Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting Uganda with 16 podcast listeners to do humanitarian work and also to spend time practicing mindfulness. A lot of people have asked me questions about this trip and want to know details about the upcoming trip (we’re going again) in February 2018. If you’re interested in learning more about the trip, this podcast episode will answer any questions you might have. Enjoy!
I’m often asked whether or not Buddhism and Christianity are compatible. Can you be a Christian and a Buddhist? In this podcast episode, I will address some of the main differences between these two spiritual paths and I will highlight some of the key differences in the Buddhist path that allow it to be so compatible with other traditions.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 47. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Buddhism and Christianity. In this podcast episode, I want to talk a bit about Buddhism and Christianity with regards to similarities and differences. When I teach workshops about Buddhism, it’s almost inevitable that someone will come up to me after and ask me about what the major differences or similarities are between these two traditions.
This is a question that really can’t be answered accurately in that setting or in that moment because there are a lot of things to address. So I’ve decided to address this question in this specific podcast episode. I hope this will to clarify a few things. This is a topic I’m excited to address because I, myself, live in a community that’s very Christian, and with a family dynamic where we have a mixed-faith marriage and a mix-faith family. So this is a dynamic that I think is important to understand, for anyone interested in following the Buddhist path, or the contemplative path, to understand how that works, in comparison with Christianity.
Before I jump into that I do want to clarify three important things, three notes or clarifications about this topic. The first one is, this not a presentation about which tradition is right, or which one is better, because remember the quote I share all the time by the Dalai Lama, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is especially relevant in this podcast episode. We’re talking about paths, and in what ways are these paths similar or perhaps different, but we’re not saying which path is right, which one is better, which one will get you there faster. It doesn’t work that way and I’ll explain that as I address these things.
The second note is regarding apples and pears. In many ways, this topic is like a comparison of apples and pears. They’re both fruit, but they’re not the same thing. And to further complicate it, there’s not one single app. There’s not one single pear. For apples, you have Gala apples and Fiji, and Honeycrisp, and some are red, some are green. You’ve got Granny Smith apples, etc. it’s the same with pears. You’ve got the Anjou pear, the Bartlett pear, the Concorde pear, different kinds of pears.
And likewise, there’s not one Christianity, and there’s not one Buddhism. So I’m not too concerned with trying to address any specific doctrinal differences, or similarities, because you’re already gonna have that just in between the various forms of the same overarching topic. So just within Christianity, just like you have the Gala apple, the Fiji apple, the Honeycrisp apple, you’re gonna have these differences of Mormonism versus Catholicism, versus Protestant. You’re gonna have that already, and this happens on the Buddhism side as well, with the various forms or schools of Buddhism.
In a general, overall sense, I will address some of the differences that I think makes sense to be discussed. The third note here, that I’m not an authority on Buddhism or on Christianity. I certainly have a background with both, my background with Christianity as Mormonism, and Catholicism. I attended middle school and high school private Catholic schools where religion classes were mandatory. I attended Mass often, as it was required. Half of my family, one side of the family is Catholic. And the other side is a mix of a lot of things. But my family converted to Mormonism when I was young. I was about three years old.
I grew up attending the LDS church and attended what we call seminary, which is a four-year religious program. And then served a full-time two-year religious mission in Ecuador, preaching and sharing the Mormon message. After that, I attended weekly institute of religion courses in college for another three years, until I got married. On the Buddhist side, I started studying Buddhism on my own about seven years ago. One of the first encounters I had with Buddhism was [inaudible 00:04:49] series by Jay Garfield, called the Meaning of Life: Perspective From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions.
It offered a wide exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions, from both East and West, have contributed to that big question of, what is the meaning of life. The Buddhism answer to that question was turned around and said, “Well who wants to know?” And that really fascinated me. That was one of my first experiences with Buddhism. The answer wasn’t about the answer, it was about looking at the question. At that point, I was hooked, and started learning more about the specific tradition on my own. I devoured dozens of books in order to understand everything I could about Buddhism philosophy.
Eventually decided to take my studies a step further. I enrolled in a two-year Buddhist ministry program. Graduated from that earlier this year. With that, I feel I have a suitable understanding of the topic, and yet I do want to be very clear that I do not officially represent any specific tradition. My experience with these topics comes from years of practicing on both of these paths, while I feel that my understanding is experiential in nature, these are simply my opinions, and they may differ from what others will say about this topic.
I’m gonna focus mostly on explaining the Buddhism perspective, as that is the tradition that I currently teach and practice. Having said that, let’s just into this topic. You can say that an apple and a pear, while being very different, they’re still both the same thing, they’re a fruit. That’s about the similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that I see, is that they’re both a spiritual path. But as far as types of paths, as far as spiritual paths go, there are some differences.
The first one is thinking about this in terms of questions and answers. This is what I alluded to a second ago with my original encounter with Buddhism. One path focuses more on the answers. I think many spiritual paths focus more on the answers, while Buddhism is a path that focuses on the question. So that makes it so that these are not paths that are fundamentally opposed. When you have two paths that are focused on answers, then you have conflict, if the answers aren’t the same. If this path says, “The meaning of life is A,” and the other path says, “The meaning of life is B,” those are two answers. So the answers may be conflicting. And if they are, then you have to address that.
Buddhism doesn’t necessarily conflict with Christianity on this point, because Buddhism doesn’t have an answer for a lot of the existential questions. They’re irrelevant. So in my opinion, both traditions can work hand-in-hand when it comes to this, because of that very reason that one focuses more on the question, and the other one focuses more on the answer. Applying that in my own experience, in my own life, it hasn’t necessarily been a big issue with interacting with family members, in my immediate family, or members of the community, with regards to these two traditions, because my approach doesn’t necessarily threaten their answer. If they have an answer, I don’t have an answer that conflicts or counters it, that says, “Wait. No. This is the right answer.”
The Buddhist approach allows me to just be introspective and say with the question, “Is there a God?”
“Who wants to know?” That’s the part I’m concerned with. Who wants to know, and why do I even feel the need to know the answer to that question? That’s where I’ll stay. That’s where Buddhism typically hovers on that side of the question, and it doesn’t get to the other side where the answer is, where you’re gonna have conflict if the answers are different. Again, that’s in my experience. That leads us to the second way that these paths are kind of different, is the type of path.
A path, typically, the point of a path is to get from point A to point B, that’s why you’re on the path. Spiritual traditions are similar, typical spiritual journey is about getting from point A to point B. A, maybe you’re in the world and you’re trying to get to heaven, that’s point B. Arriving at heaven or paradise, or some place similar. You could say that the goal is to arrive at a specific place, and that’s why the path is there, the path is the tradition.
From the Buddhist perspective it’s also about getting from point A to point B. We refer to point A being a place of suffering, and point B, being a place where there is no suffering. We would say Samsara and Nirvana. Nirvana is that place where you want to go, where you no longer experience suffering.
However, these are not physical places, these are mental states. They exist in the here and now, therefore it makes it so that the path itself is the goal. Because if these are mental states, we realize that if we’re at point A, and we want to be at point B, what we have is this situation where we want life to be other than it is. I’m here, and I don’t want to be here, I want to be there, some experience suffering.
What we practice in Buddhism is this form of acceptance. You could say, radical acceptance, Tara Brach calls this radical acceptance. What if I was okay with being where I am? This is where I am, and I’m okay with that. I no longer feel this need to arrive at point B. This is one of the great Buddhism paradoxes, is that paradox [inaudible 00:10:52] the very moment of acceptance, I no longer want life to be other than it is. I accept that this is how it is, this is where I am. In that moment, I arrive at the very place that I wanted to be that originally, but I get there because I no longer want to get there. That’s the paradox of Buddhism.
With that, these paths, they’re not conflicting, because if the point on the Christian path is to get from point A to point B, and the point of the path on the Buddhist path is to learn to find joy and contentment with wherever you are on the path, then there’s no conflict.
Again, because the approach is just different. Again, that’s in my opinion, that’s been my experience with understanding these two traditions. So another overall topic in which they differ is that one tends to be an internal process, and the other tends to be an external process.
For example, Christianity is a theistic tradition. There is an external source, a deity, that’s at the helm of everything. From the Buddhist perspective, it’s a non-theistic tradition, because it’s internal, the force that we’re contending with is internal. It’s our own mind. The essence of what Buddhism teaches is that, instead of running away from suffering and from discomfort, we can learn to face it. We can look deeply into the nature of our own suffering, and begin to recognize its cause.
Suffering arises, any time we want life to be other than it is. The scale and the intensity may vary according to the situation, for example, the loss of a loved one, versus being stuck at a red light when you’re late for work. Those are very different situations, but at its core, we have a resistance to accepting that moment the way that it is. That’s what causes us to suffer.
The overall feeling in any circumstance where we experience suffering is gonna be similar. We experience discomfort with the reality that we’re faced with, and we suffer because that reality does not conform to the desired or expected reality that we’ve projected in our minds. So a proper recognition of the causes of our suffering will allow us to understand that there is indeed a path that allows us to transform our suffering. This process is introspective in nature, like I mentioned.
I can learn to look inward at my own mind, my ideas, my beliefs, my opinions, my concepts, that I hold about reality. And I’ll discover that I am the key to it all. This is another big difference with the two traditions. It’s not the there’s an external source, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s an internal source. It’s my own mind. It can be my best friend, but it can also be my worst enemy.
You’ve probably heard that parable of the two wolves that we all have inside of us. One represents things like kindness and bravery, and love. The other one represents negative things like hatred, and greed. The Buddhist spoke about suffering in a similar way. The idea is that the things that we feed will grow, while the things that we don’t feed will die.
We have the tendency to look for happiness, peace, contentment, as if these were the things outside ourselves. We think once I have this, or once I finally get that, or if I get the raise at work, if I can convince my spouse to be more like me, to think like me, or if my family finally accepts me. Whatever it is, whatever external circumstance it is that we’re trying to change, we experience suffering because we’re wanting life to be other than it is.
What if we could practice acceptance? What if we could accept the moment just as it is? Accept ourselves just as we are, and start to do away with the duality of who I am, and who I think I should be, or flipping this towards others. Imagine extending that to someone else, allowing someone to just be who they are, rather than who I think they should be, who we think they should be.
I want to clarify that acceptance in this sense is not the same thing as resignation. This is not resigning to the fact that, “Oh life is this way, and oh well. I can’t do anything about it.” No, what we’re accepting is that this is what is, and I realize there’s a lot I can do with that. The moment I realize this is what it is, I can learn to work with reality, instead of against it.
I can minimize the suffering that I, and others, experience on this journey, because I’m working with the reality the way that it is. That’s one of the differences again, of the two traditions. One focuses on an external source of goodness, there’s good an evil, viewed as embodied in these symbols of God on one side, and the devil on the other. But these are external.
From the Buddhist perspective it’s all internal. It’s like the analogy of the wolves, right? They’re both inside of you. That’s another difference. In one of his final teachings the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” He taught that our greatest teacher, and a monk actually asked him. He said, “Buddha what if we meet you on the path?” And the Buddha replied, “Well don’t accept anyone you meet on the path towards liberation, even if you meet me.”
The essence of the spiritual journey from a Buddhist perspective is to realize that you are it. You are your greatest teacher. You are also your worst enemy. In fact in the Dhammapada, we read that whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, an Ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.”
This verse is saying that it’s our own mind that can do us worst harm for us than even an enemy, an external enemy. This is saying the internal enemy is far more dangerous than the external enemy. While one path may focus a bit more on the external approach, and the other one focuses on the internal approach, again I don’t see that as being an area where they necessarily conflict, because they’re just different approaches. It’s like apples and pears, or apples and oranges. They’re just entirely different approaches to the spiritual path.
I hope that you can find in yourselves, the ability to practice compassion and acceptance for who you are, for who others are, and for where you are, where others are on their individual paths. Rather than thinking, “Hey this path is working for me. You should also be on that path,” we should recognize that if the path is the goal, then there’s really no wrong place to be on that path. There’s no wrong path to be on either.
Wherever you go, there you are. You’re on the path. You can find that peace, joy, and contentment on your path, and I hope that we can learn to see the uniqueness of every step we take along the way, of whatever path it is that we’re on, whatever unique path.
Often times someone will say to me, “Well isn’t it fair to at least recognize that one path maybe better than the other, or more suitable to the other?” I would say, yes, the answer to that is yes, but it’s circumstantial. Think of a normal path, an actual path in the forest. There may be a paved path, and there may be a path that’s rocky and it’s pretty steep. Now, you could say, “Well is one path easier to walk than the other?” Maybe, yeah. Is one path easier to roller blade than the other? Sure.
I may be on the path that’s rocky and steep, and find that it’s working better for me because it’s gonna get me to my desired destination faster, but I’m wearing hiking boots, and I’ve got a pole, and I’ve got a backpack, and I’m ready for this off road trail. And you’re standing there next to me in flip-flops and you’re saying, “Hey is that the right path for me?” It may be a matter of saying, “No, with how you are right now, this is not the right path for you. Stay on that path. Stay on the pavement.”
I think it becomes really healthy for us when we start to look at these traditions, these paths within these traditions, and recognize that, that I’m on the path that seems to be working for me. How do I know that? I think it’s pretty easy. If you are on a path that brings you joy, and contentment, and peace, then you’re on a good path. There’s no need to change it.
Now, the moment you realize you’re not experiencing these things, you’re experiencing anguish, or discomfort, or it’s just not working for you, then why not just pause and say, “Well maybe this isn’t the right path for me. Maybe I should be on, maybe I should try another path, see if this is easier, better for me.”
That’s how I like to view that. These traditions can support each other, they can influence each other. It’s sad to me when I encounter people from either one of the traditions saying, “You can’t make these work together. They’re fundamentally opposed.” I get where that’s coming from, because on some levels it does seem like there are views that are incompatible with each other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when you understand that you can’t compare them side-by-side in that way.
In the same way that, again, using the fruit analogy, it’s not really fair to compare an apple and an orange, it’s just not, because they’re not the same thing. That’s what we face with this, in my opinion. Now I mentioned before, many of us live in communities where we don’t necessarily share the same beliefs. I am in a mixed faith family, a mixed faith marriage. I know what it’s like firsthand, to be walking a path, while simultaneously making it work with someone else who’s walking on another path.
I know that it can work, because it’s working for us. I see it working for a lot of people who are on different paths. An important part of it is recognizing that all paths are valid. Now, i get that I can be on a path, someone else might be on another path, and that path does not validate my path. I get that. But it shouldn’t bother me to know that they don’t think I’m on the right path.
It’s like, “Okay, well then you don’t think I’m on the right path.” Why would that disrupt the peace and contentment and joy that I have on my own path? If I truly view my path as unique, and everyone’s path is unique, then it shouldn’t bother me that someone else is gonna look and say, “Hey you’re on the wrong path.” Because of course, they’re gonna think that. If they’re on a path that indicates that there’s only one path, then of course they’re going to think you’re on the wrong path. But why should that be problematic? Why should it be problematic for you, whatever path you’re on?
Now it may be problematic for them because by the very fact of thinking that they’re on the right on and you’re on the wrong one, they’re the ones experiencing suffering, because they think, “Oh no. This person I care for is on the wrong path.” But that’s them. You are on your path, and you can find that contentment and joy with knowing that this is the path that’s working for you, even if others don’t approve it, or understand, or validate it.
That’s a whole different topic I think, that I don’t really want to go into in this specific podcast episode, but it’s something worth looking at if you’re experiencing that thinking, “Why do I feel that I can’t be validated on my path, until someone else validates me?” That’s something worth looking at, because what you’ll find within introspection, again, this is looking at the question. It’s not about the answer, it’s looking at the question. Why do I need you to validate me, for me to feel comfortable on my path?
Look at that. Explore that in yourself, and you may find that that also becomes irrelevant. So again, these traditions can support each other. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone who’s on one path, who uses elements of another path to benefit them on whatever path they’re on. Looking for the good that other paths have, using the ideas and concepts that others have, as tools to help us alleviate the suffering in ourselves and others on our own path, I think is a noble thing. That’s something that we can do when we start to view our own path as our own path.
It’s one thing to think I’m on the right path, but it’s another one to think that mine is the only right path. See, it can be right for me, and wrong for you. That’s very different than thinking if it’s right for me, then it must be also right for you. I think that can be very powerful to have that view of paths.
