Month: June 2016

21 – Perfection and the problem with comparing


We are continually making comparisons, this vs that, good vs bad, here vs there, etc…In this episode, I will discuss the topic of perfection and the problems we run into when we compare things. The understanding of non-duality permeates through all Buddhist teachings. In order to properly understand perfection, we must not compare to anything else.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 21. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I am talking about perfection. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teaching, 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.” 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 help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s just into this week’s topic.

This week, I wanted to discuss the topic of perfection. Several months ago, I had some friends visiting, and we decided to go for a hike up in the mountains around Park City. On this occasion, we were hiking up a trail, and at one point, as the trail was curving around, we went through a little grove of trees. I turned around and I noticed one of the trees in the grove had this interesting bend to it. The trunk went straight up, and then it just kind of shot out to the right and then back to the left and straight up again, almost like a horseshoe shape right in the middle of the trunk. It was maybe a foot or a foot and a half between where it started to bend and then where it went back. It was just a really interesting bend in the tree. It looked so unique among all the other trees, because it was such an interesting find, so I stopped and I took a picture of it. Then, later on, as I was looking at the picture, it occurred to me that it was interesting that this tree that was crooked among all the other normal, straight trees caught my attention as a beautiful thing. The fact that it was so unique made it stand out.

I thought that was interesting, because as I thought about this more, I thought how interesting that with a tree, being different and bent out of shape, it looks beautiful because it’s unique. Yet, if these were people we were looking at, our tendency is to do the opposite. We would say, “Oh, there’s the one that stands out. Something’s wrong with that one.” There’s this pull to conform, as if there were a way to be that we should all try to be. Then, when you don’t conform with that, it’s a little bit scary. With trees, which are also just a product of nature, we don’t necessarily view it that way. In fact, I think more people … Everyone who was hiking with me noticed the tree and thought, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and we were taking pictures of it because it was just this beautiful, unique tree.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the conception of perfection, because if you look at the story and you were looking at those trees, the tree was a perfect tree. The reason it’s a perfect tree is because all trees are perfect. They’re trees, right? They’re just perfectly being trees. There is no way that a tree is supposed to be. If you find a tree on the slide of a cliff that has the roots anchored into all these random spots that’s clinging on the cliff, you’d also look at that and say, “Wow, what a unique tree.” In nature, we observe this all the time, whether it be trees or almost any other form of nature. Anything that stands out or is unique, we pause and we have a sense of awe. The reason the Grand Canyon gives us such a sense of awe is it’s this magnificent thing that’s so different from everything else. Yet, every other form of nature that does something similar works the same way. It’s the uniqueness that makes it so perfect.

In that context, when we’re saying perfect, it’s not in comparison to anything else. See, I think this is where the problem with the word “perfection” comes in, because perfection alone, the definition of perfection, is something that’s in a state or condition or quality of being free or free as possible from all flaws or defects. Well, if you take something that has no comparison, then everything that makes it what it is is perfect, because that’s just a part of what it is. The tree with a weird bend in the middle of it isn’t a flaw. It’s just a part of the tree. Now, if you were to compare that tree to another tree, let’s say one that’s just a straight tree without any bends, and we made the mistake of saying, “Okay, now this tree isn’t perfect because it has a bend in it.” Well, that would be silly. We wouldn’t do that with trees, because we understand that a tree is just a tree. We don’t feel that need to compare one tree to another tree.

Yet, we do that with each other all the time. If we were to take the word “perfection” and talk about this in the context of a person, it becomes difficult to say, “Oh yeah, that person is perfect,” because now we’re comparing to either an image we have in our mind of what a perfect person is or just to other people. When it’s used as a form of comparison, perfection doesn’t make sense, but if you were to say, “Here’s a person who’s perfectly who they are,” this is a perfect person. I’m perfectly me, and you’re perfectly you. In that sense, the word “perfection” can be very powerful. Again, with the definition, it’s free or as free as possible from all flaws. What’s interesting about that is that if you were to look up the word “flaw”, you’d find that the definition for the word “flaw” is that it’s something that’s free of an imperfection. Well, that makes it circular logic, because it’s perfect if it doesn’t have flaws, and the very definition of a flaw is something that is an imperfection.

Again, the idea here is that when we understand and use the word “perfection”, it should come without any form of comparison. When you see a beautiful sunset and you think, “Wow, what a perfect sunset,” you’re not comparing it to another sunset saying, “Well, this one’s not perfect because last night’s sunset, that one was perfect,” because there’s no comparison. It’s unique in the moment being what it is. Because it’s completely unique in that moment, it makes it perfect. Well, why does that have to be different for the way we view ourselves and the way we view others? Somebody can be perfect just the way they are, because we don’t have to compare them to who they were before or who they’ll be in the future or to someone else or to a concept of how they’re supposed to be versus how they are. There is no comparison, and when there’s no comparison, then we’re left with just perfection.

For some reason, we tend to spend a lot of time in competition comparing things. For me, being a twin, growing up I remember comparison was a regular, everyday thing in life. For example, if my twin brother got a certain grade in a certain class, then we were compared and it was expected of me to be able to have the same grade in that same class. If I didn’t, it was like, “Well, why didn’t you get that grade? Your brother was able to get that grade.” That was the form of comparison. Now, as a father, I always think of this notion of my kids are very different from each other. Their personalities are different. They just have their own little unique ways. If someone were to say, “Well, which of your kids is the best?” Well, it’s not a competition. There is no competition. They’re all perfectly who they are, and you don’t look at them in the sense of a competition.

Maybe they could compete in a race, and I could say, “Well, this one’s faster than that one,” but overall, you don’t look at your kids and say, “Well, this one’s the best one,” unless you have a distorted image in your mind of how they’re supposed to be. Then, whichever one matches the standard in your mind of how they’re supposed to be, then yeah, you might be thinking this one’s better. But I would get rid of that thinking really quickly, because that produces a lot of suffering on your part as a parent and on your children’s part, because there is no way that you’re supposed to be. You’re just who you are. Everyone is the best in the world, and everyone’s the best in the world because nobody’s being compared to anyone else.

There’s a story about a monk named Banzan, and I like this story because it kind of illustrates the teaching of non-comparison and of perfection. The story goes like this: the monk Banzan was walking through the marketplace, and he overhears a customer who’s talking to the butcher. The customer says, “Can you please give me your best piece of meat?” The butcher simply replies, “Well, all the pieces of meat I sell are the best pieces of meat.” In that very moment, the story goes that Banzan was enlightened.

I’ve heard of this story, and it seems like such a simple story, but there’s a very deep teaching connected to this. This is the idea that all of the pieces of meat are the very best. Why is that? What does that mean? Well, the idea here is that there is comparison. How could one be better than another? This one is what it is, and that one is what it is. You take a piece of meat and you say, “These are the ribs.” Oh, well, that’s great. Yeah, but that one’s the leg. Yeah, well, they’re different. You can’t compare them, which one’s the best. They’re both different. Even if you were to take the same pieces, well, there’s this leg and there’s that leg, which one’s the best piece? They’re both the best piece, because that’s that leg and this one’s this leg. Only when you bring in comparison do we run into the problem of misunderstanding the teaching here, what is meant by perfection.

Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, this awareness of every piece is the best piece, this awareness that a crooked tree is a perfect tree. I want to elaborate a little bit more on this with another Buddhist teaching. I recently came across a Japanese expression and a teaching that says nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. Translated, this means every day is a good day. As I pondered this idea, I thought about the many days in my own life that I would unequivocally categorize as bad days. One instance, about eight years ago, I was a helicopter pilot working towards accomplishing one of my childhood dreams, which was to be a helicopter pilot. I’d just received my private pilot’s license, and I was beginning phase two of my training at a local school to get my commercial pilot’s license. I remember getting a strange call from a friend of mine. He said, “Hey, have you been watching the news?” I said, “No. What’s happening?” He said, “Well, there’s a helicopter school that went bankrupt, and it’s kept all of their students’ money. Is that your school?” I said confidently, “No. I have a flight lesson scheduled in about 30 minutes. My flight instructor would have called me to tell me it was canceled if something was going on.”

As I drove to the airport and I approached my school, I had this sinking feeling as I noticed the police tape blocking the front entrance. It was my school that was on the news, and it was my money that they were talking about. I was heartbroken, heartbroken to discover that my $70,000 school loan to become a helicopter pilot had literally vanished overnight. For me, this was a bad day, and I’ve had other bad days since then, many even worse than that day. So what does it mean to say that every day is a good day? Well, as I mentioned before, Buddhism teaches us to not compare. When we think of good, we’re typically contrasting good with bad, but this expression of every day is a good day is saying that it’s good because there is no bad; there are only days. They’re just days.

