Month: March 2017

37 – The Art of Self-Compassion

Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer, the further out we go from our inner circle? We’re not as mean to a stranger as we are to a family member. But we’re ruthless to ourselves! In this episode, I will explore the idea of self-pity, self-criticism, and self-compassion. I will share 3 steps you can take to help you to be kinder to the person who needs it most…YOU!

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode #37. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And, today, I’m talking about The Art of Self-Compassion.
Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer the further out we go from our inner circle?

Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer the further out we go from our inner circle?

We’re more harsh on a friend than we are a stranger; more harsh on a family member than we are on a friend. And, ultimately, we’re just ruthless on ourselves. And, when it comes to treating ourselves, the craziest part is that the person giving the beating is also the one taking the beating. Why are we so critical of ourselves?

In this episode, I want to explore the idea of self-pity versus self-compassion. What is self-compassion, and how do we practice it?

But, before I jump into that, I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place, by teaching people to live more mindfully.
If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, and, perhaps, the world for free. Imagine that, people being able to attend a workshop or a retreat to learn about mindfulness. That’s possible. All you have to do is visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button at the top of the page.

And, one more reminder, the Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

If you’re new to Secular Buddhism, or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast, in order. They are a summary of all of these concepts. Also, you can check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available as a paperback on Amazon, eBook on Kindle, iBook on iTunes, and audiobook on audible.com. And, for more information and links to those book versions, just visit secularbuddhism.com.
Okay. With all that out of the way, now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Self-compassion. So, first, how do we define compassion? In general, everyone has some level of compassion, excluding conditions of psychopathy or something like that; but, think of the images of suffering animals on TV. I remember those commercials with Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. You know, generally, we all feel a sense of compassion when we see stuff like that; compassion when a family member or a friend, or even a stranger, is experiencing an instance of suffering. But why do we feel that?

I think we’re hard-wired from an evolutionary standpoint to feel this way, because we depend on the compassion of others for our very survival. No other creature on the planet requires the care and attention that a young human being requires to survive.

In Buddhism, this innate desire to lessen the suffering of others is often referred to as our Buddha Nature, or the awakened state. It’s a natural state. And, overtime, it’s our concepts, and ideas, and beliefs that can desensitize us from this natural state. So, part of the spiritual practice of someone studying Buddhism is to increase that state of compassion; to include all living beings, including, and perhaps, especially, ourselves.

There’s a phrase or an expression that comes from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer that says, “May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness. May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” And, that idea, or that prayer is rooted in this practice of increasing compassion. Another idea that comes from the Buddhist understanding of compassion is that everyone deserves it. It doesn’t need to be quantified or qualified.

You know, think about a dog that gets hit by a car, and you see it. You don’t tend to judge the circumstances, before determining if the compassion is deserved. You just feel it. You feel sorry for it, and you try to minimize the suffering. You don’t say, “Well, you shouldn’t have tried to cross the road. See what you get?” You know, we wouldn’t do something like that.
But, why is it that we do that when it comes to human beings?

You know, “I’ve been robbed.” “Oh, well, you shouldn’t have been in that part of town.”
Or, you know, the horrible story of someone being raped. And, it’s like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been dressed that way.”
And so many other similar judgments. And these are horrible because compassion doesn’t require any kind of judgment or qualification. And, sure, there may be reason to analyze a situation and to be able to use wisdom as a tool to avoid suffering, like obeying the sign that says, “Warning: There are sharks in the water,” so, maybe you won’t go into it.

But, once a person has gone into the water and they’ve been attacked or bit by a shark, and they’re experiencing suffering, the compassion that we can feel to help ease or minimize that suffering shouldn’t be entangled in the analysis of whether or not this person should’ve been in the water or not. It’s just not necessary. At this point, compassion is only concerned about one thing: to lessen the suffering that is being experienced. And, there’s no need for judgment in that process.
So, I mentioned this at the start. It’s easier to feel natural compassion the further out we go from ourselves. So, stranger, then friend, and then family, and ultimately, self. So, as a practice, if we want to increase our compassion for others, we should start with ourselves, because if I’m capable of deep compassion for myself, imagine that expanding out, exponentially, as you go out from there.

Compassion for a friend might be harder than compassion for family, and compassion for a stranger might be even harder than compassion for a friend. So, I think we often think about working on compassion or developing compassion, but we start with thinking outside of that ring. What can I do for someone else first? And, if this was a formula where you’re imagining these rings, and the further the ring goes out from you, the easier it is to experience compassion. And, let’s say that multiplies, I don’t know, just any number by two. Then, imagine the amount of work and effort it would take, if we were starting from the outside of that ring in.

If I can get, let’s say, the level of compassion from one to ten that I experience for another, maybe it’s a, let’s say, an eight out of ten, and then it diminishes. Eight out of ten for a stranger, maybe six out of ten for a friend, four out of ten for family, and when it gets to me, it’s like, one or two out of ten.

