Podcast

58 – The Art of Stopping & Seeing

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

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 58. I am your host, Noah Rashata, and today, I’m talking about The Art of Stopping and Seeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

57 – Why Do We Experience All-Pervasive Suffering?

Why is it common to have that nagging feeling that things aren’t how they’re supposed to be? Do you ever feel like life is not how it’s supposed to be, others are not how they’re supposed to be or that you yourself are not how you’re supposed to be? In this episode, I will talk about the 3 types of suffering and specifically the 3rd type: all-pervasive suffering. I will talk about where it comes from and how we can begin to understand it better and work with it.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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

Noah Rasheta:                      Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 57. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about all-pervasive suffering, what is it, and more importantly, how do we identify it when we’re experiencing it. There’s a good reason why we talk about suffering so often in Buddhism. Suffering is the central problem that Buddhism addresses. It’s recognizing our suffering as the first step to its solution. We talked about how suffering is a universal truth along with impermanence, along with interdependence. It’s one of the three basic qualities of existence, also known as the three marks of existence, but suffering itself comes in many forms.

We talk about it often in the context of three overall categories, three different categories, and these are the three basic patterns of suffering that we experience in our lives. The first one is the suffering of suffering. I talked about this early on in the podcast. I want to say within the first five episodes. Maybe it was number two, probably number two, but the suffering of suffering, the first type of suffering, this is what we’re all familiar with. This is the pain of birth, old age, sickness, and death, right? This very easy to understand, the suffering of suffering. The second is the suffering of change or the suffering of loss, and this is how we feel when we don’t get what we want or we do get what we want, but we can’t hold on to it, like youth. The aging can fit into this. If things aren’t going the way that we want them to, or losing a job. You know, change itself I think fits nicely into this second category, the suffering of change, but the third category …

Well, those first two for me, my understanding of them is that they’re pretty natural. We’re going to experience the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. It’s third category of suffering that I’m most interested in exploring in myself and in others. It’s called all-pervasive suffering, and this is the type of suffering that generally we’re not likely to recognize. You could say it’s the most destructive when we do experience it because it’s there, underlying a lot of what we say and do, so this type of suffering, like I said, it’s the hardest to identify, but it’s based on conditioning, the conditioned mind.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been receiving emails from podcast listeners. I happen to receive emails from friends, from family, and reading through Facebook posts recently that have kind of triggered this thought of this sense of suffering that some people are experiencing in life because of certain circumstances or situations. What I want to highlight is that this type of suffering generally has nothing to do with the circumstances. It has to do with the concepts or the beliefs behind the circumstances, so an example of this, if you were looking at all-pervasive suffering as an example applied to a view that you might have of yourself, so for example, I may experience this form of discontent or suffering because of the way that I look, you know? Maybe it’s my weight or maybe it’s my nose, the shape of my nose, or something along those lines, so I think I start to experience discomfort with reality as it is.

This is how my nose looks and I don’t like it, so the discomfort that I’m feeling, that I think is associated to the circumstance being the way my nose is, if you look at it deeper, what you’ll discover is it’s associated to the idea or the concept, the conditioning in the mind that makes you think, “This isn’t the right nose to have. My nose should look like that. Mine looks like this,” so I’m not suffering because of the nose. I’m suffering because of the belief that I have about how the nose should be. I hope that makes sense. This manifests in three major areas in life. One is life in general. Here’s how life is. Here’s how I think life should be. In the moment that I have the concept, the belief, the idea in my head of how it should be, I encounter this form of all-pervasive suffering. It’s just kind of this lingering feeling that’s always there that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, things aren’t the way they should be.

The three main areas where I think this manifests, one is life in general, two is with other people, right? There’s you how you are and you how I think you should be, and this is very evident for couples. Anybody who’s in a marriage or in a relationship, or it could be relationships with family members, siblings, children, parents, right? We start to do this. We conceptualize the idea of who this person should be, so we’re constantly assessing and comparing who they are to who we think they should be, so the suffering, the all-pervasive suffering that arises out of this is that nagging feeling that they’re not who they should be. “You should be more nice. You should believe this. You shouldn’t believe that. You shouldn’t do this. You should do that.” Right? That’s a form of all-pervasive suffering. The suffering doesn’t have to do with the circumstance itself. It has to do with the belief behind the circumstance.

Then the third area is relating to ourselves. This is the example I gave at first, right? There’s who I am and who I think I should be, and the moment I do that, I can experience this sense of all-pervasive suffering. This is what I’ve noticed a lot lately with people who have been reaching out to me. One example of this was someone who was experiencing a lot of feelings of anxiety and depression, and the entire explanation of this situation was focused on how, “I shouldn’t be feeling this.” Right? This person was qualifying the experience of reality saying, “This is how things are. This is how I feel, but I don’t feel that I should feel this because who am I to be experiencing anxiety or depression when my situation in life is actually very good?” That’s one of the things that was specifically brought up like, “Well, somebody who has it way worse than me, they might be more entitled to feeling depressed than I am. I shouldn’t feel that.”

So that immediately adds this additional layer of complexity because there’s how you’re feeling and then there’s how you’re feeling about how you’re feeling, in this case, both of which are unpleasant emotions, right? Feeling depressed is already a difficult thing, but to feel depressed and then feel, on top of that, that I shouldn’t feel depressed, so now I’m feeling bad that I’m feeling bad, and that’s what all-pervasive suffering is. It’s this lingering feeling that’s there because there’s a picture in our heads of how things should and reality isn’t matching that, so to work with all-pervasive suffering what we do is we spend time looking at how am I seeing things? What is the belief behind the feeling or the thought or the emotion I’m experiencing?

One way I like to do this is I ask myself, “Is there a should in here?” Whatever I’m experiencing, especially if I’m experiencing instances of suffering, I ask myself, “What is the should?” You know? “Oh, I’m suffering because this is happening at work and this isn’t how it should be. Oh. Okay. Well, there it is.” I think that there’s a way that it should be. Reality isn’t matching that and boom, I’m experiencing suffering. That’s the all-pervasive suffering, right? So that’s why we say it’s always based on the conditioned mind because there is some form of conditioning, a belief or a concept or an idea that we hold, that if you dig deep enough, that is the root source of the suffering that you’re experience at least when it comes to all-pervasive suffering. You can start to look at this in your own life. I’ve done this on many instances, instances of suffering in my relationships, thinking, “Oh, this is how my relationship should be working.” Right? “This is how the dynamic should be.”

Well, the moment I do that, any time that it doesn’t match that, I catch myself with this lingering feeling that something is not right, and it’s not that it’s not right. It’s that I have this idea, I have this lingering belief that I know how it should be, and because it’s not matching that, I’m experiencing the discomfort. Now I want to caution you of something here. One of the first things that we’ll do is we realize, “Okay, we have the tendency to have shoulds.” Right? How life should be, how you should be, how I should be. Those are the shoulds, so as soon as we learn about this concept, we think, “Oh, I shouldn’t have shoulds.” Right? Now we’re caught back in the very same problem that we’re talking about, so rather than trying to combat this tendency to have shoulds by saying, “I shouldn’t have shoulds,” don’t do that. That’s just going to complicate things.

What we want to do is just look at the scenario and recognize, “Oh, that’s why I’m suffering. Okay, I’m not going to do anything about that. I’m just trying to understand it.” We’re just trying to have a more clear picture of what it is that’s taking place in our minds when we’re experiencing discomfort or suffering. What helps me, rather than thinking, “Uh-oh, I just realized this suffering is based on a should, right? This is how my relationship dynamic should be,” I’ll pause there and just say, “Well, what if I replaced should with could? Here’s how my relationship could be. Oh. Well, that’s a whole different scenario because now it’s more along the lines of possibility. Here’s how it is. Here’s how it could be.” “Should” implies right and wrong, and the idea of right and wrong runs up against problems from this Buddhist perspective. This is why we talk about the story of Who Knows What is Good and What is Bad with the horse.

