45 – Questions & Answers 1

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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.

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 45. This is a question-and-answer episode. I plan on doing these roughly once a week or maybe once every couple of weeks depending on how many questions I get. I want to infuse these episodes with the normal weekly topics so the format for the podcast is, its topical and I’m going to continue that, but I am going to occasionally have a Q&A episode like this one or an interview episode, and those will start coming out probably next month but this is the first episode of the Q&A format. So this is episode number 45, questions and answers.

I had four people send in questions and I recorded the answers to those questions so I hope you enjoy this episode. If you have any specific questions that you would like addressed in a future Q&A podcast episode, you can submit those questions by email. I’m hoping to get the actual recorded questions because I think that’s more fun for the podcast format for listeners to hear other listeners, so you can record your question on your phone and then send it to me in an email or you can call in and record it as a voicemail by calling my phone number 435-200-4803.

Leave me a message with your question and then I’ll put the question in the podcast like I’m going to do here. So this is the first episode of this format. I hope you guys like it. I’d love to get feedback; if you like it let me know, if you don’t like it let me know. This is a format that I plan on working with without replacing the current format. I’m just adding this in. So every now and then we’ll have questions and answers. This is the first episode of that style. So, next are the four questions that I received this week. I will answer those and hopefully we’ll keep doing this.

Lucas:                                        Hi Noah, my name is Lucas and I have a question about meditation. Traditional sitting meditation is something very hard for me to do because of physical trauma. It’s hard for me to focus on anything else in pain if I sit. Because of that, I mainly do walking meditation. I also meditate while doing my job on a daily basis, so I wanted to know if you think traditional meditation is essential to your practice and also if you knew any other types of meditation. Thank you.

Noah:                                         Hi Lucas, thank you for your question. Before anything, there is a podcast episode where I do go into meditation a little bit more; episode 12, it’s called “Master Meditation By Not Meditating“. But the essence of what I explain in that podcast episode, is the idea of meditation is tricky because the moment we think of meditation as something we’re doing, we conceptualize it. So now we have an idea that meditation is sitting on a cushion or meditation is doing something, something specific, so we measure whatever it is we’re doing up against the conceptual understanding we have in our mind of what meditation is, and that makes it hard to know if …

That’s when questions arise, like, “Am I meditating properly? Are there other ways to do it?” So with regards to your question, something that I would mention that’s worth exploring is rather than thinking of techniques to meditate, just imagine that you’re looking for techniques that allow you to be present and to be here and now. “What can I do that allows me to be present and here and now? It allows me to be in a state of mind where there’s no grasping.

There’s no clinging to anything. Nothing needs to be anything different than how it is in this moment.” That’s meditation. So you can experience that when you’re walking, if you’re doing walking meditation. You can experience that if you’re sitting, and like you mentioned, the sitting part is the part that’s hard and that’s okay because sitting has nothing to do with meditating. We just happen to be sitting when we meditate a lot, but the sitting isn’t necessarily a key part of that process. You could be walking, you could be driving, you could be doing the dishes.

Anything that you’re doing where you’re fully engaged with the here and now and you’re completely in the present moment, you’re not grasping or thinking about, “I’m here, but I should be there,” or “I’m here, but I should be thinking of responding to emails or being at home or thinking of what I’m going to eat.” All of that goes away. So when you’re not experiencing that, nothing needs to be anything different than how it is, those are the moments where you realize, “Oh, I’m meditating. I’m totally engaged in the present moment.” So I would say tackle this backwards.

Instead of looking for a method that puts you in that state, try to think of times that you’ve been in that state where you’re completely engaged with the present moment and then do more of whatever you were doing at that time that got you into that state. One way that I like to meditate — I’ve mentioned this before — is when I go paragliding and I’m in the air. Those are moments where I’m completely in that present moment. It’s here and now and I’m not thinking of anything else. And I’ve experienced that sitting on the cushion too.

So that’s what we’re ultimately trying to do, is to be more anchored and engaged with the present moment, so any activity that you can do that puts you in that, would be meditating. Another technique you could try when you’re with friends, try to catch yourself and notice, “Am I reactive when my phone goes off? Am I with someone but thinking about that text message that just came in or feeling antsy because I haven’t checked Facebook?”

Those are opportunities where you can look at them and think, “Well wait, I want to practice right now being completely present with this person that I’m with and I feel my phone vibrate … I’m not gonna look at it. There’s a notification there. I don’t care what it is. I’m not gonna look.” Those are little techniques that you can do to practice being really present. Another one; I don’t know if you drive a lot but being stuck at a red light’s an awesome opportunity to be engaged with that moment.

