41 – Life on the Buddhist Path

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

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eightfold Path

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

Wise View / Skillful View

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

Wise Intent / Skillful Intent

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

What Would I Do?

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

Wise Speech / Skillful Speech

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

Wise Action / Skillful Action

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

Wise Livelihood / Skillful Livelihood

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

Wise Effort / Skillful Effort

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

Wise Mindfulness / Skillful Mindfulness

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

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

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

40 – Dealing with Grief & Loss

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

BONUS: Guided Meditation on Death & Impermanence

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

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Transcript of the podcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39 – What is Enlightenment?

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

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Transcription of the podcast episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

38 – Life With and Without Beliefs

In this episode, I will talk about beliefs and the role they play in the fictional narrative we build around our perceived reality. The story we construct about reality is determined by our beliefs. This becomes problematic when reality doesn’t fit our beliefs because we tend to cause suffering for ourselves and others when we try to make reality fit the narrative of our own fiction.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 38. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about life with and without beliefs.
(Musical Introduction)
Have you ever noticed the T.V. or billboard ads for whiter teeth? They always show you a comparison. Here’s what teeth look like with this treatment, or here’s what they look like without this treatment. And this tactic seems to trigger in us the thought, “What would I look like with this treatment?” Or perhaps even worse, “Oh no, what do I look like without this treatment?” And this attitude of comparing, it plays a part in all forms of advertising, all forms of marketing or advertising, that pretty much says here is what life would look like with this new car or this energy drink or this product or service, and then it is left up to us to imagine what it would be like without, and we don’t want to miss out so that is what compels us to want to get something.

Have you ever noticed the T.V. or billboard ads for whiter teeth? They always show you a comparison. Here’s what teeth look like with this treatment, or here’s what they look like without this treatment. And this tactic seems to trigger in us the thought, “What would I look like with this treatment?” Or perhaps even worse, “Oh no, what do I look like without this treatment?” And this attitude of comparing, it plays a part in all forms of advertising, all forms of marketing or advertising, that pretty much says here is what life would look like with this new car or this energy drink or this product or service, and then it is left up to us to imagine what it would be like without, and we don’t want to miss out so that is what compels us to want to get something.
And we are always being presented with this dualistic set of realities. There’s what is and then there’s what could be, and all you need is this one product or this one service. This is a tactic that plays on our natural curiosity, because we have a natural eagerness to want to compare and to contrast things. So, what if we could use this natural curiosity to look more deeply into our own lives, into the nature of our own minds, our thoughts and our deeply held beliefs.
Before I jump into that though, I do want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by The Foundation For Mindful Living, a 501c3 non-profit, with a mission to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. The goal of the foundation is to make mindfulness teachings available to anyone anywhere, and we can do that with the support of our listeners. If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, perhaps even the world, completely free to the attendees.

Before I jump into that though, I do want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by The Foundation For Mindful Living, a 501c3 non-profit, with a mission to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. The goal of the foundation is to make mindfulness teachings available to anyone anywhere, and we can do that with the support of our listeners. If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, perhaps even the world, completely free to the attendees.

Now, I love recording the podcast. I love teaching workshops, hosting retreats, and I never get tired of teaching about mindfulness or talking about Buddhism. The only part of all of this that’s difficult for me, is to ask for donations, and fortunately in the past I have been a position to be able to do this without relying on any kind of support. This has been my way of giving my time and resources, and this has allowed me to do everything on my own dime, and I have been happy about that.
Unfortunately though, as some of you may know from listening to recent podcast episodes, I am going through a difficult phase with my business, and very soon I will no longer have the business, and I will not have the same financial freedom that I’ve had in the past to continue running this the way that I have using my own resources. And during this time the podcast has grown quite a bit. Its become the number two podcast in the world for Buddhism, and it’s consistently in the top 50 now for religion and spirituality in the world. I’m very thankful to each of you for listening and for supporting when you can, because it couldn’t have grown without you. But that also means that I am dealing with significantly more bandwidth and resources to just keep it all running, and as of now it is about .2 percent of monthly listeners that are donors.

Whether that’s a one-time donation or a monthly donation, and I would love to get that percentage up a bit. I don’t know what a proper goal is, but you know, between two and five percent of listeners making a donation would make a significant difference in the resources that I would have to be able to take this and do more with it. That would allow me to make this my full-time project. So here’s my pitch to you. If you’re getting any value from these podcast episodes, if you are in a position to be able to, consider visiting secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button at the top of the page, and consider becoming a monthly contributor, or at least making a one-time donation that can go towards the cause of making mindfulness teachings available to everyone.

Normally you have to pay for something to see if you like it or if it was useful. You know, we’ve all done this. You go but a product, you spend a couple of dollars, and then you get to see if you like it, or if over time if it is something that continues to remain useful to you. Now, that is what’s nice about this setup with a podcast. Podcasts are free, and I want that to always be that way, and I don’t want to start bringing in advertising as a form of supplementing the income that, you know, that I would need to do this. I think that kind of muddies the waters a bit, but with this format it’s a little bit different. You get to listen to the podcast and over time you get to decide or notice if these teachings are making a difference in your life, and if they are, if you are benefiting from this content, then you get to choose if you want to support it, and that would insure that I can continue recording new episodes and even more regularly than I do now because I would be doing it full time, and continue to provide you with content that in turn continues to be beneficial to you and your day to day living.
So, I’m not asking anyone to donate unless you feel that this podcast has been beneficial to you, and you are in a position to be able to, because one of my main things has always been, you know, I don’t want any of this content to be restricted to people who can afford it. That’s why the workshops that I am doing, the recent format is to make these completely free. But every donation makes a difference with the mission of the foundation and the mission of the podcast to take what can sometimes be complex teachings or complex topics, and make them easy to understand and accessible to anyone who’s interested in learning more about mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation.

o, I’m not asking anyone to donate unless you feel that this podcast has been beneficial to you, and you are in a position to be able to, because one of my main things has always been, you know, I don’t want any of this content to be restricted to people who can afford it. That’s why the workshops that I am doing, the recent format is to make these completely free. But every donation makes a difference with the mission of the foundation and the mission of the podcast to take what can sometimes be complex teachings or complex topics, and make them easy to understand and accessible to anyone who’s interested in learning more about mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation.

So that’s it. That is my one time pitch to you. I don’t want to take up nearly as much time talking about this in the future, because I just want to go into talking about the content of the specific topic for the day, and maybe I will have an occasional reminder or a quick blurb about it if it is something that is still needed, but hopefully with your help we can get the percentage of listeners who donate from .2 up to a higher percentage, and that will make all the difference.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump into this week’s topic. So, we all have beliefs. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes us function so well as a species, as a highly evolved species. The fact that we’re capable of creating and collectively believing stories, is what gives rise to our modern civilization. Now, there’s a whole book about this called Sapiens. You should check it out. But essentially our political, financial, and even religious systems all work because of our shared beliefs. You know, think about that. If we didn’t all believe that this little green piece of paper had any value, our financial systems would collapse and we wouldn’t be able to trade or do commerce anywhere near as effective as we can now, because of our common held belief that this piece of paper has value.

And today I want to talk about beliefs and the role that they play in the narrative that we build about reality. I talked about this in the past. There is reality, and then there is the story that we have about reality. In other words, there’s you and then there’s the story you have about who you are, and these are not the same thing. It’s two different things. The story we construct about reality is determined by the beliefs that we hold. So, you could say it’s our beliefs that build a fictional world, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that when reality doesn’t fit with your beliefs, then you run the risk of causing suffering for yourself and for others, because you are trying to make reality fit the narrative of your own fiction.

And here’s the thing about reality though, reality is under no obligation to make any sense to you. You know, if you’re a regular podcast listener you’ll recall this story or this incident that I had a while back about meeting with Chris in China, one of my suppliers, and how for months I had been communicating with Chris over email, and when we finally went to meet in person I just couldn’t see Chris anywhere, because I kept thinking he’s not here, and after enough time went past and I finally sat down, the girl sitting next to me that whole time, that I didn’t even realize, she looked up from her phone and said “Oh, hi. Are you Noah? I’m Chris.” And the story has stuck with me, because you know the story reminds me of how my belief blinded is what blinded me. There was no problem with reality. Reality was what it was. I was there, Chris was there, but I couldn’t see Chris, because of the belief, because of the concept. The conceptual Chris blinded me from the real Chris, and this is where, you know, I talk about there’s what is and there’s the story of what is. For me, the story was that Chris was a guy, and that is why I couldn’t see Chris the female sitting there all along.

So, that is what I am talking about when we look at this duality between what is and the story of what is, or the narrative that we’ve constructed around what is, and that narrative is influenced by our beliefs. So, in that specific event, like I said there was absolutely no problem with reality. It was a problem with the narrative that was influenced by my belief that Chris was a man. Remember, all of this happened during a time in my life when I was deliberately trying to be aware and to be mindful. So, what does that say? You know, if I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t aware of reality, well then I’m in a dilemma. You know, what do we do about that? How do we overcome that? If our beliefs are influencing our narrative, or the story around reality, how can we work with that?

So, I don’t think that we can just eliminate our beliefs. I’m not sure that we can and I’m not sure that we need to or want to, but by understanding the connection between my beliefs and my perceived reality, I can become much more introspective with the role that I’m playing in my own self-inflicted suffering, and the suffering that I may be causing to others. So, I want to elaborate on this just a little bit more by introducing you to a popular zen koan. If you’ll recall I’ve talked about this in the past. A koan is a riddle. It’s a story or a question or a saying. It’s something that’s meant to be difficult if not impossible to understand or solve, but it’s ultimately meant to serve as a tool that essentially knocks us away from our conceptual thinking for a minute.

So, koans are used as tools to help us have a glimpse of reality without the bias of our beliefs and our stories. And remember, there is no problem with having beliefs or stories, it is just problematic when we confuse those things with reality. So, a koan can introduce us to the possibility of seeing or glimpsing what the world might look like if we could see it just as it is without our beliefs, without our concepts. So, what does life look like if I’m suddenly not relying on the stories I tell myself about reality?