There are several concepts in Buddhism that make it so that it’s very difficult for us to have the mindset of right and wrong as an inherent thing. How things are, how things should be. One is right, one is wrong. See, if I replace that with how things could be, now it’s on the spectrum of possibility. I’m dealing with reality. This is how it is, and I absolutely accept that this is how it is, but I’m also holding on to the thought that this is how it could, and how it could be may be more beneficial for me, more beneficial for others. It could minimize the suffering that I’m experiencing or the suffering that others are experiencing, and that may be the catalyst for the things that I say and do to try to drive towards what could be, but see, that’s a different mindset than being in reality and fighting reality because it’s not how it should be. See, there’s no way that it should be. There are no shoulds, right?

There’s just how it is. There’s only ever how it is. There’s how it was and there’s how it is, and then there’s how it will be, but never how it should be. There are no shoulds here. I like to replace should with could, and at least for me, in my mind, it changes things. It minimizes that sense of rightness and wrongness, and then reality doesn’t feel like it’s wrong, how it is right now, because it’s just how it is right now, so that for me minimizes a lot of this all-pervasive suffering, this lingering emotion that feels like something is not right because then I’m left with, everything is right as it is because it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about how things and how things could be, and how things are is how things are. That’s reality and that’s what I have to work with, so that concept is really helpful for me. I see this in all of these examples that I receive from emails or people who reach out and they’re encountering something.

Generally there’s a should in there. There’s an idea and they’re bumping up against the comparison of their reality with the story, the narrative of how reality should be. The dichotomy of those two, reality as it is and reality as I think it should be, is what causes this additional form of suffering that’s really self-inflicted, all-pervasive suffering. That’s the type of suffering that we’re really concerned with in Buddhist practice because that’s something you can work with because it stems from your ideas, your concepts. That’s what you can look at. “What ideas do I hold, what beliefs do I hold that cause this form of suffering?” So the invitation is to be able to look deeply at your own ideas. Where do my ideas come from? Do my ideas cause me to experience discomfort or suffering?

Now, there’s one area that I wanted to share with you from a book, Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance. She talks about this concept that I think is worth sharing especially for most of us, western-minded people, because she mentions in her book our culture’s guiding myth is the story of Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, and we may forget its power because it seems so worn and familiar, but this story shapes and reflects the deep psyche of the West. It’s the message of original sin. It’s unequivocal. It says, “Because of our basically flawed nature, we do not deserve to be happy, loved by others, or at ease with life. We are outcasts, and if we are to reenter the Garden, we must redeem our sinful selves. We must overcome our flaws by controlling our bodies, controlling our emotions, controlling our natural surroundings, controlling other people, and we must strive tirelessly, working, acquiring, consuming, achieving, emailing, over-committing, and rushing in a never ending quest to prove ourselves once and for all.”

That’s an excerpt from Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, but I think it hits on something, on a key concept here that seems really powerful. I’ve experienced this in my own life and I continue to experience it in the lives of many of my close family and friends, this idea that we can’t be at ease, we can’t accept things as they are because we’re constantly trying to prove ourselves to this standard, some standard of worthiness, and until I can reach that, I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to be loved. I don’t deserve for life to be easy, and I see this all the time. I see this with examples, kind of like I mentioned before, this idea that my life is not hard enough. Therefore, I should not be feeling bad about it, so the moment I’m feeling bad about it, I’m caught in this crazy way of thinking that says, “I feel bad for something I shouldn’t feel bad for. Therefore, that makes me something wrong with me. I’m weak. I’m a failure. I’m something, but the problem is back on me because I’m not supposed to be feeling this.”

If you look at that closely, what you would really find if you got introspective with it is that there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad. There’s nothing wrong with feeling depressed. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anxiety. These are just feelings. They’re emotions. It becomes complicated when we think we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling, and we do this with thoughts too, right? I shouldn’t be thinking this. This happens with meditation all the time. People who are learning to meditate, the first thing they’ll run up against is this idea that, “I’m not doing it right because I’m sitting here, and I’m thinking of this and I should be thinking of that.” It’s missing the point entirely because meditation is about learning to see what’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about this or that. It doesn’t matter what this or that is. You’re just learning to see it and to embrace it, experience it, get familiar with it, and we want to do the same with our emotions.

You know, when we’re experiencing a negative emotion like anxiety or depression, we want to fight it. We want to get rid of it because of the conditioned mind that says, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be feeling this.” Well, who said we’re not supposed to be feeling it? Where did that idea come from? You know, what if we understood that there is no supposed to in there, there’s no way that you’re supposed to feel? There’s only ever just how you feel, and if that’s how you’re feeling, sit with it. Look at it. Become intimately familiar with the emotions that you’re experiencing, with the thoughts that you’re having, and stop trying to fight them.

This was a really powerful shift for me to be able to allow myself to feel what I was feeling, and I’ve mentioned in the past, in my story, that I had an instance of tremendous anger, a phase of tremendous anger in my life. A significant part of the anger was aggravated by the belief that I wasn’t supposed to be angry, so there I was angry, and I was angry that I was angry because I had been conditioned to believe that, “You’re a nice person. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek. You’re supposed to not feel these things.” So I would feel them and I would push them aside. I would push anger aside, and I dealt with this for a couple of years. It wasn’t until, through mindfulness practice and studying psychology, that it finally clicked that, “Who said I wasn’t supposed to feel anger?” I allowed myself to be angry, and I was very, very angry and it was okay because it’s just what I was. It’s what I was experiencing.

When I allowed myself to be with the emotion and to just sit with it, I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but it felt like what had been taking me years to try to overcome. By allowing myself to just feel it, within days or weeks it was gone because I allowed it to finally sit with me long enough to run its course. I don’t say that in a way to think, “Oh, then you’re supposed to let it sit there, so then it’s supposed to go away.” There are no supposed-tos here, right? You sit with it. The nature of reality is that it’s changing. Things change. Things change over time, so if we look at it that way, I’m probably not going to feel the way that I feel right now forever.

This is how I feel now, and if anger is what I feel now, well, then sit with it. In my case, it went away, and sure, it’s resurfaced at other times, at other instances for other circumstances, but that specific one ran its course and I have not felt the way that I felt back then again ever since I allowed it to really run its course. That’s what we’re trying to focus on with all-pervasive suffering, is looking at not the circumstances, but what are the beliefs or the concepts behind the circumstances that are making this more complicated than it needs to be? It’s like saying, “Whatever the feeling is, what is the feeling about the feeling? Where does that come from?” You may find it comes from an idea, a belief, an opinion, and that gives you something to work with. That’s something that you can look at. Instead of pushing away the feeling or the emotion, explore the mental process that’s happening behind the emotion. What is the feeling behind the feeling? What is the thought behind the thought? Right?

The thought itself isn’t the problem. The feeling itself isn’t the problem, whether that be a positive or a negative emotion or thought or experience. It’s just what is, so that’s what all-pervasive suffering is. It’s the type of suffering that we’re most likely not going to recognize it because we’re caught up in the experience of the feeling and we don’t even realize that there’s something deeper there. The general background of anxiety, insecurity that can often taint even our happiest moments, deep down that comes from somewhere mental, somewhere where there’s an idea or a thought or an opinion or a belief that colors how we feel about how we feel. That’s what we want to look at.

From the Buddhist point of view, from the Buddhist perspective, these ideas or these concepts are fine. The problem isn’t having them, again, or changing them. The purpose of this is to just explore them because exploring and knowing and understanding and gaining knowledge about ourselves, that’s what offers us glimpses of wisdom. That’s where insight comes from, so again, this isn’t about changing. Sitting here and thinking, “I need to change how things are,” that’s part of the problem. It’s sitting here and thinking, “I need to understand why I feel the way that I feel. I need to look at it deeply. I don’t need to change how I feel. It’s just how I feel, so I want to look at it.” It’s when I look at it that insight arises and I think, “Oh, that’s why I feel why I feel. Okay. Well, that makes more sense.” We process it in that perspective, but not by pushing these things aside, so that’s why I wanted to share.

