Podcast

146 – The Freedom to be You

In this episode, I will talk about the idea of “branding”. The story we have about ourselves is our personal brand and we do a lot to influence the way others perceive us. Practicing non-attachment to our brand may allow us to experience greater freedom to be ourselves.

Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 146. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m going to talk about the freedom to be you. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better, whatever you already are. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, available on Amazon, or you can start out by listening to the first five episodes of this podcast. You can find the first five episodes easily by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link that says, “Start here.” If you’re looking for a community to practice and to interact with, consider becoming a patron by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link to join our community.

I want to give a quick update regarding community. The community was previously set up to only be accessible by people who support the podcast, but I understand that not everyone is in a position to be able to support the podcast, so I’ve made a change to the way that the community access is made available to podcast listeners. If you visit the website, secularbuddhism.com and you click on the link at the top that says, “Community,” you’ll notice there is still the ability to support the podcast. The donation for supporting the podcast is $3 a month, which is very minimal. It’s the equivalent of buying a cup of coffee. But if you’re not in a position to be able to do that, and you still want to benefit from access to the community, there is the option to click for a sponsorship, and you’ll be given access to the community on our discord server where you can still interact with podcast listeners and supporters without having the financial burden of having to make any kind of a donation.

I wanted to do that because I didn’t like the thought of having the community locked behind some form of financial aspect. I totally understand that depending on what stage of life or life circumstances, we may not be in a position to be able to provide any kind of support, and yet the benefit of having access to a community is so great that it shouldn’t be restricted to any kind of financial gate. So that’s why I made that change. Having said that, you may have noticed it’s been a while since the last podcast episode. I want to say a month or maybe even more now. While I haven’t been doing podcast episodes quite as frequently, I have been engaging with the community quite frequently. In fact, every Sunday we have a one hour live Zoom call. There’s enough content out there now, in this podcast, in the books that I’ve written, to be able to start discussing all of these concepts and ideas on a regular basis, talking about how they apply to everyday life.

So while I may not have been doing podcast episodes, I have been talking with the community in a very active way every week, as we continue these discussions on how to apply these things into day-to-day life. If you want to watch some of those past episodes, you can find those in the community. So join the community. You can find videos of our past Zoom calls, and engage weekly with myself and with other podcasts listeners on these topics. Again, having said that, I have every intention of continuing the podcast as I have before, but if it seems like I haven’t been doing much with the podcast, it’s because I’ve been doing a lot with the community. I am going to make every effort to stay up to date with regular podcast episodes. But sometimes life happens, podcast gets behind, but the community is where I’m more committed right now and I’m spending time with anyone in the community who wants to take these concepts and ideas and learn how to apply them to everyday life.

Okay. So, that was the announcement I wanted to share. Now, the topic I wanted to discuss in this podcast episode is the topic regarding the freedom to be you. This actually comes from the last four to five weeks in the podcast community. We’ve been talking about this weekly, and it all started with a discussion around the concept of branding. When I graduated from college, my first job, I interned at a company doing marketing, and then one of my first jobs was at an advertising agency. I learned a lot while working at the advertising agency regarding marketing and regarding branding. This specific agency that I worked for was known for coming up with the brand of what happens here, stays here for the City of Las Vegas. That was one of our customers at the advertising agency, was the City of Las Vegas or the… It’s not actually the city, but their ministry of tourism or whatever the acronym is for, the entity responsible for getting people to visit Las Vegas.

The agency had come up with this branding campaign that, “What happens here, stays here,” and I’m sure many of you have heard about this. It’s a very popular brand for Las Vegas. Branding is a very important aspect of marketing, but it’s not necessarily the same thing as marketing. Marketing is what you want your customers to do. For example, an advertisement that convinces them to call your phone number to hire you for air conditioning repair or whatever it is. But branding is something a little bit different. Branding is everything that you do to evoke a certain feeling from your customer, so that when they think about your company, they have a certain feeling. Many large brands focus heavily on being consistent with their branding. Apple has a certain feel, BMW, Audi, Ford. Any major brand has what’s called branding, and all of their marketing revolves around the branding.

It starts with something as simple as their mission statement. So think of branding as what a company wants you to feel about them, and marketing is more what a company wants you to do. Because I spent so much time at an advertising agency and learning the ins and outs of marketing and the ins and outs of branding, I started to think more recently about how we as individuals actually do the same thing. We have the story that we have about ourselves, and then everything that we do when we interact with others, revolves around maintaining the brand that we want them to associate with us. As silly as that sounds, I think it’s very real, right? You may have a story about you, which is, “I am an intellectual person and look at me how I read.” So when I post a picture on social media of, “Hey, check out this book that I’m reading.”

That’s all part of my subconscious branding effort to make sure that you know that I am a person who reads. Therefore I’m a person who’s intellectual, or things like that. The clothing that we wear, the way that we do our hair, the type of vehicles that we drive, the sports and hobbies that we participate in, all of these things are involved with our personal brand. I think it’s important to understand this, not because we’re necessarily trying to eliminate our stories or to eliminate our branding, but our effort is to understand ourselves. When someone does something or says something, why does it affect me this way? Oh, because it’s inconsistent with the branding that I have about myself, that I want them to perceive about me. Now, I’ve encountered this firsthand in my own practice when I was going through my transition of faith.

I had this story about myself, which is that, “I am a good person. I do good things. I’m not the type of person who’s going to intentionally do wrong. In its broadest sense, I’m not a bad guy. I’m not a bad person. I like to be known as someone who’s nice and friendly and who does the right thing.” That was part of my personal brand, or is part of my personal brand. As I was going through my faith transition, members of my faith community were starting to view me as a heretic or rebel. Worst case scenario as somebody who’s doing wrong, and in a best case scenario, as a naive person who’s being misled by the adversary. I really struggled with that because that was inconsistent with my story that I have about myself, which is that I’m a good person who does good things. It came to a head specifically with certain family members where I could perceive that they’re now viewing me as someone who’s led astray or someone who’s doing wrong because I’m no longer following the correct path.

It really bothered me. A lot of my anxiety or consternation came from the fact that I couldn’t convince this person that I’m still the good person. I’m still living up to my brand. So my branding had changed. They had a new view of me, and their brand of me was not my brand of me. A lot of my discontent, dissatisfaction, suffering arose from the discrepancy of the story that I had about myself versus the story that someone else, in this case, a family member had about me. I see this happens with businesses. A business that has a brand and does things that are not consistent with the brand, struggles with their image. They’re going to struggle with their branding. But when it happens to us personally, it’s a more difficult thing. When I saw this in myself and I was able to understand, “Oh, this is what’s happening. This is why it bothers me. It’s not so much that they’re perceiving me from an incorrect perspective, it’s that the feeling that I want others to have of me, I’m not able to achieve that anymore, and I can’t help it.

There’s nothing I can say that’s going to convince this person that I’m still a good person, because from their point of view, in terms of their belief system, I’m not a good person. I’m not doing the right thing because I’ve left the correct path, and I’m now venturing on other paths that are inconsistent with the one true way which they believe there is a one true way.” It was really helpful for me to understand, “Okay, this is a branding issue, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with how they perceive me. The only thing that’s wrong is that I want them to perceive me another way, and I can’t control perception. I can’t control the story that someone else is going to have about me.” What that left me with was the freedom to just be me, and that involves, or that entails the freedom of allowing others to have a different story about you than the one that you have about yourself.

In that comes a sense of liberation, a sense of freedom. That, for me, was a turning point in my journey of understanding myself, of understanding my stories, understanding my unconscious branding efforts that I put out to the world, and then the wrestling stopped. I no longer felt this tremendous need to influence this one person’s view about me to make sure that that view is consistent with the view that I have about me, because I realized that just can’t be done. It really can’t. Maybe to some degree, with some people it can, but to an overall degree with all people, it can’t. We can’t control the narrative that others have about us. But what I could understand is all the efforts that I’m putting out there to determine what that narrative is, and that was really fascinating to understand that about myself.

So my invitation to you as a podcast listener would be to explore what are the stories that you have about yourself? What is the personal brand that you try to put out to your circle of friends or to the world at large, the story that you have about you? Because somewhere in the maintaining of that story, you may find instances of suffering, instances of dissatisfaction that would constitute the second arrow. If somebody doesn’t like the way that you are, they judge the clothing that you wear, or the career choice that you followed, or the ideological views that you have, the political views that you have or anything along those lines, you may find that it really bothers you, and the actual source of being discontent is the inconsistency that you’re perceiving between the story you have about you and the one you’re trying to put out in the world and the one that they have about you and that they are perceiving.

Just knowing that may give you the ability to engage a little bit more skillfully with that relationship you have with the person, the relationship you have with your story, and more importantly, the relationship you have with a story that someone else has about you. So, that was the general idea that I wanted to introduce. It’s been discussed in the last four to five weeks now in our podcast community on Sundays. We’ve been going into greater detail around the central concept of the stories that we have about ourselves and the notion of our personal branding. Again, the invitation here isn’t to change your story or to change your brand. I think we all have stories, and the moment I decided, “Okay, well, I don’t have a story about myself.” Well, then that is the story. The story of having no story is still a story. Everyone has their story about themselves.

Everyone has the branding efforts that go out into making sure others perceive you a certain way, and there’s not a problem with that. I think that’s a very human thing to do, but what becomes really powerful is knowing, “Oh, this is why I’m doing this. This is why this matters to me.” Then I can catch myself and I won’t get so caught up in my efforts. It’s like, “Okay, I see why I’m doing this.” And that’s okay. “I’m just doing it because I’m trying to control the narrative.” That’s okay too. Trying to control the narrative isn’t the problem. What we start to practice is non-attachment. “Okay, here’s the story that I have about myself. What does non-attachment to that story look like? Well, it’s just a story. I don’t have to fight tooth and nail over the story. I don’t have to get completely bent out of shape when somebody misinterprets me, my story and they have their own story about me.”

