17 – Who are you?

Who are you? Who you were yesterday, may not be who you are today. Our true nature is that we are continually changing, evolving, and growing. There is no fixed permanent you. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist concept of “no-self”.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 17. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about our sense of self.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. Before we start, I want to mention something that I mention every single time I record on of these podcasts and that is a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I’m excited to continue along the lines of what we discussed in last week’s podcast episode. The last podcast episode, I talked about the concept of truth being relative in space and time and the implications of that understanding. If reality or truth is relative in space and time, what does that mean for us individually. This is where the concept, the Buddhist Doctrine of No Self, comes in.

I’ve talked about this before in one of the earlier podcasts, but I would like to discuss this in a little bit more detail here mostly because it’s coming right off of the heels of the understanding that truth is relative and if truth is relative, then the self is also relative. I want to discuss that a little bit and hopefully this makes sense.

In Buddhism, there’s the term “Annatta” or “Anatman” and this refers to the Doctrine of No Self. That is that there is no unchanging permanent soul in living beings and this is a central Buddhist Doctrine and it appears in several of the old original teachings of Buddhism and you’ll find this concept taught within every Buddhist tradition out there now.

The reason this is so important to understand is because we have the tendency to relate to ourselves, this sense of self as a permanent fixed thing, and that can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and for others and I wanted to get into that a little bit and see how does this actually apply in our day to day living.

In the West, Western psychology views the function of the mind that helps us to, or that creates the sense of self, as it’s just a simple function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences and it takes all the raw data or memories and all of our cognitive functions and it puts them into this recognizable narrative.

This narrative is what allows us to feel such a strong sense of self. If we didn’t have this strong sense of self, we wouldn’t really be able to make sense of anything as it’s happening to us. That’s the way psychology in the West treats the concept of why we have this sense of self.

In Buddhism, the sense of self, the answer to “There is no self” isn’t that you don’t exist. I mean, that’s obvious that we do because here you are experiencing life through the lens of your own collection group of memories and experiences and emotions and it’s all unique to you, but that doesn’t mean that there is a you that’s permanent inside that is a fixed thing.

One way to view this, there are two analogies that I like to use. One of them is fire. We’re all familiar with fire and if you have the right elements in place to create fire, fuel, oxygen, and then the process of actually lighting the fire, whether it be flint or however you start it, the moment you have fire, fire remains as long as the elements, or the causes and conditions, required for fire to exist remain. As long as you’ve got that fuel to burn, like wood for example, and oxygen to combine with that, then the fire keeps going.

At the same time, fire is not a fixed, permanent thing. You can’t freeze it and then look at it and say, “There it is. That’s fire.” Fire is the constant process of the causes and conditions that are enabling fire to exist. The flickering of the flame, it’s a constant change.

Another analogy here is when you think of a river and I like this one because a river’s a fixed thing in our mind. Think of the Mississippi River or the Nile River and it’s this fixed entity, but when you look closely, there is really no aspect of it that’s entirely fixed. The water that flows to create a river is continually changing. The water that was flowing in the river 10 years ago is not the same water that’s flowing there today.

Even the banks of the river, or what you would say are the edges, what defines the shape of the river changes and evolves over time. The sand on the banks of the river is continually being washed away and then there’s new sand that forms the edge of the river.

Sometimes even the direction can change. If you have a big storm and the water rises in the river, it may carve an entirely new path and then as the waters recede, the old path of the river was replaced and now there’s a new path on that specific leg of the river. Almost every aspect of the river is continually changing and yet when we think of a river, we think of it as this fixed thing. It’s always the Mississippi, but there’s no aspect of it that is fixed or permanent.

The Buddhist view of the self is very much like that river. We are a collection of many things that make us us. Our memories, where we raised, how we raised, the experiences that we have, the DNA that we have is inherited from our parents and from our ancestors. Every aspect of us is constantly changing and yet it’s in the present moment that the culmination of all these things allow us to be experiencing life through the specific lens that we’re experiencing it.

We’re like the Mississippi River right now. In its present form, it has a defined shape and it has a defined direction and a pretty regular water level height, but all of this is changing. None of it’s fixed or permanent and our sense of self is the same. Our memories are continually changing, we’re continually adding new ones, we’re continually forgetting old memories. Our emotions are constantly changing.

What’s interesting to me is I think that there is a part of us that actually understands and grasps this concept that we’re not fixed entities. We’re constantly changing and evolving and at the same time, there’s another part of us, the ego, that clings to the sense of self and says, “I am fixed, permanent, and unchanging.”

The example of the part of us that does understand that we’re constantly changing, you see it everywhere, right? You’ve all heard or perhaps even experienced it yourself the idea that, “When I said that, that wasn’t me. I was angry,” or, “When I did that, don’t hold that against me. I was afraid.” When we act under fear or under emotions like anger, we tend to look back on those moments and say, “That wasn’t me.”

Well, the thing is that was you. That was you in this constantly changing state of who you are. That happened to be you ten minutes ago when you were mad, that’s you, and then you get that ten minutes later, the “me” that’s here now and is no longer mad looks back and says, “That wasn’t me.”

That’s right, but that’s how everything is. It’s not just when we’re mad or when we’re angry. I think Snickers has done a really good job teaching this concept and the way they’ve done it in their commercials, if you’ve seen them, you’ll recall they show somebody acting in a certain way and then it says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” and then another character will feed them a Snickers bar and then it goes back to being someone else.

It’s like an entirely different person and the whole concept that they’re trying to insinuate is you’re not you when you’re hungry and that’s true, but the thing is it goes beyond that. It’s not that you’re not you when you’re hungry, it’s that there is no you that’s the permanent fixed you.

The way you are when you’re hungry may be different than how you are when you’re satisfied. It may be different than how you are when you’re completely overstuffed and full. It’s a different you when you’re angry. You’re a different you when you’re happy. You’re a different you if you just found out you won the lottery and you’re a different you if you just found out you lost your job.

Because there is no fixed, permanent you. That’s the idea is that you’re continually ongoing changing process much like the river, the Mississippi River, that seems like a fixed thing. I mean, we call it the Mississippi River. It’s not like we have other names for it. It’s constantly there and yet there’s not one single aspect of it that’s fixed.

With the self, it’s the same. We have a sense of self that seems permanent and fixed when the reality is that there not a single part of you or me that is fixed or permanent. We seem to notice this when we look … If you look back in time, I think it’s pretty clear to say, “The ‘me’ that was me ten years ago is not the same ‘me’ that is me today.”

It doesn’t have to be ten years. It could be if you’re going through a drastic change in your life, “The ‘me’ that was me a year ago when I was in that marriage is not the same ‘me’ now that I’m divorced and single,” or, “The ‘me’ in college that was very active and partying is not the same ‘me’ five years later that has two little kids or three little kids.”

Think about almost any example of yourself extending into the past and you’ll understand that that you is not the same you that you are now. There may be aspects of you that haven’t changed. Certain forms in your personality and that only aggravates this illusion that there must be a permanent, fixed you.

“The permanent, fixed me is this or that.” When the reality is just because a certain part of you hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that it can’t change and I talked about this the first time that I talked this topic because some of the things that we tend to cling to in terms of the fixed sense of identity.

An example of that would be our personality and how we are. Somebody who tends to always be a certain way only feeds that idea of, “Well, then there must be a permanent, fixed me,” but every aspect of you can change. All it takes is a fluctuation in hormones or a change in how your mind works because you’ve been in an accident. A traumatic brain injury can change you.

There are so many things that can change you. What part of you is then actually permanent and fixed? Well, you’re not going to find it because there is no part of you that’s permanent and fixed. You are a continually changing thing very much like a river is a continually changing thing and I think it’s awesome when we think about that.

Now in the world of psychology, this is explored a little bit by Carol Dweck. Carol is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and she’s done a lot of work on the idea of fixed mindset versus growth mindset and I really like what she’s done in her work and I want to talk about this a little bit. The concept of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset is essentially that everything that we do has to do with our mindset much more than it has to do with specific skills and talent.

She did more than 20 years of research to show that our mindset is more than just a personality trait. It’s not a fixed thing and our mindset determines if we become optimistic or pessimistic and it influences our goals, our attitudes, our relationships, how we are, how we raise our kids, and ultimately whether or not we live up to our full potential of how we can be.

Her research has found that we essentially have two basic mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is when we tend to believe that all the things that we are, whether it be your talents, your abilities, personality traits, these are all set in stone. Intelligence is viewed as static and that leads to the desire to want to look a certain way. “I want to look smart and then I have the tendency to avoid challenges because I don’t want to fail at something that’s going to change the way I already have my perception of how I’m supposed to be.”

People with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily, they see efforts as fruitless, and they ignore useful negative feedback because it’s negative. With a fixed mindset, you’re continually threatened by the success of others. With a fixed mindset, you generally plateau early and you achieve less than your full potential. You tend to feel that you just are what you are.

This fixed mindset would be … An example of this is, “I am,” and then fill in the blank. Think about yourself here. Think about in what way do you view yourself with a fixed mindset. “I am smart,” or, “I am dumb,” or “I am,” whatever it is.

Now the growth mindset is different. The growth mindset, you view the world and believe that your talents and your abilities and your personality traits, these are all things that are continually evolving and they can be developed. Intelligence is something that’s developed. This mindset leads to the desire to continually learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks and to see effort as the path to success and it’s easier to learn from criticism.

With a growth mindset, you find lessons and inspiration in the success of others and it’s with a growth mindset that you can achieve high levels of achievement.

Dweck’s research with the fixed mindset versus growth mindset has a lot of implications in parenting. This is what interested me as the father of three little kids. The idea here is with your kids, you don’t want to give them the idea that things are fixed. This is the difference of saying, “Good job on your test. You’re so smart,” versus saying, “Hey, good job on your test. You studied really hard and you got a good grade. Good job for working hard.”

One tends to create a fixed mindset that makes people think, “I am this. I am that,” and if you’ve been told your whole life, “I’m smart, I’m smart, I’m smart,” and that’s what’s happening in school, the first time that you fail, instead of thinking whatever other circumstances were involved with failing, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Oh no, I’m no longer smart. This fixed part of me is not what I thought that it was and therefore now I have problems.”

In the last podcast episode, I talked about how there was that Facebook meme or quote going around that says, “What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be.” Well, that same thinking applies here. I think what can really screw us up in life is to have a picture in our minds of who we are and who we’re supposed to be and completely ignoring the fact that there is no fixed version of you. It’s like this growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.

In the growth mindset, or in the Secular Buddhist paradigm of understanding the world, all things are continually changing and evolving, including and especially you, your sense of self. This creates a very, very big difference.

If you were to look at yourself with a growth mindset, a mindset that’s not fixed, nothing’s permanent, and look at how you view your own successes and your own failures. These are fixed, permanent things. The way that we view ourselves can change drastically simply by the understanding that either we are fixed or we’re not fixed, permanent things.

If you spend the time looking for what part of you is a fixed, permanent, unchanging thing, you’re not going to find it and I would hope that you do spend time trying to explore that. If you do find that there is something, you’ll find it’s conceptual. I’ve talked about conceptual and empirical truths in the past and the idea here, again, is you can look for it and you might have an idea or a concept in your mind that, “I am this or I am that,” but it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of psychological evaluation or scientific or empirical research. What you are constantly changing and constantly evolving.

Instead of this being a sad thinking, “Oh no, there’s no self,” it’s actually very empowering to realize, “Wow, what I am is just what I am.” If someone were to ask me, “Who are you,” traditionally I’d say, “Well, I’m my name,” and I’d give them my name, but so what. That’s just what I’m called and in my case, this one’s always been interesting to me because I’m an identical twin and growing up, I’ve always been confused with my brother and we were always called Nik and Noah. Almost like it was one name.

I’ve always had this sense of, “Well, there’s me, but then there’s us,” my brother and I and to this day, if I’m out in public and someone says, “Nik,” I always turn because I think they might be trying to get ahold of me. They just don’t know if I’m Nik or Noah, so I’m both. I’m Nik and I’m Noah. At least when you’re calling that name, I’m going to look at both.

For me, that’s always been a fascinating form of introspection in thinking, “Well, I’m Noah,” and I’ve also thought, “What if we were switched at birth? What if I’m actually Nik? What if I’ve always been Nik and he’s always been Noah and nobody knew because when we were born, somebody got confused and didn’t realize which was which and then they just started calling us the other name? What if I was always meant to be Nick and he was always meant to be Noah?”

I don’t know. Maybe those are just some of the things that twins think about, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. It happened later in life with my last name. Only about a year ago, I was doing a lot of family history and research and I’d always known that my last name is Serbian and I felt this strong sense of identity with my last name and what it means and where it came from and all the implications of my last name.

About a year ago, doing ancestry DNA tests and 23 and Me DNA tests and coupling that with everything I knew about my family history, there were aspects that did not add up and eventually what that led to was the discovery that my dad’s mom was not the daughter of who she thought her dad was. She had a different dad and the DNA is what proved all this when I was doing the DNA testing for myself and then for my parents.

It was fascinating to discover this whole sense of identity that I have to a name isn’t even my name. I’m not even supposed to be Rasheta. I’m supposed to be … Moody should be my last name, but it didn’t work that way and I still have a sense of attachment to my last name because that’s the last name that my grandfather gave to my dad when he adopted him, but it’s just a name.