Well, lets look at the koan a little bit. The koan goes like this, it’s an expression that says: The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. That’s it. The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. I’ve worked with this for a while. You know, what does this mean? And I’m going to tell you what it means to me, but remember at the end of the day, with this and all other things, the only real question that matters is what does it mean to you? For me, I think of it like this: Life is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. But what is it that we don’t have to pick and choose from? Well, to me this is reality verses the story I have about reality. See, that is the game I’m always playing. I’m trying to decipher what is reality verses what’s the story I have around reality, and we are always choosing. We’re picking and choosing between the two without even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

So, we are always caught up in the fictional reality we have created because of our beliefs, and this koan is saying: What if you could learn to see reality as it is, and then you wouldn’t have to pick and choose between what is and what you think is. You know, what if events in life don’t have to be anything other than what they are? You know, no stories, no fiction. I often talk about the analogy of a car cutting you off, and you can notice how quickly the story influences your view of reality. You know, the real suffering in that event has nothing to do with being cut off. It has everything to do with thinking, you know, that a jerk just took advantage of you, or something along those lines. But you see, that’s the story. That’s the story part. That’s the fiction, and what this koan is eluding to is that life is not difficult if you don’t have to pick and choose. I can be reality as it is. You know, what if we could approach events as they unfold in life without the stories that we’ve attached to those events?
You know, I often talk about what it feels like to be out in nature, because it’s one of the few places where it seems to be very easy to drop all the stories, all the narratives, all the fiction. We aren’t out there in nature looking at trees thinking, wait a second you need to be more straight, or you know, your leaves are not green enough, or sorry there is too much bark growing on the trunk of this tree. Like, we just don’t play that game. It sounds absurd and silly to even imagine that, but that’s what we do in real life.

When we’re out in nature we simply allow nature to be just as it is, and in return we don’t feel that nature plays that game with us. You know, you don’t go out in nature and feel like the trees are judging, you know what brand of backpack I’m wearing or the color of my shirt or what ever. You know, it’s in these moments where we’re completely at one with reality. We are just with what is, and when we’re like that there’s no tension, there’s no inner conflict, there’s nothing to add, there’s nothing to subtract. You’re just there with what is. And how refreshing does that feel? You know, what if we could be like that in other aspects of our life? What if we could be like that with other people, or even more, what if we could be like that with ourselves? That’s the essence of what it means to be able to live with and without beliefs. It’s looking at the role that they play in how we are with ourselves.

So, beliefs and thoughts and feelings, you know these things arise naturally in the same way that the wind or the rain does. When the causes and conditions are right it rains, and when the causes and conditions are not right, the rain is gone. Beliefs and thoughts and emotions, this whole sense of self, it’s very similar. The key is to remember that we don’t have to agree with them, or to fight against them. You know, that puts us back at picking and choosing, and it’s not difficult if you don’t have to pick and choose. So, we all know that Buddhism teaches this concept of non-attachment, and sometimes I think that is a concept that can be difficult to understand, and in some ways I like presenting this on kind of the flip side of that notion as the wisdom of adaptability.

So, in the context of time we say that all things are changing, all things are impermanent. So, attachment is what seems to bring a sense of permanence to things that are not permanent, and Thich Nhat Hanh says: “It’s not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” And I think in a similar way a lot of our suffering arises, not necessarily from having beliefs, but from wanting those beliefs to be permanent when they’re not. Thinking this is this way and it always needs to be this way.

Sometimes I like to think a little bit about what it must have been like when science was making that transition from the geocentric view of the universe to the heliocentric, and how, you know, I don’t think the problem was that there was a geocentric view of the universe. They didn’t know, and if you were just observing the night sky without the proper knowledge it would be easy to assume that everything is spinning around us. Now, the problematic part of this is when a new model comes out that makes more sense, and you can’t let go of your current belief that the, you know, that the earth is the center of the universe. That’s where it becomes problematic. You know, because wanting our beliefs to be permanent can be problematic when they’re not permanent. Nothing is permanent. All things are changing. So, this is where that wisdom of adaptability comes in.

You know, imagine how much more healthy it was for the scientists that were able to hold a view that, you know, the earth is the center of the universe to be presented with hew information that makes sense, and say: Oh, well, okay it looks like the sun is the center, you know we are revolving around the sun, it’s not revolving around us. That’s the wisdom of adaptability, and to say, you know, that changes everything. From here I’ll view it differently. You know, that is what it means to not have to pick and choose.

You know, at that moment you’re not stuck with the cognitive dissonance of what you think is verses what it seems, you know, what reality is saying. You can just say I’m not going to pick and choose. I’m going to go with reality every time, even when I don’t know, even if it doesn’t make sense. It just allows you to loosen the death grip that you have on your view of reality. You know, I think it is perfectly fine and healthy to hold a belief and to know that this is just how I view it now. This is how it is. Doesn’t mean it will always be like this, because if new information comes along, I would be happy to change my view. You know, that’s the wisdom of adaptability.

There’s an expression that is common in Buddhism that says: Right now it’s like this”. And that’s, it’s an expression to remind us that we have the tendency to make things feel permanent. You know, if you are going through a difficult time it’s easy to think, well you know, now life sucks. As if it was this permanent thing, and the expression: Right now it’s like this, is the reminder that it’s in the context of time. Sure, it’s fine to say this sucks, you know, what I’m going through sucks, but it won’t always be that way, because the nature of things is that they’re impermanent. Things are always changing.

This is where the story The Parable Of The Horse, that I have shared so many times, in so many podcast episodes, you know, who knows what is good and what is bad? It’s trying to get us to understand that in the context of time, sure right now I’m suffering because my son fell off the horse and he broke his leg. That seems like that’s a bad thing, but the thing is, I don’t know, you know, that that’s permanent, because tomorrow I may be grateful that that happened, because now he wasn’t conscripted into the army. That’s the point is that, it’s permanence that makes it problematic. Trying to hold on, you know, as Tich Nhat Hanh says: “It’s not impermanence that causes suffering, it’s wanting things to be permanent when they’re not.”
Now, I want to deviate a little bit on another thought around all of this. Have you ever noticed how it feels whenever you’re around someone that you want them to be different than how they are? Have you ever noticed how that feels? Now, and I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong to want someone to be other than they are. I’m not saying that. I’m just asking you right now to look for a minute into your own self. What does it feel like? How do you feel when you’re around someone who you don’t want them to be how they are? You want them to be different than how they are. How does that feel? Because it’s the same way we feel in general towards life when we’re wanting life to be other than it is, and that is the very definition of suffering in the Buddhist sense, you know.

Suffering arises when we want life to be other than it is, and I remember feeling this way around a certain person in my own life, someone close that I felt was judgemental or harsh or difficult to be around, and I always thought that the solution is, when this person changes, then it will be good, then life won’t be difficult, you know, then I won’t ever have to suffer around that. And, you know, it wasn’t until later, through contemplative practice and stuff, that I realized when I didn’t want this person to be any different than how they were, that’s when there was true peace between us, and I was completely content with them being who they were. It’s fine if they want to be judgemental or harsh to me. You know, it didn’t, I was at peace. And the irony is that that peace allowed them to change. Not because I wanted them to, but because they had the freedom to.
But that’s not the goal, right? They don’t have to. You’re going to have peace when you can be content with life just as it is. And it’s not just with life and not just with others. I think what I really want to get at here is that you do this with yourself, you know? There’s who you are, and who you think you should be. And to even make matters worse, there’s, you know, there’s also who you think someone else thinks you should be. But we’re playing that same game. You know, we’re wanting life to be other than it is, and it causes suffering.

So, when you’re playing that game, there’s who you are and who you think you should be. You know, the moment that you can look at your life, and you no longer want it to be any different than it is, you will experience peace. When you no longer have to pick and choose between who you are and who you think you should be you will experience peace, or you know, when you look at someone else. You no longer have to choose between who they are and who you think they should be. Think about that for a minute. Just imagine. What would life be like if I didn’t have to pick and choose? That’s kind of the premise of this koan. You know, what if I could be with reality just the way it is. Now this is, the great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. That’s what that means to me.

Hopefully you will be able to spend some time and look at this and ask yourself that question. You know? What would I be like if I was completely accepting of me just the way that I am, and I wasn’t comparing or having to pick and choose between me and the me that I think I should be, or life and the life I think should be, or you know, another person. Who they are and who I think they should be. What if you could be around someone and accept them just the way that they are?
I promise you it’d make a very big difference in what you feel. Notice how it feels when you’re around someone that you want them to be other than how they are. Notice how it feels when you want to be other than how you are. That’s a tumultuous thing to experience.

This podcast episode was inspired by a chapter in the book Bring Me The Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by author John Tarrant. If you want to get a little more in depth with this specific koan, the great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and chose, I recommend picking up that book. And as always, if you enjoy this podcast please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on Itunes, and remember if you are new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order. They serve as a summary of some of 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, and for more information or links to those books just visit secualrbuddhism.com. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

37 – The Art of Self-Compassion

Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer, the further out we go from our inner circle? We’re not as mean to a stranger as we are to a family member. But we’re ruthless to ourselves! In this episode, I will explore the idea of self-pity, self-criticism, and self-compassion. I will share 3 steps you can take to help you to be kinder to the person who needs it most…YOU!

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode #37. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And, today, I’m talking about The Art of Self-Compassion.
Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer the further out we go from our inner circle?

Why are we so harsh on ourselves? Have you ever noticed how we tend to be nicer the further out we go from our inner circle?

We’re more harsh on a friend than we are a stranger; more harsh on a family member than we are on a friend. And, ultimately, we’re just ruthless on ourselves. And, when it comes to treating ourselves, the craziest part is that the person giving the beating is also the one taking the beating. Why are we so critical of ourselves?

In this episode, I want to explore the idea of self-pity versus self-compassion. What is self-compassion, and how do we practice it?

But, before I jump into that, I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place, by teaching people to live more mindfully.
If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, and, perhaps, the world for free. Imagine that, people being able to attend a workshop or a retreat to learn about mindfulness. That’s possible. All you have to do is visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button at the top of the page.

And, one more reminder, the Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

If you’re new to Secular Buddhism, or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast, in order. They are a summary of all of these concepts. Also, you can check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available as a paperback on Amazon, eBook on Kindle, iBook on iTunes, and audiobook on audible.com. And, for more information and links to those book versions, just visit secularbuddhism.com.
Okay. With all that out of the way, now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Self-compassion. So, first, how do we define compassion? In general, everyone has some level of compassion, excluding conditions of psychopathy or something like that; but, think of the images of suffering animals on TV. I remember those commercials with Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. You know, generally, we all feel a sense of compassion when we see stuff like that; compassion when a family member or a friend, or even a stranger, is experiencing an instance of suffering. But why do we feel that?

I think we’re hard-wired from an evolutionary standpoint to feel this way, because we depend on the compassion of others for our very survival. No other creature on the planet requires the care and attention that a young human being requires to survive.

In Buddhism, this innate desire to lessen the suffering of others is often referred to as our Buddha Nature, or the awakened state. It’s a natural state. And, overtime, it’s our concepts, and ideas, and beliefs that can desensitize us from this natural state. So, part of the spiritual practice of someone studying Buddhism is to increase that state of compassion; to include all living beings, including, and perhaps, especially, ourselves.

