Mindful Living

39 – What is Enlightenment?

What is enlightenment and how do we attain it? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of enlightenment from the perspective of a Secular Buddhist teacher. The attainment of enlightenment/awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism, however, many people see it as a distant goal. Perhaps our concept of enlightenment is blinding us from experiencing it in the present moment, here and now.

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Transcription of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 39. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about enlightenment.
From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?

From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?
A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.

A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.
I’m not sure you can. St. Augustine was once asked about his understanding of time. When asked what is time? He said, “I know but when you ask me I don’t.” I believe I know what love is but the moment I try to define it it becomes fixed and permanent and when you get down to it, concepts, like love, or time, are not fixed nor are the permanent. I believe we run into the same problem when we try defining enlightenment.

Before I jump into that topic I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This is my non-profit and I want to say thank you to everyone who has started becoming monthly donors or who’s made one time monthly donations since the last podcast episode.

I mentioned how I was reaching this crucial point with the podcast where I needed more support and a lot of you responded to that so I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for that because I couldn’t do this without your support. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just $2 a month can make a big difference and any one time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Let’s jump back into this week’s topic, enlightenment. I posted on the Facebook study group, in fact if you’re not part of that group and you listen to the podcast regularly you may find that it’s beneficial to join the group because we try to continue the discussions after the topic is presented in the podcast, I try to make this so that you can carry on this discussion with me on Facebook. I know some of you aren’t on Facebook, eventually I will probably create another portal or platform. For now is just Facebook. If you go to secularbuddhism.com/Facebook you’ll see the link to be able to join that group.

On this topic of enlightenment I want to be clear about something … So what I was saying is that I posted on that group, “What are some of the topics that you would be interested in learning about on this podcast?” and I received a lot of responses, one of which was a request to discuss enlightenment from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s what I want to talk about today, enlightenment. It’s a big word, it’s a common word in contemplative practices, especially in Buddhism. We say the Buddha attained enlightenment, but what does that mean? What does enlightenment mean?

I want to be clear that there’s enlightenment, whatever that is, and then there’s enlightenment what we think it is. In other words the concept of enlightenment. Those are two very different things. I think a lot of the problems we run into with words like enlightenment has to do with the concept that you hold of it. If you have an issue with this word I think you should ask yourself what do you think enlightenment is because that’s where you’ll find what the problem is. It’s a lot like love, you know, I mentioned earlier. You can think you know what love is but until you experience the feeling of love, it’s just a concept. I think enlightenment can never be understood conceptually it can only be understood experientially. In other words enlightenment is something that you want to seek to experience. Not to understand, not to have a conceptualization of it, but it’s something that you want to experience. That’s what I want to talk about today because it’s something that is experienced often in Buddhism and contemplative practices through meditation.

I think the conceptual understanding of enlightenment is like it’s this lofty thing and one day if you live in a cave for 20 years of your life and you’re meditating you might get enlightened. I don’t see it like that at all. I think it’s something that in your day to day practice, you know, it’s like a light bulb. It can turn on and suddenly you’re enlightened or you’re awakened.

Let’s look at this a little bit and explain what this means. I want to explain, first of all, the origin of a couple of words. In Pali, or Sanskrit, in both of these languages, these are the ancient languages of Buddhism, there’s this word budh, which means to awake to become aware or to understand. As you can imagine, this word budh is the route for the word Buddha, the awakened one, Buddha. It’s the root for the word bodhi and of course the root of the word Buddhism. Bodhi, in Buddhism, is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, someone who is awakened, regarding the true nature of things, which is that they are impermanent and interdependent. If you break this down it’s actually pretty simple.

It’s Bodhi, or enlightenment, Bodhi is the understanding that is possessed by somebody who is awakened regarding the true nature of things. Bodhi is commonly translated to enlightenment, but it’s also the word that’s translated to awakening. I think because of the root word, budh, meaning to awaken or to become aware, I think it’s more appropriately for us to use the word awakening when we’re discussing this concept of enlightenment. I’m going to use the words interchangeably.

The goal of awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism. It’s at the heart of what we study and practice. We’re trying to awaken to the fact that reality, as we perceive it, is not the same as reality as it is. I discuss this over and over throughout the podcast and any time I teach a workshop is that there’s reality as it is and then there’s reality as I think it should be. Those are two different things. One of the main areas where this happens is that we have the tendency to see things and ourselves as permanent and independent from all other things. I perceive that there’s me and there’s you, there’s self and then there’s other, you know, as separate entities.

What happens is, much like a wave perceiving itself as a wave, it fails to understand that while it is indeed a wave it is also the ocean. This was eloquently explained by Alan Watts when he says that, “You are something that the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” In other words, you cannot separate the way from the ocean and you cannot separate yourself from the universe. This idea of independence that I exist separate of everything else is a flawed sense of understanding. This is one of the core ways that we interact with life, with everything around us, as if we were separate from it all.

This is the fundamental shift that happens in our perception when we become awakened. We awaken to the reality that we are one with everything. It can be as simple as a shift in this perspective of, “Here I am, I came into this world,” versus, “Here I am I came out of this world.” You simply don’t exist without everything that allows you to exist. That’s what we start to wake up to.

When we talk about enlightenment, or awakening, in the Buddhist sense, we need to understand that it is very easy to make the mistake of confusing the concept of these words for the real thing. That’s what we need to be very careful of. In this sense, the real question of what is enlightenment I would say what is enlightenment for you? Because I have my idea of what I think it is. I have my experiential understanding of what it feels like to be awakened to the reality of things being interdependent and things being impermanent, but the real question here is what do you think it is? What do you think would happen if you dropped your concept of it? What if you just let that idea fall away? Whatever you think enlightenment is let it go, drop it. Then you’re left with the opportunity to just experience it without being blinded by the concept of what you think it is.

A lot like the story I tell over and over about meeting Chris and I thought Chris was a guy, so there was Chris the girl and I didn’t see her because I thought she was … I was expecting to see a guy named Chris. That’s kind of what happens with everything, right? That’s certainly what happens with a concept like enlightenment. You think it’s something, so that’s what you look for, and then you’ll never experience the actual thing even though it may have been right there in front of you all along. That’s something you want to be careful of. The way that you work with that, to be careful to not be trapped by the conceptual understanding of enlightenment, is ask yourself what is enlightenment to me? How do I define it? Because whatever you define it as, drop that. Try to drop that and just say, “I don’t know what it is. What if it isn’t anything? What if there’s no such thing?” Just drop the idea of it, because that, ironically, is when you experience it.

I’m gonna explain that a little bit more. Another thing I want to clarify about this concept of enlightenment or awareness is that no one can wake up or enlighten another. You experience it yourself by practicing mindfulness. It’s like you could try your hardest to explain to someone what it feels like to be in love. If they’ve never been in love all you’re doing is creating a concept for them. Now, that concept isn’t necessarily harmful because it could be a concept that points them in the right direction, but it may be that it blinds them, too. This is why in Buddhism we have the analogy of the finger that points at the moon is not the same thing as the moon. In Buddhism, we’re always reminding ourselves of this fact, that these things that we teach all point to one thing, to the experiential understanding of awakening. If you get caught up in the finger you’re not going to see the moon. It’s the same with all of these practices, with all of these concepts.

In Buddhism the path that’s known as the eightfold path is the path to enlightenment. This comprises of eight different aspects of your life in which you’re aspiring to practice having wise views, wise intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. I think at some point I’ll probably spend a whole podcast episode, or maybe several parts, dedicated to explaining this concept of the eightfold path with a little bit more detail.

It’s a path that one must walk oneself. I can’t push someone down this path, I can only practice it myself. That’s why we say that the Buddha taught the way or the path, but we have to walk the path on our own. This is where that Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open doors but you must enter by yourself.” I love that because that’s exactly how it is with these contemplative practices, with Buddhism specifically. You can work with a teacher and they point, they’re like the finger, they’re pointing at these things that you have to practice but then you see that you’re the one who sees it through an experiential understanding and then it starts to change the way that you see things.

I’m going to jump into this a little bit more. There’s this wonderful teaching in Buddhism called the Gateless Gate and I really like this. The idea is that you can enter this state of awareness, or this enlightenment, but you can only do that by entering through the Gateless Gate. You start to study Buddhism and you feel like, “Okay, I’m on the outside but then I learned that there’s this concept there was this thing enlightenment, so here I am and I’m trying to obtain it and it’s there. I don’t know where it is but it’s there somewhere.” Here I go and I’m on this journey and I try all these things. I try to start doing things, stop doing things. I’m seeking, after this state of awareness, this state of enlightenment. All along I view this as we’re separate, right? There’s me and then there’s it and I’m trying to get to it. Then when you finally attain it you realize that you’re inside it and there was never a gate. This is why it’s called the Gateless Gate. There is no outside or inside, there is just what is.
Reality is everything and it’s everywhere, so there is no gate to go through because you’re already in it and you have been all along. That’s what it means to enter the Gateless Gate. This teaching is trying to wake you up to the reality that there is nowhere to go, you’re already there. There is no one to be, you’re already you, and you’re already in it. You just don’t know it or you just don’t realize it and that’s the truth that you awaken to.

