86 – Listening to Understand

We seem to really struggle when it comes to having conversations about difficult topics. Are we listening with the intent to understand the other person or are we simply assessing to determine what team the other person is on? Are they team “us” or team “them”. In this episode, I will discuss the idea of listening to understand.

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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 86. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about listening to understand. Before I jump into that, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.

I had a recent experience where I was asked about my view or stance on a controversial topic, and in that moment I felt a sense of hesitation on my part in deciding how to answer. And, this experience got me thinking about the nature of the question. Was this being asked in order to truly gain a better understanding of my views or was it just a test of some sort to see what team I’m on. Now, imagine for a moment any of the hot topics of the day, it could be political questions like, what are your views on immigration? What is your stance on gun control? Moral or ethical questions like, what do you think of abortion? Are you a vegetarian? Why do you eat meat? Or existential questions like, do you believe in God? What do you think happens when we die? And of course we can’t leave out the hot topic of the season, you know, what are your thoughts about the Christmas classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside?”

Now, as I thought about the specific question that I was being asked, it occurred to me like I said that perhaps I was being subjected to a test. Was this question just a simple assessment of whether, or not I’m on team us, or team them, and this got me thinking, how often are we making these assessments against others? For me, how often am I really listening to understand? And, I mentioned before in a previous podcast episode, episode 73 titled, “What Moves Us,” the five core social motives. With the first one, number one being, belonging. That is to say that, one of the core social motives is to make an assessment of belonging. I’m trying to determine whether I belong. I need to decide what team you’re on, and can you see how this plays out if we’re all doing this assessment all the time? Do you do this in your own life?

I do this all the time and I think we all do, and some topics are more sensitive than others. I know for me it centers a bit more around like religious affiliation, or are more clearly I’m trying to determine the level of religious dogmatism or fundamentalism that one possesses, and that’ll hit a sensitive nerve for me. So, I think it stems from the fact that I tend to feel like, that is a particular team that I no longer belong to. A team that often gives off this vibe of, “Hey, you’re a trader, you were one of us and now you’re not.” Or, “You’re a weak person, because you’ve lost your faith.” Or, I don’t know, anything along those lines. So, it seems easy for me that when it comes to religious topics or questions of a religious nature, I catch that I’m generally listening to assess for belonging rather than listening to try to understand, and that’s just something that I’ve noticed about myself.

Again, what we’re trying to do with all of this as a practice is internalize it. You take all this information that you’re hearing on the podcast and this is about you saying, “Okay, well how does this apply to me? In what areas of my life am I struggling to listen to understand?” Now, I want to emphasize that we’re hardwired to do this for survival reasons. Back in the old days, the evolutionary days, if we weren’t good at this simple assessment, it could have meant the difference between life and death. In other words, I’m not saying that this is a bad thing that we do, I’m just saying it’s not the most skillful way to communicate around these difficult topics when we’re all playing the game of just trying to see, what side were each on, and then we ostracize, or invalidate the other view, or the other opinions so quickly.

Now, it’s unfortunate, but I think in our culture we’ve been taught to avoid talking about controversial topics, because it makes both sides too upset, it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it. We end up getting carried away by the aversion that we have to the discomfort of these emotions that arise when we’re talking about these things. When instead, we should be focusing on learning how to have skillful conversations about difficult topics. Now, I get it that you can’t change other people. This isn’t about convincing someone else to be better at talking about difficult topics that are controversial for them. This is about you deciding and learning, can I personally become better at having skillful conversations around difficult topics? How do we do that?

Well, first we need to learn to listen to understand, and when we’re seeking to understand, it’s important to know that we’re not trying to debate the validity of another person’s view, or their opinion, or their belief, we’re just trying to gain a bigger picture. And, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Understanding is loves other name,” and I really like that quote. I’ve mentioned it before in another context where he talks about how the more we understand, the more we love and the more we love, the more we understand. I think that’s something important to keep in mind. One of the most powerful things that we can do individually to become better at having skillful conversations around difficult topics, is first to recognize that we’re not experts at everything. I don’t understand why we all feel the need to be experts at everything. All of I do, everyone does, and in reality there are very few things that we are experts in.

Perhaps, it could be your career or something that you spent a considerable amount of time learning. That’s your area of expertise, but then there are so many other areas that are not your area of expertise. And for me, I know when someone asked me to talk about my views on, I don’t know, say immigration as an example, it’s like, well, why would you want to know what my opinion is? I mean, sure, I have one and I may feel strongly about my opinion, but that by no means makes me an expert on the topic. My view or my opinion may be wrong no matter how right it feels to me. And, wouldn’t it be nice if we all carried that attitude, that a bit of wiggle room that, my view may not be the right view.

In my personal practice with Buddhism, I’m constantly trying to understand myself, why do I do what I do? Why do I believe what I believe? Why do I not believe what I don’t believe? And, to view things the way that I view them. I understand that, I am the product of the societal views that I grew up with. With all my past experiences and the opinions that arise out of all of this, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right. It doesn’t mean that they’re better than other views or other opinions, and I try to keep that in mind. To acknowledge that there may be better views, or better opinions out there. In fact, that’s why I am where I am with my views, because at one point I measured or analyzed the views that I had with other views and thought, “Oh, these other views seem to make more sense to me.” So, I shifted and evolved in, and that’s led me to this current moment in space and time, where the collective views and opinions that I have are the ones that I have.

But to become stagnant and think, “Oh, well, now I got them all. This is …” No, it continues to evolve and I’m continually assessing my views and my ideas to other views and other ideas. So, there may be better views out there, and I want to hear about those. I want to listen to other views and understand them more. And, I want to be clear about this, that this doesn’t mean that we’re tolerating or condoning harmful views, harmful ideas, harmful opinions, but I think we can learn to engage more skillfully with opinions that we don’t like, opinions that we disagree with. But again, this whole process really starts with us. So, this episode of, are we listening to understand, it’s an invitation to ourselves. But, it also turns into an invitation to assess how others are listening to ourselves. If somebody comes to me and they’re asking me a question that’s on a hot topic and I get the sense that they want to understand my view, I would happily sit and discuss it and have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.

I think that would be relatively easy, but it would be very difficult if I sense that that person is not listening to understand. They’re listening to assess and listening to decide whether, or not I am one of them, or I’m the enemy, if I’m on the other team. And, if that’s the case, I personally feel like, well, what’s the point of playing that game? The moment I make it clear to you that I’m on the other team, I’m not sure I’m going to stand firm about specific views and ideas that I hold. But, there may be instances or circumstances where I think, “Well, I don’t think you need to hear my view on this, because it’s just my view and that’s it, and we don’t really need to get into it. You’re just going to view me as your enemy if I elaborate on this. So, why elaborate on it? Let’s just …”

Or the other thing that I’ll do often is, be honest and say, “I don’t know. I feel like it could be this or that, but the truth is I don’t know. So, I’m open.” And, that creates space for the person who’s assessing you to think, “Okay, well, that I can discuss this more with them.” And, you can develop your strategy, see what works with you and what works with different people. I mean, this is different with friends than it is with family, different with close family, like a spouse or a partner than it is with maybe a distant cousin or something. But, again, I think that the invitation here, the challenge for this week is to notice what is your default style of listening? Are you listening to understand, or are you defending your opinion perhaps with more zeal and more energy than maybe skillfully required for the goal that you’re trying to achieve?

What, if the goal of our conversations was to understand each other, rather than to a figure out who is more right than the other, or how I’m to convince you to view the world like me. So again, those were just the ideas I wanted to share around this topic, but the next thing I wanted to share is an item of news, and that is, in the past, I’ve done these trips to Uganda, humanitarian mindfulness trips. I’ve done two of them. And then I took a break, rather than planning to do another one, I held off because I’ve had in the works this tentative idea to do a trekking mindfulness trip to Nepal. And, I’m excited to announce that, that is now officially going to happen November 15th of 2019. So, we’re still 10 months out, there’s plenty of time to think about this, but what I want to do is, an adventure trekking/mindfulness retreat.

Now, why Nepal? Nepal has a lot of significance for Buddhism. It’s where the Buddha was born. What is today Nepal back then it was India. There are many temples and pilgrimage type sites, but what I want to do is actual trekking. Nepal is world famous for its trekking and one of the regions there is called the Annapurna range. And so, what I’m proposing to put together, and if any of you are interested keep listening, is a 15 day itinerary where we would start in Kathmandu and then we would do a 15 day a trek. Everyday we trek to a new little town where we stay and this would be, a part mindfulness retreat where every morning there would be group meditation, guided meditation, silent meditation, plenty of walking meditation, because that’s what we’re doing all day.

We would be having group discussions around a really deep concepts of getting to know ourselves, and having the time to put it into practice, because you may discuss a deep concept and then it’s okay, let’s walk for an hour and really think about this. And, then pause and imagine just sitting there and talking about these things, and glancing over and there’s mountain Everest, or the other incredible mountains on the Annapurna range, I think would be a really neat experience. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. So, it’ll be a small group. I’m going to cap this at probably 13 to 14 individuals and we would spend 15 days together trekking through Nepal, talking about mindfulness, and Buddhism, and deep concepts, and just seeing and experiencing the incredible culture of Nepal. Seeing ancient Buddhist temples and all the cool things that we’re going to see there.

So, I’ve put that together with a really neat outfitter group that’s based in Nepal. We’ve been talking for just over a year now and it’s going to be an incredible trip. Now, I don’t have all the details ready to publish yet, but for now you can visit mindfultrekking.com to learn the most basic details of the trip. I will be updating that site next week with more details, with the full itinerary, so you can see the schedule from day one through day 15. But for now, you can go there and if you’re interested enter your email address, that way I have it and I can send you the notification when all the details are there and it’s actually open to register. It’s going to be a really cool trip. So, if you didn’t get the chance, if you went to Africa, awesome. If you didn’t get the chance to do any of our Africa trips, this would be a really fun one.

This trip is geared for the average person, average level of fitness to be able to complete it. There are plenty of ups and downs, we’ll never go higher than 6,000 feet in elevation. So, it’s not an intense trek, but just keep in mind there are plenty of ups and downs and stairs that you would have to navigate over the course of these 15 days. So, if he had bad knees, that might be a consideration or … But the average person with the average level of fitness would be able to complete this. So, check that out, mindfultrekking.com.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, like always share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. You can join the online community, which I’m actually in the process of making a pretty big shift and change with this, I’ll announce that in a future podcast episode. If you want to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the donate button. But that’s all I have for now and I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, and giving you more details about the mindfulness retreat and trekking in Nepal. Thanks again for listening, until next time.

85 – Sometimes We Try Too Hard

Sometimes we fail because we try too hard, other times because don’t try hard enough. The trick is to find the right balance, the space in between, the space that is often referred to in Buddhism as The Middle Way. In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of the Middle way in terms of space and time.

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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 85. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. and today I’m talking about trying too hard, not trying hard enough, and the beauty of finding the middle way. Before I jump into that, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice, “Do not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Now one of the most important impacts Buddhism has had on my life is fully introducing me to this concept of the middle way. I want to start out talking about a story of a monk named Sona. This is a monk who was trying to be good at meditating, trying to live a more mindful life like many of us are trying to be better whatever we already are. In the Parable of the Lute, we learn about Sona becoming discouraged with his meditation practice, and he goes to visit the Buddha for advice. In the story, Sona, despite all the effort and energy he was putting into his practice, he grows discouraged and disappointed. His meditation practice that was supposed to be the very source of great peace and happiness and contentment in his life ends up being the very source of discontent for him. Sona had been taught to be mindful, even when walking, and he took this to heart to the point where he practiced so intensely that his feet developed blisters and he bled and he was getting discouraged. This wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for him.