So, if I’m trying to increase the outer ring, by working with others, and I get that to go up one notch, and then you use that same formula and go in, you’re not making a big dent, or a big increase in the compassion you have for yourself. But, if you’re gonna do this backwards; if I was to take the compassion I have for myself, if it was on a two out of ten scale, and I was able to increase that to, I don’t know, six out of ten, or something, imagine what that does to the number going out from there to family, and then friends, and then strangers.

It’s a lot like the turning of a wheel on a bicycle. You’ve got the pedals that are attached to one set of, you know, one wheel, and that is usually connected with a chain to gears, and then the gears can shift, and they turn. Ultimately, the actual wheel is spinning. So, if you’re thinking the key to get in this wheel to spin faster is to work on the wheel itself; imagine the bicycle’s kinda suspended in the air and you’re spinning the wheel; you could spin it faster, or you could start with the smallest of all those things, which is the actual, the little wheel of the gear, where the pedals are.

What if you made that bigger? Then, what would that do to the ultimate speed of the tire? It would make it a lot faster. But anyway, you get the idea. The idea here is, instead of starting from the outside in, what if we started from the inside out in developing compassion? So, this is self-compassion we’re talking about now.

So, we wanna start with this form of self-compassion. Now, if you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ll recall that during the safety procedure, usually at the beginning before you take off, they’ll take about how if there’s an emergency, these masks come out of the top, and they always say, “Put yours on first, and then help someone else.”

And I was thinking about this on a recent flight with my son sitting next to me; and I was thinking, “Man, I would want him to be safe first,” you know, “First thing because I care about him more than I care about myself.” And then, I realized, “Well, if I only have a matter of seconds, and I were to pass out, then I can guarantee he will, ’cause he can’t reach it, and he won’t know what to do.” And I thought, “Is it selfish of me to want to put the mask on first?”

And it may seem so at first but, if our goal is to dramatically increase our compassion towards others, by focusing on ourselves first, then it wouldn’t be selfish. Like the airplane mask, I put mine on first because of how much I care for my son sitting next to me. So, on one hand we have this idea of self-pity, and this seems to be a default setting for a lot of us; and on the other hand, we have self-compassion.

One arises out of fear; perhaps, the fear of not being liked, or the fear of being disliked, ’cause remember we’re hard-wired to belong. And the other one arises out of love. So, self-pity arises out of fear. Self-compassion arises out of love. And there’s an element of wisdom that I wanna point out here.

In Buddhism, we’re always teaching about interdependence, and we continually go back to this idea that all things have causes and conditions; things inter-are. The flower exists because of the sun, and the clouds, and the rain, and the soil, and so on. And suffering fits this understanding. Suffering is also interdependent.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about this and how we can learn to look deeply at our suffering, and to understand the causes and conditions. The absence of compassion has causes and conditions too. So, if compassion is the natural state that we experience, and you can see this at a very young age, then we can look into what are the causes and conditions that may be preventing us from experiencing compassion.

Again, aside from psychopathy, which is also a cause or a condition that would prevent compassion from arising naturally; perhaps, there are other causes and conditions.

For example, prejudice. If I hold a racist idea or a concept, could that be the cause or the condition that prevents compassion to arise naturally towards a specific group? You bet. And you spend time looking at how you see the world, then you start to notice things like this. Perhaps you can ask yourself, “What ideas or beliefs do I hold that maybe preventing me from feeling natural compassion towards others?” Maybe a specific group.

How do we actually practice self-compassion?

I wanna mention three steps to assist with this process. And step one is you practice being kind to yourself by imagining you’re someone else. And I’ll explain that. And step two is looking deeply at suffering. And step three is developing mindfulness or awareness around suffering.

So, starting with step one, practice being kind to yourself by imagining you are someone else. What does that mean? Well, I’ve mentioned already in our society, it’s much easier to be kind to family and friends, than it is to be kind to ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to treat others half as badly as we treat ourselves. I’m sure that we’ve all done this. Have you ever said to yourself, “You idiot,” or, “You’re such an idiot.” What are some of the things that we say to ourselves that we would never ever say to someone else? Think about that for a moment. Think about some of the things that you say to yourself.

Mother Theresa used to say, “It’s easy to love the people far away. It’s not always easy to love those close to us. It’s easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger, than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.” I really like that. And I would go further and add that when we learn to love ourselves, that’s when we can truly learn to love others. But it has to start with ourselves. And this is where self-compassion can kick in.

So, as an example of being kind to yourself, imagining you’re someone else. Just recently for me, my business has been experiencing some complications and difficulties for quite some time. A couple years ago, I had a big contract with Walmart that fell through, and I’ve been struggling to recover from that ever since, and then it happened again about a year ago with AT&T Wireless. Similar deal. They ordered all these products, put us in all their stores, and then decided, “Nevermind. We don’t want to sell these anymore.” And they take it all back. And a lot of these big retailers are notorious for this; doing business with big box retail can be really difficult for a small company. And I’ve paid the price for that twice.

