when we have a fixed mindset that decides whatever is now, that sense of permanence, I’m going to extend it, past and future. The healthy way of viewing the present is in that state of flow. Rather than a fixed mindset, it’s a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck talks about this concept of fixed mindset versus growth mindset. In fact, I think that’s the title of her book. You should check that out. In terms of parenting and how we experience life, the idea is that the moment we try to make it fixed, we hinder and limit our ability to grow because as growth, as the name itself implies, growth is change. It’s the only way that you grow is because you’re changing. As soon as there’s no growth, then that’s death. Life is the process of constant change. The moment you’re not changing, that means you’re dead. Now you’re done. There is no more change.

Yet somehow we attach to this idea of trying to grasp life and make it a fixed concept. I want all my truths to be fixed. I want my sense of self to be a fixed sense of self. Who I was in the past is who I am now and it’s who I will be in the future and that’s just not true. Who I was yesterday may be irrelevant to who I am today and it might be very different from who I am in the future because that’s the nature of change. It’s the nature of life, reality and truth. It’s constantly changing. What I wanted to ultimately get at in this podcast episode was this concept of truth relative to space and time, specifically time.

I hope that you can set aside some time in your day or in your week to explore what truths were true to you in the past that are no longer true today. If you really want to get something out of this, try to spend some time looking at the things that you hold on to as fixed truths today, and look at them with the perspective that they may not be fixed truths in the future because that’s the nature of change. The nature of truth is that it’s constantly changing and it’s … All of our conceptual truths work this way. Conceptual truths are always relative to time.

Going back to the example of the diamond, think about that, that the value of a diamond or the value of gold versus silver is relative, in terms of being a truth, it’s relative to space and time. Alter the equation of space and time and let’s go back to, instead of where we live now, let’s go back to, I don’t know, pick anywhere on earth 10,000 years ago and now the truth of the value of gold versus silver is different. Go back 20,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, a million years ago and these things just change. Truth changes. Truth evolves.

That’s really what I wanted to get at in this podcast episode, and the sense of freedom that comes from letting go of the fixed part of truth. You can hold on to your truths. First recognize that, my truths, are they conceptual, or are they empirical. Once you’ve done that and you realize, “Wow, all my truths that are so important to me are actually conceptual truths.” Then you let go of the grip a little bit. The next step is to take those truths and understand, wow, these are actually truths that are relative to space and time. They’re true to me here and now and they may not be in the future and I can analyze that yesterday’s truth may not be true today.

Then you let go of that grip a little bit more. What happens when we let go of the grip is that we’re left with this sense of freedom. Freedom to move around and to flow with the nature of reality, which is the nature of change and you change with it. That’s where this sense of freedom comes from. The moment we become fixed and we hold things like truth or reality as fixed things, then we start to encounter problems because the nature of reality and the nature of truth isn’t fixed. It’s impermanent which means it’s constantly changing.

I hope that makes sense. Many of you have reached out to me in the last few weeks and I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me to hear that these podcasts are making a difference in your lives. When I first encountered and started studying Buddhism, it became a topic that helped me to experience life in this new perspective that was so liberating. I think what it boiled down to is I had the full freedom to just be me, to accept me as I am in the present moment. Even more beautiful, it gave me the ability to see others for who they are, in the present moment with whatever their conceptual truths are in the present moment, then you just feel compassion for people. I knew that I wanted to make this something more regular. I wanted to be able to teach Buddhism and I wanted to be able to teach these concepts of mindful living. I’m really excited that I’m going to have that opportunity now through this non-profit that we’re forming, the Foundation for Mindful Living.

Thank you guys for being a part of this journey with me. This podcast has been very instrumental in allowing me to build up what I’m trying to do in life and I’m very grateful for each one of you who takes the time to listen to this and shares these podcasts and writes the reviews and reaches out to me. It’s really meaningful, so thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to the next podcast episode sometime next week. Until next time.

