The tale of many tales is the story we have about ourselves and the story we try to ensure that others have of us too. What are some of the stories you have about yourself? How attached are you to these stories? Does that attachment cause any self-inflicted suffering to arise?
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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 81. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about stories, the stories we have about ourselves and the stories we try desperately to ensure that others have about us too. As always, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice: “Do not use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.”
Before jumping into this podcast episode, I do want to address a couple of housekeeping items. The first one is regarding use of the term Secular Buddhism. What is it? What separates it from other forms of Buddhism? This kind of stems from a conversation that I saw taking place on the Facebook group in the Secular Buddhism Facebook group asking about Secular Buddhism. Is Secular Buddhism a form of self-help? And kind of the accusation that Secular Buddhism, as a bigger movement, is not equivalent to what I am doing in this podcast, and in some ways, what I am doing with the podcast has nothing to do with Buddhism. So, I wanted to address this a little bit.
I read specifically this comment that I don’t teach Buddhism. So, I want to share a couple of my concerns with Buddhism in general. I feel, as I’ve mentioned before, that whatever the original teachings were of the Buddha, they have evolved into the teachings about the teachings. That is to say that over time, what we tend to focus on more than anything is what is Buddhism? How should it be interpreted? What was taught? What did the Buddha say?
To me, all of these things are, by large, just the teachings about the teachings. The problematic part for me is that it was hundreds of years from the time that these teachings, however they were originally talked about or shared, before they were ever finally written down. Now, that in and of itself, is problematic to me, because now we have somebody who heard from somebody who heard from somebody for hundreds of years deciding that, oh, I’m going to write this down, and this is what the Buddha said.
The truth is, we don’t know what the Buddha said. We know what we think someone said the Buddha said, and that’s fine. There’s a lot of great content that comes from there, and all the various schools that have emerged over the thousands of years that these concepts and ideas have been shared have done a fantastic job of really getting to the heart of what these teachings are about.
Now, I mentioned in a previous episode that to me, this is a lot like whoever was the first to start talking about algebra, that as the understanding of algebra emerged from this person, and it has spread and continues to be a way of understanding reality and the universe, it’s no longer that relevant to know, well, who was the first one who talked about algebra? What did he say about it? Is there a specific or a proper way to study algebra? That evolves over time in the same way, to me, that languages and accents evolve.
As a language emerges, what makes it valid is that everyone who is speaking the same language has a general consensus that this word means this, and that word means that, and that’s what allows us to communicate. However, the accents immediately morph and change pretty quickly. This is why you can see this with English as it spread from where English originated. Look at the various accents, from Australia to the United States, even they’re close. Scotland, England, Ireland, they all have very unique accents. And even words start to change, and the word that you would use in one place is not the same word you would use in another place, because that word may mean something else.
That’s very easy to visualize, and I think it’s very helpful to imagine ideas in the same way that we view languages. Buddhism, like a language, as it has spread to the various countries where it spread, it’s adopted and morphed into what works for that specific time and that specific culture and that specific language. You kind of have all these various accents of Buddhism. Which one is right? Well, that’s not the right question. What we should be asking, there isn’t a right one, in the same way that none of us entertain this question when it comes to language, and say, “Well, which accent of English is right?”
Sure, you may have some people argue that, “Well, the British is the most accurate, because that’s where English comes from.” But that’s not necessarily true, because English has evolved already from the way it was first spoken to how it is now. If it’s always changing, there just isn’t a right one.
So, rather than focusing on which form of Buddhism is right, I think what we would really be exploring is which one works well for me? Which one is easier for me to understand? Which accent makes the most sense for me? Or, if you’re already speaking that language, asking questions like, “Why do I sound the way that I sound? Why do you sound the way that you sound? Because I’m trying to understand, oh, you are Scottish. Okay, well, that helps me to understand you better, because in Scotland, you guys say this or that.” That to me is a more skillful approach to Buddhism, and that’s why on this podcast, I don’t focus on saying, “Hey, here’s what the Buddha said about this, and here’s what we should think about that.” In fact, you’re never going to get that on this podcast, because I feel that that’s one of the biggest obstacles to understanding what Buddhism is all about and what it’s actually trying to do.
So, in that sense, I view Secular Buddhism as a new accent that’s emerged in our Western culture. I certainly don’t view it as a separate form of Buddhism, distinct from any other school of Buddhism. It’s just another accent that we’re trying to figure out, and it works well for me because of the time and the culture and the place where I live. That happens to be an accent that makes sense for me in my form of communicating.