This happens with one name. Three or four generations back, there’s this twist in the story that changes it all. Imagine in your case it’s very similar. If you could go back … We tend to carry one last name with us. It’s always the parental name, at least in our society, and it goes back generation to generation and it’s always one line, but if you were just to go back two generations, you actually have four last names. All four of them are equal parts.

One is the one that you’re going to carry with you, but you are just as much the other three in terms of DNA as you are the one that you happen to use and that’s only two generations back that you’re four. Keep going ten generations back, you’ve got over a thousand people who contributed to your genetic makeup, to your DNA, and out of those one thousand people, perhaps up to one thousand different last names, only one is the one that you carry today and you feel this strong sense of identity to that last name. Like that’s who you are, completing forgetting that you are also all those thousand other ones, but we don’t really think like that. That’s just part of our societal conditioning, I think.

It’s interesting to think about that. Our sense of self tends to want to attach and feel permanent and feel like it’s unchanging and there’s no part of it that is permanent or that doesn’t change.

Think about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset applied to how you view yourself and there should be a sense of feeling liberated or free to be a continually changing version of you. I can’t think of a more exciting thing than to know, “Wow, what I am is just what I am, but it’s not permanent and it’s not fixed. That gives me freedom to work with it and change and evolve. If I have the tendency to always be in a bad mood, I’m going to work towards trying to change that.” There’s a lot of freedom in the understanding that we’re flexible.

While some things are hard coded in us through our genetics, not all things are hard coded or permanent and a lot like the Snickers commercial, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” think about that. You’re not you when you’re mad, you’re not you when you’re ecstatic, you’re not you when you’re afraid. There’s so many versions of you that you would happily say, “Well, that’s not me,” but why stop it with the negative ones. Apply that to everything.

Every version of you under whatever set of circumstances you are, that’s just who you are under that set of circumstances and the “you” that you are right now is the you that you are right now.

With truth, we talked about how what was true yesterday may not be true today. Well, think about the implication of that. That means that the “you” that you were yesterday may not be the “you” that you are today and that is actually very liberating. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom when you understand that you’re not permanent and you’re not fixed.

What I hope you get out of all this is a sense of determination to grow, to have fun, to experience the process of being. I love that human being implies it’s this process that’s grounded in the present moment. You’re being and what you’re being is always contingent on time and what your being is grounded in the present moment.

Play with that and be. Go be and see how you’re being and compare it to different stages in life and compare those stages and different emotions that you’re experiencing and see how those change you and how you can work with those and what part of you evolves and changes over time. It’s a fascinating process and when you can completely allow yourself to just be with the understanding that you’re continually changing, there’s a stronger sense of compassion, self-compassion, because what you start to notice is that I can look back at a previous version of me and I can have compassion for that because I’ll say, “Well, of course I acted the way that I did. Based on what I knew at the time or what I was experiencing at that specific phase of my life, I did exactly what that me would have done. That may not be what the “me” now would do, but I’m not that same person and that person is not who I am now.”

That’s so much more healthy than to look back and think, “Why did I do this? I was so dumb,” or, “I would have never done that.” Well, of course you wouldn’t because that you isn’t the same you that you are now. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.

Practice this sense of compassion for yourself when you understand that the “you” that you are is not the same “you” that you’ve always been and it’s not the same “you” that it will always be. Where this gets really exciting is when you extend this freedom to someone else.

The person who cut you off on the road and you think, “That guy’s a jerk,” that’s applying a permanent, fixed attribute to someone who’s not permanent and not fixed and it may be that the person who they were in that moment is who they were in that moment and they did what they did in that moment because of all the circumstances going on in that moment.

Think of the Snickers commercial. This may be the easiest way to picture it, but just think, “Oh, they must be hungry. That’s not the real them,” and next time somebody does something, think about that a bit and think, “What could it be? Are they hungry? Are they angry? Are they afraid of something? What part of them is causing them to do this,” and understand that it’s not a permanent, fixed thing. That person that’s doing what they’re doing is not permanent and they’re not fixed just like you are not permanent and you’re not fixed.

I think this makes it a little more easy to have compassion for other beings because we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all being. In the present moment, based on the set of circumstances that are completely unique to each of us, our memories, our experiences, they’re all unique and I think one of the bravest you can do is to just show up and be seen as you and one of the most loving things that you can do is to allow others that same sense of freedom and let them be what they are.

What they are right now is what they are right now. It may not be what they were in the past and it sure isn’t going to be what they are in the future because that’s the nature of continual change. I think it gives us a lot more flexibility with how we view ourselves and how we view others.

That’s what I wanted to discuss this week in the podcast, the concept of the ever-changing self. The sense of self that’s not fixed and it’s not permanent and I think that’s what makes us so beautiful. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.

Hopefully this makes sense to you. I’d love to discuss this further. Those of you who are in the Facebook Secular Buddhism study group, be a fun place to discuss it there or on our Facebook page or on the blog in the comments. Wherever you want to, but I look forward to hearing from you guys and to discussing another topic in the next podcast episode.

Thanks again. If you enjoyed this, please remember to share, give it a rating, a review. I take all of your feedback very seriously and then I’m trying my best to improve these podcasts everyday.

16 – Truth in the Context of Time

What’s true here may not be true there and what was true yesterday, may not be true today. The nature of truth, life, and reality is that they are impermanent. They are ALWAYS changing. How do we make sense of things like promises and commitments in a world that is constantly changing? In this episode, I will explore the concept of truth as being relative to both space and time.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 16. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about truth in the context of time.

Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I’m excited to announce something new. Within the next few weeks the Secular Buddhism podcast is going to be forming part of a non-profit organization called Foundation for Mindful Living. This is something I will be playing a part in, and part of the overall scope of this new entity is to create content and opportunities for people to learn to live more mindfully. This means there will be opportunities for retreats, workshops, books, and many other tools available in the future for anyone who’s interested in learning about Secular Buddhism or just learning to live mindfully. I will update you with information about this as it becomes available. It’s just something I’m excited about and wanted to let you know that that’s in the works so that you know that this entire thing that I’m putting together will be operating under an non-profit organization very soon, so I’m really excited about that.

Then, of course before we start, a reminder, the Dalai Lama 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.” This is something I ask you to always keep in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in the podcast. Again, if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review or give it a rating.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. In last week’s podcast episode, I spoke a little bit about the idea, the concept of fath and doubt, and specifically the faith to doubt, at least within the Buddhist worldview or the Buddhist concept. Today, all week, I’ve been thinking about truth, which was another podcast episode that was discussed a few weeks ago and I believe I highlighted kind of the difference between what I call conceptual truth versus empirical truths. I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more based on a conversation I had with a friend this week. The idea, just as a recap, is that when we’re talking about truth, there are at least two major kinds of truths the way I like to think about it. These are the truths that are true regardless of what I believe and the truths that are true because of what I believe.

An example of the first one, a truth regardless of what I believe is an empirical truth. This is the type of truth that’s true whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s an easy way to think about it. For example, when the moisture in the air saturates to the point where it can no longer hold moisture, then it starts to rain. That would happen whether or not we believe in that. It’ll happen whether or not there are humans on the planet. That’s just something that happens. That’s an example of an empirical truth or, as I mentioned earlier, a truth that is true regardless of what I believe. Most of the truths that we deal with on a day to day basis in our lives aren’t empirical truths.

These are the conceptual truths. These are truths that are true because we believe them. The example I gave of a conceptual truth was the value of gold versus silver, or really, the value of any precious gem. It’s true that a diamond is worth more than a piece of coal, but that’s a conceptual truth. That’s only true because we believe it. There is no inherent value in a piece of diamond versus a piece of coal. That becomes truth and it gains value because, as humans, we have collectively decided that a diamond is valuable and therefore we are going to assign it a specific value. That’s an example of a conceptual truth.

The reason I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit more from the previous podcast where I discussed truths was because truths are contingent upon space and time. Buddhism we talk about space and time. Everything exists in space and time, and in terms of space, all things are interdependent. We’ve talked about that. In terms of time, all things are impermanent. Usually when I’m discussing this concept with someone and I talk about the idea of impermanence, we think about the opposite of impermanent being permanent. Yeah, that makes sense, but it’s more than that. I think a better or maybe easier way to understand the concept of impermanence is understanding the idea of something fixed and permanent versus something fluctuating and changing. Impermanence, think about it as fluctuation and change. That’s the way to understand this.

How does that apply to the way that we view conceptual truths? That’s really the heart of what I want to get at today, and the whole way that this conversation started up was in a discussion with a friend in my ministry program about having read an old love letter. My friend read this old love letter and it contained wording that was very compelling to the argument of being in love. Saying, “I’m so happy that we’re finally together. I’ll never leave your side. You’re the soulmate I was looking for,” words like that. She was reading this letter from the understanding that seven months later, after the date on this letter, this relationship had ended and there was divorce. The context of the conversation was in a world where all things are impermanent or all things are constantly changing, how do you make sense of things like love or things like promises, the promises that are made, wedding vows. Any form of a promise that seems long term seems like a permanent thing. How does that work in the context of impermanence.

I wanted to discuss this a little bit because that got me thinking. In fact I had been thinking about this a couple weeks after that conversation. I went through a similar experience to what she went through in my own life. Without really giving any details into my personal life or my experiences with this, essentially what happened is there was a point in my own marriage that was very rocky. There had been a breech of confidence and things got really rocky and I wasn’t sure it was going to survive. Right before entering that difficult phase in my marriage, I had spent some time on Mother’s Day. I got these post-it notes and I thought I would write 100 things I love about you. My idea was 100 things, one per post-it note and I would go put these all over the wall and surprise her. I started working on this and it took me a while and there was no appreciation for it and I felt kind of silly for even doing it.

Didn’t think much of it later because, like I mention, we entered a pretty rocky phase soon after that and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive, the marriage was going to survive. Long story short, many months, maybe even years later, I came across one of those post-it notes. It had somehow stuck in one of my binders or maybe it was in a book as a bookmark. I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but I remember seeing it and when I saw that post-it note, I immediately had this thought of, “Wow, I guess what I wrote back then, all that was fake. It was all a lie because I didn’t know that at the time something was going on in my marriage and my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was. It was a fraud, so to speak.” I had this feeling of a conflict with what was true now versus what felt true then versus what felt true in between now and then.

It was an interesting and fascinating experience for me to sit and contemplate this notion of truth relative to time and I had to analyze and conclude that it wasn’t a lie and it wasn’t fraud because when it was expressed, it was absolutely true. I didn’t know that it was going to be only a month later that it was going to be really rocky and neither one of us were sure we wanted to be with each other anymore. At that point, that was the new truth, the truth that we weren’t sure we even wanted to be to be together, and then years after that, we reached a point where we were committed and decided, you know what, we do want to make this work. That was the new truth. At every point along that spectrum, all of those emotions were true.

It was true that I had this intense desire to make it work and be with my wife and it’s true that at one point I did not want to be with my wife. I didn’t want it to work out. It’s true that at one point I did want to be with my wife and I wanted to make that work. I thought of my friend’s letter. I think we do this a lot in life. We project the truth of the present and we apply it to a truth in the past or even in the future that’s not relevant. It’s taking the concept of something that was true yesterday and understanding that that may not be true today. I think we do this with beliefs and with views and with tastes. It may be that as a kid I liked hot dogs and now I don’t. It’s true that I love hot dogs and it’s true that I don’t love hot dogs. It’s just contingent upon the context of time.

Our tendency is to take the present-day truth and apply that in the extension of time, past and present, and that’s where things can get a little bit rocky. I think that’s where this notion was becoming difficult for my friend to see that letter and think that was all a lie because she knew that seven months later that marriage was going to be over and all those words were now empty and meaningless and no longer true. When the reality is, as hard as it may be for us to accept, they were true. They were just true in the context of the time in which they were written. They’re not true now, but they were true at one point.

I thought about this a lot in other contexts of time in my own life, beliefs that I’ve had. At one point in my life, I believed certain things that I don’t believe now. I’m sure at one point in my life in the future, I may believe things that I don’t believe now, or I may not believe things in the future that I do believe now. These will be my truths, but they’re always going to be relevant in the present moment. When you take a concept like promises, how does this … In a world that’s ever changing, what’s the point of ever making a promise? Let’s say my promise is I want to be faithful to my spouse, for example, or I want to be a certain type of dad for my kids. That’s a long term promise or a long term commitment and why would you make a promise that’s long term in a world that’s ever changing?

I think the answer to that is that you don’t. You don’t make a promise in the long term. I think what that means for me, I don’t view it as, I am eternally committed to my spouse, for example, but what I am is eternally committed in the present moment. Right now, this is the promise and it’s an ongoing promise that’s continually renewed. It’s continually renewed in the moment to moment experience of life. That might seem a little weird because you think, “Well, but it sounds more noble to say I’m going to love you forever,” but if you really think about it, love doesn’t work that way because it’s not permanent. When you fall in love, the person that you fell in love with changes over time and you change over time. You have two people who are constantly changing, living in a world of constant change, and somehow the emotion of love is supposed to be this permanent thing, but it’s not. It’s also changing. It’s fluctuating.

The way it works is you’re constantly falling in love with the person that you’re committed to stay in love with. I think, in fact, that’s what makes it work is realizing that it’s constant and that every day, my spouse is the person that I’m learning to love. Every day, the new version of her. Every hour, every minute. The moment I make that a stagnant thing, it deteriorates the love that I have for her. It would be very easy to say, “Well you’re not the person I fell in love with seven years ago when we got married,” or eight years ago or nine years ago, whatever it is. The thing is, you’re absolutely right. That’s not the same person that you married. Guess what? You’re not the same person that they married. This doesn’t just apply to relationships and to love. This applies to everything.