15 – The Faith to Doubt

True faith is the attitude of being open to whatever might be. When we create an image in our mind of how life is “supposed” to be, we literally blind ourselves to seeing life as it is. In this episode, I will explore the concepts of faith and doubt and discuss how doubt is the key to having true faith.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, and this is episode number 15. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the faith to doubt. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This podcast is produced every week and it covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to what secular Buddhism is and general Buddhist concepts, so if you’re new to the podcast I recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to just be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Before we get started, I like to remind my listeners of a quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

This week I wanted to talk about the topic of faith and doubt, specifically the concept of having the faith to doubt. A few weeks ago while I was in China on a business trip, I had an experience that I think does a really good job of relating or explaining kind of what the whole concept of faith and doubt actually means. Leading up to this story, just a little bit of background, I’ve been working with a new supplier for almost a year now. In that amount of time we’ve gotten to know each other but we’ve never actually met.

Something that happens in a lot of Asian cultures or at least in China, people choose their own western name to make it easier to communicate with westerner’s like me. I have contacts that I work with there that there’s a Jason and there’s a Wyatt and there’s Mr. Lee and they kind of pick their western names. With this new supplier, it’s no different. As soon as we started communicating, they told me the person that you need to talk to is Chris. I started emailing Chris who’s the head of sales for this new factory and Chris and I got to know each other by email and we’ve placed multiple orders for various parts with this new supplier and everything has been going well, so I thought I would take advantage of this specific trip while I was in China to schedule a time and meet Chris in person.

While I was there, I received the message from Chris deciding where we were going to meet and at what time, and I followed the instructions to the meeting place and I started walking around looking for Chris. I looked for him everywhere and I couldn’t see him anywhere so I continued to walk around just buying time, and then every minute or two I’d come back to that specific location where we were supposed to meet, look around, he still wasn’t there, so then I would keep walking. I did this two or three times and by then almost 10 minutes had gone by and I thought Chris must be running late. I guess I can just wait here for him to show up.

I went over to the specific table where we were supposed to meet and I sat down and there at the end of the table there were two young girls on their smartphones, so I just sat down on the other side of the table. As soon as I sat down, one of the two girls looked up and said, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m Chris.” I was just stunned because that was not what I was expecting. I started to laugh and then thinking to myself, wait, you were here the whole time. I’ve been walking past you back and forth and not once did it occur to me that the girl sitting at the table might be Chris because in my mind I had already decided that Chris was probably a man.

It was just a very mind opening experience to realize how I was in a very literal way I was blinded by my beliefs. I was blinded by the belief that Chris was a man. For days after this experience I’ve just been thinking of the implications of that lesson. There’s a meme that was going around on social media, well, a quote. I guess it’s not a meme. There was a quote that I really like and it says, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” I would put quotations around ‘supposed to be.’

I thought that’s exactly what just happened to me. There was a picture in my mind of how Chris was supposed to be and that picture in my mind blinded me from seeing Chris the way Chris really was. Chris has to finally speak up until I realized that was Chris. It was a really moving experience. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to apply it to other concepts thinking, man, in what other ways have I been blind to reality because I already have a picture of what that reality is supposed to be?

If you think about it, this is actually a really powerful way of understanding reality. Take a concept like happiness or love or success and think about the concept that you have in your mind of what that’s supposed to mean, what that’s supposed to be. You’ll understand very much like my experience with Chris, if you have an idea of what that is, you’re not going to be able to see it for what it actually is. I think this is the very essence of what Buddhism teaches. Thich Nhat Hanh says the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself. I like that. To reveal itself.

That’s exactly what happened with Chris. Chris was there the whole time and I couldn’t see Chris, and the only reason I couldn’t see Chris was because of the concept that I had already developed in my mind. I was blind you could say by my faith in my concept of who Chris was. This is the notion of faith that many of us in the west, maybe from our cultural backgrounds, have an understanding of what faith is. Typically that faith is here’s an idea, now believe in that idea and don’t doubt that.

The eastern approach to this, Alan Watts talks about faith as the attitude of being open to whatever is. That attitude of being open to whatever is allows us to experience whatever is the moment it shows up. We don’t have to go through wasting, in my case, 10 minutes looking for Chris when Chris was there all along. In life we do the same thing. Perhaps it’s looking for happiness, for example, and here I am looking for happiness because I have an idea of what happiness is. Then one day happiness looks up and says, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness.”

I just think this is not what I was expecting and you literally start to laugh and realize life has been presenting itself to you in ways like this all along and the only thing blinding us from seeing those things is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. I’ve talked about this on multiple occasions and several podcast episodes, this idea of there’s reality and then there’s the story we build around reality. That’s that world of the story of reality where we get stuck prevents us from seeing the reality as it is. It’s almost identical to this experience with Chris.

