Month: September 2017

52 – The Sound of Silence

What is the sound of silence? Listen to find out…In this episode, I will discuss the ideas of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, known as the 3 doors of liberation.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 52. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about The Sound Of Silence. I let this long awkward pause here at the beginning, hoping to trick you that this whole episode would be silent. After all, the sound of silence. The truth is, even if it was, you can still gain a lot of insight and wisdom by listening just to the sound of silence. This topic came out because I’ve been reading through some of the stories, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers About Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything In Between. That’s the title of the book. One of the first questions addressed in the book is the question, “Is nothing something?” The answer that Thich Nhat Hanh gives is that yes, nothing is something. You have an idea in your head of nothing, you have an idea in your head of something, both are things that can either create suffering or happiness.

This made me think of another quote or teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, where he says, “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.” When I correlate these two ideas of nothing becoming something, or nothing being something, something conceptual, and the idea of removing ideas in order to see what is, it made me think about what would really be there if I was able to remove ideas, concepts, and beliefs, what would I actually see? What would I hear? In the Plum Village tradition of Zen Buddhism, there is a practice called Noble Silence. Noble Silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his responses to certain questions about reality. For example, when he was asked unanswerable questions, he said to have responded with no response, silence.

This silence seems to have been the appropriate answer to what he considered an inappropriate question. To me, an inappropriate question is the question that evokes an answer that doesn’t lead to a proper understanding of reality. If the secrets of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and concepts, then we would want to avoid questions that will only add ideas or concepts. To me, metaphysical questions would only add ideas and concepts. Therefore, these questions are irrelevant and thus, the silent answer by the Buddha on such existential questions. Metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or nonexistence, what happens after we die, or the question of deities, these would all fall under the category of ideas and concepts. The very ideas and concepts that we’re trying to remove in order to see reality as it is. If you’ll recall my story about seeing Chris, and not seeing Chris, what blinded me from reality in that moment was an idea. It was a concept. It was a belief that Chris was a man, when in reality, Chris was a woman. There was Chris and I couldn’t see Chris because of the concept that I held.

This is kind of what it’s eluding to. What happens if we remove those concepts? Will we become more likely to see reality as it is? Perhaps The Sound Of Silence is what it sounds like when we become free of ideas and concepts. I’ve mentioned this before, but Buddhism is commonly referred to as the path of liberation. What would like be like if we were liberated from our own ideas and concepts, the beliefs that color our reality? Well, there’s a teaching in Buddhism about the three doors of liberation. These three doors are emptiness, [signlessness 00:04:26] and aimlessness. I want to talk about those.

First, emptiness. This is essentially no independent existence. Emptiness is always relative to something. A cup that is empty of water is empty in relationship to water, but it may be full of air. Emptiness is not the same thing as nonexistence. Emptiness is not a philosophy, it’s just a description of reality. It’s a direct understanding that all things are empty of a separate independent existence. In other words, this is because that is. There is no this without that. If you look at this in the context of time, it makes perfect sense. There is no present without the past. If you look at in terms of space, you can look at a flower. The flower does not exist without all of the non-flower elements. You cannot have flower without having bees, and clouds, and rain, and sun, all the non-flower elements. It’s the same with us. You are interdependent with all the non-you elements. Whether this be physical elements, like your genetics, your DNA, the very food that you eat, or non-physical elements like your memories, your cultural ideas and beliefs. Literally everything about you depends on everything that’s not you. That’s the idea of emptiness here.

The second door is signlessness. This is no form. Like clouds in the sky, if you attach to the form of, say, a cloud, as soon as the cloud is good, you’d have the tendency to think, “Well, the cloud no longer exists. It’s gone.” But the attachment to the form is what blinds you from seeing the cloud in its new form. Perhaps as rain, or mist, or even the water that you drink. There’s this understanding that the cloud is always there. It never ceased to exist, because it never started to exist. This is the first law of thermodynamics. Matter doesn’t cease to exist. It only changes. It changes form. We look beyond the form, beyond the sign of a thing, and we start to see impermanence. The nature of constant change in all things, in all forms. Forms just become like containers of what is in the present moment. We start to see that the object of our perception may not be what it seems. Instead of seeing forms or signs of things, we start to see things as continuations of complex processes of causes and conditions. We see constant change. We see things in a continual state of becoming, but always influx. That’s signlessness.

The third door is aimlessness. Essentially, no goal. This is the understanding that life itself is the goal. The path is the goal. As long as we think there is an ultimate destination, then it makes it difficult for us to really enjoy where we are, because we see separation between where we are and where we think we should be. In a way, it’s like always trying to get there, but then when we do, there’s no there, there. Everything we need to experience contentment, and joy, it’s found here in the present moment, the here and now. There’s no need to look outside of ourselves. The problem with this, with the opposite of aimlessness is that we run the risk of running our whole lives and never actually living it. What are we running after? Enlightenment? Happiness? The insight of aimlessness is to help us stop running, and instead, start living. You could ask yourself, “What am I chasing after? What is the thing that I think I need to finally have?”

You see this everywhere, whether it be money, fame, power. We’re always chasing after something. Now, a misconception with aimlessness, I think, in our western way of thinking, we would think aimlessness has a negative connotation. It’s like, “There you go, without a [rutter 00:08:53], where are you going?” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s saying, “I’m going to have a very clear understanding of what I’m after, because I know why I’m after it.” The real danger that negative aimlessness would be that I’m headed somewhere, and I don’t know why. It’s kind of like the parable that I share often times about the man running on the horse, and the person who’s standing there asking,”Hey, where are you going?” He says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” That’s a form of aimlessness. That, to me, would be the negative way of thinking of aimlessness. It’s that you’re on this horse and you don’t even know where it’s going.

The horse is running after money, or it’s running after fame, or it’s running after power. What the Buddhist perspective of aimlessness is that this is actually a good thing, but I don’t have to chase after anything. I’m enjoying the journey. The path itself is my goal. That’s the type of aimlessness that we’re talking about here in this third door. Those are the three doors of liberation. I think silence can be a powerful reminder of this lesson of liberation. If nothing is something, because it’s a concept, then what does that mean about silence? What is the implication about silence? Because silence is also a concept. In fact, the dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound. This understanding puts us in the same dilemma of emptiness. In other words, silence, like emptiness, is always relative to something. The empty cup is empty, and yet it’s actually not empty. It can be empty of water, but it’s full of air.

The old question of, “Is the cup half empty, or half full?” The answer will tell you if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, because the optimist will say it’s half full. The pessimist will say it’s half empty. Here’s a new one we can throw into this equation. The mindful individual will say, “Well, it’s neither half full or half empty, because it’s both full and empty.” When you understand that that’s a relative concept. Half full of water is half full of air. It’s completely full and it’s completely empty. Empty of milk, or whatever the relative term is. It’s both full and empty. What is the sound of silence? I think about this, and I imagine somebody in the city, and they’re trying to escape the sound of honking, the sound of ongoing movement of people and cars. They leave the city, and they go to the country. There they are sitting either in the fores, or sitting in a field trying to enjoy silence. This is the silence of no city sounds.

Now, there they are listening to the chirping of birds, or the sound of the river flowing, or the cows mooing, so silence is relative. You end one sound, but you hear another. Maybe this is … Imagine someone in the country who doesn’t want to hear any sound, so they escape the sound of the river, or the sound of the birds chirping. They’ll put noise-canceling headphones on, and discover that, “Well, now I just hear white noise.” Silence is always relative to something, but when there is no sound, then what? You’re just listening to your thoughts? How quiet are your thoughts? If you catch the gap between the thoughts, if you practice this, then what do you hear in that gap? Maybe even there, there’s still the subtle ringing or humming of silence. Have you ever heard that? This is interesting. Did you know that the earth has a constant hum? You can Google this. It’s a fascinating thing. Researchers claim that micro seismic activity from long ocean waves impacting the sea bed is what makes our planet vibrate and produce a humming sound.