That’s all I have for this topic. I know that there’s so much that can be covered here. We could go into specific differences in doctrinal views of reality and the world, but I don’t think that that’s necessary. You can study all that on your own, read books about whatever path that you’re on, study it. Learn it. Be familiar with it. But you would invite you to explore it at a level where you ask yourself, “Is this path working for me?” Because if it is, don’t disrupt it. Just stay on that path.
That’s all I have, so if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, then please visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
In this podcast episode, I had the privilege of interviewing New York Times bestselling author Robert Wright about his newest book “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment”. Wright leads readers on a journey through psychology, philosophy, and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation for a spiritual life in a secular age. This podcast features the audio of the interview I had with Robert Wright.
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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: Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 46. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and in this episode I’m excited to share the audio of an interview I had with New York Times bestselling author Robert Wright about his newest book “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” [00:00:30] Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with and to interview Robert Wright. He’s The New York Times bestselling author of “The Evolution of God,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Nonzero: The Moral Animal, and Three Scientists and Their Gods,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton, where he also created the popular online course Buddhism and Modern Psychology. [00:01:00] In 2009, Foreign Policy named him one of its top 100 global thinkers alongside Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Anne-Marie Slaughter. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time, Slate and The New Republic. This interview with Robert was the first interview I’ve done for the podcast and I’m honored to have started out this new format of interviews with someone like him.
[00:01:30] I plan on doing roughly one interview episode per month while I continue to maintain the original format of the podcast, as well as adding the occasional question and answer format like last week’s episode. I want to quickly share the description of his book from the Amazon listing before I go right into the audio of the interview itself. It says, “From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy and lots of meditation to [00:02:00] show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.” Robert Wright famously explained in “The Moral Animal” how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world, and it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.
If we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, [00:02:30] which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only now discovering. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly and proposes that seeing the world more clearly through meditation will make us better, happier people. In “Why Buddhism is True,” Wright leads readers on a journey through psychology, philosophy and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation [00:03:00] for a spiritual life in a secular age.
At once excitingly ambitious and wittily accessible, this is the first book to combine evolutionary psychology with cutting edge neuroscience to defend the radical claims at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. With bracing honesty and fierce wisdom, it will persuade you not just that Buddhism is true, which is to say a way out of our delusion, but that it can ultimately save us from ourselves, [00:03:30] as individuals and as a species. I really enjoyed this new book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Here’s the audio of the interview. Great. Well, first of all, I do want to mention how excited I was to get to interview you after reading your book because I had mentioned before I had heard about your course and I had heard of some of your other books.
I hadn’t read any of them yet and I’m always looking for [00:04:00] a book that works as a foundational piece for people who are trying to learn a secular form of Buddhism, since that’s really the area I’m most interested in. When I read your book I thought, “Oh, this is it. This is the book that I think would do a really good job of helping people to have a foundational understanding of some of these concepts in a way that speaks to the audience that listens to this podcast, secular-minded people.” I was really excited [00:04:30] about that first.
Robert Wright: That’s great to hear especially coming from you because you really know the territory and I did try to make the book accessible to people who don’t have a specialized knowledge in the area.
Noah Rasheta: Great. Yeah, I think you did a great job with that. I’m curious about a few things. First of all, just a little bit of your history, how you got into your field, how you got into writing in general and why this field?
Robert Wright: [00:05:00] Well, as for writing, I just … Somebody put in my mind that I might try being a writer. I think my mother was the first person to suggest journalism actually. My first real journalism job was at a small newspaper. I then came to do more and more magaziney stuff and a certain amount of kind of academic stuff or kind of quasi-academic publications. For a while I [00:05:30] took academic writing and edited it heavily, heavily to make it accessible to a lay audience at a magazine called The Sciences which no longer exists. I got a lot of practice at trying to communicate with a lay audience, trying to communicate expert knowledge to a lay audience. I don’t know. I doubt you want to turn this into the story of Bob, but I’ll say I worked at a number of magazines.
Started writing books. [00:06:00] My first book was 1988. I hadn’t been very prolific on the book front because this one is just my fifth and it’s been a long time since 1988. I’ve usually had a job as well in the writing field or occasionally actually teaching at the college level.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Then what interested you in Buddhism, at least approaching this book?
Robert Wright: Well, in college [00:06:30] you were supposed to kind of be conversed in any certain philosophy that was kind of cool. You would hear about Buddhism. I had been brought up as a Christian, but was no longer a Christian. I’m sure was in substance looking for something like a spiritual practice or grounding, but my attempts to meditate never really amounted to much. I’m not a natural meditator. I have a very poor [00:07:00] attention span and I think various other parts of my make me not well suited to the practice. What it took was a week long meditation retreat in 2003 at the Insight Meditation Society to convince me that I could do this. That actually did more than that.
I had some pretty powerful experiences there and just ended the retreat in such a proximity to bliss that I thought there’s definitely something here.
Noah Rasheta: [00:07:30] There’s something to this, huh?
Robert Wright: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’ve been entirely consistent in my practice since then, but since about 2009 that was my second retreat. Now I’ve gone on a number since then. Close to one a year since 2009 and my daily practice has been pretty steady.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Yeah, you talked about that in this book little bit, the experience with the [00:08:00] retreat. The ones that you do once a year more or less are they all similar? Do you keep going to the same place?
Robert Wright: I have tended to go to IMS. This last spring for the first time I went to a different place. I went to The Garrison Institute in New York and did a retreat in the Shambhala tradition. It was an official Shambhala center retreat, but it was with teachers who had studied under Rinpoche who started the Shambhala movement I gather. [00:08:30] That was a really interesting exposure. I mean I had never meditated with my eyes open, which they do. It had some elements of vipassana meditation and kind of meaning mindfulness more or less. It was pretty different from what I was used to. It was just very interesting.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Okay. When did you create your course [00:09:00] The Buddhism and Modern Psychology? How long has that been out?
Robert Wright: I guess it’s been out now about three years. It was based on a seminar I taught at Princeton a couple of times. It was actually called Science and Buddhism, but it was basically psychology and Buddhism with particular emphasis on evolutionary psychology. Turning a seminar into an online course was kind of challenging because [00:09:30] I didn’t have a prepared set of lectures. I’d never taught it was a lecture course so it really took some work, but the people at Princeton were great in just helping me, providing me with all the resources, video, professional videography. That was a lot of work, but very rewarding because I still …
Even though I’m not personally on a very regular basis engaged in it, it’s now just kind of a course that’s out there online for [00:10:00] people to take. I still get feedback from people who are taking it and that’s always very gratifying assuming it’s good feedback, which it usually it. I guess the people who have bad feedback are polite enough to share it with me.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. Well, I’ve heard a lot of good feedback about it from circles that I run in and people who have taken your course had a lot of good things to say. I’m going to have to check out that course as well for myself.
Robert Wright: It’s short. It’s only really six lectures and most are no more than an hour.
Noah Rasheta: [00:10:30] Cool.
Robert Wright: It’s on the Coursera platform.
Noah Rasheta: Okay. Anyone interested in that, you guys have to check out Buddhism and Modern Psychology on Coursera. What I am interested in talking about today specifically is Robert’s new book, “Why Buddhism is True.” This is a book that I have the opportunity to read over the last couple of weeks and I’m really excited about this book. I was telling Robert [00:11:00] a little earlier that a lot of the people who listen to my podcast are people who are disaffected from religion. They’re secular minded. Not really interested in any kind of an ism. Yet, there’s an interest in learning about the psychology and the philosophy of a lot of these Buddhist concepts like meditation. They know that there’s something to it.
This book fits in really [00:11:30] well for that audience, someone who just wants to understand the science and the philosophy of meditation, of enlightenment. That’s the tag line that’s on this book. I’m curious about the title, “Why Buddhism is True.” How did that come about?
Robert Wright: Well, I’m a little abashed about the title. The good news is it will get people’s attention. The bad news is some people will hate it. [00:12:00] It just popped into my head after writing the book. I didn’t set about to write a book with that as the title, but I realized that I had tried in the course of the book to mount a defense of the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy. I was arguing that it basically makes sense. Of course, there’s lots of different Buddhist traditions. In terms of the kinds of skepticism you could have about the title, [00:12:30] you could say, “Well, wait. There is no one Buddhism,” which is kind of true. There’s certainly a lot of different traditions and they differ in significant ways.
At the same time, there are some concepts that are pretty common to the major traditions like the idea that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people suffer is because we don’t see the world clearly and that this lack of clarity can in some ways [00:13:00] be divided into two parts. We don’t see ourselves clearly. We have major misconceptions about what’s inside our head. Then we have major misconceptions about what’s out there. You might say that those track roughly under the concepts of not self, the Buddhist concept of not-self and the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Respectively it’s a little … In some ways more complicated than that because sometimes the concept of emptiness is taken to encompass the concept [00:13:30] of not-self.
In general, the concept of emptiness gets more emphasis in the Mahayana tradition, but I find that it’s kind of there … If you talk to Theravada meditators of kind of tremendous accomplishment and adeptness, they have the apprehension of emptiness just the way someone meditating in the Mahayana tradition might. Anyway, I mean I can understand. I’m prepared to accept a certain amount [00:14:00] of blow back about the title. I try to make clear both upfront and a little note to the readers what I do and don’t mean by it and in an appendix to the book and elaborating what I hope I’ve accomplished in the book. It’s a title I’m willing to standby.
Noah Rasheta: Well, I like the title. It peaked my interest when I first saw the book and saw the title because I feel [00:14:30] like the old me coming from a more fundamental Christian view would be like, “Why Buddhism is True,” would immediately sent off flags saying, “Everything else must be false.” Having studied Buddhism now for so many years, approaching the title from the Buddhist perspective, it didn’t bother me at all because in fact, I was like, “Why Buddhism is True,” I thought, “Oh, I wonder what he means by true.” That was it. Then as I [00:15:00] read the book, it was very clear to me that the intent was more along the lines of why Buddhism works, why meditation works, why these concepts ring true to people.
I think the title’s great because it does get that discussion going of what is truth at least from the Buddhist perspective. It’s not necessarily the same as from other traditions.
Robert Wright: Well, I’m glad you approve. Along those lines, I actually added … I think you were originally sent the gallies and now the actual [00:15:30] physical final book exist and there’s something I added in that note to readers in between those two and it’s that quote by the Dalai Lama, “You don’t have to use Buddhism to become Buddhists. You can use it to become a better whatever you are,” to emphasize that this is not incompatible by and large or it’s certainly not inherently incompatible with other spiritual or philosophical traditions. It can supplement whatever you’re governing philosophy or spirituality is.
Noah Rasheta: That’s awesome. I’m happy to hear that because I don’t know if you knew [00:16:00] this, but that’s the tag line I use in every podcast episode.
Robert Wright: I have heard it. Yes. I have heard it from you. Yes.
Noah Rasheta: I think it’s a powerful sentiment. I’m glad that that’s expressed in the book because it is true that this stuff makes you a better whatever you already are. That’s definitely the vibe I got reading your book. It’s almost like a manual explaining some of these concepts where I don’t see how it would be off putting to anyone from any other [00:16:30] faith tradition. If you’re listening to this podcast or watching this video and that is a factor where you feel like, “Well, wait a second. I’ve got this other truth,” this doesn’t conflict with that in any way. There’s a concept in your book that I wanted to talk about a little bit. The way you talk about no-self or not-self and the research that you highlight [00:17:00] in your book about the mental modules really resonated with me.
I find in the workshops that I teach the concept of no-self or not-self, teaching that concept can be difficult because we run up against this idea of there’s a self or there’s a no-self. Those are the two options, right? The way it was presented in your book with the mental modules expanded this view for me to realize well, what we’re saying with this teaching and you highlight in this book [00:17:30] is there’s a lot of yous. There’s the you that’s you when you’re hungry. There’s the you that’s you when you’re mad. It’s like just like saying, “Well, which you are you? Because you’re not any of those permanently,” and I really like that. I wanted to talk about that a little bit.
How was it for you first learning about this concept of not-self or no-self and then walk me through that transition into the way you presented it in this book because I think you did a fantastic [00:18:00] job of explaining that?
Robert Wright: Okay. I encountered the doctrine of not-self long after encountering the modular module of the mind that I’m now viewing the doctrine in terms of. The modular module I encountered while researching my book on Evolutionary Psychology: The Moral Animal, which came out in ’94, the doctrine of not-self I didn’t explore seriously until I was actually preparing to [00:18:30] teach the seminar at Princeton, which was no more than five, six years ago. I guess I had heard a talk or two about it at a meditation retreat at that point, but I hadn’t tried to really look into it. I hadn’t read the Buddhist discourse on the net, the not-self, which is fascinating to me for a number of reasons.
One is that the way he goes through explaining it is [00:19:00] he says, “Well, look at the various parts of your mind. Does it makes sense to think of them as you?” The different categories. The so called five aggregates in Buddhist psychology which includes feelings, perceptions and so on, but the point is just that it’s kind of an incremental approach to explaining the doctrine. It’s like is there any one part of your experience that it really make sense to think of as you. What I like about that is it makes it easier to connect an everyday meditation practice that even when its early stages [00:19:30] to the doctrine to the not-self.
Because if you’re even doing stress reduction or working on anxiety, then one thing you’re kind of doing is looking at that feeling and experiencing it and asking yourself if you really have to identify with it. Do you really have to consider it part of you? You could see that as the first step toward potentially deeper meditative apprehensions that get you closer to the experience [00:20:00] of not-self. In fact, in talking to people like Joseph Goldstein, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, who have definitely gone a lot further meditatively than I have, you find out that yeah, they, at least Joseph, they think of it that way. You start viewing your feelings in a different way, your thoughts in a different way.
You kind of slowly move toward not-self. It’s not like you have to meditate for 10 years and hope that finally suddenly [00:20:30] you’ll have this epiphany. You can kind of move toward an experiential apprehension of not-self in an incremental way which isn’t to say there won’t be dramatic thresholds along the way, but still I think it’s good that we can connect a part of the practice that some people call therapeutic and some people call it that derisively, right, because it’s not spiritual. I think it’s good that we actually can connect that to kind of the spiritual depths of Buddhist philosophy.
Noah Rasheta: I like [00:21:00] that. Something I thought about when I was reading the book, I thought, “I wonder if anyone’s ever had that moment of enlightenment watching the Snickers commercial where it says, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry.'” Because part of what you talk about in the book, you correlate how our feelings determine who we are in that moment. Again going back to Snickers, if you’re not you when you’re hungry, then it’s fair to say you’re not [00:21:30] you when you’re not hungry either because it just depends which you you are at the time. Are you the hungry you or the not hungry you. Then we take that and expand it into all the other feelings that we have throughout the day. It’s the same line of thought. You’re not you when you’re mad.
You’re not you when you’re happy because you’re not permanently either one of those. That was an aha moment I had reading your book thinking it’s so simple. You’re not any of those because you’re not any of those permanently.
Robert Wright: [00:22:00] Which is an explicit part of the early Buddhist defense of the not-self doctrine. There just is not the persistence through time of any one you.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly. I love the way you laid that out. Then you go out and you give a specific example of one of the feelings. You have a section where you talk about jealousy. I want to quote this the right way. [00:22:30] Do you know if the page numbers will switch from …
Robert Wright: They will switch. I can look. Do I have the physical … They won’t be the same. You have an index copy and the gallies?
Noah Rasheta: I’m not sure which one this is, but it looks like chapter seven is called … I assume the chapter numbers won’t change. It’s called The Mental Modules That Run Your Life.
Robert Wright: [00:23:00] I think that’s where the jealousy thing is. Yes.
Noah Rasheta: Inside of that you’ve got a section that says Jealousy: Tyrant of the Mind.
Robert Wright: Right. Right.
Noah Rasheta: Now this section really spoke to me because I’ve experienced this. I’ve gone through this and I’ve alluded to this story before in my podcast when I talk about my story, but going through and experiencing jealousy first hand, having like experienced emotional jealousy on the [00:23:30] heels of a betrayal, a lot of what you described was like to a T what I felt. It was fascinating to read through this and think, “That wasn’t me.”
Robert Wright: You have transformed into a completely different person.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly. Exactly. Let’s just talk about that section for a bit if you don’t mind.
Robert Wright: Sure.
