Podcast

29 – What Happens When We Die?

What happens when we die? This is a common question I hear when I’m teaching workshops or seminars. The short answer is “change”. Change is what happens when we die. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist perspective of death and the thoughts behind it.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 29. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about what happens when we die.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. Remember do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. That’s one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama so 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, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. A common question I get when teaching workshops about Buddhism is the question what happens when we die? It’s a big question. It’s a very big question. The short answer is change. Change is what happens when we die. To understand the Buddhist view of death you have to understand the Buddhist perspective of impermanence and interdependence. The Buddhist world view is that all things are constantly changing. This is impermanence so nothing is permanent. Everything is changing. Everything is interdependent. All things are connected to each other.

In the time and space continuum, in terms of time all things are impermanent. In terms of space, all things are interdependent. Things are constantly changing. One moment dies and gives birth to the next moment and this is an ongoing process. In this sense, death and birth are constant. Death is always happening and birth is always happening. Look at the very cells that make up our physical composition. Right now in this very moment, you have cells that are dying and new cells that are generating or being born. They’re continually growing, dying, and being replaced by new cells. In this sense, birth and death is already a constant part of what makes you who you are. Or what makes you, you. What makes me, me.

This is the understanding of impermanence. All things are constantly changing. You can look at this in terms of moment. The moment to moment experience of life. As soon as one moment ends, a new moment begins. Birth and death is a constant cycle that’s going on in the process of life. Now with interdependence, all things are interdependent. Everything has it’s causes and conditions and nothing exists in and of itself without it’s causes and conditions. Your very existence is dependent on causes and conditions. None of us suddenly came into existence of our own free will. We are the result of the actions of others. In that sense, everything depends on everything that allows it to exist.

We have the tendency to view things through the dualistic lens of left and right, wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing, birth death. This dualistic way of understanding the world makes it seem so that death is something that we consider end. Birth was beginning. Death is end. In the non-dualistic view, all of these things are always one and the same because you can’t have one without the other. The minute that we come up with the concept of left, that is the moment that right manifests itself. Same with wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing. I think about this often with the term father and son. You know the moment that I became a father is the very moment that my son became a son. You can’t have one without the other. These things manifest at the same time.

The understanding here, the implication I guess I should say is that all things are one. In Buddhism, we call this oneness or suchness. It’s everything just as it is. We get caught up in the dichotomy of creating the view of this and that, me and you, now and then. You know, we create that dualistic way of understanding the world. What does it mean to be able to see things with the lens of understanding that all things are interdependent. Well, for example, when we look at a flower, we see just the flower. What Buddhism is trying to teach is that when you see the world that way, you’re missing what the world is. We need to see everything that makes the flower a flower. You know, when we look at a flower, we should see the flower. We should also see all of the elements that are not that flower that make the flower. For example, the sun, the rain, the soil, the bees that pollinate. All the aspects that are not flower that make the flower a flower.

When you can see that, then you start to understand this idea of interdependence. It’s also sometimes referred to as interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about interbeing, but the concept is this. That if I can only see the flower as a flower then I haven’t actually seen the flower. It’s when I can see things as they are, interdependent with everything that allows that thing to be, then I can start to see the thing as it is. Unless we see it all, we don’t really see it the way that it is. With birth and death and the context of being a part of a much bigger picture, we need to understand that death isn’t the end and birth isn’t the beginning.

This applies to how we view ourselves too. We’re the same. We’re made of everything that makes us who or what we are. I like to say that I’m the sum total of everything that makes me me. Birth is not the start and death is not the end. Think about that for a second because this is a scientific thing. Scientifically, it’s generally understood that matter cannot be created or destroyed. According to the law of conservation of matter, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It just changes states. This is the first law of thermodynamics. It specifies that the total amount of energy in a closed system cannot be created nor destroyed though it can be changed from one form to another.

