92 – Your Inner Compass

Buddhist teachings are always pointing inward. When we put these teachings into practice, we are learning to look inside ourselves and to understand ourselves a little bit better than before. In this episode, I will discuss an experience I had last week where I ended up having to trust my own inner compass over the advice of my GPS.

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Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 92. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about your inner compass. Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this information to be a better whatever you already are. In this podcast episode, I wanted to share an experience I had last week while traveling. This concept of the inner compass, I think, fits really well with Buddhism in general. I was traveling last week, attending a fly-in, which is a get-together of pilots who want to fly together. I had already spent one week in Arizona training a new class or a new group of paramotor pilots, so I had five new students, and I was teaching them how to fly. Right after that event, I went with my twin brother, and we met up at this fly-in south of Maricopa in Arizona.

The location where we were meeting to fly was way out in the middle of the desert. It was like 20 miles of driving through dirt roads to arrive at this airport where we were training. I noticed I had this experience while we were driving out there. I had my GPS navigating for me, and I had been using the GPS every day prior to going to this fly-in just to get from the Airbnb that I had rented to the airport where I was training the students. It’s eight days of training, and on about the fourth or fifth day, it occurred to me that every morning, I would still, I would do the same thing. I would punch in the airport to the Airbnb just to help navigate my way out of the residential area and onto the road and to make sure I wouldn’t miss the turn to arrive at the airport.

I thought, “How interesting that after four days, I still don’t really know my way. I just trust the GPS to tell me every day how to get home and how to get to the airport.” I kind of had this in my mind, and I thought, “I wonder why the more time that I spend depending on something like the GPS, the less skilled I am at trusting my own navigational skills and my own instinct.” It occurred to me that, in some ways, my ability to navigate becomes weaker or lazier, I’m not sure what the right word is, by depending so much on this GPS. That was the frame of mind that I had in my head as I was navigating at the end of this training session now to go meet these people in the middle of the desert to spend a few days flying.

On our way out there, I was leading my specific group, because we were all meeting there at different times. I have a truck that does not have four-wheel drive, and I’m pulling a trailer full of paramotors, and I’m just following the GPS navigation, and I notice that at one point, the GPS said to turn here. I kind of slowed down. Again, these are all dirt roads. I looked down that road, and I analyzed for a moment the ability that I had to go down that road, and I realized, “There’s no way. I’m going to get stuck if I try to go down that road,” knowing that I don’t have four-wheel drive, knowing that I’m hauling a heavy trailer. I kept going straight, and the GPS tries to reroute you, and then it says, “Okay, now turn on this road.” No, that didn’t work either. It was a combination of following what the GPS was telling me to do and using my common sense and my ability to analyze what my vehicle is capable of to keep finding the appropriate path until I made my way to the airport.

It worked. I finally got there, and when I got there, I noticed it was very common for other people to share their story of how they got there. Some people were routed going the south way, and they got stuck. There were several people who got stuck on the way. I had this thought, and again, correlating this to Buddhist teachings and to my own personal Buddhist practice, and it occurred to me that when we rely on an external source to navigate us, like a GPS, in a way, we become less skilled at using our own internal compass to navigate us. Again, this is like extreme examples. Right? The majority of the time, the GPS is right, but knowing that it’s not right all the time allowed me, at one point, to question the GPS and say, “No, I don’t think I’m going to turn down that road where someone else did turn, and they got stuck, and it took them an hour to dig them out.” A lot of people had that problem. They just followed the instructions, and it didn’t work for them.

I thought, like on a spiritual level, I feel like Buddhism is an introspective practice that’s trying to get us to be better at navigating on our own. Again, using an extreme example, right, we have the GPS. It’s super convenient, but how much more skilled is someone who doesn’t need a GPS? They can just look outside, and they can tell you which way is north, and south, and east, and west, and they can navigate using the stars, or they can navigate, I don’t know, feeling the winds or however people do that. Right? I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. That’s kind of like what Buddhism is trying to accomplish with us in a spiritual sense, to be able to rely on your own navigation skills to be able to look around and know which way to go without relying on some external source that’s telling you, ‘Turn here. Don’t turn there. Do this. Don’t do that.'” I really liked correlating that idea in my mind.

