45 – Questions & Answers 1

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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.

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 45. This is a question-and-answer episode. I plan on doing these roughly once a week or maybe once every couple of weeks depending on how many questions I get. I want to infuse these episodes with the normal weekly topics so the format for the podcast is, its topical and I’m going to continue that, but I am going to occasionally have a Q&A episode like this one or an interview episode, and those will start coming out probably next month but this is the first episode of the Q&A format. So this is episode number 45, questions and answers.

I had four people send in questions and I recorded the answers to those questions so I hope you enjoy this episode. If you have any specific questions that you would like addressed in a future Q&A podcast episode, you can submit those questions by email. I’m hoping to get the actual recorded questions because I think that’s more fun for the podcast format for listeners to hear other listeners, so you can record your question on your phone and then send it to me in an email or you can call in and record it as a voicemail by calling my phone number 435-200-4803.

Leave me a message with your question and then I’ll put the question in the podcast like I’m going to do here. So this is the first episode of this format. I hope you guys like it. I’d love to get feedback; if you like it let me know, if you don’t like it let me know. This is a format that I plan on working with without replacing the current format. I’m just adding this in. So every now and then we’ll have questions and answers. This is the first episode of that style. So, next are the four questions that I received this week. I will answer those and hopefully we’ll keep doing this.

Lucas:                                        Hi Noah, my name is Lucas and I have a question about meditation. Traditional sitting meditation is something very hard for me to do because of physical trauma. It’s hard for me to focus on anything else in pain if I sit. Because of that, I mainly do walking meditation. I also meditate while doing my job on a daily basis, so I wanted to know if you think traditional meditation is essential to your practice and also if you knew any other types of meditation. Thank you.

Noah:                                         Hi Lucas, thank you for your question. Before anything, there is a podcast episode where I do go into meditation a little bit more; episode 12, it’s called “Master Meditation By Not Meditating“. But the essence of what I explain in that podcast episode, is the idea of meditation is tricky because the moment we think of meditation as something we’re doing, we conceptualize it. So now we have an idea that meditation is sitting on a cushion or meditation is doing something, something specific, so we measure whatever it is we’re doing up against the conceptual understanding we have in our mind of what meditation is, and that makes it hard to know if …

That’s when questions arise, like, “Am I meditating properly? Are there other ways to do it?” So with regards to your question, something that I would mention that’s worth exploring is rather than thinking of techniques to meditate, just imagine that you’re looking for techniques that allow you to be present and to be here and now. “What can I do that allows me to be present and here and now? It allows me to be in a state of mind where there’s no grasping.

There’s no clinging to anything. Nothing needs to be anything different than how it is in this moment.” That’s meditation. So you can experience that when you’re walking, if you’re doing walking meditation. You can experience that if you’re sitting, and like you mentioned, the sitting part is the part that’s hard and that’s okay because sitting has nothing to do with meditating. We just happen to be sitting when we meditate a lot, but the sitting isn’t necessarily a key part of that process. You could be walking, you could be driving, you could be doing the dishes.

Anything that you’re doing where you’re fully engaged with the here and now and you’re completely in the present moment, you’re not grasping or thinking about, “I’m here, but I should be there,” or “I’m here, but I should be thinking of responding to emails or being at home or thinking of what I’m going to eat.” All of that goes away. So when you’re not experiencing that, nothing needs to be anything different than how it is, those are the moments where you realize, “Oh, I’m meditating. I’m totally engaged in the present moment.” So I would say tackle this backwards.

Instead of looking for a method that puts you in that state, try to think of times that you’ve been in that state where you’re completely engaged with the present moment and then do more of whatever you were doing at that time that got you into that state. One way that I like to meditate — I’ve mentioned this before — is when I go paragliding and I’m in the air. Those are moments where I’m completely in that present moment. It’s here and now and I’m not thinking of anything else. And I’ve experienced that sitting on the cushion too.

So that’s what we’re ultimately trying to do, is to be more anchored and engaged with the present moment, so any activity that you can do that puts you in that, would be meditating. Another technique you could try when you’re with friends, try to catch yourself and notice, “Am I reactive when my phone goes off? Am I with someone but thinking about that text message that just came in or feeling antsy because I haven’t checked Facebook?”

Those are opportunities where you can look at them and think, “Well wait, I want to practice right now being completely present with this person that I’m with and I feel my phone vibrate … I’m not gonna look at it. There’s a notification there. I don’t care what it is. I’m not gonna look.” Those are little techniques that you can do to practice being really present. Another one; I don’t know if you drive a lot but being stuck at a red light’s an awesome opportunity to be engaged with that moment.

“It’s right here, it’s right now, there’s nowhere else I can be. I’m stuck at this light, so I’m going to just be with this moment and look out, look around. What can I notice that I’ve never noticed here?” Or just be really engaged in the present moment. We can do this just driving in general. How often do you drive somewhere where you feel you have to have music playing? It’s like why not give it a try and say, five minutes where there’s nothing.

I’m just driving. That’s it. No distractions of any kind. There are a lot of opportunities to try to be engaged with the present moment, to try to really be present with the here and now. That’s what meditation is trying to do, so rather than thinking of it as other ways to meditate think of, “What are other ways that I can be really present?” and then you’ll be finding what you’re looking for. Hopefully that answers your question. Thank you, Lucas.

William:                                   Hi Noah, my name is William and my question is around the rationalization of unskillful behavior. Now, I’d like to think when I’m acting mindfully and calm and collected in moments of reflection, I’d like to think I act quite skillfully. But many times when I’m not thinking about things — I guess like all of us — sometimes the behavior lapses. I am not so much worried about that part of it. What really worries me, or is a cause of concern for me, is when I can identify that I’m about to engage in unskillful behavior and I can rationalize why that’s okay and then go ahead and do it.

I don’t know what part of me is doing it, but for me it’s a part of [inaudible 00:08:15] concern because I know that these things are skillful. I know they’re not helpful and they’re leading away from a life of happiness and wholesomeness, but my brain can always find a reason to do it. “It’s okay to watch this violent movie because you meditated yesterday.” Or, “It’s okay to partake in these drugs or this alcohol because you need to relax from time to time,” and so on. And there’s always a reason why it’s okay. My brain gives me permission to do these things at all times. I wondered if there was anything you could speak to about that. Thank you.

Noah:                                         Hi William, thank you for your question and for bringing that topic up. I think that’s a fascinating topic to discuss. I’m going to just go off of your specific question. Something that you mentioned that stood out to me was this discovery that you can rationalize a behavior or a decision. The first thing that popped out to me was thinking, well, rationalizing a decision isn’t necessarily the same thing as proceeding to do something.

I could sit and rationalize why it might make sense to do something and still at the same time go against my own rationalization and say, “But I’m not going to do it. It makes complete sense to do it but I’m still not going to do it.” So that’s something worth looking at there and trying to see … peel this a little bit more. Maybe it’s not the rationalization because the rationalization alone shouldn’t be enough. Maybe try to dig deeper. What’s really happening there that … Why are you really making a specific choice or decision?

With the eightfold path you bring up specifically skillful conduct, but I would maybe look a little bit more at that skillful intent. What is the intent behind the conduct? Because that’s the key. When we become really familiar with why; why do I do the things that I do, say the things that I say, think the things that I think? Then we start to gain a lot of power. Now, understanding the “why” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to change that conduct or behavior, but you’re not going to change it very well without knowing the “why,” so I would start with that.

And when you have a really deep understanding of why you can take something, whatever these scenarios are that you’re talking about that you can rationalize, knowing you probably shouldn’t, but you rationalize that you can so you do … Why? Why do you do that? And if you can answer that question, then take it another level. Why do you do that? It’s like you’re playing like you’re the two-year-old who’s like, “Why? Why? Why?” So based on the question, the way you framed it, that’s the input that I would suggest. It does kind of remind me of a quote by Alan Watts.

He talks about how we all have the irreducible element of rascality. This is kind of like in Taoism, the concept of the yin and the yang and recognizing that in the middle of all the good there’s that one little bit of bad, or in the middle of all the bad there’s that one little bit of good because there’s always the symbol of the yin. Yin is that it’s all one whole; good has bad, bad has good, and it’s all one eternal round, so that’s something worth looking at here, is the element of irreducible rascality, as Alan Watts would say.

It’s that recognition that even if I know what is best for me and what I should or shouldn’t be doing, there’s always that element of irreducible rascality that’ll say, “Yeah, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s something worth recognizing and looking at. You can imagine this, sometimes this is the scenario; the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and have that debate. Let them hash it out and say, “Why should I listen to you? Why should I listen to you?” But what you become really familiar with in this process is yourself.

That’s the whole part of being introspective with mindfulness, is that that answer that you’re looking for when it comes to your own actions, your own thoughts, it’s internal. It’s not an external thing. So yeah, I don’t know the answer, but what I would suggest is digging. Dig deeper. Ask why, and ask yourself, “If I know that I shouldn’t do it, but at the same time my mind can rationalize why it should … ” well then let’s maybe spend some time and let the two sides have a debate in your head.

Why and pros and cons, why not pros and cons and then weigh your decision and say … Well if you can have that debate, then you can still rationalize and say well, “I’m still going to do this,” then what’s really behind it? Why am I really doing it? Because I have a feeling that if you can nail down the “why,” if you understand the intent, you may be able to work with these situations with a little bit more clarity. So that’s what I got for that. Hopefully that somewhat addresses or gets him into the topic that you were asking with your question. Thank you very much for sending that.

Julia Berger:                           Hi Noah, my name is Julia Berger, and I want you to know, first off, how much I appreciate your podcast and I listened to it many times over. I do have a question that you could put on air, if you’d like. I’m going through a similar situation and I want you to know how helpful you explaining this personal situation is to people.

                                                      But what I’m having a problem with is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen. Once I know things are going to happen in a certain way, then I can plan for it and that’s fine, but the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen; maybe you could give some insight into how to deal better with that. Thanks a lot. Have a great day. Bye bye.

Noah:                                         Hi Julia, thank you very much for the kind words. It’s nice to know that others are benefiting from recognizing that we all go through difficult things and I’m happy to hear that me sharing my personal things that I’m going through is helping you, and I’m sure many others. As far as your question, the topic of uncertainty is such a big one. How do we deal with uncertainty? And I totally understand where you’re coming from with what you’re saying because I felt the same thing.

It’s that in-between stage where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. That’s the hard part. As soon as I know this is what’s going to happen; they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. Then I’ve got something to work with. But that limbo, being in that state of limbo, that uncertainty is really hard to work with. At the same time, that’s exactly what mindfulness is trying to help us to accomplish, is to obtain the sense of comfort with discomfort. How do we become comfortable with the discomfort?

‘Cause the problem’s never been that there’s discomfort, the problem is that there’s discomfort and we don’t like it. We don’t want to be with a discomfort. If we were okay with being with discomfort, then it wouldn’t be a problem. And uncertainty is … That’s the only certain thing that there is, so how do we work with that? Well, here are a couple of tips that I would like to suggest. One is working with plans. We can plan for the future, but not getting caught up with the expectation. So this is maybe a comparison of, “Do I have expectations or do I have plans?”

Because when my expectations aren’t met, that’s more difficult than recognizing my plan needs to be revised or edited. That’s an easy thing to do. ‘Cause when you form expectations, you’re already setting yourself up to be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, and we all know that we can’t control the outcome. I’ve mentioned that life is like a game of Tetris; we don’t know what pieces are coming next. That’s okay. Are you okay with knowing that that’s how life is? That’s what we’re working with here.

So to do that, we can focus on a plan. So, for example, I might know … Well, going back to Tetris. “If I get a square then I’m going to have to do this. If I get a bar, I’m going to have to do this.” I have different shapes in mind and if it ends up being this one or that one or that one, I kind of have already formulated somewhat of a plan. That’s one technique that could kinda help. That allows us to be prepared for the different possibilities that may show up.

For example, with what I’ve been dealing with in my personal life, it’s like, “Well, I know that we may lose the house. That’s very likely. And if that happens then I’ve got this plan. We’re going to try to move in with so-and-so, and we’ll live in the basement there and … ” I’ve got this plan. What happens if that doesn’t go that way. What if it’s this? Or what if we lose it sooner than later? I’ve got different plans for different scenarios that may come up so that helps me to cope with the uncertainty. There’s still the uncertainty but it’s not so difficult because I’ve got different plans for different scenarios.

Next is focusing on observing. We talk about this a lot through meditation and recognizing when you’re feeling discomfort with uncertainty, you can just observe that and recognize “I’m just feeling discomfort.” Now it’s not necessary to add a new layer to that and say, “Well, now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncomfortable.” Because that’s often what happens with our emotions; we experience an emotion like anger or sadness. Now I’m sad and then I’m sad that I’m sad, or I’m angry and now that I’m angry that I’m angry.

And when it comes to uncertainty, it’s already uncomfortable to have uncertainty in life, but now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncertain, or I’m uncomfortable about the uncomfortableness that I feel around my uncertainty, because I’m thinking, “Well, I’m uncomfortable around uncertainty and I don’t like that. I don’t want to be uncomfortable with it. So that’s one way to look at this and think, “Well, what if it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the uncertainty?” Just don’t be uncomfortable about being uncomfortable.

So observing. Ultimately, with all of this we start to become comfortable with our ability to cope, our ability to adapt. I talked about this before, the wisdom of adaptability. That’s really what we’re after here so if you’re playing Tetris and you know that you don’t know what’s coming next, what you start to gain confidence in … This is the way I understand faith. It’s not that I have faith that a square is coming; “I know it’s coming.” Well yeah, it might, but it might be five pieces away before that square shows up.

So what I developed faith in is, I have faith that whatever shows up I’m going to be able to figure it out. You start to develop the faith or … in your confidence in your own skills, your ability to adopt. This isn’t the same as, “I’m going to expect the worst.” This is about understanding, “I can handle whatever is going to come.” That’s pretty powerful to know that. There’s a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem, and in that book she talks about a concept called defensive pessimism.

This is when you consider the worst so that you can plan how you’re going to handle it, and this has shown to actually help people to manage with anxiety. This is similar to what the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying suggests that we do with one of our greatest fear, is the fear of death. It says we fear it because we haven’t thought enough about it. Why not sit down and think about it and think, “What am I going to do? What will it be like when I lose my spouse or if I lose my kids, if I lose a loved one; my parents, my … everyone.

You play through all these scenarios of what that’s going to be like when they’re gone and that’s what helps us to prepare, and it also enhances our sense of gratitude that we’re not there yet. “I haven’t had to experience that.” I know in our Western way of thinking that’s kind of taboo. It’s like don’t think about the worst that could happen because then you jinx yourself but that’s just not true. Think about the worst that could happen. If this happens, then what? Well, then this will be this and that’ll be that. Well then what? And play through those scenarios.

That’s really helped me. I’ve played through all the worst scenarios. Well if this is the worst, well if that happens then what? Well, then it’ll be this, this and that. At some point I realized, “I guess we’re all still alive.” But what if we’re not? What if one of us dies? Oh, suddenly I get into these scenarios where I’m thinking, “Okay. Well those are a lot worse than the original scenario I started with, which was, ‘What if I lose my house and that was all scary.'” 10 minutes into that thought process and I’m thinking, “What’s going to happen if I lose one of my kids?”

And now I’m thinking, “Okay. The house is fine. I’m not worried about the house anymore.” Anyway, that’s the defensive pessimism. Another helpful tip; just focus on what you can control. Again, the analogy of Tetris is so useful here because we can’t control what shapes show up, but when the shape does show up, we do have some control in the game. You can move that shape left and right and you can rotate it, and that’s really important to focus on, to recognize I don’t know what life is going through at me but I do know I have some control when it does.

I get to control how I’m going to handle it, how I’m going to work with it. I don’t control whether I have that or not, but I do control to some degree how I handle what shows up. So focus on what you can control, and in general, keep practicing mindfulness, keep practicing. We’re practicing the art of becoming neutral observers when we sit there and we observe our thoughts, or our emotions, our physical sensations. So meditation. Meditation is a tool to practice exactly this; sit there, becoming comfortable with discomfort.

I think there’s an element of uncertainty with sitting and meditating. You sit there and one of the first things you think is, “I’m sitting here and I don’t want to sit here. I need to be thinking about cooking. What I’m making for dinner for the kids or whatever it is. So we’re immediately confronted with that discomfort at what we’re doing. And that’s a great place to practice that and sit there with that discomfort and think, “I’m going to become comfortable with discomfort.” It doesn’t mean that I’m going to force that discomfort to go away, I’m going to sit here till sitting here becomes comfortable.”

That’s not the point. It’s, “I’m going to sit here till I’m totally okay with sitting here and not wanting to sit here. I’ve become comfortable with the discomfort.” I think that helps with how we deal with uncertainty. Anyway, that was kind of a long answer with a lot of different tips but those are some of the things that I would suggest with working with uncertainty. So thanks again for reaching out.

Speaker 5:                               Hey Noah, I have a question for your podcast. [inaudible 00:24:16] and I practice quite a bit of mindfulness and awareness about my actions and the people around me and the way that I’m feeling. I’m ready to take that next step so I was hoping that you might be able to answer the question of: once you’ve gathered and become practiced in mindfulness and awareness, what’s the next step you can take in secular Buddhism to deepen the practice and to maybe cross that next bridge that will make you feel differently about the way that you’re perceiving the world?. Thank you. I hope this message reaches you. Love the show and I hope you’re doing well. [inaudible 00:24:54]. Bye bye.

Noah:                                         Hi. Thank you for posting your question about once we’ve developed the skill or become more proficient with practicing mindfulness, then what? What’s next? Specifically from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s a good question. So one thing I would say is it’s really difficult to have milestones like, “Now that I’m here, what’s next? And then once I reach that, then what’s next?” That can be kinda tricky because I don’t know that there really are milestones. When I think of practice, practicing mindfulness, practicing Buddhism, I think of wisdom and compassion.

This is talked about in the Tibetan traditions as the two wings of a bird; wisdom and compassion, and how you need both of them. They’re both something that we can practice so it seems like the more we learn about mindfulness, the easier it is to practice, and the more that we practice it, the more interested we are in learning more. So we’re always playing this game of juggling what I would call knowledge and wisdom on one side, that’s one of the wings.

Knowledge is what we gain through reading, through listening, through podcasts, books, you name it. There are tons of sources of knowledge out there, and the knowledge gives us greater insight into these concepts. Concepts like impermanence, interdependence, emptiness. And the knowledge, it inspires us to want to practice. Now with the practice, that’s where we’re putting into practice these concepts; we’re sitting and we’re meditating or we’re learning to increase that gap between stimulus and response. All of that’s happening as we sit and practice, and through the practice we start to acquire wisdom.

So this is the flipside to knowledge. Knowledge you just gain by just … You read, watch documentaries, read books, listen to podcasts. All that will give you knowledge. But sitting and practicing starts to give you insight into the nature of your own mind, the perspective that you have of reality. And that’s where wisdom kicks in. Wisdom is experiential. So I would say the next step for anyone, no matter where you are, is just more practice. Practicing specific meditation techniques, you can practice being more compassionate, you can practice being more mindful.

And that one’s always tricky because, “How do I become more aware? I’m not aware of what I should be aware of?” So rather than looking for something specific, you learn to just look. “I’m just looking. I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’m looking.” And we do this through observation. We sit and we meditate and we observe our thoughts. We observe our emotions, our physical sensations, just like we would watch clouds passing in the sky. But ultimately, what this is doing is it’s helping us to practice to be neutral observers, because when we’re observers that’s when we’re in the right mind frame to see something that we hadn’t seen before and that’s where insight comes.