It’s been such a significant price that I’ve had to pay to take all that inventory back, to scale down manufacturing that it’s put my company on the precipice of failure. And in the last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with a few other setbacks that have kicked in that are like adding, you know, it’s like the straw on the camel’s back. And I’m in a very serious predicament now where I’m in complete uncertainty about the future of my company. And it’s been stressful. And it’s been difficult. And I’ve caught myself on occasions with how I talk to myself about it thinking, “Man, you failed. What have you done?” And so, I’m experiencing firsthand in various occasions in the last few weeks, and the last few days, the sense of self-pity. You know, “Oh, poor me,” or self-criticism. You know, “You’re such an idiot. Why did you ever do business with these guys. You knew this could’ve happened again after it happened once.”

And then I started to remember this concept of self-compassion. I started to imagine somebody I really care for. And, you know, in this case, my brother. I have a twin brother, and he’s my best friend. And I was imagining, “What if this was his company? He started this seven years ago, and this is his baby, and he’s built this, and he’s telling me what’s happening at work.” And imagining him telling me the same thing changed the entire dynamic.

At that point, I’m thinking, “Well, geez. I’d hug him and say, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that this is happening. How can I help you? Don’t be hard on yourself. You didn’t know this was gonna happen with these big retailers’.” And it was so fascinating to see how much easier it was for me to feel kindness and compassion by imagining myself to be someone else. And noticing how harsh I could be on myself, when I was just in this experience all by myself.

So, this is one of the techniques we can do. If you’re going through something, whether it be, I don’t know, you can think of so many examples. Getting out of a bad relationship, or running a red light, and then coming down so hard on yourself for what you’ve done, imagine in that moment, someone you really care about, and now they’re telling you what just happened, but it’s them. And notice how quickly that tone, how quickly that compassion can arise naturally. And then flip it back to you and say, “Well, geez. Why can’t I throw that in for myself?”

And what you should experience is the opportunity in that moment to actually feel compassion for yourself. I felt it myself, you know, in these past few weeks, in these past few days. This form of compassion, thinking, “You know, what I’m going through is a difficult thing, and I’m gonna do my best to get through it. And, at the same time, I’m going to adapt and move on.” And all these things come to mind, but the harshness was gone. The criticism was gone. And self-kindness counters the tendency we have to tear ourselves down.

I don’t know why it’s so easy to tear ourselves down, but we do. So, this form of practice; being kind to yourself by imagining you’re someone else can make a difference. So, give that a try.

Step two in this process is to look deeply at the suffering. And this was the topic of last week’s podcast episode. So, in summary … I mean, you can go back and listen to that episode to get a much more in-depth understanding of step two but, essentially here is understanding that suffering is universal. And life difficulties will arise and it’s universal.

Early on in the podcast, I talk about this and I mentioned the story of the bear. You’re hiking in the woods and someone warns you on this trail. Somebody’s jumping out in a bear costume and scaring people. And now that you know, you can continue your journey knowing that when that happens, you’ll still be startled, but how much more quickly can you recover from it, because you realize, “I knew this was gonna happen, and it’s happening to everyone else on this trail.” Everyone experiences hardships in life. And our tendency is to wanna think, “Why is this happening to me?” As if I was the only person in the world experiencing the potential emanate collapse of my company or my business, or losing a job, or any other trial that you may go through in life. As hard as it is to see this at the time, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Everybody experiences hardships.

Another part of this is understanding interdependence. And I think this is central to the understanding of self-compassion ’cause, remember, looking … learning to look deeply, looking deeply at an object. The flower, as an example. If you learn to look deeply, you’ll see that the flower is made up of all non-flower elements. The sun and the earth, and the … everything else.

But we’re no different. You are made up of all non-you elements. Starting with your parents, your culture, your society, your beliefs, your … this doesn’t end. It goes on, and on, and on, but you are inter-being with everything that is not you. And so, you are inter-being with everything and everyone else. And I know that may sound crazy at first, but if you really look deeply, and you see. That’s what you see. Interdependence.

You can’t see something without seeing everything. This is a concept I really love about Buddhism. You cannot see something without seeing everything. And if you’re not seeing everything, you’re not seeing something with the right eyes.
And I think we fall in this constant trap of thinking, “Things are suppose to go a certain way. Life is suppose to be a certain way.” And then when they don’t, we think something’s wrong. And this causes us to not only suffer, but then we feel alone in our suffering. “Why is this happening to me?” And remember, we’re all part of this shared experience. When we look deeply, what we start to see is that everybody experiences suffering. And sure, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain can be different; but, the basic experience of human suffering is the same. It’s universal. And while self-pity may say, “Poor me,” self-compassion is saying, “I’m not the only one going through something difficult.” And it can even take it a step further. It can say, “Well, now that I know what this is like, I can help somebody else who’s going through this.”

