64 – We Don’t Need to Change Ourselves

In this episode, I will discuss the concept of inherent perfection and how from the Buddhist perspective, that implies that we don’t need to change ourselves. The idea of “perfection” from the Buddhist perspective is not a moral qualification. There is no “should” or compelling in ethical or moral behavior because your inherent nature is kindness and goodness.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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:              Welcome to another episode The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 64. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. The topic for the podcast episode today is we don’t need to change ourselves. Recently, I’ve been sharing snippets of teachings from Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, who teaches. She’s an American who teaches Buddhism from the Tibetan tradition. There is a book called The Pocket Pema Chödrön by Shambhala Pocket Classics. It’s a small book that contains short teachings. I’ve been sharing some of these teachings on the Facebook group, The Secular Buddhism Podcast community Facebook group. I wanted to share one of the discussions that took place around one of the teachings.

The teaching that I shared from Pema, this is quoting her, says, “When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person. If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person. If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.'” Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others. They might say, “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect for marriage. If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get along, my job would be great. If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”

Loving kindness, or maitri, as it’s called in the Tibetan tradition, toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we already are. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now just as we are. That’s the ground. That’s what we study. That’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. That was the snippet of the teaching that I shared from Pema, which is a wonderful little teaching on this concept of not needing to change ourselves.

Then I posed the question or the challenge for the day, which was, “What if you could accept yourself and others just the way you or they are right now? No need to change anything.” Sure, you can still strive for change, but that happens because you can change, not because you should change. In a past podcast episode, I talked about this shifting from should to can. What if you really saw yourself, others, and life as inherently perfect just the way you are right now? What would that feel like? This opened up a discussion in the Facebook group that I thought was a wonderful little discussion. One of the questions that arose in this discussion, which I think is a really good point to clarify, comes from Callie. Callie, thank you, if you’re listening, thank you for interacting on the Facebook group and posting this question so we could elaborate on this concept a little bit more.

Callie said, “I believe this perspective is very valuable, but only to a point. The power of changing should to can is immensely liberating, but surely at some point, moral imperatives must also come into play. For example, if I frequently lash out in physical violence at my husband and children, how can that be considered inherently perfect?” This is a really good point that Callie brings up, the idea of if we talk about not needing to change, how can we talk about a concept like inherent perfection when there are a lot of people out there who could surely be better than they are now. I wanted to discuss this a little bit in this podcast. The idea of perfection from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not a moral qualification. There is no should or compelling in ethical or moral behavior from the Buddhist perspective because, from that same perspective, your inherent nature is kindness and goodness.

If you think about this for a second, this is the understanding that we are physically hardwired to be receptive to kindness and to goodness. For example, as humans, when a human is born, from that stage of being a baby and growing, think of how many years it takes before a human being can live all on their own. We require the care and the kindness and compassion of others for a significant portion of our lives. It’s a survival mechanism. In this sense, we are hardwired to receive and to respond to loving kindness, to the care of others. It’s innate in us. Again, from the Buddhist perspective, rather than saying that you should be kind, the Buddhist approach is to gain more insight or understanding into the mental conditioning that may be preventing one from experiencing that inherent nature. The idea here is that if we start out inherently kind or inherently receptive to kindness and compassion, something happens along the way as we grow that starts to, I guess you could say muddies that innate nature in us. It gets covered up. The concept of being inherently perfect is to say that you already have in you the ability to not be physically or verbally violent. It’s just a matter of discovering what conditioning is causing the unnatural behavior.

As an illustration to this point, there’s a story in Buddhism of a golden Buddha statue in a monastery in Thailand that was once covered in clay and mud to hide it from an invading army. The monks who did this, they covered up this golden Buddha statue, they never returned to the monastery. Maybe they were killed off. The point is they never returned. The golden statue remained hidden under clay for decades, perhaps even centuries. At some point, new monks occupied the monastery and they never knew the secret truth of this clay Buddha. Many years later, a monk was cleaning the statue and he chips off a piece of the clay only to reveal the true nature of the statue. It was a gold statute all along. In a similar way, the Buddhist view of humanity is that we are like this golden Buddha, inherently perfect but often covered in the clay of mental conditioning, often in the form of bad ideas, harmful believes, hurtful concepts.

This conditioning drives a lot of our thoughts and actions. Yet, at our core, we are inherently perfect because our true nature, when uncovered, when peeled away, when the conditioning is peeled away, we’re already enlightened. This is why, from the Buddhist perspective, the paradox of wanting to become enlightened is that you can’t become something that you already are. I think this is why Pema talks about not needing to change ourselves. In that sense, there is nothing to change. There are only layers of conditioning to peel away. The irony is that as those layers of conditioning peel away, our way of being certainly changes, but who we are at the core doesn’t necessarily change. That’s a foundational piece that we’ve always been. From the Buddhist perspective, this is called Buddha nature. This is your inherent nature. That’s why from this line of thinking, from this perspective, it’s appropriate to say we don’t need to change ourselves.

Remember, the aim of Buddhism is to help us to understand the nature of reality, the nature of ourselves, to let the nature of suffering, and to let go of the causes of suffering. This process starts with taking a critical look at how we see the world, perhaps more importantly, how we see ourselves. This is where this concept of we don’t need to change ourselves comes from. When we really look closely at ourselves, the nature of who and how we are, we discover through this lens that there really is no need to change ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, says that 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. This is quote I’ve always enjoyed because, to me, what this evokes is that sense of just visualize the clay statute.

The wisdom of Buddhism is that it’s the peeling away is the process that takes place, peeling away the layers of clay to uncover what’s really there. What we’re doing when we do this process with ourselves, as an introspective contemplative practice, you’re looking inward. What you’re seeing is I’m covered in this clay of concepts, ideas, and beliefs, opinions, all of these conceptualized ways of being. It’s not about adding more to that. This is why, from the Buddhist perspective, wisdom isn’t about gaining knowledge, it’s about unlearning. It’s about unlearning our concepts. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, the secret of Buddhism is to remove the concepts. You start to peel away these concepts and these layers and these ideas that you have about the world, about others, and specifically about yourself. In this process, what you start to discover is what’s been there all along, this inherent nature to be kind, to be compassionate, because we’re all hardwired for that.

That clarifies a little bit this teaching, this line of thinking in Buddhism of we don’t need to change ourselves. If you think about this for a moment, just think about ingrained it is in our society, this concept of change. Everything that we see in marketing and advertising is telling us that there’s something that needs to change. When you buy this product, that’s when you’ll finally be happy. That’s when you’ll be the better version of yourself. You know, when you lose weight, that’s when you’ll finally be you. When you look this way or that way, that’s when you’ll finally be who you’re meant to be. That’s the illusion. What Buddhism is saying is, hey, that’s all based on a conceptualized belief, the belief that there’s how am I and how I should be and they’re not matching. Until I become who I think I should be, I’m not capable of being content with who I am. Buddhism is trying to switch that and say you can only ever be who you are.

We talk about this all the time. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. The idea of getting there is an illusion because you get there and there is no there there. You get there and there’s now here. It’s always here and it’s always now. You can not escape that. That same line of thinking goes into how you view yourself. You’re always going to be you. The you that you are is the only you that you’ll ever be. Now, that’s not to say that you’re not going to change. You’re absolutely going to change. One of the things that we discover about the nature of reality is continual change. This is the whole teaching of impermanence. Things are always changing. You can see this clearly by looking back and seeing who you are now compared who you were a year ago or five or 10 years ago, at any given point in your past. Go further and you start to see really drastic changes. The five-year-old you versus the you that’s listening to this podcast now, it’s not the same you at all, almost in any way.

We’re presented this idea in our society that we need to change. We’re always trying to become the version of ourselves that we think is the most authentic version. The truth is there isn’t one. I mean, the one that’s always you is the one that’s always you. The one that’s in the present, in the here and now, that’s the only one. I want to extend this line of thinking a little bit more with another concept that I want to share from an email that I received from Donna. Donna is a skydiver. She interacts in our Facebook community. Really cool person. I’ve interacted with Donna a few times. Donna, if you’re listening to this podcast episode, thank you for the past interactions and the discussions that we’ve had by email furthering or clarifying some of these concepts.

Something that Donna brought up while we’re on this line of impermanence and interdependence, you know, I’ve shared on several occasions this teaching that starts with Thich Nhat Hanh where he talks about how if you’ve ever seen a flower and all you saw was the flower, you’ve never actually seen the flower, and then goes on to talk about how the flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements. To see the flower, you have to see the sun, you see the clouds, you see the rain, the soil, the mud, everything that it takes for a flower to be a flower. You see it’s made up entirely of non-flower elements. That is a very powerful visual teaching of the idea of interdependence. This line of thinking I want to expound upon a little bit.

This starts from an email that I received from Donna. Donna was talking about this concept and saying how helpful or how useful that is, the teaching of looking at the flower. In her case, it didn’t necessarily hit home or really click until she applied that way of seeing to people. In this case, it was a coworker. She mentioned sometimes with certain people come across like they’re just out to make your life miserable. In this case, she kind of mentions this example of someone who seems like their goal is just to be annoying. For her, this radical shift happened when she was able to see the person in the same light of seeing the flower. What are all of the non-person elements in this person? That’s where it really starts to hit home and it really starts to make an impact in how you see yourself and how you see others.

This reminds me of a concept that I’ve been playing with in my head with the idea of seeing deeply or deep seeing. In our society, we’ve all heard of deep listening, the idea that you listen past what’s being said and you hear what’s being said in conjunction with where these words are coming from, what could be causing this. This is really useful in relationships to practice deep listening. I like the idea of deep seeing. The idea of deep seeing implies that whatever it is I’m looking at, and I think this covers listening too, but whatever that thing is that’s happening, it’s either a coworker saying something to you or a person, your spouse or partner saying something to you, whatever the instance is that’s taking place, to see deeply means I’m going to look through space and time. In terms of space, I see interdependence. In terms of time, I see impermanence.

What that means is let’s say somebody says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. Now, in that moment, you can see that for what it is. Hear the words and I don’t like this makes me feel, that’s the instance, that’s the experience that’s unfolding. Now, to see deeply, I would spend just a brief moment thinking, “What did it take for this moment to arise in terms of time first?” You could say, “Well, what events in the past have led to this moment, to this person saying what they did?” It could be on a smaller scale of time. It could be, “Did they wake up in a bad mood? Did they not have breakfast today? Did a car cut them off on their drive to work? What kind of small scale things may have contributed to this instance unfolding the way that it’s unfolding?” You can go back further in time and imagine, “Is this how this person was raised? Is this a thought that was taught to them by their parents?” Where do you really draw the line and say, “Okay. That’s what’s causing this person to say what they’re saying right now or to do what they’re doing right now in terms of time”?

The point here is that this exercise allows you to see that the experience that’s unfolding, there’s much more to it than that present moment. There’s pretty much everything that’s ever happened in the past that’s led to this moment. That softens the intensity of the moment as it’s unfolding in the present, the experience of the present. That’s in terms of time. Now, you do this in terms of space, interdependence, and you have this same thing. You take this event and what was just said and you start connecting it to all the things that allow this thing to be unfolding the way that it is like you would the flower. There’s the flower that’s the present moment experience, but then what allows that to be what it is in terms of space? Well, with the flower, you’ve got the sun and the rain and the clouds and all of those processes. You do that with people too. As the experience in the present moment unfolds, try to go back and look at space and time and permanence and interdependence and what should happen is, in that moment, you realize there is so much more to this than whatever this is. Somebody’s here. They’re insulting me, there’s so much more to this. They don’t even know that. They are the culmination of all of these causes and conditions. They may not even realize that.

That’s kind of the idea that Donna was talking about, which I really like. It’s taking the concept of the flower and applying it to people and applying it to yourself. I think this correlates pretty well with the concept of we don’t need to change ourselves because when we see ourselves as we truly are, interdependent with all of these other non-you elements, you start to see the bigger picture. When you do the same in terms of time, you start to see the impermanent nature of who you are. You start to see that the illusion of a permanent self is truly an illusion because there’s no aspect of us that is permanent. Everything about us is impermanent, constantly changing, and, furthermore, completely interdependent with everything else. What we have in that moment is a more appropriate view of ourselves in terms of the nature of reality. That’s what Buddhism is trying to get at. That’s what Thich Nhat Hanh, again, with the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and all concepts in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.

If you want to discover the truth about yourself, try to remove the concepts and the ideas that you have about yourself and just look there for a minute and see what you see. See how that feels. What you should discover in this is exactly what Pema is talking about. In seeing that, you discover that we do not need to change ourselves. We are inherently perfect just the way that we are. Then you can ask, “Now what? Now that this is what I see and this is exactly how it is, what am I going to do about it?” Because is inevitable. That’s the irony. Change is inevitable. It will happen, but you’re not fighting against it. You’re just going with the flow. You’re an impermanent, interdependent entity in an impermanent, interdependent world and you’re going with the flow. That’s the line of thought that holds up this concept of why we don’t need to change ourselves.

That’s what I wanted to share. It all stems from a discussion that took place on the Facebook group. I’ve been posting these things every day. Every day there’s a new teaching, a new line of thought. It’s been fun to engage with many of you in the Facebook group, expanding a little bit on these ideas. I’m really happy to be back to this format of the podcast where I’m just sharing a specific teaching that stands out to me or a concept and then expanding a little bit. As you know, the past several episodes have all been interviews and they all kind of stacked up. I guess what I should have done is just had those spaced out because now I don’t have any interviews scheduled. That’s fine. I’ve mentioned this before. I don’t want to switch to the interview format. I just wanted to have occasional interviews that I’d throw on the podcast. In the future, I will space those out. It might be one a month or maybe one every two months. What I do want to do more often is, at least once a week, give you this kind of podcast episode, a shorter topical-based podcast episode like I’d done in the past.

This is what I’ve got for today. The challenge or question I’d like to leave with you, as I mentioned in the discussion, is: What if you accepted yourself and others just the way that you and they are right now, understanding that there’s no need to change? Again, sure, change is going to happen and it will happen because it can happen. That’s the nature of it. What if you removed that sense of should out of the equation of change? Things will change but they shouldn’t have to change. They just will. What if you really saw yourself and others and life itself as inherently perfect just the way that you are right now, just the way that life is right now? Try to uncover the layers of conditioning, that clay that hides the inherent nature of how you really are, how someone else really is. Try to peel away those layers and see someone how they really are.

Now, here, one of the interesting things is you may understand this about someone and that changes the way that you see them, but they may still see themselves as, “I’m just made out of clay.” You see them differently because you say, “Yeah, but I know what’s underneath that clay.” Just explore that concept a little bit and see what that feels like when you extend that view onto someone else. Where this gets really powerful is when you can extend this view onto yourself, the way you view yourself. Suddenly, there’s this peace and acceptance of you are just how you are. Those are the ideas that I wanted to share with you. Hopefully, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, you’ll be willing to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes.

If you’d like to join our online community, visit SecularBuddhism.com/community. There, you’ll find the link to the Facebook group. If you’re not interested in joining the Facebook group, you can always join our online weekly sangha. That’s done through a program called Zoom. Sunday mornings, people call in or we have a video conference where we practice meditation. Then there’s a topic or a discussion that’s shared at the end of that. That’s another community you can join. Both of those options are available on SecularBuddhism.com/community. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, please visit SecularBuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

63 – Mindful Eating – A Discussion with Paige Smathers

Like breathing, eating is one of the most common things we do, but how mindful are we of this process? How mindful are we of our relationship with food? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the topic of mindful eating with Paige Smathers, host of the Nutrition Matters podcast. We talk about mindful eating, our relationship with food, and how we can gain insight and wisdom by becoming more mindful about eating. I hope you enjoy this podcast episode.

Watch the interview here:

Learn more about our upcoming workshop:

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Use the coupon code “secularbuddhism” for $50 off of the workshop.

Connect with Paige Smathers and her work here:

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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:                      Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 63. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m sharing the audio of an interview/discussion I had with Paige Smathers on the topic of mindful eating.

Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She has a degree in dietetics and she’s the host of a popular podcast called Nutrition Matters and I wanted to speak to her on the topic of eating, specifically mindful eating because eating like breathing is one of those things that we just have to do and we do it oftentimes without really thinking about it because it becomes a mundane process. And where we can access breathing as a tool to become more mindful, something that we do every day, all day nonstop, we can focus our attention on and gain tremendous insight. That’s why there are meditations all about breathing, focusing on your breath.w

Well, the same is true with eating. It’s one of those things that we have to do, we do it all the time and we have a relationship with eating whether we’re aware of it or not. Sometimes it’s a healthy or an unhealthy relationship. And these are some of the concepts that Paige and I talk about in this podcast. So we talk about mindful eating. What she calls intuitive eating and the concept of weight neutrality, the idea that body image is something that is conceptual. We have an image in our mind that tells us this is how I should look, this is how I should look and I’m going outside of health here, not just what is healthy or what is not healthy but I’m saying what is ideal, what is not a deal and these are concepts.

And we talk about concepts a lot in Buddhist teachings because the moment we have a concept, an idea, a belief, it blinds us to all of the alternative possibilities because now we’re focused on this thing that we think is how things should be, how life should be, how I should be, how I should look. So we talk about these concepts in this podcast interview.

We talk about healing our relationship with food. How we have relationships with everything that we interact with and food is not an exception to that. Beyond eating just to survive there is an actual relationship that we have with the process of eating. Some people enjoy the process, others don’t. So we’ll talk a little bit about that and how we can gain insight about our relationship with food and overall how we can be more mindful as we eat.

I’ve had this experience, I’m sure all of you had, when you eat sometimes you just eat because you know you need to but you’re not focusing on it. You’re on your phone, you’re thinking about what’s going to happen later in the day. It’s just something you get done and out of the way and then you move on. But how often do we really pause and think about what’s happening while we’re eating. The process, the flavors, the texture. It’s a lot like what we do with breathing, right, we just take it for granted and we do it but we don’t pause and really experience what is happening as we breathe or in this case what is happening as we eat.

So these are some interesting topics and we talk about this in the podcast. And then towards the end we talk about how we are partnering to do a mindful eating workshop, April seventh in Salt Lake City. It’s an all day workshop. And you can learn more about that workshop by visiting mindfuleatingworkshop.com in that workshop we will be addressing a couple of specific topics. The concept of suffering and dieting, the topic of impermanence and all or nothing thinking when it comes to food and learning how to practice eating meditation or mindful eating. We’ll go over specific techniques, we’ll practice it there because lunch is included in the workshop. We’ll talk about interdependence and connection and we’ll finish off the workshop with a module on the art of living, the art of eating and essentially the healing or gaining insight into our relationship with food.

So it’s going to be a neat workshop that couples the concept of eating, something that we all do every day with mindfulness. So it’s a mindfulness workshop but it’s centered around concepts like intuitive eating and mindful eating. So, if that’s a topic you’re interested you can learn more about that on mindfuleatingworkshop.com and you can take $50 off of the registration for that workshop if you use the coupon code secularbuddhism, all lowercase, all one word to check out, when you check out for purchasing a ticket for this workshop.

So this is a workshop that’s done by Paige Smathers, host of Nutrition Matters Podcast and I am partnering with her so we will both be teaching and presenting at this workshop and I’d love to see some of you there if mindful eating is a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

So, without further ado, enjoy the audio of the interview I had with Paige Smathers. I think you’ll find some useful information in this exchange and in this discussion. Thank you.

Paige Smathers:                   Oh, Noah, thanks for having me, this is so fun, I love it.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think of all the podcast interviews that I’ve done, you are the closest to me in distance. We’re maybe less than an hour drive away but we’re still doing this online because that’s the easy way to do that.

Paige Smathers:                   It is, it is the easiest way. I often tell sometimes my local people I interview, I’m like let’s just do it via Skype, it’s just easier for whatever program.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Well I’m excited to have you on the show because this is a topic that I think is really interesting. The idea of mindful eating. The work that you do on your podcast and you consult with people individually. You do something called intuitive eating. Tell me a little bit about what that is and how did you get into all of this?

Paige Smathers:                   It’s sometimes not super intuitive to explain what intuitive eating is. Sometimes people don’t really like the word but it’s the best way I have to describe sort of this non diet approach to nutrition, where you kind of recognize that dieting doesn’t really get you where you want to be. By dieting I mean restricting certain things and only eating certain things and calling foods good and bad and trying to manipulate your body. It creates a really chaotic relationship with food.

So what I try to teach my clients that I work with individually and people who listen to my podcast, what we talk about there, is talking about kind of how to reconnect back to your body’s innate wisdom when it comes to hunger cues and fullness and really being able to connect with what feels good in your body and just kind of take all the morality about nutrition out of the picture and to really try to connect with what’s right for you in each moment.

There are so many principles of mindfulness that really connect well to what I teach for intuitive eating in my practice.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I was just going to say that’s the first thing that stood out to me when I came across this concept and the first time you and I spoke about it was that it parallels the mindfulness approach to like happiness. You chase after one thing or you chase away the other thing suffering or discontent and it’s the chasing that gets you into trouble. I like the wording that you use, the morality of it, deciding this feeling is good, this feeling is bad so I want more of this feeling less of that feeling. And I think from what you’re saying we do the same thing with food and our approach to eating.

Paige Smathers:                   We totally do, especially in our culture that’s really diet obsessed and thin obsessed or muscular obsessed, whatever angle you want to take, there’s just so many pressures on us to look a certain way which you really can’t talk about food without talking about body image. So a lot of the ideas of whether you want to call it mindfulness or even acceptance and commitment therapy or secular Buddhism even come up in sessions with clients where we’re talking about themes of acceptance and that happiness trap that you mentioned and so many themes that really resonate with the secular Buddhism, you know, the stuff that you do with secular Buddhism.

Noah Rasheta:                      Well, that’s cool and what I like with eating in general is that it mirrors, the concept of being mindful about eating to me mirrors the idea of being mindful about breathing. And with mindfulness we start with breathing because that’s the foundation of what keeps us alive and it’s something so simple and so basic and yet we’re rarely mindful of breathing. What does it really feel like to breathe. It’s like we just, we’re on autopilot and it seems like maybe we do the same with eating which ironically is the other thing that we have to do that we cannot live without and it’s a foundation of survival and I think we approach it in the same way that we do breathing sometimes where it’s like it’s just something we do but we don’t think about it. Is that right?

Paige Smathers:                   Yeah. I think that there’s definitely people who don’t really think about their eating but then I think there’s people who completely overthink their eating. And I think the reason that or the way you can differentiate between something as natural as breathing and something as natural as eating, they’re both necessary for survival but with eating, there’s all this shame and guilt and morality and failure associated with it. With breathing, you can do some of that if you’re trying to work on your practice of mindfulness and you can feel a little bit guilty if you’re not breathing as mindfully as it like but I think that the level of shame that one can experience with food and nutrition and body image is just a whole new level.

And I often tell my clients if we put that amount of pressure on ourselves about breathing, we’d probably develop as much chaos and dysfunction with breathing as we do with the food itself. I think there’s so many similarities but so many interesting distinctions that really helps you uncover why we get so weird about our nutrition. So much of it boils down to bodies and shame and guilt and morality and all that.

Noah Rasheta:                      To me, it seems like the key is what you’ve mentioned with body image. From the mindfulness approach when we’re talking about being mindful and emotions like happiness being better than sadness, we call this, it’s a form of a, like a conceptual prison. It’s the idea or the belief itself that blinds us. And I think with food it’s absolutely the same but it stems from the idea of here is an ideal body image and here is a not ideal body image. Outside of healthy, right, because it’s obvious that there’s healthy and not healthy but the look of a body stems off of a conceptualization that we inherit from societal views and maybe family views.

And those evolve over time because there was a time when having a really curvy body or extra weight would have been viewed as something desirable. Like this person is well to do.

Paige Smathers:                   Exactly. And this is why so much of the work that I do along with so many others who are in the space is so body image focused and it’s kind of trying to target some of the systems that are in place that sort of are the root cause of some of our struggles with food where we think we need to look this certain way therefore we feel like we need to eat that certain way. But all of a sudden that expectation that pressure of eating that way creates all this dysfunction and chaos mentally, physically, emotionally in every way. And so kind of targeting at the root of saying like, well wait a minute, maybe there is biological diversity and maybe that’s something to be celebrated and no two bodies really look the same and that’s great.

I’ve actually heard models say that I wish I looked the way I look in my pictures because that’s not even real. And so sometimes some of this media literacy comes up when we’re talking about consuming media in a critical way. It’s all really important. And it’s so interesting because we’re talking about food but you have to kind of take some big steps back and look at the whole thing.

Noah Rasheta:                      So the do you find that rather than approaching the food as the problem, approaching the idea or the belief behind it, like the body image if you approach that first does the food part of it just solve itself?

Paige Smathers:                   That’s a great questions and I think it really depends on the person. So sometimes these thoughts and this struggle with food is so ingrained and it’s been so many years that there really truly is some stuff with food that we need to work on. We need to work on establishing some regular consistent meals. We need to work on what does balance look like. We need to work on giving yourself permission to enjoy food and to taste it and to derive pleasure from it. So there is definitely a side of this that has to do with food but there’s so much of it that’s like it’s not really about the food.

So that’s why in my work I definitely refer to therapists and other people who specialize in helping people really uncover things if there’s some really deep things. But I think sometimes people get that permission to just have their own experience with body image and have their own sort of way that their body looks and kind of feel free and then they’re able to make, oftentimes the choices about nutrition kind of fall into place when there isn’t all that pressure. But I wouldn’t say across the board that’s just cleanly the way it works for every single person. It really is so messy and everybody who deals with this deals with it in a different way and struggles in different ways.

But yeah, that’s definitely something I’ve seen where it’s like, oh, you’re saying I don’t need to seek after this ideal. Okay, maybe I’ll just kind of be cool with I am and what I do and connect to my body and then all of a sudden nutrition becomes way less of an issue.

Noah Rasheta:                      So from the mindfulness approach one of the things that we talk about, the idea of being more mindful. It’s less energy that goes into trying to decipher what I’m seeing and more energy goes into discovering how am I seeing. Is it a similar journey to be more intuitive with your eating or more mindful with eating. Is that part of the process, discovering how am I seeing my relationship with food versus trying to see it like an external thing.

Paige Smathers:                   So in terms of like how am I approaching this or what is my paradigm or what are my …

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, my paradigm i think. Is it understanding my paradigm is where I start versus changing my circumstances, is that right?

Paige Smathers:                   Oh my gosh, yeah, totally. That’s completely true. And that’s hard work, to change your paradigm and to shift that after potentially decades of seeing food a certain way. People who do this type of work in their own lives, it often feels really countercultural and I’m sure you get. You kind of feel like you’re swimming upstream because here you are at Thanksgiving dinner and everyone’s talking about how much the food is so delicious but how bad it is. And you’re just trying to be like, no, it’s not bad, it just is.

So yeah, this paradigm shift is tricky to do and then tricky to kind of stick with because it’s not normal in our culture to not be really obsessed and rigid about food and nutrition and health and micromanage things.

Noah Rasheta:                      So something that you talk about that I like is the idea that we have a relationship with food because sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that we have a relationship with that we interact with but especially something like food. Let’s talk about that a little bit. How do we discover what our relationship with food is and what is a healthy and what is an unhealthy relationship?

Paige Smathers:                   That’s a great question. So the first one you asked was how do you discover what your relationship with food looks like. I think that that really ties into the work that you do Noah. It’s trying to kind of start to pay attention. Start to pay attention to the thoughts that you’re having about food and nutrition. Start to pay attention to your cues of hunger and fullness and are you honoring those or are you consistently denying those or pushing those down or numbing those. Do you have rigid rules about food that lead to ultimate peace and well being and feeling good or do you have a relationship with food that kind of generates a lot of chaos or a lot of anxiety.

I think some people will really just immediately know like yeah, my relationship with food is strained. Oftentimes a big red flag is if you’ve spent a lot of your life dieting, there’s a good chance that things have gotten kind of thrown off. There’s a good chance that if you haven’t spent your time dieting in your life, there’s a good chance that you’re you’re doing okay but maybe there are some elements that you could maybe look into that might help to create more energy or more, just feeling better in terms of like providing your body with nourishing balanced foods. With the occasional fun indulgence here and there that’s no big deal.

But yeah, I think creating some awareness, starting to kind of take inventory of thoughts and becoming aware of them and then doing what you do with mindfulness which is okay, I’m going to experiment, I’m going to be curious, I’m going to look at if I shift this, what’s the results kind of non-judgmentally, that’s sort of what the process often looks like.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m just kind of process in this and my mind. The four foundations of mindfulness. We start with the understanding that there’s the sense organ and then there’s what’s being sensed. And the moment that there’s an interaction between those two, mindfulness, that’s the start of mindfulness. I’m thinking with food, I go to sit down and I start to eat something and there’s the immediate sensation of the sense organ being maybe my taste buds, right, tasting what I’m eating. And it happens really quickly that I jump a layer deeper and now my mind is interpreting that experience and it’s deciding I like this or I don’t like this.

This introspection can get deeper and deeper. Why do I like this. The mind is pulling all these library index cards. Oh yeah, we tasted this before, we don’t like this or it reminds us of this other thing. I’m thinking of this process with eating, I don’t know that we ever, that we really spend much time being with that experience because most of us sit down and I’ll just grab my phone to show, most of us sit down and we’re doing this, right, we’re like just eating, eating, eating and then we’re done eating and that was it.

And I think there’s a very non-mindful interaction with the process of eating. I know I’m guilty of this all the time, it’s like, I just want to eat as quick as I can so I can go on to the thing that mattered more in my mind which was hurry and answer that email or something like that. So let’s talk about this a little bit. The idea of mindful eating and taking advantage of the process of eating to understand that relationship we have with our food. Do you have any ideas or tips or techniques in that process?

Paige Smathers:                   Yeah, I think that’s a great question. Where my head goes is kind of thinking about the people that I work with and some of the feedback I get from people when I introduce this concept of like let’s start to generate some awareness and let’s try to be mindful and be in the present moment and really taste and experience your food. I’m a really practical person and so I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re not living up to what we’re talking about with mindful eating and therefore feel a bunch of shame and guilt about that. Like that’s not leading anybody in a good direction. So I think when we’re talking about mindfully eating we want to make sure that it feels balanced and it feels sustainable and it feels like something that’s practical and something that you can continue to do.

So, from a practical perspective a lot of my clients will kind of pick maybe one meal that they know that there may be more vulnerable to engaging in a little bit of like overeating or emotional eating or kind of being a little bit less connected to their body and maybe work on that meal where breakfast maybe is just quick and you got to get out the door and maybe lunch is rushed because things are going on and ideally short. You would stop and you’d sit down and you’d eat your meal at a table on a plate and you’d think about it.

But whenever we’re talking about mindful eating we need to remember that, the process of mindful eating you’ve got to make sure that it feels like you can engage with the people around you because part of food is for connection. Yes it’s for nourishment and yes it’s for pleasure but it’s also for connecting you to the people that you love. And so, I would hate for someone to think okay, I have to be a mindful eater so therefore go away family, I’m just going to sit here and like experience this food.

But that’s not to say that you can’t experiment with what that’s like to really, really tune in. I just think that there’s a delicate balance that we have to find in each person to find what’s right for them. Does that make sense or answer at all?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, for sure. And I’m glad you brought that up because when I picture mindful eating I’m not picturing it like every time you eat, you’re zoned out and you’re paying attention to, that’s just not sustainable. What I’m thinking is have you ever done that. To me the idea of mindful eating is do I do that once a month, is it once a week that I really sit there and think about what I’m eating. Because it can be a profound experience. We were having dinner the other night with my wife and kids and we were eating mushrooms and one of my kids said I hate mushrooms. With mindfulness practice, we’re always trying to uncover or discover this concept of self, untangle the self. Who is the I that hates the mushroom.

As this expression came out, I hate mushrooms, I had this thought of man, I love mushrooms because mushrooms are one of my favorite meals. I correlated that expression to a time in my life when I hated mushrooms and I thought how fascinating, who was the I that didn’t like mushrooms and who is the I that does like mushrooms now in the context of impermanence, in the context of interdependence. And then I had this thought of is it really me that likes mushrooms or is it just my taste buds, they work well for my taste buds and I’m taking, I’m personalizing it and saying what my taste buds enjoy, I interpret as me that likes this or doesn’t like that.

That was a profound little moment of connection there were I thought my taste buds enjoy mushrooms because of how they’re configured, D.N.A., life experiences, all these causes and conditions make it so that it’s a pleasant experience for me to eat a mushroom while someone sitting next to me doesn’t have a pleasant experience but there’s no real inherent difference between the two. It’s just this is what is and that’s what is. It’s not right or wrong, it was just a fun little moment. And I thought, well that was a neat little mindful moment of eating.

Paige Smathers:                   The experience of eating is a very physical thing that we do, we have to do every single day multiple times a day. It gives us a window into insight about some of these abstract concepts that are difficult to learn unless we have a physical thing to learn it with. So, for instance, like your relationship with food, the way that you feed yourself, the way that you take care of yourself with your nutrition, or just your mindful eating can give you insight into principles of, like you were saying interdependence and self-love and connection and what do you value and what’s important to you. There’s so much wisdom to be gleaned from this very monotonous never ending task of feeding yourself.

So, I think that what I wanted to say and I think I feel a little bit thrown off with the break we had to take but I think that food offers you a very unique opportunity to have a window into learning a bunch of things about yourself that maybe in other ways are just harder to grasp or wrap your head around because they’re so abstract. Does that make sense?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, for sure. Some of the things that I like to do when I’m eating and again, this isn’t every time I eat, you know, most of the time that I eat I just eat while I’m talking or while I’m on my phone or something else. But every now and then when I try to purposely be mindful, one thing I do is like what I mentioned before the idea of really thinking about the experience I’m having while I taste something. Another that I do is I try to correlate the mindfulness teachings of impermanence and interdependence.

With impermanence I think what this is right now in the context of time is not what this was 20 minutes ago, a year ago, two years ago. I like to try to go back in time and just see this food I’m about to consume, what was it before it was this and what was it before it was that and what was it before it was that. But then future as well. Understanding this will be, components of this or parts of this will be in my muscles. If it’s a certain food like it might be in my brain and it contributes to my focus later this afternoon. So across the spectrum of time I like to be mindful of that.

And then with interdependence and I’ll sit there and look at the food for a second and think what did it take for this to be here. What people were involved, the processes that were involved. Those two questions can be pretty profound too. Do you have anything like that that you do from time to time?

