Month: November 2017

60 – “Happiness” – A discussion with Ellen Petry Leanse

This is the audio and video recording of my interview with Ellen Petry Leanse (TEDx: Happiness by Design) and author of “The Happiness Hack: a brain-aware guide to life satisfaction”. I hope you enjoy listening to our discussion on the topic of happiness.


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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.

All right. So, those of you who are watching us live, welcome. I’m excited to have Ellen Petry Leanse on the podcast with me today. [00:17:00] Specifically, right now for a live interview/discussion on the topic of happiness. So, Ellen is a technology pioneer. She’s an alum of Apple, Google and the range of entrepreneurial ventures. And she works at the crossroads of neuroscience, systems thinking and mindfulness practices. So, a very good fit for the audience that listens to the podcast. She teaches at Stanford [00:17:30] University. She guides individuals and organizations to increase impact and purpose through sustainable mindsets and skills. So, thank you, Ellen, for joining me today on this live interview/discussion.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you so much, Noah. Secular Buddhism is my go-to podcast and it’s really so much fun and such an honor to be here. So, thank you and hello to everybody out there who’s joined us this morning.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:18:00] Great. Okay. I’m just double checking the comments, making sure that that’s all working properly. We’ve got people from all over. Someone from Mumbai, India. Hi, Asha. Okay. So, if you guys have any issues with the audio, let me know. I’m using my podcast mic today so I just want to make sure that the audio level is okay, if it’s too loud or not loud enough, let me know in the comments.

[00:18:30] We have several things to jump into here. The overall topic for our conversation today is happiness. I think this is such a vital topic to discuss because happiness is one of those things that we’re all after, right? We all want to experience this. But I feel like at times, we may not fully understand what it actually is. Like, what does it actually mean to be happy? [00:19:00] I have this thought the other day, thinking about love. Like, we all want to be loved or to love, but what does actually mean? When I spend time thinking about it like that, I realized it’s really hard to define. I think happiness falls in that same vein of maybe it’s not what we think it is, or we’ll understand it better if we learn about what’s really going on in our mind and in our brain. From an emotional standpoint, but also from a physiological [00:19:30] standpoint. The actual chemicals that cause us to feel the way that we feel.

Ellen is the expert to talk to about this topic, so I was really excited when I picked up her book, The Happiness Hack. We’ll talk a little bit about this. As I read through it and seen that the close correlation between the neuroscience of happiness and the mindfulness-based approach to the understanding of happiness, [00:20:00] I thought was really well done and really well explained.

Before we jump into the book, Ellen, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your journey with the topic of happiness? What led you to be an expert on the topic of happiness? For those listening, by expert, I mean Ellen has given a TEDx talk, “Happiness by Design,” which you can check out on TED’s website. And then, of course the author of The Happiness [00:20:30] Hack, a brain aware guide to life satisfaction. So, tell us a little bit about that journey, Ellen.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you, Noah. I think I’m still a learner about it because there’s so much more to be known about happiness and what creates that feeling that we all crave and covetous that we think is our set point or maybe our aspiration in human experience.

But I think, number of years back, as I talk about it in the book, I [00:21:00] was living a life that probably from the outside looking in, seeing like something anybody should be happy with. Mind you, there were many things that brought me deep joy and satisfaction, connection with my family, my sons, the times when I felt really aligned with my personal intention, the work I found satisfaction in doing. And even in some of the very simple things of caring for a family and having a home, and so forth.

But there was this other thing happening on the surface that felt [00:21:30] very confusing and I didn’t know what it was about. I really couldn’t understand why there was a static in my life about the internal things that I knew make me happy and the things that seem to be getting validation and approval in the outside world. The validation and approval, I have to say, I saw it probably as much as any other human saw. But it’s kind of about the public-facing persona, the every day being great, the things we [00:22:00] bought or owned or wore, whatever it was, were the things that tended to get the approval rather than the things that really made me happy. The highlight of my day might have been sitting with one of my children before he went to bed, and reading or really talking about the day. But the things that got the most validation and celebration on the outside world were completely different than that. I felt confused.

I started reading about the topic [00:22:30] of life purpose and what it really meant to be a satisfied human and to have a good life. Everything from the Stoics to the sciences. It was when I stumbled upon my first books about neuroscience, and understanding some of the chemical processes in the brain, and really aligning that with things I read in psychology and in other disciplines, I started seeing that there were cycles in the brain that could easily be exploited and validated externally [00:23:00] that would create a certain type of reinforcement or check off the box like, “Ah yeah. This is good and it’s making sense.” That actually really weren’t working for me. And as I thought more deeply about it and learned more, I realized they weren’t really working that well for other people either.

I started diving deeper into the way the brain works, looking certainly at our emotional and memory systems. And then, the cognitive systems that wrap around those and create [00:23:30] our experience of reality or our perception of reality, more aptly put. And then, the icing on the cake is when I started studying the work of the Buddha and the wisdom of the Buddha, and began to realize that 3000 years ago, under the Bodhi tree, someone came to this deep understanding on a mindbogglingly, mindblowingly perceptive and deep level that [00:24:00] really explained the human condition of why we so often get happiness wrong.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Yeah, something that stood out to me in your book, you talked about how your experience with unhappiness and how something clicked when you started learning about your brain. What I enjoyed about your book, in some ways, it reads like a manual. If you understand what’s going on, [00:24:30] it’s easier to work with what you’re experiencing, whether that be suffering or discomfort or, in this case, we’re talking about happiness. What is actually happening when we’re experiencing these emotions.

One of the things I want to talk about, first, is what is happiness? How do you define happiness? There’s that chemical composition of what you feel, [00:25:00] but there’s more to it. Tell me a little bit about your view of the definition of happiness. What are we talking about when we’re talking about happiness.

Ellen Leanse:                          All I can say is, it’s a great question, isn’t it? I think that’s one of the things that’s really hard to define, but I would imagine …

Happiness we would probably use generically to the feeling that things are making sense and that we’re fitting into something bigger, and that we are [00:25:30] validated. Although, I’m a little bit careful with this word. Validated for the way we are participating in the fuller reality. However, I think there is another meaning of happiness that has been sort of hijacked, if you will, by many of the experiences that we have in modern life.

If we go back on an evolutionary level, we go back to our biology when we were living a very different type of [00:26:00] human life that we’re living today, happiness might be the reward we would feel from, say, someone bringing home something from a hunt or from a gather that would allow the clan to sustain itself. In that, there would be a couple of different types of happiness happening. There would be the reward we would get from the dopamine cycle. So, the dopamine cycle flows from a motivation to an achievement to a reward [00:26:30] loop. So, we would have that dopamine charge that we would get. And dopamine was very important for motivating early humans to get through some of the challenges they had to face simply in order to survive.

I’d love to segue for a moment into the concept of distraction. Distraction is usually associated with the dopamine motivation, achievement and rewards cycle. Distraction served our survival when we were earlier humans. We might be walking [00:27:00] along the paths and see a little grub on a tree, and go and grab it. We’d have the satisfaction not only of then having nourishment, but of, “Aha. I saw it.” So, that distraction had a certain type of reward. But if you think of distraction at that time we’re probably getting distracted by things … By the way, one other thing on distraction. More than likely, it was also something rustling in the grass, we could say, “Ah!” And then fire the amygdala response and flee or fight as needed [00:27:30] if something was putting us in peril.

Today distraction is manufactured and it’s manufactured by people who fully understand the dopamine loop and that jolt of happiness that it gives us. And know how to exploit it through the images they show us, the buttons they give us to click. All of these different things that are causing us to be distracted, not only a few times a day in order to find a little opportunistic nibble to eat, [00:28:00] or to avoid a potential danger, but to do what they want us to do, which is engage with their products or engage with their experiences or buy the thing that they’re selling. And so, our dopamine experience has been largely hijacked by all of this onslaught of media and technology that is in our lives.

However, if you talk to people, they’re not going to tell you that makes them happy. They’re going to say, “I wasted hours [00:28:30] doing this.” I was with a friend over Thanksgiving weekend. He said, “My gosh. I’ve been doing this now for 20 minutes. I’ve completely wasted 20 minutes. Why did I keep doing it?” And we’ve all been there. So, this is posing as happiness, but it’s not really what happiness is on a human level.

Human happiness, my book asserts and as do many psychologists, philosophers, scientists and many more, is much more about the serotonin [00:29:00] cycles, which are really what the agents call eudaimonic happiness. It’s the happiness you work for. It’s true satisfaction. It’s when you have done something that personally expresses you and your unique talents and purpose in a way that serves others, or allows you to grow, or creates this feeling that “I’ve made a small corner of the world more beautiful than it was before and thus something that I’ve done really matters.” [00:29:30] This is how much, compared to what I call the tequila shot happiness of dopamine, which is on the counter and you shoot it, and then you go, “Oh, what was I thinking?” This is the one where you go, “No, I’m pushing it away. I have to be with friends tomorrow. I have a hike in the morning. Or I have work tomorrow.” And you have this feeling of satisfaction, like, “I did the right thing.” And that’s the serotonin satisfaction that I believe is largely getting hijacked by these externally created dopamine experiences.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:30:00] Hmm. Okay. I like that. So, it sounds like what you’re saying, the distinction between these types of happiness, part of our problem lies in how we’re defining happiness, right? Looking for the instant gratification and the feeling that that gives us, versus the feeling that we get when we’ve accomplished something that we’ve set out to do. So, [00:30:30] it sounds to me like the definition, whether … If I know the definition, I’m one step ahead of myself now, right? Because I can start to see, “Wait. Why am I really doing this? Am I going for that instant gratification shot of happiness? Or am I working towards something bigger that gives me a greater sense of joy?” So, I can see how awareness plays an important part in this.

[00:31:00] Would you say that it’s fair to say that when we’re not aware, we maybe going for that instant shot without realizing that it’s the instant shot. We maybe experiencing even the gratification of the instant shot and not realizing it. You mentioned specifically, “Yeah I do this, and then, I’m like, oh, why did I do that?” But what about those scenarios where we don’t say, “Oh, why did I do that?” Because we think that what we got was what [00:31:30] we wanted, so we stay in that cycle and we keep going.

Ellen Leanse:                          First of all, that’s a … Thank you for synopsizing it so well. Ooh, I’m in awe. So, a really important adage from the field of neuroscience is your brain will do more of whatever it’s doing right now. So, the brain is constantly updating its hypothesis of what it takes for you to be safe and to survive. We say, “What’s the purpose of the brain?” 9 people out of 10 are going to say, “Oh, to think.” Well, you’re right. The brain does think [00:32:00] and it’s really good at it. But mostly what your brain is going to do is think in service of keeping you safe and alive. That’s our evolutionary biology. So, your brain will do more of whatever you’re doing right now.

A really good word to use here is “normalize.” Whatever you’re doing, the brain will normalize as part of its hypothesis of what keeps you safe and alive. If you’re doing things that are riding that dopamine tide, your brain is going to go, “Oh my gosh, that’s what it takes to survive.” [00:32:30] Many people will say that the brain never evolved to the point where in the moment it can tell the difference between a dopamine charge and something that’s going to give you the more lasting serotonin feeling. I’m not sure I agree because if you look at in Buddhism, the discussion of an appropriate response, right? That we are going to work with the responsive mind rather than the reactive mind, which is very much why we meditate and why we train [00:33:00] the brain to that moment to moment awareness. You’re going to see that we had some understanding of the react work of the fast brain right here, or even of the dopamine loop. And the response of the more disciplined, intentional, aware and mindful, more serotonin-associated. It’s not exactly puzzle piece match here, but they’re more associated with each other. But of the response modality, which is [00:33:30] consideration, which is mindfulness, which is awareness.

So, for example, I might be using my phone, which is we all have them right here near us. And I don’t get alerts, but let’s say I go and check how something I posted on Instagram is doing. “Oh, did people like that really great picture I posted last night?” And I go in. I could look and see what my likes are, respond to my comments or whatever, but then, because of the way dopamine works, I’m very motivated by, “What’s the next thing below? What’s the next [00:34:00] thing below?” And start scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through it. But if I have trained myself to say, “Ah, look at your dopamine at work.” Right? I don’t even have dopamine alert, right? And then say, what matters now? What really matters now? I can find an awareness that brings me back to what really matters more and get off of that hijack. If the brain will do more of whatever it’s doing right now, we can look at an example like that and say, “Oh [00:34:30] my gosh. The more I stop myself and remind myself to break this biological cycle, the more likely I am to get more of what I’m really seeking on a deeper level and invite in a new biological cycle that’s actually much healthier for me and much more desirable for me and much more in keeping with my purpose in life.”

And by the way, it is healthier for you because between dopamine and serotonin are very, very different chemical responses associated with stress chemicals, which [00:35:00] I’d love to get into maybe in another conversation, but that’s a whole different thing. Suffice to say that serotonin is much more associated with healthy body physiology and stress management, even stress reduction than dopamine is, which is very linked to cortisol cycles.

Did that answer your question or anything like it, Noah? I hope I did.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, it did. In fact, you brought up something that I think [inaudible 00:35:31] [00:35:30] really well with the mindfulness-based approach. You talked about the normalization, the idea that this is what I always do, so it feels normal, so I keep doing it. From the Buddhist perspective, that’s what we would call conditioning, right? The conditioned mind is, you can say, the normalized mind and we become habitually reactive. I don’t just mean reactive in the sense of something happens and I react. I [00:36:00] just mean my very thoughts can be reactive. A certain thought triggers a certain thought. And that thought triggers a certain thought. That process itself can be my habitual reactivity.

Now, if I understand that what’s happening in my mind is this process of normalization that you’re talking about, what I may find is a scenario, which I’ve seen. I may even be experiencing it, I’m not sure, because I think sometimes it’s really hard [00:36:30] to see it in ourselves, but I’ve seen this recently where someone was saying, “I’m so grateful for the happiness that I have in my life.” And I was listening thinking, “Wait a second. You don’t seem like a happy person. I always hear complaining or this or that.” But I thought, “How fascinating that this person’s baseline of happiness seems normal and in their mind it’s up here. It’s like, I’m this happy person.” Where from another [00:37:00] perspective someone may be looking, thinking, “No, you’re not really a happy person.” Could that be the normalization that we’re talking about? You know what I mean?

I think from the mindfulness-based approach, that’s what we’re saying, not just about happiness, but everything is we become habitual in our thought patterns. Especially in our thought patterns. So, this is the idea that there’s this [00:37:30] quote that’s attributed to the Buddha that’s not really a quote from the Buddha, but the general idea is, we become what we think, right? So, what we’re thinking constantly determines how we are. I think if you apply that to a concept like happiness, you can be in a position where you think you’re living this happy life, but maybe you’re not.

I’m thinking of my experience that I talked about many times [00:38:00] on the podcast of looking for Chris, my supplier in China. My assumption was that Chris was a man. When I went to meet with Chris, there was Chris, and I couldn’t see him because he wasn’t a him. She was there and eventually I did find her, and realized that I was shocked to discover, “Oh, that’s not who I had in my mind this whole time of who Chris was.” I think we do that with a lot of concepts. Happiness is a concept, right? Whatever [00:38:30] your definition of happiness is, that may be blinding you from discovering what happiness really is. Does that sound applicable in this case?

Ellen Leanse:                          Oh, yes. All that and more. I want to come back to Chris in a moment, but first, I’d like to go back to the person who said, “I’m so grateful for my happiness” who didn’t feel like a happy person. Two things hit me. One of them is that I think there’s so much pressure on people to be a happy person right now, which is so … It [00:39:00] really saddens me to think of that because so much of our image of what happiness is, is based on things that we might see on a billboard or a commercial or something like that. Just these grinning joyful people living a perfect life or with this highly curated and selected feeds that we’re exposed to of people sharing their family moments and their fabulous vacations. I love to call it the disease of [00:39:30] fabulitis. Contagious fabulousness that we’re all supposed to aspire to. And it leaves us feeling short or left out or we’re not quite achieving. Like, we’ve fallen off of that. So, we strive harder to filling the gap by proving we’re as happy and fabulous as that too.

