Podcast

27 – Understanding Non-Attachment

What does it mean to practice non-attachment? Rather than thinking of non-attachment as not attaching to things, think of it as not allowing things to own you. What things own you? Those are the things you’re attached to. In this episode, I will discuss the concept of non-attachment and I will attempt to make this idea more accessible and easy to understand.

Transcript of the podcast

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 27. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about understanding non-attachment.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings, presented for a secular-minded audience.

The Dalai Lama has said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I like to emphasize that at the beginning of every podcast episode, so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode, and remember if you enjoy the podcast please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Or if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would really appreciate it if you could make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

So let’s jump into this weeks’ topic “Understanding Non-attachment”. This is a topic I wanted to discuss because it’s come up a few times in recent workshops that I’ve done where the understanding of non-attachment is, I think, a little bit misconstrued. Typically, there’s the response, or asking for clarification, on whether or not it’s okay to be attached. Specifically, usually, referring to loved ones like a spouse, or children, or parents. So I want to clarify this topic a little bit more because non-attachment is a very important part of understanding Buddhist philosophical thought, but I want to be clear about what exactly non-attachment is. Or perhaps more specifically, what it’s not. Because I think when we think of the word attached, and if I were to think I’m attached to my kids or to my wife, we don’t necessarily view that as a negative connotation. And I don’t think we should.

The type of non-attachment that’s being talked about in Buddhist thought has less to do with what you own, or with what you hold on to, versus how that holds onto you. So, for instance, I heard a recent quote that said “Non-attachment doesn’t mean we don’t own things. It means we don’t allow things to own us.” That, in a nutshell, is the type of non-attachment that we’re talking about. A Zen Master put it pretty simply, he said “Everything breaks. Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.”

So, I think, non-attachment really stems from misunderstanding of things being impermanent. When we attach to something we suffer, and others suffer, because we’re holding onto things that are past their time. You remember the raft, the parable of the raft, where the Buddha was with his monks and he asks if somebody were to build a raft and they are crossing the river with it, at the time that they finally make it to the other side, is it wise or unwise to continue that raft with them. And I think this lesson really is talking about the understanding of non-attachment. Letting go of the raft, whatever the raft may be, is a lesson of letting go of things that are past their time. That is essentially the understanding of non-attachment.

This can apply to relationships, friends, experiences. Even our moment to moment experience of living, if we’re attached to it, can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. By excepting the true nature of things as being impermanent we ease our fears and we open our hearts. Then this understanding of impermanence will not only benefit ourselves but will benefit others as well. So don’t think of non-attachment as a form of indifference or a form of self-denial. Think of non-attachment as a way of not allowing things in your life to own you. Giving up the attachment to the permanence of things is the key understanding here.

Because we understand that all things are constantly changing, that all things are impermanent, and because all things are constantly changing, when you hold onto something, and attach to it, it’s detrimental because that thing changes. It evolves and changes over time. Like that quote “Everything breaks.” Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality and you can apply that thinking to almost anything.

In terms of relationship, because that one’s brought up quite often, what does non-attachment mean in terms of how I love my spouse, or my partner, or my children, or my parents, or siblings? Thich Nhat Hanh has a really good quote that I like, he says “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” I think this goes hand in hand with the understanding of non-attachment. Loving in a non-attached way is loving in a way that the person that you love feels free, and to be loved in way that you feel free is a way of being loved without attachment. So it’s not that there isn’t love, or that you don’t want to be with someone, it’s that you don’t allow that person, or that thing, to own you, because that’s attachment. So letting go of attachment is the secret to really enjoying life and to loving others. It’s a way of freedom.

Think about that with relationships like with your children. If you love your children in a way that they feel free, that’s genuine non-attachment. You’re allowing someone to be completely authentic and free as they are. I think this is very pertinent with relationships but it applies to other things too.

I’ve been asked specifically about goals. Is non-attachment meaning I go through life and I don’t have milestones or goals that I’m going to work towards or aspire to? The goals or milestones are not the problems. It’s when we allow those things to own us that it becomes unhealthy so that same form of thinking applies here. I think it’s completely appropriate to have goals, to have milestones, that you set in life, or in your career, or in various phases of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when we become trapped because those things own us.

Jack Kornfield had a quote he put on Twitter not too long ago that said “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” I think, again, that’s a wonderful understanding of the concept of impermanence. So apply that to something like a goal. Having goals can be fine when you understand that goals are impermanent. You work towards it and you either accomplish it and move on, or something changes and it doesn’t work out, and that’s where the wisdom of adaptability comes into play because the moment life presents something new you can adapt and create a new goal. Because that goal didn’t own you, you used it as a tool for you, not an anchor or not something that makes it more difficult for you.

The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. That all meeting ends in parting. Again, I think, in all these examples what stands out to me is the understanding of non-attachment in terms of our understanding of impermanence because the mistake that we make is seeing life as permanent.

One of my teachers, Koyo Kubose, would say “Don’t put a period on it.” He always says “Just keep going.” Our tendency in life is to freeze it and make permanent things, like we do sentences. Then when this sentence is over there’s the period. That thought is done. It’s locked and now I move onto the next one. I think that makes a lot of sense in some ways, especially with writing, but what if life wasn’t about putting periods on things? What if it was always a comma and then you keep going? Then you add another comma and you keep going, like one infinitely long run-on sentence, which I know is really going to bother some of you who are into grammar, but think about that in terms of life.

I’ve compared life to a river. There’s no aspect of the river that’s permanent. The water that’s flowing is continually changing. The very edges and banks of the river are constantly eroding and sand is being carried away. If a big storm comes, and the water rises, the shape of the river can change. The water finds a new path and that becomes the new path of the river. So there’s not aspect of a river that’s permanent. Life is a lot like that. There’s no aspect of life that’s permanent. It’s when we get caught up in those moments of making things in life seem permanent that we run the risk of becoming attached. So when we attach to the permanence of things, then those things start to own us.

Non-attachment could be said that it’s really about not comparing. When you think about this in terms of time, this could be really powerful because think of the present moment. What if we allowed the present moment to be free as it is? Without comparing the present moment to a previous moment, or to a future moment, we just allow the present moment to be completely free to be what it is. Right here and right now. We’re not very good at that. Our tendency is to compare the present moment to a past moment or to a future moment that we anticipate. In doing that we’re not allowing that to be free and it’s without that sense of freedom that we become slaves to these concepts.

That’s the idea of attachment. Not that we’re attaching but they way we understand it, it attaches and binds us almost like shackles or like chains. So think of non-attachment as a form of freedom. The opposite of non-attachment is … Well, I guess, non-attachment could be synonymous with freedom. So think of it that way and the opposite of non-attachment would be a form of being bound or chained to whatever it is. It could be ideas, relationships, the present moment, there’s several things in life that can come up that non-attachment would be a much healthier way to approach it than the path of attachment, which I think in a lot of cases is more common.

The idea of non-attachment and, as I mentioned earlier, what one of my teachers always talks about “just keep going”. I had the experience last weekend, last Saturday, to get together with some friends and try to do a walk, a 50 mile walk. Fifty miles is 80.46 kilometers for those of you who use the metric system, so just to give an idea of how far of a distance that is. We walked that in one day. We started at five in the morning in one city, and walked to another city, from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. It took me just over 19 hours. So I started at 5:00 am and I arrived just after midnight, around 12:30. It was just a long day of non-stop walking and the reason I did it, I was excited to this when I found out that my friend was putting this together, because I knew that at some point I would want to stop. I would want to quit.

I had been studying this concept of “keep going” with my teacher and the idea that sometimes we do things just to do them. Our tendency, I’ve mentioned this in earlier podcasts, is that our utilitarian view of the world is “Well, what’s in it for me? If I’m going to do this there’s got to be a reason why.” Either I get a trophy, or I get even just to be able to say that I did it is still a reason to do it. I thought “What if I did it just to do it?” That’s a long enough walk to where, at some point, you just … Well, I guess you don’t why you’re doing it, but you forget the fact that you’re measuring how long it’s going to be because it’s still so long that you’re not really thinking about that.

I thought it might be a fun exercise to get into the mind set of thinking “I’m just taking one more step. And then one more step. I’m just going to keep going. Practicing this form of understanding and permanence. This moment, this step I’m taking, ends. It ends the moment I take the next step. Then that moment is also impermanent. It ends the moment I take the next step.” Overall, that’s how the entire walk turned out to be for me. This form of walking meditation of just taking one step at a time, having in my mind the attitude of “just keep going”. At times I thought about Dory. I’d gone to see Dory with my kids, from Finding Nemo, and she’s always singing that song Just Keep Swimming. Just Keep Swimming. I had that popping into my mind on multiple occasions during the walk. To just keep going. Just keep swimming.

I finally completed that and for me it was a form of being unattached to the permanence of the situation, of walking. I think it’s easy to think “Okay, here’s the start of the walk and then there’s the end of the walk.” I knew it was going to be about 20 hours was my goal. I think sometimes there’s this attitude, I know that I was certainly thinking this, of enduring. I’m going to endure this. Enduring things in life is one way to view things but I like to think of it as understanding that what I’m going through in the moment is not permanent. This too shall pass. I’ve talked about that. And that ring. The king who was looking for a way to be cheered up when he was down and he was given a ring with the inscription “This too shall pass.” But that also reminded him, when things were good this too shall pass, and it kind of became his curse.

While I was doing the 50 mile walk I thought about that a lot. Especially towards the end when I was starting to feel really sore, and my muscles were really tight, and I was starting to limp, and I was thinking “this too shall pass”. At the first of the walk “this too shall pass” was my comfort level. I was feeling very comfortable, my legs were fine, and I was telling myself, “well this too shall pass”. At some point in this walk this is going to hurt. Then when it was hurting I was telling myself “this too shall pass” and that was to remind me that once the walk was over, at some point my muscles wouldn’t be sore again. That actually took a full week after the walk, so from Saturday, from the moment I was done, the next day I could barely walk. Then it took almost a full week before I could walk without limping. But throughout this whole ordeal it was fun to try to practice the mindset of not allowing any of it to feel permanent. Every day, I was reminding myself, even after the walk, I’m still sore, thinking “well this too shall pass”.

That’s essentially the attitude of non-attachment. It’s recognizing that everything that I’m experiencing is impermanent. I’m trying to face the reality that everything ends. Every start has an ending. I thought about the parable that I’ve shared before about the two monks who where crossing the river because I think that is a wonderful depiction of detachment. So the two monks arrive at the edge of the river and there’s the young girl in the wedding gown. The senior monk picks her up without even thinking. They cross the river. He puts her down and then at some point on their journey, the young monk is just going nuts trying to figure out what he had just seen. He finally tells the senior monk “Hey, what are you doing? We’ve taken vows to not touch a female and you just picked her up like nothing and carried her across the river.” The senior monk pauses and just tells him “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why do you continue to carry her?”

To me that another wonderful example of attachment. When something has gone beyond its time, it’s past its time, we have a hard time letting go because we’re attached. Non-attachment is being able to do what you need to do in the moment, like the monk putting the girl on his back, and then when it was done it was done and he let her go.

I would invite you to think about this topic and ask yourself “What are you attached to?” Maybe an even stronger way to word this, to make it more clear what I’m trying to get at, is “What are the things that currently own you?” What are the things that control and currently own you? This could be emotions, if you’re still angry at something that happened in the past, or at someone. Take a look at your life and ask yourself “What is it that currently owns me?” Because if you feel a sense of something that owns you there’s attachment there. That’s a great place to start with practicing non-attachment. What can I try to detach from? Well, try to detach from the things that you feel that own you. This doesn’t just have to be the negative things, it can be anything that you feel owns you. With relationships, this is incredibly powerful.

If you are able to have a non-attached loving relationship with your spouse, or with your parents, or with your children, what would that look like to love someone in such a way that the person that you love feels free? What would that look like? What would it look like if you felt like you were loved in a way that you felt free? Start by offering that to someone else. Offering that sense of freedom to the person that you love. That’s a form of non-attachment.

I hope that kind of clarifies the topic a little bit about non-attachment. Rather than thinking of non-attachment as “I don’t own anything.” Or “I’m not going to have anything in my life. I’m going to give everything up.” Consider that non-attachment has more to do with not allowing the things that you do have in your life to possess you, or to own you. Think of it that way and then look for what areas, or things, in your life right now feel like they have a sense of attachment for you.
I’d love to hear about this in the comments and see how it goes for you as you discuss this, or as you explore this a little bit. Then I want to remind everyone, only because we’re getting closer to the date of this humanitarian trip that I’m doing next January. January 26th through February 4th. If you’re interested in learning about that, please reach out to me. You can learn about it on mindfulhumanitarian.org or you can reach out to me, I’ve mentioned this a few times but, you can find me on Facebook. My username is Noah Rasheta, so facebook.com/noahrasheta, or on Twitter, or on Instagram. I have the same username in all those places. Or you can always reach out to me by email, a lot of you do and I really appreciate communicating with you. My email address is [email protected] So you can find me on secularbuddhism.com, of course.

As always, thank you so much for taking the time to listen. I really believe that this podcast is making a difference and many of you have reached out to tell me that it’s making a difference to you. It’s wonderful to hear that. It really motivates me to continue recording new podcast episodes.

I do this because I enjoy it. I do this because I’m trying to make myself a better whatever I already am. I have no intent of converting or changing anyone. I’m just sharing these topics because they’re meaningful to me and I enjoy them. In a way they’re written for me as I go through my journey. I’m trying to be more mindful and I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools to help myself and others to be more mindful. So you can play a part in that if you’re in a position to be able to help, your donations allow me continue producing that weekly content and creating these tools for the workshops and retreats and seminars and of course the podcast. So, if you’re in a position to be able to help please visit secularbuddhism.com to make a one-time donation or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast.

Thanks again for taking the time to listen and please feel free to share the podcast, to write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Please reach out to me and let me know what you think of this podcast episode.
Good luck with trying to explore in what areas of your life you feel that you could practice non-attachment. I’d love to hear what it does for you to think about it like this and to see if you can start to practice non-attachment in different areas of your life.

I wish you all the best. Have a great week. Until next time.

26 – Want to be happy? Practice gratitude


Gratitude is the key to happiness but gratitude requires practice. In this episode, I will discuss how we can develop a practice of gratitude. “The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” ― David Steindl-Rast

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 26. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about gratitude.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” So please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. And as always, if you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. And if you’re in the position to be able to help, I would greatly appreciate if you were able to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. So in the past, I did a podcast episode that was called “Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” and it was a podcast about happiness and reframing the way that we approach our pursuit of happiness, and kind of shifting our mindset from the pursuit of happiness to the happiness of the pursuit. And it was a very popular podcast episode and I wanted to expand a little bit on that idea. So in the past several days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of gratitude and how gratitude plays into happiness.

So before we can talk about gratitude, I wanted to talk about happiness for a minute, because typically, you know, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish in life? If you were to ask somebody that question, including yourself, most of us are probably going to say that what we’re trying to accomplish is more happiness. We’re trying to experience the joy of happiness and trying to minimize everything else that doesn’t make us happy. That’s typically the path.

That’s why you’ve heard the expression, “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s like this thing that you can pursue and catch it, and we treat it almost like we do the other word “meaning” as if it was something that was out there that you can go and find, and you dig under a rock and there it is. There’s happiness, and now I got it, and it’s mine. When the reality is that happiness doesn’t work that way because happiness is just an emotion. And like all of our emotions, whether that’d be happiness, sadness, anger, you know … These are impermanent emotions, and when the causes and conditions are right, you experience and emotion, and then when the causes and conditions are gone, it’s no longer there. That’s the nature of our emotions.
So that trap that we fall into is thinking that happiness is thing that we can get, and we can’t. But the irony in this is that there is a way to experience it, but it doesn’t have to do with chasing after happiness. So the Buddha taught that we are what we think, and all that we are arises with our thoughts. And it’s with our thoughts that we make our world. So the way that we think will influence the way that we are, and when we think … When we are pursuing happiness or we think that happiness is the goal, we can get trapped in this hamster wheel, so to speak, that we’re running and running, and never get in there because we’ve misunderstood what happiness is.

So what I wanted to focus on in this podcast episode is something different. Rather than pursuing happiness, what if we develop or practice gratitude? And the irony in this is that it’s by practicing gratitude, it’s by developing a sense or an attitude of gratefulness that we experience happiness. Because remember, happiness isn’t something that you can’t catch and get. It’s not a thing that’s … There it is, there’s happiness, and I got it. You experience it, and you experience it by being grateful.
So what if instead of focusing on the pursuit of happiness, we focused on the practice of gratitude? That’s what I really wanted to discuss in this podcast. And practicing gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It seems that we’re not really hardwired to be grateful, and I have no doubt that you know somebody who tends to be more naturally grateful. And isn’t it pleasant to be around people who tend to be grateful? I know, I have several people in my life that I look up too, who are people who tend to be very grateful. And the thing about gratitude is that it’s like any skill. It’s a skill that requires practice, and we can develop an attitude of gratefulness or gratitude by practicing it.

Dr. Robert Emmons, who’s the author of a book called Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier … He talks about the three stages of gratitude, and says that, “First, you recognize what you’re grateful for. Then, you acknowledge it and appreciate it.” So recognition, then acknowledgement, then it’s the actual act of appreciating it. And that sounds simple, but the benefits of practicing gratitude can really be life-altering.