Paige Smathers:                   Definitely. I love what you’ve already said. I think that those are really great ways to feel grounded and in the eating experience. Another thing that I really like to help my clients tap into is this idea of of bodily cues. So just like we were talking about with breathing where it’s just really natural to like breathe in and out, you don’t really have to think about it and when you draw attention to it you can, it’s actually a lot harder than you might think that it should be to be able to pay attention to your breath.

But food it’s very similar, where you just kind of eat and then you stop and you don’t always really consider how was I feeling. What kinds of cues were I experiencing, what was my body sort of communicating in terms of what its needs were in that moment, in terms of hunger, maybe in terms of quantity of food or what sounded good. There’s an element of like this mysterious thing where if you really get stale and quiet and pay attention you can really start to discover what you’re actually needing or wanting in that moment with food and I don’t think that that’s true with every single situation and I don’t think you need to take that to the extreme either but it’s really worthwhile work to try to discover what hunger feels like to you, true hunger and then what does satisfaction and fullness feel like to you.

So many of us are eating when we’re not really hungry. Maybe stopping eating when we’re maybe not really satisfied and then we’re hungry again very soon and we’re kind of always grazing or never really hungry and get way too full. I try to help my clients kind of come back to trusting these cues just like we trust my body communicated, it’s time to go the bathroom, you go, you don’t question it but somehow with food we Kind of overthink it and create a bunch of chaos.

So part of the mindful experience I think is definitely thinking about the food that you’re eating and the ideas of what had to come into play to make this food in front of me and then what happens to it before it came to me and after. I love those ideas but then I also love the idea of trying to get in touch with what is happening inside of your body and what the cues feel like to know how to take good care of yourself.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that idea. I hadn’t thought about the awareness of what your body is telling you while you’re eating. For example, I’ve had many experiences where I’m eating and when I’m done I know wherever that line was I crossed it 10 times ago. And that becomes very easy to be aware of but it had never occurred to me with each bite if I was aware of now what does it feel like and then another by another, you know, you wouldn’t necessarily reach that point. I hadn’t thought that mindless eating is what gets me to the point where I realize I crossed that line a long time ago and I should have stopped and now I’m feeling really sick or something.

Paige Smathers:                   Totally. And then also this idea of like there’s degrees of hunger. There’s slightly hungry, there’s true hunger where you’re kind of still feeling like you’re going to make a good decision, where you’re going to be able to be reasonable and then there’s a point beyond that that’s like I’m so hungry I don’t really care what’s in front of me and I don’t really care about nutrition. I just want to eat. And so, part of this idea of mindfulness is trying to uncover what happens when I feel that desperate primal hunger. How hard is it for me to tune in and do I have to practice a little bit more slowing down and paying attention and being aware of my tendency to maybe go overboard when I get to that place.

So yeah, I think there are so many avenues you could take this but one of the big ones that really hits home for a lot of people who struggle with food or even are just curious about how to take better care of themselves is this idea of starting to pay attention to the cues that your body gives you and trusting that those cues are worthwhile to listen to and pay attention to.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. Okay, Robert says, I’ve been making a mindful effort to notice food that I want versus food that my body needs. Yeah, that’s a really important one. I’m always impressed with people who know their body and their relationship food well enough that they can say something like oh, I shouldn’t eat that because it’s going to, you know, they already know the consequence of it.

Paige Smathers:                   Like anticipating.

Noah Rasheta:                      A stomach upset or … I think that requires a lot of awareness and mindfulness.

Paige Smathers:                   Definitely.

Noah Rasheta:                      I’d like to take a minute for those who are participating live on the Crowdcast platform. If you’re watching us on Facebook we’re not monitoring the comments there unfortunately but on Crowdcast, the platform that we’re using to stream this, if you’re participating there we can interact with you live. So if you have a question now would be a good time to post those so we can start looking at those or if you just have comments that you want to throw out there you can post those on the chat as well. So we’ll be looking for those. And then what I’d like to gear up for next once we answer any questions that anyone might have or comments that they might have, I want to announce the exciting partnership that Paige and I have developed to do a full day workshop on mindful eating.

Paige has so much information that she brings to the table with nutrition and intuitive eating and we thought it would be a neat blend to incorporate her work with the work that I do with mindfulness in general. So the idea behind this workshop is that, it’s going to be in Salt Lake City, it’s a full day workshop and we’re going to have a few modules that we’ll be addressing.

So, the first one is suffering and dieting. Do you want to speak to that in a new way, Paige, some of the things that we might be talking about there?

Paige Smathers:                   Sure, yeah. We’ve kind of touched on it a little bit the idea of, when I hear you talk about suffering, my dietician [LENS brain 00:34:42] is thinking that’s dieting. Dieting creates so much suffering in our life and we chase after it as if it’s the answer, meanwhile it’s actually creating so much dysfunction in our lives. The goal with this module and with the workshop in general is to teach the main ideas of mindfulness. But in context of how that applies to your relationship with food and your body and self care when it comes to nutrition.

And so, this one I think is really important as a foundation to understand. Any of the other things that you’re going to be doing with your nutrition if it’s coming from this dieting mindset where you’re saying I want to manipulate my body or morality around food or good food bad food right wrong, you know, all of these absolutes. It’s not going to really lead to that ultimate peace, it’s going to lead to lots more suffering.

The good news is it doesn’t need to be this choice between dieting and complete and total not caring about your eating at all. There’s this awesome middle ground where you can gently take really great care of yourself but not create so much suffering I guess is maybe my summary there.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that and I love the idea of the middle way which is the path of mindfulness. And from the mindfulness perspective when we’re talking about suffering, we’re talking about what arises when we want things to be other than they are. This is how it is, this is how I want it to be, because they don’t match I suffer or experience anguish, discomfort, discontent, there are a lot of words for it. This is prevalent specifically in our relationship with food or with our body, the way, here’s how I look, here’s how I think I should look and I’m going to experience suffering as long as there’s a discrepancy between the two. So I think those are concepts and topics that we’ll look at and that will peel the layers back, the conceptualizations behind what may be causing the suffering. So that’s what I was going to add with my perspective-

Paige Smathers:                   Perfect, that’s great.

Noah Rasheta:                      The other one that we’re going to address is the idea of impermanence and all or nothing thinking. So let’s talk about that one a little bit.

Paige Smathers:                   Okay, I love this one. So often when you try to make some improvements with your nutrition, you’re trying to kind of work on taking better care of yourself with your nutrition, it can really turn into this like all or nothing pursuit where you have a list of things to do and a list of things not to do and inevitably we are all going to eat a slice of cake again probably in our lives or like a cookie or something that’s on our list of maybe we think that we shouldn’t be doing that.

And so, the flaws of dieting, it’s all or nothing nature. We are not black and white beings. There’s so much nuance and messiness. There’s even a comment in here about how certain foods are bad for us and we shouldn’t eat them. I agree that some foods we want to maybe even a little bit less of and maybe less often and certain foods we maybe want to eat more and more often but there’s really interesting research around the idea of the more that you take away the morality around food and really try to connect with providing your body regular scheduled meals that are balanced and nutritious, you actually end up eating better when you don’t have this all or nothing mindset. You actually have an overall healthier diet than when you put all of these really strict rules that dieting brings.

So, that’s where I’m coming from with this idea of all or nothing thinking and I love the idea of impermanence and how that really connects with this idea where you’re able to say okay, today, I ate a cookie. That doesn’t mean that I need to eat 20 cookies. This next minute that I’m in after eating that cookie is a new minute, it’s a new moment and I get to make a choice of what I do right now.

So many dieters say well, I ate the one thing that I told myself I shouldn’t so therefore I don’t know when I’ll eat it next so I might as well eat 20 right now. There’s so much flaw in that type of thinking and I think the idea of impermanence really helps us see that we really truly are in each moment and that’s what we have and we get to be a new person each moment.

Noah Rasheta:                      That happens on the mindfulness path as well. Someone decides I’m going to start practicing meditation because I want to be more peaceful and then they’ll sit there and experience contentment while they’re meditating or something only to be disrupted later that night, something happens, an argument and they lose their temper and they’re like well, screw that, I’m not doing that again because it didn’t help, I’m not a peaceful person. Or you’ll have someone who says, I’ve been told on multiple occasions by people oh, you do meditation stuff. Yeah, I can’t do that. I’m not peaceful enough to be someone who meditates. And it’s just funny that all or nothing thinking like unless I can be 100% then I’m not going to do it.

Paige Smathers:                   Yeah, and with food, guess what, there is no perfect. There’s maybe your version of what’s right for you but like there is no perfect eating. And so stop trying to, stop having those expectations that that’s what you’re trying to do. Just like with mindfulness, maybe there’s no, you shouldn’t have the expectation of being able to be perfectly peaceful every moment. That sets you up for suffering, right?

Noah Rasheta:                      Exactly, exactly. That’s what we stress in mindfulness training, that’s the wrong expectation to think well, I’m going to do this and now I’ll never experience suffering again. We’re saying, no, you’re going to develop greater comfort around being uncomfortable. You become more comfortable with this comfort, that’s what starts to happen. It’s not that you are going to eliminate discomfort.

Paige Smathers:                   And greater resiliency, don’t you think? Like just greater ability to work through it when it comes up.

Noah Rasheta:                      Now during the workshop we will have lunch and that will be an opportunity to learn how to practice a form of eating meditation. So we’ll talk about techniques and you’ll have the opportunity to actually practice them there during the workshop. And again, this isn’t so that from here on out this is how you will always eat when you go somewhere to eat. It’s not that but these techniques will help you from time to time to take a moment and be mindful while you’re doing that thing that we do that we do to live right, eating. So that will be a fun part of the workshop.

Another module we’re discussing will be interdependence and connection. From my perspective, I talked about that a little earlier with the idea of understanding that nothing exists independent of the other things that allow that thing to exist. Especially with food, it’s so evident with food that, how often do we sit and experience gratitude for either the hands that prepared it or going far back the hands that farmed it, that planted it, that transported it. There’s a lot to it there so let’s talk a little bit about from your perspective, from your side of things, the interdependence and connection.

Paige Smathers:                   We did touch on this quite a bit in what we talked about earlier I think. I think that a lot of the work we’re trying to do when it comes to creating a healthier relationship with food in your body is trying to sort of allow your mind and your body to be connected again. A lot of people sort of, dissociate is kind of a strong word but kind of maybe zone out or numb or don’t really think about it or maybe are afraid to experience pleasure and enjoyment from food. So there’s so many aspects of connection that I think become so important and helping people really truly uncover their ability to connect to hunger as a cue or to fullness as a cue, it becomes so important to give yourself permission to enjoy eating.

I know that maybe sounds weird for some people but for people who have dieted a bunch or who have tried to deny themselves with various plans throughout the years that maybe it weren’t right for them, you’ve develop this sense of like shame or guilt if you’re enjoying food. And so, coming back to really being able to say like that’s okay, that’s an important part of this. That actually helps me tap into what’s going on in my body and helps me connect to myself, helps me connect to other people, helps me connect to again, like all of the ideas of like, all the causes and conditions in this world that had to come together to make this meal. The people, the sun, the water, the soil, all of it.

I think that developing a sense of connection to all of those things is really important and then also developing a sense of connection to what your values are can really drive your eating experience. So, connection is such a deep topic and I could talk about it forever but value directed or value guided eating I think is a really, really interesting way to approach food where you’re trying to kind of think about what’s important to you and try to make your relationship with food in line with those values. And for me, one of the big things that I value is connection with other people. And so, sometimes my decisions about nutrition will be kind of more weighted towards well, does this connect me to other people. For instance, like I won’t say no to an ice cream outing even though maybe I didn’t really want it or didn’t really feel like it or whatever I think sometimes connection can be a really important part of how we experience food.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I love the idea of connection on multiple tiers. The connection with the processes, the causes and conditions. The connection with your own body as you’re experiencing it and the connection with people. And like you said, it’s going to be its own module because there’s so much to talk about there.

Paige Smathers:                   Yeah, yeah, there really is.

Noah Rasheta:                      So we have a lot in store for this workshop and great detail broken into modules and specific topics. If you are listening to this and you want to learn more about it, we set up a website called mindfuleatingworkshop.com. That’s right, isn’t it?

Paige Smathers:                   Yeah, that’s right. Good job.

Noah Rasheta:                      Send everyone to some other website. Mindfuleatingworkshop.com is the website where you can learn about where, when, how, how much, all that kind of stuff. And the date is in April, it’s in Salt Lake City. Is it, remind me the date.

Paige Smathers:                   April seventh. It’s a Saturday.

Noah Rasheta:                      That’s a Saturday, right?

Paige Smathers:                   Yup.

Noah Rasheta:                      So it’s a Saturday, April seventh, it’s all day, nine to five, more or less, lunch is provided. Feel free to reach out to either one of us if you have more questions about that, if you want us to answer any questions. We’re both available on Facebook and social media and email.

Okay. Do you have anything else that you wanted to add about the workshop before we move on?

Paige Smathers:                   No, I think you did a great job kind of taking us through some of the main ideas. I guess maybe one thing I do want to stress is my hope is to kind of bridge the gap between these amazingly powerful and beautiful concepts of mindfulness and then these really powerful life changing paradigm shifting ideas about nutrition and kind of bridge that gap in a way that feels really practical. I think these broad big concepts are really important but I also really think that people walking away with feeling like okay, I know what I can do and I know what’s really resonated with me and I know where I can improve, that’s really important to me. So that’s one of my big goals is to help people walk away with some really practical tools.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because that is an important part of it. It’s not beneficial to just walk away from something thinking wow, that left me feeling really good and then going right back into the same old routine. And with mindfulness it’s the same. Someone can come learn all the why and how about meditation and the benefits of it but then go back to their habitual reactivity and nothing really changes. Rather than just inducing an altered state of mind for the moment while you’re there, we’re looking at inducing altered traits, altered ways of being, altered habits that should have a profound effect on on you from that moment on.

Paige Smathers:                   And the amazing thing about that Noah, like really what really draws me to your work is that the stuff that you teach in your work is what makes it so that stuff sticks, does that make sense? Like if you can really work on acceptance and really wrapping your brain around this idea of suffering and really work on these broad big ideas that are so important, it’s what makes it feel like gosh, if I take one step in the right direction, I’m doing a good thing. I don’t need to be 100% perfect today here and now. And that’s I think one of the biggest things that gets in people’s way when it comes to nutrition or making any behavioral change.

So that’s what I think is so valuable about taking this perspective is you’re kind of setting yourself up for being able to implement these things because you’re learning about the processes and the mindset that can really help you do that.

Noah Rasheta:                      And you know that kind of goes to the final topic that we have in the workshop is the art of living and the art of eating which is the transition of the mindset of here’s where I am, here’s where I need to be and once I get there then I’m happy. It’s realizing the path is the goal. With mindfulness, that’s absolutely the case. It’s discovering that the path itself is the goal is the moment of enlightenment, the moment of awakening so to speak because there is nowhere to go, there’s just where you are. You will only ever be where you are, right? You get there and you realize there’s no there there. And I think that’s the same with when we have eating habits. It’s like where do you finally get there. You get there and then there’s something else. So it’s discovering the beauty of the path. The beauty of, the process of eating, it’s the process that’s great, not the outcome or the goal, right?

Paige Smathers:                   So true, so true, yeah.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, we’ll definitely focus on that in this workshop as well. So as far as the discussion that people are listening to live and the overall topic of mindful eating or intuitive eating, do you have any tips or hints, something that somebody could walk away from after having listened to this live interview with you that could start to have a change with their relationship with food?

Paige Smathers:                   That’s such a good question and I’m kind of long-winded. That’s an interesting thing to try to kind of distill into a quick easy tip to implement. I often tell people that if I could sit down with them and provide like one piece of advice it would be to teach people about hunger and fullness and I know I’ve talked about that a lot already on this episode but just to kind of reinforce that. We complicate nutrition so much. We talk about macronutrients and we talk about whole grains and I’m not here to say that that stuff doesn’t matter but we talk about all this stuff and we can lose sight of what is really important and what eating is about is it’s about nourishing your body, providing your body with energy so that you can do the things in your life that are important to you and the more we complicate it the more it tends to kind of detract from our quality of life.

Our health isn’t the reason that we’re here it’s something that we hope to have so that we can do the things we want to do. And so, I like to think about any nutrition changes we’re trying to make or anything we’re trying to work on with our relationship with food as let’s think about this as a tool to try to live our best life rather than like the purpose of life.

So, hunger and fullness, if you can start to become aware of, providing your body with regular nourishment throughout the day. Typically, three meals is a good place to start and maybe some snacks if you feel like you need them. Trying to aim to show up to that meal decently hungry and finish that meal satisfied and full. If you could work on trying to become aware of that, trying to build some data in your mind about am I never hungry in the morning. Does that mean I’m eating more at night than maybe I need or am I always showing up to the dinner table kind of full because I just snacked a bunch as I was cooking.

If you can start to kind of look at these things, notice patterns and in the meantime provide yourself with regular balanced meals, you’re going to learn a lot about yourself. There’s going to be so much insight that you can gain about what you might be able to shift or experiment with or be curious about to improve your nutrition. I don’t think it needs to be any one certain plan for every single person in general. Little bit more fruits and veggies could be a good thing to try to work on too, which sometimes you have to take some steps back and be like well, that means I have to grocery shop and if I have to grocery shop that means I have to plan and think things through and kind of be organized in the kitchen.

But all of this stuff connects. You can’t just separate nutrition from who you are or how you sleep or your stress level or anything else going on in your life. So, I feel like I’m kind of rambling here a little bit Noah but what I’m kind of trying to get out is if there’s one thing you can work on and walk away with, it’s to try to create some awareness around the cues that your body is trying to give you to try to help you take good care of it.

And my whole approach with people is that I believe that people have everything that they already need to be able to take good care of themselves and just like a child is born kind of in general knowing how to communicate their needs with hunger and need to eat and then okay, I’m done, we lose that as we get older and so if we can try to kind of reclaim that and rediscover that in ourselves rather than trying to go to some guru who teaches you how to eat, I think that that’s where the answers lie. So trying to tap into that even on a beginner level with some of this hunger and fullness stuff is a really great place to start for a lot of people.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I really like that. I would add from my perspective the relationship with our food through awareness becomes our relationship with everything because it takes everything for our food to be our food. And I think when we gain that perspective and we have that awareness, and not just with food, anytime I’m interacting with anything, this microphone for example, I’m interacting with everything that it took for this to be what it is. And that’s a profound relationship changing experience I think when it comes to food. My wife talks about how, if the kids aren’t content eating what they’re eating in a way that is on her as the person who prepared it and it takes awareness to realize oh, I’m going to enjoy this meal because a lot of effort went into preparing it.

But then extending that on and realizing it took the sun and the rain then and the clouds and everything for this salad to be what it is and here I am eating as if it was no big deal. I’m interacting with all that is an every process that’s ever taken place and time so that this could be here on my table, those can be profound moments. And like I said, we don’t need to do that every time we eat that’s not realistic. But to have that happen once or to have it happen every now and then can be very grounding.

Paige Smathers:                   I love that.

Noah Rasheta:                      That would be the takeaway that I would want to mention as far as mindful eating as a tool for feeling more connected with the world and connected with everything.

Paige Smathers:                   I love the idea that like food is everything. I can totally see what you’re saying with that. Everything had to come together to make that food exist on your plate. The cool thing is too is that it becomes a part of you. By extension you’re everything. There’s so many places you can go with this mentally that’s really profound. I love that idea.

Noah Rasheta:                      Well, I’m really looking forward to spending more time, going deep into some of these topics with you in the workshop and maybe just in future conversations. One of the questions that somebody posted was if they can’t make it to this in person is there going to be a way to participate either online or in a video. That’s something that Paige and I have talked about and we’re still addressing. Whether it be this workshop or a future workshop will find a way some point for this content to be available. So we’ll talk about that, we’ll explore some of the options, whether it’s an online workshop that’s tied to this or offered later or maybe even audio and video recording of this one that’s made available later. We’ll sort that out, we’ll talk about that a bit because we do want this to be available to as many people as possible.

Paige Smathers:                   Oh, yeah. We’re totally open to that idea, just kind of haven’t explored it fully yet. Kind of working on one thing at a time.

Noah Rasheta:                      That’s right. This is our first time to coordinate so we’re just excited to put something together and see how it goes.

Paige Smathers:                   I can’t wait. I’m so pumped because, I mean, I love how like I explain the best I can do with like my perspective and then you come in and say well here’s my perspective and it gels but it’s so different which I think is super valuable to kind of, no matter, if you’re someone who’s been practicing mindfulness for a long time, maybe my perspective will be a little bit new. Or if you’ve been in my world a little bit of time maybe your perspective will really help to kind of make those principles sink in on a different level.

I love that we’re not this echo chamber. Do you know what I’m trying to say? We approach things differently but in such a way that gels and I think that brings a lot of value. I mean, even just to me so I’m really excited to continue the process of putting this together.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, absolutely. Well, great. Well thanks again for taking the time to join me. For those who are listening who want to learn more about your work where would you point people?

Paige Smathers:                   The podcast that I run is called Nutrition Matters Podcast and that’s a great thing to kind of discover more about this approach. My website is paigesmathersrd.com. You can also follow me on Instagram or Facebook at Paige Smathers Rd.

Noah Rasheta:                      And for the podcast those of you who, many of you will be listening to this audio on the podcast so you are familiar with how podcast work. Just search for Nutrition Matters in your podcast, in iTunes or the podcast software that you use and you’ll find Paige’s podcast. It’s a great podcast, has a lot of useful and helpful information for nutrition and having a more mindful approach to the eating.

So again, thank you Paige. It’s been fun to discuss all this with you.

Paige Smathers:                   Thank you Noah. Yes.

Noah Rasheta:                      We will be connecting after this to discuss more logistics and stuff. For those of you who are watching live, thank you for joining us. The audio of this recording will be uploaded to the podcast later today or tomorrow. And thank you and until next time.

Paige Smathers:                   Thank you, Noah.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you, Paige.

Paige Smathers:                   Thank you.

62 – What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully – Frank Ostaseski

In this episode, I discuss the topic of death with Frank Ostaseski, author of “The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully”. Death is perhaps our greatest teacher, a close encounter with death can forever change our perspectives and priorities. Awareness of death is the secret to living more mindfully.


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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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 62. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m sharing the audio of a discussion I had with Frank Ostaseski on the topic of death.

Death is perhaps our greatest [00:00:30] teacher. It’s awareness of death that can be said to be the secret to life, the secret to living life fully. Frank is an expert on the topic. He’s a Buddhist teacher, an international lecturer and a leading voice in end of life care. He co-founded the Zen Hospice project, which was the first Buddhist hospice in America. He created the Metta Institute to provide innovative educational [00:01:00] programs and professional trainings that foster compassionate mindfulness based care. He’s the author of a book called The Five Invitations, discovering what death can teach us about fully living.

I’ve been excited to interview him because the topic of death is perhaps, as I mentioned before, one of the most powerful topics that we can approach when it comes to trying to live more mindfully. [00:01:30] I don’t know of a single thing that can trigger a more profound shift of perspective than having a close encounter with death. Whether that be on a personal note a close encounter with death, or encountering a loved one, finding out a loved one has cancer, or finding out that a loved one just lost someone [00:02:00] that they care about. Any time we encounter death it seems to be the most impactful and profound change that we experience. It’s in those moments that we are keenly aware of just how fragile life is, that we become very mindful about what really matters.

Oftentimes we find in those moments that the things that we thought that really mattered don’t, and the things that we [00:02:30] kind of discard and don’t think they really matter, we find out those are the things that really matter. It has a tendency to flip things upside down almost. I’ve been wanting to have a discussion on this topic because I think it is a profound topic. Unfortunately death is something that we don’t think about or talk about very often in our society. I understand why, I think [00:03:00] it makes us sad. At the core of everything that Buddhism teaches is this premise that where there is discomfort we run from it. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it, because it’s not comfortable.

I love how the Buddhist approach is saying the opposite. It’s saying, “Wait a second, this is perhaps the only certain thing that we have in life. Why not look towards it? Why [00:03:30] not use death as an ongoing way of living fully, of living more mindfully?” Several years ago I tried this experiment myself, to think about death often. Not just my own death but the death of the people closest to me, the people that I love and care about. It is uncomfortable, but over time it’s settled into this sense of reality. I know that I’m going to lose [00:04:00] everyone that I care about. I know when I interact with people out on the street that they’re not going to live forever. I’m not going to live forever.

It has the ability to change the way that we interact with people. It has the ability to help us to not get so bent out of shape over things, because we start to see the impermanent nature of life and the impermanent nature [00:04:30] of every single moment. This moment passes away so that a new moment arises. It’s life changing to think this way. That’s why I wanted to share this topic. Frank is the best person to have this discussion with. In his book, The Five Invitations, he talks about five specific invitations that you can apply to your life [00:05:00] to start to see death differently. We discuss that a little bit in the interview, but I would invite you to pick up his book, The Five Invitations, and to read that, and then hopefully as strange as it sounds I would invite you to think about death often. Your death and the death of everyone that you know. Like I said, with time this can become a profound [00:05:30] way of living very mindfully.

The Buddha’s greatest teaching is the teaching of impermanence. Death is the ultimate expression of this teaching. Everything that is familiar to us ceases. I think that awareness of death is the secret to living mindfully. It’s when we’re reminded how fragile life is, that’s when we become aware of how precious every single moment is. Whether it be a pleasant moment or an unpleasant moment. [00:06:00] So with that as the background, I hope you enjoy this discussion that I had with Frank Ostaseski. Without further ado, I give you the audio recording of the interview I had with Frank. Thank you.

Okay, this interview is being streamed live now across the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, YouTube channel and probably a few other places. What I do at [00:06:30] the end of this interview, I failed to mention this to you a second ago, I’ll take the audio. The audio will be uploaded to the podcast, but the video, the raw video of the interview will reside on the Facebook page, where followers of the Facebook page or group can watch it later if they didn’t see it live.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Good, just send me a link to it. We’ll bring our people to [inaudible 00:06:52]

Noah Rasheta:                      Alright, well those of you who are watching or listening live, welcome. I am very excited to have [00:07:00] Frank Ostaseski with me, and to have a lively discussion on the topic of death today. It sounds a little humorous at times to speak lightly of death, and the same time I do want to emphasize the fact that from my perspective the teaching of impermanence in Buddhism is perhaps the most powerful transformative teaching.

The idea that at any [00:07:30] given moment, a moment passes away to give rise to a new moment. And then extending that thought all the way onto this experience of being alive and the ever present thought of this experience ending can be very profound. Frank is one of the experts on this topic. He’s a Buddhist teacher, an international lecturer and a leading voice in end of life care. In 1987, he co-founded the Zen Hospice project, [00:08:00] the first Buddhist hospice in America. In 2004, he created the Metta Institute to provide innovative and educational programs and professional trainings that foster compassion, mindfulness based care.

He’s the author of a book called, The Five Invitations, which I happened to read earlier this year, and then recently listened to him talking about the topic of death and his book on another podcast, [00:08:30] on Sam Harris’ podcast. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris’ podcast. I thought it would be really cool to invite me onto the Secular Buddhism podcast. He very graciously accepted the invitation and that’s why he’s here today. We’re going to talk about discovering what death can teach us about fully living. Thank you very much Frank for taking the time to join us today.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I’m really happy to be with you and happy to also be with [00:09:00] the viewers and listeners that will be taking advantage of this I hope. Yeah, I like that we’re going to emphasize the living part.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, what can death teach us about living a full life? Living a life characterized by love and meaning and purpose.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely. It seems to me, and anyone listening would probably agree, if you’ve ever had a brush with death, a family member [00:09:30] or a loved one either passing away or almost passing away, it changes you. You start … Death seems to be the teacher that can at any given moment radically shift your priorities, radically shift your perspective. Everything changes in the face of death. It’s not necessarily that we have to wait for that final moment when we realize, “Uh oh, I am about to pass away.”

We get glimpses of this when we find out a good friend passed away, or a friend’s [00:10:00] cousin, or you know, any time we brush with death, it seems to trigger something in us, a more mindful way of living. And then it seems to wear off, and with time we kind of forget, and then we’re reminded again of our mortality and we’re right back at it, where suddenly priorities shift. With your work you seem to be, you’re immersed in this all the time, so let’s talk a little bit about how transformative that experience [00:10:30] is, being regularly reminded of death. How does that change the day to day living, the living part of this experience?

Frank Ostaseski:                   It’s a great question. The scenario that you paint is quite a common one. We have some encounter and then we kind of spring back into our old habits. We think death [inaudible 00:10:54] happen later, and later gives us that comfortable buffer between where we are in this moment [00:11:00] and when we think death will happen, at the end of some long road for example, or a long illness. But I talk about death as being the secret teach- [inaudible 00:11:07] … that is hiding in plain sight, showing us what matters most, helping us to really appreciate how to step into this life.

I don’t think we have to wait until even our to own dying, even to brush with death to understand something about that. It’s all the time here. It’s not just when we step [00:11:30] off a curb and a car narrowly misses us, it’s reading the newspaper or watching the evening news or, as you say, friends of friends having an encounter with loss. It’s not just that death comes and then it reminds us of life. It’s more that we start stepping into the every day, every moment coming and going of life. When we do that, when we recognize it’s [00:12:00] totally precarious, I mean it’s all precarious, then I think it also helps us to appreciate how precious it is, and then we don’t want to waste a moment. That’s what I find to be really useful about this experience. That it shows us we’re all in the boat together. I think this engenders us being kinder to one another.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, absolutely. Isn’t that fascinating, that death is perhaps the most certain thing we have? [00:12:30] We’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty in life, we chase after things to try to have a sense of control, a sense of certainty, and yet here it is glaring almost in front of us, this, the certainty of our death and the death of everything we hold dear, everyone that we know, and yet we seem to never want to think about it. Why do you think that is? At least in our society, why is it so taboo to think about the death of a loved one? Why?

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:13:00] I think this has been our training since we were very young, to see death as the enemy, as a final curtain call, all that stuff. Instead really, what would happen if we began to speak with our youngsters, our children, more about death [inaudible 00:13:20] I think actually, in my experience, kids are really fascinated by this. They really want to know about it. They’re not scared of it at all. It’s just that we’ve told ourselves really scary [00:13:30] stories about death, so that’s happening, but it’s also changing.

I think that we’ve removed death from everyday life oftentimes in our experience, and that’s part of what makes it foreign. We made it technological and we’ve mystified it and we’ve turned it over to doctors and priests and undertakers. I think when we do that we rob us, ourselves really, of connection with the holy significance of death. I [00:14:00] think it’s shifting. I think people are wanting to have this conversation more and more. They just don’t know how to have it. They want to have it with people who aren’t so afraid to talk about it. I think that’s what we’re doing today. We’re just having an honest conversation about it. I think there’s been, traditionally, all of this avoidance and taboos, et cetera, but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. We have to really think, and we think in terms of the history of the human kind, [00:14:30] this is something that’s decades old.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, something I’ve really appreciated from the Buddhist perspective, rather than seeing life as this force opposed as death as its opposite, the Buddhist approach really meshes the two. It helps you to get out of that dualistic way of thinking of life and death, and then you see it as life, death, it’s like the same. You can’t have one without the other.

[00:15:00] That mental approach for me was a pretty radical shift. To realize that you should, if you love life why should you hate death? Because you can’t have one without the other. I was having a conversation with my son, who’s eight years old, we were driving. He was asking me, I don’t remember exactly how the topic came up, but we were talking about death and I said, “What if instead of talking about it like death, like [00:15:30] the end, we just realize it’s a continuation?”

I started to give him examples. I said, “The death of winter is the birth of what?” Right away he’s like, “Spring.” “Yeah, and the death of spring is the birth of what?” We started going through this process. We talked about caterpillars, “What is the death of a caterpillar? It’s the birth of a butterfly.” Virtual in the context of the end of something is the start of something less. I think that was very [00:16:00] profound for him. Then he came up with scenarios and some were comical. That is, the death of a cow is the birth of a hamburger, or things like that.

I was saying, this is what I wanted him to grasp, this continuation. It doesn’t spell the end in the sense of non-existence. It’s transformation. I thought that was really neat and it was fun to have that conversation with him.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, it’s a beautiful way to have a conversation with a child, and to [00:16:30] really listen also to what they think about it, as opposed to us telling them all the time what it should be. I used to run a preschool years ago when my son was quite young. He’s a grown adult with his own children now. But we used to have these days in the preschool where we’d go out into the woods, nearby woods, and find dead stuff. The kids loved it.

They’d go out and they’d find a rusty old car part or a twig or a leaf or bones of a bird. We’d bring them all [00:17:00] back and spread them out on a blue tarp. Then we’d have a kind of show and tell. The kids would talk about what they’d seen. They were incredibly imaginative. They would talk about this piece of bark had been a bed for a mouse and the mouse didn’t need it anymore. This rusty old car part was a part of a spaceship that had fallen as it passed over the earth. Then this one little girl said something beautiful. She said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous. That they fall to make [00:17:30] room for new leaves.”

I thought that was a beautiful understanding from this four year old really. I think if we can have conversations like the one you were having with your son, or the one I’m describing with children, early on instead of frightening them, I think it really makes a huge difference in how we grow up in keeping death as our companion in a way. We learn then to harness an awareness of death to appreciate the fact that we’re really alive, to encourage self-exploration, to clarify our values, [00:18:00] to find meaning, to generate positive action in our life. I think it’s impermanence that gives us perspective. It helps us to appreciate the beauty of life.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, [inaudible 00:18:11] Your first invitation in the book is to not wait. We don’t need to wait to have these conversations. One of the things that stood out to me when I first about not waiting was also not waiting to think about all the scenarios that [00:18:30] could happen. I first came across this concept years ago, reading another book, but I remember having the thought, “What would it be like when I lose my parents?” It’s a thought that I had avoided.

I’m a twin brother and we’re very close, and that was another thought, “What would it be like to not have my twin brother?” It hit on emotions that I didn’t want to explore yet, and that sense of not waiting for me was realizing, “Well, why not explore that now? [00:19:00] What would it feel like to not have him in my life?” It made every moment more precious since that thought experiment, because it’s like, “I still have him and I still have my mom and I still have my dad.” So the idea of not waiting I think can be beneficial also in terms of not waiting to think of what it will be like when we don’t have the people that we currently have. Do you find that that, as a thought experiment is that … It can be difference, [00:19:30] no one likes to think of the loss of their loved ones, but once you get … Do you get used to it the more you practice it? What do you find with this thought?

