“I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection…Natural selection sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, ‘We don’t have to play this game.” In this episode, I will discuss the concept of embracing rebellion as a form of living more mindfully. I will also clarify a couple of things from last week’s episode. I hope you enjoy this topic!
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 77. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about the art of embracing rebellion and how that relates to mindful living. Keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. Before jumping into this topic, what do I mean with regards to embracing rebellion? What is rebellion? What is a rebel? I want to clarify these things just a bit before jumping into this.
I think of rebellion as the act of disrupting the established order. Now, in the sense of mindfulness, it’s like changing up the way things have been to exploring whether or not there’s a way that things can be better. In this sense, the rebel is able to look at a situation and say, “Yeah. This is how things have always been, but what if we did things differently? What if we were able to change things up?” People like … The Buddha, for example, was a rebel in his time. He questioned the established order of how things were. He questioned the caste system, where one person ranks up here and another one is way down there, to the point where they’re untouchable. He questioned the way things were. He questioned the answers of the time that were given to life’s existential questions, and in the end, he presented a new way, the middle way. But to embrace his ideas fully, I think we need to be rebels ourselves.
When we talk about rebellion, I want to use Robert Wright’s explanation here in his book, Why Buddhism Is True. He says, “I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection,” and he goes on to say, “Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says we don’t have to play this game.” This is the type of rebellion I’m interested in talking about. To be able to look at the mirror of introspection, to see ourselves, the way that we have habitually done things, thoughts, feelings, the things that we do, to be able to pause and look at all of that and say, “I don’t have to play this game. I don’t have to react the way that I always react.” In this sense, I think it takes an act of rebellion to be able to change things about ourselves.
Now, I don’t know about you, but have you guys ever experienced or tried to do things just slightly different, differently than how you normally do? I’m not talking about big things. I’m talking about, like, every time I wake up, I always get out of the bed the same way, roll to the same side, put the left foot down first. You may not notice this about yourself until you start to pay attention and then say, “What if I do things a little differently?” and get out of bed differently. Or it could be other simple things. When I put my socks on, it’s always the left foot, then the right. Well, try it one day and do the right, then the left. Or on your drive to work, it may be the same route every time, and you can try a new route or, you know, just changing things up a bit just for the sake of doing it.
Now, I first came across this concept in a … I can’t remember what book it was, but the idea was that as our brains are growing and developing like the mind of a child, there is no set way. They’re figuring that out, and that flexibility to do things in different ways is instrumental in their ability to learn and acquire, because their mind is in that open mode. The idea in this book was that if you can start changing things up from the habitual patterns that get hardwired in the mind, once you pick a way, that’s the way, and you always do it that way …
The mind isn’t interested or geared to be adding new stuff, so the idea of this book, and I’ll have to research it … Maybe I’ll put it in the link. … was that you can kind of tweak the brain or hack the brain, almost, by just changing things up, doing them differently. It puts your mind in this mode of, “Oh. We’re doing something new. I need to be more aware and pay more attention, because I’m not used to this.” It’s kind of breaking out of that cycle of habitual reactivity, and that’s more along the lines of what I’m talking about as far as a mindfulness practice. It’s being mindful of the habitual tendencies that we have and then trying to break up that routine just a little bit.
Before going further into this concept, I do want to clarify something from last week’s podcast episode. I think it kind of fits in here with this topic. Some of the feedback I received on this analogy of the bird and kite and discovering which one you are, I received a few emails or a few Facebook messages from people who were saying, “I don’t necessarily agree with this, because what you’re implying is … What about this scenario, where the bird … or the kite is stuck as a kite and can’t ever be a bird, because it’s afraid. Maybe fear or aversion to the fear causes the kite to stay stuck in the state of being a kite and never discovering that it was, indeed, a bird.” I like that notion, and I want to clarify on this a little bit, because there are a couple of things that need to be clear about the comparison.
The first one is the understanding that there’s not a gradual … There’s not a ranking system. It’s not fair to say a kite … or a bird is better than a kite. When a kite realizes it’s a bird, oh man, it becomes even more beautiful. That’s not what we’re saying here, because it’s important to notice that birds are birds and kites are kites. That’s what I’m trying to imply. You could get this across by maybe changing that and comparing apples to oranges. It’s not like, “Oh, an apple, once it becomes an orange, yeah, that’s even more beautiful.” No. They’re just two separate things. Apples are apples. Oranges are oranges. Birds are birds. Kites are kites. But there’s absolutely something to say to this notion of, “What if I’m stuck where I am, and I’m not realizing my true potential because of fear?”