When the Buddha heard about this, he went to see Sona, and he says, “I have heard that you are not getting the results you were hoping for from your meditation practice.” Supposedly, Sona at this point was considering just quitting the practice and going back to how life was before he had ever become a monk, and the Buddha reminded him that before becoming a monk, he was known for being a skilled lute player. He played the lute, a small guitar-like stringed instrument. Sona replied, “Yeah, I was able to produce good music.” Then the Buddha asks him, “Well, what happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?” Sona replied, “Well, couldn’t produce good music if the strings were too tight, and the strings could break.” The Buddha said, “Well, what happened when the strings were too loose?” Sona again replied, “Well, I couldn’t produce good music when they were too loose.”

In this simple exchange, the simple teaching, the Buddha helped Sona to understand that he had essentially been trying too hard, trying too hard to be mindful, trying too hard to do it the right way when there really isn’t a right way. The reminder here is that the skillful way to play the lute is with the strings that are not too tight and not too loose, and Sona understood this teaching. In the story, he decided to continue practicing. He found his middle way and went on to become enlightened, as it so often happens in these stories.

I love this story, particularly becomes … It seems to be incredibly profound and yet such a simple teaching. We are like the lute, and we have that middle way where the strings are not too tight and they’re not too loose. We’re not trying too hard. It’s somewhere in between. We’re trying too hard and we’re not trying hard enough. You can think of this concept when applied to anything in your life. Not just mindfulness practice, but think of this as a partner, as a spouse, as a parent. I’m sure all of you know a parent that seems to be trying too hard or you know parents who just don’t seem to be trying hard enough or coworkers or your boss or anyone in almost any aspect of life. You can identify someone who seems to be trying too hard or not trying hard enough.

I’m sure with some, a little bit of self-reflection, introspection, you could identify this about you as well, but here’s the catch. It’s not about identifying this in others. This teaching, the Buddha didn’t come and say, “Oh, tweak those strings a little bit, three centimeters to the left.” It wasn’t that. The whole teaching was to understand that you are the lute. You are the lute and you are also the lute player, and only you can discover that middle way, your middle way. Only you can ask yourself honestly, “Am I trying too hard or am I not trying hard enough?” That’s part of this quest. That’s what this mindfulness practice is about. In Sona’s case, it wasn’t working for him because he was trying too hard.

Now for me, my entire journey with Buddhism and mindfulness practice has been about finding my middle way, that place where I am at peace, the music seems to be playing just right, at least for me. But it can be difficult at times because we have this inner critic that thinks it knows all about music and how music should be played and how it should sound. That critic is heavily influenced by societal norms, religious and political views, and everything else that falls under the collective label of the conditioned mind. So, I want to share another analogy kind of exploring this whole topic of trying too hard. Really, this is the teaching of the middle way.

Imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car. I’m sure most of us listening have this experience of knowing what it is to be driving a car. Now when we’re driving a car, all of the inputs have to do with now, the present moment. Even though you’re looking towards the future, let’s call that looking through the windshield, you don’t actually start to turn the steering wheel until you are in the turn. If you get that timing wrong, you’re in big trouble. You don’t just say, “Oh, here comes a turn,” boom, I start turning. It would be highly unskillful. You wait. You see it coming, and then when you enter the turn, you do the inputs in the present moment. Anticipating a big turn, you can start slowing down now. That’s something that you’re doing in the present in anticipation of something that’s happening in the future, but, again, if you get the timing wrong, you’re in big trouble.

To me, this is the essential lesson of the middle way that is so often spoken of in Buddhist teachings. It’s the timing of everything we do in the present moment. I like to call this the eternal now. Many of us live our lives driving this car by looking through the rear view mirror, and, as you can imagine, this as highly unskillful. It can cause incredible, unnecessary suffering for ourselves and for others on the road when we drive this way.

Then there’s another aspect of this that I want to explore as part of the analogy. I’m sure you’ve experienced what it’s like to drive with a backseat driver. This is when you’re driving and someone is telling you where to turn, when to turn, slow down, speed up, or it could just come in the form of they’re just chatting, telling you a long drawn-out story when you’re trying to focus on driving and it’s distracting you from driving. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this to some degree or another or we’ve been that backseat driver.

But what I want to get at with this analogy is what if we understood that we are the backseat driver? That inner narrator, the thoughts that are so prevalent in our mind, the voice in our head, that is the backseat driver. I’m not saying that the backseat driver is wrong, that we need to eliminate the backseat driver. The backseat driver is sometimes right. It’s not about saying, “Okay, inner narrator, you are wrong.” That’s not the point. Before, we just assumed whatever the inner narrator says must be right. It’s not that. I think we evolved to have this inner critic, this inner narrator, as a survival mechanism. It’s trying to keep us safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right and that’s the important thing here. I’ve been driving at times where I’m grateful that someone yelled, “Hey, watch out. There’s a deer,” because I didn’t notice it, and thanks to the other voice, I was able to act skillfully and not hit the deer.

I’ve also had experiences where someone’s like, “Oh, no, watch out for that hole,” and I slow down, all freaked out and realize, What hole? There is no hole. It was dark and they couldn’t see, or they were half asleep and they just woke up and blurted something out. I’ve had that happen too. And that’s kind of like what happens in our mind. It’s not about deciding the voice is always right or the voice is always wrong. I think it’s more about understanding that it’s somewhere in between, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and it takes a little bit of skill. Most of us go through our lives assuming that everything in our head is right. My thoughts, my beliefs, my memories, they’re all correct.

Quick side note on memories. In the last podcast episode, I told you guys about the experience with my wife and that message of trying to go to Antarctica. Well, I was sharing that with her and turns out she has an entirely different memory of how that all played out. It wasn’t Antarctica. It was Africa. Just the details were all different, and it was really funny. We started laughing as we were comparing our notes and then we laughed, saying, “Well, the memory is probably somewhere in between the two,” between my memory and hers. That brings about this whole other lesson that can be had, which is don’t trust your own memories. They’re not always right. I’ve experienced this multiple times with my twin brother when we recall past stories where we know we were both there, but we both recall the experience slightly differently. Again, that could be a whole nother podcast episode, but the lesson is don’t believe your own thoughts all the time. They may be wrong.

I think that’s exactly what this lesson is trying to get us to understand is that that voice in our mind may be wrong, it may be right, and what if we could live with that uncertainty of sometimes we don’t know? We see that the middle way is about understanding this Parable of the Lute and the strings, whether or not they’re too tight or they’re too loose. I think also it’s about time and understanding that we live in the eternal now, and the middle way is the intersection between the past and the future. We live in the middle way, the eternal now. It’s what we’re living in now. Then you apply this to the other teaching with the strings. Are we trying too hard or are we not trying hard enough? It’s the timing of it all.

Going back to this inner narrator for a moment, we tend to think of the voice as omniscient. It’s always right. It knows what others are thinking about us. It generates fears about things that haven’t happened yet. It judges. It certainly has a lot of opinions, and perhaps the most important of all of these is it never stops talking. But what if we acknowledged that that voice is sometimes wrong, and how does it feel to recognize that it may be wrong? It may be right, but we don’t know for certain, and we don’t need to silence the inner writer. We just need to change the relationship we have with it. We need to understand that, yes, it may be wrong. We need to become more comfortable with the uncertainty of what that voice often claims to know as truth. This is the truth about what you’re thinking about me. This is the truth about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

What would it be like to have a little bit more uncertainty and to be comfortable with that uncertainty? To me, that is one of the important aspects of this teaching. Now, again, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding that the answer to the question, Am I trying too hard or am I not trying hard enough? there is no solid answer to that. It can be helpful to have somebody give us another perspective, often a teacher or a family member, somebody who can see us from another perspective. That can be helpful, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right.

The whole point of introspective practice, what we’re trying to accomplish with mindfulness as a practice with Buddhism, as a tool of becoming a better whatever we already are, it’s helping you to answer that question about yourself and what aspects of your life are you trying too hard. What would happen if you toned it down and try a little less hard? Or, the flip side, what if you were to discover, maybe I’m not trying hard, hard enough. Maybe that’s why this relationship is failing. Maybe I can try a little harder, see what happens.

But keep in mind it could be the opposite. It could be that this isn’t working out because you are trying too hard, but you get to discover that. This is the beauty of this process, is this is you discovering. Now, again, in my personal life, this has been incredibly powerful for me. Whether it’s in my career as an entrepreneur, as a husband, as a father, as a brother, as a child, in any of my relationships, I’m trying to always find that middle way. When am I trying too hard? When am I not trying hard enough to be a good friend? Am I trying too hard? Am I not trying hard enough? You have to find that yourself. That’s part of this process.

That’s the challenge I want to leave with you for this week. Try to notice throughout the week what that inner critic is saying. What is that voice saying? Then ask yourself, “Am I trying too hard? Am I not trying hard enough?” In terms of timing, ask yourself, “Am I jumping the gun? Should I have waited longer? Did I wait too long?” Analyze a little bit of what’s happening in life and try to switch from that form of reactive living to more skillful action and see what you notice. You may notice yourself becoming less reactive. Try it this week. See how it feels. That’s the topic I wanted to share with you today.

Again, as always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism and mindfulness, you can check out my books, Secular Buddhism, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, and my most recent one, The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal. You can learn about all of these on my website, noahrasheta.com. That’s N-O-A-H R-A-S-H-E-T-A.com. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. If you would like to join our online community, visit secularbuddhism.com/community.

A side note on that, I have some big news with some changes that I’m going to be doing in the next week or two, by the end of the year. I have an entirely new approach that I want to take to this concept of community and sangha and being able to take advantage of working with each other as we all embark on this path of trying to be better whatever we already are. Stay tuned for that news, and if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button in the top right.

That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

84 – Practicing Daily Mindfulness

In this podcast episode, I will discuss some of the exercises and introspective questions that I believe can lead to a more mindful way of living. These are exercises that are published in the new book “The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal.”

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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 84. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about how to practice mindfulness daily.

Before I jump into that, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. Now on the past couple of episodes I’ve been talking about the four noble truths with the acronym ELSA, as a reminder to apply those as tasks, the eight-fold path was the last episode and today I wanted to talk a little-bit about some ideas and tips and exercises regarding how to actually practice mindfulness in our day to day living.

Now I wanna bring to your attention something, with the eight-fold path it can seem like there’s this structured way of trying to go about living and that can seem to contradict other episodes where I’ve talked about the idea of living artfully and I had a recent message from a Podcast listener who brought up this point and said, with concepts that I share from time to time, the idea that when you try the trying has lost the whole point or teachings like the gate-less gate to at times some Buddhist’s concepts and teachings can seem contradictory and their implications of what’s being taught with trying to do something and having effort vs not trying to do something and just going with the flow and in that case, why even try?

So what I explained as a response to this email, was the idea that effort is something that we exert at any given time for many different reason, it’s always happening. So the idea again, is to be more skillful in where we exert our effort. You can think of this, the analogy I gave in the email. I don’t know if it’s the best one but it was to visualize the events taking place on the Titanic in those final hours as it was sinking. There was a lot of effort being exerted to accomplish certain things. I’m sure in the… I don’t know what they call it but where the captain and all the officers are, there was a lot going on there. We know that on deck there was a lot of effort being made to keep the band playing music.