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think that it’s an interesting exercise to do, as you’re suggesting. It can be kept as a kind of thought experiment and that keeps us in safe territory so to speak. I think it’s really important that we let that drop into our heart and into our bones and really know it to be true. It is true. It’s a [00:20:00] fact of life that all those who are dear to us we will be separated from. It’s inevitable.

So at first this is a scary thought and it brings up this kind of urgency. But that urgency isn’t all bad, it also is a reminder to really step in with both feet into our life, to tell the people we love that we love them now, not to wait for some opportunity for that. Again, I think it’s the precariousness [00:20:30] of this life that helps us to appreciate its beauty. Every year cherry blossoms explode on the hillsides of Japan. There’s a beautiful place where I teach in the northwest where there are these little blue flax flowers that last for a single day. Now, how come those flowers are so much more beautiful than plastic flowers? Isn’t it part of the fact that they have a brief life? The brevity of their lives help us to appreciate their beauty.

It’s not that [00:21:00] it’s all sad. It’s that it is really about stepping, really fully stepping into our life. I think that, don’t wait is a reminder that waiting for the next moment to arrive we miss this one. I’ve been with hundreds and hundreds of families who have said to me in one way or another, “When is mom going to die?” Waiting for the moment of death we miss all the moments in between.

[00:21:30] I think it’s more, it’s not that it should create a panic in us, but it’s like, don’t fool around, don’t fool yourself into believing you have endless time. That’s a ridiculous … I say, to imagine at the time of your death you have the clarity of mind, the emotional stability, the physical strength to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble. Let’s not wait for that. Why? Let’s do it now. Let’s really step into our life, both feet.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:22:00] You know, I found what you just mentioned, the passing of a moment, this thought experiment for me that started with people, with loved ones, transitioned into an almost constant thought of the passing of a moment. I catch myself in moments or in phases or in stages of life, anticipating what is the next one. One moment that I had that I still consider to be one of the more special or previous moments [00:22:30] I had with my youngest, who’s two right now, was the process of changing a stinky diaper with her, and the thought occurring to me that it will be so nice when she’s out of diapers.

It seemed to have … the process happened so quickly that when I realized the stage will come when diapers will no longer be a part of my life and I’ll look back, not that I would long for that, but [00:23:00] I’ll look back with fond memories of the stage of a toddler running around in diapers. I thought, “Why am I in such a rush to move passed this phase? Whatever the next one is, I’m going to be rushed to get passed that one and before you know it, all those stages are gone and they’re not even at home anymore.” Like I said, all that happened pretty quickly, while I was still changing the diaper, but it changed the experience of changing the diaper. It became a precious moment that I thought, “You know what, this is what I get to do right now.” [00:23:30] That was one way that it manifested for me, this idea.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah. I think it’s the great value of having elders in our culture. We’ve lost a little bit of the wisdom of elders I think [inaudible 00:23:46] oriented, so living in sort of ghettos, these ghettos so to speak. I think that there’s something, there’s a wisdom that grows with age, not all old people are wise, I don’t mean to suggest [00:24:00] that. But there is something about slowing down, and it’s not just because the body gets old and crotchety. It’s that you start to see it goes by really fast.

It’s just, what I want to encourage is stepping into it, really enjoying it, fully [inaudible 00:24:17], not tasting it all. For me that’s really the most life affirming thing that I know, is being with people who are dying. Looking into their eyes, they’re clear mirrors. They [00:24:30] really show me where I’m holding to my fear and to my opinions and views.

They also show me something else. They show me what I sometimes call an undying love, a love that isn’t particular just to a single human being and doesn’t come and go with every moment, something that’s steady. [inaudible 00:24:54] is always coming together and falling apart, everything. This morning breakfast, where did it go? [00:25:00] Last night’s love making, where is it? My blonde hair, it’s gone, it used to be there, it’s not there anymore.

I could grieve all of that experience, and sometimes it’s necessary to do that, or I could recognize this is the way of things. I could appreciate that coming and going is happening, we could say against the background of perfect harmony. When we don’t see the background, we only see the coming and going, I think what happens is all we see is suffering. So it’s [00:25:30] really important to see all this is happening against a background of perfect harmony. We miss that oftentimes.

We’re so busy, we spend so much of our day planning for the next moment, or trying to distract ourself from the current moment in some fashion or another. But I think embracing the truth, that things will inevitably change, encourages us not to wait in order to start living our life in a matter that’s really deeply [00:26:00] engaging. We stop wasting our time on meaningless activities. We don’t hold our opinions or our desires or even our identity so tightly, instead of pinning our hopes on a better future we focus on the present and we’re grateful for what’s in front of us. As I said earlier, we say I love you more often because we realize the importance of human connection. I think we become kinder and more compassionate, more forgiving of ourselves and each other. [00:26:30] I think don’t wait is a pathway to fulfillment, an antidote to regret actually.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. You were talking about grieving, and I think this is an important point to bring up with the second invitation, that we welcome everything, push away nothing. I think there’s a tendency to think, “Well, I don’t want to approach this stuff until I’m at a place in my life where I can approach it in a way that’s going to not be too painful,” [00:27:00] or something along those lines. But this invitation of welcoming everything includes welcoming the difficulty of encountering and dealing with death.

I had an experience with one of my college buddies who ended up being a business partner with me in a business venture about four or five years ago. Out of the blue he was diagnosed with stage four melanoma. [00:27:30] He was told he had months to live. It ended being about a year before he passed, but in that time what used to be our Tuesday lunch meetings to talk about business, turned into our Tuesday meetings to talk about life. It was a fascinating experience, to be able to talk to him about this process of what it feels like to be dying. [00:28:00] This thought of welcoming everything, pushing nothing away.

There were moments where I noticed a resistance, especially towards the end, of, “I don’t know if I want to go see him, because what do you say to someone who’s dying?” [inaudible 00:28:16] things like that, but then thinking, “Well, it’s okay to just feel whatever I’m feeling with him, and to have those open conversations.” It turned into this beautiful experience, where I have a good friend that, the last time we met for lunch [00:28:30] I was able to give him a hug and thank him for our friendship and thank him for the fun memories in college. How often do we really get to do that? But that’s what I thought of with this welcoming everything, welcoming the difficulty of it too.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, I mean just to back up, just so that people understand the context here. The book is called Five Invitations. An invitation is, if I invite you to my house for dinner or to my wedding, [00:29:00] it’s an invitation to show up actually. It’s a request for you to be present really. The five invitations are just that. They are requests for you to be present. What we’re asking you to be present for is your life.

Each of these five invitations, you’ve named the first two, really were given to me or taught to me by people who were dying, in one way or another even if they didn’t use that exact language. They helped to really see that, “Oh, this is [00:29:30] not only a way to help take care of people at the end of life, or as they’re in the dying process, but these really have a relevance for all of us in living a more peaceful, meaningful, productive life.”

The first one, as you said, was don’t wait. The second one is welcome everything, push away nothing. That sounds really good, this would make a great bumper sticker, but how do we do that? Welcome everything? As you were suggesting, we like certainty. We like to have our purposes met. In fact most of us have been [00:30:00] taught that getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want is the key to happiness. But inevitably in our lives there are unexpected experiences, there are unanticipated moves or we lose our job or there’s a family member who gets an illness or there’s a death of a beloved pet. We want to push these things away with all our might. When we’re faced with uncertainty, the first response is usually fear and resistance.

[00:30:30] But I think an attempt to evict these difficult aspects of life from our everyday experience is a kind of cause of cause of suffering actually for us. I think to instead, when we cultivate a kind of receptivity to whatever is present, they don’t have such a stranglehold on us. I think when we’re open and receptive we have more options. [00:31:00] We’re free to discover, to investigate, to learn how to respond to these things in skillful ways.

If our life was just about being comfortable, we would just give people morphine and put them on a couch. They’d be really comfortable but they wouldn’t be very alive. They wouldn’t be very engaged with their lives. So with welcoming everything comes the ability to meet and work with both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. I think [00:31:30] gradually with practice we discover that our wellbeing is not dependent on just having a happy external reality. Our true happiness, our true contentment actually arises from within. Think about yourself, the changes in your life, the real growth that you have made in your life, it probably didn’t happen in your comfort zones, right?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, in fact I was just thinking as you were saying that, that I think some of the moments where I felt most alive where moments where I was experiencing [00:32:00] perhaps the most pain I’ve ever felt, or the most hurt. Those were moments that I felt, especially after the fact, looking back and thinking, “Those are the moments that really helped me to … ” Those were pivotal moments in my life, the difficult moments.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure. It’s not like we have to go hunting for them, they’re there. They’re part of what life delivers to us in a way, as it does also deliver, could be beautiful moments. But I think [00:32:30] to welcome everything and push away nothing, it’s a deep invitation, to cultivate a certain kind of fearless receptivity. Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any fear. People misunderstand fearlessness. Fearlessness means that fear isn’t the only thing in the room. When you’re afraid Noah, for example, let me ask you, when you’re afraid do you know that you’re afraid?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Right, how do you know? How do you know you’re afraid?

Noah Rasheta:                      I think you feel it, there are physiological [00:33:00] symptoms. There’s a strong aversion to whatever it is.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Often. Fear itself is an aversion. So there might be physical sensations, there’s emotional associations that occur, the mind starts planning about the future, how to get out of this scary situation. All that’s going on, right? But here’s the thing I want to point you to, which is that when you know you’re afraid, that means that some part of you is not afraid, the part that knows you’re afraid, [00:33:30] that’s aware of your fear? It’s not afraid. We can orient to just the fear, or we can orient to this awareness, to this knowing we could say.

It doesn’t mean the fear goes away. It doesn’t mean … we don’t have to get it to go away. What we have to do is learn how to deal with it skillfully so we’re not running away from it and it whacks us in the back of the head. [crosstalk 00:33:49]

Noah Rasheta:                      I think sometimes a considerable part of the suffering we experience is the wanting to get rid of it.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Absolutely. Absolutely. [00:34:00] Most of what we call pain, even physical pain, is our resistance to it, the not wanting it to be there. That’s the real cause of suffering, pain plus resistance equals suffering. That’s the formula we can understand.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, I had an experience last summer talking about fear. I have what I consider an irrational fear of snakes. I understand that it’s irrational and I’ve tried to overcome it. It’s really difficult for me. But there was a snake in the [00:34:30] yard, and I made the conscious decision to … it was a little garden snake. All the little kids were playing with it, all my nephews. I said, “I’m going to go hold it. I’m going to touch the snake and hold it and realize this is okay.” The fear never went away in that process.

The fear was there, but it’s the observer that you’re talking about, there was part of me that could observe, “I’m experiencing fear. It’s okay. I understand that it’s not necessarily rational and I’m going [00:35:00] to still proceed to do what I’m going to do,” which is hold this snake. I was proud of myself after the fact for doing it. People who know me well who were there were like, “I can’t believe you touched a snake. That was brave.” I was thinking, “Well, if brave means I was very scared and still did it, then yes. But if brave means I finally lost my fear, no that’s not accurate.”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, very good. That’s a really good distinction. I think people imagine … we’re always talking about overcoming our fear, just as we talk about [00:35:30] overcoming our grief. It’s curious to me that we never speak about overcoming our joy. We don’t say, “How do we manage our joy a little bit better?”

I think that these experiences, fear, grief, these very strong mental emotional states, are something we live into and that we learn something about. Openness doesn’t reject or get attached to any particular experience or view. It’s spacious, our awareness can have about it a certain spaciousness, indefinite quality, [00:36:00] non biased allowing we could say. Openness is the nature of awareness itself, it’s the nature of our nature actually.

I think this is one of the things that people often discover in and around the time of dying. This thing that they always imagined would be only terrifying or unbearable or unimaginably difficult, they find within themselves frequently the resources to meet what they [00:36:30] thought was unbearable in remarkable ways. It isn’t because all their fear went away. It’s because they discovered they are not just their fear. They’re not just their illness. They’re not just their dying process. There’s more to them than that.

It’s not about a spiritual bypass. It’s not about spiritualizing the expectation. It’s recognizing more of what we are. What’s amazing to me Noah is not that we can expand. All of us can, through meditation practice and other [00:37:00] ways, experience expansive states of mind and heart and body. What’s amazing to me is that we take this expansiveness of who we are and shrink it down into such a small story about who we are. That’s what’s amazing to me. That’s what gets blown out of the water in and around the time of dying frequently for people.

The habits of our life have a very strong momentum and they carry through into the time of our dying. Sometimes those habits can be really constricting. [00:37:30] So we need to ask ourself now, what habits do we want to create, we’re willing to cultivate in this life? What do you want to teach your children? So going toward what frightens us or going toward the suffering is oftentimes where the healing is often found, like going and touching the snake.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think that’s very relevant with the grieving process as well, after the fact. Losing a loved one and [00:38:00] then dealing with that grief for, it could be the rest of your life, or I think perhaps it is the rest of your life. The misconception is that one day you’ll be done, you get over it. I see a lot of suffering arise out of that thought, that this is a feeling that I’m supposed to overcome, like we were talking with fear. It’s not that you overcome it, it’s that you harmonize with it. You make it a part of the everyday.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah. It’s easy to throw … [00:38:30] when someone’s in the middle of deep grief, they don’t want to hear this. It’s easy to throw conceptual theoretical ideas at these experiences which are gut wrenching. I think what’s true, is our-

Noah Rasheta:                      Excuse me.

Frank Ostaseski:                   … our relationship to grief, for example, shifts over time. But time alone doesn’t heal grief, time and attention heals grief. So in the beginning we might feel like we don’t know whether we should turn left or right at the end of our [00:39:00] driveway. We can’t make a meal. We’re absolutely lost in the experience of grief. It’s emotionally overwhelming. It can feel like sadness, of course, but it can also feel like anger, and it can feel like fear and numbness, and even relief. Those are all faces of grief.

But it doesn’t stay, it doesn’t remain in that intensity forever. It starts to shift [00:39:30] over time and with attention. After some weeks, some months, and there’s not a timetable for grief, but often with attention and time it starts to relax a little bit. Our identity isn’t completely consumed by the grief and so we start to have a different relationship to it.

The experience, what you’re saying I think which is true, is that grief is part of the human condition. It’s there for all of us. It surfaces sometimes, it’s [00:40:00] like an underground river that surfaces sometimes, like for example around the loss of someone we love. But it’s always been there, in fact I think it’s our common ground with one another, one of our common grounds.

The first experience of grief, which feels like fragmentation and isolation, with time and attention and healing, can become a path to wholeness. But you can’t somebody that at the beginning of their grieving process. All you can do is hang out with them and make a meal for them and help them do the insurance forms [00:40:30] and have them tell the story of their loss 10,000 times, until it feels real for them.

I think that … When I was running Zen Hospice, I’m not anymore but when I was the director there, I sometimes lost 20 or 30 people in a week. I had to learn how to deal with that grief. One of the things I did was I went to my meditation cushion, and that was a way to cultivate stability and assimilate, metabolize [00:41:00] if you will, the experience of loss. But that wasn’t enough, grief is a physical experience also. So I would go to my body worker. I’d go to his office and he’s say, “Where should we touch today Frank?” Instead of him doing some kind of manipulation on me I’d say, “Just my shoulder.” He’d put his hand on my shoulder and I would just cry for about an hour.

There was something about the touch and also the relationship with somebody else that allowed this grief [00:41:30] to really come forward and to be expressed, and as a way of metabolizing it, including it. Then I did something else, I would go to the hospital nearby, where my friends worked in the maternity ward, the nurses on the maternity ward. On that particular maternity ward there were babies who were born to addicted mothers. Before I would go home to my own children I would go there to this maternity ward and I would sit in a rocking chair and rock these little infants.

There was something about being able to soothe their distress, and [00:42:00] have them relax in my arms, that was very important and very helpful to me. Because there were other times when I was people who were dying whose, frankly, suffering I couldn’t soothe. I couldn’t. They died in difficult conditions. So I had to find ways to work with that grief that really worked for me. Each person’s grief is entirely different. I’m a little suspicious of models of grief, that we have us managing people’s [00:42:30] experience. I think there’s wonderful great value to things like bereavement groups et cetera, but sometimes they don’t allow for the wildness of grief, and grief can be completely wild, feel uncontrollable. It can have a huge effect on the way in which we function in the world.

In the old days it used to be that there was … You wore a special kind of clothing or a black arm band or something, to let people know that you’re in an altered state and that they should treat you different. They shouldn’t expect you to behave normally. [00:43:00] Now, your mother dies and you go to a party and nobody mentions it, because we’re afraid to upset you. So we leave you isolated and alone in your grief. I think that, again, the book but also my work, and I think it sounds like your way also, is to help people turn toward their experience. Even if the experience first feels unnerving in some way. Stay with it. Stay in the room when the going gets rough.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:43:30] Yeah, I like that. I have a question that somebody posted. This is Johnny and he’s asking, “Is it fair to say that when we experience fear we might want to take a step back and try to find if there’s an opportunity hiding behind it?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well, I think that’s true. I think it’s a wise comment. The only thing that I would want to encourage us to do is to [00:44:00] not do a bypass around the fear, to be willing to feel it, to see, as you did earlier, sense it in the body, feel the effect in the heart, mood, et cetera, and to sere what the activity is in the mind that’s occurring, so that we get really familiar with the fear. I think also when we get very familiar with it in that way, we can see it in its arising, before it’s in its full explosion, before it’s in its full bloom so to speak.

But I think, yes, what Johnny’s suggesting, to take a backward step, [00:44:30] to step back then from all that activity of mind, heart and body, and say, “What else is here?” That’s my favorite question, what else is here? So in addition to the fear and my reaction to it, what else is here? There’s some spaciousness here. There’s some understanding that’s growing here. There’s some empathy that’s emerging here. So to ask that simple question, what else is here, I think is a wise way to interact with almost any [00:45:00] difficult emotional or mind state.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. One other question that somebody commented, and this is kind of a different topic but I think this might be a fun little tangent or segue to explore here. This is Derek who’s asking, “Some speculate that we will at some point reach a time when science will be able to extend our lives indefinitely, so that we could effectively live forever. How [00:45:30] does Frank think this removal of death would affect us?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   That’s becoming an increasingly popular question. I was with a group of Silicon Valley folks not long ago and I said something like, “Death is inevitable.” A guy raised his hand and he said, “I’m not so sure about that. We’re trying to hack that.[inaudible 00:45:49] you know.” I said, “Okay, great.” I said, “You know, so we’ll live for 250 years or we’ll live for 500 years.” I said, “Let’s take the word death out of the equation for a moment. Let’s just take it out of the conversation. [00:46:00] Let’s just deal with how we think about endings. How do we meet endings in our life right now?”

Like the end of a sentence, or the end of a meal, or when you leave a party, how do you leave the party? Do you just ghost out, or do you say goodbye to people? How do you meet endings?” I think the way in which we meet endings can in fact have a big influence on how the next moment arises. The way we end one things tends to shape the next thing emerges. So I think that if we [00:46:30] could think, just for a moment let go of the notion of death as [inaudible 00:46:35] some final event, and just think about endings. That’s a really good place to explore, because even if we live forever there will be endings. There will be endings continuously through that experience. So even if we live forever there will be endings.

Noah Rasheta:                      You I was thinking as you were saying that-

Frank Ostaseski:                   My teacher used to- I’m sorry, I just wanted to add one more [00:47:00] thing, which was that my teacher used to say, “Suppose you could live forever, no matter what.” When we talk about living forever we assume we’re going to be in great health for the entire time. Maybe that’s not so. We were talking earlier about impermanence, I think we rely on impermanence. I think it’s not only what shows us beauty, it’s also something that gives us relief. You know, that really boring dinner party that you’re going to go to on Saturday, it’s going to end. [00:47:30] Or this cold that you have, it’s going to end. Or evil dictatorships will fall and hopefully be replaced by thriving democracies. We rely on things coming to and end.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I agree. I was going to say, the stages, like we had talked about before, those are stages that end. Presuming I could plan on living forever, there would be stages of life that have ended. [00:48:00] Memories I think fit into that, because even now I don’t remember the five year old me. What did I feel? What did I think? I don’t even remember the specific experiences that I was having. So in a way, that part of me is dead and gone.

If we reach this point where we can live forever, 2000 years from now, is that me going to be significantly different than the me that was talking to you here today? [00:48:30] Would I grieve that old me? I don’t know, but I think you’re right there will always be the opportunity to still live fully by keeping in mind the endings that life will always be having, the phases and the stages and the friendships and relationships, so many other endings.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think the question is an interesting one philosophically. What does that do to the structure of the society, et cetera, if people live forever? I don’t know. I can’t imagine knowing [00:49:00] that. The thing that I would want to be careful of is that we won’t use a question like that to bypass our direct experience that we’re having now. The truth, the fact of the matter is now we don’t live for 2000 years. We live for a limited lifespan. So I want to know, how do I do that really well? How do I do that with as much integrity and as much passion and as much joy and fullness as I can muster? How do I love as hard as I possibly can this [00:49:30] life that is fragile and vulnerable?

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the things that I just thought of, there are ideologies and religious views that are built around the idea of this being a perpetual experience. Sure life ends, but then you continue to exist in an eternal state somewhere else, let’s say heaven or something like that. What I found for me, looking back to when I viewed it that way, was it can be easy [00:50:00] to bypass the present experience in anticipation of that future experience. Then things will be better but right now won’t do what I need to do to change my life now because I am projecting it the future. I think this thought of extending our ability to live forever can do the same thing. It can remove us from the full experience of being mindful in this moment, the only true moment that we have, the present.

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:50:30] Yes. Look, there’s a thousand ways to distract ourselves and that’s just one of them. But also it’s kind of fun and playful to play with, “What if … ” Those are fun things to play with. I like my mind’s ability to imagine. I don’t know what happens after we die. I just don’t. Maybe all the things that religions have been telling for millenniums will in fact be so. [00:51:00] I think what tends to happen is, we tend to take our sense of self, which for the most part we construct as something separate and apart from everything else, and we imagine that continuing forever. That I don’t imagine happens. This personality isn’t, thank goodness, is not going to go on forever.

I think when we live in that way, it’s both a little absurd to me and also a little arrogant. I mean, here’s [00:51:30] what we usually do, which is everything is changing, like your eight year old son told you, right? “Caterpillars turn into butterflies dad, and seasons come and go.” Everything is constantly changing, except me. I’m the one thing in all of reality that doesn’t change. We have that idea about ourselves oftentimes, and it’s absurd. For me it’s also, when I see someone I haven’t seen in many years and they say, “Frank, it’s great to see you. You haven’t changed a bit.” I’m a little insulted [00:52:00] actually, because I think there’s been a lot of change in my life, over these 66 years. The fact is, death is not this thing that only happens at the end of a long road, it’s happening right now. This podcast will come to and end. My sentence will come to an end.

Noah Rasheta:                      With that I want to touch on the topic of uncertainty. [00:52:30] I think a lot of our discomfort arises out of what you mentioned before, I don’t know what happens when I die. What if we were okay with saying, “That’s a perfectly acceptable answer. We don’t know.” It seems like we’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty that we feel the need to construct a certain narrative, even if it’s just a narrative or it’s fictional, but at least it’s certain.

We do this with not just thinking about death, but [00:53:00] an example I use often, we do this when we’re driving and someone cuts us off. It’s not okay for me to not know why that happened. I feel much more certain when I say, “That person’s a jerk, that’s why they did that.” I may be completely wrong but at least I’ve got an answer now. I wonder if our ability to increase our comfort around the discomfort of not knowing, what effect that would have on bigger topics, like the topic of death.

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:53:30] Well, or climate or any number of other social issues that we have. I think the problem lies not in uncertainty but the fact that we feel not knowing with scary ideas, scary thoughts. The opposite of faith, we often say, is not doubt, it’s certainty. There’s a beautiful Buddhist teacher, Carol Hyman, and she wrote very beautifully. She said, ” [00:54:00] If we learn to let go into uncertainty and to trust that our basic nature and that of the world are not different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed, this becomes a liberating opportunity rather than a threat.”

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Everything will come apart Noah. This is true of our bodies, of our relationships, of our life. It’s happening all the time anyway, it’s not just at the end when the curtain falls. Coming [00:54:30] together inevitably means parting. Don’t be troubled by this, this is the nature of life. Our lives are not solid and fixed, no matter how much we try to protect ourselves and make white picket fences around our houses. I think knowing this intimately is how we prepare for death, also for any loss of any kind. It’s also how we really come to love and fully embrace constant change. We’re not just our past, we’re becoming. We’re not stuck. [00:55:00] We don’t have to be stuck in old grudges, we can forgive. We can free ourself from resentment and regret now, before we die.

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the, a common question I get when I’m exploring this topic in a workshop or somewhere is, if you have this mindset of just being anchored in the present moment, do you run the risk of becoming [00:55:30] indifferent to things in the future? Like, “I guess I’m not going to pursue this career path, because who knows where things will go now.” Is that a risk that we run? I have the answer I typically give for that, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think initially it certainly is a risk. I know for myself when I first got introduced to notions of impermanence, I used it kind of as a club. It was a way to not invest in anything, in my relationships, in my early relationships [00:56:00] I thought, “Well it’s all impermanent, why invest here, why commit to anything?” But of course it’s just the opposite. It’s because things are impermanent, because they are so precarious, that they’re so precious. That’s why we love them so much. That’s we really we invest completely, not in some clinging craving way, but in a way that really honors and respects the fact that all relationships are characterized by constant change.

I think that that’s the first thing, [00:56:30] we can use it as a kind of defense against commitment and engagement. But the other is that it’s kind of freeing. It means that we’re not wedded to our past trauma. We’re not wedded to our future scary stories. The other thing I want to add here Noah, which I think is vastly misunderstood, is we often, and Buddhist practice is subject to this problem. [00:57:00] Which is that we talk about the present moment as if it were some nanosecond in time. Is that it? Did we just miss it? I think the present moment has to be understood to include past and future.

Eternity is not a long, long time. Saint Augustine wrote about this, he said, “The now is neither in time nor out of time.” So when we speak about the present moment, we’re talking about a moment that includes past and [00:57:30] future, not that avoids it. When I’m remembering my third grade teacher but I’m remembering her now, that’s a present moment activity. When I’m thinking about how I’ll be when I’m really old, that’s a present moment activity. It’s not like past and future are an illusion. I think that’s a misunderstanding. I think all of it exists here and now. That means that we have access to an awful lot here and now.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:58:00] Yeah, I like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   It means that we can fully invest without fear.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, taking this concept and applying it in the present moment, I want to ask you about people who are currently going through a difficult stage, for example dealing with let’s say a child with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, or the difficulties [00:58:30] of dealing with the possibility of death and feeling helpless. I think in scenarios like that part of the difficulty is recognizing the pain and suffering that a loved one is experiencing, and wanting to remove that from them. Talk to me a little bit about that, what tips or advice would you give to someone who’s going through a situation like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I’m careful about advice [00:59:00] you know because it’s cheap. It’s hard to give generalized advice without knowing the specifics of a situation. But I would say that one of the things that is helpful for me to keep in the back of my mind in part as I’m with someone in such a situation, is that to build an empathetic bridge to them I have to be willing to look at my own relationship to these issues. So I have to look at my own helplessness. I have to look at my own fear. I have to look at my own grief. [00:59:30] Otherwise, when I’m with them and I say I understand, they will know I’m just guessing. They’ll sniff out my sentimentality and my insincerity.

In order to really be of service to others I have to work of myself. That’s what enables me to be of service to others. Of course serving others I learn about myself, I grow and develop for myself, so there’s that mutuality of exchange that happens. But the other thing that I think is a misunderstanding, is that we often … Well, there’s a [01:00:00] lot of language out there around the confusion between empathy and compassion these days. [inaudible 01:00:04] that I feel with. Compassion is the action to do something to remove or alleviate the suffering.

We can get empathetically overloaded with people, even our own children. We need to feel with them, but we also … If I’m with granddaughter and she’s having a tantrum, I need to know that I can stay in my own seat and I [01:00:30] can use my wisdom and I can use my maturity and I can use my kind heart to comfort her. If I get over there and get lost in the tantrum with her, I can’t be of very much use, or I’m [inaudible 01:00:40] the action to her tension, I can’t be of very much use. So I have to really keep my own seat, that’s what I have to do.

Now compassion often is spoken about as taking away suffering or removing suffering. That’s good if you can do it, but you can’t always do it. I work with dying and I can’t take away [01:01:00] their dying. But what I find is that when I’m really abiding in a compassionate heart, that means that I’ve really done my homework, then they sense that and they’re willing to go to really dangerous places. Not because it’s going to be safe eventually, it’s because they’re companioned, they’re compassionately companioned. I think we underestimate sometimes the value of [01:01:30] simple human presence, particularly compassionate human presence, radical compassion that doesn’t always know what to do but it’s willing to be with the suffering, willing to stay in the room when the going gets rough. I think what happens is when compassion’s there, just one more thing on this.

When compassion is present, our defenses against what’s difficult fall down, and then we can see the deeper causes [01:02:00] of the suffering, and then we can actually intervene ourselves or help another to intervene in their experience in a skillful way. So compassion does more than just take away things, it allows us to stay with something until a deeper truth can show itself. Real actual truth of the real suffering can show itself, and then we can do something about it.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. Thank you for sharing that. I think that touches on the second invitation [01:02:30] of welcoming everything and pushing away nothing. Recognizing that situations like that, there may not be answers. So you’re with that person and knowing that, “Hey, this is going to be a rough ride. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. But I’m here with you.” I think we can add … It’s already a moment of difficulty but we can add to it by adding that second [01:03:00] arrow, where now we’re there thinking, “This isn’t how this should feel. There should be an answer. There should be something that solves this whole problem,” and sometimes there’s not.

Frank Ostaseski:                   No, and you know the answer isn’t always to solve the problem. Sometimes the answer is in simply keeping company with people. I’ve been with some people in really horrible conditions and I couldn’t do much to make those conditions go away, but in fact I could keep company with them. [01:03:30] I think it also is useful not to just imagine … to use our skillful action, to use our wise hearts in action. I remember coming into a situation where there was a patient who was very sick, coming close to the end of life.

The volunteer was there and I said, “How is it going?” She said, “Well, she’s having a really hard time but we’re just being with it.” She was in this kind of mediative pose. I look at [inaudible 01:03:53] sweating up a storm. I said, “Well, it’s good that you’re being with her, but let’s get a cool rag, let’s cool down her forehead and [01:04:00] going to her some ibuprofen because that will help with the fever.” We want to make skillful interventions as well when they seem appropriate. We want to use our intelligence and our good kind hearts. Together they make for a very reliable guide.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. Do you have any specific mediation techniques? Or are there mediations that facilitate [01:04:30] with this idea of becoming more mindful of death? It looks like I may have lost the signal there from Frank. I’ll give it a moment, see if he-

Frank Ostaseski:                   Are we still [crosstalk 01:04:49]

Noah Rasheta:                      There you are.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I almost lost you there. Sorry, you started to say something and then I lost your audio.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Yeah, so my question was, do you know of any … [01:05:00] are there any meditative techniques or guided meditations that help us to be more mindful of death? I’m thinking something like meta-mediation for kindness and compassion. Is there something that’s the equivalent that deals with thinking about death?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure, there’s lots of them. There are various visualization practices, visualizing one’s own dying. There are these kinds of practices that we can do, [01:05:30] but I think it’s best to keep it simple and really look and see, what happens at the end of an exhale. What happens there in that gap between the next inhale? That’s a moment, right? It’s a moment of faith or a moment of fear. Do you really trust the next breath will arise and that you’ll be able [inaudible 01:05:53] or are you afraid that it won’t come and you feel like you have to manage? I think that learning to [01:06:00] be simple in our lives and deal with our everyday life, not thinking of some other meditation outside of our life but just before going to bed at night reflecting on one’s own day. Looking back and seeing with gratitude what this day was like, and that is important. My wife asks, and I sometimes, before we go to sleep we ask each other four questions. I just want to be sure you’re still there Noah.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I’m still there.

Frank Ostaseski:                   The four questions were given to me by another friend, Angela [Sarian 01:06:30]. [01:06:30] The first one is, what inspired you today? Beautiful. Second question is, what challenged you today? Because we don’t just grow in our comfort zones as we spoke earlier. The third one is, what surprised you today? That’s a really good one. Children love surprises. You can play peekaboo with my granddaughter 10,000 times and she loves it, but throw a surprise party for an adult and they say, “Who’s responsible for this?” [01:07:00] So, what surprised you today? The last one is, what did you learn about love today? That’s a beautiful question to ask.

So, what inspired you? What challenged you? What surprised you? And, what did you learn about love today? These are a great practice [inaudible 01:07:18] my dear friend Angela Sarian who died a few years ago. Those are practices I think that help us. Wouldn’t they be great questions to ask as we come close to the end of our life? Why not practice them now?

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:07:30] I noticed question just popped and I know we’re kind of getting towards the end of the hour, so I just wanted to extend the invitation to anyone who’s listening, if you have any questions that you would like to ask, now would be a great time to post them. One already did, this is Johnny asking, “How important is closure before death?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well you know, it’s an ideal to try and [01:08:00] come to. But I’m a little suspicious of our ideas of closure, which is that everything gets wrapped up nice and tidy. My experience is that you close this and the next thing opens. So what I was saying earlier about watching the way we meet endings is really useful. Some people come to the end of their lives and they have meaningful conversations with family or friends or people that perhaps they’ve had challenges with, and that’s really helpful for [01:08:30] them to step into their dying process. For others that’s more of an internal process, and they come to that understanding within themselves, not through relational conversations.

I think what I really want to be careful of is that we don’t setup a kind of idealistic idea about what has to happen for death. One of the things that happens in this culture is we put a lot of weight on dying people to do it well or to die well or to [01:09:00] have a good death or all those things. Instead of recognizing that when we speak about a good death, we might not know what that actually is like internally and spiritually for someone. We don’t really know what it is that we need next oftentimes.

What I think we can do is look at the systems and say, “Did the system support this person in a way that really helped them? Or did the system abandon them?” We can evaluate the system and help us really look and see how to do that, how to help people when they’re dying [01:09:30] better. But I don’t think it’s so helpful to evaluate people’s way of dying as a way of understanding what a good death is. I’ve seen people die opening in great kindness. I’ve also seen people die telling the people in front of them that they hate them. Both of them in my view were actually [inaudible 01:09:54] appropriate to those individuals.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, thank you for [01:10:00] clarifying that, because I agree with you on that view. I think it’s dangerous when we start to decide what is a good death, what is a bad death.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Again, I think we can say something about the system. From our healthcare system or other systems, how are we supporting this person? Did we take care of their symptoms? Did we manage their pain? Did we give them a certain degree of autonomy? What did we do? Those are things that we should evaluate I think.