“It’s right here, it’s right now, there’s nowhere else I can be. I’m stuck at this light, so I’m going to just be with this moment and look out, look around. What can I notice that I’ve never noticed here?” Or just be really engaged in the present moment. We can do this just driving in general. How often do you drive somewhere where you feel you have to have music playing? It’s like why not give it a try and say, five minutes where there’s nothing.

I’m just driving. That’s it. No distractions of any kind. There are a lot of opportunities to try to be engaged with the present moment, to try to really be present with the here and now. That’s what meditation is trying to do, so rather than thinking of it as other ways to meditate think of, “What are other ways that I can be really present?” and then you’ll be finding what you’re looking for. Hopefully that answers your question. Thank you, Lucas.

William:                                   Hi Noah, my name is William and my question is around the rationalization of unskillful behavior. Now, I’d like to think when I’m acting mindfully and calm and collected in moments of reflection, I’d like to think I act quite skillfully. But many times when I’m not thinking about things — I guess like all of us — sometimes the behavior lapses. I am not so much worried about that part of it. What really worries me, or is a cause of concern for me, is when I can identify that I’m about to engage in unskillful behavior and I can rationalize why that’s okay and then go ahead and do it.

I don’t know what part of me is doing it, but for me it’s a part of [inaudible 00:08:15] concern because I know that these things are skillful. I know they’re not helpful and they’re leading away from a life of happiness and wholesomeness, but my brain can always find a reason to do it. “It’s okay to watch this violent movie because you meditated yesterday.” Or, “It’s okay to partake in these drugs or this alcohol because you need to relax from time to time,” and so on. And there’s always a reason why it’s okay. My brain gives me permission to do these things at all times. I wondered if there was anything you could speak to about that. Thank you.

Noah:                                         Hi William, thank you for your question and for bringing that topic up. I think that’s a fascinating topic to discuss. I’m going to just go off of your specific question. Something that you mentioned that stood out to me was this discovery that you can rationalize a behavior or a decision. The first thing that popped out to me was thinking, well, rationalizing a decision isn’t necessarily the same thing as proceeding to do something.

I could sit and rationalize why it might make sense to do something and still at the same time go against my own rationalization and say, “But I’m not going to do it. It makes complete sense to do it but I’m still not going to do it.” So that’s something worth looking at there and trying to see … peel this a little bit more. Maybe it’s not the rationalization because the rationalization alone shouldn’t be enough. Maybe try to dig deeper. What’s really happening there that … Why are you really making a specific choice or decision?

With the eightfold path you bring up specifically skillful conduct, but I would maybe look a little bit more at that skillful intent. What is the intent behind the conduct? Because that’s the key. When we become really familiar with why; why do I do the things that I do, say the things that I say, think the things that I think? Then we start to gain a lot of power. Now, understanding the “why” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to change that conduct or behavior, but you’re not going to change it very well without knowing the “why,” so I would start with that.

And when you have a really deep understanding of why you can take something, whatever these scenarios are that you’re talking about that you can rationalize, knowing you probably shouldn’t, but you rationalize that you can so you do … Why? Why do you do that? And if you can answer that question, then take it another level. Why do you do that? It’s like you’re playing like you’re the two-year-old who’s like, “Why? Why? Why?” So based on the question, the way you framed it, that’s the input that I would suggest. It does kind of remind me of a quote by Alan Watts.

He talks about how we all have the irreducible element of rascality. This is kind of like in Taoism, the concept of the yin and the yang and recognizing that in the middle of all the good there’s that one little bit of bad, or in the middle of all the bad there’s that one little bit of good because there’s always the symbol of the yin. Yin is that it’s all one whole; good has bad, bad has good, and it’s all one eternal round, so that’s something worth looking at here, is the element of irreducible rascality, as Alan Watts would say.

It’s that recognition that even if I know what is best for me and what I should or shouldn’t be doing, there’s always that element of irreducible rascality that’ll say, “Yeah, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s something worth recognizing and looking at. You can imagine this, sometimes this is the scenario; the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and have that debate. Let them hash it out and say, “Why should I listen to you? Why should I listen to you?” But what you become really familiar with in this process is yourself.

That’s the whole part of being introspective with mindfulness, is that that answer that you’re looking for when it comes to your own actions, your own thoughts, it’s internal. It’s not an external thing. So yeah, I don’t know the answer, but what I would suggest is digging. Dig deeper. Ask why, and ask yourself, “If I know that I shouldn’t do it, but at the same time my mind can rationalize why it should … ” well then let’s maybe spend some time and let the two sides have a debate in your head.