Alan Watts used to say, “Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen?” A cloud can’t be misshapen because there is no shape that a cloud is supposed to be, right? We could say that every cloud is good, because there is no wrong way to be a cloud. So when we’re saying that every day is a good day or every cloud is a good cloud, it’s not in comparison. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad. We just don’t compare clouds. This is the same idea behind the expression that every day is a good day. Imagine for a minute that you’ve been planning a backyard party for several weeks, and you’ve sent out invitations, you’ve set up the tables, you’ve done a considerable amount of decorating around the yard. Then the day finally comes and the guests start to show up and it begins to rain. Well, is that a good day or a bad day? Meanwhile, across town, a farmer’s been preparing his field to plant alfalfa, and he’s frustrated because his sprinkler system’s not working. He’s worried about his seeds going to waste, and then it begins to rain. Is that a good day or a bad day?

Well, the day itself is never bad. It’s never good. It’s only our perspective and space and time based on where we are and how we are that we determine the things that we think are good and the things that we think are bad. You wouldn’t compare one cloud to another, deciding which cloud is good and which one is bad, but why do we do that with days? Again, to say that every day is a good day, it just means that every day is a day. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad, or today versus yesterday, or today versus tomorrow, or my good day versus your bad day.

Gyomay Kubose says, “To understand that every day is a good day is Buddhism.” This is the content of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something apart from an ordinary day. Enlightenment is to live each day as a good day, and what kind of day do you think you would have if you weren’t comparing it to any other day? Maybe we could appreciate each moment for what it really is: a unique moment in time that cannot be compared to any other, because this is the only moment there is, right here and right now. That’s the teaching of nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. So when we’re talking about perfection, we’re talking about perfect in the sense of not being compared to anything else. One of the mistakes that we make is there’s how we are and then there’s how we think we’re supposed to be. That’s duality. Those are two different things. Then, there’s how life is and there’s how I think life is supposed to be. Well, those are two different things. Again, we’re in the world of duality.

What Buddhism is constantly teaching is this idea of non-duality. The true nature of reality is that reality is just what it is. When we get caught up in that dualistic thinking—me, you, good, bad, this, that—that’s where we run into trouble. That’s where we run into problems as we try to make sense of things. This concept had me thinking of something that I wrote a few days ago about the concept of “them”. What I’m trying to get across here is this understanding of non-duality. This permeates through all Buddhist teachings, this concept of non-duality. In this case, I was thinking about “them”. We all know about them, those who don’t view the world like us. For some, them could be the right-wing nut jobs or the bleeding-heart Liberals, the Trump supporters, or the Bernie supporters, or the Hillary supporters. It could be the gun lovers or the gun haters, the believers and the non-believers. What makes “them” so scary is that they don’t always view the world the same way as us, but what if we weren’t afraid to try to understand them? What if we actually tried to get to know them? What if we were okay with allowing them to be them? What if we stopped trying to convince them to be like us?

Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “A label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do,” but what if we stopped viewing them through the labels we give them? The problem isn’t that we’re all different, it’s that we’re not okay with the fact that we’re all different. We want them to think, believe, and act like us, but we fail to realize that we are all them to someone else. I know I’m one of them to you on some topic or another, and I hope you know that I don’t view any of you as them, because to me, we’re just us. This is non-duality. We may have different ideas, different beliefs, fears, and ways to approach life, but it’s the fact that we’re all different that makes us the same, because we’re all unique. It’s like the clouds in the sky. When have you ever seen a misshapen cloud? We’re all unique. I may not agree with you, and you may not agree with me, but that’s okay.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more you understand, the more you love, and the more you love, the more you understand.” The world doesn’t need us all to be the same. That would never happen. That would be like expecting all the clouds to be the same, if we had an idea of how clouds are supposed to be, and then we’re frustrated every day because we’ve got all these clouds that are refusing to conform. Well, that would just be silly. The world just needs us to understand each other and to love each other and to be okay with our differences. The truth is I don’t know how to fix the divisiveness and the hatred and the intolerance that I see in the world today, but I do know that I can do my part to try to understand them and to love them, because I am them. We’re all perfect because we’re all unique. We’re all that crooked tree. We’re all the best. We’re all the very best piece of meat, because all the pieces of meat are the best piece of meat. This is the nature of understanding enlightenment. It’s non-duality.

Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, and this is what I wanted to share this week as a topic with you as I was thinking about perfection, the concept of perfection and the concept of being the best. The society in which we live is very competitive, and the way we tend to view ourselves is always in competition to someone else. I would hope that we can learn to see ourselves and others the way that I saw that tree that day in the grove, thinking, “Wow, what a beautiful tree. It’s so unique. It’s so different.” Because that’s exactlY how each of us are. We’re just unique. We’re like the clouds. There is no misshapen cloud, and there is no misshapen human. We’re just who we are. You’re you and I’m me. This is non-duality. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful. This is why I do this podcast, and I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals can make mindful families and societies, and the world could certainly use a bit more mindfulness.

Speaking of mindfulness, I do want to reiterate a couple of news items. One is that I’ve been invited to host a humanitarian workshop in Uganda January 26th through February 4th of 2017. It’s going to be an exciting trip where we’re doing mindfulness practice, humanitarian work, and a little bit of adventure. We’ll be going on a safari. If you’re interested in going to Uganda and doing a mindfulness retreat plus humanitarian work and adventure, please visit mindfulhumanitarian.org and feel free to sign up there.

The next item of news is really exciting for me. We’re starting to get these workshops underway. I’ve been wanting to do one-day workshops in various places where you can come and learn all of the introduction to secular Buddhism just in one go, in one day. The idea here is that the workshop will teach the foundations of mindful living and an introduction to secular Buddhism. It’s just a one-day thing. You’ll come on a Saturday or a Sunday and we’ll spend the day doing a workshop and learning all of the philosophical concepts of Buddhism and mindfulness. The first one is going to be September 3, 2016, that’s a Saturday, in Seattle. So if you’re in the Seattle area and you’re interested in doing this workshop, be sure to visit secularbuddhism.com/events. We’re doing another one in September, September 18th, in London. This is on a Sunday. Sunday, September 18, 2016, we’ll be in London doing a one-day workshop. Again, you can register your interest in these events by going to secularbuddhism.com/events.

Then, the final component to all this, your generous donations are allowing me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast as well as the content that’s presented in these workshops, retreats, and seminars. If you’re interested and in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one-time donation or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast. I’d really appreciate your support. Thank you all for listening and for your continued support. I’m really excited to continue producing these podcast episodes and to see where all this goes in the future. So thank you. You guys have a great week, and I look forward to another podcast next week.

Every day is a good day

I recently came across a Japanese expression and Buddhist teaching that says “nichi nichi kore ko jitsu” which translated means every day is a good day. As I pondered the idea, I thought about many days in my life that I would unequivocally categorize as “bad” days.

Read More

Life is too short to be hating “them”…

Life is too short to be hating “them”…
We all know “them”…those who don’t view the world like “us”. For some, “them” could be the: “right wing nut jobs”, or the “bleeding heart liberals”. The “Trump supporters”, “Bernie supporters”, or “Hillary supporters”. The “gun lovers” or the “gun haters”. The “believers” and the “non-believers”. The “remainers” and the “leavers” (Brexit). What makes “them” so scary is that they don’t view the world the same way as “us”. What if we weren’t afraid to try to understand “them”? What if we actually tried to get to know “them”? What if we were OK with allowing “them” to be “them”? What if we stopped trying to convince “them” to be “us”?

Read More

20 – The Question of Good and Evil

How do we make sense of the atrocities that are committed every day in the world? Is there a source of evil behind such things? In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist understanding of non-dichotomy in relationship to good and evil. How does our understanding of interdependence influence our way of understanding the horrible things we see happening in the world? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
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TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
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 is episode number 20. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the question of good an evil.

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.” 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. And if you’re in a position to be able to help I would encourage you to make a one-time donation, or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

On the topic of good and evil, I wanted to start out by saying in light of recent events, but the more I thought about this the more I realized that it’s not just recent events. Events for years and years now, if you look at the news you’ll see we have had catastrophes, and attacks, and all sorts of man-made problems from terrorist attacks happen almost on a daily basis in countries like Iraq, and in Syria, and then of course we had the shooting here in Orlando a couple weeks ago, and there are always, it seems, things in the news that remind us of the evils of the world.