So I want to talk about this a little bit more because we tend to see gratitude as something that, when the circumstances are right, then we’ll be grateful. But gratitude isn’t about the circumstances, and you can look at this because you can put yourself in any set of circumstances and just change the scenario, and you’ll see in one circumstance you’ll be grateful, and the other one, you’re not, and the circumstances are the same. So it’s not about the circumstances.

For example, if you were driving down the road on your way to a job interview and you got a flat tire, you would pull over, and you know, the last thing you’re gonna do is be grateful for your flat tire, because you don’t want to have a flat tire. You want to be at the job interview. Now, if you were in a prison transport vehicle on your way to jail for something that you didn’t do and you’re really terrified to go to jail, and the transport vehicle gets a flat tire, well now you’re gonna be very grateful for the flat tire, and you’re gonna hope that it takes them a hundred years to change the tire. So if you were looking at the circumstance, the circumstance is you got a flat tire, that’s not the problem. It’s only a problem if you don’t want a flat tire.

So with gratitude, it’s never about the circumstances, or the event, I should say, and maybe not circumstances, but the event. It’s not about the event. It’s about everything around that. So I think to understand gratitude a little bit more, we should talk about: Why is it that we don’t feel gratitude? What is it that’s preventing gratitude?

And I think a big part of this is what we call dualistic thinking. It’s the idea that there’s life as it is and then there’s life as I think it should be. And that’s the dualistic part of it. I’m creating two realities. There’s reality as it is, and the reality that I want. And that separation puts us in a position where when I’m looking for something that isn’t how it is, it’s hard to experience gratitude. The sense of expectation or the sense of comparison, we don’t what is. We only see what we … You know, the woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios of life. And the thing is, gratitude is just there. It’s a part of the reality as it is, and it doesn’t know any of the stories that we’ve created about how things should be. So we … It’s important to understand that it’s resentment and bitterness that can blind us from being grateful. Well, blind us … We simply just cannot experience it because we’re experiencing resentment and bitterness.

So it’s important, I think, to look at your life and to analyze in what way, or in what areas of my life am I experiencing any kind of resentment or bitterness. And this will typically have to do with, you know, woulda, coulda, shoulda. Because resentment and bitterness typically from dashed expectations. There’s … How the way life is different from how we want it to be because we think it should’ve been differently had this … This or that changed. And when we’re in that mindset, what is there to be grateful for? You can’t be grateful.

When the world doesn’t fit our stories, there’s tension from, you know, how things are and how I expected things to be. And in that world, you’re just not going to experience any form of gratitude. So then we need to look at that a little bit more, and if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, then maybe you can ask, “Why am I not feeling grateful? Why am I not experiencing gratitude?” And then follow that up with, “Am I experiencing some kind of resentment or some kind of bitterness?” Because typically, we go through life experiencing these things, but we don’t pause and give ourselves the time of day to actually be with those emotions and to analyze them a little bit.

This is where practicing gratitude really comes in. And I want to talk about this because I think there are five steps that we can take to start to develop gratitude, and consider this a form of practice because by practicing this we get better at it just like going to the gym makes you stronger or practicing meditation makes you more mindful. So developing gratitude, we could say, is something that can be practiced and we’re gonna go through these five steps to develop gratitude.

So the first one is about … Is centered around awareness. You want to become aware. So step one is become aware, and this is asking yourself, “What am I not noticing here? What should I be grateful for?” Because if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, that’s okay. But at least you can notice, “Hey, I’m not experiencing gratitude. Why aren’t I grateful?” And you’ll be amazed if you were to … To become aware, you would be amazed at all the goodness that we take for granted, all the things that we should be grateful that we don’t typically or naturally experience. And there’s a good video, a TED Talk called “A Good Day” that you could check out and that’ll help get you in the right frame of mind. So just developing a sense of awareness, and this could be the awareness that … Of things that you’ve realized, “Oh, I’m grateful for this.” But it also entails the awareness of realizing, “Oh, I’m not grateful.” The fact that you’re aware that you’re not grateful is a good start.

The next step is writing it down. You’ve probably heard of the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. But really, all it takes is writing down one or a few things that you’re grateful for on a daily basis and developing a habit out of that. And you don’t have to have a fancy notebook for that. There are apps that will do this that you can put on your phone and they’ll remind you every morning, and say, now what are the one or two or three things that you’re grateful for? There are many ways you can develop this as a daily habit, and just write it down because when you’re forced to ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?”, you’re going to … You have to pause and you have to think about it. So it’s a really good way to start developing the practice of gratitude.
The third step is learning to identify the negative. So if you identify something or someone with a negative trait, you know, for example, some people have the tendency to approach things from the negative point first. For example, you walk into the office and the first thing you notice is it’s cold, or … I don’t know. There are a lot scenarios here, but what if you could practice switching it in your mind to see what is the positive aspect of this? You know, for example, you walk into a room and it feels cold, then think, well, okay … Try to extract out of this something that’s positive. You look out the window and realize, “Oh, but this room has a good view.” And so now you’ve practiced switching that, identifying the negative so that you can switch to the positive. And this is just, again, a practice. The more you do this, the more habitual it become to see positive things simultaneously as you see the negative things, and then eventually, seeing less negative things.

The fourth step is gonna be practicing, and we’re not gonna fake it. You don’t have to fake being grateful. You don’t have to pretend to be grateful, or say, you know, to someone, “Oh, thank you,” just because you’re faking it. Consider this practicing it. So try to give at least one compliment everyday, and the reason this is helpful is because if you know, “Today, I’m supposed to give a compliment to something or to someone,” it forces you to look for the positive because you’re not gonna want to just compliment and be inauthentic. So you will start to practice being authentically looking for something to be grateful for so you can share that. So, you know, this could be very easy. Smiling and saying thank you to someone for something is a wonderful way to practice gratitude. So find something to be grateful for and then express it. I think we go through a significant portion of our lives feeling gratitude but never expressing. And gratitude feels good for us but you who else it feels incredible for? The person who’s receiving it, on the receiving end of gratitude.

Practicing … I guess what we’re really practicing here is practicing the expression of gratitude. So when you feel gratitude, feel free to express it. Share it with the people, especially people that you know and care for and love, it’s very meaningful to feel appreciated. So practice expressing gratitude and it can be for anything, you know, the waiter who brings you your food, someone who opens the door at the gas station. It can be to your spouse or significant other who did something kind for you, or … There’s just so many ways, so many moments to be able to feel and then more importantly express your gratitude. So we’re practicing the expression of gratitude.

And then there’s the fifth step which I kind of like. I think this might be a challenge for the podcast listeners to go in on this challenge of making a vow. So this is kind of a complement to the practice, it’s making a vow to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip for a set amount of time. Maybe let’s say, 10 days. A 10-day vow or a 10-day gratitude challenge, and rather than focusing it around the positive aspect of it, of being grateful, because we’re already practicing that. Remember, you’re gonna do it everyday, you’re gonna compliment someone … At least one compliment everyday.

This is focusing on the negative side, “How do I eliminate the negative side?” Well, what if you take a vow to not complain, criticize or gossip for 10 days? And if you catch yourself messing up, you don’t have to do this, but maybe if you catch yourself slipping, you know, maybe you can have some form of punishment where you put a dollar into a jar every time you mess up, and at the end, take that money and maybe donate to someone or to something. I don’t know. That just might be a fun way to do it, but you don’t have to do that. But I would love to see if you’re willing to take a vow to … For 10 days to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip. I remember gossiping is just speaking of someone when they’re not there in a negative way. There’s never a need to do that.

So those are the five steps. Number one, become aware. Developing an awareness of the things that we’re grateful for, or at least an awareness that we’re not grateful. It can start with that. Step two, write it down. Step three, identify the negative approach. If you have negative approach, identify when and where and how you do that, and try to counter it with one positive. So as soon as you identify the negative, counter it with a positive, and just practice that. Step four is practicing the expression of gratitude. You know, try for 10 days to at least give one compliment daily, and you know, keep going past the 10 days. This is a great one to do. Maybe it’s a daily thing that you do for the rest of your life, that would be awesome. So practice expressing gratitude especially to the people who you’re close to. It would mean everything to them. And make a vow, 10-day challenge. No complaining, criticizing or gossiping for 10 days. I’d love to hear in the comments on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Secular Buddhism study group on Facebook or just the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, but I’d love to hear you tell me about it if you make that vow, if you take that commitment, or you can email me: [email protected] Tell me all about it, I’d love to hear that.

But that’s kind of what I had in mind for this topic on gratitude. So how we can shift our mindset from the mindless pursuit of happiness? Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that. It can be mindful. But what if we focused our attention away from chasing after happiness to just practicing gratitude? And the irony, like I said before, the irony in this is that, experiencing gratitude is what helps us … It’s what makes you feel happy. So if you want to chase after happiness, don’t chase after it. Practice gratitude. There’s no greater gift than the gift of gratitude, of feeling grateful for our lives, for the fact of being alive, for so many little things. And I think we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all the things we can be grateful for.

One of my teachers [inaudible 00:20:02] was talking about the little things in life that we typically don’t even think about, we don’t think to be grateful for, and he specifically mentioned his shoes and how at the end of everyday, he takes off his shoes and says, “Thank you, shoes, for protecting my stinky feet.” And it was so interesting for me to hear that and to think not once in my entire life have I ever thanked my shoes because you wouldn’t think to have to do that. You know, these are inanimate objects and they don’t have feelings, so why do I need to thank them? But it’s not about them. It’s about my disposition and my attitude, and I thought, “Well, how interesting.”

It’s just never occurred to me to be thankful for something so simple as, you know, what protects my feet all day long. So I spent a week after that trying to think of all the little things to be thankful for. And throughout that week, it was fascinating, you know, at work, a check came in and a signed it and I deposited it on my phone, taking a picture, and again, I had experience where I was like I’ve never thought to be thankful to my pen for being able to sign my name, to my phone for being able to take a picture and have that go right into my account, I didn’t have to drive to the bank, so I was like, “Thank you, smartphone. Thank you, pen.” And then, “Thank you, check.” Because it was able to just come in the mail, and then I was like, “Oh, well, thank you to the post office who does all these delivery and getting things from here to there.” And it just went on and on and on, that one single action brought up hundreds of things to be thankful for. And it’s just so interesting how so many of those things had never once crossed my mind ever to be thankful for. You can imagine that whole week was an intense week of being grateful for all the little things.

You know, even the drive home, I was thinking, “How can I be grateful for things I’ve never thought of being grateful for before?” For example, the red light. You’re stuck at the red light. You don’t ever thank the red light. But I looked at the red light and said, “Thank you, red light.” Because if it wasn’t for this red light organizing us all, it would be chaotic here. And while my light is red, someone else’s light is green, and they get to go. And then when theirs is red, mine is green, and you know, I was thinking I should thank the red light because thanks to their red light, I get to drive through this intersection when it’s green, and typically not have to worry about someone else running through the intersection and hitting me.

It just kind of reframes the way you view a lot of things if you practice gratitude. So I think it would be a fun experience this week, or whenever you listen to this podcast, to give yourself a 10-day challenge. Take a vow for 10 days to not complain, to not gossip, to not criticize, and during those 10 days, practice expressing gratitude, at least one compliment, one authentic compliment everyday to someone for something. And see how that changes you, see if it starts to change your mindset. And more importantly, what you should notice is the more you practice gratitude, the more you should experience happiness. And this is the best part of all of it, is that the goal isn’t to be happy. We’re not chasing after happiness. We’re practicing gratitude, but the effect of that, what you’ll notice is that you experience and feel more happiness.

And quickly before I wrap up this podcast, I do want to remind you that next year, in January … From January 26th through February 4th, I’ve been invited to teach mindfulness retreat in conjunction with a humanitarian trip that we’re doing in Uganda in Africa. And this is gonna be a really awesome opportunity to do humanitarian work, while at the same time focusing on the contemplate of practice of mindfulness. So if you are interested in learning about that, visit MindfulHumanitarian.org. This is going to be a wonderful and unique experience going to Uganda, experiencing mindfulness, humanitarian work and adventure. We’re doing a safari. If you’re interested in learning more about that, visit the website or reach out to me, and ask me any questions that you might have.

And as always, I want to thank you for taking the time to listen. When I started this podcast, my intention was to just make content and tools available for people to learn the philosophical concepts that are taught from the contemplate of tradition of Buddhism that ultimately enable us to live more mindfully. And I’ve been surprised to see how much demand there is for this presentation, this style of presentation for Buddhism, and it’s been an incredible journey and I’m very happy to be doing this and to be on this journey with you.

And I’ve said this before, but I believe that the key to contributing to making society or the world a better place really is about making ourselves better versions of ourselves, and that’s why I do these podcasts. I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools that will help us to be more mindful, and ultimately, this is … I do this for myself. This is my practice. This is me trying to be the best me that I can be. And you know, at times, it feels like, well, it’d be great to do this for everyone else out there to listen to this, but ultimately, I don’t feel like I’m trying to sell anything. I don’t feel like I’m trying to push anything on anyone. I record all this, in a way for, myself. This is me being able to express myself in a way that my own children will be able to listen to this at some point in the future and know how I felt about these topics.

And if you listened to this and you enjoy it, well then, that’s all for the better. If we can be more mindful as individuals, we end up having more mindful families and ultimately more mindful societies, and we can end up having a better world and it’s not because we were trying to change the world. It’s ultimately because we were trying to change ourselves, and I really believe that.

So if you’re able to contribute in any way, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for this podcast, along with content for the workshops and the retreats and seminars that I do. And if you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit SecularBuddhism.com to make a one-time donation, or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast.

And as always, thank you for your continued support, and I’ll be happy to record another podcast episode next week. So have a great week, and until next time.

25 – Is Buddhism a Religion?

One of the most common questions I hear when I’m teaching is “Is Buddhism a Religion?” People are typically expecting a simple “yes” or “no” but I’ve found that the answer is a bit more complex than that. In this episode, I will share my view of why I see Buddhism as an applied psychology or a philosophical way of life more than a religion.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 25. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m answering the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?”
Welcome back the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Welcome back to the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

I think it’s very fitting for the answer to this specific question to be the answer is yes and now. It’s yes and it’s no and it’s yes and no and it’s neither yes or no. How’s that for a Buddhist answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. Here’s my thinking behind this answer for me specifically. Of course it’s a religion. It’s a religion that’s practiced by over 300 million people in the world who consider themselves to be Buddhist and they practice Buddhism as a religion. There are also, I don’t know the numbers, but there are also a lot of people who would say Buddhism is not a religion. I think this is more prevalent in the west, for western mindset. We tend to see it more like a psychology. The definition of psychology is a study of the mind and its functions, particularly those affecting behavior given in a specific context. Buddhism fits in very well, very nicely with the definition of psychology.

Now, the definition of religion, it depends on who’s defining it. There are so many definitions. Every dictionary I’ve checked has a slightly different definition for what religion is. Let’s just look at a couple of these and see how Buddhism would apply. One definition is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. This one could be problematic in Buddhism because Buddhism is a non theistic tradition. There isn’t a deity that’s kind of at the head of everything, controlling it like we would typically think in the west or in the Judeo-Christian mindset. There’s a monotheistic god who is the creator and has power to control everything, an all powerful, all knowing deity.

Buddhism doesn’t have that. There are some schools of Buddhism that incorporate cosmology with … A cosmology that does entail gods and realms and worlds, but these are not part of the doctrine of Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t really have a doctrine or a set of esoteric facts that you need to believe in. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s kind of saying, let’s study the way that you see and understand the world because when you take a look at the way that you see things, the way that you see things changes, so it’s by studying the mind. Rather than having something to believe in, it’s saying the things that you believe in affect how you see the world. If you’re comparing the two just off of those two definitions, Buddhism is much more of a psychology than it is a religion.

If you look at the definition of religion as a particular system of faith or worship, then you could start to say, well Buddhism could fit in that. If you take Buddhist rituals like meditation or in some schools of Buddhism where they have changing or reciting the mantra, or lighting incense, practices like that, it starts to look more like a system of faith and worship. It starts to look more like a religion. I think part of the problem is that we typically observe Buddhist practices or rituals from a western mindset. You see someone lighting an incense and you’re thinking he or she must be worshiping the Buddha or something along those lines. We associate the ritual practices with what we understand as religious behavior and that kind of make sit seem more like a religion. Again, I think from the eastern mindset it’s very different and it’s hard for us to know the eastern mindset because we’re not eastern. We don’t have an eastern mindset. We grew up with a western mindset that’s much more conditioned on the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion.

Another definition of Buddhism would be a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and the purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. You can start to pick out parts of this definition where you might say, “Well Buddhism kind of works there and there are others where it doesn’t.” The purpose of the universe, I think in western thinking, I’ve mentioned this before, but we tend to think if something exists, there must be a reason for it because if there wasn’t a reason, then it shouldn’t exist. In eastern thinking, it doesn’t work that way. There doesn’t need to be a reason for something. With a Buddhist mindset, it’s not about the reason, it’s about the cause. Buddhism teaches that all natural phenomenon have causes and conditions. That means everything that is has a cause for that thing to be.