The short answer, again, to what happens when we die is the change is what happens. This is very difficult for us to comprehend because we have made the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. And that’s it. That’s the start. The end of me must be death. But the reality is that birth wasn’t the start of me. Physically I existed before I was born. I existed in my mom and in my dad. I’m not talking about anything metaphysical here. I’m talking about in a very literal, physical way I existed in both of my parents. If that’s true, where did I start? Did I start when I was in the DNA of my mom or in my dad? Once they combined, then do I start? Well, you know you can argue the start of you is when you’re conceived and the sperm and the egg come together, life starts to create. You know, cells start to split and then there you are as the embryo and the whole start of your journey as a life form. That’s your start.

What Buddhism is saying is, “Well, no. That’s the start of that specific phase of what you are, but you’ve never not been.” You know, at one point, I was sperm and I was egg. I was both. Before that I was, you know, protein or DNA or however you want to think about this scientifically. The reality is you’ve never not existed. You’ve existed in different states and in different things. But we make the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. Think about this for a minute with a cloud because when we look at the clouds in the sky we see a cloud. The reality is that cloud came into existence because the right temperature or the winds were causing the temperature to rapidly change or the moisture levels to change. Something causes a cloud to form. But you can’t look at the cloud once it’s formed and say, “Well, that cloud didn’t exist before.”

Because it did exist. It existed in other forms. Right? The cloud could have been part of the water in the ocean. It could have been part of the oxygen. A cloud is a lot of things. When we see something form, we view that as the beginning of that thing. When a cloud dissipates, whether that be through rain or it disperses back into just being air, we see that as the end of the cloud. But it’s not the end of the things that made the cloud the cloud. This is kind of the difference. This is where if you look at the cloud as a thing that is not interdependent with other things, then you could say, “Well, how sad. The cloud is gone.” But the cloud isn’t gone. It’s just changed into a new form. Now the cloud may be part of the ocean or now the cloud may have, if it rained, it’s part of the forest or whatever it turns into.

All of the matter that was part of the cloud is still there. I love visualizing the clouds because the cloud from the moment it comes into existence. When you look at a cloud, it’s constantly changing. It’s not a static thing. The shape of the cloud is continually shifting and evolving and morphing. At some point, the cloud is gone. There’s no more cloud. Then that process happens over and over and over again. There are always clouds somewhere. They’re never the same cloud. The clouds have never not existed. When they cease to exist, it doesn’t’ mean that those elements are gone. They become something else. It makes sense when you look at this and you see this in nature. This applies to a tree. A tree has never not existed because before it was a tree, it was the seed of another tree. Before it was a seed, it was just a part of the tree. When a tree dies, the tree is no longer there, but the essence of what makes the tree the tree, the matter, continues in that cycle of becoming something else.

What you see in nature is change. We see constant change. Why should it be any different with us? I like to think about that. Alan Watts used to say, “Have you ever seen a misshapen cloud?” I love applying that way of thinking to how we see ourselves and how we see others. Have you seen a misshapen cloud is the teaching that’s saying have you ever seen somebody who’s wrong? Who isn’t who they’re supposed to be? This is a powerful teaching because when we see this in nature we understand. Apply this to a tree. Have you ever see a misshapen tree? No. Some trees are straight. Some have bends. I mentioned this in a previous podcast. It could have an entire like horseshoe bend in it and we don’t look at that and think, “Oh, that tree is wrong. That’s not the right kind of a tree.” Because there’s no such thing as a right kind of a tree.
A tree is just a tree. A flower is just a flower. We don’t look at a flower and say, “Oh, the red flower that’s wrong. It’s supposed to be blue.” There’s no way that a flower is supposed to be. There’s no way that a tree is supposed to be. Apply this to animals. We don’t do this to animals. You know, we don’t look at a certain species of animal and say, “Oh, those are wrong. The fox is supposed to be a wolf.” We don’t say the wolf is supposed to be a bobcat because everything just is what it is. This is what Buddhism is trying to convey to us is the understanding that we’re no different. I am who I am. You are who you are. This idea of suchness is the understanding that there’s no way that you’re supposed to be. There’s no you that you’re supposed to be. There’s only the you that you are.