Now, the example I gave last week in the podcast was paramotoring or paragliding, and I think that’s a good example, because it very well may be that there are people out there who will say, “I don’t want to try that. That’s kind of scary” and if they did try it, would realize, “Oh my gosh. This is an incredible feeling. I want to keep doing this.” They would get into the sport and then probably look back and say, “My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner, and the only reason I didn’t do it sooner was because I couldn’t get past the fear.” That’s a very valid assessment, so I want to clarify that in the topic.
The way we’re talking about these things, that’s something that we need to keep in mind. What we’re trying to decide is what we are. We’re not trying to compare and say, “What’s better, a bird or a kite? Which one am I? Which one do I want to be?” What we’re trying to discover in this whole process is, “What can I learn about myself? What are my fears? Why do I have this fear? What would happen if I overcame this fear? Would I discover this thing that I’ve been afraid of would actually be … open up the door to all these beautiful new experiences?” Yeah. That’s part of the journey.
What I was trying to clarify in last week’s podcast is that some things aren’t for everyone, and that’s a very important thing to know, because the nature of a kite is that it flies because of the string. You cut that string, and what a sad site. Same with the bird. What a sad sight to see a bird tied to, you know, tethered to a string, so it’s important to be willing to spend the time to work past the fears to discover, “Which one am I?” and then to decide. That may take some steps that are scary, like the kite saying, “Well, I’ll experiment and see what this is like without the rope for a minute. Oh. No. I didn’t like that. Going back to the rope.”
Change is inevitable, and I think that’s important to clarify here. Again, going back to the apples and oranges, for the sake of clarifying apples and oranges, there’s a catch. The catch is things are impermanent, so the apple wasn’t always an apple. The apple was once a seed. The seed wasn’t always a seed. The seed was once part of the tree. The tree wasn’t always a tree. Right? And you can go on and on and on, and we’re no different. It’s fair to say I feel like I’m more of a kite than I am a bird, but it may not always be that way, and it may be that it wasn’t always that way, so there’s this element of constant change that we need to factor in here. We’re always exploring, and we’re always looking to understand ourselves more and more.
The point here is that we’re always changing. We’re always trying to figure out what we are, but you never actually get it. We’re a continual process of becoming. I’ve mentioned that before, and when we realize that, we allow ourselves to constantly figure ourselves out, but you never say, “Oh. I did it. I figured it out. I’m a kite.” It’s more along the lines of, “Oh. I figured it out. I think I’m a kite right now,” and that right now may be days. It may be years, but at some point, it may not be the case anymore, and you’re not a kite, or you’re not a bird, or you’re not an apple, or you’re not an orange.
I think holding onto this thought that, “Right now, I’m like this. Right now, I’m like that,” that’s an important part of this, and extending that same flexibility to other people in our lives. “Right now, my partner is like this. Right now, my daughter is like that. My parents are like this,” or … You know? … but recognizing it won’t always be like that. That’s what we’re trying to get at, and giving people that flexibility to be perfectly fine wherever they are, knowing that they may not always be there. I wanted to clarify that a little bit more, but definitely bringing light to this thing that was brought up, which is don’t hide behind your fear and say, “I’m going to be stuck here in this one thing that I’m always going to be and never experience something that could be different or better, because I’m afraid.” A lot of people will do that their whole lives, and if you stay there, then that’s fine. That’s what you are, but could things be better?
This is where I want to correlate all of this back to this embracing rebellion. I think there’s this moment where we question, “This is how things are,” and we ask ourselves, “Could they be better? Could they be different? Could they be more skillful?” and again, highlighting skillful and unskillful here rather than, “Could there be the right way, and I’ve been doing it wrong?” There is no wrong way. There is no right way. There’s how things are, and there’s always the possibility of asking ourselves, “Could things be better?” Whether this is in your job or the dynamics in your relationship, whatever it is, I think it’s possible to pause and say, “Could things be better?” and that’s the act of rebellion here. The rebellion is against the way things have always been and, “Can things be more skillful if I try it this way or that way?” A lot of incredible things have come from these acts of rebellion.