This is kind of the paradox with enlightenment is that you never attain enlightenment because you can’t attain something you already have. You just wake up to the realization that you’ve been in it all along. Not just you, but everyone else.
I’d like to explain this. I think we’ve all felt this feeling of looking for something like your keys or your sunglasses or your wallet and there you are frantically looking for them, running around, digging under things, moving stuff, and then somewhere in that process suddenly you realize, “Oh my wallet’s in my pocket, or my keys were in my pocket, or my sunglasses were on my head the whole time.” I’m sure you felt that at some point. What does that feel like? It’s almost comical because you think, “Well, here I’ve been like a fool searching for something that wasn’t there. I had it all along.” That is a lot like this process of awakening in Buddhism. You start learning Buddhism and you start seeking after something and then the more you study and the more you practice one day you realize there is nothing to seek and it’s like the sunglasses have been on my head all along. It’s almost comical how this happens.

This is the reality of life, right? That enlightenment is everyday life. It’s all of it. It’s the chaotic and the peaceful, it’s the beautiful and the ugly, it’s the happy and the sad, it’s all of it. It really depends on our own minds, our own minds are the ones making meaning of things. It’s understanding that our own reality is the reflection of our own minds. The key to being awakened is to see and understand things just as they are without the stories that we attach to them. Two of the biggest stories that we attach to things is that things are interdependent, and that things are permanent. We attach a sense of permanence to things, to ourselves, to situations we’re going through in life. And we treat things as separate. We don’t recognize that the true nature of things is that all things are impermanent, they are always changing, and all things are interdependent.

This is because that is and you cannot have this without that. You can look at this and you explore this with concepts and you realize how true that is. We can’t have winning without losing, so you would say then then it’s both. It’s not about winning, it cannot be about winning unless it’s also about losing because you cannot have both. You cannot be about life and death, one without the other, because you cannot have life and death separate from themselves. You cannot have black and white. What makes something black is that it’s not white. This is the duality of the conceptual way that we see the world and that’s exactly what we are trying to break out of is that dualistic way of viewing things. Thinking that I can have winning without losing. It’s like, “Well, there you go. You just set yourself up for all of the problems.” If you’re seeking to win and never lose then you don’t understand what winning means.

When they talk about the Buddha’s enlightenment … The story of the Buddha in a very small nutshell is that there was this there was a man named Siddhartha Gautama and he went out on this journey because it felt like something was missing. He did not like that by experiencing sickness, old age, and death … Why do we suffer? That was kind of at the root of his quest is why do we suffer and how can we end suffering? So he goes on this long journey and spends years meditating and trying all these different methods, but at the end of it all he was looking for ways to end suffering and he was looking outside himself to do that. “If I could just do this or if I could just avoid doing that.” That is the great transition in his spiritual journey is that the great transition of seeking something outside himself, to the discovery that the root of his suffering was within himself. The discovery that he was it, there was no separation from it. This was his great enlightenment. At that point that duality was transcended. There’s no more looking for anything external at that point. He was the root of his problems. He was also the solution to them.

This is the essence of what Buddhism teaches. It’s to realize that we are it, it’s just us. We have this concept of an angel and a demon on our shoulders and one’s telling us to be nice and the other one saying don’t be nice go do whatever you want. In cartoons, you always see this, in western thinking this is a popular way of kind of understanding that there’s this external force. One compels me to do kind and nice and good things and the other one compels me to do mean or evil things. We’ve bought into that, thinking that there is an inherent goodness or an inherent badness out there and here we are stuck in this position where it controls us. I’m seeking one and trying to avoid the other.

What Buddhism is saying is, “No, that that sense of those voices on your shoulder those are voices in your head. It’s you. It’s just you. If you view something one way, or justify one action over another, it has to do with you. With either how you were raised or a belief that you have or it’s something that, at its root, is found inside of you.” I think that’s really powerful. These are the things that we awaken to.

First there’s that you awaken to the reality that you are it. It’s all you. There’s no angel or demon on your shoulders tempting you to be mean or pushing you, compelling you to be kind. That’s you. It’s just you.

The other thing we awaken to is the uniqueness of each moment. We play this game in life where we’re always comparing. I think this kind of goes from that dualistic way of thinking in terms of good and bad. There’s this moment, this is a good moment. Then there’s that moment, no that one’s a bad moment because the other one was better. Now there we are comparing. What we fail to see when we’re in that mindset is the uniqueness of each moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pleasant or unpleasant moment, it’s unique. It’s a moment that has never existed the way it exists right now and it will never exist again the way that it exists right now in the present moment. That uniqueness can make it beautiful and for it to be beautiful doesn’t mean you have to like it. It doesn’t mean anything other than its beauty comes from its uniqueness. That’s the only moment. This is kind of that understanding of its always now, right? This is impermanence, which is the other big thing we awakened to. The nature of reality is that all things are impermanent and all things are interdependent. This is another really powerful thing to wake up to.

I talk about Thích Nhất Hạnh saying, “If you’ve ever seen a flower and all you’ve seen as the flower then you’ve never actually seen the flower.” What that means is that the deeper way of seeing things, through this lens of interdependence, is that you cannot see, truly see a flower, without also seeing the sun and the clouds and the rain and the soil and the temperature changes, all the things that it takes for that flower to exist.

When you really start to see something like that it changes, forever, the way that you see something. Suddenly it’s not just a flower, it’s everything. Everything in the universe exists, allows that flower to exist the way that it does and that’s incredible. That’s interdependence.

That’s one thing, right? You start to see things as interdependent. You can try this right now. You can look around you and pick something. Pick your shoe, or a watch, or the desk you’re sitting at, or a chair and try to deconstruct that into its parts. What all did it take for that thing to exist the way it exists.

If I am looking at my looking at my phone here on my desk it’s got plastic on it, it’s got glass, we know inside it’s got all kinds of other components, it’s got metal. You start to think of these things and think, “What did it take for that glass to exist?” Glass comes from is it like a sand or stone that’s superheated? Okay, now I’ve got … You start to scale this back into all of these elements that exist so that my phone isn’t just my phone, my phone is also part of a rock, and part of a mountain, and part of a metal that came from the depths of the earth and all these elements that allow my phone to exist the way that it does. That’s not even to say all the technology behind it, the towers that allow me to communicate, the websites that my phone connects to when I’m just turning it on and checking the weather, or checking Facebook. The different servers, and the electricity. I mean, really quickly it becomes incredibly complex and layered to where it takes everything for this to be exactly what it is right now.

That can be a really profound experience that you awaken to. This realization of the interdependence of things. I’ve done this exercise with something as simple as a table, a little coffee table made of wood. We’re talking about the glue and the nails and the wood itself and what it took to cut the wood and the chainsaw and the truck that moved the wood and the tires on that truck. You never end that game. Suddenly, what was once just this simple little wooden table in the room now comes alive because you realize it’s taken everything for that to exist the way that it does, right here in this one room, this one little wooden table.

Like I said, this is really powerful but if you want to take it to a whole new level you turn that towards yourself and you start to see yourself in that same light. The lens of impermanence and the lens of interdependence and that’s when you start to awaken to this sense of non-duality. Thích Nhất Hạnh says enlightenment is when the wave realizes that it’s the ocean. It’s that simple. Sure the wave exists, there’s such a thing as wave and waves are different. Some are tall, some are shorter, some are fast, some are slow. You’ve got all these different kinds of waves but the moment that wave realizes it’s the ocean, that’s what it is.

That’s what we’re trying to do. You’re not who you think you are. Seeing you, as a separate self, as a permanent self, that is the illusion. In this sense, enlightenment becomes this concept that is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s that dualistic view that there’s a you and a me that’s preventing me from the realization of enlightenment in the first place. You are everything. You’re it. You’re all of it. That flower that we talked about, that flower’s not what you think it is. That flower is one with everything, but by that same token, you are not who you think you are. You’re not who what others think you are, or who others think you are. You’re the totality of all of it. You’re the sum total of everything, everything just to be you.

To me, that’s a fascinating thing. You can grasp that intellectually, you can grasp that theoretically, but at some point, when you’re really sitting there you connect the dots and you have this tremendous aha moment when you realize your oneness with everything. It’s a really powerful thing.