Noah Rasheta: The point that you’re making in here similar to what we’ve just [00:24:00] been discussing is that the jealous you is … There’s a module of the mind that can kick in and it overrides everything. You hear about this in courts, right? Crimes of passion and the argument being made is that well, that wasn’t me. I was going through an emotional state and that’s when I did this or did that. What you’re saying here and it totally makes sense is that even if [00:24:30] okay, I don’t go out and I murder someone while I’m experiencing this, but I maybe making small subtle choices that I wouldn’t make if I weren’t feeling what I was feeling, right?
Robert Wright: Right.
Noah Rasheta: If that’s relevant to jealousy, which is a very easy one to identify with, I think most people have experienced that to some degree, then that’s the case with every emotion and every feeling, right?
Robert Wright: Right. I mean a couple of things there. One is that [00:25:00] as you suggested, what the modular model of the mind says is that when you say as you did like, “Well, it’s a different you when you’re in this. It’s a different you when you’re hungry than in full. It’s a different you when you’re jealous,” the modular model says that’s more literally true than you might think. In other words, there are specialized parts of the mind that take turns running the show. They were according to evolution of psychology designed by natural selection for different purposes. In some [00:25:30] cases, at very different times. Some are older than others. Certainly jealousy is thought by evolutionary psychologists to be like a very carefully engineered module with a function.
That’s one thing is that this model says, “Yeah. There’s really a lot of different yous in there. They’re often operating at a subconscious level.” Sometimes you can sense the struggle between them, but sometimes maybe you’re oblivious to it if there is any competition [00:26:00] between them for which one’s going to govern in consciousness. In any event, it’s usually a case that one or another of them is kind of running the show. The other thing I’d say is like the feelings thing I think is key because jealousy is a very dramatic example of a feeling ushering in a new you. I think much subtler feelings do it in a subtler way all the time. You’ll see somebody you’re kind of a rival [00:26:30] with.
That will give you a little kind of feeling that will shape your perception of them and shape the essence you project onto them. That will govern how you interact with them and you may notice that. Then there maybe somebody that’s kind of frenemy and that’ll be a subtler kind of feeling, but in general, it’s like these feelings that are ushering in different versions of us and one interesting thing about mindfulness meditation is it makes you more aware of feelings. It gives you [00:27:00] more leverage over them in the sense of being able if you’re aware of them to sometimes choose not to blindly follow them.
If feelings are the things that usher in the different versions of you and mindfulness mediation gives you some leverage over feelings, well, then mindfulness mediation is very a powerful thing.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. Absolutely. I love that you mentioned in this very section that resistance isn’t the mindful way of dealing with jealousy anyway. [00:27:30] That would be applicable to any feeling. It’s not that we’re trying to resist it or force a certain feeling. No. In Buddhist practice, we’re very aware of what we are clinging to, what we’re trying to feel right and what we’re averse to, what we’re trying to push away. That’s something you highlight in this book that awareness is so key when it comes to [00:28:00] these feelings like you just highlighted that even small subtle feelings at any given moment are influencing who you are in that moment. Rather than doing anything about it in terms of resisting or pushing away, we just want to be aware and recognize this is what I’m feeling.
Why am I feeling this? I think that ties in so closely with mindfulness as a whole. That’s why we do that.
Robert Wright: Right. An interesting example of that is treating actual addictions. I mentioned in the book that [00:28:30] Judson Brewer whom you maybe aware of. He’s done a lot of work in this area. He’s a very serious meditator himself. He’s now at the … Where is it? The Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research place is in Massachusetts. Anyway, it’s UMass. It’s UMass Med School I think, but anyway, he did a study where he looked at smokers and he had them rather than fight the urge, just sit there and observe the urge. Not smoke [00:29:00] a cigarette, but not go oh. Not try to distract themselves or do something else. Just sit there and observe the urge.
He did an actual study involving like 88 subjects and found it to be more effective than some standard treatments for nicotine addiction. That slowly as they observed the urge to smoke, it lost its power.
Noah Rasheta: Isn’t that fascinating?
Robert Wright: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Noah Rasheta: [00:29:30] I love that. I love all of this. Something I wanted to talk about with this is I think sometimes we have this impression that okay, I start to understand that it makes sense that there are different me’s. I get that I have different feelings and I’m not the same me when I’m hungry versus not hungry. All that. I get that, but I have this sense of feeling like there is a me that’s capable of overriding all the others at any given time. You talk about this as the CEO. [00:30:00] You specifically have a section where you say, “The CEO is MIA,” and I love that. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Talk to me a little bit about this idea of a CEO.
Robert Wright: Well, the Buddhist doctrine of not-self has been described various ways and interpreted various ways. One way it is sometimes put is that the doctrine denies that the conscious self is kind of running the show, that it’s the doer of deeds and the thinker of thoughts. [00:30:30] I mean this is what you hear maybe on meditation or retreats. The meditation teacher saying, “You know, thoughts think themselves if you really look carefully at them. You’re not in charge of generating them. They’re just passing by your consciousness.” One trend in psychology over recent decades is to support the skepticism as to the actual power of the conscious self.
The kind of old idea that the conscious self is the CEO, you’re calling the shots, [00:31:00] has come under challenge from a variety of experimental findings. That goes back several decades. A model I like in preference to it is of course this modular model which by the way can help explain why it might seem like thoughts think themselves. I mean if modules are actually kind of injecting them into your field of consciousness, then the very careful observer of them, very adept meditator who’s watching [00:31:30] thoughts, would kind of see them as if they’re thinking themselves. They’re just kind of assuming form and passing away. The idea that you, the conscious you, is the CEO has really fallen into disrepute in psychology for a lot of reasons.
That’s one of various cases where just strikingly I think modern science lends [00:32:00] some corroboration to like millennia old Buddhist ideas.
Noah Rasheta: I love that section, the CEO is MIA. You have a quote in here. You talk about observing, going back to the feelings real quick, observing feelings without attachment is the way you keep modules from seizing control of your consciousness. You talk about the paradox. I’d like to talk about this paradox a little bit about [00:32:30] the control aspect. That you take control by not trying to take control. Walk us through that paradox a little bit.
Robert Wright: Yeah. I mean it paradoxical on two levels. I mean first of all there’s that paradox that surrendering control and becoming in some sense a mere observer of the process gives you more control. That [00:33:00] seems ironic, but you can kind of see why it’s the case. Because if these feelings are running the show and becoming so aware of them that you don’t blindly follow their guidance that you don’t react to them in the way they’re designed to make you react. It makes sense then. It’s just kind of sitting there watching them takes power away from the feelings and [00:33:30] gives more power to you. Now the second paradox is more profound and I’m not sure I can help us out of it which is just like what do we mean by you, right? If the self doesn’t exist …
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of Buddhist philosophy, but in that discourse on the not-self, the five basic parts of kind of human experience that are covered in all of which the Buddhist says are not part of the self, that includes [00:34:00] consciousness as one of those. Consciousness it says in there is not the self. That raises the question of well, where do we find this you that in substance that has more power by virtue of meditation? I don’t know that I have a confident answer to that question. I think there are people who are much further down the meditative path and I am who don’t find it so puzzling. On the other hand, they have trouble articulating [00:34:30] sometimes why they don’t find it puzzling.
It’s one of many cases where as a practical matter, you don’t have to get too caught up in paradoxes that lie at the very roots, at the very depths of Buddhist philosophy and might become more relevant to you if you got somewhere near actual nirvana and awakening. For [00:35:00] most of us that’s not a problem, right? For most of us just living our lives is challenging and for those purposes just think of there as being you. In fact, it is a Buddhist idea that in a so called conventional sense of self exist, in an ultimate sense it doesn’t. It’s fine to live a lot of your life at a conventional level and talk of the self as existing.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. Yeah, I like [00:35:30] that. You mentioned nirvana. This is one of the questions I had written down that I was curious about. What is nirvana for you? How do you define it?
Robert Wright: It is said to be something that someone reaches at the point that they reach so called awakening or enlightenment, which is an interesting feature of Buddhism that the two terms [00:36:00] are synonymous or at least these things arrive at the same time. That when you see the ultimate truth, you achieve ultimate happiness. Bliss. Right? There’s a third part which is that if all goes according to plan, you should be a much better person. There’s really three things that are asserted by traditional Buddhist philosophy that are said to coincide which is truth about the world, happiness and goodness. [00:36:30] That’s an amazing thing. That’s an amazing claim.
I think there’s a case to be made that indeed progress along those dimensions at least tends to be correlated. Now as for what nirvana is, I mean first of all, it is said to be blissful. I’m agnostic on the question of whether there are any people in the world right now who have truly attained enlightenment. That’s a long debate or whether there have ever been. I mean I don’t know. [00:37:00] It depends on how you define it. I tend to have a pretty strict definition of it that would make it hard for people to accurately claim they’ve obtained enlightenment, but different people have different views. Well, here’s an interesting thing about it is that in the Buddhist text, it is sometimes characterized with this word the unconditioned.
The unconditioned in Buddhist terms kind of means more or less [00:37:30] the uncaused. Not subject to the kinds of causes that normally push and pull us. That’s a really fascinating thing because it gets back to what we were saying. I mean if indeed feelings are the buttons that get pushed on us, that manipulate that, right, and get us to do certain things unthinkingly, reactively, and mindfulness meditation by [00:38:00] making you aware of your feelings gives you the option of kind of removing yourself from those levers. Then you are in a sense liberating yourself from the causes that normally impinged on you, right? The way I think of the world, it’s not possible to completely remove yourself from all causation, right?
I can’t imagine that, [00:38:30] although I think the Buddhist claim is that nirvana involves that. That aside, it kind of makes sense to think of meditative progress as moving you toward the unconditioned because it is making you less kind of mindlessly enslaved by causality as it normally operates in a human being. Does that make sense?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah.
Robert Wright: That’s one thing [00:39:00] that’s interesting to me about nirvana. The chapter on nirvana was helped a lot by my … Well, both reading what Bhikkhu Bodhi has said about it and getting feedback from him by email on how I was interpreting it. He was really great. He’s a really, really important American translator of Buddhist texts.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. One thing I love about Buddhism with its paradoxes is [00:39:30] the thing that you want is the very problem, right? I talked about this at a presentation on Sunday of how spiritual journeys … Spritiual journey from the Buddhist perspective. On a typical journey, the journey is from point A to point B, wherever point A is and wherever point B is. There’s a goal that you could say the goal is to get from point A to point B. Now on the Buddhist path, you could say that it’s similar [00:40:00] in the sense that point A is their suffering, point B is you reach this place where there is no suffering and rather than thinking of these place as places, these are more like mental states.
Yet the paradox in this would be if I am not at point B, wherever I am and I see there’s point B and I’m trying to get there, that’s the very source of my suffering is that I’m here and I’m not there and I want to be there. That’s where this paradox comes in is the moment I can accept [00:40:30] well, this is where I am and I don’t want to be anywhere else, this is just where I am, ironically that’s when you get to point B. Not because you wanted to get there, but because you’ve made where you are point B. Now correlating that paradox with what you’re talking about with the feelings and how we just observe them, to me that comes across as similar in the sense that I feel this. I don’t want to feel this. I want to feel that.
Now I’m caught in the very problem. That’s why [00:41:00] I love the title like “Why Buddhism is True” correlating it to this whole line of thinking. Is it saying, “This is what’s true. That when you are completely content with where you are, when nothing needs to be any different than how it is, ironically that’s it. That’s when you found the very thing that you were looking for which is that nirvana or that radical acceptance.”
Robert Wright: It is ironic that you start out by saying, “I’d to be happier. I’d to be endearingly happy. [00:41:30] That’s the way I’d like to feel.” The answer is well then quit caring about the way you feel.
Noah Rasheta: Exactly.
Robert Wright: It seems paradoxical, but that’s at the very core of Buddhist practice is to quit yearning for things to be different than they are. That’s what it means to quit trying to kind of runaway from unpleasant feelings and quit trying to cling to pleasant feelings. [00:42:00] It’s paradoxical, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It seems to work. I don’t want to minimize the challenge though.
Noah Rasheta: Absolutely.
Robert Wright: There are people who say that they’ve attained spontaneous awakening and never had to meditate, don’t meditate. I envy them. I think for most of us it takes real commitment which is hard to get on the cushion every day, [00:42:30] but then it pays real dividends.
Noah Rasheta: It’s funny. I have a friend who has told me before, “I want to learn to be more patient.” There’s almost the sense of frustration in the process because it’s like, “I want to be patient now.” That’s the irony of it is that’s the very reason you can’t, right? You can’t want that now. I think about that a lot with Buddhism in general, with enlightenment. The idea [00:43:00] of enlightenment in Buddhism. The science of enlightenment. All of this that’s talked about here is … You mentioned this in the book that the huge irony in all this is when you can sit there and watch these modules, you don’t have to control them, that’s the only time you actually have a sense of some control over them.
That’s still the irony because you don’t have control over them and I love that paradox.
Robert Wright: Yeah, but just to not have them controlling you is progress in itself, right?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah.
Robert Wright: [00:43:30] Right. Now it’s full of paradox. Life is full of paradox. Quantum physics is full of paradox. You know what I mean? Reality seems to involve paradox.
Noah Rasheta: I think that’s an important distinction that you just made. The way our feelings and emotions control us and what if our goal was just to not let them control us rather than thinking the duality. We’re always in this dualistic mindset. I don’t want them to control them. Therefore, I must control [00:44:00] them. The truth is you can’t get to that point, but you can get to the point where they don’t control you. The reactivity goes away and that’s really what we’re after, right? The freedom from our habitual reactivity.
Robert Wright: That’s right. That’s right.
Noah Rasheta: I love that. Let’s talk a little bit about the book in general, on a whole. Why is this book important right now?
Robert Wright: That’s a good question. [00:44:30] First of all, as a practical matter, that does serve as a good introduction for people who are not that conversed in Buddhism and maybe haven’t even meditated. I mean one of the blurbs I’m proudest of is Sharon Salzberg was very nice and said something like, “The book is a value both to experienced meditators and to people who are wondering what the fuss [00:45:00] is all about, who have never meditated.” I like to think that it does work at both of those levels. I don’t know because I can’t. I just can’t be a naïve reader of it, but I hope that’s true. Leaving that aside, I mean leaving aside what I hope it will be by way of a resource to people, what I was trying to do was [00:45:30] argue that in fundamental ways.
You hear that well, meditation is being validated by science. What people usually mean by that is well, they did a study showing that meditation relaxes people. That’s good, but I think a deeper validation is possible. That’s what I was trying to achieve because they’ll argue that science actually corroborates not just the [00:46:00] practical value of meditation, but the philosophical foundation of Buddhist meditation, in particular mindfulness meditation, and kind of the Buddhist psychology implicit in all that. That’s what I hope to do. I did it by reference to not just psychology, although a lot of …
I talk about various [00:46:30] things, brain scan studies and various experiments in psychology, but I also put particular emphasis on evolutionary psychology because I’m a long standing fan of that. I’ve written about it. I think it is itself a very valid framing of psychology broadly. I mean if you believe that natural selection created the mind, it kind of has to. Evolutionary psychology construed, somehow it has to have some relevance to the way our minds are, right? [00:47:00] I hope that I brought something of value by bringing my prior conversancy in evolutionary psychology to Buddhist philosophy and to meditative practice. I think here it’s maybe a good thing that I’m not a better meditator than I am. What I mean by that is I started in …
I was in middle age. [00:47:30] I was already I guess thinking that I might write about this. I was kind of observing the process from the point of view of a beginner and thinking all along like how would you explain this to people. I make fairly considerable use of my own experiences especially on retreat where you tend to have the most dramatic experiences. I hope just something distinctive [00:48:00] there in that combination of things, evolutionary psychology, Buddhist philosophy and psychology and my own experience meditatively.
Noah Rasheta: Great. Do you happen to have a favorite concept or topic that you discussed in this book?
Robert Wright: You mean favorite in the sense that I’m proudest of what I did with it or I like the way it reads most?
Noah Rasheta: [00:48:30] I guess a section that you feel really rings true through experiential knowledge. We talk about Buddhism as a whole, “Why Buddhism is True.” Is there something specific that has stood out to you that you presented in this book where you’re like, “This right here rings true to me.”
Robert Wright: Well, a couple of things. I would say in terms of the distinctive [00:49:00] light that an evolutionary perspective can shed, I think the argument I tried to make about so called emptiness. The idea that the things you perceive out there actually don’t have the essence that we tend to project on them. I’m proud of that and I hope people will take the argument seriously, but that’s not the most user [00:49:30] friendly part. It’s the reason I kind of saved it for the later parts of the book. I would say in a way one of the more user friendly is something I already said.
