Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 52. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about The Sound Of Silence. I let this long awkward pause here at the beginning, hoping to trick you that this whole episode would be silent. After all, the sound of silence. The truth is, even if it was, you can still gain a lot of insight and wisdom by listening just to the sound of silence. This topic came out because I’ve been reading through some of the stories, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers About Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything In Between. That’s the title of the book. One of the first questions addressed in the book is the question, “Is nothing something?” The answer that Thich Nhat Hanh gives is that yes, nothing is something. You have an idea in your head of nothing, you have an idea in your head of something, both are things that can either create suffering or happiness.
This made me think of another quote or teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, where he says, “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.” When I correlate these two ideas of nothing becoming something, or nothing being something, something conceptual, and the idea of removing ideas in order to see what is, it made me think about what would really be there if I was able to remove ideas, concepts, and beliefs, what would I actually see? What would I hear? In the Plum Village tradition of Zen Buddhism, there is a practice called Noble Silence. Noble Silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his responses to certain questions about reality. For example, when he was asked unanswerable questions, he said to have responded with no response, silence.
This silence seems to have been the appropriate answer to what he considered an inappropriate question. To me, an inappropriate question is the question that evokes an answer that doesn’t lead to a proper understanding of reality. If the secrets of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and concepts, then we would want to avoid questions that will only add ideas or concepts. To me, metaphysical questions would only add ideas and concepts. Therefore, these questions are irrelevant and thus, the silent answer by the Buddha on such existential questions. Metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or nonexistence, what happens after we die, or the question of deities, these would all fall under the category of ideas and concepts. The very ideas and concepts that we’re trying to remove in order to see reality as it is. If you’ll recall my story about seeing Chris, and not seeing Chris, what blinded me from reality in that moment was an idea. It was a concept. It was a belief that Chris was a man, when in reality, Chris was a woman. There was Chris and I couldn’t see Chris because of the concept that I held.
This is kind of what it’s eluding to. What happens if we remove those concepts? Will we become more likely to see reality as it is? Perhaps The Sound Of Silence is what it sounds like when we become free of ideas and concepts. I’ve mentioned this before, but Buddhism is commonly referred to as the path of liberation. What would like be like if we were liberated from our own ideas and concepts, the beliefs that color our reality? Well, there’s a teaching in Buddhism about the three doors of liberation. These three doors are emptiness, [signlessness 00:04:26] and aimlessness. I want to talk about those.
First, emptiness. This is essentially no independent existence. Emptiness is always relative to something. A cup that is empty of water is empty in relationship to water, but it may be full of air. Emptiness is not the same thing as nonexistence. Emptiness is not a philosophy, it’s just a description of reality. It’s a direct understanding that all things are empty of a separate independent existence. In other words, this is because that is. There is no this without that. If you look at this in the context of time, it makes perfect sense. There is no present without the past. If you look at in terms of space, you can look at a flower. The flower does not exist without all of the non-flower elements. You cannot have flower without having bees, and clouds, and rain, and sun, all the non-flower elements. It’s the same with us. You are interdependent with all the non-you elements. Whether this be physical elements, like your genetics, your DNA, the very food that you eat, or non-physical elements like your memories, your cultural ideas and beliefs. Literally everything about you depends on everything that’s not you. That’s the idea of emptiness here.
The second door is signlessness. This is no form. Like clouds in the sky, if you attach to the form of, say, a cloud, as soon as the cloud is good, you’d have the tendency to think, “Well, the cloud no longer exists. It’s gone.” But the attachment to the form is what blinds you from seeing the cloud in its new form. Perhaps as rain, or mist, or even the water that you drink. There’s this understanding that the cloud is always there. It never ceased to exist, because it never started to exist. This is the first law of thermodynamics. Matter doesn’t cease to exist. It only changes. It changes form. We look beyond the form, beyond the sign of a thing, and we start to see impermanence. The nature of constant change in all things, in all forms. Forms just become like containers of what is in the present moment. We start to see that the object of our perception may not be what it seems. Instead of seeing forms or signs of things, we start to see things as continuations of complex processes of causes and conditions. We see constant change. We see things in a continual state of becoming, but always influx. That’s signlessness.
The third door is aimlessness. Essentially, no goal. This is the understanding that life itself is the goal. The path is the goal. As long as we think there is an ultimate destination, then it makes it difficult for us to really enjoy where we are, because we see separation between where we are and where we think we should be. In a way, it’s like always trying to get there, but then when we do, there’s no there, there. Everything we need to experience contentment, and joy, it’s found here in the present moment, the here and now. There’s no need to look outside of ourselves. The problem with this, with the opposite of aimlessness is that we run the risk of running our whole lives and never actually living it. What are we running after? Enlightenment? Happiness? The insight of aimlessness is to help us stop running, and instead, start living. You could ask yourself, “What am I chasing after? What is the thing that I think I need to finally have?”
You see this everywhere, whether it be money, fame, power. We’re always chasing after something. Now, a misconception with aimlessness, I think, in our western way of thinking, we would think aimlessness has a negative connotation. It’s like, “There you go, without a [rutter 00:08:53], where are you going?” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s saying, “I’m going to have a very clear understanding of what I’m after, because I know why I’m after it.” The real danger that negative aimlessness would be that I’m headed somewhere, and I don’t know why. It’s kind of like the parable that I share often times about the man running on the horse, and the person who’s standing there asking,”Hey, where are you going?” He says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” That’s a form of aimlessness. That, to me, would be the negative way of thinking of aimlessness. It’s that you’re on this horse and you don’t even know where it’s going.
The horse is running after money, or it’s running after fame, or it’s running after power. What the Buddhist perspective of aimlessness is that this is actually a good thing, but I don’t have to chase after anything. I’m enjoying the journey. The path itself is my goal. That’s the type of aimlessness that we’re talking about here in this third door. Those are the three doors of liberation. I think silence can be a powerful reminder of this lesson of liberation. If nothing is something, because it’s a concept, then what does that mean about silence? What is the implication about silence? Because silence is also a concept. In fact, the dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound. This understanding puts us in the same dilemma of emptiness. In other words, silence, like emptiness, is always relative to something. The empty cup is empty, and yet it’s actually not empty. It can be empty of water, but it’s full of air.
The old question of, “Is the cup half empty, or half full?” The answer will tell you if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, because the optimist will say it’s half full. The pessimist will say it’s half empty. Here’s a new one we can throw into this equation. The mindful individual will say, “Well, it’s neither half full or half empty, because it’s both full and empty.” When you understand that that’s a relative concept. Half full of water is half full of air. It’s completely full and it’s completely empty. Empty of milk, or whatever the relative term is. It’s both full and empty. What is the sound of silence? I think about this, and I imagine somebody in the city, and they’re trying to escape the sound of honking, the sound of ongoing movement of people and cars. They leave the city, and they go to the country. There they are sitting either in the fores, or sitting in a field trying to enjoy silence. This is the silence of no city sounds.
Now, there they are listening to the chirping of birds, or the sound of the river flowing, or the cows mooing, so silence is relative. You end one sound, but you hear another. Maybe this is … Imagine someone in the country who doesn’t want to hear any sound, so they escape the sound of the river, or the sound of the birds chirping. They’ll put noise-canceling headphones on, and discover that, “Well, now I just hear white noise.” Silence is always relative to something, but when there is no sound, then what? You’re just listening to your thoughts? How quiet are your thoughts? If you catch the gap between the thoughts, if you practice this, then what do you hear in that gap? Maybe even there, there’s still the subtle ringing or humming of silence. Have you ever heard that? This is interesting. Did you know that the earth has a constant hum? You can Google this. It’s a fascinating thing. Researchers claim that micro seismic activity from long ocean waves impacting the sea bed is what makes our planet vibrate and produce a humming sound.
There we have this scenario where there is this sound that’s always there. We’re trying to escape sound. We’re trying to hear silence, but what if silence isn’t real? It’s a concept. It’s not something you can hear. It’s like those hidden images inside the dotted image, that if you look at it and you focus in the right way they you realize that these aren’t just random dots. There’s a hidden image in there. Once you see that, you can’t not see it. I think it’s similar with silence. Once you’ve heard the sound of silence, you can’t not hear it. Once you’ve glimpsed reality without attachment to your ideas and concepts, everything changes, and yet nothing changed. Now, notice I mentioned that it’s the attachment to the ideas and concepts that’s so problematic. It’s not the ideas and concepts themselves. How do we eliminate our ideas and our concepts? The idea of not having ideas and concepts, well that’s also an idea. Now what? What do I do with that?
The school of Buddhism that I studied with, the Bright Dawn way of oneness Buddhism, has this concept called oneness, or [suchness 00:14:22]. I really enjoy this idea. The idea is that when we let go of the dualistic approach to life, good and bad, the true, false, Samsara, Nirvana, enlightenment or delusion. We find suchness, we find oneness, we discover reality just as it is. For example, I know that I have ideas. I know that I have my own beliefs and non-beliefs, and I have conceptualized understandings of reality, but I know that my ideas are just ideas. I know that they arise out of a complex web of interdependencies based on both space and time. In other words, if I were in a different time or in a different space, or had I been configured differently, I would have different ideas, different concepts, different beliefs.
What I let go of is my attachment to these things. I don’t necessarily let go of the ideas themselves, I let go of the attachment that I have to them. Sure, over time, I have let go of a lot of ideas and beliefs, but I don’t know that it’s possible to let go of all of them. Ideas and concepts are what make us human. It’s how we understand the world and we inherit it from our society and our culture, and thousands of years of evolution. To believe that I can or should let go of my ideas or beliefs, well, that’s just another belief. Oneness with reality is oneness with all things, including our ideas. But, in a non-attached manner. Noah Levine and I were talking about this a little bit. If you watched our interview about addiction and recovery, The Mindfulness Based Approach to Addiction And Recovery. You can visualize your palms together, like you’re about to pray or you’re doing the namaste-type palms together, that is a visualization of non-attachment. You have attachment, now, attachments where your hands are locked together. Like you’re holding hands with your fingers interlocked, that would be attachment. One is gripping the other.
Detachment is the separation of the two entirely. They’re nowhere near each other. Then, there’s non-attachment. They can be there together, but they’re not gripped. They’re not attached, and they’re not detached. This idea of suchness or oneness is a non-attached way of living with everything, including our ideas and our concepts. I like this. This helps me to visualize that this idea of letting go, or removing our ideas and concepts, it means removing them in the sense of they are no longer obstacles. It’s not removing in the sense of destroy, I’m going to destroy my ideas and my concepts, I don’t necessarily need to do that. I don’t let them get in the way anymore. They’re just there, it’s just an idea. Same with my opinions. I have opinions about things, but they’re just opinions. I don’t even believe some of my own beliefs. I don’t believe some of my own opinions.
Moving on, Alan Watts, he talks about searching for meaning. The meaning of life, for example, and he compares this process. He says it’s like you’re peeling the layers of an onion, hoping to discover the pit. In the process, you find that all you’ve done is peel back the layers and discarded and edible and useful part of the onion. There is no pit. It’s just layer after layer after layer. I think about that with regards to silence. With regards to this understanding of emptiness. How when you understand that nothing is still something and you hear the sound of silence, perhaps in that moment, we start understanding what it really means to remove idea, is to remove the concepts to get those things out of the way and let them be there but in a non-attached manner. That’s the understanding for me of what it means to hear the sound of silence.
I would wrap this up by raising the question once again, what is the sound of silence? I would invite you to explore this question, to listen for yourself. See what’s there. What happens when you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear? Because what is silence? What is it for you? Listen for the silence from sound, but then listen for the silence that’s found in the gap between your thoughts. What does that look like? Maybe just sitting there silently, maybe you’ll hear the same hum, this almost buzzing sound or ringing sound that’s always there. It’s always been there. I don’t think I had ever noticed it, until I started to sit there in silence asking myself, “What is the sound of silence?” I found that for me, the idea of silence is just that it’s a concept. There is no silence. There’s always something there, and I hear that now. I hear that when I don’t hear sound. I just hear there’s this low, almost like white noise humming.
I don’t think this is the same as the ringing in ears that people have. To me, this is different. This is the sound of what’s there. This is an in an audible way, this is saying, when you see what’s there and you remove what you thought was there, what are you left with? Reality, suchness, oneness. I’ve experienced this with sound. When I listen for the absence of sound, what’s there? Well, there’s a lot there. There are thoughts there. There are memories. There’s the monkey mind. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there, but my idea of what silence was, that’s just a concept. You can notice and you can increase the awareness that you have of this silence. What you might hear, maybe a profound discovery for you. I’d love to hear all about it.
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What if we understood the 4 Noble Truths to be tasks rather than truths? What if we were no longer burdened by the quest for truth regarding metaphysical claims/beliefs? In this episode, I will discuss what Stephen Batchelor calls Buddhism 2.0. We’re not concerned with the question “Is it true?” we’re wondering, “Does it work?”. In this episode, I will discuss Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor. This interview can be watched on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page or on YouTube.
Noah Rasheta: Okay, I am live with Stephen Batchelor, author of many books. Two of his most recent are After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, and we’ll be discussing this second book a little in this interview, but I want to give Stephen a quick introduction. It’s always interesting to have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s been so influential in my own journey. It seems to be quite an honor, so I’m very grateful to you, Stephen, for joining me today, for taking time to have a discussion on secular Buddhism. By way of introduction, Stephen was at one time a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and after that you studied for some time as a Zen Buddhist monk, is that right?
Stephen Batchelor: Yes.
Noah: Then you left monastic life and taught Buddhism from a much more secular standpoint. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it. Is there anything you would want to add, Stephen?
Stephen: No, that’s pretty good. The only thing I might add is that since I left the monastic communities, my interest has really gone to what I call ‘early Buddhism’, to try to sort of get back to what the Buddha was doing before it became Buddhism. For me, that’s closely tied into what I understand as secular Buddhism. They’re very, very closely connected, these two interests.
Noah: Great. I think that’s a really fascinating process, to try to help us get back to understanding what was taking place with these really powerful teachings. I think with most traditions, especially religious traditions, at one point what were the teachings evolve into teachings about the teachings. I feel like Buddhism is no exception to that, and sometimes it’s in the teachings of the teachings that we can get hung up on things that impede us from benefiting from the original teachings.
Just quickly with my journey, I transitioned out of an orthodox form of Christianity, and for a while was not interested in any form of religion, but you see quotes online and you hear all these little snippets of wisdom attributed to the Buddha, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Dalai Lama, and I thought, ‘Man, there’s something to this Buddhism stuff, I want to learn more about it,’ all the while with a hint of reservation that I don’t want to be entangled in any kind of dogmatic or metaphysical, or supernatural beliefs, and that’s when I come across your book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. It was such a fascinating presentation of the teachings, very simple. It’s like, ‘These are the teachings that have no beliefs attached to them’. It was extremely influential for me, enough to decide, ‘Okay, this is a philosophy I want to study and learn and understand,’ and then, with time, that has evolved into teaching and having a podcast.
What I’m finding I think is that we’ve kind of got two angles, right? From the Buddhist side, there are people who are wanting a more secular approach, but from the secular side, people who are disaffected from religion are looking for some form of spirituality that isn’t, I guess, with quotes there with ‘spirituality’, but some form of path that feels satisfying and fulfilling, but doesn’t feel religious, and they’re encountering Buddhism as a philosophy, and this movement is just taking off. You’re at the forefront of this, and you’ve been extremely influential. That’s part of why I wanted to spend time and talk to you a little bit about it, because it’s really exciting. It’s a really exciting time and I thought it would be really fun to pick your brain. Again, thank you.
Stephen: Thank you. I think you summarised that extremely well. That’s exactly how I feel. I think we’re at the intersection of two powerful cultural streams: people who are disaffected with religion on the one hand; and people who are disaffected with secularism on the other. And Buddhism, of course, it famously thinks of itself as a middle way. Maybe it’s the way that middle way that’s playing out in our time in the world today. If we can contribute to this and sort of address concerns that are uppermost in the minds of these two bodies of people, then I think we may do a great service, and I’m very honoured to be part of it.
Noah: Great. With that in mind, let’s jump into a couple of the topics that I want to discuss, because something that you mentioned in your most recent book, in Secular Buddhism … I guess before we jump into that real quick, I do want to kind of highlight. From my understanding, Buddhism Without Beliefs does a really good job of being a foundational text to understand Buddhist concepts. With the understanding of Buddhist concepts, then comes, for me, reading it backwards was Buddhism Without Beliefs, then I wanted to know your story. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was kind of like your biography, or your transition, or your story. I know you have a lot more than these four books, but After Buddhism kind of presents what’s next, what do we do with this now, which I enjoyed and I know a lot of podcast listeners have enjoyed. I always recommend Buddhism Without Beliefs as the foundational text to podcast listeners or people who want to understand secular Buddhism.
But then comes your most recent book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, and something I really enjoyed from this process was seeing, and you discussed this in the book, the evolution of your understanding of some of these key concepts, specifically the transition of the Four Noble Truths from being truths to being tasks. Talk to me a little bit about the process of that understanding and that transition, because I think it’s a powerful shift in perspective to see it that way.
Stephen: Yeah. Again, I think you summarised that very well. As the author of books, it’s very difficult to have a perspective in which I can look at them from the outside, as it were, and I see my books really as, in a way, the way in which I share my journey with others. I see each book as a kind of a way station on a journey that is far from over, and it does clearly describe a trajectory. And you’re quite right, probably the key idea in all of my work over the last 40 years has been in the rethinking of the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths is quite self-evidently the foundational teaching of what we think of as traditional Buddhism. There’s no Buddhist school that would somehow sideline this. It’s clearly the paradigm or the template out of which traditional Buddhism has been based and developed.
I first started having questions about this when I was still a Tibetan Buddhist monk. This would’ve been thirty odd years ago, and I remember we were studying a very obscure Tibetan text on philosophy. There I came across this idea of these four tasks. They didn’t describe them as tasks as such, but it made it very clear that the person who realises these four truths has effectively done four things: they have embraced or fully understood dukkha or suffering; they let go of certain reactive patterns or graspings; they experience the stopping of those patterns; and they have cultivated and developed a way of life in the world.
That was in a Tibetan text; it was not that the Tibetans were actually teaching that as their main thing, but there it was. For some reason, that really jumped off the page for me. I had not heard this before. I’d never heard it again in the Tibetan tradition or other traditions, really, and yet it’s there and, as I found out later, it’s right at the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse, or what’s considered to be the Buddha’s first discourse. Clearly, this idea that the four ‘truths’ are to be enacted in a way that actually has a transformative effect on one’s life was there from the very outset. I’ve always found it very strange that something that is presented as the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse is never further developed in any of the orthodox traditions. You’ll find little, if anything, on these four tasks, as I now call them.
Over time, I became more and more dubious about some of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, and I soon began to realise that it wasn’t just karma and rebirth that were metaphysical doctrines, but actually the Four Noble Truths were metaphysical doctrines. To claim that life is suffering is a metaphysical claim. You’re making a generalised statement about the nature of existence, wherever it might occur in the universe, and it is dukkha. The origin of dukkhaor suffering is craving. It’s a metaphysical claim. It’s no different really from saying that God created heaven and earth. It’s not something you can prove. It’s not something you can disprove. It stands outside the reach of reason.
So when I started thinking that the Four Noble Truths were actually metaphysics, that again brought me back to another way where the Buddha had presented these truths not in fact as things to believe, as metaphysical doctrines, but actually as indicators of how to live. In other words, I feel, quite passionately actually, that the dharma started out as a pragmatic, therapeutic way of life primarily concerned with ethics, ethics in the widest sense of how do we become the kind of people we aspire to be? How do we lead a good life? How do we flourish as human persons and human societies here on Earth? These are ethical questions, and my sense is that the Buddha was an ethicist through and through. Ethics is not just part of the path; the path is ethical in its very nature. The whole of the eightfold path is really a way of life, it’s an ethos, it’s an ethic.