So, those are things to think about with step two. Learning to look deeply is understanding that when you look at something, it’s not just that. There are always layers of complexity, because all things have causes and conditions. So, in the same way that looking at a flower, and only seeing the flower, is a narrow way of seeing. Looking the flower and seeing all of the elements that allow that flower to be what it is; that’s looking deeply. And we can do that when we look at ourselves, and when we look at our own suffering.
So, that leads us to step three, which is developing mindfulness or awareness around suffering. Remember, mindfulness is just awareness. It’s the acute awareness of our moment-to-moment experience with complete equanimity and balance. What does that mean? It means that we’re completely aware of our thoughts, our emotions, and our sensations, without this need to cling to them or to resist them. Awareness of impermanence reminds me of the expression, “This too shall pass.”
And remembering that, it’s easier to be kind to the non-permanent me. There’s the me that thinks … that’s constantly thinking, “Oh. This is gonna be this way. What’s gonna happen?” Because it … we tend to want to experience our moment-to-moment experiences of life with a sense of permanence attached to it, like, “Oh crap. This is always gonna be this way,” or, “Oh man. I’ll never do that again.” We think in terms of permanence. And the reality is, there’s no permanence to be found here.

So, for instance, rather than thinking, “Well, geez. I’ve failed. If this company collapses, I’m a failure.” I’m realizing, I’m not a failure. I’m simply experiencing failure at something right now. This too shall pass. Can you see the difference in those two approaches? It’s dangerous when we get caught up and adding permanence to the way that we see things. And mindfulness prevents us from over-identifying with our thoughts, and with our emotions. This is understanding that, “I’m not angry. I’m experiencing anger.” You know, “I’m not a failure. I’ve just failed at something.” At this, or at that.

Being a failure is a mere concept. If you think about it, you know, what does it mean to fail? Failure is always relative to something. There’s no such thing as failure without it referencing something, right? “I failed to practice my guitar. I failed to meditate. I’ve failed to continue holding a job.” Or whatever it is, it’s relative to something. Failure is always relative. Because there is no absolute in there, you cannot be a failure. You can’t. Sure, you can fail at something. I’ve failed at a lot of things. We all do. But we’re certainly not failures because that’s impossible.

Mindfulness can help us to understand that, through the understanding of impermanence, or the nature of change. Things are always changing. So, if you’re … in a continual state of becoming, how do you fail? It’s not over, you know? It’s never over because change is the only thing that’s always happening. So, there is no permanence there.

When your perspective shifts to allow you to experience this self-compassion, what you’ll find is that you not only transform your own life, but it starts to transform the lives of everyone we interact with. Because when you become a better whatever-you-already-are, it allows everyone else around you to become a better whatever-they-already-are too. Do you see how that works? So, rather than starting with that outer ring, you know, “What can I do for others? What can I do for friends? What can I do for family?” Like, bring it in. Bring it to the core of, “What can I do for me? How can I learn to develop compassion directed at me?” And you know, self-compassion.

I wanna make a note about this, ’cause self-compassion should not be about trying to make our pain going away. It’s not like we’re trying to minimize the experience that we’re going through. We’re not trying to manipulate this experience that we’re having. That makes self-compassion a new form of resistance. And that inevitably makes things worse. So, I’m talking about self-compassion as the art of becoming more comfortable with this comfort.

Self-compassion doesn’t take away the suffering I’m experiencing. It creates space for it. It allows it to come sit at the table and be like, “Yeah, I’m going through this and I’m experiencing that.” Well, let’s sit with it. You know, “Come join us at this table, anger or sadness. Let’s have equanimity here.” And that’s what self-compassion can allow for.

It starts internally. So, maybe what you can do is try this exercise for this week. When you hear that voice of self-criticism, or of self-pity, which you will. We all do. Try to imagine for a moment someone that you really care about. A parent, a sibling, a spouse, a child, anyone. Imagine that they are the ones going through whatever you’re going through; whatever you just did. Notice how the tone of that voice; that internal voice changes when you’re directing it toward someone you already care for.
And then, when you feel that compassion arise naturally, turn it and channel it towards yourself. And remember if there’s the you that you think you are, and there’s the you that can observe that you, then you can certainly create a space for the compassion that you, to emphasize with the you that’s experiencing the suffering.

Now, if that’s kind of hard to understand, then I’ll leave you with this quote by Alan Watts that you can think about for the rest of the week. He says, “There was once a man who said, ‘Though it seems that I know that I know. What I’d really like to see is the eye, which knows me when I know that I know that I know.” So, there you go. Think about that. Mull over that for a week.
So, before I wrap up this week’s episode, I do wanna share one last thing. Leo Tolstoy says … said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

My personal goal is … has been to teach mindfulness in a way that’s universally accessible and easy to understand. And that’s why I’ve started this podcast. That’s why the content on the podcast is free. It’s open to anyone in the world. And I also have a book. It has more content that’s available at a very affordable price. But let’s face it. While there are countless sources to learn about mindfulness or about Buddhism, sometimes it’s easier to just work one-on-one with an expert.

Why? Well, for the same reason that people hire personal trainers to get in shape, when they could just go workout alone in the gym. Because having an expert to guide you, and to hold you accountable in your practice, makes all the difference in the world.

So, with that, in light of the recent changes that I am experiencing with my career, and with my business, and with my potential source of income, I’m happy to announce that I am going to be offering one-on-one mindfulness coaching, for anyone who’s interested in deepening their mindfulness practice. And some of you may already know that I’ve been training rigorously for the past several years in a Buddhist ministry program, and this is exactly what I’ve been training in; how to teach mindfulness.