From the Buddhist mindset, we’re looking for the causes and conditions of things and this applies to everything, whether that be a tree, the tree is there because the seed came from another tree, or internal things like, I’m experiencing anger, well there are causes and conditions for that. You can look and explore and find the causes and conditions for all things. I think this mimics a little bit more of the scientific approach to life where science is always looking for the causes of things and Buddhism does the same in this sense. It can be another one of those topics where it’s like, well in some ways it’s more like a science than it is like a religion, or more of a psychology than it is religion, so it gets kind of tricky.

That’s why, I think the most appropriate answer to that question is yes and no. It is a religion and it’s not a religion depending on who you’re asking and how they practice it. For me specifically, I practice Buddhism as a philosophical way of life and the advantage of this approach is you can fuse it with religious ideas. I know people who practice Buddhism and practice meditation and mindfulness and they are Christian or they have Christian beliefs. Certain aspects of their life, they find meaning through their religious system and then other aspects, their contemplative practice comes from an eastern tradition like Buddhism. It can be a combination as well. I like to think of Buddhism, like I mentioned before, as a philosophical way of life.

Here’s the main reason why, for me, if you ask me personally, I tend to think Buddhism is much less of a religion than it is a psychological practice or a philosophical practice. If you break down the core teachings of what the Buddha taught, you find that it mimics more of a medical diagnosis than it does any kind of a religious or esoteric set of facts. Typically a religion presents an answer to the question, what is the meaning of all of this? Then you are presented with some kind of a story, whether that be the story of the creation, or the story of what happens after you die. There’s some kind of a story that you can believe in and you can choose based on your own observation, whether that be through reading a set of scriptures of that religion or just taking it and analyzing it and deciding this resonates with me. Then it’s up to you to decide to believe it.
Now, you’re belief in that story, it can evolve over time, but for you to be a Christian, you have to believe the story that, first of all, you need to be saved, so you’d have to believe, oh, I’m not saved, then I need to be saved. Then the parts of the story start to make sense. This is why I need someone to come save me from my sins. Then involved with that whole story is if you do that and you are saved from your sins, then when you die you don’t have to go to hell. You get to go to a place called heaven. All of it starts to fit in, but it’s all contingent on your belief in that set of de esoteric facts, the esoteric stories that are presented as facts, and you have to believe those. It gets problematic if you don’t believe some of those things. It can become problematic because the whole system starts to fall apart.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not presenting a set of facts. It’s, like I mentioned before, it’s more of a medical process where you’re trying to figure out, what is the problem? The problem is this. It’s a solvable problem, here’s what you have to do about it. Then once it’s done and you’re treated, it’s all over. Just like going to a doctor, the doctor’s going to diagnose a problem. He’s going to identify the underlying causes or conditions. The doctor’s going to determine the prognosis, and then issue a prescription and you’re done. Then you leave and presumably you don’t have to come back because you treated the problem. This, to me, is … I don’t want to be down on any religions because I think religion can be a beautiful thing when practiced the right way, but I think, to me that’s the biggest difference here is that Buddhism will come and say, here’s what you need and once you figure that out you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore in your life.

A religion won’t do that. It tends to say the more you believe this, then the more attached you become to it. In fact, your whole hope of what to expect in the future, particularly in the afterlife, hinges on whether or not you believe the story that you’ve been told. Because Buddhism doesn’t have that component to it, it’s anchored in the present moment. It’s not anchored in the reward or punishment that you’re going to experience after this life. I think it makes it, if it is a religion, it’s very different than the Judeo-Christian type religions, or Islam. I think that’s one of the big differences.

Let’s look at that real quick. The Buddhist approach to the problem, the situation at hand, I talked about, if you’re sick, you’re going to go to the doctor and you want the doctor to treat the condition that you have. On the spiritual note, this is kind of what happens with Buddhism, the problem that’s diagnosed is that in life there is suffering. In life difficulties arise. It’s not personal. It’s a universal thing. Everybody experiences it. This is kind of what … Imagine you’re going to see Dr. Buddha, this is essentially what you’re going to be told. You go to the doctor with this problem saying, “I’m not happy. Something’s wrong in life. Life isn’t the way that I want it to be and I’m suffering because of that.” The very first thing the doctor’s going to say is that, “I need to diagnose the problem and the problem is this, in life there is suffering.” That’s the first noble truth in Buddhism.
Now, the second part of the medical prognosis or diagnosis is this, we need to identify the underlying causes. What the Buddha teaches here is that attachment or clinging is the cause of suffering. It’s wanting life to be other than it is, and because I want it to be other than it is, I’m going to experience suffering. That’s the definition of suffering in Buddhism is wanting life to be other than it is. If you look at this in all honesty, anytime you’re experiencing suffering in your life, you’ll find that it can be rooted in wanting it to be other than it is. This is a powerful thing. This goes from the big things to finding out … Losing a loved one, the reason that’s so painful is because you don’t want to lose a loved one. You want them to still be there. All the way down to what could be smaller, more mundane things like, I’m stuck at the red light. Why is that a problem? It’s only a problem because I don’t want to be stuck at the red light.

I always think about this, if you were driving somewhere, you just lost your job and you have an interview for a new job and you’re trying to get there early and on the way there you get a flat tire. That’s a problem. The only reason it’s a problem is because you don’t want the flat tire. You don’t want to risk being late to your interview. Wanting life to be other than it is is that form of suffering. The problem isn’t the flat tire. That really has nothing to do with it because all you have to do is change the circumstances and the event doesn’t matter.

Imagine that you’ve been accused of something you didn’t do and now you’re going to jail for it because they don’t have the evidence to prove your innocence and you’re resisting. You do not want to go to jail and on your way there, the bus gets a flat tire. Now you’re going to think “I hope it takes them forever to fix this flat tire,” because you don’t want to go to jail. The event is the same. A tire went flat and it has to be fixed. Suffering comes from wanting life to be other than it is. Look at that in your own life anytime you’re experiencing suffering and figure out, what is it that I want to be different than it is and you’ll find that’s the root of your suffering.

Then, the doctor needs to determine the prognosis. The prognosis is that, hey, this is a treatable condition. We can treat the cause of suffering. Here’s the catch. We cannot eliminate suffering because remember the diagnosis of the problem or the first noble truth is this, in life there is suffering and it’s universal. The fact that you want to get rid of suffering is only going to create more suffering because now you’re suffering, you want life to be other than it is and the way that it is is that in life there is suffering. What part of this is the treatable condition? That we can treat the cause of suffering, the attachment or the clinging. Remember, identifying the underlying causes, what the Buddha taught is that it’s attachment or clinging that’s causing the suffering. That part is the treatable condition, and we treat that with non-attachment.

The prescription is that there needs to be a change in perspective. This sense of non-attachment comes through obtaining wisdom and we do that … In Buddhism, this is the fourth noble truth, this is the eightfold path. There are eight areas in your life that you focus on, that you’re shifting your perspective and gaining wisdom and that’s helping to eliminate the non-attachment. Just discussing non-attachment by itself, it could be its own podcast with hundreds of episodes on non-attachment. I won’t even attempt to explain non-attachment here, but the key is non-attachment. I think that can be tricky for people to get because one of the misconceptions is, well if I’m going to be non-attached, then that means I’m numb and I don’t have any feelings and I have to be okay with whatever is. That’s not what non-attachment is.

The other thing that’s dangerous about non-attachment is when you decide, okay, I’m done playing this game. I do not want to be attached anymore, then you run the risk of becoming attached to non-attachment. Then you’re back in the same spiral. The definition of suffering is wanting life to be other than it is and you look at it and you say, okay, then I don’t want to experience attachment anymore. I don’t want to have any kind of craving. Now you’re wanting life to be other than it is because in life you’re going to crave things. It gets tricky and that’s essentially the entire situation at hand that Buddhism is trying to get at. It’s the idea that the key is non-attachment and it’s not just that easy. It’s not dropping everything. At the same time it is, it’s letting go. If you want to learn all about that whole process, then you study Buddhism.

That’s what Buddhism will teach you is that entire process summed up in these four things. We’re going to diagnose the problem, in life there is suffering. We’re going to identify the underlying causes. The causes of suffering are attachment and clinging, wanting life to be other than it is. We’re going to determine the prognosis, which is that this is a treatable condition. We can treat the causes of suffering, but we cannot eliminate suffering. The key to that is non-attachment. That’s the prescription. A change in perspective, wisdom, non-attachment, having a flexible attitude to adjust with life as it unfolds, and that’s it. That’s where it starts, so it’s very much like the process of going to visit a doctor.

The key, this is where I think it becomes very different from religion, if you take the prescription and you solve the problem, then you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore and the Buddha taught this in his Parable of the Raft, he asks the monks, if somebody’s trying to cross the river and they build a raft, they spend a considerable amount of time and effort to do that, they get on the raft. Eventually they cross. Now that they’re on this side, is it appropriate for this person to continue the journey with the raft or do they leave it behind? The monks deliberate and they decide it’s wise to leave it behind because you don’t need it anymore. He tells them specifically, this is how you are to view the teachings of the Dharma, so the teachings of Buddhism.

This is why my personal approach to Buddhism is to view it as a set of tools to develop mindfulness to solve the problem. The problem is that in life there is suffering and when you get past it, just as the Buddha taught, it’s something that you leave behind, and you need to because you don’t want to become attached to non-attachment. You don’t want to attach to Buddhism. You don’t want to attach to anything. You can become attached to your religion in a way that it becomes unhealthy. I’m sure everybody knows somebody who you would think probably fits that picture. In that sense and with that information, I personally thing that Buddhism is more of a philosophical way of life. It provides me with a set of tools that determine how I live, how I see the world. Because of that, I don’t view it as a religion because I don’t ascribe to a specific set of rituals or practices or anything that would even look like a religion in the way that I teach and practice Buddhism.

There you have it. That is my answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. I would say yes it is, and no it’s not, and yes and no it is, and it’s neither yes or no. That, my friends, is Buddhism for you. It’s a very paradoxical approach to the situation at hand, which is that in life there is suffering. You can practice it as a religion. You can adopt this as your religious practice and at the same time, you don’t have to and you can take these as tools and study the nature of the mind and how and why we think the way that we think. This concept of not knowing in Buddhism is very prevalent. It’s in Zen Buddhism, and every form of Buddhism that I’ve explored. At its root is this concept of not knowing. Rather than trying to give you answers to the deep questions of life, like most … This is where it differs from religion because religion is trying to answer the questions. The questions of who am I, why am I here, where do I go when I die? The big existential questions are answered by religions.
Buddhism doesn’t answer those questions. Buddhism isn’t concerned with answering the questions. Buddhism is focused on exploring, why do I feel I need to know these answers? That’s what Buddhism’s trying to get at. What is the root of the motivation behind asking these questions in the first place? If you can get at that, then the answers shouldn’t matter. The answers won’t matter. If I understand myself to know why those questions even matter, it doesn’t become about the answers, it becomes about the questions. Because Buddhism is about the questions and not about the answers, I don’t think it really fits the traditional bill of a religion, especially the religions that are just trying to answer the questions.

That’s a lot, having said that. If you have more questions about this or you want to contribute to the conversation, I hope this doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers because the people who will say the answer is yes get mad at the people who say the answer is no. The people who say no get mad at the people who say that it’s yes. Just to throw in the other mix, let’s add in the people who say yes and no, and let’s add in the people who say, “No, it’s not even yes or no,” because let’s just all be in there and talk about this together. If you want to add to the conversation, find the post where I put this on secularbuddhism.com, join in on the conversation, but that is the podcast episode I wanted to go over today. Is Buddhism a religion?

I hope that my answer makes enough sense that you can feel that you can choose the answer that makes the most sense to you, because again, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. If you ask me, is Buddhism religion, well that’s just my answer. The only answer that will ever answer is your answer. You get to choose. You get to study this and decide, is it a religion for you, is it not? Is it yes and no? You get to choose. Good luck on your journey finding the answer that makes the most sense to you. I know a lot of people who love practicing Buddhism as their preferred religious practice and they practice it as a religion and there’s nothing wrong with that. Find the answer that works for you, but what I shared today, that’s my view and my answer.

Before we stop this podcast episode, I want to remind you about these workshops that I’m doing. I’ve done one in Salt Lake City last weekend. It was very well received. I’m doing one coming up very soon in Seattle, so if you’re in the Seattle area, September third, there’s a workshop there. There’s one in London in the UK on September 18th. That’s a Sunday. You can get all this information on secularbuddhism.com. Then a reminder, next year, January 26th through February 4th, we’re doing a humanitarian trip to Uganda. We’ll be doing humanitarian work along with a mindfulness retreat, so if you’re in a position to be able to do that and that sounds interesting to you, consider coming with me and a small group of people to Uganda to do humanitarian work and learn more about mindfulness. It’ll be a lot of fun. You can learn more about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

Thank you for listening. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really believe that if we have the desire to contribute to making society or the world a better place, a more peaceful place, it starts by making our own lives more peaceful. We work on ourselves. We always have these grand desires to change the world and yet the only thing we can ever change is ourselves. It’s by changing ourselves, ironically, that we do change the world. That’s why I’m determined to produce podcast content and workshops and retreats and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals are the key to mindful families and mindful societies. That’s why I do what I do because I enjoy it. There’s nothing to convert to or convert away from. I’m just trying to present another perspective.

If you are in a position to be able to contribute, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism Podcast, along with the workshops, content for the workshops and retreats and seminars. If you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com to make a one-time donation or to sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast. Thank you again for listening and thank you for your continued support and I look forward to another podcast episode next week. Have a good week, and until next time.

24 – The Journey is the Goal


Life is a journey and the journey is the goal. What would life be like if we did things for the sake of doing them? In this episode, I will explore the idea of learning to enjoy the journey instead of always focusing on destinations.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 24. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about how the journey is the goal.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded and audience. The Dalai Lama has said to try to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you are already are. So please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating in iTunes.

And if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would greatly appreciate you making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast, and you can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

I want you to imagine for a minute, your favorite destination, maybe somewhere that you’ve wanted to visit but haven’t visited yet. So maybe it’s Europe or Asia, or some exotic location. Picture it in your mind. And imagine you finally get to go there, and you land at the airport, and the first thing you need to do is jump on a train to get to wherever it is that you’re going. Maybe the hotel or something. And imagine that you’re sitting on the train and the train gets going and you’re looking down at the map, or looking up at the map. Some trains have them posted there on the side of the wall. And you’re paying attention to the various stops along the way.

And you’re focused on the stop where you need to get off, so as you pay attention to each of these stops, with every stop you look. You look out and see what’s there at the stop. Maybe it’s snacks or souvenirs or different vendors at different stops. And if you’ve ever been on a train, sometimes they come up to the windows and try to sell you stuff. At least where I grew up in Mexico, that, that was common on the train.

But anyway, the point of this exercise is to imagine that you’ve been focused on each of these stops and you finally arrive at your destination, and it occurs to you that you hadn’t paid attention throughout the journey and, to look out the window and simply enjoy the view. Imagine how sad it would be at that point to realize, that you missed the journey, because you were so focused on the various destinations and stops along the way.

And that’s kind of what we end up doing in life. Life is a journey and it just goes and goes and goes. And we, we divide it into milestones. You know when I graduate from school, that’s a milestone. When I get married. When I land the job that I’ve wanted. When I start my own business. When I have kids. When I finally get divorced. You know whatever these stops are that we create, these milestones on the journey of life.

Often times by the time you reached the end, what you’ll find is that you’ve missed enjoying the journey as it, as it unfolded because we get so focused on the stops that we don’t, we don’t pay attention, and simply enjoy the view all along the way.

That’s kind of what I wanted to talk about in this week’s podcast episode. The idea is that the journey is the goal. In previous podcasts, I’ve talked about how our tendency is to take a very utilitarian approach to the things in life. You know, I go to school because I’m trying to get a degree. I’m trying to get a degree because I want to have a better job. I want to have a better job because a job pays better money. If I have more money, I get to you know, go on vacation, and have better memories.

And this process becomes a cycles and it goes on and on and on. And the problem with it is that we end up replacing the journey with the goal. Let’s just start at the first one. Imagine the idea of school. Imagine if the goal was to simply learn. If my goal was to obtain knowledge, and to learn something, I would go to school. And that was the original intent of it. And I go to school because I want to learn. The degree that you get at the end, what if that was treated as, well that just happens, that just happens to be what I get at the end. And some people do this, but I would say the vast majority of people, our tendency is to get caught up in the stations in of the train journey.

We get caught up the you know, the expression that the means justify the ends, or the ends justify the ends. This is that concept. What if the goal was to obtain knowledge vs the goal is to get a degree? Because you can get a degree and maybe not really have learned anything in the process. Because then you’re set up in a system where you think, what if the goal was the degree, what does it take the degree? Then all of the means can justify the ends.

Whether that be I’m going to cheat on my test, or I’m going to do the bare minimum that I can do and get C’s. You can do all that and that’s justified because the goal was the degree. The goal was not to obtain knowledge. Whereas, if the goal was to obtain knowledge, you’re going to pay attention in your classes. You’re going take better notes. You’re going to try and read and study things because the goal was knowledge. And the result happens to be the degree.