As I said, this is largely a chemical hijack. And it’s really something that I think a lot of people are suffering with. Like, so [00:40:00] and so has this perfect life. We all probably know friends that we know intimately and closely enough to know that they have bad days and stumbles and even bad hair days and everything as much as any other human does, but we’re never going to see this on their social feeds. I have friends, for example, who have [inaudible 00:40:20] on kids. My kids are grown, but they’re going to show the high points, but they’re not going to show the 3:00 a.m. wake ups and what [00:40:30] it felt like to be so tired getting ready for work the next morning. So, this whole artificial concept of what the baseline is. If we really think about that how that baseline came about, it’s really what you were saying about that you said that thought triggers thought, and that this habitually reactive conditioning that we get, it says, there’s a way we’re supposed to be and if we do these things, we will be it. And then, finally, we will [00:41:00] feel the way we’ve been hoping to feel.

And clearly, that was a problem in the time of Buddha because these were some of the things that he really dove into when he was trying to answer these big questions that shaped his life. Even thinking about the Skandhas, for example, when he really broke out. How the brain responds to these external stimuli and really referencing our longterm memory, our short term memory, our emotions, all of these other [00:41:30] things, that’s exactly how it works. But it can trick us if we let it.

The way to break through that is to understand that, yes, our minds do become conditioned. That is how we survived back in the jungle and the millions of years on our evolutionary tree that preceded that, we were responding and learning from our environments in ways that shaped our survival.  As we advanced [00:42:00] as humans and as we developed these very unique forebrains right here, the prefrontal cortices, new types of thinking came in that created possibilities for us that very ironically were intentioned with some of these earlier more fast brain, more – and to use a computer jargon here – debugged processing systems in our brain. And this tension is our challenge and our [00:42:30] opportunity and it’s really what the Buddha looked at when exploring react versus respond. It’s exactly like Daniel Kahneman’s book that I’m sure many listeners will have heard of about the fast brain and the slow brain. But what Kahneman didn’t do that the Buddha does is guide us to ways of shifting gears, and my book talks about this with the car analogy, between these two modalities so that we can move toward more of what really brings us [00:43:00] happiness.

“I’m so grateful for my happiness, but I don’t feel happiness.” My heart hurts for that person because she like so many others have been conditioned to say, “My life is supposed to be a little bit better or different than it is now” or “If only I had this or that, then finally, I have the happiness.” We get these messages that say, again, states lead to traits and maybe they do over time. That if we think it, we can create [00:43:30] it. That’s true to an extent, but perhaps underlying those words that say, “I’m grateful for my happiness” is this state that so many of us feel that says, “It’s not quite what it should be.” And that’s the thing that really holds us from finding satisfaction.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That really resonates with me, the idea of being caught up in this world of thinking there is a way it should be and how that thought can rob [00:44:00] us of happiness. I want to touch on something that you mentioned really quickly with the evolution of the brain, as Daniel Kahneman, and Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, talks about the fast and the slow, the more primitive and the more evolved parts of the brain. Correlating this to the teaching in Buddhism of the two arrows, I just thought this is a unique condition here, but the teaching is that you can get shot [00:44:30] by an arrow and you can’t do anything about it. You’ve been shot by an arrow. That’s it. But you can pick up a second arrow and aggravate the wound, right? And it’s like, you get shot, and then you pick up that second arrow and you’re like, “Why did you have to shoot me here?” And you’re poking at that spot with that second arrow.

I was thinking about this with the correlation with the more evolved part of the mind, what makes us human is we can think. That’s one thing. So do animals. But [00:45:00] we think about thinking. And maybe that that’s second layer where there’s what we’re experiencing, happiness as an emotion, and then there’s that thinking about happiness. Should I be happy? Is this happy enough? Do I need more of it? Things of that nature that starts to bring in the second layer or the second arrow element that goes beyond, “Now, I’m not just sitting with the original emotion, taking it in, and saying, wow this is great because I’m thinking maybe [00:45:30] that I’m guilty for feeling happy” or something along those lines.

Ellen Leanse:                          So, right. You’ve invited in the perfect entry to the limbic system, which is at the very core of our brain, the cognitive parts of the brain, the cortex wrap around it. It’s actually quite deep back in the brain. We can think of an evolutionary model of the brain that survival mechanisms evolved from back moving up toward the front of the brain, and then, the more cognitive thing started to evolve [00:46:00] leading to the prefrontal cortex up at right here at the forehead. Heres the prefrontal cortex. I love, when I talk about the brain is you give your prefrontal cortex a hug by putting your fingers together and then sort of wrapping your forehead like that. That’s your PFC is.

Let’s tie this into the emotional center of the brain, which is, if you look at it anatomically, it really is nestled right in there with all of the motor and cognitive and [00:46:30] perception parts of the brain. Mind you, in Buddhism we don’t talk about the senses. We talk about the sense gates or the sense doors, and how they bring in information from the outside world where it’s simply interpreted by the brain. And that’s fully integrated with all of the cognitive parts, but also with our limbic system, which is emotions and memories. That’s sort of in the book I talk about. It’s the rubber band ball. Layer upon layer at the center of the brain.

A teacher of [00:47:00] mine once asked the question. He was asking me to describe and to have a memory that filled me with a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. And I described to him this really beautiful place, my happy place, and how I loved visualize it. He goes, “Where is the beauty?” And of course that was such a beautiful question because the beauty is inside. I mean, it’s still in that place over on the north shore of Oahu, but I’m not seeing it right now. But the beauty is still there inside. [00:47:30] So, the brain always has its maps and perceptions of what you value or enjoy or fear or feel shameful of or retreat from because of the way cognition works with that core limbic system, with that memory and emotion center in the beginning.

So, you might, to your question, about the two arrows, Noah, you might experience a moment of happiness, followed by a sense of “I don’t deserve this.” So, there’s shame or something [00:48:00] like that. That is the limbic system and its entrenched patterns and those more familiar bands around the rubber band ball of your emotional memory, long term memory experiences. Much of which, by the way, is subconscious. We’re not even aware of what those things are. Like the rubber band ball, they’re wadded up in the middle and we don’t even know what all the other bands are built around. But that second arrow is the association probably with subconscious thoughts in the limbic system.

There’s a special word for moments like that, that I think [00:48:30] is really helpful, and that is “information.” When we have that second arrow experience, we say, “Ah. I felt good, but then I judged it or I retreated from it or I said I wasn’t worthy.” That what was happening there? “Oh, now I see. I was wounding myself with a second arrow.” And then, remove the judgment or shame that we might often feel in a moment like that. We might say, “I’m always limiting myself. I won’t let myself get happy. What’s my problem?” We might say something like that. [00:49:00] That’s a third arrow and maybe even a fourth arrow.

So, when we have it, when we get that second arrow, that is a really great invitation to be grateful for that information, so that we can say, “Look, what I’m doing.” And say, “Wait. Pause.” Move into the responsive, not reactive mind. The fast mind, which is so much faster, the responsive brain, and go, “No. Really. I really want to enjoy this happiness” or “It doesn’t serve me to wound myself with a second arrow through old judgments [00:49:30] that don’t even fit into my life.” And then, we can start to build other patterns. Remember, whatever the brain is doing right now, the brain will do more of. So, we’re actually beginning that pattern.

And then, love your brain and forgive it for that because remember, the brain’s job is to keep you safe and alive. In order to do that, it can only draw on past experiences, whether they’re known or unknown. Whether they are conscious or sub or unconscious. It’s still going to draw upon those pathways [00:50:00] because per the brain’s definition, it’s done its job perfectly if you’re still alive, right? Everything is working perfectly. It loves if you’re wounding yourself with those fourth and fifth and sixth arrows, if that’s kept you alive, and it’s going to tell you to keep on doing that until you say, thanks to the prefrontal cortex, “No, there is another way.”

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. In fact, when I was reading your book, that whole section of the rubber bands really stood out to me. [00:50:30] So, I want to correlate that again really quickly. What you mentioned in the book is you can have an object and if you start wrapping rubber bands around it, you keep doing that, right? Rubber band after rubber band. Eventually, you have this big ball of rubber bands that can bounce. It does whatever it does because of what’s inside, and at some point you may not even know what’s at the core of it.

I had this thought when I was reading that, thinking there’s always this thought that, [00:51:00] especially in Buddhism, there are causes and conditions to all natural phenomena. And I think that sometimes that puts us in this mindset, “Well, if I can go back far enough and find what’s inside the rubber band, then it’ll fix all my problems.” But I don’t know that we can sometimes. It maybe there’s an emotion that was triggered by a memory that was triggered by some other emotion and some other memory. It maybe so complex that I’m left with this situation where all I know is I’ve [00:51:30] got this band of rubber bands into a ball and I know what it does if I drop, it bounces. I know that. And I know that that happens because of what’s inside, but I don’t even know what’s inside. Is it enough to conclude? I’ll never know what’s inside, but at least I know that I understand it now. When I drop it, it bounces, and that’s what I have to work with.

Ellen Leanse:                          That’s so nice. You know, it’s so much fun when there’s an idea that’s out there. [00:52:00] I’m sure you experience this in your work, Noah. You offer the idea and then people come back with ways of building on it that really enrich it and add to it. So, that was beautiful. Thank you. It’s a great analogy. In fact, there are many systems for solving problems in life or self-knowledge, self-awareness. Really go back to let’s dig and dig and dig and see if we can pry open and see what’s in the middle of that rubber band ball.

I certainly have no judgment about that. I think it can be [00:52:30] a good path and really a necessary path in some situations, but all of us have the ability to watch our reactions and watch our responses to the things that are happening around us. And on the external layer, and this is a metaphor of course of that rubber band ball, are the thoughts that we’re most familiar with and use most often. Those are the things on the outer layer. Those are the things that we access first, if you will. And if we become aware of what our usual [00:53:00] responses might be or our usual reactions might be, being aware of those, I believe, lets it soften, if you will, the tension on those. Maybe look below at the next layer. I wish I had a rubber band ball to show now because you have to pry something apart and go, “Oh yeah, there’s a wide gray one down there. And then there’s a red one.” You’re never going to get to the middle, will take a lot of time and so forth.

Anyway, we are still in metaphor land. This is a scientific fact. It’s simply a way of explaining it. But if [00:53:30] we are aware of what’s happening on a surface level, there are things that are actually quite easy to do. And that is we can put some new bands on top of it, so that we go to those responses before we go to the ones we’re more conditioned to, and that’s something that can be done through intentional practices or reflective practices or even new habit building and so forth. Or we can really say, “No. I want to soften that reaction and maybe even remove a band or two.” For example, if there’s something [00:54:00] you’re doing that’s not serving you, that wounding with a second arrow, awareness is a way of saying, “Okay. I can remove that more conditioned or habitual response if I stay committed to it.” Or “I can add a new pattern. I’m going to take a deep breath whenever I feel these emotions, so that I have a pause to reflect before I go into a habitual response.” Yes, even awareness of that rubber band ball at a surface level is enough [00:54:30] to start navigating your life with a different outlook and set of expectations. I’m 100% with you on that.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Yeah. I was just thinking in my own meditative practice, I feel like that description of prying open the rubber bands, I feel like I know I have certain sensitivities about certain topics or things that I can trace back and say, “It’s because of this. This is what’s at the core of that.” But there are others [00:55:00] where I don’t. All I know is that it goes somewhere, but I don’t know how far back or exactly why. It maybe genetic. I may believe or not believe certain things based on experiences my parents had or however many generations back. And I get that. I don’t have to understand the source. I just know that what I think, what I intend to think as the solid way of being, the way Noah is, isn’t real. [00:55:30] It’s not solid. It’s layers. Everything that I think and say and do, I’m part of that rubber band of causes and conditions that extend from what I’ve inherited from my society, from family beliefs, on and on and on. It’s just helpful to know that even if I can’t get to the end of that process.

Ellen Leanse:                          I actually think, Noah, that is the invitation. That is the “Haha, got you” experience of being a human, is that we’re all [00:56:00] the product of our genetics, our epigenetics. It’s the very, very biological response to environment. So, genetics, epigenetics, and then, our conditioning. That’s sort of what makes a human, if you will, personality. And knowing that, we can say, “Haha, this is how we are if we leave it to that.”

And this is where something else can rise, which is more … I don’t know what to call [00:56:30] it, but in the book we talk about it as the watcher, using a term that some Buddhist practitioners use. But we have this invitation for this other thing that we seem to be able to separate from simply those chemical reactions and firing pathways that we can start to put our hands on the wheel and drive a little bit. And the first step is exactly that awareness. We all are the products of these forces. Now, what do we do with it? That really is the [00:57:00] question.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Well, let’s get into that a little bit more. First, I want to address a topic of happiness in terms of, is happiness a paradox? What I mean by that is I’ve had experiences before where one of them … Funny story was I’m about an hour away from a good friend who lives down in Salt Lake, which is about [00:57:30] 45-60 minutes away. He has these weekly meditation groups, so one week I was planning to go down there. And I planned ahead of time because I knew it would take me an hour to get there on time. It was on a new location. I hadn’t been to that spot before, so I put it in the GPS, I get there. As soon as I pull up, it seems like this doesn’t seem like the right place. So, [00:58:00] I switched from Apple Maps to Google Maps, to see if it would take me to the same place and it didn’t. It told me to go somewhere else.

Long story short, I’m starting to feel the emotion of discomfort and frustration, and I’m upset because I can’t get to where I’m supposed to get so I can sit and relax. That was the big irony. I wanted to go meditate that morning so that I could experience a little bit of [00:58:30] peace and contentment. And the very fact that I was trying to get there to do that was the reason I wasn’t feeling it because I wasn’t getting there. The GPS took me to the wrong place and I had this thought in that moment, “Well, I could just be at home, and then, I’d be at peace if I didn’t want to come here and be at peace.” Right?

I think that’s the paradox. We do this with concepts like patience, for example. If I want to be patient, the more I want to, the less I have it, [00:59:00] right? I want to be patient, but I want to be patient right now. Well, that’s the very reason you can’t be patient because the whole point of it is you can’t have it right now. You’ve got to be okay with having it whenever you have it. I wonder if happiness sometimes fits that same bill.

I think marketers know this. This is why they hijack it because they know that happiness, like everything else, is impermanent. If we can convince you that, “Yeah, that thing that you thought was happy, that’s not it. It’s going to be this. When you finally have [00:59:30] this, or when you finally drive this car,” or whatever it is they’re selling you. But then, they know that that’s not it. You finally get that and now you’ve got to have a new one every year or whatever it is because you’re always chasing after it. I think that’s the paradox. You can’t have it because you want it. That’s the very reason you can’t have it. Is that a fair assessment of happiness in general? Is it a paradox?

Ellen Leanse:                          I think paradox is the right word there for certain types of happiness, mind you. Again, [01:00:00] I truly think satisfaction, really the deeper satisfaction, is a different thing than that, but if we think about happiness as conventionally described, yes, there is a myth we’re told from the time we are very small and it’s deeply conditioned into us, probably subconsciously and generationally or epigenetically and in other ways. And maybe it’s simply part of the human condition, is “As soon as this happens, I [01:00:30] will be happy.” Or, “As soon as I get there, I will be happy.” “I’m only one step away from it.” We live our life on this game board of chasing happiness, believing there is a destination out there that when we land on it, boom, it’s all there.