I don’t know I’m sure somewhere in the kitchen somebody may have been exerting effort to put away the dishes or to clean them. I don’t know but the point is to be able to pause and say, where’s the most skillful place to exert my effort and in the case of the Titanic it would have been to get as many people on the lifeboats as possible in the quickest amount of time and we know that’s not how that went down unfortunately.

So it’s kind of like that. It’s being able to pause and take inventory in our own lives with whatever the situation at hand is. Am I exerting the most skillful effort in the most skillful direction. That’s kind of the point here, it’s not saying that we shouldn’t have effort, that we shouldn’t do thing that we shouldn’t try to be better. It’s saying, try to understand why do you feel the need to be better in the first place because when you understand yourself you can be more skillful with where you exert that effort.

Which brings me to the point of this episode, this is why I wanted to talk about why even practice mindfulness? What is the point of being more mindful and I want to emphasize what I’ve echoed before in previous episodes. Which is that you don’t need to be more mindful. This content is relevant information for people who want to be more mindful. It’s the saying that goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” That’s true up until the point where ignorance isn’t bliss. Ignorance can be bliss in some circumstances and some instances and for certain amount of time but then life changes just like the game of Tetris, a new shape shows up and suddenly you are living a new set of circumstances where the ignorance isn’t bliss.

It’s causing yourself and those around a lot of unnecessary suffering and I think this happens a lot. This is certainly what happened with me in my own life with experiencing going through changes of events in life that caused me to suddenly be experiencing a lot of suffering and lot of my suffering was passing onto others around, those closest to me and there came to be this moment where I didn’t wanna feel that way anymore. I wanted to understand the nature of my emotions and my thoughts and my feelings and that path, that allowed to me exert more effort to be more mindful and others to learn more about myself and that’s something I cannot emphasize with this entire discussion and journey about Buddhism and mindfulness and all of this stuff, it’ll never give you the answers to life’s big questions, the mysteries of the cosmos.

It’s not about that. It’s going to unlock something that I believe is incredibly more mysterious and profound which is the nature of your own thoughts. Why do you think and say and do the things that you do? Only you can discover that about yourself and that’s the whole point of mindfulness as a practice. Now it’s important to recognize, you cannot force yourself to be more mindful. It’s not like i can just sit here and will myself to be more mindful in the same way that I cannot force myself to be more smart.

If I want to learn something, it’s gonna take time, it’s gonna take effort. I’m gonna have to pick up a book, read about this subject or topic that I wanna learn more about. Get a study manual, highlight things in the manual, watch tutorials and educational videos online about it. It takes effort on my part to learn about a new subject, it does for all of us and it’s the same way when it comes to learning more about ourselves. If you want to be more mindful and aware of yourself, well guess what? It’s gonna take some time and you’re gonna have to spend some time studying and observing yourself and in that sense, that’s where mindfulness as a practice comes in. It’s something that you continually work on and you can continually get to know yourself and the game doesn’t end because of the nature of things being impermanent, the you that you’re getting to know is a changing you. So if you think you finally figured yourself out, well guess what? The game keeps going because you’re always a new you.

So that’s something to keep in mind in all of this. Now when we typically talk about mindfulness, the most Buddhist schools and traditions, they would mention that mindfulness has essentially two layers; it’s being in the present moment and I think this is the most important part, having a none judgemental awareness of being in the present moment. For example, if I am sitting with the experience of being angry. I’m allowing myself to feel angry because that is the natural thing that I’m experiencing, that’s the first layer. The second layer is experiencing anger and not judging myself for having the experience of feeling angry.

So it doesn’t mean that we’re eliminating the stories that give rise to these emotions. It’s more about changing the relationship we have with our stories. It’s about no longer believing our stories, recognizing that our stories are just stories and one of those stories in this example I just gave is that, it’s wrong to be angry. So as long as I have the story “it’s wrong to be angry” now I experience anger and I’m adding a more complex layer because now I’m angry that I’m angry. So that’s something that we start to dissect in this whole process of exploration of trying to be more mindful and keep in mind that mindfulness is not just about feeling good. Although, you can feel really good about being mindful and practicing mindfulness.

It’s more about being good at feeling because you will feel everything that arises, the instances of discontent and anger and sadness and all of it. You’re going to be really good at feeling. So this is why I recently wrote my newest book is, the Five Minute Mindfulness Journal, that was my goal was what I’ve encountered over and over as I meet other people who either listen to the podcast or practice meditation or mindfulness of some sort, something that seems to be common that I encountered in my own path with trying to be more mindful is how do you actually do it? How do you spend time to become more insightful and understand yourself better.

Sure I can sit in meditation and I can watch my breathe for what seems like eternity but how is that gonna… What starts actually to help to get to know me and I wanted to share some of the exercises and things that have really worked for me in my own mindfulness practice but present them in a way where they’re easy to put into practice in your own day to day life. I think I’ve echoed this before as well that a consistent practice is far more beneficial then a deep or long or profound practice.

Sure you can go sit in a forest and spend a ten day meditation and it’s going to do a lot of great things that it may or may not but a lot of people report that things like that are beneficial but lets just bring us to the average day to day life, the average person, if you’re like me, we’re probably not gonna go sit in a mountain monastery for ten days or a month or years. We are busy with jobs, raising children, dealing with spouses and dealing with the traffic, driving to work. Is there a way for the average person to also experience these profound benefits of mindful as a practice and for me the resounding answer is, absolutely yes because I’ve experienced this in my own life all while carrying on the ordinary day to day tasks of being a son and a father and a spouse and a sibling and a coworker and a boss and an employee and everything else that I am.

So with that in mind I wanted to share some of the ideas and exercises that I think have worked really well. So the book is full of these but I’m going to share a few of them with you in this podcast episode with the goal of giving you a taste of what daily mindfulness practice can be. So take a moment an pause, you may be driving or doing something where you cannot do this. The way it’s intended in the journal, the journal is intended to be written in. So if you’re in a position where you can do this go ahead and do this but you can ask yourself, what do I feel right now and take inventory. Label the feeling, it can be hunger, tired, excited, rushed, whatever it is, take inventory of how you feel right now and once you have a label or a few labels ’cause most likely you feel several things right now.

Then spend a moment and try to ask yourself where does this feeling come from? what gives rise to this feeling? For example I feel X and it’s probably because of Y, write those down, “I feel X and I feel it because…” and write that down and once you have this little list you can pause the podcast at this point and work on that but once you have this list then the invitation is to dig deeper, “I feel this because of this but now lets look at that Y. Why do I feel that?” And you can you can do this many, many layers and I’ll give you an example in my own life.

Before I had ever gotten into mindfulness practice or even knew what Buddhism was, I hadn’t experienced at work once and my wife and I both worked at the same place and we were in cubicles and it was a really big building. So we would communicate through instant messenger on our computers and I had this bright idea. I can’t even remember what it was but I have this bright idea according to me and I was texting my wife explaining my bright idea. Which was something along the lines of I’m gonna this vacation time that we have. We didn’t have kids yet and I think if I recalled this correctly, she was pregnant. So we were gonna have a little-bit of time before [Rye ko 00:13:32] was born and I had amassed some time with, I think vacation time or sick time at work and same with some money and so my bright idea was this, I’m gonna use my time and before [Rye ko 00:13:47]’s born. She had no interest in ever going to visit Antarctica but I did.

So I thought, why don’t I get that trip our of the way ’cause it’s a bucket list item for me and I’ll go visit Antarctica. It’ll be a one or two week trip and then when I come back then i’s a few more months then the baby’s born and then we carry on with life but I will have achieved this bucket list item and to me in my mind it all sounded brilliant. So I share all this with her in this text message and then I can’t remember the exact order of events but I think I rethought it and then sent her this message saying, actually no maybe that’s not a good idea.

Maybe it wouldn’t work ’cause of blah blah blah and then she replied to my message with this long elaborate text that was clearly not meant for me saying, “Oh he finally just changed his idea. I’m so glad he realized what a dumb idea it was man because blah blah blah.” And going off on telling somebody else what I had just told her and the way she painted it made it seem wow, what a horrible idea and I’m glad he saw that it was a horrible idea, so I didn’t have to tell him.

And I felt so offended. First of all, I felt mad that I was like, “Why wouldn’t she just tell me. Why does she have to confide in someone else about what a bad idea this is?” So I replied away and I was like, “I don’t think you meant that for me.” And acting all indignant, right? Because, she criticized my idea. So to me that was one of those instances of, I feel X and it’s probably because of Y.

So in my case, I feel upset because my wife just called me out… well I guess not directly to me unintentionally, made me appear a fool to someone, to whoever she meant that message to go through and I was just really angry with that. It wasn’t until much later that I could, sit with the emotion and I learned this whole process of introspection and I replayed several instances in my past, this is one of them where I thought, “Why did that bother me so much when I got that text? When I got that message that totally shot me down as a crazy person with dumb ideas.” And what I realized was from from my perspective, my idea didn’t seem crazy but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t crazy.

It very well may have been and it certainly was to her based on her perspective and perhaps I would’ve needed to have it elaborated a little-bit more on why I was thinking what I was thinking but so anyway, what I discovered the deeper thing for me in that whole example was the realization that I have a story about myself and that story is that I come up with good ideas. I always have ideas that of course to me they’re good ideas and I was being confronted with this harsh reality that my great ideas aren’t great to everyone and here was someone close to me that I thought would certainly see my brilliance of my ideas and she didn’t and I realized she actually thought it was actually a dumb idea.

So it was my reality of me being someone who has good ideas, was being confronted with the harshness of reality which is that, no not all your ideas are good or at least not to everyone and that created conflict in me ’cause I had to maintain my story of, well no the problem has to be her, it’s not me and my ideas ’cause I have good ones that’s part of my story. So anyway what I wanted to get at was the digging deeper. How did I feel? why did I feel and why did I feel what I felt?

So I was going through a few layers that revealed in my instance, in my example, it revealed something about me to me. Which is I have a story that when confronted with reality at times will run into problems which is, if someone doesn’t think my idea’s good, I’m going to have problems with that. So again, with time that allowed me to realize, okay I can accept a new reality which is, no not all of my ideas are good, at least not to everyone else. Even if they’re good ideas to me doesn’t means they’re gonna be good ideas to others.

Okay I kinda went on a tangent with that. So lets go back to this concept of thinking. As an exercise you can ask yourself, is thinking something that I do or is it something that’s happening to me and in fact, the very fact that I just asked this question has probably sent your mind on a new trajectory that you are not able to control. What did you immediately think after I asked you that question? Is thinking something that you’re doing or something that’s happening to you or any question?

Anytime someone ask you a question and you’re thinking of an answer, can you help the fact that, that answer is what popped into your head? That, that specific thought or idea is what arose in your mind, can you help that? I don’t think that you can and in terms of interdependence, everything is influencing our thoughts at all times and marketers know this. This is why we’re always being bombarded with messaging that tries to influence us and when a thought arises, oh I need to have this or that. I gotta have it, whatever that is. Were you really able to help it? I don’t think so.

I don’t think we’re in control as much as we think we are. So and then there’s the problem of the inter-narrator. Our brain is wired in a way that gives rise to the narrator of our thoughts and part of what we want to achieve with mindfulness practices, understanding the nature of our mind, getting to know the inter-narrator and ultimately befriending or at least having a more skillful relationship with the inter-narrator and I’ve mentioned this before but that voice in our head, that is the narrator. We all have one.