In the end, what you’ll end up with is a greater sense of freedom to just be you. The you that has a story, the you that sometimes defends the story, the you that sometimes realizes, “That was not very necessary. I’m going to stop defending my story.” The you that’s putting in efforts to make sure that the story that someone else has about you is the story that you’re happy with. The freedom to engage with the entire process of what it is to be you and what it is to have a story about yourself and what it is to feel offended when that story about you is misinterpreted or is inconsistent from someone else’s perspective. These are all aspects of being a human, a social creature that engages in social connection. So that is my invitation to you in this podcast episode, is to think about that.

I do want to echo the co-on that I shared in the last podcast episode was that, “There is nothing I dislike.” I think one of the keys to thinking about this co-on is how do we define I? Who is the I that can like or dislike something? Take that into consideration with this concept of the you that has a story about yourself. Which you is more you? The one that has the story or the one that is in the storyline? Those are fun things to think about. So that is my invitation to you. Hopefully, this concept makes sense. Again, I try to explore some of these key teachings and key concepts from the perspective of liberation and freedom because that’s what we’re after. It’s not about becoming a better you. I know that I mentioned that becoming a better whatever you already are at the beginning of every episode, but perhaps it’s less about changing who you are and more about befriending who you are. Befriending the you that you already are.

The you that you already are, has a story about yourself. So get to know that story. Get to understand all the activities that take place when you’re trying to influence that narrative for other people. Just greater understanding as the goal. With greater understanding comes a sense of liberation, the freedom to be you. So hopefully, I gave you something to think about over the next few days or weeks. I will work on another podcast episode topic here in the near future. Meanwhile, if you want to continue these discussions on a more regular basis, feel free to join Secular Buddhism podcast community by becoming a patron, or if you can’t, click in for a sponsorship. Both of these things are available on secularbuddhism.com. Click on the link that says, “Community.” That’s all I have for this episode. Thank you for taking the time to listen. Till next time.

145 – The Quest for Answers

In our search for answers to life’s big questions, what if the question is actually more important than the answer? In this episode, I will talk about the quest for answers and how it may be more beneficial to focus on the quest for understanding the question.

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 145. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m going to talk about the quest for answers. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners available on Amazon, or start out with the first five episodes of this podcast. You can find those five episodes easily by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the start here link. If you’re looking for a community to practice with and to interact with, consider joining our online community. You can find this by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link to join our community.

In this podcast episode, I wanted to talk about the concept of the quest for searching for answers. What drew me to Buddhism initially is the fact that Buddhism will readily acknowledge or accept the fact that there are no answers to a lot of life’s questions. In fact, just to give you a little bit of backstory here, it was roughly in 2012, I was going through an existential crisis, so to speak. The religion of my upbringing wasn’t making sense to me. I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under my feet and I went into searching mode. I wanted to find the answers to the questions I was wrestling with. These are the big existential questions. Who am I? why am I here? What happens when we die? Which is the true path or the right way? Things of that nature.

I was wrestling with these questions. While I was in this searching mode, I remember listening to an audio lecture series on The Great Courses. I want to say the title was The Meaning of Life presented by the major world religions. There were presenters essentially answering life’s big questions. At the time, I didn’t know much about Buddhism. I had encountered as most people the occasional quote from the Dalai Lama or things like that that were usually well-received. It would be a quote that made sense to me, but other than that, I didn’t really know anything about this as an ideology. I remember I was taking copious notes during this lecture series. It was again presenting here are the answers to life’s big questions and essentially the meaning of life.

You would listen to the presenter on a specific ideology, Christianity, for example. I would take my notes and really it just became a matter of deciding, do these answers make sense to me or not? I remember that feeling of, well, I don’t know about that with each of the presenters, with each of the ideologies. When I encountered the chapter on Buddhism, I remember one of the very first things that the presenter said was Buddhism doesn’t have answers to these questions. Instead, they’re going to flip it on you and say, who wants to know, or where do these questions come from? The whole emphasis goes back onto the question, not onto the answer. I remember that really stuck with me because that was a foreign concept for me at the time. Being a seeker, I was all about the answers. I was looking for the answers.

Here suddenly I was being presented with an entirely new approach, which was, what if it’s not about the answers? What if it’s all about the questions? Now, this is a topic that I want to share because December is an important month celebrated in some schools of Buddhism. We have in December the celebration of Bodhi Day, which is the day that the Buddha was enlightened. In other traditions, this is celebrated early January. Either way, this topic is a meaningful topic for this time of year, December, January. I’ve thought a lot about this in my own personal life, this whole notion of being a seeker, trying to understand, or trying to attain the answers to life’s big questions.

Then having the script flipped on me back in 2012, which led me down the Buddhist rabbit hole, so to speak, of wanting to learn more about Buddhism which was let’s look at the questions not the answers. I think it’s a meaningful topic. Again, that’s what drew me to Buddhism, my search for answers. I want to correlate this with a couple of teachings and stories that I’ve encountered since that time in 2012 as I started studying Buddhism. As many of you know, eventually went down the path of becoming a lay minister and just devouring Buddhism pretty much since 2012 to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start sharing Buddhism and sharing these concepts and ideas, whether it be in books or on the podcast. The notion of questions and answers is a big one for me. There’s a story and I’ve been looking for this ever since I first encountered it.

I forgot where I first saw it and I was searching for it so that I could reference it in this podcast episode and I couldn’t find it. To paraphrase the story when I first heard it, and I know I’ve shared it on the podcast before, it’s the story of a monk who was trying to achieve enlightenment. He asks the teacher that he’s working with, how can I achieve enlightenment? The teacher says, oh, that’s quite easy actually. Meet me at the top of this hill every day and bring me a stone. Once you have the correct stone or the correct rock, I’ll be able to share this with you and you’ll be enlightened. The monk was pretty excited to hear that so he starts taking stones every day up to the top of the hill where the teacher is waiting for him. Every day he’s getting the same answer, no, that’s not the right stone. Go find the right stone.

He goes back down and every day it’s the same process. This goes on for weeks and for months and months into years. This monk every day he’s carrying up stones everyday getting the same answer, that’s not the right one. He’s trying heavy ones and sharp ones. One day, out of pure frustration, he’s climbed the hill with what I imagine was a very heavy stone. It’s the same answer. No, that’s not the right stone. Out of frustration, he just drops the stone and says, I’m done. This is ridiculous. I’m not bringing any more stones up this hill. There is no right rock. The teacher tells him, yeah, you’re right. At that moment, the monk becomes enlightened. Now of course, when they tell you these stories, they just leave it open-ended that way. You’re left as the listener to think, what’s the rest of the story? What does it mean to be enlightened?

In a very real way, we end up going on that journey, right, with our questions. At any time we have a big question, whether it’s the big existential ones or other ones that may not be quite as existential but are certainly relevant in our day-to-day lives, we have these questions and we present answers likely with stones. Is this the right one? Then under the scrutiny of whether it’s ourselves or our religious authorities or friends or someone shoots it down and says, no, that’s not it, and you keep going, right? You keep going up this hill with more and more and more. Sometimes you’ll think, I think I do have the right one. But in reality, for most of these questions, there is no correct answer.

There is no correct stone or correct rock. That’s how I think of enlightenment. That’s why I think this concept works really well with the notion of celebrating Bodhi Day, which is the enlightenment of the Buddha. What does that mean that he was enlightened? What was he enlightened to? I like to think of it like this, that the path to peace where we would think having the answer is the path, I think it’s more along the lines of no longer having the question. In fact, when I imagine the Buddha and you see him in paintings, or he’s always depicted as having this ultimate sense of peace or ultimate serenity. I like to imagine he’s not sitting there in peace and serenity because he secretly knows the answer to whatever life’s question was. I like to imagine that what really happened is he no longer wrestled with the question. If you think about it, those are the two main approaches to peace in life, right?

If you have a difficult question that you’re wrestling with, one path, which I would say is the normal path of most religions is to give you answers. When you have the answers, if you’re satisfied with the answer, you feel a sense of satisfaction that that could indeed be the answer, then you’re left with a sense of peace. The sense of peace doesn’t come necessarily from having the right answer. It just comes from having an answer, any answer, as long as you believe it’s the correct one, you’re going to feel that sense of peace. Now Buddhism goes the other route. On the Buddhist path, it’s not about having the right answer. It’s about minimizing the relevance of the question.

You reach the point where the question no longer matters, and then you have that same sense of peace. Now, taking this back to that whole notion of the zen story of the monk carrying the rocks up the hill, it’s the same thing, right? You can carry the rock up the hill, and if at some point the teacher says, hey, that is the correct rock. Oh, yay. I don’t have to carry these rocks anymore. I have the right one. That monk would have had a sense of peace. That would have been like, I did it. I got it. This is the right one. But that peace would crumble the moment that comes into question. Someone else comes along, maybe another teacher and says, I don’t know that that’s the right rock.

Now the whole inner turmoil starts over again, right? He’s going to be questioning, what if this isn’t the right rock? So-and-so says that the right rock is one that’s one pound heavier or something along those lines. There you are in the midst of the turmoil again wondering if you should start bringing rocks up the hill again. That’s the danger of having peace come from the answer or peace coming from having the right rock. Now, the other path, this monk carries the rock to the point where he’s exhausted and he drops the rock. He’s not going to bring another rock up. He’s done. He’s totally dropped the game of bringing rocks up the hill. That could also be a sense of peace because he’s not even going to attempt to bring the right rock anymore because he’s given up on the quest.

There is no right rock is where he has ended mentally. If there is no right rock, then I don’t need to keep bringing these stupid things up the hill. I’m done. Now that could also be a sense of peace is no longer having to worry about carrying rocks up the hill. Now that peace could also be disturbed at some point if you were to start doubting, well, maybe there is a right rock. Maybe I should keep trying. What’s going to happen if I finally do find the right rock? Maybe I’ll try it again. Maybe he takes a break and then maybe in several months he starts taking rocks up the hill again. Well, the Buddhist path to me in my mind is very much the path of dropping the rocks. Very much the path of dropping the questions.