Just appreciating that a fairly modest meditative practice however halting and incremental your progress may seem and however therapeutic it may seem in its aims, just [00:50:00] to make you little less stressed out or whatever, is kind of continuously and naturally connected to a more thorough going meditative attainments and to the depths of Buddhist philosophy. I hope people take seriously the claim that our everyday way of looking at the world is deeply misleading because I think that has moral consequence. [00:50:30] It’s what starts wars. It’s what I think is responsible for the political polarization in the United States today.
It’s that everyone thinks their view of the world is the actual true view, but actually our minds were designed by natural selection to mislead us. Not always. I mean there are a lot things we see very clearly. You want to see the walls. You don’t bump into it and so on, but especially when it comes to our rightness, our rectitude and [00:51:00] the contrasting rectitude of whatever tribe we identify as the enemy, there our minds are systematically misleading us. I think both making progress on both the not-self and the emptiness front will help us make progress in fighting these problems, political polarization, sectarian strife and so on. I mean if you ask me what I hope will come out of the book, [00:51:30] my hope is that it’ll help things at that pragmatic level.
Noah Rasheta: That’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more with you on that assessment. That’s the vibe I got reading this book. It felt like this is something everyone needs to read. I’ve always thought every couple when they get married should be required to go mandatory relationship coaching or [00:52:00] something to that effect. I feel like every person going out into the world as an adult should have some kind of mindfulness skills. I felt like this book gives you the foundation. I’ve heard of this mindfulness stuff. What is it? Why would I even want it? This is the kind of book that’s like, “Ah okay. It make sense. It make sense how it works, why it works and now I want to practice it.” That’s the feeling I got from it. [00:52:30] I’m always recommending books.
I have a list of probably 40 or 50 books on my website, SecularBuddhism.com/books. These are my recommended books, but I mean this when I say this that I feel like your book is now among the top of the list for me to make sure people read to understand, “Hey. This is why this stuff works. This is why we practice this stuff.” I’m going to encourage everyone [00:53:00] to read it. I’m very happy that you wrote it. I’m very happy with the way that you wrote it because I think it speaks to people who like me are secular minded, who aren’t interested in anything that feels dogmatic in any way. The way you’ve presented it I think is just fantastic. It speaks to that audience. Thank you for contributing and writing this at a time when the world could benefit greatly from this book.
Robert Wright: Well, [00:53:30] thank you so much. That means a lot coming from you. As I told you before we started recording, I’ve been aware of your podcast for a long time. Very impressed by it and impressed by the way you kind of do it by yourself. I mean it’s just kind of you talking and that’s a hard thing to do, but for that reason, months ago when the book was coming out, I thought, “Well, I guess that’s one place I won’t see myself talking about the book because he doesn’t have guests.” I’m glad that what is from my point of [00:54:00] view the perfect time you’re branching out a little. I really feel lucky. I’m really, really grateful for what you said about the book and really gratified that you have that view.
Noah Rasheta: Well, thank you. Do you have a specific place where you had want people to go look for this? Is Amazon the best place? Any links I’ll put them on the website and in this specific episode.
Robert Wright: [00:54:30] I guess if they want to kind of check it out a little before buying, there is WhyBuddhismIsTrue.net which features kind of just the first few paragraphs of every chapter. You could kind of check it out a little there, although these days Amazon lets you kind of browse a book a little. You can do it there too. I don’t particularly have a preference. Some people want to support independent bookstores. [00:55:00] That’s a great thing too because they’re a great institution.
Noah Rasheta: Well, I’ll be posting links to different places. If any of you listening or watching this are interested in the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, written from a perspective that is very open to the … What I highlight in [00:55:30] the podcast with the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” That journey starts with this book in my opinion. This is a great place to start.
Robert Wright: Thank you so much.
Noah Rasheta: The concepts are very clear. I think my favorite part of my book if I just want to share my thing was the whole topic of not-self. The way you present and correlate that with the mental modules made so much sense to me. I love your analogy of the [00:56:00] red pill at the beginning of the book with The Matrix.
Robert Wright: From the movie The Matrix.
Noah Rasheta: That really is what this is like, right?
Robert Wright: Realizing you’re living in the matrix.
Noah Rasheta: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You talked about this. What you see isn’t what you think it is. If you want to see what it is, use the red pill. I love that. Thank you very much for your time for being on the show. I’m excited and honored that you are the first guest that I’ve had that’s in this [00:56:30] new interview format.
Robert Wright: Well, I’m excited and honored by the exact same thing.
Noah Rasheta: Well, thanks. I’ll be doing this more often. Maybe once a month a format like this. I’d love to maybe reconnect at some point in the future and see how the book is doing or what other projects you have in the works. For now, I think this is kind of the main focus, but I’d love to see what you come up with down the road and have you back on the podcast.
Robert Wright: Absolutely. I’ll be here.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Well, thank you for your time. Do you have anything [00:57:00] else that you would want to add? Any closing thoughts or anything?
Robert Wright: I don’t think so. I would just say try it and if you’ve tried meditation and it’s never worked, try meditation retreat. Do research. Find out where you’re going and have reason to think that the teachers are good and that it’s what you want. Without a retreat, I don’t think I ever would have gotten into this stuff.
Noah Rasheta: That’s really [00:57:30] good to hear because I get that a lot hearing from people. “I like this and I tried it. I meditated a few days, but this is really hard to …” I always say meditation is easy. Meditating is hard. Doing it is the hard part. I love the idea of a retreat. Remind us which on you went to.
Robert Wright: I’ve done most of mine at the Insight Meditation Society which is in rural Massachusetts. It’s one of the places where vipassana meditation which is not exactly the same as mindfulness [00:58:00] meditation, but involves it, in the United States. This is an important institution co-founded by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield who himself went out and found his spirit rock in the west.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Okay. I’ll post links to some of these places that we’re talking about in the podcast as well and on the website. Well, thank you very much. This has been a really [00:58:30] fun experience. I’ve been a little reluctant since I started the podcast about when and how to do the interviews and I’ve had a few authors reach out to me already with books. Yours was the first one where I thought, “Oh, I’ll give it a try,” and I started reading it. As soon as I started reading it, I was like, “Okay. This is the type of author I want to interview because …”
Robert Wright: That’s so great to hear. The title worked with you at least. Got you to open the book.
Noah Rasheta: Well, have I been browsing [00:59:00] the halls of the bookstore and came across it, I would have looked at it and thought huh because I think again from the Buddhist perspective, I would have seen just the interesting correlation of Buddhism and true in the same sentence and I would have been like, “What do they mean,” and I would have read it. The way the book is designed now, I love the comments you have on the back. Martin Seligman, Sharon Salzberg, Jonathan Gold. I mean those were great. I would have read the back [00:59:30] and I would have said, “Okay. This is a book I’ll pick up and give it a try.” The title would have caught my interest and then looking at it a little more closely would have been enough to say, “Yeah. I’ll read this.”
Then reading it makes it so I would tell anyone about it now. Good job on the book.
Robert Wright: That’s so good to hear.
Noah Rasheta: All right. Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you on.
Robert Wright: Same here, Noah.
Noah Rasheta: All right. Take care. All right.
Robert Wright: Bye, bye.
Noah Rasheta: If you enjoyed this podcast [01:00:00] episode, please share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. Check out Robert’s new book by visiting SecularBuddhism.com/true. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit SecularBuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 45. This is a question-and-answer episode. I plan on doing these roughly once a week or maybe once every couple of weeks depending on how many questions I get. I want to infuse these episodes with the normal weekly topics so the format for the podcast is, its topical and I’m going to continue that, but I am going to occasionally have a Q&A episode like this one or an interview episode, and those will start coming out probably next month but this is the first episode of the Q&A format. So this is episode number 45, questions and answers.
I had four people send in questions and I recorded the answers to those questions so I hope you enjoy this episode. If you have any specific questions that you would like addressed in a future Q&A podcast episode, you can submit those questions by email. I’m hoping to get the actual recorded questions because I think that’s more fun for the podcast format for listeners to hear other listeners, so you can record your question on your phone and then send it to me in an email or you can call in and record it as a voicemail by calling my phone number 435-200-4803.
Leave me a message with your question and then I’ll put the question in the podcast like I’m going to do here. So this is the first episode of this format. I hope you guys like it. I’d love to get feedback; if you like it let me know, if you don’t like it let me know. This is a format that I plan on working with without replacing the current format. I’m just adding this in. So every now and then we’ll have questions and answers. This is the first episode of that style. So, next are the four questions that I received this week. I will answer those and hopefully we’ll keep doing this.
Lucas: Hi Noah, my name is Lucas and I have a question about meditation. Traditional sitting meditation is something very hard for me to do because of physical trauma. It’s hard for me to focus on anything else in pain if I sit. Because of that, I mainly do walking meditation. I also meditate while doing my job on a daily basis, so I wanted to know if you think traditional meditation is essential to your practice and also if you knew any other types of meditation. Thank you.
Noah: Hi Lucas, thank you for your question. Before anything, there is a podcast episode where I do go into meditation a little bit more; episode 12, it’s called “Master Meditation By Not Meditating“. But the essence of what I explain in that podcast episode, is the idea of meditation is tricky because the moment we think of meditation as something we’re doing, we conceptualize it. So now we have an idea that meditation is sitting on a cushion or meditation is doing something, something specific, so we measure whatever it is we’re doing up against the conceptual understanding we have in our mind of what meditation is, and that makes it hard to know if …
That’s when questions arise, like, “Am I meditating properly? Are there other ways to do it?” So with regards to your question, something that I would mention that’s worth exploring is rather than thinking of techniques to meditate, just imagine that you’re looking for techniques that allow you to be present and to be here and now. “What can I do that allows me to be present and here and now? It allows me to be in a state of mind where there’s no grasping.
There’s no clinging to anything. Nothing needs to be anything different than how it is in this moment.” That’s meditation. So you can experience that when you’re walking, if you’re doing walking meditation. You can experience that if you’re sitting, and like you mentioned, the sitting part is the part that’s hard and that’s okay because sitting has nothing to do with meditating. We just happen to be sitting when we meditate a lot, but the sitting isn’t necessarily a key part of that process. You could be walking, you could be driving, you could be doing the dishes.
Anything that you’re doing where you’re fully engaged with the here and now and you’re completely in the present moment, you’re not grasping or thinking about, “I’m here, but I should be there,” or “I’m here, but I should be thinking of responding to emails or being at home or thinking of what I’m going to eat.” All of that goes away. So when you’re not experiencing that, nothing needs to be anything different than how it is, those are the moments where you realize, “Oh, I’m meditating. I’m totally engaged in the present moment.” So I would say tackle this backwards.
Instead of looking for a method that puts you in that state, try to think of times that you’ve been in that state where you’re completely engaged with the present moment and then do more of whatever you were doing at that time that got you into that state. One way that I like to meditate — I’ve mentioned this before — is when I go paragliding and I’m in the air. Those are moments where I’m completely in that present moment. It’s here and now and I’m not thinking of anything else. And I’ve experienced that sitting on the cushion too.
So that’s what we’re ultimately trying to do, is to be more anchored and engaged with the present moment, so any activity that you can do that puts you in that, would be meditating. Another technique you could try when you’re with friends, try to catch yourself and notice, “Am I reactive when my phone goes off? Am I with someone but thinking about that text message that just came in or feeling antsy because I haven’t checked Facebook?”
Those are opportunities where you can look at them and think, “Well wait, I want to practice right now being completely present with this person that I’m with and I feel my phone vibrate … I’m not gonna look at it. There’s a notification there. I don’t care what it is. I’m not gonna look.” Those are little techniques that you can do to practice being really present. Another one; I don’t know if you drive a lot but being stuck at a red light’s an awesome opportunity to be engaged with that moment.
“It’s right here, it’s right now, there’s nowhere else I can be. I’m stuck at this light, so I’m going to just be with this moment and look out, look around. What can I notice that I’ve never noticed here?” Or just be really engaged in the present moment. We can do this just driving in general. How often do you drive somewhere where you feel you have to have music playing? It’s like why not give it a try and say, five minutes where there’s nothing.
I’m just driving. That’s it. No distractions of any kind. There are a lot of opportunities to try to be engaged with the present moment, to try to really be present with the here and now. That’s what meditation is trying to do, so rather than thinking of it as other ways to meditate think of, “What are other ways that I can be really present?” and then you’ll be finding what you’re looking for. Hopefully that answers your question. Thank you, Lucas.
William: Hi Noah, my name is William and my question is around the rationalization of unskillful behavior. Now, I’d like to think when I’m acting mindfully and calm and collected in moments of reflection, I’d like to think I act quite skillfully. But many times when I’m not thinking about things — I guess like all of us — sometimes the behavior lapses. I am not so much worried about that part of it. What really worries me, or is a cause of concern for me, is when I can identify that I’m about to engage in unskillful behavior and I can rationalize why that’s okay and then go ahead and do it.
I don’t know what part of me is doing it, but for me it’s a part of [inaudible 00:08:15] concern because I know that these things are skillful. I know they’re not helpful and they’re leading away from a life of happiness and wholesomeness, but my brain can always find a reason to do it. “It’s okay to watch this violent movie because you meditated yesterday.” Or, “It’s okay to partake in these drugs or this alcohol because you need to relax from time to time,” and so on. And there’s always a reason why it’s okay. My brain gives me permission to do these things at all times. I wondered if there was anything you could speak to about that. Thank you.
Noah: Hi William, thank you for your question and for bringing that topic up. I think that’s a fascinating topic to discuss. I’m going to just go off of your specific question. Something that you mentioned that stood out to me was this discovery that you can rationalize a behavior or a decision. The first thing that popped out to me was thinking, well, rationalizing a decision isn’t necessarily the same thing as proceeding to do something.
I could sit and rationalize why it might make sense to do something and still at the same time go against my own rationalization and say, “But I’m not going to do it. It makes complete sense to do it but I’m still not going to do it.” So that’s something worth looking at there and trying to see … peel this a little bit more. Maybe it’s not the rationalization because the rationalization alone shouldn’t be enough. Maybe try to dig deeper. What’s really happening there that … Why are you really making a specific choice or decision?
With the eightfold path you bring up specifically skillful conduct, but I would maybe look a little bit more at that skillful intent. What is the intent behind the conduct? Because that’s the key. When we become really familiar with why; why do I do the things that I do, say the things that I say, think the things that I think? Then we start to gain a lot of power. Now, understanding the “why” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to change that conduct or behavior, but you’re not going to change it very well without knowing the “why,” so I would start with that.
And when you have a really deep understanding of why you can take something, whatever these scenarios are that you’re talking about that you can rationalize, knowing you probably shouldn’t, but you rationalize that you can so you do … Why? Why do you do that? And if you can answer that question, then take it another level. Why do you do that? It’s like you’re playing like you’re the two-year-old who’s like, “Why? Why? Why?” So based on the question, the way you framed it, that’s the input that I would suggest. It does kind of remind me of a quote by Alan Watts.
He talks about how we all have the irreducible element of rascality. This is kind of like in Taoism, the concept of the yin and the yang and recognizing that in the middle of all the good there’s that one little bit of bad, or in the middle of all the bad there’s that one little bit of good because there’s always the symbol of the yin. Yin is that it’s all one whole; good has bad, bad has good, and it’s all one eternal round, so that’s something worth looking at here, is the element of irreducible rascality, as Alan Watts would say.
It’s that recognition that even if I know what is best for me and what I should or shouldn’t be doing, there’s always that element of irreducible rascality that’ll say, “Yeah, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s something worth recognizing and looking at. You can imagine this, sometimes this is the scenario; the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and have that debate. Let them hash it out and say, “Why should I listen to you? Why should I listen to you?” But what you become really familiar with in this process is yourself.
That’s the whole part of being introspective with mindfulness, is that that answer that you’re looking for when it comes to your own actions, your own thoughts, it’s internal. It’s not an external thing. So yeah, I don’t know the answer, but what I would suggest is digging. Dig deeper. Ask why, and ask yourself, “If I know that I shouldn’t do it, but at the same time my mind can rationalize why it should … ” well then let’s maybe spend some time and let the two sides have a debate in your head.
Why and pros and cons, why not pros and cons and then weigh your decision and say … Well if you can have that debate, then you can still rationalize and say well, “I’m still going to do this,” then what’s really behind it? Why am I really doing it? Because I have a feeling that if you can nail down the “why,” if you understand the intent, you may be able to work with these situations with a little bit more clarity. So that’s what I got for that. Hopefully that somewhat addresses or gets him into the topic that you were asking with your question. Thank you very much for sending that.