The next step in this process was when I was reading the letters of a British monk called Ñāṇavīra Thera, Harold Musson, who was a monk in Sri Lanka during the 1950s. I came across his collected letters really by chance. They were on a bookshelf in a retreat centre I was teaching at, and I was completely taken with this man’s ideas. He was the one who actually coined the phrase ‘the four tasks’. He presented the Four Noble Truths as what he called the optimal task for a human person’s performance, or something like that. That really nailed that point to me in a very final way, and that became the basis for my own working out of these truths as tasks in a much more detailed way than Ñāṇavīra ever got down to doing. It provided for me a whole other template, a whole other paradigm in which we can practice the dharma, that you can’t consider to be something that’s been invented in the 20th century, and dreamed up by some later commentarial tradition. It’s actually something you find at the very root, at the very core of the dharma itself.
This secular approach to the dharma is, for me, a radical way of reforming Buddhism, much in the way that Luther and Calvin and others sought to reform Christianity. And I do think we are at a time where Buddhism, if it is to really survive as a force for good, a force for wisdom, for compassion in our world, has to rethink its fundamental ideas in a very radical way. This may be foolhardy as it is, it’s what I’m trying to do.
Noah: I love that and I love what you mentioned in your book, how as a living tradition you’re more interested in the ongoing dialogue and not arriving at a final conclusion. I think, as someone who studies and practices Buddhism, I would agree wholeheartedly that understanding the nature of things being impermanent, the nature of things continually changing, that’s the only logical way that any of this would make sense is that this would be an ongoing transformation, and an ongoing evolution that should be approached and discussed in this way. At least that’s how I view it from my perspective. I understand that, from other perspectives, this may be threatening. This may seem scary because it’s a change of how things have been, and that’s always scary. We encounter that in any school of thought, any religion, any ideology.
I want to address something that you mentioned in the book that I really like. You discussed this idea of thinking of Buddhism 1.0 as kind of the traditional Buddhism, and secular Buddhism is kind of a reboot, or Buddhism 2.0, as you call it. What stood out to me when I first heard this, the idea of software being updated; any software that we use that’s useful will be updated periodically. That’s the nature of how good software works. What stood out was the thought that, as an operating system, it’s one thing to claim ‘This is the right operating system,’ and it’s another to say, ‘This is another operating system’. That may be contingent on the hardware, right?
I like to think of the hardware as the culmination of my personality, our societal way of thinking. All of that hardware may lend itself to say, ‘Hey, this operating system may be more effective for this hardware’, but it’s not necessarily saying, ‘This operating system is better than that operating system’. I think about this all the time, because I’m in the tech world. Is a Mac better than a PC? There are so many arguments that prove this one is better than that one, but there are also arguments that prove that one is better than this one, so in a way, it’s like, ‘Well, the answer’s yes. It is better and the answer’s also no, it’s not better.’
I like applying that to this concept of secular Buddhism as an operating system. I feel like as we present secular Buddhism we’re saying, ‘Hey, here’s another way to think about it,’ but it’s not in competition to it. You addressed that specifically in your book when you mentioned that the mythical and the historical being both valid and they don’t necessarily compete.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: Talk a little bit about that. What role does the mythic play in Buddhism in general and does it play any role in this new operating system?
Stephen: The danger with a secular approach is that you might read some story about the Buddha, like for example, he grows up as a prince and he leaves the palace and he sees the sick person and the old person. It’s a beautiful, mythical story, but it’s very unlikely anything like that actually happened. The danger is that we would then say, ‘That is no longer relevant’. What we’re doing there is we’re making a category error, basically. We’re taking a myth, we’re judging it as though it were historical and because it doesn’t live up to our standards of historical truth, we’re thereby discarding it.
Traditional Buddhists have done the opposite. They’ve taken … No, no. I’m sorry. I’m getting muddled. The point is that myth works very well in its own terms and we need to be constantly reminded that it’s not history. It’s doing something else. One of the most powerful myths for me, is in one of my books that you didn’t mention called Living With the Devil. After I wrote Buddhism Without Beliefs, I was basically given a blank cheque by my publisher, who said, ‘Okay, just do what you want’. Sounds like a writer’s greatest dream come true. Actually, it’s a nightmare because you have no guidance whatsoever. You have no points of reference. You have no task to perform. You’re just told to do what you want.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what in fact I wanted to say. In the end, after a number of false starts, I stumbled into the idea of Mara, the demonic. Now, this is purely mythical material. It’s right through the early Pāli canon, the encounters of the Buddha and Mara, and of course it’s also picked up in many other traditions as well, not exclusively Buddhist obviously. The figure of Satan has a very similar role.
Now, I’ve found that using the Mara material, the idea of the demonic as a personification, as a character who interacts with another character, who embodies certain values and perspectives and so on that are in opposition to others, works in many ways more powerfully for me than analysing these things in terms of, say, Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology is, again, it’s quite an amazing thing. Buddhists came up with psychological insights long before they were thought of in the West, and we’re naturally quite attracted to that sort of aspect of Buddhism. Much of the world of mindfulness draws upon Buddhist psychology really, and that’s the language it tends to prefer. But that’s done at the cost of losing sight of the potency of mythic material.
The example of Mara I continue to use today. In fact, next month in New York there will be a performance of a chamber opera that I’ve written called ‘Mara’. I’ve spent a few years now writing a libretto which tells the story of Buddha and Mara through two acts that are sung by a soprano, a baritone and a tenor. The music is being composed by my friend Sherry Woods, and we’re going to have a performance in the Rubin Museum on October 18 and 20 in New York City, If you’re interested, tickets are now available.
That’s another example of using a secular form, opera, converting classical Buddhist material into the language of the Western musical tradition and presenting these ideas not intellectually or abstractly but through figures moving and singing and acting on stage. Again, I think you couldn’t do this by thinking of Buddhism purely psychologically or philosophically. So that, to me, is probably the best example of how we’ve been very careful not to dispense with mythology because it doesn’t meet our criteria of historical or psychological accuracy. It allows us to engage with this material through the imagination and that, for me, is, again, a very, very important part of my practice.
It’s the cultivation and the incorporation of the creative and the imaginative into my practice. In fact, in the book Secular Buddhism, the last section is all about the arts, which I feel is hopefully a way in which the secular movement within Buddhism will start to take more and more interest in finding new forms of expressing the dharma and bringing it into our lives in quite non-traditional ways.
Noah: Cool, I love that. I’d like to get your thoughts on this. From my perspective, I wouldn’t want the secular Buddhist movement that’s emerging to replace the traditional Buddhist movement, or anything else. I view it like the concept of love languages, the idea that some people express something that is so universal like love very differently. For some people, their key love language is words of affirmation. For others, it’s physical touch, and whatever their love language is, it works for them. I’ve come to understand that secular Buddhism, for me, is like another spiritual language. It’s a language that works for me. That’s why I enjoy it and I like teaching these concepts from a secular lens and practising them from a secular approach but I’ve never felt like I’m crossing the line to say, ‘This is the right way for everyone’.
I feel that it’s important to emphasise that what we’re trying to do as part of this movement is provide another language that may work for some people because the language that’s out there isn’t working for someone. This involves, at times, telling people, ‘Hey, this practice works, but you may want to check out the Tibetan tradition, or you may want to check out Zen’, because it’s not a competition of, ‘Hey, you need to be here’. Right? I’d kind of like to hear your thoughts on that, your perspective on that. I assume, from what I’ve gathered, that it’s similar for you.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s very similar, and actually this whole distinction taps right into the core shift from truths to tasks. As long as you’re invested in the language of truth, it’s very difficult to not then get into comparative judgement. If this is true, then that can’t be true. If the Tibetan Buddhist teaching of this is true, then the Zen or the Theravada version clearly can’t be true. At the root, then, of this secular approach is that it has discarded the polemic of truth and replaced it with the vision of pragmatism. In other words, what matters is that we’re not trying to persuade ourselves or others that this or that idea is true. We’re only actually interested in whether or not it works. That’s the key insight of William James and others in the pragmatic tradition.
It’s not about whether it’s true. Does it work? Does this practice, for example, of mindfulness, actually make a difference in the quality of my life? I’m not going to try and persuade people to do it because the Buddha said it and the Buddha wasn’t lying, therefore it’s true. I’m basically offering an exercise, and the question is, is this helpful? Does this work? Does this actually improve the quality of your life? If you’re really serious about that approach, then of course you will assume an extremely tolerant attitude towards all other forms, but you will acknowledge that, for certain people, perhaps this is not an approach that’s very helpful. You might even, as you suggest, direct them elsewhere. Maybe they should do their own practice or whatever. In other words, you need to adapt the dharma to suit the needs of the practitioner, rather than seeking to remodel the practitioner to somehow fit the idea you have as what constitutes the Buddhism. My experience, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was that in order for me to be able to function in good faith as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I had to accept certain doctrinal propositions as being true, and be able to defend them in public. If I were unable to do that, I would have no business being a Tibetan Buddhist monk. And that’s one of the reasons I could not really work within that environment. There were other issues, as well, that we don’t need to go into.
The point is a secular approach is effectively a tolerant approach. This has been brought forth quite strongly in recent writings and speeches by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is also using the word secular a lot. If you’ve read his book Beyond Religion – which is a unusual title for the head of one of the world’s biggest religions – the thing he emphasises is how we live in a world today where we can no longer expect any one religion to provide the ethical foundations for how people should live in this world. We need a secular approach that recognises the diversity and the plurality of different religious traditions, and gives equal respect to them all, and yet provides a space in which tolerance is the key.
And he gets this idea from the reading of the Indian constitution, a secular constitution set up in 1948, which is explicitly secular in order to work within the highly diverse religious world of India. You’ve got Muslims, Hindus, Jains and lots of different groups, and so on. You cannot run a country like that by taking a sectarian stance in terms of your identity as a nation. So the secular vision is not just about putting religion to one side, or even rejecting religion, as it’s often understood. It’s actually about having a open and tolerant attitude that is able to accept more.
But having said all of this, I do think we also need to leave enough space to have a critical engagement with religious traditions, in my own case a critical relationship to the Buddhist traditions that have emerged historically. I don’t think we could just say, ‘Well, this works for you. That’s fine. This works for you, that’s fine.’ There’s a danger there we slip into a kind of non-critical individualism, and I do think we need somehow to find a balance between, on the one hand, tolerance and respect and on the other hand, a willingness to look clearly and critically on the basis of empirical evidence, historical research, archeology and so on, to try to get a much clearer sense of how these traditions evolved, and to be able to be quite open and frank with our concerns about where they might be maybe going off in directions that are even contradicting their own principles, or whatever it might be. So there’s a balance between criticisms and respect; they need to go hand in hand.
Noah: Yeah. Absolutely. What comes to mind is, ‘Hey, that tradition that’s working for you, it’s not working for the rest of us because you’re trying to kill us,’ or something along those lines, or not even going to that extreme but a set of beliefs that may be causing unnecessary suffering for a whole group …
Stephen: Yeah, exactly.
Noah: … like the LGBT community or something like that.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that. Okay. A couple things I want to mention just based on what we’ve talked about. From writings that talk about the Buddha’s ability to teach people where they were, to meet someone where they are and teach them what’s appropriate for them, this seems to be echoed in what we’re discussing here, what you explained about this approach. Also, the idea that we shouldn’t believe these things just because someone said them, or because they’re written somewhere. This is also a deep rooted understanding for a lot of people of what Buddhism is, and that what the Buddha was teaching was, ‘Hey, try this’. That’s why I love this transformation of ‘truths’ into tasks, because you can take them and apply them and try them. So I wanted to talk about this a little bit because you use an acronym that makes it easier for us. So the acronym is …
Noah: As any of us with kids know, Elsa teaches us the message of let it go, right? Playing off of the Disney movie.
Stephen: Oh, really? That’s in a Disney? Actually someone told me that. I didn’t know because I don’t watch children’s films. Yeah, somebody told…
Noah: Which is funny because when I first heard it, I thought, ‘I wonder if he drew that correlation on purpose to help us remember that.’ I think it’s a really funny play on the acronym. The most popular song she sings is called ‘Let it Go’.
Stephen: Is it really?
Stephen: What movie is this now? ‘Little Mermaid’?
Noah: No, no, no, it’s one of the more recent ones.
Stephen: Never mind. Someone did flag that to me, and I was very touched by it.
Noah: The movie’s called ‘Frozen’.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: The main character’s name is Elsa, and her pivotal moment is that she’s learning to let go of something that’s been binding her, holding back who she really is, and that’s her song, ‘Let it Go’.
Stephen: It’s a close interconnected world these days. And who knows, the scriptwriter might actually have borrowed the idea. I have no idea, and I don’t really mind.
Noah: Let’s walk through ELSA as an acronym and maybe apply it, so if someone’s listening to this thinking, ‘How do I apply this as a task to an ordinary instance of anguish or suffering?’ Like, I’m stuck at a red light or I just lost my job, how would we apply these as tasks to an instance of suffering?
Stephen: The example I usually give is working as a therapist. Let’s first of all start by just breaking down ELSA so that we’re all on the same page. ELSA is: E, embrace; L, let go; S, see – in some of the earlier writings it said stop – and then A, actualise or act. That is a highly condensed, secular Buddhist version of the Four Noble Truths. In other words: Embrace suffering, which means embrace the situation at hand; Let go of your instinctive reactivity to it; See the stopping of that reactivity; and then Act, respond. Either say, think, act, do something, whatever it might be.
To concretise that, imagine you’re a therapist working with a client. The knock on the door, a person appears. E, embrace. Embrace that person as unconditionally as you can. Accept that person for who they are. Read the face, what they’re saying to you through their eyes, through their expression, through their body language. Be totally open to that. L, let go of the reactions that arise in your mind. Maybe if you’re a heterosexual male and it’s a beautiful young woman, you will experience desire, you’ll experience saying, ‘Oh, she’s nice’, or whatever. Notice that, be totally with it. Don’t condemn it, but let it go. Don’t buy into it. Just see that as the natural, completely ordinary response of one organism to another. It’s okay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reacting to it. It’s what we do with it that’s problematic.
The second step is let go of that reactive pattern. It might be a client that you really have a great deal of difficulty with on some personal level, and you experience resistance, dislike, frustration. You notice that. You embrace it. You let it go. And that allows you to come to settle into that non-reactive, mindful attention that you’re trying to sustain as this person walks into your room. See the fact that when you’re aware of these things, that seeing is actually non-reactive. You can be non-reactively aware of your reactivity. This is the essential principle behind all mindfulness therapies, basically.
And that’s not the end of the path, that’s not your nirvana, as it were. That is actually where you now seek to respond to the situation. You seek to respond to this person’s suffering, in this case the client. You seek to respond to them in a way that’s not determined by your instincts, your reactions, your likes, your dislikes. It’s responding in a way that’s not conditioned by your greed, your attachment, your fear, your hatred, your egoism, or whatever it might be. That is what then leads you to say something to maybe reach out and take their hand, whatever it is that you subsequently do.
Now, of course in reality, what I’ve just described, could be happening within a second or less; it’s very fast. The reason we do formal practice is to somehow break the process down into manageable training segments, so we’ll spend time actually cultivating attention that embraces our situation, which is largely just being mindful and aware. We’ll pay more attention to what it means to not get caught up in our reactive patterns. We’ll learn to know what that feels like, and we’ll become particularly attuned to the tastes and the feel of what it’s like to be in a nonreactive state of mind, as a foundation for them being able to respond rather than react to the person who’s actually before you or the situation that is at hand.
And as you suggested at the beginning, we can apply this to any situation in life, whether we’re stuck at a traffic jam in this trivial sense, or whether we’re facing a major life decision in a marriage or in a work situation. We can apply those principles, I feel, just as effectively in any human scenario. The difficulty is that it’s happening very fast. The world is impinging on your life. You’re under deadlines. You’ve got colleagues and friends and partners pressuring you to do this, that and the other. You don’t have the luxury to go on a two-week meditation retreat before you get back to everybody else.
We need to find a way in which we can integrate a formal practice in which we quite systematically cultivate these skills, and then the real practice, which is actually living from moment to moment, from day to day in the midst of what is often a very conflicted, and sometimes very stressful, situation. We can do all of that without believing anything about Buddhist doctrine or metaphysics. Really that plays no role at all. It’s actually kind of just a big irrelevance.
I used to make the mistake of really getting upset with people who believed in reincarnation, and making a big effort to try to show that it can’t possibly be true, and so forth. But that’s just the same problem in reverse: I’m reacting to a belief rather than being attached to it. What I’ve got to now is that rebirth, reincarnation, karma, different realms of existence, this is all completely irrelevant. It has actually no bearing whatsoever on how we actually live our lives from day to day, and so we just let it go. We don’t have to get upset about it or whatever. We just don’t need to be driven by opinions and views at all.
Noah: Yeah. I really like that word, irrelevant, because it’s not a matter of I’ve got to prove or disprove, it becomes a side note.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s a side note. It’s just off the map. It doesn’t play any role at all.
Noah: Right. Yeah, and that’s how I view it. I like to think that if I perceive that Buddhism can get in the way of Buddhism, I need to understand that secular Buddhism also gets in the way of secular Buddhism the moment I become dogmatic against dogmatism, right?
Noah: That’s why I really like what you discussed with the operating systems again, thinking of that as the analogy, keeping in mind, hey, it’s a different software.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: It works differently. It works well for me, but at the same time I recognise I haven’t tried every operating system, and I can’t. There are so many ways of trying to make sense of the universe, and this one happened to work pretty well for me, and I’m content here. I think the moment I realise that it’s not inspiring me to be a better person, or I’m not experiencing joy out of it then sure, I may say, ‘Well, let me try another software here’. But keeping that in mind allows me to extend that to someone else, saying, ‘If you’re good where you are, you’re good where you are. As long as you’re happy and you’re inspired to be a better person and you’re not harming other people in the process, sure, stick with that software.’
This has been such a treat to discuss things with you. I feel like I could spend all day chatting, I may have to come to France and visit you and we could just sit down and chat, But I do want to take a few moments to ask you some questions that podcast listeners wanted me to ask you. Is that okay?
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s go for it.
Noah: Okay, how important is meditation practice in secular Buddhism, and if so, like what types are best?
Stephen: That’s a very good question. I’ve got a sort of a both, and, answer to this one, I’m afraid. On the one hand, I would quite categorically affirm that meditation practice is pretty useful. It is kind of necessary. I think if we’re going to bind to the ELSA model, this requires that we do cultivate certain inner disciplines that allow us to be more aware of the workings of our minds. We can’t get round that. And meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is a remarkable tool for achieving this, and I feel extraordinarily vindicated in having started out practicing mindfulness about 30 years ago to now find that it’s all over the place, and the reason it’s all over the place is not because the world is becoming Buddhist. It’s because it works. It’s as simple as that. Clinical trials have shown growing evidence that if you want to live a happy, flourishing creative life, then it would help, in most cases, to be more mindful.
Now, the counterpoint to this is that we must be careful, I think, as secular Buddhists, not to over-privilege meditation, and to think of meditation as ‘the practice’. You get a lot of Buddhists who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go do my practice now,’ and what that usually means is they’ll go somewhere and they’ll sit cross-legged on their zafu and they’ll light a stick of incense, and they’ll meditate for 30 minutes. We have to expand the notion of practice to include every aspect of the eightfold path and, in that sense, I want to keep meditation on a level playing field with vision, with intention, with speech, with action, with work, with effort and with samadhi, with concentration.