Can you see the difference though? And that’s just taking one concept. Going to school with the goal of gaining knowledge. Well imagine if we apply that to all of the areas in life, and we do things to do them, rather than. So this is where it gets tricky because if you were to take a certain part of you life, look at it and try to understand. Do I do this for the sake of doing it? Or is there an end, and end goal that becomes the rewards sort of speak.

Because what you’ll find is, if you get caught up in the idea of always looking for that next station, looking for that next something. We’re no really different than the hamster that stuck in the hamster wheel that’s running. And you’re in a hamster wheel and you’re running, and it’s not that that’s a bad thing. You can stay on the hamster wheel for as long as you want.

And my goal isn’t to tell you, “Hey you need to get off the hamster wheel.” No, you’re free to stay on the hamster wheel. My goal isn’t to change. I’m not trying to teach you or change you or do anything like that. I’m simply trying to bring a new perspective into the way that we experience the journey of life.

And this is the perspective that Buddhist philosophical concepts bring to the table. It’s saying, “Hey, you’re running and it’s hot and you’re sweating, and you’re miserable. You can keep dong that if you want. There’s no reason not to.” Or you can say, or you can realize, “Hey, you’re never going to get what you’re after so calm down.”

And, and that’s tricky cause some people will hear that, and they’re like, “What do you mean I’ll never get what I’m after. Of course I am. I’m going to keep working hard. You watch me.”

They go and they finally land the job they wanted. “See, I got it!”

Well yeah, you got what you thought you wanted but are you done? Are you content?

No, cause now I need to become, I need to get my promotion or I need to. There’s always something that we’re seeking. That’s the concept of the hamster wheel. You’re always seeking something. Just like on the train, you’re always waiting for the next step. And you think when I finally get to that stop, then I’m going to be happy. Or then I’m going to whatever. And you get there and maybe you experience that contentment. Maybe it last a little bit. And then, guess what, you’re waiting for the next stop. There’s something else.

And all of use have experienced this. We all experience it. Just imagine your own life and ask yourself, “What are those stops? I’m on the train ride. What are those stops I’m looking forward to that are coming up?” We all have stops coming up that we’re looking forward to. Whether we get there or not, but we have those stops so imagine what some of yours are.

And then ask yourself, “How much more different would this journey be, with this experience be, if I was doing things just for the sake of doing them? If I understood that the journey is the goal, not the destination. The destination isn’t the goal, the journey is the goal.”

Like I mentioned before, if the goal was to obtain knowledge, then the experience of going to school would be very different than if the goal was to obtain the degree. And we, in our society, we’ve kind of being conditioned to have end goals that we aspire too. And I think a really common one, at least in our society, the idea of reward.

Maybe it’s reward in the after-life. The idea that if I do good now, I may be rewarded for it in the future. Now compare that to what I talked about with going to school to obtain knowledge vs going to school to obtain a degree. If you believe in a reward or punishment in the afterlife, if you believe in afterlife. Imagine, well what if, what if the purpose of being alive, my goal is to be kind for the sake of being kind, without any attachment for aspiring for reward or out of fear for punishment?

Imagine the difference in those 2 scenarios. Doing something just to do it vs doing something for whatever we think the goal is at the end of it all. It’s a very different thing. Just like going to school for knowledge vs going to school for a degree. Now I kind of, the reason I came up with this topic this week. It’s been about 15 days since the last podcast episode and in the middle of this … of these last 15 days I had to move my office and my warehouse to a new location.

I’ve had a lot going on that’s kept me busy and I’ve had 3 or 4 ideas for a podcast episode, but I just barely found myself for the first time since I started for the podcast trying to plan it. This is what I have to talk about. This is what I expect to happen when I talk about. This is what I hope people get out of it. And I realized, oh no, that’s not the mindful approach.

It took me several days to realize this, that I was on my own hamster wheel trying to, trying to find what the milestone was I was trying to get at. And I realized, there is no milestone. The whole reason I started this podcast is because I enjoy talking about these topics. It’s not because I’m trying to change people. I’m not trying to convert anyone to the Buddhist philosophical way of life.

There is no end goal. I am sharing this in the same way you would hear a bird that happens to be singing. There is no goal. The bird isn’t trying to entertain anyone. It just does what it does. If you happen to enjoy it, good. And that’s the approach I want to take with this podcast.

Rather than trying to plan it and have expectations of what I think will come of it, I want to share the wisdom that I’ve learned through studying Buddhism. Because I honestly enjoy talking about it. And if you happen to enjoy it and get something out of it, that’s great.

But I hope it never comes across that I’m trying to convince anyone of anything, because I’m not. Like the quote that I mentioned in every podcast. There’s no-“You don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be better whatever you already are, cause every body is already a something.”

So that’s just a quick side note. So throughout the week, I’ve been thinking I’m caught up in this myself trying to make something of this when the reality is I want to share what I enjoy talking about. And that’s Buddhist concepts. I’m fascinated by eastern philosophy and Buddhism specifically.

So I wanted to kind of share that with you. So taking this concept of understanding that the journey is the goal, imagine the idea of love. When you love someone, you love naturally. We don’t love because we’re compelled to love. If you love your parents, or your siblings or your children, you love them because you love them. And if you don’t love them because you’re supposed to love them. You don’t love them because you’re being commanded or compelled to love them. It just happens naturally.

So this is a perfect example of something that’s done just for the sake of it being done. And I’ve thought about this a lot. And I’ve wondered what would it be like to feel compelled to love someone. You’re commanded to love someone. Okay. I would never be able to get at an authentic or genuine love in that relationship because it would always feels like, well am I love him because I’m suppose to love or because I’m compelled to love, or because it just happens naturally. You would never know.

And that’s why love is one of those things that can not be compelled. In several Buddhist traditions and zen, and zen specially. Their stories of encountering someone and realizing, “Oh, they’re enlightened.”

“Well how did you know they were enlightened?” because whatever they were doing, they were just doing it. When they were sitting they were just sitting. When they were walking, they were walking. When they were doing the dishes, they were doing the dishes. And it can be baffling cause you’re like, “Well okay, well everyone does that.”

But the thing is we don’t. We don’t do things just to do them. I had this problem for a long time, I really despised washing dishes. And when I would do the dishes, the goal is to get done as quickly as possible because you don’t want to do the dishes. And I think this is applicable in many areas of life. We do things with the utilitarian mindset.

I’m doing the dishes so that they’re clean so I can eat more cereal, another bowl of cereal. Or I go to work because I’m trying to make more money, or whatever it is. What would it be like to do it just because that’s what you’re doing. So I practice this and I’ve developed a habit of doing the dishes just to do the dishes. And rather than rushing through it, to hurry and be done, not that I’m slowing down either, I’m just doing the dishes. I’m trying to focus on the simple act of doing the dishes.

And I practice this with people too. If you’re talking to someone, talk to someone. Don’t talk to someone and be thinking, “Oh, I just heard my phone vibrate. I must have a Facebook notification or a text or whatever it is.” Cause that’s really common I’m sure you’ve experienced this, especially in our day and age.

Trying to communicate with someone who isn’t just communicating. They’re multi-tasking. And it can be very frustrating. And yet our tendency is to do this with a lot of things. When we drive, we’re-there’s a utilitarian purpose. I’m in my car but really I’m trying to get home. What if I drove just to drive? I mean I have to drive to get home. There’s no way around that. But what if while I’m driving, I enjoyed driving just for the sake of driving? Sure there’s an end goal, but what if I could learn to enjoy the journey? And when the red light shows up, and I stop rather than thinking, “This is slowing me down. This is a bad thing.” Just pause and look around and think “What can I notice here that I’ve never noticed here before?”

It’s a really fun exercise to do and because I have a new path, I told you I have a new warehouse, my new path home. It’s been easy the last couple of weeks to focus on this. And at each red light, I’ll pause and look around and say, “What-what have I never noticed here?” And I’ll see this little store on that corner. And like, “Oh, I never saw that store.”

Or I’ll see. I’m looking for new things. New things that I may not have been aware of before. And I think it’s, it’s a way to practice pausing. It’s a way to try to practice getting away from the mindset of whatever the end-goal is I’m trying to reach. What if I try to enjoy just the process? It’s practicing the journey as the goal.

So I would invite you to practice that this week. Whatever it is that you’re doing. If you sitting, if you’re walking, if you’re talking, if you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, diving your car. Whatever it is, try to catch yourself and recognize the difference of that experience when you’re doing it for the sake of doing it vs you’re doing it to reach your goal.

Whatever your goal is, try to focus on that this week and see if you notice a difference. The crazy thing with the hamster wheel, I call this the hamster wheel of materialism. So we’re always after something. I’m working hard to get a raise, I’m trying to get a raise so that I can buy a boat. I’m trying to get the boat so I can-whatever, it’s a cycle and it goes on and on and on.

And if you can jump off of the wheel of materialism, typically the mistake is that we jump onto the wheel of spirituality thinking, “Okay, now that I’m not caught up in that materialism stuff, I’m going to be very spiritual.”

And now you’re on the hamster wheel of spirituality. When I can finally learn to meditate, then I’ll be happy. If I can finally, and this goes on and on and on, and now you’re on another hamster wheel. And I would say the hamster wheel of spirituality is more dangerous than the hamster wheel of materialism.

So don’t make that mistake. The spiritual journey like any other journey is also to be enjoyed with the journey itself as the goal. When you sit to mediate, if you practice mediation, do it without and end goal. Instead of sitting and thinking, my goal to meditation is so that I can finally be peaceful. What if the goal of meditation is to simply and observe? I’m sitting here and I’m observing my thoughts. There is no goal. That’s actually the objective of mindfulness meditation is to learn to observe. We’re really bad at observing.

We tend to want to be analyzing and making meaning of things. So we practice sitting and observing and there is no end goal. There’s no, if I do this right, this will happen. There’s none of that. What you’re doing is you’re sitting there and you’re watching. Just like you would sit on the porch of your house, at the front door and watch cars go by. There’s no goal. You don’t sit there and think, “I’m gonna, I’m gonna sit here and watch until this or that happens.” Because you’re never going to know what happens. You sit there and watch with non-judgment.

And if you ever try this with your thoughts, it’s an incredible experience. To sit and watch and to observe the thoughts in a non-judgemental, non-neutral way. And in this process, you’re going to get it. You’re going to get the greatest thing you’ll ever get is that there’s nothing to get. And that happens by observing. And when you actually get that, that’s there nothing to get, that’s awakening. That’s enlightenment, in my opinion. That’s the concept of letting go because you’re letting go.

What is it you are you letting go of? Of thinking that you, there was something to reach. There’s nothing to reach and if you think there is something to reach, you’re on the hamster wheel. And the moment you step off and understand there’s nothing to get, now you just start to enjoy the journey.

The journey becomes the goal. It’s the most beautiful experience because then every part of it is enjoyable because it’s part of the journey. There is no goal. And there’s a Tibetan saying. It says, “If we know how to be content, it’s like holding a treasure in the palm of our hands.” And this ultimately what I’m eluding to in this topic of understanding is that the journey is the goal. There’s a significant amount of contentment that can be experienced when we let go of whatever our goal, our destination is, the stops on the train on the journey of life.

I’m not saying don’t have goals, don’t have aspirations, don’t try to get a career, don’t want to get a raise, you don’t want a raise. I’m not saying that. I think it’s perfectly acceptable and naturally and normal to have goals. In fact, if you don’t have goals, it’s very difficult to progress in career or to progress you know with other things.

All I’m saying, there’s a quote that I think does a good job of explaining this. It says, “Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.” Taking that and applying it to this, I’m not saying detachment in the sense in the journey is the goal. I’m not saying detach from the aspirations of these milestones that are coming up. It’s that don’t let those own you. Don’t let those be-don’t be blinded from what’s happening in the present moment because you’re continually looking forward to what’s happening in a future moment. That’s what I’m trying to get, to get at in this topic.

As I mentioned before, there’s really no goal with it. It’s just a thought experiment. Give this a try this week and try to do things for the sake of doing them. Try to focus and understand that the journey is the goal, and see how that goes of you. I’d love to hear what you think about that and what that feels like to really practice that. And a good time to do that is when you’re driving. We’re always driving for a purpose. To get somewhere or to get away from somewhere.

Driving is a very utilitarian experience. But what if we learn to drive, while we’re driving, we learn to experience the journey? I mean that’s a literal journey. What if you could actually focus on the goal while you’re driving? And take in everything that’s happening around you and don’t feel rushed to wherever you’re trying to get.

Just enjoy the drive. So this week try to enjoy the drive. Let me know how that goes.

As a quick reminder, we have a study group on Facebook. If you go to Facebook, you can find a group called Secular Buddhism. There’s a Secular Buddhism Facebook page that has about 30,000 fans on there. That’s how you know that’s the page. And then there’s a group that has about 500 members and we do, we post topics and that’s a good place for you to come on and comment about what you’re listening or trying, experimenting with on the podcast.

So go on there and find the Secular Buddhism Facebook group if you want to be a part of that. And as a quick reminder, I am hosting Mindfulness Humanitarian Aid trip to Uganda, January 26th through February 4th next year. We have a few open spots for that still. You can get more information about that by visiting MindfulHumanitarian.org.

And then there are the one day developing mindfulness workshops and the purpose of these workshops is to give an introduction to Secular Buddhism and learn to develop mindfulness as a daily practice. And I’m doing one in Salt Lake City on August 20th, that’s coming up, one in Seattle on September 3rd, and one in London, in the UK on Sunday, September 18th. You can find information on all of this on secularbuddhism.com, if you go under events.

So that’s all I have for this week. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. I’ve received a lot of emails from people who listen to the podcast, thanking me for the topics that I talk about. And I do this because I enjoy it. And I’ve asked for support from anyone whose in a position to be able to make a donation or become a reoccurring donor to the podcast.

And that is what allows me to do this more. If I had the support to be able to do that, to do this full time, I would. I just don’t. And I believe that the key to making society or the world a better place, is just by making ourselves better people. I’m not out to try and change the world. I’m out to try and change myself, and I’m the only person who can change me. Nobody, nobody can change you. You’re the only one who can change you.

And that’s why I do this podcast. These are topics that I enjoy talking about, and I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools that will help us to be more mindful. Because mindful individuals typically, create mindful families, and mindful families make up for mindful societies. The irony is that by focusing on changing just me, I’m contributing to changing the world. But my goal isn’t to change the world because the journey is the goal.

And I just want to enjoy the journey, but your generous, generous donations allow me to continue to produce weekly content for this podcast along with the content for the workshops and retreats and seminars. And I do plan on eventually making this a course that’s available online.

So, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. You can go to secularbuddhism.com and that’s an easy way to contact me. Find me on Facebook. I’ve become Facebook friends with a lot of you who listen to the podcast.

And I really enjoy this, and I’m trying to figure out where all this goes and where we take this from here. So I support your feedback and your friendship, and thank you. Thank you very much and I look forward to recording another one next week. So until next time.

23 – The Illusion of Free Will


We want to win and we don’t want to lose. The problem is that there is no winning without losing. There is no good without bad, no right without wrong. This is the basic understanding of non-duality. We are free to be what we are free to be but that also means we are not free to be what we are not free to be. In this episode, I will discuss the illusion of free will and how the greatest sense of freedom you will ever discover is the freedom to become what you already are. You!

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 23. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about non-duality and the illusion of freewill. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for secular-minded people.

The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help or contribute, I would encourage you to make a one time or a monthly donation to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week, I wanted to talk a little bit about the topic of non-duality. I’ve addressed this in the past, but I wanted to get a little bit more clear about some of the implications of the understanding of non-duality when applied to normal day-to-day living.

We live in a society and in a time in which we have been so conditioned to see the world in the lens of duality. Duality is this versus that, right versus wrong, winning versus losing, good versus bad. These are all examples of of dualistic understanding. Our society is very dualistic in its way of looking at and interpreting the world. This is very evident even now.

In an election year, you can look at the way that the supporter of one candidate looks at the supporters of the other candidate and you’ll see dualistic thinking is very much us versus them. If I support so-and-so, I hate the opposition. Whoever is the opposite choice. Then maybe you hate both, but I want to talk about non-duality.

The understanding of non-duality is that rather than seeing the world through this lens of this and that, right and wrong, black and white, good or bad, we start to see that all of this is blended. There are shades, but there’s no inherent source of good or bad, or right or wrong, or even the concept of evil in the sense that there is an inherent source of it. It’s always based on perspective and based on space and time.

We say in terms of space, all things are interdependent in terms of time. All things are impermanent, so this understanding of interdependence and impermanence has a profound impact on how we understand the world as not being dual. It’s non-dualistic. That’s what I want to address.

One of the typical questions I get about this understanding of non-duality is what do you mean that all things are one, because the opposite of non-duality is oneness. This understanding of oneness. Buddhism I think does a really good job of promoting the understanding or the concept of oneness applied to day-to-day living.

Let’s look at a couple of things just to get an idea of this. We’ve been conditioned to think, for example, we chase after the idea of winning. Winning is something we want and losing is something we don’t want. We avoid losing and we want to be winning.

This can apply to games or to really anything. We have this conceptual understanding of what it means to be winning in life and it’s completely illusory. It’s just a conceptual understanding of life that somebody created and then we get trapped in it.