There we have this scenario where there is this sound that’s always there. We’re trying to escape sound. We’re trying to hear silence, but what if silence isn’t real? It’s a concept. It’s not something you can hear. It’s like those hidden images inside the dotted image, that if you look at it and you focus in the right way they you realize that these aren’t just random dots. There’s a hidden image in there. Once you see that, you can’t not see it. I think it’s similar with silence. Once you’ve heard the sound of silence, you can’t not hear it. Once you’ve glimpsed reality without attachment to your ideas and concepts, everything changes, and yet nothing changed. Now, notice I mentioned that it’s the attachment to the ideas and concepts that’s so problematic. It’s not the ideas and concepts themselves. How do we eliminate our ideas and our concepts? The idea of not having ideas and concepts, well that’s also an idea. Now what? What do I do with that?

The school of Buddhism that I studied with, the Bright Dawn way of oneness Buddhism, has this concept called oneness, or [suchness 00:14:22]. I really enjoy this idea. The idea is that when we let go of the dualistic approach to life, good and bad, the true, false, Samsara, Nirvana, enlightenment or delusion. We find suchness, we find oneness, we discover reality just as it is. For example, I know that I have ideas. I know that I have my own beliefs and non-beliefs, and I have conceptualized understandings of reality, but I know that my ideas are just ideas. I know that they arise out of a complex web of interdependencies based on both space and time. In other words, if I were in a different time or in a different space, or had I been configured differently, I would have different ideas, different concepts, different beliefs.

What I let go of is my attachment to these things. I don’t necessarily let go of the ideas themselves, I let go of the attachment that I have to them. Sure, over time, I have let go of a lot of ideas and beliefs, but I don’t know that it’s possible to let go of all of them. Ideas and concepts are what make us human. It’s how we understand the world and we inherit it from our society and our culture, and thousands of years of evolution. To believe that I can or should let go of my ideas or beliefs, well, that’s just another belief. Oneness with reality is oneness with all things, including our ideas. But, in a non-attached manner. Noah Levine and I were talking about this a little bit. If you watched our interview about addiction and recovery, The Mindfulness Based Approach to Addiction And Recovery. You can visualize your palms together, like you’re about to pray or you’re doing the namaste-type palms together, that is a visualization of non-attachment. You have attachment, now, attachments where your hands are locked together. Like you’re holding hands with your fingers interlocked, that would be attachment. One is gripping the other.

Detachment is the separation of the two entirely. They’re nowhere near each other. Then, there’s non-attachment. They can be there together, but they’re not gripped. They’re not attached, and they’re not detached. This idea of suchness or oneness is a non-attached way of living with everything, including our ideas and our concepts. I like this. This helps me to visualize that this idea of letting go, or removing our ideas and concepts, it means removing them in the sense of they are no longer obstacles. It’s not removing in the sense of destroy, I’m going to destroy my ideas and my concepts, I don’t necessarily need to do that. I don’t let them get in the way anymore. They’re just there, it’s just an idea. Same with my opinions. I have opinions about things, but they’re just opinions. I don’t even believe some of my own beliefs. I don’t believe some of my own opinions.

Moving on, Alan Watts, he talks about searching for meaning. The meaning of life, for example, and he compares this process. He says it’s like you’re peeling the layers of an onion, hoping to discover the pit. In the process, you find that all you’ve done is peel back the layers and discarded and edible and useful part of the onion. There is no pit. It’s just layer after layer after layer. I think about that with regards to silence. With regards to this understanding of emptiness. How when you understand that nothing is still something and you hear the sound of silence, perhaps in that moment, we start understanding what it really means to remove idea, is to remove the concepts to get those things out of the way and let them be there but in a non-attached manner. That’s the understanding for me of what it means to hear the sound of silence.

I would wrap this up by raising the question once again, what is the sound of silence? I would invite you to explore this question, to listen for yourself. See what’s there. What happens when you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear? Because what is silence? What is it for you? Listen for the silence from sound, but then listen for the silence that’s found in the gap between your thoughts. What does that look like? Maybe just sitting there silently, maybe you’ll hear the same hum, this almost buzzing sound or ringing sound that’s always there. It’s always been there. I don’t think I had ever noticed it, until I started to sit there in silence asking myself, “What is the sound of silence?” I found that for me, the idea of silence is just that it’s a concept. There is no silence. There’s always something there, and I hear that now. I hear that when I don’t hear sound. I just hear there’s this low, almost like white noise humming.

I don’t think this is the same as the ringing in ears that people have. To me, this is different. This is the sound of what’s there. This is an in an audible way, this is saying, when you see what’s there and you remove what you thought was there, what are you left with? Reality, suchness, oneness. I’ve experienced this with sound. When I listen for the absence of sound, what’s there? Well, there’s a lot there. There are thoughts there. There are memories. There’s the monkey mind. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there, but my idea of what silence was, that’s just a concept. You can notice and you can increase the awareness that you have of this silence. What you might hear, maybe a profound discovery for you. I’d love to hear all about it.

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That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

51 – Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor

What if we understood the 4 Noble Truths to be tasks rather than truths? What if we were no longer burdened by the quest for truth regarding metaphysical claims/beliefs? In this episode, I will discuss what Stephen Batchelor calls Buddhism 2.0. We’re not concerned with the question “Is it true?” we’re wondering, “Does it work?”. In this episode, I will discuss Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor. This interview can be watched on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page or on YouTube.

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Thank you to Ramsey Margolis at for transcribing this interview!

Noah Rasheta: Okay, I am live with Stephen Batchelor, author of many books. Two of his most recent are After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, and we’ll be discussing this second book a little in this interview, but I want to give Stephen a quick introduction. It’s always interesting to have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s been so influential in my own journey. It seems to be quite an honor, so I’m very grateful to you, Stephen, for joining me today, for taking time to have a discussion on secular Buddhism. By way of introduction, Stephen was at one time a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and after that you studied for some time as a Zen Buddhist monk, is that right?

Stephen Batchelor: Yes.

Noah: Then you left monastic life and taught Buddhism from a much more secular standpoint. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it. Is there anything you would want to add, Stephen?

Stephen: No, that’s pretty good. The only thing I might add is that since I left the monastic communities, my interest has really gone to what I call ‘early Buddhism’, to try to sort of get back to what the Buddha was doing before it became Buddhism. For me, that’s closely tied into what I understand as secular Buddhism. They’re very, very closely connected, these two interests.

Noah: Great. I think that’s a really fascinating process, to try to help us get back to understanding what was taking place with these really powerful teachings. I think with most traditions, especially religious traditions, at one point what were the teachings evolve into teachings about the teachings. I feel like Buddhism is no exception to that, and sometimes it’s in the teachings of the teachings that we can get hung up on things that impede us from benefiting from the original teachings.

Just quickly with my journey, I transitioned out of an orthodox form of Christianity, and for a while was not interested in any form of religion, but you see quotes online and you hear all these little snippets of wisdom attributed to the Buddha, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Dalai Lama, and I thought, ‘Man, there’s something to this Buddhism stuff, I want to learn more about it,’ all the while with a hint of reservation that I don’t want to be entangled in any kind of dogmatic or metaphysical, or supernatural beliefs, and that’s when I come across your book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. It was such a fascinating presentation of the teachings, very simple. It’s like, ‘These are the teachings that have no beliefs attached to them’. It was extremely influential for me, enough to decide, ‘Okay, this is a philosophy I want to study and learn and understand,’ and then, with time, that has evolved into teaching and having a podcast.

What I’m finding I think is that we’ve kind of got two angles, right? From the Buddhist side, there are people who are wanting a more secular approach, but from the secular side, people who are disaffected from religion are looking for some form of spirituality that isn’t, I guess, with quotes there with ‘spirituality’, but some form of path that feels satisfying and fulfilling, but doesn’t feel religious, and they’re encountering Buddhism as a philosophy, and this movement is just taking off. You’re at the forefront of this, and you’ve been extremely influential. That’s part of why I wanted to spend time and talk to you a little bit about it, because it’s really exciting. It’s a really exciting time and I thought it would be really fun to pick your brain. Again, thank you.