That’s what I wanted to share about all-pervasive suffering because I see it everywhere and I’m sure you do too. We all friends and family and loved ones who are dealing with all-pervasive suffering all the time, and I’m sure you are too and I am too. You know, I’m trying to understand, at any given moment, if I experience an instance of suffering, the first thing I want to do is analyze it and say, “Is this self-inflicted or is this natural?” Because if it’s natural, I don’t even need to worry about it, but if it’s self-inflicted, I can actually do something about that. I can discover the source of it, the thought, the underlying thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that are making this more uncomfortable than it needs to be and then I have something to work with. That’s what we’re trying to do with all-pervasive suffering, trying to understand at a deeper level what’s going on it, not trying to change it.

It’ll change, trust me. It will change because the nature of reality is that it’s impermanent. Things are always changing, but by having that insight … We can’t gain the insight without increasing our awareness of what it is that’s going on, so rather than fighting the emotion or fighting off the discomfort of suffering, what if we could sit with it, analyze it, study it, embrace it, become intimately familiar with it? Then it’s not such a problem, right? We become more comfortable with the discomfort and we understand it, and then it doesn’t have such a grip on us. It arises, it lingers, and then it moves on in the same way that clouds in the sky do. I hope that is relevant, it makes some sense. Sometimes I wonder. I try to explain things in a way where it doesn’t just seem very esoteric in its explanation.

So I try to explain these concepts and ideas in the way that they’ve clicked and made sense to me, so I hope that this message about all-pervasive suffering resonates with at least some of you, and hopefully gives you the ability to sit with the instances of all-pervasive suffering that you may be experiencing in your life and gives you insight into what’s going on at a deeper level, what the ideas, thoughts, concepts, and beliefs are that may be underlying the suffering that you’re experiencing. I think that’s all I’ve got around this topic.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others. You can write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. You can join our online community. You can visit secularbuddhism.com/community for more information about that. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for your time. Until next time.

56 – What Makes You You?

According to classical Buddhist thought, “self” is a view…It is a product of our perception…and perception is always happening. What if perception is an event that occurs rather than a thing that exists? In this episode, I will talk about the 5 Skandhas / Aggregates and how this teaching can help us to loosen our grip on the sense of self we all experience.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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

Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode #56. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about: What Makes You You? (The 5 Skandhas/Aggregates) (Intro Music break 2-3 seconds).
Andrew Olendzki, author of “Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are” says that “According to classical Buddhist thought, self is a view.” It is a product of our perception…
Perception is always happening. The ongoing stream of perceptions help us to interpret our experience of reality. This is a process that’s happening from moment to moment. Olendzki says that “perception is an event that occurs rather than a thing that exists”. We can imagine this like the still frames of a film. Each frame is unique as it’s captured, but as it’s played in our mind like a continuous film, we see this process as a cohesive narrative or story. So if we were able to pause this ongoing film that I like to call “the perception of life”, and see the individual frames, frame by frame, what would I see? And remember from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not about what we see, it’s about how do we see? This is where the teachings of the 5 aggregates comes in.
The historical Buddha taught about Five Skandhas, also called the Five Aggregates, as  5 components that come together to make an individual.
Everything that we perceive as “I” is a function of these 5 components. So try to imagine the perception you have of your “self” as a process of these 5 components.
In Buddhism
We often talk about how life is “impermanent” and “interdependent.” (the two I’s of Wisdom). Well another way of understanding interdependence is to understand that all things are “conditioned”. To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. So in this sense, we are conditioned or dependent on other things. This allows us to pause and ask “What makes me me?” The Buddha taught that there is no independent or permanent “self”. So enderstanding the teaching of the 5 skandhas can be really helpful to seeing through the illusion of self. The sense of self that we all experience.

UNDERSTANDING THE SKANDHAS

Keep in mind that my explanation here is intended to be quite basic. The various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas differently. As you learn more about them, you may find that the teachings of one school don’t quite match the teachings of another. You may also find that the explanation given by one school may be easier to understand than the explanation of another school. This is why it’s important to keep an open mind and to seek wisdom from various sources and approaches. Before going into each of the 5 skandhas or aggregates, I want to talk about the Buddhist view of our sense organs. If our sense of self is in fact a view…we need to understand the sense organs that make up our perceptions. In other words, how to we perceive? From the Buddhist perspective we have 6 sense organs. You’ll recognize 5 of these as the classical senses: sight, sounds, touch, smell and taste. The Buddhist view adds a 6th sense: thoughts or ideas. So we have:
Six Sense Organs and their corresponding objects:
1. Eye
1. Visible Form
2. Ear
2. Sound
3. Nose
3. Odor
4. Tongue
4. Taste
5. Body
5. Tangible Things We Can Feel
6. Mind
6. Thoughts and Ideas

THE FIRST SKANDHA: FORM/materiality (RUPA)

Form or matter; something material that can be sensed. These are essentially the 5 senses we all think about when we talk about senses: seeings, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things.

THE SECOND SKANDHA: SENSATION/Feeling Tone (VEDANA)

This is the physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odor, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
Note here that the Buddhist perspective associates the mind as a sense organ, no different than eyes or ears. Some cultures and societies tend to think of the mind is something beyond sense organ, like a spirit or soul, but that concept is out of place in Buddhism. From the Buddhist perspective, the mind is just another sense organ.
The feeling tone aspect of the senses are associated to how we experience pleasure, pain, or neutrality (neither pleasure nor pain). The feeling tone we experience through our senses will condition craving (we want more of it), or aversion (we want to avoid having that experience again). Think about this with each of the 6 senses.

THE THIRD SKANDHA: PERCEPTION (SANNA)

This is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call “thinking” fits into this aggregate.
This is the aggregate of the knowledge that puts together the picture. It makes meaning. It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize dark hallways and eerie music with a feeling of being scared because we associate those things with things in the past (like a scary movie).
When we see something for the first time, we start scanning our memories and we try to find anything that might be associated with what we are perceiving. If we don’t have an index card in the library of our mind, then we may just associate the perception with it’s context…For example, I perceive this apparatus in front of me to be a car part, because I’m seeing this while standing at the mechanics auto shop and there is a car being fixed there.

THE FOURTH SKANDHA: MENTAL FORMATION/thought processes (SAMSKARA, OR IN PALI, SANKHARA)

This is where we find the biases and prejudices, the interests and attractions that arise in our thought processes and it affects our perceptions. In other words, this aggregate affects the other aggregates too. For example, stinky cheese. Why do some like it and others not? What mental formations or though processes are affecting the perception we have at that moment? So the mind always precedes the mental states we are experiencing.

THE FIFTH SKANDHA: CONSCIOUSNESS/awareness (VIJNANA, OR IN PALI, VINNANA)

This is essentially the reaction or the emotional response we have to the object at that moment. It applies to the six sense faculties.
For example, visual consciousness — seeing — has the eyes as its basis and what we see as its object. Audible consciousness has the ears as the basis and what we hear as the object. Mental consciousness has the mind as its basis and an idea or thought as its object. Once we are aware of this relationship between the sense organ and the object, we become aware that there is an emotional response taking place. We like it or don’t like it, we want it or don’t want it, there is a whole range of responses taking place regarding the experience we are having. Olendzki says “we never just notice an object, we engage with it emotionally”.
Our sense of self is created by the emotional responses we experience in each moment. The moment we see something, the sensation of the person who see’s emerges. Olendzski says “the self is created by our emotional responses as they unfold each moment: when we crave for an object of experience, then “the person who” wants it is constructed; when we generate aversion toward an object, then the person who hates it comes into existence.”