Now, the serenity of the Buddha, I would also imagine this is the serenity that I observe and other great teachers of our times, and of the past, and probably of the future. When you encounter these teachers and there seems to be such a calm, peaceful serenity to them, that inner peace in my view doesn’t come from harboring answers or from thinking they have the answers to any of life’s big questions. I genuinely think it comes from no longer having to wrestle with those questions. The questions become irrelevant because they’re so anchored in the here and the now that there is no internal struggle that says, Oh, what if I don’t have the right answer? Because the question is not even there itching to be answered anymore. That to me is the beauty of this path, the path to peace, it’s not in having the answer but it’s in no longer having the question.

Like I said before, this is certainly relevant with the big existential questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when I die? We want the answers to those things, but the true peace would come from not having to worry about who I am or why I’m here or what happens when I die. If I genuinely no longer wrestle with the question, I’m going to have that peace and serenity. But to me, again, aside from the big existential things where Buddhism becomes extremely relevant in day-to-day life is how does this apply to our day-to-day life questions? Maybe they’re not quite existential in nature but they’re still relevant questions that we wrestle with in our day-to-day lives. These are questions like, am I likable? Am I doing the right thing? Am I worthy? Am I raising my kids the right way? Am I on the right religious path? Do I have the correct political views? Those types of questions. What if? Right?

What if I had done this differently? What if I had married this other person? What is this person thinking of me? Those are questions that we wrestle with in day-to-day life. Do my friends like me? Again, let’s just take that one as an example, the so-and-so like me. Again, the peace could come from having the answer or at least thinking you have the answer and the answer is yes. So-and-so says, yes, I do like you. Oh, okay. Well now I’m at peace. I’m not wrestling with that question. But then how do I know that they’re telling the truth? Did they say that just to be nice or do they really like me? There’s no way to have that true certainty because you can always encounter the doubt that’s going to make you question the answer.

Again, then you’re back at square one which is you don’t really have the peace that you wanted. Now, the other alternate path here, the Buddhist path, we would say, what if the question didn’t matter? What if the need to know what he or she thinks of me wasn’t a need that I actually struggle with? It’s no longer a relevant question. It’s not something that I’m wrestling with internally. Well, then you would have that same sense of peace, but this one can’t be rocked because the answers are irrelevant. The answer could be, yes, they like you, or no, they don’t like you. It wouldn’t matter either way because the question of am I liked isn’t one that carries much weight on me. Now, I think that’s a fascinating concept and a fascinating thought to have when I take this and I apply this into my own personal life and how Buddhism has benefited me in a day-to-day setting, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

It’s not so much the big existential ones, although that was certainly a big part of it for me. But with time, after the big existential questions went away, then I started wrestling with just the day-to-day questions. Am I raising my kids the right way? This was a big one for me. How can I ensure that my family members, my in-laws, my neighbors, people in my immediate circles of friends like me? I wrestled with this because in those circles, I no longer share the same ideological views as they did and I felt judged. I felt like I was being looked at as someone who is a traitor almost, not quite a traitor but with disappointment like, how could you be so naive to be duped and now you’re on the wrong path? That’s how I perceived people viewed me, especially in those closer inner circles. I didn’t like that feeling. One of the questions that I wrestled with quite regularly was, do they like me or do they validate me? Probably validate me is a little bit more appropriate.

Do I feel like they validate the path that I’m on? As long as the answer was no, I don’t think that they do still. Well, then there was all the things that come with not having a question answered and me trying to do things to ensure that somehow in some way I could finally answer that question saying, yes, they actually do validate the path that I’m on. But that’s not what happened. It’s not what I anticipate will ever happen. In fact, what ended up happening is I stopped relying on what that answer is to that question and I focused on the question. Why do I feel the need to be validated? Why is it so important for me to feel like others will validate the path that I’m on? The more I sat with the question, the more irrelevant the question became to the point where the question went away. Now it’s not a question that I wrestle with. In fact, I would say the answer is probably still no and will always remain no.

They’re not going to validate the path you’re on because they think that the path that they’re on is the correct one. Of course, the one that I’m on isn’t correct. But the need to feel that validation has gone away. It was never about the answer. It was about understanding the origin of the question. That’s an internal thing. The peace and serenity that ultimately came to me never had anything to do with the answer. It came entirely with understanding and eventually dropping the question, kind of like dropping the rock instead of walking up the hill every day. Hey guys, do you all respect me now? Look at this rock I’m holding. The answer is no, no, but there was no rock that I could bring that would have made them feel that way. I felt that same sense of frustration of eventually dropping the rock and thinking, I’m done. I’m not going to bring any more rocks up the hill.

I’m not going to try to do anything to make you validate me, because I don’t think that you can. Then peace came out of that. Again, this is taking the notion of the quest for answers and trying to turn it into the quest for understanding the questions. I think that’s a much more Buddhist path rather than looking for answers. We’re exploring the questions. Again, when I think of the Buddha or any of the great teachers of the past, present, or future, I like to imagine that that sense of peace, that sense of calm does not arise from having the answers to any of life’s questions but instead it comes from no longer wrestling with the questions themselves. I think uncertainty and the space of not knowing, that is the domain where they are comfortable, the space of discomfort. This is a notion that’s talked about quite regularly in Buddhism.

It’s one that I’ve emphasized quite regularly on the podcast, stepping into groundlessness, becoming comfortable with discomfort. All of these things center around this great notion of, if I know that there are questions that cannot be answered, then why am I still looking for the answers? Why not instead focus all my energy on understanding why those questions even mattered? When I understand myself and where the questions come from, then what can end up happening is minimizing or the questions become irrelevant. I don’t know if the questions go away. I think one of the things to be human is to question things. One of the things to be human is to assign meaning to things. It’s not necessarily that I’m going to want to, or that I’m going to succeed in eliminating all the questions. I think what actually ends up happening is the questions remain but they’re so irrelevant it’s like, for me to think what happens when I die, it’s on the same table as, what am I going to eat for dinner tonight?

I’m not losing sleep over that question. Sure, it’s a question that’s there. I’m going to give it a little bit of thought and a little bit of mental energy. But if I settle on, oh, I’m going to eat this for dinner and then the plans change, no, actually I’m going to eat that for dinner. It’s okay. No big deal. Okay. I changed plans. I pivot. Well, for me, death is the same. What happens when I die? I don’t know. I’ll figure it out when it happens. I might not notice anything because maybe nothing happens. But if something did happen, well, guess what? I will pivot in that moment and say, oh, okay, all right. It was the Hindu explanation. All right, then let’s go with it. Or it was something none of us had ever thought about, or it’s literally nothing and nothing happens. I don’t know, but I don’t lose sleep over it in the same way that I’m not losing sleep over the question of what am I going to eat for dinner two weeks from now?

Sure, it’s a question, but it’s not an important question. To me, that’s the beauty of this path is the irrelevance of the questions. It’s not about the answers. I’m a fan of questioning and I’m a fan of skepticism. Again, I think it’s important to highlight here the issue of detecting of the questions that I have in life, which ones are skillful questions and which ones are unskillful questions? I think it’s skillful to wonder if I’m raising my kids the right way. Could there be a more skillful way to raise them? I’ll read books about parenting and extract concepts out of there and say, okay, well I want to integrate this into my parenting style. Not because it’s the right way, but perhaps it’s a more skillful way than I had been doing. I don’t want to minimize the notion of questions. I don’t want to say let’s get rid of all questions. That’s not what Buddhism does for me personally.

Again, it’s about recognizing some of my questions that I spent time and wrestled with were unskillful questions to be entertaining while there were probably more skillful ones that I could be focusing on that would be more relevant in my day-to-day life. To me, again, this goes back to skillful versus unskillful, which questions are skillful, which ones are unskillful? Now, again, referring to this month and next month celebrating Bodhi Day, the enlightenment of the Buddha. The concept in Buddhism is called Nirvana. Nirvana is a word that is translated to most commonly as extinguishing or blowing out. You would say, in most schools of Buddhism, they would say there was an extinguishing of craving, right?

If we talk about the four noble truths and the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, you could argue that Nirvana is the extinguishing, right? It’s the blowing out of all craving. Without craving, there is no suffering because suffering is wanting things to be other than how they are. If I don’t want anything to be other than how it is, what do I end up with? Peace and serenity. Things are just as they are in the present moment. Well, to me, I think this notion of Nirvana and extinguishing is very relevant to the notion of questioning. What happens with time and with practice is perhaps the question isn’t so intense anymore because there’s an extinguishing, there’s a blowing out of that candle, so to speak. That intense desire to know the answer to something that can’t be known, that goes away.

You’ll realize it was never about the answer. It’s always been about the question. I kind of want to close this podcast episode on that thought. I imagine that the fire of the unskillful questions that the Buddha was wrestling with, they were extinguished because he came to understand the irrelevance of the questions. Like the monk who was carrying the rocks, just dropped them and said, well, I’m done with this. I’m not bringing any more rocks up the hill. For the Buddha, it was probably, I’m done wrestling with these questions. These are things that are unknowable. If they are unknowable, then I don’t need to know the answer. The moment you no longer feel the need to know the answer, serenity and peace is what you’re going to experience because there’s no inner wrestling, no inner war going on of that quest seeking for answers.

I think it can be that way for us. I think that as we practice applying Buddhist concepts and teachings in our lives, what we’ll start to experience is a softening of that deep need to know. What we’ll end up with is a greater understanding of why we tend to be creatures who want to know things. But there are things that we’ll never fully know. There are things that we can never fully control. How I perceive myself, how I perceive that you perceive me, how I perceive life should be versus how life is, like all these games that we get caught up in where we are the ones on the quest seeking answers. I hope that we can shift gears, focus a little bit more energy on understanding the questions.

The more I understand my questions and why these questions matter so much to me, I may start to find that some of the unskillful questions that I’ve been wrestling with will go away. I will have a sense of peace that you would have as if you had the answer, but it’s even infinitely more powerful because it’s not based on the answer, it’s based on the question. That’s been my experience as I practice these things. I often say the people out there who feel like they’re in a good place in life because they have the answers don’t realize how fragile that peace is. Because the moment those answers come into question, the inner peace is gone. I don’t think it’s about the answer. It’s not having the right answers. It’s the fact that they have any answer.