So I would say as far as thinking about a next step, how are you doing with your meditation? Is it a daily thing? How often and how long do you meditate? Those are always numbers that can increase. And then there are other aspects of the practice, not just sitting and meditating, but are you priming your mind to have moments of awareness? You can do this by creating little triggers throughout the day; “Anytime I see a red light. I’m stuck at a red light. That’s a trigger for me to think, ‘Okay, I have 10 seconds to be more mindful or however long I have at this red light I’m going to try to be more mindful.'”

And you can turn off the radio. You can roll down the windows, take in the sights and sounds of where you are, with the goal of just being more present. “How can I be anchored in the present moment?” Just be here, being in the here and now, little things like that. So that’s one technique. Another technique would be starting a gratitude journal. “What are the things that I’m grateful for and why am I grateful for them?” There are so many areas where we can practice, and I would say that’s the next step, just looking at your practice. “How do I make my practice more efficient, more meaningful to me?” And working with that.

Because there’s not like this great secret out there. It’s like, if you learn this, then you can learn that, then you can learn that, and then you can finally learn the big secret. That’s what I love about Buddhism in general, is it’s trying to help us go in the opposite direction. It’s like we simplify, simplify, simplify, until you realize, Oh my gosh, all of it has been incredible all along. The extraordinary is the extraordinary.” So yeah, that’s how I would think about it instead of a progression for what’s next. It’s hard to say what would be next, because I think whatever’s next, that might be different for everyone.

Everyone might have a different answer. But finding out what’s next may be part of the quest for you to look at and think, “Well, what do I want to do with this now? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do with it? There are other resources out there to have more in-depth understanding of Buddhism. You could attend the local Buddhist congregation or study group, that would be an excellent thing. Find a meditation group that you can join. There are online courses where you can learn about Buddhism or mindfulness, become a certified mindfulness teacher or something to that effect.

So those are things that you could look at and I think those would all be great next steps to take this to a whole new level. But ultimately, the specific answer is going to be very personal. What’s next for you? That’s your quest, your choice, and you get to figure that out. So anyway, not to be vague with that but, yeah, hopefully something in that answer works for you and I’d love to hear from you what your next thing is.

Whenever you get going with it, let me know or share that in our Facebook group; The Secular Buddhism Podcasts Study Group. Be a great place to discuss these things. So anyway, thank you very much for your questions and I look forward to hearing what is next for you. Thank you. So these were the questions I received this week. Again, if you want to add your own questions and have them featured on the podcast, please submit your questions by email.

Record it on your phone like a voice memo or something, and then send that in an email to [email protected] or you can call in to area code 435-200-4803 and just leave me a voicemail with your question. Both of those formats work. f you have a question and you don’t want to record your voice, you can go ahead and email that to me as well, but I’m hoping to get actual recorded questions. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. If you have any questions let me know. Until next time.

44 – Finding the Teacher Within

One of the things I appreciate most about Buddhism is the emphasis on becoming your own teacher. In one of the last teachings the Buddha gave, he said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. “Don’t look for anyone for guidance”. In this episode, I will discuss the idea of finding the teacher within.

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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.

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 44. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Finding the Teacher Within.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been watching a series on Netflix called Buddha. It’s a 55-part series about the historical Buddha, and it’s inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Old Path, White Clouds, which happens to be one of my two favorite books on the topic of the historical Buddha, the other book being Buddha by Karen Armstrong. If you’re interested in learning any of the historical account of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, those are two books that I would certainly recommend. Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddha by Karen Armstrong.

What’s been great about watching the Netflix series is that it’s really fun to finally add a visual image to the stories that I’ve read in several books and in the discourses of early Buddhist texts. It’s not the best quality. I like to think of it as a Spanish soap opera produced by a Bollywood production company because that’s the style. There are several moments where I would just laugh because it’s quite entertaining in a comical way.

In general, with the production quality being low and the acting being subpar, I still enjoyed it quite a bit because, like I said, it’s fun to have a visual representation of some of these stories that I’ve listened to and that I’ve really enjoyed in my own studies of Buddhism. But something that really stood out to me while watching the story of the transformation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama turning into … The ascetic Siddhartha Gautama ultimately into the Buddha, the role of the Awakened One, the Buddha, was that he had various teachers along the way.

Historically, in the Pali Canon, it’s taught that he had two main teachers. Once he became an ascetic in the forest, he studied with an ascetic named Alara Kalama. He taught him how to meditate and studied with him. Ultimately, Kalama said, “Hey, I’ve taught you all that I know. There’s really nothing else I can teach you. Why don’t you stay here and you take over the school,” because he was older, getting old. Siddhartha’s like, “No, I’m not interested in that,” because he didn’t feel satisfied. He didn’t have the answers to his questions yet.

Kalama taught him as much as he could, and then he went on from there and found another teacher named Udaka. He worked with him, and ultimately the same thing happened. He reached the point where Udaka’s like, “Well, I’ve taught you all that I can. You know everything I know. There’s nothing left for me to teach you.”

At this point in the story, Siddhartha decides … He’s frustrated. He’s like, “Well, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own,” and he continues his journey. Ultimately, that’s exactly what happens. He attains enlightenment or awakening all on his own.

I cover this concept of the Buddha attaining enlightenment in a previous podcast, Episode 39: What is Enlightenment? If you’re interested in navigating that topic a little bit more, go back and listen to that episode.

In the story of the Buddha, he ultimately discovers that the teacher he’s been looking for was him. It was himself. This is finding the teacher within. That’s the topic of this podcast. The profound implication of this discovery is that it’s similar for us. We, too, can learn as much as possible from all the teachers out there, but, in the end, the greatest discovery is the discovery that the teacher that you’re looking for is you, the teacher within. That’s what I want to discuss in this podcast episode.

Before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you again of a couple of things. First, my commonly shared quote that the Dalai Lama says: “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are. Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are.”

Second is the reminder that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. If you get any value out of this episode and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 can make a big difference. Of course, one-time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the ‘donate’ button at the top of the page. Now let’s jump back into this week’s topic.

The reason I wanted to discuss this podcast episode, this topic for this episode, is because often I’m asked by people who started listening to the podcast or they started reading the book or just navigating Buddhism in general, it’s inevitable that someone will ask, “Well, which is the best Buddhist path? Which is the right path? Which one teaches more accurately?” or something along those lines. I think that’s a very natural thought for us to have.

What I like about the example that we have from the historical account of the Buddha is, like I mentioned before, he had multiple teachers. The way it’s portrayed in the series, there’s the guru that he worked with as a child to study the Vedas, like his first teacher that you would have, I guess, as a prince. Then that relationship goes on in his life with having different teachers that he works with. Like I mentioned earlier, the two more well-known teachers in the story are the ones that I mentioned at the beginning.

The point of all of that is just the realization that working with teachers is a common thing, but working with a teacher can only get you so far. This is what happens to him in his life. His ultimate teacher ended up being himself.

Now I think what happens with a lot of people who study Buddhism is you encounter that and you realize, “Wow! Okay. He became awakened. Okay, then he’s the ultimate guru, he’s the ultimate teacher I want to work with.” We make the same mistake that we’ve been making all along, which is we’re looking outside of ourselves for something that can only be found internally. It can only be found inside. That’s the great realization that the Buddha had. His awakening or his enlightenment was that understanding that he was the ultimate teacher.

Now what that means for us is that we can learn from him, we can learn from these stories, you can learn from a Buddhist teacher or a monk or whoever, but you can only learn so much. You’re going to reach the point where it’s going to be a lot like what he encountered, which is, “Hey, I’ve taught you everything that I know. There’s nothing left for you to learn.” Now it’s back on you. The ball is back in your court.

I think we make a mistake when we think of the Buddha as the ultimate teacher in the sense of, “Okay, that’s who I need to learn from.” Now, certainly, following his example, I think, is a good idea, studying the things that he taught, I think, is a good idea, but if we’re going to get anything out of what he taught, let’s understand the main thing that he taught.

The very last thing that he taught in his last discourse was this teaching about becoming your own light, like be your own light, be your own guide. He was essentially inviting people to do exactly what I’m trying to explain in this podcast, which is to realize that we are the ultimate teacher. In other words, you are your ultimate teacher, I am my ultimate teacher.

In Buddhism, it’s common to take refuge. In fact, the act of becoming a Buddhist, and I discussed this in a previous podcast episode, but the act of becoming a Buddhist is when you take refuge in the Three Jewels, and the three are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I talked about these three in detail in Episode 41: Life on the Buddhist Path. You can go back and listen to that one, if you haven’t, to get a better understanding of what it means to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma and the Sangha.

The first one of those, taking refuge in the Buddha, is it’s about wisdom, it’s about anchoring myself in the possibility of becoming awake in the same way that the Buddha became awake. It’s not necessarily anchoring myself in, “Okay, I’m going to learn from the Buddha as if he were my teacher and try to match … ” I guess you could think of it that way, where you’re going to match his wisdom, but I think the profound implication of this is that to take refuge in the Buddha is to say, “I’m going to do what the Buddha did and discover that I’m my greatest teacher. I’m not going to rely on someone else to be my guide or to be my spiritual authority for me. I’m going to be my own.”

Like the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” This is a way of awakening the Buddha within, the Buddha that … We talk about Buddha nature in Buddhism. This is the essential understanding that you’ve got everything that it takes already there inside of you right now. It’s just a matter of discovering it.

In fact, in that same final discourse before the Buddha passed away, he was asked by one of his monks, “What if we meet you on the path?” and he replied, “Don’t accept anyone that you meet on the path as your authority towards liberation, even if you meet me.” Some of you may have heard the expression, “Kill the Buddha if you see the Buddha on the road.” I think that teaching comes from this, from the sentiment.

The Buddha goes on and says, “Even if it’s your father, it doesn’t matter who it is, don’t take someone as your authority because you are the only one who can awaken yourself.” The power of awakening oneself is the term Buddha. That’s what the word ‘Buddha’ means, Awakened One. Nobody can awaken you, nobody can force you to wake up. People can help along the way, but just like with the Buddha’s story, they’ll help you get so far and then that’s it. Then you’ve got to go on your own. Someone else may help you get a little bit further, but at some point you have to figure it out on your own. You have to awaken yourself.

This is the Buddha’s famous last teaching, to, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. While Buddhism may offer us a natural understanding of reality that things are interdependent, things are interconnected, all things are impermanent, you can observe this natural understanding on your own. You can figure this out through observation and through meditation. This is all part of that process of awakening yourself.

The Buddha said, “Don’t look for anyone for guidance.” Now it doesn’t mean, “Okay, I’m not going to learn from anyone anymore. I don’t need to read books,” or listen to this podcast, if this helps in any way. What he’s implying here is don’t rely on someone as if they are the key for you to awaken because they’re not. They can be part of the path in the same way that the Buddha had teachers, but ultimately he was his own teacher.

Think about this just from another perspective real quick, completely outside of ideology or religion or spirituality. Let’s just think about math. When you go to school and you start learning math, you start from the bottom up and you learn the basics. You learn how to add two numbers. It’s usually single-digit numbers and then it becomes double-digit numbers. Then later you learn to subtract and then you learn to multiply and you learn to divide, but you start from the bottom.

When you’re learning math, you don’t reach fifth grade and then say suddenly, “Oh, with that first grade teacher, they were pointless for me because they only taught me two plus two is four. Now I know how to multiply three-digit numbers or something. Yeah, that was dumb.” We don’t do that because we recognize that that was a foundation. What we learned … Because I know that, now I know this.

Now this could go on. With math, the more proficient you become with math, the more beneficial it is to you to interact in the world of numbers. Now it’s not vital for you as a mathematician to be like, “Well, in what style did Pythagoras teach?” or, “What did he say about this or that?” because the math speaks for itself.

I think Buddhism is the same. The teachings are much more important than the teacher. We don’t want to get hung up on the guru part of all of this. We want to understand the concepts and know how to apply these things in our lives. That’s what matters most, not the teacher.

When was the last time you had a discussion or a debate about algebra, thinking, “Who’s the legitimate founder of algebra? Was it Diophantus or was it al-Khwarizmi?” because some people say it’s one and most people say it’s the other, but it’s irrelevant because even though we live in a world where algebra plays a significant part in our day-to-day lives, you may not even know how … Google it. You’ll find a lot of modern society functions off of principles that work through the discovery of algebra, and most of us don’t know anything about the founder of algebra because it’s not that important.

What if we could start to view spirituality, at least Buddhism, in the same way? Now I’m not saying that that means we don’t need to have any respect or appreciation for the Buddha, a lot of people do, and I think that’s a part of their practice, but especially in the secular approach, we recognize that what matters here is the algebra itself, not the founder of algebra. What matters here is mindfulness as a tool, as an exercise.

These concepts, they all stand on their own two feet. It doesn’t have to be that, “Well, mindfulness works if I can prove that the Buddha was who he said he was.” Buddhism doesn’t have that like other religions do, that maybe the validity of the present day message is contingent on the truthfulness or the validity of the story of the founder, or anything from that point on to the present.

Buddhism isn’t like that. Buddhism is just you can observe it, practice it, and realize on your own, “Hey, yeah, things are interdependent, things are impermanent. What are the implications of that?” You may be able to put all this into practice without ever having been told that this is coming from Buddhism, that there’s a guy named Siddhartha who was later called the Buddha. None of that would matter, and all of this would still be relevant and beneficial to you in your own life. You could still achieve your own form of enlightenment or awakening without knowing any of that. That matters a lot to me, especially on the secular Buddhist path.

Ultimately, what that all means to me when someone asked that question, “Which is the right path? Who’s the right teacher? Which is the right form of Buddhism?” the answer is none of them and the answer is all of them. It’s whichever approach or message resonates with you that helps you to understand and really apply these concepts. That’s the one that matters.

For some people, it’s going to be a very secular approach. They don’t want to hear about anything that even hints of being supernatural or that is unknowable through science. That’s fine, that’s the path I like, but that doesn’t mean that this path is any better than another path. There may be forms of Buddhist schools of thought that include cosmologies, realms, and demons and angels and things like that. Does that really matter? Is it fair for us to say, “Oh, no. That one’s less accurate than this one”? How would we know? That’s not the point.

See, in Buddhism the point isn’t to arrive at truth, which one’s true, which one’s more true. None of that is relevant. The whole point of it, as the Buddha always taught, is, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” That’s the goal of all of this. How do we learn to minimize suffering by understanding the causes of suffering and then tackling the causes of suffering? That’s one of the things that makes Buddhism so unique.

Now it’s unfortunate that you do have internal struggles that go on between the various schools of Buddhism, between classical Buddhism versus secular Buddhism. Among the various classical forms, you have the same thing: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Shin Buddhism. Then you have schisms that take place in each of these. That’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Ultimately, it gives us a whole bunch of different flavors that we get to pick.

It’s like the essence of all of this is like the water, that things are impermanent, things are interdependent. That’s common, but then the actual flavor that goes in the water, like tea, that’s less important, but you may have a preference, that you like this flavor over that flavor, so you’re a Zen Buddhist, or you like that other flavor more than this flavor, so you practice Theravada or Tibetan or secular or whatever.

I think it’s important to respect each other’s paths, to recognize that the difference of path, because there’s not one true path … There can certainly be a correct path, the path that you’re on always feels like it’s the correct path, but just because you’re on the right path doesn’t mean it’s the right path for everyone, or just because it feels like it’s the true path, it doesn’t mean it’s the only true path.

I think that’s important to understand with any spiritual practice because, again, going back to the story of the Buddha, you could say, “Well, at one point, he was studying under a Vedic teacher, and that person is not at all like what we know Buddhism to be.” Well, that’s fine. It was still a stepping stone on the path that led to ultimate awakening or to awareness. Now what that implies for me, thinking about this personally, it’s like that means I’ve never been on the wrong path. I’ve always been on the right path.

When I was a Mormon missionary in Ecuador, teaching, well, I was on the right path. That’s where I was at that time. Being where I was then is an integral part of being where I am now. If I feel that where I am now is exactly where I want to be or where I should be, then everything that’s led up to being right here would be correct, it would be right.

But we make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, back then I was in the wrong place. Now I’m in the right place.” It’s like, well, we always think we’re in the right place, but what did it take for you to get to the right place? It took everything else being in all the wrong places. That’s because wrong and right is an illusion. It’s a perspective.

I addressed that quite a bit in the podcast, so I won’t get into the dichotomy of good and bad, right and wrong, but what I really want to emphasize with this podcast episode is that we can find the teacher within. That’s the ultimate realization that the Buddha had. That’s the ultimate teaching of Buddhism, is that, “Hey, you are your own teacher,” and you can learn a lot from a teacher, someone like me who does a podcast, or you could go to a Buddhist temple. You’re going to learn a lot from the teacher there, or the monk, or a nun. There are a lot of sources out there. You can read a book. You can learn it all on your own.

But the ultimate knowledge that you’re going to gain when it comes to awakening is that aha moment that you’re going to have when you realize all things are interdependent, all things are impermanent, and you start to understand the implications of that realization. All that happens on your own. Nobody can do that for you.

I think it is very important to highlight this and to say that at the end of all of this, you’re your greatest teacher. It’s you, it’s all about you. Be very careful about putting your authority on someone else. See, whoever you give authority to, they have power over you. Now it doesn’t mean that they have power over you inherently, it means they have power over you because you gave them power over you.

Imagine being able to do that to yourself. Make yourself your greatest teacher, because any teacher can show you any path, but ultimately you’re the one that walks it. It’s like the Chinese proverb that a teacher can show you the door, but you’re the one that has to walk through it. That is a very profound form of wisdom, to understand it.

All of these things that you’ll learn, whether it’d be on this podcast or through books or through listening to any Buddhist teacher, those are all just tools, and some tools are really helpful; some are more helpful than others, some are more efficient than others, some work better for certain people over other tools. That’s all great. That makes it so that all of it’s good.

Everything that’s out there can be beneficial, but at the end of the day, this is about finding the teacher within. This is about you discovering that everything you’ve been looking for outside of yourself is not going to help. What you’re looking for is to be found inside of yourself internally. This is the concept of finding that teacher within.

I remember a point in my life where I was looking at my jobs or relationships or family, and it wasn’t until I finally learned to look into myself that, of course, is where the answer was all along. At that point, what do you long for? Everything that you want, you’ve already got it. It’s there inside of you.

That’s the deep understanding that comes from studying Buddhism. That’s the deep realization that the Buddha had. From that moment on, he was able to live with peace and joy and contentment. Now it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience anger or frustration or resentment. We’re going to experience emotions, that’s part of life, but we won’t get caught up in those emotions. We won’t be mad about being mad. We don’t have to be anxious about being anxious. We can already just be anxious. That’s the enlightened, that’s the awakened life the way I like to think of it.

That’s what I wanted to address, all based on that question, “Which is the right path?” Well, your path is the right path. You’d get that when you realize your path is the right path because you are your teacher and you’re also your student, and that can be a really profound shift for you while you’re on this spiritual path.

I hope that was a helpful topic. I have several topics that I’ve been wanting to record this week. I’m excited to hopefully knock out the next several episodes. It’s kind of one after another after another.