I think with careers, this is common too. It’s like, well, when I graduated from college, I wanted to be a film maker, and I was for a while, working on television commercial production. One day that evolved and then whatever I was at the time is what I was at the time. That, for me personally, has evolved year after year it seems. I’ve done a lot of different things. You take someone who’s been in a career their whole lives and then they look back one day and say, “I got into the wrong career because what I wanted should have been this or should have been that.” That’s not true because you did exactly what you thought you wanted to do when you did it. The difference is that as you’ve changed and evolved over time, the idea of what you thought you wanted hasn’t.

Then it makes you think that the truth in the present is the same as the truth of the past. That’s where it becomes iffy … I don’t know if iffy is the right word. It becomes tricky to work with the truth of the past, applying it to the present because it changes. The truth is what changes. Maybe truth isn’t the right word here. We could say life or reality. Using the word truth, life, reality, these are all interchangeable, but the concept to grasp here is impermanence. Impermanence means constant change. That means that whatever was true at one point in the past may not be true today. If you really want to be liberated by this knowledge, you need to understand that what you hold to be true today also may not be true in the future.

This is a very powerful way of experiencing reality in the present moment. It’s understanding that I’m experiencing my own conceptual truths in the present moment and they are completely relevant here and now. They may not be relevant in the future and they may not be relevant when compared to the past. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll look and realize, that’s true. That’s exactly how it works because there are so many things in your past that I’m sure are no longer relevant now, ways that you used to be, things that you used to think, beliefs that you used to believe. These evolve and change over time. It limits our ability to grow when we have a fixed mindset that decides whatever is now, that sense of permanence, I’m going to extend it, past and future. The healthy way of viewing the present is in that state of flow. Rather than a fixed mindset, it’s a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck talks about this concept of fixed mindset versus growth mindset. In fact, I think that’s the title of her book. You should check that out. In terms of parenting and how we experience life, the idea is that the moment we try to make it fixed, we hinder and limit our ability to grow because as growth, as the name itself implies, growth is change. It’s the only way that you grow is because you’re changing. As soon as there’s no growth, then that’s death. Life is the process of constant change. The moment you’re not changing, that means you’re dead. Now you’re done. There is no more change.

Yet somehow we attach to this idea of trying to grasp life and make it a fixed concept. I want all my truths to be fixed. I want my sense of self to be a fixed sense of self. Who I was in the past is who I am now and it’s who I will be in the future and that’s just not true. Who I was yesterday may be irrelevant to who I am today and it might be very different from who I am in the future because that’s the nature of change. It’s the nature of life, reality and truth. It’s constantly changing. What I wanted to ultimately get at in this podcast episode was this concept of truth relative to space and time, specifically time.

I hope that you can set aside some time in your day or in your week to explore what truths were true to you in the past that are no longer true today. If you really want to get something out of this, try to spend some time looking at the things that you hold on to as fixed truths today, and look at them with the perspective that they may not be fixed truths in the future because that’s the nature of change. The nature of truth is that it’s constantly changing and it’s … All of our conceptual truths work this way. Conceptual truths are always relative to time.

Going back to the example of the diamond, think about that, that the value of a diamond or the value of gold versus silver is relative, in terms of being a truth, it’s relative to space and time. Alter the equation of space and time and let’s go back to, instead of where we live now, let’s go back to, I don’t know, pick anywhere on earth 10,000 years ago and now the truth of the value of gold versus silver is different. Go back 20,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago, a million years ago and these things just change. Truth changes. Truth evolves.

That’s really what I wanted to get at in this podcast episode, and the sense of freedom that comes from letting go of the fixed part of truth. You can hold on to your truths. First recognize that, my truths, are they conceptual, or are they empirical. Once you’ve done that and you realize, “Wow, all my truths that are so important to me are actually conceptual truths.” Then you let go of the grip a little bit. The next step is to take those truths and understand, wow, these are actually truths that are relative to space and time. They’re true to me here and now and they may not be in the future and I can analyze that yesterday’s truth may not be true today.

Then you let go of that grip a little bit more. What happens when we let go of the grip is that we’re left with this sense of freedom. Freedom to move around and to flow with the nature of reality, which is the nature of change and you change with it. That’s where this sense of freedom comes from. The moment we become fixed and we hold things like truth or reality as fixed things, then we start to encounter problems because the nature of reality and the nature of truth isn’t fixed. It’s impermanent which means it’s constantly changing.

I hope that makes sense. Many of you have reached out to me in the last few weeks and I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me to hear that these podcasts are making a difference in your lives. When I first encountered and started studying Buddhism, it became a topic that helped me to experience life in this new perspective that was so liberating. I think what it boiled down to is I had the full freedom to just be me, to accept me as I am in the present moment. Even more beautiful, it gave me the ability to see others for who they are, in the present moment with whatever their conceptual truths are in the present moment, then you just feel compassion for people. I knew that I wanted to make this something more regular. I wanted to be able to teach Buddhism and I wanted to be able to teach these concepts of mindful living. I’m really excited that I’m going to have that opportunity now through this non-profit that we’re forming, the Foundation for Mindful Living.

Thank you guys for being a part of this journey with me. This podcast has been very instrumental in allowing me to build up what I’m trying to do in life and I’m very grateful for each one of you who takes the time to listen to this and shares these podcasts and writes the reviews and reaches out to me. It’s really meaningful, so thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to the next podcast episode sometime next week. Until next time.

15 – The Faith to Doubt

True faith is the attitude of being open to whatever might be. When we create an image in our mind of how life is “supposed” to be, we literally blind ourselves to seeing life as it is. In this episode, I will explore the concepts of faith and doubt and discuss how doubt is the key to having true faith.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, and this is episode number 15. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the faith to doubt. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This podcast is produced every week and it covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to what secular Buddhism is and general Buddhist concepts, so if you’re new to the podcast I recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to just be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Before we get started, I like to remind my listeners of a quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

This week I wanted to talk about the topic of faith and doubt, specifically the concept of having the faith to doubt. A few weeks ago while I was in China on a business trip, I had an experience that I think does a really good job of relating or explaining kind of what the whole concept of faith and doubt actually means. Leading up to this story, just a little bit of background, I’ve been working with a new supplier for almost a year now. In that amount of time we’ve gotten to know each other but we’ve never actually met.

Something that happens in a lot of Asian cultures or at least in China, people choose their own western name to make it easier to communicate with westerner’s like me. I have contacts that I work with there that there’s a Jason and there’s a Wyatt and there’s Mr. Lee and they kind of pick their western names. With this new supplier, it’s no different. As soon as we started communicating, they told me the person that you need to talk to is Chris. I started emailing Chris who’s the head of sales for this new factory and Chris and I got to know each other by email and we’ve placed multiple orders for various parts with this new supplier and everything has been going well, so I thought I would take advantage of this specific trip while I was in China to schedule a time and meet Chris in person.

While I was there, I received the message from Chris deciding where we were going to meet and at what time, and I followed the instructions to the meeting place and I started walking around looking for Chris. I looked for him everywhere and I couldn’t see him anywhere so I continued to walk around just buying time, and then every minute or two I’d come back to that specific location where we were supposed to meet, look around, he still wasn’t there, so then I would keep walking. I did this two or three times and by then almost 10 minutes had gone by and I thought Chris must be running late. I guess I can just wait here for him to show up.

I went over to the specific table where we were supposed to meet and I sat down and there at the end of the table there were two young girls on their smartphones, so I just sat down on the other side of the table. As soon as I sat down, one of the two girls looked up and said, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m Chris.” I was just stunned because that was not what I was expecting. I started to laugh and then thinking to myself, wait, you were here the whole time. I’ve been walking past you back and forth and not once did it occur to me that the girl sitting at the table might be Chris because in my mind I had already decided that Chris was probably a man.

It was just a very mind opening experience to realize how I was in a very literal way I was blinded by my beliefs. I was blinded by the belief that Chris was a man. For days after this experience I’ve just been thinking of the implications of that lesson. There’s a meme that was going around on social media, well, a quote. I guess it’s not a meme. There was a quote that I really like and it says, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” I would put quotations around ‘supposed to be.’

I thought that’s exactly what just happened to me. There was a picture in my mind of how Chris was supposed to be and that picture in my mind blinded me from seeing Chris the way Chris really was. Chris has to finally speak up until I realized that was Chris. It was a really moving experience. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to apply it to other concepts thinking, man, in what other ways have I been blind to reality because I already have a picture of what that reality is supposed to be?

If you think about it, this is actually a really powerful way of understanding reality. Take a concept like happiness or love or success and think about the concept that you have in your mind of what that’s supposed to mean, what that’s supposed to be. You’ll understand very much like my experience with Chris, if you have an idea of what that is, you’re not going to be able to see it for what it actually is. I think this is the very essence of what Buddhism teaches. Thich Nhat Hanh says the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself. I like that. To reveal itself.

That’s exactly what happened with Chris. Chris was there the whole time and I couldn’t see Chris, and the only reason I couldn’t see Chris was because of the concept that I had already developed in my mind. I was blind you could say by my faith in my concept of who Chris was. This is the notion of faith that many of us in the west, maybe from our cultural backgrounds, have an understanding of what faith is. Typically that faith is here’s an idea, now believe in that idea and don’t doubt that.

The eastern approach to this, Alan Watts talks about faith as the attitude of being open to whatever is. That attitude of being open to whatever is allows us to experience whatever is the moment it shows up. We don’t have to go through wasting, in my case, 10 minutes looking for Chris when Chris was there all along. In life we do the same thing. Perhaps it’s looking for happiness, for example, and here I am looking for happiness because I have an idea of what happiness is. Then one day happiness looks up and says, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness.”

I just think this is not what I was expecting and you literally start to laugh and realize life has been presenting itself to you in ways like this all along and the only thing blinding us from seeing those things is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. I’ve talked about this on multiple occasions and several podcast episodes, this idea of there’s reality and then there’s the story we build around reality. That’s that world of the story of reality where we get stuck prevents us from seeing the reality as it is. It’s almost identical to this experience with Chris.

This is the notion of faith and doubt, at least in the Buddhist context, the secular Buddhist context. We go through life developing concepts and then we believe in our concepts or we have faith in those concepts. That’s not what true faith is. I like to imagine true faith as just being the attitude of being completely open to whatever may be. Approaching that table and not having any assumptions of is this Chris or is that Chris. I just know Chris is supposed to be here. Imagine if I would have showed up with the attitude of being completely open to whatever is. I just would have walked up to the table and assumed one of you sitting here must be Chris, no matter how improbable that is based on the picture I had in my mind.

What’s interesting is I couldn’t do that. It’s not that I didn’t want to. I literally couldn’t. I was blind and didn’t even know that I was blind. I wonder how many other concepts in life do I approach that way where I don’t even realize that I’m blind by those concepts that the picture, the story that I have of whatever that thing is compared to just however it is. This really motivated me, this experience motivated me to want to approach life with a new perspective, with a new attitude of true faith, of being completely open to whatever might be, and allowing whatever might be to present itself like Chris and say, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness or I’m success,” or whatever the concept is that I have in my mind, I want to try to let go of that.

This is where doubt plays a pivotal role in understanding the true nature of faith. If the true nature of faith is just being open to whatever is, then what I need to be doubting continually are the concepts that I create in my mind and question those and think is this really how it is or is this the mental picture I’ve created about how life is supposed to be? I think this is really relevant with all things in life. I could take the concept of love, for example, and with your spouse or your significant other or your relationship with your parents or your children or siblings.

You could look at that relationship and for years you could be questioning do they really love me? It could be that they do all along and you’ve never seen it because you have a different picture in your mind of what that love is. I think this really hits home if you’ve ever studied or read the five love languages. You’ll learn that love is communicated and expressed in different ways, and if you speak one certain love language, if you don’t know that there are other love languages you may be blind, very much like I was in seeing Chris, because you only see love through the language that you speak.

If you haven’t looked into the five love languages, Google it. It’s a really fascinating concept and I think it’s very applicable to understanding the notion of how we communicate and experience something as universal as love. If that applies to love, I’m sure it applied to so many other things. If we don’t know, if we develop a belief in how things are supposed to be, then we become blind to seeing how they actually are. That’s really the essence of the topic that I wanted to discuss today, having the faith to doubt, the key to accessing true faith which is complete openness to whatever life is. The key to that is having doubt.

I think in our society for some reason we’ve attached these negative connotations to the word ‘doubt’ and positive connotations to the word ‘faith,’ and we’re motivated to always have faith, never question things because somehow doubt is like a negative thing. When in reality, doubt is a very positive thing. Doubt is the very thing that makes something like science work. It’s because we’re continually questioning and exploring why, how, that we find new knowledge. Having this in our personal lives, this sense of doubt, this sense of questioning is very much I think what the Zen Buddhism school refers to when it’s talking about beginner’s mind, the whole concept of beginner’s mind.

Think about a child. Children approach life with a beginner’s mind, with this doubting, I guess you could say a doubting approach to life. It’s not a negative thing but they’re just constantly questioning everything. Everyone knows what it’s like to be around a kid who’s always saying, “Why?” “Why?” I think this is what it means to have a beginner’s mind. You’re always exploring, you’re always curious. Why? This approach is what allows you to gain new insight to be able to see and learn stuff that you didn’t know before because you don’t operate under the assumption of always having all the information that you need. Instead, you’re always operating under the assumption that there’s something that I don’t know.