This is why you have people who are very content in almost any ideology, because they feel that they have the right answer. But what happens if that answer comes into question? Now, on the Buddhist path, that doesn’t happen so often because it was never about the answer. The answer can come into question, and so what? Then, okay. Well then that’s not the answer, but there’s not this great need to know the answer. There’s this great desire to understand the question. I think that’s a much deeper sense of peace and joy that can arise from being so anchored in understanding your question that nothing can come along and shake you in terms of the answer. Okay. That’s what I wanted to share with this podcast episode. I hope that you enjoyed this topic.

It’s been a while since I’ve recorded a podcast episode, and I’m hoping to become a little bit more regular with the recordings from here on out, especially coming into the new year. This will probably be the last episode for this year. What a year it’s been, 2020. It will go into the history books. I look forward to next year and all the new podcast episodes and things that will come about 2021. For those of you listening who’ve been joining me along this journey with the podcast episodes, I wish you happy holidays and a happy new year. I look forward to next year and all the new things that will be in store. Take care, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to listen. Until next time.

144 – The Game of Emotions

In this podcast episode, I will share some thoughts around the idea that we can change our relationship to our emotions by pretending that we’re playing a game where the goal is to experience the full range of possible emotions.

Koan: “There is Nothing I Dislike”

Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 144. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk a little bit about emotions. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You use what you learn to be a better, whatever you already are. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, check out my book, No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. It’s available on Amazon. Or check out the first five episodes of the podcast and you can find those easily by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link that says, start here. If you’re looking for a community to practice and to interact with, consider becoming a patron and visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link to join our community.

In this podcast episode, I wanted to talk a little bit about emotions and it’s been several weeks since I’ve had a chance to record a podcast, so I apologize for the delay. I have been interacting quite a bit with the online community and one of the topics that we talk about, or that we have been talking about, for a few weeks in a row now on our live Sunday discussion calls is the notion of emotions, how we experience emotions and the relationship that we have to emotions. And I wanted to share some of those concepts and some of the ideas that have come up in the last few weeks on our Zoom calls in the community.

So the idea here started with an experience I had not too long ago with a good friend of mine who has been struggling a lot with mental health issues and he spent a good portion of the year, probably the full year, just really battling depression, taking a lot of medication for anxiety and he ended up in this place where he was very numb and he was very numb for quite a long time. And as he slowly emerged out of this, in recent months, he was telling me that he had this really neat experience where he was suddenly upset about something, but he was experiencing a lot of gratitude in that moment because he realized, “I’m actually feeling something. I’m so excited that I’m mad because I’ve been numb for so long that it just felt good to feel something, even if that feeling was an emotion like anger.”

And after that interaction with him, it left me thinking about the relationship that we have with our emotions and how some of our emotions we cling after and we want more of, and other emotions, we shoo them away and we don’t want to experience them. But here in this experience that my friend had, suddenly he was very grateful to experience this emotion that normally he probably wouldn’t have wanted to feel because it had been absent for so long. And that got me thinking about the relationship that I have with my emotions and I think the Buddhist perspective of mindfulness with regards to our emotions. So I wanted to share some thoughts around this. One of the thoughts that developed for me was the notion that as we go through life, what if our goal was to just experience, take in every possible experience of what it means to feel alive, to experience life with the entire spectrum. If that was a game that I was playing, where I thought my goal is to experience all the emotions that one could experience. I want to experience those.

And then just to make the game more fun, let’s just say I wanted to experience those a certain amount of times per week. It would be interesting that if that were my goal, if that were the relationship I had with my emotions, when an emotion arises, let’s say gratitude or happiness, of course I would experience comfort around having that emotion, but what would happen when I experience anger or when I experience sadness? Sure, it would still be an unpleasant emotion, but there would almost be an aspect of gratitude that co-arises with the anger because I’d say, “Oh good. I’m experiencing anger. And I wanted to experience this X amount of times in this one day or X amount of times in this one week,” because again, if the game of emotions was that I want to experience every possible emotion, just that perspective shift would make me grateful that I’m experiencing anger, much like my friend who was experiencing anger and at the same time, joy or gratitude around the fact that he was experiencing anger because he was just grateful to be experiencing anything after that long period of time of numbness.

So I think that’s a really neat thought. And what it does for me, it helps me to remember that there are multiple layers of experience that are unfolding when we experience a thought or a feeling or an emotion. And I recently saw an image that was shared in our online community, by someone who presumably found it on social or somewhere, but he shared this image. And what the image conveys, it’s a little cartoon image and on the left, there’s a little cartoon that has the thought bubble and the thought says, “I’m not good enough,” and his face looks sad. And then on the right, there’s the thought bubble, same person, but it’s layered. So the inner layer, and then there’s an outer layer and then there’s a layer around the two, so three layers of thought. But in the outer one, it says, “I notice that,” and then in the inner one, “I’m having a thought that,” and then in the inner most one, “That I’m not good enough.”

So I thought that was a really neat visual way to understand mindfulness as a tool, how it pertains to the experience of having thoughts and feelings and emotions. So again, let’s say the thought arises, “I’m not good enough.” Mindfulness is I notice that I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough and because it comes in layered that way, the noticing of the thought is neutral and there’s no sadness in that. If I stay in the one layer of I’m not good enough, that’s sad, especially if you believe that thought. So I really liked that because it creates a layer of separation between the experience that you’re having and the observation of the experience that you’re having. And I think this has been talked about a few times in the podcast, but this is something that I wanted to talk about again, with this notion of the game of emotions.

If I am trying to take in the full experience of being alive, then that encompasses the broad range of every experience of being alive. That means when I experience having a flat tire or the loss of a loved on or the loss of a job, or the joy of watching a sunset or whatever the experience is that I’m having, I’m cataloging these as, wow, I get to have another experience. Some will be pleasant, some won’t be pleasant, but it wasn’t about only having pleasant or avoiding unpleasant experiences. The game of emotions for me is I want to catalog all of them and I personally do this from time to time. And when I have a new experience that I haven’t had before, for instance, driving along the highway, I had a flat tire. Well, a semi-truck blew its tire and the tire rolled into my lane and I dodged it and it hit my trailer.

And when it did that, sure, I reacted and had all the thoughts and feelings and emotions that arise when you have an experience like that. But one that arose relatively quickly, once I pulled over was, huh, I’ve never had this experience. That’s… Put that on my list, like a little bucket list. Okay, I got that experience out of the way. Now I know what that feels like. And again, that sense of almost gratitude, co-arises with whatever other emotion that you’re having. A lot like my friend, again, experiencing a sense of, of gratitude or joy amidst the experience of feeling anger as an emotion. So I think that’s a fun concept that you can take and play with that. What if you were committed to accepting the full range of experience of being alive and next time you experience any kind of emotion, any thoughts or feelings if you viewed it from that lens of I’m open to experience in all of them?

And if I really were tallying which ones I experienced and how often would there be a part of me that would be experiencing a little bit of joy around the fact that I’m experiencing discontent? Because I was like, “Oh, there, I got that one off the list. Anger, oh yeah. I felt that one this week. Okay, that one’s off the list.” Sadness, joy, all of them, right? You name it. I think it’s a fun thought experiment and I think it’s fascinating because again, it really plays on this notion that the experience of having an emotion is one thing, but the relationship you have to the emotion in many ways will influence whether you cling after or feel aversion towards that experience. And I think a lot of times we are caught up in this world where the underlying story that we tell ourselves or the underlying belief is that I should feel this and I shouldn’t feel that. I should feel more of this.

I should do whatever it takes to feel more of this and I should do whatever it takes to avoid feeling more of that. And we put the emotions in these two columns, right? The ones that we want and the ones that we don’t want. But what if the underlying belief that some feelings and emotions are good and some are bad, what if that was what was flawed and that belief is what’s causing an unskillful relationship with our emotions? What if the belief was, they’re all good and you’re supposed to feel all of them at some point. And until you do, you haven’t fully lived. If that were the belief, well, again, you’d find yourself experiencing an emotion saying, “Ah, okay. Yeah, that’s not pleasant, but I’m going to put this on my little list. Put a little check mark next to it because yay, I finally got to experience that.” It’s just a fascinating thought experiment.

So that’s the idea of the game of emotions that I wanted to share in this podcast episode. And what I hope is that you’ll consider this next time you’re experiencing a strong emotion and ask yourself what relationship do I have to this emotion? And if I were just chalking these up on a list, would you feel any kind of gratitude or joy around the fact that you are actually feeling that emotion, however, unpleasant that emotion may be? I think so. At least that’s what I’ve experienced in my own… In my own sampling of this as a concept and as an idea. So that’s what I wanted to share with you. I also want to reintroduce the Cohen___ at the end of the podcast episode to give you something to think about with regards to next week’s podcast episode.

So this koan, I believe I’ve shared it before, but it’s probably been long enough that it’s worth sharing again. And just on that side note, I do want to emphasize the fact that because you are always changing and life is always changing, anytime you encounter a concept or an idea or a teaching in Buddhism, it’s like you’re encountering it for the first time, because you’re not the same person who encountered this last time you encountered it. So that’s a fun thought. But the koan is this, there is nothing I dislike and that’s it. That’s the koan. I’ll share some of my thoughts on that next week. Hopefully you will stew on that for a little bit and give that some thought and see, what does that mean to you? The expression there is nothing I dislike, as a koan. All right. Well, that’s all I have for this podcast episode. Thanks again for tuning in and I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.

I’m excited to be back on track, trying to stay caught up. I have been on the road quite a bit the last few weeks, but I’m hoping to have time to get caught up on several podcast topics that I have written down that I’ve been ready to share with you. Thanks again for taking the time to listen. Until next time.

143 – Eye of the Beholder

In this episode, I will talk about perception and the role it plays in how we experience our reality. Reality is in the eye of the beholder. “Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises…The meeting of the three is contact.”
With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about.

Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 143. I am your host Noah Rasheta today. I’m going to share some thoughts around the topic of perception.

As always, keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are.

If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners on Amazon, or start out with the first five episodes of the podcast.

Also, you can check out my new online workshop called Mindfulness for Everyday Life. It’s available on Himalaya, a new educational audio platform. You can find it on himalaya.com/mindfulness. If you want to give it a try, you can use the promo code mindfulness for a 14-day trial to listen to my workshop and hundreds of other workshops.