This is the notion of faith and doubt, at least in the Buddhist context, the secular Buddhist context. We go through life developing concepts and then we believe in our concepts or we have faith in those concepts. That’s not what true faith is. I like to imagine true faith as just being the attitude of being completely open to whatever may be. Approaching that table and not having any assumptions of is this Chris or is that Chris. I just know Chris is supposed to be here. Imagine if I would have showed up with the attitude of being completely open to whatever is. I just would have walked up to the table and assumed one of you sitting here must be Chris, no matter how improbable that is based on the picture I had in my mind.

What’s interesting is I couldn’t do that. It’s not that I didn’t want to. I literally couldn’t. I was blind and didn’t even know that I was blind. I wonder how many other concepts in life do I approach that way where I don’t even realize that I’m blind by those concepts that the picture, the story that I have of whatever that thing is compared to just however it is. This really motivated me, this experience motivated me to want to approach life with a new perspective, with a new attitude of true faith, of being completely open to whatever might be, and allowing whatever might be to present itself like Chris and say, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness or I’m success,” or whatever the concept is that I have in my mind, I want to try to let go of that.

This is where doubt plays a pivotal role in understanding the true nature of faith. If the true nature of faith is just being open to whatever is, then what I need to be doubting continually are the concepts that I create in my mind and question those and think is this really how it is or is this the mental picture I’ve created about how life is supposed to be? I think this is really relevant with all things in life. I could take the concept of love, for example, and with your spouse or your significant other or your relationship with your parents or your children or siblings.

You could look at that relationship and for years you could be questioning do they really love me? It could be that they do all along and you’ve never seen it because you have a different picture in your mind of what that love is. I think this really hits home if you’ve ever studied or read the five love languages. You’ll learn that love is communicated and expressed in different ways, and if you speak one certain love language, if you don’t know that there are other love languages you may be blind, very much like I was in seeing Chris, because you only see love through the language that you speak.

If you haven’t looked into the five love languages, Google it. It’s a really fascinating concept and I think it’s very applicable to understanding the notion of how we communicate and experience something as universal as love. If that applies to love, I’m sure it applied to so many other things. If we don’t know, if we develop a belief in how things are supposed to be, then we become blind to seeing how they actually are. That’s really the essence of the topic that I wanted to discuss today, having the faith to doubt, the key to accessing true faith which is complete openness to whatever life is. The key to that is having doubt.

I think in our society for some reason we’ve attached these negative connotations to the word ‘doubt’ and positive connotations to the word ‘faith,’ and we’re motivated to always have faith, never question things because somehow doubt is like a negative thing. When in reality, doubt is a very positive thing. Doubt is the very thing that makes something like science work. It’s because we’re continually questioning and exploring why, how, that we find new knowledge. Having this in our personal lives, this sense of doubt, this sense of questioning is very much I think what the Zen Buddhism school refers to when it’s talking about beginner’s mind, the whole concept of beginner’s mind.

Think about a child. Children approach life with a beginner’s mind, with this doubting, I guess you could say a doubting approach to life. It’s not a negative thing but they’re just constantly questioning everything. Everyone knows what it’s like to be around a kid who’s always saying, “Why?” “Why?” I think this is what it means to have a beginner’s mind. You’re always exploring, you’re always curious. Why? This approach is what allows you to gain new insight to be able to see and learn stuff that you didn’t know before because you don’t operate under the assumption of always having all the information that you need. Instead, you’re always operating under the assumption that there’s something that I don’t know.

Furthermore, always operating under the assumption that everything that I believe I actually might be wrong. There’s not one thing that I could say with complete certainty that I’m right. I should approach life the opposite, thinking everything I believe could be wrong. That is faith in the unknown, faith in uncertainty, faith in whatever life is going to present. I’m just going to take it as it is. I’ve talked about this in past episodes, as well, with the analogy of playing a game of Tetris.

Again, imagine that you’re playing a game of Tetris and if you’ve ever played that game you know that the whole premise of the game is that pieces just show up. We don’t control what pieces show up, but when they show up, we have the opportunity to manipulate them and we can move them left or right or you can spin them around to position them into whatever way is going to work best for your game. The one thing you don’t do is you don’t control what comes up next. As soon as you place one, the next one’s on the way and it just goes on and on and on until the game is over.