We’re the ones that make the mistakes of going around through our dualistic thinking and creating concepts. There’s the concept of who you are. Now I have this concept of who I think you should be. You have a concept of who you think you should be and one who you think I should be. This is where we get caught up in all these problems and this dualistic thinking. In the middle of all that, there’s this fear of death. Because death is the end of everything that we know. Everything that’s familiar to us. We create stories and narratives to try to intellectually get around the fear that we have of death. I think death is one of the biggest catalysts of religious narratives because we’re trying to find a way to make sense of the fact that at some point, like a cloud, a cloud ceases to exist and so do we.

That’s only problematic if you think that’s truly the end. It can’t be the end because birth wasn’t the beginning. I like to think about this when I think of music, too. With music life is like music. Think of a song. A song is composed of notes. It’s different notes. They’re constantly changing. A song’s not a song if it’s just one same note that never ends. Nobody would enjoy listening to that. What makes a song beautiful it’s a collection of notes. High notes, low notes, gaps and pauses in between notes. As you listen to a song, you don’t single out the note and say, “Oh, I can’t wait to hit that D sharp again and then never leave that note.” The beauty of the song goes away when you try to fix a part of that song to make that part permanent. That’s the whole point of the song is that none of the song is impermanent.

It’s all these different notes. Even if you hold one note longer, that’s fine, but none of it’s permanent. It’s the fact that it’s impermanent that makes it so beautiful. That’s how we enjoy it. And at some point the song does end. You know a song has a beginning note and it has an ending note. Every note matters. We don’t listen to a song thinking, “I never want to hear that last note.” We may want a song to not end because we’re enjoying it. But again, if it never ended, it’s no longer an enjoyable song. That’s part of the beauty of the song is that a song ends. Every note, including that final note, which in our case we could say is death, it’s a note that’s beautiful and it matters just as much as that first note which would be birth. It’s important to distinguish that there’s a very big difference in understanding that a song may end, but the music never dies.
Music goes on and another song with come. More notes will be played. Then when that song ends the music goes on. At some point, another song starts. That’s the beauty of music. Music goes on and on and on, but songs are not permanent. They’re impermanent. I like thinking about life and associating it to music. Notes and songs and then music as a whole. I think it’s a beautiful way to think about and understand this concept of life and death.

Again, the question what happens when we die? Well, the answer is change is what happens. It’s the same thing that’s happening throughout this whole process. Change is what’s constant. Now it gets difficult when we try to understand what will happen at one of these stages that we haven’t reached. I’ve alluded to this before. Trying to understand what happens when we die is very similar to trying to understand … You know somebody who’s never been in love, trying to understand what it is to be in love. How do you convey that? You know, life is so experiential. As much as you would try to convey to someone or to yourself what a specific phase is like when you reach it, you don’t know until you reach it.

You know, I did not know what it was to be a father until I became a father. I didn’t know what it was like to be married until I was married. I didn’t know what it was like to lose a job until I lost a job. You know, all these experiences in life are experiential. Death is the same. I think it’s in some way silly for us, the living, to assume we know what it’s like to be dead because a caterpillar doesn’t know what it’s like to be a butterfly until it’s a butterfly. The death of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. What we see there is change.

I think about this with seasons. Summer cannot know what it’s like to be winter. Imagine if summer were capable of being introspective and thinking, having consciousness the way we do. It would be entertaining I think to hear summer speculate of what it must be like when I end. When I end, this is probably what will happen. It might paint this crazy picture that’s absolutely nothing like reality. When summer ends, what we experience is change. A new season starts. The death of summer is the birth of fall. The death of fall is the birth of winter. But one cannot experience or know what the other is like because they’re just not same thing. One is one and one is the other.

