10 – True Selflessness

What does it mean to be selfless? In Gyomay Kubose’s essay on selflessness he mentions that “Buddhism is the way of selflessness”, but what does that really mean? In this episode, I will explore the topic of selflessness and how our sense of self is always relative. Understanding relative existence and interdependence is the key to living life in a state of selflessness. When you put your whole life into something…that is the essence of being selfless.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This episode number 10. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about selflessness.

Hey guys, I’m excited to talk to about the topic of selflessness today. And before jumping into the topic I wanted to take a minute, first and foremost to thank you for listening to this podcast. This is a fun milestone for me to be able to announce that as of today we have over 25,000 downloads of the podcast. And this is in a relatively short amount of time because this podcast has only been around two months now. This is really exciting for me. My intention when I started the podcast was really just to share the knowledge that I have been studying and learning as I was on this path studying Buddhism myself. And I’m in a Buddhist Lay Ministry program right now. And in the summer of 2017 when I graduate I’ll be an actual Lay Minister teaching this regularly. And in the process of studying it’s been very important for me to learn how to teach the Dharma effectively. In other words how to teach Buddhism.

And I of course, have chosen to teach this through a Secular lens, and I know sometimes that can be a little disconcerting for Orthodox or Traditional Buddhists who see the word Secular Buddhism and think, “What is that, what are you taking away from what the Buddha taught?” And I wanted to clarify that for a minute. And be clear that I only see the teachings of the Buddha as there’s just this one set of teachings. There’s what the Buddha taught. And then to interpret that and to express the Dharma, I think there are various ways to be able to do that.

I read a book a couple years ago called The Five Love Languages. And the premise, I’m sure many of you have heard of this is that we communicate love through different languages. For some it’s touch, for some it’s affection, for some it’s receiving gifts. There are different ways to communicate affection and love. These are known as the five love languages. Well, I think that way of thinking extends to almost everything. And when you take something as broad as what the Buddha taught, I think it can be distilled down to a couple of key points. The world is impermanent. That all things are interdependent. But the way that you learn and express what is collectively known as the Dharma, what the Buddha taught. I think there are love languages that are more effective.

We talk about the love languages in terms of how we communicate with each other in relationships. I think the love languages that would apply to teaching kindness and compassion, or wisdom and compassion, there’s the language of Zen, there’s the language of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s the language of the Japanese schools of Buddhism, Jodo Shin, et cetera. And I think there’s a valid argument that one of these languages would be Secular Buddhism which is a language that’s communicated clearly to people who are Secular-minded. And in the West, I think there is a tendency to understand things more through a Secular lens.

But what’s being communicated throughout any of these schools of thought is really the same thing. All of it boils down to trying to communicate in the best language possible what the Buddha taught. Which for me, for my personal understanding is that all things are interdependent and all this are impermanent. And then along with that there’s several other key teachings on the four noble truths, the eight fold path, how all this relates to us in our day to day life I think can be communicated effectively in a language that makes sense to you. And for some people and their personality that might be Zen. And for some people and their personality it might be Jodo Shin, and on and on.

And for me, as I was learning all this it made a lot of sense to learn this through a Secular understanding. And that’s why I teach a Secular Buddhism. That’s why I’m interested in explaining the Dharma in the Secular Vernacular because that’s how it makes sense to me. And I know that there are other Secular minded people who are interested in learning about Buddhist philosophy. And that’s why I explain it through this very same lens.

I wanted to communicate that mostly to be clear that I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as Zen Buddhism, and that that’s any different than Secular Buddhism, or that that’s any different then Jodo Shin Buddhism. I think that what’s being communicated is the same thing expressed through different languages much like the love languages. When in relationships when somebody, when one couple, one individual in the couple communicates their love for their spouse, or for their partner by consistently taking out the trash, and keeping the house clean. That’s really not that different from the person in the relationship who expresses it through touch and affection. It’s just two different love languages. But they can both love each other. And I think this is similar. What’s being communicated is wisdom and compassion, but it can be expressed in a language that makes more sense to someone else who also happens to speak that specific love language.

I wanted to clarify that. I’m not at odds, at least from my perspective I don’t see myself at odds in teaching Secular Buddhism with any of the other schools of Buddhism. I happen to really enjoy Tibetan Buddhism. I happen to have a lot of close friends who are in the Jodo Shin Buddhist tradition. And I think I’ve learned a lot from them and being able to communicate certain things in ways that hadn’t occurred to me before. Because the way that it’s taught in that tradition doesn’t necessarily speak to me naturally. And it’s just a fascinating thing to realize but we’re all communicating the same thing, we just express ourselves a little differently. I wanted to be clear about that. I don’t see this as being completely separate from any of the other schools of Buddhism. They’re all just expressed slightly differently in different languages, like love languages.

