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.

20 – The Question of Good and Evil

How do we make sense of the atrocities that are committed every day in the world? Is there a source of evil behind such things? In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist understanding of non-dichotomy in relationship to good and evil. How does our understanding of interdependence influence our way of understanding the horrible things we see happening in the world? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 20. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the question of good an evil.

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 the 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.

On the topic of good and evil, I wanted to start out by saying in light of recent events, but the more I thought about this the more I realized that it’s not just recent events. Events for years and years now, if you look at the news you’ll see we have had catastrophes, and attacks, and all sorts of man-made problems from terrorist attacks happen almost on a daily basis in countries like Iraq, and in Syria, and then of course we had the shooting here in Orlando a couple weeks ago, and there are always, it seems, things in the news that remind us of the evils of the world.

So I wanted to talk about this topic of good and evil in the Buddhist sense, specifically with how we are to view or cope with the fact that atrocious things are committed almost on a daily basis all around the world. What is the Buddhist view of that? So to understand this a little bit we need to first discuss, at least in our western culture, the dichotomy of good and evil, the Judaeo-Christian background and our way of thinking of good and evil. Evil is usually perceived as the dualistic, antagonistic opposite of good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated.

It’s like an ongoing war of good versus evil, and I think we’re all familiar with that concept. That’s very much the way of thinking that we’ve inherited culturally. In Wikipedia you can look up good and evil, and get an idea of the origins of the concept of good and evil. It’s pretty fascinating to see where it starts, and how it spread. In the Buddhist non-dualistic worldview, both good and evil are part of an interconnected reality that encompasses all things.

Everything is interdependent with everything else. And if you’ll recall, in past podcasts podcast episodes I’ve talked about the analogy of a car, and the understanding that there is no such thing as the car in terms of, you can’t take apart all the pieces of a car and then pick which one of those is the car, because the car was always all of those parts. Same with a cake, right?

You can take something like a cake, and it exists, and it’s there, but there are components that make it what it is. There is no cake, per se, that exists independent of the parts that make a cake; the flower, the sugar, the heat of the oven, the container holding the ingredients, and on and on. So all things are interdependent with all the things that allow that thing to exist, and there’s a zen expression that says, “For every mile you walk east, you are walking a mile west.”

And this acknowledges the very idea that east requires the idea of west for east to even exist. You can also apply this to the sense of self that we have. Self only exists because we have the sense of other, self and other, when in reality all there is is just what is. So applying this to the thinking of good and evil, from the Buddhist worldview, is very similar. The only reason there’s good is because we reference in terms of what we consider to be evil.

So good and evil cannot exist without each other because, what would be evil unless it was the opposite of what we consider to be good? And in Buddhism there’s just oneness, it’s, “All things are one.” So this concept can be a little tricky when we’re thinking about specific events, the atrocities that we see on the news, examples being like the Holocaust, or mass shootings, so many forms of atrocities that are committed.

And it’s hard to look at something like that and not want to just label it as being pure evil, or thinking that the only way that this could have happened is to be inspired by some source of intrinsic evil because it’s so atrocious, and so not what we would do. So I want to explore this concept a little bit in relation to the concept of interdependence. If all things are interdependent, where, or how, does good and evil fit into this equation?

And to illustrate this, I want you to imagine the following story. Imagine a kid comes home from school and he’s upset because he was called a name, or something happened at school that made him upset. So he comes home and he talks to his dad and tells him what happened at school, and his dad says, “Okay, well I understand that this makes you upset. Of course it would feel bad to be called a name at school, but let me teach you a lesson about this,” and to teach the concept of interdependence the dad picks up a stick, and he starts tapping him on the head harder and harder, and the kid is saying, “Why are you doing this? Stop whacking me with the stick.”

Finally, the dad puts the stick down, and he says, “Well are you mad,” and he says, “Yeah I’m mad. Quit hitting me with that. I was trying to tell you what happened at school.” And he says, “Well, why are you mad at me? I’m not the one that hit you. The stick is the one that hit you.” He’s like, “Well that’s stupid. I’m not mad at the stick. You were the one holding the stick.”

And he says, “Ah, okay. Well let me teach you a lesson here, because in this example, how easy was it for you to understand that it would be pointless to be mad at the stick, because the stick was being controlled by something else?” And then he goes on to explain the concept of interdependence, and the things that happen to us are interdependent with the things that cause those things to happen.

And the idea here is, when something happens, we can be offended at the stick, mad at the stick, or we can understand that the stick is being controlled by something else. And if you understand that, and you understand the nature of interdependence, it makes it very difficult to pinpoint the one thing that you should really be mad at.

For example, am I mad at the actual word that I was called? Am I mad at the mouth that spoke the word that I was called, or am I mad at the person who was controlling the mouth who said the word, but even there, am I mad at him for saying that to me, or am I mad at maybe his parents for teaching him that that was a normal way of treating others? Maybe he was called those names growing up.

And this goes on and on, right? There are always causes and conditions to all natural phenomena, which means all things that happen because of the things that make those things happen. So it becomes this intricate web of interdependence, and when we isolate an event it can be easy to want to pin it on something that we think is inherently there, for example, evil, or the concept of maybe the devil, to think, “Okay, well there’s this source of evil, or the devil made this person do it,” makes it really easy to stop with feeling any sense of responsibility with understanding interdependence, because then we can just pin it on one thing and be mad at that, whatever that is.

But when we understand interdependence, it makes it a lot more difficult to feel hatred. We can certainly feel anger, and frustration, being mad at what happened is very different than hating the person who committed something, because if we understand interdependence we understand that this person is also a victim, is a victim of their own ideology, a victim of their own upbringing, their societal views, their concepts, ideas, or beliefs that allowed them to commit such an atrocious thing.

But from the Buddhist worldview, there isn’t a source of inherent evil, which means we can’t pin the atrocities committed, to just label it as, “Well that’s an evil person.” You can say the things that are being done could be considered evil, or what was done is horrible or heinous, but it changes the way that you view events and things that happen, and allows there to be room for compassion at every step.

For example, if I take a stick and I hit you with it, and you lash out at the stick and break the stick, there can be compassion for the stick thinking, “Oh that poor stick. It wasn’t even the stick, it was my hand that was controlling the stick,” and yet your anger took out the stick but didn’t ever understand or realize that it was me controlling the stick. And this is kind of what we do all the time when we interact with the events that are happening in the world.

It makes it very easy to want to retaliate at one level, without understanding that there is a complex layer behind every step that has led to that specific event happening. And I don’t say this to try to minimize in any way the atrocity, or the horribleness of what happened. It’s perfectly fine to recognize that what’s being done is horrible, but it’s different to immediately experience hatred towards this person because we consider them evil.