So I wanted to talk about this topic of good and evil in the Buddhist sense, specifically with how we are to view or cope with the fact that atrocious things are committed almost on a daily basis all around the world. What is the Buddhist view of that? So to understand this a little bit we need to first discuss, at least in our western culture, the dichotomy of good and evil, the Judaeo-Christian background and our way of thinking of good and evil. Evil is usually perceived as the dualistic, antagonistic opposite of good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated.

It’s like an ongoing war of good versus evil, and I think we’re all familiar with that concept. That’s very much the way of thinking that we’ve inherited culturally. In Wikipedia you can look up good and evil, and get an idea of the origins of the concept of good and evil. It’s pretty fascinating to see where it starts, and how it spread. In the Buddhist non-dualistic worldview, both good and evil are part of an interconnected reality that encompasses all things.

Everything is interdependent with everything else. And if you’ll recall, in past podcasts podcast episodes I’ve talked about the analogy of a car, and the understanding that there is no such thing as the car in terms of, you can’t take apart all the pieces of a car and then pick which one of those is the car, because the car was always all of those parts. Same with a cake, right?

You can take something like a cake, and it exists, and it’s there, but there are components that make it what it is. There is no cake, per se, that exists independent of the parts that make a cake; the flower, the sugar, the heat of the oven, the container holding the ingredients, and on and on. So all things are interdependent with all the things that allow that thing to exist, and there’s a zen expression that says, “For every mile you walk east, you are walking a mile west.”

And this acknowledges the very idea that east requires the idea of west for east to even exist. You can also apply this to the sense of self that we have. Self only exists because we have the sense of other, self and other, when in reality all there is is just what is. So applying this to the thinking of good and evil, from the Buddhist worldview, is very similar. The only reason there’s good is because we reference in terms of what we consider to be evil.

So good and evil cannot exist without each other because, what would be evil unless it was the opposite of what we consider to be good? And in Buddhism there’s just oneness, it’s, “All things are one.” So this concept can be a little tricky when we’re thinking about specific events, the atrocities that we see on the news, examples being like the Holocaust, or mass shootings, so many forms of atrocities that are committed.

And it’s hard to look at something like that and not want to just label it as being pure evil, or thinking that the only way that this could have happened is to be inspired by some source of intrinsic evil because it’s so atrocious, and so not what we would do. So I want to explore this concept a little bit in relation to the concept of interdependence. If all things are interdependent, where, or how, does good and evil fit into this equation?

And to illustrate this, I want you to imagine the following story. Imagine a kid comes home from school and he’s upset because he was called a name, or something happened at school that made him upset. So he comes home and he talks to his dad and tells him what happened at school, and his dad says, “Okay, well I understand that this makes you upset. Of course it would feel bad to be called a name at school, but let me teach you a lesson about this,” and to teach the concept of interdependence the dad picks up a stick, and he starts tapping him on the head harder and harder, and the kid is saying, “Why are you doing this? Stop whacking me with the stick.”

Finally, the dad puts the stick down, and he says, “Well are you mad,” and he says, “Yeah I’m mad. Quit hitting me with that. I was trying to tell you what happened at school.” And he says, “Well, why are you mad at me? I’m not the one that hit you. The stick is the one that hit you.” He’s like, “Well that’s stupid. I’m not mad at the stick. You were the one holding the stick.”

And he says, “Ah, okay. Well let me teach you a lesson here, because in this example, how easy was it for you to understand that it would be pointless to be mad at the stick, because the stick was being controlled by something else?” And then he goes on to explain the concept of interdependence, and the things that happen to us are interdependent with the things that cause those things to happen.

And the idea here is, when something happens, we can be offended at the stick, mad at the stick, or we can understand that the stick is being controlled by something else. And if you understand that, and you understand the nature of interdependence, it makes it very difficult to pinpoint the one thing that you should really be mad at.

For example, am I mad at the actual word that I was called? Am I mad at the mouth that spoke the word that I was called, or am I mad at the person who was controlling the mouth who said the word, but even there, am I mad at him for saying that to me, or am I mad at maybe his parents for teaching him that that was a normal way of treating others? Maybe he was called those names growing up.

And this goes on and on, right? There are always causes and conditions to all natural phenomena, which means all things that happen because of the things that make those things happen. So it becomes this intricate web of interdependence, and when we isolate an event it can be easy to want to pin it on something that we think is inherently there, for example, evil, or the concept of maybe the devil, to think, “Okay, well there’s this source of evil, or the devil made this person do it,” makes it really easy to stop with feeling any sense of responsibility with understanding interdependence, because then we can just pin it on one thing and be mad at that, whatever that is.

But when we understand interdependence, it makes it a lot more difficult to feel hatred. We can certainly feel anger, and frustration, being mad at what happened is very different than hating the person who committed something, because if we understand interdependence we understand that this person is also a victim, is a victim of their own ideology, a victim of their own upbringing, their societal views, their concepts, ideas, or beliefs that allowed them to commit such an atrocious thing.

But from the Buddhist worldview, there isn’t a source of inherent evil, which means we can’t pin the atrocities committed, to just label it as, “Well that’s an evil person.” You can say the things that are being done could be considered evil, or what was done is horrible or heinous, but it changes the way that you view events and things that happen, and allows there to be room for compassion at every step.

For example, if I take a stick and I hit you with it, and you lash out at the stick and break the stick, there can be compassion for the stick thinking, “Oh that poor stick. It wasn’t even the stick, it was my hand that was controlling the stick,” and yet your anger took out the stick but didn’t ever understand or realize that it was me controlling the stick. And this is kind of what we do all the time when we interact with the events that are happening in the world.

It makes it very easy to want to retaliate at one level, without understanding that there is a complex layer behind every step that has led to that specific event happening. And I don’t say this to try to minimize in any way the atrocity, or the horribleness of what happened. It’s perfectly fine to recognize that what’s being done is horrible, but it’s different to immediately experience hatred towards this person because we consider them evil.

That’s the ultimate thing I’m trying to answer in this podcast is the question of good and evil. And another way to think about this is, imagine you’re in a campsite, and a bear comes in the campsite. You don’t just say, “Oh well, it’s a bear. None of us should do anything.” You would say, “Okay, well it’s dangerous to be in camp with a bear, and maybe that requires tranquilizing the bear and moving it to another part of the forest or putting it in a cage if required.”

There can be action around the events that are happening that can be driven still by compassion. You don’t take that bear and put it in a cage and say, “I hate you stupid bear.” It would be silly. There’s no anger or hatred there because, in this case, we understand a bear’s just being a bear. And yet when a human commits an atrocity, it’s very easy to want to immediately retaliate with hatred, and hatred is just not useful. It’s not a natural emotion.

Anger is a natural emotion. Sadness is a natural emotion, but hatred is not. Hatred is a way of responding to anger, or a way of responding to sadness, but … I don’t know exactly if this is making sense in the way that I’m expressing it, but what I’m trying to get across is that there are always things that are happening, and then there are complex layers of causes and conditions behind those things. That’s the nature of interdependence.

Too often I think we get caught up in the duality of good and evil making it very easy to think, “If I must be good, they must be bad.” Then we’re always stuck in this dichotomy of duality. There’s always a duality. There’s me and you, us and them, whoever them is. Them is always anyone who is not us, who doesn’t think like us, who doesn’t believe like us, and we’re always stuck in this world of duality and it makes it very easy and natural for good and evil to fit in that paradigm of duality.

There’s good and there’s evil, but even that becomes very subjective. What might be completely evil for one person would be completely normal for someone else. The idea of walking around the street without any clothes on, to some would be considered evil, while walking around without any clothes on in the Amazon jungle in a tribe, with a tribe of people who don’t wear clothes wouldn’t be evil.

So how do you pinpoint what is evil and what is good as inherent things. Well we don’t. The Buddhist understanding, which I think is similar to almost every major world religion, is the concept of the golden rule. Don’t do to others as you would have them do unto you, and the Buddhist view of that is, “Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you,” but it’s the same concept. It’s the same idea. Causing harm is not intrinsically evil, it’s just very unwise.

Nobody wants to be harmed. You don’t want to experience harm. Everyone wants to feel loved and respected, and that’s our natural way of being. From the moment we’re born, we’ve evolved to survive 100% exclusively on the time, and attention, and love of another. Think of every human being who is alive now as an adult is only alive because you were cared for a considerable amount of time by someone else. We just can’t do it alone.

It’s not in our human nature. We’re not born and then boom, we’re independent. It takes years and years before we can be independent. So it’s our natural tendency to be caring and to want to be cared for, because it’s how we evolved. It’s a survival mechanism, and when we understand that and we view everybody with the same natural tendency, then we can understand what must be going on is what in Buddhism we call ignorance or delusion.