Stephen: Thank you. I think you summarised that extremely well. That’s exactly how I feel. I think we’re at the intersection of two powerful cultural streams: people who are disaffected with religion on the one hand; and people who are disaffected with secularism on the other. And Buddhism, of course, it famously thinks of itself as a middle way. Maybe it’s the way that middle way that’s playing out in our time in the world today. If we can contribute to this and sort of address concerns that are uppermost in the minds of these two bodies of people, then I think we may do a great service, and I’m very honoured to be part of it.

Noah: Great. With that in mind, let’s jump into a couple of the topics that I want to discuss, because something that you mentioned in your most recent book, in Secular Buddhism … I guess before we jump into that real quick, I do want to kind of highlight. From my understanding, Buddhism Without Beliefs does a really good job of being a foundational text to understand Buddhist concepts. With the understanding of Buddhist concepts, then comes, for me, reading it backwards was Buddhism Without Beliefs, then I wanted to know your story. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was kind of like your biography, or your transition, or your story. I know you have a lot more than these four books, but After Buddhism kind of presents what’s next, what do we do with this now, which I enjoyed and I know a lot of podcast listeners have enjoyed. I always recommend Buddhism Without Beliefs as the foundational text to podcast listeners or people who want to understand secular Buddhism.

But then comes your most recent book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, and something I really enjoyed from this process was seeing, and you discussed this in the book, the evolution of your understanding of some of these key concepts, specifically the transition of the Four Noble Truths from being truths to being tasks. Talk to me a little bit about the process of that understanding and that transition, because I think it’s a powerful shift in perspective to see it that way.

Stephen: Yeah. Again, I think you summarised that very well. As the author of books, it’s very difficult to have a perspective in which I can look at them from the outside, as it were, and I see my books really as, in a way, the way in which I share my journey with others. I see each book as a kind of a way station on a journey that is far from over, and it does clearly describe a trajectory. And you’re quite right, probably the key idea in all of my work over the last 40 years has been in the rethinking of the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths is quite self-evidently the foundational teaching of what we think of as traditional Buddhism. There’s no Buddhist school that would somehow sideline this. It’s clearly the paradigm or the template out of which traditional Buddhism has been based and developed.

I first started having questions about this when I was still a Tibetan Buddhist monk. This would’ve been thirty odd years ago, and I remember we were studying a very obscure Tibetan text on philosophy. There I came across this idea of these four tasks. They didn’t describe them as tasks as such, but it made it very clear that the person who realises these four truths has effectively done four things: they have embraced or fully understood dukkha or suffering; they let go of certain reactive patterns or graspings; they experience the stopping of those patterns; and they have cultivated and developed a way of life in the world.

That was in a Tibetan text; it was not that the Tibetans were actually teaching that as their main thing, but there it was. For some reason, that really jumped off the page for me. I had not heard this before. I’d never heard it again in the Tibetan tradition or other traditions, really, and yet it’s there and, as I found out later, it’s right at the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse, or what’s considered to be the Buddha’s first discourse. Clearly, this idea that the four ‘truths’ are to be enacted in a way that actually has a transformative effect on one’s life was there from the very outset. I’ve always found it very strange that something that is presented as the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse is never further developed in any of the orthodox traditions. You’ll find little, if anything, on these four tasks, as I now call them.

Over time, I became more and more dubious about some of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, and I soon began to realise that it wasn’t just karma and rebirth that were metaphysical doctrines, but actually the Four Noble Truths were metaphysical doctrines. To claim that life is suffering is a metaphysical claim. You’re making a generalised statement about the nature of existence, wherever it might occur in the universe, and it is dukkha. The origin of dukkhaor suffering is craving. It’s a metaphysical claim. It’s no different really from saying that God created heaven and earth. It’s not something you can prove. It’s not something you can disprove. It stands outside the reach of reason.

So when I started thinking that the Four Noble Truths were actually metaphysics, that again brought me back to another way where the Buddha had presented these truths not in fact as things to believe, as metaphysical doctrines, but actually as indicators of how to live. In other words, I feel, quite passionately actually, that the dharma started out as a pragmatic, therapeutic way of life primarily concerned with ethics, ethics in the widest sense of how do we become the kind of people we aspire to be? How do we lead a good life? How do we flourish as human persons and human societies here on Earth? These are ethical questions, and my sense is that the Buddha was an ethicist through and through. Ethics is not just part of the path; the path is ethical in its very nature. The whole of the eightfold path is really a way of life, it’s an ethos, it’s an ethic.

The next step in this process was when I was reading the letters of a British monk called Ñāṇavīra Thera, Harold Musson, who was a monk in Sri Lanka during the 1950s. I came across his collected letters really by chance. They were on a bookshelf in a retreat centre I was teaching at, and I was completely taken with this man’s ideas. He was the one who actually coined the phrase ‘the four tasks’. He presented the Four Noble Truths as what he called the optimal task for a human person’s performance, or something like that. That really nailed that point to me in a very final way, and that became the basis for my own working out of these truths as tasks in a much more detailed way than Ñāṇavīra ever got down to doing. It provided for me a whole other template, a whole other paradigm in which we can practice the dharma, that you can’t consider to be something that’s been invented in the 20th century, and dreamed up by some later commentarial tradition. It’s actually something you find at the very root, at the very core of the dharma itself.

This secular approach to the dharma is, for me, a radical way of reforming Buddhism, much in the way that Luther and Calvin and others sought to reform Christianity. And I do think we are at a time where Buddhism, if it is to really survive as a force for good, a force for wisdom, for compassion in our world, has to rethink its fundamental ideas in a very radical way. This may be foolhardy as it is, it’s what I’m trying to do.

Noah: I love that and I love what you mentioned in your book, how as a living tradition you’re more interested in the ongoing dialogue and not arriving at a final conclusion. I think, as someone who studies and practices Buddhism, I would agree wholeheartedly that understanding the nature of things being impermanent, the nature of things continually changing, that’s the only logical way that any of this would make sense is that this would be an ongoing transformation, and an ongoing evolution that should be approached and discussed in this way. At least that’s how I view it from my perspective. I understand that, from other perspectives, this may be threatening. This may seem scary because it’s a change of how things have been, and that’s always scary. We encounter that in any school of thought, any religion, any ideology.

I want to address something that you mentioned in the book that I really like. You discussed this idea of thinking of Buddhism 1.0 as kind of the traditional Buddhism, and secular Buddhism is kind of a reboot, or Buddhism 2.0, as you call it. What stood out to me when I first heard this, the idea of software being updated; any software that we use that’s useful will be updated periodically. That’s the nature of how good software works. What stood out was the thought that, as an operating system, it’s one thing to claim ‘This is the right operating system,’ and it’s another to say, ‘This is another operating system’. That may be contingent on the hardware, right?

I like to think of the hardware as the culmination of my personality, our societal way of thinking. All of that hardware may lend itself to say, ‘Hey, this operating system may be more effective for this hardware’, but it’s not necessarily saying, ‘This operating system is better than that operating system’. I think about this all the time, because I’m in the tech world. Is a Mac better than a PC? There are so many arguments that prove this one is better than that one, but there are also arguments that prove that one is better than this one, so in a way, it’s like, ‘Well, the answer’s yes. It is better and the answer’s also no, it’s not better.’

I like applying that to this concept of secular Buddhism as an operating system. I feel like as we present secular Buddhism we’re saying, ‘Hey, here’s another way to think about it,’ but it’s not in competition to it. You addressed that specifically in your book when you mentioned that the mythical and the historical being both valid and they don’t necessarily compete.

Stephen: That’s right.