Julia Berger: Hi Noah, my name is Julia Berger, and I want you to know, first off, how much I appreciate your podcast and I listened to it many times over. I do have a question that you could put on air, if you’d like. I’m going through a similar situation and I want you to know how helpful you explaining this personal situation is to people.
But what I’m having a problem with is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen. Once I know things are going to happen in a certain way, then I can plan for it and that’s fine, but the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen; maybe you could give some insight into how to deal better with that. Thanks a lot. Have a great day. Bye bye.
Noah: Hi Julia, thank you very much for the kind words. It’s nice to know that others are benefiting from recognizing that we all go through difficult things and I’m happy to hear that me sharing my personal things that I’m going through is helping you, and I’m sure many others. As far as your question, the topic of uncertainty is such a big one. How do we deal with uncertainty? And I totally understand where you’re coming from with what you’re saying because I felt the same thing.
It’s that in-between stage where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. That’s the hard part. As soon as I know this is what’s going to happen; they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. Then I’ve got something to work with. But that limbo, being in that state of limbo, that uncertainty is really hard to work with. At the same time, that’s exactly what mindfulness is trying to help us to accomplish, is to obtain the sense of comfort with discomfort. How do we become comfortable with the discomfort?
‘Cause the problem’s never been that there’s discomfort, the problem is that there’s discomfort and we don’t like it. We don’t want to be with a discomfort. If we were okay with being with discomfort, then it wouldn’t be a problem. And uncertainty is … That’s the only certain thing that there is, so how do we work with that? Well, here are a couple of tips that I would like to suggest. One is working with plans. We can plan for the future, but not getting caught up with the expectation. So this is maybe a comparison of, “Do I have expectations or do I have plans?”
Because when my expectations aren’t met, that’s more difficult than recognizing my plan needs to be revised or edited. That’s an easy thing to do. ‘Cause when you form expectations, you’re already setting yourself up to be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, and we all know that we can’t control the outcome. I’ve mentioned that life is like a game of Tetris; we don’t know what pieces are coming next. That’s okay. Are you okay with knowing that that’s how life is? That’s what we’re working with here.
So to do that, we can focus on a plan. So, for example, I might know … Well, going back to Tetris. “If I get a square then I’m going to have to do this. If I get a bar, I’m going to have to do this.” I have different shapes in mind and if it ends up being this one or that one or that one, I kind of have already formulated somewhat of a plan. That’s one technique that could kinda help. That allows us to be prepared for the different possibilities that may show up.
For example, with what I’ve been dealing with in my personal life, it’s like, “Well, I know that we may lose the house. That’s very likely. And if that happens then I’ve got this plan. We’re going to try to move in with so-and-so, and we’ll live in the basement there and … ” I’ve got this plan. What happens if that doesn’t go that way. What if it’s this? Or what if we lose it sooner than later? I’ve got different plans for different scenarios that may come up so that helps me to cope with the uncertainty. There’s still the uncertainty but it’s not so difficult because I’ve got different plans for different scenarios.
Next is focusing on observing. We talk about this a lot through meditation and recognizing when you’re feeling discomfort with uncertainty, you can just observe that and recognize “I’m just feeling discomfort.” Now it’s not necessary to add a new layer to that and say, “Well, now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncomfortable.” Because that’s often what happens with our emotions; we experience an emotion like anger or sadness. Now I’m sad and then I’m sad that I’m sad, or I’m angry and now that I’m angry that I’m angry.
And when it comes to uncertainty, it’s already uncomfortable to have uncertainty in life, but now I’m uncomfortable that I’m uncertain, or I’m uncomfortable about the uncomfortableness that I feel around my uncertainty, because I’m thinking, “Well, I’m uncomfortable around uncertainty and I don’t like that. I don’t want to be uncomfortable with it. So that’s one way to look at this and think, “Well, what if it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the uncertainty?” Just don’t be uncomfortable about being uncomfortable.
So observing. Ultimately, with all of this we start to become comfortable with our ability to cope, our ability to adapt. I talked about this before, the wisdom of adaptability. That’s really what we’re after here so if you’re playing Tetris and you know that you don’t know what’s coming next, what you start to gain confidence in … This is the way I understand faith. It’s not that I have faith that a square is coming; “I know it’s coming.” Well yeah, it might, but it might be five pieces away before that square shows up.
So what I developed faith in is, I have faith that whatever shows up I’m going to be able to figure it out. You start to develop the faith or … in your confidence in your own skills, your ability to adopt. This isn’t the same as, “I’m going to expect the worst.” This is about understanding, “I can handle whatever is going to come.” That’s pretty powerful to know that. There’s a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem, and in that book she talks about a concept called defensive pessimism.
This is when you consider the worst so that you can plan how you’re going to handle it, and this has shown to actually help people to manage with anxiety. This is similar to what the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying suggests that we do with one of our greatest fear, is the fear of death. It says we fear it because we haven’t thought enough about it. Why not sit down and think about it and think, “What am I going to do? What will it be like when I lose my spouse or if I lose my kids, if I lose a loved one; my parents, my … everyone.
You play through all these scenarios of what that’s going to be like when they’re gone and that’s what helps us to prepare, and it also enhances our sense of gratitude that we’re not there yet. “I haven’t had to experience that.” I know in our Western way of thinking that’s kind of taboo. It’s like don’t think about the worst that could happen because then you jinx yourself but that’s just not true. Think about the worst that could happen. If this happens, then what? Well, then this will be this and that’ll be that. Well then what? And play through those scenarios.
That’s really helped me. I’ve played through all the worst scenarios. Well if this is the worst, well if that happens then what? Well, then it’ll be this, this and that. At some point I realized, “I guess we’re all still alive.” But what if we’re not? What if one of us dies? Oh, suddenly I get into these scenarios where I’m thinking, “Okay. Well those are a lot worse than the original scenario I started with, which was, ‘What if I lose my house and that was all scary.'” 10 minutes into that thought process and I’m thinking, “What’s going to happen if I lose one of my kids?”
And now I’m thinking, “Okay. The house is fine. I’m not worried about the house anymore.” Anyway, that’s the defensive pessimism. Another helpful tip; just focus on what you can control. Again, the analogy of Tetris is so useful here because we can’t control what shapes show up, but when the shape does show up, we do have some control in the game. You can move that shape left and right and you can rotate it, and that’s really important to focus on, to recognize I don’t know what life is going through at me but I do know I have some control when it does.
I get to control how I’m going to handle it, how I’m going to work with it. I don’t control whether I have that or not, but I do control to some degree how I handle what shows up. So focus on what you can control, and in general, keep practicing mindfulness, keep practicing. We’re practicing the art of becoming neutral observers when we sit there and we observe our thoughts, or our emotions, our physical sensations. So meditation. Meditation is a tool to practice exactly this; sit there, becoming comfortable with discomfort.
I think there’s an element of uncertainty with sitting and meditating. You sit there and one of the first things you think is, “I’m sitting here and I don’t want to sit here. I need to be thinking about cooking. What I’m making for dinner for the kids or whatever it is. So we’re immediately confronted with that discomfort at what we’re doing. And that’s a great place to practice that and sit there with that discomfort and think, “I’m going to become comfortable with discomfort.” It doesn’t mean that I’m going to force that discomfort to go away, I’m going to sit here till sitting here becomes comfortable.”
That’s not the point. It’s, “I’m going to sit here till I’m totally okay with sitting here and not wanting to sit here. I’ve become comfortable with the discomfort.” I think that helps with how we deal with uncertainty. Anyway, that was kind of a long answer with a lot of different tips but those are some of the things that I would suggest with working with uncertainty. So thanks again for reaching out.
Speaker 5: Hey Noah, I have a question for your podcast. [inaudible 00:24:16] and I practice quite a bit of mindfulness and awareness about my actions and the people around me and the way that I’m feeling. I’m ready to take that next step so I was hoping that you might be able to answer the question of: once you’ve gathered and become practiced in mindfulness and awareness, what’s the next step you can take in secular Buddhism to deepen the practice and to maybe cross that next bridge that will make you feel differently about the way that you’re perceiving the world?. Thank you. I hope this message reaches you. Love the show and I hope you’re doing well. [inaudible 00:24:54]. Bye bye.
Noah: Hi. Thank you for posting your question about once we’ve developed the skill or become more proficient with practicing mindfulness, then what? What’s next? Specifically from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s a good question. So one thing I would say is it’s really difficult to have milestones like, “Now that I’m here, what’s next? And then once I reach that, then what’s next?” That can be kinda tricky because I don’t know that there really are milestones. When I think of practice, practicing mindfulness, practicing Buddhism, I think of wisdom and compassion.
This is talked about in the Tibetan traditions as the two wings of a bird; wisdom and compassion, and how you need both of them. They’re both something that we can practice so it seems like the more we learn about mindfulness, the easier it is to practice, and the more that we practice it, the more interested we are in learning more. So we’re always playing this game of juggling what I would call knowledge and wisdom on one side, that’s one of the wings.
Knowledge is what we gain through reading, through listening, through podcasts, books, you name it. There are tons of sources of knowledge out there, and the knowledge gives us greater insight into these concepts. Concepts like impermanence, interdependence, emptiness. And the knowledge, it inspires us to want to practice. Now with the practice, that’s where we’re putting into practice these concepts; we’re sitting and we’re meditating or we’re learning to increase that gap between stimulus and response. All of that’s happening as we sit and practice, and through the practice we start to acquire wisdom.
So this is the flipside to knowledge. Knowledge you just gain by just … You read, watch documentaries, read books, listen to podcasts. All that will give you knowledge. But sitting and practicing starts to give you insight into the nature of your own mind, the perspective that you have of reality. And that’s where wisdom kicks in. Wisdom is experiential. So I would say the next step for anyone, no matter where you are, is just more practice. Practicing specific meditation techniques, you can practice being more compassionate, you can practice being more mindful.
And that one’s always tricky because, “How do I become more aware? I’m not aware of what I should be aware of?” So rather than looking for something specific, you learn to just look. “I’m just looking. I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’m looking.” And we do this through observation. We sit and we meditate and we observe our thoughts. We observe our emotions, our physical sensations, just like we would watch clouds passing in the sky. But ultimately, what this is doing is it’s helping us to practice to be neutral observers, because when we’re observers that’s when we’re in the right mind frame to see something that we hadn’t seen before and that’s where insight comes.
So I would say as far as thinking about a next step, how are you doing with your meditation? Is it a daily thing? How often and how long do you meditate? Those are always numbers that can increase. And then there are other aspects of the practice, not just sitting and meditating, but are you priming your mind to have moments of awareness? You can do this by creating little triggers throughout the day; “Anytime I see a red light. I’m stuck at a red light. That’s a trigger for me to think, ‘Okay, I have 10 seconds to be more mindful or however long I have at this red light I’m going to try to be more mindful.'”
And you can turn off the radio. You can roll down the windows, take in the sights and sounds of where you are, with the goal of just being more present. “How can I be anchored in the present moment?” Just be here, being in the here and now, little things like that. So that’s one technique. Another technique would be starting a gratitude journal. “What are the things that I’m grateful for and why am I grateful for them?” There are so many areas where we can practice, and I would say that’s the next step, just looking at your practice. “How do I make my practice more efficient, more meaningful to me?” And working with that.
Because there’s not like this great secret out there. It’s like, if you learn this, then you can learn that, then you can learn that, and then you can finally learn the big secret. That’s what I love about Buddhism in general, is it’s trying to help us go in the opposite direction. It’s like we simplify, simplify, simplify, until you realize, Oh my gosh, all of it has been incredible all along. The extraordinary is the extraordinary.” So yeah, that’s how I would think about it instead of a progression for what’s next. It’s hard to say what would be next, because I think whatever’s next, that might be different for everyone.
Everyone might have a different answer. But finding out what’s next may be part of the quest for you to look at and think, “Well, what do I want to do with this now? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do with it? There are other resources out there to have more in-depth understanding of Buddhism. You could attend the local Buddhist congregation or study group, that would be an excellent thing. Find a meditation group that you can join. There are online courses where you can learn about Buddhism or mindfulness, become a certified mindfulness teacher or something to that effect.
So those are things that you could look at and I think those would all be great next steps to take this to a whole new level. But ultimately, the specific answer is going to be very personal. What’s next for you? That’s your quest, your choice, and you get to figure that out. So anyway, not to be vague with that but, yeah, hopefully something in that answer works for you and I’d love to hear from you what your next thing is.
Whenever you get going with it, let me know or share that in our Facebook group; The Secular Buddhism Podcasts Study Group. Be a great place to discuss these things. So anyway, thank you very much for your questions and I look forward to hearing what is next for you. Thank you. So these were the questions I received this week. Again, if you want to add your own questions and have them featured on the podcast, please submit your questions by email.
Record it on your phone like a voice memo or something, and then send that in an email to [email protected] or you can call in to area code 435-200-4803 and just leave me a voicemail with your question. Both of those formats work. f you have a question and you don’t want to record your voice, you can go ahead and email that to me as well, but I’m hoping to get actual recorded questions. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. If you have any questions let me know. Until next time.
One of the things I appreciate most about Buddhism is the emphasis on becoming your own teacher. In one of the last teachings the Buddha gave, he said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. “Don’t look for anyone for guidance”. In this episode, I will discuss the idea of finding the teacher within.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 44. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Finding the Teacher Within.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been watching a series on Netflix called Buddha. It’s a 55-part series about the historical Buddha, and it’s inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Old Path, White Clouds, which happens to be one of my two favorite books on the topic of the historical Buddha, the other book being Buddha by Karen Armstrong. If you’re interested in learning any of the historical account of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, those are two books that I would certainly recommend. Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddha by Karen Armstrong.
What’s been great about watching the Netflix series is that it’s really fun to finally add a visual image to the stories that I’ve read in several books and in the discourses of early Buddhist texts. It’s not the best quality. I like to think of it as a Spanish soap opera produced by a Bollywood production company because that’s the style. There are several moments where I would just laugh because it’s quite entertaining in a comical way.
In general, with the production quality being low and the acting being subpar, I still enjoyed it quite a bit because, like I said, it’s fun to have a visual representation of some of these stories that I’ve listened to and that I’ve really enjoyed in my own studies of Buddhism. But something that really stood out to me while watching the story of the transformation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama turning into … The ascetic Siddhartha Gautama ultimately into the Buddha, the role of the Awakened One, the Buddha, was that he had various teachers along the way.
Historically, in the Pali Canon, it’s taught that he had two main teachers. Once he became an ascetic in the forest, he studied with an ascetic named Alara Kalama. He taught him how to meditate and studied with him. Ultimately, Kalama said, “Hey, I’ve taught you all that I know. There’s really nothing else I can teach you. Why don’t you stay here and you take over the school,” because he was older, getting old. Siddhartha’s like, “No, I’m not interested in that,” because he didn’t feel satisfied. He didn’t have the answers to his questions yet.
Kalama taught him as much as he could, and then he went on from there and found another teacher named Udaka. He worked with him, and ultimately the same thing happened. He reached the point where Udaka’s like, “Well, I’ve taught you all that I can. You know everything I know. There’s nothing left for me to teach you.”
At this point in the story, Siddhartha decides … He’s frustrated. He’s like, “Well, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own,” and he continues his journey. Ultimately, that’s exactly what happens. He attains enlightenment or awakening all on his own.
I cover this concept of the Buddha attaining enlightenment in a previous podcast, Episode 39: What is Enlightenment? If you’re interested in navigating that topic a little bit more, go back and listen to that episode.
In the story of the Buddha, he ultimately discovers that the teacher he’s been looking for was him. It was himself. This is finding the teacher within. That’s the topic of this podcast. The profound implication of this discovery is that it’s similar for us. We, too, can learn as much as possible from all the teachers out there, but, in the end, the greatest discovery is the discovery that the teacher that you’re looking for is you, the teacher within. That’s what I want to discuss in this podcast episode.
Before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you again of a couple of things. First, my commonly shared quote that the Dalai Lama says: “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are. Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are.”
Second is the reminder that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. If you get any value out of this episode and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 can make a big difference. Of course, one-time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the ‘donate’ button at the top of the page. Now let’s jump back into this week’s topic.