You can grow up and have ideas that are put in your head through your society, or through your religion, so many sources, through family, and they can be delusional ideas or concepts that make us ignorant to seeing reality. And inside of this delusion, we can commit atrocities. So you take this and apply it to someone like Hitler, and rather than saying, “Wow, he was just an evil man, and evil is what caused all this,” you can say, “Somewhere in this process there’s compassion for the fact that he was so delusional, and so ignorant of reality that he was deluded by his idea that he needed to exterminate an entire group of human beings.”

And it’s not that there was an inherent evil driving that, it’s that there was an inherent ignorance or delusion that was driving it. But that’s very different than recognizing there’s an inherent source of good and an inherent source of evil, and that’s the non-dichotomy of the Buddhist worldview. It’s not about good and bad, about righteous and evil. All things are encompassed in everything.

Everything is interdependent with everything else, and so when we talk about this concept of good and evil, there can be good things, and I think it’s more appropriate to say pleasant and unpleasant. What might be pleasant or unpleasant for everyone … Everyone’s on their own scale. So we want to foster the things that are pleasant, and try to eradicate or eliminate the things that are unpleasant, that are causing harm in the world, and we do that by starting with ourselves.

Everything starts with ourselves. We can’t make the world a better place unless we’re focusing on making ourselves better individually. We want to strive to be mindful and to practice compassion because it’s individual compassion that creates compassionate families, compassionate societies, and it’s compassionate societies that are going to make a compassionate world.

So it requires action on our part. It’s not just a matter of wanting things to be better, it requires action. So this is kind of the idea of goals versus values. You can go through life with goals, and you can have whatever kind of goals, but even more important than goals are values. If I know what my values are, then I can use my goals that are driven by my values. So an example of this, there’s a Buddhist prayer, ’cause people often ask me, “What is, when I hear the term of prayer in Buddhism, what is that referring to? Who do Buddhist pray to or what do they pray for,” the answer is that in Buddhism you don’t pray to anyone and you don’t necessarily pray for anything.

It’s just an expression that you do just to do. So an example of this is the popular Buddhist prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace.” So it’s like a declaration of the values that I stand for, and if that’s my value statement, then my goals, my life goals, are going to revolve around my values and around my value statement.

So that’s kind of the idea of goals and values, and the reason I bring this up is because, in light of the events that happen around the world, no amount of prayer is going to fix these things. These are man-made problems that need man-made solutions. It requires action on our part, and if I have my expression of prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving-kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace,” that can be my value statement that is going to generate goals now to enact those wishes, and those goals may be what drives me to do humanitarian work, or whatever it is that I’m doing in terms of action, it can be driven the value.

Because the prayer alone, the sentiment alone, isn’t enough. I can wish for all beings to be happy and at peace all day long, but if I’m not doing anything about it I’m not contributing to the goal that I want to see in the world, and I think that’s something appropriate to bring up, because when we have these events taking place in society we need to be mindful of in what ways we can take action and contribute to hopefully minimizing or eliminating these acts from our society.

And it starts with working on ourselves individually, mindfulness individually, and then from there it spreads up until we’re making a change in society. That’s the topic I wanted to share today. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this. You can interact with me on secularbuddhism.com, or on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page. We also have a secular buddhism study group with three or four hundred members, it’s, instead of a page on Facebook it’s a group, so everyone can interact with the posts, and I usually post the podcast on there, and then we have a discussion on there.

And then, of course, another option is just emailing me directly, or contacting me on secularbuddhism.com. So before I wrap this up I do want to quickly remind you of some news. Let’s go to Uganda. This is an exciting opportunity that blends mindfulness with humanitarian work and adventure. From January 26th through February 4th next year, 2017, I’m partnering up with the Africa Promise expeditions, and with my friend Susie, who’s the founder of the Africa Promise Foundation, and we’re putting together this fun trip.

We decided it would … So she invited me to be a part of these expeditions that she puts together where they do humanitarian work, and when she approached me I said, “I’ve been wanting to go do humanitarian work, so I’m gonna go do that,” but I said, “Why don’t we spend time every evening on the trip teaching mindfulness?” So we’ll do, essentially a two-week workshop, or every day of the trip we’ll be doing mindfulness work in the evenings, and learning meditation, learning mindfulness, all the foundations of secular Buddhism, so it’d be like attending a secular Buddhism workshop, plus doing humanitarian work during the days.

Building schools, digging wells, there are several things that we’re gonna be doing, and then there’s the adventure component. Because, if we’re in Africa, it would be silly to miss out on some of the fun adventurous part of being in Africa. So we’re gonna end the trip with a safari, and going and seeing all the wildlife that you would expect to see in Africa.

So again, this is January 26th through February 4th, and you can get more information if you go to mindfulhumanitarian.org. You can get all the information there. Again, feel free to contact us through that site, or me directly if you have any questions. I’d be happy to answer any questions about this trip. So thank you for listening. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society, or the world, a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful.

This is why I do the podcast. I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful, because mindful individuals can make mindful families and mindful societies. And your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism podcast, along with content for the workshops, and retreats, and seminars, so if you’re interested and in a position to be able to do so, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one time donation, or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast.

So thank you for your continued support, and until next time …

19 – Learning to Live Artfully

Modern society tends to assign a value to everything we do. If there is no utilitarian purpose to something, we think it’s not valuable. Why does a painter paint? Why does a dancer dance? For the simple joy of doing it. This is what it means to live life artfully. In this episode, I will explore the concept of purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 19. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about how to live life artfully.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. In every episode, I like to remind my listeners 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.” If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump in to this week’s topic. What does it mean to live life artfully? This is a topic I’ve thinking about lately and I wanted to discuss this concept a little bit.

In western society or perhaps even in western thinking, there tends to be this notion that if something doesn’t have a utilitarian purpose, then it doesn’t have any value. For example, think about a lot of the things that we do in society and we tend to do them because they have a utilitarian purpose and if they have a purpose, then we assign value based on the scale of the purpose that that thing renders. An example of utilitarian thinking would be why would I spend the time to build this bench unless the bench is going to serve value for me? You know, I can put it in my house and use it as a bench for the piano or something along those lines, but I wouldn’t just make it to just make it.

Another example of utilitarian thinking applies to relationships. You know, I’m going to spend time getting to know this person to try to be their friend because if we become friends, I see some form of utilitarian value to it. They happen to be the manager of that store so if this is my friend, maybe I’ll be able to get a discount. We calculate the utilitarian value of the effort that has to go into making the friendship so that there’s some sort of pay off and if there wasn’t some form of value in it, then we wouldn’t see the need to want to spend time making friends with that person.

Now with relationships, that’s not all too far off with how a lot of western society treats relationships in general. Just think about the various acquaintances you have and then you meet someone who happens to be well known or famous or very wealthy. There tends to be the desire to be even more friends with that person. And I think that’s in large part because of our utilitarian thinking in our society where it’s to our advantage to have a friend who’s powerful or wealthy so we tend to put in more effort or more value into that friendship when the reality is that all relationships could be treated equal. That’s an example of utilitarian thinking or assigning an inherent value to things.

So where this comes into play with the concept of what it means to live artfully is that the artful way of living doesn’t necessarily focus on any utilitarian value. I say artfully because I think this makes sense when we think of the arts. Think of somebody who paints and you might ask them why do you paint? There may not be a utilitarian value assigned to that. A painter paints just to paint. Now they could benefit if they’re selling their painting but typically, you don’t decide I want to be a painter so that I can make a lot of money painting. You paint because you enjoy the process of painting.

The same applies with singing, the same applies with dancing. I think dancing is a really good example. What is the utilitarian value of being on stage and performing a dance? From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, the most effective way to get from one side of the stage to the other is to probably walk or run and yet, why do we enjoy, why does a dancer enjoy doing a combination of moves and twirls and spins and performing on stage? There may not be or there doesn’t have to be a utilitarian value to it. This is the idea of living artfully. We live in a way that we do things for the simple joy of doing them.

In the Japanese culture with pottery, there’s this idea that if your vase breaks, you can repair it and then it has more value, more sentimental value or just more value in general because it’s repaired and now it has a story. Utilitarian thinking in the west would be, “Oh, it’s broken. I don’t want it.” If we went back to the example of the bench, you might have a wooden bench that you’ve had for years and years and then one of the … A part of it breaks. Maybe if you only see it for its utilitarian value, you could say, “Well this is broken. I don’t want it anymore.” Someone might have a sentimental value and say, “We’ve had this forever. I want to fix it.” You could throw it out if you don’t see any utilitarian value, and your neighbor who is trying to start a fire might see it and assign it value because now there is a pile of wood that he can use in the fireplace.