Noah: Talk a little bit about that. What role does the mythic play in Buddhism in general and does it play any role in this new operating system?

Stephen: The danger with a secular approach is that you might read some story about the Buddha, like for example, he grows up as a prince and he leaves the palace and he sees the sick person and the old person. It’s a beautiful, mythical story, but it’s very unlikely anything like that actually happened. The danger is that we would then say, ‘That is no longer relevant’. What we’re doing there is we’re making a category error, basically. We’re taking a myth, we’re judging it as though it were historical and because it doesn’t live up to our standards of historical truth, we’re thereby discarding it.

Traditional Buddhists have done the opposite. They’ve taken … No, no. I’m sorry. I’m getting muddled. The point is that myth works very well in its own terms and we need to be constantly reminded that it’s not history. It’s doing something else. One of the most powerful myths for me, is in one of my books that you didn’t mention called Living With the Devil. After I wrote Buddhism Without Beliefs, I was basically given a blank cheque by my publisher, who said, ‘Okay, just do what you want’. Sounds like a writer’s greatest dream come true. Actually, it’s a nightmare because you have no guidance whatsoever. You have no points of reference. You have no task to perform. You’re just told to do what you want.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what in fact I wanted to say. In the end, after a number of false starts, I stumbled into the idea of Mara, the demonic. Now, this is purely mythical material. It’s right through the early Pāli canon, the encounters of the Buddha and Mara, and of course it’s also picked up in many other traditions as well, not exclusively Buddhist obviously. The figure of Satan has a very similar role.

Now, I’ve found that using the Mara material, the idea of the demonic as a personification, as a character who interacts with another character, who embodies certain values and perspectives and so on that are in opposition to others, works in many ways more powerfully for me than analysing these things in terms of, say, Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology is, again, it’s quite an amazing thing. Buddhists came up with psychological insights long before they were thought of in the West, and we’re naturally quite attracted to that sort of aspect of Buddhism. Much of the world of mindfulness draws upon Buddhist psychology really, and that’s the language it tends to prefer. But that’s done at the cost of losing sight of the potency of mythic material.

The example of Mara I continue to use today. In fact, next month in New York there will be a performance of a chamber opera that I’ve written called ‘Mara’. I’ve spent a few years now writing a libretto which tells the story of Buddha and Mara through two acts that are sung by a soprano, a baritone and a tenor. The music is being composed by my friend Sherry Woods, and we’re going to have a performance in the Rubin Museum on October 18 and 20 in New York City, If you’re interested, tickets are now available.

That’s another example of using a secular form, opera, converting classical Buddhist material into the language of the Western musical tradition and presenting these ideas not intellectually or abstractly but through figures moving and singing and acting on stage. Again, I think you couldn’t do this by thinking of Buddhism purely psychologically or philosophically. So that, to me, is probably the best example of how we’ve been very careful not to dispense with mythology because it doesn’t meet our criteria of historical or psychological accuracy. It allows us to engage with this material through the imagination and that, for me, is, again, a very, very important part of my practice.

It’s the cultivation and the incorporation of the creative and the imaginative into my practice. In fact, in the book Secular Buddhism, the last section is all about the arts, which I feel is hopefully a way in which the secular movement within Buddhism will start to take more and more interest in finding new forms of expressing the dharma and bringing it into our lives in quite non-traditional ways.

Noah: Cool, I love that. I’d like to get your thoughts on this. From my perspective, I wouldn’t want the secular Buddhist movement that’s emerging to replace the traditional Buddhist movement, or anything else. I view it like the concept of love languages, the idea that some people express something that is so universal like love very differently. For some people, their key love language is words of affirmation. For others, it’s physical touch, and whatever their love language is, it works for them. I’ve come to understand that secular Buddhism, for me, is like another spiritual language. It’s a language that works for me. That’s why I enjoy it and I like teaching these concepts from a secular lens and practising them from a secular approach but I’ve never felt like I’m crossing the line to say, ‘This is the right way for everyone’.

I feel that it’s important to emphasise that what we’re trying to do as part of this movement is provide another language that may work for some people because the language that’s out there isn’t working for someone. This involves, at times, telling people, ‘Hey, this practice works, but you may want to check out the Tibetan tradition, or you may want to check out Zen’, because it’s not a competition of, ‘Hey, you need to be here’. Right? I’d kind of like to hear your thoughts on that, your perspective on that. I assume, from what I’ve gathered, that it’s similar for you.

Stephen: Yeah, it’s very similar, and actually this whole distinction taps right into the core shift from truths to tasks. As long as you’re invested in the language of truth, it’s very difficult to not then get into comparative judgement. If this is true, then that can’t be true. If the Tibetan Buddhist teaching of this is true, then the Zen or the Theravada version clearly can’t be true. At the root, then, of this secular approach is that it has discarded the polemic of truth and replaced it with the vision of pragmatism. In other words, what matters is that we’re not trying to persuade ourselves or others that this or that idea is true. We’re only actually interested in whether or not it works. That’s the key insight of William James and others in the pragmatic tradition.

It’s not about whether it’s true. Does it work? Does this practice, for example, of mindfulness, actually make a difference in the quality of my life? I’m not going to try and persuade people to do it because the Buddha said it and the Buddha wasn’t lying, therefore it’s true. I’m basically offering an exercise, and the question is, is this helpful? Does this work? Does this actually improve the quality of your life? If you’re really serious about that approach, then of course you will assume an extremely tolerant attitude towards all other forms, but you will acknowledge that, for certain people, perhaps this is not an approach that’s very helpful. You might even, as you suggest, direct them elsewhere. Maybe they should do their own practice or whatever. In other words, you need to adapt the dharma to suit the needs of the practitioner, rather than seeking to remodel the practitioner to somehow fit the idea you have as what constitutes the Buddhism. My experience, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was that in order for me to be able to function in good faith as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I had to accept certain doctrinal propositions as being true, and be able to defend them in public. If I were unable to do that, I would have no business being a Tibetan Buddhist monk. And that’s one of the reasons I could not really work within that environment. There were other issues, as well, that we don’t need to go into.

The point is a secular approach is effectively a tolerant approach. This has been brought forth quite strongly in recent writings and speeches by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is also using the word secular a lot. If you’ve read his book Beyond Religion – which is a unusual title for the head of one of the world’s biggest religions – the thing he emphasises is how we live in a world today where we can no longer expect any one religion to provide the ethical foundations for how people should live in this world. We need a secular approach that recognises the diversity and the plurality of different religious traditions, and gives equal respect to them all, and yet provides a space in which tolerance is the key.

And he gets this idea from the reading of the Indian constitution, a secular constitution set up in 1948, which is explicitly secular in order to work within the highly diverse religious world of India. You’ve got Muslims, Hindus, Jains and lots of different groups, and so on. You cannot run a country like that by taking a sectarian stance in terms of your identity as a nation. So the secular vision is not just about putting religion to one side, or even rejecting religion, as it’s often understood. It’s actually about having a open and tolerant attitude that is able to accept more.

But having said all of this, I do think we also need to leave enough space to have a critical engagement with religious traditions, in my own case a critical relationship to the Buddhist traditions that have emerged historically. I don’t think we could just say, ‘Well, this works for you. That’s fine. This works for you, that’s fine.’ There’s a danger there we slip into a kind of non-critical individualism, and I do think we need somehow to find a balance between, on the one hand, tolerance and respect and on the other hand, a willingness to look clearly and critically on the basis of empirical evidence, historical research, archeology and so on, to try to get a much clearer sense of how these traditions evolved, and to be able to be quite open and frank with our concerns about where they might be maybe going off in directions that are even contradicting their own principles, or whatever it might be. So there’s a balance between criticisms and respect; they need to go hand in hand.

Noah: Yeah. Absolutely. What comes to mind is, ‘Hey, that tradition that’s working for you, it’s not working for the rest of us because you’re trying to kill us,’ or something along those lines, or not even going to that extreme but a set of beliefs that may be causing unnecessary suffering for a whole group …

Stephen: Yeah, exactly.