And now I’m ready to start teaching that to others in a one-on-one format. And I know that this isn’t the right format for everyone, but here are some of the things you can expect from one-on-one coaching. What I plan on doing is putting together a customized, six-week mindfulness coaching plan, designed entirely around your schedule. So, there would be six hours of one-on-one teaching and learning. It could be an hour a week. It could be 30 minutes, twice a week. We could schedule that however.

We would go over specific topics that are generally barriers for mindful living, and talk about the understanding of these topics; how to overcome the barriers and just be able to look deeply at any specific instances of suffering that you may be experiencing at this time in your life. And just keep in mind, I’m not a counselor. I’m not a therapist. I don’t have the answers for you.

I’m here to help you discover your own answers through mindfulness, in the way of the Buddhist tradition. So, working with me, you would learn to make meditation a daily habit. I’ll check in with you everyday. And at the end of the six weeks, if you’re not 100% satisfied with the coaching you’ve received and the knowledge you’ve acquired, you’d get a full refund. No questions asked.

Now, a session like this, six weeks of coaching, would only cost $299. And that’s to work one-on-one with me for a full six-weeks. It’s the same as the average cost of working with a trainer of … on your body at the gym. And I can only work with a limited number of people at at time, because of the time constraints I have. So, if this is something you’re interested in, just visit my new website, noahrasheta.com, and you can schedule a 30-minute initial consultation for free, and see if this is the right fit. I can answer any questions you might have and give you an idea of what kind of expectations, and how this is all gonna work. Or you could just contact me by email.

If you go to my website, noahrasheta.com, you can click the Contact Me button, and then fill out that form, and that would email me. But this is something new I’m going to try and see. I’ve had a lot of requests from people in the past about, you know, “How could I spend time studying with someone like you? A teacher? A Buddhist teacher who could explain all of this stuff in a one-on-one setting?” And I feel like the time has come for me to be able to offer that. So, we’ll see how that goes.
If you’re interested, let me know. And once again, as always, if you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. And, if you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Just click the domain button at the top of the webpage. Remember, simple two-dollar a month donation from every listener would easily allow me to take these workshops and this content to cities all around the country, to spread these teachings, and make them completely available and free for anyone who wants to attend.

I’m trying the first of this format, and I’m doing a workshop in Park City on Mindfulness here in Utah. And I’m so happy to be able to make that available to the public for free. Anybody can come. It’s in an auditorium. There’s room for 300-400 people. And learn these concepts, and these teachings, without any barriers. If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be able to afford learning wisdom. It should be available to anyone, and that’s why I do the work that I do.

And then, of course, if somebody wants to and can do one-on-one type coaching or learning, that’s available now too.
But, that’s all I have for now. And I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. And until then, have a great week. And, until next time.

36 – Looking Deeply At Suffering

Suffering arises naturally when we crave for life to be other than it is. Knowing this, we can look deeply at our own suffering or the suffering of others and we can work to alleviate the causes and conditions of the suffering. When we experience an instance of suffering, we tend to narrow our view to that specific instance to the point where we are no longer aware of all the instances of non-suffering that are simultaneously present.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello! You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 36. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about looking deeply at suffering. The Secular Buddhism Podcast is made possible by The Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully.

For more information about the foundation or for tools and content to help you live more mindfully, please visit getmindful.org. The Secular Buddhism Podcast 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. Keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast episode or any of the other podcast episodes. There’s nothing to sell here. There’s nothing to convert to or to convert away from. This is all about trying to give you the tools and the content to help you live more mindfully. If you’re new to secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, check out my book Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available on paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle and iTunes, and also an audiobook on audible.com. For more information or links to those books, visit secularbuddhism.com.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I wanted to talk about the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. To do that, first of all, what is suffering? I’ve talked about this in previous podcast episodes quite a bit. The idea is that wanting life to be other than what it is, that is what creates an instance of suffering and this can be major things and it can be minor things. Being stuck at the red light wanting the light to be green because you are late. That creates an instance of suffering. Anytime we are experiencing wanting life to be other than it is, we will experience an instance of suffering. That’s the definition of suffering we’re working with here.

The next part of this is what does it mean to look deeply? This idea of looking deeply in Buddhism comes from the understanding of interdependence and impermanence. Looking deeply, for example, would be the concept of seeing a flower as a flower, independent of everything else, that’s not looking deeply. That’s, I guess you could say, looking superficially or just narrowly. Seeing something in a narrow mindset, you set it as if it were independent and separate from everything else. Looking deeply at a flower would be seeing the flower and recognizing that when you see the flower you are seeing the sun, the clouds, the rain, the soil. Everything that it takes for that flower to exist. When you do this and you spend time analyzing that, you’ll recognize that what it takes for that flower to exist is everything. Everything that exists allows that flower to exist. Looking deeply at the flower, you no longer see the flower. You see the flower and everything else that allows that flowers exist.