The Buddha, in the first discourse, quite clearly presents the eightfold path as the practice. All of those aspects of the path are to be bhavanaed, to be cultivated, to be brought into being, to be practiced. The danger today is that we continue this idea that the real practices are private, subjective meditation that we do on our cushion, and we do on our retreats, and everything else in our life is kind of an optional add-on to that core practice. I think we really need to honour our whole human experience as a field of practice, in other words we think, how we speak, how we work, how we act. All of that is practice and it’s no more or less practice than cultivating meditation.
The reason I think meditation becomes so highlighted in Buddhism is because it is a part of the tradition that provides something that, in the West, we’ve lost sight of. Meditative and contemplative traditions in Christianity in particular have largely fallen into abeyance, and Buddhism is thereby very attractive because it provides something we don’t have. And so it does fill a gap and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it’s given such priority, but the danger is that we don’t readjust, as it were, our perspective on practice. Once we do have a reasonably competent meditation discipline under our belt, we need then to do the next thing, which is to extend the notion of practice to include everything else, and to not give unnecessary privilege to meditation.
Noah: I like that. And I would also add if used as a practice to ease the grasping or the attachment we have, we need to be careful to not allow it to become the next thing we attach to.
Noah: And I think sometimes here in the West, it seems like it is used very much as a form of escapism. It’s like, ‘Well, here’s life and it’s hectic so I’m going to go hide in my little corner here and sit for a moment and get away from it all’, without realising that the whole art of the practice is not to get away from it all, it’s to sit with it all. It’s to be with things just as they are.
Stephen: That’s true. On the other hand, there are times in which retreat is kind of important. I think we often need the quiet and solitude to really take stock of what’s going on. There’s a great place for that in our world, especially as we’ve become so much more bombarded with data. We do need to create spaces, public spaces in our world where people can experience a physical quiet and solitude to support the rest of their life.
Noah: Okay, so that, what you just mentioned, addresses one of the other questions, which is the view on retreats, mindfulness retreats. I think they have a place, certainly, based on what you just said. We wouldn’t want to make the mistake of thinking, ‘No, those are obsolete. You don’t need that’, but we also don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that’s the way, that the only way you get any benefit out of all of this is to go to these things. Another question that just came in: ‘do these teachings constitute a religion?’
Stephen: This is a question that I’m frequently asked. The problem is the word religion is extremely difficult to define, and I think at the beginning of After Buddhism in chapter one, I talk about the different ways in which we can use religion, in some senses positively, in other senses negatively. To me, I consider myself, at one level, to be a deeply religious person, but by that I don’t mean because I bought into some religious orthodoxy of Buddhism or Christianity. Rather, to be deeply religious, as I understand it, means to lead your life in a state of ultimate concern. If we take our life with the deepest possible seriousness, that we realise that we’re only on this earth for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, how do we make the most of that? How do we make each moment count? How do we give our passion and our deepest feelings to what matters most for us in the face of our death? That, to me, is the core of the religious feeling, the religious impulse.
I think the traditional religions acknowledge this, but very often what happens is that the more that one gets drawn into an orthodox religion – Buddhist or other – the potency of our ultimate concern becomes slowly eaten away, and we become more and more preoccupied with defending our beliefs, or defending our institutions, and somehow preserving a sacred teaching or organisation, or whatever it might be.
That’s where religion starts to become less desirable. It becomes very often about joining about a club, feeling superior to other people, having privileged access to the truth, all that kind of stuff. All the wars of religion, all of the disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Muslims and the Jews, and the Hindus and so on, that’s where religion really goes out the window, as far as I’m concerned.
So can we therefore somehow recover the core that unites all people who are deeply committed to the values of being human, in whatever form that might take, and be less preoccupied with the outward structures and teachings and doctrines that the particular historical religions have come up with?
So I’m not giving you a yes or no answer.
Noah: Which is very Buddhist. I like that, I really like that explanation. I’ve thought lately, it’s interesting that with Buddhism people would ‘ask are you a Buddhist?’ But with another practice, yoga for example, there’s not really a word, are you a yoga-ist? It’s just ‘do you practice it, yes or no?’ I wish we viewed Buddhism more like that. Do I practice meditation? Yes. Do I practice Buddhism? Yes. Am I Buddhist? Well, no. Do I teach Buddhism? Yes. So, that’s just an interesting thought. We’re coming up on the last couple of minutes here. I’d like to ask you, this is my question to you: How do you define nirvana? What does nirvana mean to you? The idea of enlightenment, what does it mean to you?
Stephen: For a start, for me, nirvana and enlightenment are not equivalent at all. Nirvana just means literally ‘blowing out’ or ‘stopping’, and I go back to one of the earliest phrases in the Pāli suttas, the discourses where the Buddha says that nirvana is ‘clearly visible, immediate, inviting, uplifting, and personally experienced [by the wise’. He says that about the dharma. He says that about nirvana. Nirvana is clearly visible. In my understanding, nirvana therefore is every moment in which you rest in a non-reactive state of mind. This is the classic definition of nirvana which, again, we find in the suttas; this is not later commentarial material.
The Buddha says nirvana is the stopping of greed, the stopping of hatred, the stopping of delusion. Now that’s usually taken to mean the complete and final stopping of all those things. I don’t read it that way. I read it that every moment in your experience as a human being, you find yourself in a still, quiet, open, responsive frame of mind, you are tasting nirvana. You’re tasting a mind that is not governed by your attachments, your fears, your hatreds, your opinions. That is nirvana.
In ELSA, we speak of S, seeing the stopping of reactivity. We’re actually saying seeing nirvana, seeing those nirvanic moments that open up maybe just for a brief second or two and then get taken over by something else. But the point of the third task is actually to see and to dwell in a non-reactive, i.e. a nirvanic perspective.
The other term you use – enlightenment, which is bodhi, awakening I prefer really to enlightenment – encompasses all four tasks. Again, going back to the earliest discourse of the Buddha, he defines awakening quite explicitly as having recognised, performed and accomplished the four tasks. That is awakening. If we think of that as a process rather than a final state, the process of embracing, letting go, seeing, and acting, that is the process of waking up. We might one day get to a point where we’re completely awake, but that, I think, is probably more of a useful ideal to head for rather than something we would become attached to and think we should actually get there. It’s asymptotic in that sense. In other words, we need to think in those terms but not to take that too literally.
So, awakening is the whole process of all four tasks. Again, there is sound early canonical basis for that. Nirvana is a sort of hinge. I sometimes think of nirvana as the hinge of awakening, the hinge of enlightenment. It’s the letting, it’s the seeing, it’s the embracing, letting go, stopping, that is nirvana. And then responding. So nirvana is the crux, the hinge on which the process of awakening turns.
Noah: I love that. I love that. Nirvanic moments. Because we can all experience those throughout the day, and I think we all do. Then we conceptualise it and now we’re looking for our concept and then we’re not seeing it, and yet it’s there all along. I love awakening as a way of being rather than a destination. You realise the process is that you’re always getting it, but you never get it.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: And the moment you think you get it, you didn’t get it, because the point was that you’re getting it, not that you get it.
Stephen: Yeah. It’s gone.
Noah: Yeah. I love that. Okay. It’s 10:33 here so I know you’ve got duties.
Stephen: I have kitchen duties now, I’m afraid. As a secular Buddhist, I have to go now and help prepare the evening meal for my wife and my mother-in-law.
Noah: Okay. Again, I just want to say thank you. It’s been so enjoyable spending this time talking to you on multiple perspectives, because discussing this is a topic that I’m passionate about. That’s why I have the podcast, but also just as a fan and as someone who has deep gratitude for your work, for the effort you’ve put into presenting the ideas. The way that you’ve presented them has changed my life, and directly affected many, many lives for the better, to have more joy and more contentment and peace in life. For this, I am extremely grateful to you. And I think it’s really neat that I get to express this to you in person, someone who’s affected me in so many ways, and here I get to thank you. It’s really a neat moment for me, so thank you very much.
Stephen: That’s very kind of you, Noah, and it somehow makes my work worthwhile. I live a lot of my time fairly isolated in this village in France, reading books and writing texts, and so it means a lot to me that you’ve found my work so valuable. It gives me a real impetus to keep going. Likewise, those of you who are listening to the podcast, or who watch it, I really hope that these ideas are workable for you. Please don’t get attached to them. They’re just tools we can use. They’re not doctrines that we need to hold onto as though they’re final revealed truths, or anything like that, so thank you.
Noah: Thank you. Great. That’s a wonderful closing. Thank you.
3 simple questions are all it takes to create a moment of awareness. Where am I? What am I doing? What did it take for this moment to arise? In this episode, I will discuss how I use these 3 simple questions as a technique to allow myself to become more mindful and to become more anchored in the present moment. I hope you can pause and ask yourself these 3 questions from time to time in order to experience more mindfulness in your day.
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Noah Rasheta: Hello, you are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 50. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about creating moments of awareness.
Today marks a fun milestone in the podcast. This happens to be episode number 50 and as of today, the podcast has officially been downloaded or listened to over 1 million times. So the podcast now has listeners in over 50 countries. The top five countries are the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany. It keeps going down the list, and the 50th country is Kenya, with over 400 downloads. So, how cool is that?
I’ve been receiving countless emails of support and feedback from listeners from all over the world and I’m so grateful to each and every one of you for listening for supporting and just for being a part of this journey and being a part of this milestone with me. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Today I want to talk about the practice of creating moments of awareness, and here’s the thing about mindfulness, these amazing moments of clarity, moments where you glimpse the awe inspiring nature of reality as it is. They’re always there, and it’s just a matter of us becoming aware of what this moment actually is. How can we shift our perspective? How can we see or experience more of these moments of awareness in our normal day-to-day lives?
Well there’s a technique that I’ve been using that I would like to share with you, where you pause, and you ask yourself three questions. The questions are one, where am I, two, what am I doing, and three, what did it take for this moment to arise? In other words, what people or processes were involved with allowing this moment to exist just the way that it is?
Now I’ll discuss that in a minute, but before getting into those questions, a couple of reminders. First, remember the Dalai Lama’s quote, where he says, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better, whatever you already are.”. Regardless of which path you’re on, or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to be a better whatever you already are. Second, the mission of the Foundation For Mindful Living is to provide tools and content to help people live more mindfully, but I want to address that really quick.
What does it mean to live more mindfully? Well essentially it means that we are learning to be more aware of our thoughts, feelings, actions and emotions. It’s not about changing them. It’s not about changing the way you feel. It’s about understanding the relationship you have with your feelings. It’s about becoming a better observer of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, all of this in order to live more skillfully with them.
Part of the mission is accomplished with the podcast by posting regular episodes like this one, where certain topics are brought up, that help you to understand Buddhist concepts or topics or teachings, ultimately again, to help you live more mindfully.
Another component has been traveling and doing workshops, where in a one day, all day workshop, I can teach all of the concepts of mindfulness. It’s like a mindfulness one-on-one workshop. In fact, there’s one coming up in Orlando, Florida on Saturday October 21st. There will be another one in Phoenix on Saturday November 4th, and you can learn about those workshops by visiting secularbuddism.com/workshops.
I’m also excited to announce that I’m working on an online version of the workshop that will be available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. I think these are important tools that many people have indicated to me that learning this has helped change their lives in a positive way, helping people to cope with difficult things they’re going through, helping people to find more contentment and joy with day-to-day living, so I’ll continue doing these podcast episodes and producing them in this format, where it’s about teaching concepts or presenting ideas that ultimately promote mindfulness.
Now I did introduce a new format awhile back with occasional interviews. I’ve done a couple of these. One with Robert Wright, an author, and another one with Noah Levine from Refuge Recovery to talk about addiction and recovery. I will occasionally continue to do episodes that are that format, the interview format, where we discuss certain topics. I think that’s helpful, but that format is not replacing the original format. It’s just in addition to, so roughly once a month you can expect a podcast of that format, the interview. And also, occasionally I’ll introduce a format with the question and answer format, where podcast listeners can call in or email a question in and then I’ll answer those questions through a podcast. Those are, both of those formats are occasional. They’re not the regular.
The regular format is like this podcast episode and many of the past ones, where I just present a concept or an idea or a teaching to help foster this ability to live more mindfully. So, between the podcasts and the workshops, I think a lot of people can benefit from these topics and teachings. If you guys have any feedback or ideas or other things that the foundation can do or that I can do, feel free to reach out and let me know. I value everyone’s feedback. I read every email that comes in, even if it may take me some time to get to it, because I do receive a lot of emails now.
So, with that in mind, now let’s jump into this week’s topic. So moments of awareness, what are moments of awareness? For me, these are the moments when I feel like I suddenly have a bit more insight into the nature of reality of the moment I’m experiencing right then, in the present moment. If you were to imagine a giant sand hour, you know, the, what is it called, a sand glass hour? The sandglass, yeah, sandglass, so imagine a giant sandglass, but it’s flowing backwards. The sand is flowing from the bottom towards the top. It’s like at the bottom there are all these past moments and they’re all being funneled into the present moment, which is that little bottleneck in the middle, and after passing through the present moment, then they expand into every possible outcome of what the future could be, but we are stuck right there at that bottleneck and where there are only a few grains passing through at the moment. That’s the present moment.
This is the way I visualize it. Hopefully this helps you, but this is how this helps me. So I’m there experiencing this one present moment at a time and every now and then I fell like I see through this lens of impermanence and interdependence and I feel like inside a mindfulness arise. This process of the sand and the hourglass, it’s always happening, but I’m not always aware of it. I try to prime myself, or prime my mind to try to experience the present more mindfully from time-to-time.
I had one such instance of this, this morning. Some of you know that I’ve recently taken on somewhat of a new career path. I wanted to dedicate more time to the podcast and to the foundation, so after my business kind of collapsing, I haven’t been … The business allowed me to do that full-time and this part-time, and now I wanted to reverse roles and find something that I could do part-time and do this full-time. That’s been working out well with driving the school bus. I started driving as a substitute teacher last year, then I took on a full-time route this year, with school that started last week.
I want to insert a quick plug here for driving a school bus. If any of you are freelancers or entrepreneurs or your trying to build something on the side, driving a school bus is a really neat way to do it because you have this schedule, where you get up early and you drive a bus route, but you’re done by around 9:00 AM, and then you’ve got the rest of the day to go work on your own, and then you don’t have to be back until the afternoon to do another one or two hour bus route.
So it’s worked out very well for me to have this big block of time in the middle of the day to work on what I consider my full-time project, which is the podcast, but at the same time I don’t have to depend entirely on the podcast or tax it. I’m not an employee of it yet, because I don’t have to. I have a part-time job. It’s been a really neat thing, so you should consider that if you are in a position like mine or you’re trying to build something. Driving a school bus is a fun way to do that.
Back to what I wanted to discuss. I’ve had several items on my mind lately. Still kind of dealing with tying all the loose ends of everything that’s happened with my business and at times it feels like it can bog me down, because there’s just so much to think about. Today was one of those instances, where this morning I was thinking of all the things I’m gonna have to do later today and the people I need to call and the emails and just the messes I’m trying to clean up still, and it’s a lot.
As I sat there on the bus this morning, you know, you get the bus ready before you go out and do the route, where you start picking up kids and you do what’s called a pre trip or a pre inspection and your checking all the air in the tires and all the various parts of the bus. By the time I’m done with that process, I sit there and I have roughly 10 minutes or so before I need to start my route. Then the route consists of making designated stops at designated times, so I can’t go too fast, I can’t go too slow, you need to stay on track because the kids are expecting the bus at a certain time.
These are moments, I’m sitting there with 10 minutes to go, these are moments, where you can create moments of awareness and I do this by asking myself the following three questions. These help me in any moment. Any moment, where you can pause and ask yourself these questions, where you’re, I guess you’d have time if you were stuck at a red light, but you could do this in a lot of places. If you’re stuck in line at the bank or find time in the day to do this, but these questions help me to become really mindful, to become present to the intricate connections that allow that present moment to be exactly what it is.
Here are the questions. First I say, “Where am I?”, and this helps me to ease my mind with all the thoughts that I have about all the other places. We’re always somewhere and thinking of somewhere else, so rather than thinking about work or the email that I’m gonna have to get to once I’m done, like all these other places. I thought, where am I, I’m right here, sitting on a bus. What am I doing, second question. This helps me to anchor myself in the present moment. To recognize that yes, I have a lot on my mind about this or that, but right now, I’m doing this, you know, what am I doing, reminds me that what am I doing right now. Sure I can be doing things later, but right now, I’m driving the bus. That’s what I’m doing.
Once I allow myself to anchor in that present moment, then I ask the third question, what did it take for this moment to arise? In other words, what people or process were involved with allowing this moment to exist just the way that it is. For me, I paused, I looked around, and I started looking at all the components on the bus. I was looking at the radio that I use to communicate with the school, the school and the other bus drivers. I was looking at the mirror, thinking about what all it took for that mirror to be created. I looked at the rivets in the ceiling of the bus and the different panels and how they connect. I was imagining the various factories, where each of these metal pieces were coming from and the electronic components that allow me to open and close the doors I started looking at the little LED lights around the stop sign that comes out when the doors open and thinking, where did that LED come from, where was that created, the lettering on the bus.
This process goes on and on. There are so many things to look at, so many components. Just for this bus to exist the way that it does in that present moment, and as if that’s not enough to think about, then I thought, well what is it, what are the processes that are taking place right now, all across this valley, where I’m about to go pick up kids. Kids are waking up. That required alarm clocks. It required smart phones. It required, maybe the coffee that they’re drinking or that their parents are drinking to help them wake up and where did those come from, and I was thinking about the farmers and about the watering and this complex process that’s been taking place for a vast amount of time, so that in this moment, it’s all gonna culminate in the one moment, where I interact with the culmination of every single one of those processes.
And yet, that’s exactly what happening right now, as I’m sitting there on the bus, like it’s taking place everywhere, but the way that I was thinking of it, it will culminate with the moment as I stop and I pick up someone there standing on the side of the road. There are so many parts of this, right? I could continue to imagine, you know, the shoes that I’m wearing, the shoes that they’re wearing, the backpacks that their using, the books that they have in those backpacks and the pages and the paper and the trees that made the paper and the stitching that went into the backpacks and on and on and on.
This process really doesn’t end. By then, it was time for me to proceed to drive the route and at that point, I’m on the route, but I’m so much more mindful now of how incredible this moment is. The moment of picking someone up and everything it took for each stop, each child to be standing there, ready to get on the bus, and then to think this process goes on for the rest of the day, their classroom and their teachers and their desks and their books, where does it stop? Suddenly, you’re left with this realization that this is one incredible moment taking place, one after the other, after the other.
I was grateful to be able to be mindful of it, even if just for a moment. I’m sure I’ll pause and do this again later in the day about other things, other places, other processes because that’s how it works, but this is a process, a series of questions that can allow you to at least glimpse for a moment the intricacies of what it took for this moment to be what it is.
I thought about this as I reflected on the milestone to the podcast. I already had this in mind that I wanted to talk about creating moments of awareness, and when I came in and started preparing everything for the podcast, and I was checking the podcast, I realized, hey, today’s the day that I hit that milestone of 50 episodes. Jenny, one of our podcast listeners, you guys probably may recognize some of her work, she’s done a lot of those really cool sketching drawings that I’ve shared on the Facebook page, she in the UK. She had sent me an email saying hey, you’re coming up on your 50th podcast episode, this is a time to celebrate, and I thought, huh, I hadn’t even thought about that. I was just gonna record number 50 like it was no big deal.