That’s the ultimate thing I’m trying to answer in this podcast is the question of good and evil. And another way to think about this is, imagine you’re in a campsite, and a bear comes in the campsite. You don’t just say, “Oh well, it’s a bear. None of us should do anything.” You would say, “Okay, well it’s dangerous to be in camp with a bear, and maybe that requires tranquilizing the bear and moving it to another part of the forest or putting it in a cage if required.”

There can be action around the events that are happening that can be driven still by compassion. You don’t take that bear and put it in a cage and say, “I hate you stupid bear.” It would be silly. There’s no anger or hatred there because, in this case, we understand a bear’s just being a bear. And yet when a human commits an atrocity, it’s very easy to want to immediately retaliate with hatred, and hatred is just not useful. It’s not a natural emotion.

Anger is a natural emotion. Sadness is a natural emotion, but hatred is not. Hatred is a way of responding to anger, or a way of responding to sadness, but … I don’t know exactly if this is making sense in the way that I’m expressing it, but what I’m trying to get across is that there are always things that are happening, and then there are complex layers of causes and conditions behind those things. That’s the nature of interdependence.

Too often I think we get caught up in the duality of good and evil making it very easy to think, “If I must be good, they must be bad.” Then we’re always stuck in this dichotomy of duality. There’s always a duality. There’s me and you, us and them, whoever them is. Them is always anyone who is not us, who doesn’t think like us, who doesn’t believe like us, and we’re always stuck in this world of duality and it makes it very easy and natural for good and evil to fit in that paradigm of duality.

There’s good and there’s evil, but even that becomes very subjective. What might be completely evil for one person would be completely normal for someone else. The idea of walking around the street without any clothes on, to some would be considered evil, while walking around without any clothes on in the Amazon jungle in a tribe, with a tribe of people who don’t wear clothes wouldn’t be evil.

So how do you pinpoint what is evil and what is good as inherent things. Well we don’t. The Buddhist understanding, which I think is similar to almost every major world religion, is the concept of the golden rule. Don’t do to others as you would have them do unto you, and the Buddhist view of that is, “Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you,” but it’s the same concept. It’s the same idea. Causing harm is not intrinsically evil, it’s just very unwise.

Nobody wants to be harmed. You don’t want to experience harm. Everyone wants to feel loved and respected, and that’s our natural way of being. From the moment we’re born, we’ve evolved to survive 100% exclusively on the time, and attention, and love of another. Think of every human being who is alive now as an adult is only alive because you were cared for a considerable amount of time by someone else. We just can’t do it alone.

It’s not in our human nature. We’re not born and then boom, we’re independent. It takes years and years before we can be independent. So it’s our natural tendency to be caring and to want to be cared for, because it’s how we evolved. It’s a survival mechanism, and when we understand that and we view everybody with the same natural tendency, then we can understand what must be going on is what in Buddhism we call ignorance or delusion.

You can grow up and have ideas that are put in your head through your society, or through your religion, so many sources, through family, and they can be delusional ideas or concepts that make us ignorant to seeing reality. And inside of this delusion, we can commit atrocities. So you take this and apply it to someone like Hitler, and rather than saying, “Wow, he was just an evil man, and evil is what caused all this,” you can say, “Somewhere in this process there’s compassion for the fact that he was so delusional, and so ignorant of reality that he was deluded by his idea that he needed to exterminate an entire group of human beings.”

And it’s not that there was an inherent evil driving that, it’s that there was an inherent ignorance or delusion that was driving it. But that’s very different than recognizing there’s an inherent source of good and an inherent source of evil, and that’s the non-dichotomy of the Buddhist worldview. It’s not about good and bad, about righteous and evil. All things are encompassed in everything.

Everything is interdependent with everything else, and so when we talk about this concept of good and evil, there can be good things, and I think it’s more appropriate to say pleasant and unpleasant. What might be pleasant or unpleasant for everyone … Everyone’s on their own scale. So we want to foster the things that are pleasant, and try to eradicate or eliminate the things that are unpleasant, that are causing harm in the world, and we do that by starting with ourselves.

Everything starts with ourselves. We can’t make the world a better place unless we’re focusing on making ourselves better individually. We want to strive to be mindful and to practice compassion because it’s individual compassion that creates compassionate families, compassionate societies, and it’s compassionate societies that are going to make a compassionate world.

So it requires action on our part. It’s not just a matter of wanting things to be better, it requires action. So this is kind of the idea of goals versus values. You can go through life with goals, and you can have whatever kind of goals, but even more important than goals are values. If I know what my values are, then I can use my goals that are driven by my values. So an example of this, there’s a Buddhist prayer, ’cause people often ask me, “What is, when I hear the term of prayer in Buddhism, what is that referring to? Who do Buddhist pray to or what do they pray for,” the answer is that in Buddhism you don’t pray to anyone and you don’t necessarily pray for anything.

It’s just an expression that you do just to do. So an example of this is the popular Buddhist prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace.” So it’s like a declaration of the values that I stand for, and if that’s my value statement, then my goals, my life goals, are going to revolve around my values and around my value statement.

So that’s kind of the idea of goals and values, and the reason I bring this up is because, in light of the events that happen around the world, no amount of prayer is going to fix these things. These are man-made problems that need man-made solutions. It requires action on our part, and if I have my expression of prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving-kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace,” that can be my value statement that is going to generate goals now to enact those wishes, and those goals may be what drives me to do humanitarian work, or whatever it is that I’m doing in terms of action, it can be driven the value.

Because the prayer alone, the sentiment alone, isn’t enough. I can wish for all beings to be happy and at peace all day long, but if I’m not doing anything about it I’m not contributing to the goal that I want to see in the world, and I think that’s something appropriate to bring up, because when we have these events taking place in society we need to be mindful of in what ways we can take action and contribute to hopefully minimizing or eliminating these acts from our society.

And it starts with working on ourselves individually, mindfulness individually, and then from there it spreads up until we’re making a change in society. That’s the topic I wanted to share today. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this. You can interact with me on secularbuddhism.com, or on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page. We also have a secular buddhism study group with three or four hundred members, it’s, instead of a page on Facebook it’s a group, so everyone can interact with the posts, and I usually post the podcast on there, and then we have a discussion on there.

And then, of course, another option is just emailing me directly, or contacting me on secularbuddhism.com. So before I wrap this up I do want to quickly remind you of some news. Let’s go to Uganda. This is an exciting opportunity that blends mindfulness with humanitarian work and adventure. From January 26th through February 4th next year, 2017, I’m partnering up with the Africa Promise expeditions, and with my friend Susie, who’s the founder of the Africa Promise Foundation, and we’re putting together this fun trip.