That’s all I have for Finding the Teacher Within. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order. They serve as a summary of all the key concepts taught in Buddhism.

You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, and Audible. For more information on those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

43 – No Cows, No Problems

In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that is often shared about a farmer who lost his cows. To me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions. It’s relevant because we ALL HAVE COWS. I want to talk about the story, and talk about what the moral of the story is. What can we learn from this story when we apply it to our daily lives?

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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.

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 43. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about No Cows, No Problems. In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that’s often shared about a farmer who lost his cows, and to me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions and it’s relevant because we all have cows. I want to talk about the story, I want to talk about the moral of the story and what we can learn from the story when we apply it to our daily lives, but before I jump into that, a quick update on the podcast format.

Something I’ve been thinking about incorporating into the podcast is to do an occasional Q&A podcast episode, so questions and answers. As you may know, several of you have reached out to me by email in the past and quite often I get questions about clarification on certain topics or how does that topic apply to this situation, things of that nature, so I thought it would be cool to occasionally, maybe once a month or just every so often, dedicate an entire podcast episode to questions that I received from you, listeners. There are two ways to send me the questions. You can email me the questions like you have in the past, [email protected], in which case I would just read the question in my own voice and then give you an answer in the podcast episode, but what I thought would be cool, if you’re willing, you could call in with your question and leave me a voice mail.

That would allow me to extract the question in your own voice, insert it into the podcast and I think that would sound a little bit more fun for some of you who are willing to call in, in your own voice, ask the question and then I’ll answer it in the podcast episode. The way to do that would be to just call my phone number. I have a Google Voice number that’s set up just to receive voice mails, so if you call area code 435-200-4803 and leave me your question in a voice mail, I’ll extract it, put it in the podcast and on that specific episode of the Q&A episode, I’ll address the question after letting everyone hear what your question was. Those of you outside of the US, you would just have to dial the country code +1 and then area code 435-200-4803. That’s something I want to try. Hopefully, that’ll work out well. I think it would be kind of fun to do that occasionally.

The other format that I’m ready to do occasionally is to interview people. I have a couple of interviews that I’m lining up that I’m actually really excited about. I wouldn’t want to do this in every podcast episode because it takes a lot of time and effort to line up interviews, and I’m not quite ready to do that all on my own yet, so I will do occasional interviews. The three formats of the podcast would be the most common just like this episode and all the past episodes. It would just be me explaining a specific topic or a story or, you know, just discussing something. The other format would be an occasional question and answer podcast where I would address the questions that I received from the listeners. The third format would be an occasional podcast interview.

That’s where I’m planning to take things down the road, so if any of you have questions and you’d like to be featured on the podcast, call with your question. That would be my preference, but you can also email me if you prefer to remain anonymous or not have your voice featured in the podcast. You can do that by email. Again, phone number 435-200-4803 and the email is [email protected] Okay, before I jump into the story about the cows, again, remember the Dalai Lama’s advice? I try to say this in every episode and do it for a reason. “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” I think that’s so important to emphasize regularly.

Also, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This podcast and the topics I discuss and the stories that I share, they’re all part of that mission, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. It allows me to do much more with this platform. One-time donations are appreciated as well, and of course, you can do this by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the Donate button at the top of the page. Again, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s done that because it’s making a very big difference with helping me to plan how I do this in the future, knowing what resources I can depend on to grow not only the non-profit, but also the podcast itself, so thank you, thank you, thank you to those of you who have been in a position to be able to do that.

Okay, so let’s jump back in to this week’s topic real quick. The story I want to share today, it goes something like this. One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and he asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened?” The man said, “Well, monks, this morning all 12 of my cows ran away and this year my whole crop of plants was eaten by insects.” The poor farmer was dismayed and the Buddha said, “Well, sorry, we haven’t seen your cows. You know, perhaps they’ve gone in that other direction.” The farmer ran off in that direction. Then the Buddha turned to his monks and he said, “Dear friends, do you know how you are the happiest people on earth? You have no cows or plants to lose.” That’s the story. That’s the essence of the story. When I first heard this story, it really spoke me on multiple levels.

You know, at the time I was feeling very much like the farmer. Ironically, when I first read this story, I believe it was in Old Path, White Clouds. I may have to look at that and reference it at the end where I first read the story, but I felt like the farmer. My cows were missing and I was in a frantic search to see if I could find them or to recover them. I felt like the farmer in the parable, only that for me, the story is a little bit different. For me, the story goes on. I felt like the farmer. I spent some time looking for the cows. I couldn’t find the cows. Once I realized, “Okay, well, there’s no recovering the lost cows,” I felt like I was able to come back and sit down with a group of monks, and I found peace, tremendous peace, in the concept of letting go or in the concept of letting be and I was able to sit with my feelings. I was able to distinguish clearly between the emotions that I was experiencing.

Going back a little bit real quick, most of you know the plight that I’d been going through with my company and the difficult financial times that I’ve experienced after my company had placed several of my products in various big-box retail locations, specifically Walmart, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless. Well, as many of you may have been able to drawn from conclusions from past episodes, ultimately what’s happened is my company has been forced under, which has forced me to go under personally because my personal credit and loans were all linked to the business, so when you have roughly at this point 6 or 7,000 stores worldwide all returning product … and this is inventory that I have already paid to manufacturers. It’s inventory I have not been able to resell to others. A huge portion of it is because it’s inventory that’s now essentially obsolete.

Some of you may know I was one of the very first to popularize the selfie stick and what a global phenomenon that was. Today it’s the fidget spinners. Back then it was the selfie sticks. They were all over the place. As soon as we popularized those, companies from all over started copying my design, they started manufacturing cheap versions, and before we knew it, you could see these things on street corners being sold or in gas stations. They were just everywhere and not just here in the US, but worldwide. It was crazy how fast it all climbed and how fast it all dropped. I December, so not this December, but the previous December, I was being featured by The New York Times in an interview about the rise of the selfie sticks, and then it seemed like in January they started to be banned. Walmart … or not Walmart. Disneyland started to ban them, museums, the Louvre in France, and just as fast as they climbed in popularity, it seemed like overnight they were frowned upon. Nobody liked them. It wasn’t cool to have a selfie stick anymore.

The timing made it so that I had thousands and thousands of these in stores all over the world, so suddenly they were all turned back to me and I was in this position where I had to absorb the loss of the manufacturing cost, the shipping cost to get to all those stores, and then when they send them all back, they don’t just say, “Hey. You know, we don’t need these anymore,” which at the time, of course, I was manufacturing a significant amount of these every month. I was also in the position where they asked for their money back. When Walmart says, “We want out money back” on all these inventory items that we had paid for, it’s a big deal. It’s a pretty significant amount. Long story short, it left me in a position where I realized I was not going to be able to survive this and it was really difficult because while there was uncertainty about whether or not this could maybe fail or maybe it could succeed, that was a tumultuous phase.

The moment it crossed the line from that uncertainty to certainty and it was certain that I was going to have to go down the path of bankruptcy, it became a little easier because at that point it’s like when you’re in a water fight with water guns. You don’t want to get wet, but the moment you get wet, you’re like, “Oh, well, I’m wet now,” so it’s not so stressful to have someone come spraying you with water. It was a similar feeling for me going through this. It was during that tumultuous time, during the uncertainty of what was going to happen that I had encountered this story of the farmer and the cows. I remember laughing hearing the story, thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s so true. So much of this suffering I’m experiencing of the loss of my cows, it’s real and it feels very difficult to cope with something like that.” Fortunately, this also came during a time in my life when I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time and effort to be more mindful and to have more mindfulness as a regular, everyday part of my life.

While I felt like the farmer at first, running down the path, thinking, “Wait, I’m going to find them,” I also feel like in my version of the story, I went, I look and I realized, “Hey, it’s true. They’re gone. I can’t do anything about it.” Instead of holding on to that for much longer, I feel like I went back and I sat down. I was like, “Okay. Well, now I’m one of you guys. I don’t have cows either, so I’m going to enjoy the same experience of peace and contentment that you guys have because you have nothing to lose, and now I have nothing to lose.” It was an interesting process to sit with that. I’ve talked in the past about the parable of the two arrows and I felt like I was experiencing that as well. There was the first arrow of suffering that I was experiencing, at the loss of my business, at the loss of my sense of identity.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, how my sense of identity was attached to a label with my career. I’m an entrepreneur, and that’s been a very important part of how I identify myself in relationship to the world and to others. I realized a significant part of my suffering had to do with this perceived loss of my identity, and when I realized, “I’m linking who I am to what I do,” I was able to at least mentally sever the two and realize I’m not an entrepreneur. That’s just something I do, but when that no longer felt like a sense of my core identity, a significant amount of the pain I was feeling also went away with that because it wasn’t me personally being threatened. It was just a label that is not going to be a label anymore. Maybe it will be again someday. Maybe I’ll be an entrepreneur when I do something else, but for now I’m not and I’m just someone who doesn’t have cows. It was interesting to sit with this, with the two arrows. The first arrow was the loss and that’s normal, natural pain and suffering, you know?

For me, this came in the shape of looking at warehouse, seeing my employees, thinking of the various memories I’ve built with them, the trade shows that we’ve attended worldwide, and the people I’ve met along the way and the hard work that’s gone into designing the product packaging. This has all been a very significant part of me for the last seven years and there was nostalgia in that emotional grieving, that this is something that I’m going to lose. It’s not a part of my life anymore. That’s was a difficult phase and I was able to sit with that. It lasted about, I’d say a good week where I’d go in to work and I’d see everything I built. I would get emotional, and I would laugh and I would cry. It was an interesting phase, but what I noticed is I was always experiencing the pain of the second arrow, which is I was feeling bad about feeling bad.

A part of me was saying, “You’re not supposed to feel bad. You’re supposed to be mindful and get past this really quickly.” I realized that’s a big part of the pain I’m feeling, it’s that I’m feeling bad about feeling bad. That’s when I was able to do something incredible. I was able to just allow myself to feel bad. I allowed myself to just feel the emotions. I was able to reminisce on all the great memories. I was able to feel sorrow. I was able to let myself cry. At the end of that process, which took about a week, I just found a tremendous sense of peace. It was over. The cows were gone. I no longer have to worry about losing the cows because I don’t have those cows anymore. It was fun to link what was happening in my personal life, in my career, in my business life, with the story that was very touching to me, the idea of the poor farmer losing the cows.

I felt like I could identify with the farmer, but I could also identify with the monks. I could identify with the pain and sorrow of losing the cows, the frantic search for the cows, but I could also identify with the serenity, the deep serenity and the deep peace that comes from knowing I don’t have any cows to lose. I think when it comes to possessions, we’re always trying to accumulate more and more, and we think that these cows, they’re essential for our existence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having possessions. It’s not the possessions themselves that cause the problems. It’s the attachment that we have to the possessions that becomes the problem.

Often our attachment to our possessions is the very obstacle that prevents us from having joy or contentment in that present moment because we’re accumulating stuff, and the more we have, the more we have to fear because the more we depend on our attachment to possessions for something like feeling joy or happiness. Well, the greater the risk of losing those things. It’s like the higher you climb, the scarier it is that you’re going to fall because the higher you were, the harder the fall, that kind of thing. To me, this story is a valuable teaching that says we can let go of our attachment. You know, we have the attachment that we have to our cows. We can become free and the key isn’t to let go of your cows. I don’t think that the moral of this story or the key to this story is to say, “Hey, let go of everything now because if you give it all up now, you’ll never have to worry about anything.” I think there’s truth to that, absolutely, but I don’t think that that’s necessary.

We don’t need to give up everything that we own, but I do think we need to give up the attachment that we have to everything that we own. You know, it’s all impermanent anyway, our possessions, the labels that we have like my label of being an entrepreneur, the opinions that we hold. We attach to those as well. All these things, they’re all impermanent. These are the cows. Several weeks ago, I did a guided meditation on impermanence where I asked you to imagine what it would be like to see everything that you own slowly disappear on a stage. I focus haven’t had a chance to listen to that, go back a few episodes and find that because the point of that exercise is that this is the nature of reality. All things change. All beginnings have endings, so why should we feel so attached to the cows that we own?

Again, I’m not saying that we need to start letting go of our cows, but take a look at the cows that you have in your life and imagine, “Well, what would I be if I didn’t have these cows?” The cow could be the specific house that you have, the specific job title that you have, the car that you drive, the type of work that you do. Whatever it is, are you attached to it? Do you feel that your sense of identity derives from the thing that you do or is it separate? There’s me and then there’s how I am. There’s what I do, there’s what I’m called, my name. These are all separate from the core essence of who I am. Who I am is just me and that’s constantly changing. In one day, I wasn’t an entrepreneur. The next day, I was. In one day, I didn’t have a big business. One day, I did and I had products sold all over the world. The next day, I didn’t.

You can start to see the reality that I talk about so often, which is that life is like a game of Tetris. One piece shows up and it’s all great, and the next piece shows up and you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t fit anywhere and it’s ruining my game.” Are we attached to these pieces as they unfold? That’s the core essence of the teaching of the story. It’s not about the core. It’s about the attachment to the cow, so this has been an opportunity for me to spend a considerable amount of time looking at my attachments. Now in my case recently, I am losing a lot of these attachments and that’s not the problem. That’s not painful. What’s been painful is realizing that some of the things that I’ve had to give up are things that I was attached to. For example, my title, my identity as an entrepreneur weirdly enough was more painful than losing my house or losing the money or the income I had from my company. It was the perception that I had that other people have of me, so therefore my sense of identity was on the line.

That was more painful and I’m glad I was able to explore that and see that and find that, and then disassociate with that label in terms of allowing that label to own me. Remember, that’s my definition of non-attachment. It’s not about not having things. It’s about, do the things that I have, the labels that I have, the opinions that I hold, do those things own me? It’s been really neat to spend time with this and realize right now nothing owns me and I own very little. It’s been very refreshing. It’s been very refreshing to hit this reset button to be at a place where I get to decide with my blank slate, where do we go from here?

This week is a big week for me. On Thursday is when I meet with the trustee over the bankruptcy to find out what are they doing with all of my stuff, all of my inventory, all of my personal assets, my home. I expect that it’ll all be taken. It’ll all be gone. That’s the standard protocol, and it’s been fascinating to be able to sit with that, to experience that, to see the attachment that I have to these things, and to watch them go. In that parable of the cows, it’s one thing to wake up and beck, “Oh, no. The cows are gone,” but I think it’s another to sit there and watch somebody come and say, “Hey, these are my cows now” and they’re going to walk out with them, and to have peace with that. To think, “Well, okay. I’m not going to have any regrets about this. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last seven years running my business, watching it grow, watching it reach the peaks that it did.”

Now I want to enjoy watching it dissolve because it’s a reminder to me, in the same way that I would watch incense being burned. You know, I see the smoke going up and I see this is the nature of my reality. I’m experiencing it. I’m seeing it firsthand. Things that are born die. Things that are created dissolve. This is reality in motion here, and I’m grateful for that experience. I’m grateful to be able to experience this right now the way that I’m experiencing it, with the perspective and the mindset that I’m experiencing it with because I can see how difficult and how emotional and how heart-wrenching it would be to go through all of this if there was a significant amount of attachment to the possessions while going through this. It would be very painful, so it doesn’t need to be more painful than it is beyond that first arrow.

That’s why I love that parable. The first arrow of pain, sure, that’s fine. That’s natural. I have no problem with that level of pain, but I don’t want to allow the second pain of arrow to make this any more painful than it has to be. That to me is really the essence of what this story is about. Again, maybe look in your own lives and look at your cows. Look at your possessions. Which of these possessions, not just physical possessions; the possessions of your labels and your opinions and your beliefs and everything. Throw it all in there. Look at it and say, “Where do I see attachment?” It’s okay to have that attachment. Just know that that attachment will cause significant pain if and when, and I should just say when, it’s time to let go.

That when may not be until the end of your life, that you’re sitting there on your deathbed realizing, “Oh, this is it. I’m about to die.” Maybe that’s when you sever the connection with everything that you know and does that have to painful or will you be prepared because you’ve been letting go your whole life, you’ve been experiencing non-attachment with your possessions your whole life? To me that’s the essence of non-attachment. It’s not necessarily letting things go. I talk about attachment and its opposite would be detachment, but non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment. It’s like holding on to something and saying, “I’m holding on to this because this is what makes sense now, but I can let go if I need to.” That to me is non-attachment.

Another example on the flip side of that, it would be saying, “Oh, there’s that thing. I will never hold on to that. I will never touch that.” That to me is also a form of attachment. It’s certainty, whereas non-attachment would say, “I’m not going to hold on to that, but if I need to, I will because I might need to one day.” The difference is the maybe. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the best thing to hold on to right now. Maybe it’s not. Then there’s a level of comfort that arises because you don’t have to oppose something so firmly or hang on to it so tightly. You know, it all becomes a loose grip on reality. You can’t just let it all go. That’s why I think I like the expression, “Let it be.” Let it go works for the past, right? Let things go in the past, sure.

In the present, I think it makes more sense we’re letting things be. Letting it be just as it is because remember, the moment we want life to be other than it is, we experience suffering, so here we are letting things be and seeing what would life be like if I would just let it be? What if the experiences that I’m going through, the emotions that I’m feeling, what if I just let them be what they? Well, then you discovery pretty quickly that because of the nature of impermanence, they arise, they linger and then they pass, and that’s it and we move on. That’s the nature of reality. That’s the topic I have for today, no cows, no problems.

Now a quick item for news. I’ve talked about this a couple of times, upcoming workshops. I’m doing a workshop on Sunday, August 27th in LA, I’m doing one on Saturday, October 21st in Orlando, and one on Saturday, November 4th in Phoenix. If you’re interested in any of those, visit secularbuddhism.com. Then you can click on … I think the link says Start Here. At the bottom of that link, you’ll see Attend a Workshop. If you click on Attend a Workshop, you’ll be able to learn more about those workshops, sign up for them. Right now the registration is only opened for the LA one, but monitor that page because the Orlando and the Phoenix one will open up soon.

I’ve mentioned this. Again, the recent Humanitarian Mindfulness Trip to Uganda that I did earlier this year, I’m doing that again next year. If any of you are interested in learning more about the African humanitarian trip, it’s a life changing trip. Everyone who went, 16 of us went on the last one, everyone loved it. Email me with questions about that, [email protected] As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always go back to the first five episodes of the podcast. Listen to them in order. They’re a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhism.

You can always check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It serves as a basic introduction to Buddhist concepts. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Audible, and for more information or links to those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you for your time, thank you for joining me, and until next time.

42 – We Didn’t Sign up for This

Imagine what it would be like to suddenly wake up and realize you are on a roller coaster ride. You didn’t choose to get on, you woke up on the ride. This is what it’s like to wake up to life. We didn’t will ourselves into existence. We are the result of causes and conditions. For me, the idea of not having signed up for this, allows me to be open to whatever may come.

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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.

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 42. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the fact that we’re all here, but none of us signed up for this. I’m talking about life.

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were having lunch and we were talking about life. As we discussed our things were going, an expression was brought up and it’s had me thinking about it ever since. The expression is, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Has that ever crossed your mind, perhaps in referring to how something is turning out, whether it be in your career or your marriage or in any other area of life, that sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this”? There was a time in my life, in my marriage specifically about seven years ago, where I had the same thought. I was going through something difficult and I have this thought that, “I didn’t sign up for this.” In fact, I’m certain that a significant portion of my suffering at the time was tied up with this recognition that I was experiencing something that didn’t seem fair to me, something that I hadn’t signed up for, so I wanted to talk about this thought, this idea. What did we sign up for? But before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you of a couple of quick things.