The reason I wanted to discuss this podcast episode, this topic for this episode, is because often I’m asked by people who started listening to the podcast or they started reading the book or just navigating Buddhism in general, it’s inevitable that someone will ask, “Well, which is the best Buddhist path? Which is the right path? Which one teaches more accurately?” or something along those lines. I think that’s a very natural thought for us to have.
What I like about the example that we have from the historical account of the Buddha is, like I mentioned before, he had multiple teachers. The way it’s portrayed in the series, there’s the guru that he worked with as a child to study the Vedas, like his first teacher that you would have, I guess, as a prince. Then that relationship goes on in his life with having different teachers that he works with. Like I mentioned earlier, the two more well-known teachers in the story are the ones that I mentioned at the beginning.
The point of all of that is just the realization that working with teachers is a common thing, but working with a teacher can only get you so far. This is what happens to him in his life. His ultimate teacher ended up being himself.
Now I think what happens with a lot of people who study Buddhism is you encounter that and you realize, “Wow! Okay. He became awakened. Okay, then he’s the ultimate guru, he’s the ultimate teacher I want to work with.” We make the same mistake that we’ve been making all along, which is we’re looking outside of ourselves for something that can only be found internally. It can only be found inside. That’s the great realization that the Buddha had. His awakening or his enlightenment was that understanding that he was the ultimate teacher.
Now what that means for us is that we can learn from him, we can learn from these stories, you can learn from a Buddhist teacher or a monk or whoever, but you can only learn so much. You’re going to reach the point where it’s going to be a lot like what he encountered, which is, “Hey, I’ve taught you everything that I know. There’s nothing left for you to learn.” Now it’s back on you. The ball is back in your court.
I think we make a mistake when we think of the Buddha as the ultimate teacher in the sense of, “Okay, that’s who I need to learn from.” Now, certainly, following his example, I think, is a good idea, studying the things that he taught, I think, is a good idea, but if we’re going to get anything out of what he taught, let’s understand the main thing that he taught.
The very last thing that he taught in his last discourse was this teaching about becoming your own light, like be your own light, be your own guide. He was essentially inviting people to do exactly what I’m trying to explain in this podcast, which is to realize that we are the ultimate teacher. In other words, you are your ultimate teacher, I am my ultimate teacher.
In Buddhism, it’s common to take refuge. In fact, the act of becoming a Buddhist, and I discussed this in a previous podcast episode, but the act of becoming a Buddhist is when you take refuge in the Three Jewels, and the three are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I talked about these three in detail in Episode 41: Life on the Buddhist Path. You can go back and listen to that one, if you haven’t, to get a better understanding of what it means to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma and the Sangha.
The first one of those, taking refuge in the Buddha, is it’s about wisdom, it’s about anchoring myself in the possibility of becoming awake in the same way that the Buddha became awake. It’s not necessarily anchoring myself in, “Okay, I’m going to learn from the Buddha as if he were my teacher and try to match … ” I guess you could think of it that way, where you’re going to match his wisdom, but I think the profound implication of this is that to take refuge in the Buddha is to say, “I’m going to do what the Buddha did and discover that I’m my greatest teacher. I’m not going to rely on someone else to be my guide or to be my spiritual authority for me. I’m going to be my own.”
Like the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” This is a way of awakening the Buddha within, the Buddha that … We talk about Buddha nature in Buddhism. This is the essential understanding that you’ve got everything that it takes already there inside of you right now. It’s just a matter of discovering it.
In fact, in that same final discourse before the Buddha passed away, he was asked by one of his monks, “What if we meet you on the path?” and he replied, “Don’t accept anyone that you meet on the path as your authority towards liberation, even if you meet me.” Some of you may have heard the expression, “Kill the Buddha if you see the Buddha on the road.” I think that teaching comes from this, from the sentiment.
The Buddha goes on and says, “Even if it’s your father, it doesn’t matter who it is, don’t take someone as your authority because you are the only one who can awaken yourself.” The power of awakening oneself is the term Buddha. That’s what the word ‘Buddha’ means, Awakened One. Nobody can awaken you, nobody can force you to wake up. People can help along the way, but just like with the Buddha’s story, they’ll help you get so far and then that’s it. Then you’ve got to go on your own. Someone else may help you get a little bit further, but at some point you have to figure it out on your own. You have to awaken yourself.
This is the Buddha’s famous last teaching, to, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. While Buddhism may offer us a natural understanding of reality that things are interdependent, things are interconnected, all things are impermanent, you can observe this natural understanding on your own. You can figure this out through observation and through meditation. This is all part of that process of awakening yourself.
The Buddha said, “Don’t look for anyone for guidance.” Now it doesn’t mean, “Okay, I’m not going to learn from anyone anymore. I don’t need to read books,” or listen to this podcast, if this helps in any way. What he’s implying here is don’t rely on someone as if they are the key for you to awaken because they’re not. They can be part of the path in the same way that the Buddha had teachers, but ultimately he was his own teacher.
Think about this just from another perspective real quick, completely outside of ideology or religion or spirituality. Let’s just think about math. When you go to school and you start learning math, you start from the bottom up and you learn the basics. You learn how to add two numbers. It’s usually single-digit numbers and then it becomes double-digit numbers. Then later you learn to subtract and then you learn to multiply and you learn to divide, but you start from the bottom.
When you’re learning math, you don’t reach fifth grade and then say suddenly, “Oh, with that first grade teacher, they were pointless for me because they only taught me two plus two is four. Now I know how to multiply three-digit numbers or something. Yeah, that was dumb.” We don’t do that because we recognize that that was a foundation. What we learned … Because I know that, now I know this.
Now this could go on. With math, the more proficient you become with math, the more beneficial it is to you to interact in the world of numbers. Now it’s not vital for you as a mathematician to be like, “Well, in what style did Pythagoras teach?” or, “What did he say about this or that?” because the math speaks for itself.
I think Buddhism is the same. The teachings are much more important than the teacher. We don’t want to get hung up on the guru part of all of this. We want to understand the concepts and know how to apply these things in our lives. That’s what matters most, not the teacher.
When was the last time you had a discussion or a debate about algebra, thinking, “Who’s the legitimate founder of algebra? Was it Diophantus or was it al-Khwarizmi?” because some people say it’s one and most people say it’s the other, but it’s irrelevant because even though we live in a world where algebra plays a significant part in our day-to-day lives, you may not even know how … Google it. You’ll find a lot of modern society functions off of principles that work through the discovery of algebra, and most of us don’t know anything about the founder of algebra because it’s not that important.
What if we could start to view spirituality, at least Buddhism, in the same way? Now I’m not saying that that means we don’t need to have any respect or appreciation for the Buddha, a lot of people do, and I think that’s a part of their practice, but especially in the secular approach, we recognize that what matters here is the algebra itself, not the founder of algebra. What matters here is mindfulness as a tool, as an exercise.
These concepts, they all stand on their own two feet. It doesn’t have to be that, “Well, mindfulness works if I can prove that the Buddha was who he said he was.” Buddhism doesn’t have that like other religions do, that maybe the validity of the present day message is contingent on the truthfulness or the validity of the story of the founder, or anything from that point on to the present.
Buddhism isn’t like that. Buddhism is just you can observe it, practice it, and realize on your own, “Hey, yeah, things are interdependent, things are impermanent. What are the implications of that?” You may be able to put all this into practice without ever having been told that this is coming from Buddhism, that there’s a guy named Siddhartha who was later called the Buddha. None of that would matter, and all of this would still be relevant and beneficial to you in your own life. You could still achieve your own form of enlightenment or awakening without knowing any of that. That matters a lot to me, especially on the secular Buddhist path.
Ultimately, what that all means to me when someone asked that question, “Which is the right path? Who’s the right teacher? Which is the right form of Buddhism?” the answer is none of them and the answer is all of them. It’s whichever approach or message resonates with you that helps you to understand and really apply these concepts. That’s the one that matters.
For some people, it’s going to be a very secular approach. They don’t want to hear about anything that even hints of being supernatural or that is unknowable through science. That’s fine, that’s the path I like, but that doesn’t mean that this path is any better than another path. There may be forms of Buddhist schools of thought that include cosmologies, realms, and demons and angels and things like that. Does that really matter? Is it fair for us to say, “Oh, no. That one’s less accurate than this one”? How would we know? That’s not the point.
See, in Buddhism the point isn’t to arrive at truth, which one’s true, which one’s more true. None of that is relevant. The whole point of it, as the Buddha always taught, is, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” That’s the goal of all of this. How do we learn to minimize suffering by understanding the causes of suffering and then tackling the causes of suffering? That’s one of the things that makes Buddhism so unique.
Now it’s unfortunate that you do have internal struggles that go on between the various schools of Buddhism, between classical Buddhism versus secular Buddhism. Among the various classical forms, you have the same thing: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Shin Buddhism. Then you have schisms that take place in each of these. That’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Ultimately, it gives us a whole bunch of different flavors that we get to pick.
It’s like the essence of all of this is like the water, that things are impermanent, things are interdependent. That’s common, but then the actual flavor that goes in the water, like tea, that’s less important, but you may have a preference, that you like this flavor over that flavor, so you’re a Zen Buddhist, or you like that other flavor more than this flavor, so you practice Theravada or Tibetan or secular or whatever.
I think it’s important to respect each other’s paths, to recognize that the difference of path, because there’s not one true path … There can certainly be a correct path, the path that you’re on always feels like it’s the correct path, but just because you’re on the right path doesn’t mean it’s the right path for everyone, or just because it feels like it’s the true path, it doesn’t mean it’s the only true path.
I think that’s important to understand with any spiritual practice because, again, going back to the story of the Buddha, you could say, “Well, at one point, he was studying under a Vedic teacher, and that person is not at all like what we know Buddhism to be.” Well, that’s fine. It was still a stepping stone on the path that led to ultimate awakening or to awareness. Now what that implies for me, thinking about this personally, it’s like that means I’ve never been on the wrong path. I’ve always been on the right path.
When I was a Mormon missionary in Ecuador, teaching, well, I was on the right path. That’s where I was at that time. Being where I was then is an integral part of being where I am now. If I feel that where I am now is exactly where I want to be or where I should be, then everything that’s led up to being right here would be correct, it would be right.
But we make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, back then I was in the wrong place. Now I’m in the right place.” It’s like, well, we always think we’re in the right place, but what did it take for you to get to the right place? It took everything else being in all the wrong places. That’s because wrong and right is an illusion. It’s a perspective.
I addressed that quite a bit in the podcast, so I won’t get into the dichotomy of good and bad, right and wrong, but what I really want to emphasize with this podcast episode is that we can find the teacher within. That’s the ultimate realization that the Buddha had. That’s the ultimate teaching of Buddhism, is that, “Hey, you are your own teacher,” and you can learn a lot from a teacher, someone like me who does a podcast, or you could go to a Buddhist temple. You’re going to learn a lot from the teacher there, or the monk, or a nun. There are a lot of sources out there. You can read a book. You can learn it all on your own.
But the ultimate knowledge that you’re going to gain when it comes to awakening is that aha moment that you’re going to have when you realize all things are interdependent, all things are impermanent, and you start to understand the implications of that realization. All that happens on your own. Nobody can do that for you.
I think it is very important to highlight this and to say that at the end of all of this, you’re your greatest teacher. It’s you, it’s all about you. Be very careful about putting your authority on someone else. See, whoever you give authority to, they have power over you. Now it doesn’t mean that they have power over you inherently, it means they have power over you because you gave them power over you.
Imagine being able to do that to yourself. Make yourself your greatest teacher, because any teacher can show you any path, but ultimately you’re the one that walks it. It’s like the Chinese proverb that a teacher can show you the door, but you’re the one that has to walk through it. That is a very profound form of wisdom, to understand it.
All of these things that you’ll learn, whether it’d be on this podcast or through books or through listening to any Buddhist teacher, those are all just tools, and some tools are really helpful; some are more helpful than others, some are more efficient than others, some work better for certain people over other tools. That’s all great. That makes it so that all of it’s good.
Everything that’s out there can be beneficial, but at the end of the day, this is about finding the teacher within. This is about you discovering that everything you’ve been looking for outside of yourself is not going to help. What you’re looking for is to be found inside of yourself internally. This is the concept of finding that teacher within.
I remember a point in my life where I was looking at my jobs or relationships or family, and it wasn’t until I finally learned to look into myself that, of course, is where the answer was all along. At that point, what do you long for? Everything that you want, you’ve already got it. It’s there inside of you.
That’s the deep understanding that comes from studying Buddhism. That’s the deep realization that the Buddha had. From that moment on, he was able to live with peace and joy and contentment. Now it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience anger or frustration or resentment. We’re going to experience emotions, that’s part of life, but we won’t get caught up in those emotions. We won’t be mad about being mad. We don’t have to be anxious about being anxious. We can already just be anxious. That’s the enlightened, that’s the awakened life the way I like to think of it.
That’s what I wanted to address, all based on that question, “Which is the right path?” Well, your path is the right path. You’d get that when you realize your path is the right path because you are your teacher and you’re also your student, and that can be a really profound shift for you while you’re on this spiritual path.
I hope that was a helpful topic. I have several topics that I’ve been wanting to record this week. I’m excited to hopefully knock out the next several episodes. It’s kind of one after another after another.
That’s all I have for Finding the Teacher Within. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order. They serve as a summary of all the key concepts taught in Buddhism.
You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, and Audible. For more information on those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that is often shared about a farmer who lost his cows. To me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions. It’s relevant because we ALL HAVE COWS. I want to talk about the story, and talk about what the moral of the story is. What can we learn from this story when we apply it to our daily lives?
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 43. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about No Cows, No Problems. In this short episode, I want to talk about a story that’s often shared about a farmer who lost his cows, and to me, this is a story about attachment to our possessions. It’s a story about the suffering that arises out of our attachment to our possessions and it’s relevant because we all have cows. I want to talk about the story, I want to talk about the moral of the story and what we can learn from the story when we apply it to our daily lives, but before I jump into that, a quick update on the podcast format.
Something I’ve been thinking about incorporating into the podcast is to do an occasional Q&A podcast episode, so questions and answers. As you may know, several of you have reached out to me by email in the past and quite often I get questions about clarification on certain topics or how does that topic apply to this situation, things of that nature, so I thought it would be cool to occasionally, maybe once a month or just every so often, dedicate an entire podcast episode to questions that I received from you, listeners. There are two ways to send me the questions. You can email me the questions like you have in the past, [email protected], in which case I would just read the question in my own voice and then give you an answer in the podcast episode, but what I thought would be cool, if you’re willing, you could call in with your question and leave me a voice mail.
That would allow me to extract the question in your own voice, insert it into the podcast and I think that would sound a little bit more fun for some of you who are willing to call in, in your own voice, ask the question and then I’ll answer it in the podcast episode. The way to do that would be to just call my phone number. I have a Google Voice number that’s set up just to receive voice mails, so if you call area code 435-200-4803 and leave me your question in a voice mail, I’ll extract it, put it in the podcast and on that specific episode of the Q&A episode, I’ll address the question after letting everyone hear what your question was. Those of you outside of the US, you would just have to dial the country code +1 and then area code 435-200-4803. That’s something I want to try. Hopefully, that’ll work out well. I think it would be kind of fun to do that occasionally.
The other format that I’m ready to do occasionally is to interview people. I have a couple of interviews that I’m lining up that I’m actually really excited about. I wouldn’t want to do this in every podcast episode because it takes a lot of time and effort to line up interviews, and I’m not quite ready to do that all on my own yet, so I will do occasional interviews. The three formats of the podcast would be the most common just like this episode and all the past episodes. It would just be me explaining a specific topic or a story or, you know, just discussing something. The other format would be an occasional question and answer podcast where I would address the questions that I received from the listeners. The third format would be an occasional podcast interview.
That’s where I’m planning to take things down the road, so if any of you have questions and you’d like to be featured on the podcast, call with your question. That would be my preference, but you can also email me if you prefer to remain anonymous or not have your voice featured in the podcast. You can do that by email. Again, phone number 435-200-4803 and the email is [email protected] Okay, before I jump into the story about the cows, again, remember the Dalai Lama’s advice? I try to say this in every episode and do it for a reason. “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” I think that’s so important to emphasize regularly.