The problem isn’t necessarily that we want to win. The problem is that we want to win and never lose. We create the dichotomy between good and bad. Winning is good, losing is bad so we want more of one and less of the other and yet there cannot be winning without losing. By its very nature, winning has the opposition of winning is losing and you can’t have one without the other.

Because you can’t have one without the other, you can never just win and guarantee that you’ll never lose. If you’re going to play the game of wanting to win, you have to also play the game of understanding that at some point you’re going to lose, because, by the very nature of winning, there is losing. If you get rid of losing, then there’s no longer winning. That’s the dualistic understanding there. Where that gets problematic is wanting one and not wanting the other.

I think one of the most relevant examples of this dualistic way of living is found in the idea of wanting to live and not wanting to die. You can’t live without dying. Death and life are one and the same. They’re part of the same. Very much like winning and losing are part of the same. The dualistic tendency of how we view life is that we want life and we don’t want death.

As long as I don’t want death and I only want life, I can never actually have life because there cannot be life without death. That’s the nature of the cycle of life is the cycle of life and death. In Buddhism, it’s commonly referred to as birth and rebirth. I’m not talking about reincarnation. I’m not talking about the idea that you’re this and then you die and now you’re that. I’m talking about the idea that the nature of reality is that there is life and death and you don’t have one without the other.

If you understand the nature of change, you understand that the nature of destruction and creation is that they are one and the same. There cannot be creation of something new without the destruction of what once was. On a big scale, we see this. We see this with political entities, political kingdoms, countries. Things that exist and then they collapse and then new things form of them.

What we’re seeing is the nature of constant change or continual change. This is why you can take a look at history and what you’ll find is that there’s never ever been one single thing that becomes permanent and never changes. It’s just a matter of time whether that be the Roman Empire collapsing or the British Empire. Britain is still around but the British Empire as it was no longer is. That’s the very nature of change.

We can assume that the way things are now with time will change because that’s the only constant is that all things are continually changing. We become attached to the way things are and then that’s where problems arise. We don’t want things to ever change and yet the only thing that we can ever depend on is that things will change. The nature of change is the nature of reality.

I’ve talked about this previously with podcasts on the topic of impermanence. The nature of impermanence is that all things are changing. Because all things are changing, nothing is constant and that is the very underlying understanding of non-duality is that I can’t have this or that because the moment I have this, it’s become that. Things are continually changing. There is no permanent fixed thing.

Let’s look at this just applied to the concept of time. We say in terms of time that all things are impermanent and what that means is that things are constantly changing, so we only exist in the present moment. This is really powerful to think about because it will only ever be now. It will never be anything other than now, because the moment that we’re waiting for then to arrive, then arrives but it’s now. It becomes now. It’s always now.

We have the tendency to want to arrive at a future moment but the future moment never arrives. It will always just be the present moment. It’s in this present moment that we have anxiety of what’s to come or hope for what’s to come. Yet, once it arrives, it’s just manifested in the present moment. It’s only ever now.

If you think about the past, we have regrets about the past or we can have fond memories of the past or memories that we don’t like about the past, but we tend to be in the present thinking about the part or thinking about the future and it becomes very difficult to simply be with the present moment. To be aware of the present moment and yet the present moment is all we ever have.

The present moment consists of everything that has ever taken place in the past. Every thought, every word, every action that has ever taken place in the past has resulted in the present moment being exactly what it is. In this sense, the present is linked to the past and they are one and the same way that I am one with my parents for example. I exist in the present moment because of actions that were taken in the past by my parents. That’s what brings me into existence. Their actions created me.

here I am and I exist suddenly and I’m one with them in the sense that I do not exist if it were not for them. What’s interesting here is it doesn’t matter if you like your parents, if you don’t like your parents. None of that matters, but you do not exist without your parents. This is the understanding of interdependence. I simply do not exist without the causes and conditions that allow me to exist. That applies to me, but it also applies to the present moment.

The present moment can only be what it is in the present moment because of everything that has taken place in the past. It culminates into this singular moment that is called the present. It’s constantly changing. The moment I say this is the present moment and now I say this is the present moment, well, this one is different from that one because that was five seconds ago. It’s just constantly changing.

The moment you think you grasp it, it’s gone because it’s gone. Now it’s a new present moment. It’s this continual process of becoming. Therefore, it’s always now. That’s in terms of space or in terms of time. It’s always now. In terms of space, we say it’s always here. It’s always here. It’s always here and it’s always now because I can look at something there and say, “I want to go stand there.” The moment I stand there, there is no longer there. There is here. Wherever I am it’s always here and whenever I am it’s always now.

There’s this non-duality in the understanding of it’s always here and it’s always now. They can never be then and it can never be there because the moment I’m there, there is here. The moment it’s then, then is now. This is non-duality. At this point maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, this is getting a little crazy.” What does all this mean? What are the implications of this understanding of non-duality?

I think the main one is the understanding that free will, the way we think of free will I think is illusory. I want to elaborate on that a bit, because you’re probably thinking, “Well, of course I’m free. I have free will or free agency. I’m free to do whatever I want.” That may be true, but it’s not entirely true. I think it’s more appropriate to say you’re free to do anything that you’re free to do.

On the flip side of that, you’re not free to do anything that you’re not free to do. You might be thinking, “Well, what does that mean?” Think of it this way. All of the instances of the past, the causes and conditions that allowed the present moment to be what it is, what I’m ultimately free to be is to be in this present moment just the way that I am.

However, I’m not free to be anything that is not what it currently is. For example, I’m free to be me because my parents created me but I’m not free to be you, because my parents created me and I’m not you. There’s this sense of freedom to be what I am but I can’t just decide. I’m not free to be a bird. I’m not free to be anything other than what I am.

There’s a saying I really like that says, “The only limitation of the rose is that the rose is not a daisy, but the rose doesn’t care so it’s not a problem.” IF you think about what this simple phrase is actually teaching is that the Rose is completely free to be itself. It’s not free to be anything other than what it is. The rose can’t just decide I’m a daisy, but like I said, the rose doesn’t care so it’s not a problem.

For us, it’s the same. I am completely free to be what I am, to be who I am when I am and where I am, but I’m not free to be anything outside of that, because I can only be who I am. Where this I think gets really powerful is in the world of non-duality, we’re caught up in this thinking of, “Here’s who I am. Here’s who I should be or here’s how I ought to be.”

That’s dualistic thinking because who I am and who I think I should be are two different things. I’m completely free to be who I am and the only time that becomes a problem is if I think that there’s a way that I should be and now I’m living in the world of duality because there’s who I am and there’s who I think I should be. All of my problems reside because of this limited perspective I have that I cannot see who I am because I can only see who I think I should be, but I’m not that. I’m only who I am.

You may be thinking, “Well, wait a second. If I’m only free to be the things that I’m free to be and I’m not free to be the things that I’m not free to be, it doesn’t sound like I’m very free.” Yet it’s beautiful because you’re free to be the very thing that you are. You’re free to be you and what more could you be? What more would you want to be than what you are?

In this concept that’s talked about in Buddhism is becoming who you are. This process of discovery and discovering who you are. The big breakthrough in this discovery is that you discover you that are who you are and you couldn’t possibly be anything other than who you are. That’s the most beautiful thing. Very much like the rose discovering that the rose is free to be the rose because the rose is what it is. It doesn’t have to worry about trying to be the daisy. It doesn’t have to worry about trying to be any other flower. It’s the rose.

For us, it’s the same. We become free to be who we are. You have all the freedom in the world to be you because you is who you are and it’s always here and it’s always now and you’re always you. What more could we possibly want? I think it’s so empowering to make this discovery and to realize that you’re free to be you.

If you think about this, you are the most unique thing that there’s ever been. There’s never been another you and there will never be another you experiencing the present moment the way you’re experiencing it now, because you are the only you that’s here and now. You are the only you that can be you and you exist in the here that can only be here and in the now that can only be now and that makes you absolutely incredibly unique.

This reminds me of Alan Watts when he says, “When a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.” When you make this discovery that you can only be the you that you are and you are not bound by the definition of you that others have given you, you are at once universal and unique.

I don’t know if any of you have experienced this, but when you’re growing up … Let’s say it’s common for kids as they start interacting with other children and start getting the feel for who they are and how they are. Let’s say you’re out playing with your friend and you come home and you say something to your mom an expression that you picked up from your friend and your mom says, “Oh, that’s not you. That’s how so-and-so speaks, but that’s not how you speak.”

We create this idea of who you are by telling you, “Well, that’s not who you are.” At a very young age I think we get tricked into this thinking that, “Wait a second, if that’s not who I am, then who am I? Well, I am who everyone says that I am and what says that I am the way that I am?” Our families and our society and our religious backgrounds, all these things dictate this image in our head of who we think we are and how we think we should be.

Most often, that’s not who we are. We are who we are and then we’re caught up trying to be who we think we should be. That’s really the danger of dualistic thinking or existing in a dualistic world. WE experience a lot of suffering when we aren’t allowing ourselves to be who we are.

For most of us, the problem here is that we don’t even know who we are. We don’t even know what we are because we’ve only been conditioned to be how everyone else thinks that we should be whether that be society or your religion or your family. It doesn’t matter, but you’ve been conditioned to think that there’s a way that you’re supposed to be and that’s what you model your whole life aspiring to be what you think you should be. In the meantime, you’re blinded to who you actually are.

A lot of the Eastern traditions like Buddhism and like Hinduism, what they’re trying to do is get you to realize who you actually are. They do that by mostly getting you to understand that you are not who you think that you should be. They don’t tell you who you are because that’s what the world has been doing all along telling you, “This is who you are. This is what you should do. This is what you should think. This is what you should say. This is what you should not say.” On and on. In the middle of all that, we lose the essence of who we really are.

In these Eastern traditions like Buddhism, the answer to who we are is a non-dualistic approach to life is that you are who you are and there’s a sense of oneness with discovering that I just am what I am. I am who I am and that I exist. It’s always here and it’s always now and you’re it. All that you are is what you are.

There’s an expression. I’ve shared this before that I am the sum total of all the things that make me me. That’s who I am and I cannot be anything other than that. The sum total of all the things that make me me are many things. The thinking of my society, the thinking of the time in which we live, my family. From DNA to ideologies to you name, I’m all of the things that make me me and yet I’m none of those things alone. I can’t be any of those things alone. I’m the sum total of all of the things that make me me.

This is where the understanding of free will I think gets a little bit twisted. Again, like I mentioned before, I’m free to be everything that I’m free to be and I’m not free to be any other things that I’m not free to be. A really good example of this is just in the fact of how we communicate.

We learn to communicate at a very young age and we acquire language and words and then certain combinations of words give across certain things. If I’m thirsty I can tell you that I’m thirsty but I can’t say pizza, doll, mountain, tree and expected that you’re going to give me a glass of water. I’m not free to just express whatever I want. I’m free to operate within the realm of the unspoken rules that society has placed on me.

At least in terms of language, I’m free to communicate according to the rules that I cannot break. You’d think if you’re free to do or say anything at any time, I think that’s slightly an illusion, because I’m free to say whatever I want to say, but if I want you to understand what I’m saying, I’m not free to say it however I want to say it. It has to fall within the realm of the rules that are generally understood by all of us who communicate in the same way.

For any English speaker, I’m bound to those rules. It doesn’t matter what language it is. It can be a different language. It can even be cross languages from one language to another or sign language or doing gestures. We can communicate using signs and gestures to each other and yet those also fall under the same rules. If I want you to go grab that for me, I can point at it. I’m free to point at it to have you get me, but I’m not free to point at the sky and expect that you’ll understand that means go get that cup of water.

I hope that that makes sense because this can be a little crazy when you really start thinking about it, but that’s the sense of freedom that I’m talking about. I’m free to be everything that I’m free to be and that does imply that there are things I’m not free to be.

I think communication is a really good example of that and so as thought. I can think the way that I think because I’ve been taught how to think the way that I think, but I can’t just think in a way that I haven’t been taught to think because I don’t know how to think that way. I’m not even programmed. Thinking about programming, it’s like taking a computer and programming it to be a PC. It’s not free to just act as a Mac because it’s not programmed to be a Mac.

A Mac is free to be a Mac and a PC is free to be a PC and I know that you can run one software on the other. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the programming that goes into software whether it’s an operating system or even just software. Photoshop is completely free to be Photoshop and it’s free to operate all of the features and functions that Photoshop is capable of doing. The sense of free will for Photoshop is that Photoshop is free to edit an image. It’s free to erase the background or add a background. It’s free to do all those things.

What it’s not free to do is to be QuickBooks. Photoshop is not QuickBooks, so it’s not free to be QuickBooks and we’re the same way. We are human and we’re free to be everything that we’re free to be but we’re not free to be all of the things that we can’t be because we’re not those things. Does that make sense?

In that same way, I like to internalize that and imagine that I’m free to be everything that I’m free to be in the present moment because it’s always here and because it’s always now. I feel this sense of interdependence with the past like I mentioned before because everything that happened in the past is contained in this present moment. At the same time, it’s in the present moment that every possible scenario or future outcome of what the future will be is found contained right here in the present moment.

The here and now is every infinite combination of what the future will be and all of that is determined by the things that I think and say and do right here right now in the present moment. There’s a sense of power and responsibility with understanding this, but it comes first from accepting that it’s always here and it’s always now. If something is going to change in the future, it’s not going to change in the future, it’s going to change in the present.

It’s the steps and the actions that we take in the present that shape the future so the present and the future are also one. Then in the same way that the past and the present are also one. If the past and the present and the future are all one, what do we end up with? Well, that’s the understanding of non-duality. It’s not that there’s here and there and there’s now and then. All there is is now and all there is is here. It’s always here and it’s always now. This brings an incredible sense of power and responsibility to how I exist in the present moment.

I’ve mentioned this quote before about Pablo Picasso. The way the story goes is that this quote says, “My mother once told me if you decide to be a soldier, you will become a general. If you decide to become a monk, you will become the Pope. I chose to become a painter and I became Picasso.” This is a quote by Pablo Picasso.

What I love about this quote if you look deeply into the significance or the meaning of what he’s saying is that of all the things he could be, he chose to be him. He discovered who he was. He did what he felt was his choice to be was to be a painter and in that process became who he was, Picasso. Of course he was Picasso. How could he be anything other than Picasso? Picasso is who he was.

That understanding applied to us is that in our journey, in our search, in our attempts to get there which we’ll never get there because it’s always here or in our attempts to reach then, whatever future moment then is, we’ll never get there because it’s always now. There’s a process of discovery that takes place in which we realize that we discover ourselves.

We discover that we are, I am who I am. The same way that Picasso became Picasso, I can become Noah because that’s who I am. That’s the only person I can be and I have a huge sense of freedom in what that means because I can be so many different things, but they only happen here and they only happen now.

I like to think of actors when I think of this. You see, what’s cool with an actor is a really good actor takes on a role and they’re so convincing in portraying that role that we believe that that’s what they are or who they are. It’s not that they’re tricking us, it’s that they literally become that. That is who they are.

If it’s in a movie when you’re watching it for however long they’re playing that role, they’re not pretending to be that, they are that. They are the role that they take on. Then when a new role comes along, they take that role on. They’re really good at taking on different roles.

The only difference between actors and the rest of us is that the rest of us don’t realize that we’re also actors. We actually believe that what we are is fixed and permanent. They’re a step ahead of us because they figured out there is no permanent them. They can be the them who they are when they’re under this role and then they become the person that they are whether under this role, because they’re all just roles. There is no permanent version of you.

For us, the mistake we make is we go through life thinking that we’re this fixed permanent version of ourselves that can’t change. Yet, nothing can be further from the truth because the only thing we can rely on is that there is change. If you look at your own life and compare who you are now to who you were five years ago versus who you were 10 years ago versus who you were 20 years ago and on, on and on, what you’ll find is that you’re not the same you that you were when you were young. The toddler version of you is not the same you that is the adult version of you because you change. That’s the nature of change.

Yet, we have this tendency to look back at the old version of me and to be angry at something that I did in the past and yet that’s not me. That was the old me that did that. I think back to certain things I did in high school for example and things that maybe now I would definitely never do. Cheating on a test, for example, was something I had no problem doing in high school and I can’t look back at that and think, “I can’t believe I did that,” because I’m projecting that from the perspective of who I am now.

That would be accurate to say who I am now would never do that back then because I view the world differently, but that’s different than to be angry at myself for what I did in the past, because that’s not me. I should be mad at an entirely different person, because I was an entirely different person back then.

In the world of duality, we forget that. In the world of duality, there’s a way that things are and there’s a way that things were and there’s a way that things will be and these are all separate things. Then there’s who I am now and who I was then and we keep …

The misunderstanding with all of this is that we view this in the sense of permanence. There’s who I am and that never changes and then I apply this to all these scenarios that do change and now I’m living in a dualistic world where there’s me as I am now doing what me back then did. It’s just not the same. If you understand the nature of impermanence and interdependence, what you understand is this constant process of becoming. There’s this fluid movement of change and evolution.

The evolving nature of life is that it’s always here and it’s always now. If I understand, I can detach … I don’t have a strong sense of attachment to the past or to the future or clinging. I guess clinging is a better word there thinking this is the outcome I have to arrive at and if I don’t, I failed. We do this all the time. We’re always chasing after whatever it is. Whether it be money or fame or power or just this is the future that I want.