Furthermore, always operating under the assumption that everything that I believe I actually might be wrong. There’s not one thing that I could say with complete certainty that I’m right. I should approach life the opposite, thinking everything I believe could be wrong. That is faith in the unknown, faith in uncertainty, faith in whatever life is going to present. I’m just going to take it as it is. I’ve talked about this in past episodes, as well, with the analogy of playing a game of Tetris.

Again, imagine that you’re playing a game of Tetris and if you’ve ever played that game you know that the whole premise of the game is that pieces just show up. We don’t control what pieces show up, but when they show up, we have the opportunity to manipulate them and we can move them left or right or you can spin them around to position them into whatever way is going to work best for your game. The one thing you don’t do is you don’t control what comes up next. As soon as you place one, the next one’s on the way and it just goes on and on and on until the game is over.

I think that’s a lot like life. Approaching the game of Tetris like you would the game of life with an attitude of faith means faith in whatever’s going to come up next I just know what’s going to come up next. I don’t know what it is but I know that something is coming up next, and the moment it does I’m just going to have to work with it. That’s what I have faith in. What I would be doubting, what I want to doubt is the moment I think I know a square is coming up next or I know that L-shape is going to be what’s coming up next. I should probably doubt that. That’s where you need to have doubt and think, wait, don’t get caught up because the moment it doesn’t show up the way I want it, now I’m all upset.

There’s a Zen expression that says, “Great doubt equals great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment, and no doubt, no enlightenment.” This is the kind of doubt that I think is being implied here. It’s the doubt that we have about the assumptions that we make. There’s a quote that says, “No matter what you believe, you might be wrong.” I think it’s really important to go through life with that attitude, the attitude of whatever I believe … It’s fine to have beliefs, but I might be wrong. I might be wrong about my beliefs and that is the cultivation of doubt. It’s what prevents us from being locked in a place with such certainty that we are blinded by that certainty. Blind faith is not a good faith.

Again, I think the concepts of faith and doubt in our society have interesting connotations that are twisted and it’s like doubt is frowned upon and faith is treated as something that’s actually not really faith, and we’re told to just have faith but oftentimes it’s conveyed in the sense of continue to blind yourself around your belief and don’t question the belief, but that’s actually not faith. Faith is being open to whatever might be and we do that by having and cultivating doubt around our assumptions of whatever we think is.

This is an entirely different approach to faith and doubt than what we’re typically used to. The beautiful thing here is that with this doubt comes new knowledge. It’s the only way new knowledge comes in. I like to think of science as a good example of the system of doubt. Science is constantly questioning, right? It says, well, here’s what we know and it’s always asking why. Why does this work this way? Then it investigates. It creates a theory around why and then it proves the theory, and then that’s new knowledge. Then we go onto the next thing. Okay, well if that’s that, now we ask why again. Why this? Why that? It’s always questioning.

This is the sense of doubt. With this cultivation of doubt, if we can apply this inward to our own perceptions and understanding of the world, that’s the key to obtaining new knowledge and wisdom about how the world really is. The assumptions that we have about other people, our in group versus our out group, they are this way, they are that way. Us and them. That whole concept. What if we were able to doubt the concepts that we’ve created about ‘other,’ about these people who are in that category of ‘other’?

Those are a couple of ways to look at and explore the concepts of faith and doubt within the Buddhist understanding of life or the Buddhist worldview. Faith and doubt are not negative and positive things. They’re actually both positive things in the tool set to help us to experience the nature of reality, to experience life as it is without being blinded by seeing, only looking for life the way we think it’s supposed to be. Again, there’s always just what is and then there’s the story we create around what is. We should doubt the stories that we’re creating around what is and we should have faith in being open to seeing whatever just is outside of those stories.

I hope that makes sense. I wanted to share that because I thought that was a really neat experience for me to go through in China looking for Chris. It’s exciting to know that in life that’s happening all the time. We’re always looking for Chris. If we have an idea of what Chris is, then we’re going to spend a lot of time looking for Chris that’s sitting right in front of you when Chris has been there waiting all along. I hope to have more experiences like that in life when Chris will look up and say, “Hi, are you Noah? I’m …” Whatever concept and I’ll just laugh and think, of course you are. That’s how it’s been all along and I couldn’t see it.

That’s the nature of doubt that I want to have in my life. I want to be willing and able to continually question the assumptions that I’ve made about life, the assumptions I’ve made about how life is supposed to be and especially when applied to concepts as important as love, as happiness, terms like success. I just want to be open to whatever those things are and not be blinded by the beliefs I have around what those concepts are supposed to be. I think that will provide many fascinating experiences in life much like what Carl Sagan says where he says, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Whatever that is that’s waiting to be known, I think that’s faith. I have the faith in that exact expression, that somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known and I can’t wait to see whatever it is, but I’m not going to get lost in the assumption that I have of whatever that is supposed to be. Hopefully that makes sense in explaining the concepts of faith and doubt a little bit more at a deeper level for understanding the Buddhist worldview of faith and doubt.

Again, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast please feel free to share it, to write a review, or give it a rating. If you want to clarify this topic a little bit further with me, feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear what you think about this topic, and I’ll talk to you guys next time. Thank you.

14 – The Journey of Life

This week I’m traveling for work so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the journey of life. Every moment is a new experience we’ve never had. Each moment is unique and that’s what makes it all so beautiful.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode 14. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the journey of life.

Hey guys. I’m excited to be recording this podcast episode this week. It’s been difficult for me, because I’m traveling this week and next week, and in between shows, I’m in Hong Kong, and in Beijing attending trade shows, and I’m trying to find the right time to be able to record a podcast episode, and it’s been hard to prepare, it’s been hard to feel like I’m completely awake, because it’s opposite of the time that I’m used to, and my body is thinking I’m supposed to be asleep, but I’m really awake. And it’s made for an interesting experience, to try to have the clarity of mind to convey what I’m trying to convey in a podcast episode, so this may be shorter than normal podcast episodes.

But what I really wanted to discuss quickly was just the analogy of life, the journey of life, and what that experience is, when compared to the analogy of flying over here. On my way here, when I got on the plane, the lady I was sitting next to right away said, “Man, this is a crappy airplane.” And I kind of paused for a minute, because I was thinking, what is she talking about, why is this crappy? And then she went on to tell me, “The last flight I was on had every screen, every chair had it’s own personal screen.” And this one didn’t have that, it was an older plane.

And as she was explaining everything, and telling me how unhappy she was about being on this flight, it occurred to me to tell her something that she must have not known, which is that you don’t need your own screen anymore. If you have a tablet or a smartphone, you just log into the wifi, and there, you have the whole system. Access to movies, and videos, and everything directly on your personal device.

So I explained that to her, and showed her how to log into the wifi on the airplane. And then she was all smiles, and enjoying her trip once again, because suddenly, she had gained knowledge that made the experience different for her, and I thought, man, there’s got to be a lesson in that. As we go through life on the crappy plane, maybe the right knowledge will help us realize, “Oh, this actually isn’t as bad as I thought.”

So I had that in mind throughout the rest of the flight, and I kept drawing lessons from the experience of being on the flight, and I thought, isn’t life a lot like this journey? Where we start at one point, and we all end at the same point. We start with life, and we end with death, at least the experience that we’re having in the present moment, that’s how we know that starts and ends, and that’s all we know. And what we know that we have right now is just the present moment.

And throughout the entire flight, I kept thinking about that. I would look at the clock, and in this case, I knew how much more time I had. I knew that there are four hours left, six hours left, 12 hours left, it was a 14-hour flight. And I kept thinking about how all I really know is that what I have is just what I have at this specific moment.

And at one point on the trip, there was turbulence and the plane kind of started shaking. I’m thinking, oh, I hope it’s not like this the whole time. But there’s no guarantee. It could have been like that for … The moment I started experiencing that turbulence, thinking it could be like this for the next five hours. And I was like, “Oh, that would be horrible.” And I kept thinking, but that’s what we do in life, right? Turbulent times come up, and we’re thinking, oh great, that’s it. Life’s gonna suck forever. And it doesn’t. Then it stops. And when it stops, I have no indication of whether or not there will be turbulence again, and if it’s going to be the same or worse than it was last time. That’s all part of the journey, that you’re just going through it, waiting to figure it out and see what’s gonna happen next.

And then, on the flight, looking around, I thought, how interesting, there are people who are having an entirely different experience of this whole ordeal. Some people up in first class, their chairs turn into beds. And they were flying with … They’re asleep, they’re enjoying the flight way more than those of us in the back.

And then, there are people in the very back, some stuck in the last row, where the seats don’t recline quite as far, and they’re right next to the bathroom, and there are always people standing next to them, and I thought, that’s kind of how the experience of life is. And some people get to go through it first class, and others don’t. And then, the different events that happen along the way … It was really fun to take the whole experience of being on this plane and comparing that to the experience of life. And imagining some people sitting there, anxious, biting their nails for the entire flight, thinking “I cannot wait for this to be over.” And others don’t mind at all. Some are in a hurry, some are just relaxed. But in the end, we all get there, to wherever there is. And throughout the entire journey, all that you really have is the present moment.

So I wanted to talk about that, that concept of being alive. And the concept of all we have, in this journey … It’s like we’re on the plane ride, right? The only thing that we have is the present moment. And it’s the fact that you’re sitting on a plane, flying through the air … That is the miracle. That’s what makes the experience miraculous. You’re sitting in a tin can flying through the air. And the experience of being alive is the same. The miracle is that we’re alive at all. The fact that we exist is the miracle, and we’re on a rock floating through space. And here we are. We don’t know how long, we don’t know hardly anything, but we’re flying through space on a rock. And that’s what makes it so incredible. And when we can grasp the importance of the present moment, because the present is all that we have, I think that we can enjoy it more.

It’s interesting to think about the present moment, and to recognize that the present is an experience that you’ve never had before. And that you’ll never have again. And what we’re going through, whatever it is that we’re going through as we’re going through it, is unique. Because it will never happen again, and it’s never happened before. And it only exists here, and it only exists now. And we can look forward to things in the future, and then when those things come, you’re experiencing them in the present, because it’s always the present. That’s all we have. There’s no such thing as future or past, these things exist conceptually in our minds, but the experience is only there in the present. We experience the present, and it will always be the present. We’ll wake up tomorrow, and it’s the present. If you could go back in time, you’d be in the present again. It’s always the present.

And what are the implications of understanding that the notion of the eternal present moment, when we can start to see today as the most unique today that there’s ever been, and because this today, right now, this is the today that I have. And then tomorrow, tomorrow’s just another today. And then that one will be just as unique as the one that you have right now. But the one that you have right now is the only one that you can have. You’ll never be able to have anything other than what you have in the present moment. That’s what can make the present so meaningful, because we make it meaningful when we understand how unique it is.

I think when we start to grasp the uniqueness of life … I talked about the uniqueness of every moment, right? But that also extends out into the uniqueness of this very life you’re experiencing. This is the only life that you’re experiencing. It’s not a matter of thinking, well what happens after this life, or was there life before this? It doesn’t matter. What you know, what you have right now, is a unique life that will never be repeated in the same way that it is now, because it’s only experienced in the present moment.

And one of the things that happens when we can sense that, and we sense the uniqueness of the present moment, is that I think we have a determination to really live, authentically live, in the present moment, is to just live authentically in general. We want to make the best of the life that we have, and we want to be the very best version of us that we are. It’s not necessary to get caught up in the idea of how it should be, or what we should be, or how we should be. We become content with just being whatever we are.

And I think this is exemplified in a quote by Pablo Picasso. I imagine he lived the kind of life that his mother was able to recognize in him this tremendous talent. That whatever you do, you just do it. This is amazing. And he says, “My mother said to me, if you are a solider, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the pope. Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” And I love that, because the lesson that it’s giving there is, he could be anything, and what he became is him. He became Picasso. And now, when we hear that quote, and we see it, and we think, I want to be like Picasso, then you miss the whole point of the quote. Because the point of the quote isn’t that we should try to be like Picasso, it’s that he found himself in the process of being able to be anything, the best anything he could have been, he became the best him that he could be. Which is Picasso.

That’s how it is for us as we go through this journey of life. We have the opportunity to be the very best version of you that you can be, because all you can ever be is you. That’s what makes you so unique, is that there is no other you like you, you’re the only one that’s ever been and ever will be. And as you go through life, and you’re experiencing life in the present moment, and you really get that, then all of a sudden, life becomes miraculous. And it becomes miraculous, because it’s unique. It will never happen again.

And when I think about that from my perspective, thinking here I am, experiencing life through a lens that will never be repeated … It makes everything so beautiful. I think that’s really the essence of what it means to become enlightened. It’s to be able to just learn to be with what is, to see and experience everything as it is, without any of the conceptual attachments that we typically add. To think, well that means I’m supposed to all of a sudden be happy, or then I’ll always be joyful, those are concepts. There is no right way, wrong way of living life. You experience life, and you experience it in the uniqueness of the present moment, however that moment is.

So that means when you’re unhappy, you recognize, I’m unhappy. When I’m mad, I recognize I’m mad. That’s just how the present moment is for me. When I’m happy, I’m experiencing happiness, and I’m experiencing all of it, however it is, always with the awareness that this is the only moment I have, is the present moment.