Why and pros and cons, why not pros and cons and then weigh your decision and say … Well if you can have that debate, then you can still rationalize and say well, “I’m still going to do this,” then what’s really behind it? Why am I really doing it? Because I have a feeling that if you can nail down the “why,” if you understand the intent, you may be able to work with these situations with a little bit more clarity. So that’s what I got for that. Hopefully that somewhat addresses or gets him into the topic that you were asking with your question. Thank you very much for sending that.

Julia Berger:                           Hi Noah, my name is Julia Berger, and I want you to know, first off, how much I appreciate your podcast and I listened to it many times over. I do have a question that you could put on air, if you’d like. I’m going through a similar situation and I want you to know how helpful you explaining this personal situation is to people.

                                                      But what I’m having a problem with is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen. Once I know things are going to happen in a certain way, then I can plan for it and that’s fine, but the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen; maybe you could give some insight into how to deal better with that. Thanks a lot. Have a great day. Bye bye.

Noah:                                         Hi Julia, thank you very much for the kind words. It’s nice to know that others are benefiting from recognizing that we all go through difficult things and I’m happy to hear that me sharing my personal things that I’m going through is helping you, and I’m sure many others. As far as your question, the topic of uncertainty is such a big one. How do we deal with uncertainty? And I totally understand where you’re coming from with what you’re saying because I felt the same thing.

It’s that in-between stage where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. That’s the hard part. As soon as I know this is what’s going to happen; they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. Then I’ve got something to work with. But that limbo, being in that state of limbo, that uncertainty is really hard to work with. At the same time, that’s exactly what mindfulness is trying to help us to accomplish, is to obtain the sense of comfort with discomfort. How do we become comfortable with the discomfort?

‘Cause the problem’s never been that there’s discomfort, the problem is that there’s discomfort and we don’t like it. We don’t want to be with a discomfort. If we were okay with being with discomfort, then it wouldn’t be a problem. And uncertainty is … That’s the only certain thing that there is, so how do we work with that? Well, here are a couple of tips that I would like to suggest. One is working with plans. We can plan for the future, but not getting caught up with the expectation. So this is maybe a comparison of, “Do I have expectations or do I have plans?”

Because when my expectations aren’t met, that’s more difficult than recognizing my plan needs to be revised or edited. That’s an easy thing to do. ‘Cause when you form expectations, you’re already setting yourself up to be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, and we all know that we can’t control the outcome. I’ve mentioned that life is like a game of Tetris; we don’t know what pieces are coming next. That’s okay. Are you okay with knowing that that’s how life is? That’s what we’re working with here.

So to do that, we can focus on a plan. So, for example, I might know … Well, going back to Tetris. “If I get a square then I’m going to have to do this. If I get a bar, I’m going to have to do this.” I have different shapes in mind and if it ends up being this one or that one or that one, I kind of have already formulated somewhat of a plan. That’s one technique that could kinda help. That allows us to be prepared for the different possibilities that may show up.

For example, with what I’ve been dealing with in my personal life, it’s like, “Well, I know that we may lose the house. That’s very likely. And if that happens then I’ve got this plan. We’re going to try to move in with so-and-so, and we’ll live in the basement there and … ” I’ve got this plan. What happens if that doesn’t go that way. What if it’s this? Or what if we lose it sooner than later? I’ve got different plans for different scenarios that may come up so that helps me to cope with the uncertainty. There’s still the uncertainty but it’s not so difficult because I’ve got different plans for different scenarios.

Next is focusing on observing. We talk about this a lot through meditation and recognizing when you’re feeling discomfort with uncertainty, you can just observe that and recognize “I’m just feeling discomfort.” Now it’s not necessary to add a new layer to that and say, “Well, now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncomfortable.” Because that’s often what happens with our emotions; we experience an emotion like anger or sadness. Now I’m sad and then I’m sad that I’m sad, or I’m angry and now that I’m angry that I’m angry.

And when it comes to uncertainty, it’s already uncomfortable to have uncertainty in life, but now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncertain, or I’m uncomfortable about the uncomfortableness that I feel around my uncertainty, because I’m thinking, “Well, I’m uncomfortable around uncertainty and I don’t like that. I don’t want to be uncomfortable with it. So that’s one way to look at this and think, “Well, what if it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the uncertainty?” Just don’t be uncomfortable about being uncomfortable.

So observing. Ultimately, with all of this we start to become comfortable with our ability to cope, our ability to adapt. I talked about this before, the wisdom of adaptability. That’s really what we’re after here so if you’re playing Tetris and you know that you don’t know what’s coming next, what you start to gain confidence in … This is the way I understand faith. It’s not that I have faith that a square is coming; “I know it’s coming.” Well yeah, it might, but it might be five pieces away before that square shows up.