These are just some examples to think about but ultimately, what I’m trying to get across with this concept is that in western thinking, we do tend to lean a lot on utilitarian values for things and there are aspects of our lives that we look at and we calculate and if it doesn’t have value, then it’s not that significant or meaningful to us. In eastern thinking or especially in the Buddhist philosophical concept of purpose and meaning, we find the opposite happening here. There’s the idea of purposeless purpose or meaningless meaning. This is the idea that we do things just to do things. For example, a flower blooms because that’s what a flower does. It doesn’t have to have meaning, it just does what it does.

There’s a way to live where in a similar way, we can just live for the enjoyment of living, not because it has to have any meaning or any value or any purpose. This is the concept of living artfully. In fact, if you observe nature, this is exactly what we see in nature. I like to think of a river that flows. When you’re looking on a river that’s flowing, there’s no need to look at that and say, “What is the value? What is the meaning?” There is no meaning to the river that flows. There is the opposite, there’s causality.

Causality is a mindset that I’ve been working with for the last few years since studying Buddhism that I really enjoy. Instead of taking something and looking for the inherent meaning in it, what you’re looking at is what is the causality behind it. An example of this, again looking at the river, you can look at a river and you can enjoy the beauty of the flowing water very much the way you would normally but there’s no need to look for meaning. There’s no meaning for why does this river flow. Instead, you can look at the causality and say, “Well, this river is flowing because the snow is melting further up in the mountains,” and you look for the causes and conditions of things and that in its own sense can be a beautiful experience.

But I think where this really gets interesting is taking the mindset of causality versus meaning and applying it to our day to day living and experiences. For example, I used the example of being cut off when you’re driving because this is a common thing and I think everyone’s experienced it. How easy is it when you get cut off to look for the meaning? Why did this person do this to me? If we’re assigning meaning to that, we’re typically going to be wrong in our assumption of what’s happening. If we approach this from the mindset of causality, then we can understand what happened is just what happened. I got cut off and there’s a reason behind it and I may not know the reason. This person may have lost their job today, they’re in a bad mood, somebody maybe cut them off, and now the mood that they’re in is a part of the problem.

This is the difference with causality and meaning. Imagine in early days, I think our human tendency is to look for meaning. This is why I would imagine in the earliest of times a volcano erupts and immediately people are thinking, “Why did that happen? The God of lava must be mad at us. Maybe we need to sacrifice something.” If we’re looking to create meaning where we’re going to be wrong in our assumption of why things happen. Now, granted back then looking from the mindset of causality, you wouldn’t know why the volcano is erupting. I think this is where it becomes very powerful to be able to sit with uncertainty because something can happen and we can say, “I don’t know. I don’t know the cause of that,” and leave it at that and with time, we could find out. Science does a fascinating job of discovering causality in things and it can take us pretty far back.

Then when you get to a point where you don’t know, you just stay with that and you stay with that uncertainty and you continue to explore and ask questions, test hypotheses until you find the causality of things. But to do the opposite and to assign meaning to things can be very dangerous. When we’re observing nature, we see our tendency is generally to have the mindset of causality. We don’t question what is the meaning of a tree blooming, we just look at it for what it is. It’s a tree that’s blooming in the spring, it smells this way and in the winter, the leaves fall and there are always causes and conditions to the things that we observe in nature.

A couple of weeks ago, I had this experience where I was at home and I was taking a piece of bread out of the bag to make some toast and I noticed one of the pieces of bread had some mold on it, so I decided to not eat the bread but it got me thinking. And I have this thought, here you have bread that’s in a bag and it’s by the window so the sunlight comes in and it warms up the temperature inside the bag and you give that enough time and now the causes and conditions have allowed for mold to exist. The mold is attached to the bread. It’s surviving off of the bread and I thought, “And that’s life.” The causes and conditions arise and suddenly, life exists and there’s this mold sitting there in the bread.

As I thought about this, I thought, now how silly would it be if at some point this mold, if we gave it enough time, was able to think and say, “I … Or this bread exists for me. This bread is my possession.” When the reality is that the mold only exists because of the bread and because the causes and conditions were acceptable to allow mold to come into existence. Then I thought, “Wow, isn’t that our experience of suddenly existing?” We exist on this planet very much like the mold that with the right causes and conditions exists on bread, here we are existing on the planet. And I thought about the mindset of thinking that all that is, this planet and everything on it exists for me and reversing that and realizing that I exist because of it. I exist because if it. I exist because of all of this.

I think that is in a way what it means to live artfully. Rather than assigning meaning, I’m just looking at the causes and conditions of things and realizing I am part of the process of causes and conditions that allow me to exist. There doesn’t have to be any utilitarian purpose or any assigned value. This is purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning. There is no meaning and it doesn’t mean anything that it doesn’t mean anything, and yet here I am and I get to exist. And somehow in the middle of this process of existence, I actually have the ability to experience consciousness, to be able to think, to be able to process emotions and all these incredible experiences that go along with being alive. I think that’s the main difference with simply living versus living artfully.

With that in mind, I think something that we can ask ourselves this week is why do we tend to search for meaning. Why do we tend to want to assign some form of utilitarian value to the things in life, to life in general, and the things that happen in life? What if it doesn’t have meaning? Does that change anything? I think one of the key concepts in Buddhism that I’ve really enjoyed is the idea that there’s isn’t meaning and that’s not to say that we can’t find meaning in life. So this is the difference between looking for the meaning of life and looking just for meaning in life because looking for meaning in life in the lens of interdependence and impermanence, we can find meaning in so many things and the meaning that we find in life evolves.

The meaning that I had as a college student is different than the meaning that I get in life now as the father of three little kids, and it was different being single than it is being married. This process is continually changing and evolving over time. Some people find incredible sense of meaning by traveling, by exploring, by experiencing new things. Others get a sense of meaning following ritual or routine or repeating a lot of the same experiences in life. There’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way because we’re just living.

To live artfully, I think, encompasses this idea of living for the sake of living. It’s painting for the sake of painting and singing for the sake of singing. There could be other things that go along with it but first and foremost, we’re doing what we do because we’re just doing what we do. It’s what brings us joy, it’s what makes us happy, and that can evolve over time. Dancing just to dance. There doesn’t have to be utilitarian purpose to dancing. Walking on the beach or all of a sudden, you start skipping. We don’t pause and say, “Wait, why am I skipping? It’s more efficient to be walking right now.” We don’t have to go through life that way.

There are some aspects in life where I think this is natural and there are other aspects of life where we get caught up in utilitarian thinking and how enjoyable would it be to be able to pause and analyze those moments and think, “Why do I have to get caught up and looking for the meaning of this or that? Why can’t I just enjoy doing this for the sake of doing it, doing it artfully, living artfully?” That’s the concept I wanted to discuss today in terms of the topic for this week’s podcast. What does it mean to live artfully?

I’d like to invite you to explore a few aspects of your own life in which you may be living with a utilitarian mindset and what would it be like if you were to switch to this purposeless purpose or this meaningless meaning mindset, the mindset of living artfully. What would that look like and just play with that a bit and see what you think, see how that changes the way you interact with the experience of being alive.

Now before ending this podcast, I do want to share a couple of things with you that I’m really excited to share. A couple of podcast episodes back, I mentioned how I’m planning on bringing all of the work of the podcast under the umbrella of a foundation, a non-profit foundation. Well I’m excited to announce that that process is complete. The Foundation for Mindful Living is now official. It’s a non-profit and I want to talk to you just a second about what I’m working on with this project because I think this is really exciting. I really believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful. How much anger, aggression, and impatience do we see and experience not only in our own lives but in society in general, especially in light of recent events. We can see that the world needs to have more kindness and more compassion.

This is something that I have been really focusing on since the start of the year that’s motivated to do what I’m doing with Secular Buddhism. I believe that a peaceful world can only exist as a result of peaceful individuals. I feel like the way to making the world a more peaceful place is by making myself a more peaceful person, and this is why I’ve decided to dedicate my time and energy to producing content and tools to allow people to learn mindfulness, to learn the philosophical concepts of contemplative living that allow us to live more peaceful and happy lives.

The Foundation for Mindful Living is a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to creating and providing tools and content to help people live more mindfully. I would love to ask for your help to partner with me to help me accomplish what I’m trying to do. I have three current projects that I’m working on. One is a Secular Buddhism podcast which is this podcast that you’re listening to. We have 19 episodes so far and I plan to continue making this a weekly podcast that touches on topics of eastern philosophy and Secular Buddhism, Buddhism presented in a way that makes sense conceptually for secular-minded people like me.