Noah Rasheta:                      I [01:10:30] think if we were to take that and flip it to what is a good life, what is a bad life, we can run into some of those same issues. But ending this on a note where we’re talking about life, because your book has these invitations but the ultimate premise is that we’re discovering what death can teach us about fully living. So ending it on that note with this concept of what it means to be fully living, what do you have to [01:11:00] say with regards to the concept of fully living? What does that look like?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well of course it’s going to look individually quite different to different people. I think that’s part of the beauty of this incredibly beautiful opportunity we call life. That said, I think that living a life that is multi-dimensional I think is really a good way to think about it. Our life doesn’t proceed in a linear [01:11:30] way. Living it on the horizontal but also on the vertical we could say. Those two planes of existence if you will I think are really important to consider.

Is it a life characterized by integrity? Is it a life characterized by meaning and purpose? Is is a life that includes or aims at belonging? These are the really big questions that really matter for us. Do we find ourself? [01:12:00] Do we recognize the interdependency of our lives? That everything we do and say affects everything else and everyone else, and that we are affected and supported by everything else that happens in reality. I think a full life or a life that’s fully lived is a life that begins to recognize these things as well and temper our notions of control. I think that’s really important [01:12:30] to conclude as well.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That’s great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you about this topic. Like I mentioned before, I’m grateful that you took the time to make this appointment work to be able to jump on live with someone you’ve never talked to, and to spend an hour with me talking about such an important topic. A topic that at some point brushes [01:13:00] up against every single one of us.

Frank Ostaseski:                   It’s brushing up against us right now Noah. You know what I mean? It’s not like it’s, again, it’s just something that happens at the end a long long life. It’s here in this moment. This podcast is about to come to and end, right?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. [crosstalk 01:13:15]

Frank Ostaseski:                   So how do meet it? I want to end it by saying thank you. I really want to say thank you to you for doing it, first of all, and for inviting me to be your guest and to engage people in such a lively conversation. I don’t think my book or my life is about [01:13:30] just preparing for dying. I think that’s a short lived understanding. I think it’s, how do we use death, the presence of death, to really help us see what matters most in this life?

Inevitably, and most of the people I’ve worked with who are dying, they’ve asked two questions Noah. Not big philosophical questions, they’re more questions like, “Am I loved?” And, “Did I love well?” Those are the two questions that come to people’s hearts and minds as they [01:14:00] come to the end of their life. We don’t need to wait until death to ask ourselves those questions or to answer them. We can do it now. I want to leave your listeners and viewers with that reflection. You want to a reflection on death, ask yourself those two questions.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. I would add that for me the five invitations are absolutely invitations about life. Like you said, it’s a book [01:14:30] that uses death as the topic to really talk about life. It’s a book about life, and quite a powerful book. If you’re interested in learning about the five invitations in Frank Ostaseski’s book, you can pick that up I’m sure on Amazon. I will be posting a link to it on the interview that I’m doing. This interview will be transcribed, so for those who want to re-read it, or listen to it, or watch it, all of those links will be posted. [01:15:00] I’ll share with that you [crosstalk 01:15:01]

Frank Ostaseski:                   Can I add one more thing, if [crosstalk 01:15:04]

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   One is, I now continue to [inaudible 01:15:07] an organization called the Metta Institute, mettainsitute.org. They can find us on the web, or they can go to fiveinvitations.com and there they can find not only information about the book but lots of articles and podcasts and other things that help people in different domains of their life, people working with grief, healthcare professionals that want to know more about how to be a mindful healthcare professional. People who want to be compassionate companions in their life. [01:15:30] People who want to step into life more fully.

There are articles, blogs, all kinds of stuff on the site that we made available just as a gift to the world, so people can find it there on fiveinvitations.com. The other is that, you know, I’m not very good at self-promotion but, I want to encourage people to look at the book or to get the audiobook, which I read. Because I think it’s not just a good self-exploration but it’s a great conversation to have with people you care about. The book is a really [01:16:00] interesting way to have that conversation, people are doing it in book clubs and such. Get a couple for the holidays as gifts, and have the conversation with your family. Talk to your parents, talk to your kids about this. There isn’t a more important conversation to have.

Noah Rasheta:                      I want to endorse that message, because I wouldn’t have you on the podcast if I hadn’t read the book, and if I didn’t think the book was of tremendous value [01:16:30] to anyone who’s going to read it. So yes, I read the book, I wholeheartedly recommend it to especially the podcast listeners who are typically people who are trying to do exactly that, live more fully, live more mindfully.

Death is a great way to do that, the way Frank presents that is wonderful. I listened to it on Audible, and I don’t know if you noticed in this last hour, it’s a pleasant experience to hear Frank talk and [01:17:00] that’s who reads the book. So if you’re going to read it by listening to it, that’s another plus, it’s actually Frank who’s reading it. Are there any other sites that you would want to point people to if they want to follow you or your thoughts, do you have a Twitter account or anything like that?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, they can find me on Twitter. It’s @FOstaseski or @FiveInvitations. If they go to the websites they can find events and things. We just posting the stuff for 2018 now. They can find out where I’m teaching around the country, around the world for that matter. I teach [01:17:30] all over the world. There’ll be more information after January 1st on those sites. Thank you Noah, thank you again. I really appreciate the conversation and the directness with which you engaged me. Thank you.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. I will stay in touch with you by email. I would love to maybe have the opportunity to have another conversation at some point.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure [crosstalk 01:17:54] happy to, really happy to.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Happy holidays, thanks again, and thank [01:18:00] you to everyone who listened in live. We will catch you guys next time. Until next time.

61 – Mindful Relationships & Social Justice – Yael Shy

In this podcast episode, I am sharing the audio of an interview with Yael Shy. Yael offers expert guidance on beginning a meditation practice and explores how to bring that practice to relationships, social justice, and the general ups and downs of everyday life.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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.
It looks like we are streaming live now here on the Crowdcast platform and on social media channels. Welcome, everyone who’s listening in live. I am Noah Rasheta, host of the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am excited to have Yael Shy with me here today. Yael is an author. Her recent book titled, What Now? is going to be one of the topics [00:00:30] of our discussion today, but really quickly Yael is the founder and director of MindfulNYU which happens to be the largest campus wide meditation initiative in the country.

She’s also the senior director for the Center for Global Spiritual Life at New York University. She leads meditation workshops around the country and around the world. She’s been published in the Harvard Business Review, [00:01:00] Huffington Post, the Journal of Interreligious Studies among other publications, and she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. I’m really excited to have her on the show today because she offers expert guidance on not just meditation practice but I think more specifically how to bring mindfulness in this practice into things like relationships love, social media, how we interact on social media, [00:01:30] social justice, activism and just the general ups and downs of everyday life. With that, welcome, Yael. Thank you for being on the show.

Yael Shy:                                   So happy to be here. Thank you so much. I’m a big fan of the show and the podcast, whole thing.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. Just to clarify for those of you who are following us live, this is streaming on the various social channels but the platform we’re using to do this interview is Crowdcast. Now, those of [00:02:00] you who are watching through the Crowdcast platform, have the ability to submit questions. Towards the end of the discussion, we will open up the questions specific to what we’re talking about today.

If you’re on Facebook, or Periscope, or YouTube watching this live and you post questions in the comments, we may not see those live. I’ll go back and look for those after the interview. Yael, if she has time, she may do that too, but the once [00:02:30] that we will certainly entertain are the ones that are posted on the Crowdcast platform. If you are watching this stream somewhere else and you want to join this one, the actual platform, it’s crowdcast.io/e/yael which is Y-A-E-L dash Shy. It’s kind of a complicated URL to give out on the spot like that.

I’m excited to talk about a [00:03:00] couple of topics specifically. I think the two I’m most excited about are the expertise that Yael brings to the topic of mindfulness and relationships because we are all in relationships. It’s not just romantic relationships which I think is key here but any relationship, relationships with siblings, with parents, with children and then the other overall topic is social activism. We’re going [00:03:30] to talk a little but about that. Specifically, how do we change the world without burning out?

Let’s start with the first one, mindfulness and relationships. Before we jump into that, tell us a little bit, Yael about how you got into mindfulness meditation Buddhism. Tell us a little bit about your journey?

Yael Shy:                                   Sure. I started meditating when I was [00:04:00] college junior and really I came to it from a lot of suffering, a lot of stress and not just the stress that people often talk about with college students like so much homework. Fights with the parents. Deep existential stress about what is the point of being alive, what is my role in this world, how am I supposed to [00:04:30] survive when all of these range of feelings just rushing through me in a lot of anxiety and fear just constantly. I was having panic attacks regularly and the circumstances of my life were falling apart around me and my parents were getting divorced.

I had ended a relationship, I felt very lonely and alone. I was struggling hard and so then I [00:05:00] was having a really hard time. I sought out a bunch of different kinds of advice, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to get better and my mother actually passed along to me a flyer about a meditation retreat, a seven-day silent meditation retreat. No concept of what that was, I’ve never meditated-

Noah Rasheta:                      [inaudible 00:05:22]

Yael Shy:                                   Yeah. It was crazy because I was imagining like a nice spa, vacation with [00:05:30] maybe hot tubs or massages and I get to that retreat center and it was really just seven days of … From morning until night meditation without much of a break at all. We weren’t allowed to talk to anyone. We weren’t supposed to be making eye contact. It was extremely intense. I had multiple panic attacks with a couple of days. I was having fantasies about hot-wiring cars and getting out [00:06:00] of that place.

Then about midway through in the retreat, I finally got to talk to a teacher about all the stress I was experiencing and I said, “I’m just so full of fear all the time.”He said to me, “Fear doesn’t like the light. If you shine a light on it then sometimes you can help to understand and fear will eventually disperse.” That began that process of trying to look at what was underneath all [00:06:30] that anxiety, what the root of so much of that panic and stress.

That really just started the journey for the rest of my life in this world and this meditation world because it almost immediately cracked through so much of that pain and anxiety that I was experiencing on a daily basis. Of course, it didn’t solve it right away but over the years, it almost transformed the chemical [00:07:00] makeup of my body so that … I really haven’t had a panic attack, I don’t know, like 10 years almost. That’s how I came to this practice.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow. It seems intense suffering is a common path for people to find their way to this path, right?

Yael Shy:                                   Right.

Noah Rasheta:                      I know that’s certainly the case for me. It’s the case for a lot of people I’ve encountered. It seems [00:07:30] like these meditation retreats almost all consistently somewhere around that halfway mark is when people realize, “Okay, I can do this and then it becomes a really neat experience after that.” Why do you think that is? Is it because we’re just not used to doing anything remotely close to sitting in silence for that long?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. I think we’re not used to it on multiple levels. We’re not used to it on just like our everyday consciousness [00:08:00] level but our bodies are not used to it. In the beginning, everything is screaming either in pain or I know many people who just slept through their first three days. I have no idea what it’s doing. You sit it down and you say don’t move. It’s bed time. There’s all kinds of things that come up. The Buddha call these things hindrances that come up when we sit down for meditation.

[00:08:30] Especially for beginners who do what I … I mean I did a crazy thing. Most people have had some experience, exposure to meditation before you do that but retreats are just incredible incubators of ourselves and most of us do not fit with ourselves and our minds for that intensity for that amount of time.

Noah Rasheta:                      When I think of meditation in general as the art of [00:09:00] becoming comfortable with discomfort, I think retreat is like what you’re describing. That’s bootcamp, right? That’s the-

Yael Shy:                                   It is bootcamp.

Noah Rasheta:                      You’re going to sit there and it’s going to hurt until suddenly at some point, you become more comfortable with that discomfort. I imagine that’s why it’s so transformative too.

Yael Shy:                                   That’s right. Yes, that’s right. It’s just that if anybody is thinking about doing one. You haven’t done one yet. The real key is just to have as much as you can to muster the faith that something will [00:09:30] happen. That’s what we promise whenever I lead a retreat that something will happen. You don’t know exactly what it will be but it’s just to hang in there through those tortures. For some people beginning time. Maybe not for everyone but certainly for me as an early day.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Thanks for sharing that. Let’s jump in to the topic of mindfulness and relationships. You have a chapter in your book. [00:10:00] I’m trying to remember exactly what it’s called. Is it mindfulness and relationships? Oh, mindful relationships. That’s exactly what it’s called. In the chapter, mindful relationships, you bring together the … You merge the concepts of how does mindfulness benefit a relationship. Let’s talk about that a little bit, summarize the marriage of these two [00:10:30] things.

Yael Shy:                                   Sure. Like you said, everybody’s inversions of relationships. I think what we all crave out of relationships is to be fully seen and heard to be felt and seen for who we really are and to be heard, our voices heard or our needs heard even of the other person can’t always meet the needs or can’t [00:11:00] fulfill our dreams, our fantasies, to really be seen is so healing and what so many of us are seeking. In order to then be able to really see another person and to see them in their totality then I think the practice of meditation and mindfulness enables us to see ourselves to open up our own hearts to ourselves to see the [00:11:30] ugly and the difficult parts to see the parts that we believe are beautiful and strong and to have space

The more we do for all of those different elements. The more we do that, the more we cultivate a loving appreciative accepting relationships to ourselves, the more we have space to let in the totality of another person and to really see them rather than what often happens which is we use the frame [00:12:00] of another person to try and discover whether or not we are lovable and the person feels used and feels unseen and we feel frustrated because we’re not getting the right answers. We’re not getting to the right thing and everybody suffers.

The best metaphor I’ve heard about this is from a Zen teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh who I’m sure many of your listeners know. [00:12:30] He talks about how if you put a handful of salt in a glass of water and you try and drink it and you can’t drink it, it’s disgusting, but if you put a much even more than a handful of salt in a very large, clear lake, you can still drink it and there’s enough space for it to dissolve and the lake water can still taste delicious. The metaphor being that when we have a lot of room and space for the difficult things that arise [00:13:00] and for the different parts of ourselves, then we have that room and space for other people.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that, the analogy of the salt. I think about from the psychological standpoint we have the negativity bias where … I forget the ratios but for every X amount of good things … For every one bad thing, it takes X amount of good things to offset that. [00:13:30] Do you know that ratios? Is it 4-10, something like that?

Yael Shy:                                   [inaudible 00:13:35]

Noah Rasheta:                      It’s happier. It’s like this.

Yael Shy:                                   Yes, exactly.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think in relationships that becomes really evident, right? Especially, romantic relationships your spouse can do 10 nice things but then they do that one thing and boom, that’s where the focus goes. I imagine this concept of the salt [00:14:00] being like that. It’s like if you’re just focusing on this, it’s really salty but increase your awareness and you … It’s not the circumstance has changed but the perspective changed. That’s something I like that you highlighted in your book, bringing it back inward because what we’re trying to do through mindfulness practice in general is that same thing and relationship through reality.

There’s reality and then there’s me. I feel separate from it and everything I’m looking for is out there [00:14:30] but then mindfulness tweaks this and you turn that shift, you start to look inward and realize it’s here, it’s me. I think that’s hard to do in a relationship because we’re programmed to think everything I’m looking for in the success of this relationship is contingent on that other person. It’s outward, right?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes.

Noah Rasheta:                      When you notice like when we start to acquire these principles, mindfulness principles into something [00:15:00] like a relationship. You brought up this concept of the mirror, that relationships are like a mirror. I really like that. so tell me a little bit about how does that really work in a practical sense? I’m in a relationship, with my wife for example and there’s this mirror. What are some of the common things that we hope to see if we don’t realize it’s a mirror but when I realize it’s a mirror what do we start to see, what changes?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:15:30] It’s a great question. I’ll use myself as an example because that’s the easiest for me to use. I was single for a long time, much longer than I wanted to be. I think I put a lot of hope and pressure if I met someone and they saw me as the one, the most beautiful, the best [00:16:00] person in their life that I would finally in the inside really feel that way about myself that I was worthy, that I was lovable. It meant so much to me that many potential suitors came along and if I sense even a little bit that any of them couldn’t do that for me, couldn’t present to me with that picture of you are everything [00:16:30] and then either it was my fear or something else just kept getting in the way and I kept thinking, “That person is not for me. That person is not for me.”

When I finally met my husband and we were getting serious then nearly all of our fights in those early years were from my … The ones that I started were sparked by this feeling of jealousy [00:17:00] that he secretly wanted to be with someone else that he really liked someone else better, that he thought someone else was more attractive. The feeling in me would be just so much shame and fear and anxiety and pain because I was still looking outward to get that inner feeling of I’m lovable, I’m worthy.

Even though he was giving me a lot of love and was giving [00:17:30] me a lot of support, as long as it’s outward, it will never be enough. That’s what I realized. We all want outward love and attention and that’s fine but when it’s to answer that core question about ourselves, then we’re never going to be happy. It’s never going to be satisfying and that’s where a lot of my mindfulness practice had to come in. I had to say in those most difficult [00:18:00] moments, you know what, this relationship is now, it is just about me looking in the mirror of myself and my own worth and whether or not I believed myself that it’s about my own worth, it be different if he was giving me a lot of evidence that he really wasn’t that into me but that wasn’t happening.

That’s where the mirror comes in once you see, you know what, this is happening over and over again. This is triggering something [00:18:30] all over and over again and once you see it then you have to go back in and every time I was about to start a fight along these lines and this has been until recent years really that I had to take a break. I had to take some space and I needed to bring a lot of love and compassion to my own painful experience of what that felt like to just not really fully have that strong [00:19:00] sense of I’m lovable, I’m fine, I’m beautiful, I’m okay. It took a lot to do that and then part of it is to grieve almost that the partner is not going to be able to do that for you. They can give you a lot of wonderful things but they can’t answer that essential question.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Something I want to clarify. Can you hear that echo or is that just me?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:19:30] Maybe a slight one but nothing that’s distracting to me.

Noah Rasheta:                      That went away now. With this concept of looking inward and finding the contentment and the love there first, I want to clarify to anyone listening. We’re not saying that as long as I love myself I can stay in this unhealthy relationship with this person who’s abusive or something [00:20:00] like that. That’s not at all what this is insinuating. I think what I’m hearing and I want to be clear about it is what Yael is saying is the sense of completeness that comes in the relationship only comes when it’s complete here on your side when you are okay with you then you can be okay with it. That’s when the relationship can be completely whole.

I want [00:20:30] to correlate this to this societal view of my other half and the idea is that I’m half and someone else is going to complete me but with that other half, you’re not whole and this is saying, “No, that’s nonsense.” This is saying, “Mindfulness helps you realize you are it. You are essentially it and when you are whole, you take a whole and whatever the other is, that other maybe half or maybe … ” [00:21:00] It doesn’t matter. Wherever that other thing is, you work well with the other part because you are whole. Does that sound more of the lines of what you are insinuating?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. The only thing I want to also clarify in there is absolutely, yes. This is not about a settling like if you can’t find someone that you’re matching with and you should just settle for them because it’s really all about you, don’t believe in that. Not a good idea or accepting people [00:21:30] being unkind or not good to you, absolutely not. That’s just really a lot of … It’s just more suffering. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying with the person you really love and once you’ve had the chance to really see that person, then we come to that question of in each of these difficult interactions where are you and who is that and where is this [00:22:00] appropriate boundary?

My stepfather who is a very wise man always says this line. Love is boundaries and we don’t think of it that way. Especially in the Buddhist world, we are all one and we are interconnected which is very true but I think what it comes to relationships that seeing and understanding the boundary where someone else begins and you end is … Even in a relative [00:22:30] sense is really, really important. All kinds of relationships, romantic and otherwise.

Before I forget, the one thing I just wanted to adjust is that it’s not a static process. It’s not like, “I am at one with all of myself. I am fully enlightened and love myself. Now, I’m ready to be in a relationship.” It’s a constant process of back and forth, and figuring out what’s yours [00:23:00] and what’s the other persons, and just trying to be awake to the whole thing even if you’re still stuck in the really hard place. You don’t love yourself where you have a lot of self-loathing, just trying to be aware that it goes a long way.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you for clarifying that. From the Buddhist perspective we talked about and acknowledged that things are impermanent. In other words, everything is [00:23:30] changing, constant change. When a relationship … I mean this is extremely evident because then there’s the me that was me when I got married, for example and that’s not the me that I am today. Same with my partner, with my wife, she’s not the person I married and I hear this from people all the time. Concepts like, “Oh, that’s not who I married.”

It’s like, “Well, of course. That’s absolutely not who you married and you’re not who they married.” [00:24:00] This idea of looking in the mirror relative to time is you’re always looking in the mirror because you’re not the you, you were five minutes ago, much less the you that you were … When you got married or when you started the relationship. Emphasizing that this process is dynamic. If you ever think we got it, we figured it out we’re there, that’s when you should probably worry because you don’t get to the point as you’re always getting there and I think I like thinking about [00:24:30] that in terms of relationships especially romantic ones with my wife.

I’m thinking, we’ll never get there. That’s the point. We’re always building and working on the dynamic of our relationship. Who is the me that is in love today? Who is the person that I’m loving today because that’s not the same person from yesterday and the ability to keep it fluid like that, I think in our case has been really helpful. It was a period in a [00:25:00] time in my life when I felt like things were stagnant.

I’m the me that I’ve always been … That’s when there was conflict where I was thinking is this not my soul mate? Did I pick the wrong half? Is there another half that would have been more suitable because I was thinking in terms of that sense of permanence of the relationship but when I lean to look in the mirror that was a drastic change and when I understood [00:25:30] the aspect of impermanence in the relationship that changed the dynamic?

Yael Shy:                                   So well said. It’s this process of continually waking up and being like, “Who’s in front of me? Who is this person? When you’re together a long time, I think my understanding, I haven’t been together yet with my husband for longer than … I think we’re going into 40 years but I think it’s even more important to just really see the person instead of being like the kind of hazy, “I know who you [00:26:00] are.” Certainly if you have kids, if you have any of these relationships in our lives I think to really keep committing yourself over and over.

The same way we come back in meditation practice over and over again, what’s happening now, what’s real now. What a story in my mind, we come back to this person, who is this person now, how are we interacting now? Who am I now in this thing? It’s a beautiful practice. It’s a really [00:26:30] intense beautiful practice.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think it requires a lot of vulnerability too because to show up and just be seen like this is me. It seems like in relationship especially the romantic ones, we’re always adding layers. I did this for a long time in my marriage. I’m trying to be who I think she things I should be. I’m measuring myself who I am versus who I think … [00:27:00] The layers are insane here because it’s who I think you think I think you should … you know? It gets really crazy. You’re doing the same thing back. You’re comparing your partner.

It’s like are you allowing them to be who they are or who you think they should be or who they think you think they should be. It gets extremely complicated with the layers and masks that we put on and I think the mindfulness approach is just saying … Like you just said you show up and you just ask, “Well, who am I [00:27:30] and who is this and what is now? What is happening now? Why are we saying this? Why am I feeling this? That I think is a really powerful exercise.

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. The times when I felt like that [inaudible 00:27:43] love for my partner is often times those times when I’m like, “Look at this person that’s sitting on the couch with me,” that I’m like, “Did you pick up the milk yesterday?” I usually just kind of … Not ignoring, not taking for granted but just they were [00:28:00] a piece of the furniture but when I look and I’m like, “Wow. This a miracle. We’re trying this thing together. We’re doing this thing together.” That’s where this swellings of love come from because I think it’s impossible to feel that all the time. Moments are really special.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That’s been great. I want to take this concept and expand it a little to other forms of relationships, something [00:28:30] that you mention in the book that stood out to me was your understanding of the relationship of love in terms of your son. How old is your son?

Yael Shy:                                   He’s 13 months and I have another on the way, actually.

Noah Rasheta:                      Congratulations.

Yael Shy:                                   Thank you.

Noah Rasheta:                      You mentioned something that really resonated with me because I have three kids ages five, eight and two but you mentioned this realization that with your son [00:29:00] you would give your life up for him in a heartbeat, no questions asked. There’s this idea of conditional love that I think we get stuck in like I love you because you love me but if you didn’t love me then I probably wouldn’t love you back, right?

Then suddenly kids come along and you discover this new level where it’s truly unconditional. I don’t need anything out of it. The joy of it is that I get to love you and that’s what I was gathering as I was reading that [00:29:30] part in your book where you’re talking about your son. Let’s talk about that a little bit. It reminded me of like meta-practice where you’re trying to have that sense of unconditional love for someone. You start with someone where that’s natural.

When I do this exercise I start with my kids then expand it from there. How can I love my wife and that same unconditional way about my kids, parents, siblings and you move up from there. Let’s talk about that a little bit. How do you experience with [00:30:00] that?

Yael Shy:                                   I wrote in the book and I still feel this way like that is the edge, very interesting. Writing about that was in reference to the heart sutra which talks about just like a mother at the risk of her own life protects and cradles her only child. This we have a boundless love for the entire world. In this heart sutra, the comparison [00:30:30] is like a mother with your only child. You have the same boundless love for the whole world. When the first time I read that, it was before I had kids, I was like, “That sounds wonderful. I had that.”

Now, where we come back down to the kind of brass text of it, definitely not. I definitely feel a different way about my family than I do about the world even if I may not wish anyone harm in the world. That just [00:31:00] entire like a love that goes that deeply that I feel is so deeply connected is not present in the same way but I had a little moment, it’s like just actually maybe a year ago on a retreat, we had a light … We broke one of those light bulbs and I wasn’t sure of the light bulb was fluorescent or not. [00:31:30] You know how when you break a fluorescent light … Not fluorescent but one of those eco-friendly light bulbs.

Noah Rasheta:                      The ones that just explode when they break.

Yael Shy:                                   It’s so annoying. In mercury, and you’re supposed to abandon the area and air it out and all this kind of stuff. I was pregnant at the time. I remember when the light bulb broke, it was on the floor and in the room, it was a large room. We were about to do a meditation and they were [00:32:00] cleaning up the light bulb and we still at that moment didn’t know if it was that kind with the mercury and I said like, “You know what, I’m pregnant so I’m going to take my cushion and sit on the other end of the room. Then I’ll feel better.”

As I did that, and as I started seeing all of the retreatments come into the room and some sitting right next to the broken … Where that broken light bulb was. I just started to have this horrible feeling like what is the difference between [00:32:30] this life that I’m trying to protect inside of me and this beautiful life that’s over there sitting potentially near this source of poison. Just all of a sudden, I got up and I was like, “You know, wait. We have to actually figure this out. I can’t just protect myself. This is ridiculous.

I think it’s because I was in that heightened heart space of a retreat where I could actually tap into that. There is literally no difference. A life [00:33:00] is a life and everybody deserves that kind of love and care, so little pockets. It turned out it was not that kind of a light bulb. It’s just little edges of where the heart can be really expanded to include more and more people. I love the way you connect it to meta-practice because that’s we’re like going to the gym and weightlifting to expand our hearts that wide.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:33:30] Similar to what you’re describing, for me it’s been in those moments of practicing that I get those glimpses either seeing somebody connecting for a moment. Maybe it’s just mentally doing meta-practice but it’s like for a minute, I can grasp the concept of truly loving everyone the same way I love my own children that feels incredible. Then you get back into the daily routine like the habitual reactivity of [00:34:00] life and it’s not was easy but I love that you just compared it to the gym because it’s the same way with the gym.

It’s like what makes it work is that you call the time and it’s consistent and you do a routine. That’s when after X amount of months or something. That’s when you notice you’re a lot stronger now. I think this is similar. It’s practice, practice , practice and then one day you realize, “It comes naturally to feel the compassion [00:34:30] and the unconditional love much easier than I did before.”

Yael Shy:                                   Yeah. A teacher said that it’s sort of like the heart is one muscle so it’s like open or close. It’s not like a dimmer switch that you can keep in one area? As you work that muscle, it’s going to keep opening and opening and more and more people can fit but when we’re tightened around [00:35:00] just a little nuclear family, it’s actually not … It’s not as liberating. Like you said, it doesn’t feel good. It actually doesn’t feel very good. It feels tight and constricted.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. If you were to offer just one snippet of advice to someone listening who is saying I want to have a more mindful [00:35:30] relationship with whoever they’re thinking of whatever. What tips would you give? Are there specific meditation techniques or just advice to someone who wants to introduce mindfulness into their relationships?

Yael Shy:                                   I have a meditation on mindful love meditation in the back of my book and on that one, it’s about realizing, [00:36:00] coming home to and realizing how much you have been loved over the course of your life and how much you have loved because I think where a lot of us run into trouble and run into difficulty with relationships is feeling of like we’re coming in and we’re beggars and we’re empty and the other person must fill us or must meet our need because we don’t have anything here. This practice focus is from the beginning [00:36:30] even if people hurt you when you were a child, even if things were not wonderful which is the case for a lot of us, somewhere along the line to how do you survive until this day, so many people did acts of love to keep you alive.

Then you maybe without even knowing it have had enough in you to do acts of love for other people. Starting to tap into that fullness within oneself [00:37:00] in meditation I think is really helpful for relationships. That’s number one. Then I think number two is really helpful to do that practice that we were talking about really trying to see who is this other person and who am I and really going back and forth on those pieces.

Then there’s the communication piece that [00:37:30] when you’re really communicating with someone, when you’re in a fight know when you need to take time away. One of my favorite lines on this is strike when the iron is cool, never hot. Get really cool if you possibly can before you engage with somebody that’s triggering you. Then when you are engaged as much as you can through communication, see if you can fully let the other person feel heard and see [00:38:00] before you then say, “Can I now share my piece of this?”

That might be just repeating to them back exactly word for word what they say until they feel like you got a whole story right. You’ve got their entire side of the story right and then say, “Now, can I explain to you would you mind repeating it back to me.” That’s a tip from the nonviolent communication folks who have an entire curriculum around that but [00:38:30] I think it’s also deeply a mindfulness practice of being willing and able to be one with oneself to be with the boundary and meant to be with the other person.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. Thank you for sharing that. One more aspect of it that I just thought of, we talked about the mirror and starting the process with learning to love yourself. You specifically mentioned in your book you had this moment where you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you said, “Are you going to love yourself or not. [00:39:00] How do we start that process introspection in a relationship? I want to improve my relationship. How do I start with me? Is there a first step or something like that?

Yael Shy:                                   It’s accepting. It’s looking and accepting what is already there and it’s not going to happen overnight. We all carry a lot of judgment and pain but it’s almost we have to marry ourselves and be like I’m committed to [00:39:30] this with you and that was my moment when I asked myself, “Listen, are you in or are you out?” We have a life together, me and myself and if I’m really committed to opening my heart to myself, loving myself overtime, then I need to really accept what is there, and to form a friendly relationship even to the parts of myself I thought were so horrible and so [00:40:00] ugly that I never wanted anybody else to see just continually coming back to that, and holding it with love, and realizing that it was probably parts of myself that developed when I was very young in response to situations that were out of my control.

For me, all of meditation, all of this process of even just coming back to our breath and coming back to our feelings, coming back to the things that arises, it’s a practice of learning to love oneself. [00:40:30] It’s not a fast process but if you’re committed, if you put that ring on then that’s where the work happens and that’s where you will slowly and slowly just start to love this being that you are.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. Again, just going to the gym analogy, we wouldn’t think … If I go to the gym today for 10 hours then I’ll [00:41:00] finally be strong. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, that’s going to be really bad where you probably tear all your muscles. Consistency and time, and that’s how it works very much the same way as going to the gym would.

Yael Shy:                                   The only other thing I would add which I think I didn’t before is that part of the meditation process is hearing our inner critics because otherwise they’re just running our life like, “Why are you such [00:41:30] an idiot? Why do you do things this way? You’re such a failure? These things that we just say to ourselves constantly without second guessing it and so I think another piece of the meditation practice where we start to hear this voice and then don’t believe it, slowly start to interrogate that voice and not kick it out but just not believe that it’s true.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. I do think early on or we focus a lot of energy on trying [00:42:00] to silence the voice or thinking that this won’t be okay until that voice is gone. You need to get rid of it. Then you’re just up for disappointment because the surprise is, “Hey, that voice doesn’t go away.” It’s the moment like you just said when you realized, “I don’t have to believe my own thoughts. Oh, well, now they can just be there. They can stay whatever,” and you’re, “Oh, there’s that thought again but it doesn’t have power over you anymore.”

Yael Shy:                                   If anything, you just have a lot of room for all of these voices that again [00:42:30] like we’re probably created when you were very young and they are still young. They’re not so [inaudible 00:42:35]. They’re not like these big evil demons that they feel like so much of the time.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Okay. Let’s shift topics and talk a little bit about social activism now. One of the common things I hear and I’m sure you encountered this too, misconception that seems about mindfulness or living mindfully. [00:43:00] If you’re mindful, you’re just content with what is and there are bad things happening in [inaudible 00:43:06] in the world and I’m like, “Whatever. Let things be.” I think that’s a fundamental misconception so I want to address that a little bit. There’s social activism. Any form of social justice or work that we do in that arena how does mindfulness come and fit in? How does it improve social activism?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:43:30] This goes right back to that analogy I was saying in that meditation room that day where I thought to myself, I’ll protect my baby in the womb. I’ll protect myself and other people can work it out for themselves and the more that we really tap in, the more we open our hearts but also just experientially understand that we are deeply interconnected [00:44:00] and that we sink or we swim species as a world together, that kind of I’m here, I’m in this just for myself and maybe a couple other people and everybody else can fend for themselves, that starts to breakdown.

It starts to actually … You start to see not because it’s the right thing to do because actually that leads [00:44:30] to more suffering for myself and for others. It leads to more feeling of a wall of the division which then makes me feel imprisoned behind this wall, this imaginary wall I am separate from everyone else. The more that we practice and the more we really truly see how our faiths are completely tied in together, then the more that we can’t sit by when other people are deeply suffering and we always unfortunately lived in [00:45:00] a world where there are people suffering.

I mean hopefully this will not be the case sometime. I assume from my lifetime there will always be people suffering. It’s no longer an option to just be like, “I’ll just meditate so that I can feel calm on my day to day walk to work because you’re not going to feel calm. It’s not going to ease some [00:45:30] of that inside suffering that you have while other people are still in pain. That’s the connection in my mind.