One of the ways to think of rebellion is the act against habitual reactivity, and think about this in terms of what we feel. I think it takes an act of rebellion to not run away from feelings that we normally run away from. It takes an act of rebellion to sit and have a difficult discussion with someone like a partner or a spouse, because the easy thing, the habitual thing is, maybe, I walk away from that. I don’t like how it feels, so I don’t talk about these things, and we shelf … We put those feelings on the shelf for those situations, and we never work through them or get past them. The act of rebellion, the rebel in us is the one that says, “I’m not running anymore. I’m not running away from how these feelings are. I’m going to sit with them and befriend them and become more comfortable with the discomfort that I feel when I’m feeling anger” or whatever the emotion is that you’re working with. That’s the act of rebellion.
Now, this also applies to how we view ourselves. Think about this. It takes a tremendous act of rebellion to stop running away from who we are right now. We’re constantly running towards this version of ourselves that we think we’re going to finally reach, and that version of us is the better version, better than this version. This act of rebellion is recognizing the rebel in us is the one that’s willing to stop and to stop chasing after that future version and to say, “I’m going to befriend and fully accept who I am in this very moment. This is me. This is it. This is who I am, and there’s no need to change anything in my right now.”
Now, don’t get caught up in this thought of not changing, because that isn’t to say, “Well, then, I’m going to be like this forever.” Again, the catch here is recognizing impermanence. Change is already inevitable. It’s going to happen whether we want it to or not, but we can be more skillful with this change by first accepting the, “Well, this is how I am now.” Then, we can say, “Well, now what? What’s next? I can be more skillful.” It’s almost like when I visualize this in me, I try to imagine 20 years from now, whatever that version of me is, here with this version of me right now and walking together along this path of change in life, and they’re friends. The me of the future that’s different from the me of now, they’re friends, and the me of the past, when I recall who I’ve been in the past and things that I thought or things I believed or things that I’ve done, I befriend that version of me and say, “Well, that was me then.”
That’s what I’m talking about with this act of rebellion. I think the conformist in us is always separating. “There’s that me, and I don’t like the old me,” or, “There’s this me, and I don’t like this me, but I will like the future me, you know, once I’ve been to the gym for six months, or once I’ve lost weight, or once I’ve put on muscle, or once I’ve meditated an hour every day for a year, or once I’ve … ” whatever it is. Whatever I think is the better version of me, the rebel says, “No. I’m not playing this game anymore. I’m going to stop running away from who I am, and I’m going to try to befriend who I am.” Think of what an act of rebellion that is. That, to me, is this concept of embracing rebellion.
The other way that I like to think of this concept of embracing rebellion is I think it takes an act of rebellion to really be present in the present moment. Think about this. We miss out on the opportunity of experiencing the beauty of the present moment when our mind is always stuck and thinking that the payoff happens in the future, you know, the payoff is when I have a better job, or when I make more money, or when I finally have the toys that I want, or when my relationship is finally in a more stable condition, or whatever it is. Again, we’re always looking to the future, thinking, “That’s when the payoff will happen, when everything aligns and should be the right way.” I think it takes an act of rebellion to stop that, to stop that thinking and say, “This is it. This is the present moment, the only moment I’ll ever have. It’ll never be like this again.
Sure, it may be unpleasant. It may be pleasant. That’s beyond the fact that it’s unique. This is the only moment we’ve ever had, that this is the only moment I’m experiencing as the present moment.” The source of everything that we’re looking for, whether that be to be more kind, or to be more mindful, or to have more joy and peace in life, whatever it is that we’re looking for, the source of it is found here, in this very second, this very second of this present moment. I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we look ahead for whatever … looking ahead for that thing, looking for that payoff, because we’re going to miss the whole point, and the whole point is that it’s always been here, and it’s always been now, and this is the moment that you have. This is the moment that you’re living for, the moment that you’re alive.
It’s the only guarantee that you have, is that you are existing in this moment with whatever configuration of Tetris pieces life has presented to you. This is it, and it takes an act of rebellion to embrace this present moment and to accept this moment just the way that it is, to accept your bank account as it is, to accept your relationship in the current state that it is, to accept your partner just as they are, or your children, or your siblings, or your parents, life in general, to just see it for a brief moment as, “This is it. Now, what do I do?” Because now, I can look at it and say, “Well, what’s more skillful.?” Again, this is the rebel speaking now, the rebel that says, “This is how it is. Can it be a little bit better? Can it be … Can I make some changes that make this a little bit more skillful?” That’s where the rebel speaks.