Noah: … like the LGBT community or something like that.

Stephen: That’s right.

Noah: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that. Okay. A couple things I want to mention just based on what we’ve talked about. From writings that talk about the Buddha’s ability to teach people where they were, to meet someone where they are and teach them what’s appropriate for them, this seems to be echoed in what we’re discussing here, what you explained about this approach. Also, the idea that we shouldn’t believe these things just because someone said them, or because they’re written somewhere. This is also a deep rooted understanding for a lot of people of what Buddhism is, and that what the Buddha was teaching was, ‘Hey, try this’. That’s why I love this transformation of ‘truths’ into tasks, because you can take them and apply them and try them. So I wanted to talk about this a little bit because you use an acronym that makes it easier for us. So the acronym is …

Stephen: ELSA.

Noah: As any of us with kids know, Elsa teaches us the message of let it go, right? Playing off of the Disney movie.

Stephen: Oh, really? That’s in a Disney? Actually someone told me that. I didn’t know because I don’t watch children’s films. Yeah, somebody told…

Noah: Which is funny because when I first heard it, I thought, ‘I wonder if he drew that correlation on purpose to help us remember that.’ I think it’s a really funny play on the acronym. The most popular song she sings is called ‘Let it Go’.

Stephen: Is it really?

Noah: Yeah.

Stephen: What movie is this now? ‘Little Mermaid’?

Noah: No, no, no, it’s one of the more recent ones.

Stephen: Never mind. Someone did flag that to me, and I was very touched by it.

Noah: The movie’s called ‘Frozen’.

Stephen: That’s right.

Noah: The main character’s name is Elsa, and her pivotal moment is that she’s learning to let go of something that’s been binding her, holding back who she really is, and that’s her song, ‘Let it Go’.

Stephen: It’s a close interconnected world these days. And who knows, the scriptwriter might actually have borrowed the idea. I have no idea, and I don’t really mind.

Noah: Let’s walk through ELSA as an acronym and maybe apply it, so if someone’s listening to this thinking, ‘How do I apply this as a task to an ordinary instance of anguish or suffering?’ Like, I’m stuck at a red light or I just lost my job, how would we apply these as tasks to an instance of suffering?

Stephen: The example I usually give is working as a therapist. Let’s first of all start by just breaking down ELSA so that we’re all on the same page. ELSA is: E, embrace; L, let go; S, see – in some of the earlier writings it said stop – and then A, actualise or act. That is a highly condensed, secular Buddhist version of the Four Noble Truths. In other words: Embrace suffering, which means embrace the situation at hand; Let go of your instinctive reactivity to it; See the stopping of that reactivity; and then Act, respond. Either say, think, act, do something, whatever it might be.

To concretise that, imagine you’re a therapist working with a client. The knock on the door, a person appears. E, embrace. Embrace that person as unconditionally as you can. Accept that person for who they are. Read the face, what they’re saying to you through their eyes, through their expression, through their body language. Be totally open to that. L, let go of the reactions that arise in your mind. Maybe if you’re a heterosexual male and it’s a beautiful young woman, you will experience desire, you’ll experience saying, ‘Oh, she’s nice’, or whatever. Notice that, be totally with it. Don’t condemn it, but let it go. Don’t buy into it. Just see that as the natural, completely ordinary response of one organism to another. It’s okay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reacting to it. It’s what we do with it that’s problematic.

The second step is let go of that reactive pattern. It might be a client that you really have a great deal of difficulty with on some personal level, and you experience resistance, dislike, frustration. You notice that. You embrace it. You let it go. And that allows you to come to settle into that non-reactive, mindful attention that you’re trying to sustain as this person walks into your room. See the fact that when you’re aware of these things, that seeing is actually non-reactive. You can be non-reactively aware of your reactivity. This is the essential principle behind all mindfulness therapies, basically.

And that’s not the end of the path, that’s not your nirvana, as it were. That is actually where you now seek to respond to the situation. You seek to respond to this person’s suffering, in this case the client. You seek to respond to them in a way that’s not determined by your instincts, your reactions, your likes, your dislikes. It’s responding in a way that’s not conditioned by your greed, your attachment, your fear, your hatred, your egoism, or whatever it might be. That is what then leads you to say something to maybe reach out and take their hand, whatever it is that you subsequently do.

Now, of course in reality, what I’ve just described, could be happening within a second or less; it’s very fast. The reason we do formal practice is to somehow break the process down into manageable training segments, so we’ll spend time actually cultivating attention that embraces our situation, which is largely just being mindful and aware. We’ll pay more attention to what it means to not get caught up in our reactive patterns. We’ll learn to know what that feels like, and we’ll become particularly attuned to the tastes and the feel of what it’s like to be in a nonreactive state of mind, as a foundation for them being able to respond rather than react to the person who’s actually before you or the situation that is at hand.

And as you suggested at the beginning, we can apply this to any situation in life, whether we’re stuck at a traffic jam in this trivial sense, or whether we’re facing a major life decision in a marriage or in a work situation. We can apply those principles, I feel, just as effectively in any human scenario. The difficulty is that it’s happening very fast. The world is impinging on your life. You’re under deadlines. You’ve got colleagues and friends and partners pressuring you to do this, that and the other. You don’t have the luxury to go on a two-week meditation retreat before you get back to everybody else.

We need to find a way in which we can integrate a formal practice in which we quite systematically cultivate these skills, and then the real practice, which is actually living from moment to moment, from day to day in the midst of what is often a very conflicted, and sometimes very stressful, situation. We can do all of that without believing anything about Buddhist doctrine or metaphysics. Really that plays no role at all. It’s actually kind of just a big irrelevance.

I used to make the mistake of really getting upset with people who believed in reincarnation, and making a big effort to try to show that it can’t possibly be true, and so forth. But that’s just the same problem in reverse: I’m reacting to a belief rather than being attached to it. What I’ve got to now is that rebirth, reincarnation, karma, different realms of existence, this is all completely irrelevant. It has actually no bearing whatsoever on how we actually live our lives from day to day, and so we just let it go. We don’t have to get upset about it or whatever. We just don’t need to be driven by opinions and views at all.

Noah: Yeah. I really like that word, irrelevant, because it’s not a matter of I’ve got to prove or disprove, it becomes a side note.

Stephen: Yeah, it’s a side note. It’s just off the map. It doesn’t play any role at all.

Noah: Right. Yeah, and that’s how I view it. I like to think that if I perceive that Buddhism can get in the way of Buddhism, I need to understand that secular Buddhism also gets in the way of secular Buddhism the moment I become dogmatic against dogmatism, right?

Stephen: Exactly.

Noah: That’s why I really like what you discussed with the operating systems again, thinking of that as the analogy, keeping in mind, hey, it’s a different software.

Stephen: That’s right.

Noah: It works differently. It works well for me, but at the same time I recognise I haven’t tried every operating system, and I can’t. There are so many ways of trying to make sense of the universe, and this one happened to work pretty well for me, and I’m content here. I think the moment I realise that it’s not inspiring me to be a better person, or I’m not experiencing joy out of it then sure, I may say, ‘Well, let me try another software here’. But keeping that in mind allows me to extend that to someone else, saying, ‘If you’re good where you are, you’re good where you are. As long as you’re happy and you’re inspired to be a better person and you’re not harming other people in the process, sure, stick with that software.’

This has been such a treat to discuss things with you. I feel like I could spend all day chatting, I may have to come to France and visit you and we could just sit down and chat, But I do want to take a few moments to ask you some questions that podcast listeners wanted me to ask you. Is that okay?

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s go for it.

Noah: Okay, how important is meditation practice in secular Buddhism, and if so, like what types are best?