I thought, how fun to just pause for a moment, apply these same three questions to realize all the work, all the processes that it’s taken for this moment to be what it is, and suddenly I’m left there feeling just humbled to be a part of this present moment. I can’t help but to feel gratitude, gratitude at the prospect that I get to share in other incredible moments in the future. I’m not thinking way out, I’m thinking 30 seconds from now, one minute from now, five minutes from now, each one of these incredible moments arriving and what may seem like such an ordinary way, and yet with just a little introspection, I realize there’s nothing ordinary about any of these moments.
Every moment is the extraordinary culmination of everything that’s ever taken place. To realize that, even to glimpse it for a moment, I’m grateful for this technique. This is a technique that I enjoy using as I try to live more mindfully of the beauty of the present moment, more mindfully of the fact that whatever the moment is, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, whether it’s a moment I enjoy or a moment I’m disliking, it’s unique. It’s a unique moment and it’s beautiful in and of its own, regardless of the perspective that I have of it. That’s a fascinating thought for me because it allows me to go through the day with a greater sense of gratitude, a greater sense of awe at everything that’s taking place.
This is, to me, what it means to live more mindfully, to create the space for awareness to allow there to be more contentment and joy in everything that’s taking place because of my perspective to look around and think, wow, it took everything. I hope that you all can take a moment to pause sometime today to ask yourself these three questions and then see how it makes you feel. Ask yourself, where am I, what am I doing, and what did it take for this moment to arise, and see how that changes how you see that one ordinary present moment in which you created a moment of awareness by looking, by allowing yourself to try to see beyond the limitation that we have sometimes of just being here, but not really being here, being now, but not really thinking of now. We’re caught up in the future or caught up in the past, but to really be present for a moment and to realize what all it takes for this one moment to exist.
Then, that quickly, watch how that moment passes and it’s replaced by another moment and then another moment and another moment and this process goes on and on and on and that the nature of our lives and how our lives can slip away through our hands, moment after moment. We’re always looking back, wishing we had been more mindful of something that took place and yet, there we are in the present with the opportunity to have that mindfulness. To have that anchoring right then and there and to start that process now in this present moment. You can do that with those three questions, where am I, what am I doing, what did it take for this moment to arise.
I hope you can each find time to ask yourself those three questions today. Notice how it makes you feel, and then enjoy that moment, just enjoy that pause, enjoy the feeling that you have as you increase your awareness, as you create your moment of awareness.
Thank you, that’s all I have for today. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes and if you would like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, the work that I’m doing with the foundation, please visit secularbuddism.com and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode, episode number 51 soon. Thank you, until next time.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Noah Levine, founder of Refuge Recovery, a mindfulness-based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process. We all know someone who is / has been / or will be affected by addiction (maybe it’s you?). The information presented in this discussion could change your life or the life of someone you love. The original interview was broadcast live to the Secular Buddhism FB page, and uploaded to our YouTube Channel.
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Noah Rasheta: Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 49. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and in this episode, I’m excited to share the audio of an interview I had with Noah Levine of Refuge Recovery. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Noah Levine, founder of Refuge Recovery, a mindfulness based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process.
We all know someone who is, has been, or will be affected by addiction. It may even be you. The information presented in this discussion could change your life or the life of someone you love. The original interview was broadcast live to the Secular Buddhism Facebook page and uploaded to our YouTube channel. You can watch it at facebook.com/secularbuddhism. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and at least right now the Secular Buddhism podcast live on Facebook.
Noah Levine: Can you share it live on my page at the same time?
Noah Rasheta: Let’s see. I think it only allows me to share to the pages I manage, but I have you tagged.
Noah Levine: That would be cool.
Noah Rasheta: I have you tagged so hopefully that will show up on your page.
Noah Levine: [inaudible 00:01:42]
Noah Rasheta: What was that?
Noah Levine: I said there’s probably a way for me to share it live from your page or something.
Noah Rasheta: There should be. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll share the stream on … Do you want me to share it on the Refuge Recovery page?
Noah Levine: Sure. You could do it on Refuge, but I was thinking on the Noah Levine 108. That’s where most of the largest number of followers are.
Noah Rasheta: I’ll look for that real quick. I see that. I’ll share the link there. I posted that on your page.
Noah Levine: Cool.
Noah Rasheta: Great. This whole idea to interview you started as … I picked up a copy of your book, Refuge Recovery after a friend of mine was going through addiction and recovery, and dealing with the aftermath of it really spending time in prison. It got me interested in wanting to discuss the topic of addiction and recovery with him, but a mindfulness based approach, on a Buddhist based approach. I picked up your book and started reading it. The very first thing that happened as I started reading it was something that had happened a while back in my life, my wife and I went to marriage counseling many years ago.
I remember going through that thinking this content is incredible, why do couples wait until they need to hear this? It should be mandatory. If you’re going to get married, you’ve got to go to marriage counseling, pass this course and then you’re going to have all this incredible tools for how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of marriage. I had this similar experience reading your book where I was thinking, “Wait a second, this isn’t necessarily for someone who’s already struggling with addiction, this should be for anyone because it helps you to understand the underlying causes of addiction which happened to be very similar or if not the same as the underlying causes of suffering.”
I decided, I want to talk to Noah, and maybe feature this book and feature your work on the podcast to my podcast listeners who are just interested in living more mindfully because this is exactly what that does. It helps you to, I think if anything preempt ever reaching that stage where you may encounter addiction. Certainly, there will be people listening to this who know of someone in the past, or in the present, or in the future who may struggle with addiction and recovery.
I thought it was good timing to have a conversation about it, so thank you for your time and for joining me to have this conversation. What I was hoping we can talk about first is maybe just a brief introduction about you, your story, what led you to create Refuge Recovery, and your story with what led you to mindfulness and Buddhism. Are you there?
Noah Levine: I am, but I’m missing you a little bit. Let me disappear for one moment, make sure I’m on the right Wi-Fi. Just one moment.
Noah Rasheta: Sounds good.
Noah Levine: I’m still here as you still have my audio. I just want to make sure I’m on the right Wi-Fi. It might help. Let’s get a better connection here. Can you still hear me?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah, and I see you now.
Noah Levine: Sorry to disappear. Let’s see. That should hopefully solve our connection problem. Let’s see.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Thank you.
Noah Levine: Tell me the question again, and I’m happy to be on the show with you, and thanks for inviting me.
Noah Rasheta: Great. The question was I was hoping you’d share just a brief summary of your story, your background, what led you to Refuge Recovery, and what led you down the path of studying Buddhism and mindfulness in general?
Noah Levine: I was one of the, I think somewhat, rare cases where I was born into a western family, an American family of European descent who were already practicing Buddhism when I was born. My father had found what I called the dharma mindfulness Buddhism in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and had really committed his life to meditation practice. Now, my dad, Stephen Levine who I’m sure you know, and many people know, and wrote all these wonderful books about mindfulness, and about death and dying, and bringing a mindful and a spiritual perspective to grief, and healing, and grieving.
I grew up with it. I was basically introduced to Buddhism from my early childhood but I dutifully rebelled against it and had my own trauma. My parents were divorced when I was very young and there was addiction in my family. Both my mother and my father had had addiction in their lives. My mother was still struggling with addiction and my father had … My father wasn’t somebody who would consider himself in recovery, but he had went from being a heroin addict to being a meditator.
He didn’t call it recovery because he’s still pot, or alcohol, or something like that, but he was able to get off of the core addiction that he had earlier in his life, really through meditation practice. Am I still there? I just got a message that I was disconnected.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. You’re still here.
Noah Levine: By the time I was five years old, I was feeling suicidal. I was just like I want out, and I knew about death, and I knew about reincarnation. I was just in that pain and suffering that felt like, “Oh, I could just kill myself and start over,” at such a young age. Then I found drugs and alcohol, started drinking my parents’ booze, and smoking their weed, and eating their acid, and their mushrooms, and drugs saved my life. Drugs were the thing that allowed me to self-medicate, and get out of some of the pain, and existential angst, and suffering that I was experiencing in early childhood that so much so, I was suicidal.
Drugs and alcohol were a good time. I found punk rock in 1979, and I found this radical rebellious drug culture that made a lot more sense to me than mindfulness, than meditation. I had pain and I was meeting my pain with trying to avoid it. That worked for some time, and then it stopped working which happens for all addicts. Not only addicts, I think that this is actually our coping mechanisms only work for so long.
By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t experimenting with drugs, I was addicted, and I was smoking crack, cocaine, and I was injecting heroin, and I was drinking alcoholically on a daily basis. I was in and out of institutions. I started getting locked up. I started getting sent to recovery stuff at about 13 because I get arrested a lot so they’d sent me to AA and say get your core card signed. I had some awareness that there were recovering addicts and alcoholics. Of course, I had awareness of Buddhists and these spiritual folks that my dad was hanging out with. Ram Dass was around, and Jack Cornfield, and Joseph Goldstein and all of these wonderful meditation teachers, but I didn’t feel like any of that applied to me.
Noah Rasheta: From what I was reading, something happens at some point. You were at prison at the time. Tell me about that pivotal moment where you shift and realized you’re ready to be done with this.
Noah Levine: Sure. In 1988, I was 17 years old. I had three felonies. I was looking at doing multiple years in prison, in a youth prison. There was a shift. I had a suicide attempt. I woke up in a padded cell. For the first time of my life, I took some responsibility. I realized that I was in that situation based on my own karma, my own actions. With that realization came both a ton of shame and guilt and remorse. A little bit of hopelessness but also a little bit of hope came from that taking responsibility.
If I got myself into this situation, maybe I can get myself out. Up to that time, I blamed everyone else so then taking some responsibility gave me some agency in creating some change. My father took the opportunity when I was talking to him on the telephone from my cell or from the phone and the institution to say, “Try meditating, try mindfulness. Go back to your room. Try to ignore your mind and pay attention to your breath. Just do simple breath awareness practice.”
He said, “It will give you some relief from all of this fear of the future around regret from the past.” He said, “It will give you some relief. It’s worth trying.” I was desperate enough that I said, “Okay.” I went and I sat in my cell, and I started meditating. I started meditation practice that became the only thing that really made sense to me. I saw in meditation right from the beginning that this was an action that I could take. I wasn’t very good at it, it wasn’t a quick fix. It didn’t solve all of my problems but it gave me a tiny bit of relief, and it theoretically made sense to me that I was training my own attention, mindfulness of the breath and body, and getting some relief from the confusion in my mind, the addiction in my mind.
At the same time I started going to recovery. I started going to the 12-step meetings that were in the institutions and in there, what they were saying was the solution, a Judeo-Christian philosophy that God was going to remove from me that a higher power was going to restore me to sanity and remove my alcoholic craving. That didn’t make sense to me. I was an atheist. What they were saying didn’t made sense but the meditation made sense.
What I found in recovery was I found community. I found all of these wonderful people who are just suffering like me, addicts and that were there to help and were just volunteering to show up and saying, “You can recover.” The 12-step community has been so integral, so important, so key to my recovery because when I started … When I got out of jail and I started going to Buddhist meditation retreats, the Buddhists weren’t really my people.
The Buddhist were dad’s friends. The recovering addicts, those were my people, the alcoholics, those were my hommies. For a long time, I had this Buddhist based practice and view but my community was the 12-step recovery community.
Noah Rasheta: That’s where you start to develop the Refuge Recovery program. Is that right?
Noah Levine: For the first 15 years, I practiced Buddhism. I participated in 12 steps. I began teaching Buddhism. My teachers, Jack Cornfield, Venerable Ajahn Amaro, my father, Stephen Levine started encouraging me to teach. I started going back into the juvenile halls and the prisons, community groups, teaching mindfulness and loving kindness and forgiveness, and teaching meditation. I didn’t do recovery based meditation. I said this is for everyone.
Everyone has some suffering, not just us addicts, everyone has it. I want to make this available to everyone. I don’t want to exclude someone like you that doesn’t identify as a recovering addict from my meditation community. I don’t want to say, this is only if you’ve become a junkie or an alcoholic. For the first 15 years of teaching, I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now, I didn’t do recovery stuff really.
I did Buddhism for everyone, but because my first book, Dharma Punks was about my addiction and recovery and Buddhist practice. Half of the people that showed up to sit with me were in recovery and half weren’t. Eventually about 10 years ago, it seemed like, “I should create something.” There’s a bunch of cool stuff that’s been done around Buddhism and the 12 steps. Kevin Griffin and Darren Littlejohn, a handful of other people who’ve done this kind of cool stuff around like here’s a Buddhist way to look at the 12 steps which I thought was a great resource but it always left me feel a little bit like why do we have to keep trying to understand a Judeo-Christian worldview through a non-theistic Buddhist worldview.
Noah Rasheta: Sure.
Noah Levine: Why do we have to keep trying to make these things that don’t really fit, fit. They fit in some ways and they don’t fit in other ways. Believe in God or not believe. It doesn’t totally fit. Then that’s when I said, “Nobody else seems to be doing it. My community is asking for it,” which had become thousands of people, my centers in San Francisco, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Nashville, in Boston, and just all of these communities that were hungry for it. That’s when I created Refuge Recovery which three years ago when Refuge Recovery book came out, there was about 10 Buddhist recovery meetings in our lineage. Now, there’s over 300.
Noah Rasheta: Wow.
Noah Levine: As soon as the book was out there, people were just like, “Yes. This was what I was looking for. This makes more sense to me or it just helps me understand the 12 steps.” There’s a lot of people who were like, “Well, I love the 12 steps but I never really learned how to meditate so now Refuge Recovery is an opportunity to really learn some deep meditation practices.
Noah Rasheta: One thing I love about the way you formatted the book is it not only introduces you to these concepts and helps you understand why they work but it gives you the outline of, “If you don’t have a group close by, this is how you can format these meetings yourself. You do this and you do that. It teaches the meditation. I think it’s really useful for someone who may not have a group that they can attend.
Noah Levine: Yeah.
Noah Rasheta: Refuge Recovery is pretty big now. Tell us a little bit about how this works because you have an actual center where people could go to get clean but there are also communities like local groups that get together. What’s the difference between the two?
Noah Levine: There’s the professional treatment center. It’s called Refuge recovery treatment centers and detox, residential, sober living for people that want to come to a professional treatment with psychotherapy and trauma resolution and physicians and medicine management, all of that. That’s available. It’s insurance reimbursed. We just have one center so far in Los Angeles. I felt like it was my responsibility of I was going to say, “Here’s a recovery path.” I knew so many people who are going to want to use it for treatment to actually provide a really good professional treatment model with it. We’re doing that and people can find that information on refugerecoverytreatmentcenters.com or refugerecovery.com, but then the other side of it is I really wanted was, I think the 12 step model of peer-led addicts helping each other alcoholics helping each other is brilliant.
We created a format for this is how we can do a peer-led meeting with a guided meditation in each meeting that’s not led by a meditation teacher but by a script. Here’s the mindfulness instructions, here’s the forgiveness instructions, the love and kindness and it’s just read by somebody, read slowly by somebody in the meeting so that every meeting has a meditation practice with the instructions.
Noah Rasheta: I like that because it allows anybody to led that. Let’s talk really quickly about some of the key differences or similarities between a program like Refuge Recovery versus, let’s say, AA, the 12-step program or any other program like that?
Noah Levine: There’s so much in common and there’s some key differences. Let’s point to the common first like community is key. Peer support, accountability, compassion and service, helping each other, tolerating each other, key. Showing up and having commitments to say, “I’m going to be here, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do my inventories, I’m going to look at myself, and my resentments, and the suffering, and the cause of suffering.” There’s all of these commonalities. The core difference between a Buddhist perspective and a theistic perspective is that the 12 steps are ascribing to a monotheistic worldview that human beings are powerless, that there’s a grace or a blessing or a cursing from God that is affecting us, that there’s a higher power that is actually in control of human beings.
Buddhism has a non-theistic worldview that understands karma, that believes in responsibility, that believes in the human ability to free themselves from the suffering of addiction through their own actions and their own efforts. Some of the 12-step view is that human beings can’t do that only God can do that. Only God can restore you to sanity, only a higher power can remove the craving for alcohol or drugs or whatever it is. There’s some differences there.
Do you assign that recovery to an external power, greater than yourself or do you assign that meaning to one’s own actions, and the human ability to heal, to recover, to awaken? Buddhism takes that much more of a humanist psychology view than a Judeo-Christian theistic view.
Noah Rasheta: Which obviously is very suitable for someone with that worldview. I want to discuss now a couple of the things that really stood out to me in your book. I love the book. I feel like it does a great job of presenting the basic Buddhist philosophy. Just summarizing this, again, for listeners. From the Buddhist perspective, there’s this idea that there’s life as it is, reality and then there’s life as we think it should be which the story or the narrative. Sometimes they don’t match up.
When we encounter this, we have this sense of discomfort, something is wrong, I need this to match this. That’s not the problem. Up until this point, that’s all okay. The problem becomes that with the discomfort, I’m not comfortable with the discomfort, so I’m going to start doing something about it. That’s where we often get into trouble, the discomfort of being with the expectation of reality not meeting reality.
I start to do things like self-meditate like you talked about. On the extreme end, we’re talking about addictive behavior, drugs, alcohol, that it could be on a less extreme case similar patterns that I’m on Facebook all day. It could be anything on that spectrum but ultimately, it’s rooted in the fact that I’m simply not comfortable with the discomfort that my expected reality isn’t matching reality. Would that be a fair assessment?
Noah Levine: I like it. I mean I feel like that is … I like the way that you’re saying that. Yes, I think it’s fair. As you know, what the Buddha talks about as Tanha, craving. Craving for reality it to be more pleasant, less painful but I like the way you’re talking about just expectations. I like that.
Noah Rasheta: From the Buddhist perspective, we talked about the moment we want life to be other than it is, we’re going to experience suffering and that’s natural. You talked about this in your book how the desire versus craving and you say that there’s a difference between the two because craving is the thought and feeling that says, “I have to have it. I cannot be happy without it.” Desire is simply recognizing I want it but I’ll be fine with or without it.
This is what I was alluding to with the underlying cause of suffering being that we want things to be other than they are. That’s not the problem, it’s taking it a step further that our inability to allow ourselves to just be in that space of discomfort at times so we start to do something about it and often times that’s what gets us into trouble. You talked about how our relationship to craving, it’s not craving itself that’s the problem because that’s natural, and I like how you worded this. The problem lies in our addiction to satisfying our craving because that’s different than there’s craving and there’s the addiction to satisfying the craving. Talk to me a little bit about that, that thought process there.
Noah Levine: I mean I just think that this is so key because without mindfulness, without some introspection, some self-awareness, we believe that we have to satisfy our cravings and we take it all so personal but you do a bit of mindfulness, you start observing your mind and your emotions and your sensations. You start to see how impersonal this human craving machine that we live in is. Then you start to say like, “Oh, no. Of course there’s craving. That’s just what this biological imperative is here is craving.”
When you step back from it and you actually get an understanding of it, then you say, “Craving again. No big deal, I don’t have to satisfy it. I’m no longer addicted to it or so identified with thinking that I have to obey my mind. The mindfulness really does that. It really shifts our relationship to our minds and you realize, a lot of my thoughts are untrustworthy. A lot of my cravings are based in confusion, based in ignorance, are lying to me and saying if you do this, you’ll be happy. Then you do it over and over and you realize, “Yeah, it doesn’t work. I tried satisfying all of my cravings. It made my life worst, not better.” There’s that shift from taking it personal and obeying it to starting to have some renunciation in that end, but also not judging the fact that we are craving beings.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I like to say this when I’m teaching mindfulness that we’re not trying to change our feelings, we’re not trying to change our thoughts, we’re trying to understand the relationship we have with our feelings because our problem isn’t the feeling, it’s the clinging to a certain feeling or the aversion of this other feeling. I want more happiness, I want less sadness. That’s ultimately what’s getting us in trouble, not necessarily the feeling itself.