Then I’m trapped by that mental image, that mental construct of how I think it should be in the future. If I don’t get it, if that never arrives, I think I failed. If it has arrived, I don’t even realize it because the nature of change is that I’ve already got a new future that I’m going after. You never actually get there.

The dualistic thinking has you trapped. The moment you can let go of that dualistic thinking, you can feel a sense of letting go. There’s a sense of becoming much more soft with the way we view ourselves in the present, in relationship to the past and in relationship to the future because we understand it’s a fluid thing. It’s not just this linear thing that has milestones. If I get this, good. If I don’t get that, bad. Good, bad, right, wrong, that’s all dualistic thinking.

How do we apply this just our day-to-day living? Because that’s something I want to start addressing in these podcasts is we can get into these concepts and they might make sense, they might not make sense but still what does that mean for day-to-day living?

Non-dualistic thinking, what that really means is that in the present moment, I’m always free to be here and now. I’m free to exist in the present moment with whatever set of circumstances that I have. It’s like playing a game of cards. When you’re playing a game of cards in terms of free will, you’re free to play whatever hand you’ve got, but you’re not free to play the hand that you don’t have.

In that present moment, I’m free to be exactly where I am doing anything that I can within the limitations of what I have in the present moment. As I do that, it’s shaping what the future will look like. This isn’t so that I can manipulate the future in the sense that here’s how the future should be, so I’m going to get to that, but I try to work the very best that I can with the cards that I have.

In making this in a way that is more applicable to day-to-day living is there can be a little bit of letting go or a sense of detachment from the outcomes that we expect. What that means is I can be okay with how life is because I understand that how life is is different than how I think life should be. That’s dualistic. There’s how life is and there’s how I think life should be.

I don’t want to get caught in the scenario of how I think it should be because they can only ever be what it is because it’s always here and because it’s always now. Then we work with the present moment in the best way that we can enjoying at the best way that we can because we cannot have anything other than here and now.

Dualistic thinking would be … We’ve all pictured this. The idea of a donkey that has a stick tied to its neck with a carrot dangling at the end. There goes the donkey chasing the carrot and it goes on and on and on and we know that it can never catch the carrot. It can’t. It’s impossible. It can chase it all it wants but it will never actually catch the carrot.

Yet, that’s exactly how we go through life constantly chasing after something. Sure, go ahead, you can chase after whatever you want and chase and chase and chase as long as you recognize you’re never going to get it, then you’re going to experience a lot of suffering because you’re chasing something that cannot be caught and you’re thinking, “Why am I not catching it? What must be wrong with me?”

When you understand that there is nothing to catch, you can stop chasing and then you can just enjoy what is. Maybe you stop chasing the carrot and look down and realize you’ve been running in a field of grass. “Well, I’ll eat some of this grass.” That’s the sense of detachment and this comes from the understanding of non-duality.

What I would invite you to do this week is to try to look at what carrots do I have dangling in front of me that I’m always chasing. What is the carrot that I spend time chasing. For some, this is, I’ve mentioned, it could be happiness. It could be the chasing after fame or money or power. Those, I think, most of us recognize, “Oh, I shouldn’t chase after.” Even though we probably all tend to chase after those to some degree or another.

Happiness is a big one. I mentioned this in a previous podcast that the trap of happiness is that we chase after it as if it’s this thing that you can catch. Once you have it, you think, “Good, I got it,” and It will never go away. The reality is that you can’t catch it. It’s just there and then it’s not there in the same way that hunger is there and then hunger is not there.

When the causes and conditions are right to be hungry, you’ll be hungry. When those causes and conditions are satisfied, hunger is gone and then it comes back and it’s the cycle. It goes on and on and on. Happiness is the same way. You don’t catch it and then never let go because you think you’ve got it and then it’s gone and then it’s there again and then it’s gone again.

Same with all of the emotions. Happiness, sadness, anger, all of these emotions, they arise, they linger and then they go away because they’re impermanent. Look at your own life and think what are the carrots that are dangling there that I’m chasing after and what would life look like if I stop chasing after the carrot.

I’m not saying, “Okay, never have goals anymore. Don’t aspire to anything.” That’s not what I’m saying. I think it’s healthy to have goals and to have hopes and dreams and aspirations. As an entrepreneur, that’s a vital part of how I function and perpetuate the growth of my business. We have to have goals but the difference is I don’t rely on any of these things thinking once I get them, that’s it. I finally did it. I’ve achieved the goal because there is no goal. It’s constantly changing. The moment I reach one milestone, I just recognize, “Okay that means now I’ve got another one.” That process goes on and on.

It’s different to chase the carrot thinking you’re going to actually catch it versus recognizing, “Oh, I can follow the carrot as long as I know I’ll never actually get it,” because there’s always another carrot. Think about that in your day-to-day living this week. That’s the challenge that I’m going to give you. I’m doing this myself is what carrots am I chasing after. What carrots are you chasing after in a dualistic way.

If I view the world from this understanding of non-duality that it’s always here and it’s always now, what could I see now that I couldn’t see before because I was busy looking off at the carrot instead of looking down and realizing it’s here and it’s now, this is it. This is all it will ever be is here and now. What will that do to my day-to-day living and to the experience I have with how I interact with life the way it’s unfolding right here and right now?

That’s my invitation to you. If you guys have any questions or want further clarification on the concept of non-duality or this understanding of free will, please reach out to me. I try to respond to all emails. We have a Facebook discussion group. If you search for Secular Buddhism, you’ll find there’s a Facebook group called Secular Buddhism.

There’s also the Facebook page called Secular Buddhism and that’s just a general page where I post stuff, but the group is meant to be more interactive, so find that and joint that if that’s something that you’re interested in. Then of course by way of news or announcements, remember next year in January, I am hosting a mindfulness humanitarian retreat to Uganda. This is something I’m doing with a separate group but I’ve been invited to go and teach a mindfulness component to this trip. That’s going to be January 26 through February 4th. If you’ve ever been interested in going to Africa to do humanitarian work, I highly suggest you check this out. It’s going to be a cool trip. Go to mindfulhumanitarian.org.

Then if you’re interested in doing any mindfulness retreats, I’m doing some mindfulness workshops. An upcoming one is Salt Lake City on August 20th. September 3rd, we’ll be doing one in the Seattle area. September 18th is a Sunday. There will be a workshop in London and the UK. If any of those are close to you, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com and then you can look under workshops and see the event pages for these and sign up to join us.

As always, thank you very much for listening. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making the world or society a better place, it starts by making ourselves better people. That’s honestly why I do this podcast. I don’t feel that there’s something that needs to be taught that I am a teacher or a guru who is trying to impose wisdom on you as the listener. I really don’t feel that.

I feel like the topics that I discuss are things that I enjoy from my own studying of Buddhism. I like to present them in the same way that a bird would just start to sing because it’s what a bird does. A bird doesn’t sing with the goal of getting you to listen to it. It just sings because that’s what it enjoys doing. I like sharing what I’m sharing on the topic of mindfulness and Buddhism because it’s what I enjoy.

I hope that it’s something that if you enjoy listening to that it’s beneficial to you, but it’s not shared with the goal of getting you to convert to something or to convert away from something. If anything, it’s just with the goal of maybe the topics or the things that are shared here could help you have a more peaceful life like it’s done for me. That’s really the only goal. I feel like more mindful individuals will make more mindful families and more mindful society, so that’s really my only goal with this. I have no ulterior motive with what I’m doing with sharing this information in this podcast.

I mentioned before if you’re in a position to be able to donate to the podcast, your generous donations are going to allow me to continue producing weekly content for this podcast as well as the content I’m trying to produce for workshops, retreats, and seminars. Along with eventually an online program that will teach mindfulness for anyone interested.

If you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com and consider making a one-time donation or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast. Thanks again for all of your continued support and for taking the time to listen to this. I really enjoyed doing this podcasts and I hope you enjoy the content that I’m sharing and listening to this. Thanks again and until next time.

22 – Dealing with Difficult Emotions

In life, difficulties arise. This is a universal aspect of the human experience. Knowing this, how do we deal with difficult emotions? We don’t like feeling angry, sad, or afraid, but these are normal and natural emotions just like happiness or joy. Emotions, like everything else, are impermanent and interdependent. In this episode, I will discuss the topic of dealing with difficult emotions.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 22. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about understanding difficult emotions.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings. Presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode.

If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. And if you’re in a position to be able to help. I would encourage you to make a one time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast, by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. A few weeks ago, I was attending a workshop in Phoenix, Arizona. And I was one of the presenters. And we were discussing several different topics. Including the topic of going through transitions or changes in life. And one of the individuals, a gentleman who was there in the audience, throughout the presentation, was visibly aggravated. Or angry by the circumstances he was going through in his life. And he was attending this workshop looking for some solace. Or some peace with reconciling with the changes and the transition he was going through in his life.

But what I found interesting, is that at one point in the conversation, towards the end, he brought up the idea that he was angry. And he said something to the effect of, “Look, I know that the point is that I need to get over being angry. And that I need to be more mindful and have more peace in my life.” That’s kind of what secular Buddhism promotes. Is this idea of living a more peaceful or compassionate life. And he said, “But I’m just angry. And I’m upset. And I want to be angry. And I don’t want to not be angry right now.”

And I thought it was an interesting segway in the discussion. Because one of the things that I had been talking about in my presentation was the nature of learning to accept things. And I felt like he was misunderstanding the whole premise of what Buddhism teaches. Which isn’t that you need to be peaceful and avoid being angry. It’s that you need to be with what is. And it was a neat opportunity to kind of pause. And say, “Well wait a second. We’re not talking about getting rid of your anger.” I said, “The problem isn’t that you’re angry. The problem is that you think you’re not supposed to be angry. So you’re angry about being angry.”

And it was interesting to see, just giving the freedom to allow this person to be exactly as he was. If you’re experiencing anger, just experience anger. Be with the anger. We’re not trying to eliminate it. We’re trying to be with it. And after explaining this concept, I noticed in him, almost instant reduction in the anger. Just because now, he was free to be angry. That alone was enough to start to minimize the anger he was experiencing. And this is kind of what I wanted to talk about in this podcast episode.

Is how do we deal with difficult emotions? ‘Cause we all go through difficult emotions. And we add to the complexity of the emotion when we try to get rid of the emotion. And this is applicable with any emotion. The standard emotions we go through are emotions like: anger, disgust, happiness, sadness. These are all emotions. And there’s a wonderful film that came out last year called, ‘Inside Out’. It’s an animated cartoon. But it does a wonderful job of presenting how emotions are working in the mind.

And the emotions that we go through are all natural. Happiness is a natural emotion when the causes and conditions are right, happiness is there. Happiness or joy, it’s there. And when the conditions are right for anger to appear, anger is there. They’re just natural emotions. And one of the mistakes that we make, I think, is that we have the tendency to think there are certain emotions we need to avoid or eliminate. And there are certain emotions that are more enjoyable, like happiness or joy. That we want to experience more of, so we become trapped.

This is called, “the happiness trap”. And we become trapped by the idea that there are certain things that we can do that will guarantee that we’re always happy. And there are certain things that we can avoid. That will guarantee we’ll never have to experience anger or sadness. And it’s just not true. The reality is, these are emotions that we experience. They’re completely natural. And they appear and then they disappear like all impermanent things. It’s a natural state of being. And when the causes and conditions are right, they appear. And when the causes and conditions are not right, they are not there.

And we’re always experiencing one or another of these emotions or multiples of these emotions. So think about times that you have experienced happiness. If you were able to pause, you would be able to look at what are the causes or conditions that are allowing this happiness to exist. And it can be several factors. These are really complex emotions. It’s hard to just pin it on one thing. Although we can make the mistake of pinning it on one thing, thinking, “That is the reason I’m happy.”

And you’ll notice this just in the overall happiness trap. We’re always chasing after things like: money or power or fame. Things that we think are the source of happiness. When in reality, they’re not. But it’s the same with difficult emotions, like anger. Think about the last time that you were angry. Were you able to pause and really pinpoint exactly what it was that was causing your anger? Because I think we make the mistake of, usually, pinning it on one thing.

You know, Viktor Frankl talks about stimulus and reaction. And when there’s the stimulus, that leads to the reaction. Well, when we think about it this way, I think we make the mistake of thinking … Stimulus, for example, somebody cuts me off on the road. Reaction, now I’m angry. And it seems that simple. Somebody cut me off and now I’m angry. But the reality is, it’s never that simple. If you could pause in that very moment of being cut off, and really look at it. What is it that you’re really mad at?

And if you were to dig deep there, you’ll find, for most of us, it gets really complex, really quick. And it has to do with, “Ultimately I’m mad ’cause I feel like someone’s taking advantage of me.” Or somebody is overstepping their bounds and imposing what they want on everyone else. Or it could be that you just think this person is a jerk. And jerks shouldn’t be able to get away with doing stuff. You know, it becomes, the anger is attached to something, generally, one step removed from whatever the actual action was.

The action was just that you got cut off. And because there’s a story attached to it, then the emotion can arise. And there can be anger. You know, it would be funny if you’re cut off by a person in a car. That causes you to experience something very different than if a tree were to fall in the road. And you had to swerve to not hit it. It could be the exact same time delay. Or the exact amount of swerving on both of those instances.

And yet one of them, doesn’t leave you angry. And the other scenario does. Because there’s so much more attached to the scenario of the person driving. Than there is just the tree falling. But if you think about just the reality of what happened. The reality is really no different. And I think that’s kind of interesting. Just to be able to observe that. And to notice that.

So where I’m trying to go with this topic, in dealing with difficult emotions, this is a topic that I was interested in this week. Because I’m experiencing and going through my own difficult emotions this week. On Thursday of this week, I went camping with my family. And where we live, if you just go up into the mountains, about thirty minutes, you’re quite removed from civilization. And there’s no cell phone service or signal. And it becomes very remote very quickly up there.

So we were up there on Thursday. We decided to drive up and go camping. We packed all the things up into my truck. And loaded the three kids and my wife and I. And we headed up the mountain. And we found a nice little camping spot, that was next to the river. And I really enjoy the sound of the river. I’ve always, since I started studying Buddhism, I’ve really come to appreciate rivers. And the sound of the river. And how the river is symbolic to life. It’s just constantly flowing.

And so I’m sitting at the river. And just starting to contemplate the sound of the river. And thinking, “Is there a river? There is no river. There’s just the continual flowing of water.” And I’m starting to think really deep and just enjoying the moment. And meanwhile, my kids are running around and playing and laughing. And just enjoying the whole moment up there.

And I thought, “How interesting to be up here, completely disconnected from my normal world. My hyper-connected world, to the internet and Facebook and so many things. And I thought, “It’s interesting that whatever is happening in the world, I’m completely oblivious to it. I’m only here, enjoying this specific moment. Enjoying the sound of the river. Enjoying the sound of my kids laughing and playing.”

And I held that thought in my mind, that whatever is happening out there, I just don’t know. And it’s not that I don’t care. I just don’t know. I have no way of knowing. And that was Thursday night. So Friday morning I wake up. And I had to go down and pick up my camera. ‘Cause I was filming a project up in the mountains. That’s why we went camping in the first place. And I went down to get my camera. And as soon as I was back down in the valley, and I had cellphone service, my phone was able to connect. And all of the sudden I get the news flash of what had happened Thursday night. With the police shootings in Dallas.

And it was incredible to come back from a disconnected world. The very next morning, into a world where suddenly I was flooded with emotion again. And dealing with difficult emotions. Because I was upset. I’m from Dallas. I have a twin brother who’s a police officer. And it hits close to home when you hear a story like that. So I was sad, mostly. Thinking, “That’s so unfortunate, the things that are happening in the world.” And how only if a matter of hours prior to all this, I was completely oblivious. I had no idea what was going on.

And then I started to think, “What about all the things that I’m still oblivious too?” There may have been other instances similar to this. Where there were injustices or murders or any form of injustice taking place in the world. And I’m oblivious to them. You know, whatever’s happening in a certain town in India. Or what happened on the road in this town in China. And whatever it is that happened there, I’m oblivious to it. And I have no idea what’s happening. So I don’t feel any difficult emotions around it. Yet the things that I am aware of, I feel emotions.

And to add to the complexity in my story, I had checked my email Friday morning. And I had a pretty large and significant business deal in the works, to sell off my company. And I had the email that the whole deal has just collapsed and fallen through. And after months and months of negotiations, my partners, who were going to buy my part of the company, have backed out of the whole deal.

And beyond that, their not interested in continuing with the original financing agreement for the structure of the company. And it’s just, one email, within moments, puts me in a very critical financial position with the survival of my own company. And it was very stressful to suddenly be experiencing the difficult emotions of wondering whether or not my company is going to survive.

And in the middle of all this, I had picked up the camera. And back up at the campsite. And as soon as I got out of my truck, and I have all these thoughts about all the things that I had just found out that morning. And then there’s the sound of the river. And it’s just there flowing. And once again, I’m disconnected from everything. But this time I know what’s happened. And I’m dealing with the difficult emotions.