We decided it would … So she invited me to be a part of these expeditions that she puts together where they do humanitarian work, and when she approached me I said, “I’ve been wanting to go do humanitarian work, so I’m gonna go do that,” but I said, “Why don’t we spend time every evening on the trip teaching mindfulness?” So we’ll do, essentially a two-week workshop, or every day of the trip we’ll be doing mindfulness work in the evenings, and learning meditation, learning mindfulness, all the foundations of secular Buddhism, so it’d be like attending a secular Buddhism workshop, plus doing humanitarian work during the days.

Building schools, digging wells, there are several things that we’re gonna be doing, and then there’s the adventure component. Because, if we’re in Africa, it would be silly to miss out on some of the fun adventurous part of being in Africa. So we’re gonna end the trip with a safari, and going and seeing all the wildlife that you would expect to see in Africa.

So again, this is January 26th through February 4th, and you can get more information if you go to mindfulhumanitarian.org. You can get all the information there. Again, feel free to contact us through that site, or me directly if you have any questions. I’d be happy to answer any questions about this trip. So thank you for listening. 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 the podcast. I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful, because mindful individuals can make mindful families and mindful societies. And your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism podcast, along with content for the workshops, and retreats, and seminars, so if you’re interested and in a position to be able to do so, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one time donation, or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast.

So thank you for your continued support, and until next time …

19 – Learning to Live Artfully

Modern society tends to assign a value to everything we do. If there is no utilitarian purpose to something, we think it’s not valuable. Why does a painter paint? Why does a dancer dance? For the simple joy of doing it. This is what it means to live life artfully. In this episode, I will explore the concept of purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 19. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about how to live life artfully.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. In every episode, I like to remind my listeners a quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump in to this week’s topic. What does it mean to live life artfully? This is a topic I’ve thinking about lately and I wanted to discuss this concept a little bit.

In western society or perhaps even in western thinking, there tends to be this notion that if something doesn’t have a utilitarian purpose, then it doesn’t have any value. For example, think about a lot of the things that we do in society and we tend to do them because they have a utilitarian purpose and if they have a purpose, then we assign value based on the scale of the purpose that that thing renders. An example of utilitarian thinking would be why would I spend the time to build this bench unless the bench is going to serve value for me? You know, I can put it in my house and use it as a bench for the piano or something along those lines, but I wouldn’t just make it to just make it.

Another example of utilitarian thinking applies to relationships. You know, I’m going to spend time getting to know this person to try to be their friend because if we become friends, I see some form of utilitarian value to it. They happen to be the manager of that store so if this is my friend, maybe I’ll be able to get a discount. We calculate the utilitarian value of the effort that has to go into making the friendship so that there’s some sort of pay off and if there wasn’t some form of value in it, then we wouldn’t see the need to want to spend time making friends with that person.

Now with relationships, that’s not all too far off with how a lot of western society treats relationships in general. Just think about the various acquaintances you have and then you meet someone who happens to be well known or famous or very wealthy. There tends to be the desire to be even more friends with that person. And I think that’s in large part because of our utilitarian thinking in our society where it’s to our advantage to have a friend who’s powerful or wealthy so we tend to put in more effort or more value into that friendship when the reality is that all relationships could be treated equal. That’s an example of utilitarian thinking or assigning an inherent value to things.

So where this comes into play with the concept of what it means to live artfully is that the artful way of living doesn’t necessarily focus on any utilitarian value. I say artfully because I think this makes sense when we think of the arts. Think of somebody who paints and you might ask them why do you paint? There may not be a utilitarian value assigned to that. A painter paints just to paint. Now they could benefit if they’re selling their painting but typically, you don’t decide I want to be a painter so that I can make a lot of money painting. You paint because you enjoy the process of painting.

The same applies with singing, the same applies with dancing. I think dancing is a really good example. What is the utilitarian value of being on stage and performing a dance? From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, the most effective way to get from one side of the stage to the other is to probably walk or run and yet, why do we enjoy, why does a dancer enjoy doing a combination of moves and twirls and spins and performing on stage? There may not be or there doesn’t have to be a utilitarian value to it. This is the idea of living artfully. We live in a way that we do things for the simple joy of doing them.

In the Japanese culture with pottery, there’s this idea that if your vase breaks, you can repair it and then it has more value, more sentimental value or just more value in general because it’s repaired and now it has a story. Utilitarian thinking in the west would be, “Oh, it’s broken. I don’t want it.” If we went back to the example of the bench, you might have a wooden bench that you’ve had for years and years and then one of the … A part of it breaks. Maybe if you only see it for its utilitarian value, you could say, “Well this is broken. I don’t want it anymore.” Someone might have a sentimental value and say, “We’ve had this forever. I want to fix it.” You could throw it out if you don’t see any utilitarian value, and your neighbor who is trying to start a fire might see it and assign it value because now there is a pile of wood that he can use in the fireplace.

These are just some examples to think about but ultimately, what I’m trying to get across with this concept is that in western thinking, we do tend to lean a lot on utilitarian values for things and there are aspects of our lives that we look at and we calculate and if it doesn’t have value, then it’s not that significant or meaningful to us. In eastern thinking or especially in the Buddhist philosophical concept of purpose and meaning, we find the opposite happening here. There’s the idea of purposeless purpose or meaningless meaning. This is the idea that we do things just to do things. For example, a flower blooms because that’s what a flower does. It doesn’t have to have meaning, it just does what it does.

There’s a way to live where in a similar way, we can just live for the enjoyment of living, not because it has to have any meaning or any value or any purpose. This is the concept of living artfully. In fact, if you observe nature, this is exactly what we see in nature. I like to think of a river that flows. When you’re looking on a river that’s flowing, there’s no need to look at that and say, “What is the value? What is the meaning?” There is no meaning to the river that flows. There is the opposite, there’s causality.

Causality is a mindset that I’ve been working with for the last few years since studying Buddhism that I really enjoy. Instead of taking something and looking for the inherent meaning in it, what you’re looking at is what is the causality behind it. An example of this, again looking at the river, you can look at a river and you can enjoy the beauty of the flowing water very much the way you would normally but there’s no need to look for meaning. There’s no meaning for why does this river flow. Instead, you can look at the causality and say, “Well, this river is flowing because the snow is melting further up in the mountains,” and you look for the causes and conditions of things and that in its own sense can be a beautiful experience.