You addressed that, I think very well in your book. One aspect of this that in your book reminded me of the Stanford, marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification. This is the experiment where children were offered the choice between a small reward immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period of approximately 15 minutes.
In all of the follow up studies, this is where it gets interesting. The researchers found that the children who were able to wait longer for the preferred reward had better life outcomes like SAT scores, educational attainment and just other life measures. What that indicates to me again is what mindfulness has helped me to understand is our ability to be with something patiently for a moment, especially discomfort. What I see over and over when I’m teaching mindfulness workshops is people who are experiencing some form of suffering, who are unable to be with the suffering, complicate it.
Pema Chodron says like … I’m paraphrasing it, but often the worst of our situations are the ones give ourselves. A lot of the suffering that we experience is self-inflicted. I think that’s where mindfulness really kicks in here. Then something that you talked about in your book that I wanted to address here, you said what does awakening or enlightenment look like … No, this is me asking you, what does awakening or enlightenment look like to you? How would you describe it?
Noah Levine: To be awake, seems to mean to see reality clearly. When you’re seeing reality clearly, you’re understanding that everything is impermanent. Everything is constantly changing, every thought, every feeling, every sensation, every person that this law of impermanence when we’re awake or seeing that, we’re understanding it, and we’re living in harmony with it. Understanding that we’re seeing reality clearly that everything is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant, or neutral that there’s just a feeling tone to every sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, environment.
Noah Rasheta: Thought.
Noah Levine: And thought. Yeah, what happens in the mind and that our relationships to that pleasant or unpleasant perception is the cause of our ease or our suffering. When we’re awake, we know as you were pointing to before, it’s nit what’s happening, it’s how we relate to what’s happening. When we’re awake, we understand that everything is impermanent and that our response is going to be how we’re relating to it. It’s going to be the cause of our happiness around happiness.
Maybe the third thing that I will say is we’re also awake to how impersonal so much of what we’re experience is there’s not a solid separate entity that we can say, “This is I, this is me, this is mine.” What we have taken birth into is a human condition, has craving mind and body, and is not our fault, and it’s not who we are. It’s not personal. Really to be awake, in the simple way is to see clearly, and respond appropriately. The appropriate response in suffering.
That would be my working definition of what it means to be enlightened or awake. Then there’s the question of, also, to recover. What are we recovering to? We’re recovering to this ability to see clearly and to be at ease in the midst of joy or sorrow. To not satisfy our addictive cravings and to see that they’re impermanent and that they arise and they pass. That they’re calling for compassion, that they’re calling for forgiveness.
Noah Rasheta: True.
Noah Levine: Then there’s a question of is this awakening permanent or are they little moments of awakening throughout our meditative life. Now, of course the Buddhist said eventually, you can come to Nirvana, a permanent state of not suffering where you will end the cycle of rebirth and you will be free from suffering forever. That’s the highest level. Then I think there’s the practical level that we’re working with which is like in this moment could I see more clearly, could I respond more wisely? Am I clinging to something that I could let go off? Am I resisting something that I could accept that is impermanent even if it’s painful, even if it’s a painful emotion and I accept this, be with it, let it come through, let it pass through rather than damming it up.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I think that’s where this concept of suffering is natural but we start to suffer because we’re suffering and we’re compounding … This is where it becomes unnecessary suffering and I think this is what I like about the mindfulness approach in general but especially the Refuge Recovery approach with addiction, I see in people who are struggling with addiction the sense of … You described it earlier, there’s a period of guilt, of feeling unworthy and this approach helps you to know, or I guess helps you to realize as Allan Watts says , “You’re under no obligation to be who you were five minutes ago.”
This idea of impermanence frees you. It gives you this sense of liberation to say, “Hey, at any given moment, I get to start over. This moment is the moment that matters. Everything in the past is done now. It’s over so I don’t have to hang on to that guilt, to that shame because I do have the ability to say, “Don’t judge me for who I was yesterday, I get to start over now with this new information and knowledge.”
I wrote down a quote from your book that I really like going back to this awakening and enlightenment. You said that, “Awakening within each of us is the experience of non-suffering. Not suffering can be considered blissful when compared to suffering but that does not mean, it is pleasurable all the time. We need to let go of our fantasy of unending pleasure and craving for the pain of free existence. That’s not the type of spiritual awakening that the Buddhist path offers.”
I like this because we’re going back to this … It’s this form of radical okayness. My friend, Christopher Leibow-Ross who runs the Salt Lake Buddhist fellowship who runs the Salt Lake Buddhist fellowship here. He talks about this concept of radical okayness. The first time I heard it, I just loved it because life can be radically okay, and that’s what you’re insinuating in this definition of enlightenment. It’s that realization that it can be okay and it can be okay that it’s not okay.
I can be with whatever the emotion is that I’m experiencing and that to me from a secular Buddhist standpoint really resonates with this idea of enlightenment. It’s that you become okay with reality as it is even if that means being okay that it’s not okay.
Noah Levine: I like it. Our definition of okay and not okay is, is it painful? It’s that maybe in a more traditional language talking about that okayness as equanimity. That equanimity of if it’s painful, I can still be at ease in the midst of pain. I don’t have to add anger and hatred and fear on top of it. It’s just pain. Also with joy, I don’t have to ruin joy by getting attached to it. I can let it arise and pass.
Noah Rasheta: I like that. You see this all the time. At least I see this all the time and I used to see this all the time in myself particularly with a negative emotions of being angry but then being angry that I was angry or being sad and now, I’m sad that I’m sad. At the time not realizing that a significant part of that discomfort or that suffering was the second layer.
Noah Levine: Absolutely.
Noah Rasheta: I have a couple of questions that people sent in and wanted me to ask you. I want to go through a couple of these real quick. One of them has to do with the TED Talk. Everything you know about addiction is wrong. Are you familiar with that video?
Noah Levine: I’m not.
Noah Rasheta: I watched it. One of the things I liked about it, kind of what he’s trying to get at is that the way we’ve looked at and tried to understand addiction may be completely wrong and what he gets at, at the end is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but it’s connection. It’s our inability to have connection that lead us down the path of addiction. I wanted to get your thoughts on that idea.
Noah Levine: It’s not a new concept that much of addiction is an attachment disorder and that addicts become pretty isolated even if they’re in a drug community, it’s still a fairly self-centered experience of being an addict and a lack of connection. I feel like this is addressed very well so I don’t know what his argument is against because I feel like it’s addressed very well in the 12 steps and also in Refuge Recovery that a huge part of the healing from addiction is the community, is being connected to fellowship, to Sanga, the accountability that I feel like that is pretty well understood, that part of the recovery is connection.
Noah Rasheta: I think that’s the argument he’s making that with that strong connection, you’re less likely to have problems with addiction.
Noah Levine: How to become an addict in the first place.
Noah Rasheta: Right.
Noah Levine: Of course, that’s true but that also feels self-evident of why … I mean, and this is part of the inventory process and refuge which is everyone has craving. Not everyone becomes addicts. There’s a 31 question inventory process in Refuge Recovery that says, “Let’s try to identify what sets us apart from normal craving and pushed us over into addictive behavior and addictive craving. That attachment stuff, the lack of connection obviously, yes, that’s for a lot of us, we felt isolated, we felt alone, we had low self-esteem, we felt separate, different from, so we started listening to punk rock and shooting heroin. Then we felt like we were part of something, and connected to something.
I’d have to watch it but I think it makes sense. Of course, it’s disconnection that’s part of the cause of addiction and it’s reconnection, that’s a huge part of recovery.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I thought that one was interesting to bring up because the idea of connection and relationship to non-attachment from the Buddhist perspective we’re saying, but that’s also the problem, that way that we connect to our emotions or to our feelings that that’s the problem.
Noah Levine: I think that the difference, the way that I think about it is that, this is connection to my hands and whether that’s with another person connected or that’s being connected with yourself, with your feelings, with your part in mind, where you’re present and you’re embracing and you’re touching, but you also understand that it’s impermanent. There’s no grip on it. You’re connected to it. This is attachment.
This is when we’re clinging and you’re like you’re not letting this be impermanent. You’re clinging to it. It becomes co-dependency and it becomes sex addiction or however it manifests. Then sometimes, people hear the mindfulness of Buddhist stuff and they say, “Detachment. Let me just avoid that shit because that shit hurts.” Mindfulness is not about detachment, it’s about connected, non-attached connection to impermanent process. I think that is very key that it’s not attachment, it’s connection that we’re looking for and not clinging
Noah Rasheta: I love that. I think visualizing that with the hands, that makes so much sense. It’s not this and it’s not this.
Noah Levine: That’s right. For the people who are not going to see this, but are going to listen to the podcast, it’s not going to make as much sense.
Noah Rasheta: True. They won’t know what we’re doing with our hands. The next question, this is from Lucas in Canada. He says, “I like to ask about cannabis. I would like to know if Noah thinks it’s possible to consume in a responsible manner while following the path. Cannabis has been a part of my life for a long time now that I’m older, I’ve learned to consume without excess and I understand the relationship I have with the drug. I reflect it on the non attachment aspect of the practice and I know my habit doesn’t own me. I don’t define my happiness by it nor do I need it to be happy.”
“Most Buddhist I’ve talked to about this don’t agree with me, they see it as attachment and always conclude that it’s bad for my practice. I understand where they come from and I’m a bit conflicted on it so having the opinion of someone like Noah who knows a lot about addiction and follows the path would be very helpful.” What would you say to Lucas?
Noah Levine: I would say several different things. Partially, to Lucas, it depends on the level of motivation and attainment that you’re looking for in your Buddhist path. If you’re somewhat interested in … If you’re just using meditation as something to suffer a little bit less, and have a little bit less stress, and know yourself a little bit better, then I think that there’s probably a place to define a balanced relationship to intoxicants.
Also, Lucas, a lot of those people who are saying like, “Oh, no. Cannabis, there’s no place for it,” the Buddha would put pot and alcohol absolutely on the same category. Whether it’s a glass of wine or a bong hit, the Buddha would have the same attitude about any kind of recreational drug use whether it’s pot, or booze, or whatever it is.
Noah Rasheta: Just to clarify which is what view?
Noah Levine: Which is abstinence. In the precepts, in the early Buddhist teachings, the Buddha said, “If you want to come to awakening, you’re going to have to try to be mindful all of the time. Don’t put anything into your system that makes being mindful more difficult. Marijuana makes being mindful more difficult. Alcohol makes being mindful more difficult, and if you have too much weed or alcohol or even too much sugar or caffeine, if you overdo it, you’re going to become heedless to the point where you can’t pay attention at all.
In moderation maybe there’s a little bit of mindfulness but it’s a distorted mindfulness. The alcohol distorts your view, the marijuana distorts your view even if it makes … Sometimes when you’re high, you feel like, “Wait. No, I’m more present, not less.” Sometimes it feels like it’s increasing but still it’s distorting it, it’s not [unadulterated 00:46:44]. I want to say all of that. The traditional view of course is abstinence. That having been said, you mentioned Allan Watts earlier. I could name 20 well, accomplished, Buddhist who’ve written books, who smoke weed, who drink alcohol, who do not follow the fifth precept of the Buddha.
For 40 years, 50 years have been meditating and have clearly decreased the amount of suffering in their life and have dedicated their life to helping others. Then in some traditions, like in the Tibetan traditions or the Japanese traditions, they don’t even practice the fifth precept as abstinence. They say moderations is okay. I’m very clear that the Buddhist said abstinence but people have now changed that, reinterpreted that to say, moderation.
Lucas, there is a place, if you’re not an addict, if you’re really honest with yourself and it’s not addiction and it’s a recreational use of pleasure inducing substance whether that’s alcohol, or pot, or whatever it is, and you still are very serious about getting on the cushion and going on retreat, you will absolutely still make some progress. My sense is that if you get really serious about it, you might want to consider letting it go and saying, “I don’t need that. I’m just going to be in the place of trying to just deal with life, and see life, and enjoy life free from any kind of recreational use, but that’s a personal choice.
I had another friend, who came to me, he asked this question long time ago, 12, maybe 15 years ago and I said, “Just do this. You’re serious about meditation. Make your relationship to marijuana your meditation. Be really mindful when you’re crumbling up the buds and you’re rolling the joint or whatever you’re doing, bring mindfulness to it, and then when you smoke, really meditate with that experience. Watch how your mind changes, watch how your attitude changes. See what happens at the whole thing as a meditation practice.
He did that and he said after doing that for a month or so, he said, “I didn’t want to smoke pot anymore. I didn’t enjoy it when I mindful of it.” He said, “I didn’t want to do it anymore.” Then he stopped smoking pot and he hasn’t smoked pot in 15 years because when he really brought mindfulness to it, he saw, “Oh, no. I don’t like actually what this is doing to my mind. I want to stay awake.”
Noah Rasheta: I have a friend who likes to say, “The only thing I like to be high on is mindfulness.” We’ve got this question from Debbie in Texas. She says, “I would like to know how family members and friends can apply the teachings of the dharma to cope with another person’s addiction. Also, I’ve studied Buddhism and I recently become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.” I see a lot of similarities in the two except of the strong reliance on the higher power for recovery which we already addressed. She said, “I’d love to hear Noah’s thought on this.”
Noah Levine: The way that Buddhism … It sounds like you already … The question already has some familiarity with it, but in Refuge, everyone comes together. We’re all looking at our craving, our clinging, our aversion. We’re all looking at the relational, the eightfold path, how am I communicating, how am I showing up in my actions, what are my intentions, my understanding, how much mindfulness, concentration. We’re looking at the eightfold path as the treatment for addiction, as the treatment for relating to our loved once who are addicts, as the path for all of life.
This is what the Buddha said for everyone, “Be mindful, learn to concentrate, put the effort into being careful with what we say and what we do, how we relate to money, and sexuality, and intoxicants, and to take that full responsibility for … One of the core things that I think has been most helpful for me and relationships to my loved ones who struggle with addiction is the equanimity practice and so maybe that’s where I’ll land this question which is love and kindness is the practice of saying, “May you be at ease, may you be happy, may you be free.”
Compassion is saying, “I care about your pain, I care about your suffering.” Appreciation is saying, I appreciate your happiness, your joy, I wish you well, I celebrate your happiness. Equanimity is saying, “Even though, I care about you, and I love you, and I appreciate you, I know you have your own karma.” Your happiness or your unhappiness depends on your actions, not how much I love you. Equanimity is that bigger step back practice and understands that I can’t control you no matter how much I love you. I can’t control your action, your karma, only you can do that for yourself.
I feel like in family, in relationship to our loved ones, that’s really the key, can I have compassion and equanimity? Can I have love and kindness, forgiveness and a poor sense of being at ease even when they are in the midst of addictive suffering?
Noah Rasheta: I like that. Thank you. Then this is a question from Glen in Australia. He says, “I’m living in Melbourne. I recently moved from New Zealand. I’ve been attending a 12-step meeting for 12 years. I have found the only Refuge Recovery meeting in Australia is here in Melbourne. I would like to start another meeting up here, but I’ve never done a guided meditation where I am the guide. Would it be okay to use an audio of someone else doing the guided meditation for example a recorded meditation of Noah Levine or Dave Smith?”
Noah Levine: My sense is that of course people are free to be creative and they could do that and I don’t think there’s any … There’s no rules against it. My sense is that one of the ways that it works with the format of having it peer-led. Glen if you start a meeting, you don’t have to lead the meditation, you just hand the script for the meditation instruction to someone else in the meeting. It’s actually better if the meetings don’t start to be like one person is leading the meditation all of the time because they take on an authority role that they’re not really supposed to have.
This is peer-led like everyone should be taking turns leading the meditation by reading the script and in that way, you’re actually part of and your co-guiding each other. It’s really hope that Refuge maintains that peer-led energy and that we guide each other. I also like this not only for the connection that it brings to the group but I also like it’s breaking the hierarchy of Buddhism where we’ve have these thousands of years of its patriarchal, hierarchal, only the meditation master is allowed to give the instructions and it’s just more religious hierarchy.
I personally don’t like it so much. I like the fact that we’re doing this very radical that I don’t think it’s ever been done in history which is saying that Buddhism peer-led rather than Buddhism with … It used to be the meditation master, now it’s like, “Are you certified in mindfulness, man?” It became this whole industry rather than here’s the teachings, apply them, apply them.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. I like that. Just to start wrapping things up, what message do you have for someone who’s maybe listening to this or watching this and they’re struggling with addiction, any kind of addiction whether it be pornography or with a substance. Where do they go? What’s their first step for this entire process towards recovery?
Noah Levine: Maybe the first step is admitting it. Admitting it, acknowledging it, accepting it, telling some people so much of addiction is the secrecy is the same as the isolation so becoming transparent, telling the therapist, telling the wife, the husband, the friends, the partner, get in, get out so that we can say that this is real. First truth of accepting the suffering that that addiction is spreading in our lives.
Then maybe the second thing is like can I find a meeting? Am I ready to go to treatment? Do I want to go to a detox or a residential treatment center? Am I ready to just go to meetings and get some peer support for it? Gathering some support and telling the truth, and taking the responsibility, and the intention to establish abstinence. I’m saying like, “Okay. I’m going to admit this and I’m going to stop.” Maybe relapse will be part of it. It often is, but I’m going to try to stop. I’m going to turn towards it rather than letting it keep pushing me downstream.
Noah Rasheta: Where do they go to learn more about Refuge Recovery?
Noah Levine: For the treatment center, it’s refugerecoverytreatmentcenters.com or just refugerecovery.com. For the meetings, it’s refugerecovery.org and that will take you to the meeting listings and there’s meetings all over. If there’s not a meeting in your area, start one, get the book, the book is available. Read the book, there’s a meeting format in the book, on the website, everything you need. Start a meeting. Invite your friends and may the revolution be with us.
Noah Rasheta: The book looks like this. It’s also available in audio format on audible.com. I would recommend that’s a great place to start to become familiar with how mindfulness can help you in this process, this addiction recovery process. I do want to emphasize to anyone listening who doesn’t have, isn’t struggling with addiction, to recognize to some degree we all have a core addiction, the addiction to craving the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant which is the overall Buddhist view of what it is to understand the nature of reality and this can end up being the cause of a lot of our suffering for ourselves and others.
Anyone who’s listening or watching who just wants to understand mindfulness a little better, replace the idea of addiction with just the idea of suffering. If you’re experiencing suffering, this book is also instrumental and helpful to understand how do we break out of that cycle learning to become more aware of the relationship that we have with our life circumstances, with our thoughts, with our feelings or emotions and becoming more comfortable with the discomfort
Noah Levine: Probably my other books, for people who aren’t addicts that are just interested in mindfulness and Buddhism, Against the Stream or heart of the revolution are probably more appropriate for the people that are just looking at, “How do I apply this to my life?” Those books will also have the guided meditations and a more overall Buddhist perspective, not the specific addiction like Refuge has.
Noah Rasheta: Perfect. I wasn’t familiar with the other one. Against the Stream is one of them.
Noah Levine: Against the Stream and Heart of the Revolution.
Noah Rasheta: Heart of the Revolution.