Noah Rasheta:                      I really like what you shared in your book, a quote. This was I think from the aboriginal … The quote says, “If you come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.” [00:46:00] That’s introducing the idea of interdependence again that we’re all connected. I think of that not just in the context of going and doing, building schools somewhere in the world like something big.

I’m thinking, wow, this is extremely relevant in my relationships just here with a friend who’s like, “Hey, I want to help you.” How different is that perception is if it goes like, “I’m helping me because I know what’s good for you and I know [00:46:30] how you need to be versus, “We’re tangled up in this together. Let’s work together.”

Yael Shy:                                   Right. The helping mentality is like asymmetrical power structure and adults don’t really like to be helped on a large scale, but everybody needs real solidarity and people working in alignment with them.

Noah Rasheta:                      Isn’t that fascinating? [00:47:00] We’re hardwired as social creatures to want to fit in. Almost everything we do revolves around making sure I fit in and then I’m not excluded and yet I think we have such a hard time feeling like receiving help. It’s like I want to be a part of a team but I don’t want you to do anything for me. If we’re doing it together as a team that’s great, that’s what I actually want. It seems like that’s another way to shift that mindset like I’m [00:47:30] on your team. We’re working together here.

Yael Shy:                                   I think that’s right. To some degree, it’s actually legitimate to not want to be helped by someone who has no idea what your circumstances are. When it’s a patronizing relationship, it can often feel like the person is trying to just help you for themselves and the same way like I want to help someone else is sometimes [00:48:00] just so that I feel better but then it’s all about me, it’s not really about them. It’s a realignment of that.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think sometimes in my past experience, I think sometimes, that’s aggravated by certain beliefs. If I want to save you, it’s like, “I’m not saved the way that I am. No, I’m going to save you.” I try to make sure that doesn’t … I think it’s easy to have that extent in a Buddhist practice where it’s [00:48:30] like, “You need more mindfulness like me. Look, how mindful I am.” It just doesn’t work to have that mindset that’s so far off the mark.

Yael Shy:                                   In that same way of trying to manipulate others is just using these different tools but people manipulate it because there is that manipulation happening even if you think you have the best intentions.

Noah Rasheta:                      Something I want to highlight with social activism [00:49:00] and kind of going back to that misconception of that Buddhism is really engaged socially. I think of someone like Martin Luther King as a good example of this where … I mean just imagine for a moment how ineffective all of his work would have been if he was hyperactive and highly emotional in his approach, very reactive. It would be completely ineffective.

I think [00:49:30] what made him such an effective power for enacting change was he was very common levelheaded and he had wise things to say and he could present things in a way that made people think, “Oh, yeah. Why are we doing this? Why are we not doing that?” I think that to me is the key of the connection between mindfulness and social activism is what we’re trying to accomplish through mindfulness is essentially skillful [00:50:00] means.

If I’m going to be engaged in a social cause, I want to be as effective as possible so mindfulness can help me to be more skillful in my engagement with whatever causing it. When I see it that way, then I realize mindfulness is a really powerful tool to increase the effectiveness of whatever social engagement I’m involved with.

Yael Shy:                                   Absolutely, without a doubt. At the same time, I want [00:50:30] to be careful also because it doesn’t mean that you don’t … I imagine and I think from what I’ve read of his writings, I mean Martin Luther King felt things.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Yael Shy:                                   Felt frustration and suffering and had those strong responses so I know that that’s not what you’re saying that you don’t feel even [00:51:00] furious or angry or deeply wounded or afraid like you so beautifully said that we developed the right strategy and skillful means to address it. Then the only thing I can add to that is that you could say that about anything that mindfulness could bring you skillful means to do a bank takeover or something like [00:51:30] that or to [inaudible 00:51:32] country which is true.

Noah Rasheta:                      The Italian Job, right?

Yael Shy:                                   It is actually to give you those tools of calming and focusing and being responsive and not reactive. It does give you those tools so in that case, it’s correct, but then if you coupled that with also the interconnection that we’re talking about and that [00:52:00] kind of commitment to relieving suffering, then it becomes that you not only have the skillful means bit you also cannot do things that harm people. You can’t even have … I write about this in my book, this line that I love which is how you do anything is how you do everything. I think [inaudible 00:52:24] who do engage in social justice often times find ourselves sometimes [00:52:30] in situations where the language is vitriolic against the other or it’s dehumanizing of the other side in a way that I think does not do us any favors.

I think it just perpetuates this again that sense of a division of those people are bad and we’re good and we just have to win and then we’ll be okay. That’s the real hard work that when you’re fighting for justice that nobody [00:53:00] can be left out. It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people accountable or that you don’t restrain them when they’re doing harm or anything like that but that it’s all done with the spirit of we are connected. Then it’s an entirely different kind of a spirit.

Noah Rasheta:                      I mean for me I think that’s what makes it so powerful is knowing that the sense of wanting [00:53:30] to do something arises naturally out of understanding, understanding that we’re interdependent rather than this is what you should do? Why because it’s what you should do. It’s not compelled, it’s not a commandment, it’s not I’m supposed to love everyone so here I go. It arises very naturally out of understanding and that understanding arises through sitting and meditating or practicing mindfulness.

Then it’s like, “Why are we doing [00:54:00] this? Why aren’t we doing that?” All of that is natural. I think that’s an important part of the highlight because when it arises naturally, I think we can be more skillful and more determined with the cause. We’re doing this because this is natural. It’s not I’m doing this just because.

Yael Shy:                                   Right. Absolutely. There’s a Zen proverb that says, “In Zen, we do two things. We sit and we sweep the garden. It doesn’t matter how big the garden is and that’s the [00:54:30] proverb. That’s the spirit. When we feel just so overwhelmed by the state of the world, then I think when you’re like, “Time to pick up my broom and sweep my little tiny corner of the garden and I’m just going to do that until I die.” It doesn’t matter if the garden is as big as the whole world. That’s my challenge and that’s what gives you the sustainability to do that long-term.

Noah Rasheta:                      To do what I can, [00:55:00] where I can and what I can which is now. Not have that feeling overwhelmed like if I can’t … I do this with work when I have enough projects on my table or on my plate. I can feel overwhelmed to think, “Well, I’m never going to get any of it done so I guess I’ll just sit here not doing any of it.” I think that can translate to social activism. It’s like this is so overwhelming, I just won’t do anything. I think mindfulness helps us to take that [00:55:30] step back and say, “You can do something. I can do this. This little thing that I’m doing here,” and that’s where I start.

Yael Shy:                                   Absolutely. That’s right. Not only can you but it’s for the sake of all of us. It’s for the sake of yourself and for all of us. One of my teachers, Rabbi Alami once said, “Walking around the world,” we have sometimes this psychic [00:56:00] squint. We’re trying to screen out all the unpleasant, all the suffering, all the things that people are going to and we’re just trying to be happy just by ourselves. That psychic squint gives us headaches like it gives us entire life headaches.

To really commit ourselves even to our little corners of the garden means to really open our eyes and to say like, “I’m not going to wall myself away from this [00:56:30] anymore.”It’s tremendously freeing to do that. To me, it feels like, I accept, there is suffering and I’m going to do what I can and I’m not going to hide myself away anymore.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that analogy of the squinting. The irony of a strategy like that is that the thing that you’re doing is the thing that’s causing it to be worse. It’s like I’m doing this because I want [00:57:00] to be shielded but that’s also what’s preventing me from taken in all the things that are great.

Yael Shy:                                   Exactly. You screen out the suffering, you screen out the joy. They’re all part of the same thing.

Noah Rasheta:                      For anyone who’s watching live who has questions, now would be a great time if you want to … If you’re on the Crowdcast [00:57:30] website, you can post your question or put in the chat. I’m just going to check really quick on the Facebook one and see what’s going on there real quick. I would hate to find out later that somebody has a question and we just didn’t see it. I’m assuming that even it all worked and it’s broadcasting the way it’s supposed to. It’s live.

[00:58:00] I see comments but I don’t see any questions there. I don’t see any questions on here either and we are approaching the one hour mark so I don’t want to keep you too long and take your precious time. Let’s just shift quickly to the idea of insecurity, intense emotions and insecurity in general. I think this ties [00:58:30] in to what we talked about. There’s insecurity in the relationships, there’s insecurity in the things that we do. Is what I’m doing helping? Am I just wasting my time? What should I be doing in life?

There’s a lot of insecurity in life and across all the age groups, I think it’s especially evident in those younger ages where you’re trying to decide, “Hey, this is where I picked the path that goes this way or this way. Uh-oh. What if I hit the wrong one? It’s evident later in life too because [00:59:00] you go down the path and you’re like, “This is the path I should have gone down.” Most adults have thoughts like, “Is this the person they should married? Is this the carrier I should have gone into? What would it be like if I was over there?”

This insecurity that we’ve seemed to live with at any given moment, we talked earlier about how mindfulness has a skill set as a tool. It’s trying to help us to get more comfortable with the discomfort and the fact is life is [00:59:30] uncomfortable. Thoughts like that are natural so again rather than thinking, “Uh-oh, I need to never think those thoughts,” is just saying, “Where did that thought come from?” Exploring it. Let’s talk about that just for a second. How do we become more comfortable with discomfort, with the insecurity?

Yael Shy:                                   I’m really happy you framed it that way because I think that’s exactly what it is. It’s not finding a solid ground [01:00:00] that you can stand on necessarily, it’s learning how to surf on waves that sometimes will take us under and sometimes will just be enough that we can kind of move our bodies and be flexible and surf gently on those waves, and then when we’re completely knocked over, we try and get back up on that surfboard again, and truly believe that the Buddhist message [01:00:30] that certainly my experience has been that the world is constantly, constantly, constantly changing.

We are constantly, constantly changing and that any solidity is just from releasing into the waves. It’s from releasing into our world that we can’t control and stopping fighting. It’s over and over again this [01:01:00] knowledge, this understanding that when we try, we can change as much as we can change obviously and we do as much as we can do when we try and get ourselves closer to feeling whole and feeling happy but when the world knocks is out again, trying to just say, “I’m knocked out or I’m on very unsteady ground and this is what’s true and really synching in to that. That’s the challenge.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:01:30] I love the analogy with surfing because you can’t catch the wave if you’re not going with the flow. Anything static in surfing, that spells disaster. It doesn’t work. you can’t stay in one spot. If the wave us too big, I better go under it. If the wave us just right, I’m going to ride it. There’s a lot of dynamic stuff happening there but definitely nothing static. [crosstalk 01:01:57]

Yael Shy:                                   Things are really [01:02:00] bad. The thing that makes it absolutely worse is fighting it. Fighting that break time so you have to just swim into the current. That’s what they always teach you and that’s the journey of our life is to figure out like the serenity priority change the things you can change and to really accept and grieve or to mourn and to be with the things you can’t change [01:02:30] and the wisdom to know the difference.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Great. This has been a really fun topic and I really appreciate you taking the time to join me for this call. For those of you who are listening or watching later, Yael’s book is called, What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond. I read this and I was [01:03:00] telling Yael earlier that one of the things that was really evident to me is this stuff is for anyone. It’s written from the perspective of a lot of the experiences during those 20s and 30s but all of the concepts in here, every single one of them are applicable at any stage in life so if you’re interested in learning more about Yael’s approach with her book, What Now? Pick [01:03:30] this up.

I know it’s available in all of the major places where you can buy books and I will put the link on the Secular Buddhism website when I post this interview. I’ll have the video, the audio for the podcast and then I’ll have links to Yael’s website and to her book, at least on Amazon. Lea says, “Great surfing analogy. I haven’t realized you can choose to go under [01:04:00] the wave as a positive option.” That’s cool. Great. If you have any final closing thoughts you want to share with us, Yael?

Yael Shy:                                   Well, I just want to thank you so much for such a fun conversation. I had a really nice time exploring these things with you and I just want to let everybody know that in addition to my website which you’ll post yaelshy.com, you can also find me on all the social medias @yaelshy number 1.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:04:30] Okay, yaelshy1, that’s your Twitter. Is it the same for Instagram or Facebook and stuff? Okay. Awesome. Well, thank you, Yael. I’m going to end the live portion of this. Thank you to everyone who listened to and participated live. This will be posted on the podcast hopefully later today. Thank you, guys.

Yael Shy:                 Thank you.

60 – “Happiness” – A discussion with Ellen Petry Leanse

This is the audio and video recording of my interview with Ellen Petry Leanse (TEDx: Happiness by Design) and author of “The Happiness Hack: a brain-aware guide to life satisfaction”. I hope you enjoy listening to our discussion on the topic of happiness.


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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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.

All right. So, those of you who are watching us live, welcome. I’m excited to have Ellen Petry Leanse on the podcast with me today. [00:17:00] Specifically, right now for a live interview/discussion on the topic of happiness. So, Ellen is a technology pioneer. She’s an alum of Apple, Google and the range of entrepreneurial ventures. And she works at the crossroads of neuroscience, systems thinking and mindfulness practices. So, a very good fit for the audience that listens to the podcast. She teaches at Stanford [00:17:30] University. She guides individuals and organizations to increase impact and purpose through sustainable mindsets and skills. So, thank you, Ellen, for joining me today on this live interview/discussion.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you so much, Noah. Secular Buddhism is my go-to podcast and it’s really so much fun and such an honor to be here. So, thank you and hello to everybody out there who’s joined us this morning.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:18:00] Great. Okay. I’m just double checking the comments, making sure that that’s all working properly. We’ve got people from all over. Someone from Mumbai, India. Hi, Asha. Okay. So, if you guys have any issues with the audio, let me know. I’m using my podcast mic today so I just want to make sure that the audio level is okay, if it’s too loud or not loud enough, let me know in the comments.

[00:18:30] We have several things to jump into here. The overall topic for our conversation today is happiness. I think this is such a vital topic to discuss because happiness is one of those things that we’re all after, right? We all want to experience this. But I feel like at times, we may not fully understand what it actually is. Like, what does it actually mean to be happy? [00:19:00] I have this thought the other day, thinking about love. Like, we all want to be loved or to love, but what does actually mean? When I spend time thinking about it like that, I realized it’s really hard to define. I think happiness falls in that same vein of maybe it’s not what we think it is, or we’ll understand it better if we learn about what’s really going on in our mind and in our brain. From an emotional standpoint, but also from a physiological [00:19:30] standpoint. The actual chemicals that cause us to feel the way that we feel.

Ellen is the expert to talk to about this topic, so I was really excited when I picked up her book, The Happiness Hack. We’ll talk a little bit about this. As I read through it and seen that the close correlation between the neuroscience of happiness and the mindfulness-based approach to the understanding of happiness, [00:20:00] I thought was really well done and really well explained.

Before we jump into the book, Ellen, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your journey with the topic of happiness? What led you to be an expert on the topic of happiness? For those listening, by expert, I mean Ellen has given a TEDx talk, “Happiness by Design,” which you can check out on TED’s website. And then, of course the author of The Happiness [00:20:30] Hack, a brain aware guide to life satisfaction. So, tell us a little bit about that journey, Ellen.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you, Noah. I think I’m still a learner about it because there’s so much more to be known about happiness and what creates that feeling that we all crave and covetous that we think is our set point or maybe our aspiration in human experience.

But I think, number of years back, as I talk about it in the book, I [00:21:00] was living a life that probably from the outside looking in, seeing like something anybody should be happy with. Mind you, there were many things that brought me deep joy and satisfaction, connection with my family, my sons, the times when I felt really aligned with my personal intention, the work I found satisfaction in doing. And even in some of the very simple things of caring for a family and having a home, and so forth.

But there was this other thing happening on the surface that felt [00:21:30] very confusing and I didn’t know what it was about. I really couldn’t understand why there was a static in my life about the internal things that I knew make me happy and the things that seem to be getting validation and approval in the outside world. The validation and approval, I have to say, I saw it probably as much as any other human saw. But it’s kind of about the public-facing persona, the every day being great, the things we [00:22:00] bought or owned or wore, whatever it was, were the things that tended to get the approval rather than the things that really made me happy. The highlight of my day might have been sitting with one of my children before he went to bed, and reading or really talking about the day. But the things that got the most validation and celebration on the outside world were completely different than that. I felt confused.

I started reading about the topic [00:22:30] of life purpose and what it really meant to be a satisfied human and to have a good life. Everything from the Stoics to the sciences. It was when I stumbled upon my first books about neuroscience, and understanding some of the chemical processes in the brain, and really aligning that with things I read in psychology and in other disciplines, I started seeing that there were cycles in the brain that could easily be exploited and validated externally [00:23:00] that would create a certain type of reinforcement or check off the box like, “Ah yeah. This is good and it’s making sense.” That actually really weren’t working for me. And as I thought more deeply about it and learned more, I realized they weren’t really working that well for other people either.

I started diving deeper into the way the brain works, looking certainly at our emotional and memory systems. And then, the cognitive systems that wrap around those and create [00:23:30] our experience of reality or our perception of reality, more aptly put. And then, the icing on the cake is when I started studying the work of the Buddha and the wisdom of the Buddha, and began to realize that 3000 years ago, under the Bodhi tree, someone came to this deep understanding on a mindbogglingly, mindblowingly perceptive and deep level that [00:24:00] really explained the human condition of why we so often get happiness wrong.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Yeah, something that stood out to me in your book, you talked about how your experience with unhappiness and how something clicked when you started learning about your brain. What I enjoyed about your book, in some ways, it reads like a manual. If you understand what’s going on, [00:24:30] it’s easier to work with what you’re experiencing, whether that be suffering or discomfort or, in this case, we’re talking about happiness. What is actually happening when we’re experiencing these emotions.

One of the things I want to talk about, first, is what is happiness? How do you define happiness? There’s that chemical composition of what you feel, [00:25:00] but there’s more to it. Tell me a little bit about your view of the definition of happiness. What are we talking about when we’re talking about happiness.

Ellen Leanse:                          All I can say is, it’s a great question, isn’t it? I think that’s one of the things that’s really hard to define, but I would imagine …

Happiness we would probably use generically to the feeling that things are making sense and that we’re fitting into something bigger, and that we are [00:25:30] validated. Although, I’m a little bit careful with this word. Validated for the way we are participating in the fuller reality. However, I think there is another meaning of happiness that has been sort of hijacked, if you will, by many of the experiences that we have in modern life.

If we go back on an evolutionary level, we go back to our biology when we were living a very different type of [00:26:00] human life that we’re living today, happiness might be the reward we would feel from, say, someone bringing home something from a hunt or from a gather that would allow the clan to sustain itself. In that, there would be a couple of different types of happiness happening. There would be the reward we would get from the dopamine cycle. So, the dopamine cycle flows from a motivation to an achievement to a reward [00:26:30] loop. So, we would have that dopamine charge that we would get. And dopamine was very important for motivating early humans to get through some of the challenges they had to face simply in order to survive.

I’d love to segue for a moment into the concept of distraction. Distraction is usually associated with the dopamine motivation, achievement and rewards cycle. Distraction served our survival when we were earlier humans. We might be walking [00:27:00] along the paths and see a little grub on a tree, and go and grab it. We’d have the satisfaction not only of then having nourishment, but of, “Aha. I saw it.” So, that distraction had a certain type of reward. But if you think of distraction at that time we’re probably getting distracted by things … By the way, one other thing on distraction. More than likely, it was also something rustling in the grass, we could say, “Ah!” And then fire the amygdala response and flee or fight as needed [00:27:30] if something was putting us in peril.

Today distraction is manufactured and it’s manufactured by people who fully understand the dopamine loop and that jolt of happiness that it gives us. And know how to exploit it through the images they show us, the buttons they give us to click. All of these different things that are causing us to be distracted, not only a few times a day in order to find a little opportunistic nibble to eat, [00:28:00] or to avoid a potential danger, but to do what they want us to do, which is engage with their products or engage with their experiences or buy the thing that they’re selling. And so, our dopamine experience has been largely hijacked by all of this onslaught of media and technology that is in our lives.

However, if you talk to people, they’re not going to tell you that makes them happy. They’re going to say, “I wasted hours [00:28:30] doing this.” I was with a friend over Thanksgiving weekend. He said, “My gosh. I’ve been doing this now for 20 minutes. I’ve completely wasted 20 minutes. Why did I keep doing it?” And we’ve all been there. So, this is posing as happiness, but it’s not really what happiness is on a human level.

Human happiness, my book asserts and as do many psychologists, philosophers, scientists and many more, is much more about the serotonin [00:29:00] cycles, which are really what the agents call eudaimonic happiness. It’s the happiness you work for. It’s true satisfaction. It’s when you have done something that personally expresses you and your unique talents and purpose in a way that serves others, or allows you to grow, or creates this feeling that “I’ve made a small corner of the world more beautiful than it was before and thus something that I’ve done really matters.” [00:29:30] This is how much, compared to what I call the tequila shot happiness of dopamine, which is on the counter and you shoot it, and then you go, “Oh, what was I thinking?” This is the one where you go, “No, I’m pushing it away. I have to be with friends tomorrow. I have a hike in the morning. Or I have work tomorrow.” And you have this feeling of satisfaction, like, “I did the right thing.” And that’s the serotonin satisfaction that I believe is largely getting hijacked by these externally created dopamine experiences.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:30:00] Hmm. Okay. I like that. So, it sounds like what you’re saying, the distinction between these types of happiness, part of our problem lies in how we’re defining happiness, right? Looking for the instant gratification and the feeling that that gives us, versus the feeling that we get when we’ve accomplished something that we’ve set out to do. So, [00:30:30] it sounds to me like the definition, whether … If I know the definition, I’m one step ahead of myself now, right? Because I can start to see, “Wait. Why am I really doing this? Am I going for that instant gratification shot of happiness? Or am I working towards something bigger that gives me a greater sense of joy?” So, I can see how awareness plays an important part in this.

[00:31:00] Would you say that it’s fair to say that when we’re not aware, we maybe going for that instant shot without realizing that it’s the instant shot. We maybe experiencing even the gratification of the instant shot and not realizing it. You mentioned specifically, “Yeah I do this, and then, I’m like, oh, why did I do that?” But what about those scenarios where we don’t say, “Oh, why did I do that?” Because we think that what we got was what [00:31:30] we wanted, so we stay in that cycle and we keep going.

Ellen Leanse:                          First of all, that’s a … Thank you for synopsizing it so well. Ooh, I’m in awe. So, a really important adage from the field of neuroscience is your brain will do more of whatever it’s doing right now. So, the brain is constantly updating its hypothesis of what it takes for you to be safe and to survive. We say, “What’s the purpose of the brain?” 9 people out of 10 are going to say, “Oh, to think.” Well, you’re right. The brain does think [00:32:00] and it’s really good at it. But mostly what your brain is going to do is think in service of keeping you safe and alive. That’s our evolutionary biology. So, your brain will do more of whatever you’re doing right now.

A really good word to use here is “normalize.” Whatever you’re doing, the brain will normalize as part of its hypothesis of what keeps you safe and alive. If you’re doing things that are riding that dopamine tide, your brain is going to go, “Oh my gosh, that’s what it takes to survive.” [00:32:30] Many people will say that the brain never evolved to the point where in the moment it can tell the difference between a dopamine charge and something that’s going to give you the more lasting serotonin feeling. I’m not sure I agree because if you look at in Buddhism, the discussion of an appropriate response, right? That we are going to work with the responsive mind rather than the reactive mind, which is very much why we meditate and why we train [00:33:00] the brain to that moment to moment awareness. You’re going to see that we had some understanding of the react work of the fast brain right here, or even of the dopamine loop. And the response of the more disciplined, intentional, aware and mindful, more serotonin-associated. It’s not exactly puzzle piece match here, but they’re more associated with each other. But of the response modality, which is [00:33:30] consideration, which is mindfulness, which is awareness.

So, for example, I might be using my phone, which is we all have them right here near us. And I don’t get alerts, but let’s say I go and check how something I posted on Instagram is doing. “Oh, did people like that really great picture I posted last night?” And I go in. I could look and see what my likes are, respond to my comments or whatever, but then, because of the way dopamine works, I’m very motivated by, “What’s the next thing below? What’s the next [00:34:00] thing below?” And start scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through it. But if I have trained myself to say, “Ah, look at your dopamine at work.” Right? I don’t even have dopamine alert, right? And then say, what matters now? What really matters now? I can find an awareness that brings me back to what really matters more and get off of that hijack. If the brain will do more of whatever it’s doing right now, we can look at an example like that and say, “Oh [00:34:30] my gosh. The more I stop myself and remind myself to break this biological cycle, the more likely I am to get more of what I’m really seeking on a deeper level and invite in a new biological cycle that’s actually much healthier for me and much more desirable for me and much more in keeping with my purpose in life.”

And by the way, it is healthier for you because between dopamine and serotonin are very, very different chemical responses associated with stress chemicals, which [00:35:00] I’d love to get into maybe in another conversation, but that’s a whole different thing. Suffice to say that serotonin is much more associated with healthy body physiology and stress management, even stress reduction than dopamine is, which is very linked to cortisol cycles.

Did that answer your question or anything like it, Noah? I hope I did.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, it did. In fact, you brought up something that I think [inaudible 00:35:31] [00:35:30] really well with the mindfulness-based approach. You talked about the normalization, the idea that this is what I always do, so it feels normal, so I keep doing it. From the Buddhist perspective, that’s what we would call conditioning, right? The conditioned mind is, you can say, the normalized mind and we become habitually reactive. I don’t just mean reactive in the sense of something happens and I react. I [00:36:00] just mean my very thoughts can be reactive. A certain thought triggers a certain thought. And that thought triggers a certain thought. That process itself can be my habitual reactivity.

Now, if I understand that what’s happening in my mind is this process of normalization that you’re talking about, what I may find is a scenario, which I’ve seen. I may even be experiencing it, I’m not sure, because I think sometimes it’s really hard [00:36:30] to see it in ourselves, but I’ve seen this recently where someone was saying, “I’m so grateful for the happiness that I have in my life.” And I was listening thinking, “Wait a second. You don’t seem like a happy person. I always hear complaining or this or that.” But I thought, “How fascinating that this person’s baseline of happiness seems normal and in their mind it’s up here. It’s like, I’m this happy person.” Where from another [00:37:00] perspective someone may be looking, thinking, “No, you’re not really a happy person.” Could that be the normalization that we’re talking about? You know what I mean?

I think from the mindfulness-based approach, that’s what we’re saying, not just about happiness, but everything is we become habitual in our thought patterns. Especially in our thought patterns. So, this is the idea that there’s this [00:37:30] quote that’s attributed to the Buddha that’s not really a quote from the Buddha, but the general idea is, we become what we think, right? So, what we’re thinking constantly determines how we are. I think if you apply that to a concept like happiness, you can be in a position where you think you’re living this happy life, but maybe you’re not.

I’m thinking of my experience that I talked about many times [00:38:00] on the podcast of looking for Chris, my supplier in China. My assumption was that Chris was a man. When I went to meet with Chris, there was Chris, and I couldn’t see him because he wasn’t a him. She was there and eventually I did find her, and realized that I was shocked to discover, “Oh, that’s not who I had in my mind this whole time of who Chris was.” I think we do that with a lot of concepts. Happiness is a concept, right? Whatever [00:38:30] your definition of happiness is, that may be blinding you from discovering what happiness really is. Does that sound applicable in this case?

Ellen Leanse:                          Oh, yes. All that and more. I want to come back to Chris in a moment, but first, I’d like to go back to the person who said, “I’m so grateful for my happiness” who didn’t feel like a happy person. Two things hit me. One of them is that I think there’s so much pressure on people to be a happy person right now, which is so … It [00:39:00] really saddens me to think of that because so much of our image of what happiness is, is based on things that we might see on a billboard or a commercial or something like that. Just these grinning joyful people living a perfect life or with this highly curated and selected feeds that we’re exposed to of people sharing their family moments and their fabulous vacations. I love to call it the disease of [00:39:30] fabulitis. Contagious fabulousness that we’re all supposed to aspire to. And it leaves us feeling short or left out or we’re not quite achieving. Like, we’ve fallen off of that. So, we strive harder to filling the gap by proving we’re as happy and fabulous as that too.

As I said, this is largely a chemical hijack. And it’s really something that I think a lot of people are suffering with. Like, so [00:40:00] and so has this perfect life. We all probably know friends that we know intimately and closely enough to know that they have bad days and stumbles and even bad hair days and everything as much as any other human does, but we’re never going to see this on their social feeds. I have friends, for example, who have [inaudible 00:40:20] on kids. My kids are grown, but they’re going to show the high points, but they’re not going to show the 3:00 a.m. wake ups and what [00:40:30] it felt like to be so tired getting ready for work the next morning. So, this whole artificial concept of what the baseline is. If we really think about that how that baseline came about, it’s really what you were saying about that you said that thought triggers thought, and that this habitually reactive conditioning that we get, it says, there’s a way we’re supposed to be and if we do these things, we will be it. And then, finally, we will [00:41:00] feel the way we’ve been hoping to feel.

And clearly, that was a problem in the time of Buddha because these were some of the things that he really dove into when he was trying to answer these big questions that shaped his life. Even thinking about the Skandhas, for example, when he really broke out. How the brain responds to these external stimuli and really referencing our longterm memory, our short term memory, our emotions, all of these other [00:41:30] things, that’s exactly how it works. But it can trick us if we let it.

The way to break through that is to understand that, yes, our minds do become conditioned. That is how we survived back in the jungle and the millions of years on our evolutionary tree that preceded that, we were responding and learning from our environments in ways that shaped our survival.  As we advanced [00:42:00] as humans and as we developed these very unique forebrains right here, the prefrontal cortices, new types of thinking came in that created possibilities for us that very ironically were intentioned with some of these earlier more fast brain, more – and to use a computer jargon here – debugged processing systems in our brain. And this tension is our challenge and our [00:42:30] opportunity and it’s really what the Buddha looked at when exploring react versus respond. It’s exactly like Daniel Kahneman’s book that I’m sure many listeners will have heard of about the fast brain and the slow brain. But what Kahneman didn’t do that the Buddha does is guide us to ways of shifting gears, and my book talks about this with the car analogy, between these two modalities so that we can move toward more of what really brings us [00:43:00] happiness.

“I’m so grateful for my happiness, but I don’t feel happiness.” My heart hurts for that person because she like so many others have been conditioned to say, “My life is supposed to be a little bit better or different than it is now” or “If only I had this or that, then finally, I have the happiness.” We get these messages that say, again, states lead to traits and maybe they do over time. That if we think it, we can create [00:43:30] it. That’s true to an extent, but perhaps underlying those words that say, “I’m grateful for my happiness” is this state that so many of us feel that says, “It’s not quite what it should be.” And that’s the thing that really holds us from finding satisfaction.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That really resonates with me, the idea of being caught up in this world of thinking there is a way it should be and how that thought can rob [00:44:00] us of happiness. I want to touch on something that you mentioned really quickly with the evolution of the brain, as Daniel Kahneman, and Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, talks about the fast and the slow, the more primitive and the more evolved parts of the brain. Correlating this to the teaching in Buddhism of the two arrows, I just thought this is a unique condition here, but the teaching is that you can get shot [00:44:30] by an arrow and you can’t do anything about it. You’ve been shot by an arrow. That’s it. But you can pick up a second arrow and aggravate the wound, right? And it’s like, you get shot, and then you pick up that second arrow and you’re like, “Why did you have to shoot me here?” And you’re poking at that spot with that second arrow.

I was thinking about this with the correlation with the more evolved part of the mind, what makes us human is we can think. That’s one thing. So do animals. But [00:45:00] we think about thinking. And maybe that that’s second layer where there’s what we’re experiencing, happiness as an emotion, and then there’s that thinking about happiness. Should I be happy? Is this happy enough? Do I need more of it? Things of that nature that starts to bring in the second layer or the second arrow element that goes beyond, “Now, I’m not just sitting with the original emotion, taking it in, and saying, wow this is great because I’m thinking maybe [00:45:30] that I’m guilty for feeling happy” or something along those lines.

Ellen Leanse:                          So, right. You’ve invited in the perfect entry to the limbic system, which is at the very core of our brain, the cognitive parts of the brain, the cortex wrap around it. It’s actually quite deep back in the brain. We can think of an evolutionary model of the brain that survival mechanisms evolved from back moving up toward the front of the brain, and then, the more cognitive thing started to evolve [00:46:00] leading to the prefrontal cortex up at right here at the forehead. Heres the prefrontal cortex. I love, when I talk about the brain is you give your prefrontal cortex a hug by putting your fingers together and then sort of wrapping your forehead like that. That’s your PFC is.

Let’s tie this into the emotional center of the brain, which is, if you look at it anatomically, it really is nestled right in there with all of the motor and cognitive and [00:46:30] perception parts of the brain. Mind you, in Buddhism we don’t talk about the senses. We talk about the sense gates or the sense doors, and how they bring in information from the outside world where it’s simply interpreted by the brain. And that’s fully integrated with all of the cognitive parts, but also with our limbic system, which is emotions and memories. That’s sort of in the book I talk about. It’s the rubber band ball. Layer upon layer at the center of the brain.

A teacher of [00:47:00] mine once asked the question. He was asking me to describe and to have a memory that filled me with a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. And I described to him this really beautiful place, my happy place, and how I loved visualize it. He goes, “Where is the beauty?” And of course that was such a beautiful question because the beauty is inside. I mean, it’s still in that place over on the north shore of Oahu, but I’m not seeing it right now. But the beauty is still there inside. [00:47:30] So, the brain always has its maps and perceptions of what you value or enjoy or fear or feel shameful of or retreat from because of the way cognition works with that core limbic system, with that memory and emotion center in the beginning.

So, you might, to your question, about the two arrows, Noah, you might experience a moment of happiness, followed by a sense of “I don’t deserve this.” So, there’s shame or something [00:48:00] like that. That is the limbic system and its entrenched patterns and those more familiar bands around the rubber band ball of your emotional memory, long term memory experiences. Much of which, by the way, is subconscious. We’re not even aware of what those things are. Like the rubber band ball, they’re wadded up in the middle and we don’t even know what all the other bands are built around. But that second arrow is the association probably with subconscious thoughts in the limbic system.

There’s a special word for moments like that, that I think [00:48:30] is really helpful, and that is “information.” When we have that second arrow experience, we say, “Ah. I felt good, but then I judged it or I retreated from it or I said I wasn’t worthy.” That what was happening there? “Oh, now I see. I was wounding myself with a second arrow.” And then, remove the judgment or shame that we might often feel in a moment like that. We might say, “I’m always limiting myself. I won’t let myself get happy. What’s my problem?” We might say something like that. [00:49:00] That’s a third arrow and maybe even a fourth arrow.