By donating to the Foundation for Mindful Living, you’re essentially donating to the Secular Buddhism podcast, allowing me the opportunity to continue producing content every week. From the time this podcast launched, it’s grown exponentially. In fact this week, we’ve hit over 100,000 listeners now and it started out at zero at the beginning of the year. So it’s been really exciting to see this grow but the amount of time and resources that go into maintaining this from the hosting of the website, the hosting of the audio files, and everything that goes involved with that, I’ve just been maintaining all of those costs on my own as my way of trying to contribute to making the world a better place. But it’s grown to the point where I think it’s starting to exceed what I’m capable of maintaining on my own, so I wanted to ask for your help with that.

If you enjoyed the podcast, I would invite you to contribute one time or monthly if possible to the podcast and you can do that by visiting Getmindful.org. When you go to that website, that’s the foundation website, that’s my foundation. You’ll see under current projects the three projects I’m working on but you’ll see the Secular Buddhism podcast and at the bottom of that page, you’ll see a place where you can make a donation and it’s really easy to set up to do a quick donation with your credit card or PayPal and you can select to make that a monthly contribution starting from 5$ up or you can pick your own amount. But your generous donations will allow me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast along with content for the workshops and retreats and seminars that I want to put on.

That’s the second project I want to talk to you about is the Mindful Living workshops. The plan is to do a one or two-day workshop and we’ll do these in various cities starting with the cities where we have the most listeners. I have a list of those. They include London is on there, New York, Chicago. There’s several cities and I’ll have to look at that list. But what I plan on doing is making workshops available where people can attend and in one or two days, have an entire introduction to Buddhism, to secular Buddhism.

When I first started studying Buddhism, I was fascinated by the topic and I got most of my information from books and I was able to attend several retreats with Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and several other teachers. And something that bothered me and I understand why it works this way but it bothered me that these workshops can be expensive to go listen to someone and to learn from a Buddhist teacher can be expensive. I felt bad knowing that for me, this was doable but to think that there’s someone out there who may be interested in learning this but they just don’t have the resources to do it was sad. I feel like this is content that is really life changing and it promotes such a positive way of living that I don’t want to restrict it to only people who can afford workshops.

That’s what where podcast came in because I know anyone can listen to that. It’s always going to be free but what about these workshops? Well, the contributions on the foundation also allow me to travel and set up workshops in places where listeners can come and attend a one or two-day workshop for free. The only expense involved would be paying for your food or if it’s a venue that we have to pay for, there are going to be a minimal cost associated to that. But I think we would be able to set these up where they could be completely free for anyone who wants to attend. That is a very important aspect of this for me. I want to make sure that all of this content that one can look for and learn in Buddhism will always be available to anyone interested. Money shouldn’t be an issue. Then of course, if you’re able to attend it and you want to make a donation, that would allow us to continue promoting these to a greater audience.

So we’ve got the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living Workshops, and then this third one is a new one that I’m experimenting with and I’m really excited to tell you about this. I know that this isn’t one that’s going to be open for everyone because this one does have costs associated to it. But this is the idea of doing a Mindful Humanitarian Expedition and the thinking behind this is these are three things that I really enjoy in life, mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure and doing expeditions. Fortunately, with my career and with what I do for work, I get to travel a lot and I think it’s a fascinating opportunity to experience new things so I thought it would be fun to test this and see if anyone out there is in a position to be able to do something like this.

I would love to put together a trip. Well, it’s already put together with the Africa Promise Foundation. The founder of the Africa Promise Foundation has an organization called Africa Promise Expeditions and my friend Suzy who runs that foundation, we’ve decided to partner up and create this opportunity to be able to travel somewhere where you get to enjoy the benefits of learning mindfulness. So throughout the expedition every evening, we would be doing the workshop work, teaching mindfulness, learning to meditate, learning all of the concepts and principles of Secular Buddhism. During the day, we’re actually doing humanitarian work, building or digging wells and working with locals in Uganda, doing actual humanitarian work. It’s a combination of working on ourselves through mindfulness while working for others doing humanitarian work. This would be in Africa in Uganda.

Then the third component to the trip is to enjoy unique experiences while we’re there, the adventure side of it. We would do an African Safari and just gain new experiences while we’re there because part of the beauty of life is gaining new experiences and doing things that are fun. This is a combination of all three of those things. That’s learning mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure all in one trip. You can get more information about this trip by going to Getmindful.org which is my foundation for mindful living and when you look at the current projects, you’ll see all three of these options there, the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living workshops, and I’m going to be adding dates and locations to that based on your feedback and your interest. Then there’s the mindful humanitarian expedition.

Now this already has dates set in mind so if you’re available for that, join us. I’d love to have you apply to join us on this expedition. It’s January 26th through February 4th of 2017 in Uganda. Everything included in the cost to do this program, it includes everything that you would need from the moment you arrive to Uganda till you leave. The only thing you would have to do is get there. We can assist with affordable airfare to get there, depending on where you’re coming from.

I’d love to see if you’re interested in any of these things. But if you’re in a position to do this, it would be awesome if you would be willing to partner with me and become a monthly contributor to the Foundation for Mindful Living which will continue to keep the Secular Buddhism podcast going. It would allow us to start doing workshops that you can attend and that anyone can attend without any cost associated. It will allow me to start putting together an online curriculum and online workshops that anybody could attend anywhere in the world. Again, this would all be completely free. Then of course, if you’re interested in the Mindful Humanitarian Expedition, click on that and apply. We only have a few spots available. This is something that I decided I’m going to do with some people that are close to me and we’re leaving the other spots open for anyone who’s interested to apply, and you can join us on this Humanitarian Expedition. I think it’s going to be an awesome experience.

If you’re interested in any of those things, please check out Getmindful.org. Please consider becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast through Getmindful.org and please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns about any of these things. But I’m looking for people who, like me, believe that the key to making the world a better place is by providing tools and content to teach people to be more mindful. If that sounds like something you’d like to do, I’d love to have you work with me on this. Visit Getmindful.org if you have any questions. And that’s all I have this week for the podcast and I look forward to doing another podcast episode next week. Thank you guys, have a wonderful week and until next time.

18 – Freedom From the Pursuit of Happiness

Why do we chase after happiness? What if we could be free from the pursuit of happiness? In this episode, I will explore the nature of human emotions. When we understand that all emotions, including happiness, sadness, etc…are impermanent, we can learn to stop chasing after these emotions. Pursuing happiness can be a lot like pursuing our shadow. It’s not something we can “catch”.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hey guys, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 18, I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about The Pursuit of Happiness. Maybe more specifically, liberation from the pursuit of happiness.

If you’re a first time listener, welcome to the podcast. If you’re a repeat listener, welcome back.

The Secular Buddhism Podcast is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for the secular minded audience. And every episode I like to remind my listeners of a quote by 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.”

If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. And now let’s jump in at this week’s topic.

Why we chase after happiness? I think the short answer is: That it feels good to be happy, and it doesn’t feel good when we are not happy, it doesn’t feel good when we are angry or sad for too long at least. And it does feel good to be happy, to experience joy. So we end up in this position where we decide, I want more of that good stuff, happiness, and I want less of that bad stuff, sadness or anger. And then we got caught up in the pursuit of happiness. We’re continuously chasing after the things that make us happy, and continuously avoiding the things that will not make us happy. So that’s the topic I want to discuss today.

This has been on my mind for about a week now. Last Sunday, I was on my way down in the morning to meditation session, about an hour away from where I live. And on my way there I had punched in the address in the GPS on my phone, and I left with enough time to make sure I could be there early, because I don’t like being late.

So on my way down, I’m keeping track of the time, and thinking, “This is great, I’m going to be there right on time.” And as I pulled up to the location I knew this couldn’t possibly be the location, because I was in a residential area, and pulling up to a house. And I knew the group that I was going to visit met at a yoga studio. So I thought, “Well this can’t be the right place.” And sure enough after checking, it looked like google had messed up.

So I was kind of sad, but not too concerned, because like I said I left early. So I thought, “Well, maybe I should punch in the address, instead of google maps, I’ll try apple maps,” which I rarely use because usually apple maps leads me astray.

So I punched in the same address to apple maps, and it said I was 10 minutes away from the right location. So I sped off to the new location following apple maps direction now, and as I pulled up to the new location 10 minutes later, I though, “Uh! This still doesn’t seem right,” because it was a big empty field. At that point I didn’t even question it because I have been wrong many times with apple maps, I though, “Well, somehow this address just doesn’t point up on either system.”