Most likely your inter-narrator sounds a lot like you. It’s like you’re hearing your own voice. It’s the one that probably laughs at your own jokes and, or it’s the heckler in the crowd that makes fun of everything that you’re trying to do. For some that voice can be downright mean and nasty but it is the voice and it’s the one that even now, some people may be listening to this saying, “No I don’t have a voice, there’s not a voice inside my head.” Well that’s it that’s the inner-voice. Meet your inner-narrator.

So here’s an exercise that you can do when it comes this process of understanding and meeting your inner-narrator. You can ask yourself, what are some of the characteristics of my inner-narrator? Is it mean? Is it nice? Is it a bold voice? Is it a shy voice and think about it and just write down some of the characteristics that you would attribute to this inner-narrator and you can ask yourself, “Well why do I even want to get to know this inner-narrator?”

Well I said before for many of us, the inner-narrator is mean and cruel, it can often make our lives feel miserable. It can be demanding, it’s always saying, “I want this and I don’t want that.” And it has this whole list of wants and it has this whole list of things to avoid, right? This is kind of the Buddhist concept of the three poisons there. The desires are the things the inner-narrator is saying, “I gotta have that.” And then there are the eversions, the things that the inner-narrator saying, “No get away from that, we don’t want any of that in our lives.”

And it can be super controlling. It’s a control freak. So here’s another exercise, I want you to take a moment and think about what is the meanest thing you’ve ever said or done to someone and, or that you’ve seen someone do to someone else and try to recall, how did that feel as you were witnessing or experiencing this? You can just write it down, it’s a quick journal entry, a memory and ask yourself, what was that experience like? Just think about that for a moment and then what we’re gonna do for this exercise is reflect inward and the question you’re gonna ask yourself is, what is the meanest thing you’ve done or said to yourself and how does that feel?

And this may be a past experience but it may be a current, a present experience, an ongoing one. Something that you continually say or do to yourself and just pause and reflect, how does it feel to treat yourself the way that you do and the inner-narrator isn’t always mean. It’ll do nice things to, part of its job is to protect us, right? We’re hardwired as a species to survive. So a lot of the harshness that comes from the inner-narrator is done coming from a place of love you could say. A place of instinctual survival. It says, don’t wear that you look like an idiot because ultimately it’s trying to protect you because if you look like an idiot you may be ostracized from the group, if you’re not in the group you’re gonna be cast out and if you get cast out we’re gonna die, right?

That’s the thinking that’s going on that’s underneath the meanness at times of this inner-narrator and I think that’s important to know. So what we want to try to spend time with is imagine that you’re meeting the inner-narrator and I want you to think of five compliments that you could give your inner-narrator. It may be difficult to conceptualize this as you meeting your inner-narrator. A quick easy way to do this is just to imagine that you are meeting yourself from yesterday.

That you of yesterday is meeting the you of right now and what would be five compliments and perhaps five complaints if you wanna have a frank discussion with yourself, what are five things you like about yourself and five things you don’t like about yourself and try to analyze these things through that lens of introspection of, you the inner-narrator trying to protect yourself often from things you don’t realize are the hidden motives of why you are or the way that you are to yourself.

So just keep that in mind and look at this list of the five complaints and five compliments and see I don’t know, what insight arises out of that. Another exercise you can do is think of a good friend. What are some of the characteristics of a good friend. What is it that makes a good friend, a good friend and write down some of these qualities or attributes. Again, this is what separates a friend from a good friend. So everyone’s list is gonna be a little-bit different but think about what that entails for you.

What makes your good friends, your good friends and look at look at that list and now imagine what would it be if you were that good friend to yourself? How would your life be different if you were a better friend to yourself and list five things that you can start doing right now, to be a better friend to yourself and this exercise works even when you’re thinking of others to. If you wanna just be a better friend in general, how can you be a better friend to others? How can you go from being a friend to a good friend to someone else that you care about?

So this kinda has a two part thing where it can benefit you as far as your relationships with others but it’s meant to really start with the core. Which is you befriending yourself. So think about that and write those things down and remember there’s this quote that says “You, yourself as much as anybody else in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” And I want to end this kind of on that note.

This is why I wrote the five minute mindfulness journal as a process. A place where you can visit. Literally it takes five minutes or less everyday looking at some of these questions and exercises and the book is packed with them. I gave you what, three or four? The book is packed with them and it’s broken into various sections. Section one is you are not your thoughts. Two is the inner-narrator. Three is befriending your inner-narrator. Four is finding peace in the struggle. Next is self acceptance, then gratitude and then the last section of the book is exercises around cultivating love and kindness.

So again the way this book is structured as a journal. It’s meant to be a book that you read and that you write in the book and these exercises that you work on and the things that you write are meant to give rise to insight and wisdom into the nature of yourself, your own mind. Your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, the things that you say and think and do. It’s a journal about you. It’s about you getting to know you, having a better understanding and ultimately changing the relationship that you with yourself.

I can guarantee you there’s nothing mysterious that you’re gonna gain in this about the cosmos or about life. There will absolutely be ah-hah moments when it comes to understanding you and yourself. Which I think is incredibly more profound at least in my opinion but again as I mentioned earlier in this book, who am I to think that my ideas are good? Obviously, to some people that are not but I haven’t gotten to Antarctica yet but it’s still in the works and now that I talked about this and recalled that story, I think I’ve rekindled the desire to get that one crossed off my bucket list and go to Antarctica.

Hopefully my wife will think it’s a good idea. Hopefully she’ll wanna come with me now that this is ten years after that. We’ll see. I guess you’ll know when you hear about it if and when I go, if she comes with me, you guys will all be a part of that inside joke knowing that story about us and our past and her thinking what a dumb idea it was for me to wanna go to Antarctica.

Okay so that’s all I have for this episode. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the sequence of thoughts and ideas from the past three episodes, starting with the four noble truth, the eight-fold path and then this one, the invitation to start to apply practices where you sit and get to know yourself. I can promise you that one of the most impactful changes that you’ll have on your life is the change in the dynamic, the relationship that you have with yourself, with your own thoughts, with your feelings and with your emotions.

To be able to be skillful in where you exert this effort of controlling who are and how you wanna and the things that you wanna do. So that’s the invitation with this podcast you can pick up the book it’s available now on Amazon. It’s called The Five Minute Mindfulness Journal.

Again if you wanna learn more about these concepts, you can check out the other book, No Nonsense Buddhism For Beginners and I think that will compliment this one pretty well now. That one is the teachings and ideas and this one is practices and exercises. You can learn more about that on Everyday Buddhism or secularbuddhism.com and as always if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. You can join the online community secularbuddhism.com/community, it’s just a Facebook group and if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast please 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.

Until next time.

83 – The Path of Liberation / The Eightfold Path

The essence of many of the Buddha’s discourses and teachings can be found in the Eightfold Path, often referred to as the Path of Liberation. It is not a path we walk only once or in a particular order. It’s meant to be a guide for specific areas of life in which we can experience and discover the nature of reality.

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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 83, I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the Eightfold Path.

As always, before I jump into the topic, 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.” So with that, I want to recap. In the last podcast episode, I talked about the Four Noble Truths, or the four truths for those who would be noble, or the four tasks, however you want to think of that framing, with the acronym ELSA, which E is embrace the instance of suffering, the first truth. L, let go of the reactive pattern … And remember, what we’re letting go of is the pattern, not reactivity itself. I think this is a misconception that I want to be clear about.

It’s not that we let go of reactivity, and that we won’t react in any negative way when something arises. That’s not what this is about. This is the reactive pattern, it’s that one thing leads to another, that leads to another, that leads to another. And somewhere in that chain of reactivity, you can pause, you can see the stopping the reactivity, which is the third one, the S in ELSA. And when you see the stopping of the reactivity, it’s the pattern, you let go of the reactive pattern. That’s not the same thing as letting go of reactivity. I just want to be clear about that.

And with this process of seeing the stopping of reactivity, it’s like asking yourself, “Is the observer of the emotion also experiencing the emotion?” That’s kind of what it’s like to see the stopping of the reactivity, which leads us to the fourth one. The A in ELSA is act skillfully. Keep in mind, this word skillfully is used deliberately, because it’s not about acting the right way versus the wrong way. It’s about understanding ourselves, our intent, and trying to make the most skillful choice with whatever it is that we’re about to do, whatever the situation at hand is.

So the podcast episode for today, the Eightfold Path, is essentially this: act skillfully. How do we act skillfully, and what areas of life? So that’s what I want to talk about in this podcast episode. So the word that’s used in the original writings, when referring to the four noble truths, the fourth truth is a word that’s called … The word is magga, and it’s a polyword, and it means path. So the idea here is that what we’re talking about is a path, and the Buddha taught … In all of his teachings, he dealt with this concept of the path in one way or another.

And it may have been explained differently to different people according to where they were on their own individual paths. The Buddha was known for that, kind of speaking to people and explaining things from where they were, not explaining something that would go over their heads. But the essence of the Buddha’s many discourses and teachings can essentially be found in this idea of the Eightfold Path, often referred to as the path of liberation, or the path to the cessation of suffering.

So I want to talk about this a little bit. The eight parts of the path are typically grouped into three categories. And these categories are wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline. So we’ll go through this, and the Eightfold Path … Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be followed in sequential order. All eight areas are typically developed simultaneously in an ongoing way. So they’re all linked in the sense that each one helps with the cultivation of the other parts of the path.

So the eight parts of the path grouped in their three categories. The first category is wisdom. The parts of the path that pertain to wisdom are skillful understanding and skillful intent. So understanding and intent are the first two. The next three fall into this category of ethical conduct, and these are skillful speech, skillful action and skillful livelihood. And then the final three fall under the category of mental discipline, and these are skillful effort, skillful mindfulness and skillful concentration.

So again, the Eightfold Path is not a path that we walk once or in a particular order, like you master this, then you move on and you master that one. It doesn’t really work that way. You’ll notice how various segments of the path seem to overlap and rely on each other. And some of them flow into or relate back to each other as well. It’s also not a moral code that’s intended to be follow in the sense of the Ten Commandments or something in Christianity, it’s not really like that.

The components have the word right, typically. Like, if you pick up a book on Buddhism, you’ll probably find that the Eightfold Path is explained with the word right. Right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action. And I think that can be a little bit misleading, because in our Western way of thinking, in our dualistic way of thinking, right has an opposite, it has a wrong. So if I’m doing this right speech, then what is wrong speech? And so that doesn’t really arise in a lot of Eastern thinking, because a lot of Eastern thinking is non-dualistic, so there’s no problem with saying right something, because they’re not opposing that with wrong something. But we do in the West, so I find it more beneficial to use the language of skillful when we’re talking about these things.

So don’t think of these in terms of right versus wrong. Instead, think of them as whys or skillful ways of living. And the Eightfold Path is meant to be a guide for specific areas of life in which we can experience and discover the nature of reality. So this concept of walking the path, it’s an ongoing practice that can bring a new sense of awareness and perspective in our lives, because we’re always on the path.

So let’s talk about the first section related to wisdom. What does it mean to skillful understanding? Well, right or wise understanding starts by simply recognizing that what we’re seeing might not actually be what we think it is, or what it appears to be. So I’ve used this analogy before, but imagine walking into a barn and you see a coiled hose, and you mistake it for a snake. You wouldn’t be experiencing reality, but rather the picture of reality in your head. And you might immediately react as though there really were a snake, giving a gasp or being startled, or turning and running away. Yet, in reality, there is no snake. Wisdom is like turning on the light in the barn and revealing that the snake was actually a hose.