This is something that you can do looking at anything. You can look at the table that you are sitting at or the chair that you are sitting on or the device that you are using to listen to this. It doesn’t matter what it is, you can look at it and then look deeply at it and start to see it interdependent with all of the causes and conditions that allow that thing to exist. That’s looking deeply. Looking deeply at our suffering is the same process of taking a look at our instance of suffering and then looking deeply and seeing its interdependencies. Seeing its causes and conditions.

When we see suffering through the lens of impermanence, we recognize that it’s constantly changing. This idea of this too shall pass. This can be helpful when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering because you recognize that it’s impermanent. It’s not going to last forever. You haven’t been experiencing this suffering forever, therefore there was a start and because it has a start, it will be an end. Sometimes recognizing that suffering is impermanent, holding on to that thought of this too shall pass, is enough to start to minimize the pain that we experience during our suffering. The second component, seeing suffering through the lens of interdependence, recognizing that they are causes, can also minimize the pain that we experienced because we recognize we actually have something to work with because there are causes and conditions.

Typically, when we’re talking about suffering, the most basic teaching on suffering from Buddhism is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. That is that first, there is suffering and you can work with that first truth. In life, there is suffering. Difficulties will arise. You can ask yourself, in what ways am I suffering or in what ways are others suffering. Hungry people don’t have water or there’s a lack of human rights or whatever it is that you’re looking at, you look at the instance of suffering and try to acknowledge why that suffering exists. You move onto the second step, which is listing the causes that we can identify for each instance of suffering. It may be people in a certain part of the world are suffering because they don’t have water. They don’t want water because there’s a lack of infrastructure or money or there’s corruption in their government. You get the idea here.

What you’re starting to work with is recognizing there is suffering. This is a personal exercise you can do when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering. Recognize it and then see if you can list the causes that you can identify for that instance of suffering. Why am I experiencing suffering in this moment? Every instance of suffering has a cause. As you go through the list of causes, you can ask yourself, what has to change in order for this particular cause of suffering to cease? At this stage, it’s more theoretical than it is practice, but you want to start listing what has to be different for this to stop. What you’re left with is a list of your suffering and then the causes of your suffering and then many of those causes you can look at and say, is this something that I can change? What has to be different? You sort out from that list what can or cannot be done.

Some things are within reach and they can immediately be changed. Others are a longer process and it may be multiple layers. For this thing to change, that thing has to change, and for that thing to change, this other thing has to change. You start working with this and you may have multiple layers to work with, because one thing may lead to another and so on. What you’re left with is something tangible that you can work with. Sometimes we get really stuck with the instance of suffering itself and in that moment, our view becomes very narrow. This is where mindfulness really comes into play, because people will ask me sometimes, how does mindfulness or how does awareness come into play when you’re talking about dealing with difficult emotions. For example, an instance of suffering.

The idea here is that the mindful view of suffering is a wide view. It’s a deep view and a wide view. Deep in the sense that it recognizes that the suffering isn’t the only thing there. There are causes and conditions. You spend time looking at the causes and conditions and the causes of the causes and so on. That would be the deep view. The wide view is the other component here. Take a minute and just look around. Whatever you’re doing, stop for a minute. Whatever you’re doing, you’re listening to this podcast. Just work with me here for second. Just look up. If you were looking down or whatever you’re doing, just look around for a second and recognize that everything that you can see in your peripheral vision, like just the entire scope of what you can see. If you were to lift your arms up at your sides, like at 90 degrees and slowly move them in, it doesn’t take long before you can recognize in your peripheral vision your left hand and your right hand. They enter into view. They’re not the focus of your view because you’re looking at something straight ahead, but you can recognize that they’re there. They’re in your view.

Typically, when we’re looking at something, the object of our focus, whatever it is you’re focused on, it can be become difficult to notice what’s happening in your field of view. Even though it’s still in your field of view, you may not notice it. You especially won’t notice it if you’re focused heavily on that one thing that you’re looking at. We do this with instances of suffering. When we’re experiencing negative emotions, we tend to narrow our view, almost like if you were to cup your fingers like a telescope and put it over your eye. Just look at whatever it is that you were looking at, now put your hand over your eye like you would a telescope or binoculars and now look at it. You’re certainly not seeing the other things that are in your peripheral vision.

Those things are still there, whether you see them or not. That’s the essence of viewing with mindfulness or awareness. It’s recognizing that yes, I am looking and focusing on this one instance of suffering and this is causing me pain. At the same time, I’m going to widen my view and recognize that simultaneously, while this is going on, something else is also going on and I wasn’t aware of it. For example, I maybe experiencing, at this moment, suffering around the way things are going at work. Maybe it’s not going according to plan. It’s looking like things are difficult. My view narrows in on that one thing in my life. Right now, things are bad at work. You narrow in on that. Mindfulness is like taking your hands from that cupping position of being telescopes and moving them and saying, okay, yeah, that suffering is still there, but I also recognize what’s there is I’m not experiencing the pain of a toothache. I’m not experiencing the pain of a headache. I’m not experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one. Whatever it is, the point is that in any given moment, even moments where there is suffering, there’s also always non-suffering.