But most of us, by this point in our lives, we probably know, it’s not working. We probably thought, “As soon as I get that first job after I graduate from college, then I’ll be happy,” “As soon as I do this, this life milestone, own this, acquire [01:01:00] this.” No. That is the paradox of it, right? And probably part of how that works, it is a lot of dopamine in that. By the way, people talk about dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin, vasopressin, all of this. These are only the highlight reel of the brain chemicals. There are so many more that are woven into our experiences that we don’t even know how to describe the subtlety and interaction of all of this. And there’s other stuff too. The way the [01:01:30] currents are flowing, the electromagnetic currents and so forth.

The paradox is is that when this happens, we will be happy. Well, we might feel for a moment, like, “The first time we drive that new car,” “When we go on that date,” or whatever it is, we do get that jolt or surge of “This is great.” But the next day when we go back to things, there’s still that “As soon as … as soon as … as soon as …” we start living with. This is a true paradox in the human experience. It really [01:02:00] is.

There’s one question that I think is really important to invite if we experience that paradox, and I think all of us do. It’s one I write about in my opening chapter. It’s like, “I’ve done all the things I was supposed to do. Why don’t I feel happy? I did everything that they told me to do and here I am feeling like there’s something more. Is there something wrong with me?” I do think that is part of the human experience. And then, the aha moment comes when we realize, “Wait a minute.” There’s a weird [01:02:30] conundrum in that, first of all, “The things that have brought me here are not the things that are going to bring me there, if I’m really searching for real happiness.” And then, the other one is this sort of aha, which is like, “Wait. I’m already there. All I have is this moment. And it is my relationship with this moment that’s going to define how I navigate every other moment that goes forward. And I can choose …” It’s even more than choose. “I can accept that this is what the path is.”

Once there is some acceptance [01:03:00] of that, the paradox softens a little bit. There is a different type of invitation that we get to really drop in and feel … I’m careful using the word “happy” but to feel like things make sense. To feel that there is a purpose to this. To feel that I do have some mastery of the path and to feel that I can find satisfaction, punctuated by moments of dopamine-charged happiness on it.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:03:30] Sure. Yeah, I like that you bring up the idea of the path. In your book, you share a quote from Margaret Lee Runbeck. You said, the quote is, “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” I think that correlates so well with the mindfulness-based approach too of the path is the goal. And the moment that we understand that, like you said, now we can experience [01:04:00] whatever life is throwing at us, punctuated by those moments of dopamine, but we realize those weren’t the goal, those weren’t the point. All of that, everything is icing on the cake. If you can say what is the cake? It’s being alive. That’s the cake. You’re alive. Everything else is icing on the cake.

So, which leads me to this thought: is there a natural state of happiness? [01:04:30] Do we get in the way of our own happiness because we don’t understand what’s going on in our minds, we don’t understand the tricks that our minds play on us in terms of happiness.

What I’m thinking about here, what I’m alluding to is, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s this idea of Buddha nature, right? This is the unconditioned mind, your natural state of being, and there’s a [01:05:00] Thai story of a golden Buddha statue at a monastery that the monks … I guess, the country was being invaded or something, so the monks cover up this golden statue with clay so that the invaders won’t take it. Maybe they get killed, I don’t know what happens, but they all disappear. So, for years and years, this statue is there. It’s just a clay-looking statue. [01:05:30] By then, there are monks there again, but these guys don’t know what the originals did. Someone at some point discovers that under this statue of clay, it really wasn’t a clay statue. It’s been a gold statue all along.

The correlation of that story is that our essential nature is like the gold statue. It’s enlightened. It’s awakened. And this is the paradox of awakening or enlightenment too. You can’t obtain it because you [01:06:00] already are it. You are not going to find those sunglasses you’re looking for because they’re already on your head. That’s the big joke of it all. Is happiness the same? Is there a natural state of happiness? Maybe if we use a word like “contentment” or “joy,” is that our natural state and we’re not seeing it because we’re frantically looking for those glasses, not realizing, “Hey, they’re already on your head”? What do you think of that?

Ellen Leanse:                          The clay and the gold Buddha is the perfect analogy [01:06:30] because I think that there is a natural state that is perhaps like the Buddha nature. There’s no good word for that. It’s a beingness or a presence or a feeling of a unique, golden centeredness. But we’re so busy looking for happiness that we don’t see it because we think that that, that happiness … It’s really a beautiful metaphor is that the clay [01:07:00] on the outside of the golden Buddha, the clay is what we think happiness is. But the gold …

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. We call that the conditioning from the Buddhist perspective.

Ellen Leanse:                          Exactly that. This is true cognitively and really psychologically as well. The funny thing is, is that so many different disciplines align along this concept of how the clay shrouds the gold. The gold is not the feeling of happiness [01:07:30] that we’ve been conditioned to think through the advertisements and commercials and likes and likes and likes.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. So, it’s not the hit of dopamine.

Ellen Leanse:                          It’s not. That’s the clay. But that’s a beautiful invitation to learn. That is there to tempt us and to draw us away, and people can exploit those cycles that we have, to say, “this is how you’re going to find it.” But a gold is inside all along and it is that sort [01:08:00] of dropping in we’ve all felt at different moments. We go back to our …

You asked if there’s something in our biology. Well, the answer is certainly yes. I think if we look at … There’s still some relatively intact human cultures that have survived for tens and tens and sometimes even more than tens. There’s one that, the longest standing one, seems to have survived intact for about a 130,000, possibly a little bit more, years, but all of them have reflective practices [01:08:30] that … and practices that challenge the dopamine cycles. For example, there’s one, this southern African tribe. Their culture has been intact for more than 100,000 years. And when someone brings home a kill to the clan, which they’re going to share because it’s a collective, they come back apologizing, “I’m sorry I didn’t get a very good one. I didn’t do as well as I could have on the hunt.” And then get [01:09:00] this. The people in the clan even come back and go, “You call that an antelope?” That sort of thing.

So, it’s all about disrupting this usual striving that the human mind has for, “Look at me. I’m the best. I got it” or “I suck because I missed out.” And it’s about disrupting that and coming back to, “I’m alive. We’re together. There is some purpose to this that I don’t understand and lucky me, I get to be in [01:09:30] it.” That is the gold of the Buddha.

Noah Rasheta:                      Hmm. As you were saying that, that “I’m alive,” I was thinking of a quote by Brother David Steindl-Rast. And he talks about gratitude and his quote says, “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” As I think about that in terms of what we’re discussing, [01:10:00] these moments …

From the Buddhist point-of-view, we talk about suffering as the moment we want life to be other than it is, suffering arises. It feels like the flip side of that is when we accept things as they are, and we’re grateful for things as they are, there’s this sense of feeling like nothing needs to change. Everything is just fine the way that it is. I think those are the moments where it’s beyond this [01:10:30] dopamine type happiness. This is the deep, deep contentment and joy that we experience when nothing needs to be different than how it is, the moment is perfect just as it is. I think gratitude evokes that. When we’re grateful, we’re thinking about things as they are and we experience that feeling of, “Hey, I’m glad that it’s this way, so therefore it doesn’t need to be any different” and maybe that’s why happiness [01:11:00] arises as a result of the gratitude.

That was kind of my closing thought on that. But what I want to get to as the closing sentiments here, from you, I’d love to hear what are some of the happiness traps that we need to be aware of, obvious ones. And then, after that, the conversation, let’s go to what are some specific practices we can do to try to nurture [01:11:30] happiness or joy or contentment, however we want to word that. Happiness hacks, like you talk about in your book. What are some of the things we should be aware of? And then, what are some of the happiness hacks that we can start to work with to experience more of the serotonin type happiness?

Ellen Leanse:                          Right. So, two traps that come to mind would be that happiness is something you will acquire in the future based on your actions. So, [01:12:00] do this and you will get that. That happiness is an if-then scenario. And then, the other one is a little bit simpler than that and that is that happiness is a state that you will reach. It’s something that is external. I guess, to really make it simple, what is it? It’s a future state that you will attain based on actions, and then second, it will be shaped by externals.

Certainly, happiness can be influenced by externals. When I’m with my friends or my family or see one of my [01:12:30] sons doing something that’s aligned with his purpose, that’s giving me a sense of happiness that is treated as affected by something external. But that’s not what’s making me happy. It’s giving me a feeling of happiness, but that is also temporal and shifting. So, happiness is not those things. It’s not something that you bring in from the outside world or have that creates the happiness.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Touching on that real quick. Just [01:13:00] it occurred to me today is Cyber Monday. Inevitably, somebody will be listening to this thinking, “Oh, you’re saying that getting things won’t make me happy. Well, watch how happy I’ll be when I go land this big deal, this TV doorbuster or something like that.” I want to emphasize what you just mentioned, the temporal part of this. So, I don’t think we’re saying those things don’t make you happy. We’re saying that’s not the happiness you’re looking for. Sure, you’re going to feel [01:13:30] the hit of dopamine, that sense of feeling of happiness that, “Wow, I just got this and I saved this much money.” But what we’re talking about is that’s not lasting. That’s not the deeper, more meaningful type of happiness that we’re talking about in this context, right?

Ellen Leanse:                          What an invitation, Noah, that is to mindfulness because if we look at going and getting that TV, and we think not about the what. “I’m going to get this TV at [01:14:00] this great price.” Will we really think deeply about the why? Why does this matter? Well, one of the things that I love about my life is when friends really gather just around to watch a game together or to watch a movie together. And that this TV will be the way that I really create something that I value, which is a sense of deeper community as we come together, so that we can be even mindful about buying a TV. Now, someone might come back and challenge me in saying, “Oh, come [01:14:30] on. You can rationalize anything with thinking like that.” And they’re probably right. But really, if we really think about the why … And by the way, if we come up with the why, and we go, “‘Cause I want a TV that’s two inches bigger than the one I already have,” then we know there’s dopamine at work. And we might want to say, “Hey, you know what? The real thing I care about, which is gathering friends together and sharing community, probably isn’t going to be that different than with the two inch bigger TV than it is [01:15:00] with this one.”

Or maybe we’re saying, because, I’ll use a non gender-specific name, “Because Chris has a TV that’s this size, so I want to have a TV this size.” That’s information. Dopamine. That’s dopamine at work. We’ve been hooked, hijacked. So, what we can do at that moment is come back and say … Well, pause for a moment. Get out of reaction. Get into response. Why do I really want this? And come up with a reason that we can really sit [01:15:30] with and settle with and say, “You know what? It is worth it for me to get it. This really is going to make a difference” or “You know what? I’m going to do this instead because I already have the thing that’s getting me to my why. I just haven’t thought about it that way yet.”

Noah Rasheta:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s funny you mentioned this because on Friday, for Black Friday, I went and bought a TV at Walmart. I was thinking about why. From a rational standpoint, I knew I don’t need it. [01:16:00] For me, my why was, “Well, because I can. At some point I know I want to get a newer TV and right now is a good time because it’s cheaper than it would be if I didn’t do it right now. And I thought, maybe that is enough of a why. I knew it wasn’t going to make me happier.

I knew it doesn’t make me any better than the me that had the old TV. But I still felt excited that I got a TV, [01:16:30] but it wasn’t the same as before in my life where I would have thought there were other aspects to it that I was unaware of. Like, thinking of the type of TV I have determines who I am or how people see me. They’ll come to my house and say, “Oh, that’s one of those big, nice TVs.” None of those strings were attached to it this time because I felt like it could be an old TV or no TV, and I probably would be just as content. But I can [01:17:00] do it. I can afford it right now. So, why not? For me, that was enough to say, “Okay, well, then I’ll do it.” And I was happy that I did it. I’m happy with the TV I got.

I bring that up because we’re not saying in this interview, “Hey, don’t go out and fall for these traps. Don’t buy the next thing.” You can. It’s not inherently wrong to do that. What we’re saying is, don’t do that thinking that that’s the solution because it’s not. If you do it, you’re [01:17:30] going to do it. And some people will, some people won’t, and that’s fine. I just wanted to be careful that we’re not trying to say, “Oh, people who go out and fall for the dopamine hit, the advertised type of happiness, you guys are silly.” We’re not saying that at all. I think, we’re saying, “just understand what’s happening in your head as you make these choices.”

Ellen Leanse:                          It is. It’s a great example. Really, again, it’s responding [01:18:00] not reacting. It’s doing with awareness and mindfulness and some sort of a sense of purpose. So, you mentioned with you wanting to get this TV, using a moment to reflect, “Why am I doing this?” Understanding that the things on the surface of your rubber band ball were not the same ones that they were maybe the last time you bought a TV. And making a conscious decision to say, “This is the right time to do it. It’s going to last me for this long. [01:18:30] It’ll be something that the family will grow with more,” whatever it is. But really doing it because you are the master of your path, not because somebody else’s path is mastering you.

Noah Rasheta:                      Hmm. I love that.

Ellen Leanse:                          So, you asked for some hacks.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, let’s talk about some hacks.

Ellen Leanse:                          I can only share what I’ve heard works for others and the few things that have worked for me. Maybe people who are listening have things that they do in these moments where they [01:19:00] feel a sense of angst or unhappiness. Someone said to me, a couple of nights ago, that they had gone to this meeting that they really valued going to that’s about personal growth and communication. And they came back feeling other than after the meeting, like they weren’t doing as well as other people.

So, the only thing I can say is that these moments where we feel something is interfering with our happiness, just pause for a moment. And believe it or not, it’s very simple thing that’s always available to us, is we can take a breath. [01:19:30] And it turns out that there are two reasons that are really interesting for this on a neuroscientific level. First of all, the brain integrates information differently on an inhale than it does on an exhale. It actually integrates on the inhale. So, a slow and intentional breath is actually an invitation for your brain to, if you will, on an electromagnetic and blood flow level, which fueling level, which brings oxygen so forth. Just go around and maybe integrate things, maybe opportunistically or maybe intentionally, [01:20:00] that might not have been available before. One really mindful breath will do that.

The other thing is, is when we feel any sense of our happiness, as we define it, being threatened, we do get an amygdala response in the brain. This is the very easily triggered flight or fight response. And at that point, there’s a chemical reaction that begins instantly in the brain. It begins at 0.003 seconds whereas a conscious thought takes at least 0.5 seconds. So, really, more than an order [01:20:30] of magnitude of difference. That we get this chemical surge with the 30 neuro-modulators that go even into the body when the amygdala fires instantly.

At that point, an incredible thing happens. There’s a constriction of blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. So, our most advanced human thoughts actually go offline for a moment until either something calms us and brings them back, or until we’ve done the fighting or [01:21:00] flighting. I think they say it’s fight, flight or freeze that we need to do to survive, right? But in that amygdala hijack, we are triggered, and we are in fight, flight or freeze mode.

So, when we feel that awareness of it happening, we can know that that is an evolutionary response that evolved to keep us … Sorry, I don’t know what that was. That evolved to keep us alive and we can be grateful for it. And then, we can come back to a moment of say, “Ah. That [01:21:30] is an amygdala hijack.” And we can hack back on it and come back in use the breath or use a centering in the body to say, or we can even say … Two things that I find really useful. One is, say, tell ourselves to take a moment. But we can also say, when we’re in dialogue with another person or in conflict, we can use two very important words. We can say, “I’m curious. Tell me more about that.” The moment we say, “I’m curious” we actually are inviting the prefrontal cortex into [01:22:00] a different type of consideration, which might be hard at that moment, but once we override it, begins that more integrative access to these more higher cognition parts of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex is critical thought, longterm planning, mood regulation, gratitude, thoughtful consideration, meta thinking, which is thinking about thinking, and then, also on the other hand type of thinking. Exactly the opposite [01:22:30] of the fast brain or especially amygdala-driven responses. We can use these slow ourselves down processes to drop into that moment and then make decisions that at least eliminate regret because if we’re reacting, we have a higher probability of regretting, which does remove happiness. Even if we’re not moving to a place of happiness, moving to a place of that golden Buddha, that [01:23:00] mastery and presence and “I am navigating this mindfully in the moment.” It feels really, really good.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. I love that. Thank you. I want to mention again, Ellen’s book is The Happiness Hack. It’s very easy to read. I actually like the way it’s laid out with little tips and notes. It’s really easy [01:23:30] to read and digest the information in the book. I’m going to post a link to that on the website, on my website, where this video and the audio of this interview will also be posted. And then, I’m going to have this whole conversation transcribed so you can read that as well.