There’s a phrase or an expression that comes from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer that says, “May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness. May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” And, that idea, or that prayer is rooted in this practice of increasing compassion. Another idea that comes from the Buddhist understanding of compassion is that everyone deserves it. It doesn’t need to be quantified or qualified.

You know, think about a dog that gets hit by a car, and you see it. You don’t tend to judge the circumstances, before determining if the compassion is deserved. You just feel it. You feel sorry for it, and you try to minimize the suffering. You don’t say, “Well, you shouldn’t have tried to cross the road. See what you get?” You know, we wouldn’t do something like that.
But, why is it that we do that when it comes to human beings?

You know, “I’ve been robbed.” “Oh, well, you shouldn’t have been in that part of town.”
Or, you know, the horrible story of someone being raped. And, it’s like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been dressed that way.”
And so many other similar judgments. And these are horrible because compassion doesn’t require any kind of judgment or qualification. And, sure, there may be reason to analyze a situation and to be able to use wisdom as a tool to avoid suffering, like obeying the sign that says, “Warning: There are sharks in the water,” so, maybe you won’t go into it.

But, once a person has gone into the water and they’ve been attacked or bit by a shark, and they’re experiencing suffering, the compassion that we can feel to help ease or minimize that suffering shouldn’t be entangled in the analysis of whether or not this person should’ve been in the water or not. It’s just not necessary. At this point, compassion is only concerned about one thing: to lessen the suffering that is being experienced. And, there’s no need for judgment in that process.
So, I mentioned this at the start. It’s easier to feel natural compassion the further out we go from ourselves. So, stranger, then friend, and then family, and ultimately, self. So, as a practice, if we want to increase our compassion for others, we should start with ourselves, because if I’m capable of deep compassion for myself, imagine that expanding out, exponentially, as you go out from there.

Compassion for a friend might be harder than compassion for family, and compassion for a stranger might be even harder than compassion for a friend. So, I think we often think about working on compassion or developing compassion, but we start with thinking outside of that ring. What can I do for someone else first? And, if this was a formula where you’re imagining these rings, and the further the ring goes out from you, the easier it is to experience compassion. And, let’s say that multiplies, I don’t know, just any number by two. Then, imagine the amount of work and effort it would take, if we were starting from the outside of that ring in.

If I can get, let’s say, the level of compassion from one to ten that I experience for another, maybe it’s a, let’s say, an eight out of ten, and then it diminishes. Eight out of ten for a stranger, maybe six out of ten for a friend, four out of ten for family, and when it gets to me, it’s like, one or two out of ten.

So, if I’m trying to increase the outer ring, by working with others, and I get that to go up one notch, and then you use that same formula and go in, you’re not making a big dent, or a big increase in the compassion you have for yourself. But, if you’re gonna do this backwards; if I was to take the compassion I have for myself, if it was on a two out of ten scale, and I was able to increase that to, I don’t know, six out of ten, or something, imagine what that does to the number going out from there to family, and then friends, and then strangers.

It’s a lot like the turning of a wheel on a bicycle. You’ve got the pedals that are attached to one set of, you know, one wheel, and that is usually connected with a chain to gears, and then the gears can shift, and they turn. Ultimately, the actual wheel is spinning. So, if you’re thinking the key to get in this wheel to spin faster is to work on the wheel itself; imagine the bicycle’s kinda suspended in the air and you’re spinning the wheel; you could spin it faster, or you could start with the smallest of all those things, which is the actual, the little wheel of the gear, where the pedals are.

What if you made that bigger? Then, what would that do to the ultimate speed of the tire? It would make it a lot faster. But anyway, you get the idea. The idea here is, instead of starting from the outside in, what if we started from the inside out in developing compassion? So, this is self-compassion we’re talking about now.

So, we wanna start with this form of self-compassion. Now, if you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ll recall that during the safety procedure, usually at the beginning before you take off, they’ll take about how if there’s an emergency, these masks come out of the top, and they always say, “Put yours on first, and then help someone else.”

And I was thinking about this on a recent flight with my son sitting next to me; and I was thinking, “Man, I would want him to be safe first,” you know, “First thing because I care about him more than I care about myself.” And then, I realized, “Well, if I only have a matter of seconds, and I were to pass out, then I can guarantee he will, ’cause he can’t reach it, and he won’t know what to do.” And I thought, “Is it selfish of me to want to put the mask on first?”

And it may seem so at first but, if our goal is to dramatically increase our compassion towards others, by focusing on ourselves first, then it wouldn’t be selfish. Like the airplane mask, I put mine on first because of how much I care for my son sitting next to me. So, on one hand we have this idea of self-pity, and this seems to be a default setting for a lot of us; and on the other hand, we have self-compassion.

One arises out of fear; perhaps, the fear of not being liked, or the fear of being disliked, ’cause remember we’re hard-wired to belong. And the other one arises out of love. So, self-pity arises out of fear. Self-compassion arises out of love. And there’s an element of wisdom that I wanna point out here.

In Buddhism, we’re always teaching about interdependence, and we continually go back to this idea that all things have causes and conditions; things inter-are. The flower exists because of the sun, and the clouds, and the rain, and the soil, and so on. And suffering fits this understanding. Suffering is also interdependent.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about this and how we can learn to look deeply at our suffering, and to understand the causes and conditions. The absence of compassion has causes and conditions too. So, if compassion is the natural state that we experience, and you can see this at a very young age, then we can look into what are the causes and conditions that may be preventing us from experiencing compassion.

Again, aside from psychopathy, which is also a cause or a condition that would prevent compassion from arising naturally; perhaps, there are other causes and conditions.

For example, prejudice. If I hold a racist idea or a concept, could that be the cause or the condition that prevents compassion to arise naturally towards a specific group? You bet. And you spend time looking at how you see the world, then you start to notice things like this. Perhaps you can ask yourself, “What ideas or beliefs do I hold that maybe preventing me from feeling natural compassion towards others?” Maybe a specific group.

How do we actually practice self-compassion?

I wanna mention three steps to assist with this process. And step one is you practice being kind to yourself by imagining you’re someone else. And I’ll explain that. And step two is looking deeply at suffering. And step three is developing mindfulness or awareness around suffering.

So, starting with step one, practice being kind to yourself by imagining you are someone else. What does that mean? Well, I’ve mentioned already in our society, it’s much easier to be kind to family and friends, than it is to be kind to ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to treat others half as badly as we treat ourselves. I’m sure that we’ve all done this. Have you ever said to yourself, “You idiot,” or, “You’re such an idiot.” What are some of the things that we say to ourselves that we would never ever say to someone else? Think about that for a moment. Think about some of the things that you say to yourself.

Mother Theresa used to say, “It’s easy to love the people far away. It’s not always easy to love those close to us. It’s easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger, than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.” I really like that. And I would go further and add that when we learn to love ourselves, that’s when we can truly learn to love others. But it has to start with ourselves. And this is where self-compassion can kick in.

So, as an example of being kind to yourself, imagining you’re someone else. Just recently for me, my business has been experiencing some complications and difficulties for quite some time. A couple years ago, I had a big contract with Walmart that fell through, and I’ve been struggling to recover from that ever since, and then it happened again about a year ago with AT&T Wireless. Similar deal. They ordered all these products, put us in all their stores, and then decided, “Nevermind. We don’t want to sell these anymore.” And they take it all back. And a lot of these big retailers are notorious for this; doing business with big box retail can be really difficult for a small company. And I’ve paid the price for that twice.

It’s been such a significant price that I’ve had to pay to take all that inventory back, to scale down manufacturing that it’s put my company on the precipice of failure. And in the last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with a few other setbacks that have kicked in that are like adding, you know, it’s like the straw on the camel’s back. And I’m in a very serious predicament now where I’m in complete uncertainty about the future of my company. And it’s been stressful. And it’s been difficult. And I’ve caught myself on occasions with how I talk to myself about it thinking, “Man, you failed. What have you done?” And so, I’m experiencing firsthand in various occasions in the last few weeks, and the last few days, the sense of self-pity. You know, “Oh, poor me,” or self-criticism. You know, “You’re such an idiot. Why did you ever do business with these guys. You knew this could’ve happened again after it happened once.”

And then I started to remember this concept of self-compassion. I started to imagine somebody I really care for. And, you know, in this case, my brother. I have a twin brother, and he’s my best friend. And I was imagining, “What if this was his company? He started this seven years ago, and this is his baby, and he’s built this, and he’s telling me what’s happening at work.” And imagining him telling me the same thing changed the entire dynamic.

At that point, I’m thinking, “Well, geez. I’d hug him and say, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that this is happening. How can I help you? Don’t be hard on yourself. You didn’t know this was gonna happen with these big retailers’.” And it was so fascinating to see how much easier it was for me to feel kindness and compassion by imagining myself to be someone else. And noticing how harsh I could be on myself, when I was just in this experience all by myself.

So, this is one of the techniques we can do. If you’re going through something, whether it be, I don’t know, you can think of so many examples. Getting out of a bad relationship, or running a red light, and then coming down so hard on yourself for what you’ve done, imagine in that moment, someone you really care about, and now they’re telling you what just happened, but it’s them. And notice how quickly that tone, how quickly that compassion can arise naturally. And then flip it back to you and say, “Well, geez. Why can’t I throw that in for myself?”

And what you should experience is the opportunity in that moment to actually feel compassion for yourself. I felt it myself, you know, in these past few weeks, in these past few days. This form of compassion, thinking, “You know, what I’m going through is a difficult thing, and I’m gonna do my best to get through it. And, at the same time, I’m going to adapt and move on.” And all these things come to mind, but the harshness was gone. The criticism was gone. And self-kindness counters the tendency we have to tear ourselves down.

I don’t know why it’s so easy to tear ourselves down, but we do. So, this form of practice; being kind to yourself by imagining you’re someone else can make a difference. So, give that a try.

Step two in this process is to look deeply at the suffering. And this was the topic of last week’s podcast episode. So, in summary … I mean, you can go back and listen to that episode to get a much more in-depth understanding of step two but, essentially here is understanding that suffering is universal. And life difficulties will arise and it’s universal.

Early on in the podcast, I talk about this and I mentioned the story of the bear. You’re hiking in the woods and someone warns you on this trail. Somebody’s jumping out in a bear costume and scaring people. And now that you know, you can continue your journey knowing that when that happens, you’ll still be startled, but how much more quickly can you recover from it, because you realize, “I knew this was gonna happen, and it’s happening to everyone else on this trail.” Everyone experiences hardships in life. And our tendency is to wanna think, “Why is this happening to me?” As if I was the only person in the world experiencing the potential emanate collapse of my company or my business, or losing a job, or any other trial that you may go through in life. As hard as it is to see this at the time, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Everybody experiences hardships.