This is the irony of all of this is that while the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, it’s only when we drop the idea of attaining it that it can naturally occur. It’s like you’re out in this field frantically chasing this butterfly and it just eludes you and it eludes you and you keep grasping at it to try to catch it and it’s when you’re so exhausted that you finally just quit trying to catch it that you collapse in the field it comes and land softly on your nose. This is what it’s like to seek enlightenment. I talked about that zen story of the monk who goes to his teacher and he says, “I want to attain enlightenment,” and the teacher says, “Oh you do?” “Yeah, yeah I do. What do I have to do?” He’s like, “Okay, I want you to hike to the top of that hill every day and you bring a rock and the day you bring me the right rock that’s the day you become enlightened.” This monk is really excited because that’s what he wants more than anything, anything. He wants to be enlightened, he wants to be awakened.

He starts bringing rocks. Every day he brings a rock and he climbs up the hill and this process goes on for days and weeks and years and at some point, the way the story goes, this monk is just getting fed up and he picks a really big heavy rock this day and he makes his way to the top of the hill and there’s his teacher and like every other day for years he just says, “Nope. That’s not the right rock.” At this point I can imagine the frustration this monk, who’s trying his hardest, gives up and he says, “This is ridiculous, this is stupid, there’s no such thing as the right rock.” And he just throws the rock off the hill. He gives up and that’s when the teacher turns to him and says, “And there you have it. You’ve attained enlightenment.”

I love hearing that story. I know it can sound like, “Oh no.” But there’s beauty in that, in that letting go. The problem with Enlightenment is that we want it. Why do we want it? Why are we seeking after it? That’s the moment that it can arise naturally is when I look at that and say, “Why do I feel that I even need it in the first place.” When I realize I don’t need it, that’s when I get it, that’s what I’m enlightened. That’s the beautiful irony of all of this. This is the paradox of Buddhism.

We can look at enlightenment as the opposite of ignorance. Our tendency, like I said earlier, is to look outside ourselves. We see what others are saying or what others are doing. What we’re trying to do is learn to look inward, look at ourselves. That’s when we can see, clearly, what we are, interdependent and impermanent, that we begin to understand ourselves and others very clearly. Enlightenment is not a concept, it can’t be conceptualized. It’s not something other than our daily lives. It’s the experience that we have of everything and we end up finding ourselves in it rather than it being something out there somewhere that we need to find. That’s when we awaken or enlighten.

Seeking enlightenment is seeking a life of awareness. Rather than thinking, “There’s this thing, enlightenment, and I want to find it, I want to attain it.” What we should think is, “I want to live a life that’s fully aware. I want to live a life where I see things that I didn’t see, where I experience what I didn’t know I have an experience, where I learn about the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” That’s the attitude and that takes a sense of curiosity, and it also takes a sense of doubt, right, of skepticism. I can’t think, “Oh I figured it out.” Because the moment I think I figured it out it’s like seeing Chris, right? Oh there’s Chris, Chris the guy, now I can’t see Chris, the real Chris, who was the girl. That’s where this healthy dose of curiosity or a healthy dose of skepticism really comes into play because I start to think, “Maybe it isn’t something that’s there to have in the first place.” There you go. There you’re on the right track.

It’s like these teachings, right? There are so many teachings in Buddhism around this concept. There’s the one of the monk sitting, meditating, on the river and there’s a traveler on the other side and he cannot figure out how to get to the other side so he finally yells out and he says, “Hey. How do I get to the other side?” And the monk just looks around and then replies, “You are on the other side.” That’s the essence of what Buddhism is teaching is these are concepts. You hold a concept, the concept of the other side. Well, guess what you are on the other side according to the other perspective, right.

This is another teaching of a zen koan that says, “Showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall.” This is another powerful teaching. It’s that when a leaf falls, you can picture this in your head, it kind of just floats, right? It floats like it’s showing one side and then it kind of floats showing the other side as it slowly makes its way down to the ground. It doesn’t just fall showing one side. The natural way of being is that it kind of flips and flops and shows there’s nothing to hide. That’s the teaching here.
We’re not like that. Naturally, we are the opposite of maple leaves falling. We’re saying, “Here’s the front, I’m going to show you this, and then there’s what’s in the back, I don’t want anyone to see that. That’s the me that only I know about, nobody else knows about.” This is saying … That’s dualistic, again. This goes back to it’s just me. What you see is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. I want to be like the maple leaf, right? Showing front, showing back.

Or this kind of goes to the Japanese teaching that the reverse side also has a reverse side. I love that because it’s true. It’s like you are on the other side, same concept, right? You look at something and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Then you look at the reverse side and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Well, the reverse side also has a reverse side. You’re left with this idea of oneness. This idea of the way that we see things, our tendency is to conceptualize things. Concepts get us into trouble because concepts are always relative.

For example, we all know the famous question of looking at a cup, half water in there, and then the question is is this cup half full or is it half empty? There are entire presentations done around this. About the negativity of saying that it’s half empty versus half full, yeah. You get it.

Well, the Buddhist perspective on this question is the cup is always empty and it’s always full. It doesn’t matter what’s in there. If it’s half water well guess what, it’s still full, it’s half water half air. If it’s all empty, there’s no water, that’s still relative. The cup is empty relative to water, but the cup is full relative to air. This is why these concepts are always relative.
I like to say when someone says here you cup half empty or a cup half full type of person, to me the cup is always empty and it’s always full. That’s a non-dualistic way of viewing it. You can start to look in what other ways in your life do you see things through the relative conceptualizations. Empty of what? Full of what? You can’t answer that question just the way that it’s framed that way. We need to be careful of the danger of conceptualizations. We do this with concepts like perfection. What is perfection? Happiness. What is happiness? Like my friend’s post, love. What is love? There’s being in love and then there’s loving the idea of being in love, but those aren’t the same thing. We do this with everything, right?

This is where we want to obtain that freedom from the tyranny of our own concepts, of our ideas. The moment I attach to a conceptualization that I have created in my own mind, I’m a slave to it. I’m a slave to my concepts and my ideas. One of the big ones, a really really big one, is this idea of enlightenment. I seek after it as if it’s this thing out there that I can seek in the first place, but I can even define it much less attain it. How do I even define it? What is it? In the same way that something so common, like love, how do you actually define that? It can be very difficult.

That’s what we start to wake up to is the nature of reality that all things are impermanent, all things are interdependent, and what does that imply about me? What does this imply about you? This sense of self that you experience yourself as a permanent independent thing from everything else in the universe. What happens when you look and realize that, when it comes down to it, there is no independent you, there’s the interdependent you that exists as the sum total of all of the things that allow you to exist. The parts and the processes.

I remember my experience, I’ll call it my experience of this awakening, this awareness, was several years into my Buddhist studies. I was attending a presentation on the concept of emptiness and I had my notebook and I was taking notes and I was like, “I’m going to figure this out. This concept of emptiness. Things are inherently empty of meaning. I’m the one that assigns meaning.” Well what does that mean? And I’m taking notes and I felt like that person who is looking for his glasses. I’m like, “I know I left them here somewhere. They’re here.” Somewhere in the middle of that presentation it clicked for me. It clicked and I realized that I was trying to get it and there was nothing to get. It’s this incredible feeling and I remember I started to laugh. I remember putting down my notebook and putting down the pen and sitting back in the chair and it was just this incredible feeling of liberation like there’s nothing to figure out, there’s nothing to get. At that point, like, oh, I just get to live that’s it? I just get to experience this incredible phenomenon of being alive? That’s it? That was the point?

It was so liberating to arrive at that and that’s the irony of awakening. It’s like the moment you let it go is the moment that it arises naturally. It’s like now you’re awakened to the reality of things, which is that all things are impermanent, always changing, and all things are interdependent. I cannot say that enough, that’s what it is, over and over and over.

The Buddhist word of bodhi, which is you know what is commonly referred to as enlightenment or awareness, like I mentioned before, bodhi is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, which is someone who is awakened. It’s the understanding of an awakened person regarding the true nature of things. That they are impermanent and interdependent. When you really grasp the implication of what that means, specifically pointed towards you, the sense of self that you have, boom. Just like that a light bulb goes off and then you become aware or awakened. That’s it. I mean it’s not, like I mentioned, it’s not something out of the realm of the everyday or the ordinary.

In fact, there’s even a teaching, another zen teaching, where someone’s asking a monk, like, “How will I know when I come across someone who’s enlightened?” And the monk just says, “Oh, you’ll know because when they eat they eat, when they walk they walk, and when they sleep they sleep.” The person says “Well, anybody does that. Heck, I even do that.” He says, “No. But when they walk they just walk, when they eat they just eat, when they sleep they just sleep.” That’s the teaching he gives.