I would like to include some other links for those of you who would like to learn more about Ellen’s work. I’ll post a link to her TED talk. Where [01:24:00] are some other places, Ellen, where people can learn about you and your work or your book? Do you have any specific links or anything you’d like to share?

Ellen Leanse:                          Yes, thank you so much. I would love that. So, I do have a website. It’s Now and again I have a little fun on Twitter. And I have a funny name on Twitter. It’s chep2m. It’s another story. A name I was given in rural Kenya actually. But it’s C-H-E-P and then [01:24:30] the number 2 and then the letter M. it’s probably the worst Twitter handle in history, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. So, it’s chep2m. And I’ll share all of those with you, Noah, so that you have the direct links.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Well, great. I want to thank you, again, for taking the time to, not just come on the show and be on the podcast, but to be willing to go live to my Facebook page. I know sometimes the going [01:25:00] live aspect can be a little intimidating. But I think this is a topic that’s very relevant for our culture and our society. It’s very relevant to those who are practitioners of a mindfulness-based way of living. And I think it correlates really well with the practice of mindfulness and meditation. So, thank you for taking the time to be with us. Do you have any final closing thoughts you want to share with us [01:25:30] as we wrap this up?

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you so much. First of all, what a delight and honor to be with you and with the audience. I will say, if anyone in the audience has any specific questions that they want to add to the thread when Noah posted on Facebook, I will do my best to come in and provide answers to those. So, thank you and may the conversation continue.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. Well, thank you. I’m going to end the live stream for this now. So, those of you who [01:26:00] listened live, thank you for joining us. If you want to be received notifications of when these live interviews are taking place, there is a link on Facebook that you can click to be notified when we go live. So, thanks, again, for listening. This will be uploaded later as a video and it will be the audio of the next podcast episode, so thank you guys for listening live.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you.

59 – Escape Into Discomfort / My Interview with Shinzen Young

In this episode, I am sharing the audio from an interview/discussion I had with Shinzen Young on the topic of “Escaping into Discomfort”. This interview was streamed live on November 16th, 2017.

Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Home Practice Program
Life Practice Program
Brightmind app

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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:                      It’s sending it off into space or somewhere.

Shinzen Young:                    Webinar is now streaming live on Facebook.

Noah Rasheta:                      I still think it’s … It’s just really cool that we have the ability to do something like this, to stream live.

Shinzen Young:                    It’s a real boon to spreading the meditative path on this planet.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, it really is.

Shinzen Young:                    [00:00:30] I sort of compare it to the existence of Koine Greek that’s allowed Christianity to spread because people could all read the New Testament because that was a kind of universal language for the Mediterranean region. Now we’ve got a universal language for the whole planet. It’s the internet and so many people speaking English, this is our way to spread the good news, so to speak.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. [00:01:00] Okay, it looks like people are jumping in already, so this is going. Let me post it to one more group. Okay, got that on there. Okay, we’ve got almost 50 people watching already. [00:01:30] Alright, one last post and I’ll be good to go. Where are you located [crosstalk 00:01:42]?

Shinzen Young:                    I live in the city of Burlington, Vermont in northern New England.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay.

Shinzen Young:                    Although I’m originally from SoCal. I’m an LA boy.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay, I was gonna say, for some reason I thought you were …

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, I’m actually [00:02:00] second generation born in LA, but I’ve lived in New England for over two decades at this point.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Okay, now we are completely rocking and rolling. We’ve got people joining from all over the place, so to those of you who are joining, welcome. Thank you for your patience. The first few minutes is usually just awkward silence or filler talk while I post these links to the various [00:02:30] groups, but I’m really excited to have Shinzen Young joining me today for Secular Buddhism Podcast interview/discussion and so this audio will be available on the podcast later this week. The video is streaming live as you are well aware, and this will also be posted to our YouTube channel.

Shinzen Young:                    Hi everyone. Welcome.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you for taking the time to join today, Shinzen. [00:03:00] I have to say, I first came across you through podcast listeners and friends who are taking courses in meditation and your name kept bouncing up, so I started researching you and thought it would be cool to have you on the podcast, but I can’t remember exactly how that part came. I think an email came from you first. I thought, “Oh, this is Shinzen Young.” By then I had already heard of you and had looked at your book, [00:03:30] The Science Of Enlightenment, so it was good timing and I thought, “This would be great to have Shinzen on the podcast,” so thank you for reaching out.

Shinzen Young:                    Sure, my pleasure.

Noah Rasheta:                      Now, I’m gonna read the quick bio I have. This comes right from your website, but just this is for those who are watching and listening. “Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant. His systematic approach to categorizing, adapting [00:04:00] and teaching meditation, known as unified mindfulness, has resulted in collaborations with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie Melon University and the University of Vermont and the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience. If I understand correctly, your interest in mindfulness, or, I guess all things Eastern start at the age of 14 when you decided to attend a Japanese [00:04:30] ethnic school in your native city of LA.

Shinzen Young:                    That’s right.

Noah Rasheta:                      Tell me a little bit about your story. In your own words, how did you get into this? How did you start practicing and then ultimately teaching mindfulness and Buddhism?

Shinzen Young:                    Sure, well, I was born in LA. My family of origin is Jewish and I did actually have a Jewish upbringing. I went to synagogue and so forth. I had a very charismatic [00:05:00] rabbi and I think that was a little bit of a role model for me at an early age, but when I was in my early teens, my best friend in what was then called junior high school, now called middle school, just happened to be a third generation Japanese American. We shared some interest. Nothing related to Japan, really, but his family used to go see Japanese movies once a week to sort [00:05:30] of keep in contact with the heritage, and they invited me one week to go with them to watch Japanese movies at a little theater in downtown LA which I had no interest in, whatsoever.

I didn’t want to be rude, so, okay. It’s gonna be boring, it’s got subtitles, it’s hard to follow, but anyway, it was a double feature. The first movie was a love story set in [00:06:00] modern Tokyo and predictably, I was completely bored. The second one was a samurai movie set in 16th century Japan, and in the first three minutes, I was mesmerized. Just mesmerized. I’d never had contact with another culture, [00:06:30] other than maybe the Jewish culture, relative to America, but this was an Asian culture and an Asian culture of many centuries ago. I remember thinking, “Well, these people are obviously human beings, but they, in some ways, might as well be extra-terrestrials.” They’re just so different in every way imaginable. How they dress their hair and how they walk and the men talk [00:07:00] like real macho from their belly and the women talk real feminine. There’s sexual dimorphism in the Japanese language.

There were very cool ways of fighting that I’d never seen. Two-handed sword combat, and then values that were, to me, just over the top, like there was this one scene where the samurai [00:07:30] sort of defeats this other samurai, and the subtitle just said, “You’re a samurai, you know what to do,” and the guy just whips out a knife and cuts open his belly because he got defeated. It’s like what the hell is this world, that someone could do that without a second thought? Just being prompted like that. It’s like, whoa. [00:08:00] This is a really, really interesting world. After that movie was over, I pummeled the parents of my friend, like, “Why did they do that? I heard this word that sounded a little bit like this. What did that mean?” I never encountered a non-Indo-European language. Well, other than Hebrew, but this was really different.

They took me out to J-Town, Little Tokyo. [00:08:30] Japanese-Americans used to call it J-Town. So, you go to Chinatown. There’s nothing very mysterious in Chinatown. People have been going to Chinese restaurants, non-Asian people have been going to Chinese restaurants for a hundred years, but at that time, and we’re talking about not that long after World War II. I’m older than I look. There were only Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Little Tokyo. I was the only white bred, and [00:09:00] most non-Asians did not know anything about how to order Japanese food, so they initiated me, and this became a thing. Every week I’d see Japanese movies with them, pummel them with questions, and then they would take me out to eat Japanese food, taught me how to eat with chopsticks, which was a rarity at that time. Most non-Asians didn’t know how to do that.

It seems funny now. The culture is so caught up, but I can assure you that the [00:09:30] United States of the 1950s was not very sympathetic to Asian culture. I was this oddball with this interest, and eventually I found out there’s Japanese ethnic school. It’s like Hebrew school for Jewish kids, except it’s for Japanese-American kids. It meets in the afternoons all day on Saturday. You go to American public school but then your parents make [00:10:00] you go to Japanese school, so I decided to go to Japanese school. By the time I graduated from Venice High, I also graduated from Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute and I had had the incredible privilege of growing up bilingual and bi-cultural in Los Angeles, and I was the valedictorian of my class in Japanese [00:10:30] school.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    They wanted to show off this anomaly of a non-Asian person who was, at that time, essentially a native speaker of Japanese.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow. That’s fascinating.

Shinzen Young:                    That’s how it started. It was just this fascination with Asia, Japan, particularly martial arts, Asian food, and this is decades before the mainstream [00:11:00] culture of North America started to move in that direction. I thought I’d always be just this marginalized weirdo that was interested in things that most people disrespected. It’s hard to believe but I can remember when a piece of merchandise that said “Made in Japan” on it was considered schlock. There was actually a time [00:11:30] when that was a trope or a common theme in the United States. Hard to imagine, right? Because of the complete flip.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah.

Shinzen Young:                    I get to belong to this pioneer generation that can remember the way things used to be and can see the way things are now vis a vis Asian culture and Asian philosophy and contemplative practices. I [00:12:00] straddled both worlds. There’s a church father in the Christian tradition named Tertullian. Very interesting guy, and I have a lot of sympathy for him, a lot of understanding, because he was sort of in the same position vis a vis Christianity. When he was young, Christianity was a persecuted, kooky cult, but in later life, he could see the writing on the wall, that Christianity [00:12:30] was gonna take over Europe and sort of be running the show.

He has this phrase, “We who are but of yesterday are now in all your cities and camps,” so he saw that transition that as a little boy, he would’ve never believed possible. I got interested in Buddhism because it was an aspect of Asian culture, a traditional one, and I wanted [00:13:00] to know everything about traditional Asian culture, but then that led to, of course, practicing meditation and that took me in a whole other direction, but I look now and I can remember North America of the 1950s and I see what’s happening, particularly with the mindfulness movement and so forth. I find myself saying, “We who are but of yesterday [00:13:30] are now in all your therapy rooms, your board rooms, even your military training camps.” It’s amazing for me to have actually seen that transition, so it’s a little bit like Tertullian. It’s possible that these practices, not in the form of organized religion, but in the form of attentional skills with application [00:14:00] strategies.

These practices inspired by Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, it’s possible that they may become a major feature of the psychospiritual paradigm for humanity in this century, so we who are but of yesterday are everywhere now.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that, and I agree, I feel like we’re at [00:14:30] that stage where we’re seeing that everywhere. Time Magazine had on their cover, “Mindfulness has gone mainstream,” and we’re seeing so many of these thoughts from the East merging into the corporate level and to personal practice. I think it’s kind of doing what yoga did not long ago when it just kind of came and now yoga is so common. Nobody bats an eye if you talk about practicing yoga [00:15:00] and it’s exciting to see that the same thing is starting to have with practices like meditation.

Speaking of the practice part of it, something that I came across that I thought was interesting with your story was, so you start going to these retreats and you start practicing, right? Putting this into practice, and there’s one instance that I’ve read about that I thought was interesting, was a 100 [00:15:30] day retreat that you did that was in the winter, so it was cold, and you had some experiences there dealing with the cold, the towels freezing or the water. Tell me a little bit about that experience. Where was that and what was that like?

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, people like that story. As I mentioned, my original interest was Asian [00:16:00] culture, so when the ’60s came around, there was money to study Buddhism in graduate school because we were having a war in a Buddhist country, Vietnam, and Buddhists had the political influence there, so the Congress would pay for a graduate education for a native-born American [00:16:30] to study Buddhism as a specialty. It was actually probably from the Department of Defense. It was called a national defense scholarship, so …

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 00:16:42]

Shinzen Young:                    Just like now they want native-born Americans who may be very familiar with Arabic or Islamic culture, well, there were political and military implications for Buddhism in the 60s, so Congress paid for [00:17:00] me to go to graduate school and study Buddhism, which originally I did … I should say, there were no strings attached on that money, by the way. I was never asked to do anything in return.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    Which was sort of pretty cool. I was studying it academically and I wanted to study a school of Buddhism that no Westerner had studied, [00:17:30] which at that time was unique in that regard. Well, maybe not unique but special in that regard, so I chose Shingon which is Japanese Vajrayana. It’s the Japanese analog of the practices that are so representative of Tibet. Not that it comes from Tibet, but both the Japanese Shingon and the Tibetan [00:18:00] Vajrayana practices share a common origin in late Indic Buddhism, so Vajrayana practices came into China and then were brought to Japan and preserved there as the Shingon school and then those practices also went into Tibet and were preserved there.

People were beginning to study Tibetan practices quite a bit but no one had looked at Japanese Vajrayana [00:18:30] as a scholar. You needed a lot of languages to do it and I was always good in Asian languages. I didn’t just go to Japanese school. My parents got me a Mandarin Chinese tutor and they got me a Sanskrit tutor all while I was still in high school, so my parents were terrific in that regard.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    They gave me a very enriched environment, particularly with regards to Asian languages, [00:19:00] so I had a pretty impressive repertoire of languages that I knew you would need to study Shingon, because you have to look at Sanskrit things. You have to look at the Tibetan analogs. You have to be able to read classical Chinese, classical Japanese and modern Japanese, so I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna specialize in Shingon because there aren’t that many people that have that skill set, and I’ll carve out a little bailiwick in the academic world [00:19:30] as the Western expert on this particular subset of Buddhism, but when I got to Japan, they didn’t want to have anything to do with me, basically, and all of my academic credentials didn’t mean, well, as we would say in Yiddish, didn’t mean bupkis. Didn’t mean anything, okay?

I got there and they just turned me away because they said, “This is not something that you do to decorate [00:20:00] your ego somehow, that you know something special. This is a transformative practice.” Now, if you’re willing to become a monk and follow our rules for a few years, then maybe we’ll teach you something, so it was basically my way or the highway. Certain things had happened in my life. I’d done drugs which almost everyone [00:20:30] did of my generation. That showed me that there were altered states. Also, horrifically tragically things happened to people that I really cared about and I say, “Oh my God,” what the Buddhists talk about when they talk about the noble truth of suffering. This is really relevant.

That combination of having seen some possibilities because of using psychotropic [00:21:00] substances plus the life lessons of seeing that your world can just come tumbling down in terms of conditional happiness in 30 seconds. Life is just a phone call away. It’s just an email away, and you can go from easy street to hell on Earth, which happened to people that I really cared about. THat’s sort of [00:21:30] brought … Those two things made the notion of practice real for me, so when the [abbott 00:21:38] said, “Hey, maybe we’ll teach you, just just come into the temple and just do what you’re told for a few years,” I said, “Okay.”

Finally after about a year, actually … It was starting to get really cold and he said, [00:22:00] “Okay, I’ll teach you, but it’s gonna be the old school way. It’s a hundred days in isolation. You spend it mostly in the meditation hall without any source of heat, and, oh yes, by the way, there’s this thing that we call cold water purification,” which he pointed out is actually not a Buddhist practice. It’s a Shinto shamanic practice but it had become part of traditional Shingon, [00:22:30] and so it entailed basically the equivalent of a cold shower on steroids three times a day, basically, stripping down and just pouring this stinging bucket of ice water over your naked body, et cetera.