Another part of this is understanding interdependence. And I think this is central to the understanding of self-compassion ’cause, remember, looking … learning to look deeply, looking deeply at an object. The flower, as an example. If you learn to look deeply, you’ll see that the flower is made up of all non-flower elements. The sun and the earth, and the … everything else.

But we’re no different. You are made up of all non-you elements. Starting with your parents, your culture, your society, your beliefs, your … this doesn’t end. It goes on, and on, and on, but you are inter-being with everything that is not you. And so, you are inter-being with everything and everyone else. And I know that may sound crazy at first, but if you really look deeply, and you see. That’s what you see. Interdependence.

You can’t see something without seeing everything. This is a concept I really love about Buddhism. You cannot see something without seeing everything. And if you’re not seeing everything, you’re not seeing something with the right eyes.
And I think we fall in this constant trap of thinking, “Things are suppose to go a certain way. Life is suppose to be a certain way.” And then when they don’t, we think something’s wrong. And this causes us to not only suffer, but then we feel alone in our suffering. “Why is this happening to me?” And remember, we’re all part of this shared experience. When we look deeply, what we start to see is that everybody experiences suffering. And sure, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain can be different; but, the basic experience of human suffering is the same. It’s universal. And while self-pity may say, “Poor me,” self-compassion is saying, “I’m not the only one going through something difficult.” And it can even take it a step further. It can say, “Well, now that I know what this is like, I can help somebody else who’s going through this.”

So, those are things to think about with step two. Learning to look deeply is understanding that when you look at something, it’s not just that. There are always layers of complexity, because all things have causes and conditions. So, in the same way that looking at a flower, and only seeing the flower, is a narrow way of seeing. Looking the flower and seeing all of the elements that allow that flower to be what it is; that’s looking deeply. And we can do that when we look at ourselves, and when we look at our own suffering.
So, that leads us to step three, which is developing mindfulness or awareness around suffering. Remember, mindfulness is just awareness. It’s the acute awareness of our moment-to-moment experience with complete equanimity and balance. What does that mean? It means that we’re completely aware of our thoughts, our emotions, and our sensations, without this need to cling to them or to resist them. Awareness of impermanence reminds me of the expression, “This too shall pass.”
And remembering that, it’s easier to be kind to the non-permanent me. There’s the me that thinks … that’s constantly thinking, “Oh. This is gonna be this way. What’s gonna happen?” Because it … we tend to want to experience our moment-to-moment experiences of life with a sense of permanence attached to it, like, “Oh crap. This is always gonna be this way,” or, “Oh man. I’ll never do that again.” We think in terms of permanence. And the reality is, there’s no permanence to be found here.

So, for instance, rather than thinking, “Well, geez. I’ve failed. If this company collapses, I’m a failure.” I’m realizing, I’m not a failure. I’m simply experiencing failure at something right now. This too shall pass. Can you see the difference in those two approaches? It’s dangerous when we get caught up and adding permanence to the way that we see things. And mindfulness prevents us from over-identifying with our thoughts, and with our emotions. This is understanding that, “I’m not angry. I’m experiencing anger.” You know, “I’m not a failure. I’ve just failed at something.” At this, or at that.

Being a failure is a mere concept. If you think about it, you know, what does it mean to fail? Failure is always relative to something. There’s no such thing as failure without it referencing something, right? “I failed to practice my guitar. I failed to meditate. I’ve failed to continue holding a job.” Or whatever it is, it’s relative to something. Failure is always relative. Because there is no absolute in there, you cannot be a failure. You can’t. Sure, you can fail at something. I’ve failed at a lot of things. We all do. But we’re certainly not failures because that’s impossible.

Mindfulness can help us to understand that, through the understanding of impermanence, or the nature of change. Things are always changing. So, if you’re … in a continual state of becoming, how do you fail? It’s not over, you know? It’s never over because change is the only thing that’s always happening. So, there is no permanence there.

When your perspective shifts to allow you to experience this self-compassion, what you’ll find is that you not only transform your own life, but it starts to transform the lives of everyone we interact with. Because when you become a better whatever-you-already-are, it allows everyone else around you to become a better whatever-they-already-are too. Do you see how that works? So, rather than starting with that outer ring, you know, “What can I do for others? What can I do for friends? What can I do for family?” Like, bring it in. Bring it to the core of, “What can I do for me? How can I learn to develop compassion directed at me?” And you know, self-compassion.

I wanna make a note about this, ’cause self-compassion should not be about trying to make our pain going away. It’s not like we’re trying to minimize the experience that we’re going through. We’re not trying to manipulate this experience that we’re having. That makes self-compassion a new form of resistance. And that inevitably makes things worse. So, I’m talking about self-compassion as the art of becoming more comfortable with this comfort.

Self-compassion doesn’t take away the suffering I’m experiencing. It creates space for it. It allows it to come sit at the table and be like, “Yeah, I’m going through this and I’m experiencing that.” Well, let’s sit with it. You know, “Come join us at this table, anger or sadness. Let’s have equanimity here.” And that’s what self-compassion can allow for.

It starts internally. So, maybe what you can do is try this exercise for this week. When you hear that voice of self-criticism, or of self-pity, which you will. We all do. Try to imagine for a moment someone that you really care about. A parent, a sibling, a spouse, a child, anyone. Imagine that they are the ones going through whatever you’re going through; whatever you just did. Notice how the tone of that voice; that internal voice changes when you’re directing it toward someone you already care for.
And then, when you feel that compassion arise naturally, turn it and channel it towards yourself. And remember if there’s the you that you think you are, and there’s the you that can observe that you, then you can certainly create a space for the compassion that you, to emphasize with the you that’s experiencing the suffering.

Now, if that’s kind of hard to understand, then I’ll leave you with this quote by Alan Watts that you can think about for the rest of the week. He says, “There was once a man who said, ‘Though it seems that I know that I know. What I’d really like to see is the eye, which knows me when I know that I know that I know.” So, there you go. Think about that. Mull over that for a week.
So, before I wrap up this week’s episode, I do wanna share one last thing. Leo Tolstoy says … said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

My personal goal is … has been to teach mindfulness in a way that’s universally accessible and easy to understand. And that’s why I’ve started this podcast. That’s why the content on the podcast is free. It’s open to anyone in the world. And I also have a book. It has more content that’s available at a very affordable price. But let’s face it. While there are countless sources to learn about mindfulness or about Buddhism, sometimes it’s easier to just work one-on-one with an expert.

Why? Well, for the same reason that people hire personal trainers to get in shape, when they could just go workout alone in the gym. Because having an expert to guide you, and to hold you accountable in your practice, makes all the difference in the world.

So, with that, in light of the recent changes that I am experiencing with my career, and with my business, and with my potential source of income, I’m happy to announce that I am going to be offering one-on-one mindfulness coaching, for anyone who’s interested in deepening their mindfulness practice. And some of you may already know that I’ve been training rigorously for the past several years in a Buddhist ministry program, and this is exactly what I’ve been training in; how to teach mindfulness.

And now I’m ready to start teaching that to others in a one-on-one format. And I know that this isn’t the right format for everyone, but here are some of the things you can expect from one-on-one coaching. What I plan on doing is putting together a customized, six-week mindfulness coaching plan, designed entirely around your schedule. So, there would be six hours of one-on-one teaching and learning. It could be an hour a week. It could be 30 minutes, twice a week. We could schedule that however.

We would go over specific topics that are generally barriers for mindful living, and talk about the understanding of these topics; how to overcome the barriers and just be able to look deeply at any specific instances of suffering that you may be experiencing at this time in your life. And just keep in mind, I’m not a counselor. I’m not a therapist. I don’t have the answers for you.

I’m here to help you discover your own answers through mindfulness, in the way of the Buddhist tradition. So, working with me, you would learn to make meditation a daily habit. I’ll check in with you everyday. And at the end of the six weeks, if you’re not 100% satisfied with the coaching you’ve received and the knowledge you’ve acquired, you’d get a full refund. No questions asked.

Now, a session like this, six weeks of coaching, would only cost $299. And that’s to work one-on-one with me for a full six-weeks. It’s the same as the average cost of working with a trainer of … on your body at the gym. And I can only work with a limited number of people at at time, because of the time constraints I have. So, if this is something you’re interested in, just visit my new website, noahrasheta.com, and you can schedule a 30-minute initial consultation for free, and see if this is the right fit. I can answer any questions you might have and give you an idea of what kind of expectations, and how this is all gonna work. Or you could just contact me by email.

If you go to my website, noahrasheta.com, you can click the Contact Me button, and then fill out that form, and that would email me. But this is something new I’m going to try and see. I’ve had a lot of requests from people in the past about, you know, “How could I spend time studying with someone like you? A teacher? A Buddhist teacher who could explain all of this stuff in a one-on-one setting?” And I feel like the time has come for me to be able to offer that. So, we’ll see how that goes.
If you’re interested, let me know. And once again, as always, if you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. And, if you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Just click the domain button at the top of the webpage. Remember, simple two-dollar a month donation from every listener would easily allow me to take these workshops and this content to cities all around the country, to spread these teachings, and make them completely available and free for anyone who wants to attend.

I’m trying the first of this format, and I’m doing a workshop in Park City on Mindfulness here in Utah. And I’m so happy to be able to make that available to the public for free. Anybody can come. It’s in an auditorium. There’s room for 300-400 people. And learn these concepts, and these teachings, without any barriers. If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be able to afford learning wisdom. It should be available to anyone, and that’s why I do the work that I do.

And then, of course, if somebody wants to and can do one-on-one type coaching or learning, that’s available now too.
But, that’s all I have for now. And I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. And until then, have a great week. And, until next time.

36 – Looking Deeply At Suffering

Suffering arises naturally when we crave for life to be other than it is. Knowing this, we can look deeply at our own suffering or the suffering of others and we can work to alleviate the causes and conditions of the suffering. When we experience an instance of suffering, we tend to narrow our view to that specific instance to the point where we are no longer aware of all the instances of non-suffering that are simultaneously present.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello! You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 36. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about looking deeply at suffering. The Secular Buddhism 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.

For more information about the foundation or for tools and content to help you live more mindfully, please visit getmindful.org. The Secular Buddhism Podcast focuses on Buddhist Concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. Keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast episode or any of the other podcast episodes. There’s nothing to sell here. There’s nothing to convert to or to convert away from. This is all about trying to give you the tools and the content to help you live more mindfully. If you’re new to secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, check out my book Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available on paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle and iTunes, and also an audiobook on audible.com. For more information or links to those books, visit secularbuddhism.com.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I wanted to talk about the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. To do that, first of all, what is suffering? I’ve talked about this in previous podcast episodes quite a bit. The idea is that wanting life to be other than what it is, that is what creates an instance of suffering and this can be major things and it can be minor things. Being stuck at the red light wanting the light to be green because you are late. That creates an instance of suffering. Anytime we are experiencing wanting life to be other than it is, we will experience an instance of suffering. That’s the definition of suffering we’re working with here.