First, my commonly shared quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are. On second, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, 501c3 non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. One time donations are also appreciated, and you can make that donation by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Now one thing that we recently were able to accomplish thanks to the support from podcast listeners, I was able to hire a company to transcribe every single podcast episode up until now, and this podcast along with all future ones will also be transcribed so that there is a text version of the podcast episode. Every time I publish a podcast, there will be a transcribed version that people can read, so if you any difficulties with hearing or listening to a podcast, you can always read through the podcast episode as well. That’s something new. That’s something that costs money, and I’ve been able to do that, I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but I’ve been able to do that thanks to the support of podcast listeners, so thank you very much for that.

A couple of quick news items. I do have some upcoming workshops, one in LA, August 27th, one in Orlando on October 21st, and one in Phoenix on November 4th, so if you have any interest in attending any of those workshops or getting more information about them, I will be posting that on the website, but for now you’re welcome to email me directly with questions at [email protected] A quick reminder that the Successful Mindfulness Humanitarian trip that I did earlier this year in February, 16 of us went to Uganda in Africa, and we did humanitarian work.

While we were there, we also spent time doing a mindfulness retreat, so those were the two key components of the trip, doing humanitarian work every day, doing mindfulness work on ourselves, learning mindful meditation and discussing various topics as like an infusion of going on a mindfulness retreat while at the same time doing humanitarian work. Then for fun, we topped off the trip at the end with a safari, two days, and got to see all of the things that you would hope to see in Africa while on safari. If that sounds interesting to you, I’m doing that trip again next year, either February or March 2018, so get more information about that, email me and I’ll send you information.

That’s all the news that I have, so now let’s jump back into this week’s topic, so this idea, “What did I sign up for?” This is interesting to me because to think about this in the context of interdependence, you know, I didn’t will myself into existence, none of us did. None of us signed up for any of this. We are the result of causes and conditions, so we’re here. This makes perfect sense to me in the big picture of it all; you know, life in general. None of us signed up for this, but what is it that we expect when we’re not expecting anything? To me the answer is everything. This is the thinking behind the idea of emptiness in Buddhism. It’s essentially understanding that if I didn’t sign up for anything, then everything is possible now. It’s like a blank slate, and because it’s a blank slate, well, boom, we’re born and here we are, and the world doesn’t owe us anything. We’re just here as the result of causes and conditions.

Now I would hope that you’re not listening to this and thinking, “Well, that just sounds sad” because to me this is an incredibly liberating idea. You know, what are we signing up for when we make a choice? I think we’re signing up to embark on the path that we hope will lead toward the expectation that we have when we make that choice. Now the difficulty with this is that we do tend to live life under the tyranny of our own expectations, don’t we? Let me be clear. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having expectations, but it is important to know that it’s our expectations that may be the very source of a lot of our suffering.

I see this a lot, for instance, in marriage. In the context of marriage, people will talk to me usually when they’re going through difficulties in their marriage because they know that my wife and I went through a difficult phase and we were able to recover. Now we have a very happy and healthy marriage, so people will talk to me about their marriages and say, “How do you recover from this?” or, “How do you get through that?” Something I hear all the time is the sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this” when they’re venting about marital problems, and I know the feeling all too well. Like I said, when I got married I had a lot of expectations, things that I thought I was signing up for, and when those expectations weren’t met, I was confronted with suffering. In my case, loyalty was a big one in that list of things that you’re expecting.

As I look back now, I try to imagine the start of my marriage as I would the start of a giant rollercoaster ride. What did I sign up for? The ride. I’ve mentioned in previous episodes that I had a really rough patch in my marriage about four years into it. There was a breach of trust and it was devastating to experience that. I clearly remember thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this,” but when I took the time later to become more introspective about this whole thing, I did have to ask myself, “Well, did I sign up for?” We were just two young kids getting ready to get on a rollercoaster, and it’s like we looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to ride this with me?” I mean, that’s really how I see it now. I signed up for the ride, that’s all. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have expectations. I’m just saying that what if we weren’t attached to the expectations? What if we had the wisdom to adapt to the ride as we go along?

When you get on a rollercoaster, part of the excitement is the mystery. We don’t know how many ups or how many downs, how many loops. You don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s the highs and the lows, the fasts and the slows. They’re all part of the ride, and then you have the uncertainty of whether the person sitting next to you is going to make it through the ride, whether they’re going to last as long as you. Are they going to throw up all over you? Are they going to have their arms up and waving, and yelling with joy when yours are down and you’re scared or vice versa, when your arms are up and you’re enjoying the ride, and they’ve got their arms crossed and they’re really upset? These are all dynamics that marriage, you could think of as marriage on a rollercoaster. I think of couples, couples who lose a child or perhaps they lose each other, or couples who have a child with a disability. Did they sign up for that?

Do we sign up for that in life? I think if you really think about it, did any of us sign up for any of this? Did any of us will ourselves into existence? We’re here, again, because of causes and conditions. We’re the result of those causes and conditions, and here were are and we didn’t sign up for this. I think if we look at this mindfully, we’ll see that because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of it. You know, this idea of come what may. For me, “I didn’t sign up for any of this” means I’m open to all of it and I like to think about that idea of the rollercoaster. I have many friends who have encountered ordeals that are very difficult. Like I mentioned before, losing a child. You didn’t sign up for that, but at the same time, because you didn’t sign up for it, it is a possibility.

You start this ride and here we are, and we don’t know what to expect. I think that’s life, right? Life is the rollercoaster, but we’re on it, but we didn’t get to choose to get on it. It’s like we opened our eyes and woke up, and we’re on a rollercoaster. I think part of the problem is that we go through life trying to get something out of it, usually happiness or the cessation of suffering, and that becomes the very source of our problem. We’re trying to get something out of life and life isn’t something to get something out of. Life is always changing. There is no permanent state, and therefore we can’t get what we want. I think as soon as we realize that life itself is the rollercoaster, the ups and the downs, they’re both part of the ride, the sooner we can make peace with the fact that, “Hey, we’re on the rollercoaster and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

I think this is where this idea of learning to be comfortable with uncertainty really plays a part. This idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” when we have that attitude, we can look at it and ask, “Well, what is the expectation that I have tied to this specific event I’m going through?” Again, it’s not about not having expectations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having goals or having expectations, but I think there’s wisdom in being able to adapt quickly: to have an expectation, to realize it’s not being met, and then to be able to adapt, to be able to go with the flow, so to speak.

There’s a famous parable, the parable of the two arrows or the parable of the two darts. I think I referred to this in previous podcast episodes, but I want to discuss this just a little bit more today in a different context because I think it has to do, in some way, with dealing with expectations. The premise of the parable is that when you’re struck by an arrow or a dart, that first dart, you can’t help it, right? You’re walking and boom, you get shot by an arrow. That’s it. That’s what happened. There’s nothing you can do about it. Now we have all of the control to decide if we’re going to pick up a second arrow and start prodding the spot where we were struck with the first arrow, or if we’re going to start poking ourselves with that second arrow.

It’s the second arrow that we’re very concerned with in Buddhist practice, and contemplative practice, I should say, because we want to look at things and understand, “Is part of the suffering that I’m experiencing part of the first arrow or is it part of the second arrow?” because the first arrow is natural, it’s completely normal, but the second one is self-inflicted. For example, and again because we I went through this myself, discussing recently with a friend a specific scenario that he was going through in a relationship, he was really upset and feeling bad about, I guess, the loss of the dynamic or the relationship that he was in before. He lost someone he cared for and he was very upset about that, but in looking at this little bit, what we were able to conclude and what he was able to realize is a significant portion of the suffering that he was experiencing was the suffering that comes from feeling bad about feeling bad.

You know, this idea that, “I’m going through this loss. This is a difficult thing and it sucks. It feels bad,” and somewhere in the back of the mind is this idea that you’re not supposed to feel this way, “So now I feel bad about feeling bad.” He’s trying to get out of that funk and asking, “Why do I feel this way? How can I get out of this rut that I’m in and feel differently?” What I reminded him of was this parable of the two arrows. What part of the suffering is the first arrow, loss, and what part of it is the second arrow, the self-inflicted part, which is feeling bad about feeling bad? There was a moment of recognition there where he concluded, “Yeah, I think a significant portion of this comes from the suffering that I’m experiencing that’s the second arrow.”

That’s how I felt when I recalled the experience that I went through. The pain and suffering that I was feeling during my marital crisis was one thing, but there was a significant portion of hurt and sorrow and pain associated with feeling the hurt and the sorrow and the pain because I was feeling like, “I’m not supposed to feel this. I didn’t sign up for this.” Like, somehow, in an ideal world people like me, who are going about doing the right thing, are not supposed to experience these emotions of being hurt or betrayed. It was really interesting to arrive at the conclusion through contemplative practice that a significant portion of my pain had to do with not being able to just be with my pain, you know? I was mad about being mad. I was sad about being sad. That’s essentially the second arrow. That’s where the parable of the two arrows or the two darts kind of fits in here.

That’s something that you can look at in your own life when you’re experiencing suffering. You know, from the Buddhist approach we try to say, “Whatever it is you’re experiencing, that’s it. That’s reality. That’s how you’re feeling, so don’t push it away. Don’t think that it’s wrong. Be with it. Befriend it. If it’s fear, be with the fear. If it’s sadness, sit with the sadness. If it’s anger, sit with your anger. Allow it to be what it is. Try to befriend it.” Don’t resist it or push it aside because it’s very easy to start being angry about being angry or to be sad about being sad, and then we’re dealing with situations where we’re not entirely sure how to fix it because we’ve added multiple layers of complexity to the reality, which is just the first arrow.

I want to deviate from that thought for a moment and talk about something else, a lesson that we can learn from Japanese psychology. This is talked about by the ToDo Institute who has a website (http://www.todoinstitute.org/naikan3.html) and a really neat practice called Naikan practice, but here I want to talk about shifting our perspective from the sense of “I have to,” to a sense of “I get to,” so “I have to” versus “I get to.” The lesson is very simple. We want to be aware of every time we have the thought, “I have to do such and such” or, “I should be” or, “I have to” whatever. Transform that statement replacing, “I have to” or, “I should” with “I get to.” See how that simple, yet profound shift, can have a powerful change in how you experience life, how experience whatever it is you’re going through.

For me, again going back to this analogy of life is the rollercoaster, if I decided, “Hey, there’s a rollercoaster. I want to get on it,” and then I do get on it, and now I’m going through it and I’m not enjoying the experience, it’s easy to think, “Well, I have to because I chose this and now I have to endure the suffering I’m experiencing on this rollercoaster because it was my choice to get on the rollercoaster.” It would make sense to say “I have to” there, but going back to the scenario where if I understand that I didn’t choose to get on this rollercoaster, I woke up on the rollercoaster. This is waking up to life, right? I woke up. I didn’t will myself into existence. I woke up to this experience of being alive, so I don’t have to any part of it. I get to because there was no choice involved with that first decision of choosing life.

Now this is a topic that in some faith traditions … I think I’ve alluded to this before, but my wife and I share different faith traditions or different, I guess, paths. For her, this idea was kind of goes against her understanding of life. From her background, life is a choice, right? There was where you are before you were born. There’s a realm, a spirit world, and we chose to come to this earth to prove ourselves worthy of returning after this life to be in the presence of God, but even in that context, we were talking about this and I brought this up, I said, “Well, did you choose, before you became a spirit, did you choose that or was your spirit created by God?” You’re back at the same dilemma. It’s like, “What were you before you were what you think that you were?” At some point, you have to recognize, again, the same analogy of the rollercoaster. You didn’t will yourself into existence whether you were intelligence that was created into a spirit in the form of God or born in life, born in the image of a god.

It’s still the same dilemma, right? You didn’t choose this, in the same way that my children didn’t choose to exist. They were the result of causes and conditions, and now here they are, and they exist and they have their personalities and they have all these choices that they can make, but they woke up in this rollercoaster of life the same way that I did, the same way that any of us did. Whether that be this life is the start of the rollercoaster or you happen to believe in a prior life, that’s the start of the rollercoaster, but you can’t ever get to before the rollercoaster. At some point, we all woke up on this rollercoaster of life. That’s what I’m trying to get at with this little explanation. It doesn’t matter how far back you can go. You’re stuck with the same dilemma, which is that we woke up on a rollercoaster and here we are in existence, and we don’t have to look at it with this attitude of we have to or should.

We get to look at it with this attitude of, “Well, here I am, so I get to. I get to experience this.” Now this was really powerful for me applying this to negative experiences that I’ve had in life. I get to go through this ordeal. I get to experience what it feels like to be hurt. I get to know what it feels like to feel pain, to get emotional, to cry. I get to experience joy beyond what I can possibly describe. “I get to” in all of these scenarios is a really powerful shift in perspective when compared to, “I have to,” so I hope you can look at different instances in your life and try to reframe them with that perspective, and think, “What would this look like if my attitude was, ‘I get to’ versus ‘I have to’?” See how that feels. See how a specific scenario of your past or your present looks like when you shift that from have to, to get to.

Again, this is an idea that’s talked about by the ToDo Institute specific to Naikan practice, N-A-I-K-A-N practice. Naikan practice is the practice of self-reflection, so as we go through life, we have a relationship with everything that we interact with, right? Whether that be a person — spouse, children, parents, friends, coworkers — we have a relationship with people, but we also have a relationship with things. I have a relationship with the shoes that I wear, the clothing that I choose, the house that I live in, with the car that I drive, so the different objects that I have, I have a relationship with these things. Naikan practice is the practice of becoming intimately familiar with the relationship that we have with people and with things.

The way Naikan practice works is that you pick a specific relationship — again, it could be a person like a sibling or a spouse — and then you ask three questions based on that, the relationship. What have I received from, what I have given to, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused? The point of this exercise is to be able to be reflective about the relationship. When I think, “What have I received from my spouse?, what have I given to my spouse, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused my spouse?” I start to gain insight into this relationship I have with my spouse. Now this can apply to anyone. You can do this exercise on anyone or on anything. You can do this with your shoes, for example. “What have I received from my shoes? What have I given to my shoes? What troubles and difficulties have I caused my shoes?” I start to gain some insight into the relationship that I have with my shoes.

Now one of the end results of Naikan practice is that you start to experience a tremendous sense of gratitude because you realize that you depend on relationships. None of us exist alone in a vacuum. We don’t go through life, we can’t go through life without depending on other people and other things. We can’t. If you live completely alone out in the forest, your interdependencies would be with the sun and with the plants, with the animals if you hunt, with the climate. Whatever it is, you have interdependencies. You can’t exist alone, none of us can, so reflecting on the relationships that we have with these things can be a really neat exercise. It’s called Naikan practice or Naikan reflection. You can learn more about it on the website todoinstitute.org, T-O-D-O Institute dot org. I’ll post a link, but it’s a neat exercise. I think it’s relevant in the context of this idea, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Again, what I’m trying to get at, the heart of this entire podcast episode is how we feel is one thing, and how we feel about how we feel is another thing, so feeling bad about feeling bad, sad about sad, happy about happy, that’s the second layer like in the parable of the two darts or the two arrows. The first dart is what is and the second is the story we construct around that reality, so this idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” if you really sit with that and look at it, what you’ll find is there’s a story there. There’s a story that we’ve constructed around reality and because reality is not fitting with the story, now we’re experiencing a whole new layer of discontent or of suffering that may not be necessary.

It only arises because of the perspective we have, which is that, “I thought I signed up for this or that, and what I’m really experiencing is this other thing or that other thing.” We create problems there, but problems in the sense of the two darts. There’s a very big difficult between the first dart of reality and the second dart of the story of reality, so I hope you can look at that in your own life. It’s been very beneficial for me in my own life to look at certain instances and ask myself, “Was there an expectation here that wasn’t met? Was the expectation the problem or was the actual circumstance or the event the problem?” Typically what you’ll find is there is a portion of suffering that’s related to the expectation not being met rather than just whatever it is that happened. Then that gives you a new, fresh perspective of something to work with, with whatever it is you’re going through. That’s what I wanted to share in this podcast episode. We didn’t sign up for this and because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of this.

I hope, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, that you’ll be willing to share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. Again, if you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of the podcast in order. They are somewhat of a summary of the key concepts talked about in Buddhism. You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links, visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, for this week, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you and until next time.

41 – Life on the Buddhist Path

In this episode, I’ll talk about the Buddhist path that leads to enlightenment. What does it mean to be “on the Buddhist path”? This path is commonly referred to as the Eightfold path and it consists of trying to develop skillfulness in 8 key areas of life: understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcribing service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 41. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today, I’m talking about life on the Buddhist path.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about what it means to be a Buddhist especially in the secular sense, what is life on the Buddhist path? As a listener, you might be someone who’s interested in deepening your mindfulness practice. Is there a process by which one becomes a Buddhist and what does that even mean? How does this apply to a secular Buddhist path?

If that’s you, a listener who wants to take that next step, this podcast episode we’ll discuss a little bit about what life on the Buddhist path entails? In most Buddhist traditions, there is a process by which one becomes an adherent to this path or this way of life. I want to address that a little bit specifically because I’ve recently gone through this on my own. I’ve been studying and teaching Buddhism for many years now, but I recently graduated just this weekend.

I’ve been doing a ministry program with a Japanese school of Buddhism that was based out of Chicago and now it’s in California. They have an American secularized style of Buddhism that infuses several different traditions and that’s where I’ve been studying for years now. This graduation ceremony is what allows me to officially be, I guess, you could say a Buddhist minister now which would allow me to officiate at weddings or funerals or any of the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism and I find this pretty fascinating at the intersection of approaching Buddhism from a secular lens because Buddhism itself is already so secular in nature.

It’s a non-Theistic tradition and yet there are rituals and aspects of it that can feel quite religious. I wanted to address that a little bit with regards to this topic of what is life like on this Buddhist path, on the secular Buddhist path. Remember as I mentioned with every podcast, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, just use it to be a better whatever you already are. For some people, their spiritual path that they’re interested in is the Buddhist path, the secular Buddhist path.

Taking Refuge
I want to talk about that a little bit today. In typical traditions with typical schools of Buddhism, the process by which one would become a “Buddhist” and I’m using air quotes here when I say that is that you take refuge. It’s called taking refuge and you take refuge in three things. You take refuge on the Buddha, and the Dharma, and in the Sangha. I want to explain that a little bit, but first of all let’s just look at this word, refuge for a second because refuge is like safety or comfort or another word that I think does a good job of explaining this idea of refuge is anchoring ourselves, an anchor.

What we’re anchoring ourselves to are values and I think this is an important thing because in the Buddhist tradition, it’s values that we’re trying to anchor to not necessarily beliefs. Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion or spiritual path or at least shouldn’t be. To take refuge in the Buddha for example what that means I have mentioned in previous podcast, the podcast on enlightenment that the word Buddha means awakened one. What we’re taking refuge in is in this idea of wisdom into the possibility … I anchor myself to the possibility of being awake, of being awakened myself.