The idea behind that is this understanding that it’s that simple. They’re not walking and thinking, “I’m walking here but I really wish I was there,” or, “Here I am in my ordinary day to day life and I wish I was awakened.” They’re not playing that game of duality. They are perfectly content with where they are, doing what they’re doing, being who they are because at that point there’s nothing to chase after, right? There’s nothing there’s nothing to get so they drop the game of trying to get anything in the first place. There’s nothing to get. That’s the idea of enlightenment.

I hope that this presentation on enlightenment makes sense. I know it’s a difficult concept and there are books and books and books about this and talks and videos. I mean, you could research this all day long, but at the end of the day, if you really want to experience it, think of the analogy of the person carrying the rocks up the hill. It’s like, “Okay pick the right rock. Eventually you’ll get the right rock and then you’ll be awakened.” You’re gonna try and you’re going to try and you’re going to try and the moment you finally give up and realize, “You know what, this is stupid I’m never going to get this awareness enlightenment stuff,” so you give up, that’s the moment that it arises naturally. That’s the moment you become awake. It’s like with my notebook, the moment I realized, “Oh crap, there’s nothing to get.” It’s like ha ha ha, drop the notebook, this is silly. Here I was thinking I was going to figure it out there’s nothing to figure out and that’s when I figured it out. That’s what you figure out.

It’s a really neat feeling. It’s that sense of liberation that we always talk about in Buddhism. You become free from the trap of trying to be aware, trying to be enlightened. You become free from that. Happiness is the same, right? There’s a whole book and a whole psychological field called acceptance and commitment therapy that talks about this idea of happiness as the trap, the happiness trap. There was a book called that, The Happiness Trap. The idea is that happiness is something that you seek after and as long as you seek after it, you’re trapped by it. You’ll never actually get it because it’s like you’re in a hamster wheel chasing something that you cannot get. The moment you get out of the hamster wheel, you become free from the happiness trap and that’s when you experience happiness. It’s like the difference of the pursuit of happiness versus freedom from the pursuit of happiness. It’s like, why do you have to chase it? You get to experience it when you have it, because the causes and conditions are there, and when it’s not you don’t and it’s not a problem anymore. The problem was thinking that you should only have happiness and never have sadness, that’s the problem.

Awareness is similar, it’s very similar. I hope that with time, as you continue to study and read and become acquainted with these concepts, I really hope that everyone listening to this will experience that one day. That you’ll drop the game, that you’ll quit looking for it as if it’s this thing that’s out there, enlightenment. Drop the concept of enlightenment and then hope to experience the feeling of what it is to be enlightened in the same way that one day you experience what it is to fall in love. That’s the only time you’ll know what it is is when you experience it. Anything prior to that experiential understanding is just a concept and the concept can make things muddy.

I think this happens with love all the time, right? We’ve got these ideas of, “Here’s what love is.” Then it causes problems with relationships, because you’re living in this world of a conceptualization. Drop the concept. Drop the concept and see what happens. What is love if you don’t have a concept of what love is? What is enlightenment when you no longer have a concept of an enlightenment is? Try that with a lot of different things and what you’ll gain is this sense of freedom to experience something just the way that it is.

There’s a wonderful little poem that kind of sums this all up. It’s found in the book The Magic of Awareness by Anam Thubten and the poem says, “Wonder. Who has the magic to make the sun appear every morning? Who makes the bird on the elegant tree chirp? Breath, pulse, music, dew, sunset, the burning ambers of the fall. There is unfathomable joy in all that. Life is a stream. It flows on its own. No one knows why we are here. Stop trying to figure out the great mystery. The tea in front of you is getting cold. Drink it. Enjoy every drop of it and dance. Dance until there is no more dancer. It is the dance without dancer, this is how great mystics dance.”

That’s what I have that I want to share with you for this topic of what is enlightenment. I’m gonna be going through all the rest of the podcast topics that have been suggested and I’m going to continue doing this every week. Thanks to your support, for sharing, for listening. It really makes a difference with all of this. Your donations, of course, make a big difference.
If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, that really helps. It’s been, consistently, the number two podcast on iTunes, worldwide now, for Buddhism, which is a really exciting thing for me.
If you’re listening to this and you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, start with the first five episodes of the podcast in order, one through five. Those are a summary of some of these key concepts taught in Buddhism.
Of course, you can always check out my book Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links you can visit secularbuddhism.com.
That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

Every day is a good day

I recently came across a Japanese expression and Buddhist teaching that says “nichi nichi kore ko jitsu” which translated means every day is a good day. As I pondered the idea, I thought about many days in my life that I would unequivocally categorize as “bad” days.

Read More

Life is too short to be hating “them”…

Life is too short to be hating “them”…
We all know “them”…those who don’t view the world like “us”. For some, “them” could be the: “right wing nut jobs”, or the “bleeding heart liberals”. The “Trump supporters”, “Bernie supporters”, or “Hillary supporters”. The “gun lovers” or the “gun haters”. The “believers” and the “non-believers”. The “remainers” and the “leavers” (Brexit). What makes “them” so scary is that they don’t view the world the same way as “us”. What if we weren’t afraid to try to understand “them”? What if we actually tried to get to know “them”? What if we were OK with allowing “them” to be “them”? What if we stopped trying to convince “them” to be “us”?

Read More

19 – Learning to Live Artfully

Modern society tends to assign a value to everything we do. If there is no utilitarian purpose to something, we think it’s not valuable. Why does a painter paint? Why does a dancer dance? For the simple joy of doing it. This is what it means to live life artfully. In this episode, I will explore the concept of purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 19. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about how to live life artfully.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. In every episode, I like to remind my listeners a quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump in to this week’s topic. What does it mean to live life artfully? This is a topic I’ve thinking about lately and I wanted to discuss this concept a little bit.

In western society or perhaps even in western thinking, there tends to be this notion that if something doesn’t have a utilitarian purpose, then it doesn’t have any value. For example, think about a lot of the things that we do in society and we tend to do them because they have a utilitarian purpose and if they have a purpose, then we assign value based on the scale of the purpose that that thing renders. An example of utilitarian thinking would be why would I spend the time to build this bench unless the bench is going to serve value for me? You know, I can put it in my house and use it as a bench for the piano or something along those lines, but I wouldn’t just make it to just make it.

Another example of utilitarian thinking applies to relationships. You know, I’m going to spend time getting to know this person to try to be their friend because if we become friends, I see some form of utilitarian value to it. They happen to be the manager of that store so if this is my friend, maybe I’ll be able to get a discount. We calculate the utilitarian value of the effort that has to go into making the friendship so that there’s some sort of pay off and if there wasn’t some form of value in it, then we wouldn’t see the need to want to spend time making friends with that person.

Now with relationships, that’s not all too far off with how a lot of western society treats relationships in general. Just think about the various acquaintances you have and then you meet someone who happens to be well known or famous or very wealthy. There tends to be the desire to be even more friends with that person. And I think that’s in large part because of our utilitarian thinking in our society where it’s to our advantage to have a friend who’s powerful or wealthy so we tend to put in more effort or more value into that friendship when the reality is that all relationships could be treated equal. That’s an example of utilitarian thinking or assigning an inherent value to things.

So where this comes into play with the concept of what it means to live artfully is that the artful way of living doesn’t necessarily focus on any utilitarian value. I say artfully because I think this makes sense when we think of the arts. Think of somebody who paints and you might ask them why do you paint? There may not be a utilitarian value assigned to that. A painter paints just to paint. Now they could benefit if they’re selling their painting but typically, you don’t decide I want to be a painter so that I can make a lot of money painting. You paint because you enjoy the process of painting.

The same applies with singing, the same applies with dancing. I think dancing is a really good example. What is the utilitarian value of being on stage and performing a dance? From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, the most effective way to get from one side of the stage to the other is to probably walk or run and yet, why do we enjoy, why does a dancer enjoy doing a combination of moves and twirls and spins and performing on stage? There may not be or there doesn’t have to be a utilitarian value to it. This is the idea of living artfully. We live in a way that we do things for the simple joy of doing them.

In the Japanese culture with pottery, there’s this idea that if your vase breaks, you can repair it and then it has more value, more sentimental value or just more value in general because it’s repaired and now it has a story. Utilitarian thinking in the west would be, “Oh, it’s broken. I don’t want it.” If we went back to the example of the bench, you might have a wooden bench that you’ve had for years and years and then one of the … A part of it breaks. Maybe if you only see it for its utilitarian value, you could say, “Well this is broken. I don’t want it anymore.” Someone might have a sentimental value and say, “We’ve had this forever. I want to fix it.” You could throw it out if you don’t see any utilitarian value, and your neighbor who is trying to start a fire might see it and assign it value because now there is a pile of wood that he can use in the fireplace.