Noah Levine: Against the Stream is an overview of the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness and the eightfold path. Heart of the Revolution is a deeper look into love and kindness, and compassion, and forgiveness. Brahma-viharas, the heart practices of the Buddha. Then my first book Dharma Punks is my memoir of how I was an addict and came to Buddhism and eventually became a teacher. That’s also an interesting book. I feel like Dharma Punks is a good book to give your friend who maybe is struggling with addiction but isn’t ready to admit it because then they can read it and they’d be like, “Oh wait. I’m just like this guy. He recovered and maybe I can recover too.”
Noah Rasheta: I enjoyed reading all of the stories of the various people and their specific journey in and out of addiction. I want to just wrap this up with echo in something that you emphasized and that I think in a lot of what you do maybe in everything that you do which is the idea that these teachings, the teachings of the Buddha are revolutionary in the sense that it’s a revolutionary act to go against the way that we currently exist, the way that we currently … What’s the word? We fuse with our thoughts and our emotions, and our labels and it’s a revolutionary act to become mindful of the nature of our own mind, the nature of reality and the benefits are incredible. Anybody who practices mindfulness will know that especially anyone who’s dealing with any kind of addiction. It could also have this radical change in their life because of these ideas and these concepts.
Noah, I want to thank you for coming on the show and for spending time sharing your insight and your wisdom about addiction and recovery. Hopefully anyone listening who would like to learn more, they can visit your website, refugerecovery.org. Check out one of your books and get on the path to liberation, liberation from that habitual reactivity that is causing you so much suffering for yourself and for others. Do you have any final thought or anything before we go, Noah?
Noah Levine: Maybe the only plug, I mean we talked about Refuge. Againstthestream.org will give information about my meditation retreats classes. We have centers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Nashville, there’s groups all over the country, Seattle so people that are interested not for recovery stuff but just to do a meditation retreat. I have a seven-day retreat in October and Joshua Tree, such a great thing to just say, I’m going to take a week. I’m going to do a long retreat and that information will be at againstthestream.org.
Noah Rasheta: Awesome. Really quick, I also want to plug your podcast because a lot of people that listen to my podcast ask about what other podcast are out there to listen to? A lot of people who listen to mine recommend yours and they say, “I love the approach of Against the Stream and the way that they present a lot of psychology with Buddhist philosophy. Does that have its own website, your podcast?
Noah Levine: The podcast is in iTunes. Against the Stream on iTunes is where the podcast lives.
Noah Rasheta: Just search Against the Stream in iTunes and I assume any other podcast, software you’ll find that, and that’s another great podcast. Once again, Noah, thank you very much. I’m going to turn off the live portion of this now, so thank you everyone for listening. You guys have a great day.
If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com, and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting Uganda with 16 podcast listeners to do humanitarian work and also to spend time practicing mindfulness. A lot of people have asked me questions about this trip and want to know details about the upcoming trip (we’re going again) in February 2018. If you’re interested in learning more about the trip, this podcast episode will answer any questions you might have. Enjoy!
I’m often asked whether or not Buddhism and Christianity are compatible. Can you be a Christian and a Buddhist? In this podcast episode, I will address some of the main differences between these two spiritual paths and I will highlight some of the key differences in the Buddhist path that allow it to be so compatible with other traditions.
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 47. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Buddhism and Christianity. In this podcast episode, I want to talk a bit about Buddhism and Christianity with regards to similarities and differences. When I teach workshops about Buddhism, it’s almost inevitable that someone will come up to me after and ask me about what the major differences or similarities are between these two traditions.
This is a question that really can’t be answered accurately in that setting or in that moment because there are a lot of things to address. So I’ve decided to address this question in this specific podcast episode. I hope this will to clarify a few things. This is a topic I’m excited to address because I, myself, live in a community that’s very Christian, and with a family dynamic where we have a mixed-faith marriage and a mix-faith family. So this is a dynamic that I think is important to understand, for anyone interested in following the Buddhist path, or the contemplative path, to understand how that works, in comparison with Christianity.
Before I jump into that I do want to clarify three important things, three notes or clarifications about this topic. The first one is, this not a presentation about which tradition is right, or which one is better, because remember the quote I share all the time by the Dalai Lama, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is especially relevant in this podcast episode. We’re talking about paths, and in what ways are these paths similar or perhaps different, but we’re not saying which path is right, which one is better, which one will get you there faster. It doesn’t work that way and I’ll explain that as I address these things.
The second note is regarding apples and pears. In many ways, this topic is like a comparison of apples and pears. They’re both fruit, but they’re not the same thing. And to further complicate it, there’s not one single app. There’s not one single pear. For apples, you have Gala apples and Fiji, and Honeycrisp, and some are red, some are green. You’ve got Granny Smith apples, etc. it’s the same with pears. You’ve got the Anjou pear, the Bartlett pear, the Concorde pear, different kinds of pears.
And likewise, there’s not one Christianity, and there’s not one Buddhism. So I’m not too concerned with trying to address any specific doctrinal differences, or similarities, because you’re already gonna have that just in between the various forms of the same overarching topic. So just within Christianity, just like you have the Gala apple, the Fiji apple, the Honeycrisp apple, you’re gonna have these differences of Mormonism versus Catholicism, versus Protestant. You’re gonna have that already, and this happens on the Buddhism side as well, with the various forms or schools of Buddhism.
In a general, overall sense, I will address some of the differences that I think makes sense to be discussed. The third note here, that I’m not an authority on Buddhism or on Christianity. I certainly have a background with both, my background with Christianity as Mormonism, and Catholicism. I attended middle school and high school private Catholic schools where religion classes were mandatory. I attended Mass often, as it was required. Half of my family, one side of the family is Catholic. And the other side is a mix of a lot of things. But my family converted to Mormonism when I was young. I was about three years old.
I grew up attending the LDS church and attended what we call seminary, which is a four-year religious program. And then served a full-time two-year religious mission in Ecuador, preaching and sharing the Mormon message. After that, I attended weekly institute of religion courses in college for another three years, until I got married. On the Buddhist side, I started studying Buddhism on my own about seven years ago. One of the first encounters I had with Buddhism was [inaudible 00:04:49] series by Jay Garfield, called the Meaning of Life: Perspective From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions.
It offered a wide exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions, from both East and West, have contributed to that big question of, what is the meaning of life. The Buddhism answer to that question was turned around and said, “Well who wants to know?” And that really fascinated me. That was one of my first experiences with Buddhism. The answer wasn’t about the answer, it was about looking at the question. At that point, I was hooked, and started learning more about the specific tradition on my own. I devoured dozens of books in order to understand everything I could about Buddhism philosophy.
Eventually decided to take my studies a step further. I enrolled in a two-year Buddhist ministry program. Graduated from that earlier this year. With that, I feel I have a suitable understanding of the topic, and yet I do want to be very clear that I do not officially represent any specific tradition. My experience with these topics comes from years of practicing on both of these paths, while I feel that my understanding is experiential in nature, these are simply my opinions, and they may differ from what others will say about this topic.
I’m gonna focus mostly on explaining the Buddhism perspective, as that is the tradition that I currently teach and practice. Having said that, let’s just into this topic. You can say that an apple and a pear, while being very different, they’re still both the same thing, they’re a fruit. That’s about the similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that I see, is that they’re both a spiritual path. But as far as types of paths, as far as spiritual paths go, there are some differences.
The first one is thinking about this in terms of questions and answers. This is what I alluded to a second ago with my original encounter with Buddhism. One path focuses more on the answers. I think many spiritual paths focus more on the answers, while Buddhism is a path that focuses on the question. So that makes it so that these are not paths that are fundamentally opposed. When you have two paths that are focused on answers, then you have conflict, if the answers aren’t the same. If this path says, “The meaning of life is A,” and the other path says, “The meaning of life is B,” those are two answers. So the answers may be conflicting. And if they are, then you have to address that.
Buddhism doesn’t necessarily conflict with Christianity on this point, because Buddhism doesn’t have an answer for a lot of the existential questions. They’re irrelevant. So in my opinion, both traditions can work hand-in-hand when it comes to this, because of that very reason that one focuses more on the question, and the other one focuses more on the answer. Applying that in my own experience, in my own life, it hasn’t necessarily been a big issue with interacting with family members, in my immediate family, or members of the community, with regards to these two traditions, because my approach doesn’t necessarily threaten their answer. If they have an answer, I don’t have an answer that conflicts or counters it, that says, “Wait. No. This is the right answer.”
The Buddhist approach allows me to just be introspective and say with the question, “Is there a God?”
“Who wants to know?” That’s the part I’m concerned with. Who wants to know, and why do I even feel the need to know the answer to that question? That’s where I’ll stay. That’s where Buddhism typically hovers on that side of the question, and it doesn’t get to the other side where the answer is, where you’re gonna have conflict if the answers are different. Again, that’s in my experience. That leads us to the second way that these paths are kind of different, is the type of path.
A path, typically, the point of a path is to get from point A to point B, that’s why you’re on the path. Spiritual traditions are similar, typical spiritual journey is about getting from point A to point B. A, maybe you’re in the world and you’re trying to get to heaven, that’s point B. Arriving at heaven or paradise, or some place similar. You could say that the goal is to arrive at a specific place, and that’s why the path is there, the path is the tradition.
From the Buddhist perspective it’s also about getting from point A to point B. We refer to point A being a place of suffering, and point B, being a place where there is no suffering. We would say Samsara and Nirvana. Nirvana is that place where you want to go, where you no longer experience suffering.
However, these are not physical places, these are mental states. They exist in the here and now, therefore it makes it so that the path itself is the goal. Because if these are mental states, we realize that if we’re at point A, and we want to be at point B, what we have is this situation where we want life to be other than it is. I’m here, and I don’t want to be here, I want to be there, some experience suffering.
What we practice in Buddhism is this form of acceptance. You could say, radical acceptance, Tara Brach calls this radical acceptance. What if I was okay with being where I am? This is where I am, and I’m okay with that. I no longer feel this need to arrive at point B. This is one of the great Buddhism paradoxes, is that paradox [inaudible 00:10:52] the very moment of acceptance, I no longer want life to be other than it is. I accept that this is how it is, this is where I am. In that moment, I arrive at the very place that I wanted to be that originally, but I get there because I no longer want to get there. That’s the paradox of Buddhism.
With that, these paths, they’re not conflicting, because if the point on the Christian path is to get from point A to point B, and the point of the path on the Buddhist path is to learn to find joy and contentment with wherever you are on the path, then there’s no conflict.
Again, because the approach is just different. Again, that’s in my opinion, that’s been my experience with understanding these two traditions. So another overall topic in which they differ is that one tends to be an internal process, and the other tends to be an external process.
For example, Christianity is a theistic tradition. There is an external source, a deity, that’s at the helm of everything. From the Buddhist perspective, it’s a non-theistic tradition, because it’s internal, the force that we’re contending with is internal. It’s our own mind. The essence of what Buddhism teaches is that, instead of running away from suffering and from discomfort, we can learn to face it. We can look deeply into the nature of our own suffering, and begin to recognize its cause.
Suffering arises, any time we want life to be other than it is. The scale and the intensity may vary according to the situation, for example, the loss of a loved one, versus being stuck at a red light when you’re late for work. Those are very different situations, but at its core, we have a resistance to accepting that moment the way that it is. That’s what causes us to suffer.
The overall feeling in any circumstance where we experience suffering is gonna be similar. We experience discomfort with the reality that we’re faced with, and we suffer because that reality does not conform to the desired or expected reality that we’ve projected in our minds. So a proper recognition of the causes of our suffering will allow us to understand that there is indeed a path that allows us to transform our suffering. This process is introspective in nature, like I mentioned.
I can learn to look inward at my own mind, my ideas, my beliefs, my opinions, my concepts, that I hold about reality. And I’ll discover that I am the key to it all. This is another big difference with the two traditions. It’s not the there’s an external source, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s an internal source. It’s my own mind. It can be my best friend, but it can also be my worst enemy.
You’ve probably heard that parable of the two wolves that we all have inside of us. One represents things like kindness and bravery, and love. The other one represents negative things like hatred, and greed. The Buddhist spoke about suffering in a similar way. The idea is that the things that we feed will grow, while the things that we don’t feed will die.
We have the tendency to look for happiness, peace, contentment, as if these were the things outside ourselves. We think once I have this, or once I finally get that, or if I get the raise at work, if I can convince my spouse to be more like me, to think like me, or if my family finally accepts me. Whatever it is, whatever external circumstance it is that we’re trying to change, we experience suffering because we’re wanting life to be other than it is.
What if we could practice acceptance? What if we could accept the moment just as it is? Accept ourselves just as we are, and start to do away with the duality of who I am, and who I think I should be, or flipping this towards others. Imagine extending that to someone else, allowing someone to just be who they are, rather than who I think they should be, who we think they should be.
I want to clarify that acceptance in this sense is not the same thing as resignation. This is not resigning to the fact that, “Oh life is this way, and oh well. I can’t do anything about it.” No, what we’re accepting is that this is what is, and I realize there’s a lot I can do with that. The moment I realize this is what it is, I can learn to work with reality, instead of against it.
I can minimize the suffering that I, and others, experience on this journey, because I’m working with the reality the way that it is. That’s one of the differences again, of the two traditions. One focuses on an external source of goodness, there’s good an evil, viewed as embodied in these symbols of God on one side, and the devil on the other. But these are external.
From the Buddhist perspective it’s all internal. It’s like the analogy of the wolves, right? They’re both inside of you. That’s another difference. In one of his final teachings the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” He taught that our greatest teacher, and a monk actually asked him. He said, “Buddha what if we meet you on the path?” And the Buddha replied, “Well don’t accept anyone you meet on the path towards liberation, even if you meet me.”
The essence of the spiritual journey from a Buddhist perspective is to realize that you are it. You are your greatest teacher. You are also your worst enemy. In fact in the Dhammapada, we read that whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, an Ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.”
This verse is saying that it’s our own mind that can do us worst harm for us than even an enemy, an external enemy. This is saying the internal enemy is far more dangerous than the external enemy. While one path may focus a bit more on the external approach, and the other one focuses on the internal approach, again I don’t see that as being an area where they necessarily conflict, because they’re just different approaches. It’s like apples and pears, or apples and oranges. They’re just entirely different approaches to the spiritual path.
I hope that you can find in yourselves, the ability to practice compassion and acceptance for who you are, for who others are, and for where you are, where others are on their individual paths. Rather than thinking, “Hey this path is working for me. You should also be on that path,” we should recognize that if the path is the goal, then there’s really no wrong place to be on that path. There’s no wrong path to be on either.
Wherever you go, there you are. You’re on the path. You can find that peace, joy, and contentment on your path, and I hope that we can learn to see the uniqueness of every step we take along the way, of whatever path it is that we’re on, whatever unique path.
Often times someone will say to me, “Well isn’t it fair to at least recognize that one path maybe better than the other, or more suitable to the other?” I would say, yes, the answer to that is yes, but it’s circumstantial. Think of a normal path, an actual path in the forest. There may be a paved path, and there may be a path that’s rocky and it’s pretty steep. Now, you could say, “Well is one path easier to walk than the other?” Maybe, yeah. Is one path easier to roller blade than the other? Sure.
I may be on the path that’s rocky and steep, and find that it’s working better for me because it’s gonna get me to my desired destination faster, but I’m wearing hiking boots, and I’ve got a pole, and I’ve got a backpack, and I’m ready for this off road trail. And you’re standing there next to me in flip-flops and you’re saying, “Hey is that the right path for me?” It may be a matter of saying, “No, with how you are right now, this is not the right path for you. Stay on that path. Stay on the pavement.”
I think it becomes really healthy for us when we start to look at these traditions, these paths within these traditions, and recognize that, that I’m on the path that seems to be working for me. How do I know that? I think it’s pretty easy. If you are on a path that brings you joy, and contentment, and peace, then you’re on a good path. There’s no need to change it.
Now, the moment you realize you’re not experiencing these things, you’re experiencing anguish, or discomfort, or it’s just not working for you, then why not just pause and say, “Well maybe this isn’t the right path for me. Maybe I should be on, maybe I should try another path, see if this is easier, better for me.”
That’s how I like to view that. These traditions can support each other, they can influence each other. It’s sad to me when I encounter people from either one of the traditions saying, “You can’t make these work together. They’re fundamentally opposed.” I get where that’s coming from, because on some levels it does seem like there are views that are incompatible with each other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when you understand that you can’t compare them side-by-side in that way.
In the same way that, again, using the fruit analogy, it’s not really fair to compare an apple and an orange, it’s just not, because they’re not the same thing. That’s what we face with this, in my opinion. Now I mentioned before, many of us live in communities where we don’t necessarily share the same beliefs. I am in a mixed faith family, a mixed faith marriage. I know what it’s like firsthand, to be walking a path, while simultaneously making it work with someone else who’s walking on another path.
I know that it can work, because it’s working for us. I see it working for a lot of people who are on different paths. An important part of it is recognizing that all paths are valid. Now, i get that I can be on a path, someone else might be on another path, and that path does not validate my path. I get that. But it shouldn’t bother me to know that they don’t think I’m on the right path.
It’s like, “Okay, well then you don’t think I’m on the right path.” Why would that disrupt the peace and contentment and joy that I have on my own path? If I truly view my path as unique, and everyone’s path is unique, then it shouldn’t bother me that someone else is gonna look and say, “Hey you’re on the wrong path.” Because of course, they’re gonna think that. If they’re on a path that indicates that there’s only one path, then of course they’re going to think you’re on the wrong path. But why should that be problematic? Why should it be problematic for you, whatever path you’re on?
Now it may be problematic for them because by the very fact of thinking that they’re on the right on and you’re on the wrong one, they’re the ones experiencing suffering, because they think, “Oh no. This person I care for is on the wrong path.” But that’s them. You are on your path, and you can find that contentment and joy with knowing that this is the path that’s working for you, even if others don’t approve it, or understand, or validate it.
That’s a whole different topic I think, that I don’t really want to go into in this specific podcast episode, but it’s something worth looking at if you’re experiencing that thinking, “Why do I feel that I can’t be validated on my path, until someone else validates me?” That’s something worth looking at, because what you’ll find within introspection, again, this is looking at the question. It’s not about the answer, it’s looking at the question. Why do I need you to validate me, for me to feel comfortable on my path?
Look at that. Explore that in yourself, and you may find that that also becomes irrelevant. So again, these traditions can support each other. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone who’s on one path, who uses elements of another path to benefit them on whatever path they’re on. Looking for the good that other paths have, using the ideas and concepts that others have, as tools to help us alleviate the suffering in ourselves and others on our own path, I think is a noble thing. That’s something that we can do when we start to view our own path as our own path.
It’s one thing to think I’m on the right path, but it’s another one to think that mine is the only right path. See, it can be right for me, and wrong for you. That’s very different than thinking if it’s right for me, then it must be also right for you. I think that can be very powerful to have that view of paths.
That’s all I have for this topic. I know that there’s so much that can be covered here. We could go into specific differences in doctrinal views of reality and the world, but I don’t think that that’s necessary. You can study all that on your own, read books about whatever path that you’re on, study it. Learn it. Be familiar with it. But you would invite you to explore it at a level where you ask yourself, “Is this path working for me?” Because if it is, don’t disrupt it. Just stay on that path.
That’s all I have, so if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, then please visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
In this podcast episode, I had the privilege of interviewing New York Times bestselling author Robert Wright about his newest book “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment”. Wright leads readers on a journey through psychology, philosophy, and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation for a spiritual life in a secular age. This podcast features the audio of the interview I had with Robert Wright.