The next part of this is what does it mean to look deeply? This idea of looking deeply in Buddhism comes from the understanding of interdependence and impermanence. Looking deeply, for example, would be the concept of seeing a flower as a flower, independent of everything else, that’s not looking deeply. That’s, I guess you could say, looking superficially or just narrowly. Seeing something in a narrow mindset, you set it as if it were independent and separate from everything else. Looking deeply at a flower would be seeing the flower and recognizing that when you see the flower you are seeing the sun, the clouds, the rain, the soil. Everything that it takes for that flower to exist. When you do this and you spend time analyzing that, you’ll recognize that what it takes for that flower to exist is everything. Everything that exists allows that flower to exist. Looking deeply at the flower, you no longer see the flower. You see the flower and everything else that allows that flowers exist.

This is something that you can do looking at anything. You can look at the table that you are sitting at or the chair that you are sitting on or the device that you are using to listen to this. It doesn’t matter what it is, you can look at it and then look deeply at it and start to see it interdependent with all of the causes and conditions that allow that thing to exist. That’s looking deeply. Looking deeply at our suffering is the same process of taking a look at our instance of suffering and then looking deeply and seeing its interdependencies. Seeing its causes and conditions.

When we see suffering through the lens of impermanence, we recognize that it’s constantly changing. This idea of this too shall pass. This can be helpful when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering because you recognize that it’s impermanent. It’s not going to last forever. You haven’t been experiencing this suffering forever, therefore there was a start and because it has a start, it will be an end. Sometimes recognizing that suffering is impermanent, holding on to that thought of this too shall pass, is enough to start to minimize the pain that we experience during our suffering. The second component, seeing suffering through the lens of interdependence, recognizing that they are causes, can also minimize the pain that we experienced because we recognize we actually have something to work with because there are causes and conditions.

Typically, when we’re talking about suffering, the most basic teaching on suffering from Buddhism is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. That is that first, there is suffering and you can work with that first truth. In life, there is suffering. Difficulties will arise. You can ask yourself, in what ways am I suffering or in what ways are others suffering. Hungry people don’t have water or there’s a lack of human rights or whatever it is that you’re looking at, you look at the instance of suffering and try to acknowledge why that suffering exists. You move onto the second step, which is listing the causes that we can identify for each instance of suffering. It may be people in a certain part of the world are suffering because they don’t have water. They don’t want water because there’s a lack of infrastructure or money or there’s corruption in their government. You get the idea here.

What you’re starting to work with is recognizing there is suffering. This is a personal exercise you can do when you’re experiencing an instance of suffering. Recognize it and then see if you can list the causes that you can identify for that instance of suffering. Why am I experiencing suffering in this moment? Every instance of suffering has a cause. As you go through the list of causes, you can ask yourself, what has to change in order for this particular cause of suffering to cease? At this stage, it’s more theoretical than it is practice, but you want to start listing what has to be different for this to stop. What you’re left with is a list of your suffering and then the causes of your suffering and then many of those causes you can look at and say, is this something that I can change? What has to be different? You sort out from that list what can or cannot be done.

Some things are within reach and they can immediately be changed. Others are a longer process and it may be multiple layers. For this thing to change, that thing has to change, and for that thing to change, this other thing has to change. You start working with this and you may have multiple layers to work with, because one thing may lead to another and so on. What you’re left with is something tangible that you can work with. Sometimes we get really stuck with the instance of suffering itself and in that moment, our view becomes very narrow. This is where mindfulness really comes into play, because people will ask me sometimes, how does mindfulness or how does awareness come into play when you’re talking about dealing with difficult emotions. For example, an instance of suffering.

The idea here is that the mindful view of suffering is a wide view. It’s a deep view and a wide view. Deep in the sense that it recognizes that the suffering isn’t the only thing there. There are causes and conditions. You spend time looking at the causes and conditions and the causes of the causes and so on. That would be the deep view. The wide view is the other component here. Take a minute and just look around. Whatever you’re doing, stop for a minute. Whatever you’re doing, you’re listening to this podcast. Just work with me here for second. Just look up. If you were looking down or whatever you’re doing, just look around for a second and recognize that everything that you can see in your peripheral vision, like just the entire scope of what you can see. If you were to lift your arms up at your sides, like at 90 degrees and slowly move them in, it doesn’t take long before you can recognize in your peripheral vision your left hand and your right hand. They enter into view. They’re not the focus of your view because you’re looking at something straight ahead, but you can recognize that they’re there. They’re in your view.

Typically, when we’re looking at something, the object of our focus, whatever it is you’re focused on, it can be become difficult to notice what’s happening in your field of view. Even though it’s still in your field of view, you may not notice it. You especially won’t notice it if you’re focused heavily on that one thing that you’re looking at. We do this with instances of suffering. When we’re experiencing negative emotions, we tend to narrow our view, almost like if you were to cup your fingers like a telescope and put it over your eye. Just look at whatever it is that you were looking at, now put your hand over your eye like you would a telescope or binoculars and now look at it. You’re certainly not seeing the other things that are in your peripheral vision.

Those things are still there, whether you see them or not. That’s the essence of viewing with mindfulness or awareness. It’s recognizing that yes, I am looking and focusing on this one instance of suffering and this is causing me pain. At the same time, I’m going to widen my view and recognize that simultaneously, while this is going on, something else is also going on and I wasn’t aware of it. For example, I maybe experiencing, at this moment, suffering around the way things are going at work. Maybe it’s not going according to plan. It’s looking like things are difficult. My view narrows in on that one thing in my life. Right now, things are bad at work. You narrow in on that. Mindfulness is like taking your hands from that cupping position of being telescopes and moving them and saying, okay, yeah, that suffering is still there, but I also recognize what’s there is I’m not experiencing the pain of a toothache. I’m not experiencing the pain of a headache. I’m not experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one. Whatever it is, the point is that in any given moment, even moments where there is suffering, there’s also always non-suffering.

They’re happening simultaneously and because we’re shifting our focus to be a more wider view, we’re not trying to eliminate or pretend like the instance of suffering isn’t there. Don’t make the mistake of trying to compare it or measure it saying, this hurts, but it would be worse if this other thing was happening. Sure, there can be some truth to that. The difficulties going on at work would not be nearly as difficult as coping with the loss of a loved one right now. I can recognize that, but the point of this isn’t to try to minimize or to rationalize away the suffering that is present, which is that things at work aren’t going according to plan. The idea here is to hold space for that while simultaneously holding space for the joy that I’m experiencing because I don’t have a toothache or the joy that I’m experiencing because I’m not dealing with the loss of a loved one.

It’s different to allow that suffering to be what it is, while holding space for all of the non-suffering there. That’s different than trying to do away with my suffering by saying, I shouldn’t evil that because this would be worse or that would be worse. That’s not the point. We don’t need to measure or scale my suffering versus your suffering. I don’t think it’s fair to do that. To say, that’s nothing because there are starving kids in Africa and that’s much worse. While I think there is something to that thought process, I don’t think it’s helpful or beneficial to try to weigh one instance of suffering versus another. Awareness or mindfulness, looking deeply at our suffering, is not about that. It’s more about holding that space of recognition that in this instance of suffering, this other instance of non-suffering is also present.

There is always joy and peace simultaneously present with suffering. The difference is a shift in awareness. That’s how mindfulness or awareness helps us to deal with difficult emotions. It helps us to switch out of that narrow view that can only see the instance of suffering, to a wider view that recognizes yeah, that’s still there, but so are all these other things. These other things are good right now. The toothache reminds us of the joy of not having a toothache, right? At any given moment, we’re enjoying the peace and joy of being free from some sort of pain or suffering. That’s something that we can look at and spend time with in mindfulness.

This idea, I like to call it radical okay-ness. This is something I first heard from a good friend of mine who’s also a teacher, whose name is Christopher Lebo. He runs the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship and really good guy. In one of the presentations I went to where he was talking, he mentioned this concept of radical okay-ness. I had never heard that and I love it. I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast. The idea around radical okay-ness is that at any given moment in life, right now, regardless of what’s happening, I can experience a sense of radical okay-ness. I can be completely okay with this moment. This is different than, I think, chasing the moment of intense pleasure as opposed to intense pain. That would be radical … I don’t know what we would call that, like goodness or wanting to ride the roller coaster and only have the peaks and not have the valleys can cause us pain. You can’t get to the peak without there being valleys, right? You have to have lows in order for there to be highs. There’s no such thing as a high without reference to a low.

Radical okay-ness is about recognizing that what I have right now in a different scenario could be exactly what I wish I had. For example, if I were to find out tomorrow that a loved one has terminal cancer or I don’t know. It could be almost anything that’s going to be difficult. When I get that news, I could look back to today and think, I would give anything to go back to what it was like yesterday when things were just good. I thought that things weren’t good, but they actually were because now I’m going through something more difficult. The idea here is we’re already in that moment. You’re in that moment right now, regardless of what’s happening, because something could change that moment in the future and you would want to come back to this. Yet, here you are in the present moment, unaware of how radically okay this moment already is. That’s kind of the thinking of radical okay-ness.

I really like that because it’s true. Tomorrow I could look back and think, I though yesterday was hard, now that this or that popped up, I would give anything to go back to yesterday and here we are. Today is always the yesterday or tomorrow. We’re always in the space of being able to experience this radical okay-ness if we can look deeply and if we can look with a wide view instead of a narrow view at our instances of suffering.

I have five steps that I think are helpful for us to be able to look deeply at our suffering, at our emotions. The first one is that we want to recognize what we’re experiencing. If we’re angry, we say I know I’m experiencing anger or I know that there is anger in me right now. We’re recognizing what’s actually there. This is an important step because a lot of times we don’t recognize what we’re experiencing. Sometimes you could be in a bad mood. You could be in a chronic bad mood for a significant portion of your life and to you that’s normal. Someone else might look at you and say yeah, so and so is always grumpy or always angry. You wouldn’t recognize that because to you it’s normal. Recognition is important here. I want to recognize the actual state that I’m experiencing. If I’m angry I don’t want to pretend I’m not angry. If I’m sad I don’t want to pretend and say, I’ll counter this by trying to just be happy, ignoring the fact that I’m sad. We need to actually recognize what we are is what we are. I’ll recognize that this is what I’m experiencing.