For us, I think, it’s the same. For the living to know what it’s like to not be living, how can we do that? It’s impossible. I feel it’s unnecessary to even try to speculate or waste time trying to logically understand what it is to not exist because I only exist. To know what it’s like to not be alive is impossible for me because I’m alive. I think with this understanding then there’s no need to fear death because we start to understand that birth wasn’t the beginning and therefore death is not the end. Change is what’s coming. The song may be over, but the music goes on. I love thinking about Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. If you’ve heard this song … I heard it recently when I was in Germany. There are always street musicians playing in Europe and I assume in other large cities in the US as well in subways or in random places.

There was a group there playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Summer. Spring. Fall. And winter. All of the songs are very different, one from another. This is when I was thinking, “This part of the song cannot know what it is like to be this other part of the song because they’re different. They’re just not the same.” Different notes. Different melody. The entire style changes very much like our actual seasons change for those of you who live somewhere where there are four seasons. We have four seasons here where I live and it’s a very clear change when you shift from one season to another. I love thinking about that in life. I think it’s easy to compare the seasons to our seasons in life as well, but even greater than that I like to consider the seasons as the seasons of change in general.

The change of being life to being not life or to being something else. I don’t know what it was like to be what I was before I became what I am. We can’t know that. I don’t know what that was like. At the same time, just because consciousness changes doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think about the very simple change that happens from being awake to being asleep. We don’t go to sleep and you start having some dream. You’re not dreading or lamenting the fact that you’re not awake because you don’t even know that you’re not awake. What happened was change and it’s a total shift in consciousness. I don’t think you look back and think, “Man, if I could just be awake again. I’m so sad now that I’m asleep.” We don’t do that. You just shift into what’s next and that’s the new normal.

With dreams, it can be crazy. You can be dreaming that you’re on the back of a dragon flying over and attacking a castle and you never question any of it because it’s just reality is what it is. Anyway, I guess that’s kind of a tangent on this whole thing. What I want to get at is when we think about death and we think about it as the end. It’s not the end. It maybe the end of what we hold to be familiar, of what we understand, and perhaps it’s our fear of the unfamiliar that makes death so scary. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if anything happens. That’s something that I love about Buddhism, because Buddhism rather than try to answer these existential questions and say, “Well, here’s the answer.” It’s trying to say, “Well, hang on a second. Why is that question so important to you? Why do you feel you need to know? Could you ever arrive at a place where you don’t need to know?” Because that’s where peace is.

That’s where contentment and joy can be found. In this state of mind of, “This is something that I don’t know and that’s okay. I don’t need to know. Because when happens, it’ll happen. Until then, here’s what I do know. It’s here and it’s now and this is what I’m experiencing in life.” Buddhism anchors itself in that present moment, in the here and in the now. Again, the answer to question what happens when we die, change. Change is what happens when we die. It’s been happening all along. Change has never not been happening. It’s really hard to answer that in a simple question answer type setting without giving an entire background of the Buddhist understanding of interdependence and impermanence.

I think when you have a good grasp of interdependence and impermanence then suddenly death doesn’t seem so scary because it’s the one inevitable thing that is certain for us. Is that death will come. And with it comes change. Change is the only thing that will happen. When that times comes, change will happen and whatever it’s going to be like is what it’s going to be like. There’s no need to try to speculate. Maybe some could argue they have hope and the idea of lasting forever or thinking I have a soul and that goes on and that goes to heaven or whatever … It can be comforting to have a narrative that you can believe in, but remember that can become problematic because it’s our beliefs that can blind us from experiencing and seeing reality as it is.

Just think about that for a minute and ask yourself, “What do I think about death? Do I need to have an answer? Do I need to have a narrative that comforts me? Do I need to have that hope?” Or can I get to the root of why I feel the need to know? That’s kind of where Buddhism goes with all of this. It becomes an introspective process of understanding the nature of the mind. Why do I feel I need to know these things rather than saying here are the answers to these things. That’s what I wanted to discuss in this podcast episode.