Fortunately, before this all began, someone had begun to teach me how [00:23:00] to meditate, so I knew the difference between being in a concentrated state, what is generically, as you know, in Buddhism, called [foreign language 00:23:09]. I mean, that word can mean various things, but in its most generic sense, it just means any level of concentration. I’d had light experiences of [foreign language 00:23:22] before this, and I noticed that when I had to go through that and other physical ordeals [00:23:30] associated with this, if I stayed in a concentrated state, it was a lot less horrific and as soon as I left a concentrated state, it was untenable and undoable.

I realized, “Oh, okay, this is what a monastery is. It’s a giant feedback device.” The Christian term for what we, in Buddhism, would call [foreign language 00:24:00] [00:24:00] is recollection, meaning not to remember but to collect yourself back. [foreign language 00:24:05] Your attention is scattered. You bring it back. Well, that’s known outside of Buddhism and in Christianity it’s called recollection. Judaism and Hebrew, it’s called [foreign language 00:24:18]. In Arabic it’s called [foreign language 00:24:20], et cetera, et cetera.

Anyway, I noticed that if I maintained a somewhat recollected state during all of this, [00:24:30] there was a lot less suffering and as soon as I got scattered, there was a lot more suffering, so I realized, “Oh, it’s a giant feedback device,” and I also realized it’s a hundred day commitment and on day three I’m looking at 97 more days. I realized there’s exactly three things that are gonna happen here. I’m either going to suffer horribly [00:25:00] for 97 days or I’m gonna spend the next 97 days in a continuous state of high concentration, or I’m gonna give up and return to the states in shame and disgrace.

Because of those life experiences that I had, the choice was obvious. When I completed that hundred days, I was literally re-engineered. I went [00:25:30] in one kind of human being and came out a different kind of human being, and it was a very, very small price to pay for not just a new life but a new kind of life.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Yeah, I think that sounds fascinating. I think a lot of us kind of imagine a scenario like that and think, “Wow, it would be cool to go through an experience like that. It’s like a romanticized …”

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, it sounds …

Noah Rasheta:                      … Image, right?

Shinzen Young:                    I could tell you …

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:26:00] Like [crosstalk 00:26:00] to do that but not really.

Shinzen Young:                    I can assure you that the exoticism and the romance gets old very, very quickly.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    However, here’s the thing, of course. I mean, like I say, people like hearing these stories, but the problem with telling these stories is that then people think, “Well, if that’s what you have to do to make [00:26:30] progress or get enlightenment, forget about it. I’m not up for that,” so the flip side of this kind of story, someone who consensually put themselves through an old school training like this, the flip side of this story is it is absolutely relevant to every person listening to this podcast.

It is absolutely relevant to the life of every human being, because [00:27:00] no, you might not go off and consensually put yourself in this situation, but it is highly probable that in the course of your life, you will be put into that situation and by that situation, I mean a situation of mental, emotional or physical distress or some combination thereof, whereby your only choice is to [00:27:30] turn it into a transformative, empowering experience through maintaining formal meditation or have it be horrific abject suffering that may leave you frail and disempowered, or take your life. That kind of trichotomy will be relevant to most people [00:28:00] and so knowing that there’s something between abject suffering and suicide becomes very relevant to every human being.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I think this is a great segue into the overall topic I wanted to get into with this, which is, you’re faced with a situation in this case where you are … Like you said, you’re three days into something knowing, “Okay, I have a choice for how I take the next 97 days, [00:28:30] right?” In a very real way, like you just highlighted, we are all presented with this when it comes to discomfort. I may be going through the loss of a job or a relationship that’s failing. Those are kind of on one end, right? But even the smaller discomforts of I’m in my car and here I am at the red light. How am I gonna handle the next 30 seconds? Am I going to just sit here and complain that life is [00:29:00] unfair because don’t you know who I am? I’m not supposed to be at a light, right?

It’s a similar scenario which goes back to the first noble truth, which is in life, difficulties will arise and in that moment of recognizing that we have a difficult … The situation at hand, right? There’s a difficulty that arises, what do we do now? Now what? I think this is what I like to compare with what your experience [00:29:30] is, is one example, and there are so many others, but we’re faced with this situation where we can try to avoid the discomfort, escape it. Like you said, you could’ve left and gone back. That would’ve been escaping it, or you could, as we’re calling this interview, escape into it. Escaping into the discomfort.

I’d love to talk about that now a little bit. Taking this idea of escaping into, the keyword into, right? [00:30:00] As opposed to escaping from, because I do think that our tendency in maybe … Maybe it’s human tendency, but especially in our western way of thinking, is here’s this discomfort. Let me fix it and get rid of it, which can be good, right? This is where I think science can step in and we solve and we fix things. The antibiotics are an example of that, so I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but that mindset of continually [00:30:30] trying to escape it, with some situations in life, you can’t escape the general discomfort that will arise. Let’s talk a little bit about switching that mindset from recognizing that we can escape into the discomfort.

Shinzen Young:                    Sure. Because, as you know, I have training in math and science, I tend to think like a scientist and I tend to express [00:31:00] myself like a scientist, so you’ll have to forgive that I get a little bit geeky sometimes. One of the things that you always are interested in math and science is called generalization, which means, okay, let’s look at the biggest picture possible. What’s the big picture here? The big picture … There’s a bunch of things I want to say about the big picture and then I’ll address specifically what you’re asking.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:31:30] Okay.

Shinzen Young:                    One thing about the big picture is it’s important to know that the degree to which you are empowered by a challenging sensory experience, the degree to which a challenging sensory experience, an uncomfortable experience in [00:32:00] inner or outer see, hear, feel, the degree to which that is empowering for you is a function of two variables, not just one. One of the variables is how intense the experience is. The other variable is how much mindfulness you can maintain within that experience. There’s good news [00:32:30] and there’s other news depending on how you want to look at it.

Let’s look at the good news first. A very intense, challenging distress in mind or emotions or the physical body will bring about huge empowerment if you can bring even a modicum of concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity [00:33:00] to it. That’s my definition of mindful awareness. Concentration power, sensory clarity, equanimity. Three orthogonal dimensions working together. The degree to which you can bring those mindful awareness skills to an uncomfortable situation measures how mindful you are. If the uncomfortable situation is very big but you can maintain even a little [00:33:30] bit of mindfulness, you’re gonna get a huge transformation and empowering experience. That’s good news.

Let’s look at another good news. Let’s say that the sensory challenge is trivial. Like, you’re annoyed because you’re at a stoplight. What you mentioned. Let’s say that you have that small annoyance, minor annoyance, but you’re able to bring a huge amount of mindfulness [00:34:00] to that moment. You’re able to muster, start on a dime, see, see, feel, see, feel, hear … You notice, I don’t have to sit down and meditate with my eyes closed for 10 minutes in order to be able to monitor my sensory experience very precisely. See, see, feel.

You want to reach the point where you can start on a dime. [00:34:30] You can start on a dime with mindfulness in any situation, so a minor discomfort with huge mindfulness will empower you as much as a huge discomfort with a little bit of mindfulness, so you can look upon that as a win-win situation, so you don’t have to think it has to be something really big necessarily. It can be something small if you’re able to muster [00:35:00] a Herculean resolve to bring full awareness to it.

The other good news is with something big, you might not be able to be very mindful, but if you’re even a little bit mindful, the results are terrific. Now, if you’ve been really wise in life and you have prepared yourself systematically by having a [00:35:30] practice that involves life practice, retreat practice, working with a coach, at least one coach, you do formal practice, you do informal practice. If you have all of these elements lined up, I’ve got a article on the internet called an outline of practice where I outline the components that you need to have a practice in detailed [00:36:00] classification, but in any event, if you’ve been smart and you’ve had those things in place in your life, then when big things happen, you’ll actually be able to bring an enormous amount of mindfulness to those experiences.

What does that mean? Well, that means that even though you didn’t decide to go off to Japan and do the Samurai bootcamp/Samurai torture chamber [00:36:30] form of old school practice, you didn’t sign up for that, but you prepared yourself with a householder’s practice over the years, then when something really big happens in your life, you will go in one person and come out a different person, the same way I did, in that consensual situation, and that’s how a householder doing a relatively [00:37:00] … A regular but not big industrial strength practice … A householder doing a regular practice for a long time will have the same exact experience of empowerment as the person that goes off and does traditional training.

You didn’t go to a monastery but you prepared your mindfulness skills and techniques [00:37:30] so that when the horrific thing happened to you, you’re now ready to experience something big … A big challenge with big mindfulness, and so the monastery came to you and in a sense you were ordained and you went through traditional training and you could come out, theoretically even, an enlightened person as the result of [00:38:00] that.

I would say it’s important to realize it doesn’t necessarily have to be something big. Little things can be very significant. It’s also important to realize that if you can’t remember how to maintain a practice during a challenge, then you only need to remember one thing, which is you need to have a competent mindfulness coach on speed dial [00:38:30] that you can contact who will work with you and remind you of what you already know, or if you don’t know that, you need to find a competent mindfulness coach who will work with you and train you in what you need in order to turn the horrific challenge into an empowering experience.

Those are some general guidelines. Even a very experienced meditator may find it challenging to deal [00:39:00] with a really big situation. That’s sort of the bad news, but the good news is even a beginning meditator, if they have a personal coach that works with them interactively, even a beginning meditator can get a huge empowerment from a life challenge. This is why if you go to, you’ll see that we train [00:39:30] people … As soon as a person is a meditator, we will train you to be a facilitator. Our goal is all human beings not only practice this stuff but they can teach this stuff, so the optimal way to teach and support people so that they can transform the little and big challenges of life into these empowering growth [00:40:00] situations.

I would say the trick to the whole thing is to get a competent personal coach who works with you interactively. In any event, if you can’t remember all the things I’m about to say, which is the specific answer to your question, “How do you escape in?” I’m going to describe how you escape in, but a person [00:40:30] might forget or even if they have access to this information, they might not be able to implement it because the challenge is just to huge, so the one thing to remember is find someone who has a track record of working with people and that will take you through, will support you, so that you get MMM, maximum [00:41:00] meditation mileage from each of the life challenges. This is sort of a broad context to answer your question.

Now, to the sort of money piece or the specific answer, how do you escape into a uncomfortable experience? First thing to bear in mind is that the only way that you know you’re having an uncomfortable experience [00:41:30] is … This is gonna seem sort of stupid to say, but it’s a sensory experience. It may be triggered by an external situation. Something that’s happening in the objective world. You have an illness or there’s something in the world or in your life that you don’t like. A situation. It may be triggered by something objective in the world and maybe you can do something about that. Maybe you can’t.

If you can do something about it, fine, [00:42:00] but if you can’t, then what? Well, then you do have another option. You can escape into it. The first thing to remember is that although it may be something objective in the real world like an illness, an injury, a situation in politics or a society that won’t change for a while, it may be something real in the world and we’re not advocating that you be [00:42:30] indifferent to changing conditions, but there is also an independent dimension called escaping into the sensory experience that is caused by that condition.

Let’s say that you have physical discomfort. That’s one kind of body experience. You have physical [00:43:00] discomfort, so that’s gonna be a component of your distress. What other sensory components might be present? Well, you might have mental images triggered by that physical discomfort. You might have mental talk triggered by that physical discomfort. You might have … I’m gonna get rid of this. Sorry for that. I leave the phones on just in case. [00:43:30] Just in case there’s some problem with the broadcast, so you can reach me, but then we get these other things, so, sorry about that.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 00:43:50]

Shinzen Young:                    What else could there be? Well, maybe you have physical pain, so uncomfortable physical sensation. You’ve got … Let me just take care [00:44:00] of this.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    Hi. Actually you are now on a podcast being viewed by several hundred people because you called me while I’m on the air. I free up at two o’clock eastern time. Try to get me later in the day then. Shoot me an email. [00:44:30] Okay. Have any message to the people on the Secular Buddhist podcast? Say what? What? Okay, I’ll tell them that. Bye bye. We’ll talk about that later.

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the unique aspects of being live. We just [00:45:00] see it all as it’s happening.

Shinzen Young:                    Let’s say it’s even worse. Let’s say all that’s going on and you’re in the hospital where there’s all these intrusive noises in the outer world. You’ve got all of these sense channels that are having uncomfortable experiences. The first thing you do is divide and conquer. You realize, “Okay, it’s coming to me through this sensory experience, [00:45:30] this sensory experience, this sensory experience,” so let’s untangle those strands. Let’s just take the simpler scenario. You are going through an emotional distress, so you’re experiencing rage or terror or grief or shame or impatience or disgust. You’re going through an emotional challenge. What are the sensory components there? Well, you might have visual thought, you might have [00:46:00] auditory thought and you have body emotions so there are just three.

You track it. See, hear, feel, so that instead of them criss-crossing and multiplying together, it’s just A plus B plus C, so you use your sensory clarity piece to untangle the strands, because if you don’t keep track of what part is visual, what part is auditory, what part is somatic, then [00:46:30] instead of 10 plus 10 plus 10, you’re gonna get 10 times 10 times 10. Separating out the components using, for example, a noting technique where you break your thoughts into visual and auditory, so see, hear, and then you’re aware of the presence or absence of body emotion.

First step is identify the sensory strands and then monitor them and untangle them, [00:47:00] noting the noting technique from the Mahasi lineage of mindfulness is very good for that kind of thing. Now what? You’ve got them untangled. The next thing you do is you unblock them. You, to the best of your ability, give them permission to expand and contract as they wish. You can read my essay on the internet. “What is equanimity?” will explain that process but the skill of [00:47:30] allowing sensory experience to expand and contract without interfering with that process, that skill I call equanimity.

With the equanimity, you unblock them. Well, it turns out that this combination of untangling the sensory strands and then unblocking their natural flow will cause the solid experience of suffering to go through a [00:48:00] phase change, which is analogous to water going from being ice to being liquid to being vapor. Essentially the degree to which you can bring concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity to that sensory experience will measure the degree to which you are fully present in that experience, and there’s a certain critical [00:48:30] value beyond which if your concentration, clarity and equanimity exceed that value, there will be a change in the experience itself that causes discomfort to no longer bother you and causes pleasure to deliver greater fulfillment. The metaphor that I would use is, chemically, [00:49:00] ice, tap water and steam, or H2O. H2O is H2O, viewed from the chemical point of view.

You can’t bathe in ice. You can’t drink ice cubes. You can’t be nurtured by drinking ice cubes. You can’t be comforted by taking a bath, or cleansed. Better metaphor still [00:49:30] by taking a bath in ice cubes, but if the ice is converted into warm water, you can cleanse your being with it, and if it’s converted into cold water, you can have a refreshing drink. It’s hard to believe that physical, emotional, mental and even [00:50:00] external sight sound discomfort could go through that kind of transformation. Especially it’s hard to believe and therefore rather amazingly that it’s true, that you do this merely by being so present with the experience that there’s no time to solidify the experience into a something and it both enhances fulfillment with [00:50:30] pleasure and reduces suffering with pain. This could be described as the process of escaping into the experience.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that and I love the analogy of H2O is H2O, because as the composition, it’s exactly true, and yet those three, steam, water [00:51:00] and ice can seem so different from each other.

Shinzen Young:                    It’s drawing a metaphor from science. A physicist would call that a phase change. Chemically there’s no change. Pain still hurts, but when it goes into a fluid phase, it’s hurt without suffering, and in fact, hurt that tastes like empowerment. Pleasure is still pleasure. When it goes into a fluid [00:51:30] phase, though, it’s pleasure with deep fulfillment that also tastes like empowerment, so it works to our advantage both ways. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think it is important to highlight the fact that for a lot of people, the idea that pain and suffering aren’t the same thing can be revolutionary in the same way that you use this [00:52:00] analogy that if you had only known ice, if you were born on a planet where the only phase of H20 is ice, you would be shocked to see people on another planet are swimming in that stuff and enjoying the very same element that may produce so much discomfort for me in the realm with how I’m familiar with it.