I think that’s a lot like life. Approaching the game of Tetris like you would the game of life with an attitude of faith means faith in whatever’s going to come up next I just know what’s going to come up next. I don’t know what it is but I know that something is coming up next, and the moment it does I’m just going to have to work with it. That’s what I have faith in. What I would be doubting, what I want to doubt is the moment I think I know a square is coming up next or I know that L-shape is going to be what’s coming up next. I should probably doubt that. That’s where you need to have doubt and think, wait, don’t get caught up because the moment it doesn’t show up the way I want it, now I’m all upset.

There’s a Zen expression that says, “Great doubt equals great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment, and no doubt, no enlightenment.” This is the kind of doubt that I think is being implied here. It’s the doubt that we have about the assumptions that we make. There’s a quote that says, “No matter what you believe, you might be wrong.” I think it’s really important to go through life with that attitude, the attitude of whatever I believe … It’s fine to have beliefs, but I might be wrong. I might be wrong about my beliefs and that is the cultivation of doubt. It’s what prevents us from being locked in a place with such certainty that we are blinded by that certainty. Blind faith is not a good faith.

Again, I think the concepts of faith and doubt in our society have interesting connotations that are twisted and it’s like doubt is frowned upon and faith is treated as something that’s actually not really faith, and we’re told to just have faith but oftentimes it’s conveyed in the sense of continue to blind yourself around your belief and don’t question the belief, but that’s actually not faith. Faith is being open to whatever might be and we do that by having and cultivating doubt around our assumptions of whatever we think is.

This is an entirely different approach to faith and doubt than what we’re typically used to. The beautiful thing here is that with this doubt comes new knowledge. It’s the only way new knowledge comes in. I like to think of science as a good example of the system of doubt. Science is constantly questioning, right? It says, well, here’s what we know and it’s always asking why. Why does this work this way? Then it investigates. It creates a theory around why and then it proves the theory, and then that’s new knowledge. Then we go onto the next thing. Okay, well if that’s that, now we ask why again. Why this? Why that? It’s always questioning.

This is the sense of doubt. With this cultivation of doubt, if we can apply this inward to our own perceptions and understanding of the world, that’s the key to obtaining new knowledge and wisdom about how the world really is. The assumptions that we have about other people, our in group versus our out group, they are this way, they are that way. Us and them. That whole concept. What if we were able to doubt the concepts that we’ve created about ‘other,’ about these people who are in that category of ‘other’?

Those are a couple of ways to look at and explore the concepts of faith and doubt within the Buddhist understanding of life or the Buddhist worldview. Faith and doubt are not negative and positive things. They’re actually both positive things in the tool set to help us to experience the nature of reality, to experience life as it is without being blinded by seeing, only looking for life the way we think it’s supposed to be. Again, there’s always just what is and then there’s the story we create around what is. We should doubt the stories that we’re creating around what is and we should have faith in being open to seeing whatever just is outside of those stories.

I hope that makes sense. I wanted to share that because I thought that was a really neat experience for me to go through in China looking for Chris. It’s exciting to know that in life that’s happening all the time. We’re always looking for Chris. If we have an idea of what Chris is, then we’re going to spend a lot of time looking for Chris that’s sitting right in front of you when Chris has been there waiting all along. I hope to have more experiences like that in life when Chris will look up and say, “Hi, are you Noah? I’m …” Whatever concept and I’ll just laugh and think, of course you are. That’s how it’s been all along and I couldn’t see it.

That’s the nature of doubt that I want to have in my life. I want to be willing and able to continually question the assumptions that I’ve made about life, the assumptions I’ve made about how life is supposed to be and especially when applied to concepts as important as love, as happiness, terms like success. I just want to be open to whatever those things are and not be blinded by the beliefs I have around what those concepts are supposed to be. I think that will provide many fascinating experiences in life much like what Carl Sagan says where he says, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Whatever that is that’s waiting to be known, I think that’s faith. I have the faith in that exact expression, that somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known and I can’t wait to see whatever it is, but I’m not going to get lost in the assumption that I have of whatever that is supposed to be. Hopefully that makes sense in explaining the concepts of faith and doubt a little bit more at a deeper level for understanding the Buddhist worldview of faith and doubt.

Again, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast please feel free to share it, to write a review, or give it a rating. If you want to clarify this topic a little bit further with me, feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear what you think about this topic, and I’ll talk to you guys next time. Thank you.