Stephen: That’s a very good question. I’ve got a sort of a both, and, answer to this one, I’m afraid. On the one hand, I would quite categorically affirm that meditation practice is pretty useful. It is kind of necessary. I think if we’re going to bind to the ELSA model, this requires that we do cultivate certain inner disciplines that allow us to be more aware of the workings of our minds. We can’t get round that. And meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is a remarkable tool for achieving this, and I feel extraordinarily vindicated in having started out practicing mindfulness about 30 years ago to now find that it’s all over the place, and the reason it’s all over the place is not because the world is becoming Buddhist. It’s because it works. It’s as simple as that. Clinical trials have shown growing evidence that if you want to live a happy, flourishing creative life, then it would help, in most cases, to be more mindful.

Now, the counterpoint to this is that we must be careful, I think, as secular Buddhists, not to over-privilege meditation, and to think of meditation as ‘the practice’. You get a lot of Buddhists who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go do my practice now,’ and what that usually means is they’ll go somewhere and they’ll sit cross-legged on their zafu and they’ll light a stick of incense, and they’ll meditate for 30 minutes. We have to expand the notion of practice to include every aspect of the eightfold path and, in that sense, I want to keep meditation on a level playing field with vision, with intention, with speech, with action, with work, with effort and with samadhi, with concentration.

The Buddha, in the first discourse, quite clearly presents the eightfold path as the practice. All of those aspects of the path are to be bhavanaed, to be cultivated, to be brought into being, to be practiced. The danger today is that we continue this idea that the real practices are private, subjective meditation that we do on our cushion, and we do on our retreats, and everything else in our life is kind of an optional add-on to that core practice. I think we really need to honour our whole human experience as a field of practice, in other words we think, how we speak, how we work, how we act. All of that is practice and it’s no more or less practice than cultivating meditation.

The reason I think meditation becomes so highlighted in Buddhism is because it is a part of the tradition that provides something that, in the West, we’ve lost sight of. Meditative and contemplative traditions in Christianity in particular have largely fallen into abeyance, and Buddhism is thereby very attractive because it provides something we don’t have. And so it does fill a gap and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it’s given such priority, but the danger is that we don’t readjust, as it were, our perspective on practice. Once we do have a reasonably competent meditation discipline under our belt, we need then to do the next thing, which is to extend the notion of practice to include everything else, and to not give unnecessary privilege to meditation.

Noah: I like that. And I would also add if used as a practice to ease the grasping or the attachment we have, we need to be careful to not allow it to become the next thing we attach to.

Stephen: Yes.

Noah: And I think sometimes here in the West, it seems like it is used very much as a form of escapism. It’s like, ‘Well, here’s life and it’s hectic so I’m going to go hide in my little corner here and sit for a moment and get away from it all’, without realising that the whole art of the practice is not to get away from it all, it’s to sit with it all. It’s to be with things just as they are.

Stephen: That’s true. On the other hand, there are times in which retreat is kind of important. I think we often need the quiet and solitude to really take stock of what’s going on. There’s a great place for that in our world, especially as we’ve become so much more bombarded with data. We do need to create spaces, public spaces in our world where people can experience a physical quiet and solitude to support the rest of their life.

Noah: Okay, so that, what you just mentioned, addresses one of the other questions, which is the view on retreats, mindfulness retreats. I think they have a place, certainly, based on what you just said. We wouldn’t want to make the mistake of thinking, ‘No, those are obsolete. You don’t need that’, but we also don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that’s the way, that the only way you get any benefit out of all of this is to go to these things. Another question that just came in: ‘do these teachings constitute a religion?’

Stephen: This is a question that I’m frequently asked. The problem is the word religion is extremely difficult to define, and I think at the beginning of After Buddhism in chapter one, I talk about the different ways in which we can use religion, in some senses positively, in other senses negatively. To me, I consider myself, at one level, to be a deeply religious person, but by that I don’t mean because I bought into some religious orthodoxy of Buddhism or Christianity. Rather, to be deeply religious, as I understand it, means to lead your life in a state of ultimate concern. If we take our life with the deepest possible seriousness, that we realise that we’re only on this earth for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, how do we make the most of that? How do we make each moment count? How do we give our passion and our deepest feelings to what matters most for us in the face of our death? That, to me, is the core of the religious feeling, the religious impulse.

I think the traditional religions acknowledge this, but very often what happens is that the more that one gets drawn into an orthodox religion – Buddhist or other – the potency of our ultimate concern becomes slowly eaten away, and we become more and more preoccupied with defending our beliefs, or defending our institutions, and somehow preserving a sacred teaching or organisation, or whatever it might be.

That’s where religion starts to become less desirable. It becomes very often about joining about a club, feeling superior to other people, having privileged access to the truth, all that kind of stuff. All the wars of religion, all of the disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Muslims and the Jews, and the Hindus and so on, that’s where religion really goes out the window, as far as I’m concerned.

So can we therefore somehow recover the core that unites all people who are deeply committed to the values of being human, in whatever form that might take, and be less preoccupied with the outward structures and teachings and doctrines that the particular historical religions have come up with?

So I’m not giving you a yes or no answer.

Noah: Which is very Buddhist. I like that, I really like that explanation. I’ve thought lately, it’s interesting that with Buddhism people would ‘ask are you a Buddhist?’ But with another practice, yoga for example, there’s not really a word, are you a yoga-ist? It’s just ‘do you practice it, yes or no?’ I wish we viewed Buddhism more like that. Do I practice meditation? Yes. Do I practice Buddhism? Yes. Am I Buddhist? Well, no. Do I teach Buddhism? Yes. So, that’s just an interesting thought. We’re coming up on the last couple of minutes here. I’d like to ask you, this is my question to you: How do you define nirvana? What does nirvana mean to you? The idea of enlightenment, what does it mean to you?

Stephen: For a start, for me, nirvana and enlightenment are not equivalent at all. Nirvana just means literally ‘blowing out’ or ‘stopping’, and I go back to one of the earliest phrases in the Pāli suttas, the discourses where the Buddha says that nirvana is ‘clearly visible, immediate, inviting, uplifting, and personally experienced [by the wise’. He says that about the dharma. He says that about nirvana. Nirvana is clearly visible. In my understanding, nirvana therefore is every moment in which you rest in a non-reactive state of mind. This is the classic definition of nirvana which, again, we find in the suttas; this is not later commentarial material.

The Buddha says nirvana is the stopping of greed, the stopping of hatred, the stopping of delusion. Now that’s usually taken to mean the complete and final stopping of all those things. I don’t read it that way. I read it that every moment in your experience as a human being, you find yourself in a still, quiet, open, responsive frame of mind, you are tasting nirvana. You’re tasting a mind that is not governed by your attachments, your fears, your hatreds, your opinions. That is nirvana.

In ELSA, we speak of S, seeing the stopping of reactivity. We’re actually saying seeing nirvana, seeing those nirvanic moments that open up maybe just for a brief second or two and then get taken over by something else. But the point of the third task is actually to see and to dwell in a non-reactive, i.e. a nirvanic perspective.

The other term you use – enlightenment, which is bodhi, awakening I prefer really to enlightenment – encompasses all four tasks. Again, going back to the earliest discourse of the Buddha, he defines awakening quite explicitly as having recognised, performed and accomplished the four tasks. That is awakening. If we think of that as a process rather than a final state, the process of embracing, letting go, seeing, and acting, that is the process of waking up. We might one day get to a point where we’re completely awake, but that, I think, is probably more of a useful ideal to head for rather than something we would become attached to and think we should actually get there. It’s asymptotic in that sense. In other words, we need to think in those terms but not to take that too literally.

So, awakening is the whole process of all four tasks. Again, there is sound early canonical basis for that. Nirvana is a sort of hinge. I sometimes think of nirvana as the hinge of awakening, the hinge of enlightenment. It’s the letting, it’s the seeing, it’s the embracing, letting go, stopping, that is nirvana. And then responding. So nirvana is the crux, the hinge on which the process of awakening turns.