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Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Noah Rasheta: Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 46. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and in this episode I’m excited to share the audio of an interview I had with New York Times bestselling author Robert Wright about his newest book “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” [00:00:30] Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with and to interview Robert Wright. He’s The New York Times bestselling author of “The Evolution of God,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Nonzero: The Moral Animal, and Three Scientists and Their Gods,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton, where he also created the popular online course Buddhism and Modern Psychology. [00:01:00] In 2009, Foreign Policy named him one of its top 100 global thinkers alongside Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Anne-Marie Slaughter. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time, Slate and The New Republic. This interview with Robert was the first interview I’ve done for the podcast and I’m honored to have started out this new format of interviews with someone like him.
[00:01:30] I plan on doing roughly one interview episode per month while I continue to maintain the original format of the podcast, as well as adding the occasional question and answer format like last week’s episode. I want to quickly share the description of his book from the Amazon listing before I go right into the audio of the interview itself. It says, “From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy and lots of meditation to [00:02:00] show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.” Robert Wright famously explained in “The Moral Animal” how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world, and it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.
If we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, [00:02:30] which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only now discovering. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly and proposes that seeing the world more clearly through meditation will make us better, happier people. In “Why Buddhism is True,” Wright leads readers on a journey through psychology, philosophy and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation [00:03:00] for a spiritual life in a secular age.
At once excitingly ambitious and wittily accessible, this is the first book to combine evolutionary psychology with cutting edge neuroscience to defend the radical claims at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. With bracing honesty and fierce wisdom, it will persuade you not just that Buddhism is true, which is to say a way out of our delusion, but that it can ultimately save us from ourselves, [00:03:30] as individuals and as a species. I really enjoyed this new book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Here’s the audio of the interview. Great. Well, first of all, I do want to mention how excited I was to get to interview you after reading your book because I had mentioned before I had heard about your course and I had heard of some of your other books.
I hadn’t read any of them yet and I’m always looking for [00:04:00] a book that works as a foundational piece for people who are trying to learn a secular form of Buddhism, since that’s really the area I’m most interested in. When I read your book I thought, “Oh, this is it. This is the book that I think would do a really good job of helping people to have a foundational understanding of some of these concepts in a way that speaks to the audience that listens to this podcast, secular-minded people.” I was really excited [00:04:30] about that first.
Robert Wright: That’s great to hear especially coming from you because you really know the territory and I did try to make the book accessible to people who don’t have a specialized knowledge in the area.
Noah Rasheta: Great. Yeah, I think you did a great job with that. I’m curious about a few things. First of all, just a little bit of your history, how you got into your field, how you got into writing in general and why this field?
Robert Wright: [00:05:00] Well, as for writing, I just … Somebody put in my mind that I might try being a writer. I think my mother was the first person to suggest journalism actually. My first real journalism job was at a small newspaper. I then came to do more and more magaziney stuff and a certain amount of kind of academic stuff or kind of quasi-academic publications. For a while I [00:05:30] took academic writing and edited it heavily, heavily to make it accessible to a lay audience at a magazine called The Sciences which no longer exists. I got a lot of practice at trying to communicate with a lay audience, trying to communicate expert knowledge to a lay audience. I don’t know. I doubt you want to turn this into the story of Bob, but I’ll say I worked at a number of magazines.
Started writing books. [00:06:00] My first book was 1988. I hadn’t been very prolific on the book front because this one is just my fifth and it’s been a long time since 1988. I’ve usually had a job as well in the writing field or occasionally actually teaching at the college level.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Then what interested you in Buddhism, at least approaching this book?
Robert Wright: Well, in college [00:06:30] you were supposed to kind of be conversed in any certain philosophy that was kind of cool. You would hear about Buddhism. I had been brought up as a Christian, but was no longer a Christian. I’m sure was in substance looking for something like a spiritual practice or grounding, but my attempts to meditate never really amounted to much. I’m not a natural meditator. I have a very poor [00:07:00] attention span and I think various other parts of my make me not well suited to the practice. What it took was a week long meditation retreat in 2003 at the Insight Meditation Society to convince me that I could do this. That actually did more than that.
I had some pretty powerful experiences there and just ended the retreat in such a proximity to bliss that I thought there’s definitely something here.
Noah Rasheta: [00:07:30] There’s something to this, huh?
Robert Wright: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’ve been entirely consistent in my practice since then, but since about 2009 that was my second retreat. Now I’ve gone on a number since then. Close to one a year since 2009 and my daily practice has been pretty steady.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Yeah, you talked about that in this book little bit, the experience with the [00:08:00] retreat. The ones that you do once a year more or less are they all similar? Do you keep going to the same place?
Robert Wright: I have tended to go to IMS. This last spring for the first time I went to a different place. I went to The Garrison Institute in New York and did a retreat in the Shambhala tradition. It was an official Shambhala center retreat, but it was with teachers who had studied under Rinpoche who started the Shambhala movement I gather. [00:08:30] That was a really interesting exposure. I mean I had never meditated with my eyes open, which they do. It had some elements of vipassana meditation and kind of meaning mindfulness more or less. It was pretty different from what I was used to. It was just very interesting.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Okay. When did you create your course [00:09:00] The Buddhism and Modern Psychology? How long has that been out?
Robert Wright: I guess it’s been out now about three years. It was based on a seminar I taught at Princeton a couple of times. It was actually called Science and Buddhism, but it was basically psychology and Buddhism with particular emphasis on evolutionary psychology. Turning a seminar into an online course was kind of challenging because [00:09:30] I didn’t have a prepared set of lectures. I’d never taught it was a lecture course so it really took some work, but the people at Princeton were great in just helping me, providing me with all the resources, video, professional videography. That was a lot of work, but very rewarding because I still …
Even though I’m not personally on a very regular basis engaged in it, it’s now just kind of a course that’s out there online for [00:10:00] people to take. I still get feedback from people who are taking it and that’s always very gratifying assuming it’s good feedback, which it usually it. I guess the people who have bad feedback are polite enough to share it with me.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. Well, I’ve heard a lot of good feedback about it from circles that I run in and people who have taken your course had a lot of good things to say. I’m going to have to check out that course as well for myself.
Robert Wright: It’s short. It’s only really six lectures and most are no more than an hour.
Noah Rasheta: [00:10:30] Cool.
Robert Wright: It’s on the Coursera platform.
Noah Rasheta: Okay. Anyone interested in that, you guys have to check out Buddhism and Modern Psychology on Coursera. What I am interested in talking about today specifically is Robert’s new book, “Why Buddhism is True.” This is a book that I have the opportunity to read over the last couple of weeks and I’m really excited about this book. I was telling Robert [00:11:00] a little earlier that a lot of the people who listen to my podcast are people who are disaffected from religion. They’re secular minded. Not really interested in any kind of an ism. Yet, there’s an interest in learning about the psychology and the philosophy of a lot of these Buddhist concepts like meditation. They know that there’s something to it.
This book fits in really [00:11:30] well for that audience, someone who just wants to understand the science and the philosophy of meditation, of enlightenment. That’s the tag line that’s on this book. I’m curious about the title, “Why Buddhism is True.” How did that come about?
Robert Wright: Well, I’m a little abashed about the title. The good news is it will get people’s attention. The bad news is some people will hate it. [00:12:00] It just popped into my head after writing the book. I didn’t set about to write a book with that as the title, but I realized that I had tried in the course of the book to mount a defense of the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy. I was arguing that it basically makes sense. Of course, there’s lots of different Buddhist traditions. In terms of the kinds of skepticism you could have about the title, [00:12:30] you could say, “Well, wait. There is no one Buddhism,” which is kind of true. There’s certainly a lot of different traditions and they differ in significant ways.
At the same time, there are some concepts that are pretty common to the major traditions like the idea that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people suffer is because we don’t see the world clearly and that this lack of clarity can in some ways [00:13:00] be divided into two parts. We don’t see ourselves clearly. We have major misconceptions about what’s inside our head. Then we have major misconceptions about what’s out there. You might say that those track roughly under the concepts of not self, the Buddhist concept of not-self and the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Respectively it’s a little … In some ways more complicated than that because sometimes the concept of emptiness is taken to encompass the concept [00:13:30] of not-self.
In general, the concept of emptiness gets more emphasis in the Mahayana tradition, but I find that it’s kind of there … If you talk to Theravada meditators of kind of tremendous accomplishment and adeptness, they have the apprehension of emptiness just the way someone meditating in the Mahayana tradition might. Anyway, I mean I can understand. I’m prepared to accept a certain amount [00:14:00] of blow back about the title. I try to make clear both upfront and a little note to the readers what I do and don’t mean by it and in an appendix to the book and elaborating what I hope I’ve accomplished in the book. It’s a title I’m willing to standby.
Noah Rasheta: Well, I like the title. It peaked my interest when I first saw the book and saw the title because I feel [00:14:30] like the old me coming from a more fundamental Christian view would be like, “Why Buddhism is True,” would immediately sent off flags saying, “Everything else must be false.” Having studied Buddhism now for so many years, approaching the title from the Buddhist perspective, it didn’t bother me at all because in fact, I was like, “Why Buddhism is True,” I thought, “Oh, I wonder what he means by true.” That was it. Then as I [00:15:00] read the book, it was very clear to me that the intent was more along the lines of why Buddhism works, why meditation works, why these concepts ring true to people.
I think the title’s great because it does get that discussion going of what is truth at least from the Buddhist perspective. It’s not necessarily the same as from other traditions.
Robert Wright: Well, I’m glad you approve. Along those lines, I actually added … I think you were originally sent the gallies and now the actual [00:15:30] physical final book exist and there’s something I added in that note to readers in between those two and it’s that quote by the Dalai Lama, “You don’t have to use Buddhism to become Buddhists. You can use it to become a better whatever you are,” to emphasize that this is not incompatible by and large or it’s certainly not inherently incompatible with other spiritual or philosophical traditions. It can supplement whatever you’re governing philosophy or spirituality is.
Noah Rasheta: That’s awesome. I’m happy to hear that because I don’t know if you knew [00:16:00] this, but that’s the tag line I use in every podcast episode.
Robert Wright: I have heard it. Yes. I have heard it from you. Yes.
Noah Rasheta: I think it’s a powerful sentiment. I’m glad that that’s expressed in the book because it is true that this stuff makes you a better whatever you already are. That’s definitely the vibe I got reading your book. It’s almost like a manual explaining some of these concepts where I don’t see how it would be off putting to anyone from any other [00:16:30] faith tradition. If you’re listening to this podcast or watching this video and that is a factor where you feel like, “Well, wait a second. I’ve got this other truth,” this doesn’t conflict with that in any way. There’s a concept in your book that I wanted to talk about a little bit. The way you talk about no-self or not-self and the research that you highlight [00:17:00] in your book about the mental modules really resonated with me.
I find in the workshops that I teach the concept of no-self or not-self, teaching that concept can be difficult because we run up against this idea of there’s a self or there’s a no-self. Those are the two options, right? The way it was presented in your book with the mental modules expanded this view for me to realize well, what we’re saying with this teaching and you highlight in this book [00:17:30] is there’s a lot of yous. There’s the you that’s you when you’re hungry. There’s the you that’s you when you’re mad. It’s like just like saying, “Well, which you are you? Because you’re not any of those permanently,” and I really like that. I wanted to talk about that a little bit.
How was it for you first learning about this concept of not-self or no-self and then walk me through that transition into the way you presented it in this book because I think you did a fantastic [00:18:00] job of explaining that?
Robert Wright: Okay. I encountered the doctrine of not-self long after encountering the modular module of the mind that I’m now viewing the doctrine in terms of. The modular module I encountered while researching my book on Evolutionary Psychology: The Moral Animal, which came out in ’94, the doctrine of not-self I didn’t explore seriously until I was actually preparing to [00:18:30] teach the seminar at Princeton, which was no more than five, six years ago. I guess I had heard a talk or two about it at a meditation retreat at that point, but I hadn’t tried to really look into it. I hadn’t read the Buddhist discourse on the net, the not-self, which is fascinating to me for a number of reasons.
One is that the way he goes through explaining it is [00:19:00] he says, “Well, look at the various parts of your mind. Does it makes sense to think of them as you?” The different categories. The so called five aggregates in Buddhist psychology which includes feelings, perceptions and so on, but the point is just that it’s kind of an incremental approach to explaining the doctrine. It’s like is there any one part of your experience that it really make sense to think of as you. What I like about that is it makes it easier to connect an everyday meditation practice that even when its early stages [00:19:30] to the doctrine to the not-self.
Because if you’re even doing stress reduction or working on anxiety, then one thing you’re kind of doing is looking at that feeling and experiencing it and asking yourself if you really have to identify with it. Do you really have to consider it part of you? You could see that as the first step toward potentially deeper meditative apprehensions that get you closer to the experience [00:20:00] of not-self. In fact, in talking to people like Joseph Goldstein, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, who have definitely gone a lot further meditatively than I have, you find out that yeah, they, at least Joseph, they think of it that way. You start viewing your feelings in a different way, your thoughts in a different way.
You kind of slowly move toward not-self. It’s not like you have to meditate for 10 years and hope that finally suddenly [00:20:30] you’ll have this epiphany. You can kind of move toward an experiential apprehension of not-self in an incremental way which isn’t to say there won’t be dramatic thresholds along the way, but still I think it’s good that we can connect a part of the practice that some people call therapeutic and some people call it that derisively, right, because it’s not spiritual. I think it’s good that we actually can connect that to kind of the spiritual depths of Buddhist philosophy.
Noah Rasheta: I like [00:21:00] that. Something I thought about when I was reading the book, I thought, “I wonder if anyone’s ever had that moment of enlightenment watching the Snickers commercial where it says, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry.'” Because part of what you talk about in the book, you correlate how our feelings determine who we are in that moment. Again going back to Snickers, if you’re not you when you’re hungry, then it’s fair to say you’re not [00:21:30] you when you’re not hungry either because it just depends which you you are at the time. Are you the hungry you or the not hungry you. Then we take that and expand it into all the other feelings that we have throughout the day. It’s the same line of thought. You’re not you when you’re mad.
You’re not you when you’re happy because you’re not permanently either one of those. That was an aha moment I had reading your book thinking it’s so simple. You’re not any of those because you’re not any of those permanently.
Robert Wright: [00:22:00] Which is an explicit part of the early Buddhist defense of the not-self doctrine. There just is not the persistence through time of any one you.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly. I love the way you laid that out. Then you go out and you give a specific example of one of the feelings. You have a section where you talk about jealousy. I want to quote this the right way. [00:22:30] Do you know if the page numbers will switch from …
Robert Wright: They will switch. I can look. Do I have the physical … They won’t be the same. You have an index copy and the gallies?
Noah Rasheta: I’m not sure which one this is, but it looks like chapter seven is called … I assume the chapter numbers won’t change. It’s called The Mental Modules That Run Your Life.
Robert Wright: [00:23:00] I think that’s where the jealousy thing is. Yes.
Noah Rasheta: Inside of that you’ve got a section that says Jealousy: Tyrant of the Mind.
Robert Wright: Right. Right.
Noah Rasheta: Now this section really spoke to me because I’ve experienced this. I’ve gone through this and I’ve alluded to this story before in my podcast when I talk about my story, but going through and experiencing jealousy first hand, having like experienced emotional jealousy on the [00:23:30] heels of a betrayal, a lot of what you described was like to a T what I felt. It was fascinating to read through this and think, “That wasn’t me.”
Robert Wright: You have transformed into a completely different person.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly. Exactly. Let’s just talk about that section for a bit if you don’t mind.
Robert Wright: Sure.
Noah Rasheta: The point that you’re making in here similar to what we’ve just [00:24:00] been discussing is that the jealous you is … There’s a module of the mind that can kick in and it overrides everything. You hear about this in courts, right? Crimes of passion and the argument being made is that well, that wasn’t me. I was going through an emotional state and that’s when I did this or did that. What you’re saying here and it totally makes sense is that even if [00:24:30] okay, I don’t go out and I murder someone while I’m experiencing this, but I maybe making small subtle choices that I wouldn’t make if I weren’t feeling what I was feeling, right?
Robert Wright: Right.
Noah Rasheta: If that’s relevant to jealousy, which is a very easy one to identify with, I think most people have experienced that to some degree, then that’s the case with every emotion and every feeling, right?
Robert Wright: Right. I mean a couple of things there. One is that [00:25:00] as you suggested, what the modular model of the mind says is that when you say as you did like, “Well, it’s a different you when you’re in this. It’s a different you when you’re hungry than in full. It’s a different you when you’re jealous,” the modular model says that’s more literally true than you might think. In other words, there are specialized parts of the mind that take turns running the show. They were according to evolution of psychology designed by natural selection for different purposes. In some [00:25:30] cases, at very different times. Some are older than others. Certainly jealousy is thought by evolutionary psychologists to be like a very carefully engineered module with a function.
That’s one thing is that this model says, “Yeah. There’s really a lot of different yous in there. They’re often operating at a subconscious level.” Sometimes you can sense the struggle between them, but sometimes maybe you’re oblivious to it if there is any competition [00:26:00] between them for which one’s going to govern in consciousness. In any event, it’s usually a case that one or another of them is kind of running the show. The other thing I’d say is like the feelings thing I think is key because jealousy is a very dramatic example of a feeling ushering in a new you. I think much subtler feelings do it in a subtler way all the time. You’ll see somebody you’re kind of a rival [00:26:30] with.
That will give you a little kind of feeling that will shape your perception of them and shape the essence you project onto them. That will govern how you interact with them and you may notice that. Then there maybe somebody that’s kind of frenemy and that’ll be a subtler kind of feeling, but in general, it’s like these feelings that are ushering in different versions of us and one interesting thing about mindfulness meditation is it makes you more aware of feelings. It gives you [00:27:00] more leverage over them in the sense of being able if you’re aware of them to sometimes choose not to blindly follow them.
If feelings are the things that usher in the different versions of you and mindfulness mediation gives you some leverage over feelings, well, then mindfulness mediation is very a powerful thing.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. Absolutely. I love that you mentioned in this very section that resistance isn’t the mindful way of dealing with jealousy anyway. [00:27:30] That would be applicable to any feeling. It’s not that we’re trying to resist it or force a certain feeling. No. In Buddhist practice, we’re very aware of what we are clinging to, what we’re trying to feel right and what we’re averse to, what we’re trying to push away. That’s something you highlight in this book that awareness is so key when it comes to [00:28:00] these feelings like you just highlighted that even small subtle feelings at any given moment are influencing who you are in that moment. Rather than doing anything about it in terms of resisting or pushing away, we just want to be aware and recognize this is what I’m feeling.
Why am I feeling this? I think that ties in so closely with mindfulness as a whole. That’s why we do that.
Robert Wright: Right. An interesting example of that is treating actual addictions. I mentioned in the book that [00:28:30] Judson Brewer whom you maybe aware of. He’s done a lot of work in this area. He’s a very serious meditator himself. He’s now at the … Where is it? The Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research place is in Massachusetts. Anyway, it’s UMass. It’s UMass Med School I think, but anyway, he did a study where he looked at smokers and he had them rather than fight the urge, just sit there and observe the urge. Not smoke [00:29:00] a cigarette, but not go oh. Not try to distract themselves or do something else. Just sit there and observe the urge.
He did an actual study involving like 88 subjects and found it to be more effective than some standard treatments for nicotine addiction. That slowly as they observed the urge to smoke, it lost its power.
Noah Rasheta: Isn’t that fascinating?
Robert Wright: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Noah Rasheta: [00:29:30] I love that. I love all of this. Something I wanted to talk about with this is I think sometimes we have this impression that okay, I start to understand that it makes sense that there are different me’s. I get that I have different feelings and I’m not the same me when I’m hungry versus not hungry. All that. I get that, but I have this sense of feeling like there is a me that’s capable of overriding all the others at any given time. You talk about this as the CEO. [00:30:00] You specifically have a section where you say, “The CEO is MIA,” and I love that. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Talk to me a little bit about this idea of a CEO.