I want to clarify that I am certainly not a spokesperson of Secular Buddhism. It happens to be the name that I chose for the podcast because it’s an approach to Buddhism that I like, but I am not putting content out there that represents, this is Secular Buddhism. I don’t view it that way. I just take what I’ve learned about Buddhism, and I try to express these teachings in a way that applies to my day-to-day living, my everyday life, and I share that with you.
So, from this podcast, you will always hear stories. You’ll hear about how Buddhist teachings or ideas have helped me in my day-to-day life, and how I experience reality, and I share my views and my understanding. But these things evolve. Just a couple days ago, I had an email from someone mentioning how they disagree with a statement that I’d made in an earlier podcast. I think it was the Living Artfully, where I mentioned that birds don’t have a reason, don’t need a reason to sing. They just sing because, for no reason. And my view of that has evolved.
As this person mentioned in the email, that birds do sing for a reason. They’re singing to find a mate, or I don’t know. There may be reasons. Just because we don’t know why they sing doesn’t mean they don’t have a reason, and I totally agree with that. And I feel like Alan Watts’ quote, where it’s like, “I am under no obligation to be the same person that I was five minutes ago.” That mentality absolutely applies to the podcast and to earlier episodes. I replied and I said, “I absolutely agree. I think the more appropriate expression, if I were to re-record that now, I would probably say, ‘Birds sing because that’s what birds do.'” So, my own views on a lot of these topics are constantly changing and morphing as they should. That’s the nature of reality is constant change, and it should be that way for you too.
And the other accusation was that this is just a form of self-help. Man, that really depends on how you define self-help. I think for one, what’s the point of any of this if we’re not trying to reduce some of the self-inflicted suffering that we bring upon ourselves, or that we cause for others? Is that self-help? I don’t know. How do you define that? This is not a podcast about self-help in the sense of, “Hey, if you do this, your life will be better, and if you do that …” It’s not that.
I view this as a constant invitation for you to get to know yourself better, to become a better whatever you already are. In this podcast, like I mentioned before, you will never be told, “This is how this is,” or, “This is how that is, and this is how you should think about this,” or, “This is what you should think about that.” That is not my goal. It is never going to be my goal. In my opinion, that is not the Buddhist way.
The Buddhist way is an invitation, a constant invitation to look inward, to be more aware of who you are, and why do you think the things that you think, and say the things that you say, and do the things that you do? This is about you. I share these things, and what I’ve learned and what works for me as an invitation for you to look inward and find what works for you, not as a way of saying, “Hey, this worked for me, therefore this should work for you.” That’s absolutely not the case.
So, that’s the little bit of housekeeping I wanted to share with regards to Secular Buddhism, and why and how I’m approaching these topics, and why you won’t hear me in these podcasts saying, “Hey, now, everyone take out the certain, I don’t know, this certain sutta, and we’re going to read this verse, and do that.” I don’t do that, because that to me doesn’t seem relevant with the style in which I try to share Buddhist teachings. But I absolutely do share Buddhist teachings and concepts all throughout this podcast, and this is not just a self-help podcast.
Okay. With that, I want to jump into the topic that I wanted to share for today, tales. The tale of many tales, so many stories in our lives. I have a couple of stories that I’m going through right now with career changes and things. I wanted to share a little bit of this with you, because there’s a concept that Thich Nhat Hanh talks about in his book Fear, where he mentions how the root of everything that we do it’s either rooted in fear, or it’s rooted in love.
I thought about this recently with a career change that I’d been making. Most of you know my story with leaving the business world and entrepreneurial world after eight years of having my own company, and that whole thing came crashing down. I went through a bankruptcy, and then started getting a job, or I got a job, and I’ve been at that job for over a year now. And it’s been a fantastic job, and I enjoy what I do there, but I …
… Fantastic job and I enjoy what I do there, but I recently made the decision to leave that behind and to pursue another career opportunity doing something that I really enjoy and that I’m passionate about, which is paramotoring and paragliding. So, last week, this is why I’ve been out of the loop for a while, I went and took a week and a half training in Oregon to become a flight instructor, but in order for me to be able to go do that, I didn’t have vacation time to leave work, so I was kind of forced to choose between my job and this opportunity to go become a flight instructor. I spoke to my boss about it and told him I was going to resign and go pursue this other thing and hopefully arrange it so that I can keep working for them as a freelancer rather than as an employee.
Anyway, the whole thought process as this is unfolding for me, I realized I had been reading this book, Fear, and I realized that some of the decisions we make are based on fear. For example, the fear of losing a stable income or losing the benefits and insurance that I had at work. Those were valid and real things that I had to take into account with this decision, so those were rooted in fear. Then there was this other part that the opportunity to be able to go teach to become a flight instructor and eventually teach and have a career doing something I really enjoy, those were decisions that were based and rooted in love. My love for having freedom of my own time, my love for spending time in the sky and flying, so I was weighing these things, trying to think about, “Well, is this decision rooted more in fear?”