For me, this means essentially I value wisdom. Wisdom is one of my values. I anchor myself to the wisdom that others have taught people like the Buddha and people who continue to teach even to this day. Wise individuals who have found freedom amidst suffering, that’s what I value. The wisdom is a value that I want to anchor myself to so when I take refuge, to say I take refuge in the Buddha, that’s what that means that the wisdom is a value. I want to anchor myself to it and this anchor reminds me that waking up is a very real possibility that I can have freedom from my habitual reactivity which can be the source of so much of my suffering.

Taking refuge or it’s like anchoring ourselves in wisdom. That’s how I would describe that first step. Taking refuge in the Buddha is anchoring myself in wisdom. Step two, you say I take refuge in the Dharma and the Dharma are the teaching … It’s the teachings of the Buddha. To me essentially this means perspective. The teachings give us a perspective on life, on reality that we didn’t have before.

I anchor myself to the teachings that will help me to understand the nature of suffering, the nature of impermanence that things always change. The nature of interdependence that everything depends on everything else, that a flower isn’t just a flower. A flower is also interdependent with the sun and the clouds and everything else. I’ve talked about that. I strive to see reality through these lenses. These lenses of impermanence and interdependence.

This is the anchor, the anchor of perspective that reminds me that I need to take a look at the way that I’m seeing things. In fact, it reminds me of how important of my perspective is, perhaps more so than what it is I’m seeing is the recognition of how I’m seeing things. It’s on me. It’s like turning inward, looking at that mirror. Taking refuge in the dharma is that I’m anchoring myself in the teachings about impermanence and interdependence. It’s a perspective shift.

Then the third one is you take refuge in the Sangha and what that means it’s friendship and support. I anchor myself to the companionship and the support that I need in order to be a better whatever I already am. There’s a phrase in the Dhammapada that says,

“If you find a wise person who points out your faults and corrects you, you should follow that person as a sage as you would a revealer of treasures.”

I really like that sentiment and I think all of your listening to this can identify with that to have a friend, someone that you know. Maybe you know them in person, maybe you don’t but someone that you can rely on who just tells you as it is, not in a mean way but in a genuine way they help you or they inspire you to be a better version of who you are. We all have someone like that. Then that’s what this whole part of the refuge is that I want to be with other like-minded individuals who are aspiring to be better versions of themselves.
That’s my community and I’m going to take refuge in that. I’m going to anchor myself in this community of people who inspire me to be a better version of what I already am. Those are the three refuges. Essentially what it takes to become a Buddhist in most schools is you just say those three things, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma and I take refuge in the Sangha.”
I wanted to explain that because I think more important than saying it is recognizing what does it mean? You don’t have to say it, it’s just something in your mind that you recognize. I’m going to anchor myself, take refuge in wisdom. I’m going to take refuge in knowledge, learning, understanding, perspective and I’m going to take refuge in friendship and support. Not just for the support that I need but my willingness to be a support to the others who are also on this path. That’s it. There’s really nothing else to it.
It’s not explained this way. It almost doesn’t even seem like it’s a religious thing at all. It almost seems like that’s common sense. Who wouldn’t want to be on that path? That’s how I view it. It’s like, “Well, yeah. I think a lot of people are on this path without even realizing that they’re on this path.” They already value the knowledge and wisdom that comes from people who are wise and not just religiously or spiritually but it could be people who contribute to wisdom in our world.
People who spread those teachings. I think you get the point. That’s really what it means. I anchor myself in wisdom, I anchor myself in perspective and I anchor myself in friendship and support. To me that’s essentially what it means to be a Buddhist especially a secular Buddhist. Those are the three things. Now, very common in Buddhism is the teaching of the eightfold path. What that means, these are the eight areas in your life that once you decide this is the path I want to be on, the path that leads to more wisdom and more compassion, now what? What should I focus on?

The Eightfold Path

That’s where the rest of this conversation will go because the eightfold path is the traditional path that a Buddhist … (I’m reluctant to even say a Buddhist but someone who’s aspiring to wake up). Maybe we’ll call it that. Someone who’s aspiring to be a better whatever they already are. These eight areas are important areas in your life that you would be able to focus on and work with to accomplish that. Accomplish being a better whatever you already are.
Let’s talk about these eight areas. The eightfold path consists of these eight areas like I mentioned and they are understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are referred to as the eightfold path. This is why the simple of Buddhism is a wheel with eight spokes. This is what it’s referring to but it’s important to understand that this isn’t a moral code to be followed. It’s a guide. It’s meant to be a guide for specific areas in my life where I can experience and discover the nature of reality for me, from my perspective.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story in his book, Old Pathway Clouds where the Buddha says, “I need to stay very clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality but it’s not reality itself. Just in the same way that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” The eightfold path is to be seen like that, it’s a guide. Consider that standpoint. Then it’s common that you can take these eight areas and you can divide those even further into three groups.
The moral disciplined group which would wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, some traditions will translate this as right speech, right action, right livelihood. I like to use “wise”. Another word that also translates well for the original pali, that‘s used is skillful. You could do skillful speech, skillful actions, skillful livelihood. I got sidetracked for a second. Group one was the moral discipline group. Group two is the concentration group. These are wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise concentration and then there’s the wisdom group which is wise view and wise intention.
Another way to think of these three categories is that three of these are training me to have a higher, moral discipline. The other group, these are trainings in the higher form of consciousness, a higher state of consciousness. Then the third group is a training in higher wisdom, increased wisdom. Let’s just go through these one at a time. The first one and in my opinion, the most important one in this group of higher wisdom as wise understanding or wise view. Sometimes these are used interchangeably.

Wise View / Skillful View

Understanding or view is essentially the recognition that the way I see something may not be the way it actually is. It’s recognizing that it’s just the way that I see it. I can’t get past that. My reality is influenced by the way that I perceive things. This is like walking into a barn at night and there’s a coiled hose and I think it’s a snake. In that moment, it doesn’t matter what it is, the only thing that matters is what I think it is. All of my actions, everything I’m going to do from that moment on is governed entirely by my perspective.
This is why it’s so important to have a wise view or a wise understanding of reality because reality may not be what I think it is. If I were to act immediately as if it was a snake, I’d jump or I do whatever it is I’m going to do, I’m acting at this point not based on reality but based on my perception of reality and that’s why it’s so important to at least recognize or distinguish that there are two realities. There’s what is and then there’s my story around what is.
Everything that I do in life is revolving around the story that I’ve created around reality but that’s not the same thing as reality itself. This is why this first one is so important. We want to be wise about our understanding or our view of reality. Wisdom if we were to turn that light in the barn so to speak suddenly I realize, “Oh, that wasn’t a snake, that was actually just a hose.” Now my entire set of actions from that moment forward are also changing and shifting based on a new understanding of reality that’s different from the understanding of reality that I had a few minutes ago when it was a misunderstood way of perceiving reality.
This first spoke of the wheel essentially it’s about continually seeking after wisdom to help us to learn to see the world the way that it really is. Now, you could sum this up in the two components of impermanence and interdependence. Those are the two most common ways that we misinterpret reality. We think that things are independent. There’s this and there’s that. This doesn’t rely on that. This is twisting that and realizing, “Wait, this is because of that so I cannot separate this and that.”
Again, this is the exercise with the flower. You can’t separate the flower from the bees or the flower from the sun or the flower from the clouds and the rain and the soil. You start to realize, “Wow. Everything is interdependent.” That will start to fundamentally shift one of my misperceptions about reality which is before that, I only saw things as things. There’s this and there’s that and they’re all separate.
That starts to shift and then the other huge area where that shift is in terms of impermanence where we tend to see things as permanent and our understanding with a change in perspective is we realize nothing is permanent. Everything is always changing. I can’t isolate something and make it a permanent thing because there’s no permanence there. We do that with people. We believe someone is a certain way or circumstances may seem to be a certain way. They seem really negative. Later we discover they weren’t what we thought they were. This is the whole parable of the horse and who knows what is good and what is bad. That’s totally in terms of impermanence.
Those two things really start to shift the way that we understand our understanding or view of reality. That’s that first spoke, wise understanding, wise view. We work with that through looking at impermanence and interdependence. The reason I think that’s the most important one is because once we’ve understood the nature of reality is that it’s impermanent and interdependent, it starts to change that we view reality. With this wise view, all of the other spokes become easier to understand or to implement or to practice.

Wise Intent / Skillful Intent

With that, let’s look at the second spoke of the wheel which is wise intent. Intent is everything on the Buddhist path because a lot of the things that we do in life, we’re not really aware of why we’re doing them. When it comes to trying to reduce suffering, we need to be aware of the intention that we have with regards to the things that we’re saying or doing. When our intentions stem from anger or hatred, they’re more likely to cause harm than if they’re stemming from a place of happiness or gratitude.
Because we know that our tendency is to be reactive, it can be very difficult to be mindful of the intent behind our words and actions because sometimes we’re just reacting. There’s no thought to the intent. It takes practice to learn to become aware of our intentions. In some traditions, I remember you can model your behavior after someone as an ideal. I remember the bracelets as a child that remind you, what would Jesus do or they have what would Buddha do?

What Would I Do?

The goal here is to become very familiar with the answer to the question, what would I do? What would I do? That’s really all that matters in the end, isn’t it? Why do I say the things that I say? Why am I doing the things that I’m doing? Intention is the way that we understand that? You practice by asking yourself why? As you’re reacting to things, why am I so angry right now? Why am I feeling this way? Why am I experiencing this emotion? You can do this with the positive and negative because if I’m being really kind to someone, I can ask why? Why am I being kind? You may discover, “Oh, I’m trying to be nice to them so that they’ll lend me money.”
Now, that I understand that intent, that’s not a noble action or that’s not … My intent may reveal to me that I’m increasing suffering and not reducing suffering even if I was doing on the surface what seems like a nice gesture. Maybe if I genuinely care about a person, then maybe my intent is different. You want to understand your intent. You want to be keenly aware of your intentions and if the whole point of this is that we’re trying to become liberated or free from our habitual reactivity then it’s vitally important to understand our intentions or to at least be aware of our intentions.
That’s how you can decide if you need to create new intentions or perhaps let go of old intentions or it’s when you understand your intent that you can be more at peace with why you do the things that you do because you know it’s not out of a reactive habit that you may not be aware of. That’s where intent comes in and intent will play a role with everything else from here moving forward. For example, so those are the two spokes under wisdom. The next spokes, the next three spokes are in this genre of moral discipline.
You’ll see how intent comes into play here because the first one is wise speech. We’re talking about communication speech. It’s not just talking, it’s the way we communicate with ourselves and with others because communication is an essential part of creating a peaceful and harmonious life both for ourselves and others because we’re social creatures and communication is perhaps the most important part of our human relations.

Wise Speech / Skillful Speech

Wise speech is learning to communicate with others in a way that minimizes harm or that doesn’t cause harm or that doesn’t cause harm. Like I said, this isn’t just speech, this is writing, texting emailing, Facebook’ing, whatever form of communication you’ve got going on because lying, gossiping, insulting, that’s not wise speech, those I think are obvious. They don’t minimize suffering but on the flip side of that, it’s important to understand that neither are compliments that you don’t mean. That’s also not wise speech or promises you don’t intend to keep that would not also be wise speech.
Sucking up to someone that you’re trying to impress because you’re trying to get something out of them. Those would be examples of unwise or unskillful speech. This is where intent comes into play because I may do that without knowing that that’s what I’m doing but once I have a thorough understand of my intent, now I can catch, “Oh, that’s actually not very effective speech.” It may be causing more harm even though I’m saying something nice to someone because I know the intent behind it.
Wise speech, considers why you say something on equal grounds as what it is that you say. It’s not just what you say, it’s why are you saying what you’re saying. Wise speech does not always have to be pleasant. It’s not about just being nice. It’s not about withholding ideas or opinions because you don’t want someone to disagree with you or to feel upset because you have a different view from them. The important part here is that it’s always sincere, it’s always genuine. It’s like the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism.
I think we all know what that’s like. We all know the difference between the two. Receiving criticism from someone isn’t a problem but sometimes it’s the intent behind it that bothers us. Are we trying to cause harm, cause pain or are we trying to be genuine and authentic and expressing something. That’s the difference here with wise speech.

Wise Action / Skillful Action

The next one is wise action and this is another spoke here, wise action is essentially a conduct that’s proper and necessary for whatever situation you’re in. For example, here’s another scenario with wise action correlated to intent and correlated to speech. I imagine during the Second World War when there were families that were hiding Jews in their home, if the Nazis come knocking like, “Hey, do you know where the neighbors went?” It would be wise speech to say, “No. I don’t know where they are,” even though that’s a lie.
A wise action could be hiding them in your house even though you know maybe that was against the law if they had made a law about that or whatever. You get the idea of what I’m saying here. Wise action sometimes includes the sense of doing the right thing in a moral sense. It closely resembles the guideline for behaving appropriately according to the situation and the context. Again, this is why it’s going to be super important to understand what is my intent and what is my view. How do I view the world?
Someone without wise or skillful view or understanding of reality may think that they’re living according to wise action when they’re not. What they’re doing actually isn’t wise. You can see that. We don’t want this to be a set moral code because the problem with that is that morals change and they evolve overtime based on time and based on place, society, where you live.
If we just adhere to the moral code of some place in time, that may not be the wisest form of action for our specific time and our specific place. This is an expression that says, morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told regardless of what’s right. To me that sums up this idea of wise action. We want to do what’s right more than just do what we’re told. Those are two different things.
Wise understanding, wise thinking, wise speech all the previous ones we’ve talked about will give rise to wise action where your wisdom leads you to behave fittingly in any scenario that you might be in. Wise action is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter. That’s why in Buddhism, there’s not like the 10 commandments or there’s nothing like that because those are just wise action. What is wise action? Guess what, you have to figure that out.
It’s not appropriate for me to say…what might be wise action for me may not be wise action for you because it depends on place and time as well. As we know from the story of the parable of the horse who knows what is good and what is bad, we know that right and wrong are often subjective especially in different societies and different time periods so what may be acceptable in one society or one time in history is often unacceptable in another time and another place.
Imagine those times when people finally figure it out and realize, “Oh, slavery isn’t okay.” Maybe it seemed like it was for a long time but then consciousness elevates, awareness elevates, new perspective shift and that’s why you’re always working with this, it’s not a static thing. Suddenly somebody, somewhere realize, “Hey, this isn’t right. We shouldn’t be doing this. This is not wise action. If it were stagnant, if it were a static thing, a set of rules, that gets really complicated because life isn’t stagnant, life isn’t fixed, life is continually changing and evolving therefore wise action should not be an absolute thing. It shouldn’t be a set moral code, like a set of commandments.
You’re going to want to … Life on this path entails wise action that will arise naturally out of having wise understanding or wise view, wise speech, wise intent. I hope that makes sense how those start to correlate.

Wise Livelihood / Skillful Livelihood

The next one we’ll look at is wise livelihood. This is the one that addresses what we do for a living, how do we make a living, how do we interact with others while on the job because we need to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing more harm or more good for ourselves and others.
Again, this is a very personal thing that arises naturally out of having a wise view and a wise intent. If I understand my intent and I understand the way that I perceive the world, it starts to give me the ability to decide is what I’m doing … Is this the type of job or career that I want to have where I feel like it’s improving. Am I helping myself and others to be better, whatever they already are or am I not?
Some things are obvious, like being a hired hit man. It’s very obvious that that would not be wise livelihood because you’re causing more harm than you are good for yourselves and others. It does require that balance between what’s good for you and what’s good for others or for the environment or you can start to see how complex this can become. There’s another aspect to all is it also includes how we interact with the people that we work with, customers, coworkers, things like that.
Again if I’m embezzling funds from my employers, stealing food from the fridge at work, those are examples of unwise livelihood even someone who’s trying to do good like a doctor, they may be doing good but they’re at the same time causing harm because maybe they’re taking bribes from a pharmaceutical company to prescribe a certain type of medicine over another one knowing that this one wouldn’t be as effective as the other one but I get paid more if I prescribe this one. There is another example of wise livelihood.
That’s also another example of where intent is really important. I need to understand why am I doing this? Is it just for the money? What is the intent behind the action, behind the livelihood? At the end of all this, ultimately it’s just up to us to make the judgment call regarding the way that we make a living. You make your living, you know why you do it? It’s a good idea to incorporate wise intent in this process. Maybe you can ask yourself why am I doing what I’m doing?
I’ve had to do this in my own life. I remember one specific job where I was really uncomfortable with the type of work that I did because we sold supplements and it was a deceptive form of marketing where some of you may be familiar with this tactic where you sign up for a free trial of these pills and then you think it’s free but a month later they start billing you and they make it really difficult for you to cancel that automated bill.
I work for a company that did that and I had to ask myself, why am I doing what I’m doing? Am I comfortable with this? I was always uncomfortable knowing people were trying really hard to figure out how to cancel these ongoing bills and it was a widespread practice at the time but at the end of the day, I decided that wasn’t a career I wanted to be in. It wasn’t a type of work I wanted to be involved with because I felt that for me personally I was uncomfortable knowing the harm that it was causing on others, the inconvenience it was causing others to have to put up with the job that I was performing.
In ended up leaving that job. I found another job where I didn’t have conflicting feelings around my livelihood. That’s the idea behind why is livelihood. With those, that deals with the training and higher moral discipline with speech, action and livelihood. Again, you see how important it is that those are correlated with an understanding of what my intent is, wise intent.
That leads us to the last three spokes of the wheel. These are the training and higher consciousness or higher awareness and you can start to see how they all start to feed on each other because the better I am at having effort that effort may be what helps me to understand my intent and that intent helps me to be introspective and understand that maybe what I’m doing for work isn’t what I want to do for work. You can start to see how they rely on each other.

Wise Effort / Skillful Effort

The next one is wise effort. This is essentially what it takes to put into practice all the other parts of the path. This is the effort on our part if we want to experience any kind of positive change in our lives. It’s going to require effort whether it’s to learn a new skill. I want to learn music for example. I’ve got to learn to read music or sports. It takes a lot of practicing business skills. I might have to go to school.
Whatever it is I’m trying to do, there’s effort required to do it. We can usually look at ourselves and recognize if we’re going to give the proper amount of effort or not, we can decide that before we go into something. Without effort, there’s usually very little or no progress. Our effort affects everything that we do in the world. You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to accomplish any kind of goal and you failed for example, a common one for a lot of us, around new years as we decide we’re going to start going to the gym and we’re going to get in shape.
The reason that we don’t that a lot of us don’t and I put myself in there because this happens over and over. What I realize is here’s a lack of effort. What else could it be? Effort is what plays a part in that. For me, I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar for almost 10 years and I’ve never really done a good job with it because it’s the effort to how to be put in to do it. That’s where I struggle.
The key to accomplishing a goal is directly connected to the effort that you put in to what it takes to accomplish it. I know that I’ve put time and effort in the other things I wanted to do and that worked out really well for me. It took a lot of effort to start putting this podcast together. That hasn’t been a big problem. You can start to see where and how much effort are you putting into the things that really matter in your life. This is especially important when you’re looking at relationships, jobs, hobbies, lots of other things but relationships.
Do you put the effort in required to maintain the relationship with your loved one or with your spouse or significant other, with parents, with siblings? A wise effort is about prioritizing our effort and all of the things that we do because there are a lot of things we want to do in life and we need to prioritize and decide where does the effort go? Where am I going to dedicate time to make sure that I accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish?
Now, with Buddhism, we talk about this that we’re trying to become a “better whatever we already are.” We’re trying to be improved and be better at how we live to be less reactive. To be less reactive isn’t going to happen because I just decide, “Okay. I don’t want to be reactive anymore.” It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I’m going to be reactive and one of the first things I’ll be reactive to is reacting to the fact that I cannot be reactive.
Now, I’m mad on two layers or levels because I don’t want too reactive anymore so now when I am reactive, now I’m mad that I got reactive because I already know that I don’t want to be reactive. You can see without effort, there’s no form of awakening or enlightenment or liberation from habitual reactivity. It doesn’t happen without effort. It’s the effort that this specific spoke is relying on am I going to put time into meditating? Am I going to put time into reading more books to understand these concepts? Am I going to put the effort it requires to seek podcast episodes that continually push me towards a better whatever I already am? That’s effort. That’s where effort comes in.