Noah: I love that. I love that. Nirvanic moments. Because we can all experience those throughout the day, and I think we all do. Then we conceptualise it and now we’re looking for our concept and then we’re not seeing it, and yet it’s there all along. I love awakening as a way of being rather than a destination. You realise the process is that you’re always getting it, but you never get it.

Stephen: That’s right.

Noah: And the moment you think you get it, you didn’t get it, because the point was that you’re getting it, not that you get it.

Stephen: Yeah. It’s gone.

Noah: Yeah. I love that. Okay. It’s 10:33 here so I know you’ve got duties.

Stephen: I have kitchen duties now, I’m afraid. As a secular Buddhist, I have to go now and help prepare the evening meal for my wife and my mother-in-law.

Noah: Okay. Again, I just want to say thank you. It’s been so enjoyable spending this time talking to you on multiple perspectives, because discussing this is a topic that I’m passionate about. That’s why I have the podcast, but also just as a fan and as someone who has deep gratitude for your work, for the effort you’ve put into presenting the ideas. The way that you’ve presented them has changed my life, and directly affected many, many lives for the better, to have more joy and more contentment and peace in life. For this, I am extremely grateful to you. And I think it’s really neat that I get to express this to you in person, someone who’s affected me in so many ways, and here I get to thank you. It’s really a neat moment for me, so thank you very much.

Stephen: That’s very kind of you, Noah, and it somehow makes my work worthwhile. I live a lot of my time fairly isolated in this village in France, reading books and writing texts, and so it means a lot to me that you’ve found my work so valuable. It gives me a real impetus to keep going. Likewise, those of you who are listening to the podcast, or who watch it, I really hope that these ideas are workable for you. Please don’t get attached to them. They’re just tools we can use. They’re not doctrines that we need to hold onto as though they’re final revealed truths, or anything like that, so thank you.

Noah: Thank you. Great. That’s a wonderful closing. Thank you.

50 – Creating Moments of Awareness

3 simple questions are all it takes to create a moment of awareness. Where am I? What am I doing? What did it take for this moment to arise? In this episode, I will discuss how I use these 3 simple questions as a technique to allow myself to become more mindful and to become more anchored in the present moment. I hope you can pause and ask yourself these 3 questions from time to time in order to experience more mindfulness in your day.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Noah Rasheta:                      Hello, you are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 50. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about creating moments of awareness.

Today marks a fun milestone in the podcast. This happens to be episode number 50 and as of today, the podcast has officially been downloaded or listened to over 1 million times. So the podcast now has listeners in over 50 countries. The top five countries are the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany. It keeps going down the list, and the 50th country is Kenya, with over 400 downloads. So, how cool is that?

I’ve been receiving countless emails of support and feedback from listeners from all over the world and I’m so grateful to each and every one of you for listening for supporting and just for being a part of this journey and being a part of this milestone with me. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Today I want to talk about the practice of creating moments of awareness, and here’s the thing about mindfulness, these amazing moments of clarity, moments where you glimpse the awe inspiring nature of reality as it is. They’re always there, and it’s just a matter of us becoming aware of what this moment actually is. How can we shift our perspective? How can we see or experience more of these moments of awareness in our normal day-to-day lives?

Well there’s a technique that I’ve been using that I would like to share with you, where you pause, and you ask yourself three questions. The questions are one, where am I, two, what am I doing, and three, what did it take for this moment to arise? In other words, what people or processes were involved with allowing this moment to exist just the way that it is?

Now I’ll discuss that in a minute, but before getting into those questions, a couple of reminders. First, remember the Dalai Lama’s quote, where he says, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better, whatever you already are.”. Regardless of which path you’re on, or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to be a better whatever you already are. Second, the mission of the Foundation For Mindful Living is to provide tools and content to help people live more mindfully, but I want to address that really quick.

What does it mean to live more mindfully? Well essentially it means that we are learning to be more aware of our thoughts, feelings, actions and emotions. It’s not about changing them. It’s not about changing the way you feel. It’s about understanding the relationship you have with your feelings. It’s about becoming a better observer of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, all of this in order to live more skillfully with them.

Part of the mission is accomplished with the podcast by posting regular episodes like this one, where certain topics are brought up, that help you to understand Buddhist concepts or topics or teachings, ultimately again, to help you live more mindfully.

Another component has been traveling and doing workshops, where in a one day, all day workshop, I can teach all of the concepts of mindfulness. It’s like a mindfulness one-on-one workshop. In fact, there’s one coming up in Orlando, Florida on Saturday October 21st. There will be another one in Phoenix on Saturday November 4th, and you can learn about those workshops by visiting

I’m also excited to announce that I’m working on an online version of the workshop that will be available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. I think these are important tools that many people have indicated to me that learning this has helped change their lives in a positive way, helping people to cope with difficult things they’re going through, helping people to find more contentment and joy with day-to-day living, so I’ll continue doing these podcast episodes and producing them in this format, where it’s about teaching concepts or presenting ideas that ultimately promote mindfulness.

Now I did introduce a new format awhile back with occasional interviews. I’ve done a couple of these. One with Robert Wright, an author, and another one with Noah Levine from Refuge Recovery to talk about addiction and recovery. I will occasionally continue to do episodes that are that format, the interview format, where we discuss certain topics. I think that’s helpful, but that format is not replacing the original format. It’s just in addition to, so roughly once a month you can expect a podcast of that format, the interview. And also, occasionally I’ll introduce a format with the question and answer format, where podcast listeners can call in or email a question in and then I’ll answer those questions through a podcast. Those are, both of those formats are occasional. They’re not the regular.

The regular format is like this podcast episode and many of the past ones, where I just present a concept or an idea or a teaching to help foster this ability to live more mindfully. So, between the podcasts and the workshops, I think a lot of people can benefit from these topics and teachings. If you guys have any feedback or ideas or other things that the foundation can do or that I can do, feel free to reach out and let me know. I value everyone’s feedback. I read every email that comes in, even if it may take me some time to get to it, because I do receive a lot of emails now.

So, with that in mind, now let’s jump into this week’s topic. So moments of awareness, what are moments of awareness? For me, these are the moments when I feel like I suddenly have a bit more insight into the nature of reality of the moment I’m experiencing right then, in the present moment. If you were to imagine a giant sand hour, you know, the, what is it called, a sand glass hour? The sandglass, yeah, sandglass, so imagine a giant sandglass, but it’s flowing backwards. The sand is flowing from the bottom towards the top. It’s like at the bottom there are all these past moments and they’re all being funneled into the present moment, which is that little bottleneck in the middle, and after passing through the present moment, then they expand into every possible outcome of what the future could be, but we are stuck right there at that bottleneck and where there are only a few grains passing through at the moment. That’s the present moment.

This is the way I visualize it. Hopefully this helps you, but this is how this helps me. So I’m there experiencing this one present moment at a time and every now and then I fell like I see through this lens of impermanence and interdependence and I feel like inside a mindfulness arise. This process of the sand and the hourglass, it’s always happening, but I’m not always aware of it. I try to prime myself, or prime my mind to try to experience the present more mindfully from time-to-time.

I had one such instance of this, this morning. Some of you know that I’ve recently taken on somewhat of a new career path. I wanted to dedicate more time to the podcast and to the foundation, so after my business kind of collapsing, I haven’t been … The business allowed me to do that full-time and this part-time, and now I wanted to reverse roles and find something that I could do part-time and do this full-time. That’s been working out well with driving the school bus. I started driving as a substitute teacher last year, then I took on a full-time route this year, with school that started last week.

I want to insert a quick plug here for driving a school bus. If any of you are freelancers or entrepreneurs or your trying to build something on the side, driving a school bus is a really neat way to do it because you have this schedule, where you get up early and you drive a bus route, but you’re done by around 9:00 AM, and then you’ve got the rest of the day to go work on your own, and then you don’t have to be back until the afternoon to do another one or two hour bus route.