These are just some examples to think about but ultimately, what I’m trying to get across with this concept is that in western thinking, we do tend to lean a lot on utilitarian values for things and there are aspects of our lives that we look at and we calculate and if it doesn’t have value, then it’s not that significant or meaningful to us. In eastern thinking or especially in the Buddhist philosophical concept of purpose and meaning, we find the opposite happening here. There’s the idea of purposeless purpose or meaningless meaning. This is the idea that we do things just to do things. For example, a flower blooms because that’s what a flower does. It doesn’t have to have meaning, it just does what it does.

There’s a way to live where in a similar way, we can just live for the enjoyment of living, not because it has to have any meaning or any value or any purpose. This is the concept of living artfully. In fact, if you observe nature, this is exactly what we see in nature. I like to think of a river that flows. When you’re looking on a river that’s flowing, there’s no need to look at that and say, “What is the value? What is the meaning?” There is no meaning to the river that flows. There is the opposite, there’s causality.

Causality is a mindset that I’ve been working with for the last few years since studying Buddhism that I really enjoy. Instead of taking something and looking for the inherent meaning in it, what you’re looking at is what is the causality behind it. An example of this, again looking at the river, you can look at a river and you can enjoy the beauty of the flowing water very much the way you would normally but there’s no need to look for meaning. There’s no meaning for why does this river flow. Instead, you can look at the causality and say, “Well, this river is flowing because the snow is melting further up in the mountains,” and you look for the causes and conditions of things and that in its own sense can be a beautiful experience.

But I think where this really gets interesting is taking the mindset of causality versus meaning and applying it to our day to day living and experiences. For example, I used the example of being cut off when you’re driving because this is a common thing and I think everyone’s experienced it. How easy is it when you get cut off to look for the meaning? Why did this person do this to me? If we’re assigning meaning to that, we’re typically going to be wrong in our assumption of what’s happening. If we approach this from the mindset of causality, then we can understand what happened is just what happened. I got cut off and there’s a reason behind it and I may not know the reason. This person may have lost their job today, they’re in a bad mood, somebody maybe cut them off, and now the mood that they’re in is a part of the problem.

This is the difference with causality and meaning. Imagine in early days, I think our human tendency is to look for meaning. This is why I would imagine in the earliest of times a volcano erupts and immediately people are thinking, “Why did that happen? The God of lava must be mad at us. Maybe we need to sacrifice something.” If we’re looking to create meaning where we’re going to be wrong in our assumption of why things happen. Now, granted back then looking from the mindset of causality, you wouldn’t know why the volcano is erupting. I think this is where it becomes very powerful to be able to sit with uncertainty because something can happen and we can say, “I don’t know. I don’t know the cause of that,” and leave it at that and with time, we could find out. Science does a fascinating job of discovering causality in things and it can take us pretty far back.

Then when you get to a point where you don’t know, you just stay with that and you stay with that uncertainty and you continue to explore and ask questions, test hypotheses until you find the causality of things. But to do the opposite and to assign meaning to things can be very dangerous. When we’re observing nature, we see our tendency is generally to have the mindset of causality. We don’t question what is the meaning of a tree blooming, we just look at it for what it is. It’s a tree that’s blooming in the spring, it smells this way and in the winter, the leaves fall and there are always causes and conditions to the things that we observe in nature.

A couple of weeks ago, I had this experience where I was at home and I was taking a piece of bread out of the bag to make some toast and I noticed one of the pieces of bread had some mold on it, so I decided to not eat the bread but it got me thinking. And I have this thought, here you have bread that’s in a bag and it’s by the window so the sunlight comes in and it warms up the temperature inside the bag and you give that enough time and now the causes and conditions have allowed for mold to exist. The mold is attached to the bread. It’s surviving off of the bread and I thought, “And that’s life.” The causes and conditions arise and suddenly, life exists and there’s this mold sitting there in the bread.

As I thought about this, I thought, now how silly would it be if at some point this mold, if we gave it enough time, was able to think and say, “I … Or this bread exists for me. This bread is my possession.” When the reality is that the mold only exists because of the bread and because the causes and conditions were acceptable to allow mold to come into existence. Then I thought, “Wow, isn’t that our experience of suddenly existing?” We exist on this planet very much like the mold that with the right causes and conditions exists on bread, here we are existing on the planet. And I thought about the mindset of thinking that all that is, this planet and everything on it exists for me and reversing that and realizing that I exist because of it. I exist because if it. I exist because of all of this.

I think that is in a way what it means to live artfully. Rather than assigning meaning, I’m just looking at the causes and conditions of things and realizing I am part of the process of causes and conditions that allow me to exist. There doesn’t have to be any utilitarian purpose or any assigned value. This is purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning. There is no meaning and it doesn’t mean anything that it doesn’t mean anything, and yet here I am and I get to exist. And somehow in the middle of this process of existence, I actually have the ability to experience consciousness, to be able to think, to be able to process emotions and all these incredible experiences that go along with being alive. I think that’s the main difference with simply living versus living artfully.

With that in mind, I think something that we can ask ourselves this week is why do we tend to search for meaning. Why do we tend to want to assign some form of utilitarian value to the things in life, to life in general, and the things that happen in life? What if it doesn’t have meaning? Does that change anything? I think one of the key concepts in Buddhism that I’ve really enjoyed is the idea that there’s isn’t meaning and that’s not to say that we can’t find meaning in life. So this is the difference between looking for the meaning of life and looking just for meaning in life because looking for meaning in life in the lens of interdependence and impermanence, we can find meaning in so many things and the meaning that we find in life evolves.

The meaning that I had as a college student is different than the meaning that I get in life now as the father of three little kids, and it was different being single than it is being married. This process is continually changing and evolving over time. Some people find incredible sense of meaning by traveling, by exploring, by experiencing new things. Others get a sense of meaning following ritual or routine or repeating a lot of the same experiences in life. There’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way because we’re just living.

To live artfully, I think, encompasses this idea of living for the sake of living. It’s painting for the sake of painting and singing for the sake of singing. There could be other things that go along with it but first and foremost, we’re doing what we do because we’re just doing what we do. It’s what brings us joy, it’s what makes us happy, and that can evolve over time. Dancing just to dance. There doesn’t have to be utilitarian purpose to dancing. Walking on the beach or all of a sudden, you start skipping. We don’t pause and say, “Wait, why am I skipping? It’s more efficient to be walking right now.” We don’t have to go through life that way.

There are some aspects in life where I think this is natural and there are other aspects of life where we get caught up in utilitarian thinking and how enjoyable would it be to be able to pause and analyze those moments and think, “Why do I have to get caught up and looking for the meaning of this or that? Why can’t I just enjoy doing this for the sake of doing it, doing it artfully, living artfully?” That’s the concept I wanted to discuss today in terms of the topic for this week’s podcast. What does it mean to live artfully?

I’d like to invite you to explore a few aspects of your own life in which you may be living with a utilitarian mindset and what would it be like if you were to switch to this purposeless purpose or this meaningless meaning mindset, the mindset of living artfully. What would that look like and just play with that a bit and see what you think, see how that changes the way you interact with the experience of being alive.

Now before ending this podcast, I do want to share a couple of things with you that I’m really excited to share. A couple of podcast episodes back, I mentioned how I’m planning on bringing all of the work of the podcast under the umbrella of a foundation, a non-profit foundation. Well I’m excited to announce that that process is complete. The Foundation for Mindful Living is now official. It’s a non-profit and I want to talk to you just a second about what I’m working on with this project because I think this is really exciting. I really believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful. How much anger, aggression, and impatience do we see and experience not only in our own lives but in society in general, especially in light of recent events. We can see that the world needs to have more kindness and more compassion.

This is something that I have been really focusing on since the start of the year that’s motivated to do what I’m doing with Secular Buddhism. I believe that a peaceful world can only exist as a result of peaceful individuals. I feel like the way to making the world a more peaceful place is by making myself a more peaceful person, and this is why I’ve decided to dedicate my time and energy to producing content and tools to allow people to learn mindfulness, to learn the philosophical concepts of contemplative living that allow us to live more peaceful and happy lives.

The Foundation for Mindful Living is a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to creating and providing tools and content to help people live more mindfully. I would love to ask for your help to partner with me to help me accomplish what I’m trying to do. I have three current projects that I’m working on. One is a Secular Buddhism podcast which is this podcast that you’re listening to. We have 19 episodes so far and I plan to continue making this a weekly podcast that touches on topics of eastern philosophy and Secular Buddhism, Buddhism presented in a way that makes sense conceptually for secular-minded people like me.