But I think where this really gets interesting is taking the mindset of causality versus meaning and applying it to our day to day living and experiences. For example, I used the example of being cut off when you’re driving because this is a common thing and I think everyone’s experienced it. How easy is it when you get cut off to look for the meaning? Why did this person do this to me? If we’re assigning meaning to that, we’re typically going to be wrong in our assumption of what’s happening. If we approach this from the mindset of causality, then we can understand what happened is just what happened. I got cut off and there’s a reason behind it and I may not know the reason. This person may have lost their job today, they’re in a bad mood, somebody maybe cut them off, and now the mood that they’re in is a part of the problem.

This is the difference with causality and meaning. Imagine in early days, I think our human tendency is to look for meaning. This is why I would imagine in the earliest of times a volcano erupts and immediately people are thinking, “Why did that happen? The God of lava must be mad at us. Maybe we need to sacrifice something.” If we’re looking to create meaning where we’re going to be wrong in our assumption of why things happen. Now, granted back then looking from the mindset of causality, you wouldn’t know why the volcano is erupting. I think this is where it becomes very powerful to be able to sit with uncertainty because something can happen and we can say, “I don’t know. I don’t know the cause of that,” and leave it at that and with time, we could find out. Science does a fascinating job of discovering causality in things and it can take us pretty far back.

Then when you get to a point where you don’t know, you just stay with that and you stay with that uncertainty and you continue to explore and ask questions, test hypotheses until you find the causality of things. But to do the opposite and to assign meaning to things can be very dangerous. When we’re observing nature, we see our tendency is generally to have the mindset of causality. We don’t question what is the meaning of a tree blooming, we just look at it for what it is. It’s a tree that’s blooming in the spring, it smells this way and in the winter, the leaves fall and there are always causes and conditions to the things that we observe in nature.

A couple of weeks ago, I had this experience where I was at home and I was taking a piece of bread out of the bag to make some toast and I noticed one of the pieces of bread had some mold on it, so I decided to not eat the bread but it got me thinking. And I have this thought, here you have bread that’s in a bag and it’s by the window so the sunlight comes in and it warms up the temperature inside the bag and you give that enough time and now the causes and conditions have allowed for mold to exist. The mold is attached to the bread. It’s surviving off of the bread and I thought, “And that’s life.” The causes and conditions arise and suddenly, life exists and there’s this mold sitting there in the bread.

As I thought about this, I thought, now how silly would it be if at some point this mold, if we gave it enough time, was able to think and say, “I … Or this bread exists for me. This bread is my possession.” When the reality is that the mold only exists because of the bread and because the causes and conditions were acceptable to allow mold to come into existence. Then I thought, “Wow, isn’t that our experience of suddenly existing?” We exist on this planet very much like the mold that with the right causes and conditions exists on bread, here we are existing on the planet. And I thought about the mindset of thinking that all that is, this planet and everything on it exists for me and reversing that and realizing that I exist because of it. I exist because if it. I exist because of all of this.

I think that is in a way what it means to live artfully. Rather than assigning meaning, I’m just looking at the causes and conditions of things and realizing I am part of the process of causes and conditions that allow me to exist. There doesn’t have to be any utilitarian purpose or any assigned value. This is purposeless purpose and meaningless meaning. There is no meaning and it doesn’t mean anything that it doesn’t mean anything, and yet here I am and I get to exist. And somehow in the middle of this process of existence, I actually have the ability to experience consciousness, to be able to think, to be able to process emotions and all these incredible experiences that go along with being alive. I think that’s the main difference with simply living versus living artfully.

With that in mind, I think something that we can ask ourselves this week is why do we tend to search for meaning. Why do we tend to want to assign some form of utilitarian value to the things in life, to life in general, and the things that happen in life? What if it doesn’t have meaning? Does that change anything? I think one of the key concepts in Buddhism that I’ve really enjoyed is the idea that there’s isn’t meaning and that’s not to say that we can’t find meaning in life. So this is the difference between looking for the meaning of life and looking just for meaning in life because looking for meaning in life in the lens of interdependence and impermanence, we can find meaning in so many things and the meaning that we find in life evolves.

The meaning that I had as a college student is different than the meaning that I get in life now as the father of three little kids, and it was different being single than it is being married. This process is continually changing and evolving over time. Some people find incredible sense of meaning by traveling, by exploring, by experiencing new things. Others get a sense of meaning following ritual or routine or repeating a lot of the same experiences in life. There’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way because we’re just living.

To live artfully, I think, encompasses this idea of living for the sake of living. It’s painting for the sake of painting and singing for the sake of singing. There could be other things that go along with it but first and foremost, we’re doing what we do because we’re just doing what we do. It’s what brings us joy, it’s what makes us happy, and that can evolve over time. Dancing just to dance. There doesn’t have to be utilitarian purpose to dancing. Walking on the beach or all of a sudden, you start skipping. We don’t pause and say, “Wait, why am I skipping? It’s more efficient to be walking right now.” We don’t have to go through life that way.

There are some aspects in life where I think this is natural and there are other aspects of life where we get caught up in utilitarian thinking and how enjoyable would it be to be able to pause and analyze those moments and think, “Why do I have to get caught up and looking for the meaning of this or that? Why can’t I just enjoy doing this for the sake of doing it, doing it artfully, living artfully?” That’s the concept I wanted to discuss today in terms of the topic for this week’s podcast. What does it mean to live artfully?

I’d like to invite you to explore a few aspects of your own life in which you may be living with a utilitarian mindset and what would it be like if you were to switch to this purposeless purpose or this meaningless meaning mindset, the mindset of living artfully. What would that look like and just play with that a bit and see what you think, see how that changes the way you interact with the experience of being alive.

Now before ending this podcast, I do want to share a couple of things with you that I’m really excited to share. A couple of podcast episodes back, I mentioned how I’m planning on bringing all of the work of the podcast under the umbrella of a foundation, a non-profit foundation. Well I’m excited to announce that that process is complete. The Foundation for Mindful Living is now official. It’s a non-profit and I want to talk to you just a second about what I’m working on with this project because I think this is really exciting. I really 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. How much anger, aggression, and impatience do we see and experience not only in our own lives but in society in general, especially in light of recent events. We can see that the world needs to have more kindness and more compassion.

This is something that I have been really focusing on since the start of the year that’s motivated to do what I’m doing with Secular Buddhism. I believe that a peaceful world can only exist as a result of peaceful individuals. I feel like the way to making the world a more peaceful place is by making myself a more peaceful person, and this is why I’ve decided to dedicate my time and energy to producing content and tools to allow people to learn mindfulness, to learn the philosophical concepts of contemplative living that allow us to live more peaceful and happy lives.