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

The Buddha wove his explanation of the skandhas into a lot of his teachings. The most important point he made about these teachings is that the skandhas are not “you.” They are temporary, interdependent, conditioned phenomena. He taught that clinging to these aggregates as “me” is illusion.
When we realize that these aggregates are just temporary phenomena, conditioned on other phenomena, but they are “not me”, then we are on the path to enlightenment.
Whatever is not yours, abandon it.
What is it that is not yours?
Material form, feeling, perception,
formations, consciousness.
These are not yours.
When you have abandoned them,
that will lead to your welfare
and happiness for a long time. – Majjhima Nikaya 22
So back to the question of What makes you you? All these things make you you, but none of them are you. It’s like recognizing this is how I am right now, but it’s not what I am. Like the analogy of my clothes.
Challenge for this week. Observe without attachment.
If you want to learn more about this topic… check out Andrew Olendzki’s book “Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are”

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to join our online community. Please visit secularbuddhism.com/community
If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com and click the “donate” button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon…
Until next time!
[Music]

55 – The Four Foundation of Mindfulness

Developing the four foundations of mindfulness helps us to remove the conceptual constructs that often blind us from seeing reality as it is. Imagine being able to see things as they really are, free from our ideas and concepts. This is the very liberation we refer to as “enlightenment”. In this episode, I will discuss the four foundations of mindfulness and how each foundation can help us to gain more clarity and understanding about the nature of reality.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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

Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode #53. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Intro Music break 2-3 seconds).
As you may know, Mindfulness is one of the most basic practices of Buddhism. It’s one of the spokes of the Eight Fold Path (I talked about the eightfold path in episode 41 “Life on the Buddhist Path”). Mindfulness is a hot topic right now. I believe it was Time magazine that not long ago had a cover that said mindfulness has gone mainstream. A lot of people are intersted in mindfulness although they may not be interested in other aspects of Buddhist practice. Mindfulness practice is overlapping with a lot of therapeutic practices in psychology. While many people associate Mindfulness with meditation, there’s more to it than just meditation. In fact, the Buddha taught that we should practice mindfulness at all times, not just while meditating. The reason mindfulness is such a skillful practice is because through mindfulness (through awareness) we can learn to perceive the nature of reality, the nature of things being interdependent and impermanent and that proper perspective of reality helps us to cut through delusions and unhealthy attachments or clinging.
Mindfulness as a practice, goes beyond just paying close attention to things…It’s a form of pure awareness of reality just as it is. Awareness without judgements or concepts. To see reality through this mindful lens, it takes practice. It takes resolve and effort and all the other spokes of the eightfold path.
The Four foundations I want to discuss in this episode are frames of reference, usually looked at one at a time in our mindfulness practice. So you start with mindfulness of the breath and end up with mindfulness of everything.  These four foundations are often taught in the context of meditation, but they can help with other practices too.
MINDFULNESS OF BODY
The first foundation is mindfulness of body. This foundation centers on the experience of the body. This is an awareness of the body as body—something experienced as breath and flesh and bone. It is not “my” body. Think about the aspects of the body that you don’t control. If it’s “my” body, then why can’t I will it to sleep or to wake up…why can’t I control my heart rate or the speed of my metabolism? Why can’t I control my body temperature? Alan Watts we are a do-happening…. So we don’t view the body as a form that we are inhabiting. We just view it as an experience we are having. The body is just the body in the same way that my hand is just my hand and yet there is a lot going on in the inner workings of my hand.
Most mindfulness exercises focus on the breath for the foundation of body. This is experiencing breath and observation of breathing as a thing that’s happening vs just a thing I control. It is not about thinking about the breath or coming up with ideas or concepts about breath. We just observe and we watch this process that is happening to us.
The idea is that as the ability to maintain awareness of our breathing gets stronger, we become more aware of the whole body as a thing that’s just happening. Think about it, right now, there are incredible processes happening with your body and are outside of our sphere of awareness. Hair is growing, cells are dying and being replaced by new cells. Blood is flowing, oxygen is being carried into your muscles and tissue while carbon dioxide is being removed. There are electrical signals firing off in your brain causing you to think certain things, chemicals are released that cause you to feel certain things…There is a lot of happening that gives off the impression of doing. There is no doing without the happening and no happening without the doing. It’s absolutely incredible when you sit and observe what is happening right now with your body.
In some schools of Buddhism, this form of awareness includes movement. Walking meditation, chanting or rituals are all opportunities to be mindful of the body as it moves or makes sounds. This practice helps us to be more mindful even when we aren’t meditating. I think many schools of martial arts emerged from this practice of bringing meditative focus to body movement. So many of our day to day activities can be used as body awareness practice.
MINDFULNESS OF FEELINGS
The second foundation is mindfulness of feelings, this includes both physical and mental experiences or sensations. In meditation, we learn to become observers of the feelings and sensations that arise. They come and go, they arise, linger and then go away or get replaced by other thoughts or feelings and we learn to just observe them without judgments and without identifying with them. This is why we often say “I’m feeling tired” as opposed to “I am tired”. These are not “my” feelings, they’re just feelings. When I feel an itch, I don’t say “my itch”, I think oh, my nose has an itch, there is no identifying with the itch, but with feelings, we usually make the mistake of identifying with the feeling. Remember: there are just feelings.
Learning to observe our feelings can sometimes be uncomfortable. The feelings that come up when we’re just observing, can surprise us. We seem to have the incredible ability to ignore our own feelings, especially negative ones like anxiety or anger and then when we sit there and start looking, it’s like they jump out at us and they say “surprise”, I’m here! I’ve been hiding here, didn’t you see me? Haha. Ignoring the feelings or sensations we don’t like is unhealthy. As we learn to observe and fully acknowledge our feelings, we also see how feelings dissipate because feelings, like all things, are impermanent. Feeling tones…pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Notice how our mental and physical sensory experiences all have a feeling tone. Through observation, you can become really skilled at identifying these tones in your ongoing experiences.
MINDFULNESS OF MIND
The third foundation is mindfulness of mind or consciousness. This foundation concerns watching one’s general mental state. In other words, the awareness of our feelings leads to an awareness of our mind. Without awareness or mindfulness…unseen pleasant feelings lead to craving, unseen unpleasant feelings lead to aversion or hatred and unseen neutral feelings lead to ignorance. The three poisons we often talk about in Buddhist practice. Understanding this correlation helps us to see how mindfulness can serve as a tool to break free from the habitual reactivity we have to our feelings. It’s skillful to know, am I experiencing a mental state of clinging or craving? A mental state of aversion of hatred? Is my mental state focused or scatter brained? This is what it means to be mindful of the mind. What overall mental state am I experiencing? Imagine being able to have more control over our words and actions simply because of the awareness of our mental state. I may be able to pause and refrain from saying something or doing something that I may later regret because I know that my current mental state is not appropriate for what I’m about to say or do… Theres real power in having a keen awareness of our mental states. So many people say or do things that they later regret once they are in another state of mid that is more skillful or healthy.
Another way of thinking of this foundation is “mindfulness of mental states.” Like sensations or feelings, our states of mind come and go. Sometimes we are sleepy; sometimes we are restless. We can learn to observe our mental states, without judgment or opinion. As we learn to see them come and go, we start to understand how insubstantial they are and then they no longer have such power of us.
MINDFULNESS OF PHYSICAL & MENTAL PROCESSES
The fourth foundation is mindfulness of physical and mental processes. This is also sometimes referred to as the mindfulness of all things. This stage integrates the precious three stages. This is where we begin to observe the totality of all the physical and mental processes that are taking place. It’s in this stage that we begin to observe the interplay of all things both physical and mental that are taking place. This is where we begin to notice and observe our “world”. My world, your world, we all live in our own world. Our worlds are influenced by ideas, beliefs, memories, and many more things. So in this foundation of mindfulness we open ourselves to the whole world, or at least the world that we experience. This is where we begin to see and experience “things as they are”. Things are what they are because of how we recognize them. So in this foundation we start to learn to see things in a deeper sense as inter -connected things. This is because that is. We start to see and understand the interdependent and impermanent nature of all things. We become mindful of the fact that there is no independent self, we are conditions by everything else/. The very world we perceive as our own, our ideas, our concepts, our beliefs, they are all conditioned by everything else, they all have causes and conditions and those causes and conditions also have causes and conditions and on and on and on.
Developing the four foundations of mindfulness removes the conceptual construct until we see things as they actually are. This is the very liberation we talk about as enlightenment. The ability to see things as they really are….namely interdependent and impermanent. There is nothing mystical or woo woo about any of this and yet with this clear and direct way of seeing, we become free, liberated from our conceptual conditioning. It’s an incredible way of being with reality. No longer caught up in the mental games that cause us so much unnecessary suffering.
Challenge for this week. Try to practice the four foundations of mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and physical/mental processes (or all things)
If you want to learn more abut these ideas, these teachings come from the Satipatthana Sutta. The translation I enjoy reading is “In the Buddha’s Words: An anthology of discourses from the pali canon” by Bhikkhu Bodhi