And I like the idea of love languages because I think Buddhism is about wisdom and compassion, and love, love and kindness. It’s like Buddhism is a love language or Secular Buddhism is one of the love languages. That’s how I view it. I wanted to clarify that.

The next thing I wanted to clarify, I’ve been asked before why do I do this? Why do I do these podcasts? I have three different businesses and I have three children right now. I’m in a very busy stage of my life. And it takes time to record these podcasts. It takes time to prepare. I teach lessons almost every Saturday at my office and people come to those and it takes time to prepare those. And the reason I do it is because this is a topic that to me is incredibly rewarding. It’s very fascinating to be able to teach something that helps to inspire people to be better people. And ultimately, in my view, it makes the world a better place.

About four years ago I found myself in a very dark difficult part of my life. I was going through a marriage crisis and I was going through a faith crisis. Going through these things and trying to figure things out I was caught up in this way of thinking, I thought, “How did I mess up? Where did I mess up in life?” Something was wrong and I think naturally we have the tendency to view ourselves sometimes as finished products. We’re constantly evaluating ourselves and others as finished products thinking, “Well, you did this wrong, or this right, or you turned out good, you turned out bad.” As if we’re finished products. When the reality is that we’re continually works in progress. And I wasn’t able to see myself as a work in progress. I had messed up in life. Something went wrong, I got it wrong, and that way of thinking was very detrimental. It was a difficult time in my life.

That’s when I came across Buddhism and Buddhist studies and it was so refreshing and liberating to understand that all things are impermanent, and that we’re constantly becoming. There is no way to say, “Oh where did I mess up in life?” It’s like you haven’t messed up because you’re alive. And I came across this teaching that I really enjoyed ever since. It’s about a rose and limitations, and the idea here is that the only limitation of the rose is that the rose is not a daisy, but it doesn’t care, so it doesn’t matter. And that resonated with me because here I was in a specific phase of life where I was thinking, “I didn’t get this right. My marriage isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Or my way of having faith isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Somewhere I messed up in this process.” And I couldn’t figure out why, nothing made sense.

And then, what made the most sense was realizing because there is nothing to … There is no milestone like this is it, and there you got it, you did it right. And there is no, well you did this, so there you got it wrong. There is just, what is. And what was at that specific phase of my life is what it was at that specific time in my life. That’s all it was. Buddhism was able to really convey that in a way that made sense to me. And I remember that experience one day where I had that moment of letting it go, and realizing oh, there’s all the stress, all the weight was off my shoulders, there was only the experience of being. And I thought, “This is something that makes a lot of sense to me. And this is something that I want to teach.” And that’s where the motivation came from.

I think ever since then, and this is almost four years now, I feel like I’ve been in this continual state of almost bliss thinking, “I’m just excited to be alive now. There is not way to mess up life. Because you’re just going through it.” In the Dhammapada there’s a section that says, “Just as a farmer irrigates a field, and arrow smith fashions an arrow, and a carpenter shapes a piece of wood. And so the sage tames himself.” And I remember when I read that thinking that’s what Buddhism should be for me. It’s the process by which I can shape myself. I can take my own mind and find a way to live peacefully and happily. And it had nothing to do with how you need to convince others to be. It’s a very personal process. That it’s all about being the best version of you that you can be.

I once saw this little meme or little cartoon. And it shows a man who’s head is a Rubix cube and it’s all twisted out of its pattern, and he’s hiking up this tall, tall mountain. At the top of the mountain you see another stick figure sitting in meditation and his head is also a Rubix cube, but it’s all assembled in the right pattern with all of the sides have their one solid color. I thought that was really funny and I think that’s how … The intention of the Dharma is that you can take yourself and realize like the Rubix cube that with the right moves, and the right spins and twists, your own mind becomes settled and becomes organized, and becomes at peace.

And that’s what this process has been like for me. And the only reason I like to share it is because I want others to have that same kind of peace. It’s not about converting anyone to anything, because there’s nothing to covert to. There’s nothing to convert away from. Buddhism isn’t necessarily a philosophy or religion of belief. It’s a philosophy or religion that’s a way of life. And if anything, I would argue that it’s about unbelief. It’s about taking the concepts that we’ve been given since the moment we’re born, and we’re children, and we start acquiring meanings, and concepts, and labels, and beliefs. What Buddhism’s trying to do is strip us of those things and realize those can blind us from seeing life as it is.