The Foundation for Mindful Living is a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to creating and providing tools and content to help people live more mindfully. I would love to ask for your help to partner with me to help me accomplish what I’m trying to do. I have three current projects that I’m working on. One is a Secular Buddhism podcast which is this podcast that you’re listening to. We have 19 episodes so far and I plan to continue making this a weekly podcast that touches on topics of eastern philosophy and Secular Buddhism, Buddhism presented in a way that makes sense conceptually for secular-minded people like me.

By donating to the Foundation for Mindful Living, you’re essentially donating to the Secular Buddhism podcast, allowing me the opportunity to continue producing content every week. From the time this podcast launched, it’s grown exponentially. In fact this week, we’ve hit over 100,000 listeners now and it started out at zero at the beginning of the year. So it’s been really exciting to see this grow but the amount of time and resources that go into maintaining this from the hosting of the website, the hosting of the audio files, and everything that goes involved with that, I’ve just been maintaining all of those costs on my own as my way of trying to contribute to making the world a better place. But it’s grown to the point where I think it’s starting to exceed what I’m capable of maintaining on my own, so I wanted to ask for your help with that.

If you enjoyed the podcast, I would invite you to contribute one time or monthly if possible to the podcast and you can do that by visiting Getmindful.org. When you go to that website, that’s the foundation website, that’s my foundation. You’ll see under current projects the three projects I’m working on but you’ll see the Secular Buddhism podcast and at the bottom of that page, you’ll see a place where you can make a donation and it’s really easy to set up to do a quick donation with your credit card or PayPal and you can select to make that a monthly contribution starting from 5$ up or you can pick your own amount. But your generous donations will allow me to continue producing weekly content for the Secular Buddhism podcast along with content for the workshops and retreats and seminars that I want to put on.

That’s the second project I want to talk to you about is the Mindful Living workshops. The plan is to do a one or two-day workshop and we’ll do these in various cities starting with the cities where we have the most listeners. I have a list of those. They include London is on there, New York, Chicago. There’s several cities and I’ll have to look at that list. But what I plan on doing is making workshops available where people can attend and in one or two days, have an entire introduction to Buddhism, to secular Buddhism.

When I first started studying Buddhism, I was fascinated by the topic and I got most of my information from books and I was able to attend several retreats with Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and several other teachers. And something that bothered me and I understand why it works this way but it bothered me that these workshops can be expensive to go listen to someone and to learn from a Buddhist teacher can be expensive. I felt bad knowing that for me, this was doable but to think that there’s someone out there who may be interested in learning this but they just don’t have the resources to do it was sad. I feel like this is content that is really life changing and it promotes such a positive way of living that I don’t want to restrict it to only people who can afford workshops.

That’s what where podcast came in because I know anyone can listen to that. It’s always going to be free but what about these workshops? Well, the contributions on the foundation also allow me to travel and set up workshops in places where listeners can come and attend a one or two-day workshop for free. The only expense involved would be paying for your food or if it’s a venue that we have to pay for, there are going to be a minimal cost associated to that. But I think we would be able to set these up where they could be completely free for anyone who wants to attend. That is a very important aspect of this for me. I want to make sure that all of this content that one can look for and learn in Buddhism will always be available to anyone interested. Money shouldn’t be an issue. Then of course, if you’re able to attend it and you want to make a donation, that would allow us to continue promoting these to a greater audience.

So we’ve got the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living Workshops, and then this third one is a new one that I’m experimenting with and I’m really excited to tell you about this. I know that this isn’t one that’s going to be open for everyone because this one does have costs associated to it. But this is the idea of doing a Mindful Humanitarian Expedition and the thinking behind this is these are three things that I really enjoy in life, mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure and doing expeditions. Fortunately, with my career and with what I do for work, I get to travel a lot and I think it’s a fascinating opportunity to experience new things so I thought it would be fun to test this and see if anyone out there is in a position to be able to do something like this.

I would love to put together a trip. Well, it’s already put together with the Africa Promise Foundation. The founder of the Africa Promise Foundation has an organization called Africa Promise Expeditions and my friend Suzy who runs that foundation, we’ve decided to partner up and create this opportunity to be able to travel somewhere where you get to enjoy the benefits of learning mindfulness. So throughout the expedition every evening, we would be doing the workshop work, teaching mindfulness, learning to meditate, learning all of the concepts and principles of Secular Buddhism. During the day, we’re actually doing humanitarian work, building or digging wells and working with locals in Uganda, doing actual humanitarian work. It’s a combination of working on ourselves through mindfulness while working for others doing humanitarian work. This would be in Africa in Uganda.

Then the third component to the trip is to enjoy unique experiences while we’re there, the adventure side of it. We would do an African Safari and just gain new experiences while we’re there because part of the beauty of life is gaining new experiences and doing things that are fun. This is a combination of all three of those things. That’s learning mindfulness, doing humanitarian work, and experiencing adventure all in one trip. You can get more information about this trip by going to Getmindful.org which is my foundation for mindful living and when you look at the current projects, you’ll see all three of these options there, the Secular Buddhism podcast, the Mindful Living workshops, and I’m going to be adding dates and locations to that based on your feedback and your interest. Then there’s the mindful humanitarian expedition.

Now this already has dates set in mind so if you’re available for that, join us. I’d love to have you apply to join us on this expedition. It’s January 26th through February 4th of 2017 in Uganda. Everything included in the cost to do this program, it includes everything that you would need from the moment you arrive to Uganda till you leave. The only thing you would have to do is get there. We can assist with affordable airfare to get there, depending on where you’re coming from.

I’d love to see if you’re interested in any of these things. But if you’re in a position to do this, it would be awesome if you would be willing to partner with me and become a monthly contributor to the Foundation for Mindful Living which will continue to keep the Secular Buddhism podcast going. It would allow us to start doing workshops that you can attend and that anyone can attend without any cost associated. It will allow me to start putting together an online curriculum and online workshops that anybody could attend anywhere in the world. Again, this would all be completely free. Then of course, if you’re interested in the Mindful Humanitarian Expedition, click on that and apply. We only have a few spots available. This is something that I decided I’m going to do with some people that are close to me and we’re leaving the other spots open for anyone who’s interested to apply, and you can join us on this Humanitarian Expedition. I think it’s going to be an awesome experience.