Also, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This podcast and the topics I discuss and the stories that I share, they’re all part of that mission, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. It allows me to do much more with this platform. One-time donations are appreciated as well, and of course, you can do this by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the Donate button at the top of the page. Again, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s done that because it’s making a very big difference with helping me to plan how I do this in the future, knowing what resources I can depend on to grow not only the non-profit, but also the podcast itself, so thank you, thank you, thank you to those of you who have been in a position to be able to do that.
Okay, so let’s jump back in to this week’s topic real quick. The story I want to share today, it goes something like this. One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and he asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened?” The man said, “Well, monks, this morning all 12 of my cows ran away and this year my whole crop of plants was eaten by insects.” The poor farmer was dismayed and the Buddha said, “Well, sorry, we haven’t seen your cows. You know, perhaps they’ve gone in that other direction.” The farmer ran off in that direction. Then the Buddha turned to his monks and he said, “Dear friends, do you know how you are the happiest people on earth? You have no cows or plants to lose.” That’s the story. That’s the essence of the story. When I first heard this story, it really spoke me on multiple levels.
You know, at the time I was feeling very much like the farmer. Ironically, when I first read this story, I believe it was in Old Path, White Clouds. I may have to look at that and reference it at the end where I first read the story, but I felt like the farmer. My cows were missing and I was in a frantic search to see if I could find them or to recover them. I felt like the farmer in the parable, only that for me, the story is a little bit different. For me, the story goes on. I felt like the farmer. I spent some time looking for the cows. I couldn’t find the cows. Once I realized, “Okay, well, there’s no recovering the lost cows,” I felt like I was able to come back and sit down with a group of monks, and I found peace, tremendous peace, in the concept of letting go or in the concept of letting be and I was able to sit with my feelings. I was able to distinguish clearly between the emotions that I was experiencing.
Going back a little bit real quick, most of you know the plight that I’d been going through with my company and the difficult financial times that I’ve experienced after my company had placed several of my products in various big-box retail locations, specifically Walmart, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless. Well, as many of you may have been able to drawn from conclusions from past episodes, ultimately what’s happened is my company has been forced under, which has forced me to go under personally because my personal credit and loans were all linked to the business, so when you have roughly at this point 6 or 7,000 stores worldwide all returning product … and this is inventory that I have already paid to manufacturers. It’s inventory I have not been able to resell to others. A huge portion of it is because it’s inventory that’s now essentially obsolete.
Some of you may know I was one of the very first to popularize the selfie stick and what a global phenomenon that was. Today it’s the fidget spinners. Back then it was the selfie sticks. They were all over the place. As soon as we popularized those, companies from all over started copying my design, they started manufacturing cheap versions, and before we knew it, you could see these things on street corners being sold or in gas stations. They were just everywhere and not just here in the US, but worldwide. It was crazy how fast it all climbed and how fast it all dropped. I December, so not this December, but the previous December, I was being featured by The New York Times in an interview about the rise of the selfie sticks, and then it seemed like in January they started to be banned. Walmart … or not Walmart. Disneyland started to ban them, museums, the Louvre in France, and just as fast as they climbed in popularity, it seemed like overnight they were frowned upon. Nobody liked them. It wasn’t cool to have a selfie stick anymore.
The timing made it so that I had thousands and thousands of these in stores all over the world, so suddenly they were all turned back to me and I was in this position where I had to absorb the loss of the manufacturing cost, the shipping cost to get to all those stores, and then when they send them all back, they don’t just say, “Hey. You know, we don’t need these anymore,” which at the time, of course, I was manufacturing a significant amount of these every month. I was also in the position where they asked for their money back. When Walmart says, “We want out money back” on all these inventory items that we had paid for, it’s a big deal. It’s a pretty significant amount. Long story short, it left me in a position where I realized I was not going to be able to survive this and it was really difficult because while there was uncertainty about whether or not this could maybe fail or maybe it could succeed, that was a tumultuous phase.
The moment it crossed the line from that uncertainty to certainty and it was certain that I was going to have to go down the path of bankruptcy, it became a little easier because at that point it’s like when you’re in a water fight with water guns. You don’t want to get wet, but the moment you get wet, you’re like, “Oh, well, I’m wet now,” so it’s not so stressful to have someone come spraying you with water. It was a similar feeling for me going through this. It was during that tumultuous time, during the uncertainty of what was going to happen that I had encountered this story of the farmer and the cows. I remember laughing hearing the story, thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s so true. So much of this suffering I’m experiencing of the loss of my cows, it’s real and it feels very difficult to cope with something like that.” Fortunately, this also came during a time in my life when I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time and effort to be more mindful and to have more mindfulness as a regular, everyday part of my life.
While I felt like the farmer at first, running down the path, thinking, “Wait, I’m going to find them,” I also feel like in my version of the story, I went, I look and I realized, “Hey, it’s true. They’re gone. I can’t do anything about it.” Instead of holding on to that for much longer, I feel like I went back and I sat down. I was like, “Okay. Well, now I’m one of you guys. I don’t have cows either, so I’m going to enjoy the same experience of peace and contentment that you guys have because you have nothing to lose, and now I have nothing to lose.” It was an interesting process to sit with that. I’ve talked in the past about the parable of the two arrows and I felt like I was experiencing that as well. There was the first arrow of suffering that I was experiencing, at the loss of my business, at the loss of my sense of identity.
I’ve mentioned this before, I think, how my sense of identity was attached to a label with my career. I’m an entrepreneur, and that’s been a very important part of how I identify myself in relationship to the world and to others. I realized a significant part of my suffering had to do with this perceived loss of my identity, and when I realized, “I’m linking who I am to what I do,” I was able to at least mentally sever the two and realize I’m not an entrepreneur. That’s just something I do, but when that no longer felt like a sense of my core identity, a significant amount of the pain I was feeling also went away with that because it wasn’t me personally being threatened. It was just a label that is not going to be a label anymore. Maybe it will be again someday. Maybe I’ll be an entrepreneur when I do something else, but for now I’m not and I’m just someone who doesn’t have cows. It was interesting to sit with this, with the two arrows. The first arrow was the loss and that’s normal, natural pain and suffering, you know?
For me, this came in the shape of looking at warehouse, seeing my employees, thinking of the various memories I’ve built with them, the trade shows that we’ve attended worldwide, and the people I’ve met along the way and the hard work that’s gone into designing the product packaging. This has all been a very significant part of me for the last seven years and there was nostalgia in that emotional grieving, that this is something that I’m going to lose. It’s not a part of my life anymore. That’s was a difficult phase and I was able to sit with that. It lasted about, I’d say a good week where I’d go in to work and I’d see everything I built. I would get emotional, and I would laugh and I would cry. It was an interesting phase, but what I noticed is I was always experiencing the pain of the second arrow, which is I was feeling bad about feeling bad.
A part of me was saying, “You’re not supposed to feel bad. You’re supposed to be mindful and get past this really quickly.” I realized that’s a big part of the pain I’m feeling, it’s that I’m feeling bad about feeling bad. That’s when I was able to do something incredible. I was able to just allow myself to feel bad. I allowed myself to just feel the emotions. I was able to reminisce on all the great memories. I was able to feel sorrow. I was able to let myself cry. At the end of that process, which took about a week, I just found a tremendous sense of peace. It was over. The cows were gone. I no longer have to worry about losing the cows because I don’t have those cows anymore. It was fun to link what was happening in my personal life, in my career, in my business life, with the story that was very touching to me, the idea of the poor farmer losing the cows.
I felt like I could identify with the farmer, but I could also identify with the monks. I could identify with the pain and sorrow of losing the cows, the frantic search for the cows, but I could also identify with the serenity, the deep serenity and the deep peace that comes from knowing I don’t have any cows to lose. I think when it comes to possessions, we’re always trying to accumulate more and more, and we think that these cows, they’re essential for our existence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having possessions. It’s not the possessions themselves that cause the problems. It’s the attachment that we have to the possessions that becomes the problem.
Often our attachment to our possessions is the very obstacle that prevents us from having joy or contentment in that present moment because we’re accumulating stuff, and the more we have, the more we have to fear because the more we depend on our attachment to possessions for something like feeling joy or happiness. Well, the greater the risk of losing those things. It’s like the higher you climb, the scarier it is that you’re going to fall because the higher you were, the harder the fall, that kind of thing. To me, this story is a valuable teaching that says we can let go of our attachment. You know, we have the attachment that we have to our cows. We can become free and the key isn’t to let go of your cows. I don’t think that the moral of this story or the key to this story is to say, “Hey, let go of everything now because if you give it all up now, you’ll never have to worry about anything.” I think there’s truth to that, absolutely, but I don’t think that that’s necessary.
We don’t need to give up everything that we own, but I do think we need to give up the attachment that we have to everything that we own. You know, it’s all impermanent anyway, our possessions, the labels that we have like my label of being an entrepreneur, the opinions that we hold. We attach to those as well. All these things, they’re all impermanent. These are the cows. Several weeks ago, I did a guided meditation on impermanence where I asked you to imagine what it would be like to see everything that you own slowly disappear on a stage. I focus haven’t had a chance to listen to that, go back a few episodes and find that because the point of that exercise is that this is the nature of reality. All things change. All beginnings have endings, so why should we feel so attached to the cows that we own?
Again, I’m not saying that we need to start letting go of our cows, but take a look at the cows that you have in your life and imagine, “Well, what would I be if I didn’t have these cows?” The cow could be the specific house that you have, the specific job title that you have, the car that you drive, the type of work that you do. Whatever it is, are you attached to it? Do you feel that your sense of identity derives from the thing that you do or is it separate? There’s me and then there’s how I am. There’s what I do, there’s what I’m called, my name. These are all separate from the core essence of who I am. Who I am is just me and that’s constantly changing. In one day, I wasn’t an entrepreneur. The next day, I was. In one day, I didn’t have a big business. One day, I did and I had products sold all over the world. The next day, I didn’t.
You can start to see the reality that I talk about so often, which is that life is like a game of Tetris. One piece shows up and it’s all great, and the next piece shows up and you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t fit anywhere and it’s ruining my game.” Are we attached to these pieces as they unfold? That’s the core essence of the teaching of the story. It’s not about the core. It’s about the attachment to the cow, so this has been an opportunity for me to spend a considerable amount of time looking at my attachments. Now in my case recently, I am losing a lot of these attachments and that’s not the problem. That’s not painful. What’s been painful is realizing that some of the things that I’ve had to give up are things that I was attached to. For example, my title, my identity as an entrepreneur weirdly enough was more painful than losing my house or losing the money or the income I had from my company. It was the perception that I had that other people have of me, so therefore my sense of identity was on the line.
That was more painful and I’m glad I was able to explore that and see that and find that, and then disassociate with that label in terms of allowing that label to own me. Remember, that’s my definition of non-attachment. It’s not about not having things. It’s about, do the things that I have, the labels that I have, the opinions that I hold, do those things own me? It’s been really neat to spend time with this and realize right now nothing owns me and I own very little. It’s been very refreshing. It’s been very refreshing to hit this reset button to be at a place where I get to decide with my blank slate, where do we go from here?
This week is a big week for me. On Thursday is when I meet with the trustee over the bankruptcy to find out what are they doing with all of my stuff, all of my inventory, all of my personal assets, my home. I expect that it’ll all be taken. It’ll all be gone. That’s the standard protocol, and it’s been fascinating to be able to sit with that, to experience that, to see the attachment that I have to these things, and to watch them go. In that parable of the cows, it’s one thing to wake up and beck, “Oh, no. The cows are gone,” but I think it’s another to sit there and watch somebody come and say, “Hey, these are my cows now” and they’re going to walk out with them, and to have peace with that. To think, “Well, okay. I’m not going to have any regrets about this. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last seven years running my business, watching it grow, watching it reach the peaks that it did.”
Now I want to enjoy watching it dissolve because it’s a reminder to me, in the same way that I would watch incense being burned. You know, I see the smoke going up and I see this is the nature of my reality. I’m experiencing it. I’m seeing it firsthand. Things that are born die. Things that are created dissolve. This is reality in motion here, and I’m grateful for that experience. I’m grateful to be able to experience this right now the way that I’m experiencing it, with the perspective and the mindset that I’m experiencing it with because I can see how difficult and how emotional and how heart-wrenching it would be to go through all of this if there was a significant amount of attachment to the possessions while going through this. It would be very painful, so it doesn’t need to be more painful than it is beyond that first arrow.
That’s why I love that parable. The first arrow of pain, sure, that’s fine. That’s natural. I have no problem with that level of pain, but I don’t want to allow the second pain of arrow to make this any more painful than it has to be. That to me is really the essence of what this story is about. Again, maybe look in your own lives and look at your cows. Look at your possessions. Which of these possessions, not just physical possessions; the possessions of your labels and your opinions and your beliefs and everything. Throw it all in there. Look at it and say, “Where do I see attachment?” It’s okay to have that attachment. Just know that that attachment will cause significant pain if and when, and I should just say when, it’s time to let go.
That when may not be until the end of your life, that you’re sitting there on your deathbed realizing, “Oh, this is it. I’m about to die.” Maybe that’s when you sever the connection with everything that you know and does that have to painful or will you be prepared because you’ve been letting go your whole life, you’ve been experiencing non-attachment with your possessions your whole life? To me that’s the essence of non-attachment. It’s not necessarily letting things go. I talk about attachment and its opposite would be detachment, but non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment. It’s like holding on to something and saying, “I’m holding on to this because this is what makes sense now, but I can let go if I need to.” That to me is non-attachment.
Another example on the flip side of that, it would be saying, “Oh, there’s that thing. I will never hold on to that. I will never touch that.” That to me is also a form of attachment. It’s certainty, whereas non-attachment would say, “I’m not going to hold on to that, but if I need to, I will because I might need to one day.” The difference is the maybe. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the best thing to hold on to right now. Maybe it’s not. Then there’s a level of comfort that arises because you don’t have to oppose something so firmly or hang on to it so tightly. You know, it all becomes a loose grip on reality. You can’t just let it all go. That’s why I think I like the expression, “Let it be.” Let it go works for the past, right? Let things go in the past, sure.
In the present, I think it makes more sense we’re letting things be. Letting it be just as it is because remember, the moment we want life to be other than it is, we experience suffering, so here we are letting things be and seeing what would life be like if I would just let it be? What if the experiences that I’m going through, the emotions that I’m feeling, what if I just let them be what they? Well, then you discovery pretty quickly that because of the nature of impermanence, they arise, they linger and then they pass, and that’s it and we move on. That’s the nature of reality. That’s the topic I have for today, no cows, no problems.
Now a quick item for news. I’ve talked about this a couple of times, upcoming workshops. I’m doing a workshop on Sunday, August 27th in LA, I’m doing one on Saturday, October 21st in Orlando, and one on Saturday, November 4th in Phoenix. If you’re interested in any of those, visit secularbuddhism.com. Then you can click on … I think the link says Start Here. At the bottom of that link, you’ll see Attend a Workshop. If you click on Attend a Workshop, you’ll be able to learn more about those workshops, sign up for them. Right now the registration is only opened for the LA one, but monitor that page because the Orlando and the Phoenix one will open up soon.
I’ve mentioned this. Again, the recent Humanitarian Mindfulness Trip to Uganda that I did earlier this year, I’m doing that again next year. If any of you are interested in learning more about the African humanitarian trip, it’s a life changing trip. Everyone who went, 16 of us went on the last one, everyone loved it. Email me with questions about that, [email protected] As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always go back to the first five episodes of the podcast. Listen to them in order. They’re a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhism.
You can always check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It serves as a basic introduction to Buddhist concepts. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Audible, and for more information or links to those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you for your time, thank you for joining me, and until next time.
Imagine what it would be like to suddenly wake up and realize you are on a roller coaster ride. You didn’t choose to get on, you woke up on the ride. This is what it’s like to wake up to life. We didn’t will ourselves into existence. We are the result of causes and conditions. For me, the idea of not having signed up for this, allows me to be open to whatever may come.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 42. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the fact that we’re all here, but none of us signed up for this. I’m talking about life.
Several weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were having lunch and we were talking about life. As we discussed our things were going, an expression was brought up and it’s had me thinking about it ever since. The expression is, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Has that ever crossed your mind, perhaps in referring to how something is turning out, whether it be in your career or your marriage or in any other area of life, that sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this”? There was a time in my life, in my marriage specifically about seven years ago, where I had the same thought. I was going through something difficult and I have this thought that, “I didn’t sign up for this.” In fact, I’m certain that a significant portion of my suffering at the time was tied up with this recognition that I was experiencing something that didn’t seem fair to me, something that I hadn’t signed up for, so I wanted to talk about this thought, this idea. What did we sign up for? But before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you of a couple of quick things.