Once I recognize it, I can accept that that’s what it is. Step two is acceptance. I’ve mentioned this multiple times, the idea of acceptance versus resignation. It’s not the same thing. Acceptance is that we don’t deny what’s there. We’re not gonna deny what’s present for us. We accept it. We accept that that’s what’s there. For example, if it’s suffering or sadness or anger, I can accept that that’s what I’m feeling. I don’t have to pretend like I’m not. I’m just going to accept that yeah, I am experiencing sadness for this thing I’m going through. The moment you can recognize and accept what’s there, you can go to the third step, which is embracing.

Here we hold space for our emotions, for suffering, in the same way that when my little girl is crying, I can pick her up and hold her. I can embrace her. I can try to comfort her. It’s not different with out own negative emotions. When I’m experiencing sadness or I’m experiencing anger at how something is playing out, I can embrace that emotion and have compassion for it. Compassion for myself for experiencing it, in the same way that I would hold my child who’s crying and I can say okay, I’m experiencing this sadness. I recognize it. I accept it and I’m going to embrace that I’m sad or embrace that I’m angry right now. It’s what I’m feeling.

That leads us to the fourth step. I’m gonna look deeply at this. I want to look really deeply at this emotion I’m experiencing. What has caused this emotion to be here? What has caused this suffering to arise? This is what I mentioned earlier where you can look at the causes and look for the causes of the causes. With that looking deeply, we go to the fifth step, which is insight. When you start to look at something deeply, you can insight by understanding what the causes and conditions are. We know what to do, what not to do. If my instance of suffering is a toothache and I have no insight into the nature of this pain I’m experiencing, I might not know that by continuing to eat a Jolly Rancher or something, it’s hurting my tooth more. I wouldn’t know that unless I was able to recognize I’ve got a toothache. Okay, then that’s what it is. I accept it. I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna look deeply at it. What are the causes? I might recognize the cause could be that I have a cavity and with that recognition and insight I can say, cavities, yeah. Sugar aggravates that. Okay, maybe I should stop eating sugar. Maybe I should go get my cavity filled. That’s a very simple example that I think is easy for all of us to recognize because that example is pretty much common sense.

Sometimes, our suffering isn’t that clear. Recognizing that I’m experiencing suffering and just reacting to it because I have no insight into where that emotion is coming from would be a lot like somebody who has a toothache and they’re just screaming and yelling because their tooth hurts, but they don’t know why. They don’t know why it hurts. They don’t know what’s causing it. They don’t know what would aggravate the pain or what would ease the pain. There’s just no awareness around the instance of suffering. You’re so caught up in the suffering itself. My tooth hurts and that’s it. That’s all I can see. As silly as that would sound, isn’t that exactly what we do with a lot of our other emotions? A lot of our other sources of pain or suffering? They well up and we experience an emotion and we just react to it. We’re not with it. There’s no insight into our emotions. This is where looking deeply really comes into play, because what if we could actually spend time with our emotions. Recognizing, accepting, embracing, looking deeply, and then gaining insight out of what we see when we look deeply.

That’s the idea of looking deeply at our suffering. You can look deeply at anything. I mentioned this before. You can look deeply at the table you’re sitting at. When we were in Africa on our humanitarian trip, during one of our lessons we spent time looking at the wind chimes that were hanging where we were sitting. We de-constructed and looked deeply at the string that was holding the wind chimes. It was crazy to spend time saying, now where does this string come from? Looking at the causes and conditions that allowed that wind chime to exist right there. It was incredible how, within a few minutes, we all felt how it takes everything in existence for that to be right there. That’s inter-dependence.

Don’t make the mistake of judging or comparing your suffering. Don’t conceptualize it. Remember, conceptualizing is when we take something, a reality, and we add a story to it. You’re seeing your suffering, but you’re caught up in the story of the suffering. What you want to do is try to get away from the conceptualization of it. Just see it for what it is. You recognize it, you accept it, you embrace it, you look deeply for the causes and conditions, and then insight arises naturally because you’ve spent time with it. This can be a really powerful exercise. A really powerful process to learn to look deeply at your suffering. When you’re ready, try to switch this. Flip it and look deeply at someone else’s suffering. You may recognize that somebody saying something you, calling you name or something, you don’t react any more, but now you can look beyond that, beyond the action that took place and see the suffering from the same perspective. Looking deeply it in someone else and recognizing something caused this and something caused what caused this and that goes on and on. Insight can arise out of that. Suddenly, you’re not so upset about something, because you have a deeper understanding of why someone may have said something to you.

Remember, in nature, change is incremental. Wisdom or transformation can be gradual, so be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to sit there, ponder on these topics, sit with an instance of suffering, and then that’s it. I’ll never be mad again. It doesn’t work that way, but what does happen is that gradually, incrementally, you’ll notice that the way that you perceive your own suffering changes. You start to experience this radical okay-ness throughout any instance of suffering, because the instance of suffering is never independent. It never exists without its causes and conditions and it’s never permanent. It always exists on the same plane and the same sphere as all these instances of non-suffering. Anytime that you’re experiencing suffering, simply recognizing that you’re also experiencing non-suffering is already a very valuable perspective to have. To be able to do spend time in awareness with your suffering, you can gain a lot of insight.

That’s my invitation to you for this week. To spend time learning to look deeply at your suffering or learning to look deeply at the suffering of someone else. A loved one or just anyone else. Learn to look deeply at suffering and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. Remember, if you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com or the foundation website, getmindful.org. You can click the donate button at the top of the page and that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for your time and until next time.

35 – The Pillars of Joy

The key difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is an emotion we experience, while joy is an attitude we can develop. In this podcast episode, I will discuss the 8 pillars of joy and how these pillars can lead to a more joyful attitude that not only benefits ourselves but others as well.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 35. I’m your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about the pillars of joy.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” If you’re new to Secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more check out my book, Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available as a paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle, iBook on iTunes, and audiobook on audible.com. For more information and for links to those book versions visit SecularBuddhism.com. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

It’s great to be back. I’ve been gone for a couple of weeks doing a lot of traveling. I did a humanitarian trip in Uganda, Africa and the planning for that trip and then being on the trip has caused me to fall behind a little bit on the podcast episodes. It’s been almost maybe a month now since I’ve recorded a podcast episode and it’s great to be back, to be re-energized and excited to record several new podcasts.

Today I wanted to discuss the idea of joy, and this is inspired from the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s book, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. I read this a few months ago and I took several notes and I thought it would be fun to do a summary and to just kind of talk about the pillars of joy. To get more in depth with this entire topic I highly recommend you read the book. It’s a really good book but the idea is this, that there are certain pillars and these pillars, in the same way that you have pillars that hold up a building, these are the pillars that allow joy to the exist, or happiness.

One of the first things that I noticed was the distinction between happiness and joy. When we talk about joy versus happiness in the Buddhist lens we have something that we teach called the four immeasurables and these are love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The idea is that these things are immeasurable. There’s no, you don’t run out. You know, with something like willpower, for example, studies show that we have a tank at the beginning of the day and a certain amount of willpower, and certain things can influence that. You know, if you’re hungry or if you’re tired your ability to have willpower decreases or diminishes throughout the day and you run out, and then you rest of the kind of fills up almost like a tank of gasoline or something like that.

The idea is that love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, these things we call it immeasurable because these are things that don’t run out. There’s no limit and anyone who has children, or I guess friends, family, someone that you love, you’ll understand that love isn’t something that runs out. You know, if I love you too much now I won’t be able to love this other friend of mine enough. It doesn’t work that way. It just grows and it’s immeasurable.

I think about this often with my kids. You know, when I had my first child, my son, it was like, “How could you ever love this much?” Then the second comes along and it just multiplies, and just when you think, “Wow, it’s not possible to love more than I love.” then the third one comes a long, it’s the same thing. The idea is that love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are immeasurable traits. They don’t run out.

When we’re talking about happiness versus joy in this book I think it’s important to distinguish that happiness is an emotion. It’s not something we develop. It’s something that we experience. I’ve mentioned before something that’s always taught in Buddhism is the idea of dependent origination, or the idea that all things have causes and conditions. Happiness as an emotion has causes and when those the causes are right or the conditions are right happiness arises, and when the conditions are gone happiness is gone. All of our emotions work this way, so in that sense when we’re looking at emotions, happiness is no different than sadness or no different than anger. These are just emotions that we experience when the conditions allow. When the conditions are right these emotions arise and when those conditions are gone these things go away. That’s the understanding of happiness.

Now, knowing this you can conclude that happiness only affects you, the person experience it. It’s a state of being so you may be happy but that doesn’t necessarily spread to someone else just because as an experience only you can experience it. You could be happy and I wouldn’t know that you’re happy, or I could be happy and someone might not know that I’m experiencing happiness.

Now joy on the other hand, we visit joy as an attitude. When we’re talking about before immeasurables joy is not an emotion that we experience in the same way that happiness is. We view joy as an attitude that we develop and the idea is that joy affects me and it affects others. It promotes a state of well-being. It comes from within. It’s not to be found externally and the Buddhist teaching of joy comes from the Pali word mudita, which means being happy with someone’s fortune or someone’s happiness. This is kind of what’s reflected in biblical teachings as rejoicing with those who rejoice. This is the opposite of the German word schadenfreude, which is pleasure derived at the misfortune of others, because sometimes we experience that too. The idea of joy as an attitude is that it’s something that we can develop and it’s something that affects not only ourselves experiencing it but others as well. Think about that, the differentiation between happiness and joy, happiness as an emotion and joy as an attitude.

The big question is how do we find joy in the fact of life’s inevitable suffering? You know, one of the core teachings in Buddhism is that in life there is suffering, that difficulties will arise, so have do we find joy in the fact of this reality? Well, the first thing I want to highlight here is that these pillars we’re going to talk about that develop joy, these arise naturally. They need to be authentic. They’re not to be faked. What that means is if you’re not experiencing these emotions or these attitudes you can look into it and see what’s there. You don’t need to pretend.

Remember, in Buddhism there’s no compelling. There are no commandments that say you need to be happy, or you need to have joy, or you need to be humble. You know, there’s none of that. In fact it’s saying those things can arise naturally and if you’re not experiencing this naturally then look into it. Look into the causes. Be with how you are but there’s no need to fake it till you make it with these things, so keep that in mind as I discuss each of these pillars.

The eight pillars of joy that are discussed in this book are: perspectivehumility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Let’s start with talking about these starting with the first one, perspective.


Now, in the Buddhist tradition we talk about the eightfold path. You know, we have the four noble truths, that there is suffering, that suffering has its causes, that there’s the cessation of suffering and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, and that has eight areas and it kind of coincides in a lot of ways with these eight pillars of joy. But this first pillar, perspective, is essentially the same thing as the first in the eightfold path, which is wise view, or perspective.