This concept is discussed in Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism Is True, but it also comes out pretty heavily in another book that I often recommend to people, which is Dzogchen Ponlop’s book called Rebel Buddha. That’s one of the first books that I read when I started studying Buddhism, and I loved the concept of the Rebel Buddha is you. You are the Rebel Buddha. There’s the rebel inside of you that’s wanting to break free from the habitual reactivity that has trapped us for so long, from reacting to the same things in the same way over and over and over.
It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. If you’ve seen that movie, the character’s, or the main character’s reliving that day over and over and over, and he tries every possible combination of living that day. In the end, he discovers that when he accepts that day as it is and learns to love and to be loved just as … without any of those caveats of putting things in the future and that’s the payoff … He gives up the game, and, ironically, it’s by giving up the game that makes the game end. That’s when he wins the game. He gets to wake up, and it’s finally the next day, but that’s us, in a way.
We’re going through life, and it’s like we’re in Groundhog Day and we’re reliving a lot of these same moments, reacting the same way, having aversion to all the same feelings every day. “There’s anger again. I don’t like anger. I’m running from it,” or, “There’s sadness. I’m running from sadness.” We do this over and over and over, day in and day out, and nothing will change until that rebel inside of us says, “I’m not playing this game anymore. I’m tired, and I’m done running away from what I don’t like, and I’m done running towards the things that I think are going to be the things I like,” the clinging. Right? Like, “If I could finally have this or that.” You give up that game, and you say, “This is the life I have. I’m embracing it wholeheartedly. This is who I am. I accept myself wholeheartedly.”
In that moment, the rebel changes the whole game. The rebel in us changes the game, and it’s a beautiful moment. I think that is the essence of enlightenment. I don’t think there’s anything grand or mystical beyond that. I mean, think about it. Think of truly accepting yourself just the way that you are. You would have total peace. You would have total serenity. You would have this total contentment that you see portrayed in this figure of the Buddha sitting there with total serenity in his face. It’s not that he discovered some great secret that, “Oh. I’ve got to go figure that out, too.” It’s not that. I think it’s as simple as this absolute acceptance of, “This is the present moment, and I don’t need any of it to be any different, because I recognize that it will be different whether I want it to or not, so I’m going to accept it the way that it is. I accept myself the way that I am, and now, I can be more skillful with embracing whatever change comes next, because that, we already know, is the inevitable part.”
That’s what I wanted to discuss in today’s podcast episode, this concept of embracing rebellion. I wanted to clarify a little bit from last week’s topic the idea of having patience with ourselves and others. I think it takes a lot of patience to be able to sit with myself in this present moment, this present configuration, however it is, not thinking, “Well, I’m mad. I’m not going to sit with this right now. I’ll wait until I’m happy. Then, I’ll sit with myself.” No. Sit with yourself while you’re mad, while you’re hurt, while you’re in pain. Whatever state that you’re in, that’s the state that you’re in, and that’s the essence of embracing rebellion.
Hopefully, these concepts make sense. Sometimes, I feel like I just jot notes down and then I start rambling, and I hope that it comes out as a cohesive narrative that builds off of past ones and makes sense, because, again, what’s the point of any of this if it’s not practical and pragmatic to effect skillful change in your day to day life. We’re all going through crazy stuff in life, all of us. Everyone’s going through something, and I think it takes an act of rebellion to be able to sit patiently with the life the way it’s configured right now, with the current Tetris pieces that you have. Then, it gives you this tremendous sense of peace, of, “Come what may, I’m not scared anymore, because whatever’s going to come, I’ll figure it out. My faith is in my ability to adapt.” That’s the wisdom of adaptability. That’s what I’m after with this concept and this topic, so hopefully, some of this stuff has made sense to you.
Again, if you are listening to this, and you’re new to the podcast, and you want to learn more about Buddhism, you can check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. You can learn more about that on everydaybuddhism.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others. You can write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you want to, to discuss these topics a little bit more, join our online community. You can find that info on secularbuddhism.com/community, and if you want to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with the podcast, visit secularbuddhism.com, and you can click the donate button there. That’s all I have for now, but, as always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me, and until next time.