54 – Guided Meditation: Fostering Kindness & Compassion

This is a 10-minute guided meditation aimed at fostering kindness and compassion. Revisit this meditation anytime you feel the need to foster feelings of kindness and compassion.

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53 – Freedom From the Bonds of Anger & Hatred

In order to be free from the bonds of anger and hatred, we have to practice. We cannot simply pray or ask for anger or hatred to be removed from us. In this episode, I will discuss how we can use mindfulness practice as a tool to transform the craving, anger, and delusion within us and instead experience transformation and healing.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 53. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about freedom from the bonds of anger and hatred.

Like many of you I woke up this morning to the sad news of yet another mass shooting, another senseless act of violence that affected the lives of so many innocent people. Prior to this event, I had already been thinking a lot about anger and hatred, and how these are common emotions in our society, and how hatred can erupt so easily in our society today as well as in our own personal lives and our relationships, and how these emotions affect us so deeply. I think it’s important to clarify the difference between anger and hatred. According to Dr. Joseph Burgo, the voice behind the Psychology Today blog called Shame, he says we can distinguish between anger and hatred in two ways, intensity and duration. It helps to think of them as occurring along a spectrum.

Anger might be triggered when a loved one does something that frustrates us. It tends to come and go, and it doesn’t crowd out all of the other feelings for that person. We can often voice it in ways that aren’t hurtful. Hatred lasts longer and it’s more pervasive. It tends to overwhelm us and obscure everything else we might feel. It makes us want to take action to hurt or destroy whatever inspires the hatred. I think it’s interesting that he mentions that anger doesn’t necessarily crowd out all the other feelings. It’s something we can still work with, but hatred does. I think that’s the key difference. I’m sure you’ve heard of the expression blind rage. To me this is the danger of an emotion like hatred as opposed to anger. It binds us and it blinds us from the moment to moment feelings that we have from other emotions. Often other emotions that are also present like love or kindness, but these things get pushed into the background and become blinded by the one negative emotion that seems to take center stage.

I often think about people who commit heinous acts of violence like mass murderers, or serial killers, people like Hitler for example. In most cases, these are people who also feel kindness. They also feel love. They often have families, siblings, parents, or even children. Even Hitler had a romantic partner, and he had dogs. I have no doubt that he loved his dogs. He fed them, he pet them. How is it that someone who can feel love and kindness on one level for some people in their lives at the same time can be filled with such hatred and hateful actions towards others? It makes sense to me to think that their anger had turned to hatred and crowded out all the other feelings. It’s not to say those other feelings weren’t there. I think sometimes it’s easy for us to use that image as a scapegoat, that someone capable of committing such horrible acts must be inherently evil or psychotic.

No doubt that psychosis does play a part in this for some of these instances, but in a lot of these instances I think it’s just a matter of hatred becoming so binding and so blinding that all the other emotions that are there take a back seat. Anger is often associated to being a negative emotion. It’s a bad emotion that we’re not supposed to feel. I think this is especially prevalent as a way of thinking in our Western society. However, the truth is that anger, it’s just an emotion similar to happiness, similar to sadness. We’re hardwired to feel emotions, whether we want to or not. Certain experiences will automatically trigger these emotions. Often times when triggered, the rational or pragmatic part of our mind ends up just going along for the ride. It’s a lot like the story that I share often about the rider on the horse whose galloping at full speed in the field. When asked where are you going, replies quite honestly I don’t know, ask the horse.

If you’ve ever been in the doctor’s office and you’ve had that reflex test where the doctor strikes your patellar ligament right under your kneecap, you know that the reflex you can’t help it. If everything goes according to plan and you’re physiologically sound, what happens is you get tapped there and you kick. That’s it. The strike placed properly will trigger the reaction, whether you want it or not. I think our emotions are often similar reactions to specific causes and conditions that are present in our lives. They often refer to the visual example of life being like a game of Tetris. I think anger may be the emotion that’s triggered when a new shape shows up and I didn’t want that shape. It’s either inconvenient to my game strategy, or it’s just unpleasant, but the moment that I want it to be other than it is, it’s likely that I’m feeling anger.

Now hatred on the other hand usually comes up when we feel threatened. There’s a sense of threat or fear associated to this. The fear of what threatens us often fuels the hatred to eliminate that perceived threat. You can see how from an evolutionary standpoint this can be a useful survival strategy. However, in our normal day to day lives our modern threat assessments I think are quite inaccurate. We commonly associate a threat to our self-esteem, or a threat to our sense of self-worth as if it were on the same level as an existential threat. Then the feelings of anger can become so uncomfortable that we do everything that we can to try to avoid the feeling or to suppress it. In that case, these feelings becomes like knots. They’re like knots that form inside of us.

From a physical standpoint this happens with our muscles. You can get a knot in your muscle and then it’s stuck there until you go and you get a massage, or have it taken out. Knots are very uncomfortable. I think emotional knots are similar. If we don’t know how to undo these knots, they stay there for a long time. I’m sure we all know someone who has, or has had, anger or hatred inside of them for a long time. It’s not a pleasant thing to see or to experience. Ultimately these knots, they rob us of our freedom. It reaches the point where we are governed by the knots that we have inside of us. We’re no longer free to feel joy and contentment when we’re bound by emotions like anger and hatred. I think this is why there’s that very effective visual story common in Buddhism of someone holding onto a hot ember, or a hot coal, with the intent of throwing it at someone else. Meanwhile, the person holding it is the only one being burned, the only one truly experiencing discomfort.

From the Buddhist perspective, holding on to anger or to hatred, it’s not a moral issue. It’s not about being morally right or wrong. It’s simply an unwise action. Rather than evading the painful truth of how we feel, we’re encouraged to embrace the reality of our feelings and to try to not, to acknowledge feelings like anger and hatred to understand them, to understand the causes and conditions that allow these feelings to arise. Often times trying to understand the causes and conditions of the causes and conditions. Managing hatred can be extremely difficult because of its intensity in the moment, because it makes us want to attack or even destroy whatever we perceive as causing it.

In order to be free from the bonds of anger and hatred, we have to practice. This is why I wanted to discuss this topic today because it’s not an issue of saying a magic word, or we can’t simply pray it away, or ask for this anger or hatred to be removed from us. The Buddhist approach offers a very straightforward instruction on how we can transform the craving, anger, and the delusion within us. This is with the practice of mindfulness meditation. It helps us to undo these knots and to experience transformation and healing. Now something I like to do when these horrible events happen, like the shooting in Las Vegas, rather than just looking at this thinking that crazy person who could do that, I would never do that. I like to pause and think do I harbor in myself any anger or hatred towards any group or individual that could ever escalate to doing something like this.