So it’s worked out very well for me to have this big block of time in the middle of the day to work on what I consider my full-time project, which is the podcast, but at the same time I don’t have to depend entirely on the podcast or tax it. I’m not an employee of it yet, because I don’t have to. I have a part-time job. It’s been a really neat thing, so you should consider that if you are in a position like mine or you’re trying to build something. Driving a school bus is a fun way to do that.

Back to what I wanted to discuss. I’ve had several items on my mind lately. Still kind of dealing with tying all the loose ends of everything that’s happened with my business and at times it feels like it can bog me down, because there’s just so much to think about. Today was one of those instances, where this morning I was thinking of all the things I’m gonna have to do later today and the people I need to call and the emails and just the messes I’m trying to clean up still, and it’s a lot.

As I sat there on the bus this morning, you know, you get the bus ready before you go out and do the route, where you start picking up kids and you do what’s called a pre trip or a pre inspection and your checking all the air in the tires and all the various parts of the bus. By the time I’m done with that process, I sit there and I have roughly 10 minutes or so before I need to start my route. Then the route consists of making designated stops at designated times, so I can’t go too fast, I can’t go too slow, you need to stay on track because the kids are expecting the bus at a certain time.

These are moments, I’m sitting there with 10 minutes to go, these are moments, where you can create moments of awareness and I do this by asking myself the following three questions. These help me in any moment. Any moment, where you can pause and ask yourself these questions, where you’re, I guess you’d have time if you were stuck at a red light, but you could do this in a lot of places. If you’re stuck in line at the bank or find time in the day to do this, but these questions help me to become really mindful, to become present to the intricate connections that allow that present moment to be exactly what it is.

Here are the questions. First I say, “Where am I?”, and this helps me to ease my mind with all the thoughts that I have about all the other places. We’re always somewhere and thinking of somewhere else, so rather than thinking about work or the email that I’m gonna have to get to once I’m done, like all these other places. I thought, where am I, I’m right here, sitting on a bus. What am I doing, second question. This helps me to anchor myself in the present moment. To recognize that yes, I have a lot on my mind about this or that, but right now, I’m doing this, you know, what am I doing, reminds me that what am I doing right now. Sure I can be doing things later, but right now, I’m driving the bus. That’s what I’m doing.

Once I allow myself to anchor in that present moment, then I ask the third question, what did it take for this moment to arise? In other words, what people or process were involved with allowing this moment to exist just the way that it is. For me, I paused, I looked around, and I started looking at all the components on the bus. I was looking at the radio that I use to communicate with the school, the school and the other bus drivers. I was looking at the mirror, thinking about what all it took for that mirror to be created. I looked at the rivets in the ceiling of the bus and the different panels and how they connect. I was imagining the various factories, where each of these metal pieces were coming from and the electronic components that allow me to open and close the doors I started looking at the little LED lights around the stop sign that comes out when the doors open and thinking, where did that LED come from, where was that created, the lettering on the bus.

This process goes on and on. There are so many things to look at, so many components. Just for this bus to exist the way that it does in that present moment, and as if that’s not enough to think about, then I thought, well what is it, what are the processes that are taking place right now, all across this valley, where I’m about to go pick up kids. Kids are waking up. That required alarm clocks. It required smart phones. It required, maybe the coffee that they’re drinking or that their parents are drinking to help them wake up and where did those come from, and I was thinking about the farmers and about the watering and this complex process that’s been taking place for a vast amount of time, so that in this moment, it’s all gonna culminate in the one moment, where I interact with the culmination of every single one of those processes.

And yet, that’s exactly what happening right now, as I’m sitting there on the bus, like it’s taking place everywhere, but the way that I was thinking of it, it will culminate with the moment as I stop and I pick up someone there standing on the side of the road. There are so many parts of this, right? I could continue to imagine, you know, the shoes that I’m wearing, the shoes that they’re wearing, the backpacks that their using, the books that they have in those backpacks and the pages and the paper and the trees that made the paper and the stitching that went into the backpacks and on and on and on.

This process really doesn’t end. By then, it was time for me to proceed to drive the route and at that point, I’m on the route, but I’m so much more mindful now of how incredible this moment is. The moment of picking someone up and everything it took for each stop, each child to be standing there, ready to get on the bus, and then to think this process goes on for the rest of the day, their classroom and their teachers and their desks and their books, where does it stop? Suddenly, you’re left with this realization that this is one incredible moment taking place, one after the other, after the other.

I was grateful to be able to be mindful of it, even if just for a moment. I’m sure I’ll pause and do this again later in the day about other things, other places, other processes because that’s how it works, but this is a process, a series of questions that can allow you to at least glimpse for a moment the intricacies of what it took for this moment to be what it is.

I thought about this as I reflected on the milestone to the podcast. I already had this in mind that I wanted to talk about creating moments of awareness, and when I came in and started preparing everything for the podcast, and I was checking the podcast, I realized, hey, today’s the day that I hit that milestone of 50 episodes. Jenny, one of our podcast listeners, you guys probably may recognize some of her work, she’s done a lot of those really cool sketching drawings that I’ve shared on the Facebook page, she in the UK. She had sent me an email saying hey, you’re coming up on your 50th podcast episode, this is a time to celebrate, and I thought, huh, I hadn’t even thought about that. I was just gonna record number 50 like it was no big deal.

I thought, how fun to just pause for a moment, apply these same three questions to realize all the work, all the processes that it’s taken for this moment to be what it is, and suddenly I’m left there feeling just humbled to be a part of this present moment. I can’t help but to feel gratitude, gratitude at the prospect that I get to share in other incredible moments in the future. I’m not thinking way out, I’m thinking 30 seconds from now, one minute from now, five minutes from now, each one of these incredible moments arriving and what may seem like such an ordinary way, and yet with just a little introspection, I realize there’s nothing ordinary about any of these moments.

Every moment is the extraordinary culmination of everything that’s ever taken place. To realize that, even to glimpse it for a moment, I’m grateful for this technique. This is a technique that I enjoy using as I try to live more mindfully of the beauty of the present moment, more mindfully of the fact that whatever the moment is, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, whether it’s a moment I enjoy or a moment I’m disliking, it’s unique. It’s a unique moment and it’s beautiful in and of its own, regardless of the perspective that I have of it. That’s a fascinating thought for me because it allows me to go through the day with a greater sense of gratitude, a greater sense of awe at everything that’s taking place.

This is, to me, what it means to live more mindfully, to create the space for awareness to allow there to be more contentment and joy in everything that’s taking place because of my perspective to look around and think, wow, it took everything. I hope that you all can take a moment to pause sometime today to ask yourself these three questions and then see how it makes you feel. Ask yourself, where am I, what am I doing, and what did it take for this moment to arise, and see how that changes how you see that one ordinary present moment in which you created a moment of awareness by looking, by allowing yourself to try to see beyond the limitation that we have sometimes of just being here, but not really being here, being now, but not really thinking of now. We’re caught up in the future or caught up in the past, but to really be present for a moment and to realize what all it takes for this one moment to exist.

Then, that quickly, watch how that moment passes and it’s replaced by another moment and then another moment and another moment and this process goes on and on and on and that the nature of our lives and how our lives can slip away through our hands, moment after moment. We’re always looking back, wishing we had been more mindful of something that took place and yet, there we are in the present with the opportunity to have that mindfulness. To have that anchoring right then and there and to start that process now in this present moment. You can do that with those three questions, where am I, what am I doing, what did it take for this moment to arise.

I hope you can each find time to ask yourself those three questions today. Notice how it makes you feel, and then enjoy that moment, just enjoy that pause, enjoy the feeling that you have as you increase your awareness, as you create your moment of awareness.

Thank you, that’s all I have for today. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes and if you would like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, the work that I’m doing with the foundation, please visit and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode, episode number 51 soon. Thank you, until next time.