By donating to the Foundation for Mindful Living, you’re essentially donating to the Secular Buddhism podcast, allowing me the opportunity to continue producing content every week. From the time this podcast launched, it’s grown exponentially. In fact this week, we’ve hit over 100,000 listeners now and it started out at zero at the beginning of the year. So it’s been really exciting to see this grow but the amount of time and resources that go into maintaining this from the hosting of the website, the hosting of the audio files, and everything that goes involved with that, I’ve just been maintaining all of those costs on my own as my way of trying to contribute to making the world a better place. But it’s grown to the point where I think it’s starting to exceed what I’m capable of maintaining on my own, so I wanted to ask for your help with that.

If you enjoyed the podcast, I would invite you to contribute one time or monthly if possible to the podcast and you can do that by visiting Getmindful.org. When you go to that website, that’s the foundation website, that’s my foundation. You’ll see under current projects the three projects I’m working on but you’ll see the Secular Buddhism podcast and at the bottom of that page, you’ll see a place where you can make a donation and it’s really easy to set up to do a quick donation with your credit card or PayPal and you can select to make that a monthly contribution starting from 5$ up or you can pick your own amount. But your generous donations will allow me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast along with content for the workshops and retreats and seminars that I want to put on.

That’s the second project I want to talk to you about is the Mindful Living workshops. The plan is to do a one or two-day workshop and we’ll do these in various cities starting with the cities where we have the most listeners. I have a list of those. They include London is on there, New York, Chicago. There’s several cities and I’ll have to look at that list. But what I plan on doing is making workshops available where people can attend and in one or two days, have an entire introduction to Buddhism, to secular Buddhism.

When I first started studying Buddhism, I was fascinated by the topic and I got most of my information from books and I was able to attend several retreats with Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and several other teachers. And something that bothered me and I understand why it works this way but it bothered me that these workshops can be expensive to go listen to someone and to learn from a Buddhist teacher can be expensive. I felt bad knowing that for me, this was doable but to think that there’s someone out there who may be interested in learning this but they just don’t have the resources to do it was sad. I feel like this is content that is really life changing and it promotes such a positive way of living that I don’t want to restrict it to only people who can afford workshops.

That’s what where podcast came in because I know anyone can listen to that. It’s always going to be free but what about these workshops? Well, the contributions on the foundation also allow me to travel and set up workshops in places where listeners can come and attend a one or two-day workshop for free. The only expense involved would be paying for your food or if it’s a venue that we have to pay for, there are going to be a minimal cost associated to that. But I think we would be able to set these up where they could be completely free for anyone who wants to attend. That is a very important aspect of this for me. I want to make sure that all of this content that one can look for and learn in Buddhism will always be available to anyone interested. Money shouldn’t be an issue. Then of course, if you’re able to attend it and you want to make a donation, that would allow us to continue promoting these to a greater audience.

So we’ve got the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living Workshops, and then this third one is a new one that I’m experimenting with and I’m really excited to tell you about this. I know that this isn’t one that’s going to be open for everyone because this one does have costs associated to it. But this is the idea of doing a Mindful Humanitarian Expedition and the thinking behind this is these are three things that I really enjoy in life, mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure and doing expeditions. Fortunately, with my career and with what I do for work, I get to travel a lot and I think it’s a fascinating opportunity to experience new things so I thought it would be fun to test this and see if anyone out there is in a position to be able to do something like this.

I would love to put together a trip. Well, it’s already put together with the Africa Promise Foundation. The founder of the Africa Promise Foundation has an organization called Africa Promise Expeditions and my friend Suzy who runs that foundation, we’ve decided to partner up and create this opportunity to be able to travel somewhere where you get to enjoy the benefits of learning mindfulness. So throughout the expedition every evening, we would be doing the workshop work, teaching mindfulness, learning to meditate, learning all of the concepts and principles of Secular Buddhism. During the day, we’re actually doing humanitarian work, building or digging wells and working with locals in Uganda, doing actual humanitarian work. It’s a combination of working on ourselves through mindfulness while working for others doing humanitarian work. This would be in Africa in Uganda.

Then the third component to the trip is to enjoy unique experiences while we’re there, the adventure side of it. We would do an African Safari and just gain new experiences while we’re there because part of the beauty of life is gaining new experiences and doing things that are fun. This is a combination of all three of those things. That’s learning mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure all in one trip. You can get more information about this trip by going to Getmindful.org which is my foundation for mindful living and when you look at the current projects, you’ll see all three of these options there, the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living workshops, and I’m going to be adding dates and locations to that based on your feedback and your interest. Then there’s the mindful humanitarian expedition.

Now this already has dates set in mind so if you’re available for that, join us. I’d love to have you apply to join us on this expedition. It’s January 26th through February 4th of 2017 in Uganda. Everything included in the cost to do this program, it includes everything that you would need from the moment you arrive to Uganda till you leave. The only thing you would have to do is get there. We can assist with affordable airfare to get there, depending on where you’re coming from.

I’d love to see if you’re interested in any of these things. But if you’re in a position to do this, it would be awesome if you would be willing to partner with me and become a monthly contributor to the Foundation for Mindful Living which will continue to keep the Secular Buddhism podcast going. It would allow us to start doing workshops that you can attend and that anyone can attend without any cost associated. It will allow me to start putting together an online curriculum and online workshops that anybody could attend anywhere in the world. Again, this would all be completely free. Then of course, if you’re interested in the Mindful Humanitarian Expedition, click on that and apply. We only have a few spots available. This is something that I decided I’m going to do with some people that are close to me and we’re leaving the other spots open for anyone who’s interested to apply, and you can join us on this Humanitarian Expedition. I think it’s going to be an awesome experience.

If you’re interested in any of those things, please check out Getmindful.org. Please consider becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast through Getmindful.org and please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns about any of these things. But I’m looking for people who, like me, believe that the key to making the world a better place is by providing tools and content to teach people to be more mindful. If that sounds like something you’d like to do, I’d love to have you work with me on this. Visit Getmindful.org if you have any questions. And that’s all I have this week for the podcast and I look forward to doing another podcast episode next week. Thank you guys, have a wonderful week and until next time.

12 – Master Meditation by Not Meditating

In this episode, I will explore the idea of learning to meditate by not meditating. I share the poem “Dust if You Must” by Rose Milligan that went viral on the Secular Buddhism. It was viewed by over 10 million people in just a matter of days. I also discuss the idea of being vs doing. I hope you enjoy this episode!

Dust If You Must

by Rose Milligan

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.


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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello you are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 12. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about meditation through non-meditation. I’m also sharing the poem Dust if you Must, by Rose Milligan. So thank you for joining.

I like to say this every time before I start. This quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. And hopefully this will provide you with some information to provide you be a better whatever you already are.

Now let’s jump into this weeks topic. I am excited to be back with you for another podcast episode this week. And I wanted to start out with sharing another milestone. This has been an exciting week for me. I was out of town over the weekend on a family trip, and when I came back in the morning I was checking our Facebook page. I was really surprised to see that one of the posts that I had shared had gone viral.

This was really meaningful to me. Earlier in the year, I guess it was at the end of last year, I came across a post from Jason Silva, who’s the host of Brain Games on National Geographic. And he has a web series called Shots of Awe, where he posts these small tidbits of philosophical of information for, I forget what he calls it, but it’s essentially a three to five minute feast of philosophical thought. And it’s really fascinating, and it’s something that inspired me to want to share what I’m passionate about, which is secular buddhism.

And something he shared that really resonated with me was the concept of really finding what it means to be a billionaire. And the way he explains is that what if we took this, rather than being a monetary value that we strive for, strive to have money in the sense of being a billionaire, what if we redefine that to say a billionaire is someone who can influence the lives of a billion people. And influencing their lives for the positive.

And when I heard that, I just loved that idea. I thought we go through life chasing after things, right? And money is a big one. And I know that there’s so much more to life than earning money, paying bills, and then dying. And everything that I had studied, was studying at the time and learning about Buddhism, drove me to this one emphasis of, “How do we learn to live life to the fullest? And live in the present moment?”

And when I heard that idea that he taught about redefining what it means to be a billionaire, I knew right then and there that that’s something I wanted to aspire to. To be able to provide a set of tools or information, or some form of platform that can inspire people to want to be better. To have a more positive existence, a more positive way of living.