Now, next time you hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, this whole topic is going to come into mind. Or next time you look up at the clouds in the sky, this topic might come to mind. Or maybe any music, any song, any note will evoke the memories of this specific podcast episode and the Buddhist understanding of impermanence, interdependence, and the implication that has for life, birth, and death.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please consider writing a review on iTunes or giving it a rating. If you’re in a position to be able to donate, please consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast. Every donation helps. Thank you for your support and taking the time to listen to this. I look forward to another podcast episode. Until next time.

28 – Stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Have you ever felt stuck between a rock and a hard place? It’s difficult to be aware while we’re experiencing difficulties and yet that is the very moment that awareness can change everything for us. In this short episode, I will share the zen story of the strawberry and explain how I view this story to be a powerful lesson about awareness.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 28. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings. Presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learned 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 on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast, by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. Have you ever felt like you were stuck between a rock and a hard place? I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. And I think this is something that we all experience from time to time. It’s typically the feeling that we get when it seems like we have no good way out of a situation. And the situation can be all kinds of different things.

I recently experienced this, or have been experiencing this for a while with running my own company. And sometimes the decisions that have to made owning a business and deciding, for example, what to do with excess inventory. Or deciding if I should negotiate a deal with a specific chain of stores. From time to time I’ve had this feeling of feeling like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And recently I was in Germany, attending the world’s largest photography expo, called Photokina, for my work. And I’ve been working on this deal with my suppliers, the owners of the factory who manufacture all of my products. And I’ve been starting to feel more and more this feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Specifically in terms of how I negotiate a deal that I’ve been working on, with regards to: the ownership of the company, how to manufacture the products, who gets to decide who’s selling them to which distributor or which retailer.

And at times this can be a really stressful process for me. It’s probably one of the few areas right now, in my life right now, where I tend to feel a considerable amount of stress. So I’ve been anticipating this meeting with the owners of the factory for months now. And last week, while I was in Germany attending the trade show, we had the meeting scheduled. And I arrived there on a Monday and the meeting wasn’t until Thursday. So I was noticing how the level of anxiety was rising throughout the week, as I approached Thursday.

And it was kind of a fascinating process to experience this. And to notice it as I’m experiencing it. And it reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. That really means more to me now, than it ever has. And I think it’s a story that I want to share with you. And I think the basic lesson that’s generally taught with this story is one thing. But I see another level of meaning with this story. And I want to share that with you.

So this is called, the story of the strawberry. It’s a parable and it’s a Zen story. So the story goes like this: that there was a Zen master who was out walking one day. And he’s confronted by a ferocious tiger. So he slowly backs away from the tiger. Only to find out that he’s trapped by the edge of a high cliff. And the tiger snarls with hunger. And it goes after him. And his only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss of the cliff. Holding onto a vine that’s growing out of the edge of the cliff. So as he climbs down the vine and he’s dangling there. He notices that there’s danger at the bottom as well. There’s another tiger at the bottom.

So he looks up. He can’t climb up because the tiger is there. If he climbs down, he can’t go down because there’s a tiger down there. So he’s kind of stuck. And then in the middle of all that, as if that wasn’t bad enough. Two mice show up and they start gnawing at the vine. And now he knows it’s just a matter of time before the vine breaks. And then he’s going to fall. So as he’s hanging there, dangling by the vine. Death seems imminent. And just then, he looks over and notices a ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. And he plucks the strawberry. And puts it in his mouth. And supposedly, the way the story goes, he says, “What a lovely strawberry this is.” Or this is the sweetest strawberry he’s ever tasted. And in that moment, he was enlightened.

And it’s a simple story. I’ve heard it many times. And it’s so simple, it’s almost silly. And I was thinking more about this specific story, something stood out to me. That I don’t think I had really noticed before. And it’s this idea of experiencing this and having the strawberry isn’t what makes him enlightened. It’s the fact that in the midst of being between the rock and the hard place, the metaphorical experience. In his case, the literal experience of being between the tiger and the tiger and death imminent because the mice are gnawing on the vine. He was capable of doing something that most people are not capable of. He was capable of noticing something.