In this case, the decision to stay is rooted in fear. The decision to go and pursue this new thing was rooted in love, and ultimately that helped me to feel more confident about the decision that I made, which was to go. I’ve thought about this with other milestones in my life. Decisions rooted in fear and love. Going through a faith transition and leaving the belief system of your upbringing is a very difficult process to go through. There were a lot of decisions that were being made in that process that were rooted in fear and there were others that were rooted in love.
I think typically what’s rooted in fear is strong because we, because of the negativity bias, we’re so much more keen on focusing on the negative, the things that are scary, because it’s a survival technique or a survival mechanism, where the things that we fear are much more powerful. They seem to weigh more on that scale compared to the things that we love, but it’s important to be able to spend time and analyze your situation. Whatever decision you’re making, whether it’s to stay or go in a job or stay or go in a relationship or whatever it is, buying a new vehicle. You could look at all of this and kind of have a list on what are the fears that are driving this decision and what are the … What parts of this are rooted in love that are driving this decision?
That can be a very introspective process. I just wanted to share that because that’s something I recently thought about and I correlated it to that book. If you want to learn more about that concept, you can pick up Thich Nhat Hanh’s book called Fear. The actual topic I wanted to discuss today is the tale of many tales. The stories that we tell about ourselves. I had this experience … I get to spend a lot of time with people who are learning to fly, and I had this experience not long ago. I’ve had a couple of experiences with people who are just coming out of the military and they’re adopting this new hobby of paramotoring.
If you don’t know how paramotoring works, essentially it’s a paragliding wing. It kind of looks like a parachute but it’s not a parachute. It’s an actual wing made out of cloth that you fly over your head and then you have a motor strapped to your back or in a little cart, like a go-kart with wheels, and you fly. Well, the process of learning to fly these things starts with learning to kite this thing in the wind just like you would fly a kite, but it’s connected to you and you learn to control it by flying it when there’s some wind, and you just fly it overhead. You never take off. You just stand there and you kite the wing over your head and you learn how to fly it that way.
Well, if the wind is strong, that’s a pretty big wing you have over your head. It’s going to life you up and drag you around and do whatever it wants with you because it’s a big wing. I was watching this person who had a very clear story about himself that I could see, at least, which is the story of, “I am very tough. I can overcome anything. I can control life and everything that’s happening to me because I am so strong and so tough and I can do this.” That was translating into this process of learning to kite the wing and trying to muscle this thing over his head and will it to do what he wanted it to do.
Well, unfortunately the nature of these things is that as a wing with wind, no amount of strength is going to will the wing to do what it wants. You have to understand the aerodynamics of the wing and give it the right inputs to get the wing to do what you want it to do using the actual elements that exist, which is there’s a lot of wind, so I’m gonna slightly pull on this string and it’s gonna slightly go this way. So, rather than dragging me around, it’s kiting over my head. Well, what I noticed was this very strong, tough person really struggling to kite the wing, and the wing was literally dragging him through the sand and pulling him around.
When it was all over and we were kind of talking about it, this is the part that fascinated me with the story is that the story of “I am tough and I can do anything” was so strong and so prevalent for this person that they could not see reality clearly, which is, “Hey, this is a big wing. You cannot get it to do what you want. You have to learn to fly it. You can’t just force it to do what you can’t. You can’t just pull these strings and expect it to do what you want.” He couldn’t see that. For him, it was there were all these reasons why this wasn’t working. Maybe it had sand in it or it’s misty out here so maybe it’s too moist and it’s not aerodynamic enough, or all these stories, but what he couldn’t see is, “No, you’re getting dragged because that’s a big wing and there’s wind and that’s just what happens,” because the thought of getting dragged was impossible to see. I wouldn’t be dragged. I’m way too tough to be dragged. Nothing’s gonna knock me down.
It was just interesting to watch this and think if you didn’t have such an attachment to the story you have about yourself being so tough, maybe you would realize that you’re not tougher than the wind and a 28 meter wing that’s just going to drag you around. So, that was one experience I had with stories recently. Another was actually on our trip to Iceland. This one was with my wife. We had this moment where we were out exploring. There’s an old plane wreck and you can go out there and look around and see it and climb up on top and get pictures of it. We were out there and she was up there waiting for me to get the drone to do a little flyover to get a video of her, and didn’t realize that someone at the bottom was waiting for her to get down so they could get up and take a picture.