I think it’s important for us to be able to recognize in moments like this that often times what you have here is a relatively ordinary person committing an extraordinary act. They’re not that different from us. These are people who are probably experiencing fear, anger, or hatred to the point where it causes them to commit something like this. I don’t think it helps for us to immediately ostracize them as an anomaly. That’s something an evil person would do, but I’m not evil. Well, I would venture to say that a few days ago that person was probably very similar to us thinking that they’re normal. I want to reaffirm with this presentation on anger and hatred that anger and hatred are just emotions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling them.

Like any other emotion, anger and hatred have causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are there, the emotion arises. When the causes and conditions are not there, the emotion is not there. It’s a lot like what we observe in nature. When the conditions are there, it rains. When the conditions aren’t right, it doesn’t rain, there’s no rain. For these emotions, they can go from being emotions like I said to becoming knots, deep rooted knots inside of us. I think a big part of what transitions from a feeling and emotion into a deep rooted knot is our desperate attempt to avoid or push these things away. There’s the expression that what we resist persists. I think that’s kind of what we’re talking about here.

I want to make note of the fact that we can get tangled up in the knots of positive emotions too. This isn’t just the negative emotions like anger and hatred. When we encounter something pleasant, it can become the object of our desire. Then the very risk of losing the object of our desire can become a source of great suffering for us. Pleasant or unpleasant, any kind of knot, any kind of knot that isn’t worked with and transformed, ultimately takes away our freedom. This is why I think it’s so important to guard our minds very carefully, to be mindful of what it is we’re feeling in order to prevent the feeling from turning into a knot that begins to take root in us.

Anger is an unpleasant feeling. It causes us to suffer. I think that’s why we typically try so hard to get rid of it, especially in our society. It seems to be quite common to vent. When you’re experiencing anger, you vent. Maybe we’ll take it out on an object like hitting your pillow or punching bag, or going out into a field and yelling or screaming at the top of your lungs, or some form of venting. That can feel therapeutic, like when you vent it feels good. The danger of this as a practice is that we develop the habit of acting out, reacting to the feeling that we’re having. It’s like we’re training ourselves to use aggression as a tool to eliminate the unpleasant feeling. Now sure the aggression may not be targeted to an individual, and that’s certainly better than if it was, but we’re still using aggression as the tool to eliminate the unpleasant feeling.

The Buddhist approach, the mindfulness based approach, is instead to use awareness as a tool to understand our anger. In this approach what we do is we embrace the anger every time we experience it. I have no doubt that at times like this many of us are experiencing anger. Rather than pushing that aside or feeling like we shouldn’t feel that, it’s more like saying hello my old friend anger, I see you are here. You are visiting me again. Come, sit down, let’s visit for a minute. Mindfulness doesn’t fight or resist the anger or hatred that we’re feeling, instead it recognizes that it’s there. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of what’s going on in the present moment. It may very well be that in the present moment anger or hatred is what’s happening, so we become aware of that.

Mindfulness recognizes anger. It allows us to be aware of its presence. It allows us to accept it, to be okay with the fact that it’s there. I’ve talked about this before in the podcast, how there was a phase in my life when I was experiencing a lot of anger, anger and hatred I would say. I was not okay with the fact that I was angry, and that only made me more angry. I was in this situation where I was angry that I was angry. I hated that I hated. This takes a different approach. It tried to put us back in the first level of what’s going on, which is reality.

I’ve mentioned this before, there’s reality and there’s the story around reality. To be angry is one thing, but to be angry and think I’m not supposed to be angry puts me in this alternate reality, which is the story. The story I’ve told myself that I’m not supposed to be angry, so now I’m experiencing anger at being angry. It puts me on a whole new reality that is not real. It’s an alternate reality. It’s the story of reality. We’re trying to get back into the first level, reality as it is. Reality may be I’m angry and that’s it, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with whatever it is that we’re feeling.

Now I’ve had this experience as a father a few times learning that when you’re holding a newborn and you’re embracing it, you’re just embracing whatever is there. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re just neutral and they’re looking around, but at other times they’re really upset and they’re crying, and they’re screaming and they’re kicking. With one of our kids, with [Ryco 00:16:48] when he was little, he had issues with his stomach. His little stomach was always churning and turning, and he had a lot of discomfort. He would lay there and he was inconsolable. He would cry and he would scream. Now when you’re holding a crying baby, you nurture it. You don’t use aggression. You don’t shake the baby to get it to quit crying. That would only complicate things. It would make things infinitely worse. In my experience when he was inconsolable like that, I would just hold him. I would hold him tight and I would talk to him, and eventually it would pass.

What I’m trying to say is if we’re trying to explore this idea of how can we use anger and hatred as tools for growth, there are ways that we can do that. We can use what we’re experiencing and through mindfulness, through awareness, we can transform these emotions into a tool for growth, but it does involve and approach that seems counterintuitive. With a child it doesn’t seem counterintuitive that if they’re crying you need to comfort them, but when we are experiencing discomfort, a feeling like anger or hatred is not comfortable. When you feel that, rather than thinking I need to get rid of this immediately, that’s the aggressive mindset, we think well what would the other approach be, to approach this through to tenderness, through kindness, through compassion.

Really quickly I want to highlight, I have a poster hanging here in my office behind me. I look at it quite often. I just thought about this as I’m talking about this topic. The poster says “no mud, no lotus.” As practitioners of mindfulness meditation, we don’t want to reject or push away what we are experiencing in life. We want to turn and face it and be with it. Don’t think of your mind of the battlefield of good emotions like happiness and peace constantly fighting against bad emotions like anger and hatred. Instead, think of treating the whatever’s there, whatever emotions show up, on an equal playing field with kindness and compassion.

When I was experiencing this phase in my life where I was experiencing hatred, I was able to transform it by embracing this inner child. I was able to almost see myself in two roles, like I’m the comforting parent who’s holding myself who’s the crying baby, who’s just throwing a tantrum, the inconsolable me that was full of hatred and anger. This allowed me to suddenly experience what it felt like to be okay with not being okay. I was no longer feeling hatred towards the hatred I was feeling. I was no longer feeling anger towards the anger I was feeling. Like I mentioned before, it put me right back square with reality experiencing the emotion that was there, which in this case was anger or it was hatred. This is like the practice of self-compassion I talk about a little bit in Episode 37, The Art of Self-Compassion.

The idea here is I would say the first step in becoming free from the bonds of anger and hatred is to just recognize what’s there. Recognize it, don’t fight it. Notice that it’s not that we’re trying to become free from anger and hatred, it’s that we’re trying to become free from the bonds of anger and hatred. When anger and hatred bind us and blind us, that’s when they become dangerous. I think this often happens in the transition of experiencing the emotion and then fighting the emotion. Once we recognize that anger or hatred is there we embrace it. Instead of fighting it, we try to increase our awareness around it. Why I am I feeling this, or what does it feel like to be feeling what I’m feeling. These are questions that I think are good in probing that introspective process of trying to increase awareness around our emotions.

I don’t know about you, but this was a novel concept for me to sit with an emotion like anger and say wait, the problem isn’t that I’m experiencing anger. The problem is that I’m experiencing anger and I don’t want to experience anger. Those are two different things. That gave me the freedom to sit with the emotion. Imagine, like I said, you’re visiting with an old friend, and it really is an old friend. We’ve all experienced anger or hatred on multiple occasions throughout our entire lives, and we’ve always shooed it away. You’ve never really gotten to know this old friend because you’re pushing it away every time it comes to visit. When you learn how to embrace your anger, how to embrace your hatred, something will change, everything will change.