The idea here is that with the proper perspective the way we see things changes. There’s essentially a narrow view and a wide view, and the idea is this, that I’ve talked about this parable of the blind men and the elephant. You have the blind men each describing what the elephant is like and they’re each touching different parts. One’s touching the side. One’s touching the trunk. One’s touching the tail and so on, right?

The idea is that by realizing and accepting that the way we perceive reality is a lot like the blind person describing an elephant, then we can accept the validity of different perspectives, so that turns the perspective of I, or me, into we. Whatever I can perceive my reality to be, if I can combine that perspective with your perspective, or you know, just another perspective, we understand more. The more perspectives we have, the more it all makes sense. That’s kind of the wide view.

The narrow view is thinking, “No. Only my perspective is valid because only mine is right.” We all have that tendency to want to think that our perspective is the only correct one. The reality is, just as in that parable, all of the perspectives are right because they’re all incomplete. In Buddhism we teach this, you know the perspective of viewing reality with the eyes of wisdom, the eye of interdependence, and the eye of impermanence, recognizing that all things are interdependent and recognizing that all things are impermanent, so constant change and interdependence.

Just in a nutshell to remind you, interdependence is the understanding that when you look at a flower you can’t just see the flower alone. You have to see all of its dependencies, so when you look at the flower you see the sun. You see the clouds. You see the rain. You see the soil. All of the things that make the flower a flower includes all of the non-flower elements like the sun and the rain, etc.

That’s interdependence. That perspective, when we see reality that way, it starts to change the way we understand reality, and the other one is impermanence, which is that all things are always changing, right? We’ve talked about that one multiple times in the podcast. With the right perspective what we’ll start to notice is a change in how we perceive reality, and I think that leads right into the next pillar which is humility.

When you understand that you exist interdependent with all the things that allow you to exist, that strong sense of independence starts to go away. You realize, “Well, I don’t exist without all the things that allow me to exist.” Just like the flower doesn’t exist without sun, rain, clouds, temperature changes, soil, and so on, and all of those things don’t exist on their own either. They exist with their causes and conditions so you start to understand really quickly with this perspective that, “Wow. I depend on everything. I am because everything else is.”


I think that starts to create this next pillar of humility. It arises naturally because remember, we don’t want to fake this. You don’t want to just pretend to be humble. The idea is that with the right perspective humility arises naturally because you realize, “Wow. I’m just a part of all of this and how lucky am I because without all of this there is no me?” That starts to reduce that sense of, I guess, independence like I mentioned before, or that narcissistic view that I’m the center of everything. You start to realize how that’s just not the case.

Humility, when we’re talking about humility in this sense we’re talking about considering yourself to be greater than others, and the moment you do that that robs you of your happiness. The opposite of humility we could say is pride. Pride is an exaggeration of the self, an exaggeration of the ego. Pride closes the door to all personal progress because in order to learn you must first think that you don’t know, right? The wise are humble not because they’re going to pretend to be humble, but because they genuinely know that they don’t know it all.

You know, there’s this quote that says, “I used to know a lot until I learned a little.” I think the idea is that an open mind starts with humility. It’s recognizing that of all there is to know out there, I know hardly anything, and that there’s me and then there’s everything in the world in terms of interdependence and impermanence. The things that allow me to be me have their own causes and conditions both in time and space, and suddenly you realize how little you really are compared to everything that is. I think that induces this sense of humility.

I think in a paradoxical way humility favors strength of character because the humble person makes decisions according to what he thinks is fair and holds to them without worrying about image or what other people will say about you, and that requires strength of character. I think sometimes we think of these things as separate, that strength of character is the opposite of humility, but I think, again, in a paradoxical way these things are intertwined. It requires humility to have that strength of character, to know I can stand for the things that I think are fair without having to get caught up in worrying about my image or what other people think about me, and that comes from the humility, you know, the shrinking of the self or the ego because of the proper perspective, the proper understanding of the nature of self.

There’s humility in not knowing, in not assuming, holding on to that. The mentality of I don’t know requires humility because our tendency is to want to think that we know, you know? I do this when I cast judgment on someone, so and so is this, so and so is that, as if I knew, you know? That might be based on something that was done in the past. It may even be done based on something that’s happening in the present, but what I don’t know is all the future, right? That person might change. That person may not always be a jerk but if I make that permanent I’m assuming that I know, that I know the reality of how that person will always be. Humility allows you to have that space of I don’t know and you’re always open to whatever might be.

Brene Brown, in her work with vulnerability she talks about just showing up and being seen as we are. I think that requires a lot of courage. It also requires a lot of humility, so that’s the kind of humility that we’re talking about as far as the pillar. With the proper perspective of reality humility arises naturally and because we’re humble it’s easier to be happy, because we’re open to things as they unfold and not fixating on anything that seems to be permanent, because we understand that things are impermanent and things are interdependent.


With that humility and perspective let’s talk about the next pillar that I think arises naturally. With the perspective and humility we talk about humor because when you no longer take yourself so seriously everything becomes funny. Think about that. We take ourselves so seriously and humor, and I want to be clear, humor that does not mock or belittle brings us closer together. It helps us to diffuse tension or tense situations and humor shows us, in a way, our shared ridiculousness. You know, we’re all here in this life. We’re taking it so seriously thinking that there’s somewhere to go, somewhere to be, and the truth is we’re just here in a hamster wheel, and we’re all running, and if we could all see that we would all start laughing at ourselves. There is no need to take this so seriously.

Studies on humor are beginning to show that laughter boosts your immune system. It relaxes your body. It protects your heart by lowering stress hormones which can cause inflammation, and in general it just feels good to laugh. Laughter is a respite from pain. It gives us the ability to find humor in any situation and helps us to maintain the joy that so many of us are actually craving in life.

Humor I think is an important part of this pillar, and again, it’s not faking it. It’s not pretending that things are funny. It’s realizing that in reality things just aren’t so serious, and then humor arises naturally. I love that this is talked about in this book because both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, you see them and they’re always full of joy. They’re always laughing. I don’t think they take themselves that seriously and if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously we would be able to experience this same humor that is a pillar of joy.


Let’s talk about the fourth pillar now, acceptance. Acceptance is the ability to accept our life in all its pain, imperfection, beauty, just as it is, but it is not resignation. This is something I clarify every time I talk about acceptance. It’s that it is not defeat. It’s accepting that we need to pass through the storm. It’s facing suffering and asking the question how can we use this as something positive? It’s not resignation.

Acceptance allows us to engage life on its own terms rather than wishing in vain that things were different, because the moment we want things to be other than they are we experience suffering, right? Acceptance is what enables us to change us, to change and adapt, rather than expecting everything else to conform or adapt to our expectations.

One of the central practices of Buddhism, one that I think we can all learn from, is aimed at seeing life accurately, at cutting through our webs of concepts, our expectations and the distortions that we have of reality. When we accept reality we’re better able to see it accurately and respond to it in the appropriate way. Acceptance is like sitting in a field looking up at the sky and watching the clouds go by. There’s no resistance to the moment to moment experience because there’s only observation and acceptance. You know, you don’t look at the clouds and say, “Oh, there’s a misshapen cloud.” because there are no misshapen clouds. There’s just reality. There’s just what is and clouds, like all things they arise naturally. They linger and then they disappear, replaced by new ones, or you know, constant change.

I also like to think about this as playing life, playing the game of life like playing Tetris because when we’re playing Tetris, you know, the shapes appear, and those of you who have played this can visualize this, but the game works so that a shape shows up and you have limited movement with what you can do with the shape. You can move it from left to right on the screen or you can rotate it to try to get it to fit the best way possible, and before you know it a new one shows up. Acceptance is playing that game knowing, “I have limited control with what shows up but I don’t control what shape shows up next.”

Now in life, if you think about it…it’s a lot like Tetris. Because we have some control with how life unfolds it gives the illusion that we’re in control, but the reality is we’re not. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you know, something jumps up and the whole game changes because now you’re confronting a new shape you were not expecting. Acceptance is learning to play, it’s learning to play life the way we play Tetris. I’m going to accept the pieces as they show up. I’ll do the best that I can knowing that before I know it that piece is gone and the new one has showed up.

Acceptance is being open to the actual feelings we’re having in the moment to moment experience of life and being willing to just feel that, whatever it is. You know, if it’s anger, if it’s happiness, if it’s fear, if it’s jealousy, anxiety, joy, whatever it is we can learn to simply be with our experience. You know, we can try to control the experience but controlling is the opposite of acceptance, so we like to say, “You know, if you’re angry be angry. If you’re sad be sad.”

I think a lot of the anxiety that comes from our emotional states is the resistance to the state itself, thinking that the point is you’re supposed to be happy and not be sad, but as emotions these are just things that arise naturally. What if you could be happy when you’re happy and when you’re sad just be sad? You know, accept that you’re sad. Sit with it. Become comfortable with it because like clouds, before you know it emotions arise, they linger, and then they’re replaced by other emotions when the causes and conditions are no longer there.

Acceptance is about, it’s a lot like just observing, observing the natural state that you’re and in being with it. Think of the expression, “This too shall pass.” I think when we understand the nature of impermanence, that all things are continually changing, we learn to accept things as they are and go with the flow instead of resisting reality.

Another analogy I like to use here with acceptance…imagine if you’ve ever gone white water rafting or any kind of activity in a river where the river’s flowing. When you’re on the river in a boat, you know, it’s useless to just try to resist the rapids and go up. You actually can’t so the idea is you go with the flow and you do your best to maneuver in and out of rocks, or whatever you’re maneuvering, but at no point are you not being pushed around by the overall flow of the river.

Life is a lot like that, where here we are in the river of life and it is taking us, and rather than resisting it how can I work best going with the flow and steering my boat from left to right or doing whatever I need to do to navigate the best that I can? But turning around and trying to go against it is not ever going to work. Think about that as acceptance.


The next pillar is forgiveness. Once we attain acceptance of the present then we release our desire to change the past. This is the concept of forgiveness. I talk about this in a parable, the parable of the raft, you know, if you need to build a raft to cross from one side to the other on a river, at one point while crossing that raft is everything to you. It’s a matter of life and death. The moment you get to the other shore it’s no longer wise to continue your journey with the raft on your back because you don’t need it anymore.

I think in life we do this. We have rafts, things that got us through specific things in life. Now, one of the mistakes that we make is we continue on our journey and we’re still holding on to that raft, and sometimes we’ll look back and we’ll resent it and think, “Ah. I wish I would’ve never been on that raft. That was, I didn’t like that phase of my life.” or whatever, and the reality is at the time you were on it it was very meaningful. It’s what you needed.