So, when we have it, when we get that second arrow, that is a really great invitation to be grateful for that information, so that we can say, “Look, what I’m doing.” And say, “Wait. Pause.” Move into the responsive, not reactive mind. The fast mind, which is so much faster, the responsive brain, and go, “No. Really. I really want to enjoy this happiness” or “It doesn’t serve me to wound myself with a second arrow through old judgments [00:49:30] that don’t even fit into my life.” And then, we can start to build other patterns. Remember, whatever the brain is doing right now, the brain will do more of. So, we’re actually beginning that pattern.

And then, love your brain and forgive it for that because remember, the brain’s job is to keep you safe and alive. In order to do that, it can only draw on past experiences, whether they’re known or unknown. Whether they are conscious or sub or unconscious. It’s still going to draw upon those pathways [00:50:00] because per the brain’s definition, it’s done its job perfectly if you’re still alive, right? Everything is working perfectly. It loves if you’re wounding yourself with those fourth and fifth and sixth arrows, if that’s kept you alive, and it’s going to tell you to keep on doing that until you say, thanks to the prefrontal cortex, “No, there is another way.”

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. In fact, when I was reading your book, that whole section of the rubber bands really stood out to me. [00:50:30] So, I want to correlate that again really quickly. What you mentioned in the book is you can have an object and if you start wrapping rubber bands around it, you keep doing that, right? Rubber band after rubber band. Eventually, you have this big ball of rubber bands that can bounce. It does whatever it does because of what’s inside, and at some point you may not even know what’s at the core of it.

I had this thought when I was reading that, thinking there’s always this thought that, [00:51:00] especially in Buddhism, there are causes and conditions to all natural phenomena. And I think that sometimes that puts us in this mindset, “Well, if I can go back far enough and find what’s inside the rubber band, then it’ll fix all my problems.” But I don’t know that we can sometimes. It maybe there’s an emotion that was triggered by a memory that was triggered by some other emotion and some other memory. It maybe so complex that I’m left with this situation where all I know is I’ve [00:51:30] got this band of rubber bands into a ball and I know what it does if I drop, it bounces. I know that. And I know that that happens because of what’s inside, but I don’t even know what’s inside. Is it enough to conclude? I’ll never know what’s inside, but at least I know that I understand it now. When I drop it, it bounces, and that’s what I have to work with.

Ellen Leanse:                          That’s so nice. You know, it’s so much fun when there’s an idea that’s out there. [00:52:00] I’m sure you experience this in your work, Noah. You offer the idea and then people come back with ways of building on it that really enrich it and add to it. So, that was beautiful. Thank you. It’s a great analogy. In fact, there are many systems for solving problems in life or self-knowledge, self-awareness. Really go back to let’s dig and dig and dig and see if we can pry open and see what’s in the middle of that rubber band ball.

I certainly have no judgment about that. I think it can be [00:52:30] a good path and really a necessary path in some situations, but all of us have the ability to watch our reactions and watch our responses to the things that are happening around us. And on the external layer, and this is a metaphor of course of that rubber band ball, are the thoughts that we’re most familiar with and use most often. Those are the things on the outer layer. Those are the things that we access first, if you will. And if we become aware of what our usual [00:53:00] responses might be or our usual reactions might be, being aware of those, I believe, lets it soften, if you will, the tension on those. Maybe look below at the next layer. I wish I had a rubber band ball to show now because you have to pry something apart and go, “Oh yeah, there’s a wide gray one down there. And then there’s a red one.” You’re never going to get to the middle, will take a lot of time and so forth.

Anyway, we are still in metaphor land. This is a scientific fact. It’s simply a way of explaining it. But if [00:53:30] we are aware of what’s happening on a surface level, there are things that are actually quite easy to do. And that is we can put some new bands on top of it, so that we go to those responses before we go to the ones we’re more conditioned to, and that’s something that can be done through intentional practices or reflective practices or even new habit building and so forth. Or we can really say, “No. I want to soften that reaction and maybe even remove a band or two.” For example, if there’s something [00:54:00] you’re doing that’s not serving you, that wounding with a second arrow, awareness is a way of saying, “Okay. I can remove that more conditioned or habitual response if I stay committed to it.” Or “I can add a new pattern. I’m going to take a deep breath whenever I feel these emotions, so that I have a pause to reflect before I go into a habitual response.” Yes, even awareness of that rubber band ball at a surface level is enough [00:54:30] to start navigating your life with a different outlook and set of expectations. I’m 100% with you on that.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Yeah. I was just thinking in my own meditative practice, I feel like that description of prying open the rubber bands, I feel like I know I have certain sensitivities about certain topics or things that I can trace back and say, “It’s because of this. This is what’s at the core of that.” But there are others [00:55:00] where I don’t. All I know is that it goes somewhere, but I don’t know how far back or exactly why. It maybe genetic. I may believe or not believe certain things based on experiences my parents had or however many generations back. And I get that. I don’t have to understand the source. I just know that what I think, what I intend to think as the solid way of being, the way Noah is, isn’t real. [00:55:30] It’s not solid. It’s layers. Everything that I think and say and do, I’m part of that rubber band of causes and conditions that extend from what I’ve inherited from my society, from family beliefs, on and on and on. It’s just helpful to know that even if I can’t get to the end of that process.

Ellen Leanse:                          I actually think, Noah, that is the invitation. That is the “Haha, got you” experience of being a human, is that we’re all [00:56:00] the product of our genetics, our epigenetics. It’s the very, very biological response to environment. So, genetics, epigenetics, and then, our conditioning. That’s sort of what makes a human, if you will, personality. And knowing that, we can say, “Haha, this is how we are if we leave it to that.”

And this is where something else can rise, which is more … I don’t know what to call [00:56:30] it, but in the book we talk about it as the watcher, using a term that some Buddhist practitioners use. But we have this invitation for this other thing that we seem to be able to separate from simply those chemical reactions and firing pathways that we can start to put our hands on the wheel and drive a little bit. And the first step is exactly that awareness. We all are the products of these forces. Now, what do we do with it? That really is the [00:57:00] question.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Well, let’s get into that a little bit more. First, I want to address a topic of happiness in terms of, is happiness a paradox? What I mean by that is I’ve had experiences before where one of them … Funny story was I’m about an hour away from a good friend who lives down in Salt Lake, which is about [00:57:30] 45-60 minutes away. He has these weekly meditation groups, so one week I was planning to go down there. And I planned ahead of time because I knew it would take me an hour to get there on time. It was on a new location. I hadn’t been to that spot before, so I put it in the GPS, I get there. As soon as I pull up, it seems like this doesn’t seem like the right place. So, [00:58:00] I switched from Apple Maps to Google Maps, to see if it would take me to the same place and it didn’t. It told me to go somewhere else.

Long story short, I’m starting to feel the emotion of discomfort and frustration, and I’m upset because I can’t get to where I’m supposed to get so I can sit and relax. That was the big irony. I wanted to go meditate that morning so that I could experience a little bit of [00:58:30] peace and contentment. And the very fact that I was trying to get there to do that was the reason I wasn’t feeling it because I wasn’t getting there. The GPS took me to the wrong place and I had this thought in that moment, “Well, I could just be at home, and then, I’d be at peace if I didn’t want to come here and be at peace.” Right?

I think that’s the paradox. We do this with concepts like patience, for example. If I want to be patient, the more I want to, the less I have it, [00:59:00] right? I want to be patient, but I want to be patient right now. Well, that’s the very reason you can’t be patient because the whole point of it is you can’t have it right now. You’ve got to be okay with having it whenever you have it. I wonder if happiness sometimes fits that same bill.

I think marketers know this. This is why they hijack it because they know that happiness, like everything else, is impermanent. If we can convince you that, “Yeah, that thing that you thought was happy, that’s not it. It’s going to be this. When you finally have [00:59:30] this, or when you finally drive this car,” or whatever it is they’re selling you. But then, they know that that’s not it. You finally get that and now you’ve got to have a new one every year or whatever it is because you’re always chasing after it. I think that’s the paradox. You can’t have it because you want it. That’s the very reason you can’t have it. Is that a fair assessment of happiness in general? Is it a paradox?

Ellen Leanse:                          I think paradox is the right word there for certain types of happiness, mind you. Again, [01:00:00] I truly think satisfaction, really the deeper satisfaction, is a different thing than that, but if we think about happiness as conventionally described, yes, there is a myth we’re told from the time we are very small and it’s deeply conditioned into us, probably subconsciously and generationally or epigenetically and in other ways. And maybe it’s simply part of the human condition, is “As soon as this happens, I [01:00:30] will be happy.” Or, “As soon as I get there, I will be happy.” “I’m only one step away from it.” We live our life on this game board of chasing happiness, believing there is a destination out there that when we land on it, boom, it’s all there.

But most of us, by this point in our lives, we probably know, it’s not working. We probably thought, “As soon as I get that first job after I graduate from college, then I’ll be happy,” “As soon as I do this, this life milestone, own this, acquire [01:01:00] this.” No. That is the paradox of it, right? And probably part of how that works, it is a lot of dopamine in that. By the way, people talk about dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin, vasopressin, all of this. These are only the highlight reel of the brain chemicals. There are so many more that are woven into our experiences that we don’t even know how to describe the subtlety and interaction of all of this. And there’s other stuff too. The way the [01:01:30] currents are flowing, the electromagnetic currents and so forth.

The paradox is is that when this happens, we will be happy. Well, we might feel for a moment, like, “The first time we drive that new car,” “When we go on that date,” or whatever it is, we do get that jolt or surge of “This is great.” But the next day when we go back to things, there’s still that “As soon as … as soon as … as soon as …” we start living with. This is a true paradox in the human experience. It really [01:02:00] is.

There’s one question that I think is really important to invite if we experience that paradox, and I think all of us do. It’s one I write about in my opening chapter. It’s like, “I’ve done all the things I was supposed to do. Why don’t I feel happy? I did everything that they told me to do and here I am feeling like there’s something more. Is there something wrong with me?” I do think that is part of the human experience. And then, the aha moment comes when we realize, “Wait a minute.” There’s a weird [01:02:30] conundrum in that, first of all, “The things that have brought me here are not the things that are going to bring me there, if I’m really searching for real happiness.” And then, the other one is this sort of aha, which is like, “Wait. I’m already there. All I have is this moment. And it is my relationship with this moment that’s going to define how I navigate every other moment that goes forward. And I can choose …” It’s even more than choose. “I can accept that this is what the path is.”

Once there is some acceptance [01:03:00] of that, the paradox softens a little bit. There is a different type of invitation that we get to really drop in and feel … I’m careful using the word “happy” but to feel like things make sense. To feel that there is a purpose to this. To feel that I do have some mastery of the path and to feel that I can find satisfaction, punctuated by moments of dopamine-charged happiness on it.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:03:30] Sure. Yeah, I like that you bring up the idea of the path. In your book, you share a quote from Margaret Lee Runbeck. You said, the quote is, “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” I think that correlates so well with the mindfulness-based approach too of the path is the goal. And the moment that we understand that, like you said, now we can experience [01:04:00] whatever life is throwing at us, punctuated by those moments of dopamine, but we realize those weren’t the goal, those weren’t the point. All of that, everything is icing on the cake. If you can say what is the cake? It’s being alive. That’s the cake. You’re alive. Everything else is icing on the cake.

So, which leads me to this thought: is there a natural state of happiness? [01:04:30] Do we get in the way of our own happiness because we don’t understand what’s going on in our minds, we don’t understand the tricks that our minds play on us in terms of happiness.

What I’m thinking about here, what I’m alluding to is, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s this idea of Buddha nature, right? This is the unconditioned mind, your natural state of being, and there’s a [01:05:00] Thai story of a golden Buddha statue at a monastery that the monks … I guess, the country was being invaded or something, so the monks cover up this golden statue with clay so that the invaders won’t take it. Maybe they get killed, I don’t know what happens, but they all disappear. So, for years and years, this statue is there. It’s just a clay-looking statue. [01:05:30] By then, there are monks there again, but these guys don’t know what the originals did. Someone at some point discovers that under this statue of clay, it really wasn’t a clay statue. It’s been a gold statue all along.

The correlation of that story is that our essential nature is like the gold statue. It’s enlightened. It’s awakened. And this is the paradox of awakening or enlightenment too. You can’t obtain it because you [01:06:00] already are it. You are not going to find those sunglasses you’re looking for because they’re already on your head. That’s the big joke of it all. Is happiness the same? Is there a natural state of happiness? Maybe if we use a word like “contentment” or “joy,” is that our natural state and we’re not seeing it because we’re frantically looking for those glasses, not realizing, “Hey, they’re already on your head”? What do you think of that?

Ellen Leanse:                          The clay and the gold Buddha is the perfect analogy [01:06:30] because I think that there is a natural state that is perhaps like the Buddha nature. There’s no good word for that. It’s a beingness or a presence or a feeling of a unique, golden centeredness. But we’re so busy looking for happiness that we don’t see it because we think that that, that happiness … It’s really a beautiful metaphor is that the clay [01:07:00] on the outside of the golden Buddha, the clay is what we think happiness is. But the gold …

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. We call that the conditioning from the Buddhist perspective.

Ellen Leanse:                          Exactly that. This is true cognitively and really psychologically as well. The funny thing is, is that so many different disciplines align along this concept of how the clay shrouds the gold. The gold is not the feeling of happiness [01:07:30] that we’ve been conditioned to think through the advertisements and commercials and likes and likes and likes.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. So, it’s not the hit of dopamine.

Ellen Leanse:                          It’s not. That’s the clay. But that’s a beautiful invitation to learn. That is there to tempt us and to draw us away, and people can exploit those cycles that we have, to say, “this is how you’re going to find it.” But a gold is inside all along and it is that sort [01:08:00] of dropping in we’ve all felt at different moments. We go back to our …

You asked if there’s something in our biology. Well, the answer is certainly yes. I think if we look at … There’s still some relatively intact human cultures that have survived for tens and tens and sometimes even more than tens. There’s one that, the longest standing one, seems to have survived intact for about a 130,000, possibly a little bit more, years, but all of them have reflective practices [01:08:30] that … and practices that challenge the dopamine cycles. For example, there’s one, this southern African tribe. Their culture has been intact for more than 100,000 years. And when someone brings home a kill to the clan, which they’re going to share because it’s a collective, they come back apologizing, “I’m sorry I didn’t get a very good one. I didn’t do as well as I could have on the hunt.” And then get [01:09:00] this. The people in the clan even come back and go, “You call that an antelope?” That sort of thing.

So, it’s all about disrupting this usual striving that the human mind has for, “Look at me. I’m the best. I got it” or “I suck because I missed out.” And it’s about disrupting that and coming back to, “I’m alive. We’re together. There is some purpose to this that I don’t understand and lucky me, I get to be in [01:09:30] it.” That is the gold of the Buddha.

Noah Rasheta:                      Hmm. As you were saying that, that “I’m alive,” I was thinking of a quote by Brother David Steindl-Rast. And he talks about gratitude and his quote says, “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” As I think about that in terms of what we’re discussing, [01:10:00] these moments …

From the Buddhist point-of-view, we talk about suffering as the moment we want life to be other than it is, suffering arises. It feels like the flip side of that is when we accept things as they are, and we’re grateful for things as they are, there’s this sense of feeling like nothing needs to change. Everything is just fine the way that it is. I think those are the moments where it’s beyond this [01:10:30] dopamine type happiness. This is the deep, deep contentment and joy that we experience when nothing needs to be different than how it is, the moment is perfect just as it is. I think gratitude evokes that. When we’re grateful, we’re thinking about things as they are and we experience that feeling of, “Hey, I’m glad that it’s this way, so therefore it doesn’t need to be any different” and maybe that’s why happiness [01:11:00] arises as a result of the gratitude.

That was kind of my closing thought on that. But what I want to get to as the closing sentiments here, from you, I’d love to hear what are some of the happiness traps that we need to be aware of, obvious ones. And then, after that, the conversation, let’s go to what are some specific practices we can do to try to nurture [01:11:30] happiness or joy or contentment, however we want to word that. Happiness hacks, like you talk about in your book. What are some of the things we should be aware of? And then, what are some of the happiness hacks that we can start to work with to experience more of the serotonin type happiness?

Ellen Leanse:                          Right. So, two traps that come to mind would be that happiness is something you will acquire in the future based on your actions. So, [01:12:00] do this and you will get that. That happiness is an if-then scenario. And then, the other one is a little bit simpler than that and that is that happiness is a state that you will reach. It’s something that is external. I guess, to really make it simple, what is it? It’s a future state that you will attain based on actions, and then second, it will be shaped by externals.

Certainly, happiness can be influenced by externals. When I’m with my friends or my family or see one of my [01:12:30] sons doing something that’s aligned with his purpose, that’s giving me a sense of happiness that is treated as affected by something external. But that’s not what’s making me happy. It’s giving me a feeling of happiness, but that is also temporal and shifting. So, happiness is not those things. It’s not something that you bring in from the outside world or have that creates the happiness.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Touching on that real quick. Just [01:13:00] it occurred to me today is Cyber Monday. Inevitably, somebody will be listening to this thinking, “Oh, you’re saying that getting things won’t make me happy. Well, watch how happy I’ll be when I go land this big deal, this TV doorbuster or something like that.” I want to emphasize what you just mentioned, the temporal part of this. So, I don’t think we’re saying those things don’t make you happy. We’re saying that’s not the happiness you’re looking for. Sure, you’re going to feel [01:13:30] the hit of dopamine, that sense of feeling of happiness that, “Wow, I just got this and I saved this much money.” But what we’re talking about is that’s not lasting. That’s not the deeper, more meaningful type of happiness that we’re talking about in this context, right?

Ellen Leanse:                          What an invitation, Noah, that is to mindfulness because if we look at going and getting that TV, and we think not about the what. “I’m going to get this TV at [01:14:00] this great price.” Will we really think deeply about the why? Why does this matter? Well, one of the things that I love about my life is when friends really gather just around to watch a game together or to watch a movie together. And that this TV will be the way that I really create something that I value, which is a sense of deeper community as we come together, so that we can be even mindful about buying a TV. Now, someone might come back and challenge me in saying, “Oh, come [01:14:30] on. You can rationalize anything with thinking like that.” And they’re probably right. But really, if we really think about the why … And by the way, if we come up with the why, and we go, “‘Cause I want a TV that’s two inches bigger than the one I already have,” then we know there’s dopamine at work. And we might want to say, “Hey, you know what? The real thing I care about, which is gathering friends together and sharing community, probably isn’t going to be that different than with the two inch bigger TV than it is [01:15:00] with this one.”

Or maybe we’re saying, because, I’ll use a non gender-specific name, “Because Chris has a TV that’s this size, so I want to have a TV this size.” That’s information. Dopamine. That’s dopamine at work. We’ve been hooked, hijacked. So, what we can do at that moment is come back and say … Well, pause for a moment. Get out of reaction. Get into response. Why do I really want this? And come up with a reason that we can really sit [01:15:30] with and settle with and say, “You know what? It is worth it for me to get it. This really is going to make a difference” or “You know what? I’m going to do this instead because I already have the thing that’s getting me to my why. I just haven’t thought about it that way yet.”

Noah Rasheta:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s funny you mentioned this because on Friday, for Black Friday, I went and bought a TV at Walmart. I was thinking about why. From a rational standpoint, I knew I don’t need it. [01:16:00] For me, my why was, “Well, because I can. At some point I know I want to get a newer TV and right now is a good time because it’s cheaper than it would be if I didn’t do it right now. And I thought, maybe that is enough of a why. I knew it wasn’t going to make me happier.

I knew it doesn’t make me any better than the me that had the old TV. But I still felt excited that I got a TV, [01:16:30] but it wasn’t the same as before in my life where I would have thought there were other aspects to it that I was unaware of. Like, thinking of the type of TV I have determines who I am or how people see me. They’ll come to my house and say, “Oh, that’s one of those big, nice TVs.” None of those strings were attached to it this time because I felt like it could be an old TV or no TV, and I probably would be just as content. But I can [01:17:00] do it. I can afford it right now. So, why not? For me, that was enough to say, “Okay, well, then I’ll do it.” And I was happy that I did it. I’m happy with the TV I got.

I bring that up because we’re not saying in this interview, “Hey, don’t go out and fall for these traps. Don’t buy the next thing.” You can. It’s not inherently wrong to do that. What we’re saying is, don’t do that thinking that that’s the solution because it’s not. If you do it, you’re [01:17:30] going to do it. And some people will, some people won’t, and that’s fine. I just wanted to be careful that we’re not trying to say, “Oh, people who go out and fall for the dopamine hit, the advertised type of happiness, you guys are silly.” We’re not saying that at all. I think, we’re saying, “just understand what’s happening in your head as you make these choices.”

Ellen Leanse:                          It is. It’s a great example. Really, again, it’s responding [01:18:00] not reacting. It’s doing with awareness and mindfulness and some sort of a sense of purpose. So, you mentioned with you wanting to get this TV, using a moment to reflect, “Why am I doing this?” Understanding that the things on the surface of your rubber band ball were not the same ones that they were maybe the last time you bought a TV. And making a conscious decision to say, “This is the right time to do it. It’s going to last me for this long. [01:18:30] It’ll be something that the family will grow with more,” whatever it is. But really doing it because you are the master of your path, not because somebody else’s path is mastering you.

Noah Rasheta:                      Hmm. I love that.

Ellen Leanse:                          So, you asked for some hacks.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, let’s talk about some hacks.

Ellen Leanse:                          I can only share what I’ve heard works for others and the few things that have worked for me. Maybe people who are listening have things that they do in these moments where they [01:19:00] feel a sense of angst or unhappiness. Someone said to me, a couple of nights ago, that they had gone to this meeting that they really valued going to that’s about personal growth and communication. And they came back feeling other than after the meeting, like they weren’t doing as well as other people.

So, the only thing I can say is that these moments where we feel something is interfering with our happiness, just pause for a moment. And believe it or not, it’s very simple thing that’s always available to us, is we can take a breath. [01:19:30] And it turns out that there are two reasons that are really interesting for this on a neuroscientific level. First of all, the brain integrates information differently on an inhale than it does on an exhale. It actually integrates on the inhale. So, a slow and intentional breath is actually an invitation for your brain to, if you will, on an electromagnetic and blood flow level, which fueling level, which brings oxygen so forth. Just go around and maybe integrate things, maybe opportunistically or maybe intentionally, [01:20:00] that might not have been available before. One really mindful breath will do that.

The other thing is, is when we feel any sense of our happiness, as we define it, being threatened, we do get an amygdala response in the brain. This is the very easily triggered flight or fight response. And at that point, there’s a chemical reaction that begins instantly in the brain. It begins at 0.003 seconds whereas a conscious thought takes at least 0.5 seconds. So, really, more than an order [01:20:30] of magnitude of difference. That we get this chemical surge with the 30 neuro-modulators that go even into the body when the amygdala fires instantly.

At that point, an incredible thing happens. There’s a constriction of blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. So, our most advanced human thoughts actually go offline for a moment until either something calms us and brings them back, or until we’ve done the fighting or [01:21:00] flighting. I think they say it’s fight, flight or freeze that we need to do to survive, right? But in that amygdala hijack, we are triggered, and we are in fight, flight or freeze mode.

So, when we feel that awareness of it happening, we can know that that is an evolutionary response that evolved to keep us … Sorry, I don’t know what that was. That evolved to keep us alive and we can be grateful for it. And then, we can come back to a moment of say, “Ah. That [01:21:30] is an amygdala hijack.” And we can hack back on it and come back in use the breath or use a centering in the body to say, or we can even say … Two things that I find really useful. One is, say, tell ourselves to take a moment. But we can also say, when we’re in dialogue with another person or in conflict, we can use two very important words. We can say, “I’m curious. Tell me more about that.” The moment we say, “I’m curious” we actually are inviting the prefrontal cortex into [01:22:00] a different type of consideration, which might be hard at that moment, but once we override it, begins that more integrative access to these more higher cognition parts of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex is critical thought, longterm planning, mood regulation, gratitude, thoughtful consideration, meta thinking, which is thinking about thinking, and then, also on the other hand type of thinking. Exactly the opposite [01:22:30] of the fast brain or especially amygdala-driven responses. We can use these slow ourselves down processes to drop into that moment and then make decisions that at least eliminate regret because if we’re reacting, we have a higher probability of regretting, which does remove happiness. Even if we’re not moving to a place of happiness, moving to a place of that golden Buddha, that [01:23:00] mastery and presence and “I am navigating this mindfully in the moment.” It feels really, really good.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. I love that. Thank you. I want to mention again, Ellen’s book is The Happiness Hack. It’s very easy to read. I actually like the way it’s laid out with little tips and notes. It’s really easy [01:23:30] to read and digest the information in the book. I’m going to post a link to that on the website, on my website, where this video and the audio of this interview will also be posted. And then, I’m going to have this whole conversation transcribed so you can read that as well.

I would like to include some other links for those of you who would like to learn more about Ellen’s work. I’ll post a link to her TED talk. Where [01:24:00] are some other places, Ellen, where people can learn about you and your work or your book? Do you have any specific links or anything you’d like to share?

Ellen Leanse:                          Yes, thank you so much. I would love that. So, I do have a website. It’s ellenleanse.com. Now and again I have a little fun on Twitter. And I have a funny name on Twitter. It’s chep2m. It’s another story. A name I was given in rural Kenya actually. But it’s C-H-E-P and then [01:24:30] the number 2 and then the letter M. it’s probably the worst Twitter handle in history, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. So, it’s chep2m. And I’ll share all of those with you, Noah, so that you have the direct links.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Well, great. I want to thank you, again, for taking the time to, not just come on the show and be on the podcast, but to be willing to go live to my Facebook page. I know sometimes the going [01:25:00] live aspect can be a little intimidating. But I think this is a topic that’s very relevant for our culture and our society. It’s very relevant to those who are practitioners of a mindfulness-based way of living. And I think it correlates really well with the practice of mindfulness and meditation. So, thank you for taking the time to be with us. Do you have any final closing thoughts you want to share with us [01:25:30] as we wrap this up?

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you so much. First of all, what a delight and honor to be with you and with the audience. I will say, if anyone in the audience has any specific questions that they want to add to the thread when Noah posted on Facebook, I will do my best to come in and provide answers to those. So, thank you and may the conversation continue.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. Well, thank you. I’m going to end the live stream for this now. So, those of you who [01:26:00] listened live, thank you for joining us. If you want to be received notifications of when these live interviews are taking place, there is a link on Facebook that you can click to be notified when we go live. So, thanks, again, for listening. This will be uploaded later as a video and it will be the audio of the next podcast episode, so thank you guys for listening live.

Ellen Leanse:                          Thank you.

59 – Escape Into Discomfort / My Interview with Shinzen Young

In this episode, I am sharing the audio from an interview/discussion I had with Shinzen Young on the topic of “Escaping into Discomfort”. This interview was streamed live on November 16th, 2017.

Links Mentioned in the Episode:

Home Practice Program
Life Practice Program
Brightmind app

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

New – Join our Online Weekly Sangha – https://www.remind.com/join/sbsangha

Transcription of the podcast episode:

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:                      It’s sending it off into space or somewhere.

Shinzen Young:                    Webinar is now streaming live on Facebook.

Noah Rasheta:                      I still think it’s … It’s just really cool that we have the ability to do something like this, to stream live.

Shinzen Young:                    It’s a real boon to spreading the meditative path on this planet.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, it really is.

Shinzen Young:                    [00:00:30] I sort of compare it to the existence of Koine Greek that’s allowed Christianity to spread because people could all read the New Testament because that was a kind of universal language for the Mediterranean region. Now we’ve got a universal language for the whole planet. It’s the internet and so many people speaking English, this is our way to spread the good news, so to speak.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. [00:01:00] Okay, it looks like people are jumping in already, so this is going. Let me post it to one more group. Okay, got that on there. Okay, we’ve got almost 50 people watching already. [00:01:30] Alright, one last post and I’ll be good to go. Where are you located [crosstalk 00:01:42]?

Shinzen Young:                    I live in the city of Burlington, Vermont in northern New England.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay.

Shinzen Young:                    Although I’m originally from SoCal. I’m an LA boy.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay, I was gonna say, for some reason I thought you were …

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, I’m actually [00:02:00] second generation born in LA, but I’ve lived in New England for over two decades at this point.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Okay, now we are completely rocking and rolling. We’ve got people joining from all over the place, so to those of you who are joining, welcome. Thank you for your patience. The first few minutes is usually just awkward silence or filler talk while I post these links to the various [00:02:30] groups, but I’m really excited to have Shinzen Young joining me today for Secular Buddhism Podcast interview/discussion and so this audio will be available on the podcast later this week. The video is streaming live as you are well aware, and this will also be posted to our YouTube channel.

Shinzen Young:                    Hi everyone. Welcome.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you for taking the time to join today, Shinzen. [00:03:00] I have to say, I first came across you through podcast listeners and friends who are taking courses in meditation and your name kept bouncing up, so I started researching you and thought it would be cool to have you on the podcast, but I can’t remember exactly how that part came. I think an email came from you first. I thought, “Oh, this is Shinzen Young.” By then I had already heard of you and had looked at your book, [00:03:30] The Science Of Enlightenment, so it was good timing and I thought, “This would be great to have Shinzen on the podcast,” so thank you for reaching out.

Shinzen Young:                    Sure, my pleasure.

Noah Rasheta:                      Now, I’m gonna read the quick bio I have. This comes right from your website, but just this is for those who are watching and listening. “Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant. His systematic approach to categorizing, adapting [00:04:00] and teaching meditation, known as unified mindfulness, has resulted in collaborations with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie Melon University and the University of Vermont and the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience. If I understand correctly, your interest in mindfulness, or, I guess all things Eastern start at the age of 14 when you decided to attend a Japanese [00:04:30] ethnic school in your native city of LA.

Shinzen Young:                    That’s right.

Noah Rasheta:                      Tell me a little bit about your story. In your own words, how did you get into this? How did you start practicing and then ultimately teaching mindfulness and Buddhism?

Shinzen Young:                    Sure, well, I was born in LA. My family of origin is Jewish and I did actually have a Jewish upbringing. I went to synagogue and so forth. I had a very charismatic [00:05:00] rabbi and I think that was a little bit of a role model for me at an early age, but when I was in my early teens, my best friend in what was then called junior high school, now called middle school, just happened to be a third generation Japanese American. We shared some interest. Nothing related to Japan, really, but his family used to go see Japanese movies once a week to sort [00:05:30] of keep in contact with the heritage, and they invited me one week to go with them to watch Japanese movies at a little theater in downtown LA which I had no interest in, whatsoever.

I didn’t want to be rude, so, okay. It’s gonna be boring, it’s got subtitles, it’s hard to follow, but anyway, it was a double feature. The first movie was a love story set in [00:06:00] modern Tokyo and predictably, I was completely bored. The second one was a samurai movie set in 16th century Japan, and in the first three minutes, I was mesmerized. Just mesmerized. I’d never had contact with another culture, [00:06:30] other than maybe the Jewish culture, relative to America, but this was an Asian culture and an Asian culture of many centuries ago. I remember thinking, “Well, these people are obviously human beings, but they, in some ways, might as well be extra-terrestrials.” They’re just so different in every way imaginable. How they dress their hair and how they walk and the men talk [00:07:00] like real macho from their belly and the women talk real feminine. There’s sexual dimorphism in the Japanese language.

There were very cool ways of fighting that I’d never seen. Two-handed sword combat, and then values that were, to me, just over the top, like there was this one scene where the samurai [00:07:30] sort of defeats this other samurai, and the subtitle just said, “You’re a samurai, you know what to do,” and the guy just whips out a knife and cuts open his belly because he got defeated. It’s like what the hell is this world, that someone could do that without a second thought? Just being prompted like that. It’s like, whoa. [00:08:00] This is a really, really interesting world. After that movie was over, I pummeled the parents of my friend, like, “Why did they do that? I heard this word that sounded a little bit like this. What did that mean?” I never encountered a non-Indo-European language. Well, other than Hebrew, but this was really different.

They took me out to J-Town, Little Tokyo. [00:08:30] Japanese-Americans used to call it J-Town. So, you go to Chinatown. There’s nothing very mysterious in Chinatown. People have been going to Chinese restaurants, non-Asian people have been going to Chinese restaurants for a hundred years, but at that time, and we’re talking about not that long after World War II. I’m older than I look. There were only Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Little Tokyo. I was the only white bred, and [00:09:00] most non-Asians did not know anything about how to order Japanese food, so they initiated me, and this became a thing. Every week I’d see Japanese movies with them, pummel them with questions, and then they would take me out to eat Japanese food, taught me how to eat with chopsticks, which was a rarity at that time. Most non-Asians didn’t know how to do that.

It seems funny now. The culture is so caught up, but I can assure you that the [00:09:30] United States of the 1950s was not very sympathetic to Asian culture. I was this oddball with this interest, and eventually I found out there’s Japanese ethnic school. It’s like Hebrew school for Jewish kids, except it’s for Japanese-American kids. It meets in the afternoons all day on Saturday. You go to American public school but then your parents make [00:10:00] you go to Japanese school, so I decided to go to Japanese school. By the time I graduated from Venice High, I also graduated from Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute and I had had the incredible privilege of growing up bilingual and bi-cultural in Los Angeles, and I was the valedictorian of my class in Japanese [00:10:30] school.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    They wanted to show off this anomaly of a non-Asian person who was, at that time, essentially a native speaker of Japanese.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow. That’s fascinating.

Shinzen Young:                    That’s how it started. It was just this fascination with Asia, Japan, particularly martial arts, Asian food, and this is decades before the mainstream [00:11:00] culture of North America started to move in that direction. I thought I’d always be just this marginalized weirdo that was interested in things that most people disrespected. It’s hard to believe but I can remember when a piece of merchandise that said “Made in Japan” on it was considered schlock. There was actually a time [00:11:30] when that was a trope or a common theme in the United States. Hard to imagine, right? Because of the complete flip.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah.

Shinzen Young:                    I get to belong to this pioneer generation that can remember the way things used to be and can see the way things are now vis a vis Asian culture and Asian philosophy and contemplative practices. I [00:12:00] straddled both worlds. There’s a church father in the Christian tradition named Tertullian. Very interesting guy, and I have a lot of sympathy for him, a lot of understanding, because he was sort of in the same position vis a vis Christianity. When he was young, Christianity was a persecuted, kooky cult, but in later life, he could see the writing on the wall, that Christianity [00:12:30] was gonna take over Europe and sort of be running the show.