It was literally January 1st where I decided, “Well, okay. I’m going to start a podcast.” And I started working on this. I developed the Facebook page, and a blog, and a website. All around this concept of sharing Buddhism through a secular lens, the lens that made the most sense to me. And it’s been fascinating to watch this grow and watch it become what it’s becoming. I think in a very Buddhist way it’s exciting to see that there’s no goal in mind. I’m just allowing it to be what it is. I don’t know what that is yet because it’s constantly changing and evolving, which is the very nature of existence, right? The nature of impermanence, the nature of interdependence.

But this weekend the exciting milestone I got to experience was seeing one of my posts go viral. Up until this point anything I tend to share online, whether it be in the form of a podcast, or a blog post, or a Facebook post, or anything like that, it’s grown to the point where it gets seen by thousands of people. And that’s been exciting. But what happened this weekend took it to a whole new level.

When I checked, at first I couldn’t believe these numbers were true. Because what happened over the weekend was one of the posts I shared, which was a poem called Dust if you Must, had gone viral. And it had been seen by over ten million people over the course of the weekend. And I thought, “How is that possible?” And out of that there were just over one million interactions with this post, which caused all of the other posts and everything else I had been posting online to just explode. Suddenly hundreds and thousands of new people were subscribing to the seven day introduction to Buddhism post that’s available on secularbuddhism.com. And over night I was waking up, finding out that there were 8,000 new subscribers, or 8,000 new followers.

It’s just fascinating. It’s still … I had a similar experience last October. Some of you may not know this about me, but I develop products. I have a company, we manufacture photography accessories. And I’ve been doing this for five years. That’s what I do for work, I manufacture photography accessories. And I remember having this really profound experience visiting Hong Kong and meeting with businesses. I’m walking through the mall and I come across the photography store. I’m standing there, and there on the back wall are five or six of the products that I developed. Just hanging in the store. As I’m staring at them the sales person from the store comes up to me, and she’s like, “oh, would you like to buy one of these tripods?” And I got teary-eyed because this was the culmination of years of work for me designing and developing a brand of products. Putting in a lot of hard work and countless sleepless nights, stressful deals, loans, and everything that entails building a business and manufacturing products.

Here I was almost literally on the other side of the world, standing in a store, looking at something that I had created. It was a very moving and humbling experience to me because it felt like all of this had started as an idea. And here I was, sharing something that meant something to me. Creating products that I was passionate about with photography. And there they were, in this random store in a mall in Hong Kong. It was really moving for me. It was the first time that made me realize that we can take something and work on it, and it can become something.

I had that similar experience with Jason Silva’s invitation to redefine what it means to be a billionaire, to be able to share, or influence in a positive way, the lives of a billion people. When I first heard that I thought, “I want to really find what that means to be a millionaire.” Because I thought, “I don’t know how to do that with a billion people.”

This weekend alone, the ideas that I’ve been sharing through this platform have been seen by over ten million people. And over one million people actually interacting with my posts. It’s really humbling. And it’s humbling from the sense that this started as an idea. I genuinely believe that with the right perspective, and with the proper understanding of impermanence and interdependence, it can change your life to see the world in this light.

I believe that the dharma the way that it was taught, and is taught through the lens of Buddhism, can be life changing. And I believe that changing the world is changing ourselves. By providing the teachings of the Dharma, and teachings through secular Buddhism, people who are secular-minded like me can make sense of these fantastic philosophical teaching that inspire to be a better person. To have a more positive light. And it’s been fun to see that this weekend in numbers that exceeded my dreams. Especially this soon in the process, it’s only been four months since this podcast started. So that’s been really exciting for me, and I wanted to share that milestone with you. So again, thank you for sharing and spreading the messages that are shared through this platform. Through the Facebook page, through the study group. It’s really rewarding for me to receive emails from people who are saying, “Thank you for sharing this new concept, or this new approach that I haven’t explored before has literally changed my life.” It’s very rewarding, and that’s why I’m doing this. Because first it changed my life, and now it’s exciting to see how this is improving in a positive way the lives of others.

So I want to share with you the poem that I shared, the poem that went viral. And I think this touches on something that resonates with people. Obviously, that’s why it went viral. The title of this poem is called Dust if you Must. And it goes like this:

Dust if you Must. Dust if you Must, but wouldn’t it be better to paint the picture, or write a letter? Bake a cake, or plant a seed. Ponder the difference between want and need. Dust if you must, but there’s not much time. With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb. Music to hear, and books to read. Friends to cherish, and life to lead. Dust if you must, but the world’s out there. With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair. A flutter of snow, a shower of rain. This day will not come back around again. Dust if you must, but bear in mind, old age will come and it’s not kind. And when you go, and go you must, you yourself will make more dust.

That poem is by Rose Milligan. When I found that and shared that on the secular Buddhism Facebook page, I noticed right away that the messaging really resonates with people. This isn’t an attack on dusting or on cleaning. I think that’s obvious. The key to this message is that we go through life doing, and in the process of doing, we sometimes forget to just be.

My understanding of this, the way it makes sense to me, is the process of doing versus being. And it makes me want to share the concept of meditation from a different perspective. We spend a lot of time meditating. I think when I teach meditation, one of the first things that happens is we get really exciting about meditating. Because we want something out of it. We want to be calm, we want to have more peace in life. There’s an objective. And then over time as it becomes a consistent practice, it’s common to hear from people who say, “Okay, I’ve been doing this for several months now. Yeah, it made me a lot more calm, but now what?” Or people will say, “Now I’m realizing things I hadn’t realized before. I tend to get mad easily, or I tend to have a temper.”

So I wanted to discuss meditation a little bit, from the perspective of the key to meditation being non-meditation. Or this idea of doing versus being. When I teach meditation to someone, mindfulness meditation, I usually explain to imagine a pond. And there’s a pond that has muddy water, and what would have to happen for that muddy water to become clear? Alan Watt says, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” And you can picture this with a muddy pond. If you were to leave it and let it sit still … or take a jar and put dirt in the water in that jar and shake it up, and the water is going to be really muddy. But if you put it down and leave it alone, give it time, all of that mud settles to the bottom, and what you have is clear water again.

This is the first, I guess, level of meditation, which is calm and inviting meditation. It’s learning to still the waters, the muddy waters. What happens as a consequence of learning to still those waters is that then the water is clear, and now we learn to this phase of insight meditation. You’re able to look into that pond and see what’s actually there. This is looking into the nature of awareness, the nature of the mind, and see what’s really there.

And I think something that happens when you learn about meditation, you say, “Okay, I want to start meditating,” is we start to develop expectations about what meditation is, what it’s going to do for me, how I’m going to benefit from it. And that becomes the very thing that Buddhism is trying to eliminate from us. Is that nature tendency, the reactivity that we have, to create meaning around thing. So there’s this concept that there is what is, and there’s the story that we create around what is. I think this is really common when it comes to meditation, or when it comes to life in general. We create meaning around it. And that’s not a bad thing because creating meaning around life is part of life. But with meditation it can be detrimental to create meaning around what meditation is.

A lot of teachers will talk about this concept of the key to meditating is to not meditate. The moment I’m saying I’m going to meditate, that’s a concept in my mind. That means something. Whatever that means to me, that’s the meaning you give to meditation. It is this, or that, or it causes this, or it causes that. Whatever concept you hold about what meditation is can be useful to the point of helping you to be calm. To gain this calm clarity that you need. And then insight meditation you start to be able to see the nature and awareness. But when this is done properly, and the mind and thoughts have been calm enough for the mud settle, so to speak, and for the water to become clear to the point where you can start to see the nature of the mind, the way the mind works, then the concept that you have about what meditation is actually becomes a hindrance to progressing to the full purpose of meditation.

Which is with that insight, when you can finally see what’s really there, what you’re going to gain out of this is the one thing that Buddhism is trying to get you to see, which is seeing things as they are. Again, to clarify, the concept of non-meditation, or the key to meditation being non-meditation, is that we want to let go of what the concept of meditation is.

I think this becomes very relevant with what I shared last week in the podcast with the parable of the raft. What the Buddha taught is the raft is something that you need. Let’s say in this case he taught it specifically was the Dharma, the teachings, which in this case we can equate to meditation. It’s this tool that you use and you’re life depends on it to be able to accomplish what you’re trying to get. But at some point, you have to learn to let go. The concept of letting go, from the sense of meditation, is that if you really want to get what meditation is all about, then you’ll learn that what it’s all about is about not meditation. That’s the difference between doing, it’s not something that you do, it’s about how you are, it’s about being. Doing versus being.