So we’re continually seeking wisdom to help us learn and see the world the way that it really is. And the four noble truths and the Three Marks of Existence, which I didn’t talk about in the last episode, but essentially suffering, impermanence and the concept of no self, or non-self, helps us to have a wise understanding of the nature of reality. So the wisdom of understanding is not about acquiring more knowledge. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite, it’s about trying to unlearn the concepts and ideas that prevent us from seeing reality as it is. So that’s the idea of right or skillful understanding.

So let’s talk about the next one, skillful intent. What does it mean to have skillful intent? If we want to reduce suffering, we need to be aware of the intentions we have regarding the things that we say and do. So when our intentions stem from anger or hatred, they’re more likely to cause harm than if they stem from happiness or gratitude. When we behave reactively, it’s very difficult to be mindful of the intent behind our words and actions, because typically we’re reacting. It takes practice to become aware of our intentions, and you can start this practice by asking yourself, “Why? Why am I reacting this way to the things that are unfolding in life? Why am I feeling anger?”

I like to ask myself, “Why am I experiencing this emotion?” When I notice I’m experiencing and emotion, I like to pause and ask myself that. And you can do that not just when you’re experiencing what we would say are unpleasant emotions, but even the pleasant ones. You can say … If you’re always kind to someone, ask yourself why. “Why am I always kind to this person? Is it because I genuinely care about this person, or am I trying to gain something? Favor with them?” Again, this is just about understanding our intent, and it requires asking a lot of questions.

When you become aware of your intentions, you can decide if you need to create new intentions and perhaps let go of old ones. So this will cause you, ultimately, to speak and act more skillfully. So the whole idea with skillful intent is spend time with yourself and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve found in my own life that understanding the intent behind some of the things I say and think and do … It’s really revealed a lot to me about me, the nature of my tendencies and habitual processes and stuff. So again, all of this is meant to be a very personal journey. This is you getting to know you. There’s not an answer that applies to everyone, so only you can unlock and understand your own intent.

So those are the first two. Now let’s move on to the third one, which falls into the category of ethical conduct, so this is the ethical conduct section. We’ll start with skillful speech. What does that mean? Well, the way we communicate, whether it be with ourselves or with others, is an essential part of creating a peaceful and harmonious life. We are social creatures, and communication is the most important part of human relations. So right speech means communicating with others in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary harm, and that includes all forms of communication. When we say skillful speech, we’re not just talking about talking. It’s writing and texting and emailing and facebooking, all forms of communication.

So lying, gossiping or insulting others, those are examples of unskillful speech. That is not skillful speech. But also unskillful speech would be complimenting people when you don’t mean it, giving promises that you don’t intend to keep. Sucking up to someone with the intent of just trying to impress them, that’s also going to fall under this area of unskillful speech. So it’s not just about being nice. With skillful speech, what you’re trying to do is consider why you say something as much as what you’re saying. So the why and the what are equally important.

So consider the different between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism may be hard to hear, but the goal of it is to help you become better at what you’re doing. The latter is intended just to cause pain. So skillful speech doesn’t always have to be pleasant or nice. It doesn’t need to withhold ideas out of fear that someone might disagree with you. But what we’re trying to accomplish is sincere and genuine communication with the intent of not causing unnecessary harm.

So again, skillful speech is one of those … You have to spend time with this and understand your intent. “Why do I say the things that I say? Why do I say them the way that I say them?” Tone and language and intent, all of that falls in there. So you can evaluate your own speech and determine if you practice skillful communication or skillful speech.

Okay, so let’s move on to the next one, skillful action. What does mean? Is it a set of rules to follow? It essentially means that we’re doing what is proper and necessary for any given situation. So while this sometimes includes — and it certainly doesn’t discourage — a sense of doing the right thing, morally, it more closely resembles a guideline for behaving appropriately in any situation. The problem with having a set moral code is that moral codes change. They evolve over time, and they’re different in different cultures. So adhering to the moral code of another place and another time may not be the wisest form of action for our specific place and time.

And there’s a quote that’s often attributed to H.L. Mencken, that says, “Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told regardless of what’s right.” So skillful action is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter in every situation. It’s not about obedience, so … I mean, how could it be when life is continually changing and evolving? Ideally, skillful understanding and skillful thinking and skillful speech will give rise naturally to skillful action, your wisdom leading you to behave fittingly in any scenario, because you are practicing these other aspects of the path.

So if I’m trying to skillful in my communication and understanding my intent, and I have an understanding of the nature of constant chance, it’s going to be more natural for my actions to also be skillful, naturally, not because I’m trying to follow some set of rules. So hopefully that makes sense in terms of this concept of skillful action.

So the next one is skillful livelihood. What does that mean? People will ask, “Does Buddhism consider certain jobs to be better than others?” Well, livelihood in general, it’s how we make a living. It’s how we interact with others while making a living, so it involves what we do and how we are without our co-workers. And again, it’s a personal one. We each need to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is doing more harm or good for ourselves and others.

And you may be thinking, “Okay, this is obvious. Drug dealers do harm, doctors do good.” But this teaching goes beyond just the type of job, or the type of career that we have. It includes how we interact with our co-workers, with our customers, with the planet. It wouldn’t be skillful livelihood if a doctor were causing harm by taking bribes from a pharmaceutical company and prescribing a certain medicine over another. “Even though it may be a good medicine, there’s one that would be better, but I’m going to prescribe this one, because I benefit from it.” That would be an example of unskillful livelihood, even though in other areas you might be saying, “But it’s a doctor, and they’re helping.”

So ultimately, it’s up to us to make the judgment call regarding the way that we make a living. I think it’s a good idea to incorporate skillful intent in the determination process. Try asking yourself questions like, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” And remember, right livelihood or skillful livelihood, it’s not necessarily about picking a job with the Red Cross or some other humanitarian cause. It’s about doing what you do with the best intent to not cause harm, regardless of what your job is.

I used to work for a company that sold health supplements, and I’ve mentioned this in the podcast for a while. After working there for some time, I kind of became uncomfortable with the sales method that we used, because we would entice people to try the supplement by signing up for a free trial, and then they would be automatically enrolled in a monthly subscription for the supplement, and they were often unaware of that, because that was in the fine print.

And while I believe in the product itself, I was very uncomfortable with the harm and the frustration we were causing on so many people who were not reading the fine print when signing up for their free trial. And for me, this job became an example of feeling like it was not a form of skillful livelihood. I did end up leaving that job and finding another where I didn’t have a conflicting feeling about the livelihood and the way that I was gaining that.

So again, it’s a personal thing. It’s not about a list, “And here are the jobs that are good, and here are the jobs that are bad.” It doesn’t work that way. This is another form of introspection, and it’s you spending time analyzing what you do, and asking yourself if it’s a skillful form of livelihood.

Okay, so now let’s look at the mental disciplines. We’re going to talk about skillful effort. What does it mean? Is it just about trying harder, trying to be better? What does it mean? So skillful effort is what it takes to put into practice all the other parts of the path. It takes effort on our part if we want to experience any kind of positive change in our lives. In order to learn a new skill, whether it be music, sports, business or anything like that, we have to apply effort, and without it we usually make little to no progress.

So in the same way, skillful effort affects everything we do in the world. I’ve talked about this, I’ve been trying to play guitar for about 10 years, and I’ve never actually mastered it, because I’ve had a hard time putting in the effort required to practice. I’ve started and ended lessons over and over and over. But there are other things that I’ve put time into. I’ve put time into having a podcast. Most recently, I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to my hobby of paramotoring and paragliding, and I went and became a flight instructor, because that’s something that I want to do. And I know that it takes effort to be the most skillful pilot that I can be, and I wouldn’t be a skillful pilot if I didn’t have the correct amount of effort going into that. So that’s one way of seeing this.

Skillful effort is about dedicating the time and the work required to become more mindful, and to become aware of the nature of reality. Without the effort, there simply cannot be any form of awakening, or realization, or self-awareness, or any of that stuff. And I think this is a common thing to run into. I hear this all the time, people who will say, “Hey, I really want to live more mindfully, and to have more peace and contentment in life.” And that’s it. There’s not enough effort to say, “So I’m willing to meditate.” Or, “I’m willing to read books to understand the nature of human psychology.” Or … There’s no effort to do anything other than, “I just want it, and I want it without having to do anything.” And that’s where we run into trouble, because without effort, how do you have these things?

So again, this is a form of introspection where we evaluate ourselves and say, “How much effort am I putting into the thing that I’m trying to accomplish?” Whether that be … really anything, right? But I think in the Buddhist practice, and in the sense of the Eightfold Path, it’s the effort required to be more awake, to be more mindful, to live with more contentment and joy. And ultimately, again in the Buddhist sense, it’s to achieve enlightenment, to aspire to put in the necessary effort to wake up in the way that the Buddha woke up, that’s what we’re after here.

So the next one. What does it mean to have skillful mindfulness? This is about meditating. Well, skillful mindfulness is about paying attention. Whether we’re meditating or just going about our daily tasks, being mindful helps us to stay anchored in the present moment, and staying anchored in the present moment keeps us in touch with reality as it is. And Thích Nhất Hạnh describes it in this way, which I really like. He says, “When you have a toothache, the feeling is very unpleasant. And when you do not have a toothache, you usually have a neutral feeling. However, if you can be mindful of the non-toothache, the non-toothache will become a feeling of peace and joy. Mindfulness gives rise to, and nourishes, happiness.” I really like that.

In this sense, mindfulness helps us become aware that at any given moment we are capable of experiencing contentment and joy, it’s just a matter of increasing our sphere of awareness. It’s about noticing all of the non-toothaches that we’re currently experiencing. That’s who I like to think of this concept of skillful mindfulness.

Okay, the final of the Eightfold Path is skillful concentration. The question here is, what does that mean? Is it about sitting an focusing on something? Is this the ultimate goal of meditation? Well, skillful concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one thing, whatever it is we’re doing at the moment. And meditation is a great tool to practice concentration. When we think of meditation, we typically think of sitting cross-legged on the floor with our eyes closed, on a cushion or something like that. And yeah, that’s definitely one way to practice, but meditation can be so much more than just sitting. We can practice meditation while we’re washing the dishes, while we’re walking, when we’re listening to our partner or spouse, to our kids, or doing virtually any other activity.

So I find it helpful to think of the opposite of skillful concentration as distraction. Whether it’s the chime on our smartphone indicating that a new text has arrived, or one of the thousands of advertisements that compete for our attention, distraction is … it’s everywhere. Distraction prevents us from seeing life as it really is, and from seeing the truth about the nature of ourselves and others.

And I talked about this story before, if one time when I decided to ride my bike to work instead of driving, and while rounding the bend in the road, I noticed a red barn behind a cluster of trees out in the field. And I had driven past this exact spot almost daily for years, focusing on driving, distracted either by the radio or just thoughts about work, and I’d never really noticed this building. But on this specific day, going slowly and paying attention, I discovered something new that had been there all along. And that’s kind of the idea of skillful concentration.

Imagine how many things are waiting to be discovered or seen about others, about ourselves, when we simply slow down and pay attention and stay aware. That is the essence of skillful concentration, it’s slowing down, trying to notice things that we hadn’t notice before. And not just physical things like the red barn. This is introspective stuff, it’s like saying, “I’ve never sat with my emotions long enough to try to understand them.” And a huge example of this that I’ve given before, is the understanding of sitting with an emotion like anger long enough to understand that the anger was actually not anger, it was anchored in something deeper, a sense of shame, for example, or embarrassment.