He has this phrase, “We who are but of yesterday are now in all your cities and camps,” so he saw that transition that as a little boy, he would’ve never believed possible. I got interested in Buddhism because it was an aspect of Asian culture, a traditional one, and I wanted [00:13:00] to know everything about traditional Asian culture, but then that led to, of course, practicing meditation and that took me in a whole other direction, but I look now and I can remember North America of the 1950s and I see what’s happening, particularly with the mindfulness movement and so forth. I find myself saying, “We who are but of yesterday [00:13:30] are now in all your therapy rooms, your board rooms, even your military training camps.” It’s amazing for me to have actually seen that transition, so it’s a little bit like Tertullian. It’s possible that these practices, not in the form of organized religion, but in the form of attentional skills with application [00:14:00] strategies.

These practices inspired by Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, it’s possible that they may become a major feature of the psychospiritual paradigm for humanity in this century, so we who are but of yesterday are everywhere now.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that, and I agree, I feel like we’re at [00:14:30] that stage where we’re seeing that everywhere. Time Magazine had on their cover, “Mindfulness has gone mainstream,” and we’re seeing so many of these thoughts from the East merging into the corporate level and to personal practice. I think it’s kind of doing what yoga did not long ago when it just kind of came and now yoga is so common. Nobody bats an eye if you talk about practicing yoga [00:15:00] and it’s exciting to see that the same thing is starting to have with practices like meditation.

Speaking of the practice part of it, something that I came across that I thought was interesting with your story was, so you start going to these retreats and you start practicing, right? Putting this into practice, and there’s one instance that I’ve read about that I thought was interesting, was a 100 [00:15:30] day retreat that you did that was in the winter, so it was cold, and you had some experiences there dealing with the cold, the towels freezing or the water. Tell me a little bit about that experience. Where was that and what was that like?

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, people like that story. As I mentioned, my original interest was Asian [00:16:00] culture, so when the ’60s came around, there was money to study Buddhism in graduate school because we were having a war in a Buddhist country, Vietnam, and Buddhists had the political influence there, so the Congress would pay for a graduate education for a native-born American [00:16:30] to study Buddhism as a specialty. It was actually probably from the Department of Defense. It was called a national defense scholarship, so …

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 00:16:42]

Shinzen Young:                    Just like now they want native-born Americans who may be very familiar with Arabic or Islamic culture, well, there were political and military implications for Buddhism in the 60s, so Congress paid for [00:17:00] me to go to graduate school and study Buddhism, which originally I did … I should say, there were no strings attached on that money, by the way. I was never asked to do anything in return.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    Which was sort of pretty cool. I was studying it academically and I wanted to study a school of Buddhism that no Westerner had studied, [00:17:30] which at that time was unique in that regard. Well, maybe not unique but special in that regard, so I chose Shingon which is Japanese Vajrayana. It’s the Japanese analog of the practices that are so representative of Tibet. Not that it comes from Tibet, but both the Japanese Shingon and the Tibetan [00:18:00] Vajrayana practices share a common origin in late Indic Buddhism, so Vajrayana practices came into China and then were brought to Japan and preserved there as the Shingon school and then those practices also went into Tibet and were preserved there.

People were beginning to study Tibetan practices quite a bit but no one had looked at Japanese Vajrayana [00:18:30] as a scholar. You needed a lot of languages to do it and I was always good in Asian languages. I didn’t just go to Japanese school. My parents got me a Mandarin Chinese tutor and they got me a Sanskrit tutor all while I was still in high school, so my parents were terrific in that regard.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow.

Shinzen Young:                    They gave me a very enriched environment, particularly with regards to Asian languages, [00:19:00] so I had a pretty impressive repertoire of languages that I knew you would need to study Shingon, because you have to look at Sanskrit things. You have to look at the Tibetan analogs. You have to be able to read classical Chinese, classical Japanese and modern Japanese, so I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna specialize in Shingon because there aren’t that many people that have that skill set, and I’ll carve out a little bailiwick in the academic world [00:19:30] as the Western expert on this particular subset of Buddhism, but when I got to Japan, they didn’t want to have anything to do with me, basically, and all of my academic credentials didn’t mean, well, as we would say in Yiddish, didn’t mean bupkis. Didn’t mean anything, okay?

I got there and they just turned me away because they said, “This is not something that you do to decorate [00:20:00] your ego somehow, that you know something special. This is a transformative practice.” Now, if you’re willing to become a monk and follow our rules for a few years, then maybe we’ll teach you something, so it was basically my way or the highway. Certain things had happened in my life. I’d done drugs which almost everyone [00:20:30] did of my generation. That showed me that there were altered states. Also, horrifically tragically things happened to people that I really cared about and I say, “Oh my God,” what the Buddhists talk about when they talk about the noble truth of suffering. This is really relevant.

That combination of having seen some possibilities because of using psychotropic [00:21:00] substances plus the life lessons of seeing that your world can just come tumbling down in terms of conditional happiness in 30 seconds. Life is just a phone call away. It’s just an email away, and you can go from easy street to hell on Earth, which happened to people that I really cared about. THat’s sort of [00:21:30] brought … Those two things made the notion of practice real for me, so when the [abbott 00:21:38] said, “Hey, maybe we’ll teach you, just just come into the temple and just do what you’re told for a few years,” I said, “Okay.”

Finally after about a year, actually … It was starting to get really cold and he said, [00:22:00] “Okay, I’ll teach you, but it’s gonna be the old school way. It’s a hundred days in isolation. You spend it mostly in the meditation hall without any source of heat, and, oh yes, by the way, there’s this thing that we call cold water purification,” which he pointed out is actually not a Buddhist practice. It’s a Shinto shamanic practice but it had become part of traditional Shingon, [00:22:30] and so it entailed basically the equivalent of a cold shower on steroids three times a day, basically, stripping down and just pouring this stinging bucket of ice water over your naked body, et cetera.

Fortunately, before this all began, someone had begun to teach me how [00:23:00] to meditate, so I knew the difference between being in a concentrated state, what is generically, as you know, in Buddhism, called [foreign language 00:23:09]. I mean, that word can mean various things, but in its most generic sense, it just means any level of concentration. I’d had light experiences of [foreign language 00:23:22] before this, and I noticed that when I had to go through that and other physical ordeals [00:23:30] associated with this, if I stayed in a concentrated state, it was a lot less horrific and as soon as I left a concentrated state, it was untenable and undoable.

I realized, “Oh, okay, this is what a monastery is. It’s a giant feedback device.” The Christian term for what we, in Buddhism, would call [foreign language 00:24:00] [00:24:00] is recollection, meaning not to remember but to collect yourself back. [foreign language 00:24:05] Your attention is scattered. You bring it back. Well, that’s known outside of Buddhism and in Christianity it’s called recollection. Judaism and Hebrew, it’s called [foreign language 00:24:18]. In Arabic it’s called [foreign language 00:24:20], et cetera, et cetera.

Anyway, I noticed that if I maintained a somewhat recollected state during all of this, [00:24:30] there was a lot less suffering and as soon as I got scattered, there was a lot more suffering, so I realized, “Oh, it’s a giant feedback device,” and I also realized it’s a hundred day commitment and on day three I’m looking at 97 more days. I realized there’s exactly three things that are gonna happen here. I’m either going to suffer horribly [00:25:00] for 97 days or I’m gonna spend the next 97 days in a continuous state of high concentration, or I’m gonna give up and return to the states in shame and disgrace.

Because of those life experiences that I had, the choice was obvious. When I completed that hundred days, I was literally re-engineered. I went [00:25:30] in one kind of human being and came out a different kind of human being, and it was a very, very small price to pay for not just a new life but a new kind of life.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Yeah, I think that sounds fascinating. I think a lot of us kind of imagine a scenario like that and think, “Wow, it would be cool to go through an experience like that. It’s like a romanticized …”

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah, it sounds …

Noah Rasheta:                      … Image, right?

Shinzen Young:                    I could tell you …

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:26:00] Like [crosstalk 00:26:00] to do that but not really.

Shinzen Young:                    I can assure you that the exoticism and the romance gets old very, very quickly.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    However, here’s the thing, of course. I mean, like I say, people like hearing these stories, but the problem with telling these stories is that then people think, “Well, if that’s what you have to do to make [00:26:30] progress or get enlightenment, forget about it. I’m not up for that,” so the flip side of this kind of story, someone who consensually put themselves through an old school training like this, the flip side of this story is it is absolutely relevant to every person listening to this podcast.

It is absolutely relevant to the life of every human being, because [00:27:00] no, you might not go off and consensually put yourself in this situation, but it is highly probable that in the course of your life, you will be put into that situation and by that situation, I mean a situation of mental, emotional or physical distress or some combination thereof, whereby your only choice is to [00:27:30] turn it into a transformative, empowering experience through maintaining formal meditation or have it be horrific abject suffering that may leave you frail and disempowered, or take your life. That kind of trichotomy will be relevant to most people [00:28:00] and so knowing that there’s something between abject suffering and suicide becomes very relevant to every human being.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I think this is a great segue into the overall topic I wanted to get into with this, which is, you’re faced with a situation in this case where you are … Like you said, you’re three days into something knowing, “Okay, I have a choice for how I take the next 97 days, [00:28:30] right?” In a very real way, like you just highlighted, we are all presented with this when it comes to discomfort. I may be going through the loss of a job or a relationship that’s failing. Those are kind of on one end, right? But even the smaller discomforts of I’m in my car and here I am at the red light. How am I gonna handle the next 30 seconds? Am I going to just sit here and complain that life is [00:29:00] unfair because don’t you know who I am? I’m not supposed to be at a light, right?

It’s a similar scenario which goes back to the first noble truth, which is in life, difficulties will arise and in that moment of recognizing that we have a difficult … The situation at hand, right? There’s a difficulty that arises, what do we do now? Now what? I think this is what I like to compare with what your experience [00:29:30] is, is one example, and there are so many others, but we’re faced with this situation where we can try to avoid the discomfort, escape it. Like you said, you could’ve left and gone back. That would’ve been escaping it, or you could, as we’re calling this interview, escape into it. Escaping into the discomfort.

I’d love to talk about that now a little bit. Taking this idea of escaping into, the keyword into, right? [00:30:00] As opposed to escaping from, because I do think that our tendency in maybe … Maybe it’s human tendency, but especially in our western way of thinking, is here’s this discomfort. Let me fix it and get rid of it, which can be good, right? This is where I think science can step in and we solve and we fix things. The antibiotics are an example of that, so I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but that mindset of continually [00:30:30] trying to escape it, with some situations in life, you can’t escape the general discomfort that will arise. Let’s talk a little bit about switching that mindset from recognizing that we can escape into the discomfort.

Shinzen Young:                    Sure. Because, as you know, I have training in math and science, I tend to think like a scientist and I tend to express [00:31:00] myself like a scientist, so you’ll have to forgive that I get a little bit geeky sometimes. One of the things that you always are interested in math and science is called generalization, which means, okay, let’s look at the biggest picture possible. What’s the big picture here? The big picture … There’s a bunch of things I want to say about the big picture and then I’ll address specifically what you’re asking.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:31:30] Okay.

Shinzen Young:                    One thing about the big picture is it’s important to know that the degree to which you are empowered by a challenging sensory experience, the degree to which a challenging sensory experience, an uncomfortable experience in [00:32:00] inner or outer see, hear, feel, the degree to which that is empowering for you is a function of two variables, not just one. One of the variables is how intense the experience is. The other variable is how much mindfulness you can maintain within that experience. There’s good news [00:32:30] and there’s other news depending on how you want to look at it.

Let’s look at the good news first. A very intense, challenging distress in mind or emotions or the physical body will bring about huge empowerment if you can bring even a modicum of concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity [00:33:00] to it. That’s my definition of mindful awareness. Concentration power, sensory clarity, equanimity. Three orthogonal dimensions working together. The degree to which you can bring those mindful awareness skills to an uncomfortable situation measures how mindful you are. If the uncomfortable situation is very big but you can maintain even a little [00:33:30] bit of mindfulness, you’re gonna get a huge transformation and empowering experience. That’s good news.

Let’s look at another good news. Let’s say that the sensory challenge is trivial. Like, you’re annoyed because you’re at a stoplight. What you mentioned. Let’s say that you have that small annoyance, minor annoyance, but you’re able to bring a huge amount of mindfulness [00:34:00] to that moment. You’re able to muster, start on a dime, see, see, feel, see, feel, hear … You notice, I don’t have to sit down and meditate with my eyes closed for 10 minutes in order to be able to monitor my sensory experience very precisely. See, see, feel.

You want to reach the point where you can start on a dime. [00:34:30] You can start on a dime with mindfulness in any situation, so a minor discomfort with huge mindfulness will empower you as much as a huge discomfort with a little bit of mindfulness, so you can look upon that as a win-win situation, so you don’t have to think it has to be something really big necessarily. It can be something small if you’re able to muster [00:35:00] a Herculean resolve to bring full awareness to it.

The other good news is with something big, you might not be able to be very mindful, but if you’re even a little bit mindful, the results are terrific. Now, if you’ve been really wise in life and you have prepared yourself systematically by having a [00:35:30] practice that involves life practice, retreat practice, working with a coach, at least one coach, you do formal practice, you do informal practice. If you have all of these elements lined up, I’ve got a article on the internet called an outline of practice where I outline the components that you need to have a practice in detailed [00:36:00] classification, but in any event, if you’ve been smart and you’ve had those things in place in your life, then when big things happen, you’ll actually be able to bring an enormous amount of mindfulness to those experiences.

What does that mean? Well, that means that even though you didn’t decide to go off to Japan and do the Samurai bootcamp/Samurai torture chamber [00:36:30] form of old school practice, you didn’t sign up for that, but you prepared yourself with a householder’s practice over the years, then when something really big happens in your life, you will go in one person and come out a different person, the same way I did, in that consensual situation, and that’s how a householder doing a relatively [00:37:00] … A regular but not big industrial strength practice … A householder doing a regular practice for a long time will have the same exact experience of empowerment as the person that goes off and does traditional training.

You didn’t go to a monastery but you prepared your mindfulness skills and techniques [00:37:30] so that when the horrific thing happened to you, you’re now ready to experience something big … A big challenge with big mindfulness, and so the monastery came to you and in a sense you were ordained and you went through traditional training and you could come out, theoretically even, an enlightened person as the result of [00:38:00] that.

I would say it’s important to realize it doesn’t necessarily have to be something big. Little things can be very significant. It’s also important to realize that if you can’t remember how to maintain a practice during a challenge, then you only need to remember one thing, which is you need to have a competent mindfulness coach on speed dial [00:38:30] that you can contact who will work with you and remind you of what you already know, or if you don’t know that, you need to find a competent mindfulness coach who will work with you and train you in what you need in order to turn the horrific challenge into an empowering experience.

Those are some general guidelines. Even a very experienced meditator may find it challenging to deal [00:39:00] with a really big situation. That’s sort of the bad news, but the good news is even a beginning meditator, if they have a personal coach that works with them interactively, even a beginning meditator can get a huge empowerment from a life challenge. This is why if you go to UnifiedMindfulness.com, you’ll see that we train [00:39:30] people … As soon as a person is a meditator, we will train you to be a facilitator. Our goal is all human beings not only practice this stuff but they can teach this stuff, so the optimal way to teach and support people so that they can transform the little and big challenges of life into these empowering growth [00:40:00] situations.

I would say the trick to the whole thing is to get a competent personal coach who works with you interactively. In any event, if you can’t remember all the things I’m about to say, which is the specific answer to your question, “How do you escape in?” I’m going to describe how you escape in, but a person [00:40:30] might forget or even if they have access to this information, they might not be able to implement it because the challenge is just to huge, so the one thing to remember is find someone who has a track record of working with people and that will take you through, will support you, so that you get MMM, maximum [00:41:00] meditation mileage from each of the life challenges. This is sort of a broad context to answer your question.

Now, to the sort of money piece or the specific answer, how do you escape into a uncomfortable experience? First thing to bear in mind is that the only way that you know you’re having an uncomfortable experience [00:41:30] is … This is gonna seem sort of stupid to say, but it’s a sensory experience. It may be triggered by an external situation. Something that’s happening in the objective world. You have an illness or there’s something in the world or in your life that you don’t like. A situation. It may be triggered by something objective in the world and maybe you can do something about that. Maybe you can’t.

If you can do something about it, fine, [00:42:00] but if you can’t, then what? Well, then you do have another option. You can escape into it. The first thing to remember is that although it may be something objective in the real world like an illness, an injury, a situation in politics or a society that won’t change for a while, it may be something real in the world and we’re not advocating that you be [00:42:30] indifferent to changing conditions, but there is also an independent dimension called escaping into the sensory experience that is caused by that condition.

Let’s say that you have physical discomfort. That’s one kind of body experience. You have physical [00:43:00] discomfort, so that’s gonna be a component of your distress. What other sensory components might be present? Well, you might have mental images triggered by that physical discomfort. You might have mental talk triggered by that physical discomfort. You might have … I’m gonna get rid of this. Sorry for that. I leave the phones on just in case. [00:43:30] Just in case there’s some problem with the broadcast, so you can reach me, but then we get these other things, so, sorry about that.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 00:43:50]

Shinzen Young:                    What else could there be? Well, maybe you have physical pain, so uncomfortable physical sensation. You’ve got … Let me just take care [00:44:00] of this.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    Hi. Actually you are now on a podcast being viewed by several hundred people because you called me while I’m on the air. I free up at two o’clock eastern time. Try to get me later in the day then. Shoot me an email. [00:44:30] Okay. Have any message to the people on the Secular Buddhist podcast? Say what? What? Okay, I’ll tell them that. Bye bye. We’ll talk about that later.

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the unique aspects of being live. We just [00:45:00] see it all as it’s happening.

Shinzen Young:                    Let’s say it’s even worse. Let’s say all that’s going on and you’re in the hospital where there’s all these intrusive noises in the outer world. You’ve got all of these sense channels that are having uncomfortable experiences. The first thing you do is divide and conquer. You realize, “Okay, it’s coming to me through this sensory experience, [00:45:30] this sensory experience, this sensory experience,” so let’s untangle those strands. Let’s just take the simpler scenario. You are going through an emotional distress, so you’re experiencing rage or terror or grief or shame or impatience or disgust. You’re going through an emotional challenge. What are the sensory components there? Well, you might have visual thought, you might have [00:46:00] auditory thought and you have body emotions so there are just three.

You track it. See, hear, feel, so that instead of them criss-crossing and multiplying together, it’s just A plus B plus C, so you use your sensory clarity piece to untangle the strands, because if you don’t keep track of what part is visual, what part is auditory, what part is somatic, then [00:46:30] instead of 10 plus 10 plus 10, you’re gonna get 10 times 10 times 10. Separating out the components using, for example, a noting technique where you break your thoughts into visual and auditory, so see, hear, and then you’re aware of the presence or absence of body emotion.

First step is identify the sensory strands and then monitor them and untangle them, [00:47:00] noting the noting technique from the Mahasi lineage of mindfulness is very good for that kind of thing. Now what? You’ve got them untangled. The next thing you do is you unblock them. You, to the best of your ability, give them permission to expand and contract as they wish. You can read my essay on the internet. “What is equanimity?” will explain that process but the skill of [00:47:30] allowing sensory experience to expand and contract without interfering with that process, that skill I call equanimity.

With the equanimity, you unblock them. Well, it turns out that this combination of untangling the sensory strands and then unblocking their natural flow will cause the solid experience of suffering to go through a [00:48:00] phase change, which is analogous to water going from being ice to being liquid to being vapor. Essentially the degree to which you can bring concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity to that sensory experience will measure the degree to which you are fully present in that experience, and there’s a certain critical [00:48:30] value beyond which if your concentration, clarity and equanimity exceed that value, there will be a change in the experience itself that causes discomfort to no longer bother you and causes pleasure to deliver greater fulfillment. The metaphor that I would use is, chemically, [00:49:00] ice, tap water and steam, or H2O. H2O is H2O, viewed from the chemical point of view.

You can’t bathe in ice. You can’t drink ice cubes. You can’t be nurtured by drinking ice cubes. You can’t be comforted by taking a bath, or cleansed. Better metaphor still [00:49:30] by taking a bath in ice cubes, but if the ice is converted into warm water, you can cleanse your being with it, and if it’s converted into cold water, you can have a refreshing drink. It’s hard to believe that physical, emotional, mental and even [00:50:00] external sight sound discomfort could go through that kind of transformation. Especially it’s hard to believe and therefore rather amazingly that it’s true, that you do this merely by being so present with the experience that there’s no time to solidify the experience into a something and it both enhances fulfillment with [00:50:30] pleasure and reduces suffering with pain. This could be described as the process of escaping into the experience.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that and I love the analogy of H2O is H2O, because as the composition, it’s exactly true, and yet those three, steam, water [00:51:00] and ice can seem so different from each other.

Shinzen Young:                    It’s drawing a metaphor from science. A physicist would call that a phase change. Chemically there’s no change. Pain still hurts, but when it goes into a fluid phase, it’s hurt without suffering, and in fact, hurt that tastes like empowerment. Pleasure is still pleasure. When it goes into a fluid [00:51:30] phase, though, it’s pleasure with deep fulfillment that also tastes like empowerment, so it works to our advantage both ways. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think it is important to highlight the fact that for a lot of people, the idea that pain and suffering aren’t the same thing can be revolutionary in the same way that you use this [00:52:00] analogy that if you had only known ice, if you were born on a planet where the only phase of H20 is ice, you would be shocked to see people on another planet are swimming in that stuff and enjoying the very same element that may produce so much discomfort for me in the realm with how I’m familiar with it.

Shinzen Young:                    On the frozen planet, and in fact, unless you visited the other planet, you could never understand it, because the [00:52:30] person from Earth would try to tell you about water, but when water is translated into the language of the frozen planet, the word for water means ice. There’s not a word for other kinds of water in the language of the frozen planet, so almost all human beings, psychospiritually, live on the frozen planet. The only synonym [00:53:00] for pain is suffering. There’s not another word for pain that means “pain that isn’t suffering,” and there’s not another word for pleasure that means specifically what the special fulfillment that you get by having a complete experience of pleasure, what the Tibetans call [foreign language 00:53:27], the oneness of bliss [00:53:30] and void.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I think using that analogy, I think on our planet, for some people, it’s a radical shift in perspective to think discomfort, this thing that I run from, you’re saying that I can run into it. That I can essentially become comfortable with discomfort and change my relationship with it, where we’ve been on this mindset of, “No, that’s something you need to get rid of. I never want discomfort. [00:54:00] Push it away. Do everything I can to escape it,” and then the Buddhist approach is saying, “Wait a second, that’s the very problem here, is you’re trying to run away from something that you can’t run away from, which is difficulties arise.” Discomfort is a very natural way of experiencing reality, but increasing your tolerance or the ability to become comfortable with that discomfort, well, that changes the game. That’s like this ice over here, now I’m bathing in it, or [00:54:30] it can be a steam bath too. You know?

Shinzen Young:                    Yeah. The way I would state it is a little more nuanced because we have to be careful how we language this because it can give a distorted impression to people that may not be familiar with Buddhism. Here’s what I mean. It’s important to realize that the ability to escape into discomfort [00:55:00] does not, in any way, interfere with the ability to eliminate the discomfort. They belong to independent dimensions, and neither does it, in any way, interfere with the ability to change the conditions that are causing the discomfort.

Sometimes within the Buddhist context, the way that we habitually talk about things, if [00:55:30] we’re not super careful, people get the impression that Buddhism is indifferent to changing conditions, and is indifferent to palliating symptoms, okay? Those are legitimate dimensions. If you can stay within the cannons of good character and do something to change a condition [00:56:00] that you want changed, go ahead and do it. If there’s a medication that will dull the pain and it doesn’t lead to side effects or problems, hey, go ahead, be my guest. All I’m saying is that inevitably we encounter situations that we cannot change within the cannons of what is ethically acceptable, at least for a while, [00:56:30] or in some cases, ever, and inevitably we encounter discomforts that we can’t palliate or maybe shouldn’t palliate because they’re to motivate and direct our behavior.

The ability to escape into the sensory experience associated with those kinds of challenges does not make you indifferent to the other dimensions of freedom that are available. In fact it frees up energy. [00:57:00] Sometimes the ability to escape into the emotional pain causes by a situation in the world will actually free up energy to more effectively deal with that situation, so we want to make sure that we don’t give people the impression that we’re advocating you should always just escape into discomfort and never try to change the underlying situation or that palliating symptoms [00:57:30] is for wimps or whatever.

The fact is, is that we’re merely offering to people an important fourth dimension of relief. I distinguish four forms of relief. One is, change the situation. You’re sick, cure the sickness. Another is, well, you can’t change the situation so palliate the symptoms, so we [00:58:00] give you an analgesic. Both of those are part of medicine. Now, what if we can’t palliate the symptoms? Well, the doctor’s gonna tell you, “Well, just try to ignore them and get on with your life.” Well, lots of luck with that, except if we have mindfulness skills, we can actually do that. You can implement a strategy of turning away from the discomfort using your concentration, clarity and equanimity to focus on other things.

That’s using mindfulness [00:58:30] to escape from the discomfort. That’s also a legitimate way of working, but if you can’t do that, then there’s still something you can do. That’s the deepest, most counterintuitive form of relief, which is, “Okay, we used the same skill set that we would use to focus on something restful or an anchor in the outer world to focus away from the discomfort. That same [00:59:00] skill set, concentration, clarity, equanimity, we now turn towards the discomfort. We untangle, we unblock, we escape into it.

There are really four fundamental strategies and there’s nothing to say that we can’t try to implement many of them at once, but the good news is that there is this final option. You can turn towards it in a way that you escape into [00:59:30] it. Notice for the second two options, the turn away from it and get on with your life, and turn towards it and deconstruct both of those require mindfulness skills. The first two options changes a situation or palliate the symptoms. They don’t require mindfulness skills. They’re things that everyone understands.

The bad news is most people, if they have a distress, [01:00:00] can only think in terms of changing the situation, and if the situation can’t be changed, they’re up the creek without a paddle. The good news is, even if you can’t change the situation, even if you can’t palliate the symptoms, even if you can’t turn your attention away from them, there is this other option. The wise person trains themselves systematically to be able to implement that other option.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:00:30] I love that. Yeah, thank you for sharing that and highlighting those things. I think when I think of it, the way it makes sense to me, what you’re explaining, is essentially that there’s the feeling, the sensory experience of what is. It might be pain. It might be emotional discomfort. Whatever it is, and then almost simultaneously and often times without even knowing it, we have the feeling about the feeling, [01:01:00] and it’s inside of that second sphere that a lot of unnecessary suffering and discomfort arises that no longer has to do directly from the first experience. It’s what we’re experiencing about the experience, and I think for me, the visual of escaping into discomfort is it’s saying, “Well, there’s discomfort and then there’s immediately the discomfort about feeling the discomfort, and I’m escaping back into layer one,” which is whatever the situation at hand was, whatever [01:01:30] the original experience …

Shinzen Young:                    Yes, but I have to point out that there’s a little bit of a subtlety involved in that too.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah.

Shinzen Young:                    Because sometimes layer two, the second arrow, is so compelling that you can’t just ignore it, in which case you can escape into it by having a full experience, so there’s a deeper second order [01:02:00] of escape. A lot of times within the Buddhist context, it’s formulated the way that you’re now formulating it. There’s the first arrow and then there’s your reactions, so let’s say the first arrow is physical pain, and then your mental image, mental talk and emotional reactivity is the second arrow. While it is definitely true that if you can background those reactions and focus just on the physical pain, that [01:02:30] that physical pain will eventually break up into a kind of energy.

It is also true that if you can’t ignore the reactivity, you can untangle and unblock the reactivity, so that’s a …

Noah Rasheta:                      Would you say that it’s maybe even fair to say … You may notice this when you’re on the third, fourth, fifth, sixth arrow and that’s the one that you’re untangling in some situations. [01:03:00] Couldn’t it be that complex as well?

Shinzen Young:                    In my experience, it usually just goes back two or three. There’s something and then there’s a reaction and then there’s a reaction. Usually if you can get back to second or third order, you’re doing pretty good. Actually, there were arguments in the Yogachara school of Buddhism regarding how far back it goes.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 01:03:28]

Shinzen Young:                    Academic arguments. [Aninda 01:03:30] [01:03:30] and [Dignaga 01:03:32] and I think Dharma [Paula 01:03:39] and one other fellow, I can’t remember now, they argued whether it goes back one, two, three or four, so I don’t know about that, but usually in my experience, if you go back a couple steps, you’ve taken care of it. There are [01:04:00] more steps behind those, but those are in subtle, subliminal activity that you’re not specifically aware of on the surface. Those deeper levels just show themselves as a kind of shimmering on your mental screen or a kind of a stirring in your mental talk space, so you typically, the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction, beyond [01:04:30] a certain level of subtlety, you don’t actually get that coming up as specific content. You get it as a kind of tug of space and you sort of penetrate it that way. This is getting a little bit technical. I’m sorry. Maybe we should take people’s questions.

Noah Rasheta:                      I was just looking through to see if there are any questions related to what we’re discussing right now. I’m not really seeing anything …

Shinzen Young:                    Well, if it’s other things, we can do that, because we’re already at the one hour point, [01:05:00] so …

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure.

Shinzen Young:                    People might have had things they’d like me to …

Noah Rasheta:                      Well, okay, so …

Shinzen Young:                    Talk about.

Noah Rasheta:                      I do have a question from one person that’s not quite related to this. Well, I guess it’s somewhat related to this. This is from Patrick. He says, “In The Heart Of The Buddhist Teaching, the book by [Tignat 01:05:22] [Hahn 01:05:22], it’s stated that the second noble truth is generally misunderstood as craving being the cause of suffering. [01:05:30] He states that it was just first in a list. Would Shinzen concur that this could be or is the case and that it is generally a misleading representation?”

Shinzen Young:                    Can’t comment because I’m not sure what the list in question is. I’d have to have some specifics on that, unfortunately. [01:06:00] Sometimes I can’t answer a question without asking questions. I don’t know what this list is. I certainly know that the … These kinds of questions, when you’re asking questions about Buddhism, I can give you, because I was trained as a Buddhist academic, I can give you some general guidelines. You want to always find out what the original term was [01:06:30] in the language. If you start debating Buddhist ideas using English translations only, you’re gonna run into misunderstandings very, very quickly.

You always want to … And of course, that requires some work and some study, so you can’t be lazy. You have to find out what the terms were, [01:07:00] so if we’re talking about early Buddhism, we’re talking about Theravada Buddhism, a Pali canon, so in the Poli canon, there is certainly the theme of the four noble truths over and over again. I should say that it probably didn’t mean noble truths. It probably meant truths realized by the nobles. [foreign language 01:07:27], which is translated “noble,” [01:07:30] is a technical term in Buddhism for anyone who has had at least the first level of enlightenment or liberation, so these are truths realized by people who are stream enterers, once returners, non-returners, or worthies [inaudible 01:07:46].

What is it that people in the [foreign language 01:07:50], that are [foreign language 01:07:51] who are noble people spiritually because of their practice? What are the truths [01:08:00] they realize? Now, if you go back to the original Pali, the words are [foreign language 01:08:06] which, translated as you wish, often translated as suffering, but that’s the word we’re talking about. Whatever [foreign language 01:08:15] meant to the Buddha or to people in early Buddhism who wrote those scriptures. THat’s the word we’re talking about. Maybe we can agree to call it suffering. The second term [01:08:30] does not … It is true, does not mean craving. The second of the noble truths is something called [foreign language 01:08:42] and [foreign language 01:08:42] means “necessary cause,” so it means a cause which if eliminated, eliminates an effect. That’s a necessary cause.

Literally, [foreign language 01:08:54] means “the origin.” [foreign language 01:08:58] means [01:09:00] “coming up” and [foreign language 01:09:02] means “come up together,” but in this case, it means, “Technically what a logician would call a necessary condition,” so the Buddha says there is suffering, there’s a necessary condition for suffering, meaning something that you can eliminate that will eliminate suffering. Now, often that is parsed as [foreign language 01:09:26], which would literally mean [01:09:30] thirst or craving, so I’m not sure what else might be on the list, but to me, the important thing is the claim that suffering has a necessary cause, that there’s something that has to be there for suffering to be there.

In other words, the Buddha is not saying that you’re going to go out and do something that’s gonna make [01:10:00] you happy because you’re enlightened as an attainment. He’s sort of saying there is non-enlightenment, and non-enlightenment has a necessary cause, and if you eliminate that, enlightenment’s just there, and then he’s saying [foreign language 01:10:17] and [foreign language 01:10:19], so there is a sufficient intervention called [foreign language 01:10:24] path which will eliminate the necessary cause, [foreign language 01:10:29], [01:10:30] for suffering, and what will arise then is a very special kind of non-suffering that he called [foreign language 01:10:41], which is synonymous with Nirvana, but literally means cessation, so there is an interesting logical structure to the four noble truths. There’s this uncomfortable reality [01:11:00] and it has a necessary condition. There’s a sufficient intervention to eliminate that necessary condition, therefore there’s a sufficient intervention to come to a state of non-problem. That’s the logical structure there.

So, what’s interesting to me is if we … Remember, I said scientists always want to generalize things. If we generalize this logical structure, [01:11:30] we have to ask ourself, whatever Buddhism says is a necessary cause for suffering and there might be more than one, okay? Might there be other necessary causes for suffering that are only known to neuroscience but bring about the same results as eliminating [foreign language 01:11:52]? Does [foreign language 01:11:54] itself, whatever … If we say that [foreign language 01:11:58] is [foreign language 01:11:58] and if we [01:12:00] say that [foreign language 01:12:01] is non-equanimity …

You do understand that my word, equanimity, is merely the training away of [foreign language 01:12:10], that’s why I put it in my formulation, so an interesting neuroscience question is, does [foreign language 01:12:20] itself have some biophysical, necessary condition underlying it? Is there something that can change in the brain which would bring [01:12:30] about exactly the elimination of [foreign language 01:12:35] with no other effects? If so, then that means that there would be some other [foreign language 01:12:41], some other intervention that, maybe it’s not a complete path as far as a human being goes, but it might be enough to bring about the liberation aspects of the practice. There’s more to this practice than liberation from the mind and body. There’s being a good person, for [01:13:00] example. That’s probably different training, but anyway, I’m sorry, that’s about all I could say about that question without further knowledge.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Okay, thank you. Another question that comes from Wendy, she says, “In his book, The Science of Enlightenment, I noticed Shinzen Young was not afraid to use the word God and alternatively the source [01:13:30] or origin or something. Origin of something or something. I found it refreshing and wondered how he felt when some Buddhist teachers have negative reactions to the secularization of meditation/mindfulness?”