Shinzen Young:                    On the frozen planet, and in fact, unless you visited the other planet, you could never understand it, because the [00:52:30] person from Earth would try to tell you about water, but when water is translated into the language of the frozen planet, the word for water means ice. There’s not a word for other kinds of water in the language of the frozen planet, so almost all human beings, psychospiritually, live on the frozen planet. The only synonym [00:53:00] for pain is suffering. There’s not another word for pain that means “pain that isn’t suffering,” and there’s not another word for pleasure that means specifically what the special fulfillment that you get by having a complete experience of pleasure, what the Tibetans call [foreign language 00:53:27], the oneness of bliss [00:53:30] and void.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I think using that analogy, I think on our planet, for some people, it’s a radical shift in perspective to think discomfort, this thing that I run from, you’re saying that I can run into it. That I can essentially become comfortable with discomfort and change my relationship with it, where we’ve been on this mindset of, “No, that’s something you need to get rid of. I never want discomfort. [00:54:00] Push it away. Do everything I can to escape it,” and then the Buddhist approach is saying, “Wait a second, that’s the very problem here, is you’re trying to run away from something that you can’t run away from, which is difficulties arise.” Discomfort is a very natural way of experiencing reality, but increasing your tolerance or the ability to become comfortable with that discomfort, well, that changes the game. That’s like this ice over here, now I’m bathing in it, or [00:54:30] it can be a steam bath too. You know?

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah. The way I would state it is a little more nuanced because we have to be careful how we language this because it can give a distorted impression to people that may not be familiar with Buddhism. Here’s what I mean. It’s important to realize that the ability to escape into discomfort [00:55:00] does not, in any way, interfere with the ability to eliminate the discomfort. They belong to independent dimensions, and neither does it, in any way, interfere with the ability to change the conditions that are causing the discomfort.

Sometimes within the Buddhist context, the way that we habitually talk about things, if [00:55:30] we’re not super careful, people get the impression that Buddhism is indifferent to changing conditions, and is indifferent to palliating symptoms, okay? Those are legitimate dimensions. If you can stay within the cannons of good character and do something to change a condition [00:56:00] that you want changed, go ahead and do it. If there’s a medication that will dull the pain and it doesn’t lead to side effects or problems, hey, go ahead, be my guest. All I’m saying is that inevitably we encounter situations that we cannot change within the cannons of what is ethically acceptable, at least for a while, [00:56:30] or in some cases, ever, and inevitably we encounter discomforts that we can’t palliate or maybe shouldn’t palliate because they’re to motivate and direct our behavior.

The ability to escape into the sensory experience associated with those kinds of challenges does not make you indifferent to the other dimensions of freedom that are available. In fact it frees up energy. [00:57:00] Sometimes the ability to escape into the emotional pain causes by a situation in the world will actually free up energy to more effectively deal with that situation, so we want to make sure that we don’t give people the impression that we’re advocating you should always just escape into discomfort and never try to change the underlying situation or that palliating symptoms [00:57:30] is for wimps or whatever.

The fact is, is that we’re merely offering to people an important fourth dimension of relief. I distinguish four forms of relief. One is, change the situation. You’re sick, cure the sickness. Another is, well, you can’t change the situation so palliate the symptoms, so we [00:58:00] give you an analgesic. Both of those are part of medicine. Now, what if we can’t palliate the symptoms? Well, the doctor’s gonna tell you, “Well, just try to ignore them and get on with your life.” Well, lots of luck with that, except if we have mindfulness skills, we can actually do that. You can implement a strategy of turning away from the discomfort using your concentration, clarity and equanimity to focus on other things.

That’s using mindfulness [00:58:30] to escape from the discomfort. That’s also a legitimate way of working, but if you can’t do that, then there’s still something you can do. That’s the deepest, most counterintuitive form of relief, which is, “Okay, we used the same skill set that we would use to focus on something restful or an anchor in the outer world to focus away from the discomfort. That same [00:59:00] skill set, concentration, clarity, equanimity, we now turn towards the discomfort. We untangle, we unblock, we escape into it.

There are really four fundamental strategies and there’s nothing to say that we can’t try to implement many of them at once, but the good news is that there is this final option. You can turn towards it in a way that you escape into [00:59:30] it. Notice for the second two options, the turn away from it and get on with your life, and turn towards it and deconstruct both of those require mindfulness skills. The first two options changes a situation or palliate the symptoms. They don’t require mindfulness skills. They’re things that everyone understands.

The bad news is most people, if they have a distress, [01:00:00] can only think in terms of changing the situation, and if the situation can’t be changed, they’re up the creek without a paddle. The good news is, even if you can’t change the situation, even if you can’t palliate the symptoms, even if you can’t turn your attention away from them, there is this other option. The wise person trains themselves systematically to be able to implement that other option.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:00:30] I love that. Yeah, thank you for sharing that and highlighting those things. I think when I think of it, the way it makes sense to me, what you’re explaining, is essentially that there’s the feeling, the sensory experience of what is. It might be pain. It might be emotional discomfort. Whatever it is, and then almost simultaneously and often times without even knowing it, we have the feeling about the feeling, [01:01:00] and it’s inside of that second sphere that a lot of unnecessary suffering and discomfort arises that no longer has to do directly from the first experience. It’s what we’re experiencing about the experience, and I think for me, the visual of escaping into discomfort is it’s saying, “Well, there’s discomfort and then there’s immediately the discomfort about feeling the discomfort, and I’m escaping back into layer one,” which is whatever the situation at hand was, whatever [01:01:30] the original experience …

Shinzen Young:                    Yes, but I have to point out that there’s a little bit of a subtlety involved in that too.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah.

Shinzen Young:                    Because sometimes layer two, the second arrow, is so compelling that you can’t just ignore it, in which case you can escape into it by having a full experience, so there’s a deeper second order [01:02:00] of escape. A lot of times within the Buddhist context, it’s formulated the way that you’re now formulating it. There’s the first arrow and then there’s your reactions, so let’s say the first arrow is physical pain, and then your mental image, mental talk and emotional reactivity is the second arrow. While it is definitely true that if you can background those reactions and focus just on the physical pain, that [01:02:30] that physical pain will eventually break up into a kind of energy.

It is also true that if you can’t ignore the reactivity, you can untangle and unblock the reactivity, so that’s a …

Noah Rasheta:                      Would you say that it’s maybe even fair to say … You may notice this when you’re on the third, fourth, fifth, sixth arrow and that’s the one that you’re untangling in some situations. [01:03:00] Couldn’t it be that complex as well?

Shinzen Young:                    In my experience, it usually just goes back two or three. There’s something and then there’s a reaction and then there’s a reaction. Usually if you can get back to second or third order, you’re doing pretty good. Actually, there were arguments in the Yogachara school of Buddhism regarding how far back it goes.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 01:03:28]

Shinzen Young:                    Academic arguments. [Aninda 01:03:30] [01:03:30] and [Dignaga 01:03:32] and I think Dharma [Paula 01:03:39] and one other fellow, I can’t remember now, they argued whether it goes back one, two, three or four, so I don’t know about that, but usually in my experience, if you go back a couple steps, you’ve taken care of it. There are [01:04:00] more steps behind those, but those are in subtle, subliminal activity that you’re not specifically aware of on the surface. Those deeper levels just show themselves as a kind of shimmering on your mental screen or a kind of a stirring in your mental talk space, so you typically, the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction, beyond [01:04:30] a certain level of subtlety, you don’t actually get that coming up as specific content. You get it as a kind of tug of space and you sort of penetrate it that way. This is getting a little bit technical. I’m sorry. Maybe we should take people’s questions.

Noah Rasheta:                      I was just looking through to see if there are any questions related to what we’re discussing right now. I’m not really seeing anything …

Shinzen Young:                    Well, if it’s other things, we can do that, because we’re already at the one hour point, [01:05:00] so …

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    People might have had things they’d like me to …

Noah Rasheta:                      Well, okay, so …

Shinzen Young:                    Talk about.

Noah Rasheta:                      I do have a question from one person that’s not quite related to this. Well, I guess it’s somewhat related to this. This is from Patrick. He says, “In The Heart Of The Buddhist Teaching, the book by [Tignat 01:05:22] [Hahn 01:05:22], it’s stated that the second noble truth is generally misunderstood as craving being the cause of suffering. [01:05:30] He states that it was just first in a list. Would Shinzen concur that this could be or is the case and that it is generally a misleading representation?”

Shinzen Young:                    Can’t comment because I’m not sure what the list in question is. I’d have to have some specifics on that, unfortunately. [01:06:00] Sometimes I can’t answer a question without asking questions. I don’t know what this list is. I certainly know that the … These kinds of questions, when you’re asking questions about Buddhism, I can give you, because I was trained as a Buddhist academic, I can give you some general guidelines. You want to always find out what the original term was [01:06:30] in the language. If you start debating Buddhist ideas using English translations only, you’re gonna run into misunderstandings very, very quickly.

You always want to … And of course, that requires some work and some study, so you can’t be lazy. You have to find out what the terms were, [01:07:00] so if we’re talking about early Buddhism, we’re talking about Theravada Buddhism, a Pali canon, so in the Poli canon, there is certainly the theme of the four noble truths over and over again. I should say that it probably didn’t mean noble truths. It probably meant truths realized by the nobles. [foreign language 01:07:27], which is translated “noble,” [01:07:30] is a technical term in Buddhism for anyone who has had at least the first level of enlightenment or liberation, so these are truths realized by people who are stream enterers, once returners, non-returners, or worthies [inaudible 01:07:46].

What is it that people in the [foreign language 01:07:50], that are [foreign language 01:07:51] who are noble people spiritually because of their practice? What are the truths [01:08:00] they realize? Now, if you go back to the original Pali, the words are [foreign language 01:08:06] which, translated as you wish, often translated as suffering, but that’s the word we’re talking about. Whatever [foreign language 01:08:15] meant to the Buddha or to people in early Buddhism who wrote those scriptures. THat’s the word we’re talking about. Maybe we can agree to call it suffering. The second term [01:08:30] does not … It is true, does not mean craving. The second of the noble truths is something called [foreign language 01:08:42] and [foreign language 01:08:42] means “necessary cause,” so it means a cause which if eliminated, eliminates an effect. That’s a necessary cause.

Literally, [foreign language 01:08:54] means “the origin.” [foreign language 01:08:58] means [01:09:00] “coming up” and [foreign language 01:09:02] means “come up together,” but in this case, it means, “Technically what a logician would call a necessary condition,” so the Buddha says there is suffering, there’s a necessary condition for suffering, meaning something that you can eliminate that will eliminate suffering. Now, often that is parsed as [foreign language 01:09:26], which would literally mean [01:09:30] thirst or craving, so I’m not sure what else might be on the list, but to me, the important thing is the claim that suffering has a necessary cause, that there’s something that has to be there for suffering to be there.

In other words, the Buddha is not saying that you’re going to go out and do something that’s gonna make [01:10:00] you happy because you’re enlightened as an attainment. He’s sort of saying there is non-enlightenment, and non-enlightenment has a necessary cause, and if you eliminate that, enlightenment’s just there, and then he’s saying [foreign language 01:10:17] and [foreign language 01:10:19], so there is a sufficient intervention called [foreign language 01:10:24] path which will eliminate the necessary cause, [foreign language 01:10:29], [01:10:30] for suffering, and what will arise then is a very special kind of non-suffering that he called [foreign language 01:10:41], which is synonymous with Nirvana, but literally means cessation, so there is an interesting logical structure to the four noble truths. There’s this uncomfortable reality [01:11:00] and it has a necessary condition. There’s a sufficient intervention to eliminate that necessary condition, therefore there’s a sufficient intervention to come to a state of non-problem. That’s the logical structure there.

So, what’s interesting to me is if we … Remember, I said scientists always want to generalize things. If we generalize this logical structure, [01:11:30] we have to ask ourself, whatever Buddhism says is a necessary cause for suffering and there might be more than one, okay? Might there be other necessary causes for suffering that are only known to neuroscience but bring about the same results as eliminating [foreign language 01:11:52]? Does [foreign language 01:11:54] itself, whatever … If we say that [foreign language 01:11:58] is [foreign language 01:11:58] and if we [01:12:00] say that [foreign language 01:12:01] is non-equanimity …

You do understand that my word, equanimity, is merely the training away of [foreign language 01:12:10], that’s why I put it in my formulation, so an interesting neuroscience question is, does [foreign language 01:12:20] itself have some biophysical, necessary condition underlying it? Is there something that can change in the brain which would bring [01:12:30] about exactly the elimination of [foreign language 01:12:35] with no other effects? If so, then that means that there would be some other [foreign language 01:12:41], some other intervention that, maybe it’s not a complete path as far as a human being goes, but it might be enough to bring about the liberation aspects of the practice. There’s more to this practice than liberation from the mind and body. There’s being a good person, for [01:13:00] example. That’s probably different training, but anyway, I’m sorry, that’s about all I could say about that question without further knowledge.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Okay, thank you. Another question that comes from Wendy, she says, “In his book, The Science of Enlightenment, I noticed Shinzen Young was not afraid to use the word God and alternatively the source [01:13:30] or origin or something. Origin of something or something. I found it refreshing and wondered how he felt when some Buddhist teachers have negative reactions to the secularization of meditation/mindfulness?”

Shinzen Young:                    Well, remember I said I had a Jewish education? One of my rabbi’s heroes was the philosopher Spinoza, [01:14:00] who was Jewish but got kicked out of orthodox Judaism because of his philosophy, but now is looked upon as sort of a philosophical hero in the world, and interestingly was one of the first people that tried to bring something of the spirit of Euclid into ethical and religious questions. A little bit like the science spirituality [01:14:30] interface that’s going on now, so one of my favorite phrases from Spinoza is three words in Latin, and they were probably the three words that got him kicked out of Judaism. The three words are [foreign language 01:14:55], which [foreign language 01:14:56], you may recognize, is the Latin word for God. [foreign language 01:15:01] [01:15:00] is not hard to guess. It’s the Latin word for nature. What does [foreign language 01:15:06] mean? Well, it means war, in the sense of call it God, call it nature, call it whatever you want, okay? He equated the nature of nature with God. He said, “Call it God, call it nature.”

So, [01:15:30] call it nirvana or call it the source or call it the true self or call it the no self or call it the nature of experience or who knows.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 01:15:47] or oneness …

Shinzen Young:                    Maybe even the nature of nature. You can call it anything you want. What you call it is [01:16:00] not the issue. The issue is how directly you experience it, how strong your connection with it is, given all the doo-doo that’s gonna hit the fan in your life. That matters, from my perspective. The name, the philosophical formulation, how we try to describe it is pretty inconsequential, so half the enlightened people on [01:16:30] this planet call it the true self, the true witness. The other half say there is no self and there is no witness, so does that mean there’s two opposite forms of liberation or does that mean that there are different ways to talk about the same experience that may even seem to be the diametric opposite?

For people that want to think about it using the G-word in English or the D-word in [01:17:00] Latin, or the [foreign language 01:17:05] word in Hebrew, use whatever word you want. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m comfortable with all that language. I just want to make sure you have an industrial strength experience of it. As far as secularizing Buddhism, well, I know you call this the Secular Buddhist podcast. That’s not a term [01:17:30] I personally use. I like to just speak of modern mindfulness, by which I mean broadly contemplative practice co-evolving with modern science, that the two sort of cross-fertilizing. Now, I think that that cross-fertilization can occur without in any [01:18:00] way watering down the spiritual clout or the ethical impact of the traditional practice. We just have to language things carefully and be very clear about what we’re talking about.

I have this thing I call the happiness grid, where I … It’s like a periodic table of sensory elements, except it’s a periodic table of happiness elements. There’s 20 boxes [01:18:30] on it, organized in three columns that are sort of analogous to families of chemicals in the periodic table of chemical elements, so I talked about one of those families today, which is reducing suffering, relief, and you notice I actually talked about four different ways to get relief, one of which was obvious to anyone, and one of which was not obvious to most people at all. [01:19:00] You can change conditions, you can palliate symptoms, you can turn your attention away from the symptoms or you can escape into the symptoms. Those are four dimensions of the type of happiness called relief. There’s another aspect of happiness called fulfillment.