Everyone, every single one of us, is unique. And yet, every single one of us is the same. And it’s our uniqueness that makes us the same, it’s the recognition of the difference that is our oneness. And I love that concept. When you walk into a garden, and you’re enjoying the garden, it’s because the garden is made up of uniqueness. There are flowers, some flowers are red, some are blue, there are bushes, there are trees, different kinds of trees … Even inside of the oneness of the tree, there are different elements. There’s the trunk, and then there’s the leaves, and acorns, whatever it is, it’s the uniqueness of every component that makes up the whole, that makes it all the same thing. It’s the garden, you know? I’m enjoying the garden. But there’s no such thing as garden, there’s everything that makes up the garden.

And it’s the same for us as we go through life, there’s just life. And here we are, we’re a part of it. We’re like on this flight, on this plane, that without any effort on our part, we just suddenly came into existence here. It has nothing to do with your willpower, or … Nothing to do with you at all. It has entirely everything to do with the actions, the causes and conditions, the actions of others that made you come into existence.

And yet, I find it so interesting how we suddenly are here, existing, for no reason … With no effort on our part, and yet, we develop this sense of ego, where life is so important. Here I am, I’m here, and what are you guys gonna do when I’m gone? And we go through life with that mentality of, what is life going to be without me? How is it gonna manage, and yet it does, because it’s never been about you. And that’s exactly what makes you so special, is that there’s nothing special about you. It’s our uniqueness, it’s what makes us so unique, that we realize that we’re all the same. We’re all unique.

And I think that’s what makes life so beautiful. I love knowing that if something were to happen to me … I thought about this on the flight over. If something were to happen to this flight, and all of a sudden I’m gone, nothing changes. Life goes on, that’s the beautiful thing of life.

And I think I’ll go into that in more detail in a future podcast, addressing the whole concept of life and death. But I think what I really wanted to convey with this podcast, is the understanding of the eternal present moment. The understanding of the uniqueness of the present moment. And that the journey of life, the whole point of it is the journey. It’s the fact that in the present moment, you are experiencing the journey of being alive.

And this is something that you experience in a way that moment-to-moment, you’ve never experienced this before. Because every moment is different, every moment is changing. The moment that you blink, and take a breath, it’s a whole new moment. And that’s what we can awaken to, is the reality of the ever-changing nature of the present moment. And yet, the present moment’s all you’ll ever have. You’ll never have anything other than the present moment until you no longer are experiencing life the way that you are now.

And I hope that with that understanding can come an awakening of sorts to the magic of reality. The magic of the present moment, and the beauty of every moment. Even the beauty of the moments that aren’t beautiful, they’re still beautiful, because they’re not beautiful. And they’re beautiful because they are beautiful. What makes them so beautiful is that they’re unique, they’re unique and every single moment is a new unique experience that we’ve never had before.

And that’s what I wanted to talk about in this podcast episode, and hopefully this has been an enjoyable podcast that hasn’t been too all over the place. Like I mentioned before, I apologize, because I’m not fully adjusted to the timezone, and I feel like I should be sleeping, but I’m trying to cram this in before I get up tomorrow and try to be awake when I feel like I’m supposed to be asleep. So I apologize for any cloudy thinking that may be going on in this podcast episode.

But thanks again for tuning in, and please remember to share the podcast, write a review if you like it. And share it with someone who you might think would enjoy this, or benefit from the topics that we discuss. And thank you very much for being a part of this journey with me, being on this flight of life, and I look forward to whatever comes ahead. Thanks. Until next time.

13 – The Path of Liberation

It’s commonly said that Buddhism is a path of liberation…but what does that really mean? In this episode, I will discuss the concept of freedom and truth. I will also discuss how can we extend freedom to ourselves and to others. If you are interested in attending any retreats or workshops, please visit secularbuddhism.com/retreats/ to express your interest.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You’re listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 13. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I am talking about freedom.

Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This podcast is produced every week, where I cover philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Remember, episodes one through five, serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism and general Buddhist concepts. So if you’re new to the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that can be listened to in any order.

Before starting, a quote I love to share by the Dalai Lama. He says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in the podcast episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share it, write a review, or give it a rating in Itunes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

I’m really excited to be talking about freedom today; specifically, freedom in the Buddhist understanding, from the Buddhist worldview. Buddhism’s often referred to as the Path of Liberation, or the Path of Freedom. What exactly is this freedom that’s being talked about? Freedom is not an absolute thing, it’s a relative thing, right? Freedom is generally freedom from or freedom to. Is this sense, what we’re talking about in the Path of Freedom, we’re obtaining freedom, it’s relative to freedom from conceptual constraints and freedom to act or be a certain way.

I want to jump into this and really talk about this but first, imagine a prisoner, someone who’s been in jail years and years, and they’re finally gonna be set free. Once that person is out of the prison, their freedom is freedom from the constraints of the cell that they were in or the constraints of the overall prison walls that they were behind; and freedom to, freedom to do all the things, to be a certain way or to act in a way that they couldn’t while they were prisoner. This could be as simple as the prisoner can now go to a store and go shopping. They’re free to go to a store and go shopping. That’s a freedom that they didn’t have before.

Understanding freedom, in the sense that it’s a relative thing, it’s freedom to or freedom from, will help us to jump into another deeper level of understanding of what truth is because what we’re talking about here is … We’ve all heard the expression that the truth shall set you free, right? Again, free from what? How does truth do that? To understand that, let’s talk about truth for a little bit.

I like to categorize truth in two major categories. This is for me. I didn’t get this anywhere, I just … For me, there are empirical truths and there are conceptual truths. Empirical truths would be truths that are true whether or not I believe anything. For example, an empirical truth is that if the temperature drops low enough, water solidifies and turns into ice. That’s an empirical truth. It can be observed, it can be replicated. Most of our empirical truths, if not all of our empirical truths, come from science, scientific research.

Science is always revealing new empirical truths for us. Those are not the kind of truths that I’m gonna talk about in this podcast. I’m talking about conceptual truths. Conceptual truths are truths that are true because of our beliefs, not in spite of our beliefs. For example, another way of saying this would be truths that are true whether or not there are humans, those are empirical truths. If there are no humans on the planet, we would still see, during the winter months, when the temperatures cooled and water turns to ice, there would still be these empirical truths happening, right?

Now conceptual truths are true because of humans, because of the beliefs that we have. So an example of a conceptual truth … I like to split this into two other categories: societal truths and personal truths, but they’re both still conceptual. An example of a societal truth would be that gold is more valuable than silver. That is a societal truth. It’s a conceptual truth because it’s only true because we believe that it’s true. Now if there were no humans on the planet, a lump of gold and a lump of silver next to each other in a field have no inherent value. There’s no inherent value that says the gold is worth more than the silver. These things are just things, but we come along and we assign meaning to things, we create stories, and inside of our conceptual understanding of the world, we have decided that gold is worth more than silver.

With the gold and silver example, it’s not just because someone said. Supply and demand. Scarcity of gold verus silver. All those things went into determining the value of gold being higher than silver; but still, overall, it’s just a conceptual truth and yet, it’s true. It’s even … You could argue it’s factual. You could go into the pawn store, into the pawn shop, and have one ounce of gold and one ounce of silver and you’re going to get a lot more for your gold than you’re from your silver. A societal truth, it’s conceptual though. These are truths that are true only because of our beliefs.

Then, you can scale this down from societal truths down to personal truths. For example, a personal truth for me would be that eggs taste better when you put hot sauce on them. This may be true for me while it’s not true for you. There are countless examples of this. Someone who thinks hotdogs are better than hamburgers or hamburgers are better with cheese. I keep using food analogies. It’s not just applicable to food, but any kind of personal conceptual truth. Being a Texan is better than being a Californian. Well of course that’s what a conceptual truth that you would hold if you believe that Texas is better than California. Now if you don’t believe that, that’s not a conceptual truth for you.

I like to imagine conceptual truths categorized in these societal and personal views, but I recently read a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a brief history of humankind and in this book he … There’s this compelling argument about our ability as humans to go from early humans as hunters and gatherers and then collect into societies and become what we are today, all hinges on the fact that we have the unique ability to tell and believe stories. It’s our ability to tell stories and then hold these collective beliefs inside of our stories that propels humans to where we are now. With our ability to have a collective belief, that gives us the ability to have politics. Political systems and governments are conceptual truths. Same with religion. Same with economics. It’s our shared belief that the value of this green piece of paper that has a one on it is actually worth something, gives us the ability to interact with each other in commerce. It’s a conceptual truth. Is it really worth a dollar? Well that doesn’t mean anything. If there were no humans, that piece of paper doesn’t mean anything.

There’s a fascinating insight in this book Sapiens that illustrates how is our ability to tell stories and believe stories that gets us to where we are today. Along with this comes the ability to be bound by our conceptual truths. This is where the idea that good concepts are like a golden chain, bad concepts are like an iron chain, but they all equally bind you in the end. That’s pretty powerful to think about. Everything that we hold as a conceptual truth binds us and that we’re bound by it. Think about all of the daily interactions you have with conceptual truths and how we’re bound by them. I don’t mean bound in a bad way. I don’t mean that we’re bound by things as if that’s bad, but to understand freedom, we need to understand that what we’re free from and free to do. To do that, we need to know what conceptual truths we’re bound to.

Byron Katie mentions, “A thought is harmless unless we believe it.” I think that’s a powerful statement. A thought is harmless unless we believe it. Again, we’re talking about conceptual truths here, right? Not empirical truths. She says, “It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that cause us suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”

When you think about conceptual truths and the beliefs that we have through what we consider to be conceptual truths, you understand what binds you, what you’re bound to, and that’s the sense of freedom that we’re talking about here. Freedom, again, freedom to or freedom from, has to do with our conceptual understanding of the world being at conflict with the empirical reality of the world. This is to say that there is what is, and then there’s the story that we create around what is. As long as we reside inside of the realm of the story of reality, we’re not dealing with reality itself.

Think about this. You’re driving on the road and somebody cuts you off. Immediately there is what happened, and then there’s the story we create about what happened, right? Typically, in a scenario like that, we’re thinking, “Okay, this person is a jerk. This person probably does this all the time, takes advantage of people. Think they can do whatever they want. Not obey the rules. Here they are just cutting me off.” There’s a whole story attached to the event. If you think about it, the suffering that you’re experiencing during that event has to do with the story around it, not with the event, right? You get cut off. That doesn’t do anything to you. Nothing happened. There’s absolutely nothing going on when you get cut off, but the story around it is the dangerous part. The thought is harmless unless we believe it, right? We believe the story that we’ve created. So this is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about freedom. It’s freedom from habitual reactivity.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and a psychiatrist, and he was the founder ologotherapy. He was a Holocaust survivor. He went through some of the most difficult things that you could probably imagine going through. Something that he says … He talks about freedom in the sense that, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.”

This is really powerful. I want to talk about this. The concept that between stimulus and response, there’s a space, because that’s what Buddhism is trying to teach and really get at, is that as we go through life, we are reactive; and even worse, we’re habitually reactive. We tend to just react on things. Between the stimulus and response, there’s this space. It’s inside of this space that we have the power to choose our response.

There’s a famous story … I think it’s a zen story, but the story goes like this. There’s a man standing on a trail, or on a path, and he can see off in the distance that there’s a man approaching him on a horse and he’s galloping at full speed and he just watches. As he gets closer and closer, he finally is close enough to talk to him. He asks this man, “Hey, where are you going?” The man just says, “I don’t know, ask the horse,” as he gallops by at full speed.

The idea here is that we are like the horse and the rider. We have two systems in the mind. There’s our intellectual part of the brain, that’s like the rider. Then there’s the emotional reactive side of us, that’s like the horse. You can read about this. Several books talk about this concept. The idea here is often times, we go through life like this man on the horse, that’s running full speed and we don’t know where it’s going. We don’t even know … The worse part is we think we’re in control, but the horse is the one that’s deciding where we go and at what speed. This would be an example of living in a reactively. Habitually reactive state of living. The sense of freedom, again, has to do with that space in between the stimulus and the response, where we actually have the power to choose our response.

Imagine again being cut off. You’re driving. You get cut off by another car and then imagine if the story’s different. The story this time is that there’s a person in the back who’s been injured. They’re trying to get to the hospital as quickly as they can. They couldn’t wait for the ambulance so here they are, speeding on the road. The story changes, but the circumstances have not changed, right? You’ve just been cut off. There’s reality. That’s what is. The story around what is may have changed and that changes everything, right? Now in this scenario, you’d be thinking everybody get out of the way. You’re rooting for this person to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. Yet, the reality of what happened is identical to the previous story. The only difference is the story around it is now different. We do this in life all the time. All the time, we go through life, things are happening, life presents something and then we make meaning of it, and we give it a story and inside of that story, is the suffering that we’re going to experience.

Think about the ways that we go through life creating stories around outside of the reality of what’s happening. There’s a zen story that kind of eludes to this concept and the idea is that you’re to imagine that you’re a fisherman and you’re out on the river fishing and you decide to lay down in your boat. Take a little nap or just relax for a minute. While you’re laying in your boat, you hear this loud thud on the boat. You sit up and you turn around and you realize another fisherman’s boat has crashed into your boat. There’s a hole in your boat. What kind of reaction you’re going to have. Typically, you’re gonna be upset thinking, “This idiot fisherman crashed his boat into mine.”