Shinzen Young:                    Well, remember I said I had a Jewish education? One of my rabbi’s heroes was the philosopher Spinoza, [01:14:00] who was Jewish but got kicked out of orthodox Judaism because of his philosophy, but now is looked upon as sort of a philosophical hero in the world, and interestingly was one of the first people that tried to bring something of the spirit of Euclid into ethical and religious questions. A little bit like the science spirituality [01:14:30] interface that’s going on now, so one of my favorite phrases from Spinoza is three words in Latin, and they were probably the three words that got him kicked out of Judaism. The three words are [foreign language 01:14:55], which [foreign language 01:14:56], you may recognize, is the Latin word for God. [foreign language 01:15:01] [01:15:00] is not hard to guess. It’s the Latin word for nature. What does [foreign language 01:15:06] mean? Well, it means war, in the sense of call it God, call it nature, call it whatever you want, okay? He equated the nature of nature with God. He said, “Call it God, call it nature.”

So, [01:15:30] call it nirvana or call it the source or call it the true self or call it the no self or call it the nature of experience or who knows.

Noah Rasheta:                      [crosstalk 01:15:47] or oneness …

Shinzen Young:                    Maybe even the nature of nature. You can call it anything you want. What you call it is [01:16:00] not the issue. The issue is how directly you experience it, how strong your connection with it is, given all the doo-doo that’s gonna hit the fan in your life. That matters, from my perspective. The name, the philosophical formulation, how we try to describe it is pretty inconsequential, so half the enlightened people on [01:16:30] this planet call it the true self, the true witness. The other half say there is no self and there is no witness, so does that mean there’s two opposite forms of liberation or does that mean that there are different ways to talk about the same experience that may even seem to be the diametric opposite?

For people that want to think about it using the G-word in English or the D-word in [01:17:00] Latin, or the [foreign language 01:17:05] word in Hebrew, use whatever word you want. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m comfortable with all that language. I just want to make sure you have an industrial strength experience of it. As far as secularizing Buddhism, well, I know you call this the Secular Buddhist podcast. That’s not a term [01:17:30] I personally use. I like to just speak of modern mindfulness, by which I mean broadly contemplative practice co-evolving with modern science, that the two sort of cross-fertilizing. Now, I think that that cross-fertilization can occur without in any [01:18:00] way watering down the spiritual clout or the ethical impact of the traditional practice. We just have to language things carefully and be very clear about what we’re talking about.

I have this thing I call the happiness grid, where I … It’s like a periodic table of sensory elements, except it’s a periodic table of happiness elements. There’s 20 boxes [01:18:30] on it, organized in three columns that are sort of analogous to families of chemicals in the periodic table of chemical elements, so I talked about one of those families today, which is reducing suffering, relief, and you notice I actually talked about four different ways to get relief, one of which was obvious to anyone, and one of which was not obvious to most people at all. [01:19:00] You can change conditions, you can palliate symptoms, you can turn your attention away from the symptoms or you can escape into the symptoms. Those are four dimensions of the type of happiness called relief. There’s another aspect of happiness called fulfillment.

There’s another aspect of happiness called skillful action. Mastery of your actions. That’s where ethics and character come in. [01:19:30] Then there’s another aspect of happiness that is service. That’s where altruism comes in, and then there’s another aspect of happiness, which is people are happy if they know themselves deeply. You want to know yourself at a surface level, a psychologist can help. You want to know yourself at a somewhat deeper level, a depth psychologist or a shaman can help. You want to understand yourself as a sensory system or you want to understand yourself as the nature [01:20:00] of nature, well, for those levels of self-understanding, you need concentration, clarity and equanimity skills. Now, what is traditionally called enlightenment or stream entry, in my happiness grid, is simply described as understanding yourself as a sensory system and then understanding the deeper nature of that sensory system, what the taste of pre-conscious processing is within that system.

Well, I’ve just [01:20:30] described enlightenment in a way that is not off-putting to anyone, because everyone knows that they have different levels inside themselves and most people are curious about those, and the deeper levels, the ones that entail understanding yourself as primordial perfection or the nature of nature or the source that literally just mean source. It means just before there’s conscious inner and outer, see, hear, feel, there’s subliminal processing. Before [01:21:00] you are born and the world is born, you had a face, moment by moment. That’s how the zen people describe it, and then they’ll give you the “go on, show me that” face. Manifest for me the un-struck sound, the sound of one hand clapping.

All that means is be aware of what sound sounds like just before you become consciously aware of it. Be aware of what inner and outer vision looks like just before you become [01:21:30] consciously aware of it. Well, it turns out that at the deepest level of neuronal processing, all experience, pleasant or unpleasant, inner or outer, has the same taste [foreign language 01:21:41], one taste, and all we’re doing is saying that there’s a dimension of happiness called “understand yourself.” You go to a psychologist for the surface levels of that, but with mindfulness skills, we’ll be able to show you some deeper levels.

Now, we’ve brought in classical [01:22:00] enlightenment without using the E-word, without saying anything that sounds weird to ordinary people. You want to understand yourself? You understand that there can be deeper levels of that? Well, let’s look. Once again, we brought in character not by giving people a list of specific norms right away but rather by asking people, “Are there behaviors that you would like to change?” Well, I can show you how the mindfulness skills will help you with that. [01:22:30] That opens the door to character change, so I’m gonna claim that there’s a way of formulating mindfulness that contains nothing within it that is in conflict with science and contains nothing within it that would be off putting to any major group of human beings regardless of their religion or their politics or their philosophy.

If we’re [01:23:00] smart enough, there’s a way to formulate this whole thing so that it’s accessible to most people and has the full clout of traditional practice. To me, that’s amazing and it means that if we’re very careful in how we describe [01:23:30] things and if we’re willing to think a little bit out of the box, that we can basically enlighten the world.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that and I love the description of the categories of happiness. Excuse me. So, I’m on board with you. I think this is exactly why I feel there need to be multiple [01:24:00] angles and voices explaining and understanding concepts like mindfulness, meditation, enlightenment, because we all speak different spiritual languages, kind of in the way that we speak different love languages, so I appreciate the work that you’re doing and the approach that you’re taking and the vernacular that you’re using. For someone who’s listening and thinking, “I [01:24:30] want to learn more about this. I want to read more of Shinzen’s thoughts,” where would someone go to learn about you, find your book, anything along those lines?

Shinzen Young:                    Well, it’s pretty easy. One of my life goals is to create a really convenient delivery system for the classic results, so that people that live in countries where retreats aren’t available, et cetera, et cetera, [01:25:00] that anyone on the planet can, with time, get the same results that you get from old school monastic training. That kind of delivery system is one of my life goals. This information age makes that feasible, so a little bit of searching on the internet will reveal a lot of resources, but let me just list a few things.

What do you need to be successful [01:25:30] with this practice? Well, you need to have at least one meditation technique. You need to do what I call life practice, which is on a day to day basis, do formal practice and weave informal practice into the day. You need to do retreat practice. You need to have support of at least one competent coach and a community [01:26:00] of people, and ultimately you need to give support in various ways. These are sort of the ducks that a person needs to line up and maintain for their lifetime. If they do so, they have a high probability of success with this practice.

So, in order to understand how to monastasize each day, [01:26:30] how to weave practice into the ordinary activities of life, I have a program on the internet that we call the Life Practice Program, so if you just put in my name, Shinzen Young, and Life Practice Program, that’s gonna pop up. That landing page is self-explanatory, so you can go there and that will help you do the sort of day to day practice, so it’s the Life Practice Program. Shinzen Young’s Life Practice Program. Then most people [01:27:00] cannot get away from retreats, even one day retreats. What to say residential retreats.

How do we bring retreats to the people of the world? Well, I have an idea how to do that. We pipe it to you in very manageable modules. Four hour modules. That’s called the Home Practice Program, and if you go there, wherever you may live in the world, you can do retreats without having to leave your [01:27:30] family or your work or your community, so there’s the home practice program for that component. If you want to learn techniques, I have this grid that basically covers all the meditation techniques in the world. I call it Ultra: The Universal Library for Training Attention, and if you want to learn those techniques, there’s an app that is about to be released called Bright Mind, [01:28:00] and Bright Mind … It’s self-explanatory. You just get it and you’ll learn dozens and dozens of the techniques that I typically teach people.

If you want to learn techniques and if you want to affiliate with a community and if you want to learn how to be a coach of mindfulness, you go to UnifiedMindfulness.com, Julianna Ray’s website. [01:28:30] She does my community … A lot of the community development and the training of facilitators. As soon as you learn some techniques, we will teach you how to teach others, and that’s actually one of the best ways to deepen your practice. So, you’ve got the Bright Mind app. It’s gonna be released probably within the next few days or weeks. Not quite sure, [01:29:00] but they have a website. You’ve got the Life Practice Program, the Home Practice Program, and then the hub, which is UnifiedMindfulness.com to find community and also to … That’s to get support, including support of a personal coach, and that’s also to learn to give support.

Those are the resources and I refer to my approach as unified [01:29:30] mindfulness just to have a name. The unified means that I try to point out the connections between all the different forms of contemplative practice. Not just within the three vehicles of Buddhism, but broadly including Christian, Islamic, Native American and other tribal practices. Jewish and so forth. I see the world’s contemplative traditions as a unified whole [01:30:00] and that unification can be seen by being clear about the ways in which the different approaches relate to each other. I’ve created what an information scientist would call an ontology of contemplative approaches. An ontology is like a taxonomy. It’s like a classification system, but with an added feature, that relationships between the elements are made clear.

[01:30:30] You get a unified knowledge map. That’s technically called an ontology in modern computer science information systems, so I’ve been influenced by these notions and I’ve created what I believe is an ontology of the world’s contemplative traditions. Just to have a name for it, I call it unified mindfulness. That’s sort of the moniker, and then the programs that I mentioned, Life Practice [01:31:00] Program, Home Practice Program, the Bright Mind app and Julianna’s facilitator program at Unified Mindfulness Hub, which is UnifiedMindfulness.com.

That’s the delivery system that’s a pretty inexpensive and available to anyone, but it doesn’t have to be my approaches. The elements, life practice … I’m sorry, retreat practice, [01:31:30] life practice, getting support, giving support. Those elements will be present in any organization that is teaching these things, and you find the organization that has the vibe that appeals to you and you’re good to go.

Noah Rasheta:                      Awesome. I love that, and for those how are listening live, I will be posting these links on the podcast [01:32:00] interview page, so if you’re listening later, if you’re not listening live or watching live, you’ll be able to scroll down. You’ll see an entire transcript of our conversation and I will have links at the bottom where you can find Shinzen’s book, Shinzen’s website and all of that information. So, thank you very much again for taking the time to join us, to be on the podcast to spend some time discussing these concepts [01:32:30] with me. It’s been a fun conversation. Any last goodbye to anyone listening live and then I’ll shut off the live portion of this.

Shinzen Young:                    I would say my valediction is there’s good news. You can be 10 times happier than you would’ve ever imagined with a reasonable allocation of time and energy.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:33:00] Great. Thank you very much. Thank you to those of you who joined us live, watching this today. This will be uploaded to the Secular Buddhism podcast as audio. The Secular Buddhism YouTube channel as a video so you can rewatch it, and it will sit on our Facebook page in this same format so you could go back and rewatch anything that you may have missed, so thank you to those of you who joined us life.

Shinzen Young:                    Thank you to you, [01:33:30] Noah, for this great work. This is [crosstalk 01:33:33] …

Noah Rasheta:    Oh, thank you. Thank you.

58 – The Art of Stopping & Seeing

The Buddha told Angulimala (the murderer), “I stopped long ago, it’s you that hasn’t stopped”. The art of learning to stop….is about having the ability to pause for a moment and to shine some light on the hidden agendas that often determine why we say what we say, do what we do, and think what we think.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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 58. I am your host, Noah Rashata, and today, I’m talking about The Art of Stopping and Seeing.

In episode 52, The Sound of Silence, I talked about a teaching called the three doors of liberation, and these three doors are emptiness, or non self, signlessness, or no form, and the third one is aimlessness, sometimes referred to as no goal. Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit more on this third door, the idea or concept of aimlessness.

When I talked about this in episode 52, I shared the story of Angulimala. He was the murderer who was intent on causing chaos and mayhem, and when he confronts the Buddha, the Buddha goes on as if no big deal was happening here, and he confronts Angulimala. Angulimala is wanting to chase him, but the Buddha just keeps walking like normal. He can’t believe what he sees, ’cause Angulimala is used to most people just being terrified and running from him or screaming, and the Buddha’s … I presume he’s taken back by the fact that there’s no fear coming from the Buddha, so he yells at him, and he says, “Stop!”

And this is my favorite part of the story, ’cause the Buddha, I would imagine in a calm and serene tone, just replies, “I stopped long ago, Angulimala. It’s you who hasn’t stopped.” And that’s shocking to Angulimala. He doesn’t know how to take that. Now, this is the story as it’s recounted in Old Path White Clouds, the book by Thich Nhat Hanh, but this powerful phrase, “I stopped long ago,” has really stuck with me, and this is what has motivated me to share this podcast episode, the art of stopping and seeing, and applying this thought, this … As I imagine the Buddha standing there, serenely saying, “I stopped long ago. It’s you that hasn’t stopped.” I imagine him saying that to me. What is it that I haven’t stopped. What was it that Angulimala hadn’t stopped? And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Now, part of this is inspired by a question I received from a good friend of mine, who says, “I’m not sure what you mean by sit with it with regards to specific feelings.” He said, “Can you expand on that for me?” And he also said, “I’d love to better understand the concept of suchness or oneness. I’d love to have a podcast on that in greater depth.” I hope this kind of accomplishes that, the idea of suchness, the idea of oneness, the idea of sitting with it, all in regards to this, the art of stopping and seeing.

I also want to correlate what I’m going to talk about in this episode with what I talked about in episode 51 in my conversation with Stephen Batchelor. He talked about the four noble truths and looking at these truths as four tasks, so as a quick reminder, we have the acronym E.L.S.A to help us remember these, so E is embrace the suffering or discomfort. In other words, we embrace the situation at hand. What is the situation at hand? Well, on the large scale, it’s that in life, difficulties arise. We embrace that. On the smaller scale, it’s, “Hey, I’m stuck at this red light, and I don’t want to be stuck at the red light.” I can embrace the suffering and the discomfort that I’m feeling in that moment, so that’s the first one, E.

L is for let go, let go of your instinctive reactivity to it. This includes letting go of feeling that I shouldn’t feel what I’m feeling, right? So I’m letting go. I’m just allowing … Another way to think of this is let it be. You know, let things be. I embrace the suffering and discomfort, I allow it to be what it is.

Then the third step, the S is see, see the stopping of the reactivity, as Stephen Batchelor said. This, to me, is sit with it. For me, to sit with something, to stop and see the reactivity of it is … It doesn’t mean I’m stopping my emotions. It doesn’t mean, “Okay, I’m not going to get mad.” To me, this means when I am mad, I can stop and just see that I’m mad, and stop right there. I don’t have to take it a layer deeper and realize, “Oh, now I’m mad that I’m mad.” See, that to me is not stopping, so the stopping is being with whatever arises, and if anger or sadness or a difficult emotion like that, an uncomfortable emotion like that arises, I can just be with it. I can watch it, I can sit with it.

And to me, this goes hand in hand with the concept of suchness. It’s that I can see things as they are. I can see my emotions and my feelings as they are, not as I think they should be, because it’s in that realm of how I think things should be that I run into trouble. In other words, the feeling of the feeling, so I’m sitting with the feeling, whatever that feeling is, pleasant or unpleasant, and that’s suchness. Life, to experience suchness is life is to experience life as it is, not as I think it should be, but just see it as it is. Suchness with other people is allowing someone to just be who they are, and to, for a moment, pause and not have the who I think you should be competing with the who you are, okay? And I can do this with myself as well, sense of suchness would be, “I’m allowing me to just be me, and not competing in that game of who I am and who I think I should be.”

So oneness is being with the present moment, just as it is, becoming one with it, accepting it, not dwelling in the way that I think it should be, but accepting the present just as it is, and I talked a little bit about this idea of should in the last podcast episode, and I’m going to elaborate on that again in this episode as well. So all of that is the third step of the four noble truths, or the four tasks. This would be the third one, seeing, seeing the stopping of reactivity, which is essentially the overall topic I want to talk about today.

And the fourth one, the A in E.L.S.A., the last A … Oh, I guess the only A, is act skillfully. The idea is that when I can embrace the suffering or discomfort, I can let go of the instinctive reactivity I have to it, in other words, the desire or the aversion, desire for the pleasant, aversion for the unpleasant, I can see the stopping of the reactivity. In other words, I learn to sit with it. I can be with whatever it is I’m experiencing, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, I can act skillfully, so this is like what comes next, right? Whatever I’m going to say or do or even think is going to be more skillful now because of these tasks and the way that I work with them.

I want to correlate all of this, again, to that third door of liberation, aimlessness, that I talked about in episode 52, The Sound of Silence, so the third door of liberation is aimlessness, and is correlated to the third noble truth, stopping and seeing, and correlated to the story of Angulimala, when the Buddha says, “I stopped long ago.” I want to correlate all three of these ideas in what I’m going to talk about next, so here we have something really powerful. To me, very insightful is the ability to stop and see.

The idea here is everything that we do, everything that we say and do, is motivated by intent. You could say there’s an agenda behind it, right? Think about this. There’s an agenda to everything that you say and do, there’s a reason why you’re saying it and doing it. Now, these aren’t normal agendas. Unfortunately, they’re typically hidden agendas. There are ulterior motives to what we say and what we do. We’re usually saying and doing things for a reason. There’s something we’re trying to get out of it, and most of the time, I would daresay we don’t even know why. We don’t understand the motive behind a lot of what we say and think and do, and I think there’s a deeper form of introspection here, because it’s not just what I say and what I do, it’s also what I think. The very thoughts that arise and seem so random or just natural, this thought just arose, there’s generally an ulterior motive to where these thoughts are coming from.

Now, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re driven by motives. I’ll address this, I think, towards the end, but the … Aimlessness means that you don’t put anything in front of you as the object of your pursuit. In other words, what you are looking for is not outside of you, it’s already here inside. For example, you already are what you want to become, so concentrating on aimlessness, what it does is it releases your longing and craving for something in the future, or something that’s somewhere else, and one powerful way of working with the idea of aimlessness is to ask yourself, “What is my aim?” Or “What is my goal?” There’s a lot of insight to be had with this introspective process, to say, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I saying what I’m saying?”

And like I mentioned before, at the deeper level here, you can actually explore this with your thoughts too, “Why am I thinking what I’m thinking?” Somebody does something or says something, and you immediately create a thought around that. “Why am I thinking that? Where is this coming from? Why do I think this person is doing this or saying that?” So there’s a lot to work with here. Also feelings, “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling?” And you’ll discover that under everything we say, everything we do, everything we think, there’s an agenda, like I said, often a hidden one, an ulterior motive.

For example, you can see this in nature. What it looks like on the surface is, “Oh, that bird is showing its feathers and doing this strange looking dance for this other bird.” That’s … What’s the agenda behind it? “Oh well, this bird is trying to attract a mate.” Oh, okay. So that’s what I mean by this. There’s always an agenda to the things that we do, so we’re trying to gain a better understanding into the nature of our own minds. Why do we say and do and think the things that we do?

The art of learning to stop is about having the ability to pause, even if just for a moment, and to shine some light on the things that we’re doing, the things that we’re saying, the things that we’re thinking, and to sit with an emotion, and to just observe it. Anger, for example, is one of those emotions that’s very difficult to sit with, because we feel the need to do whatever we can to push it away, to distract ourselves, say something, do something, think something, to alleviate the discomfort that we’re feeling due to the emotion that we’re experiencing.

Same with sadness, and the point of this stopping and seeing isn’t to stop what we’re experiencing. It’s to understand in greater depth what it is that we’re experiencing. It’s to be able to catch ourselves and say, “A-ha! You rascal you, I know what you’re doing. I know why you’re doing this. I know why you’re saying this, or I know why you’re thinking this,” to ourselves, and to understand, “Ah, this is why I’m doing this.” Here’s the hidden agenda, and see through that. It’s no longer hidden. We shine light on it.

And there’s a lot of power in that, the ability to understand ourselves, to have … There’s real power in knowing what the agenda is behind a lot of what we say and think and do, so the overall idea with this is that, what if we’ve been running our whole lives instead of living it, because of what we’re chasing. We’ve been chasing after things, things like happiness, love, success. In Buddhism, even enlightenment falls into this category, and there we are chasing after it, and in this process of running, we’re not living, so what if, by understanding the object of our pursuit, then we can remove it, and then we’re left with just living? That’s the idea behind suchness.

So here’s the tricky part of these hidden agendas. They’re often, like I said, hidden not only to others, they don’t know why we’re saying or thinking or doing what we’re doing, but a lot of times, they’re hidden from us. We don’t even understand it, and if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ll find that we really don’t know why we say or think or do some of the things that we say and think and do, and it’s a lot like that rider analogy that I often use with the horse, that you’re riding on this horse, and it’s just running at full speed, and if someone were to ask you, “Where are you going,” the honest reply would be, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

Well, that’s the thinking that’s going on here is that, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, a lot of times, we don’t know why we say or think or do the things that we’re doing, because the honest answer would be, “Ask the horse. Ask the emotion that’s driving it. Ask the agenda. Ask the ulterior motive that I’m not even aware of.” This insight that we’re trying to gain is to help us to stop, to stop running, and when the Buddha told Angulimala, “I stopped long ago,” I like to believe he was referring to his moment of enlightenment, the moment he looked inward, the moment he became perfectly aware of his own hidden agendas. He saw the proverbial rascal within, and said, “A-ha! I see you. I see you there.” He gained insight into the nature of causality.

In Buddhism, this is often referred to as karma, cause and effect, the law of dependent origination, which is to say that this is because that is. In other words, I’m saying this because of that, or I’m doing this because of that, or I’m thinking this because of that, so our quest is, what is the that? What is the that that’s behind this? This is a big question, because that’s what I think he stopped and saw when he says, “I stopped long ago.” This is what Angulimala was not able to see in himself in that moment. Why are you doing this? Why are you running around killing people? And once he understood the causes behind his thoughts and actions, he became enlightened, just like the Buddha, and that’s what the story goes on and says, that Angulimala did eventually realize this, he stopped being a murderer, he became a monk, and that’s a whole story, but I think that’s what’s trying to be taught there.

Now, to me, like I’ve said many times before, this is not a mystical or supernatural process. This is literally shedding light on our motives and intents, understanding what’s going on behind the thoughts and the actions and the words. This is the moment that we stop chasing after the object of our pursuit because we start to understand that it’s not going to get us what we think we really want. Even enlightenment, it’s like, “Okay, well then, you’re enlightened. Now what? So what?”

This idea is like understanding that a wave doesn’t have to be stressed about going and discovering what water is or where the water is, because it is the water. In the here and now, it’s already it. This is like a rose not having to be stressed about the fact that it’s trying to be more like the lotus. It’s already what it is, it’s a rose, and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful manifestation of the cosmos just as it is. It doesn’t need to be any different.

And like I talked about in last week’s podcast episode, there are no shoulds. There’s no … Life is just what it is, and it’s perfectly fine the way it is. And sure, there are a lot of coulds, how things could be, and there’s a lot of opportunity and hope, and in the way that we can interact with life as it’s unfolding, to move it towards how things could be. That’s all legitimate, and I’m not saying that we just become content and, “Oh well, now I’m not changing life, because there are no shoulds.”

What I’m saying is life could be this way, it could be that way, but that, to me, doesn’t feel anywhere near the same as it feels when I’m thinking, “Here’s how life should be,” because there is no should, and you, as you’re listening to this, you are the manifestation of the cosmos, in the same way that a rose is. You’re wonderful just as you are, and if you think about it, it’s taken every single thing that’s ever been for you to be here and now, just the way that you are, and sure, you could be another way, but you shouldn’t. There’s no should there. It’s not that you should be another way.

And this, I think, correlates with another common question I receive from people. It’s, “How does Buddhism or mindfulness help with X-Y-Z situation?” For example, PTSD or traumatic experiences or past events that now cause deep pain or fear. For example, an abuse in the past or something like that, so what this is saying, in this context, it’s not that, “Oh, Buddhism fixes this or that.” Or, “Here’s how it solves it.” It’s saying there’s nothing to solve. Buddhism is a light that shines on things to give us more clarity into the nature of that thing, so in that sense, it’s not that there’s something to fix. It’s trying to say, “Here’s what is, and you can gain insight by seeing this more clearly, understanding the nature of impermanence, the nature of interdependence, and starting to see these things in life or what they really are.”

But it’s not saying, “Oh, here’s why you do this, ’cause this will fix this, and then …” That’s implying you shouldn’t have PTSD. Again, going back to this, there is no should. You do have it. It’s what you’re experiencing, so let’s understand it with more clarity. “Oh, okay. Well, this is why I’m experiencing this. Well, why is that traumatic? Oh, well it’s because of this.” So you’re constantly shedding more and more light on the understanding, but never with the intent of saying, “Okay, because I did all that, now it should go away.” There is no should there. It’s just, “Well, this is what is.” If you’re experiencing it, look at it closely.

Again, with emotions, it’s the same thing with emotions. People will be like, “Well, I thought the point of Buddhism or practicing mindfulness was so that I could get over my anxiety.” Well, no, that’s a should. We’re going back to, if you’re experiencing it, let’s look at why. Now, life can change it, because the nature of life is that it’s impermanent. Things are always changing, so one day, I may be experiencing it. The next day, I’m not, but the point wasn’t to get from point A to point B, experiencing anxiety to not experiencing anxiety. It may arise again.

I feel like mindfulness practice in my own life helped me to get rid of anxiety at a stage in life when I was experiencing anxiety a lot. I don’t know if it’ll ever come back. I don’t know that it will. I see life quite differently than I did when I was experiencing it, but I don’t sit here thinking, “The point of this is to ensure I’ll never feel that again,” because that’s just not true.

I think we have this fear that if we approach life with this attitude of being aimless, that we’re not going to get anywhere, because the point is you’re supposed to be somewhere, but if you think about this closely, that’s actually impossible. You can’t not be … You can’t not get anywhere, because you are somewhere. You will always be somewhere. You are always going to be wherever you are. Where you are is somewhere, and again, think of this in the context of could or should.

The thought that I should be over there, “I’m here but I should be there,” versus the thought that, “I’m here and I could be over there.” I don’t know about you, but to me, those two approaches feel very different, because one implies possibility. The other one implies almost this sense of, I don’t know, “I deserve to be there. I’m not supposed to be here.” This sense of entitlement, I think, is the right word, and the truth is, I am where I am. That’s where I’ll always be. Doesn’t matter where I am, I will always be where I am.

So for me, it’s one thing to start asking myself, “Where am I going in life?” But it’s a whole nother thing to be able to just stop and understand, “Why do I think I need to be going where I think I’m going? Why do I think I need to be over there?” It doesn’t mean that I should or shouldn’t be over there. I’m just saying, why do I feel the need to be over there? I could be there, sure, but why do I feel like … Why is there this sense of, “I should be there?” That’s what I want to start looking into. The art of stopping and seeing is about analyzing the shoulds in our life, because that’s the conditioned mind that’s speaking. There’s a conditioning behind that thought, and it’s the conditioning that makes me think in, what I would say, should mode, and I think Angulimala was operating in this mode.

He was on this path of destruction, his conditioned mind had him operating in that should mode. “I should be killing,” and that’s probably because he was very angry or hurt, “Because I’m so hurt and I’m so angry, I should take it out on someone and kill them.” I don’t know his motives, but I’m thinking of something along those lines. He hadn’t stopped to understand the agenda that was driving his actions. He may have been able to have stopped at some point and thought, “Oh, I’m very angry. Okay, well that’s what’s motivating me. That’s the agenda. Well, why am I angry?” The agenda has an agenda, right? So this is the clarity that he was finally able to gain through the Buddha’s wisdom that came about in that abrupt presentation of the scenario, “Hey, I stopped long ago. It’s you that hasn’t stopped.”

I imagine Angulimala was confused, and thought, “What are you talking about? What do you mean, I haven’t stopped?” And that moment of introspection and insight led to an entirely new path that he was on. He quit his path of murder, not because he felt that he should, but because he was able to see that he could, he could go through life not being a murderer. That was a possibility. He didn’t have to be compelled to stop like, “Hey, this is morally wrong.” And I’m not saying that it is or it isn’t. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t the compelling that made him stop, like, “You need to stop murdering!” “Okay, fine.” That wasn’t it. People had been trying that all along.

What he was able to gain was insight into the nature of things, and the skillful thing for him to do at that point with that awareness was to not do what he was doing, so he pivoted in life. He headed in a new direction, and that is what starts to happen with us, when we walk through the doors of liberation, when we extinguish notions, we stop and we just see things as they are, behind the stories, behind the meanings, the labels that we add to them, and we see things like our habitual reactivity in connection to our hidden agendas, our ulterior motives, and we start to see there’s no longer this need or this fear of not becoming who I think I’m supposed to be. You’re just left with peace, this peace and calmness in resting in the fact that I am just fine just the way that I am, where I am, and then I see possibility opening up. This is how I am, but this is how I could be. Maybe I’ll try that.

It’s like when the wave knows how to rest in the fact that it is already the water, the wave enjoys going up and enjoys going down. The ups and downs, right? The wave’s no longer afraid of being or non being, life or death, what’s happening now, what happens later, there’s no fear in any of that anymore, because the fear of coming and going, the wave has seen that the wave is the ocean, and this to me is the art of stopping and seeing.

To me, when the Buddha said, “I stopped long ago,” he didn’t mean he had given up on life, or that he has resigned to life as it is. In fact, from that moment on in the story, his enlightenment, he worked really hard for many many years, from his 30s to his 80s, worked pretty hard on building up a community, building up a way of life that was beneficial to his society, teaching, traveling, there was a lot.

There was no resignation at that point, but there was the ability to stop and see and understand, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” I think that’s what he was able to answer about himself, and the goal of that process isn’t for us to say, “Well, I want to know what he saw so that I can …” No, what he’s trying to say is, “Point that to you. You do the same, like Angulimala did. Stop and see.” It doesn’t mean we’re going to no longer have goals. It means we can have a much more clear understanding of why we say the things we say, do the things we do, think the things we think, feel the feelings that we feel, and that’s personal insight. That’s on you.

Your stopping and seeing will reveal something incredibly profound about you that only you can see. I cannot give that to you. I can’t say, “Hey, stop and see. Here, let me tell you this is what you’re missing.” I can’t do that. You can only do that with yourself. This is one thing I love about the Buddhist path is it’s a very personal path. It’s your path, and when you stop and see, you’re going to see something that only you can see.

From the Buddhist perspective, we often talk about interdependence, the fact that all natural phenomena has causes and conditions, and this implies that the causes and conditions also have causes and conditions, and to me, this understanding of causality implies, like I mentioned before, that even my hidden agendas, the ones I’m not aware of, or the motives behind the things that I say and I do, also have motives, so the motives have motives.

The agendas have agendas, and I think from an evolutionary standpoint, I mentioned this at the start of the podcast, one of our core motives that I think is really helpful to understand, is the motive to affiliate and bond with each other, the motive to belong. Our desire to belong seems to be a primitive survival mechanism, and we do things in order to belong, and we avoid doing things that we think will jeopardize our sense of belonging, and for me, it’s been interesting to explore my own agendas and to find that, often, the agenda behind the agenda is this need to belong. It’s this core need to not jeopardize my belonging, and to strengthen my belonging.

And again, I think the idea of understanding all of this isn’t just to try to reconfigure myself and suddenly no longer be how I am. The idea here is that, through understanding the nature of my own mind, I can become more skillful in how I navigate this experience of being alive, and I can work towards eliminating the unnecessary suffering, the self-inflicted suffering that I cause for myself and others when I’m unskillful in the things that I say or think or do.

So that’s the goal of this podcast episode. To be able to engage in the art of stopping and seeing, I hope, will give you that opportunity to see something in yourself, to see the agenda, to see the agenda behind the agenda, and to become more skillful in how you navigate life. I hope that, in the stopping and seeing, there’s the ability to realize, “Maybe I’ve been running after something, and in the process of running, I’m not living. This is about stopping and seeing that I can just live now, the way that I am now is fine. Sure, I could change and be more … harder worker or drink less or …”

Those are all coulds, but those are not shoulds, and when I can explore this in the context of could versus should, like I talked about in the last episode, then I start to gain more insight. I start to experience this ability to sit with things, to just be with life as it is, to be with you as you are, to be with me as I am, and in that process, overall, I’m eliminating or at least minimizing the unnecessary suffering for myself and others, and I hope that’s what you can accomplish, and what you can see, and what you strive to, not because that’s how it should be, but because that’s how it can be.

And I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I appreciate you taking the time to listen. I hope some of this information can be useful to you on your own journey of learning to stop and see, learning to just live instead of chasing the feeling of living, just stop and live, and I hope that the story of Angulimala resonates with you the way that it did with me. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s been a scene that’s just prevalent in my mind. I’m seeing that moment, the shock and awe that Angulimala must have felt when the Buddha wasn’t scared of him, and just said, “Hey, I stopped long ago. It’s you who hasn’t stopped.”

I hope you can stop and ask yourself, “In what way can I stop?” Or, “Why have I not stopped? What is the object of my pursuit, and why am I chasing it? If I finally get what I think I’m going to get, then what? If I’m here and I want to be there and I finally get there, then what?” This is where that quote that I really like is. Sometimes you get there and you realize there’s no there there, because wherever you are, there’s another there, so stopping and seeing is about the present moment. It’s about here and now. This is where you are, this is how I am. What can I do with that? What insight can I gain from seeing that, if I can stop?

So if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, but also let me know what you think. We have an online podcast community, the Secular Buddhism podcast community is a Facebook group. We can discuss things there. You are also welcome to join our Weekly Sangha, where we discuss topics from the podcast, and just, in general, practice mindful living as a group. You can join that online community by visiting secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com and you can click the donate button there.

And that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thanks again for listening. Until next time ..