There’s another aspect of happiness called skillful action. Mastery of your actions. That’s where ethics and character come in. [01:19:30] Then there’s another aspect of happiness that is service. That’s where altruism comes in, and then there’s another aspect of happiness, which is people are happy if they know themselves deeply. You want to know yourself at a surface level, a psychologist can help. You want to know yourself at a somewhat deeper level, a depth psychologist or a shaman can help. You want to understand yourself as a sensory system or you want to understand yourself as the nature [01:20:00] of nature, well, for those levels of self-understanding, you need concentration, clarity and equanimity skills. Now, what is traditionally called enlightenment or stream entry, in my happiness grid, is simply described as understanding yourself as a sensory system and then understanding the deeper nature of that sensory system, what the taste of pre-conscious processing is within that system.

Well, I’ve just [01:20:30] described enlightenment in a way that is not off-putting to anyone, because everyone knows that they have different levels inside themselves and most people are curious about those, and the deeper levels, the ones that entail understanding yourself as primordial perfection or the nature of nature or the source that literally just mean source. It means just before there’s conscious inner and outer, see, hear, feel, there’s subliminal processing. Before [01:21:00] you are born and the world is born, you had a face, moment by moment. That’s how the zen people describe it, and then they’ll give you the “go on, show me that” face. Manifest for me the un-struck sound, the sound of one hand clapping.

All that means is be aware of what sound sounds like just before you become consciously aware of it. Be aware of what inner and outer vision looks like just before you become [01:21:30] consciously aware of it. Well, it turns out that at the deepest level of neuronal processing, all experience, pleasant or unpleasant, inner or outer, has the same taste [foreign language 01:21:41], one taste, and all we’re doing is saying that there’s a dimension of happiness called “understand yourself.” You go to a psychologist for the surface levels of that, but with mindfulness skills, we’ll be able to show you some deeper levels.

Now, we’ve brought in classical [01:22:00] enlightenment without using the E-word, without saying anything that sounds weird to ordinary people. You want to understand yourself? You understand that there can be deeper levels of that? Well, let’s look. Once again, we brought in character not by giving people a list of specific norms right away but rather by asking people, “Are there behaviors that you would like to change?” Well, I can show you how the mindfulness skills will help you with that. [01:22:30] That opens the door to character change, so I’m gonna claim that there’s a way of formulating mindfulness that contains nothing within it that is in conflict with science and contains nothing within it that would be off putting to any major group of human beings regardless of their religion or their politics or their philosophy.

If we’re [01:23:00] smart enough, there’s a way to formulate this whole thing so that it’s accessible to most people and has the full clout of traditional practice. To me, that’s amazing and it means that if we’re very careful in how we describe [01:23:30] things and if we’re willing to think a little bit out of the box, that we can basically enlighten the world.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that and I love the description of the categories of happiness. Excuse me. So, I’m on board with you. I think this is exactly why I feel there need to be multiple [01:24:00] angles and voices explaining and understanding concepts like mindfulness, meditation, enlightenment, because we all speak different spiritual languages, kind of in the way that we speak different love languages, so I appreciate the work that you’re doing and the approach that you’re taking and the vernacular that you’re using. For someone who’s listening and thinking, “I [01:24:30] want to learn more about this. I want to read more of Shinzen’s thoughts,” where would someone go to learn about you, find your book, anything along those lines?

Shinzen Young:                    Well, it’s pretty easy. One of my life goals is to create a really convenient delivery system for the classic results, so that people that live in countries where retreats aren’t available, et cetera, et cetera, [01:25:00] that anyone on the planet can, with time, get the same results that you get from old school monastic training. That kind of delivery system is one of my life goals. This information age makes that feasible, so a little bit of searching on the internet will reveal a lot of resources, but let me just list a few things.

What do you need to be successful [01:25:30] with this practice? Well, you need to have at least one meditation technique. You need to do what I call life practice, which is on a day to day basis, do formal practice and weave informal practice into the day. You need to do retreat practice. You need to have support of at least one competent coach and a community [01:26:00] of people, and ultimately you need to give support in various ways. These are sort of the ducks that a person needs to line up and maintain for their lifetime. If they do so, they have a high probability of success with this practice.

So, in order to understand how to monastasize each day, [01:26:30] how to weave practice into the ordinary activities of life, I have a program on the internet that we call the Life Practice Program, so if you just put in my name, Shinzen Young, and Life Practice Program, that’s gonna pop up. That landing page is self-explanatory, so you can go there and that will help you do the sort of day to day practice, so it’s the Life Practice Program. Shinzen Young’s Life Practice Program. Then most people [01:27:00] cannot get away from retreats, even one day retreats. What to say residential retreats.

How do we bring retreats to the people of the world? Well, I have an idea how to do that. We pipe it to you in very manageable modules. Four hour modules. That’s called the Home Practice Program, and if you go there, wherever you may live in the world, you can do retreats without having to leave your [01:27:30] family or your work or your community, so there’s the home practice program for that component. If you want to learn techniques, I have this grid that basically covers all the meditation techniques in the world. I call it Ultra: The Universal Library for Training Attention, and if you want to learn those techniques, there’s an app that is about to be released called Bright Mind, [01:28:00] and Bright Mind … It’s self-explanatory. You just get it and you’ll learn dozens and dozens of the techniques that I typically teach people.

If you want to learn techniques and if you want to affiliate with a community and if you want to learn how to be a coach of mindfulness, you go to, Julianna Ray’s website. [01:28:30] She does my community … A lot of the community development and the training of facilitators. As soon as you learn some techniques, we will teach you how to teach others, and that’s actually one of the best ways to deepen your practice. So, you’ve got the Bright Mind app. It’s gonna be released probably within the next few days or weeks. Not quite sure, [01:29:00] but they have a website. You’ve got the Life Practice Program, the Home Practice Program, and then the hub, which is to find community and also to … That’s to get support, including support of a personal coach, and that’s also to learn to give support.

Those are the resources and I refer to my approach as unified [01:29:30] mindfulness just to have a name. The unified means that I try to point out the connections between all the different forms of contemplative practice. Not just within the three vehicles of Buddhism, but broadly including Christian, Islamic, Native American and other tribal practices. Jewish and so forth. I see the world’s contemplative traditions as a unified whole [01:30:00] and that unification can be seen by being clear about the ways in which the different approaches relate to each other. I’ve created what an information scientist would call an ontology of contemplative approaches. An ontology is like a taxonomy. It’s like a classification system, but with an added feature, that relationships between the elements are made clear.

[01:30:30] You get a unified knowledge map. That’s technically called an ontology in modern computer science information systems, so I’ve been influenced by these notions and I’ve created what I believe is an ontology of the world’s contemplative traditions. Just to have a name for it, I call it unified mindfulness. That’s sort of the moniker, and then the programs that I mentioned, Life Practice [01:31:00] Program, Home Practice Program, the Bright Mind app and Julianna’s facilitator program at Unified Mindfulness Hub, which is

That’s the delivery system that’s a pretty inexpensive and available to anyone, but it doesn’t have to be my approaches. The elements, life practice … I’m sorry, retreat practice, [01:31:30] life practice, getting support, giving support. Those elements will be present in any organization that is teaching these things, and you find the organization that has the vibe that appeals to you and you’re good to go.

Noah Rasheta:                      Awesome. I love that, and for those how are listening live, I will be posting these links on the podcast [01:32:00] interview page, so if you’re listening later, if you’re not listening live or watching live, you’ll be able to scroll down. You’ll see an entire transcript of our conversation and I will have links at the bottom where you can find Shinzen’s book, Shinzen’s website and all of that information. So, thank you very much again for taking the time to join us, to be on the podcast to spend some time discussing these concepts [01:32:30] with me. It’s been a fun conversation. Any last goodbye to anyone listening live and then I’ll shut off the live portion of this.

Shinzen Young:                    I would say my valediction is there’s good news. You can be 10 times happier than you would’ve ever imagined with a reasonable allocation of time and energy.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:33:00] Great. Thank you very much. Thank you to those of you who joined us live, watching this today. This will be uploaded to the Secular Buddhism podcast as audio. The Secular Buddhism YouTube channel as a video so you can rewatch it, and it will sit on our Facebook page in this same format so you could go back and rewatch anything that you may have missed, so thank you to those of you who joined us life.

Shinzen Young:                    Thank you to you, [01:33:30] Noah, for this great work. This is [crosstalk 01:33:33] …

Noah Rasheta:    Oh, thank you. Thank you.

58 – The Art of Stopping & Seeing

The Buddha told Angulimala (the murderer), “I stopped long ago, it’s you that hasn’t stopped”. The art of learning to stop….is about having the ability to pause for a moment and to shine some light on the hidden agendas that often determine why we say what we say, do what we do, and think what we think.

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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 58. I am your host, Noah Rashata, and today, I’m talking about The Art of Stopping and Seeing.

In episode 52, The Sound of Silence, I talked about a teaching called the three doors of liberation, and these three doors are emptiness, or non self, signlessness, or no form, and the third one is aimlessness, sometimes referred to as no goal. Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit more on this third door, the idea or concept of aimlessness.

When I talked about this in episode 52, I shared the story of Angulimala. He was the murderer who was intent on causing chaos and mayhem, and when he confronts the Buddha, the Buddha goes on as if no big deal was happening here, and he confronts Angulimala. Angulimala is wanting to chase him, but the Buddha just keeps walking like normal. He can’t believe what he sees, ’cause Angulimala is used to most people just being terrified and running from him or screaming, and the Buddha’s … I presume he’s taken back by the fact that there’s no fear coming from the Buddha, so he yells at him, and he says, “Stop!”

And this is my favorite part of the story, ’cause the Buddha, I would imagine in a calm and serene tone, just replies, “I stopped long ago, Angulimala. It’s you who hasn’t stopped.” And that’s shocking to Angulimala. He doesn’t know how to take that. Now, this is the story as it’s recounted in Old Path White Clouds, the book by Thich Nhat Hanh, but this powerful phrase, “I stopped long ago,” has really stuck with me, and this is what has motivated me to share this podcast episode, the art of stopping and seeing, and applying this thought, this … As I imagine the Buddha standing there, serenely saying, “I stopped long ago. It’s you that hasn’t stopped.” I imagine him saying that to me. What is it that I haven’t stopped. What was it that Angulimala hadn’t stopped? And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Now, part of this is inspired by a question I received from a good friend of mine, who says, “I’m not sure what you mean by sit with it with regards to specific feelings.” He said, “Can you expand on that for me?” And he also said, “I’d love to better understand the concept of suchness or oneness. I’d love to have a podcast on that in greater depth.” I hope this kind of accomplishes that, the idea of suchness, the idea of oneness, the idea of sitting with it, all in regards to this, the art of stopping and seeing.

I also want to correlate what I’m going to talk about in this episode with what I talked about in episode 51 in my conversation with Stephen Batchelor. He talked about the four noble truths and looking at these truths as four tasks, so as a quick reminder, we have the acronym E.L.S.A to help us remember these, so E is embrace the suffering or discomfort. In other words, we embrace the situation at hand. What is the situation at hand? Well, on the large scale, it’s that in life, difficulties arise. We embrace that. On the smaller scale, it’s, “Hey, I’m stuck at this red light, and I don’t want to be stuck at the red light.” I can embrace the suffering and the discomfort that I’m feeling in that moment, so that’s the first one, E.

L is for let go, let go of your instinctive reactivity to it. This includes letting go of feeling that I shouldn’t feel what I’m feeling, right? So I’m letting go. I’m just allowing … Another way to think of this is let it be. You know, let things be. I embrace the suffering and discomfort, I allow it to be what it is.

Then the third step, the S is see, see the stopping of the reactivity, as Stephen Batchelor said. This, to me, is sit with it. For me, to sit with something, to stop and see the reactivity of it is … It doesn’t mean I’m stopping my emotions. It doesn’t mean, “Okay, I’m not going to get mad.” To me, this means when I am mad, I can stop and just see that I’m mad, and stop right there. I don’t have to take it a layer deeper and realize, “Oh, now I’m mad that I’m mad.” See, that to me is not stopping, so the stopping is being with whatever arises, and if anger or sadness or a difficult emotion like that, an uncomfortable emotion like that arises, I can just be with it. I can watch it, I can sit with it.

And to me, this goes hand in hand with the concept of suchness. It’s that I can see things as they are. I can see my emotions and my feelings as they are, not as I think they should be, because it’s in that realm of how I think things should be that I run into trouble. In other words, the feeling of the feeling, so I’m sitting with the feeling, whatever that feeling is, pleasant or unpleasant, and that’s suchness. Life, to experience suchness is life is to experience life as it is, not as I think it should be, but just see it as it is. Suchness with other people is allowing someone to just be who they are, and to, for a moment, pause and not have the who I think you should be competing with the who you are, okay? And I can do this with myself as well, sense of suchness would be, “I’m allowing me to just be me, and not competing in that game of who I am and who I think I should be.”

So oneness is being with the present moment, just as it is, becoming one with it, accepting it, not dwelling in the way that I think it should be, but accepting the present just as it is, and I talked a little bit about this idea of should in the last podcast episode, and I’m going to elaborate on that again in this episode as well. So all of that is the third step of the four noble truths, or the four tasks. This would be the third one, seeing, seeing the stopping of reactivity, which is essentially the overall topic I want to talk about today.

And the fourth one, the A in E.L.S.A., the last A … Oh, I guess the only A, is act skillfully. The idea is that when I can embrace the suffering or discomfort, I can let go of the instinctive reactivity I have to it, in other words, the desire or the aversion, desire for the pleasant, aversion for the unpleasant, I can see the stopping of the reactivity. In other words, I learn to sit with it. I can be with whatever it is I’m experiencing, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, I can act skillfully, so this is like what comes next, right? Whatever I’m going to say or do or even think is going to be more skillful now because of these tasks and the way that I work with them.

I want to correlate all of this, again, to that third door of liberation, aimlessness, that I talked about in episode 52, The Sound of Silence, so the third door of liberation is aimlessness, and is correlated to the third noble truth, stopping and seeing, and correlated to the story of Angulimala, when the Buddha says, “I stopped long ago.” I want to correlate all three of these ideas in what I’m going to talk about next, so here we have something really powerful. To me, very insightful is the ability to stop and see.

The idea here is everything that we do, everything that we say and do, is motivated by intent. You could say there’s an agenda behind it, right? Think about this. There’s an agenda to everything that you say and do, there’s a reason why you’re saying it and doing it. Now, these aren’t normal agendas. Unfortunately, they’re typically hidden agendas. There are ulterior motives to what we say and what we do. We’re usually saying and doing things for a reason. There’s something we’re trying to get out of it, and most of the time, I would daresay we don’t even know why. We don’t understand the motive behind a lot of what we say and think and do, and I think there’s a deeper form of introspection here, because it’s not just what I say and what I do, it’s also what I think. The very thoughts that arise and seem so random or just natural, this thought just arose, there’s generally an ulterior motive to where these thoughts are coming from.

Now, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re driven by motives. I’ll address this, I think, towards the end, but the … Aimlessness means that you don’t put anything in front of you as the object of your pursuit. In other words, what you are looking for is not outside of you, it’s already here inside. For example, you already are what you want to become, so concentrating on aimlessness, what it does is it releases your longing and craving for something in the future, or something that’s somewhere else, and one powerful way of working with the idea of aimlessness is to ask yourself, “What is my aim?” Or “What is my goal?” There’s a lot of insight to be had with this introspective process, to say, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I saying what I’m saying?”