Then, they replay the scenario and ask you to imagine your the fisherman. You’re out on the river and you decide to lay down and rest, or take a nap, and then you hear the thud and you sit up. You immediately turn and realize a log has floated on the river and collided with your boat. The scenario and the outcome is the same. Your boat now has a little hole in it. The difference is that in one scenario, what you feel can be anger towards the scenario. Thinking, “Okay, well that stinks.” Because it was just a log, there’s not a story behind it. With the person in the other boat, you’re creating meaning right away. This person does not pay attention. This person is careless. All the … It doesn’t matter whether or not the story is true, the point is that inside of the story is where we contain the suffering around the event. What is is just what is, and then the story we create around what is determines how we feel about what is.

When you know that and when you can understand that that’s our natural tendency, then you can start to have this sense of freedom in between the stimulus and the response. This is the space that Viktro Frankl was talking about and it’s inside of that space that we can have the power to choose our response. When we can choose our response, we’re now longer being reactive. I kind of want to clarify that for a second, too, because this idea that okay, once I master this, I’ll never be reactive. That’s not accurate. Reactivity and emotions are a natural part of being human.

Let’s go back to the example of the man on the horse. Living reactively is you’re running somewhere and you don’t know. You’re not in control of that horse. If you tame the horse, you can have a good relationship where you decide where it goes. You’re essentially in control of that horse at all times, but if you’re out in the field and a snake comes out of the grass, that horse will get spooked and you’re going to have a good 10 to 15 seconds of scary, emotional reactivity where you’re actually not in control for that brief moment of time. The horse is going to jump, it’s gonna take however many steps back, it’s gonna do whatever it’s gonna do. It might even buck. Moments like that, you’re just hanging on for the ride, but that’s not the habitual state that you’re in. Reactivity versus habitual reactivity. What we’re trying to be free from is habitual reactivity. I hope you can distinguish the difference there because it’s a very big difference.

What’s crazy with us, going back to the original analogy of freedom, and imagining someone who’s in prison, that’s essentially us. The difference is that we are in our own prison where we are own jailers. We are the ones who hold ourselves captive and we don’t even realize it. What we’re held captive by is our beliefs, our conceptual truths that we believe in.

Pause at some point and just think of this. Empirical truth versus conceptual truth and what conceptual truths do I hang to, or hold to, or believe, that cause me suffering? Or cause others suffering? Analyze those. It’s a really powerful experience.

There’s a place where we can go where you can experience reality as it is and not have any of the habitual truths really effecting you too much. That’s in nature. I love to experience being in nature, and I think the reason why … I’ve thought about this a lot … I think the reason why is when we’re out in nature, we are experiencing reality as it is. There’s no pretending. Trees are just trees. Flowers are just flowers. Birds are just birds. Everyone, everything’s what it is. It’s just free to be what it is, doing whatever it does; and we get to be there and we get to experience that.

It’s kind of absurd to imagine being in nature and enjoying the scenery and thinking, if that mountain were ten degrees less steep, then this might be an ideal portrait for me. Or if that tree was five feet over in that other direction, now maybe this landscape would look nice. We don’t do that in nature, because there’s no need to. It’s one of the places where we can go and we can experience reality as it is and take it all in without assigning meaning to any of it. Furthermore, it does the same back to us. When we’re out there, nature allows us to be what we are, to be who we are. You don’t hear the birds chirping and then they change there song because sorry you wore a red jacket and you were supposed wear a yellow jacket out here. There’s none of that. You get to experience reality as it is and reality gets to accept us just as we are and that’s why it feels so good to be there. That’s my theory at least.

All that goes away as soon as we’re around people though, right? Because now people have conceptual truths and inside of these conceptual truths, you do have things like, “Why are you wearing that red jacket? I told you to wear your yellow jacket. Or you look better in your yellow jacket. Or why are you even wearing a jacket? It’s warm out here. I’m not cold, why are you wearing” … You know, you get all these crazy things that start to happen where there’s no freedom. The sense of freedom … The freedom to be who you are can be diminished when you’re around other people, but it’s the same thing that we do to others.

The ultimate sense of freedom that we can give to someone else is the freedom to allow them to just be who they are. That’s also the ultimate sense of freedom that we can extend to our yourselves is the freedom to allow ourselves to just be who we are. That’s a lot easier said than done. The reason that it’s hard is because of our conceptual truth. The conceptual truths that we believe in bind us, very much like the golden chain or like the iron chain, whether they’re good or bad. That’s the ultimate sense of freedom here and I wanted to wrap this up with one more thought. It’s my favorite parable and I know I’ve talked about this before earlier in another podcast episode but it’s the parable of the horse.

The parable of the horse goes like this … There’s an old man who’s out in the field farming and a horse shows up. His neighbor comes running over and he says, “How fortunate for you, you have a horse, and it came out of no where.” The old man just says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” and he goes about doing his thing. Puts the horse in the corral. Later that night, [00:22:35] in the morning, he comes out and discover the corral is broken and the horse has disappeared. The neighbor comes running over and he says, “How unfortunate. How unfortunate for you, you had a horse and now you don’t.” The old man simply says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” He goes about doing his thing. Later in the day the horse comes back with four additional horses and he takes the horses, puts them in the corral, fixes the corral, the neighbor comes running over. “How fortunate for you. Your horse has come back and it’s brought additional horses.” He just says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” He goes about doing his thing.

Then the next day … His son is out working with the horses, trying to tame the horse so that he can use it in the field. He falls off the horse and he breaks his leg. The neighbor comes running over and says, “How unfortunate. Your only son … Your only source of help in the field has broken his leg. So unfortunate.” The old man simply replies with, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” and goes about doing his thing. The next day the army comes into town and they’re conscripting all the youth, and they can’t take the farmer’s song because he has a broken leg so they leave him, they take everyone else, including the neighbor’s son. The neighbor comes running over and he says, “How fortunate for you that your son had broken his leg.” and then goes on with his normal routine and pauses and just says, “You know, who knows what is good and what is bad.” and goes back to his house.

The moral of the story here … I think sometimes the misunderstanding with this is to think as we go through life we just don’t care. We don’t care about things. Who knows what is good, who knows what is bad. That’s not what we’re talking about here and I clarify this in my podcast about acceptance versus resignation. This is not an active resignation to life as it is. This is an active acceptance of life as it is. The sense of freedom in this parable comes from the old man who’s not bound by assigning meaning to things. That’s the freedom.

The reactivity is there. That parts there. I have no doubt that when his son falls and breaks his leg, this old mans thinking, “Oh no, my poor son, you’re in pain, let me help you; or when the horse first showed up, it’s like, “Woohoo, a horse!” Then it left the next morning. “Oh dang it, the horse is gone. Oh well.” That’s the difference, the oh well. I go about doing what I need to do and not attach to things, and even worse, I’m not making meaning of things. The old man in this parable is not making meaning of things and that’s what the neighbors constantly doing, assigning meaning. This is fortunate. This is unfortunate.

Everything that goes along with making meaning, that is our habitual reactivity. The sense of freedom comes, again, between the stimulus and the response. There’s a space and in that space, is our power to choose our response. This is exemplified in the story, this parable of the old man, where he can choose his response. He doesn’t have to be bound by his habitual reactivity and making meaning to things.

That’s the sense of freedom I wanted to talk about in this podcast episode. I think the ultimate source of freedom that we can extend to someone is the freedom to be who they are. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We must love others in a way that they feel free.” I think that’s the sense of freedom he’s talking about here. The freedom to love someone without the conceptual constraints that I would put on someone because of my beliefs. I love you except … I love you but … If you were just this, or if you were not that … Or if you were … Those are the conceptual truths that bind us, and freedom transcends our conceptual truths, and allows us to have the freedom to allow ourselves to be the way we are, to allow others to be the way that they are, and to just love in a way that feels free. That’s why I wanted to talk about this topic: freedom.

Like with all my podcast episodes, if this is a topic that you’ve enjoyed, I would love to interact with you on our Facebook study group. If you just search for Secular Buddhism, you can find it there. I’ll have a link to it on our … On secularbuddhism.com … or on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, that’s easy to find as well too. If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to share it. Give it a rating in Itunes, that really helps. Just feel free to reach out to me. I love talking about this stuff and I look forward to another topic next week. Thanks.

One more thought before I end the podcast. I’ve been working with a couple of other companies on developing an idea around doing some retreats. I’ve been really interested for quite some time to put together either workshops, like part-day or full-day workshops, where we explore topics about mindfulness or meditation, and learn as a group in a workshop type setting, and also doing retreats. One of the retreats that we’re discussing is actually a really exciting one. It would be a week, or even two week, long retreat going somewhere like Africa, Uganda specifically. Where we would have the … Part of the retreat, we’re teaching the foundations of mindful living in the evenings but then during the day, we’re doing experiential work with humanitarian projects. Whether that be working on building schools, digging wells, interacting with the local communities providing a hands-on help to different programs that are involved in villages in Uganda.

I’m really interested in gaging what kind of interest there is. If we were able to open this up for 10, 15, or even 20 people to do … I’d love to gage your interest, so if attending a retreat like that, or even just a shorter workshop is of interest to you, please visit secularbuddhism.com/retreats. There’s a form you can feel out there that will help me to gage what kind of interest there is, and if there’s enough interest and this is something I’d like to maybe put together as a retreat going and learning the conceptual understanding of Secular Buddhism taught in courses, but also the experiential hands-on aspect of it. Actually doing humanitarian work in Uganda. This would be probably late January or early February, but go on there and express your interest on secularbuddhism.com/retreats. That will help me to gage what kind of retreats we should put together. I look forward to doing something like that with several of you. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks again. Until next time.

12 – Master Meditation by Not Meditating

In this episode, I will explore the idea of learning to meditate by not meditating. I share the poem “Dust if You Must” by Rose Milligan that went viral on the Secular Buddhism. It was viewed by over 10 million people in just a matter of days. I also discuss the idea of being vs doing. I hope you enjoy this episode!

Dust If You Must

by Rose Milligan

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.


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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello you are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 12. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about meditation through non-meditation. I’m also sharing the poem Dust if you Must, by Rose Milligan. So thank you for joining.

I like to say this every time before I start. This quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. And hopefully this will provide you with some information to provide you be a better whatever you already are.

Now let’s jump into this weeks topic. I am excited to be back with you for another podcast episode this week. And I wanted to start out with sharing another milestone. This has been an exciting week for me. I was out of town over the weekend on a family trip, and when I came back in the morning I was checking our Facebook page. I was really surprised to see that one of the posts that I had shared had gone viral.

This was really meaningful to me. Earlier in the year, I guess it was at the end of last year, I came across a post from Jason Silva, who’s the host of Brain Games on National Geographic. And he has a web series called Shots of Awe, where he posts these small tidbits of philosophical of information for, I forget what he calls it, but it’s essentially a three to five minute feast of philosophical thought. And it’s really fascinating, and it’s something that inspired me to want to share what I’m passionate about, which is secular buddhism.

And something he shared that really resonated with me was the concept of really finding what it means to be a billionaire. And the way he explains is that what if we took this, rather than being a monetary value that we strive for, strive to have money in the sense of being a billionaire, what if we redefine that to say a billionaire is someone who can influence the lives of a billion people. And influencing their lives for the positive.

And when I heard that, I just loved that idea. I thought we go through life chasing after things, right? And money is a big one. And I know that there’s so much more to life than earning money, paying bills, and then dying. And everything that I had studied, was studying at the time and learning about Buddhism, drove me to this one emphasis of, “How do we learn to live life to the fullest? And live in the present moment?”

And when I heard that idea that he taught about redefining what it means to be a billionaire, I knew right then and there that that’s something I wanted to aspire to. To be able to provide a set of tools or information, or some form of platform that can inspire people to want to be better. To have a more positive existence, a more positive way of living.

It was literally January 1st where I decided, “Well, okay. I’m going to start a podcast.” And I started working on this. I developed the Facebook page, and a blog, and a website. All around this concept of sharing Buddhism through a secular lens, the lens that made the most sense to me. And it’s been fascinating to watch this grow and watch it become what it’s becoming. I think in a very Buddhist way it’s exciting to see that there’s no goal in mind. I’m just allowing it to be what it is. I don’t know what that is yet because it’s constantly changing and evolving, which is the very nature of existence, right? The nature of impermanence, the nature of interdependence.

But this weekend the exciting milestone I got to experience was seeing one of my posts go viral. Up until this point anything I tend to share online, whether it be in the form of a podcast, or a blog post, or a Facebook post, or anything like that, it’s grown to the point where it gets seen by thousands of people. And that’s been exciting. But what happened this weekend took it to a whole new level.

When I checked, at first I couldn’t believe these numbers were true. Because what happened over the weekend was one of the posts I shared, which was a poem called Dust if you Must, had gone viral. And it had been seen by over ten million people over the course of the weekend. And I thought, “How is that possible?” And out of that there were just over one million interactions with this post, which caused all of the other posts and everything else I had been posting online to just explode. Suddenly hundreds and thousands of new people were subscribing to the seven day introduction to Buddhism post that’s available on secularbuddhism.com. And over night I was waking up, finding out that there were 8,000 new subscribers, or 8,000 new followers.

It’s just fascinating. It’s still … I had a similar experience last October. Some of you may not know this about me, but I develop products. I have a company, we manufacture photography accessories. And I’ve been doing this for five years. That’s what I do for work, I manufacture photography accessories. And I remember having this really profound experience visiting Hong Kong and meeting with businesses. I’m walking through the mall and I come across the photography store. I’m standing there, and there on the back wall are five or six of the products that I developed. Just hanging in the store. As I’m staring at them the sales person from the store comes up to me, and she’s like, “oh, would you like to buy one of these tripods?” And I got teary-eyed because this was the culmination of years of work for me designing and developing a brand of products. Putting in a lot of hard work and countless sleepless nights, stressful deals, loans, and everything that entails building a business and manufacturing products.