To me this was a parable about awareness, more than anything. It’s the fact that in that moment, the average person would look and not even notice there’s a strawberry there. Because we’re focused on the situation at hand. Right? The fact that there’s a tiger, there’s a tiger, there are mice, the vine is being chewed on. The last thing that’s going to cross my mind is, “What should I be aware of here? What am I not noticing?”

And in Buddhism, we talk about this awareness all the time. And specifically what we’re trying to be aware of is the fact that there are things that we don’t know, that we don’t know. So it’s not even an awareness of, “I need to be looking for strawberries,” in this case. Because you can’t know, in this story, that he didn’t know what he was going to encounter. But what he was capable of, is being in a moment like that and noticing something. Having that sense of awareness.
So I was thinking about this story in the days leading up to my appointment, my meeting with the factory owners. And I thought a lot about this story. And like I said, the idea of what this story means has shifted over time for me. And I feel it’s become a more meaningful and in-depth story for me. As I realize that the whole point of the story is about awareness. It’s not about the conclusion. And we don’t know what happens. That’s not the point, is to know what will happen. Did he climb up? Did he climb down? Did the vine break? You know, you can draw all these metaphors, but that’s not the point. The point is that in that moment he experienced something because of his awareness.

So on Thursday, the day of the meeting, I had been thinking about this. And I was trying to tell myself, you know, there’s no need to be too stressed. Worst case scenario is that this business deal doesn’t happen the way that I thought that it did. And the best case scenario is that it does happen the way that I thought that it would. And in a way, both of them seemed like the rock and the hard place. Because if it does work the way that I wanted it to work, then I’m bound by these new terms that we’re committing to. And if it doesn’t work, then none of it’s going to work. And I’m free to start doing something else. But that also brings its own bag of new things to worry about.

So as we’re walking out there, I’m thinking of the story of the strawberry. And thinking, okay, for me this is completely metaphorical because there’s really no tiger and there’s no tiger. But it can feel like that. Life can feel like that at times. And I thought, if I were the person hanging on the vine right now. And I’m nervous about what’s going to happen. Am I going to climb up, am I going to climb down? Is the tiger going to get me? Are the mice going to gnaw through the vine? You know, when you’re in that situation. And I was thinking what am I, what could I look around and see that I didn’t notice that I wasn’t noticing?

And again, I’m in Germany. I’m experiencing a really cool vacation, tied in with work. Because it’s a new place I’ve never been. And as we’re walking to where we were going to have the meeting, I paused. And I thought, “What have I not noticed here?” And I just looked around. And as I looked around, this flock of birds flew right over my head. Probably 30 or 40 birds. And it was just a really powerful moment to pause for a second.

And to realize, here are all these birds who are just flying. And they’re completely oblivious to my stresses. The things going on in my life. The fact that I’m walking to a meeting that’s stressing me out. And they just do what they do. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds and thousands of years. In this same little city. Where people are walking to and from the town square. Probably with stresses and moments of failure, moments of success, with all kinds of things. But to them, it doesn’t matter. They’re going about doing their thing. And for some reason that experience for me, really clicked with the story of the strawberry.

And I took out my phone and I started filming. On the iPhone, you can do slow motion video. And I was filming them fly. And I filmed it in slow motion. And then I sat down and I watched the birds flying in slow motion. With their wings flapping and all of it in slow motion. And it just, it hit me with such a strong sense of awareness I think, in that moment. To realize there’s so much that I’m not aware of in a moment like that. When I can feel stress or anxiety, that feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place can limit my ability to be aware of all the amazing beauty that’s happening all around. And in that moment, it happened to be birds.