Wise Mindfulness / Skillful Mindfulness

After effort, we’ve got mindfulness. Again, you see all of these start layering on each other. Wise mindfulness is about being aware. It’s about paying attention. Now, being mindful helps us to stay anchored in the present moment because typically we’re not in the present moment. We’re either regretting something in the past, anxious about something in the future, but to be mindful, it’s practice because it does indeed require practice which is going to require effort to be more mindful.
We’ve all experienced the scenario of driving somewhere only to realize that you weren’t really paying attention. You finally get there and you don’t realize how you got there or you miss a turn. You’re driving on the freeway, you’re on the phone and you realize, “Oh, crap. That was my exit. That idea of being zoned out or distracted, we do this a lot in a lot of areas of life.” It’s not just while we’re driving. That’s an area where we notice it but that’s not the only time it happens.
When we’re not mindful, we’re not aware, we’re missing things that might be happening right in front of our eyes. I think of this a lot as a parent, mindless parenting. I don’t want to look back and think, “Oh, man. I missed that phase with my kids when they were this age or that age or doing this or doing that.” Not because of intent or because of effort, it might have entirely to do with the fact that I wasn’t mindful. I just wasn’t aware.
I think this becomes really helpful when we think about this in the context of time. We’re constantly stuck in the past of the future like I said. That makes it really difficult to be mindful of what’s happening in the present. Wise mindfulness is about learning to anchor ourselves in the present moment. It connects very closely with meditation with effort because we want to be mindful. We want to be aware of the things that were not even aware that we’re not aware of.
Again, that doesn’t happen just because. It’s like, “Okay. I want to be mindful. That’s great and sentiment but what am I going to do about that?” That’s how mindfulness correlates with all these others which leads us to the last spoke of this wheel. This is concentration and this is the practice of focusing the mind on one thing. If I want to be mindful or aware, it’s going to require the ability to at least concentrate. To concentrate on what it is I’m trying to do in that specific moment. This is where meditation comes in. This is the great tool that we used to practice concentration.

I know we typically think of meditation as someone sitting with their legs crossed on the floor and their eyes closed but it can be so much more than that. It can be the concentration that we put in to washing the dishes or when we’re walking. We’re just walking when we’re doing anything. A really common one that I noticed in my own life is when I’m eating, a lot of times I’m not really eating, I’m eating and I’m looking at my phone. I am checking up what’s on Facebook, I’m reading the news, checking emails and then you’re done eating.
If someone were to ask me detailed questions about my meal, I wouldn’t really know. This is a lack of my ability to concentrate so concentration is when we’re doing something we’re just doing that thing and there a Zen story about this with an enlightened person. When they eat, they eat and they walk, they walk. I say, “Yeah, anyone can do that.” The difference is when you’re awake and someone who’s awakened when they walk, they just walk. They just walk because that’s what they’re doing.
When they’re eating, they’re just eating. I think that’s when we can all correlate to our own eating habits. I don’t know about you but anytime I go somewhere to eat, if I look around, more than half usually at 3/4 of the people there, they’re just on their phone. When was the last time that you actually ate and just ate. That was your whole goal, “I’m only eating.” I’m concentrating when I’m eating. I’m paying attention to what this taste like, what this is feel like in my mouth, all the experiences of eating.
Alan Watts says you can make any human activity into meditation by simply being completely with it and doing it just to do it. I would challenge you to try next time you go eat somewhere, try eating meditation where you’re just eating and that’s all you’re doing. You’re not doing anything else. That’s concentration and the opposite of concentration would be distraction. I just think about distraction as the opposite because we all know what that’s like. We live in a society in a culture that’s constantly bombarded with opportunities for distraction whether it’s the chime on your phone or the billboard on the street or the commercials, what TV, text email, whatever it is and we’ve got thousands of distractions that are all competing for our attention virtually anywhere you look at any given time of the day.

Wise Concentration / Skillful Concentration
Distraction prevent us from seeing life as it really is because we don’t know. We’re seeing all kinds of other things. Distraction prevents us from understanding the truth about ourselves and others. This is what we’re trying to accomplish with wise concentration is to have the skill and the ability to be with something for a moment, to concentrate on when an emotion arises for me and I’m sitting here and I’m upset.
Am I trying to distract myself out of it? Don’t be upset, turn on the TV. It’s like that’s a distraction and distractions can be fine but here’s what I’ll never know if I constantly react to my emotions in a way like that. I’ll never be able to sit with an emotion and say why am I upset? I’m sitting here and I’m upset. Why? Imagine being able to sit with your emotion, to concentrate on it. You may gain insight out of that. That’s the whole purpose of this with concentration. What can I discover that I didn’t know that I didn’t know?
Those are the eight spokes of the wheel, the eightfold path. If you were to enter this, think, “This is a way of life I want to live. I want to practice Buddhism as a philosophical way of living.” What does that entail? It’s essentially this, these eight areas. These eight areas that you’re going to strive to be more aware of to be skillful with in your life and they are understanding or view. How do I view the world? How do I understand reality? Am I skillful in the way that I understand what’s unfolding right now in front of me or am I not skillful with that?
Next is intention. Do I understand my intentions? Then it goes into speech, action and livelihood and from there we’ve got effort, mindfulness and concentration. Those are the eight areas that make up the eightfold path. As I mention, this is a path that you’re constantly working on right. It’s not like a linear thing that you think I’ve got to master this before that one makes sense. You’re always working on all of them.
Sometimes you may be working a little more heavily on one spoke versus another. There’s no particular order that you need to go with although I do like to emphasize that the first spoke is the most important because with wise understanding or with wise view, the rest start to arise naturally. When I truly grasp and understand the nature of impermanence and interdependence, it changes the way that I talk to myself and others. It changes the way that I act.
It increases the desire to have more effort to be a better whatever I already am. A search to have all these ramifications, all based on the first one, the right view or the wise view. This is a path. It’s an ongoing practice that can bring about a new sense of awareness and perspective into everything that you do. I want to emphasize again this is why Buddhism is often referred to as a practice because it’s not like you get it, you’re always getting it because you’re always trying, you’re always practicing, you’re always trying to be a better whatever you already are but you never actually get it.
Just that concept itself to be a better whatever you already are, how do you win that game? You never say, “Oh, I did it. Now I’m the best whatever I already was.” It’s not about that. It’s about being better. Whatever you are, now be better and you finally get there. Will not be better, but you never get there. You’re always practicing to be a better whatever you already are and you accomplish that by keeping in mind these eight areas of your life that you want to focus on.
Maybe you can write them down. I like to have a little visual representation of the eightfold path with the eight spokes on the wheel and each spoke is the word written out and it reminds me these are eight areas that I am committed to being better at in my life. Maybe not even being better at but if anything understanding these. I want to understand these eight areas in my life because the simple act of understanding them already makes me better at them. View this as a guideline for the specific areas where you want to focus on in your life to help you become a better you. That’s it. It’s that simple.
There’s nothing to believe in, there’s no set of commandments. It’s not like you have to be … Nobody says you have to be … You have to have intent. It’s not that. I just want to understand my intent, why do I do the things that I do. It’s not about saying, “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s just saying, “Whatever it is you’re doing, know yourself. Why are you doing it? Why do you do that?” At the end of the day, it empowers you to know what would I do? What would I do? That’s what we’re striving for here. That’s what combats this instinct to just be habitual, to just habitually react and I don’t even know why I’m reacting.
I’ve got these eight areas in my life that I’m committed to and dedicated to trying to be a better whatever I already am and they all start with that first commitment that I make to be on this path to take in refuge. The commitment I’ve made to understand what my values are. I value wisdom, I value knowledge. I value friendship and support. I take refuge in those three aspects of my life. I have friends and family that form the backbone of that journey that I’m on.
I have books and sources that I go to learn the knowledge that I need to anchor myself and these teachings that are going to help me be a better whatever I already am. Of course there’s the first one that I anchor myself and all the great teachers that have come before me whether it be the Buddha or Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama or any other teacher.
They don’t have to be Buddhist but those are the ones that I mentioned because that’s the path I’m on but it’s not restricted. Wisdom is not confined to a specific tradition. It’s not like, “Well, wisdom is only found in Buddhism.” Wisdom is found in every tradition and it’s our job to seek it. Whatever tradition you’re in, find the wisdom, anchor yourself to it. That’s taking refuge. You can be taking refuge in the Buddha so to speak without believing in Buddha at all or being Buddhist. You could do that the moment you anchor yourself to wisdom from whatever tradition.
That in a nutshell is my explanation of life on the Buddhist path. This is the path I have chosen and most recently like I mentioned, last week have made this official for me as a Buddhist minister. I’m honored now to be in a position where I can officiate that friends or people’s weddings. I can do more with it but people have asked me, “Now what? Now, what’s going to happen? What does this mean now that you’re a minister?” It’s like it doesn’t mean anything different. This is the path that I’ve been on.
What I just explained in this podcast is a summary of life on the Buddhist path for me and that’s the path three years ago, four years ago, five years ago and today, and tomorrow but all in the context of impermanence. It’s just what it is right now. Hopefully you can get some information out of this podcast that will help you in your path to accomplish the goal of being more awake, being a better whatever you already are. That’s really the only goal. There’s nothing beyond that.
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. Remember you can always learn more. If you’re new to these concepts, listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order or you can find these concepts explained in my book, Secular Buddhism Eastern Thought for Western Minds which is on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. You can get more information on all that on secularbuddhism.com but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m really looking forward to recording another podcast episode soon.
Now, I have the time that I’ll be able to do this more often and thanks to the support from a lot of you listeners that’s giving me the ability to dedicate more time and resources and effort to making this a podcast that is beneficial so that every time you listen to it, you gain something out of it. I want this to be something that’s valuable and I’m also creating other resources that I’ll be able to explain later in my future podcast. That’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks again for taking the time to listen and until next time.

40 – Dealing with Grief & Loss

Mindfulness is helpful during the grieving process because it allows us to acknowledge the universality of loss. It helps us to accept the inevitability of loss as a part of life. At one point or another, we will all face the loss of everything we hold dear. BONUS: Guided meditation on impermanence.

BONUS: Guided Meditation on Death & Impermanence

This is the guided meditation shared in the episode above. This clip is the guided meditation only.

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Transcript of the podcast

Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, and this is episode number 40. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about dealing mindfully with grief and loss.
Grieving is the process of coming to terms with loss in our lives. We may experience grief for a number of different reasons. Could be the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship or friendship, or the loss of a job. Other significant life changes can also lead to grief like moving to a new home or a new city, losing our deeply held convictions or beliefs, or experiencing a sudden change in our hopes and dreams.

Loss is something we seem to deal with from the moment we’re born. I’ve seen first hand the discomfort a new born seems to endure at the loss and comfort of the womb. And from that moment on life can seem like a string of losses. And while the scale and the intensity of loss can vary greatly. Say losing a loved one compared to losing a material possession. In the end the loss of anything can cause suffering. And it may require the process of grieving to help us to adjust.
Now before I jump into this topic I want to remind you of a couple of things. First, is my commonly shared quote by the Dalai Lama that says “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Regardless of which path you’re on or how far you are along that path, mindfulness can help you to be a better whatever you already are.

Second, this podcast is made possibly by the Foundation for Mindful Living. A 501C3 non profit who’s mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just two dollars a month can make a big difference. One time donations are appreciated as well. And you can make a donation by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

And I want to say thank you to everyone who donates monthly to the podcast. And anyone who’s made a one time donation. Your donations are making a very big difference in the ability that I have to share this content with the world. Through workshops, through a mindfulness training program that I’m putting together, and several other resources that are in the works. All of this is being accomplished with your support and thanks to your support. So thank you very, very much.
Okay now let’s jump back into this week’s topic. I want you to take a moment and think about some of the losses you’ve experienced in your own life. Perhaps this is the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job. Or a meaningful friendship or relationship. This could be a material possession. Something that was lost or stolen, something that broke, think about that for a minute and see what comes to mind.

We all have losses. We’ve all experienced losses in the past. We may be experiencing loss now, or we will experience it in the future. And for the losses we experience in life, we need to grieve. And mindfulness practice can help us in this process to ensure that we grieve skillfully. Grieving is the natural healing process of coming to terms with loss in our lives. You may be familiar with the concept of the five stages of grief. As proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Gubler Ross. Her model proposes that a series of emotions are experienced by people who are dealing with loss.
These are denial, when you first learn of a loss, it may be normal to think well this can’t be happening to me. You know, you may feel shock or numb, this is a temporary way to deal with the rush of an overwhelming emotion. It’s kind of like a defense mechanism. So denial.

The next one is anger, as this reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless, and then these feelings can turn into anger. And that’s anger that may be directed towards other people, to a higher power, or to life in general.

Then we have bargaining. Bargaining, this is the stage where you kind of dwell on what you could have done to prevent the loss. And these are common thoughts like if only, or you know, what if I had done this, or had I not done that. Um, this is kind of that stage where you may even try to strike a deal with a higher power.
And then the next stage is depression. It’s the sadness that sets in as you begin to understand the loss and it’s effect on your life. And during this stage, signs of depression may include crying or sleep issues, decreased appetite, there may be a sense of feeling overwhelmed, regretful and lonely.
The final stage is acceptance. In this stage you accept the reality of your loss, you realize it can’t be changed, and although you can still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life. And because these stages are often referred to as stages, people often mistake these as a linear course that one needs to advance from one stage to the next as we come to terms with our loss.

Now in my own experience, it can be misleading or even harmful to assume that these stages are sequential or linear in any way. Well each of these emotions can be experienced throughout the grieving process. Grief rarely seems to follow any specific order or timetable. We all seem to experience grief in different ways, and while some of us may experience one or more of these specific emotions, they may not come in a specific order.

It may be that we advance from one stage to another only to come back again to where we were before. And this is kind of how I experienced it while dealing about seven years ago with the loss of trust and coping with betrayal and deception. I remember advancing through anger to what I thought was acceptance. Only to come back to anger, and then this was like a cycle that went on and on for months, even years. And for a time I genuinely thought I was crazy, ’cause every time I would feel like it was finally passed all of the emotions and I was at acceptance, it seemed like that should be the end of it. But the something would trigger a memory and I’d be back at square one.

So the mindfulness approach to grief and loss is not about trying to get through one stage to advance to the next or to try to rush through all of them. You know, to hurry and get to this acceptance and healing. It’s about applying acceptance to whatever stage we’re in. And to whatever the overall process of grief is bringing us. So through mindfulness we focus on, on removing any obstacles that might impede us from experiencing whatever the process of grief may have in store for us.
Now mindfulness is helpful during the grieving process because it allows us first to acknowledge the universality of loss. And it helps us to accept the inevitability of loss as a part of life. So at one point or another, we will all face the loss of everything we hold dear. And sometimes this happens when we’re not ready and when we’re not expecting it. And it’s resisting those losses that can cause us to suffer. Suffer beyond the pain that is already typical with loss.

So we know that all things are impermanent. We live in a world where ultimately everything that we hold dear will have to be relinquished. And Thich Nhat Hahn on this topic says it’s not impermanence that makes us suffer, what makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they’re not. And this reminds me of a story, during the Buddhist time, there was a woman named Kisa Gotami and she had married young and gave birth to a son. And one day the baby got sick and then died soon after. Kisa Gotami loved her son and she just refused to believe that her son was dead. She carried uh, his body around the village asking if there was anyone who could bring him back to life. And the villagers saw that and they saw he was already dead and that there was nothing that could be done.

So they advised her to just accept his death and make the arrangements for the funeral. But with grief you know, she fell upon her knees and she just clutched her sons body close to hers and she kept uttering for him to wake up and to wake up. And at this point a village elder took pity on her and suggested her to go consult with the Buddha. “So Kisa Gotami you know, we can’t help you, you need to go talk to the Buddha maybe he can do something to bring your son back to life.”

So Kisa Gotami was excited hearing that, and she immediately went to the Buddha’s residence and pleaded for him to help her you know, to bring her son back to life. And the Buddha said, “Well Kisa Gotami, I do have a way to bring your son back to life.” She’s like, “What is it gonna take, what do I have to do? I’ll do anything.” And the Buddha essentially says, “If that’s the case, if you’ll do anything then here’s what you need to do. Um, bring me a mustard seed taken from a house where no one residing in the house had ever lost a family member. And then you bring that seed back to me, and I’ll bring your son back to life.”

So having faith in that promise, Kisa Gotami just took off and she ran from house to house in the village trying to find this mustard seed. And at the first house she found a young woman who said “Yeah I have a mustard seed.” But then when she asked her if she had ever lost a family member the young woman said, “Yeah my grandmother died a few months ago.” So she thanked her and ran to the next house, she realized that wasn’t gonna work. And at the next house you know, she found someone who’s husband had died a few years ago. And at the next house someone who had lost an uncle, and then at the next house someone who had lost an aunt or a cousin.

And this process keeps going, she keeps going from house to house and she keeps finding the same answer, that every … Every household had some one who had lost a family member at some point. So by the Kisa Gotami finally realizes that there’s no one in the world who’s never lost a family member. So she now understood that death is inevitable, and it’s a natural part of life. And this acceptance allowed her to start working with her grief and to bury her son.

And the story of Kisa Gotami reminds us that loss is a universal experience. The Buddha’s lesson for Kisa Gotami allowed her to understand that her refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of loss was only adding to her pain. And I feel a special sympathy for her. You know as a parent myself, I’ve tried to imagine how difficult it would be to have to deal with the loss of one of my own kids.

If we know that loss and death are inevitable. Why not begin to prepare for the inevitable now. You know, why is there a cultural tendency to avoid even the thought of death. Or even the thought of losing the things that matter to us. You know remembering that all things are continually changing, we can avoid developing unhealthy attachments that may cause us to suffer. You it’s funny speaking of these attachments, just this weekend we were cleaning out our storage unit and I took a trailer load full of stuff to a donation center. And it was interesting to see certain possessions and to, you know, realize at one point how valuable that possession felt to me or how meaningful it was to me at one time. And now here I was at another time in my life just giving it away. And in the process of emptying all these totes that we had, one of the totes was labeled ‘Noah’s helicopter stuff’.

And as some of you may recall from past podcast episodes, there was a time in my life when I was in flight school training to be a helicopter pilot. It was a childhood dream that I had. And unfortunately the school that I went to back in 2008 filed bankruptcy and it was a school that had the business model where the students would pay up front for all of the training. And then, they would train you over the course of six to eight months, or twelve months. But it was running like a ponzi scheme, now none of us noticed that at the beginning. But they would have you pay up front, and then they would use that to keep recruiting more students and that’s kind of how the company ran. That lasted about ten years before the company finally went under.