Here I was almost literally on the other side of the world, standing in a store, looking at something that I had created. It was a very moving and humbling experience to me because it felt like all of this had started as an idea. And here I was, sharing something that meant something to me. Creating products that I was passionate about with photography. And there they were, in this random store in a mall in Hong Kong. It was really moving for me. It was the first time that made me realize that we can take something and work on it, and it can become something.

I had that similar experience with Jason Silva’s invitation to redefine what it means to be a billionaire, to be able to share, or influence in a positive way, the lives of a billion people. When I first heard that I thought, “I want to really find what that means to be a millionaire.” Because I thought, “I don’t know how to do that with a billion people.”

This weekend alone, the ideas that I’ve been sharing through this platform have been seen by over ten million people. And over one million people actually interacting with my posts. It’s really humbling. And it’s humbling from the sense that this started as an idea. I genuinely believe that with the right perspective, and with the proper understanding of impermanence and interdependence, it can change your life to see the world in this light.

I believe that the dharma the way that it was taught, and is taught through the lens of Buddhism, can be life changing. And I believe that changing the world is changing ourselves. By providing the teachings of the Dharma, and teachings through secular Buddhism, people who are secular-minded like me can make sense of these fantastic philosophical teaching that inspire to be a better person. To have a more positive light. And it’s been fun to see that this weekend in numbers that exceeded my dreams. Especially this soon in the process, it’s only been four months since this podcast started. So that’s been really exciting for me, and I wanted to share that milestone with you. So again, thank you for sharing and spreading the messages that are shared through this platform. Through the Facebook page, through the study group. It’s really rewarding for me to receive emails from people who are saying, “Thank you for sharing this new concept, or this new approach that I haven’t explored before has literally changed my life.” It’s very rewarding, and that’s why I’m doing this. Because first it changed my life, and now it’s exciting to see how this is improving in a positive way the lives of others.

So I want to share with you the poem that I shared, the poem that went viral. And I think this touches on something that resonates with people. Obviously, that’s why it went viral. The title of this poem is called Dust if you Must. And it goes like this:

Dust if you Must. Dust if you Must, but wouldn’t it be better to paint the picture, or write a letter? Bake a cake, or plant a seed. Ponder the difference between want and need. Dust if you must, but there’s not much time. With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb. Music to hear, and books to read. Friends to cherish, and life to lead. Dust if you must, but the world’s out there. With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair. A flutter of snow, a shower of rain. This day will not come back around again. Dust if you must, but bear in mind, old age will come and it’s not kind. And when you go, and go you must, you yourself will make more dust.

That poem is by Rose Milligan. When I found that and shared that on the secular Buddhism Facebook page, I noticed right away that the messaging really resonates with people. This isn’t an attack on dusting or on cleaning. I think that’s obvious. The key to this message is that we go through life doing, and in the process of doing, we sometimes forget to just be.

My understanding of this, the way it makes sense to me, is the process of doing versus being. And it makes me want to share the concept of meditation from a different perspective. We spend a lot of time meditating. I think when I teach meditation, one of the first things that happens is we get really exciting about meditating. Because we want something out of it. We want to be calm, we want to have more peace in life. There’s an objective. And then over time as it becomes a consistent practice, it’s common to hear from people who say, “Okay, I’ve been doing this for several months now. Yeah, it made me a lot more calm, but now what?” Or people will say, “Now I’m realizing things I hadn’t realized before. I tend to get mad easily, or I tend to have a temper.”

So I wanted to discuss meditation a little bit, from the perspective of the key to meditation being non-meditation. Or this idea of doing versus being. When I teach meditation to someone, mindfulness meditation, I usually explain to imagine a pond. And there’s a pond that has muddy water, and what would have to happen for that muddy water to become clear? Alan Watt says, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” And you can picture this with a muddy pond. If you were to leave it and let it sit still … or take a jar and put dirt in the water in that jar and shake it up, and the water is going to be really muddy. But if you put it down and leave it alone, give it time, all of that mud settles to the bottom, and what you have is clear water again.

This is the first, I guess, level of meditation, which is calm and inviting meditation. It’s learning to still the waters, the muddy waters. What happens as a consequence of learning to still those waters is that then the water is clear, and now we learn to this phase of insight meditation. You’re able to look into that pond and see what’s actually there. This is looking into the nature of awareness, the nature of the mind, and see what’s really there.

And I think something that happens when you learn about meditation, you say, “Okay, I want to start meditating,” is we start to develop expectations about what meditation is, what it’s going to do for me, how I’m going to benefit from it. And that becomes the very thing that Buddhism is trying to eliminate from us. Is that nature tendency, the reactivity that we have, to create meaning around thing. So there’s this concept that there is what is, and there’s the story that we create around what is. I think this is really common when it comes to meditation, or when it comes to life in general. We create meaning around it. And that’s not a bad thing because creating meaning around life is part of life. But with meditation it can be detrimental to create meaning around what meditation is.

A lot of teachers will talk about this concept of the key to meditating is to not meditate. The moment I’m saying I’m going to meditate, that’s a concept in my mind. That means something. Whatever that means to me, that’s the meaning you give to meditation. It is this, or that, or it causes this, or it causes that. Whatever concept you hold about what meditation is can be useful to the point of helping you to be calm. To gain this calm clarity that you need. And then insight meditation you start to be able to see the nature and awareness. But when this is done properly, and the mind and thoughts have been calm enough for the mud settle, so to speak, and for the water to become clear to the point where you can start to see the nature of the mind, the way the mind works, then the concept that you have about what meditation is actually becomes a hindrance to progressing to the full purpose of meditation.

Which is with that insight, when you can finally see what’s really there, what you’re going to gain out of this is the one thing that Buddhism is trying to get you to see, which is seeing things as they are. Again, to clarify, the concept of non-meditation, or the key to meditation being non-meditation, is that we want to let go of what the concept of meditation is.

I think this becomes very relevant with what I shared last week in the podcast with the parable of the raft. What the Buddha taught is the raft is something that you need. Let’s say in this case he taught it specifically was the Dharma, the teachings, which in this case we can equate to meditation. It’s this tool that you use and you’re life depends on it to be able to accomplish what you’re trying to get. But at some point, you have to learn to let go. The concept of letting go, from the sense of meditation, is that if you really want to get what meditation is all about, then you’ll learn that what it’s all about is about not meditation. That’s the difference between doing, it’s not something that you do, it’s about how you are, it’s about being. Doing versus being.

To take meditation to that next level, at some point you have to understand that the whole purpose of meditation is that you don’t meditate. You’re learning to just be with what is. That’s why when I teach meditation, mindfulness meditation, what I try to convey is this concept that there’s nothing magical happening. Nothing happens. All you’re doing is learning to be with what is. It’s kind of the exercise with learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That can be confusing to people, because then it’s like, “Well, what’s the point of all this then?” Think about this, how often do we really spend time with just being with something. Not doing anything, just being with what is. I think one of the sources of all of our problems is the minute that we start meditating or the minute we’re doing anything, we’re creating meaning. And then we can’t allow things to just be as they are. So meditation can be this practice. This is a technique that used in different Buddhist traditions. There’s the Tibetan [inaudible 00:19:10] meditation that instills this … you go through different phases. And the ultimate phase is this phase of non-meditation.

How does that work? How does this apply to a daily practitioner of meditation in the secular Buddhist lens? If you’re new to this and you want to start meditating, how does that help to knowing this now, especially early on in the game? And I think the key is by grasping this intellectually, as some point in your meditation, the only way you’re going to be able to progress with gaining wisdom to the nature of reality is to let go of whatever that concept you have of what the nature of reality is. Hopefully that makes sense.

Alan Watts talks about this in terms of the attitude of faith. He says, “The attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” I think this is very relevant with this concept of meditation. Because what you’re doing is letting go of whatever you think meditation is, or what it’s supposed to do, or how it’s going to benefit you. You let go of that. Because there is nothing, it’s not supposed to do anything, or benefit you in any way. And yet, when you grasp that that’s when it benefits you, because that’s when you’ve let go.

Again, it’s like this paradox. I love this, Buddhism is general is like this paradox. There’s a teaching that says when you first start to study or learn Buddhism, before, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are just streams. And then you start to learn a little bit about Buddhism. And it’s exciting. And the more you start to learn suddenly it’s like there’s this awe in everything you see. Mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers anymore, and streams aren’t just streams. The more time that you spend with it, the more that you start to learn the philosophical understandings, and the teachings of Buddhism. Then when you’re done and you really get it, then you realize, “Oh, mountains are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams.” And yet, that’s what makes them so beautiful.

I like to think about this with the teaching of a rose. A rose is beautiful because a rose is just a rose. It doesn’t bloom and then wait for someone to come along, pick it up, and say, “Wow, you are a beautiful rose.” Because it doesn’t care. That’s not the reason why a rose exists. It does not exist so someone can pick it up and tell it it’s beautiful. And yet, that’s what makes it beautiful. Because it just is what it is.

It’s no different with us and our existence, and the way that we try to see things the way that they are. When you learn to see something the way that it is, then it becomes beautiful, and almost magical, simply because it is just what it is. You’ve detached all the meaning you had behind it. Remember, it’s inside of these concepts, meanings and ideas, that we attach to things, that things get muddy. And muddy water is best cleared by leaving is alone, as Alan Watt says. We leave things alone, meaning we let go of the meaning that we’ve attached to things, and the things just are what they are. When we can allow things to just be what they are, then we can see them as they really are.

Meditation is that tool. Meditation itself can become a hindrance if we have meaning, or ideas, or concepts, attached to what meditation is. What this is supposed to be doing for me. I think the biggest mistake around this is spending time thinking, “meditation is working. Meditation is not working. It’s doing this, it’s doing that.” All of this resides inside of the sphere of the meaning that we have around what meditation is. Or what it’s supposed to do. The whole point is that there is nothing that it’s supposed to do, there’s nothing that it’s supposed to mean. It’s the exercise of just being with what is. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s sitting and observing the thoughts, in the same way that you would sit outside and observe the clouds. You notice that the nature of watching clouds in the sky is that they arise, they appear, they linger, and then they go away. That’s the nature of observing clouds. That’s also the nature of meditation, and observing our thoughts.

The nature of things as they are is that things arise, they linger for a while, then they’re gone. Isn’t that the very nature of life itself? Things arise, they exist for a short time, then they’re gone. And when we can allow ourselves to start to see things the way that they are, without attaching meaning to things, then we become that much closer to being enlightened.

This is another concept, the idea of enlightenment, carries so much connotation around the meaning that we have about enlightenment. If I were to ask you, “What does it mean to be enlightened?” Everyone has an interpretation of what that means. Enlightenment in it’s purest form is nothing more than what I explain earlier about mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are streams. Then when we think we start to know what it means to be enlightened, that’s when we think, “Oh, mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers. Streams aren’t just streams. It’s something more.” But then true enlightenment happens and you realize, “oh, they are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams. Life is just life. Happiness is just happiness, sadness is just sadness.” It’s in allowing these things to be what they are, this attitude of faith, to let go, to become open to reality whatever it may be, that is the nature of awakening. That is the nature of enlightenment in the secular Buddhist understanding.

This is what makes it all so beautiful. It’s inside of that space of allowing things to just be what they are that everything becomes beautiful. The concept of the rose. What makes the rose so beautiful is that it’s just a rose. There’s nothing more to it. There’s nothing that you add to it. A rose is a rose, and that’s what makes it beautiful. A human being is a human being, and that’s what makes us beautiful.

If we could see all things like that, with that lens of allowing things to be what they are, it would change everything. Meditation is the tool to do that. That’s the concept of meditation through non-meditation.

I hope that resonates with you, and I think that’s what touches the heart of the concept of Dust if you Must. We go through life, and we’re busy, and we’re doing things that we think we need to be doing, and these things are meaningful. And yet at the end, we’re just dust. We go back to being the one thing that we’re trying to clean up, or trying to avoid all along. That’s the one thing we are. I think it’s a powerful message, and it’s at the heart of why I want to share the things that I share, as I study and learn and teach the concept of Buddhism. I want to spread the message, and the idea of enlightenment being the idea of learning to see life just the way that it is. Learning that there is what is, and then there’s the story that we create about what it. We tend to live and go through our entire life inside of the story of what is, and never actually see what is.

Imagine if you were to taste a food one day you had never tasted before, because your whole life, you’ve only seen the menu. And you’ve been in love with the menu, and the pictures on the menu, and the words that describe the dish. And the price attached to it. Everything around the concept of what is, but you never actually experienced what is, which would be to taste the food. It may seem silly, but that’s what we do in life. There’s what is, the experiential version of living, you’re tasting the food, and then there’s the intellectual or conceptual of what is. That’s like being in love with the menu, thinking that this whole time what you loved on the menu is actually the meal. And it’s not. They’re two completely different things.

I think we do this a lot with meditation. There’s my idea of what meditation is, what it’s supposed to do. I know everything from a conceptual understanding of what meditation is. That’s the menu. And then one day you experience what meditation actually is, it’s learning to see things as they are, that’s like tasting the food. And it’s a whole different thing. That cannot be conveyed. You cannot convey that in words to someone else. You can only experience it.