If you’re looking for a community to practice with and to interact with, consider becoming a patron by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking the link to join our community.

In this podcast episode, I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts regarding perception specifically from a Buddhist perspective. If you’ll recall, the Buddhist teaching of the five aggregates. These are form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These five aggregates are the bundles or the heaps that make up who, or perhaps, how we are. And the implication here is that perception plays a key role in how I go about experiencing my reality.

I wanted to correlate all of this with an expression that I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s a common expression that says beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This expression suggests that beauty doesn’t exist on its own, but it arises in the one doing the observing. I think that’s a fascinating thought. I want to correlate this with the expression, with the Buddhist understanding of the role that perception plays in how we experience things.

So all of this started recently with a trip that I was on. I was in Moab. Moab, if you don’t know, is a very scenic place in Utah famous for the arches and several other national parks. The thought that I had while I was there, of course, I’m experiencing Moab from the air, from a paraglider, a powered paraglider. As I was flying through there, I had a similar thought that I’ve had many times while traveling, which is, wow, this is such a beautiful place. And followed pretty closely to the thought that that says people come from all over the world to see this. Then the reminder that any places like that, this one happens to be very unique and beautiful, but all places are.

I remember one time when I was traveling. I was in Bali and I was walking through the rice paddies on a day trip tour. I would see the locals tending to their rice paddies. I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the landscape and the beauty of the place. It just felt like such a neat experience. The thought occurred to me that if I could pick someone from here out of their rice paddy and take them to my home, they would probably have a similar feeling walking through the streets and the trails behind my house and thinking how neat it is to recognize that, again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for someone who’s there a local, this scenery, that to a visitor is so unique and so different and so beautiful, to them it’s, just an ordinary day-to-day view.

The same thing happens to me. My normal view where I live may become ordinary and I think I have to go far to experience this beauty, when in reality, that beauty is it’s everywhere because it’s in the eye of the beholder.

So that’s kind of what was going on this past week as I was experiencing the beauty of Moab and I started to formulate all of these thoughts and how they relate to a Buddhist teaching, which is kind of what I want to share with you. When we think of beauty, it’s not just a painting, for example, that you look at and you think, “Wow, what a beautiful painting.”

But we do this with all things, right? Film is a good example. I’m sure you have watched a movie at some point that moved you the tears, right? Maybe it was a message or just the story of the movie that really moved you. Now, with a painting or with a movie, if I were to tell you, “Hey, there is a movie out there that if you watch it, it will profoundly change your life.”

Now, if I tell you what movie that is, it won’t work. You might go watch the movie and say, “That didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like that movie.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this where someone, a friend, will tell you, “You have to go watch this movie. It’s such a good movie.” And they build it up and build it up and then you go watch it. And you’re like, “Yeah, it was all right.” And they’re stunned. “What do you mean it was all right? It’s my favorite movie.” Or backwards. Maybe you had experienced a movie or a song or a painting that you saw in a museum that really moved you and then you try to share that with someone and they just don’t experience it the same way.

I think there’s something to be said about that. With paintings, for example, if I were to tell you, “Hey, the most beautiful painting in the world, the one that you will recognize as the most beautiful, is this one.” I’ll name one, the Mona Lisa. That may not be true. You may go see the Mona Lisa and think, “Nah.” But you watch some other painting in a museum or some other movie in the theater, and you’re like, “Nope, that is the one. That is the best movie in the world, or that is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen.”

The reason is because, again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As common as that is as an expression, it’s actually a really profound Buddhist teaching. I want to talk about that.

Food is another example here. I think the taste resonates really well for me to help understand this notion of the eye of the beholder. If I were to taste something that I really enjoy, I recognize that that’s just me. I can’t help it that this specific thing tastes really good to me.

I remember doing on the 23andMe a DNA test that gives you health traits. I remember reading through there and it had some mention of a gene that I have. I remember the description next to it said that I’m likely to either like or be able to enjoy bitter tastes. It specifically mentioned Brussels sprouts as the example, that you probably like Brussels sprouts or something like that.

I remember thinking how fascinating I actually really do like Brussels sprouts and there are people who don’t like Brussels sprouts at all. It might just be because they don’t have the gene that lets them taste that bitterness. Or backwards. They have the gene that does make them taste the bitterness and that’s why they don’t like it.

I can’t remember, but I remember being pretty fascinated at the thought that it’s just the gene. It’s something that I inherited that makes me like or not like a specific flavor like Brussels sprouts.

If that’s true with something like food, how much more so is that true with other things that we perceive as pleasant or beautiful or unpleasant and ugly? So again, this notion of beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it’s not just beauty. It’s really saying anything that you perceive is in the eye of the beholder. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Good is in the eye of the beholder. Bad is in the eye of the beholder.

I love taking this train of thought down the path of the Buddhist understanding of all this, which is what I want to talk about today. The thoughts I’m going to share with you come from the Ball of Honey discourse. It’s called Madhupindika Sutta, the Ball of Honey discourse. Of course, I don’t know if that’s the right pronunciation, but you can Google it. It’s an actual discourse attributed to the Buddha. I’m going to share some thoughts regarding that.

So in the Ball of Honey discourse, we learn about the role that perception plays in our understanding of reality. Perceptions are meanings and they are subjective and dependent upon our sense faculties, which in our case happen to be limited and they also happen to be conditioned.

What do I mean by limited? Well, take sight, for example. The sense organ that does the seeing is the eye. And our eye, the human eye, is limited in distance for example. We can see comfortably a certain distance and then greater than that distance, you need binoculars or a telescope, where other animals like an eagle, for example, or other birds of prey might have the ability to see much greater distances than we do. Therefore, the way that they perceive is different than the way that we perceive.

In terms of color, this is also a fascinating thought. A quick Google search indicates that a healthy human eye has three types of cone cells, each of which can register about 100 different color shades. Therefore, most researchers ballpark the number of colors that we humans can distinguish is about a million.

Now, compared to our measly three-color receptive cones, a mantis shrimp, for example, has 16-color receptive cones. They can detect 10 times more color than a human and probably see more colors than any other animal on the planet. They can see in ultraviolet, in infrared and even polarized light.

So the way a mantis shrimp perceives is very different than the way a human perceives. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the universe from an infrared camera, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Just imagine if you could see an infrared, you would perceive things in a very different way than someone who can’t perceive or see an infrared.

This is just a fascinating understanding of the nature of perception and how it correlates to reality. Think of a dog, for example. A dog can smell much, much greater than we can. A dog can smell drugs in a suitcase. A dog can smell a fire hydrant and know who or what passed by several hours ago. The way it perceives reality is going to be very different from the way that we perceive our reality because of the differences in our sense organs.

Another quick example is a bat. A bat perceives sound in a very different way than we do. A bat can use the sound that they hear and they’ll map, make a mental image of what they here and use that to determine where they are. Now, we don’t do that as humans. That’s just another example of the differences in, in how we perceive.

So back to the Honey Ball discourse, we learn that dependent on the eye and forms, eye consciousness arises. Eye consciousness arises from a sense base, an object and the meeting of the three is what is called contact.

So think of it like this. Well, with contact as the required condition, then there’s feeling and what one feels, one perceives, what one perceives, one thinks about. So what that means is that I have an eye and the eye sees something that’s being seen, the form. So there’s the eye, there’s the form, and then eye consciousness is what arises there. It’s the recognition of what I’m seeing. They go on to talk about this with all the other sense organs, nose, taste, and so on.

But what I want to highlight here is the correlation between the contact, the feeling, the perception, and the thought, because it specifically mentions in here that the moment contact happens, which is the contact between the eye and what the eye is seeing, that eye consciousness is what they call it, the correlation of all those things is called contact. Through contact, feeling happens. Through feeling, perception happens. Through perception, thoughts. So I want to unpack this a little bit.

Again, contact is the eye that does the seeing. The object is the thing that’s being seen. The eye consciousness that arises, in other words the recognition, that the thing that does the seeing is aware now of the object that has been seen. That process, as it happens, gives way to a feeling.

So the feeling, this often depends on the conditioned mind. For example, my mind is conditioned by memories. It’s conditioned by genetics. So again, using genetics as the example, my taste, as taste happens and I’m tasting a Brussels sprout, then the feeling arises of, “I like this. I like this flavor.” Or it could be the opposite. “I don’t like this flavor.”

Now, if I’m talking about, not genetics but let’s say other factors like memories, it could be that I see something and that thing reminds me of something scary. So the feeling that arises is fear or the feeling that arises is aversion. I don’t like this. Or the opposite. There’s a mental association of what I’m seeing to a past experience that was pleasant. So now the feeling that arises is, “Oh, this is pleasant. I want this. I want to approach it. I want to run from it.” So that’s feeling.

So then feeling gives way to perceptions. Perceptions are tricky because they don’t give you an ultimate reality. In other words, they don’t give you an ultimate truth. All they can give you is a subjective readout of where you’re coming from. In other words, all my past experiences and my genetics give me in this specific moment in time the position of I like the Brussels sprout. Or it gives me the opposite. All of my memories, genetics, past experiences, all these things arise to give me in this one moment in time, the position of, I don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m going to run away from it.

So then with that comes thought. I think perhaps we can call thought an opinion or even stronger, a belief. The belief is Brussels sprouts are good, or the belief is snakes are dangerous. I need to run. Or whatever the belief is that suddenly arises through this mental process.

So if this is the mental process that we’re all stuck with all the time, what the Buddha taught is how can this process be ended? Well, through a shift in perception caused by the way that we relate to our feelings. I want to unpack that a little bit more.

So the Ball of Honey discourse starts out with someone asking the Buddha. Someone was out starting his day routine, stretching or something, and asks, “Hey, what do you teach? What is your doctrine?” And the Buddha replied, “The sort of doctrine where one does not keep quarreling with anyone, where perceptions are no longer obsess such as my doctrine, such as what I proclaim.”

And this person goes on and he’s like, “Okay, whatever.”, doesn’t quite understand what any of that means. And later, one of the Buddhist followers, a monk, explains this and goes into greater detail and goes on to explain the correlation between each sense organ and what it’s perceiving. He goes on to say dependent on eye and forms, eye consciousness arises. And also ear and sounds, ear consciousness arises and so on. Nose and smells, tongue and tastes and intellect and ideas.

