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 secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com 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 ..