This is why I feel this is an important topic right now. Rather than visiting difficult occasions like this, difficult events that happen cause us to experience anger and hatred, and rather than pushing those aside, I would invite you at this time with what you’re experiencing in life, all the crazy things that are happening all over the world right now, the anger and the hatred that you may be feeling from this, allow it to be there, invite it in, look at it, analyze it, embrace it. Now there’s another powerful technique that works very well for working with anger and hatred, and that’s dedicating the time and energy to foster alternate feelings like kindness and compassion.

I think one of the mistakes we make is having the perspective that if I’m feeling this I need to eliminate this in order to feel that. Instead of viewing it like that, imagine a stage. Each of our feelings and emotions, they’re on that stage like actors in a play. Rather than thinking I need to eliminate these actors, these characters from the play, instead I need to work with the script in a way that allows the other characters to spend more time on center stage. Anger and hatred they’re part of the play. They’re not going to go away, but it’s okay to say I’m going to allow these characters to spend much more time in the back. Sure they may emerge from time to time because that’s the nature of reality, that these emotions when the causes and conditions are right, boom they’re there, but we can help to create the environment where other characters like kindness and compassion get to spend significantly more time in the front as they become more active in this play of life.

I love thinking of life like this where we are, you’re the play writer, you’re the director, you’re the protagonist, you’re the antagonist, you’re all of it. This is kind of a fun way to work with that. To do that, I’ve recorded a guided ten minute meditation to help with the process of fostering kindness and compassion. I’m going to post that immediately after this episode that way you can, it will be a standalone episode that you can download or listen to whenever you want without having to listen to this entire episode. It’s going to be episode number 54. It will be called Guided Meditation, Fostering Kindness and Compassion. I would invite you to listen to that after you listen to this podcast episode.

you can visit that one often. Use it as a tool to develop kindness and compassion rather than focusing on standing against anger and against hatred inside of you. Allow them to be there, but work for feeling kindness and compassion. Rather than spending so much time and energy to eradicate these feelings, which cannot be eradicated, it’s not the nature of reality, spend more time fostering what you do want to be there, the kindness and compassion. I wanted to share this podcast episode at a time when I think a lot of us are feeling anger. Some may be feeling a sense of hatred, even hatred towards hatred is still hatred.

I hope that we can heal inside of each of us the relationship we have from the feelings of anger and hatred. I hope that we can find freedom from the bonds of anger and hatred in our own lives. I’ve repeated this on multiple occasions throughout the podcast and with all the work that I’m doing, which is that instead of thinking we need to go out there and change people, I think we need to change ourselves. I hope that we can take the opportunity in moments like this to look very honestly at ourselves and ask ourselves is there hatred and is there anger inside of me. If there is, instead of aggressively trying to push it out, I want to sit with it long enough to understand it, to see what its causes and conditions are, and then allow it to transform as the play transforms so that other characters can take center stage, kindness and compassion.

That’s what I wanted to share with you, so thank you for listening to this podcast episode. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, you can give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to join our online community with mindfulness meditation practitioners, please visit secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

52 – The Sound of Silence

What is the sound of silence? Listen to find out…In this episode, I will discuss the ideas of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, known as the 3 doors of liberation.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 52. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about The Sound Of Silence. I let this long awkward pause here at the beginning, hoping to trick you that this whole episode would be silent. After all, the sound of silence. The truth is, even if it was, you can still gain a lot of insight and wisdom by listening just to the sound of silence. This topic came out because I’ve been reading through some of the stories, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers About Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything In Between. That’s the title of the book. One of the first questions addressed in the book is the question, “Is nothing something?” The answer that Thich Nhat Hanh gives is that yes, nothing is something. You have an idea in your head of nothing, you have an idea in your head of something, both are things that can either create suffering or happiness.

This made me think of another quote or teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, where he says, “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.” When I correlate these two ideas of nothing becoming something, or nothing being something, something conceptual, and the idea of removing ideas in order to see what is, it made me think about what would really be there if I was able to remove ideas, concepts, and beliefs, what would I actually see? What would I hear? In the Plum Village tradition of Zen Buddhism, there is a practice called Noble Silence. Noble Silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his responses to certain questions about reality. For example, when he was asked unanswerable questions, he said to have responded with no response, silence.

This silence seems to have been the appropriate answer to what he considered an inappropriate question. To me, an inappropriate question is the question that evokes an answer that doesn’t lead to a proper understanding of reality. If the secrets of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and concepts, then we would want to avoid questions that will only add ideas or concepts. To me, metaphysical questions would only add ideas and concepts. Therefore, these questions are irrelevant and thus, the silent answer by the Buddha on such existential questions. Metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or nonexistence, what happens after we die, or the question of deities, these would all fall under the category of ideas and concepts. The very ideas and concepts that we’re trying to remove in order to see reality as it is. If you’ll recall my story about seeing Chris, and not seeing Chris, what blinded me from reality in that moment was an idea. It was a concept. It was a belief that Chris was a man, when in reality, Chris was a woman. There was Chris and I couldn’t see Chris because of the concept that I held.

This is kind of what it’s eluding to. What happens if we remove those concepts? Will we become more likely to see reality as it is? Perhaps The Sound Of Silence is what it sounds like when we become free of ideas and concepts. I’ve mentioned this before, but Buddhism is commonly referred to as the path of liberation. What would like be like if we were liberated from our own ideas and concepts, the beliefs that color our reality? Well, there’s a teaching in Buddhism about the three doors of liberation. These three doors are emptiness, [signlessness 00:04:26] and aimlessness. I want to talk about those.

First, emptiness. This is essentially no independent existence. Emptiness is always relative to something. A cup that is empty of water is empty in relationship to water, but it may be full of air. Emptiness is not the same thing as nonexistence. Emptiness is not a philosophy, it’s just a description of reality. It’s a direct understanding that all things are empty of a separate independent existence. In other words, this is because that is. There is no this without that. If you look at this in the context of time, it makes perfect sense. There is no present without the past. If you look at in terms of space, you can look at a flower. The flower does not exist without all of the non-flower elements. You cannot have flower without having bees, and clouds, and rain, and sun, all the non-flower elements. It’s the same with us. You are interdependent with all the non-you elements. Whether this be physical elements, like your genetics, your DNA, the very food that you eat, or non-physical elements like your memories, your cultural ideas and beliefs. Literally everything about you depends on everything that’s not you. That’s the idea of emptiness here.

The second door is signlessness. This is no form. Like clouds in the sky, if you attach to the form of, say, a cloud, as soon as the cloud is good, you’d have the tendency to think, “Well, the cloud no longer exists. It’s gone.” But the attachment to the form is what blinds you from seeing the cloud in its new form. Perhaps as rain, or mist, or even the water that you drink. There’s this understanding that the cloud is always there. It never ceased to exist, because it never started to exist. This is the first law of thermodynamics. Matter doesn’t cease to exist. It only changes. It changes form. We look beyond the form, beyond the sign of a thing, and we start to see impermanence. The nature of constant change in all things, in all forms. Forms just become like containers of what is in the present moment. We start to see that the object of our perception may not be what it seems. Instead of seeing forms or signs of things, we start to see things as continuations of complex processes of causes and conditions. We see constant change. We see things in a continual state of becoming, but always influx. That’s signlessness.

The third door is aimlessness. Essentially, no goal. This is the understanding that life itself is the goal. The path is the goal. As long as we think there is an ultimate destination, then it makes it difficult for us to really enjoy where we are, because we see separation between where we are and where we think we should be. In a way, it’s like always trying to get there, but then when we do, there’s no there, there. Everything we need to experience contentment, and joy, it’s found here in the present moment, the here and now. There’s no need to look outside of ourselves. The problem with this, with the opposite of aimlessness is that we run the risk of running our whole lives and never actually living it. What are we running after? Enlightenment? Happiness? The insight of aimlessness is to help us stop running, and instead, start living. You could ask yourself, “What am I chasing after? What is the thing that I think I need to finally have?”