If you’re interested in any of those things, please check out Getmindful.org. Please consider becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast through Getmindful.org and please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns about any of these things. But I’m looking for people who, like me, believe that the key to making the world a better place is by providing tools and content to teach people to be more mindful. If that sounds like something you’d like to do, I’d love to have you work with me on this. Visit Getmindful.org if you have any questions. And that’s all I have this week for the podcast and I look forward to doing another podcast episode next week. Thank you guys, have a wonderful week and until next time.

18 – Freedom From the Pursuit of Happiness

Why do we chase after happiness? What if we could be free from the pursuit of happiness? In this episode, I will explore the nature of human emotions. When we understand that all emotions, including happiness, sadness, etc…are impermanent, we can learn to stop chasing after these emotions. Pursuing happiness can be a lot like pursuing our shadow. It’s not something we can “catch”.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hey guys, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 18, I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about The Pursuit of Happiness. Maybe more specifically, liberation from the pursuit of happiness.

If you’re a first time listener, welcome to the podcast. If you’re a repeat listener, welcome back.

The Secular Buddhism Podcast is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for the secular minded audience. And every episode I like to remind my listeners of a quote by Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. And now let’s jump in at this week’s topic.

Why we chase after happiness? I think the short answer is: That it feels good to be happy, and it doesn’t feel good when we are not happy, it doesn’t feel good when we are angry or sad for too long at least. And it does feel good to be happy, to experience joy. So we end up in this position where we decide, I want more of that good stuff, happiness, and I want less of that bad stuff, sadness or anger. And then we got caught up in the pursuit of happiness. We’re continuously chasing after the things that make us happy, and continuously avoiding the things that will not make us happy. So that’s the topic I want to discuss today.

This has been on my mind for about a week now. Last Sunday, I was on my way down in the morning to meditation session, about an hour away from where I live. And on my way there I had punched in the address in the GPS on my phone, and I left with enough time to make sure I could be there early, because I don’t like being late.

So on my way down, I’m keeping track of the time, and thinking, “This is great, I’m going to be there right on time.” And as I pulled up to the location I knew this couldn’t possibly be the location, because I was in a residential area, and pulling up to a house. And I knew the group that I was going to visit met at a yoga studio. So I thought, “Well this can’t be the right place.” And sure enough after checking, it looked like google had messed up.

So I was kind of sad, but not too concerned, because like I said I left early. So I thought, “Well, maybe I should punch in the address, instead of google maps, I’ll try apple maps,” which I rarely use because usually apple maps leads me astray.

So I punched in the same address to apple maps, and it said I was 10 minutes away from the right location. So I sped off to the new location following apple maps direction now, and as I pulled up to the new location 10 minutes later, I though, “Uh! This still doesn’t seem right,” because it was a big empty field. At that point I didn’t even question it because I have been wrong many times with apple maps, I though, “Well, somehow this address just doesn’t point up on either system.”

So I googled the name of the studio that I knew they were meeting at, it was a yoga studio. And I punched in the name instead of the address into google. And that worked, it pulled up the name and on the map it showed that I was 10 minutes away. So I sped off, at this point realizing, “Now I’m going to be 10 minutes late.” Because by then, it was starting time and the map said I was 10 minutes away.

SO I raced off, and I started feeling frustrated because I really don’t like showing up late to places. Especially, imagine a big meditation room and thinking, “If they’ve already started, and it’s all quiet, then I come walking in late, it interrupts everything.” So I really didn’t want to have to do that, but I had already driven an hour to get there, so I wasn’t just going to give up and go home.

So I started following the new directions on google maps, and as I’m pulling in the new parking lot 10 minutes later, I realize, “This possible can’t be the location.” Because I had been there before, that was the old address. And I knew that about a month or so ago, they had switched to a new address. So I thought, “Why did it take me to the new address, maybe they didn’t update the right address on their website.

So I get on my phone and I start doing a little bit more research and find out there are actually two locations for the studio, for the specific yoga studio. And after checking on google maps again, I realized, “Oh! It did pull up to, I just happen to pick the first one which was the the wrong one, the second one is the right location and the address on that listing match the one that I was initially searching for.”

So I punched that one in on my GPS, and it says I’m 10 minutes away. At this point I’m frustrated because now I’m going to be 20 minutes late by the time I show up, and that’s assuming it takes me to the right place.

SO I start heading back to this new direction following my GPS, and I had 10 minutes to burn while I’m driving. So while I’m doing this, I decided to try to practice mindfulness thinking, “Okay, I can tell that I’m upset. I’m frustrated that I’m going to be late, let me work with that, I’ve got 10 minutes to go. I’m just going to think about that, what it is that makes me upset about that?”

And it was fun, almost comical to realize the irony of the situation. I had started out my day thinking, “I want peace and calm, so I’m going drive down and meditate, so I can start out with a nice, peaceful, calm day.” And that ended up being the very source of my frustration. Is that I couldn’t get to where I was trying to get, to get my peace. And I found that comical thinking, “If I didn’t want peace this morning, I could just stayed home and I’d be content and happy at home, because I didn’t want peace. But instead I wanted peace, so here I am frustrated that I can’t have it because I can’t get there on time, and I can’t even find the place.”

Just the irony of the situation, had me laughing. So I finally pull up to what should be the right location. At this point now, I’m 20 minutes late, and I look at the parking lot and think, “Okay, this looks like the right place.” And I look across the street and what do I see? The abandoned field, the empty field that apple took me to the second time I was trying to look for the address.

So at that point, I just started laughing out loud, thinking, “Uh! The irony of this thing is just too much.” Here I was at the right place, at the right time, but I didn’t see it, because I was on the wrong side of the road, and I just assumed, “I must be at the wrong place,” so I continued my wild chase to the right place, that only brought me back to where I was initially.

At this point, it’s just all comical to me. If I was late to some meeting, maybe I wouldn’t have made too much of it. But the fact again, the fact that I was going to meditate to start my day out with some peace and calm, is what made this just almost too funny.

So I showed up and yap, I walked in late and it was fine, I didn’t think much of it. And I’m glad I went even though I was late because it was a wonderful experience, and it accomplished what I was hoping to. It was a very uplifting day after that. The funny this is for days since this happened, because this is last Sunday, all week I’ve just been thinking of the irony of the situation, and how in life we do the same thing. It’s the thing that we want that becomes the very reason that we suffer.

We want something and we can’t have it, so we suffer. And then if you’re lucky and you find a spiritual path, so to speak, like Buddhism for example, that says, “Okay, the problem is in wanting, okay, then I want to not want.” And now the fact that I want to not want, and I can not want makes me frustrated, because now I want the thing that I can’t have, which is to not want, but I want to not want. So it’s the irony of the whole situation it’s comical.