And when it did, thousands of students across the country including myself we were out of flight training and out of the money that we had paid for it. So it was, it was a really difficult time. And it was one of my dreams, like I mentioned. So there was a dream that was shattered there was suffering that being being experienced, I was dealing with the grief and the loss of what seemed to be my life plan. That was my career choice.

So fast forward now almost ten years later, here I am, at this donation center looking at this tote and I open it and it had all of my flight gear. I had my headset, all of my books, my flight computer, the little thing that snaps to your leg that holds the maps of where you’re flying. It had everything. Everything that I used for flying. And it was interesting to just look at this for a moment to think how important these items were to me at one point. And here I was donating this entire tote away. Hoping some use would come out if to someone. And there was a tinge of sadness there with it, but I thought it was interesting that I had held on to these items for almost ten years. And I thought about that, you know attachment to the things that can cause us to suffer.

So, how does mindfulness help us to cope with the loss of things that we’ve become attached to? Well it’s similar to how we deal with any other emotion. Through mindfulness. You know, an emotion like anger or sadness, we simply acknowledge the emotion, we accept it, and then we let it go when it’s time to go. But there’s no need to have fear or aversion towards the grieving process. You know, we can be open to whatever grief brings. And allow ourselves to be fully with that experience. And remember like I mentioned before there’s no set time frame for this grieving process, it just has to happen on it’s own. And an important benefit of mindfulness during the grieving process is that it helps to keep us anchored in the present moment. ‘Cause the present moment is the only place where we can fully feel the pain of loss.

Now when we’re dealing with loss, it’s common to find ourselves experiencing anxiety about the future. You know, with the loss of a spouse or the loss of a job. We have legitimate concerns about how we’re going to get by. And other losses like relationships or divorce, you know these things may cause us to have concerns about our self worth. Or fear about ever finding meaningful love again. I remember with, you know with my story with the helicopter flight school. I had significant fears about well now what am I gonna do? You know? This was the career that I chose now how am I gonna pay this money that I lost. It was almost, it was $70000 that this school had taken from us. And those, you know that’s money I still pay every month. Student loans that I’ll be paying the rest of my life for something I never got.

But at the time, you know a lot of my fear and anxiety was anchored in the future, what is this? What’s gonna happen now? How am I gonna do this? You know, how am I gonna pay that back? What am I gonna do for a job? And the point is that, almost any kind of loss will cause us to wonder how we’re going to fill the void of what we’ve lost. And these are valid concerns, they need to be addressed. But we do need to know that spending too much time with our concerns about the future, can get in the way of the grieving process itself. Which requires us to momentarily set aside these concerns. And instead just be completely aware of our experience in the present moment.

This is where mindfulness meditation can be an incredible tool for coping with loss. As it provides us with the opportunity of attending to whatever experience we’re having in that present moment. And fully experiencing what we find in the present moment is an essential step for learning to think and act wisely. Now another topic that relates to this is something I brought up a few podcasts back, I talked about the art of self compassion. And how self compassion can play an important role in the grieving process. As it allows us to accept the compassion not only from ourselves but also from others. You know, sometimes when we’re going through difficult things, we need compassion but we struggle to allow others to give us that compassion because we don’t feel worthy of it. Or we feel that it’s a sign of weakness to accept compassion from others.

This is why we can work with self compassion. And compassion is one of the greatest things we can receive while we’re experiencing grief. You know, in part I think it’s because it reminds us of the universality of our suffering. Like Kisa Gotami, you know, we can be reminded that we are not alone in our experience of loss and suffering and this in turn I think eases or minimizes our sense of suffering. So dealing with our own suffering, it can be the catalyst for learning to develop compassion for others. You know, I imagine Kisa Gotomi at that point realizing with what she had gone through with the loss of her son, allowed her to feel compassion from that moment on for anyone else who was going to experience that same type of loss.
I remember feeling the same thing with my flight school. You know, thinking well now I know what that’s like to be robbed of a dream. And any time I’ve encountered that with anyone else in their life, and having you know life throw a curve ball at them that sends them in a new direction, I feel compassion for them because I know what that’s like. Same with my other experience in life with feeling betrayed or deceived. You know I can empathize with people who have gone through that. And the relationships because I know what that’s like.

So I think it allows us to develop compassion for others, our suffering can do that. And it can also be a reminder of how life truly is like a game of Tetris. Like I talk about all the time, you know. We only have the illusion of control, and yet we simply never know what piece is going to show up next. And I think experiencing loss and suffering it can be disillusioning in the sense that it helps us to get rid of the illusion that we even had control or the illusion that there’s permanence in any of this.
So if you practice developing skillful means with life’s everyday challenges, you know, it will allow you to be able to react more skillfully when losses come to you. As we all know they inevitably will. And remember loss and suffering is not personal. You’re not being singled out, it’s just that you’re experiencing life.

Now earlier in this podcast I mentioned that if we know that loss and death are inevitable. Why not begin to prepare for the inevitable now? You know, how do we prepare to deal with the loss of everything. Well have I a guided meditation that I want to share with you today in this podcast episode. And I’m also going to set this aside as a recording that can be listened to as the next podcast episode. It will just be the guided meditation, so that you can listen to it again from time to time, without having to listen to this whole episode and look you know, to the end to listen to this guided meditation.

So why don’t you take a couple of minutes right now and just follow along with this exercise. This can be a powerful technique for learning to think and ponder on the nature of impermanence. So this is a guided meditation on impermanence.
This is an ordinary moment. If you can, close your eyes and just focus on the sensation of breathing. Try to become aware of the breath. The in breath, and the out breath. And just become aware of this ordinary process that seems so natural that we rarely even think of it. And yet it’s this process of breathing that keeps us alive throughout the ordinary moments of our day.
And now imagine next to you a large platform. You’re standing next to this large platform or a stage, and it’s empty there’s nothing on it. And now I want you to imagine your favorite possessions. This could be your computer, your watch, your smartphone, maybe it’s a TV or your car. Just imagine all of your favorite stuff. And now imagine them being place on this platform or on this stage one at a time, and when they get placed there, they simply disappear. Everything that gets placed on the stage dissolves and just disappears.

Just imagine yourself for a moment seeing all of your stuff one by one being placed on there and then it’s gone. And how does that feel? Knowing all of your stuff is now gone. And now I want you to imagine all of your friends. All of your coworkers, you know, people that you know, just imagine their voices, they’re all talking to each other and they’re sharing their stories and as they do this they’re all slowly stepping on that stage in single file one by one, and as they do, they disappear. One by one until they’re all gone.

And after that I want you to imagine your family, your parents, siblings, children. I want you to imagine their voices, I want you to envision their smiles and feel the love that you have for each one of them. Just imagine them all stepping on that stage each disappearing one at a time.

And notice how now you’re standing there next to that stage and you’re all alone. How does it feel now to know your friends and family, they’re all gone. They’ve all stepped on that stage. And now I want you to picture the room where you are. Or the space where you are, your bed, your books, all of your other possessions. All of them on that stage now, and they all disappear. And you continue to scale back. Picture your neighborhood, picture your yard, the feeling of the sun on your face and the feeling of the wind on your skin. And rain, everything. Everything you see. It’s all on that stage and it all disappears.
And now as you stand there, I want you to imagine your memories, your feelings. All the knowledge that you’ve gained from the books that you’ve read and the school class that you’ve attended, every word you’ve ever heard. You’re entire vocabulary. Every song you’ve ever listened to, every sound you’ve ever heard. All being put on that stage. And it’s all disappearing.
And as each of these things goes, one by one. Now there’s just you. And it’s just you standing there. And now you walk on to that stage. And you slowly disappear. And then the stage is the only thing that’s there and then the stage disappears. And now that’s it, there’s nothing. There’s nothing left, there’s just the awareness of emptiness. The emptiness of all that is. And I want you to notice what you feel. As you become aware of this emptiness. And death will come in an ordinary moment just like this one.

Now bring your awareness back to where you are. The room that you’re in, the space where you are. Open your eyes if you had them closed. I want you to just look around for a moment, and notice how wonderful it is to just be alive. This is a simple guided meditation practice that can serve as a reminder that death will come in an ordinary moment. A moment just like this one. But for now, this ordinary moment is anything but ordinary. Because this is an extraordinary moment of being alive. And this is the nature of impermanence. Things are continually changing. One thing ends and another thing starts.
But in the end it’s all impermanent. And what there is, is emptiness. I want you to think about that. To just enjoy the feeling of how great it is to just be here. With everything just the way that it is, with the bank account just the way that it is. The friendships just the way that they are. You know, the student loans that you have just the way that they are. Everything just the way that it is. And how good that can feel.

And this is the meditation on impermanence. And if you enjoyed this podcast episode please feel free to share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating in iTunes, and if you’re new to Buddhism, or you’re interested in learning more. Remember, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order as they serve as a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhist thinking.

And also you can check out my book Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. And for more information, and for links you can visit secularbuddhism.com . And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

39 – What is Enlightenment?

What is enlightenment and how do we attain it? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of enlightenment from the perspective of a Secular Buddhist teacher. The attainment of enlightenment/awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism, however, many people see it as a distant goal. Perhaps our concept of enlightenment is blinding us from experiencing it in the present moment, here and now.

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Transcription of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 39. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about enlightenment.
From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?

From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?
A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.

A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.
I’m not sure you can. St. Augustine was once asked about his understanding of time. When asked what is time? He said, “I know but when you ask me I don’t.” I believe I know what love is but the moment I try to define it it becomes fixed and permanent and when you get down to it, concepts, like love, or time, are not fixed nor are the permanent. I believe we run into the same problem when we try defining enlightenment.

Before I jump into that topic I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This is my non-profit and I want to say thank you to everyone who has started becoming monthly donors or who’s made one time monthly donations since the last podcast episode.

I mentioned how I was reaching this crucial point with the podcast where I needed more support and a lot of you responded to that so I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for that because I couldn’t do this without your support. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just $2 a month can make a big difference and any one time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Let’s jump back into this week’s topic, enlightenment. I posted on the Facebook study group, in fact if you’re not part of that group and you listen to the podcast regularly you may find that it’s beneficial to join the group because we try to continue the discussions after the topic is presented in the podcast, I try to make this so that you can carry on this discussion with me on Facebook. I know some of you aren’t on Facebook, eventually I will probably create another portal or platform. For now is just Facebook. If you go to secularbuddhism.com/Facebook you’ll see the link to be able to join that group.

On this topic of enlightenment I want to be clear about something … So what I was saying is that I posted on that group, “What are some of the topics that you would be interested in learning about on this podcast?” and I received a lot of responses, one of which was a request to discuss enlightenment from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s what I want to talk about today, enlightenment. It’s a big word, it’s a common word in contemplative practices, especially in Buddhism. We say the Buddha attained enlightenment, but what does that mean? What does enlightenment mean?

I want to be clear that there’s enlightenment, whatever that is, and then there’s enlightenment what we think it is. In other words the concept of enlightenment. Those are two very different things. I think a lot of the problems we run into with words like enlightenment has to do with the concept that you hold of it. If you have an issue with this word I think you should ask yourself what do you think enlightenment is because that’s where you’ll find what the problem is. It’s a lot like love, you know, I mentioned earlier. You can think you know what love is but until you experience the feeling of love, it’s just a concept. I think enlightenment can never be understood conceptually it can only be understood experientially. In other words enlightenment is something that you want to seek to experience. Not to understand, not to have a conceptualization of it, but it’s something that you want to experience. That’s what I want to talk about today because it’s something that is experienced often in Buddhism and contemplative practices through meditation.

I think the conceptual understanding of enlightenment is like it’s this lofty thing and one day if you live in a cave for 20 years of your life and you’re meditating you might get enlightened. I don’t see it like that at all. I think it’s something that in your day to day practice, you know, it’s like a light bulb. It can turn on and suddenly you’re enlightened or you’re awakened.

Let’s look at this a little bit and explain what this means. I want to explain, first of all, the origin of a couple of words. In Pali, or Sanskrit, in both of these languages, these are the ancient languages of Buddhism, there’s this word budh, which means to awake to become aware or to understand. As you can imagine, this word budh is the route for the word Buddha, the awakened one, Buddha. It’s the root for the word bodhi and of course the root of the word Buddhism. Bodhi, in Buddhism, is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, someone who is awakened, regarding the true nature of things, which is that they are impermanent and interdependent. If you break this down it’s actually pretty simple.

It’s Bodhi, or enlightenment, Bodhi is the understanding that is possessed by somebody who is awakened regarding the true nature of things. Bodhi is commonly translated to enlightenment, but it’s also the word that’s translated to awakening. I think because of the root word, budh, meaning to awaken or to become aware, I think it’s more appropriately for us to use the word awakening when we’re discussing this concept of enlightenment. I’m going to use the words interchangeably.

The goal of awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism. It’s at the heart of what we study and practice. We’re trying to awaken to the fact that reality, as we perceive it, is not the same as reality as it is. I discuss this over and over throughout the podcast and any time I teach a workshop is that there’s reality as it is and then there’s reality as I think it should be. Those are two different things. One of the main areas where this happens is that we have the tendency to see things and ourselves as permanent and independent from all other things. I perceive that there’s me and there’s you, there’s self and then there’s other, you know, as separate entities.

What happens is, much like a wave perceiving itself as a wave, it fails to understand that while it is indeed a wave it is also the ocean. This was eloquently explained by Alan Watts when he says that, “You are something that the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” In other words, you cannot separate the way from the ocean and you cannot separate yourself from the universe. This idea of independence that I exist separate of everything else is a flawed sense of understanding. This is one of the core ways that we interact with life, with everything around us, as if we were separate from it all.

This is the fundamental shift that happens in our perception when we become awakened. We awaken to the reality that we are one with everything. It can be as simple as a shift in this perspective of, “Here I am, I came into this world,” versus, “Here I am I came out of this world.” You simply don’t exist without everything that allows you to exist. That’s what we start to wake up to.

When we talk about enlightenment, or awakening, in the Buddhist sense, we need to understand that it is very easy to make the mistake of confusing the concept of these words for the real thing. That’s what we need to be very careful of. In this sense, the real question of what is enlightenment I would say what is enlightenment for you? Because I have my idea of what I think it is. I have my experiential understanding of what it feels like to be awakened to the reality of things being interdependent and things being impermanent, but the real question here is what do you think it is? What do you think would happen if you dropped your concept of it? What if you just let that idea fall away? Whatever you think enlightenment is let it go, drop it. Then you’re left with the opportunity to just experience it without being blinded by the concept of what you think it is.

A lot like the story I tell over and over about meeting Chris and I thought Chris was a guy, so there was Chris the girl and I didn’t see her because I thought she was … I was expecting to see a guy named Chris. That’s kind of what happens with everything, right? That’s certainly what happens with a concept like enlightenment. You think it’s something, so that’s what you look for, and then you’ll never experience the actual thing even though it may have been right there in front of you all along. That’s something you want to be careful of. The way that you work with that, to be careful to not be trapped by the conceptual understanding of enlightenment, is ask yourself what is enlightenment to me? How do I define it? Because whatever you define it as, drop that. Try to drop that and just say, “I don’t know what it is. What if it isn’t anything? What if there’s no such thing?” Just drop the idea of it, because that, ironically, is when you experience it.

I’m gonna explain that a little bit more. Another thing I want to clarify about this concept of enlightenment or awareness is that no one can wake up or enlighten another. You experience it yourself by practicing mindfulness. It’s like you could try your hardest to explain to someone what it feels like to be in love. If they’ve never been in love all you’re doing is creating a concept for them. Now, that concept isn’t necessarily harmful because it could be a concept that points them in the right direction, but it may be that it blinds them, too. This is why in Buddhism we have the analogy of the finger that points at the moon is not the same thing as the moon. In Buddhism, we’re always reminding ourselves of this fact, that these things that we teach all point to one thing, to the experiential understanding of awakening. If you get caught up in the finger you’re not going to see the moon. It’s the same with all of these practices, with all of these concepts.

In Buddhism the path that’s known as the eightfold path is the path to enlightenment. This comprises of eight different aspects of your life in which you’re aspiring to practice having wise views, wise intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. I think at some point I’ll probably spend a whole podcast episode, or maybe several parts, dedicated to explaining this concept of the eightfold path with a little bit more detail.

It’s a path that one must walk oneself. I can’t push someone down this path, I can only practice it myself. That’s why we say that the Buddha taught the way or the path, but we have to walk the path on our own. This is where that Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open doors but you must enter by yourself.” I love that because that’s exactly how it is with these contemplative practices, with Buddhism specifically. You can work with a teacher and they point, they’re like the finger, they’re pointing at these things that you have to practice but then you see that you’re the one who sees it through an experiential understanding and then it starts to change the way that you see things.

I’m going to jump into this a little bit more. There’s this wonderful teaching in Buddhism called the Gateless Gate and I really like this. The idea is that you can enter this state of awareness, or this enlightenment, but you can only do that by entering through the Gateless Gate. You start to study Buddhism and you feel like, “Okay, I’m on the outside but then I learned that there’s this concept there was this thing enlightenment, so here I am and I’m trying to obtain it and it’s there. I don’t know where it is but it’s there somewhere.” Here I go and I’m on this journey and I try all these things. I try to start doing things, stop doing things. I’m seeking, after this state of awareness, this state of enlightenment. All along I view this as we’re separate, right? There’s me and then there’s it and I’m trying to get to it. Then when you finally attain it you realize that you’re inside it and there was never a gate. This is why it’s called the Gateless Gate. There is no outside or inside, there is just what is.
Reality is everything and it’s everywhere, so there is no gate to go through because you’re already in it and you have been all along. That’s what it means to enter the Gateless Gate. This teaching is trying to wake you up to the reality that there is nowhere to go, you’re already there. There is no one to be, you’re already you, and you’re already in it. You just don’t know it or you just don’t realize it and that’s the truth that you awaken to.

This is kind of the paradox with enlightenment is that you never attain enlightenment because you can’t attain something you already have. You just wake up to the realization that you’ve been in it all along. Not just you, but everyone else.
I’d like to explain this. I think we’ve all felt this feeling of looking for something like your keys or your sunglasses or your wallet and there you are frantically looking for them, running around, digging under things, moving stuff, and then somewhere in that process suddenly you realize, “Oh my wallet’s in my pocket, or my keys were in my pocket, or my sunglasses were on my head the whole time.” I’m sure you felt that at some point. What does that feel like? It’s almost comical because you think, “Well, here I’ve been like a fool searching for something that wasn’t there. I had it all along.” That is a lot like this process of awakening in Buddhism. You start learning Buddhism and you start seeking after something and then the more you study and the more you practice one day you realize there is nothing to seek and it’s like the sunglasses have been on my head all along. It’s almost comical how this happens.

This is the reality of life, right? That enlightenment is everyday life. It’s all of it. It’s the chaotic and the peaceful, it’s the beautiful and the ugly, it’s the happy and the sad, it’s all of it. It really depends on our own minds, our own minds are the ones making meaning of things. It’s understanding that our own reality is the reflection of our own minds. The key to being awakened is to see and understand things just as they are without the stories that we attach to them. Two of the biggest stories that we attach to things is that things are interdependent, and that things are permanent. We attach a sense of permanence to things, to ourselves, to situations we’re going through in life. And we treat things as separate. We don’t recognize that the true nature of things is that all things are impermanent, they are always changing, and all things are interdependent.