Robert Wright: Well, the Buddhist doctrine of not-self has been described various ways and interpreted various ways. One way it is sometimes put is that the doctrine denies that the conscious self is kind of running the show, that it’s the doer of deeds and the thinker of thoughts. [00:30:30] I mean this is what you hear maybe on meditation or retreats. The meditation teacher saying, “You know, thoughts think themselves if you really look carefully at them. You’re not in charge of generating them. They’re just passing by your consciousness.” One trend in psychology over recent decades is to support the skepticism as to the actual power of the conscious self.
The kind of old idea that the conscious self is the CEO, you’re calling the shots, [00:31:00] has come under challenge from a variety of experimental findings. That goes back several decades. A model I like in preference to it is of course this modular model which by the way can help explain why it might seem like thoughts think themselves. I mean if modules are actually kind of injecting them into your field of consciousness, then the very careful observer of them, very adept meditator who’s watching [00:31:30] thoughts, would kind of see them as if they’re thinking themselves. They’re just kind of assuming form and passing away. The idea that you, the conscious you, is the CEO has really fallen into disrepute in psychology for a lot of reasons.
That’s one of various cases where just strikingly I think modern science lends [00:32:00] some corroboration to like millennia old Buddhist ideas.
Noah Rasheta: I love that section, the CEO is MIA. You have a quote in here. You talk about observing, going back to the feelings real quick, observing feelings without attachment is the way you keep modules from seizing control of your consciousness. You talk about the paradox. I’d like to talk about this paradox a little bit about [00:32:30] the control aspect. That you take control by not trying to take control. Walk us through that paradox a little bit.
Robert Wright: Yeah. I mean it paradoxical on two levels. I mean first of all there’s that paradox that surrendering control and becoming in some sense a mere observer of the process gives you more control. That [00:33:00] seems ironic, but you can kind of see why it’s the case. Because if these feelings are running the show and becoming so aware of them that you don’t blindly follow their guidance that you don’t react to them in the way they’re designed to make you react. It makes sense then. It’s just kind of sitting there watching them takes power away from the feelings and [00:33:30] gives more power to you. Now the second paradox is more profound and I’m not sure I can help us out of it which is just like what do we mean by you, right? If the self doesn’t exist …
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of Buddhist philosophy, but in that discourse on the not-self, the five basic parts of kind of human experience that are covered in all of which the Buddhist says are not part of the self, that includes [00:34:00] consciousness as one of those. Consciousness it says in there is not the self. That raises the question of well, where do we find this you that in substance that has more power by virtue of meditation? I don’t know that I have a confident answer to that question. I think there are people who are much further down the meditative path and I am who don’t find it so puzzling. On the other hand, they have trouble articulating [00:34:30] sometimes why they don’t find it puzzling.
It’s one of many cases where as a practical matter, you don’t have to get too caught up in paradoxes that lie at the very roots, at the very depths of Buddhist philosophy and might become more relevant to you if you got somewhere near actual nirvana and awakening. For [00:35:00] most of us that’s not a problem, right? For most of us just living our lives is challenging and for those purposes just think of there as being you. In fact, it is a Buddhist idea that in a so called conventional sense of self exist, in an ultimate sense it doesn’t. It’s fine to live a lot of your life at a conventional level and talk of the self as existing.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. Yeah, I like [00:35:30] that. You mentioned nirvana. This is one of the questions I had written down that I was curious about. What is nirvana for you? How do you define it?
Robert Wright: It is said to be something that someone reaches at the point that they reach so called awakening or enlightenment, which is an interesting feature of Buddhism that the two terms [00:36:00] are synonymous or at least these things arrive at the same time. That when you see the ultimate truth, you achieve ultimate happiness. Bliss. Right? There’s a third part which is that if all goes according to plan, you should be a much better person. There’s really three things that are asserted by traditional Buddhist philosophy that are said to coincide which is truth about the world, happiness and goodness. [00:36:30] That’s an amazing thing. That’s an amazing claim.
I think there’s a case to be made that indeed progress along those dimensions at least tends to be correlated. Now as for what nirvana is, I mean first of all, it is said to be blissful. I’m agnostic on the question of whether there are any people in the world right now who have truly attained enlightenment. That’s a long debate or whether there have ever been. I mean I don’t know. [00:37:00] It depends on how you define it. I tend to have a pretty strict definition of it that would make it hard for people to accurately claim they’ve obtained enlightenment, but different people have different views. Well, here’s an interesting thing about it is that in the Buddhist text, it is sometimes characterized with this word the unconditioned.
The unconditioned in Buddhist terms kind of means more or less [00:37:30] the uncaused. Not subject to the kinds of causes that normally push and pull us. That’s a really fascinating thing because it gets back to what we were saying. I mean if indeed feelings are the buttons that get pushed on us, that manipulate that, right, and get us to do certain things unthinkingly, reactively, and mindfulness meditation by [00:38:00] making you aware of your feelings gives you the option of kind of removing yourself from those levers. Then you are in a sense liberating yourself from the causes that normally impinged on you, right? The way I think of the world, it’s not possible to completely remove yourself from all causation, right?
I can’t imagine that, [00:38:30] although I think the Buddhist claim is that nirvana involves that. That aside, it kind of makes sense to think of meditative progress as moving you toward the unconditioned because it is making you less kind of mindlessly enslaved by causality as it normally operates in a human being. Does that make sense?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah.
Robert Wright: That’s one thing [00:39:00] that’s interesting to me about nirvana. The chapter on nirvana was helped a lot by my … Well, both reading what Bhikkhu Bodhi has said about it and getting feedback from him by email on how I was interpreting it. He was really great. He’s a really, really important American translator of Buddhist texts.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. One thing I love about Buddhism with its paradoxes is [00:39:30] the thing that you want is the very problem, right? I talked about this at a presentation on Sunday of how spiritual journeys … Spritiual journey from the Buddhist perspective. On a typical journey, the journey is from point A to point B, wherever point A is and wherever point B is. There’s a goal that you could say the goal is to get from point A to point B. Now on the Buddhist path, you could say that it’s similar [00:40:00] in the sense that point A is their suffering, point B is you reach this place where there is no suffering and rather than thinking of these place as places, these are more like mental states.
Yet the paradox in this would be if I am not at point B, wherever I am and I see there’s point B and I’m trying to get there, that’s the very source of my suffering is that I’m here and I’m not there and I want to be there. That’s where this paradox comes in is the moment I can accept [00:40:30] well, this is where I am and I don’t want to be anywhere else, this is just where I am, ironically that’s when you get to point B. Not because you wanted to get there, but because you’ve made where you are point B. Now correlating that paradox with what you’re talking about with the feelings and how we just observe them, to me that comes across as similar in the sense that I feel this. I don’t want to feel this. I want to feel that.
Now I’m caught in the very problem. That’s why [00:41:00] I love the title like “Why Buddhism is True” correlating it to this whole line of thinking. Is it saying, “This is what’s true. That when you are completely content with where you are, when nothing needs to be any different than how it is, ironically that’s it. That’s when you found the very thing that you were looking for which is that nirvana or that radical acceptance.”
Robert Wright: It is ironic that you start out by saying, “I’d to be happier. I’d to be endearingly happy. [00:41:30] That’s the way I’d like to feel.” The answer is well then quit caring about the way you feel.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly.
Robert Wright: It seems paradoxical, but that’s at the very core of Buddhist practice is to quit yearning for things to be different than they are. That’s what it means to quit trying to kind of runaway from unpleasant feelings and quit trying to cling to pleasant feelings. [00:42:00] It’s paradoxical, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It seems to work. I don’t want to minimize the challenge though.
Noah Rasheta: Absolutely.
Robert Wright: There are people who say that they’ve attained spontaneous awakening and never had to meditate, don’t meditate. I envy them. I think for most of us it takes real commitment which is hard to get on the cushion every day, [00:42:30] but then it pays real dividends.
Noah Rasheta: It’s funny. I have a friend who has told me before, “I want to learn to be more patient.” There’s almost the sense of frustration in the process because it’s like, “I want to be patient now.” That’s the irony of it is that’s the very reason you can’t, right? You can’t want that now. I think about that a lot with Buddhism in general, with enlightenment. The idea [00:43:00] of enlightenment in Buddhism. The science of enlightenment. All of this that’s talked about here is … You mentioned this in the book that the huge irony in all this is when you can sit there and watch these modules, you don’t have to control them, that’s the only time you actually have a sense of some control over them.
That’s still the irony because you don’t have control over them and I love that paradox.
Robert Wright: Yeah, but just to not have them controlling you is progress in itself, right?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah.
Robert Wright: [00:43:30] Right. Now it’s full of paradox. Life is full of paradox. Quantum physics is full of paradox. You know what I mean? Reality seems to involve paradox.
Noah Rasheta: I think that’s an important distinction that you just made. The way our feelings and emotions control us and what if our goal was just to not let them control us rather than thinking the duality. We’re always in this dualistic mindset. I don’t want them to control them. Therefore, I must control [00:44:00] them. The truth is you can’t get to that point, but you can get to the point where they don’t control you. The reactivity goes away and that’s really what we’re after, right? The freedom from our habitual reactivity.
Robert Wright: That’s right. That’s right.
Noah Rasheta: I love that. Let’s talk a little bit about the book in general, on a whole. Why is this book important right now?
Robert Wright: That’s a good question. [00:44:30] First of all, as a practical matter, that does serve as a good introduction for people who are not that conversed in Buddhism and maybe haven’t even meditated. I mean one of the blurbs I’m proudest of is Sharon Salzberg was very nice and said something like, “The book is a value both to experienced meditators and to people who are wondering what the fuss [00:45:00] is all about, who have never meditated.” I like to think that it does work at both of those levels. I don’t know because I can’t. I just can’t be a naïve reader of it, but I hope that’s true. Leaving that aside, I mean leaving aside what I hope it will be by way of a resource to people, what I was trying to do was [00:45:30] argue that in fundamental ways.
You hear that well, meditation is being validated by science. What people usually mean by that is well, they did a study showing that meditation relaxes people. That’s good, but I think a deeper validation is possible. That’s what I was trying to achieve because they’ll argue that science actually corroborates not just the [00:46:00] practical value of meditation, but the philosophical foundation of Buddhist meditation, in particular mindfulness meditation, and kind of the Buddhist psychology implicit in all that. That’s what I hope to do. I did it by reference to not just psychology, although a lot of …
I talk about various [00:46:30] things, brain scan studies and various experiments in psychology, but I also put particular emphasis on evolutionary psychology because I’m a long standing fan of that. I’ve written about it. I think it is itself a very valid framing of psychology broadly. I mean if you believe that natural selection created the mind, it kind of has to. Evolutionary psychology construed, somehow it has to have some relevance to the way our minds are, right? [00:47:00] I hope that I brought something of value by bringing my prior conversancy in evolutionary psychology to Buddhist philosophy and to meditative practice. I think here it’s maybe a good thing that I’m not a better meditator than I am. What I mean by that is I started in …
I was in middle age. [00:47:30] I was already I guess thinking that I might write about this. I was kind of observing the process from the point of view of a beginner and thinking all along like how would you explain this to people. I make fairly considerable use of my own experiences especially on retreat where you tend to have the most dramatic experiences. I hope just something distinctive [00:48:00] there in that combination of things, evolutionary psychology, Buddhist philosophy and psychology and my own experience meditatively.
Noah Rasheta: Great. Do you happen to have a favorite concept or topic that you discussed in this book?
Robert Wright: You mean favorite in the sense that I’m proudest of what I did with it or I like the way it reads most?
Noah Rasheta: [00:48:30] I guess a section that you feel really rings true through experiential knowledge. We talk about Buddhism as a whole, “Why Buddhism is True.” Is there something specific that has stood out to you that you presented in this book where you’re like, “This right here rings true to me.”
Robert Wright: Well, a couple of things. I would say in terms of the distinctive [00:49:00] light that an evolutionary perspective can shed, I think the argument I tried to make about so called emptiness. The idea that the things you perceive out there actually don’t have the essence that we tend to project on them. I’m proud of that and I hope people will take the argument seriously, but that’s not the most user [00:49:30] friendly part. It’s the reason I kind of saved it for the later parts of the book. I would say in a way one of the more user friendly is something I already said.
Just appreciating that a fairly modest meditative practice however halting and incremental your progress may seem and however therapeutic it may seem in its aims, just [00:50:00] to make you little less stressed out or whatever, is kind of continuously and naturally connected to a more thorough going meditative attainments and to the depths of Buddhist philosophy. I hope people take seriously the claim that our everyday way of looking at the world is deeply misleading because I think that has moral consequence. [00:50:30] It’s what starts wars. It’s what I think is responsible for the political polarization in the United States today.
It’s that everyone thinks their view of the world is the actual true view, but actually our minds were designed by natural selection to mislead us. Not always. I mean there are a lot things we see very clearly. You want to see the walls. You don’t bump into it and so on, but especially when it comes to our rightness, our rectitude and [00:51:00] the contrasting rectitude of whatever tribe we identify as the enemy, there our minds are systematically misleading us. I think both making progress on both the not-self and the emptiness front will help us make progress in fighting these problems, political polarization, sectarian strife and so on. I mean if you ask me what I hope will come out of the book, [00:51:30] my hope is that it’ll help things at that pragmatic level.
Noah Rasheta: That’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more with you on that assessment. That’s the vibe I got reading this book. It felt like this is something everyone needs to read. I’ve always thought every couple when they get married should be required to go mandatory relationship coaching or [00:52:00] something to that effect. I feel like every person going out into the world as an adult should have some kind of mindfulness skills. I felt like this book gives you the foundation. I’ve heard of this mindfulness stuff. What is it? Why would I even want it? This is the kind of book that’s like, “Ah okay. It make sense. It make sense how it works, why it works and now I want to practice it.” That’s the feeling I got from it. [00:52:30] I’m always recommending books.
I have a list of probably 40 or 50 books on my website, SecularBuddhism.com/books. These are my recommended books, but I mean this when I say this that I feel like your book is now among the top of the list for me to make sure people read to understand, “Hey. This is why this stuff works. This is why we practice this stuff.” I’m going to encourage everyone [00:53:00] to read it. I’m very happy that you wrote it. I’m very happy with the way that you wrote it because I think it speaks to people who like me are secular minded, who aren’t interested in anything that feels dogmatic in any way. The way you’ve presented it I think is just fantastic. It speaks to that audience. Thank you for contributing and writing this at a time when the world could benefit greatly from this book.
Robert Wright: Well, [00:53:30] thank you so much. That means a lot coming from you. As I told you before we started recording, I’ve been aware of your podcast for a long time. Very impressed by it and impressed by the way you kind of do it by yourself. I mean it’s just kind of you talking and that’s a hard thing to do, but for that reason, months ago when the book was coming out, I thought, “Well, I guess that’s one place I won’t see myself talking about the book because he doesn’t have guests.” I’m glad that what is from my point of [00:54:00] view the perfect time you’re branching out a little. I really feel lucky. I’m really, really grateful for what you said about the book and really gratified that you have that view.
Noah Rasheta: Well, thank you. Do you have a specific place where you had want people to go look for this? Is Amazon the best place? Any links I’ll put them on the website and in this specific episode.
Robert Wright: [00:54:30] I guess if they want to kind of check it out a little before buying, there is WhyBuddhismIsTrue.net which features kind of just the first few paragraphs of every chapter. You could kind of check it out a little there, although these days Amazon lets you kind of browse a book a little. You can do it there too. I don’t particularly have a preference. Some people want to support independent bookstores. [00:55:00] That’s a great thing too because they’re a great institution.
Noah Rasheta: Well, I’ll be posting links to different places. If any of you listening or watching this are interested in the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, written from a perspective that is very open to the … What I highlight in [00:55:30] the podcast with the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” That journey starts with this book in my opinion. This is a great place to start.
Robert Wright: Thank you so much.
Noah Rasheta: The concepts are very clear. I think my favorite part of my book if I just want to share my thing was the whole topic of not-self. The way you present and correlate that with the mental modules made so much sense to me. I love your analogy of the [00:56:00] red pill at the beginning of the book with The Matrix.
Robert Wright: From the movie The Matrix.
Noah Rasheta: That really is what this is like, right?
Robert Wright: Realizing you’re living in the matrix.
Noah Rasheta: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You talked about this. What you see isn’t what you think it is. If you want to see what it is, use the red pill. I love that. Thank you very much for your time for being on the show. I’m excited and honored that you are the first guest that I’ve had that’s in this [00:56:30] new interview format.
Robert Wright: Well, I’m excited and honored by the exact same thing.
Noah Rasheta: Well, thanks. I’ll be doing this more often. Maybe once a month a format like this. I’d love to maybe reconnect at some point in the future and see how the book is doing or what other projects you have in the works. For now, I think this is kind of the main focus, but I’d love to see what you come up with down the road and have you back on the podcast.
Robert Wright: Absolutely. I’ll be here.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Well, thank you for your time. Do you have anything [00:57:00] else that you would want to add? Any closing thoughts or anything?
Robert Wright: I don’t think so. I would just say try it and if you’ve tried meditation and it’s never worked, try meditation retreat. Do research. Find out where you’re going and have reason to think that the teachers are good and that it’s what you want. Without a retreat, I don’t think I ever would have gotten into this stuff.
Noah Rasheta: That’s really [00:57:30] good to hear because I get that a lot hearing from people. “I like this and I tried it. I meditated a few days, but this is really hard to …” I always say meditation is easy. Meditating is hard. Doing it is the hard part. I love the idea of a retreat. Remind us which on you went to.
Robert Wright: I’ve done most of mine at the Insight Meditation Society which is in rural Massachusetts. It’s one of the places where vipassana meditation which is not exactly the same as mindfulness [00:58:00] meditation, but involves it, in the United States. This is an important institution co-founded by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield who himself went out and found his spirit rock in the west.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Okay. I’ll post links to some of these places that we’re talking about in the podcast as well and on the website. Well, thank you very much. This has been a really [00:58:30] fun experience. I’ve been a little reluctant since I started the podcast about when and how to do the interviews and I’ve had a few authors reach out to me already with books. Yours was the first one where I thought, “Oh, I’ll give it a try,” and I started reading it. As soon as I started reading it, I was like, “Okay. This is the type of author I want to interview because …”
Robert Wright: That’s so great to hear. The title worked with you at least. Got you to open the book.
Noah Rasheta: Well, have I been browsing [00:59:00] the halls of the bookstore and came across it, I would have looked at it and thought huh because I think again from the Buddhist perspective, I would have seen just the interesting correlation of Buddhism and true in the same sentence and I would have been like, “What do they mean,” and I would have read it. The way the book is designed now, I love the comments you have on the back. Martin Seligman, Sharon Salzberg, Jonathan Gold. I mean those were great. I would have read the back [00:59:30] and I would have said, “Okay. This is a book I’ll pick up and give it a try.” The title would have caught my interest and then looking at it a little more closely would have been enough to say, “Yeah. I’ll read this.”
Then reading it makes it so I would tell anyone about it now. Good job on the book.
Robert Wright: That’s so good to hear.
Noah Rasheta: All right. Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you on.
Robert Wright: Same here, Noah.
Noah Rasheta: All right. Take care. All right.
Robert Wright: Bye, bye.
Noah Rasheta: If you enjoyed this podcast [01:00:00] episode, please share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. Check out Robert’s new book by visiting SecularBuddhism.com/true. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit SecularBuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.