I really like this teaching because the teaching, the understanding that senses correlate to feelings, which correlate to perception and ultimately correlates to beliefs or positions, taking a position, having a view, having an opinion, then what you can practice through all of this is the idea of non-attachment.

I understand that when something happens and I sense something I’m going to intuitively tend to come up with a view, and I will tend to want to hold onto my view. But it’s as if the Buddha was saying, “I know that about myself, and I know how to release my mind from holding onto the views or beliefs that it will inevitably create as it goes about sensing everything. Because of this, I’m no longer snared in any of these views, opinions and beliefs as they arise in my mental processes.”

To me, this is incredibly fascinating. In the Avengers movie, Dr. Strange, if you’ll recall, he’s able to look into the future and he can see all the possible scenarios and outcomes, and that ability empowers him. I think it’s similar to that where if we are able to see all the possible positions that we can come up with and see the dilemma that we’re in is we’ll see still recognized, but where does that take you?

I think this is the hardest of the doctrine of no quarreling, that the Buddha was talking about. It’s almost as if the Buddha was saying all that action, all that effort of taking a position, where does that take you? It takes you to another place, another position, arguing with people. Why don’t you just come out of needing to have a position to hold onto in the first place?

Because he understood that the way that our sense organs correlate to perceptions and ultimately beliefs and views, to me, this is the heart of this understanding. Understanding this doctrine, you recognize that everything and anything that you can hold onto can’t be ultimate truth. It can’t be absolute truth because it’s just a mental game that’s happening. It’s a mental labeling that’s based on a perception that’s based on where you happen to be in terms of space and time. And space and time is always limited and it’s always subjective. This is as this is because I’m here and because it’s now, but this would be another way if I was there. It was then.

Do you understand that? It correlates very well with the notion of the blind men and the elephant, that where I stand in place and time and what I’m sensing determines how I perceive, which ultimately determines all of my views, all of my opinions and all of my beliefs.

I think that’s why the Buddha said open quote, “This is the end of taking up rods and bladed weapons or arguments, quarrels disputes, accusations, divisive tale bearing, and false speech. This is where these unskillful things cease without remainder, and that is what I teach.” Close quote.

I think it’s interesting that when asked what do you teach, his focus was a doctrine that doesn’t have quarreling. Now, right away, I would think, okay. That means I don’t have to quarrel with others because I understand that my understanding of reality is subjective. It’s based on my sense organs and how I perceive my senses and yours is based on yours and how you perceive. Therefore, I don’t need a quarrel with you.

But I’d like to take that a step further and I would like to imagine that he was implying this doctrine of no quarreling wasn’t just with other people and other positions, because I recognize that all those positions are subjective.

I think he was implying the doctrine of no quarreling happens internally. I don’t need to quarrel with my own views. I’m going to have senses that lead to perceptions, that lead to thoughts, that lead to beliefs, that may contradict other perceptions and other thoughts and other beliefs that I hold.

I hold both of them. The quarreling that happens inside is the quarreling that ends up going away. It goes away through this understanding that everything that arises is dependently arisen. It’s impermanent, and it’s not actually me. It’s the notion of no-self and it passes. So what does that mean? Well, it means there’s no perception for that because through insight into perception, the mind can essentially give up the game of labeling. What it achieves is a sense of liberation and a sense of peace.

I think that’s what the Buddha taught is that if you do the practice that takes you to that, you’ll know this for yourself very much the same way like seeing a beautiful painting and knowing for yourself that it’s beautiful not because someone told you, but because it’s what you perceive. It’s the recognition that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is ugliness and so is everything else that we perceive.

What I perceive is in the eye of the person doing the perceiving. That, to me, is a really profound understanding. What is right, what is good, what is beautiful, what is correct, what is incorrect, to a great extent, remains in the eye of the beholder. That, to me, is the essence of what this sutta or what this discourse is about, the Honey Ball, the Honey Ball discourse, or the Ball of Honey discourse.

You can read that one in greater detail on your own if you want to do that. But those were the thoughts that I wanted to share with you. This notion of perception. As you go through life, and I’m doing this myself. As I go through life, and I perceive things and my perception leads to a mental formation that leads to a view, and I take a position and I say, “Yes, this is beautiful.”

My non-attachment, which is the practice says, “This is beautiful, but is it really? Is it really?” Because it is to me, but that doesn’t make it absolute. That makes it subjective because I understand the way senses work. I understand the correlation between my senses and my perceptions and my perceptions and my thoughts and my thoughts and my beliefs and all of that leads me to a position, but I don’t need to defend my position because it’s not a position that I’m invested in. To say this as beautiful is to say this is beautiful to me. Or this is ugly, this is ugly to me. Or this tastes good, this tastes good to me. Or this tastes bad, this just tastes bad to me. It’s not an absolute thing. It’s a relative thing and a subjective thing. That, to me, is the correlation of this expression of the eye of the beholder.

So hopefully you can take all of these thoughts and ideas and apply them somehow to your day-to-day life, your day-to-day experiences, as you go about sensing through your sense organs, sight, smell, hearing, and even touch and mental, mental processes, which I think is a really powerful understanding that helps you to practice non-attachment.

So there you go. Those are my thoughts on this podcast episode topic today on perception and the eye of the beholder. That’s all I have for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Until next time.

142 – Wisdom and Fear

“Some see something to fear where there is nothing to fear, and some see nothing to fear where there is something to fear.” In this episode, I will talk about fear from a Buddhist perspective. Fear is universal but there are perhaps some fears that are skillful and others that are unskilful.

Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 142. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about fear.

Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism in general, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners on Amazon, or start out by listening to the first five episodes of the podcast. You can also check out my new online workshop called Mindfulness for Everyday Life, available on Himalaya, a new educational audio platform. You can find it on himalaya.com/mindfulness. If you want to give it a try, use the promo code mindfulness, for a 14-day trial to listen to my workshop and hundreds of other workshops available on the Himalaya platform. And finally, if you’re looking for a community to practice with and to interact with, consider becoming a patron by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link to join our community.

October seemed like a good month to talk about the topic of fear with Halloween and all the preparations that go on at least in the US and other Western cultures. This is the month that you see all the movies on TV are about horror films and scary things and I thought it would be fun to talk about the concept of fear from the Buddhist perspective.

I think this is a fascinating topic to explore because all of us experience fear. Fear is a universal thing. We all experience it and it’s completely natural. Like all other emotions, fear is just an emotion. There are however learned fears and there are hardwired fears. I recently read an article that talked about how, for example, the fear that we experience at loud noises. That’s something that’s hardwired in us that we don’t necessarily learn that, it’s from day one that we fear loud noises. Also, the fear of falling seems to be one of those fears that is hardwired in us and I’m sure there are others.

But for the discussion of fear, I think first and foremost, it’s helpful to frame our fears within the lens of skillful fears and unskillful fears. The Buddha taught that some see something to fear where there is nothing to fear and some see nothing to fear where there is something to fear. And this is more or less along the lines of what I want to talk about with this topic of fear.

Useful fear may prepare us to take skillful action while unuseful fear only leads to unskillful action. And that’s how I like framing this. That’s how I like thinking about my own fears. For example, a skillful fear would be avoiding touching a poisonous snake while an unskillful fear may be fearing the coiled up hose in the dark shed because I think it’s a snake, but in actuality, it’s only a coiled up hose. So that’s kind of along the lines of the Buddhist perspective of fear. I’m far less concerned with talking about the fear that we think of when we think of fear of the dark, fear of heights. No, I’m much more interested in talking about fears, like the fear of rejection that may cause us to live unskillfully.

It could cause us to live an entire life where we’re not fully in harmony with our authentic selves, with how we actually think and feel. Because if I fear, for example, the judgment of others, I may be experiencing unskillful actions in my life, living life, a certain way to avoid the fear of judgment of others. That may be an unskillful fear. So that’s what I want to talk about.

When we talk about fear, we think of the ultimate fear, right? Perhaps the fear of death, the fear of separation from our loved ones, the fear that we experience from uncertainty and the unknown. Those are big concepts to think about. And I think they’re good to think about, but for practical purposes, I think it’s more important to think of the fears that affect our day-to-day lives and a lot of the experiences that we’re having in our day-to-day lives.

And for me, it’s important to explore where does my fear come from? And you’ve heard me mentioned before in this podcast, the notion of the Buddhist teaching of craving, which is essentially what will suffering, that the moment I want things to be other than how they are suffering is what arises or discontent, dissatisfaction, anguish, however you want to word that. But that feeling that arises when I want something to be other than how it is seems to be very intricately connected to this notion of fear. I’m fearing how something is because it’s not matching how I think it should be. And that’s one of the ideas that is talked about in Buddhism on this topic of fear. And again, it’s wanting things to be other than how they are. And I think what makes this worse as far as fear goes, is that we’re experiencing new layer of fear.

So like many emotions, fear is something that we all experience. But when we experience it, we have a relationship to the experience we’re having. And for most of us, it’s aversion, aversion to fear. So if I start to experience fear and I have an aversion to fear, then I start to fear the fact that I’m experiencing fear a lot like being anxious about being anxious or being mad about being mad. And I think this is something that’s worth considering because we can always ask ourselves when we’re experiencing fear, is this question, am I adding to this? Am I adding a new layer? Because for me, this is not necessarily a discussion about fear where we come up with some solution where we learn how to eliminate fear, but instead it’s a conversation about understanding the root of our fear and changing the relationship we have with fear as an emotion. For me, this is all about getting to know my fears intimately and gaining wisdom and insight into the nature and the root of our fears.

You’ve probably heard about the teaching of the three poisons in Buddhism, and the three poisons are desire or craving, aversion or anger or hatred, and then the third one is ignorance. So these three, desire, aversion, and ignorance are called the three poisons because they kind of taint and poison everything that they encounter. And when we are operating under one of these three we’re essentially living more unskillfully than we could if we were not operating under one of these three influences. At least that’s how I like to think of it.