And I know that there are other things that I’m not aware of. You know? Maybe there were also ants crawling around. Or aside from the animals, just the other people in that same space. You know, somebody was probably walking with excitement in their step, because they had just gotten engaged or they just got a new job or they just bought a new car. At the same time, someone else was walking through that plaza, disappointed because they just lost a job, or they just crashed their car or they’re going through marital problems. I don’t know. And I think that’s kind of the point is, like with the Zen story.
It’s not about the conclusion because we don’t know the conclusion. We don’t know what happened. But it was never about what happened. It’s about what can we notice in the process of just being. And this was really powerful for me because from that moment on, I kind of felt like it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. But what can I notice in this one moment. What can be my strawberry. And my strawberry was seeing those birds. And watching them fly. And I think a part of the reason that stood out to me so much is because I have a fascination for flying.
Flying is a big part of what I enjoy in life. And flying, ironically, was also a big part of why I was there in that moment, having that meeting. Because at one point in my life, I thought I was going to be a pilot, a helicopter pilot. And I spent a considerable amount of time and money to pursue that career. And it just turned out that, that wasn’t the career that worked out for me. Life events changed my plans. And instead of graduating from the school I was going to, and becoming a helicopter pilot. The school closed and went bankrupt. And stole my student loans for my flight money. And propelled me down this whole new path that was unplanned, unanticipated. And here I was in that present moment, the culmination of my desire to be a pilot. Had me standing in a square, in Germany, watching birds in slow motion. And it was just kind of a cool experience.

To me that’s the essence of this story. The story of the Zen master who was capable, in the moment of being between a rock and a hard place, of noticing something. And having a sense of awareness. So that’s what I wanted to share with you this week. Is the topic of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I know you’ve all felt that. I’ve felt that. And if you haven’t or you’re not right now. You will at some point again. It’s part of the experience of being alive. And when that happens, I would invite you to think of this story. Think of the guy dangling by a vine. And looking and realizing, oh there’s a strawberry. And tasting it. And like I’ve said before, this sounds like such a simple silly, almost, story. But it carries a very powerful message.

And it’s the message of our ability to be aware. And I think it’s this person’s ability to be aware in a moment like that. Is what makes that person enlightened. It’s not the fact that he ate a strawberry and that made him enlightened. That would be silly. So think about that. And if you’re going through a situation like this in your life, pause for a moment. And just ask yourself, continually ask yourself, “What am I not aware of not being aware of?” Or “What am I not noticing that I’m not noticing?” And pause for a minute. And look around. And try to capture something going on around you. That can get you out of that sense of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Because there’s always something else. And I’d love to hear your story or your interpretation of this. What this parable means to you. And the comments on the blog or on the Facebook page or in the Facebook group, Secular Buddhism. So, SecularBuddhism.com or Secular Buddhism on Facebook. You can find the study group and the Facebook page. So that’s the story I wanted to share with you this week, the story of the strawberry, being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And remember, awareness is one of the key teachings in Buddhism. And there’s a big reason why. Because wisdom is what we’re after. And the only way to obtain wisdom, in this sense, in the spiritual sense, is learning or becoming aware of the things that we’re not aware of. And it’s with awareness that we can have acceptance. And with awareness and acceptance that we can experience change. Or enact change in our lives. And that’s why awareness is a key part here. And this is why this story, to me, is such a powerful story when you think about it and relate it to a teaching about awareness. So, ask yourself, “What am I not noticing?”

And again, I want to thank you for listening and being a part of this podcast. I’ve mentioned this before, but the podcast is growing at a rate that is quite incredible for me. And is still hard to believe. And I want to thank you all for that. Because it’s because of you that the podcast gets shared and continues to grow. And if any of you are interested in doing any humanitarian work. I’m going to remind you again, of the humanitarian trip we’re doing to Uganda, January 26 through February 4th of next year, 2017. And you can learn all about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

So that’s all I have for this week. Thank you again for listening. And if you have time, please write a review or give the podcast a rating in iTunes, that really helps. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can be reached on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Facebook page. And thanks again, for your continued support. And, until next time.

27 – Understanding Non-Attachment

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

Transcript of the podcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 – Want to be happy? Practice gratitude


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

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Transcript of the podcast episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 – Is Buddhism a Religion?

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

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Transcript of the podcast episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 – The Journey is the Goal


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

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Transcript of the podcast episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 – The Illusion of Free Will


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

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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