And that’s the nature of reality, it the fact that we chase after happiness that guarantees that we’re never going to be happy, because we have a misunderstanding of what happiness actually is. We treat happiness like is this thing. A permanent thing, and if I can find it then I’m done, I’m solid, for the rest of my life I’ll just be happy.

It entails not just being happy but avoiding suffering. I’m not just going to be sad, I’m not going to be angry anymore, I’m just going to be this peaceful zen like person who’s only blissed-out. And the harder you chase after that, the more suffering you’ll experience because that’s not a scenario that’s real, that’s not real life.

This reminds me of a story I want to share with you, and this is told in several circles among Sufi poets, and the main one Attar of Nishapur and I think I’ve shared this before. He talks about a fable. In which a powerful king assembles all his wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he’s sad. So he’s going through this period of his life where he’s sad, he doesn’t want to be sad, nobody does, right? He wants to be happy. So he tells his wise men, “Come up with something that’s going to make me happy.” And then again this is a metaphor, right?

After deliberations, the wise men get together and they come up with a ring, and they hand him the ring, and the ring has the inscription, “This too will pass.” And it has the desired effect. He realizes, “Ah! The sadness I’m experiencing is impermanent, this is wonderful and the understanding that it’s impermanent is enough to get him so start being happy, because sadness is not a permanent thing. So now he’s happy, however, he looks at the ring and realizes this message is also cursed. Because now whenever he’s happy he’s reminded that the happiness is impermanent and it’s going to pass.

And that’s where this expression, “This too shall pass,” comes from this story. This is a story I think has a profound teaching in it. And it’s the understanding that emotions like all things in life are impermanent. So to chase after happiness, to pursue happiness is like pursing your shadow. You can chase it your whole life but it’s something that isn’t a permanent thing, its not a thing that you catch it’s not a thing that you can grasp.

Happiness is very similar, when we look at other emotions, sadness, anger, fear, they are emotions that arise, they linger and then they disappear. They are in a constant state of changing, because that’s the nature of emotions. We happen to fix it on happiness because it’s the one we like. We like how we feel when we’re happy, and we realize we don’t typically like how we feel when we’re sad, or when we’re mad. So we lurch on to the concept of happiness and chase it, like we would our shadow.

And then there we are, we spend our whole lives chasing after something that is never meant to had as a permanent thing. It’s never meant to be something that you can actually get and then, “Boom! There you go, now you’re happy, you’ll never experience the other emotions.” Because they’re fleeting emotion, they’re impermanent. So if we can understand the nature of happiness as something impermanent, then we have a new sense of freedom.

So one way to think about this, is like we would think about the shadow. When the conditions are right, the shadow appears, and when the conditions are not right, when the conditions are not met, and there’s no source of light, and object to cast a shadow, then there is no shadow. So when the conditions are right, happiness is there, we experience happiness under the right conditions, and when those conditions are not there, we don’t experience happiness. And when the conditions are right, we experience anger, and when the conditions are right, we experience sadness. That’s the nature of human emotions.

So what’s powerful in this is realizing, “Okay, the point isn’t to obtain happiness, and to avoid sadness, or avoid anger, or avoid all the other emotions.” What we’ll learn and what we’ll see a wise way os approaching this experience of life is to think, “Okay, all of these are natural normal emotions.” And at some point I’ll feel one, and at some point I’ll feel another, and they’re all impermanent.

Imagine you have that ring, with the message etched, “This too will pass.” And next time you’re experiencing an emotion, whether it’s a positive emotion or a negative emotion, remind yourself that this too will pass. And then we don’t have to lurch on to so tightly to these emotions, they’re just impermanent emotions, it’s the nature of being human that we’re going to experience all the range of emotions that human’s experience. And not one of these is a permanent emotion. You can’t catch it and say, “Okay, that’s it. From here on now, I will only experience this one.” And so much of our suffering comes from the misunderstanding of the impermanence of our emotions.

When we’re experiencing anger for example, you can get angry at the fact that you’re angry, because now you’re caught up in this conceptual idea of, “Anger is bad, I’m not supposed supposed to be angry, I’m just supposed to just be happy or grateful.” I speak out of experience on this, I used to genuinely believe that there is no legitimate reason to ever be ungrateful, or to be angry, or to be sad. In my mind it was always compared to, “Well, think of so and so who has it so much worse, or think of the starving kids in Africa, or some scenario like that.” And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t compare completely, but what I’m saying is everyone’s circumstances are unique.

So it’s unfair for me to say, “I lost my job,” but I shouldn’t be mad because somewhere else someone is starving. There may be some truth to that from a perspective sense, but the natural way of human emotions they don’t work that way. Everyone would never experience any emotiona if they could just simply compare themselves to someone else, now it may help a little bit but you’re still going to … The point here is no matter what type of life you have, you’re still going to experience the full range of human emotions. This is why you have people in third world countries who live in poverty who can be happy, and you have someone living in a first world country who has fame and power and wealth and they can be unhappy, they can be experiencing suffering and anguish.

Because that’s, it’s the natural way of being human, is that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, you’re going to experience the full range of emotions no matter what.

SO there’s freedom in this … Buddhism is also often referred to as the path of liberation. So if we’re applying that thinking to the concepts of human emotions, what is the sense of liberation that we get? Well it’s actually a pretty incredible one, when you don’t have to be happy now you’re free to be content. It’s like the expression, “Now that I don’t have to be perfect, I can be good.” Well this is similar, now that I don’t have to chase after happiness as if that’s the only emotion that counts, I can just be content with whatever emotion am experiencing. And when I’m experiencing it I can just be with it.

For example anger, when I’m angry I can understand anger is natural and it’s okay. I can’t get rid of anger and that’s okay. You can’t get rid of sadness and that’s okay. You just learn to be with it while it’s there, with the understanding that this too shall pass. These emotions are all impermanent and when the conditions are right, they appear, and when the conditions are not met, these emotions aren’t there, and that’s it.

This reminds me of a teaching, a Zen teaching that I once heard, and I really enjoyed, and it’s about the journey. And the idea of the story is that there’s a man who’s on a journey and he’s trying to get from her and there, and there happens to be on the other side of the river. So as he’s traveling and comes up to the river and realizes that, “To leave here and get there, I have got to get across this river.” He can’t find a suitable place to cross because it’s dangerous. So he starts walking along the edge of the river looking for the right place and this goes for however long, hours, looking for the right place to cross.

And at one point he reaches a place where he can see someone where he can see somebody seating on the other side, happens to be a monk. And he sees this monk seating on the other side of the river, and he finally yells out to him and says, “Excuse me, excuse me,” the monk looks up and looks at him and says, “Can you please tell me how to get to the other side?”