Using that menu as an example, I can taste all the food and enjoy the flavors, everything, and try to convey it to you. And maybe all you’ve ever experienced is what I’m telling you on a menu, and you think, “Yeah, yeah, I got it. Yeah, I see what this is. I see the ingredients, I get it.” But we can’t. Until you taste it yourself, you’re not going to know what that really is. That’s the difference between meditation and learning that they key to meditation is actually non-meditation. Let go of the concept that you have about meditation, and learn to just meditate. Which is, learn to just be with what is. Learn to clear that muddy water by leaving it alone, by not trying, by just being.

Next time you practice your meditation, don’t have any expectations about what it is, what it’s supposed to do. Just practice sitting there and being with what is. Whatever it turns out to be. Think about this attitude of faith that Alan Watts talks about. The attitude of faith, of letting go. Becoming completely open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be. Learning to be with what is, whatever that might turn out to be.

Let me know how that goes for you. I’d love to hear about it. We have the secular Buddhism Facebook page, which as I mentioned before, is exploring. There’s the secular Buddhism study group, which is also a Facebook group. There’s a secularbuddhism.com website, where you can comment and post. Where I post the podcast, you can comment on that page. Or feel free to reach out to me. A lot of people have been reaching out to me directly, and I respond to every email. I interact. At some point that becomes something that I cannot manage, then I’ll stop saying to do that. But for now, feel free to reach out to me directly at Noah, N-O-A-H, at secularbuddhism.com. I’d love to discuss this concept with you, and see what you think about it. Hopefully this is useful and helpful information to help you have a more positive life.

I send you guys my regards, and thank you once again for turning in. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me. I look forward to seeing where this goes from here. Thank you, and until next time.

11 – Parable of the Raft

In this episode, I will discuss one of the Buddha’s most famous teachings: The Parable of the Raft. The general concept to be learned by this parable is the importance of letting go of the things that we no longer need on our journey. It would be wise to take a moment to reflect on what rafts we continue to cling to even after they are no longer necessary for us.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 11. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about the Parable of the Raft. Before we jump into the topic, I want to remind you that this podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and Secular Humanism and the episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to Secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts. So if you’re new to the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. After that all other episodes are just meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Something I like to mention before starting is that, a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Just keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast, or to any of the topics discussed within the podcast series. There is no intent here to convert anyone to anything. I’m just sharing what’s meaningful to me as I’ve studied Buddhism in the last many years, and trying to share it in a way that inspire you to be a better whatever you already are. So remember if you enjoy this podcast please feel free to share it, write a review, give it a rating, all that really helps. Now lets’ jump into this week’s topic.

Hi guys. I’m excited to talk to you today about a parable called, “The raft parable.” This is a well-known teaching in Buddhism, that I think is quite popular because it has a great message. This comes from the Alagaddupama Sutta and this is also called, “The water-snake simile,” sutta, or teaching. The idea here … It’s two different stories and the first part of the story is about a water-snake and the second part of the story is about a raft, and they go hand in hand and there are various interpretations of what this parable means and what the moral of the story is, but just to give you a background really quick on the actual story.

The first part of the story is about a man who approaches a water-snake and he picks it up from the wrong end. He grabs the tail end. The snake turns around and bites him, and it’s a poisonous bite. He regrets that he picked it up the wrong way. The moral of that story is about when you’re learning the teachings of the Buddha, or the Dharma, if you grasp them in the wrong way it’s going to have consequences. It will put us in danger. So the idea is that as we’re studying, learning the teachings of the Buddha, that they need to be understood correctly because to understand them the wrong way is very much like picking up a snake from the wrong direction.

This understanding in the water-snake part of the story is probably what Nagarjuna had in mind when he said, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Then the raft story immediately follows the snake story. The idea of the Parable of the Raft, if there is a person who comes to a large body of water and he’s trying to get to the other side and this can be a river, can be an ocean, and I think it’s told differently in different translations, or in various interpretations, but again the idea is that he’s there, he needs to cross to the other side. There’s no way to do it, at least safely. So he starts to assemble all of the components that he needs to build a raft. The twigs and the branches and the rope and he spends all this effort and time building a small raft, and once it’s put together he relies on this raft to keep himself afloat and he makes his way across the body of water to reach the other side.

Then once he reaches the other side the idea is now that he’s there, is he supposed to leave the raft or is he supposed to drag it along with him or carry it on his back? What the Buddha taught is that he should leave it and he explained that the Dharma, or the teachings are like this raft. They can be useful for crossing over but not useful for grasping or holding on to. It’s a short and simple story and it’s been interpreted in many ways, and one of the understandings is that as you’re studying the teachings in Buddhism and you become awakened to what the meaning is of the teachings, are you supposed to continue hanging on to these teachings? Or do you let go?

Some argue that that is the interpretation as you become awakened or enlightened, then you let go of Buddhism entirely and others argue that that’s not the right interpretation, that it has more to do with the way that you grasp, or cling to these. What you’re supposed to do is let go of clinging and that the raft isn’t necessarily the teachings. The raft is letting go of or clinging to the teachings. Again there are several ways, several arguments. My intention isn’t to explain one of the arguments. I like the parable for other reasons. What I really like about the Parable of the Raft is the concept of something at one point being really meaningful in your life, maybe a lot of energy and effort went into it. This can be a relationship, or specific belief system, a job, something that was very meaningful to you and a lot of time and effort went into building that and then at some point in your journey, or on your path, it’s no longer relevant or important.

Well, it may be important, but it’s no longer necessary because you’ve reached the other side. So you let go of it and to continue to carry it would be taking this as an example, in a relationship it would be like being in a relationship with someone. All the time and effort that went into making that relationship important and meaningful and successful is like building that raft and then at some point the relationship ends. You’ve reached the shore, a new shore where it was no longer necessary to continue to carry the aspects of that relationship. Now that you’re not with that person, would be like carrying the raft. It’s unnecessary and it’s actually just hindering your progress at that point. One of the typical things that we do, assuming you are able to let go of the raft, or leave that raft behind. I think it’s also detrimental to look back on that specific [phase of your life and think that it was a waste of time.

So for example, again using the Parable of the Raft, at one point the raft meant everything of your time and energy went into building it. Once you’re on the raft and you’re over the water, or you’re floating on the water, the raft is a matter of life and death. That’s how meaningful that raft is to you, and once you reach the other side, it’s no longer necessary and let’s say somewhere down the road, even if you did … Either you’re carrying the raft, or you left the raft behind. It would be silly to look back on that phase and say, “Man, I wish I would have never wasted time building that raft. That was stupid,” because you’re saying this from the perspective of the person who’s already at the point of the journey where the raft is no longer necessary, but it’s like we forget that at one point it was and when you were on the water, that meant everything.

So if you were to apply this a relationship, or where I see this a lot is people who are transitioning in their faith journey and maybe at one point they belonged to a specific religion or they understood life through the lens of a specific school of thought, or a specific set of ideas, and then later at some point in their life they don’t and they look back on that and think, “Why did I ever believe that? How could I have been so silly?” Or something to that affect, but the concept is the same as the raft. It’s once you’re at a point in your life where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you, I think it’s detrimental to look back and regret the time or energy that was wasted on building the raft because you’re thinking, “I didn’t need that.” But you’re saying that from the perspective of a place where you are now where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s not necessary because maybe now you’re walking around on dry land.

We forget that at the time where we were in that part of our journey, the raft did mean everything to us. Even if it doesn’t mean anything to us now. So I kind of wanted to address this concept from the perspective of how in our journey, our faith journey, or our relationship journey, just the journey of life in general, we come across bodies of water and at times it’s important to build the raft and to spend all the time and energy on everything that we need to build a raft to cross that body of water. During that time the raft means everything to you and if you pause for a minute and think about the various stages in your life when you were building rafts, these rafts are very important to you. They mean everything to you.

It’s different things, right? It can be if you’re on a faith journey, it can be your beliefs or your convictions. If you’re thinking about relationships, it can be a specific person or there’s so many things that I think apply to this concept of the raft. If you were in a career, it could be the time and energy you spent studying for the Bar exam when you were trying to be … Learn to become an attorney, or again this is kind of endless. It can apply to so many things across so many different spectrums, but these are our rafts. In life, we’re constantly building rafts. Wherever you are right now in your life, you’re probably either building a raft, or you’re on the raft paddling to the other side of something.

One of the things … The two big mistakes that we make, is one when we get there, we just put the raft on our back and keep on going. This is the concept of not being able to let go. The second, assuming you are able to let go, is that you actually haven’t let go because now you are angry at the phase of life that you feel was wasted for spending time on the raft, that now you feel, “Well that’s a waste, that raft isn’t necessary,” but we forget that at the time, where we were in that place mentally, or emotionally, it was necessary. The raft was everything. It was a matter of life and death.

So from this lens the Parable of the Raft to me, for me personally is the story of understanding what it means to let go. I think there’s another story that helps illustrate the teaching of letting go and this is the Zen story of the two monks and a woman. The way this story goes, there were two monks. A senior monk and a junior monk and they’re traveling together and at some point in their travels they come to a river that has a strong current. It’s kind of a big river. The monks are getting ready to cross the river and at that point one of them sees a young and beautiful woman who’s trying to cross this river and the young woman asks them for help and the two monks kind of glance at each other, because they realize they have taken vows not to touch a woman. Without word, the older monk, the senior monk doesn’t say anything. He just picks up the woman, carries her across the river and gently places her on the other side. Then they continue their journey.

As they continue their journey, the younger monk just can’t believe what happened and this is festering and he’s thinking and thinking and at some point he finally speaks up and he’s like, “Hey, I don’t get it. We’ve taken vows to not touch a woman and how are you able to just pick her up and carry her on your shoulders and ut her on the other side? I don’t get it. You’ve broken your vow.” The older monk looks at him and just says, “I put the woman down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?” I think it’s a simple Zen story, like all Zen stories. It carries a simple, beautiful message about the concept of letting go and how often we carry something and we hold on to it and it’s there and it’s festering and it’s on our mind because we were not capable of letting go.

Again this Zen story, don’t read into any of the moral or ethics of the vows they had taken. None of that matters. The point of the story, the moral of that story is when you do something, you do something and then when you’re done you let it go. Applying this to the other Parable of the Raft, it’s very similar. There’s a raft that at the time, it makes sense to have a raft or build a raft or be on a raft, the raft can mean everything and then at moment that the raft no longer means anything to us, or it’s no longer necessary, you have the two options. You carry it with you, or you let it go. I think the letting go also has two options. Once you’ve let it go, you either let it go completely, or you let it go and let it fester on your mind that you’re mad that you ever carried it in the first place and that would be silly when you think about the concept. Just the story of the raft, you know?

It would be silly to look back and say, “Well I can’t believe I ever wasted time building that raft,” only because you’ve forgotten that there was a time when the raft did mean everything to you. So that’s what I wanted to discuss a little bit in this brief podcast, is the Parable of the Raft, and I would hope that you can spend some time looking in to your own life and think, “What are the rafts that I’ve built in my life? What are the bodies of water that I needed to cross and in order to do so safely, I had to rely on a raft? How did I build that raft? What was that raft to me?” Then, “In what ways am I still carrying the raft with me?” Again this might apply to relationships, to faith transitions or journeys, to career transitions, parenting transitions, so many different applications here, but in what way do you continue to carry the raft with you?

If you have let it go, or at least you think you’ve let it go, in what way are you actually still carrying it with you because you continually think of it? It’s still there on your mind or you resent the fact that you ever had to carry the raft on your back or you ever had to be on the raft in the first place, or that you wasted time and effort building a raft. I think there are so many levels that you can apply this to in day to day life and I think it’s a worthy mental exercise to spend time thinking about the Parable of the Raft and the teaching that the Buddha taught specific to the raft, was the importance of learning to let go of something that can be as meaningful and as important as a raft is. When your life depends on it, the raft means everything to you, but at some point when it doesn’t it’s okay to let it go and it can be detrimental to not let go.

I know in my own life I can think of several instances where things were as important to me, these were my rafts. They meant everything to me, and I thought I had let these things go. At some point, I’m like the younger of those two monks who realizes I haven’t let it go. It’s been festering and I’m thinking and at that moment you kind of unleash the question. Like, “Why? I don’t get it. You were supposed to …” you know it’s like you’re talking to that senior monk saying, “Why were you carrying her?” And that was hours ago. Or days ago, or months ago, or years ago. The wise monk will say, “I let that person down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying them?” That’s like I let go of the raft when I no longer needed it. Why are you still carrying it? This is a matter of wisdom, right? It’s not right, or wrong. I’m not saying you’re wrong for doing this, it’s just not wise. It’s not wise to be carrying a raft when you don’t need it.

At some point when you encounter a new body of water, then you’re going to spend the time an energy building a new raft to cross that body of water, but we don’t just carry these with us. So that’s the concept of the raft I’d love to hear what you think of the parable and specifically what this parable means to you. The various aspects, the water-snake and how we grasp things and how dangerous it is to grasp things from the wrong end, or improperly. Also the concept of the raft. What does it mean to you? What are some of your rafts? Let’s talk about these. You can email me or post it on our Secular Buddhism Facebook group, or on the blog post. Anywhere you want, I’d love to discuss these things. See if you can get to the root of what some of your personal rafts are, and what ways you can let go of these things.

So if you have any other questions or comments about this, please feel free to get a hold of me. Again like in all podcasts, if you enjoyed this, please feel free to write a review through iTunes or give it a rating and share this with someone who you think might enjoy the things that I’m sharing and teaching in these podcasts. Thank you for your time and I look forward to sharing another podcast with you next week. Thank you.