To take meditation to that next level, at some point you have to understand that the whole purpose of meditation is that you don’t meditate. You’re learning to just be with what is. That’s why when I teach meditation, mindfulness meditation, what I try to convey is this concept that there’s nothing magical happening. Nothing happens. All you’re doing is learning to be with what is. It’s kind of the exercise with learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That can be confusing to people, because then it’s like, “Well, what’s the point of all this then?” Think about this, how often do we really spend time with just being with something. Not doing anything, just being with what is. I think one of the sources of all of our problems is the minute that we start meditating or the minute we’re doing anything, we’re creating meaning. And then we can’t allow things to just be as they are. So meditation can be this practice. This is a technique that used in different Buddhist traditions. There’s the Tibetan [inaudible 00:19:10] meditation that instills this … you go through different phases. And the ultimate phase is this phase of non-meditation.

How does that work? How does this apply to a daily practitioner of meditation in the secular Buddhist lens? If you’re new to this and you want to start meditating, how does that help to knowing this now, especially early on in the game? And I think the key is by grasping this intellectually, as some point in your meditation, the only way you’re going to be able to progress with gaining wisdom to the nature of reality is to let go of whatever that concept you have of what the nature of reality is. Hopefully that makes sense.

Alan Watts talks about this in terms of the attitude of faith. He says, “The attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” I think this is very relevant with this concept of meditation. Because what you’re doing is letting go of whatever you think meditation is, or what it’s supposed to do, or how it’s going to benefit you. You let go of that. Because there is nothing, it’s not supposed to do anything, or benefit you in any way. And yet, when you grasp that that’s when it benefits you, because that’s when you’ve let go.

Again, it’s like this paradox. I love this, Buddhism is general is like this paradox. There’s a teaching that says when you first start to study or learn Buddhism, before, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are just streams. And then you start to learn a little bit about Buddhism. And it’s exciting. And the more you start to learn suddenly it’s like there’s this awe in everything you see. Mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers anymore, and streams aren’t just streams. The more time that you spend with it, the more that you start to learn the philosophical understandings, and the teachings of Buddhism. Then when you’re done and you really get it, then you realize, “Oh, mountains are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams.” And yet, that’s what makes them so beautiful.

I like to think about this with the teaching of a rose. A rose is beautiful because a rose is just a rose. It doesn’t bloom and then wait for someone to come along, pick it up, and say, “Wow, you are a beautiful rose.” Because it doesn’t care. That’s not the reason why a rose exists. It does not exist so someone can pick it up and tell it it’s beautiful. And yet, that’s what makes it beautiful. Because it just is what it is.

It’s no different with us and our existence, and the way that we try to see things the way that they are. When you learn to see something the way that it is, then it becomes beautiful, and almost magical, simply because it is just what it is. You’ve detached all the meaning you had behind it. Remember, it’s inside of these concepts, meanings and ideas, that we attach to things, that things get muddy. And muddy water is best cleared by leaving is alone, as Alan Watt says. We leave things alone, meaning we let go of the meaning that we’ve attached to things, and the things just are what they are. When we can allow things to just be what they are, then we can see them as they really are.

Meditation is that tool. Meditation itself can become a hindrance if we have meaning, or ideas, or concepts, attached to what meditation is. What this is supposed to be doing for me. I think the biggest mistake around this is spending time thinking, “meditation is working. Meditation is not working. It’s doing this, it’s doing that.” All of this resides inside of the sphere of the meaning that we have around what meditation is. Or what it’s supposed to do. The whole point is that there is nothing that it’s supposed to do, there’s nothing that it’s supposed to mean. It’s the exercise of just being with what is. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s sitting and observing the thoughts, in the same way that you would sit outside and observe the clouds. You notice that the nature of watching clouds in the sky is that they arise, they appear, they linger, and then they go away. That’s the nature of observing clouds. That’s also the nature of meditation, and observing our thoughts.

The nature of things as they are is that things arise, they linger for a while, then they’re gone. Isn’t that the very nature of life itself? Things arise, they exist for a short time, then they’re gone. And when we can allow ourselves to start to see things the way that they are, without attaching meaning to things, then we become that much closer to being enlightened.

This is another concept, the idea of enlightenment, carries so much connotation around the meaning that we have about enlightenment. If I were to ask you, “What does it mean to be enlightened?” Everyone has an interpretation of what that means. Enlightenment in it’s purest form is nothing more than what I explain earlier about mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are streams. Then when we think we start to know what it means to be enlightened, that’s when we think, “Oh, mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers. Streams aren’t just streams. It’s something more.” But then true enlightenment happens and you realize, “oh, they are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams. Life is just life. Happiness is just happiness, sadness is just sadness.” It’s in allowing these things to be what they are, this attitude of faith, to let go, to become open to reality whatever it may be, that is the nature of awakening. That is the nature of enlightenment in the secular Buddhist understanding.

This is what makes it all so beautiful. It’s inside of that space of allowing things to just be what they are that everything becomes beautiful. The concept of the rose. What makes the rose so beautiful is that it’s just a rose. There’s nothing more to it. There’s nothing that you add to it. A rose is a rose, and that’s what makes it beautiful. A human being is a human being, and that’s what makes us beautiful.

If we could see all things like that, with that lens of allowing things to be what they are, it would change everything. Meditation is the tool to do that. That’s the concept of meditation through non-meditation.

I hope that resonates with you, and I think that’s what touches the heart of the concept of Dust if you Must. We go through life, and we’re busy, and we’re doing things that we think we need to be doing, and these things are meaningful. And yet at the end, we’re just dust. We go back to being the one thing that we’re trying to clean up, or trying to avoid all along. That’s the one thing we are. I think it’s a powerful message, and it’s at the heart of why I want to share the things that I share, as I study and learn and teach the concept of Buddhism. I want to spread the message, and the idea of enlightenment being the idea of learning to see life just the way that it is. Learning that there is what is, and then there’s the story that we create about what it. We tend to live and go through our entire life inside of the story of what is, and never actually see what is.

Imagine if you were to taste a food one day you had never tasted before, because your whole life, you’ve only seen the menu. And you’ve been in love with the menu, and the pictures on the menu, and the words that describe the dish. And the price attached to it. Everything around the concept of what is, but you never actually experienced what is, which would be to taste the food. It may seem silly, but that’s what we do in life. There’s what is, the experiential version of living, you’re tasting the food, and then there’s the intellectual or conceptual of what is. That’s like being in love with the menu, thinking that this whole time what you loved on the menu is actually the meal. And it’s not. They’re two completely different things.

I think we do this a lot with meditation. There’s my idea of what meditation is, what it’s supposed to do. I know everything from a conceptual understanding of what meditation is. That’s the menu. And then one day you experience what meditation actually is, it’s learning to see things as they are, that’s like tasting the food. And it’s a whole different thing. That cannot be conveyed. You cannot convey that in words to someone else. You can only experience it.

Using that menu as an example, I can taste all the food and enjoy the flavors, everything, and try to convey it to you. And maybe all you’ve ever experienced is what I’m telling you on a menu, and you think, “Yeah, yeah, I got it. Yeah, I see what this is. I see the ingredients, I get it.” But we can’t. Until you taste it yourself, you’re not going to know what that really is. That’s the difference between meditation and learning that they key to meditation is actually non-meditation. Let go of the concept that you have about meditation, and learn to just meditate. Which is, learn to just be with what is. Learn to clear that muddy water by leaving it alone, by not trying, by just being.

Next time you practice your meditation, don’t have any expectations about what it is, what it’s supposed to do. Just practice sitting there and being with what is. Whatever it turns out to be. Think about this attitude of faith that Alan Watts talks about. The attitude of faith, of letting go. Becoming completely open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be. Learning to be with what is, whatever that might turn out to be.

Let me know how that goes for you. I’d love to hear about it. We have the secular Buddhism Facebook page, which as I mentioned before, is exploring. There’s the secular Buddhism study group, which is also a Facebook group. There’s a secularbuddhism.com website, where you can comment and post. Where I post the podcast, you can comment on that page. Or feel free to reach out to me. A lot of people have been reaching out to me directly, and I respond to every email. I interact. At some point that becomes something that I cannot manage, then I’ll stop saying to do that. But for now, feel free to reach out to me directly at Noah, N-O-A-H, at secularbuddhism.com. I’d love to discuss this concept with you, and see what you think about it. Hopefully this is useful and helpful information to help you have a more positive life.

I send you guys my regards, and thank you once again for turning in. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me. I look forward to seeing where this goes from here. Thank you, and until next time.

7 – Acceptance vs Resignation

What is acceptance?

I think there’s a common misconception around the idea of “Acceptance” and it has to do with the semantics of the word acceptance. It’s common to associate the word acceptance with the word resignation. I want to spend some time discussing what acceptance is but clarifying also what it’s not. Buddhism does not encourage resignation, it encourages acceptance. So what is acceptance? Read More

If I Had My Life to Live Over

If I had my life to live over,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax, I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances. Read More