So I googled the name of the studio that I knew they were meeting at, it was a yoga studio. And I punched in the name instead of the address into google. And that worked, it pulled up the name and on the map it showed that I was 10 minutes away. So I sped off, at this point realizing, “Now I’m going to be 10 minutes late.” Because by then, it was starting time and the map said I was 10 minutes away.

SO I raced off, and I started feeling frustrated because I really don’t like showing up late to places. Especially, imagine a big meditation room and thinking, “If they’ve already started, and it’s all quiet, then I come walking in late, it interrupts everything.” So I really didn’t want to have to do that, but I had already driven an hour to get there, so I wasn’t just going to give up and go home.

So I started following the new directions on google maps, and as I’m pulling in the new parking lot 10 minutes later, I realize, “This possible can’t be the location.” Because I had been there before, that was the old address. And I knew that about a month or so ago, they had switched to a new address. So I thought, “Why did it take me to the new address, maybe they didn’t update the right address on their website.

So I get on my phone and I start doing a little bit more research and find out there are actually two locations for the studio, for the specific yoga studio. And after checking on google maps again, I realized, “Oh! It did pull up to, I just happen to pick the first one which was the the wrong one, the second one is the right location and the address on that listing match the one that I was initially searching for.”

So I punched that one in on my GPS, and it says I’m 10 minutes away. At this point I’m frustrated because now I’m going to be 20 minutes late by the time I show up, and that’s assuming it takes me to the right place.

SO I start heading back to this new direction following my GPS, and I had 10 minutes to burn while I’m driving. So while I’m doing this, I decided to try to practice mindfulness thinking, “Okay, I can tell that I’m upset. I’m frustrated that I’m going to be late, let me work with that, I’ve got 10 minutes to go. I’m just going to think about that, what it is that makes me upset about that?”

And it was fun, almost comical to realize the irony of the situation. I had started out my day thinking, “I want peace and calm, so I’m going drive down and meditate, so I can start out with a nice, peaceful, calm day.” And that ended up being the very source of my frustration. Is that I couldn’t get to where I was trying to get, to get my peace. And I found that comical thinking, “If I didn’t want peace this morning, I could just stayed home and I’d be content and happy at home, because I didn’t want peace. But instead I wanted peace, so here I am frustrated that I can’t have it because I can’t get there on time, and I can’t even find the place.”

Just the irony of the situation, had me laughing. So I finally pull up to what should be the right location. At this point now, I’m 20 minutes late, and I look at the parking lot and think, “Okay, this looks like the right place.” And I look across the street and what do I see? The abandoned field, the empty field that apple took me to the second time I was trying to look for the address.

So at that point, I just started laughing out loud, thinking, “Uh! The irony of this thing is just too much.” Here I was at the right place, at the right time, but I didn’t see it, because I was on the wrong side of the road, and I just assumed, “I must be at the wrong place,” so I continued my wild chase to the right place, that only brought me back to where I was initially.

At this point, it’s just all comical to me. If I was late to some meeting, maybe I wouldn’t have made too much of it. But the fact again, the fact that I was going to meditate to start my day out with some peace and calm, is what made this just almost too funny.

So I showed up and yap, I walked in late and it was fine, I didn’t think much of it. And I’m glad I went even though I was late because it was a wonderful experience, and it accomplished what I was hoping to. It was a very uplifting day after that. The funny this is for days since this happened, because this is last Sunday, all week I’ve just been thinking of the irony of the situation, and how in life we do the same thing. It’s the thing that we want that becomes the very reason that we suffer.

We want something and we can’t have it, so we suffer. And then if you’re lucky and you find a spiritual path, so to speak, like Buddhism for example, that says, “Okay, the problem is in wanting, okay, then I want to not want.” And now the fact that I want to not want, and I can not want makes me frustrated, because now I want the thing that I can’t have, which is to not want, but I want to not want. So it’s the irony of the whole situation it’s comical.

And that’s the nature of reality, it the fact that we chase after happiness that guarantees that we’re never going to be happy, because we have a misunderstanding of what happiness actually is. We treat happiness like is this thing. A permanent thing, and if I can find it then I’m done, I’m solid, for the rest of my life I’ll just be happy.

It entails not just being happy but avoiding suffering. I’m not just going to be sad, I’m not going to be angry anymore, I’m just going to be this peaceful zen like person who’s only blissed-out. And the harder you chase after that, the more suffering you’ll experience because that’s not a scenario that’s real, that’s not real life.

This reminds me of a story I want to share with you, and this is told in several circles among Sufi poets, and the main one Attar of Nishapur and I think I’ve shared this before. He talks about a fable. In which a powerful king assembles all his wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he’s sad. So he’s going through this period of his life where he’s sad, he doesn’t want to be sad, nobody does, right? He wants to be happy. So he tells his wise men, “Come up with something that’s going to make me happy.” And then again this is a metaphor, right?

After deliberations, the wise men get together and they come up with a ring, and they hand him the ring, and the ring has the inscription, “This too will pass.” And it has the desired effect. He realizes, “Ah! The sadness I’m experiencing is impermanent, this is wonderful and the understanding that it’s impermanent is enough to get him so start being happy, because sadness is not a permanent thing. So now he’s happy, however, he looks at the ring and realizes this message is also cursed. Because now whenever he’s happy he’s reminded that the happiness is impermanent and it’s going to pass.

And that’s where this expression, “This too shall pass,” comes from this story. This is a story I think has a profound teaching in it. And it’s the understanding that emotions like all things in life are impermanent. So to chase after happiness, to pursue happiness is like pursing your shadow. You can chase it your whole life but it’s something that isn’t a permanent thing, its not a thing that you catch it’s not a thing that you can grasp.

Happiness is very similar, when we look at other emotions, sadness, anger, fear, they are emotions that arise, they linger and then they disappear. They are in a constant state of changing, because that’s the nature of emotions. We happen to fix it on happiness because it’s the one we like. We like how we feel when we’re happy, and we realize we don’t typically like how we feel when we’re sad, or when we’re mad. So we lurch on to the concept of happiness and chase it, like we would our shadow.

And then there we are, we spend our whole lives chasing after something that is never meant to had as a permanent thing. It’s never meant to be something that you can actually get and then, “Boom! There you go, now you’re happy, you’ll never experience the other emotions.” Because they’re fleeting emotion, they’re impermanent. So if we can understand the nature of happiness as something impermanent, then we have a new sense of freedom.

So one way to think about this, is like we would think about the shadow. When the conditions are right, the shadow appears, and when the conditions are not right, when the conditions are not met, and there’s no source of light, and object to cast a shadow, then there is no shadow. So when the conditions are right, happiness is there, we experience happiness under the right conditions, and when those conditions are not there, we don’t experience happiness. And when the conditions are right, we experience anger, and when the conditions are right, we experience sadness. That’s the nature of human emotions.

So what’s powerful in this is realizing, “Okay, the point isn’t to obtain happiness, and to avoid sadness, or avoid anger, or avoid all the other emotions.” What we’ll learn and what we’ll see a wise way os approaching this experience of life is to think, “Okay, all of these are natural normal emotions.” And at some point I’ll feel one, and at some point I’ll feel another, and they’re all impermanent.

Imagine you have that ring, with the message etched, “This too will pass.” And next time you’re experiencing an emotion, whether it’s a positive emotion or a negative emotion, remind yourself that this too will pass. And then we don’t have to lurch on to so tightly to these emotions, they’re just impermanent emotions, it’s the nature of being human that we’re going to experience all the range of emotions that human’s experience. And not one of these is a permanent emotion. You can’t catch it and say, “Okay, that’s it. From here on now, I will only experience this one.” And so much of our suffering comes from the misunderstanding of the impermanence of our emotions.

When we’re experiencing anger for example, you can get angry at the fact that you’re angry, because now you’re caught up in this conceptual idea of, “Anger is bad, I’m not supposed supposed to be angry, I’m just supposed to just be happy or grateful.” I speak out of experience on this, I used to genuinely believe that there is no legitimate reason to ever be ungrateful, or to be angry, or to be sad. In my mind it was always compared to, “Well, think of so and so who has it so much worse, or think of the starving kids in Africa, or some scenario like that.” And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t compare completely, but what I’m saying is everyone’s circumstances are unique.