Now, I have had the experience of just trusting a GPS, a spiritual GPS system that, for many years of my life, made it very easy. It just told me, “Do this. Don’t do that. Turn here. Don’t turn there,” and it worked really well. It wasn’t until the circumstances had changed, just like in my car … Right? Now, had I been in a four-wheel drive vehicle, in a Jeep for example, and not towing a trailer, I would have just followed that GPS, and it never would have occurred to me to question the GPS, but I was self-aware enough to know, “My vehicle cannot handle what this is telling me to do.”

I correlated that to my own experience, and my life circumstances had changed to the point where the spiritual GPS that was saying, “This is the right path for you,” I looked down that and thought, “This does not seem like the right path for me.” I want to be clear on the definition of “right” here, not … It’s still the right path for someone. Someone with four-wheel drive, sure, take that road, but it was not the right path for me and where I was at that specific phase of my life, and still am.

That’s a process that I continually work on for myself where I don’t use the GPS anymore, the spiritual GPS. I’ve navigated now using an entirely different system, which is my inner compass that’s telling me, “This is the path. This is where you should be. This is a more skillful way to navigate this path that you’re on,” but it’s not about being the right path. It’s about being the skillful path for me.

I’ve made this connection before, I think, in other podcast episodes where someone may be on one path, and you look at them and you say, “Yeah, okay, they’ve got a backpack. They’re carrying water in that backpack. They’ve got hiking boots and hiking poles. Yep, that is the right path for you.” Then you look at that path, and you look down at yourself, and you realize, “Well, I’m wearing flip-flops. I’m wearing shorts,” whatever else, and think, “Okay, well, that’s not the skillful path for me to take. I’m going to stay on this other path that’s more flat or has a handrail,” or whatever it is.

I think that’s a lot of what Buddhism is trying to instill in us. The introspective nature of the practice is for you to be able to look and to constantly make this assessment, “Is this the skillful path for me,” and Buddhism included. This is why I would tell some people, “No, Buddhism is not the right path for you, or any other ideology. This might not be the right path for you, but it might very well be the right path for you.”

Instead of entertaining that as, “Which is the right one,” what if we entertained this whole concept of, “Which is the skillful one for you? Not just for you in general, but for you right now?” Because what may have been a skillful path a year ago is no longer a skillful path today, or what may be, or maybe was a skillful path today, you’ll find yourself in a few months saying, “This perhaps isn’t the most skillful path, and now I’m going to reevaluate another path that may be more appropriate.”

How much more healthy would it be if we entertained these big concepts like paths, and spiritual paths, in the context of space and time, here and now, what works today is what matters, and not make these things feel permanent. “That path has always worked. It should continue to work,” or, “This path doesn’t work right now. It will never work.” Maybe it will work in a year, but it doesn’t right now.

Again, I cannot overemphasize the fact that even Buddhism is included in this. This path is not for everyone, and when I encounter people who say, “Oh, I’m really enjoying all this, and I’m sitting here, meditating, but it’s so hard, and I’m really struggling with this,” it’s like, well, then, why are you doing it? If you don’t … If you struggle with sitting and meditating, try to not sit and meditate. Do something else. You don’t have to be doing what everyone else on this path is doing.

I wanted to correlate those ideas, and correlate it with another experience I had while on this same trip. I mentioned that someone had been stuck there for an hour. Well, before that story, when I first arrived at the airport, and when I was meeting with all the other pilots, I had one pilot come up to me to talk to me about an experience he had. He said, “Hey, did you encounter anyone on your way in here?” I said, “No. It was going slow on dirt roads, but I didn’t see anyone,” and he said, “Well, I came the south way.” I had come in the north way. He came in that south way that was kind of difficult to navigate, and the roads were washed out at several points.