First, my commonly shared quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are. On second, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, 501c3 non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. One time donations are also appreciated, and you can make that donation by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.
Now one thing that we recently were able to accomplish thanks to the support from podcast listeners, I was able to hire a company to transcribe every single podcast episode up until now, and this podcast along with all future ones will also be transcribed so that there is a text version of the podcast episode. Every time I publish a podcast, there will be a transcribed version that people can read, so if you any difficulties with hearing or listening to a podcast, you can always read through the podcast episode as well. That’s something new. That’s something that costs money, and I’ve been able to do that, I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but I’ve been able to do that thanks to the support of podcast listeners, so thank you very much for that.
A couple of quick news items. I do have some upcoming workshops, one in LA, August 27th, one in Orlando on October 21st, and one in Phoenix on November 4th, so if you have any interest in attending any of those workshops or getting more information about them, I will be posting that on the website, but for now you’re welcome to email me directly with questions at [email protected] A quick reminder that the Successful Mindfulness Humanitarian trip that I did earlier this year in February, 16 of us went to Uganda in Africa, and we did humanitarian work.
While we were there, we also spent time doing a mindfulness retreat, so those were the two key components of the trip, doing humanitarian work every day, doing mindfulness work on ourselves, learning mindful meditation and discussing various topics as like an infusion of going on a mindfulness retreat while at the same time doing humanitarian work. Then for fun, we topped off the trip at the end with a safari, two days, and got to see all of the things that you would hope to see in Africa while on safari. If that sounds interesting to you, I’m doing that trip again next year, either February or March 2018, so get more information about that, email me and I’ll send you information.
That’s all the news that I have, so now let’s jump back into this week’s topic, so this idea, “What did I sign up for?” This is interesting to me because to think about this in the context of interdependence, you know, I didn’t will myself into existence, none of us did. None of us signed up for any of this. We are the result of causes and conditions, so we’re here. This makes perfect sense to me in the big picture of it all; you know, life in general. None of us signed up for this, but what is it that we expect when we’re not expecting anything? To me the answer is everything. This is the thinking behind the idea of emptiness in Buddhism. It’s essentially understanding that if I didn’t sign up for anything, then everything is possible now. It’s like a blank slate, and because it’s a blank slate, well, boom, we’re born and here we are, and the world doesn’t owe us anything. We’re just here as the result of causes and conditions.
Now I would hope that you’re not listening to this and thinking, “Well, that just sounds sad” because to me this is an incredibly liberating idea. You know, what are we signing up for when we make a choice? I think we’re signing up to embark on the path that we hope will lead toward the expectation that we have when we make that choice. Now the difficulty with this is that we do tend to live life under the tyranny of our own expectations, don’t we? Let me be clear. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having expectations, but it is important to know that it’s our expectations that may be the very source of a lot of our suffering.
I see this a lot, for instance, in marriage. In the context of marriage, people will talk to me usually when they’re going through difficulties in their marriage because they know that my wife and I went through a difficult phase and we were able to recover. Now we have a very happy and healthy marriage, so people will talk to me about their marriages and say, “How do you recover from this?” or, “How do you get through that?” Something I hear all the time is the sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this” when they’re venting about marital problems, and I know the feeling all too well. Like I said, when I got married I had a lot of expectations, things that I thought I was signing up for, and when those expectations weren’t met, I was confronted with suffering. In my case, loyalty was a big one in that list of things that you’re expecting.
As I look back now, I try to imagine the start of my marriage as I would the start of a giant rollercoaster ride. What did I sign up for? The ride. I’ve mentioned in previous episodes that I had a really rough patch in my marriage about four years into it. There was a breach of trust and it was devastating to experience that. I clearly remember thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this,” but when I took the time later to become more introspective about this whole thing, I did have to ask myself, “Well, did I sign up for?” We were just two young kids getting ready to get on a rollercoaster, and it’s like we looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to ride this with me?” I mean, that’s really how I see it now. I signed up for the ride, that’s all. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have expectations. I’m just saying that what if we weren’t attached to the expectations? What if we had the wisdom to adapt to the ride as we go along?
When you get on a rollercoaster, part of the excitement is the mystery. We don’t know how many ups or how many downs, how many loops. You don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s the highs and the lows, the fasts and the slows. They’re all part of the ride, and then you have the uncertainty of whether the person sitting next to you is going to make it through the ride, whether they’re going to last as long as you. Are they going to throw up all over you? Are they going to have their arms up and waving, and yelling with joy when yours are down and you’re scared or vice versa, when your arms are up and you’re enjoying the ride, and they’ve got their arms crossed and they’re really upset? These are all dynamics that marriage, you could think of as marriage on a rollercoaster. I think of couples, couples who lose a child or perhaps they lose each other, or couples who have a child with a disability. Did they sign up for that?
Do we sign up for that in life? I think if you really think about it, did any of us sign up for any of this? Did any of us will ourselves into existence? We’re here, again, because of causes and conditions. We’re the result of those causes and conditions, and here were are and we didn’t sign up for this. I think if we look at this mindfully, we’ll see that because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of it. You know, this idea of come what may. For me, “I didn’t sign up for any of this” means I’m open to all of it and I like to think about that idea of the rollercoaster. I have many friends who have encountered ordeals that are very difficult. Like I mentioned before, losing a child. You didn’t sign up for that, but at the same time, because you didn’t sign up for it, it is a possibility.
You start this ride and here we are, and we don’t know what to expect. I think that’s life, right? Life is the rollercoaster, but we’re on it, but we didn’t get to choose to get on it. It’s like we opened our eyes and woke up, and we’re on a rollercoaster. I think part of the problem is that we go through life trying to get something out of it, usually happiness or the cessation of suffering, and that becomes the very source of our problem. We’re trying to get something out of life and life isn’t something to get something out of. Life is always changing. There is no permanent state, and therefore we can’t get what we want. I think as soon as we realize that life itself is the rollercoaster, the ups and the downs, they’re both part of the ride, the sooner we can make peace with the fact that, “Hey, we’re on the rollercoaster and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
I think this is where this idea of learning to be comfortable with uncertainty really plays a part. This idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” when we have that attitude, we can look at it and ask, “Well, what is the expectation that I have tied to this specific event I’m going through?” Again, it’s not about not having expectations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having goals or having expectations, but I think there’s wisdom in being able to adapt quickly: to have an expectation, to realize it’s not being met, and then to be able to adapt, to be able to go with the flow, so to speak.
There’s a famous parable, the parable of the two arrows or the parable of the two darts. I think I referred to this in previous podcast episodes, but I want to discuss this just a little bit more today in a different context because I think it has to do, in some way, with dealing with expectations. The premise of the parable is that when you’re struck by an arrow or a dart, that first dart, you can’t help it, right? You’re walking and boom, you get shot by an arrow. That’s it. That’s what happened. There’s nothing you can do about it. Now we have all of the control to decide if we’re going to pick up a second arrow and start prodding the spot where we were struck with the first arrow, or if we’re going to start poking ourselves with that second arrow.
It’s the second arrow that we’re very concerned with in Buddhist practice, and contemplative practice, I should say, because we want to look at things and understand, “Is part of the suffering that I’m experiencing part of the first arrow or is it part of the second arrow?” because the first arrow is natural, it’s completely normal, but the second one is self-inflicted. For example, and again because we I went through this myself, discussing recently with a friend a specific scenario that he was going through in a relationship, he was really upset and feeling bad about, I guess, the loss of the dynamic or the relationship that he was in before. He lost someone he cared for and he was very upset about that, but in looking at this little bit, what we were able to conclude and what he was able to realize is a significant portion of the suffering that he was experiencing was the suffering that comes from feeling bad about feeling bad.
You know, this idea that, “I’m going through this loss. This is a difficult thing and it sucks. It feels bad,” and somewhere in the back of the mind is this idea that you’re not supposed to feel this way, “So now I feel bad about feeling bad.” He’s trying to get out of that funk and asking, “Why do I feel this way? How can I get out of this rut that I’m in and feel differently?” What I reminded him of was this parable of the two arrows. What part of the suffering is the first arrow, loss, and what part of it is the second arrow, the self-inflicted part, which is feeling bad about feeling bad? There was a moment of recognition there where he concluded, “Yeah, I think a significant portion of this comes from the suffering that I’m experiencing that’s the second arrow.”
That’s how I felt when I recalled the experience that I went through. The pain and suffering that I was feeling during my marital crisis was one thing, but there was a significant portion of hurt and sorrow and pain associated with feeling the hurt and the sorrow and the pain because I was feeling like, “I’m not supposed to feel this. I didn’t sign up for this.” Like, somehow, in an ideal world people like me, who are going about doing the right thing, are not supposed to experience these emotions of being hurt or betrayed. It was really interesting to arrive at the conclusion through contemplative practice that a significant portion of my pain had to do with not being able to just be with my pain, you know? I was mad about being mad. I was sad about being sad. That’s essentially the second arrow. That’s where the parable of the two arrows or the two darts kind of fits in here.
That’s something that you can look at in your own life when you’re experiencing suffering. You know, from the Buddhist approach we try to say, “Whatever it is you’re experiencing, that’s it. That’s reality. That’s how you’re feeling, so don’t push it away. Don’t think that it’s wrong. Be with it. Befriend it. If it’s fear, be with the fear. If it’s sadness, sit with the sadness. If it’s anger, sit with your anger. Allow it to be what it is. Try to befriend it.” Don’t resist it or push it aside because it’s very easy to start being angry about being angry or to be sad about being sad, and then we’re dealing with situations where we’re not entirely sure how to fix it because we’ve added multiple layers of complexity to the reality, which is just the first arrow.
I want to deviate from that thought for a moment and talk about something else, a lesson that we can learn from Japanese psychology. This is talked about by the ToDo Institute who has a website (http://www.todoinstitute.org/naikan3.html) and a really neat practice called Naikan practice, but here I want to talk about shifting our perspective from the sense of “I have to,” to a sense of “I get to,” so “I have to” versus “I get to.” The lesson is very simple. We want to be aware of every time we have the thought, “I have to do such and such” or, “I should be” or, “I have to” whatever. Transform that statement replacing, “I have to” or, “I should” with “I get to.” See how that simple, yet profound shift, can have a powerful change in how you experience life, how experience whatever it is you’re going through.
For me, again going back to this analogy of life is the rollercoaster, if I decided, “Hey, there’s a rollercoaster. I want to get on it,” and then I do get on it, and now I’m going through it and I’m not enjoying the experience, it’s easy to think, “Well, I have to because I chose this and now I have to endure the suffering I’m experiencing on this rollercoaster because it was my choice to get on the rollercoaster.” It would make sense to say “I have to” there, but going back to the scenario where if I understand that I didn’t choose to get on this rollercoaster, I woke up on the rollercoaster. This is waking up to life, right? I woke up. I didn’t will myself into existence. I woke up to this experience of being alive, so I don’t have to any part of it. I get to because there was no choice involved with that first decision of choosing life.
Now this is a topic that in some faith traditions … I think I’ve alluded to this before, but my wife and I share different faith traditions or different, I guess, paths. For her, this idea was kind of goes against her understanding of life. From her background, life is a choice, right? There was where you are before you were born. There’s a realm, a spirit world, and we chose to come to this earth to prove ourselves worthy of returning after this life to be in the presence of God, but even in that context, we were talking about this and I brought this up, I said, “Well, did you choose, before you became a spirit, did you choose that or was your spirit created by God?” You’re back at the same dilemma. It’s like, “What were you before you were what you think that you were?” At some point, you have to recognize, again, the same analogy of the rollercoaster. You didn’t will yourself into existence whether you were intelligence that was created into a spirit in the form of God or born in life, born in the image of a god.
It’s still the same dilemma, right? You didn’t choose this, in the same way that my children didn’t choose to exist. They were the result of causes and conditions, and now here they are, and they exist and they have their personalities and they have all these choices that they can make, but they woke up in this rollercoaster of life the same way that I did, the same way that any of us did. Whether that be this life is the start of the rollercoaster or you happen to believe in a prior life, that’s the start of the rollercoaster, but you can’t ever get to before the rollercoaster. At some point, we all woke up on this rollercoaster of life. That’s what I’m trying to get at with this little explanation. It doesn’t matter how far back you can go. You’re stuck with the same dilemma, which is that we woke up on a rollercoaster and here we are in existence, and we don’t have to look at it with this attitude of we have to or should.
We get to look at it with this attitude of, “Well, here I am, so I get to. I get to experience this.” Now this was really powerful for me applying this to negative experiences that I’ve had in life. I get to go through this ordeal. I get to experience what it feels like to be hurt. I get to know what it feels like to feel pain, to get emotional, to cry. I get to experience joy beyond what I can possibly describe. “I get to” in all of these scenarios is a really powerful shift in perspective when compared to, “I have to,” so I hope you can look at different instances in your life and try to reframe them with that perspective, and think, “What would this look like if my attitude was, ‘I get to’ versus ‘I have to’?” See how that feels. See how a specific scenario of your past or your present looks like when you shift that from have to, to get to.
Again, this is an idea that’s talked about by the ToDo Institute specific to Naikan practice, N-A-I-K-A-N practice. Naikan practice is the practice of self-reflection, so as we go through life, we have a relationship with everything that we interact with, right? Whether that be a person — spouse, children, parents, friends, coworkers — we have a relationship with people, but we also have a relationship with things. I have a relationship with the shoes that I wear, the clothing that I choose, the house that I live in, with the car that I drive, so the different objects that I have, I have a relationship with these things. Naikan practice is the practice of becoming intimately familiar with the relationship that we have with people and with things.
The way Naikan practice works is that you pick a specific relationship — again, it could be a person like a sibling or a spouse — and then you ask three questions based on that, the relationship. What have I received from, what I have given to, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused? The point of this exercise is to be able to be reflective about the relationship. When I think, “What have I received from my spouse?, what have I given to my spouse, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused my spouse?” I start to gain insight into this relationship I have with my spouse. Now this can apply to anyone. You can do this exercise on anyone or on anything. You can do this with your shoes, for example. “What have I received from my shoes? What have I given to my shoes? What troubles and difficulties have I caused my shoes?” I start to gain some insight into the relationship that I have with my shoes.
Now one of the end results of Naikan practice is that you start to experience a tremendous sense of gratitude because you realize that you depend on relationships. None of us exist alone in a vacuum. We don’t go through life, we can’t go through life without depending on other people and other things. We can’t. If you live completely alone out in the forest, your interdependencies would be with the sun and with the plants, with the animals if you hunt, with the climate. Whatever it is, you have interdependencies. You can’t exist alone, none of us can, so reflecting on the relationships that we have with these things can be a really neat exercise. It’s called Naikan practice or Naikan reflection. You can learn more about it on the website todoinstitute.org, T-O-D-O Institute dot org. I’ll post a link, but it’s a neat exercise. I think it’s relevant in the context of this idea, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
Again, what I’m trying to get at, the heart of this entire podcast episode is how we feel is one thing, and how we feel about how we feel is another thing, so feeling bad about feeling bad, sad about sad, happy about happy, that’s the second layer like in the parable of the two darts or the two arrows. The first dart is what is and the second is the story we construct around that reality, so this idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” if you really sit with that and look at it, what you’ll find is there’s a story there. There’s a story that we’ve constructed around reality and because reality is not fitting with the story, now we’re experiencing a whole new layer of discontent or of suffering that may not be necessary.
It only arises because of the perspective we have, which is that, “I thought I signed up for this or that, and what I’m really experiencing is this other thing or that other thing.” We create problems there, but problems in the sense of the two darts. There’s a very big difficult between the first dart of reality and the second dart of the story of reality, so I hope you can look at that in your own life. It’s been very beneficial for me in my own life to look at certain instances and ask myself, “Was there an expectation here that wasn’t met? Was the expectation the problem or was the actual circumstance or the event the problem?” Typically what you’ll find is there is a portion of suffering that’s related to the expectation not being met rather than just whatever it is that happened. Then that gives you a new, fresh perspective of something to work with, with whatever it is you’re going through. That’s what I wanted to share in this podcast episode. We didn’t sign up for this and because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of this.
I hope, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, that you’ll be willing to share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. Again, if you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of the podcast in order. They are somewhat of a summary of the key concepts talked about in Buddhism. You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links, visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, for this week, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you and until next time.