In the time it took me to get the drone set up and up and running, this person who was waiting kind of got fed up and yelled at her and said, “Hey, you’ve been up there long enough. Get done. Let other people take pictures.” My wife immediately felt embarrassed. So, what happened next, this is where the story kicks in … My wife has a very strong story about herself which is, “I am a person who follows all the rules, who complies with the way things should be. I’m not a troublemaker. I’m very independent. I don’t need to be told what to do. I’m gonna do it right the first time.”
Anyway, all of this came together for her in that moment of being yelled at. It made her feel extremely angry at this person for yelling at her because think, if that’s your story about yourself, why would you ever have to chastise me? I know the rules. I always follow the rules. I never break the rules. Her story was running up against an issue, which is, “The story I have about myself right now in this moment is not the story you have about me. You’re yelling at me as if I was a troublemaker and that’s not who I am,” and this was causing a lot of internal conflict for her. She immediately got down. She was immediately angry and was trying to avoid this specific person as we were touring other parts of that area. She was like, “No, there’s that person. I do not want to be …”
A little bit of time went by and I said, “Why is that still bothering you so much?” She said, “I’m really angry at him and I don’t want to be around him.” This was kind of a neat opportunity to say, “Well, that’s fine to feel really upset, but do you know why you’re really upset?” She said, “No.” I said, “Well, what is the fear? What’s the problem with being yelled at? Why is that a problem? He just yelled at you and then you got down and that fixed everything, but why would that continue to be a problem?” She kind of sat with that and explored with it and on her way back to the van, she said, “You know, I think I’ve figured it out. What’s really going on is I’m embarrassed because I’m not the type of person that you would typically need to yell at to comply with a rule because I don’t bend any rules. I’m very black and white when it comes to things like that.”
Anyway, there was this moment of exploration for her to understand herself. I said, “Yeah, I think that’s right. That sounds like exactly why you would be so upset about it.” That understanding she gained about herself was very insightful for her. So, it reminded me, and I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before of a time in my own life with my own stories and some of the unnecessary suffering I was experiencing had to do with reality conflicting with the story that I have about myself. One of the examples of this for me is when, as an entrepreneur, the thought of my company failing was extremely traumatic for me because it was … The story I have about myself is crumbling because the world is going to perceive me as something that I don’t perceive myself as, which is I am an entrepreneur and I’m successful. Now everyone’s gonna think I’m a failed entrepreneur because my company failed and that was really painful until I realized, “Oh, okay, that’s just a story, and the more attached I am to that story I have about myself, the more suffering I’m-”
… attached I am to that story I have about myself, the more suffering I’m experiencing with the life circumstances that I’m in right now. So that’s what I wanted to get at with this, is we all have stories about ourselves, and how wise and beneficial it can be to understand our stories. What is your story you have about yourself? And you can try to identify this with asking questions like, what is something I’m really proud of about myself, or something that I am really happy about how I am? A character trait or something. Explore that a little bit and see if you can find or identify what the story is that you tell about yourself, and then notice how hard … how much effort goes into protecting that story or ensuring that that story matches with the story others are creating about you, and just notice that.
The goal here isn’t to eliminate our stories. This is something I wanted to discuss with regards to the concept of ego and the self. Like, I think one of the biggest ego trips that I see in this tradition in Buddhism is the ego trip of now I have no ego. It’s like, what an incredible ego trip that is to think that you no longer have an ego. I think I like to visualize the ego as I would a shadow. It’s like there you are, and when the causes and conditions are right, the sun is up, it casts a shadow on you, and you see the shadow, and the shadow is there. It’s very much a part of you, and everything you do, it does, and yet in some ways it’s just an illusion. It’s just there.
I think our ego emerges through these stories, the stories we have about ourselves, the stories that we have that we think others have about us, and this gives rise to the ego, the shadow, the shadow-self that’s there following us. No matter what we do, it’s there, and we give it so much importance because the more attached we are to our stories, the more that shadow seems like a real, tangible part of me, that is the essence of me is my shadow. Now, that would be silly when I think about it with my shadow because I would just see my shadow as just a shadow, and the shadow changes as I change. If I put on a hat, well, guess what? There’s the shadow wearing a hat. I think the ego, the sense of self that we have, is a lot like that. It’s just always there.
So it’s not about eliminating the shadow, it’s about understanding that a shadow is a shadow. It’s not me. It’s like going through life thinking that your shadow is you, and then, in this sense, like awakening is that realization that, oh, it’s just a shadow. It’s an illusion. It arises and it’s there and I see it, but now I’m not so scared of my shadow because I understand it and see it for what it is. I think this transcending the ego is a lot like that, where it’s not that the ego goes away, it’s that you understand yourself and you know your stories and you understand why you feel attached to your stories, and you can have moments where you don’t feel so attached to them and the ego isn’t a problem anymore.