And the monk kind of looks at him bewildered, looks up and down the river and then finally yells back, “You are on the other side.” And that’s the story, that’s the whole story, and I love this story. It makes me laugh when I hear it because “How do I get to the other side?” Well, from the perspective of the monk he says, “You are on the other side.”

And this is the nature of reality when it comes to perspective, wherever you are, for you is here, for someone else is there. Now there is no here and there, other than based on perspective, where I am is where I am. Where you are is just where you are. And with emotions it’s the same, I am happy, I’m happy, and when I’m mad, and when I’m sad, I’m sad. There’s no need to fight off a specific emotion as if I could guarantee that there’s something that will ensure I never experience that again, you can’t do that.

You can see this is real life by observing people who chase, who are caught up in the pursuit if happiness. Their thinking, it has to do with money, and when I can finally get enough money then I can be happy. And they chase after this their whole lives, and some of them do reach this point where they finally get a lot of money, and the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re no different than anyone else, they just happen to have more money. Happiness wise, they still have a set of difficulties that arise in life because that’s the nature of life, that difficulties arise, there is no guarantee against them.

And I do want to be clear to specify that there is a baseline. There’s a baseline where once your needs, your basic human needs are met, beyond that there is no change. Money, power, fame, non of it is going to guarantee more happiness. But if you’re under the baseline, then yes. If you don’t have proper shelter, you don’t have love or you don’t have, your basic human needs aren’t met, then yeah, that’s the first thing. Those need to be met to have that baseline of happiness.

But you’ll be shocked at how low that line is. This is why like I mentioned before there are people in third world countries who live very happy lives, while you have people in first world countries who have so much more, who live very unhappy lives. Because none of these things we typically associate with happiness guarantees of happiness. Because happiness is just an emotion, when the conditions are there we experience it, and when they are not there we don’t. Money is no guarantee of it, fame is no guarantee, power is no guarantee. And we tend to chase after those three specifically because somehow we live in a delusional society that thinks that those three things will have bearing and weight on how happy we are, and how we can minimize our suffering. And it’s just not just true, you can look at any study and you’ll find that it’s simply not true.

So leads us back to the initial question, why so we chase after happiness? Well, another answer will be, it’s just our human nature. It’s our human nature to experience something pleasant and say, “I want more of that,” to experience something unpleasant and say, “Uh! I don’t want to experience more of that.” And then we start chasing after those two thing, chasing the things that are pleasant and avoiding the things that are unpleasant. And that’s natural. But the misguided understanding of that, is that either one of those are permanent. There’s no guarantee of any formula that’s going to say, “That’s it, now you won’t experience suffering.”

You can work hard your whole life building up money, wealth and power, you finally get it, you think life is good, and then your loved one dies in a car accident, and now you experience suffering. Or you get sick and now you’re thinking, “I will give all the money I have to find a cure for this,” but there is no cure for it and now you’re experiencing suffering just like anyone else. Because the nature of reality is that difficulties arise, right? This is the first noble truth taught in Buddhism, as in life there is suffering, or that in life difficulties will arise.

So when we understand this, we become free, we become free from the chase of pursing happiness. Happiness you can think of, is part of the overall journey. So there can be happiness in the pursuit, but what is it you’re pursing? What is there to even pursue? If you understand the nature of the interdependence and the nature of impermanence, especially when applied to human emotions, then you’re free to just experience living. There’s not point, specific point other than the point is to live, so you get to just enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them.

This is the how I tend to live, the lifestyle that I have, I like to chase after experiences for the sake of the experiences, and I enjoy adventurous stuff. I love flying, I fly with a paramotor and paragliding. I love traveling, I love taking pictures and capturing my experiences, and I would have to say at one point initially, I was chasing after happiness. I thought the answer to happiness was doing this and avoiding that. And over the years that’s evolved. Because I found that no matter what I do, I still get anxious when then time of the month to pay bills comes around. I still get stressed when I’m thinking of a specific deal that fell through at work. None of that has ever changed. But somehow in the middle of all of it, I’m still content, I’m enjoying the experience of being alive. And that just doesn’t mean the good experiences, that also includes the bad ones. Or what we would perceive as bad.

After a particularly stressful day or a specific stressing event that happens at work, I often find myself thinking, “I’m glad I’ve experienced that, because when someone else is going through that, now I know what’s that like. I’ve been through that.” And it makes me grateful for the experienced that caused pain, tremendous pain in life to think, “I know what that’s like.” Because I’ve been there, allows me to have more compassion and kindness for others because I get to experience everything, I want to experience everything. I want to know what it’s like to hurt, I want to know what it is like to be sad, I want to know what it is like to be blissful and happy. Fortunately I have experienced a broad range of these emotions, and even more fortunately for me now, I understand that they’re all impermanent.

I feel what is expressed in the parable, that this too shall pass, this too will pass, has been a fantastic way of looking at life and understanding my personal pursuit of happiness. It’s no longer something I pursue, at least not in the sense I pursue and thinking, “I can actually catch it.” Now it something I can have fun with. When you understand that it’s impermanent and that it’s just the nature of life is to experience all of it, you can have fun with it. And when I’m experiencing happiness I love thinking, “Oh! Right now that conditions are there, I’m experiencing happiness this is great, all the while knowing this is impermanent, enjoy it because it is impermanent.

And then the same thing happens when I’m sad or when I’m angry, I’m just with it, I’m not trying to change it because I know it is impermanent. When the conditions go away, the emotion also goes away. And that’s the beauty of just living life in a way where you’re detached from the pursuit. I’m just enjoying it as I go because I don’t need to lurch on to the delusion that it’s actually something that I can have. That actually happiness is something I can obtain, I can pursue it, I can catch it, put it in a cage and it’s mine, that’s a delusion. I would be better off chasing my shadow for the rest of my life.

So that’s the topic I wanted to share in this podcast. Why do we chase after happiness? The concept of the pursuit of happiness. I want to hopefully give a sense of liberation, now you’re free to no longer pursue happiness because happiness is just something that will be there. When it’s there is there, when it’s not, it’s not. And try to think of happiness like you would in the other emotion. We don’t particularly chase after anger or chase after sadness, and yet no matter what you do you’re going to experience those as well.

So freedom from the pursuit of happiness and now that you don’t have to be happy you can be content. Now that you don’t have to chase after happiness, you can just enjoy life with a content attitude even when you’re experiencing positive emotions or negative emotions.

So that’s what I wanted to share with you guys, I look forward to another topic next week, and I hope you guys have a wonderful week. So take care, and until next time.

17 – Who are you?

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

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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