They’re happening simultaneously and because we’re shifting our focus to be a more wider view, we’re not trying to eliminate or pretend like the instance of suffering isn’t there. Don’t make the mistake of trying to compare it or measure it saying, this hurts, but it would be worse if this other thing was happening. Sure, there can be some truth to that. The difficulties going on at work would not be nearly as difficult as coping with the loss of a loved one right now. I can recognize that, but the point of this isn’t to try to minimize or to rationalize away the suffering that is present, which is that things at work aren’t going according to plan. The idea here is to hold space for that while simultaneously holding space for the joy that I’m experiencing because I don’t have a toothache or the joy that I’m experiencing because I’m not dealing with the loss of a loved one.

It’s different to allow that suffering to be what it is, while holding space for all of the non-suffering there. That’s different than trying to do away with my suffering by saying, I shouldn’t evil that because this would be worse or that would be worse. That’s not the point. We don’t need to measure or scale my suffering versus your suffering. I don’t think it’s fair to do that. To say, that’s nothing because there are starving kids in Africa and that’s much worse. While I think there is something to that thought process, I don’t think it’s helpful or beneficial to try to weigh one instance of suffering versus another. Awareness or mindfulness, looking deeply at our suffering, is not about that. It’s more about holding that space of recognition that in this instance of suffering, this other instance of non-suffering is also present.

There is always joy and peace simultaneously present with suffering. The difference is a shift in awareness. That’s how mindfulness or awareness helps us to deal with difficult emotions. It helps us to switch out of that narrow view that can only see the instance of suffering, to a wider view that recognizes yeah, that’s still there, but so are all these other things. These other things are good right now. The toothache reminds us of the joy of not having a toothache, right? At any given moment, we’re enjoying the peace and joy of being free from some sort of pain or suffering. That’s something that we can look at and spend time with in mindfulness.

This idea, I like to call it radical okay-ness. This is something I first heard from a good friend of mine who’s also a teacher, whose name is Christopher Lebo. He runs the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship and really good guy. In one of the presentations I went to where he was talking, he mentioned this concept of radical okay-ness. I had never heard that and I love it. I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast. The idea around radical okay-ness is that at any given moment in life, right now, regardless of what’s happening, I can experience a sense of radical okay-ness. I can be completely okay with this moment. This is different than, I think, chasing the moment of intense pleasure as opposed to intense pain. That would be radical … I don’t know what we would call that, like goodness or wanting to ride the roller coaster and only have the peaks and not have the valleys can cause us pain. You can’t get to the peak without there being valleys, right? You have to have lows in order for there to be highs. There’s no such thing as a high without reference to a low.

Radical okay-ness is about recognizing that what I have right now in a different scenario could be exactly what I wish I had. For example, if I were to find out tomorrow that a loved one has terminal cancer or I don’t know. It could be almost anything that’s going to be difficult. When I get that news, I could look back to today and think, I would give anything to go back to what it was like yesterday when things were just good. I thought that things weren’t good, but they actually were because now I’m going through something more difficult. The idea here is we’re already in that moment. You’re in that moment right now, regardless of what’s happening, because something could change that moment in the future and you would want to come back to this. Yet, here you are in the present moment, unaware of how radically okay this moment already is. That’s kind of the thinking of radical okay-ness.

I really like that because it’s true. Tomorrow I could look back and think, I though yesterday was hard, now that this or that popped up, I would give anything to go back to yesterday and here we are. Today is always the yesterday or tomorrow. We’re always in the space of being able to experience this radical okay-ness if we can look deeply and if we can look with a wide view instead of a narrow view at our instances of suffering.

I have five steps that I think are helpful for us to be able to look deeply at our suffering, at our emotions. The first one is that we want to recognize what we’re experiencing. If we’re angry, we say I know I’m experiencing anger or I know that there is anger in me right now. We’re recognizing what’s actually there. This is an important step because a lot of times we don’t recognize what we’re experiencing. Sometimes you could be in a bad mood. You could be in a chronic bad mood for a significant portion of your life and to you that’s normal. Someone else might look at you and say yeah, so and so is always grumpy or always angry. You wouldn’t recognize that because to you it’s normal. Recognition is important here. I want to recognize the actual state that I’m experiencing. If I’m angry I don’t want to pretend I’m not angry. If I’m sad I don’t want to pretend and say, I’ll counter this by trying to just be happy, ignoring the fact that I’m sad. We need to actually recognize what we are is what we are. I’ll recognize that this is what I’m experiencing.

Once I recognize it, I can accept that that’s what it is. Step two is acceptance. I’ve mentioned this multiple times, the idea of acceptance versus resignation. It’s not the same thing. Acceptance is that we don’t deny what’s there. We’re not gonna deny what’s present for us. We accept it. We accept that that’s what’s there. For example, if it’s suffering or sadness or anger, I can accept that that’s what I’m feeling. I don’t have to pretend like I’m not. I’m just going to accept that yeah, I am experiencing sadness for this thing I’m going through. The moment you can recognize and accept what’s there, you can go to the third step, which is embracing.