And from my studies and my understanding of the nature of how emotions are impermanent, it was fascinating to up there. And to think, I’m observing myself going through the emotion of feeling stressed. Or feeling anxiety. Now, suddenly I’m thinking, “I don’t know if my company is going to survive. I don’t know if I’m going to have a job in the next few weeks. I don’t know …” All these unknowns. And all this uncertainty coupled with this horrible news of the tragedy, that was already building on the back of the news of the prior tragedies the week before.

And suddenly you’re just immersed in emotion. And I was thinking, “What is the training of how we deal with difficult emotions?” Well the first, is understanding that ‘I am not my emotions’. And this is the concept that I like to describe as ‘the thinking mind versus the observing mind’. Because it’s one thing to think, “I am angry.” And another thing to observe, “I am experiencing anger.” And in the acceptance and commitment therapy this concept is called diffusion.

So the idea is this. And I’ve told this story before. But there’s this story of a man who’s standing in a field. And he sees another man on a horse, galloping at full speed toward him. And as he gets closer, he yells out. And says, “Hey, where are you going?” And the guy on the horse just says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse,” as the horse sprints by and keeps on going. And I love this visual. Because I can imagine what that would be like. To be on the horse and have no control of what the horse is doing. You’re just, it’s running and you’re on it. And you don’t know where it’s going.

And yet, this is exactly how many of us spend significant portions of our life, on the emotional horse. The horse of emotions, that just takes us. And no matter how analytical or capable we think we are. When we’re on that horse. And that horse is galloping. There’s not much we can do. And that’s the difference of being.

The thinking mind is one with the horse and it’s just going. And then the observing mind can recognize, “Oh, I’m separate from this horse. This horse, I mean, I’m on the horse. So I can’t separate from it. But we’re not the same thing. The emotions or the horse, is not the same thing as me, the rider.”And you create this gap. So ‘the thinking mind versus the observing mind’.

My twin bother, who I was talking about earlier, one day mentioned, we had been talking about this idea. And he mentioned how he was in traffic and somebody cut him off. And he noticed he was experiencing anger. And for that moment, he paused and he said, “When I was able to think about the observing part of me, observing the fact that I’m angry. I had to ask, is the part of me that can observe that I’m angry, is that part of me also angry?” And he said, “It wasn’t. Because that part of me is neutral.” That’s like the rider on the horse looking at the horse saying, “Wow, this horse is going crazy.” And then suddenly realizing, “Oh, and I’m not the horse. That’s the horse that’s angry.”

That’s the difference between the thinking mind and the observing mind. And the problem with emotions like anger isn’t the emotion. It’s never the emotion. Because, like I’ve mentioned before, the emotion is completely natural. So being angry isn’t the problem. I like a quote from Captain Jack Sparrow. He says, “The problem isn’t the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” And this is exactly what I’m referring to, in how we deal with our difficult emotions.

The problem isn’t the emotion. The problem is how we deal with the emotion. So imagine this concept of diffusion from acceptance and commitment therapy. Is really what we call non-attachment in Buddhism. And the idea is this. When you take two things and fuse them together. Imagine something that’s been fused together. Usually through a tremendous amount of heat or something can take two objects and fuse it. And once those objects are fused, they seem like they’re one. And that’s what happens with ourselves. The sense of self that I have in relation to the things that make me who I am, including my emotions. I fuse with my emotions and then I think I am my emotion.

And what’s interesting with this, in English, for example, we say, “I am angry.” And that’s no different than saying, “I am Noah.” You know, my name. Or, “I am …” whatever I am. In the language itself, it’s already fused. In other languages, like Spanish, you can’t say, “I am angry.” Because that wouldn’t make sense. You know, we have, in Spanish, we have two verbs. The verb ‘to be’ and the verb that is ‘how I am’. So ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ are two different verbs. And when you’re talking about something like your emotions, you use the verb that describes the state in which you are. Not who you are or what you are.

So in English, it doesn’t make sense. Because we only have one way to say that. And that’s, “I am angry.” But if you were speaking in Spanish, and I don’t know if this is applicable in other languages. But in at least Spanish and perhaps the other romantic languages, you would have to say, I guess the close translation would be something like, “Anger is how I am.” Or “Anger is what I’m experiencing.”

And that’s the idea of diffusion. It’s understanding, “There’s anger. And that’s what I’m experiencing. But it’s not me. I’m not angry. Because it’s not something I can be. But it is something I can experience.” And just understanding that difference in the language, may be enough. So that when I’m experiencing the emotion, I can pause. And understand, I am experiencing an emotion. Instead of getting fused with the emotion and saying, “I am this emotion.” You know, happiness is what I am. Rather than it is what I am experiencing.

Because understanding that it’s not what you are, is non-attachment. You’re not attaching to the emotion you’re experiencing. You’re understanding that it’s just a separate thing. And furthermore, if you understand interdependence, then you really understand, “I’m experiencing this. And there are reasons why. There are causes and conditions. And as long as those causes and conditions remain, I will experience this emotion. But the moment those causes and conditions change, then I no longer experience that emotion.”

And that allows you to diffuse from the emotion. Because now you’re not so attached to it. Because you understand that the emotion is not you. You never were the emotion. The emotion was never you. It’s something that you experience. Very much in the same way as saying, “I’m hungry.” You know, you experience hunger ’cause the causes and conditions arise that allow you to experience hunger. And as soon as you satisfy the causes and conditions change, you’re no longer experiencing hunger.

And emotions are no different. They’re impermanent. And they’re interdependent. They’re interdependent with the causes and conditions that allow those emotions to exist. So when we’re dealing with difficult emotions, it’s important to understand, anger for example. You’re not trying to get rid of anger. We can’t get rid of anger. And that’s okay. In fact, I think it’s really powerful to understand, you can’t get rid of your emotions. Your emotions are impermanent.

And the point isn’t to get rid of them. It’s to observe them. And maybe pause and say, “Hm, why am I experiencing this emotion?” Because if you can pinpoint the causes and conditions of the emotion, then you can work around solving the causes and conditions. Or changing them so that you no longer experience it.

But I think our tendency is to get stuck on that first level. Where there’s the whatever happens. And there’s the emotion that corresponds to it. And I get stuck at that level. And now I’m just angry. And then I’m angry ’cause I don’t want to be angry. So I’m angry that I’m angry. And it becomes this vicious cycle. And we become fused with the emotion. We become one with the emotion.

And this idea of non-attachment, is that we’re not attaching ourselves to our emotions. We’re understanding that this is, we’re observing the emotion and thinking, “Huh, okay, I’m experiencing anger. Why am I experiencing anger?” And then you can just be with it. Think about that for a minute.

And just ask yourself, “What would it be like, if I could just be with my emotions? And when I am experiencing an emotion, especially a difficult emotion, what if I could just accept it and be with it? And say okay, I’m experiencing anger or I’m experiencing sadness.” And then be with it.

Instead of thinking, “Uh oh, I’m experiencing sadness. I need to get rid of this. I need to be happy again.” That’s not the point. Because that’s a way of fusing with it. Thinking that there’s how you are and then there’s how you’re supposed to be. That’s dualistic thinking. Because there is no, how you’re supposed to be. There’s just how you are. So when you experience how you are, during a difficult emotion, you can just be with it. And say, “This is what I’m experiencing right now.” And be with it.

And what’s really crazy, is you can have compassion for the emotions that you’re experiencing, as you’re experiencing them. When I was at the campsite and I was starting to feel anxious. I was starting to get caught up in the difficult emotion of anger and sadness. At what I was perceiving as the impending doom of my company. And I was able to pause and suddenly there was room for compassion in that experience. Thinking, “Wow, I’m observing that I’m starting to get really stressed. And I have compassion for the emotion that I’m feeling. I have compassion that I’m feeling so stressed and anxious now.”

And because I allowed there to be room there, I was able to diffuse quickly from the emotion. Never with the intent of, “I don’t want to feel this. I need to get rid of it.” That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, I allowed it to be what it was. And in that space of mindfulness, it took me back to a memory of my own parents.

And when we moved to Mexico, when I was a teenager, my dad was going through a very difficult financial crisis with his company. And that’s part of the reason why we ended up moving out of the country. And suddenly I was able to relate to what he must have been experiencing during those stressful periods of his life. That up until this moment, quite honestly, I’d never thought about.

I never thought about, “What kind of stress was dad going through when we moved? Why did we move?” And suddenly I was able to think for a minute, “I’m feeling, and to some degree what my dad was probably feeling during a stressful period of his life.” And it made me feel more closely bonded to him. Just through a moment of mindfulness.

And I felt just gratitude and appreciation for growing up and never knowing really, exactly what he was going through. Because it wasn’t communicated to me. That stress wasn’t necessarily carried on to us. And it did manifest in certain things at times. That looking back I can say, “Oh, okay, no wonder he lost his temper that day when this or that happened.” I can look back and see all that now. But I was oblivious to it at the time.

But this moment of mindfulness up at the campsite with dealing with my own difficult emotions and stress, was a very powerful experience. There’s a form of meditation that you can do in dealing with difficult emotions. And I want to talk about that a little bit.

So the meditation practice is a way to have a little bit of insight into your emotion and to your difficult emotion. Whether it be anger or sadness or any difficult emotion you’re experiencing. The first thing you can do is, try to bring your mind to understanding the specific event as it’s unfolding. So look at what it is that you find that’s irritating you. Or what is it that’s unpleasant about the experience that you’re having.

In my case, I was thinking about the email I got. And how it was making me feel now, to understand that there was a very real possibility that my company might not survive this. And as you think about it, just think about how you feel about the emotion that you’re experiencing. Typically this would be things like: this isn’t fair, why am I experiencing this? Or something along those lines. And then be with it.

And instead of getting caught up in the story that we create in our minds, about what’s going to happen now. Just hold the image in your mind that conveys the nature of what you’re experiencing. So if it’s anger, just picture anger. Picture an angry troll or something that you would say this is the picture of anger. Try to picture that in your mind. Or of sadness. And just hold it there for a moment in your mind.

And try to notice how you’re feeling while you’re thinking about that emotion. So notice, are your arms tense? Are your legs tense? My jaw usually gets tensed up and my cheeks start to hurt. Pay attention to your various muscles. And try to stay completely relaxed while you think about the difficult emotion. And once you become aware of how you’re feeling, physically, while you’re being with this. Then try to feel what’s going on in your mind, in terms of the thoughts that are coming and entering your mind.

And as thoughts enter your mind, create space for them. Don’t try to resist anything. Don’t try to fight anything. Allow whatever you’re experiencing or feeling to just be there. To be what it is. Remember, resisting only aggravates the problem. Because if I’m angry and I don’t want to be angry, now I’ve added to the complexity of anger. Because now I’m angry about being angry. So if you’re angry, just be angry. If you’re sad, just be sad. Just be with it. And allow any thoughts associated to that, to just linger in your mind. Without trying to resist them.

Just try to switch from the thinking mind to the observing mind. So imagine, you’re the horse on the, you’re the rider on the horse that’s running at a full gallop. Because you’re experiencing the emotion. And now take a minute and try to switch. To where you’re not the horse, you’re the rider. You’re just the rider, observing that you’re on the horse. That’s kind of the mental exercise you’re going to do. As you just sit there with the difficult emotions that you’re experiencing.

And then anytime your mind starts to jump into the story behind the emotion. You know, “This happened because so and so is a whatever.” As soon as you start going there, with whatever the story is, pause for a minute. And just think back to “How am I feeling in my body at this very moment?”

And try to re-scan and analyze how from top to bottom or bottom to top. How are your legs? Are they relaxed? How are my arms? Am I feeling tension in my chest? Does it seem like my heartbeat is elevated? Pay attention to the sensations that you’re experiencing, physically. While you’re allowing the thoughts to just race. Because thoughts come and go. They’re not there, then they’re there. They linger and then they’re gone. They’re completely impermanent. Very much like the clouds in the sky.

So allow the thoughts to just come and go. Don’t resist them. And pay close attention to how you’re feeling in your body. And you can talk to yourself in this process. And say, “Okay, it’s okay to experience what I am experiencing. It’s okay to feel what I’m feeling.” You can think, “Well I’m really angry. And this is stupid that I’m even doing this meditation thing.” And it’s okay.

It’s okay to think, “This is dumb. And I should be doing something else.” Just be with it. Just be with it and experience. Let it be what it is. Connect with your anger the way you would talk to a little kid whose angry. And just say, “Be with your anger. Allow it to be what it is.” And that calming awareness of how you’re feeling will allow the emotion to start to dissipate.

Because emotions, as I’ve mentioned before, are impermanent. They don’t last forever. The only way they’ll last forever is if you let them linger and you try to get rid of them. Then you can hang on to them for quite a bit longer. But allow it to be what it is. Just observe it. And try, really try to get into that observing state of mind. Where you can just see it for what it is. And allow it to be what it is.

And remember that ultimately there is no goal with this meditation. The meditation technique isn’t, “Okay, I’m going to do that meditation technique so I can quit being angry.” No, that’s not going to work. In fact, that’s going to make it worse. So start it with saying, “I’m going to just be with my emotion. There’s no goal here. I’m not trying to get rid of it. I’m not trying to tame it.” You’re not trying anything. “I’m just trying to observe my emotions.”

So do that in your meditation. Just be with your difficult emotions and see what happens if you’re just with them. And you’re not trying to do anything. So that’s a good meditation technique that you can try.

Something else I like to think about as a form of meditation, when I’m experiencing difficult emotions, is the first noble truth. The understanding that in life, there is suffering. The universality of suffering is very powerful. Not because I can compare my suffering to someone else’s and say, “Oh, well you’re way worse than me.” It’s not that.

It’s being able to understand that I’m not alone in my suffering. Others are experiencing suffering or have experienced or will experience suffering. And just knowing that it’s universal. Can do a lot for how attached I feel to my own difficult emotions when they arise.

For example, this week when I was experiencing my difficult emotions. And trying to decide what to do. It was helpful to pause and say, “Okay, this is universal. Everyone has experienced something difficult. What are some other difficulties that others experience?” And while I was sitting there thinking, I was thinking about a close friend of mine who lost her husband to cancer. And another friend of mine who lost his wife to cancer. And I was thinking about my business partner who recently lost his son in an automobile accident.

And as I started to think about the other difficulties that other people encounter. What I found in my own difficulty, it doesn’t minimize it. Because like I said, the point isn’t to compare. And then say, “Well I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself.” That can happen, but that’s not the point. The point is, there’s a moment of mindful compassion. As I was able to remind myself, “How I’m feeling now, others are feeling that somewhere in the world now. Some more than me. Some less than me.”

And it’s not a competition, so it’s not about the comparison. It’s just about understanding the universality of suffering. And that allows there to be a lot of space for compassion. Because I was able to quickly realize, “Wow, it’s not fun to feel difficult emotions. And when others are feeling these emotions I would want to be a supportive and compassionate ear that can listen and just be with them.” Not to fix it.

You know, when I approach someone who’s experiencing something difficult, the point isn’t to say, “Well here’s what you need to do. Let me fix this for you.” It’s just to say, “I’m here with you. I’m not here for you. Because that implies that I can take this away from you. And we can’t we all experience our difficulties. But I can be here with you. Experiencing, while you’re going through this, I am with you. I’m here with you.”

And we can do that with ourselves. And understand what the observing mind can say, “Okay, I see what’s going on here. I see what I’m experiencing. And hey, I’m here with you. I’m here ’til however long this emotion lasts. And then it will go away.” So in dealing with difficult emotions, remember the object isn’t to change our emotions. It’s much more powerful to just be with our emotions. To allow them to be what they are.

And naturally, they’ll go away. When causes and conditions are right, emotions are there. And when they’re not, they’re not. And because all things are impermanent, things are continually changing, nothing is going to last forever. So you can be with something. And then allow it to pass. And the quickest way to allow it to pass, is to be with it.

So I hope that topic makes sense. Again, I share that mostly because it’s what I’m going through this week. And it was very interesting to observe my own difficult emotions. And to put into practice the observation of just being with the emotions. And allowing them to be. And by not resisting them or thinking that it’s wrong to feel the stress or the anxiety that I’m feeling in my own circumstances, was enough to alleviate the power of the emotion I was experiencing.

Very much like my friend, that I was telling you about at the beginning of the podcast. When he realized, “Hey the point isn’t that you’re not supposed to be angry.” We just don’t want you to be angry about being angry. It’s okay to be angry. Just be angry. That’s just how you are. That’s what you’re experiencing right now. Thinking that you have to get rid of it, is only going to make it worse.

That simple understanding, ironically or paradoxically, was the catalyst to start letting go of the anger. Because now there’s a diffusion. There’s non-attachment to it, “I’m not attached to the idea that I shouldn’t be angry. I’m just allowing anger to be the emotion that is with me.” And this is what I saw in this person, was already a significant amount of letting go of the anger. Because now it was okay to be angry. And just being okay with being angry was enough to start to minimize that.

So that’s all I have for the topic this week. Again, just reminder of some news items. We still have some open spots if you’re interested in joining my friend Suzy and I, on a humanitarian expedition. We’re going to Uganda in January of next year. And we’re going to be doing mindfulness retreat plus humanitarian work. So you’ll be able to change your life, while changing the lives of others. You can visit MindfulHumanitarian.org for more information on that.