So what I developed faith in is, I have faith that whatever shows up I’m going to be able to figure it out. You start to develop the faith or … in your confidence in your own skills, your ability to adopt. This isn’t the same as, “I’m going to expect the worst.” This is about understanding, “I can handle whatever is going to come.” That’s pretty powerful to know that. There’s a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem, and in that book she talks about a concept called defensive pessimism.

This is when you consider the worst so that you can plan how you’re going to handle it, and this has shown to actually help people to manage with anxiety. This is similar to what the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying suggests that we do with one of our greatest fear, is the fear of death. It says we fear it because we haven’t thought enough about it. Why not sit down and think about it and think, “What am I going to do? What will it be like when I lose my spouse or if I lose my kids, if I lose a loved one; my parents, my … everyone.

You play through all these scenarios of what that’s going to be like when they’re gone and that’s what helps us to prepare, and it also enhances our sense of gratitude that we’re not there yet. “I haven’t had to experience that.” I know in our Western way of thinking that’s kind of taboo. It’s like don’t think about the worst that could happen because then you jinx yourself but that’s just not true. Think about the worst that could happen. If this happens, then what? Well, then this will be this and that’ll be that. Well then what? And play through those scenarios.

That’s really helped me. I’ve played through all the worst scenarios. Well if this is the worst, well if that happens then what? Well, then it’ll be this, this and that. At some point I realized, “I guess we’re all still alive.” But what if we’re not? What if one of us dies? Oh, suddenly I get into these scenarios where I’m thinking, “Okay. Well those are a lot worse than the original scenario I started with, which was, ‘What if I lose my house and that was all scary.'” 10 minutes into that thought process and I’m thinking, “What’s going to happen if I lose one of my kids?”

And now I’m thinking, “Okay. The house is fine. I’m not worried about the house anymore.” Anyway, that’s the defensive pessimism. Another helpful tip; just focus on what you can control. Again, the analogy of Tetris is so useful here because we can’t control what shapes show up, but when the shape does show up, we do have some control in the game. You can move that shape left and right and you can rotate it, and that’s really important to focus on, to recognize I don’t know what life is going through at me but I do know I have some control when it does.

I get to control how I’m going to handle it, how I’m going to work with it. I don’t control whether I have that or not, but I do control to some degree how I handle what shows up. So focus on what you can control, and in general, keep practicing mindfulness, keep practicing. We’re practicing the art of becoming neutral observers when we sit there and we observe our thoughts, or our emotions, our physical sensations. So meditation. Meditation is a tool to practice exactly this; sit there, becoming comfortable with discomfort.

I think there’s an element of uncertainty with sitting and meditating. You sit there and one of the first things you think is, “I’m sitting here and I don’t want to sit here. I need to be thinking about cooking. What I’m making for dinner for the kids or whatever it is. So we’re immediately confronted with that discomfort at what we’re doing. And that’s a great place to practice that and sit there with that discomfort and think, “I’m going to become comfortable with discomfort.” It doesn’t mean that I’m going to force that discomfort to go away, I’m going to sit here till sitting here becomes comfortable.”

That’s not the point. It’s, “I’m going to sit here till I’m totally okay with sitting here and not wanting to sit here. I’ve become comfortable with the discomfort.” I think that helps with how we deal with uncertainty. Anyway, that was kind of a long answer with a lot of different tips but those are some of the things that I would suggest with working with uncertainty. So thanks again for reaching out.

Speaker 5:                               Hey Noah, I have a question for your podcast. [inaudible 00:24:16] and I practice quite a bit of mindfulness and awareness about my actions and the people around me and the way that I’m feeling. I’m ready to take that next step so I was hoping that you might be able to answer the question of: once you’ve gathered and become practiced in mindfulness and awareness, what’s the next step you can take in secular Buddhism to deepen the practice and to maybe cross that next bridge that will make you feel differently about the way that you’re perceiving the world?. Thank you. I hope this message reaches you. Love the show and I hope you’re doing well. [inaudible 00:24:54]. Bye bye.

Noah:                                         Hi. Thank you for posting your question about once we’ve developed the skill or become more proficient with practicing mindfulness, then what? What’s next? Specifically from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s a good question. So one thing I would say is it’s really difficult to have milestones like, “Now that I’m here, what’s next? And then once I reach that, then what’s next?” That can be kinda tricky because I don’t know that there really are milestones. When I think of practice, practicing mindfulness, practicing Buddhism, I think of wisdom and compassion.