Here we hold space for our emotions, for suffering, in the same way that when my little girl is crying, I can pick her up and hold her. I can embrace her. I can try to comfort her. It’s not different with out own negative emotions. When I’m experiencing sadness or I’m experiencing anger at how something is playing out, I can embrace that emotion and have compassion for it. Compassion for myself for experiencing it, in the same way that I would hold my child who’s crying and I can say okay, I’m experiencing this sadness. I recognize it. I accept it and I’m going to embrace that I’m sad or embrace that I’m angry right now. It’s what I’m feeling.

That leads us to the fourth step. I’m gonna look deeply at this. I want to look really deeply at this emotion I’m experiencing. What has caused this emotion to be here? What has caused this suffering to arise? This is what I mentioned earlier where you can look at the causes and look for the causes of the causes. With that looking deeply, we go to the fifth step, which is insight. When you start to look at something deeply, you can insight by understanding what the causes and conditions are. We know what to do, what not to do. If my instance of suffering is a toothache and I have no insight into the nature of this pain I’m experiencing, I might not know that by continuing to eat a Jolly Rancher or something, it’s hurting my tooth more. I wouldn’t know that unless I was able to recognize I’ve got a toothache. Okay, then that’s what it is. I accept it. I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna look deeply at it. What are the causes? I might recognize the cause could be that I have a cavity and with that recognition and insight I can say, cavities, yeah. Sugar aggravates that. Okay, maybe I should stop eating sugar. Maybe I should go get my cavity filled. That’s a very simple example that I think is easy for all of us to recognize because that example is pretty much common sense.

Sometimes, our suffering isn’t that clear. Recognizing that I’m experiencing suffering and just reacting to it because I have no insight into where that emotion is coming from would be a lot like somebody who has a toothache and they’re just screaming and yelling because their tooth hurts, but they don’t know why. They don’t know why it hurts. They don’t know what’s causing it. They don’t know what would aggravate the pain or what would ease the pain. There’s just no awareness around the instance of suffering. You’re so caught up in the suffering itself. My tooth hurts and that’s it. That’s all I can see. As silly as that would sound, isn’t that exactly what we do with a lot of our other emotions? A lot of our other sources of pain or suffering? They well up and we experience an emotion and we just react to it. We’re not with it. There’s no insight into our emotions. This is where looking deeply really comes into play, because what if we could actually spend time with our emotions. Recognizing, accepting, embracing, looking deeply, and then gaining insight out of what we see when we look deeply.

That’s the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. You can look deeply at anything. I mentioned this before. You can look deeply at the table you’re sitting at. When we were in Africa on our humanitarian trip, during one of our lessons we spent time looking at the wind chimes that were hanging where we were sitting. We de-constructed and looked deeply at the string that was holding the wind chimes. It was crazy to spend time saying, now where does this string come from? Looking at the causes and conditions that allowed that wind chime to exist right there. It was incredible how, within a few minutes, we all felt how it takes everything in existence for that to be right there. That’s inter-dependence.

Don’t make the mistake of judging or comparing your suffering. Don’t conceptualize it. Remember, conceptualizing is when we take something, a reality, and we add a story to it. You’re seeing your suffering, but you’re caught up in the story of the suffering. What you want to do is try to get away from the conceptualization of it. Just see it for what it is. You recognize it, you accept it, you embrace it, you look deeply for the causes and conditions, and then insight arises naturally because you’ve spent time with it. This can be a really powerful exercise. A really powerful process to learn to look deeply at your suffering. When you’re ready, try to switch this. Flip it and look deeply at someone else’s suffering. You may recognize that somebody saying something you, calling you name or something, you don’t react any more, but now you can look beyond that, beyond the action that took place and see the suffering from the same perspective. Looking deeply it in someone else and recognizing something caused this and something caused what caused this and that goes on and on. Insight can arise out of that. Suddenly, you’re not so upset about something, because you have a deeper understanding of why someone may have said something to you.

Remember, in nature, change is incremental. Wisdom or transformation can be gradual, so be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to sit there, ponder on these topics, sit with an instance of suffering, and then that’s it. I’ll never be mad again. It doesn’t work that way, but what does happen is that gradually, incrementally, you’ll notice that the way that you perceive your own suffering changes. You start to experience this radical okay-ness throughout any instance of suffering, because the instance of suffering is never independent. It never exists without its causes and conditions and it’s never permanent. It always exists on the same plane and the same sphere as all these instances of non-suffering. Anytime that you’re experiencing suffering, simply recognizing that you’re also experiencing non-suffering is already a very valuable perspective to have. To be able to do spend time in awareness with your suffering, you can gain a lot of insight.

That’s my invitation to you for this week. To spend time learning to look deeply at your suffering or learning to look deeply at the suffering of someone else. A loved one or just anyone else. Learn to look deeply at suffering and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. Remember, if you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com or the foundation website, getmindful.org. You can click the donate button at the top of the page and that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for your time and until next time.