You see this everywhere, whether it be money, fame, power. We’re always chasing after something. Now, a misconception with aimlessness, I think, in our western way of thinking, we would think aimlessness has a negative connotation. It’s like, “There you go, without a [rutter 00:08:53], where are you going?” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s saying, “I’m going to have a very clear understanding of what I’m after, because I know why I’m after it.” The real danger that negative aimlessness would be that I’m headed somewhere, and I don’t know why. It’s kind of like the parable that I share often times about the man running on the horse, and the person who’s standing there asking,”Hey, where are you going?” He says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” That’s a form of aimlessness. That, to me, would be the negative way of thinking of aimlessness. It’s that you’re on this horse and you don’t even know where it’s going.

The horse is running after money, or it’s running after fame, or it’s running after power. What the Buddhist perspective of aimlessness is that this is actually a good thing, but I don’t have to chase after anything. I’m enjoying the journey. The path itself is my goal. That’s the type of aimlessness that we’re talking about here in this third door. Those are the three doors of liberation. I think silence can be a powerful reminder of this lesson of liberation. If nothing is something, because it’s a concept, then what does that mean about silence? What is the implication about silence? Because silence is also a concept. In fact, the dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound. This understanding puts us in the same dilemma of emptiness. In other words, silence, like emptiness, is always relative to something. The empty cup is empty, and yet it’s actually not empty. It can be empty of water, but it’s full of air.

The old question of, “Is the cup half empty, or half full?” The answer will tell you if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, because the optimist will say it’s half full. The pessimist will say it’s half empty. Here’s a new one we can throw into this equation. The mindful individual will say, “Well, it’s neither half full or half empty, because it’s both full and empty.” When you understand that that’s a relative concept. Half full of water is half full of air. It’s completely full and it’s completely empty. Empty of milk, or whatever the relative term is. It’s both full and empty. What is the sound of silence? I think about this, and I imagine somebody in the city, and they’re trying to escape the sound of honking, the sound of ongoing movement of people and cars. They leave the city, and they go to the country. There they are sitting either in the fores, or sitting in a field trying to enjoy silence. This is the silence of no city sounds.

Now, there they are listening to the chirping of birds, or the sound of the river flowing, or the cows mooing, so silence is relative. You end one sound, but you hear another. Maybe this is … Imagine someone in the country who doesn’t want to hear any sound, so they escape the sound of the river, or the sound of the birds chirping. They’ll put noise-canceling headphones on, and discover that, “Well, now I just hear white noise.” Silence is always relative to something, but when there is no sound, then what? You’re just listening to your thoughts? How quiet are your thoughts? If you catch the gap between the thoughts, if you practice this, then what do you hear in that gap? Maybe even there, there’s still the subtle ringing or humming of silence. Have you ever heard that? This is interesting. Did you know that the earth has a constant hum? You can Google this. It’s a fascinating thing. Researchers claim that micro seismic activity from long ocean waves impacting the sea bed is what makes our planet vibrate and produce a humming sound.

There we have this scenario where there is this sound that’s always there. We’re trying to escape sound. We’re trying to hear silence, but what if silence isn’t real? It’s a concept. It’s not something you can hear. It’s like those hidden images inside the dotted image, that if you look at it and you focus in the right way they you realize that these aren’t just random dots. There’s a hidden image in there. Once you see that, you can’t not see it. I think it’s similar with silence. Once you’ve heard the sound of silence, you can’t not hear it. Once you’ve glimpsed reality without attachment to your ideas and concepts, everything changes, and yet nothing changed. Now, notice I mentioned that it’s the attachment to the ideas and concepts that’s so problematic. It’s not the ideas and concepts themselves. How do we eliminate our ideas and our concepts? The idea of not having ideas and concepts, well that’s also an idea. Now what? What do I do with that?

The school of Buddhism that I studied with, the Bright Dawn way of oneness Buddhism, has this concept called oneness, or [suchness 00:14:22]. I really enjoy this idea. The idea is that when we let go of the dualistic approach to life, good and bad, the true, false, Samsara, Nirvana, enlightenment or delusion. We find suchness, we find oneness, we discover reality just as it is. For example, I know that I have ideas. I know that I have my own beliefs and non-beliefs, and I have conceptualized understandings of reality, but I know that my ideas are just ideas. I know that they arise out of a complex web of interdependencies based on both space and time. In other words, if I were in a different time or in a different space, or had I been configured differently, I would have different ideas, different concepts, different beliefs.

What I let go of is my attachment to these things. I don’t necessarily let go of the ideas themselves, I let go of the attachment that I have to them. Sure, over time, I have let go of a lot of ideas and beliefs, but I don’t know that it’s possible to let go of all of them. Ideas and concepts are what make us human. It’s how we understand the world and we inherit it from our society and our culture, and thousands of years of evolution. To believe that I can or should let go of my ideas or beliefs, well, that’s just another belief. Oneness with reality is oneness with all things, including our ideas. But, in a non-attached manner. Noah Levine and I were talking about this a little bit. If you watched our interview about addiction and recovery, The Mindfulness Based Approach to Addiction And Recovery. You can visualize your palms together, like you’re about to pray or you’re doing the namaste-type palms together, that is a visualization of non-attachment. You have attachment, now, attachments where your hands are locked together. Like you’re holding hands with your fingers interlocked, that would be attachment. One is gripping the other.

Detachment is the separation of the two entirely. They’re nowhere near each other. Then, there’s non-attachment. They can be there together, but they’re not gripped. They’re not attached, and they’re not detached. This idea of suchness or oneness is a non-attached way of living with everything, including our ideas and our concepts. I like this. This helps me to visualize that this idea of letting go, or removing our ideas and concepts, it means removing them in the sense of they are no longer obstacles. It’s not removing in the sense of destroy, I’m going to destroy my ideas and my concepts, I don’t necessarily need to do that. I don’t let them get in the way anymore. They’re just there, it’s just an idea. Same with my opinions. I have opinions about things, but they’re just opinions. I don’t even believe some of my own beliefs. I don’t believe some of my own opinions.

Moving on, Alan Watts, he talks about searching for meaning. The meaning of life, for example, and he compares this process. He says it’s like you’re peeling the layers of an onion, hoping to discover the pit. In the process, you find that all you’ve done is peel back the layers and discarded and edible and useful part of the onion. There is no pit. It’s just layer after layer after layer. I think about that with regards to silence. With regards to this understanding of emptiness. How when you understand that nothing is still something and you hear the sound of silence, perhaps in that moment, we start understanding what it really means to remove idea, is to remove the concepts to get those things out of the way and let them be there but in a non-attached manner. That’s the understanding for me of what it means to hear the sound of silence.

I would wrap this up by raising the question once again, what is the sound of silence? I would invite you to explore this question, to listen for yourself. See what’s there. What happens when you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear? Because what is silence? What is it for you? Listen for the silence from sound, but then listen for the silence that’s found in the gap between your thoughts. What does that look like? Maybe just sitting there silently, maybe you’ll hear the same hum, this almost buzzing sound or ringing sound that’s always there. It’s always been there. I don’t think I had ever noticed it, until I started to sit there in silence asking myself, “What is the sound of silence?” I found that for me, the idea of silence is just that it’s a concept. There is no silence. There’s always something there, and I hear that now. I hear that when I don’t hear sound. I just hear there’s this low, almost like white noise humming.

I don’t think this is the same as the ringing in ears that people have. To me, this is different. This is the sound of what’s there. This is an in an audible way, this is saying, when you see what’s there and you remove what you thought was there, what are you left with? Reality, suchness, oneness. I’ve experienced this with sound. When I listen for the absence of sound, what’s there? Well, there’s a lot there. There are thoughts there. There are memories. There’s the monkey mind. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there, but my idea of what silence was, that’s just a concept. You can notice and you can increase the awareness that you have of this silence. What you might hear, maybe a profound discovery for you. I’d love to hear all about it.

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