This is talked about in the Tibetan traditions as the two wings of a bird; wisdom and compassion, and how you need both of them. They’re both something that we can practice so it seems like the more we learn about mindfulness, the easier it is to practice, and the more that we practice it, the more interested we are in learning more. So we’re always playing this game of juggling what I would call knowledge and wisdom on one side, that’s one of the wings.

Knowledge is what we gain through reading, through listening, through podcasts, books, you name it. There are tons of sources of knowledge out there, and the knowledge gives us greater insight into these concepts. Concepts like impermanence, interdependence, emptiness. And the knowledge, it inspires us to want to practice. Now with the practice, that’s where we’re putting into practice these concepts; we’re sitting and we’re meditating or we’re learning to increase that gap between stimulus and response. All of that’s happening as we sit and practice, and through the practice we start to acquire wisdom.

So this is the flipside to knowledge. Knowledge you just gain by just … You read, watch documentaries, read books, listen to podcasts. All that will give you knowledge. But sitting and practicing starts to give you insight into the nature of your own mind, the perspective that you have of reality. And that’s where wisdom kicks in. Wisdom is experiential. So I would say the next step for anyone, no matter where you are, is just more practice. Practicing specific meditation techniques, you can practice being more compassionate, you can practice being more mindful.

And that one’s always tricky because, “How do I become more aware? I’m not aware of what I should be aware of?” So rather than looking for something specific, you learn to just look. “I’m just looking. I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’m looking.” And we do this through observation. We sit and we meditate and we observe our thoughts. We observe our emotions, our physical sensations, just like we would watch clouds passing in the sky. But ultimately, what this is doing is it’s helping us to practice to be neutral observers, because when we’re observers that’s when we’re in the right mind frame to see something that we hadn’t seen before and that’s where insight comes.

So I would say as far as thinking about a next step, how are you doing with your meditation? Is it a daily thing? How often and how long do you meditate? Those are always numbers that can increase. And then there are other aspects of the practice, not just sitting and meditating, but are you priming your mind to have moments of awareness? You can do this by creating little triggers throughout the day; “Anytime I see a red light. I’m stuck at a red light. That’s a trigger for me to think, ‘Okay, I have 10 seconds to be more mindful or however long I have at this red light I’m going to try to be more mindful.'”

And you can turn off the radio. You can roll down the windows, take in the sights and sounds of where you are, with the goal of just being more present. “How can I be anchored in the present moment?” Just be here, being in the here and now, little things like that. So that’s one technique. Another technique would be starting a gratitude journal. “What are the things that I’m grateful for and why am I grateful for them?” There are so many areas where we can practice, and I would say that’s the next step, just looking at your practice. “How do I make my practice more efficient, more meaningful to me?” And working with that.

Because there’s not like this great secret out there. It’s like, if you learn this, then you can learn that, then you can learn that, and then you can finally learn the big secret. That’s what I love about Buddhism in general, is it’s trying to help us go in the opposite direction. It’s like we simplify, simplify, simplify, until you realize, Oh my gosh, all of it has been incredible all along. The extraordinary is the extraordinary.” So yeah, that’s how I would think about it instead of a progression for what’s next. It’s hard to say what would be next, because I think whatever’s next, that might be different for everyone.

Everyone might have a different answer. But finding out what’s next may be part of the quest for you to look at and think, “Well, what do I want to do with this now? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do with it? There are other resources out there to have more in-depth understanding of Buddhism. You could attend the local Buddhist congregation or study group, that would be an excellent thing. Find a meditation group that you can join. There are online courses where you can learn about Buddhism or mindfulness, become a certified mindfulness teacher or something to that effect.

So those are things that you could look at and I think those would all be great next steps to take this to a whole new level. But ultimately, the specific answer is going to be very personal. What’s next for you? That’s your quest, your choice, and you get to figure that out. So anyway, not to be vague with that but, yeah, hopefully something in that answer works for you and I’d love to hear from you what your next thing is.

Whenever you get going with it, let me know or share that in our Facebook group; The Secular Buddhism Podcasts Study Group. Be a great place to discuss these things. So anyway, thank you very much for your questions and I look forward to hearing what is next for you. Thank you. So these were the questions I received this week. Again, if you want to add your own questions and have them featured on the podcast, please submit your questions by email.

Record it on your phone like a voice memo or something, and then send that in an email to [email protected] or you can call in to area code 435-200-4803 and just leave me a voicemail with your question. Both of those formats work. f you have a question and you don’t want to record your voice, you can go ahead and email that to me as well, but I’m hoping to get actual recorded questions. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. If you have any questions let me know. Until next time.