So when you sit with an emotion, and you try to understand it more, you learn something about it that that’s what it was all along, but you didn’t know that, because you’re often distracted with other thoughts, and memories, and other emotions. And we try to push some emotions away, some thoughts away, and we don’t sit with them long enough to concentrate. “What does this really feel like? What does it feel like to be experiencing this emotion? Where could this be coming from?” When you sit like that, in that form of concentration, insight arises and you understand, “Oh that’s … Okay, that’s why I’m feeling this way. Oh, that’s why that means so much to me.” That’s the goal of concentration, again, to gain new insight.

So those are the eight sections of the Eightfold Path, and what I hope to do in the next podcast episode, is give some examples of ways that we can actually practice being mindful, because with the Four Noble Truths as tasks, and then the Eightfold Path with descriptions of it all, that’s all great, but in our day-to-day lives what things can we do to actually start practicing this? Do we just sit on a cushion for 15 minutes? What is that going to do? I want to get into that deeper, and give you some actual examples of practices that I do, practices that I apply, and practices that I’ve recently put in my newest book, The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal. Because the goal of all of this is to have something tangible that you can actually put into practice and start applying, and see change, see something beneficial come from all of this, from this practice.

So I’m going to share that in the next podcast episode. But for now, again, thank you for taking the time to listen to the podcast. If you want to learn more about these concepts, you can always check out the book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. You can check out my newest book, which is actually available starting today on Amazon as a pre-order, and that’s The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journey … or journal. The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal. And that will be available … I think it ships on December 25th, but it is available for pre-order now. And again, the whole purpose of that books is to have actual exercises that you can do in five minutes or less, to start applying mindfulness into your day-to-day life, and gaining more insight and understanding about the nature of your self and the nature of reality.

You can learn about both of those books if you visit my website, noahrasheta.com, I have links in there. I also have a link to the new book on secularbuddhism.com. And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. And if you’d like to join the online community, visit secularbuddhism.com/community. And if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. And that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording the third section of this overall discussion in the next podcast episode. So until then, thank you, and until next time.

82 – Dealing With Dissatisfaction In Life

If Buddhism were to be summarized in one key teaching, that teaching would be about the nature of dukkha (suffering/dissatisfaction) and the cessation of dukkha. There is a fundamental unsatisfactoriness and stress that we all deal with in life. In the next 3 episodes, I will discuss the core Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and some helpful practices we can all work with to deal with the dissatisfaction that arises from time to time in life. This is part 1 of 3.

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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 82. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about something we all deal with, have dealt with, or will deal with at some point, and most likely many times throughout our lives. That is the dissatisfaction we deal with in life. Before I jump into that, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. With that in mind, I want to jump into this topic. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, how much you have or don’t have. The reality is that as human beings, we deal with this dissatisfaction in life. The fundamental unsatisfactoriness and stress of ordinary life.

If Buddhism were to be summarized into one key teaching, that teaching would be the teaching of the nature of suffering and the sensation of suffering. This is what we know as the Four Noble Truths. This teaching is found in every school of Buddhism. It kind of serves as the core or foundational teaching of Buddhism. I wanted to explore this concept a little bit. Over this episode and perhaps the next podcast episode, I want to address, or I guess, revisit these topics. I talked about this in the first five episodes when I started the podcast, but that’s been years now. I thought it would be fun to revisit this and to go in a little more … with a little more depth the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the teaching of the Eightfold Path.

I will address that in this podcast episode and the Eightfold Path probably in the next one. For this one, I’m going to talk about the Four Noble Truths. These are often referred to as the Four Truths for those who wish to live a noble life or sometimes referred to as the Four Tasks that we can worth with to have a life with more satisfaction. I don’t want to get hung up or caught up in the wording. The point is that when things aren’t the way we want them to be, we experience dissatisfaction. We all experience this from time to time. Anything that is temporary is Dukkha. This work Dukkha, I want to talk about this for a minute because the essence of the Buddhist teaching is the nature of Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha.

In early Buddhist texts, the Buddha is reported to have said both formerly and now, it is only Dukkha that I describe and the cessation of Dukkha. This word, Dukkha, is often translated to “suffering” and this is where that expression comes that says “life is suffering” or “Buddhism teaching the cessation of suffering”. The problem is, the word Dukkha means more than just suffering. Suffering is a proper translation, so is dissatisfaction, so is stress or anxiety or unsatisfactoriness. It’s hard … It gets tricky if we try to hang on to just one of those words to translate it. One of the very first teachings that Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment was the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Each of the truths relates in some way of this concept of dissatisfaction or Dukkha, which is an inescapable part of life.

He taught that anything temporary is Dukkha. We know that everything is temporary and that’s why the expression is used that life is Dukkha, life is unsatisfactory, life is … there’s dissatisfaction in life, life is suffering. There is several variations of how to translate the idea. Again, I think if we were to just look at this as an idea, the idea is that from time to time, life unfolds in a way that we don’t want it to be the way that it is. We all know this feeling. That is Dukkha. Let’s talk about this a little bit. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths, they each have a word. The first one is the truth of dissatisfaction or the truth of suffering, which is the word Dukkha. The second teaching of the Four Noble Truths is the cause of suffering.

They also have a word. Dukkha is a world in Pali. Samudaya is another word in Pali. That’s the one word that represents the second Noble Truth, which is the cause of suffering. The third one is the truth of the end of Dukkha, which is called Nirodha. The fourth is the truth of the path that leads to the end of Dukkha. Magga is that word. You know, when they teach this in classical or traditional setting, you have these four Pali words; Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga. I may not be pronouncing those right, but it doesn’t matter. The point of the word is that we lose a lot in translation. All I’m trying to get at with telling you the original words is that the word conveys an idea and the moment you take that word and translate it into another language, you’re going to have stuff that’s lost in translation. That’s inevitable and that’s okay.

Whatever this is making sense as, just know that there’s probably more to it. Just like with the word suffering, there’s more to it. It’s not just suffering. Keep that in mind. You can think of this teaching of the Four Noble Truths in terms of a medical practice where the doctor, in this case the Buddha, diagnoses the problem. The problem is Dukkha. We’ve been diagnosed with Dukkha, which is the fundamental dissatisfaction that we experience in life. He then identifies the underlying causes, determines the prognosis, and finally prescribes a course of treatment just like you would if you went in to visit a doctor. In that sense, I think it makes sense to look at the Four Noble Truths as an action plan for dealing with the inevitable dissatisfaction that we experience from time to time in life.

In this sense, we can view these teachings almost as tasks rather than truths. They’re meant to be things that we do rather than things we believe in. I talked about this when I interviewed Stephen Batchelor on my podcast quite a while back where he explained the teachings of the Four Noble Truths as tasks. He gave us an acronym for us to make it easy to remember. That acronym is ELSA. E is “embrace this instance of suffering”. That’s essentially the first noble truth. The second one is L “let go of the reactive pattern”. The third is S “see the stopping of the reactivity.” The fourth is A “act skillfully”. So, ELSA, embrace the instance of suffering, let go of the reactive pattern, see the stopping of the reactivity, and then act skillfully.

I’ll go into that in a little bit more detail. Like I mentioned before, this teaching, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths forms the core of all Buddhist paths, schools, and traditions. The essence of the Four Noble Truths is to address and embrace the truth of the human condition, which is that in life we deal with dissatisfaction. That’s the topic I want to explore today. Let’s start with this first one. Let’s look at what this means. What does it mean to embrace? The E in ELSA, embrace the situation at hand or embrace the instance of suffering. Again, this is the word Dukkha. It recognizes the presence of suffering or dissatisfaction. In other words, it diagnoses the problem, which is in life difficulties arise and we suffer. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when; a sickness, old age, death.

These are some of the most obvious examples, but of course, there are countless difficulties that we encounter in life form losing your job to dropping your phone and cracking the screen. The nature of reality is that difficulties arise. When they do, we all experience this feeling of unsatisfactoriness. We can begin to embrace the fact that by recognizing that suffering is general, it’s not personal. It’s simply part of the experience of existence. We’ll start to experience … We will experience suffering no matter how hard we try to avoid it, whether we search for a magic formula to remove it, or we try to accumulate enough money to buy it off, or we seek fame to drown it out. It doesn’t matter whether we pray, or we meditate, or we perform rituals to try to shield ourselves from it.

The point is that suffering, dissatisfaction, unsatisfactoriness, in some form will find us. It’s the central problem of human existence. This is the universal diagnosis that the Buddha talked about. It’s not just you, it’s all of us; whether you’re rich, or famous, or powerful, or holy. It doesn’t matter, everyone … and if you think you’re alone with the difficulties that you experience in life, just spend some time talking to others and ask them about their problems. You’ll soon discover that everyone has struggles and everyone has pain and difficulties that they content with. What we learn from the Buddha about embracing suffering is that life is going to be easier for us when we truly accept that suffering is a part of life for everyone. There’s no way around it.

This is the idea of embracing the instance of suffering. When you’re experiencing a moment where you are having this feeling of general dissatisfaction, you can pause and just allow yourself to fully feel it. That’s what’s meant by embracing it. It doesn’t mean accept the situation and resign to it. That’s not the point. I’ve talked about this extensively and I’ll address it again that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. What we’re accepting is, “I don’t like how things are and I can accept that I don’t like how things are.” That’s kind of what we’re after. Acceptance seems like a lot to ask. People will say, “Are we supposed to just accept all the bad things that happen in the world?” No, the purpose of Buddhist teachings is to try to help us better understand the nature of reality, to gain a clearer understanding of how things are, and acceptance from the Buddhist perspective is not about giving up.

It’s not about ignoring bad things like injustice or suffering. Acceptance in the Buddhist sense is about not resisting or fighting against reality. For example, if you’re feeling a certain emotion, let’s say loneliness. You have to accept what it is you’re feeling before you can skillfully do something about it. If you shy away from acknowledging that you’re feeling lonely and instead you try to ignore that uncomfortable feeling, anything you do to alleviate that discomfort is going to be unsuccessful or much more unskillful because you’re aiming at the wrong target. You’re not dealing with reality. Reality is, “This is how I feel. I’m lonely.” I think we sometimes equate acceptance with resignation or with giving up. But, acceptance is not the same thing as resignation.

I’ve mentioned this before, but several years ago I was dealing with a difficult situation in my life where I experienced a breech of trust from someone close to me. I was upset and I was hurt. At the time, I felt that I shouldn’t be angry so I felt like it was my responsibility to accept what happened and get over it. I was viewing this idea of acceptance a lot, like as if it was resignation. This attitude only aggravated the situation. I probably remained angry about what had happened for longer than I otherwise would have. It wasn’t until several years that I learned what acceptance really was. I had never fully accepted how I felt. I had just pretended to feel a certain way. In reality, I was angry about the situation and then I was angry that I was angry.

I didn’t accept how I was feeling and that prolonged my own pain, the discomfort that I was feeling with it. Upon discovering this, I decided I was finally ready to accept, not the breech of trust, but the fact of my own anger. That’s what I accepted. I was angry and it was perfectly okay to be angry. It felt so liberating to accept my emotions and to stop resisting what I was feeling. This is was marked the beginning of my healing journey. It all started with accepting my reality and giving up my fight against my reality, which is, “I am angry.” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s not that we’re accepting the bad things that happen, we’re just accepting that bad things happen. Once I accept the reality of a situation, I can ask, “Well, now what am I going to do about it?”