There are writings where the Buddha referred to ignorance or wisdom as the cause and the solution to fear. And I thought this was an interesting concept to explore. The idea again of ignorance or delusion, which sometimes those are used interchangeably in the context of the three poisons. But the notion that ignorance can often give rise to fear, and then coupling that with this teaching that we encounter often in Buddhism as well, which is the teaching of the confusing the coiled hose with a snake.

That to me is a very good visual representation of an instance where ignorance gives rise to fear. I’m a little cautious about how we use the word ignorance because I’m not thinking about ignorant as in, “Oh, you’re so ignorant.” No ignorance is just simply the lack of knowledge of how something actually is. And if you think about that, if you’re walking into the shed and then you look down, it’s dark, right? And you see this coiled hose and you immediately think it’s a snake, that’s a very natural response. And you would certainly feel fear because what you are perceiving is one thing, but it does not match reality. And that’s where ignorance comes in. Ignorance of no fault of my own, I am perceiving something wrong. And if I were to immediately act on that, let’s say I turn and run, or I have a shovel and I start hitting the hose, that’s unskillful action, because now I’m hitting the hose and then by the time I turn the light on and realize this wasn’t a snake, I may have damaged the hose for example.

So the idea here is that by shedding more light on it, by turning the light on in the shed, physically, I can start to see things more clearly and I recognize, “Oh, that wasn’t a snake that was a hose.” Now I get at that this can be very hard to do in the moment. If you are struck with fear because fear causes you to react and do things. I get that. And this one always hits home for me because I really do have a fear of snakes. But I like this notion that in the moment that I think is that a snake, if I were to run out of the shed first that might be better. Then I come back with a flashlight and realize, “Oh, that wasn’t what I thought it was.” Then I spend time to turn on the light. Then I spend time looking closer. That’s skillful action. I’m doing something that’s skillful and I gained wisdom.

What was the wisdom? I gained the realization that the hose was a hose and not a snake. Now, again, taking this to the fears that we typically experience in our day-to-day lives. For me, this is where this becomes a powerful concept. As I go throughout my life, I will discover certain fears that I have. For example, the fear of rejection. I think a lot of people experience this fear. This is a fear that may be unskillful, and I may be experiencing this out of some form of ignorance. In other words, I haven’t sat with this fear because it’s uncomfortable and I haven’t shed light on it. I haven’t spent enough time with it because our natural response typically to something that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant is aversion, right? We don’t want to, I don’t want to sit with this emotion. I don’t like how this emotion feels.

So then I start doing unskillful things. So let’s just use this as the example, I have the fear of rejection of others, and that fear causes me to avoid at all costs the possibility of somebody rejecting me. So now I’m with a group of peers and they all like to, let’s just say, again as a dumb example, they all like to dress a certain way. They all like to wear the color red. And here I love to wear the color blue, but I’m so afraid of being rejected by them that now I start to wear the color red. And perhaps that’s something that I don’t feel that good about. I don’t feel great about the fact that I’m wearing red, but what trumps that feeling is the fear that I have of being rejected.

So again, I get that this is kind of a weird example, but think about how often this actually happens in life. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, I know I’ve experienced it. Where you are starting to live a certain way, do certain things, or avoid doing certain things all out of the fear that you may have for something like the fear of rejection or the fear of judgment or something along those lines. And for me, this is a very powerful thing, to be able to recognize nice that when I’m experiencing some form of fear, I can actually pause and I can say, “Wait a second, why do I fear this? Why do I fear rejection of others?”

I can spend time with this emotion. I can process it. I can look deeper. I can gain insight and wisdom. I can turn the light on shed. And at some point, I may realize, “Oh, that thing that looks like a snake, actually, isn’t a snake. It’s a coiled hose.” So that to me is what I’m after with this topic, with this concept. I’ve thought a lot about the fears that I have fear of rejection is one. I think that’s a common one that people have. One that I’ve talked about in the podcast before is the fear of not being liked. And I’ve sat with this one long enough that I, I feel like I have a thorough understanding of the root of it. And having grown up as a twin, for example, I always wondered, do people like me or do people like us? In other words, are you my friend because of my own merits and my own personality, or are you friends with us because of the dynamic that we are together as twins?

As we got older that transitioned into this belief that, well, maybe the only reason people like me is because people like my twin, and it caused me to experience a lot of fear that I think would fall under this category of unskillful fear, or perhaps fear that’s instigated by some form of ignorance, which is not understanding the picture of reality and I’m seeing something that actually isn’t there. And I’ve spent time with that fear. And I’ve overcome that fear. And at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily that the fear goes away, but the relationship that you have with the fear changes, I’m not afraid of that fear. I’m not afraid of feeling that fear.

When that thought arises, let’s say I’m interacting with friends and suddenly the thought pops up, they don’t like you, they just like your brother. Or they like you, the dynamic of you and your twin together. Now, I’m not sure afraid of that feeling, it’s not uncomfortable, I almost smile. I’m like, Oh yeah, there’s that feeling? Yeah. I don’t know that that’s true though. There’s no way for me to really know that. And they’re still my friends, so I don’t have to believe my own thought. And I feel like the relationship with the fear changed and because the relationship with the fear changed, perhaps what would have been some form of unskillful action or unskillful thought or unskillful something, didn’t take place because I wasn’t afraid of the feeling of fear.

Now, there would have been a time in my life when that wasn’t the case. The fear of not being liked maybe would have made me do something that I wouldn’t normally do or say something that I wouldn’t normally say or not say something that I should have said or not do something that I should have done. And that’s what I’m after here. That’s what I’m hoping to convey in this podcast episode to you as the listener is that you also like me, and like everyone else, we have fears. And the fears that you have roots. And if you can get to the root of your fear, and you can and shed light on it and you can spend time with it, perhaps you can change the relationship that you have with it. Perhaps you’ll gain some sort of insight or wisdom, and you’ll see something new the same way that you would, if you were to turn the light on in the room and now you see a little bit more clearly and the thing that you thought was one thing, actually, isn’t that thing.

And then with that wisdom, with that new knowledge, with that clarity comes a new way of being. A new way that changes what you were experiencing before. And that’s what I wanted to end this on. Perhaps fearlessness is not necessarily about the absence of fear, but the absence of being afraid to experience fear. I think about fearlessness versus bravery. And I think fearlessness implies that there is no fear, but there’s no bravery in that. If I’m not afraid of something it’s not accurate to say, “Oh, I’m brave about flying because I’m fearless when I fly.” No, I think bravery would be somebody who’s afraid to fly, but they go fly anyway, that would be brave. For me to just go fly, if I’m not afraid to fly and I go fly, there’s nothing brave in that. I’m just doing, doing what I do. So that’s another concept I wanted to end this podcast episode on is when we think of bravery and we think of fearlessness rather than thinking the goal is to become fearless maybe the goal is to be a little bit more brave.

In spite of the fact of the fear that I have of being rejected by others, I’m still going to live an authentic life where I risk the possibility that yes, some people will reject me, but I don’t have to lose sleep over the fact that I’m not living authentic to myself. That’s the idea that I wanted to convey in and end this on. So next time you’re experiencing a form of fear. You sense an aversion to that emotion you’re experiencing maybe that’s a good time to turn and face it and see if you can gain wisdom from the encounter with the fear. This reminds me again of that encounter of the Buddha and the serial killer on Angulimala. And I always think about this visually, right?

Imagine there’s the Buddha in the forest and then here comes Angulimala. Everybody runs from Angulimala. Nobody likes him because he’s a serial killer, but the Buddha stood there and faced him and that really surprised Angulimala to the point where he stopped and he was like, “Why aren’t you running? Why aren’t you afraid from me?” And that gave rise to the opportunity for them to speak. And by speaking, and by understanding and expressing things, the relationship changed and Angulimala didn’t feel the need to kill the Buddha. And then according to the story, it’s just a story, right?

Angulimala had a change of heart and he became a monk. And I just think that’s such a cool lesson that can be extracted whether that story happened or not. I think it’s a fascinating story that by not being afraid, or perhaps there was fear, I don’t know, but by turning and facing the thing that everybody’s scared of, and instead engaging with it, having dialogue, the outcome changed and the skillful action that came out of that was Angulimala quit being a serial killer and instead became a monk.

So I like to think of the relationship that I have with my fears is like the relationship where I’m the Buddha and here comes my fear running at me with a knife, it’s Angulimala, and I try to be skillful with that fear and I face it and I try to understand it. I try to turn the light on in the shed and see, is this really a snake? Or is this a hose? If it is a snake I’m going to run, but if it’s not a snake, then maybe there’s some other more skillful action rather than running from this thing that I’ve been scared of.

So that’s my invitation to you. As you think about your fears, as you encounter your fears, especially the learned fears, or perhaps maybe we’ll call it the unskillful fears. You may discover that some of the fears that you have are skillful and some unskillful. And the ones that are unskillful you can engage with, you can change the relationship with that fear and perhaps something new and something skillful will arise out of that. Thanks to the wisdom that was gained.

So thank you for taking the time to listen. That’s all I have for this podcast. Thank you, until next time.

141 – Smarter Not Harder

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “work smarter, not harder”. In this episode, I will share my throughs regarding Skillful Effort of the Eightfold Path and how it pertains to not only mindfulness practice but to everything we do in life.

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 141. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m going to talk about skillful effort. As always, keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast and you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism in general, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, available on Amazon. Or you can start out by listening to the first five episodes of this podcast. Also, check out my new online workshop called Mindfulness For Everyday Life, available on Himalaya, a new educational audio platform. You can find information about that by visiting himalaya.com/mindfulness and give it a try with the promo code mindfulness for a 14-day trial to listen to not only my workshop but hundreds of other workshops that are available there as well. If you’re looking for a community to practice with and to interact with, consider becoming a patron by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking the link to join our online community.