And if you’re standing somewhere and someone yells at you because they were waiting in line, you can feel bad for a moment, but then you immediately understand why this makes you feel bad because you know your stories, and then you get over it and think, “Okay, sorry. Sorry, your turn.” You can go, and you don’t harbor all this anger and resentment because there’s no story to defend. You realize it’s just a story, and you allow that thing to pass.
Now, I’ve experienced this in my own practice trying to identify my own stories, because one of the strong stories I had growing up, and it still arises from time to time, is the story that I am very dependable and you don’t have to ask me twice to do things. All of that is part of a story that I have, so if I’m ever in a situation where I fail to do that and somebody says, “Hey, why didn’t you …” I immediately start coming up with these stories to defend the story I have about myself. Oh, it must have been this or that. And then I can pause and say, “Wait, wait, sorry. I just got scatterbrained for a moment. Sometimes I’m not as dependable as I think I am. I literally forgot. I have too many things on my mind. Sorry,” and then I can correct it, and I don’t hold resentment that somebody viewed me as someone who’s not dependable because I can say, well, in that moment I wasn’t dependable, sorry, but I’m going to try from here on out to not forget, or things like that.
At least that’s been how it’s worked in my experience. The more I understand my stories that I have about myself, the more unattached I am to those stories. They’re still there, there’s still stories, some of them I understand where they come from, how I was raised or beliefs that I had, and I understand, I understand that about myself and that gives me more power with how I relate to my stories. It doesn’t eliminate the stories all the time. Some do, some have changed, some have gone away, and I’ve actually gained some new ones. So the stories are always there, but the relationship I have with the stories is what I believe has been the most drastic of all the changes. I don’t get so caught up in my stories because I see them for what they are. They’re stories. Like shadows, they’re just there, and I understand them better, so I have a better relationship with them.
So that’s the concept of these stories, the tale of many tales, the story about all the stories that you have about yourself, the stories that you have that others have of you. Now, you could spend a lot of time understanding yourself and your stories, and that would be very beneficial. You could also look at, what are the stories you try to make others have of you? And that one gets really muddy because, the truth is, you don’t know what’s the full story that others have of you. All you know is that they’re not really accurate. I mean, they may be accurate to some degree, but you don’t control the story that someone else has of you.
I face this all the time in my own community because when you don’t share the predominant views or world views or beliefs of a community, you can bet that stories are created about you. Oh, there must be this reason why. This is why he doesn’t believe this, or this must be why he’s doing that. I don’t get to control those stories. I have no control over that. So the stories that other people have of me at times can be stressful, but what matters to me most is I feel like every day I’m getting better and better at understanding what are the stories I have about myself, and I become more skillful with them, which in turn allows me to be less reactive to things as they unfold, which in turn allows me to experience more peace and more contentment.
And at the end of the day, that’s my journey. I’m trying to have more peace and contentment and joy in life just because I understand myself better, and I understand the nature of reality a little bit better, and all of this comes from Buddhist teachings and Buddhist practices applied to how they work for me in this context of a secular form of it. So that’s what I wanted to share, the tale of many tales. What is your tale? What are your stories? What are the stories you tell about yourself? And I would hope that over time, as you get to know your stories and get to know how you react to certain … when reality conflicts with your story that you’re trying to project onto yourself, or that you want others to project onto you, notice the suffering that arises, notice how that feels to see the conflict of reality and the story, and how difficult that can be at times.
But the most skillful practice to me in all of this is you knowing you, you understanding your story, seeing which of your stories you tend to be more attached to, and then notice what happens as you try to change the relationship you have with your story to be less attached to that story, to be more flexible with it, and hopefully you’ll notice what I have noticed in my own life as I try to practice all this stuff, which is, again, more peace, more contentment, more joy. And that’s all I have to share, so my invitation to you for this podcast episode is to sit with your stories. What are they? Try to identify a couple of them, and then work with them and see what it feels like to play with the idea of maybe this is just a story. What if it’s just a story and it’s not reality? What does that feel like?
So that’s the tale many tales. Again, if you want to learn more about Buddhism in general, I do have a book about that, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, that has over 60 questions and answers around Buddhist history and concepts and teachings and practices. You can learn more about that by visiting everydaybuddhism.com. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. You can join the online community, which is our Facebook group. It’s called the Secular Buddhism Podcast Community. You can find that at secularbuddhism.com/community. And if you want to support the work that I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com, click the donate button, and that is all I have for now, but as always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening, and until next time.