That’s kind of acceptance as the start of skillful action. Acceptance is about, again, working with reality and not against it. Think of that for the first Noble Truth, the idea of embracing the instance of suffering. Now, let’s talk about the second one. What does it mean to let go of the reactive pattern? If this is the second Noble Truth, you know, it’s like you’re saying, the way to reduce suffering is to become reactive to difficult things that happen to us, but let’s be honest, that’s hard. How do we let go of that reactivity? The second truth addresses the cause of suffering, the cause of that dissatisfaction. The main cause of our dissatisfaction is the way we habitually react to life as it unfolds; telling ourselves stories that ascribe meaning to events, wondering why painful things happen to us, wishing things were differing, and so on.

Like in the example I gave before, in my case, the cause of much of my dissatisfaction was the story I was telling myself that I shouldn’t be angry. I had a belief, or an idea, or a concept that had been embedded in me since I was young, which is, “You’re not supposed to be angry. You’re not supposed to feel anger. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek,” or things of that nature. That allowed me to deal with an alternate reality, which is the reality was that I was angry and my alternate reality is, “No, I’m not angry. I shouldn’t be angry.” That was the source of a lot of my suffering. We know that suffering emerges when we want life to be different, when we want things to be other than how they are, when we struggle against what is. We get frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way we think it should and this causes us to suffer and then react.

Experiencing suffering isn’t the real problem. The problem arises in how we react to that suffering. The Buddha taught that when touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary, uninstructed person sorrows, and grieves, and laments, beats his breasts and becomes distraught so he ends up feeling two pains – physical and mental – just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and right after were to shoot him with another one so that he would feel the pain of two arrows. I’ve talked about this parable in past podcast episodes, the two arrows. Reactivity, in this sense, kind of becomes a vicious cycle. The more we dwell in our sense of suffering, the more we enforce the very cause of it, wanting life to be other than what it is. The more intense the suffering, the more we want to get rid of it, but the more we want to get rid of it, the most intense the suffering will be.

That’s kind of the vicious cycle. That’s what was being taught with the second Noble Truth. Anyone who’s ever punched a hole in the wall or said something in anger and later regretted it, has experienced this reactivity that Buddha was talking about. This is the emotional discomfort of suffering. It can be so great that it seems like the only logical next step is to react to the discomfort, for example, by punching the wall. Letting go of reactivity is letting go of the need to punch the wall. It’s not letting go of feeling whatever we were feeling that made us want to punch the wall. I think that’s an important distinction to understand. The need to react to our own suffering, whether that be in rage or despair, that only creates more suffering when we have to get stitches or repair the hole in the wall.

Ceasing reactivity doesn’t mean we need to let go of the discomfort that makes us feel like punching the wall in the first place. Let’s be honest, that’s not really possible. It’s not like you have a choice that the moment something makes you upset, oh, you chose to be upset. It’s not that simple. As much as we would want to think that it’s that simple, it’s not. Letting go of reactivity is about avoiding the second arrow. It’s more of an act of liberation than it is a sacrifice we have to make. Eventually, we come to understand that letting go of pain is actually no sacrifice at all. That’s the teaching of the second Noble Truth. You may say, “Well, that does sound better. It sounds like a better way to deal with life, but is it realistic? Is it really possible to end this sense of suffering or dissatisfaction that the Buddha talks about?”

Well, for that, let’s look at the third Noble Truth. As mentioned before, we suffer when we crave for life to be other than it is. The third Noble Truth, helps us to understand that in the cessation of suffering, it’s not suffering that ceases, but our craving to not … our craving not to suffer. If that third task is, see the stopping of the reactivity, let’s explore this a little bit. Buddhist practice doesn’t end suffering. I think that’s important to clarify. Suffering is a lifelong reality, but we can let go of our attachment to avoiding suffering, which paradoxically causes us so much unavoidable suffering. This is a tricky concept to grasp because we can’t do away with our craving to not suffer by simple force of will. In fact, when we try to no longer cling to it, we’re clinging to the idea of not clinging.

If we desire to not desire, we’re still caught by desire. We can’t just say, “Okay, from now on, I won’t cling to anything,” because the causes and conditions that give rise to clinging will still be present. That’s kind of the idea that’s going on here. This is like when you’re experiencing anger, to be able to pause and notice that you are observing this experience that you are having. In that case, ask yourself, “Is the observer of the emotion also angry?” In that moment, you can kind of distinguish between the emotion that you experience and the observation of the emotion that you’re experiencing. In that observation, there is a pause that allows you to essentially stop and see the reactivity that’s unfolding. That’s what’s meant by see the stopping of the reactivity. That happens in the pause of observation.

Ideally, you’ll be able to see the emotion and allow it to just be. Seeing the stopping of the reactivity reinforces the embracing the instance of suffering. It’s accepting, “Wow, I’m really mad that this car cut me off and I’m feeling anger and that’s okay. It’s okay that I’m feeling anger. Now, I don’t have to act on the anger.” I think that’s one of the misconceptions with this whole idea is people will say, “Well, I’m trying to practice all this being mindful stuff, but I still get angry when a car cuts me off.” It’s like, “Well, that’s okay because the point wasn’t to not get angry. The point is to deal more skillfully with the anger that you feel when it arises.” Those are two very different things. Keep in mind that idea of the second arrow. That’s what leads us to the fourth Noble Truth, which is the path.

The path is what we talk about often as the Eightfold Path. This is a teaching in Buddhism that is pretty extensive because it deals with eight different areas. I want to address the Eightfold Path, which is essentially the fourth Noble Truth is, what is the path that leads to the end of suffering and how do we start down that path? I will talk about that in the next podcast episode. To summarize what’s been discussed today, remember the acronym ELSA. When you’re faced with a moment of dissatisfaction in life or unsatisfactoriness in your career, whatever it is you’re dealing, that feeling of Dukkha, think of this acronym ELSA; first E, embrace the instance of suffering, accept that this is what you are actually feeling. Let go of the reactive pattern. Remember the reactive pattern, the example is, “I’m angry and my reaction is now I’m angry that I’m angry.” That’s the part I’m trying to stop.

Why am I angry that I’m angry? Why not just be angry? It’s not … What we’re not doing is stopping the anger. Third, S, see the stopping of the reactivity. This is observing in that instance that what I am feeling is one thing and the observer of what I’m feeling, well, that’s another thing. Is the observer also angry? Which leads to the fourth, which we’re going to talk about in the next podcast episode, now, how do I act skillfully after having done that? We’ll go through that a little bit more in the other one. I just wanted to clarify some of these things because over the years since the time I first talked about this topic, I have thought about it and explained it I think in greater detail. Most recently in my book “No Nonsense Buddhism For Beginners” I address this and I wanted to share some of these ideas with you.

Stay tuned for the next podcast episode where I will get into the fourth of these teachings that, how do we act skillfully, and how does that apply, and what areas of life do we react? Which is essentially the teaching of the Eightfold Path. I will jump into that next time. Keep in mind, if you want to learn more about these ideas or these concepts, you can check out the book “No Nonsense Buddhism For Beginners”. There’s information about that on everydaybuddhism.com. As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. You can write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, you can join our online community at secularbuddhism.com/community to try to continue discussing these ideas. Of course, if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the “donate” button.

That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to finishing talking about this topic in the next podcast episode. Until then, until next time, thank you for listening.

81 – The Tale of Many Tales

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 The Wisdom of Insecurity by Allan Watts, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, or 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.

80 – Life Is Not Fair

Life is not fair, it’s true! But is that really a problem? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the monkey reward experiment where one monkey was given cucumbers and another was given grapes and the result of that decision. I will also discuss the idea of sitting with discomfort. If you can sit with discomfort, you can do anything…

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Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 80. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about the idea of fairness in life.

Keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. As we jump into this topic, life is not fair, I want you to join me in this little thought experiment. Just imagine for a moment that you’re driving along the highway in your car, and suddenly you hear a pop and you have a flat tire. So, you pull over, you get out of the car, you’re looking at the flat tire trying to decide what you’re going to do next. You look up and you realize a really nice car pulls over to assist you. You can just envision whatever a nice car is to you. This car pulls over, somebody gets out of the car, they come over, they look at your flat tire, and they say, “I feel really bad for you. Here, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give you $100 and hopefully this will help you to have a better day.”

Imagine for a moment how that would feel as the recipient of this cash. $100, there you are, how do you feel for this person? How do you feel about having received what you just did? In fact, let’s make it $1,000 just to make it much more of a big deal. I guess $100 is a big deal, but let’s just say it’s $1,000. You’re probably quite shocked and surprised. And this person, based on their nice car and everything, you’re assuming they have a lot of money and they just felt bad for you because you have a flat tire, so they give you this cash. How does that feel?

Most people are probably going to feel very grateful. Very grateful for what just happened. Now let’s pause that experiment and let’s imagine … Well, actually let’s continue the thought experiment. While you’re there, suddenly this other car pulls over behind the nice car. This is an older car, maybe not much different than yours, but this car has a flat tire as well. They pull over and you see the person get out of the car and they just start working on fixing their flat. They take out the tools to start removing the tire and all that. So, this person that you’re with who gave you the money looks at them, and you see them walking over towards them.

You’re thinking, “Oh wow, he or she is going to offer them the $1,000 too.” But no, you hear the following. This person walks over there and says, “Oh no, looks like you got a flat tire.” And the person says, “Yeah, I got a flat tire and horrible timing. I’m on my way to a job interview. I just lost my job. So, I’m trying to get another job and I’m dealing with all these issues at home. They kind of go on to give a more elaborate picture of their current life situation. You hear this person say, “You know what? I feel really bad for everything that you’re going through. Here, I’d like to give you $100,000.” Now how do you feel? Everything that just took place with you receiving your $1,000 felt a certain way. But now that you saw this person happily extend $100,000 to this other person because of all these other complications they’re going through in their life, now how do you feel?

Now if you are like most people, you probably feel a sense of frustration and anger and you’re like, “Wait a second, why didn’t … I could certainly use the $100,000 dollars too.” So, there’s the sense of fairness that comes into play where suddenly, this is not fair. Here’s what’s interesting about this thought experiment. When you think about receiving $1,000 out of the blue, that feels a certain way. But when you have the comparison of receiving $1,000 coupled with the thought you could have received $100,000, that changes the relationship that you have with $1,000, doesn’t it?

This thought experiment, this is an experiment that has actually taken place. Not with the car and not with the money, but with monkeys, capuchin monkeys. You can see this video, there’s a TED talk and then the videos on YouTube. If you just search for monkey videos, unfair monkey experiment, or I think you can search for grapes and cucumbers. Because the experiment that they did was the experimenter had two monkeys in two separate cages right next to each other. They taught the monkey that if the monkey hands the experimenter a rock, the rock would be, or the monkey would be rewarded with a cucumber. A slice of cucumber. And the cucumber was very happily received. The monkey ate it very happily. And then they would do it with a monkey next, the one right next door. Same thing, that monkey gets a cucumber. So, now they both see what’s happening. Both monkeys.

Then the experimenter goes back and does it again where this time, in exchange for the rock, the experimenter hands monkey number one a cucumber, but monkey number two exchanges the rock and the experimenter hands monkey number two a grape instead of a cucumber. Well, monkey number one sees this and right away recognizes, oh, okay, next time I do this, I’m going to get a grape. So, monkey number one, goes back to monkey number one, exchanges the rock and gets another cucumber. And the monkey just immediately looks at the cucumber and then throws the cucumber at the experimenter and starts shaking the cage.