So it’s unfair for me to say, “I lost my job,” but I shouldn’t be mad because somewhere else someone is starving. There may be some truth to that from a perspective sense, but the natural way of human emotions they don’t work that way. Everyone would never experience any emotiona if they could just simply compare themselves to someone else, now it may help a little bit but you’re still going to … The point here is no matter what type of life you have, you’re still going to experience the full range of human emotions. This is why you have people in third world countries who live in poverty who can be happy, and you have someone living in a first world country who has fame and power and wealth and they can be unhappy, they can be experiencing suffering and anguish.

Because that’s, it’s the natural way of being human, is that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, you’re going to experience the full range of emotions no matter what.

SO there’s freedom in this … Buddhism is also often referred to as the path of liberation. So if we’re applying that thinking to the concepts of human emotions, what is the sense of liberation that we get? Well it’s actually a pretty incredible one, when you don’t have to be happy now you’re free to be content. It’s like the expression, “Now that I don’t have to be perfect, I can be good.” Well this is similar, now that I don’t have to chase after happiness as if that’s the only emotion that counts, I can just be content with whatever emotion am experiencing. And when I’m experiencing it I can just be with it.

For example anger, when I’m angry I can understand anger is natural and it’s okay. I can’t get rid of anger and that’s okay. You can’t get rid of sadness and that’s okay. You just learn to be with it while it’s there, with the understanding that this too shall pass. These emotions are all impermanent and when the conditions are right, they appear, and when the conditions are not met, these emotions aren’t there, and that’s it.

This reminds me of a teaching, a Zen teaching that I once heard, and I really enjoyed, and it’s about the journey. And the idea of the story is that there’s a man who’s on a journey and he’s trying to get from her and there, and there happens to be on the other side of the river. So as he’s traveling and comes up to the river and realizes that, “To leave here and get there, I have got to get across this river.” He can’t find a suitable place to cross because it’s dangerous. So he starts walking along the edge of the river looking for the right place and this goes for however long, hours, looking for the right place to cross.

And at one point he reaches a place where he can see someone where he can see somebody seating on the other side, happens to be a monk. And he sees this monk seating on the other side of the river, and he finally yells out to him and says, “Excuse me, excuse me,” the monk looks up and looks at him and says, “Can you please tell me how to get to the other side?”

And the monk kind of looks at him bewildered, looks up and down the river and then finally yells back, “You are on the other side.” And that’s the story, that’s the whole story, and I love this story. It makes me laugh when I hear it because “How do I get to the other side?” Well, from the perspective of the monk he says, “You are on the other side.”

And this is the nature of reality when it comes to perspective, wherever you are, for you is here, for someone else is there. Now there is no here and there, other than based on perspective, where I am is where I am. Where you are is just where you are. And with emotions it’s the same, I am happy, I’m happy, and when I’m mad, and when I’m sad, I’m sad. There’s no need to fight off a specific emotion as if I could guarantee that there’s something that will ensure I never experience that again, you can’t do that.

You can see this is real life by observing people who chase, who are caught up in the pursuit if happiness. Their thinking, it has to do with money, and when I can finally get enough money then I can be happy. And they chase after this their whole lives, and some of them do reach this point where they finally get a lot of money, and the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re no different than anyone else, they just happen to have more money. Happiness wise, they still have a set of difficulties that arise in life because that’s the nature of life, that difficulties arise, there is no guarantee against them.

And I do want to be clear to specify that there is a baseline. There’s a baseline where once your needs, your basic human needs are met, beyond that there is no change. Money, power, fame, non of it is going to guarantee more happiness. But if you’re under the baseline, then yes. If you don’t have proper shelter, you don’t have love or you don’t have, your basic human needs aren’t met, then yeah, that’s the first thing. Those need to be met to have that baseline of happiness.

But you’ll be shocked at how low that line is. This is why like I mentioned before there are people in third world countries who live very happy lives, while you have people in first world countries who have so much more, who live very unhappy lives. Because none of these things we typically associate with happiness guarantees of happiness. Because happiness is just an emotion, when the conditions are there we experience it, and when they are not there we don’t. Money is no guarantee of it, fame is no guarantee, power is no guarantee. And we tend to chase after those three specifically because somehow we live in a delusional society that thinks that those three things will have bearing and weight on how happy we are, and how we can minimize our suffering. And it’s just not just true, you can look at any study and you’ll find that it’s simply not true.

So leads us back to the initial question, why so we chase after happiness? Well, another answer will be, it’s just our human nature. It’s our human nature to experience something pleasant and say, “I want more of that,” to experience something unpleasant and say, “Uh! I don’t want to experience more of that.” And then we start chasing after those two thing, chasing the things that are pleasant and avoiding the things that are unpleasant. And that’s natural. But the misguided understanding of that, is that either one of those are permanent. There’s no guarantee of any formula that’s going to say, “That’s it, now you won’t experience suffering.”

You can work hard your whole life building up money, wealth and power, you finally get it, you think life is good, and then your loved one dies in a car accident, and now you experience suffering. Or you get sick and now you’re thinking, “I will give all the money I have to find a cure for this,” but there is no cure for it and now you’re experiencing suffering just like anyone else. Because the nature of reality is that difficulties arise, right? This is the first noble truth taught in Buddhism, as in life there is suffering, or that in life difficulties will arise.

So when we understand this, we become free, we become free from the chase of pursing happiness. Happiness you can think of, is part of the overall journey. So there can be happiness in the pursuit, but what is it you’re pursing? What is there to even pursue? If you understand the nature of the interdependence and the nature of impermanence, especially when applied to human emotions, then you’re free to just experience living. There’s not point, specific point other than the point is to live, so you get to just enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them.

This is the how I tend to live, the lifestyle that I have, I like to chase after experiences for the sake of the experiences, and I enjoy adventurous stuff. I love flying, I fly with a paramotor and paragliding. I love traveling, I love taking pictures and capturing my experiences, and I would have to say at one point initially, I was chasing after happiness. I thought the answer to happiness was doing this and avoiding that. And over the years that’s evolved. Because I found that no matter what I do, I still get anxious when then time of the month to pay bills comes around. I still get stressed when I’m thinking of a specific deal that fell through at work. None of that has ever changed. But somehow in the middle of all of it, I’m still content, I’m enjoying the experience of being alive. And that just doesn’t mean the good experiences, that also includes the bad ones. Or what we would perceive as bad.

After a particularly stressful day or a specific stressing event that happens at work, I often find myself thinking, “I’m glad I’ve experienced that, because when someone else is going through that, now I know what’s that like. I’ve been through that.” And it makes me grateful for the experienced that caused pain, tremendous pain in life to think, “I know what that’s like.” Because I’ve been there, allows me to have more compassion and kindness for others because I get to experience everything, I want to experience everything. I want to know what it’s like to hurt, I want to know what it is like to be sad, I want to know what it is like to be blissful and happy. Fortunately I have experienced a broad range of these emotions, and even more fortunately for me now, I understand that they’re all impermanent.

I feel what is expressed in the parable, that this too shall pass, this too will pass, has been a fantastic way of looking at life and understanding my personal pursuit of happiness. It’s no longer something I pursue, at least not in the sense I pursue and thinking, “I can actually catch it.” Now it something I can have fun with. When you understand that it’s impermanent and that it’s just the nature of life is to experience all of it, you can have fun with it. And when I’m experiencing happiness I love thinking, “Oh! Right now that conditions are there, I’m experiencing happiness this is great, all the while knowing this is impermanent, enjoy it because it is impermanent.

And then the same thing happens when I’m sad or when I’m angry, I’m just with it, I’m not trying to change it because I know it is impermanent. When the conditions go away, the emotion also goes away. And that’s the beauty of just living life in a way where you’re detached from the pursuit. I’m just enjoying it as I go because I don’t need to lurch on to the delusion that it’s actually something that I can have. That actually happiness is something I can obtain, I can pursue it, I can catch it, put it in a cage and it’s mine, that’s a delusion. I would be better off chasing my shadow for the rest of my life.

So that’s the topic I wanted to share in this podcast. Why do we chase after happiness? The concept of the pursuit of happiness. I want to hopefully give a sense of liberation, now you’re free to no longer pursue happiness because happiness is just something that will be there. When it’s there is there, when it’s not, it’s not. And try to think of happiness like you would in the other emotion. We don’t particularly chase after anger or chase after sadness, and yet no matter what you do you’re going to experience those as well.

So freedom from the pursuit of happiness and now that you don’t have to be happy you can be content. Now that you don’t have to chase after happiness, you can just enjoy life with a content attitude even when you’re experiencing positive emotions or negative emotions.

So that’s what I wanted to share with you guys, I look forward to another topic next week, and I hope you guys have a wonderful week. So take care, and until next time.