He says, “I’m driving along, and I realize I’m not going to be able to keep going, I might get stuck. Then, out of the blue, this young Hispanic kid shows up on a four-wheeler,” and this is what I thought was interesting. Right away, he says, “Sometimes, people like that show up, and they’re trying to distract you so that they can steal from you. Sure enough, right then, he grabs his phone, and he’s putting it in my face and saying stuff. I don’t know what he’s saying, because he doesn’t speak English, and he’s just holding his phone in my face, saying, ‘No work, no work.'”

“Of course, I’m paying close attention to him, to his other hand, because I’m expecting him to, by sleight of hand, show me his phone, and meanwhile, his other hand was going to reach in the back of my truck and steal something from me, so I finally said, ‘No, no, no, no. Go away,’ and he did. He went away, and I turned around, and I found another way to the airport. I just thought it was strange and wondered if anyone else encountered this guy who’s out in the desert, who could be trying to steal our stuff.”

As he’s telling me this story, in my head, I’m thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound right.” It’s not like you have random people in the desert on four-wheelers, and that’s where they go steal stuff, but I let him tell me the story. When it was all over, that was the end of that, and he left, and I thought, “Huh. It’s interesting how we tend to see what we’re looking for.” He was expecting that, if this person fits his description in his head of a criminal, or a scary person, then of course, that’s what he was looking for.

This is the best part of the story. About 30 minutes later, another pilot came, and he said, “Oh, man, I was stuck out in the desert for hours, and it started raining, and out of the blue, this young Hispanic guy shows up on a four-wheeler. He’s got his phone, and he’s saying stuff, and then I realize what he’s saying in Spanish, the phone is translating to English, so I looked at his phone and read the message, and it said something like, ‘I can help.'” He’s like, “I was really confused, and before I knew it, this kid was under my truck, digging with a shovel, and he spent an hour digging me out of this sand trap that I had pulled into.”

“It was raining, and he didn’t have a raincoat. He didn’t care. He was just there digging me out, and sure enough … Oh, he tied a rope to my truck and used his four-wheeler to help pull me out, and come to find out, this … He’s a ranch hand for one of the local ranches that has goats, and he kept trying to say, ‘Goats,’ and explain what he does. Long story short, I got out of there, and I’m just so thankful that this random guy came out of the blue and was willing to help me.”

I was laughing as he was telling me this story, because I was just thinking, “The other guy who had just come had a whole different story. It’s very likely it has to have been the same kid, Hispanic kid on a four-wheeler out in the middle of a desert with a phone.” Again, it got me thinking along the lines of this concept that we tend to see what we look for, and one person in that experience was looking for a crook, and he saw a crook. He saw this kid trying to do sleight of hand. The other one was looking, I guess he wasn’t really looking for anything, but he wasn’t looking for a crook, and he didn’t see a crook. He saw a savior who came to dig him out of the dirt. It was the same guy, and …

Now, and I don’t want to highlight this story just because like the right way was to look for the good in people. That’s not what I’m saying. This very well could have been the opposite, too, that you see this good-natured person, and, “I’m just going to trust them,” and they really do steal from you, and you didn’t see it, because you were looking for the goodness and didn’t see the red flag that they were a crook or something like that. It could have been backwards. Right? That’s not what I’m saying.

All I’m trying to get at is that we do have the tendency to see what we’re looking for, and I think this is why there’s … There’s an expression that I like in Buddhism that often says, “What you are looking for is who is looking.” That, to me, is a really profound expression that goes with this whole concept of the inner compass. It’s like the thing you’re using to try to navigate, or to try to see, in reality, what you’re looking for is the thing that’s doing the looking.

That, to me, is a fascinating concept. It’s like you want to understand how the compass works, study a compass. You want to understand the way that you see the world? It’s not by studying the world. It’s by studying you, yourself, the way that you see. All of this, to me, wraps up really nicely with almost every other Buddhist teaching where at the end of the day, what we’re trying to accomplish is to have a greater sense of awareness about ourselves, about the way that we perceive the world. Why do I see it the way that I see it? Why do I feel the way that I feel, and say what I say, and do what I do? I’m constantly trying to put this into practice in my own life in moments when I can catch myself, experiencing emotions, especially strong emotions.