This is because that is and you cannot have this without that. You can look at this and you explore this with concepts and you realize how true that is. We can’t have winning without losing, so you would say then then it’s both. It’s not about winning, it cannot be about winning unless it’s also about losing because you cannot have both. You cannot be about life and death, one without the other, because you cannot have life and death separate from themselves. You cannot have black and white. What makes something black is that it’s not white. This is the duality of the conceptual way that we see the world and that’s exactly what we are trying to break out of is that dualistic way of viewing things. Thinking that I can have winning without losing. It’s like, “Well, there you go. You just set yourself up for all of the problems.” If you’re seeking to win and never lose then you don’t understand what winning means.

When they talk about the Buddha’s enlightenment … The story of the Buddha in a very small nutshell is that there was this there was a man named Siddhartha Gautama and he went out on this journey because it felt like something was missing. He did not like that by experiencing sickness, old age, and death … Why do we suffer? That was kind of at the root of his quest is why do we suffer and how can we end suffering? So he goes on this long journey and spends years meditating and trying all these different methods, but at the end of it all he was looking for ways to end suffering and he was looking outside himself to do that. “If I could just do this or if I could just avoid doing that.” That is the great transition in his spiritual journey is that the great transition of seeking something outside himself, to the discovery that the root of his suffering was within himself. The discovery that he was it, there was no separation from it. This was his great enlightenment. At that point that duality was transcended. There’s no more looking for anything external at that point. He was the root of his problems. He was also the solution to them.

This is the essence of what Buddhism teaches. It’s to realize that we are it, it’s just us. We have this concept of an angel and a demon on our shoulders and one’s telling us to be nice and the other one saying don’t be nice go do whatever you want. In cartoons, you always see this, in western thinking this is a popular way of kind of understanding that there’s this external force. One compels me to do kind and nice and good things and the other one compels me to do mean or evil things. We’ve bought into that, thinking that there is an inherent goodness or an inherent badness out there and here we are stuck in this position where it controls us. I’m seeking one and trying to avoid the other.

What Buddhism is saying is, “No, that that sense of those voices on your shoulder those are voices in your head. It’s you. It’s just you. If you view something one way, or justify one action over another, it has to do with you. With either how you were raised or a belief that you have or it’s something that, at its root, is found inside of you.” I think that’s really powerful. These are the things that we awaken to.

First there’s that you awaken to the reality that you are it. It’s all you. There’s no angel or demon on your shoulders tempting you to be mean or pushing you, compelling you to be kind. That’s you. It’s just you.

The other thing we awaken to is the uniqueness of each moment. We play this game in life where we’re always comparing. I think this kind of goes from that dualistic way of thinking in terms of good and bad. There’s this moment, this is a good moment. Then there’s that moment, no that one’s a bad moment because the other one was better. Now there we are comparing. What we fail to see when we’re in that mindset is the uniqueness of each moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pleasant or unpleasant moment, it’s unique. It’s a moment that has never existed the way it exists right now and it will never exist again the way that it exists right now in the present moment. That uniqueness can make it beautiful and for it to be beautiful doesn’t mean you have to like it. It doesn’t mean anything other than its beauty comes from its uniqueness. That’s the only moment. This is kind of that understanding of its always now, right? This is impermanence, which is the other big thing we awakened to. The nature of reality is that all things are impermanent and all things are interdependent. This is another really powerful thing to wake up to.

I talk about Thích Nhất Hạnh saying, “If you’ve ever seen a flower and all you’ve seen as the flower then you’ve never actually seen the flower.” What that means is that the deeper way of seeing things, through this lens of interdependence, is that you cannot see, truly see a flower, without also seeing the sun and the clouds and the rain and the soil and the temperature changes, all the things that it takes for that flower to exist.

When you really start to see something like that it changes, forever, the way that you see something. Suddenly it’s not just a flower, it’s everything. Everything in the universe exists, allows that flower to exist the way that it does and that’s incredible. That’s interdependence.

That’s one thing, right? You start to see things as interdependent. You can try this right now. You can look around you and pick something. Pick your shoe, or a watch, or the desk you’re sitting at, or a chair and try to deconstruct that into its parts. What all did it take for that thing to exist the way it exists.

If I am looking at my looking at my phone here on my desk it’s got plastic on it, it’s got glass, we know inside it’s got all kinds of other components, it’s got metal. You start to think of these things and think, “What did it take for that glass to exist?” Glass comes from is it like a sand or stone that’s superheated? Okay, now I’ve got … You start to scale this back into all of these elements that exist so that my phone isn’t just my phone, my phone is also part of a rock, and part of a mountain, and part of a metal that came from the depths of the earth and all these elements that allow my phone to exist the way that it does. That’s not even to say all the technology behind it, the towers that allow me to communicate, the websites that my phone connects to when I’m just turning it on and checking the weather, or checking Facebook. The different servers, and the electricity. I mean, really quickly it becomes incredibly complex and layered to where it takes everything for this to be exactly what it is right now.

That can be a really profound experience that you awaken to. This realization of the interdependence of things. I’ve done this exercise with something as simple as a table, a little coffee table made of wood. We’re talking about the glue and the nails and the wood itself and what it took to cut the wood and the chainsaw and the truck that moved the wood and the tires on that truck. You never end that game. Suddenly, what was once just this simple little wooden table in the room now comes alive because you realize it’s taken everything for that to exist the way that it does, right here in this one room, this one little wooden table.

Like I said, this is really powerful but if you want to take it to a whole new level you turn that towards yourself and you start to see yourself in that same light. The lens of impermanence and the lens of interdependence and that’s when you start to awaken to this sense of non-duality. Thích Nhất Hạnh says enlightenment is when the wave realizes that it’s the ocean. It’s that simple. Sure the wave exists, there’s such a thing as wave and waves are different. Some are tall, some are shorter, some are fast, some are slow. You’ve got all these different kinds of waves but the moment that wave realizes it’s the ocean, that’s what it is.

That’s what we’re trying to do. You’re not who you think you are. Seeing you, as a separate self, as a permanent self, that is the illusion. In this sense, enlightenment becomes this concept that is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s that dualistic view that there’s a you and a me that’s preventing me from the realization of enlightenment in the first place. You are everything. You’re it. You’re all of it. That flower that we talked about, that flower’s not what you think it is. That flower is one with everything, but by that same token, you are not who you think you are. You’re not who what others think you are, or who others think you are. You’re the totality of all of it. You’re the sum total of everything, everything just to be you.

To me, that’s a fascinating thing. You can grasp that intellectually, you can grasp that theoretically, but at some point, when you’re really sitting there you connect the dots and you have this tremendous aha moment when you realize your oneness with everything. It’s a really powerful thing.

This is the irony of all of this is that while the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, it’s only when we drop the idea of attaining it that it can naturally occur. It’s like you’re out in this field frantically chasing this butterfly and it just eludes you and it eludes you and you keep grasping at it to try to catch it and it’s when you’re so exhausted that you finally just quit trying to catch it that you collapse in the field it comes and land softly on your nose. This is what it’s like to seek enlightenment. I talked about that zen story of the monk who goes to his teacher and he says, “I want to attain enlightenment,” and the teacher says, “Oh you do?” “Yeah, yeah I do. What do I have to do?” He’s like, “Okay, I want you to hike to the top of that hill every day and you bring a rock and the day you bring me the right rock that’s the day you become enlightened.” This monk is really excited because that’s what he wants more than anything, anything. He wants to be enlightened, he wants to be awakened.

He starts bringing rocks. Every day he brings a rock and he climbs up the hill and this process goes on for days and weeks and years and at some point, the way the story goes, this monk is just getting fed up and he picks a really big heavy rock this day and he makes his way to the top of the hill and there’s his teacher and like every other day for years he just says, “Nope. That’s not the right rock.” At this point I can imagine the frustration this monk, who’s trying his hardest, gives up and he says, “This is ridiculous, this is stupid, there’s no such thing as the right rock.” And he just throws the rock off the hill. He gives up and that’s when the teacher turns to him and says, “And there you have it. You’ve attained enlightenment.”

I love hearing that story. I know it can sound like, “Oh no.” But there’s beauty in that, in that letting go. The problem with Enlightenment is that we want it. Why do we want it? Why are we seeking after it? That’s the moment that it can arise naturally is when I look at that and say, “Why do I feel that I even need it in the first place.” When I realize I don’t need it, that’s when I get it, that’s what I’m enlightened. That’s the beautiful irony of all of this. This is the paradox of Buddhism.

We can look at enlightenment as the opposite of ignorance. Our tendency, like I said earlier, is to look outside ourselves. We see what others are saying or what others are doing. What we’re trying to do is learn to look inward, look at ourselves. That’s when we can see, clearly, what we are, interdependent and impermanent, that we begin to understand ourselves and others very clearly. Enlightenment is not a concept, it can’t be conceptualized. It’s not something other than our daily lives. It’s the experience that we have of everything and we end up finding ourselves in it rather than it being something out there somewhere that we need to find. That’s when we awaken or enlighten.

Seeking enlightenment is seeking a life of awareness. Rather than thinking, “There’s this thing, enlightenment, and I want to find it, I want to attain it.” What we should think is, “I want to live a life that’s fully aware. I want to live a life where I see things that I didn’t see, where I experience what I didn’t know I have an experience, where I learn about the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” That’s the attitude and that takes a sense of curiosity, and it also takes a sense of doubt, right, of skepticism. I can’t think, “Oh I figured it out.” Because the moment I think I figured it out it’s like seeing Chris, right? Oh there’s Chris, Chris the guy, now I can’t see Chris, the real Chris, who was the girl. That’s where this healthy dose of curiosity or a healthy dose of skepticism really comes into play because I start to think, “Maybe it isn’t something that’s there to have in the first place.” There you go. There you’re on the right track.

It’s like these teachings, right? There are so many teachings in Buddhism around this concept. There’s the one of the monk sitting, meditating, on the river and there’s a traveler on the other side and he cannot figure out how to get to the other side so he finally yells out and he says, “Hey. How do I get to the other side?” And the monk just looks around and then replies, “You are on the other side.” That’s the essence of what Buddhism is teaching is these are concepts. You hold a concept, the concept of the other side. Well, guess what you are on the other side according to the other perspective, right.

This is another teaching of a zen koan that says, “Showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall.” This is another powerful teaching. It’s that when a leaf falls, you can picture this in your head, it kind of just floats, right? It floats like it’s showing one side and then it kind of floats showing the other side as it slowly makes its way down to the ground. It doesn’t just fall showing one side. The natural way of being is that it kind of flips and flops and shows there’s nothing to hide. That’s the teaching here.
We’re not like that. Naturally, we are the opposite of maple leaves falling. We’re saying, “Here’s the front, I’m going to show you this, and then there’s what’s in the back, I don’t want anyone to see that. That’s the me that only I know about, nobody else knows about.” This is saying … That’s dualistic, again. This goes back to it’s just me. What you see is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. I want to be like the maple leaf, right? Showing front, showing back.

Or this kind of goes to the Japanese teaching that the reverse side also has a reverse side. I love that because it’s true. It’s like you are on the other side, same concept, right? You look at something and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Then you look at the reverse side and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Well, the reverse side also has a reverse side. You’re left with this idea of oneness. This idea of the way that we see things, our tendency is to conceptualize things. Concepts get us into trouble because concepts are always relative.

For example, we all know the famous question of looking at a cup, half water in there, and then the question is is this cup half full or is it half empty? There are entire presentations done around this. About the negativity of saying that it’s half empty versus half full, yeah. You get it.

Well, the Buddhist perspective on this question is the cup is always empty and it’s always full. It doesn’t matter what’s in there. If it’s half water well guess what, it’s still full, it’s half water half air. If it’s all empty, there’s no water, that’s still relative. The cup is empty relative to water, but the cup is full relative to air. This is why these concepts are always relative.
I like to say when someone says here you cup half empty or a cup half full type of person, to me the cup is always empty and it’s always full. That’s a non-dualistic way of viewing it. You can start to look in what other ways in your life do you see things through the relative conceptualizations. Empty of what? Full of what? You can’t answer that question just the way that it’s framed that way. We need to be careful of the danger of conceptualizations. We do this with concepts like perfection. What is perfection? Happiness. What is happiness? Like my friend’s post, love. What is love? There’s being in love and then there’s loving the idea of being in love, but those aren’t the same thing. We do this with everything, right?

This is where we want to obtain that freedom from the tyranny of our own concepts, of our ideas. The moment I attach to a conceptualization that I have created in my own mind, I’m a slave to it. I’m a slave to my concepts and my ideas. One of the big ones, a really really big one, is this idea of enlightenment. I seek after it as if it’s this thing out there that I can seek in the first place, but I can even define it much less attain it. How do I even define it? What is it? In the same way that something so common, like love, how do you actually define that? It can be very difficult.

That’s what we start to wake up to is the nature of reality that all things are impermanent, all things are interdependent, and what does that imply about me? What does this imply about you? This sense of self that you experience yourself as a permanent independent thing from everything else in the universe. What happens when you look and realize that, when it comes down to it, there is no independent you, there’s the interdependent you that exists as the sum total of all of the things that allow you to exist. The parts and the processes.

I remember my experience, I’ll call it my experience of this awakening, this awareness, was several years into my Buddhist studies. I was attending a presentation on the concept of emptiness and I had my notebook and I was taking notes and I was like, “I’m going to figure this out. This concept of emptiness. Things are inherently empty of meaning. I’m the one that assigns meaning.” Well what does that mean? And I’m taking notes and I felt like that person who is looking for his glasses. I’m like, “I know I left them here somewhere. They’re here.” Somewhere in the middle of that presentation it clicked for me. It clicked and I realized that I was trying to get it and there was nothing to get. It’s this incredible feeling and I remember I started to laugh. I remember putting down my notebook and putting down the pen and sitting back in the chair and it was just this incredible feeling of liberation like there’s nothing to figure out, there’s nothing to get. At that point, like, oh, I just get to live that’s it? I just get to experience this incredible phenomenon of being alive? That’s it? That was the point?

It was so liberating to arrive at that and that’s the irony of awakening. It’s like the moment you let it go is the moment that it arises naturally. It’s like now you’re awakened to the reality of things, which is that all things are impermanent, always changing, and all things are interdependent. I cannot say that enough, that’s what it is, over and over and over.

The Buddhist word of bodhi, which is you know what is commonly referred to as enlightenment or awareness, like I mentioned before, bodhi is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, which is someone who is awakened. It’s the understanding of an awakened person regarding the true nature of things. That they are impermanent and interdependent. When you really grasp the implication of what that means, specifically pointed towards you, the sense of self that you have, boom. Just like that a light bulb goes off and then you become aware or awakened. That’s it. I mean it’s not, like I mentioned, it’s not something out of the realm of the everyday or the ordinary.

In fact, there’s even a teaching, another zen teaching, where someone’s asking a monk, like, “How will I know when I come across someone who’s enlightened?” And the monk just says, “Oh, you’ll know because when they eat they eat, when they walk they walk, and when they sleep they sleep.” The person says “Well, anybody does that. Heck, I even do that.” He says, “No. But when they walk they just walk, when they eat they just eat, when they sleep they just sleep.” That’s the teaching he gives.

The idea behind that is this understanding that it’s that simple. They’re not walking and thinking, “I’m walking here but I really wish I was there,” or, “Here I am in my ordinary day to day life and I wish I was awakened.” They’re not playing that game of duality. They are perfectly content with where they are, doing what they’re doing, being who they are because at that point there’s nothing to chase after, right? There’s nothing there’s nothing to get so they drop the game of trying to get anything in the first place. There’s nothing to get. That’s the idea of enlightenment.

I hope that this presentation on enlightenment makes sense. I know it’s a difficult concept and there are books and books and books about this and talks and videos. I mean, you could research this all day long, but at the end of the day, if you really want to experience it, think of the analogy of the person carrying the rocks up the hill. It’s like, “Okay pick the right rock. Eventually you’ll get the right rock and then you’ll be awakened.” You’re gonna try and you’re going to try and you’re going to try and the moment you finally give up and realize, “You know what, this is stupid I’m never going to get this awareness enlightenment stuff,” so you give up, that’s the moment that it arises naturally. That’s the moment you become awake. It’s like with my notebook, the moment I realized, “Oh crap, there’s nothing to get.” It’s like ha ha ha, drop the notebook, this is silly. Here I was thinking I was going to figure it out there’s nothing to figure out and that’s when I figured it out. That’s what you figure out.

It’s a really neat feeling. It’s that sense of liberation that we always talk about in Buddhism. You become free from the trap of trying to be aware, trying to be enlightened. You become free from that. Happiness is the same, right? There’s a whole book and a whole psychological field called acceptance and commitment therapy that talks about this idea of happiness as the trap, the happiness trap. There was a book called that, The Happiness Trap. The idea is that happiness is something that you seek after and as long as you seek after it, you’re trapped by it. You’ll never actually get it because it’s like you’re in a hamster wheel chasing something that you cannot get. The moment you get out of the hamster wheel, you become free from the happiness trap and that’s when you experience happiness. It’s like the difference of the pursuit of happiness versus freedom from the pursuit of happiness. It’s like, why do you have to chase it? You get to experience it when you have it, because the causes and conditions are there, and when it’s not you don’t and it’s not a problem anymore. The problem was thinking that you should only have happiness and never have sadness, that’s the problem.

Awareness is similar, it’s very similar. I hope that with time, as you continue to study and read and become acquainted with these concepts, I really hope that everyone listening to this will experience that one day. That you’ll drop the game, that you’ll quit looking for it as if it’s this thing that’s out there, enlightenment. Drop the concept of enlightenment and then hope to experience the feeling of what it is to be enlightened in the same way that one day you experience what it is to fall in love. That’s the only time you’ll know what it is is when you experience it. Anything prior to that experiential understanding is just a concept and the concept can make things muddy.

I think this happens with love all the time, right? We’ve got these ideas of, “Here’s what love is.” Then it causes problems with relationships, because you’re living in this world of a conceptualization. Drop the concept. Drop the concept and see what happens. What is love if you don’t have a concept of what love is? What is enlightenment when you no longer have a concept of an enlightenment is? Try that with a lot of different things and what you’ll gain is this sense of freedom to experience something just the way that it is.

There’s a wonderful little poem that kind of sums this all up. It’s found in the book The Magic of Awareness by Anam Thubten and the poem says, “Wonder. Who has the magic to make the sun appear every morning? Who makes the bird on the elegant tree chirp? Breath, pulse, music, dew, sunset, the burning ambers of the fall. There is unfathomable joy in all that. Life is a stream. It flows on its own. No one knows why we are here. Stop trying to figure out the great mystery. The tea in front of you is getting cold. Drink it. Enjoy every drop of it and dance. Dance until there is no more dancer. It is the dance without dancer, this is how great mystics dance.”

That’s what I have that I want to share with you for this topic of what is enlightenment. I’m gonna be going through all the rest of the podcast topics that have been suggested and I’m going to continue doing this every week. Thanks to your support, for sharing, for listening. It really makes a difference with all of this. Your donations, of course, make a big difference.
If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, that really helps. It’s been, consistently, the number two podcast on iTunes, worldwide now, for Buddhism, which is a really exciting thing for me.
If you’re listening to this and you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, start with the first five episodes of the podcast in order, one through five. Those are a summary of some of these key concepts taught in Buddhism.
Of course, you can always check out my book Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links you can visit secularbuddhism.com.
That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.