Forgiveness is recognizing the raft was the raft and now I don’t need it so I can let it go, but I don’t need to hold on to anger or resentment for what that was at a previous point in my journey. Holding onto grievances is our way of wishing that the past could be different and when we hang onto those negative emotions, the anger, and grief, and the desire for vengeance, we’re only hurting ourselves. Now, if we use those emotions to strike back and cause harm then where only inviting that cycle of retribution and then we become trapped in that.

Forgiveness, this pillar, doesn’t mean that we forget. It means not reacting with negativity or giving in to negative emotions. This doesn’t mean that you don’t not respond to the acts or that you’ll allow yourself to be harmed again. What it means is that justice can still be sought. You know, a perpetrator can be still be punished. Justice can be served without the hatred and once it’s served we can let it go.

I like to distinguish it too. I think sometimes we think that we’re not supposed to experience anger. That’s not what Buddhism teaches. It’s teaching the opposite. Like I mentioned before, the experience, the emotional experience that you’re having is reality, so if you’re angry, be angry, but the danger here is crossing over into hatred because hatred has never been useful. It’s never accomplished anything positive so the idea here is that we can still demand justice. We can still, you know, ensure that we’re not going to be harmed and we can process all of this without hatred.

Until we forgive a person that has wronged us we allow that person to hold power over us. They effectively control our emotions, and I’ve experienced this firsthand in my own life holding on to anger and resentment for someone who wronged me. I held onto for years. In a lot of ways it’s like that story of hanging onto a piece of coal with the intent of throwing it at someone, but meanwhile I’m the only one being burned. That’s a lot how hatred feels.

But the choice is always ours, so if you’re going to be angry, be angry. That’s completely fine and when you’re ready let it go. Be done. From the Buddhist perspective forgiveness is not commanded. It’s encouraged because it’s understood as a way to end suffering, so you know, taking this analogy of the coal, you can be standing there holding the hot coal. That’s fine. It’s not that you’re commanded to let it go or to drop it. Hold onto it until you’re ready to let go. When you are ready to stop experiencing the burning sensation and the pain of hanging on to anger then you let go, but only when you’re ready, and not because you have to.

All of these pillars, like I’ve talked about, they’re not compelled. These were not commandments. These are things that we have the opportunity of experiencing on our own when we’re ready, and when you let it go it feels incredible to let go of that pain, and then that wound can heal and before you know it that’s not even a point of pain anymore in your life.

Buddhaghosa was a fifth century Buddhist commentator and see he said, he’s the one who’s kind of started this, this teaching of the hot coal, but he said it like this, “By holding on to anger or holding on to hatred, by doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand, and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” I like that because that’s kind of the idea. If I pick up excrement thinking I’m going to go and ruin someone’s day with this, well guess what? I’m the one making myself stinky while doing that.

Remember, he who angers you controls you, and again, this doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to be angry. It’s that you hold onto the anger as long as you need to till you’re ready to let it go, but the letting go of the anger always starts with you. I think one of the mistakes that we make is thinking when circumstances change, then I’ll let go of my hatred or my anger. What we’re saying in this teaching is that you are the one with the freedom that gets to choose. Whenever you’re ready, let it go.


That’s going to lead us to the next pillar, gratitude. When we understand the nature of interdependence we start to understand that everything is a gift, you know, like the flower I mentioned. The flower is receiving the gift of sunlight, receiving the gift of the rain from the clouds, the nutrients from the soil. What I start to notice through this lens of interdependence is that I’m grateful, not because all of this is for me, but because I am the result of all of this. I’m the result of all that is and with acceptance, we no longer fight against reality. With gratitude, we embrace reality.

Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “The root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful.” You can see why this pillar of gratitude is so important for experiencing joy, for developing an attitude of joy. Gratitude, I think, arises naturally from awareness because you start to notice new things that you’re grateful for every day.

You know, I’ve talked about this before but when was the last time you paused and looked down and thanked your shoes for protecting your stinky feet throughout the day? When was the last time that you paused and you thanked your computer or your smartphone for allowing you to be connected, allowing you to listen to this podcast? Thanked your marker or your pen for allowing you to write your ideas? You start to see things in this new light with gratitude for everything because all that I am is the result of all that is. I get to be me because everything else is what it is, and then there’s this connection with all of these things that allow me to be what I am.

I want to read a quote from Richard Dawkins from Unweaving the Rainbow, and I really like this because I think this embodies the attitude of gratitude when it comes to how lucky we are to be alive, but he says this. He says, “We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place, but who will in fact never see the light of day, outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here. We privileged few who won the lottery of birth against all odds. How dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

I really like that. That is the attitude of gratitude for just being alive, not because there’s something we’re supposed to obtain or to accomplish, but just the sheer statistical improbability of the fact that of all the possible combinations of this present moment being whatever it could be, it is what it is, and it is what it is because of all of the past events, whether we like them or not, whether we perceive them as good or bad, all make the present what it is. To be grateful in the present moment for reality as it is allows us to have acceptance and gratitude for all past moments as well, the pleasant ones, the unpleasant ones, the painful ones, the happy ones, the sad ones. All of these moments start to share a level of equanimity because all of them contribute to the present to being exactly what it is. To me that’s the understanding of gratitude.


That takes us to the seventh pillar which is compassion. There is a saying that is often attributed to the Buddha and I think it explains compassion well, but it says, “What is that one thing which when you possess, you have all other virtues?” If you think about that for a minute, that’ one thing that when you possess it you have all other virtues, it’s compassion. Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we see others suffer and we wish to see that suffering relieved. That’s it. That’s all it is. It is the bridge between empathy and kindness.

Compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering and I think this is the key here, is that it does not need to be prequalified. I will only have compassion for you if I feel that you deserve it. That’s a qualification and compassion, like I mentioned, is one of the four immeasurables. There’s no measuring here. It’s not concerned with the circumstances of the suffering, you know, this idea of mourning with those who mourn. We can do that while having fundamentally opposing views and ideologies.

Compassion doesn’t need to be justified. Compassion is the path to healing. It leads to kindness. Kindness leads to joy. As the Dalai Lama says, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Then he goes on to say, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” I hope that we will all strive to develop kindness and compassion towards each other and I think the Dalai Lama puts it well when he says that, “When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering our own suffering is reduced.” That is the true secret to happiness.

I do think it’s important to bring up that compassion shouldn’t just be extended to others. It should also be extended to a self. Contemporary culture measures us constantly. It evaluates and judges us based on our achievements. We’re always comparing ourselves and self-loathing often results when we fail to live up to these expectations that we internalize. We think, “I’m not good enough. I’m not as smart as so and so. I’m not as wealthy as so and so. I don’t look as good as so and so.” But we learn to be compassionate towards ourselves and we learn to recognize our own humanity, our own needs. To be kind to yourself is as important as being kind to others when we’re talking about this pillar of joy, of compassion.


That leads us to the eighth and final pillar, generosity. This is the eighth pillar of joy. Giving to others does not subtract from ourselves. It adds to us. Researcher Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues have found that money can buy happiness if we spend it on other people. People who give experience greater long-term satisfaction whether that giving is large or small.

I think there’s a reason why nearly every major religion embraces charity and why our bodies respond so positively to this virtue of generosity. We are complementary beings in a competitive world. We’re not meant to be so constantly set in opposition to one another. When we give to one another and we engage others in that spirit of generosity it makes us thrive. We can see this in how we regard others. Who are the figures whose names rang out across history and that are still spoken today with love and admiration? If you think about that, mostly they’re the names of people who were the most generous, the most caring, and the most compassionate. People look up to, these are people like the authors of this book, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and we look up to these people for a reason, because they promote harmony.

To strive to attain a generous spirit can be made possible by acknowledging that you are merely a steward of your wealth. You’re a steward of your possessions and your power but these things aren’t actually ours. In the same way that the flower doesn’t claim the sunlight, like, “This is my sunlight.” It’s receiving it, and I talked about this in the last podcast episode, this is the idea of understanding the difference between receiving and taking.

Think about all the things that we receive in life, that we receive from the planet, that we receive from others, the efforts of farmers that allow us to have the food that we consume. This process doesn’t end. It’s an incredibly complex web of interdependencies that I receive. I receive the benefits of all that is so that I can be. I think generosity is the understanding that when I see that, then I can give of myself because I am a part of that process too. Everything that I am, everything that I do, that I say, and that I put out in the world is there for someone else to be able to receive benefit from. That is the understanding of generosity in this eighth pillar, and joy arises naturally out of that. It arises from that sense of community.

I think we see a theme emerging from these pillars. It’s that joy comes from our togetherness, from realizing that we are all part of this human community and that no one thing can exist in isolation. No one can be happy in isolation, much less develop an attitude of joy. No. Joy comes from participating in the human story in a positive way, becoming aware of reality just as it is, having compassion for others that arises naturally, it’s not forced, and acting on that compassion through generosity.

Now, when I talk about spirituality in my work in Secular Buddhism I talk about spirituality being a sense of connection and meaning, having connection and meaning in life. I think joy, developing an attitude of joy, really helps to fulfill that sense of meaning, you know, what greater meaning can we have than to seek to be joyful in this short amount of time that we each have to be alive, that we each have to be experiencing the incredible miracle that it is to be alive?

That includes all of it, what we perceive as good and bad, the happy, the sad. All of these moments can be cherished because they’re all unique and it’s that togetherness that we experience with others, you know, to be able to see someone else and see in them their interdependence with all things. Their impermanence, their constant state of changing allows us to realize that we’re all the same and that togetherness, I believe, is the to true nature of joy.

These eight pillars, like I said, if you want to study this more in depth definitely pick up the book, but these eight pillars of joy can help us to develop an attitude of joy that arises naturally. None of these things need to be faked. None of them need to be forced. We’re not compelled. There’s no commandment that says you need to be joyful but what if by having the proper perspective all these things started to line up and the natural result was joy that arises naturally, an attitude of joy? Not the same as happiness because happiness can be fleeting, but joy can be an attitude that we develop and experience throughout all of the emotional states of existence. We can experience a sense of joy, a sense of gratitude, a sense of acceptance while we’re going through emotional states like anger or sadness. We can still experience that sense of joy because that’s the attitude that we develop.

That’s what I wanted to share in this week’s topic, the pillars of joy from the book The Book of Joy. As always if you enjoy this podcast please feel free to share it with others. Write a review in iTunes or give it a rating, and if you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com and clicking the donate button at the top of the page.

The donations allow me not only to keep this podcast going, but they allow me to travel and put on workshops in different cities and to put on these workshops without having to charge a lot of money. Generally a workshop, the only cost involved is the food, the lunch for the time, and I can do that with your support as a listener allows me to do that. My goal with all of this is to make these teachings, to share mindfulness, to show the concepts of Secular Buddhism in a way that they can be accessible to anyone.

That’s all I have for now but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you for listening and until next time.