Just yesterday, I was noticing how much more impatient I was feeling with my kids. I catch myself in those moments, and I don’t feel a sense of guilt or badness for being an impatient dad. Everyone feels that at some point, but what I did notice right away is, “Why am I so much more reactive than normal?” I took a moment to put myself in a timeout, and I went and sat down in the room, and first of all, I thought, “I’m just going to sit with this discomfort, because I’m feeling really irritated.” I noticed right away that I was irritated about being irritated, so I sat with the irritation. The longer I sat with it, the more understanding that arose where I noticed, “Okay, I just got home from a really long trip.” I had spent 12 hours driving. It was a stressful drive, because I hit several pockets of snow, and I had slid off of the road once and had to be pulled back onto the road.

A lot had happened in those previous 12 hours, and I was more reactive than normal, but I was able to identify all of that and sit with those emotions for a moment and then sit with the impatience I was feeling. It didn’t make the impatience go away, but it made me more capable of sitting with that emotion and not having to react. I think that’s what this is getting at with this concept of the inner compass. It’s introspective. It’s about switching the, or flipping the switch, so to speak, of, I’m looking outside of myself at something to tell me what to do, what not to do, where to go, when to be there, all of that, and instead putting up a mirror where you essentially look to learn inward, and you discover that inner compass.

I’ve talked about this concept of faith before in the Buddhist context, where it’s not that we have faith in something, like the Buddha, or in meditation, or prayer beads, or your meditation cushion, whatever that thing is. It’s not about that. The faith that we talk about, often, in the Buddhist context is the faith that you have in your ability. Using, again, this inner compass, it’s like the difference of saying, “I have faith in my GPS system. It’s never going to get me lost.” For some religions, that’s exactly how that is. Right? The GPS system may be some form of revelation, or it may be a set of scriptures or whatever it is, or, I don’t know, a preacher or a whatever.

Buddhism is trying to take that and say, from our perspective, what we’re trying to develop is faith in our own ability to navigate, that if I’m out there, and I don’t have a GPS, or maybe I do, and I decide that this doesn’t look right, I’m trusting my instinct that said, “You know what? GPS says, ‘Turn here,’ but I’m saying, ‘No, don’t turn here,'” and my faith is in me, my ability to make that decision. Could I be wrong sometimes? Absolutely. Could the GPS be wrong sometimes? Absolutely, but what I have faith in is in my ability, even my ability to have made the wrong turn and gotten stuck. I have faith in my ability to get unstuck by going and finding help or eventually digging myself out, or anything along those lines.

That’s what I wanted to present, this concept of the inner compass from a Buddhist standpoint, developing faith in your ability to find your way, whether that means that with time, you become good at navigating with the stars, or you can orient yourself by looking at your landscape, mountains are to the north, valley is to the east, or whatever, versus relying exclusively on some external source like the GPS, because while the GPS may be highly accurate and maybe, for some people in some circumstances, they’ll never, ever need to question it because they live in a place where the signal’s always accurate and the GPS is always updated, but heaven forbid you ever find yourself in a circumstance where the GPS doesn’t know what to do. Some people might be totally lost and completely incapable of questioning the GPS, or much less, doing the opposite of what the GPS is telling you to do.

That’s where I think Buddhist practice is coming in and saying, “What if you had faith in your ability to call that shot and to say, ‘Yeah, I’m following the GPS because I trust myself, not because I trust the GPS,’ or, ‘I’m not following the GPS, because I trust myself.'” I just wanted to share some of those thoughts. All of that really resonated well for me this past week as I was traveling and thinking about GPS systems and my own inner compass. As always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism in general and some of these concepts, you can find them in several books, including my books, which you can read about on noahrasheta.com. If you enjoyed this specific podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, visit secularbuddhism.com. You can click the Donate button there. That’s all I have now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.