And like I mentioned before, at the deeper level here, you can actually explore this with your thoughts too, “Why am I thinking what I’m thinking?” Somebody does something or says something, and you immediately create a thought around that. “Why am I thinking that? Where is this coming from? Why do I think this person is doing this or saying that?” So there’s a lot to work with here. Also feelings, “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling?” And you’ll discover that under everything we say, everything we do, everything we think, there’s an agenda, like I said, often a hidden one, an ulterior motive.

For example, you can see this in nature. What it looks like on the surface is, “Oh, that bird is showing its feathers and doing this strange looking dance for this other bird.” That’s … What’s the agenda behind it? “Oh well, this bird is trying to attract a mate.” Oh, okay. So that’s what I mean by this. There’s always an agenda to the things that we do, so we’re trying to gain a better understanding into the nature of our own minds. Why do we say and do and think the things that we do?

The art of learning to stop is about having the ability to pause, even if just for a moment, and to shine some light on the things that we’re doing, the things that we’re saying, the things that we’re thinking, and to sit with an emotion, and to just observe it. Anger, for example, is one of those emotions that’s very difficult to sit with, because we feel the need to do whatever we can to push it away, to distract ourselves, say something, do something, think something, to alleviate the discomfort that we’re feeling due to the emotion that we’re experiencing.

Same with sadness, and the point of this stopping and seeing isn’t to stop what we’re experiencing. It’s to understand in greater depth what it is that we’re experiencing. It’s to be able to catch ourselves and say, “A-ha! You rascal you, I know what you’re doing. I know why you’re doing this. I know why you’re saying this, or I know why you’re thinking this,” to ourselves, and to understand, “Ah, this is why I’m doing this.” Here’s the hidden agenda, and see through that. It’s no longer hidden. We shine light on it.

And there’s a lot of power in that, the ability to understand ourselves, to have … There’s real power in knowing what the agenda is behind a lot of what we say and think and do, so the overall idea with this is that, what if we’ve been running our whole lives instead of living it, because of what we’re chasing. We’ve been chasing after things, things like happiness, love, success. In Buddhism, even enlightenment falls into this category, and there we are chasing after it, and in this process of running, we’re not living, so what if, by understanding the object of our pursuit, then we can remove it, and then we’re left with just living? That’s the idea behind suchness.

So here’s the tricky part of these hidden agendas. They’re often, like I said, hidden not only to others, they don’t know why we’re saying or thinking or doing what we’re doing, but a lot of times, they’re hidden from us. We don’t even understand it, and if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ll find that we really don’t know why we say or think or do some of the things that we say and think and do, and it’s a lot like that rider analogy that I often use with the horse, that you’re riding on this horse, and it’s just running at full speed, and if someone were to ask you, “Where are you going,” the honest reply would be, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

Well, that’s the thinking that’s going on here is that, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, a lot of times, we don’t know why we say or think or do the things that we’re doing, because the honest answer would be, “Ask the horse. Ask the emotion that’s driving it. Ask the agenda. Ask the ulterior motive that I’m not even aware of.” This insight that we’re trying to gain is to help us to stop, to stop running, and when the Buddha told Angulimala, “I stopped long ago,” I like to believe he was referring to his moment of enlightenment, the moment he looked inward, the moment he became perfectly aware of his own hidden agendas. He saw the proverbial rascal within, and said, “A-ha! I see you. I see you there.” He gained insight into the nature of causality.

In Buddhism, this is often referred to as karma, cause and effect, the law of dependent origination, which is to say that this is because that is. In other words, I’m saying this because of that, or I’m doing this because of that, or I’m thinking this because of that, so our quest is, what is the that? What is the that that’s behind this? This is a big question, because that’s what I think he stopped and saw when he says, “I stopped long ago.” This is what Angulimala was not able to see in himself in that moment. Why are you doing this? Why are you running around killing people? And once he understood the causes behind his thoughts and actions, he became enlightened, just like the Buddha, and that’s what the story goes on and says, that Angulimala did eventually realize this, he stopped being a murderer, he became a monk, and that’s a whole story, but I think that’s what’s trying to be taught there.

Now, to me, like I’ve said many times before, this is not a mystical or supernatural process. This is literally shedding light on our motives and intents, understanding what’s going on behind the thoughts and the actions and the words. This is the moment that we stop chasing after the object of our pursuit because we start to understand that it’s not going to get us what we think we really want. Even enlightenment, it’s like, “Okay, well then, you’re enlightened. Now what? So what?”

This idea is like understanding that a wave doesn’t have to be stressed about going and discovering what water is or where the water is, because it is the water. In the here and now, it’s already it. This is like a rose not having to be stressed about the fact that it’s trying to be more like the lotus. It’s already what it is, it’s a rose, and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful manifestation of the cosmos just as it is. It doesn’t need to be any different.

And like I talked about in last week’s podcast episode, there are no shoulds. There’s no … Life is just what it is, and it’s perfectly fine the way it is. And sure, there are a lot of coulds, how things could be, and there’s a lot of opportunity and hope, and in the way that we can interact with life as it’s unfolding, to move it towards how things could be. That’s all legitimate, and I’m not saying that we just become content and, “Oh well, now I’m not changing life, because there are no shoulds.”

What I’m saying is life could be this way, it could be that way, but that, to me, doesn’t feel anywhere near the same as it feels when I’m thinking, “Here’s how life should be,” because there is no should, and you, as you’re listening to this, you are the manifestation of the cosmos, in the same way that a rose is. You’re wonderful just as you are, and if you think about it, it’s taken every single thing that’s ever been for you to be here and now, just the way that you are, and sure, you could be another way, but you shouldn’t. There’s no should there. It’s not that you should be another way.

And this, I think, correlates with another common question I receive from people. It’s, “How does Buddhism or mindfulness help with X-Y-Z situation?” For example, PTSD or traumatic experiences or past events that now cause deep pain or fear. For example, an abuse in the past or something like that, so what this is saying, in this context, it’s not that, “Oh, Buddhism fixes this or that.” Or, “Here’s how it solves it.” It’s saying there’s nothing to solve. Buddhism is a light that shines on things to give us more clarity into the nature of that thing, so in that sense, it’s not that there’s something to fix. It’s trying to say, “Here’s what is, and you can gain insight by seeing this more clearly, understanding the nature of impermanence, the nature of interdependence, and starting to see these things in life or what they really are.”

But it’s not saying, “Oh, here’s why you do this, ’cause this will fix this, and then …” That’s implying you shouldn’t have PTSD. Again, going back to this, there is no should. You do have it. It’s what you’re experiencing, so let’s understand it with more clarity. “Oh, okay. Well, this is why I’m experiencing this. Well, why is that traumatic? Oh, well it’s because of this.” So you’re constantly shedding more and more light on the understanding, but never with the intent of saying, “Okay, because I did all that, now it should go away.” There is no should there. It’s just, “Well, this is what is.” If you’re experiencing it, look at it closely.

Again, with emotions, it’s the same thing with emotions. People will be like, “Well, I thought the point of Buddhism or practicing mindfulness was so that I could get over my anxiety.” Well, no, that’s a should. We’re going back to, if you’re experiencing it, let’s look at why. Now, life can change it, because the nature of life is that it’s impermanent. Things are always changing, so one day, I may be experiencing it. The next day, I’m not, but the point wasn’t to get from point A to point B, experiencing anxiety to not experiencing anxiety. It may arise again.

I feel like mindfulness practice in my own life helped me to get rid of anxiety at a stage in life when I was experiencing anxiety a lot. I don’t know if it’ll ever come back. I don’t know that it will. I see life quite differently than I did when I was experiencing it, but I don’t sit here thinking, “The point of this is to ensure I’ll never feel that again,” because that’s just not true.

I think we have this fear that if we approach life with this attitude of being aimless, that we’re not going to get anywhere, because the point is you’re supposed to be somewhere, but if you think about this closely, that’s actually impossible. You can’t not be … You can’t not get anywhere, because you are somewhere. You will always be somewhere. You are always going to be wherever you are. Where you are is somewhere, and again, think of this in the context of could or should.

The thought that I should be over there, “I’m here but I should be there,” versus the thought that, “I’m here and I could be over there.” I don’t know about you, but to me, those two approaches feel very different, because one implies possibility. The other one implies almost this sense of, I don’t know, “I deserve to be there. I’m not supposed to be here.” This sense of entitlement, I think, is the right word, and the truth is, I am where I am. That’s where I’ll always be. Doesn’t matter where I am, I will always be where I am.

So for me, it’s one thing to start asking myself, “Where am I going in life?” But it’s a whole nother thing to be able to just stop and understand, “Why do I think I need to be going where I think I’m going? Why do I think I need to be over there?” It doesn’t mean that I should or shouldn’t be over there. I’m just saying, why do I feel the need to be over there? I could be there, sure, but why do I feel like … Why is there this sense of, “I should be there?” That’s what I want to start looking into. The art of stopping and seeing is about analyzing the shoulds in our life, because that’s the conditioned mind that’s speaking. There’s a conditioning behind that thought, and it’s the conditioning that makes me think in, what I would say, should mode, and I think Angulimala was operating in this mode.

He was on this path of destruction, his conditioned mind had him operating in that should mode. “I should be killing,” and that’s probably because he was very angry or hurt, “Because I’m so hurt and I’m so angry, I should take it out on someone and kill them.” I don’t know his motives, but I’m thinking of something along those lines. He hadn’t stopped to understand the agenda that was driving his actions. He may have been able to have stopped at some point and thought, “Oh, I’m very angry. Okay, well that’s what’s motivating me. That’s the agenda. Well, why am I angry?” The agenda has an agenda, right? So this is the clarity that he was finally able to gain through the Buddha’s wisdom that came about in that abrupt presentation of the scenario, “Hey, I stopped long ago. It’s you that hasn’t stopped.”

I imagine Angulimala was confused, and thought, “What are you talking about? What do you mean, I haven’t stopped?” And that moment of introspection and insight led to an entirely new path that he was on. He quit his path of murder, not because he felt that he should, but because he was able to see that he could, he could go through life not being a murderer. That was a possibility. He didn’t have to be compelled to stop like, “Hey, this is morally wrong.” And I’m not saying that it is or it isn’t. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t the compelling that made him stop, like, “You need to stop murdering!” “Okay, fine.” That wasn’t it. People had been trying that all along.

What he was able to gain was insight into the nature of things, and the skillful thing for him to do at that point with that awareness was to not do what he was doing, so he pivoted in life. He headed in a new direction, and that is what starts to happen with us, when we walk through the doors of liberation, when we extinguish notions, we stop and we just see things as they are, behind the stories, behind the meanings, the labels that we add to them, and we see things like our habitual reactivity in connection to our hidden agendas, our ulterior motives, and we start to see there’s no longer this need or this fear of not becoming who I think I’m supposed to be. You’re just left with peace, this peace and calmness in resting in the fact that I am just fine just the way that I am, where I am, and then I see possibility opening up. This is how I am, but this is how I could be. Maybe I’ll try that.

It’s like when the wave knows how to rest in the fact that it is already the water, the wave enjoys going up and enjoys going down. The ups and downs, right? The wave’s no longer afraid of being or non being, life or death, what’s happening now, what happens later, there’s no fear in any of that anymore, because the fear of coming and going, the wave has seen that the wave is the ocean, and this to me is the art of stopping and seeing.

To me, when the Buddha said, “I stopped long ago,” he didn’t mean he had given up on life, or that he has resigned to life as it is. In fact, from that moment on in the story, his enlightenment, he worked really hard for many many years, from his 30s to his 80s, worked pretty hard on building up a community, building up a way of life that was beneficial to his society, teaching, traveling, there was a lot.

There was no resignation at that point, but there was the ability to stop and see and understand, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” I think that’s what he was able to answer about himself, and the goal of that process isn’t for us to say, “Well, I want to know what he saw so that I can …” No, what he’s trying to say is, “Point that to you. You do the same, like Angulimala did. Stop and see.” It doesn’t mean we’re going to no longer have goals. It means we can have a much more clear understanding of why we say the things we say, do the things we do, think the things we think, feel the feelings that we feel, and that’s personal insight. That’s on you.

Your stopping and seeing will reveal something incredibly profound about you that only you can see. I cannot give that to you. I can’t say, “Hey, stop and see. Here, let me tell you this is what you’re missing.” I can’t do that. You can only do that with yourself. This is one thing I love about the Buddhist path is it’s a very personal path. It’s your path, and when you stop and see, you’re going to see something that only you can see.

From the Buddhist perspective, we often talk about interdependence, the fact that all natural phenomena has causes and conditions, and this implies that the causes and conditions also have causes and conditions, and to me, this understanding of causality implies, like I mentioned before, that even my hidden agendas, the ones I’m not aware of, or the motives behind the things that I say and I do, also have motives, so the motives have motives.

The agendas have agendas, and I think from an evolutionary standpoint, I mentioned this at the start of the podcast, one of our core motives that I think is really helpful to understand, is the motive to affiliate and bond with each other, the motive to belong. Our desire to belong seems to be a primitive survival mechanism, and we do things in order to belong, and we avoid doing things that we think will jeopardize our sense of belonging, and for me, it’s been interesting to explore my own agendas and to find that, often, the agenda behind the agenda is this need to belong. It’s this core need to not jeopardize my belonging, and to strengthen my belonging.

And again, I think the idea of understanding all of this isn’t just to try to reconfigure myself and suddenly no longer be how I am. The idea here is that, through understanding the nature of my own mind, I can become more skillful in how I navigate this experience of being alive, and I can work towards eliminating the unnecessary suffering, the self-inflicted suffering that I cause for myself and others when I’m unskillful in the things that I say or think or do.

So that’s the goal of this podcast episode. To be able to engage in the art of stopping and seeing, I hope, will give you that opportunity to see something in yourself, to see the agenda, to see the agenda behind the agenda, and to become more skillful in how you navigate life. I hope that, in the stopping and seeing, there’s the ability to realize, “Maybe I’ve been running after something, and in the process of running, I’m not living. This is about stopping and seeing that I can just live now, the way that I am now is fine. Sure, I could change and be more … harder worker or drink less or …”

Those are all coulds, but those are not shoulds, and when I can explore this in the context of could versus should, like I talked about in the last episode, then I start to gain more insight. I start to experience this ability to sit with things, to just be with life as it is, to be with you as you are, to be with me as I am, and in that process, overall, I’m eliminating or at least minimizing the unnecessary suffering for myself and others, and I hope that’s what you can accomplish, and what you can see, and what you strive to, not because that’s how it should be, but because that’s how it can be.

And I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I appreciate you taking the time to listen. I hope some of this information can be useful to you on your own journey of learning to stop and see, learning to just live instead of chasing the feeling of living, just stop and live, and I hope that the story of Angulimala resonates with you the way that it did with me. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s been a scene that’s just prevalent in my mind. I’m seeing that moment, the shock and awe that Angulimala must have felt when the Buddha wasn’t scared of him, and just said, “Hey, I stopped long ago. It’s you who hasn’t stopped.”

I hope you can stop and ask yourself, “In what way can I stop?” Or, “Why have I not stopped? What is the object of my pursuit, and why am I chasing it? If I finally get what I think I’m going to get, then what? If I’m here and I want to be there and I finally get there, then what?” This is where that quote that I really like is. Sometimes you get there and you realize there’s no there there, because wherever you are, there’s another there, so stopping and seeing is about the present moment. It’s about here and now. This is where you are, this is how I am. What can I do with that? What insight can I gain from seeing that, if I can stop?

So if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, but also let me know what you think. We have an online podcast community, the Secular Buddhism podcast community is a Facebook group. We can discuss things there. You are also welcome to join our Weekly Sangha, where we discuss topics from the podcast, and just, in general, practice mindful living as a group. You can join that online community by visiting If you would like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, feel free to visit and you can click the donate button there.

And that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thanks again for listening. Until next time ..