In this podcast episode, I wanted to share some of my thoughts regarding the topic of effort. In Buddhism, we follow what’s called the eightfold path, these are eight specific areas that you focus on to live a more mindful life. The eight areas are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. I’ve talked about these in general. I’ve talked about the eightfold path in general on the podcast before. I’ve mentioned it, of course, in my book. I wanted to discuss some thoughts that I have regarding one specific aspect, which is effort. If you visualize real quick, the symbol of Buddhism is a wheel with 8 spokes. These eight spokes represent these specific areas, these eight areas. Some people have divided these into three general groups, the group of pertaining to wisdom, which would be understanding and intent, the group related to ethical conduct, which would be speech, action, and livelihood.

Then the group pertaining to mental discipline, which would be effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Again, I’ve mentioned these before but I’ve never taken the time to share thoughts regarding one specific spoke of the wheel. Today I wanted to do that with regards to effort. Now, anytime you encounter the eightfold path, you’ll typically hear it described as right this and right that. Right understanding, right intent and so on. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer the term skillful because skillful means being such a prevalent concept in Buddhism. It’s not right versus wrong. It’s more of skillful versus unskillful. I would like to talk about effort in terms of skillful effort versus unskillful effort. This conjures up the expression that I’m sure you’ve heard, which is that we can work smarter, not harder. This is the first time I’ve correlated all of this in terms of Buddhist practice, and that’s because over the past few weeks I’ve been busy doing a lot of flying.

I had an eight day workshop where I was teaching four new pilots how to fly, followed by an eight day flying which is a gathering. You have vendors there and they’re showcasing their equipment. Then all of the attendees were spending all of our time doing as much flying as possible, just for the fun of flying. It was a really fun event, but I’d been gone from my family and from my home for the past two weeks on the road doing all this work. During the first week working with four new students, I had this thought of skillful effort because of an experience that I had. I had four new students and one student really stood out to me. He joined the class several months ago. He signed up for training and he expressed his concern first due to his age, 67 years old. As you start reaching, I would say your mid 60s, it’s common for some people to lose a little bit of their strength.

But to complicate things further for him, he has Parkinson’s disease. He was a little bit worried about how those complications would factor into doing all this physical effort that it takes to learn to fly a paramotor. For those of you who don’t know the process of learning to fly one of these entails, strapping a motor to your back that’s usually 60 to 70 pounds, and then running with that. Running to the point where you’re going fast enough to take off. We don’t have wheels in powered paragliding, at least not in foot-launch powered paragliding, which is what I do. Our wheels are our feet. You have to be able to run up to a certain speed to be able to take off just like an airplane has to get up to a certain amount of speed before it lifts off the ground. It’s the same for us, but we don’t have wheels, so it has to be our feet. My student was a little bit concerned as was I.

I told him, if you’re determined to learn, we’ll spend all the time that it takes. If it goes beyond the eight days, if it takes weeks or months, I will continue to spend that time with you and teach you as long as you put in the effort that it’s going to take to do it. That was how we left things. Then the day came for training to start. He was a little nervous. I was certainly a little nervous. He did remarkably well. This is where I started to see and experience firsthand what skillful effort looks like. He knew himself so well. He knew at what time he needed to take his medication. He knew how long it would take before the medication started to kick in. He knew when the window was open for him to go out and start practicing and doing all the effort and the work it was going to take to learn. Perhaps more importantly, he knew when that window was closing and he would be the first to shut it down and say, okay, I’m done. I can’t keep practicing because he knew that as the medication wore off and his Parkinson’s kicked in stronger.

Those were not skillful times to continue practicing and continue trying to push himself. As I observed this over the course of several days, I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he was learning because of the effort he was putting in. It wasn’t that he was trying really hard, he was trying in a very smart way. He knew when to be trying and when not to be trying. That to me was the correlation with this concept of skillful effort. I’m pleased to say he ended up being in the top of the class. He accomplished his goal. He learned to fly. He had six or seven flights throughout training that he did all on his own and he nailed it every time he took off. He was a textbook student. I was very pleased to see his progress because it is common in this environment for me to train students who come in with the mindset of wanting to be really gung-ho and just worked really hard and they’re tired but they keep going, and then they’re really tired and they still keep going. Then sometimes they get hurt.

They can sprain an ankle or they get heat exhaustion or things like that. It’s happened enough times to where I’ve had to structure in breaks into the curriculum because the students won’t take the breaks themselves. They’re just so determined to continue. I’ve had to build into the program the training style where people have breaks that they have to take and to hydrate, but also to take turns in a buddy system so that they can’t both be going hard 100% at the same time. That’s been very helpful. But this student didn’t need any of that. What I saw playing out in front of me was skillful effort. It was really neat to experience it, to see it unfolding, and to think the reason he’s doing so well is because he knows when to try, when he’s trying too hard, when he’s not trying hard enough. He found the balance somewhere right in the middle.

This reminds me a little bit of the discussion of the instrument with the strings, which comes again from the Buddhist teaching, that the instrument with the strings if tightened too tight sounds bad. If it’s not tight enough, that also sounds bad. But somewhere in the middle is the proper tension on the string and then that’s what makes the music play right. Picture a guitar, a guitar that’s not tuned properly doesn’t sound very good, but when it’s tuned properly, it sounds great. That’s how it works a lot of times with effort. There are times that we try too hard and there are times that we don’t try hard enough. Somewhere in the middle is skillful effort. Just the right amount of effort that you could almost say is smart effort.

That’s why I liked this expression of skillful effort. Now I see this in meditation practice, mindfulness practice when somebody decides, you know what, I want to start living more mindfully. They approach this practice and they say, you know what, I’m going to start meditating one hour every day and they’re determined. Then they get burned out after two or three days because that’s actually really hard to set aside a whole hour every day. I see that happen all the time. Again, this notion of maybe you’re trying too hard. Maybe it would be more beneficial to approach this with, what is the skillful amount of effort? Because that is very personal, right? The amount of effort that it takes for you to do something may be very different than the amount of effort that it takes me to do something or someone else.

In context of time as well, the amount of effort it takes me right now to be able to launch and fly a paraglider wing is minimal compared to the effort that it took many years ago when I was still new and learning. That’s how a lot of things are in life. The amount of effort that it takes with parenting, with school, with our kids, with the way we handle coworkers at work. I mean, you name it. Effort is something that affects everything that we do, every single aspect of our lives. I really like drawing this correlation between skillful effort and the invitation to look inward, to be more introspective. Like my student knew himself when it’s time to take medicine, when the medicine is wearing off, when he should be out on the field practicing, when he should be sitting down resting. All of that was introspection. He knew himself pretty well.

That has inspired me to want to do the same with regards to parenting or with regards to doing work. Any aspect of my life, I want to have a skillful amount of effort that I put into the things that I do. Now it’s funny, this episode I had already recorded this once and I didn’t realize till I was done recording that the microphone had been set on mute. I recorded the whole episode only to discover it hadn’t recorded at all and I had to rerecord it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to have to rerecord it because it’s like why I don’t remember what all I said the first time, because I don’t write any of this down. I just wing it as I go. This is round two on the topic of skillful effort.

I thought in between the two sessions, I didn’t immediately sit down and start recording. Once I realized what I had done, I realized, well, now is not the time to continue to sit here and just push through. I want to think this through and I want to be skillful in the effort that I put into when I’m going to rerecord. I took a little break. I stepped away from the computer. I went and ate a bowl of cereal. Went outside and worked on a couple other projects that are on my plate, got those done. Then I came back in and I said, all right, let’s try this again. I made sure the microphone was not muted this time. That’s where this specific podcast episode is coming from now, this is a round two. I don’t remember what things I said in the first version that didn’t make it into this one, and some things that I probably mentioned in this one that I didn’t have in the first version. That’s just how it goes.

For me, that is all about skillful effort. I could have decided right then, you know what? I’m just going to push through and get this done because I’ve already been sitting here for 15 to 20 minutes and just rerecord it. But maybe it wouldn’t have come across in the best way that it could because I would have been rushing to get it done because I’d be feeling in the back of my head I’ve already said all this. It’s fun to see it even in little things, this idea of skillful effort. It’s always arising, it’s always there. I always have the ability to ask myself, could I be more skillful with the effort that I’m putting into this or that? Whatever the thing is that I’m working on.

Whether that’s sitting to meditate, mindfulness as a practice, the effort I put into maintaining healthy relationships with the people that I love and care about, or recording a podcast, or packing my gear to go flying. Whatever it is, there’s effort involved. I am now entertaining this from the perspective of what kind of skillful effort can I be putting in, rather than just working hard for the sake of working hard. Again, I don’t want to discount the idea of working hard. I think hard work goes a very long way. I would say that’s the invitation at the end of this, that hopefully you’ll be able to take this concept and think about it in the context of work, or parenting, or going to school, or going out and walking your dog, or whatever. Whatever it is, or especially mindfulness, right?

Mindfulness as a practice. To be able to sit and recognize as you look inward, do I know myself well enough to be able to be more skillful with regards to the effort that I’m putting into this thing that I’m trying to do? To attack it from that angle of skillful effort versus unskillful effort. See if you can improve in any of those areas just based on the understanding that like my student, someone who knew himself pretty well was able to put in just the right amount of effort to excel and to accomplish the goal he had set out to do. As an update, he finished the course. He had seven solo flights by the end of everything. He did really well. Every single one of them was a successful takeoff and a landing. I was so proud of him and so impressed with the effort that he put in because he knew, I knew, and the other students in the class knew how hard it was for him to get through the training.

It was a very emotional and bonding experience when he landed from his first flight. We were all so proud of him and we were all hugging him and just so excited for what he had accomplished. Here with someone who is 67 years old and was finally living the dream of flying through the air with your feet dangling under you. It wasn’t easy, but he had just the right amount of effort to make that dream a reality. That’s at the heart of what I think we’re trying to understand when it comes to skillful effort in terms of mindfulness as a practice. Hopefully, some of that makes sense, and that’s all I have that I wanted to share in this podcast episode. I’m excited to be back home and getting caught up on my routine and to start recording other podcast episodes. Hopefully, not doing it while on mute. That’s all I have for this one. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

139 – Mindfulness Interview with Dr. Sarah Shaw

I recently had the opportunity of interviewing Dr Sarah Shaw about her new book “Mindfulness: Where it comes from and what it means”. I hope you enjoy the conversation. To learn more about her book, visit: www.shambhala.com/buddhist-mindfulness.html