And workshops. I’m doing a workshop in Salt Lake City on August 20th. And a weekend workshop in Seattle, Washington, on September 3rd. And another Sunday workshop, an all day workshop, in London, in the UK, on September 18th. And all of these workshops are going to be listed on the SecularBuddhism.com website. For now, you can go to SecularBuddhism.com/events if you want to fill out your email with a notification for which city you’re interested in. Then I could send you the actual link to the registration, to attend the workshop.

The workshops are really cool. And the topic of the workshop is developing mindfulness. So in the workshop, we take one whole day to explore the concept of how to develop mindfulness as a day to day practice.

So thank you for listening. I’ve mentioned this before. But I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world, a more peaceful place. We must start by making our own lives more peaceful. And we do that through developing mindfulness. And this is why I do this podcast. I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful. And mindful individuals are the key to creating mindful families and mindful societies. And my work with the Foundation for Mindful Living, is what allows me to produce the weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast. The content for the workshops and retreats and seminars.

So if you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help. Please visit SecularBuddhism.com to make a one time donation or to sign up as a monthly supporter. I have six monthly supporters at this point, episode 22. And that makes a difference. Right now that’s just barely enough to cover the cost of hosting for the website.

But with more monthly contributors, I’ll be able to put an entire program online that’s going to be the developing mindfulness workshop that I’m doing. I want to turn that into an online course that will be available. And then of course, continuing with the weekly podcast episodes. Discussing different topics based around Secular Buddhism and mindfulness. So I hope this podcast episode was worthwhile to listen to, how to deal with difficult emotions.

Remember the big takeaway with this is that in dealing with our difficult emotions we don’t want to get rid of them. You can’t get rid of anger. That’s okay. You can’t get rid of sadness. You can’t get rid of the difficult emotions you experience in life. They’re just a part of how we experience life. So when we’re experiencing these difficult emotions, like I am this week, just be with them. Allow the difficult emotion to be what it is. And have room to be mindful and have compassion in the midst of dealing with difficult emotions. And that’s all I have this week. So thank you for listening. Thank you for your continued support. And until next time.

21 – Perfection and the problem with comparing


We are continually making comparisons, this vs that, good vs bad, here vs there, etc…In this episode, I will discuss the topic of perfection and the problems we run into when we compare things. The understanding of non-duality permeates through all Buddhist teachings. In order to properly understand perfection, we must not compare to anything else.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 21. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I am talking about perfection. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teaching, presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s just into this week’s topic.

This week, I wanted to discuss the topic of perfection. Several months ago, I had some friends visiting, and we decided to go for a hike up in the mountains around Park City. On this occasion, we were hiking up a trail, and at one point, as the trail was curving around, we went through a little grove of trees. I turned around and I noticed one of the trees in the grove had this interesting bend to it. The trunk went straight up, and then it just kind of shot out to the right and then back to the left and straight up again, almost like a horseshoe shape right in the middle of the trunk. It was maybe a foot or a foot and a half between where it started to bend and then where it went back. It was just a really interesting bend in the tree. It looked so unique among all the other trees, because it was such an interesting find, so I stopped and I took a picture of it. Then, later on, as I was looking at the picture, it occurred to me that it was interesting that this tree that was crooked among all the other normal, straight trees caught my attention as a beautiful thing. The fact that it was so unique made it stand out.

I thought that was interesting, because as I thought about this more, I thought how interesting that with a tree, being different and bent out of shape, it looks beautiful because it’s unique. Yet, if these were people we were looking at, our tendency is to do the opposite. We would say, “Oh, there’s the one that stands out. Something’s wrong with that one.” There’s this pull to conform, as if there were a way to be that we should all try to be. Then, when you don’t conform with that, it’s a little bit scary. With trees, which are also just a product of nature, we don’t necessarily view it that way. In fact, I think more people … Everyone who was hiking with me noticed the tree and thought, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and we were taking pictures of it because it was just this beautiful, unique tree.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the conception of perfection, because if you look at the story and you were looking at those trees, the tree was a perfect tree. The reason it’s a perfect tree is because all trees are perfect. They’re trees, right? They’re just perfectly being trees. There is no way that a tree is supposed to be. If you find a tree on the slide of a cliff that has the roots anchored into all these random spots that’s clinging on the cliff, you’d also look at that and say, “Wow, what a unique tree.” In nature, we observe this all the time, whether it be trees or almost any other form of nature. Anything that stands out or is unique, we pause and we have a sense of awe. The reason the Grand Canyon gives us such a sense of awe is it’s this magnificent thing that’s so different from everything else. Yet, every other form of nature that does something similar works the same way. It’s the uniqueness that makes it so perfect.

In that context, when we’re saying perfect, it’s not in comparison to anything else. See, I think this is where the problem with the word “perfection” comes in, because perfection alone, the definition of perfection, is something that’s in a state or condition or quality of being free or free as possible from all flaws or defects. Well, if you take something that has no comparison, then everything that makes it what it is is perfect, because that’s just a part of what it is. The tree with a weird bend in the middle of it isn’t a flaw. It’s just a part of the tree. Now, if you were to compare that tree to another tree, let’s say one that’s just a straight tree without any bends, and we made the mistake of saying, “Okay, now this tree isn’t perfect because it has a bend in it.” Well, that would be silly. We wouldn’t do that with trees, because we understand that a tree is just a tree. We don’t feel that need to compare one tree to another tree.

Yet, we do that with each other all the time. If we were to take the word “perfection” and talk about this in the context of a person, it becomes difficult to say, “Oh yeah, that person is perfect,” because now we’re comparing to either an image we have in our mind of what a perfect person is or just to other people. When it’s used as a form of comparison, perfection doesn’t make sense, but if you were to say, “Here’s a person who’s perfectly who they are,” this is a perfect person. I’m perfectly me, and you’re perfectly you. In that sense, the word “perfection” can be very powerful. Again, with the definition, it’s free or as free as possible from all flaws. What’s interesting about that is that if you were to look up the word “flaw”, you’d find that the definition for the word “flaw” is that it’s something that’s free of an imperfection. Well, that makes it circular logic, because it’s perfect if it doesn’t have flaws, and the very definition of a flaw is something that is an imperfection.

Again, the idea here is that when we understand and use the word “perfection”, it should come without any form of comparison. When you see a beautiful sunset and you think, “Wow, what a perfect sunset,” you’re not comparing it to another sunset saying, “Well, this one’s not perfect because last night’s sunset, that one was perfect,” because there’s no comparison. It’s unique in the moment being what it is. Because it’s completely unique in that moment, it makes it perfect. Well, why does that have to be different for the way we view ourselves and the way we view others? Somebody can be perfect just the way they are, because we don’t have to compare them to who they were before or who they’ll be in the future or to someone else or to a concept of how they’re supposed to be versus how they are. There is no comparison, and when there’s no comparison, then we’re left with just perfection.

For some reason, we tend to spend a lot of time in competition comparing things. For me, being a twin, growing up I remember comparison was a regular, everyday thing in life. For example, if my twin brother got a certain grade in a certain class, then we were compared and it was expected of me to be able to have the same grade in that same class. If I didn’t, it was like, “Well, why didn’t you get that grade? Your brother was able to get that grade.” That was the form of comparison. Now, as a father, I always think of this notion of my kids are very different from each other. Their personalities are different. They just have their own little unique ways. If someone were to say, “Well, which of your kids is the best?” Well, it’s not a competition. There is no competition. They’re all perfectly who they are, and you don’t look at them in the sense of a competition.

Maybe they could compete in a race, and I could say, “Well, this one’s faster than that one,” but overall, you don’t look at your kids and say, “Well, this one’s the best one,” unless you have a distorted image in your mind of how they’re supposed to be. Then, whichever one matches the standard in your mind of how they’re supposed to be, then yeah, you might be thinking this one’s better. But I would get rid of that thinking really quickly, because that produces a lot of suffering on your part as a parent and on your children’s part, because there is no way that you’re supposed to be. You’re just who you are. Everyone is the best in the world, and everyone’s the best in the world because nobody’s being compared to anyone else.

There’s a story about a monk named Banzan, and I like this story because it kind of illustrates the teaching of non-comparison and of perfection. The story goes like this: the monk Banzan was walking through the marketplace, and he overhears a customer who’s talking to the butcher. The customer says, “Can you please give me your best piece of meat?” The butcher simply replies, “Well, all the pieces of meat I sell are the best pieces of meat.” In that very moment, the story goes that Banzan was enlightened.

I’ve heard of this story, and it seems like such a simple story, but there’s a very deep teaching connected to this. This is the idea that all of the pieces of meat are the very best. Why is that? What does that mean? Well, the idea here is that there is comparison. How could one be better than another? This one is what it is, and that one is what it is. You take a piece of meat and you say, “These are the ribs.” Oh, well, that’s great. Yeah, but that one’s the leg. Yeah, well, they’re different. You can’t compare them, which one’s the best. They’re both different. Even if you were to take the same pieces, well, there’s this leg and there’s that leg, which one’s the best piece? They’re both the best piece, because that’s that leg and this one’s this leg. Only when you bring in comparison do we run into the problem of misunderstanding the teaching here, what is meant by perfection.

Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, this awareness of every piece is the best piece, this awareness that a crooked tree is a perfect tree. I want to elaborate a little bit more on this with another Buddhist teaching. I recently came across a Japanese expression and a teaching that says nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. Translated, this means every day is a good day. As I pondered this idea, I thought about the many days in my own life that I would unequivocally categorize as bad days. One instance, about eight years ago, I was a helicopter pilot working towards accomplishing one of my childhood dreams, which was to be a helicopter pilot. I’d just received my private pilot’s license, and I was beginning phase two of my training at a local school to get my commercial pilot’s license. I remember getting a strange call from a friend of mine. He said, “Hey, have you been watching the news?” I said, “No. What’s happening?” He said, “Well, there’s a helicopter school that went bankrupt, and it’s kept all of their students’ money. Is that your school?” I said confidently, “No. I have a flight lesson scheduled in about 30 minutes. My flight instructor would have called me to tell me it was canceled if something was going on.”

As I drove to the airport and I approached my school, I had this sinking feeling as I noticed the police tape blocking the front entrance. It was my school that was on the news, and it was my money that they were talking about. I was heartbroken, heartbroken to discover that my $70,000 school loan to become a helicopter pilot had literally vanished overnight. For me, this was a bad day, and I’ve had other bad days since then, many even worse than that day. So what does it mean to say that every day is a good day? Well, as I mentioned before, Buddhism teaches us to not compare. When we think of good, we’re typically contrasting good with bad, but this expression of every day is a good day is saying that it’s good because there is no bad; there are only days. They’re just days.

Alan Watts used to say, “Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen?” A cloud can’t be misshapen because there is no shape that a cloud is supposed to be, right? We could say that every cloud is good, because there is no wrong way to be a cloud. So when we’re saying that every day is a good day or every cloud is a good cloud, it’s not in comparison. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad. We just don’t compare clouds. This is the same idea behind the expression that every day is a good day. Imagine for a minute that you’ve been planning a backyard party for several weeks, and you’ve sent out invitations, you’ve set up the tables, you’ve done a considerable amount of decorating around the yard. Then the day finally comes and the guests start to show up and it begins to rain. Well, is that a good day or a bad day? Meanwhile, across town, a farmer’s been preparing his field to plant alfalfa, and he’s frustrated because his sprinkler system’s not working. He’s worried about his seeds going to waste, and then it begins to rain. Is that a good day or a bad day?

Well, the day itself is never bad. It’s never good. It’s only our perspective and space and time based on where we are and how we are that we determine the things that we think are good and the things that we think are bad. You wouldn’t compare one cloud to another, deciding which cloud is good and which one is bad, but why do we do that with days? Again, to say that every day is a good day, it just means that every day is a day. It’s not in comparison of good versus bad, or today versus yesterday, or today versus tomorrow, or my good day versus your bad day.

Gyomay Kubose says, “To understand that every day is a good day is Buddhism.” This is the content of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something apart from an ordinary day. Enlightenment is to live each day as a good day, and what kind of day do you think you would have if you weren’t comparing it to any other day? Maybe we could appreciate each moment for what it really is: a unique moment in time that cannot be compared to any other, because this is the only moment there is, right here and right now. That’s the teaching of nichi nichi kore ko jitsu. So when we’re talking about perfection, we’re talking about perfect in the sense of not being compared to anything else. One of the mistakes that we make is there’s how we are and then there’s how we think we’re supposed to be. That’s duality. Those are two different things. Then, there’s how life is and there’s how I think life is supposed to be. Well, those are two different things. Again, we’re in the world of duality.

What Buddhism is constantly teaching is this idea of non-duality. The true nature of reality is that reality is just what it is. When we get caught up in that dualistic thinking—me, you, good, bad, this, that—that’s where we run into trouble. That’s where we run into problems as we try to make sense of things. This concept had me thinking of something that I wrote a few days ago about the concept of “them”. What I’m trying to get across here is this understanding of non-duality. This permeates through all Buddhist teachings, this concept of non-duality. In this case, I was thinking about “them”. We all know about them, those who don’t view the world like us. For some, them could be the right-wing nut jobs or the bleeding-heart Liberals, the Trump supporters, or the Bernie supporters, or the Hillary supporters. It could be the gun lovers or the gun haters, the believers and the non-believers. What makes “them” so scary is that they don’t always view the world the same way as us, but what if we weren’t afraid to try to understand them? What if we actually tried to get to know them? What if we were okay with allowing them to be them? What if we stopped trying to convince them to be like us?

Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “A label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do,” but what if we stopped viewing them through the labels we give them? The problem isn’t that we’re all different, it’s that we’re not okay with the fact that we’re all different. We want them to think, believe, and act like us, but we fail to realize that we are all them to someone else. I know I’m one of them to you on some topic or another, and I hope you know that I don’t view any of you as them, because to me, we’re just us. This is non-duality. We may have different ideas, different beliefs, fears, and ways to approach life, but it’s the fact that we’re all different that makes us the same, because we’re all unique. It’s like the clouds in the sky. When have you ever seen a misshapen cloud? We’re all unique. I may not agree with you, and you may not agree with me, but that’s okay.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more you understand, the more you love, and the more you love, the more you understand.” The world doesn’t need us all to be the same. That would never happen. That would be like expecting all the clouds to be the same, if we had an idea of how clouds are supposed to be, and then we’re frustrated every day because we’ve got all these clouds that are refusing to conform. Well, that would just be silly. The world just needs us to understand each other and to love each other and to be okay with our differences. The truth is I don’t know how to fix the divisiveness and the hatred and the intolerance that I see in the world today, but I do know that I can do my part to try to understand them and to love them, because I am them. We’re all perfect because we’re all unique. We’re all that crooked tree. We’re all the best. We’re all the very best piece of meat, because all the pieces of meat are the best piece of meat. This is the nature of understanding enlightenment. It’s non-duality.

Buddhism brings this sort of awareness into our life, and this is what I wanted to share this week as a topic with you as I was thinking about perfection, the concept of perfection and the concept of being the best. The society in which we live is very competitive, and the way we tend to view ourselves is always in competition to someone else. I would hope that we can learn to see ourselves and others the way that I saw that tree that day in the grove, thinking, “Wow, what a beautiful tree. It’s so unique. It’s so different.” Because that’s exactlY how each of us are. We’re just unique. We’re like the clouds. There is no misshapen cloud, and there is no misshapen human. We’re just who we are. You’re you and I’m me. This is non-duality. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society or the world a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful. This is why I do this podcast, and I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals can make mindful families and societies, and the world could certainly use a bit more mindfulness.

Speaking of mindfulness, I do want to reiterate a couple of news items. One is that I’ve been invited to host a humanitarian workshop in Uganda January 26th through February 4th of 2017. It’s going to be an exciting trip where we’re doing mindfulness practice, humanitarian work, and a little bit of adventure. We’ll be going on a safari. If you’re interested in going to Uganda and doing a mindfulness retreat plus humanitarian work and adventure, please visit mindfulhumanitarian.org and feel free to sign up there.

The next item of news is really exciting for me. We’re starting to get these workshops underway. I’ve been wanting to do one-day workshops in various places where you can come and learn all of the introduction to secular Buddhism just in one go, in one day. The idea here is that the workshop will teach the foundations of mindful living and an introduction to secular Buddhism. It’s just a one-day thing. You’ll come on a Saturday or a Sunday and we’ll spend the day doing a workshop and learning all of the philosophical concepts of Buddhism and mindfulness. The first one is going to be September 3, 2016, that’s a Saturday, in Seattle. So if you’re in the Seattle area and you’re interested in doing this workshop, be sure to visit secularbuddhism.com/events. We’re doing another one in September, September 18th, in London. This is on a Sunday. Sunday, September 18, 2016, we’ll be in London doing a one-day workshop. Again, you can register your interest in these events by going to secularbuddhism.com/events.

Then, the final component to all this, your generous donations are allowing me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast as well as the content that’s presented in these workshops, retreats, and seminars. If you’re interested and in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one-time donation or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast. I’d really appreciate your support. Thank you all for listening and for your continued support. I’m really excited to continue producing these podcast episodes and to see where all this goes in the future. So thank you. You guys have a great week, and I look forward to another podcast next week.