The experimenter goes back to monkey number two, repeats, gives monkey number two a grape. So now, monkey number one is really realizing, oh my gosh, this is so unfair, and the experimenter puts their hand out again asking for the exchange of the rock, and monkey number one, it almost looks like he’s thinking about it and he finally hands the experimenter the rock. Once again, gets a cucumber. At this point, the monkeys just really, really upset, shaking the cage, doesn’t accept the cucumber, throws the cucumber again. This is the second time the monkey has thrown the cucumber back at the experimenter. That’s essentially the clip of the video if you were to search for it.

But what’s fascinating about this, again, is the relationship where they’re receiving the cucumber is neutral. In fact, there’s a sense of gratitude for it, the monkeys happily enjoying the cucumber. But something happens when the cucumber becomes compared to something else, something perceived to be better. In this case, a grape. And suddenly, at the thought of not receiving the grape, the perceived injustice and the perceived inequity that took place in that exchange makes the monkey no longer care about or want the cucumber. Kind of like in the thought experiment above or before. If you thought about the $1,000 and how grateful you would be to receive $1,000, there probably was a lot less natural gratitude flowing when you realized you could have had $100,000 like the other person who got the flat tire.

So, what is it that’s taking place there? Well, and in these experiments, what they’re finding is we’ve evolved, so to speak, to perceive and justices and we’re not happy with injustice, we’re not happy when we perceive that something is not fair. This is totally normal. It’s natural. We’ve all felt this at one point or another as kids with toys. But we continue to experience this in our day to day lives when we compare our situation or we assess whatever it is that we have and compare it to what we think we should have.

I want to correlate this to the Buddhist practice or the Buddhist teaching of seeing with the eyes of wisdom, seeing the interdependent nature of things and the impermanent or continually changing nature of things. We start to see the uniqueness of each moment, and it becomes more habitual for us to appreciate the cucumber for being a cucumber, and not comparing it to a grape because it’s not the same as a grape, or $1,000 being unique. It’s the $1,000 I received and not comparing it to the $100,000 I didn’t receive.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating in any way that we turn a blind eye to the injustices in the world, or that we start to accept inequality. That’s not where I’m trying to go with this. What I’m trying to highlight here is our natural tendency to compare. Comparing moments, when we’re talking about anything in terms of space and time, everything is unique. And the truth is, there is no comparison. Here is here, there is there, this is this, that is that. But this isn’t that and here isn’t there and now isn’t then. The challenge here is to try to see the uniqueness of each moment. Whether it’d be pleasant or not, it’s unique. Unpleasant moments and pleasant moments are equal in the sense that they’re both unique.

The exercises to try to minimize … Well, I don’t know if that’s appropriate to say, minimize the comparison. I guess what’s more appropriate just to recognize how natural it is to compare, and then not cling to the emotions that arise due to the comparison. Because, again, I’m not advocating that, “Oh, you got $1,000, your neighbor just got 100,000, you should not be mad.” That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, notice that the anger, the sense of injustice that arises that is natural. Now, how you react to it and what you do with that emotion while you’re experiencing it, that’s what comes next. How do we learn to sit with that discomfort? In fact, there’s a thought or an expression that seems to be pretty common in Buddhism and in a lot of Buddhist teachings. And that’s this idea of sitting with discomfort.

So, I want to take this whole concept and kind of go a little bit further with it now with this notion of sitting with discomfort. What does that look like? What does it mean? For me, in my own day to day life, and I think I’ve alluded to this in previous podcast episodes, but the idea of sitting with discomfort is like recognizing that I’m going to have to have the difficult discussions with family or loved ones about views that I have, or whatever it is. Parenting decisions. It’s about allowing ourselves to really feel the emotions that we’re experiencing. It’s about recognizing that our tendency, our natural tendency is to chase after the emotions that feel pleasant, and to feel a version or to run away from the emotions that feel unpleasant.

What we’re trying to do with this notion of sitting with discomfort is trying to gain more understanding. Well, what am I feeling? Why am I feeling this? Why does this feel so uncomfortable? Why do I want to avoid having this discussion? Things of that nature. Consider the physical sensations that arise when your body feels stressed, or anxious, or worried, anything along those lines. And the goal here is instead of resisting them, what if we could learn to sit with them?

I had this experience this weekend. This past weekend, we were at a … it’s like a community function. It’s a festival that we do in our little town. But anyway, what was unfolding was during the preparations for the festival where you have to build the little huts and the tents and all the things, this is the night before the event. So, emotions are high, people are stressed about getting stuff done in time. And two of the people there helping got into a little verbal altercation. One was complaining about having to be there to help. Saying why we always have to be here helping this person who organizes this event and puts this on, and the other one was saying, “Well, you shouldn’t be complaining about having to help because you receive a lot of help too.” And they happen to be siblings. So, you can imagine it’s much more natural to have these altercations with with the people who are closest to us.

But here’s what I thought was interesting. The third sibling observing all of this, this third sibling happens to be like the peacemaker in her family, was extremely uncomfortable with the event that was unfolding. Which is there was a conflict and words are being thrown around. This third sibling literally jumped in the middle of the two, was waving her arms and saying, “Stop. Stop. Stop. Guys, stop.” I had this moment of recognition as I was observing all of this, that for a significant portion of my time, I was that third sibling. So uncomfortable with conflict, so uncomfortable with the discomfort that arises in me when I’m witnessing or experiencing any kind of conflict like that. I felt for this person watching that unfold, saying, “I know what that feels like.”

But it was strange to see it from this perspective that I have now where I’m comfortable with discomfort. I have practiced extensively the exercise of sitting with discomfort. As this was unfolding, I felt no aversion to the conflict. It was like, “Well, you guys say what you need to say. That’s fine.” But inside, I wasn’t feeling what I had felt in the past, which is a pit in your stomach and this intense feeling to just stop. Get this to stop. I don’t want to hear this. I am very uncomfortable with people yelling at each other. I didn’t have any of those feelings. And I thought about this concept, sitting with discomfort, and I kind of correlated that whole experience to what I just tried to share with this teaching of sitting with discomfort.

Again, I think it’s natural. We’ve all grown up learning to avoid discomfort at all costs. And I think this idea of avoiding discomfort, it honestly permeates in our societal views and norms, in our marketing messages. All you have to do is turn on the TV or the radio and you’re going to get some kind of a message that is essentially saying, “Hey, is life uncomfortable? Well, it won’t be if you buy this product or the service. It’ll fix it. You don’t have to sit with that discomfort. Fix the discomfort. Buy this thing today.” That’s essentially the marketing message you’re going to get about anything, any product, any service. That’s what they’re trying to accomplish, is to make you realize that you don’t have to sit with the discomfort.

Now, again, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing or a bad thing to sit with the discomfort. I’m glad that we have progressed as a society, we’ve been motivated by discomfort to make life better. We thought, “Enough with walking everywhere, let’s invent the wheel.” Things like that. I am the beneficiary of that kind of progress, because you guys may know from other podcast episodes, or if you follow me on social media, I love to fly. I love to fly a paramotor and paraglide. Those are all technologies that certainly arose out of the sense of discomfort with life. I’m going to chase after something, I want to fly. Sure, that’s fine.

Again, I want to be careful that everything that is ever shared here, none of it’s absolute. It’s not like, “Hey, here’s the way. Sit with this comfort. That’s always the answer.” It’s not. Sometimes it’s not the answer. But in a lot of instances it is. It can be an answer to live more skillfully. Again, I just want to emphasize that.

At times, I think the mindfulness movement that is kind of prevalent right now in our culture, or even Buddhism, you could say, it’s kind of preached in this way like marketing does. Where it’s saying, “Hey, this philosophy, this practice meditation, it’s going to remove the discomfort from your life. Just meditated and it’ll all be well.” And the truth is, that’s not how it works. Truth is, you’re still going to deal with all the same crap that you had before. That kind of stuff doesn’t necessarily change. So, what does change? Well, what changes, again, is our ability to sit with that discomfort, like I mentioned in that scenario that I experienced over the weekend. That’s where peace comes from. It’s not the external world that’s changing, it’s your relationship to that external world that’s changing and that’s where peace arises naturally inside.

So, how does the need to avoid discomfort manifest in your own life? This is an invitation for you to sit with us for a moment and think about it like I did. I noticed that for me, I didn’t like being judged. I didn’t like people disagreeing with my views in life. So, I was a people pleaser, and that’s fine. I still am. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the discomfort that arises from people not agreeing with me. Now, I’m totally fine being around people who don’t like my ideas at all. People who will say, “Oh, you’re going down this path to hell because you’re not following the right ideology.” They could tell me that and it honestly wouldn’t bother me at all, because I’m totally comfortable with the discomfort that was arising when I was experiencing conflict like that.

So, this is the invitation or the challenge that I would want to extend to you for this week, for this podcast episode, is to try to sit with the discomfort and see what that’s like for a moment. And again, I’m not advocating any kind of resignation or giving up. I think too often, we experience discomfort, and we just give up. We don’t like it, so we run from it. We try to drown it out by chasing after whatever it is we think is going to make us forget about the discomfort. We avoid the hard discussions. This is a common example. We avoid the hard discussions and we put up with how things are, because we’re not willing to experience the discomfort that it might take for things to actually be better.

I’ve experienced this numerous times in my own relationship dynamics. Topics that I know are going to be uncomfortable to bring up, but I bring them up because I know that sitting through the discomfort is the path to something better on the other end of that. So, try to see this moment for what it is. Not for what you think it should be, but just for what it is. I think this is why so many meditation practices start with just noticing the breath. Because when I’m sitting here and I’m noticing my breath, I’m experiencing just being for a moment. We’re here, we’re breathing, how unique is this moment? Truth is, life is not fair. But that’s not a problem. It’s not a problem unless we make that a problem. It’s not about fairness, but we can strive to correct any injustices or inequality that we see out there.

I applaud the people who spend time and resources and efforts doing that. But I do think it’s important to also understand that there is a sense of uniqueness to every situation and every moment that happens in our lives, and they’re not meant to be compared. So, try to notice that more. Try to see through those eyes of wisdom of impermanence and interdependence, and ask yourself, what did it take for this moment to exist? Think about all the instances in our own lives where we are that monkey and we’re comparing the cucumber to the grape. We do this on social media, right? Oh, so and so got that job. Well, I got this job. Or so and so married that person, I married this person who’s grumpier.

We play this game. So and so drives that kind of car while I do this. Or so until it gets to go do all those fun trips, I never get to leave. And we’re making ourselves miserable like the monkey in the cage. Again, naturally. We do this naturally. But if you’ll remember in the episode where I talked about rebellion, we can rebel against this natural game and say, “This isn’t the game I want to play. I’m not going to play this anymore. I’m going to go beyond my natural tendency to throw the cucumber back at life and say, “Well, wait a second, this is a cucumber. What did it take for this to arise?”” And you start to change the nature of the game, the relationship you have with the game out of almost this act of rebellion that says, I’m not going to keep doing this the way that I’ve been doing.

That’s what I wanted to share with you in this podcast episode. As always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism, you can always check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, with 60 questions and answers around Buddhist history and concepts, teachings, and practices. You can learn more about that book by visiting everydaybuddhism.com. And as always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. You can always write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to join our online community, you can visit secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, visit secularbuddhism.com, click the donate button.

That’s all I have for now. As always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.