I think in a nutshell there’s what is, and then there’s the story we create about what is. And this applies in the present, past, and future. There’s whatever happened in life, and then there’s the story that we create around what happened in life. And a lot of the suffering, pain and suffering can be found within the story we create about what ever happened. Or if we’re talking in the present there’s what is, and then there’s the story we create about what is. And a lot of our pain and suffering comes from the story we’ve created about what is. And Buddhism is trying to help us strip ourselves of the stories, the labels, the meanings, and the beliefs around what we think is. And when we can do that, then you’re only left with what is. And it’s a fascinating process to be able to do that and just train the mind to be with what is. And not be caught up in the meanings like the Dhammapada says. The sage tames himself. It’s a very introspective process. It’s a contemplative process that involves you and you only, and what you find out is you are your greatest teacher. It’s not necessarily about anything other then that.

With that, I wanted to talk about this concept of selflessness. Selflessness as explained through the Buddhist lens. Typically when we’re talking about selflessness what we think of the standard way of viewing selflessness. It’s about thinking less about yourself and more about others. It’s typically associated to be generous and kind, or to be an altruistic, it’s the opposite of being selfish. And that’s how we typically view selflessness. And I want to present this in a slightly different light. Because through the Buddhist lens I think there’s a little bit more to this concept of being selfless.

I want to start with a quote from the Tibetan poet Shantideva. He says, “Whatever joy there is in the world arises from wishing for others happiness. Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness.” And I think this still falls in line with the typical concept of selflessness and it’s opposite selfishness that we understand. But what I really want to share in this podcast episode, there’s an essay by Reverend Gyomay Kubose in his book Everyday Suchness. These are Buddhist essays on everyday living. He has an essay on selflessness. And I want to read most of it, or quote most of it because it’s a fascinating essay where he talks about this concept of selflessness. And he talks about how in our present day, in this society, we live in a very … A society that’s very engulfed in the idea of self. And I think if any of us were to look at ourselves honestly, we’ll realize it’s all about the self, right? We live in a time of self-education, self-development, self-improvement. Everything revolves around the idea of there being a self.

And what he mentions is that when we stop and think about what self is, we’ll see a whole different picture of the self. Because we’ll realize there is no self really without the other. It’s the understanding that self exists because there is other, then self is a relative thing. The real self outside of relativity, the real self exists in a selflessness state. A state of selflessness. What does that mean?

The Buddha taught that the essence of all things is selfless. And what we usually think of as the self is actually temporary and it’s an illusion. Again, in this essay Reverend Kubose says, “Most people think I is the most important thing. I believe this, I believe that, I have the right, et cetera. But I is the sum total of all other people and things.” Think about that for a minute. This is really fascinating. He goes on to say, “My body is given to me by my parents. All the food that I eat to maintain myself, my growth. The food is produced and provided by others. All the clothing that I wear to protect myself, these are the product of other people. Our shelter and our belongings, these are not of our own making. The language that I speak, I’ve learned this. This has been given to me. The way that I think, this has been learned. This has been given to us by our society, by our culture, by the specific time that we live in. Our parents, our teachers, all the other people who have taught me. All this makes me what I am. So all that I am is the sum total of others.” This is something I highlighted in the essay because I think it’s fascinating. The concept that all that I am is the sum total of others.

I think that’s very profound. Therefore there is no I that exists apart from others. I thought it was interesting as I was reading this and I was trying to process this understanding of the self in relation to others. And how we exist in relative terms. I thought, “This is just fantastic. The understanding that there is no self without other, and that real self exists in the state of selflessness, makes a lot of sense to me.” And because what this is communicating to me is the understanding of interdependence right? That we think of ourselves as something that exists as an independent thing of all others. There’s self and then there’s all other. But the reality is that everything’s interdependent. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for someone else.

There’s not one single person alive today who said, “I want to exist, I want to exist now.” Every single one of us suddenly exists because somebody else, somebody else’s actions. And that, the way that you look, the way that you think, everything about you, everything that becomes this very strong sense of self really, what does it have to do with yourself? You didn’t choose any of this. You didn’t choose to exist. You didn’t choose to look the way that you do. I didn’t choose the color of my hair. This is … I suddenly came into existence because of causes and conditions that were completely out of my control. And now here I am. And I exist. And yet, I have this tendency to associate myself with all these things that for me are so personal. But none of these things were of my choosing. This is just how I suddenly exist. We can see all things as interdependent, the idea of an independent self becomes easier to let go of. And I love the description of I as the total sum of all other people and things. I think this understanding of selflessness is really refreshing.

And it falls in line with this reoccurring theme that I come across in Buddhism, is that things are simple and profound. If you pause for a minute, I think it’s incredible to think that you are listening to this podcast, and I am recording this podcast on a technological platform that didn’t exist 50 years ago. And I am sitting in my office in a country, this country didn’t exist 250 years ago, and yet it’s an integral part of my identity. I am an American. And this is something that didn’t exist 250 years ago. I’m communicating to you in a language, English, that did not exist about 1,000 years ago. And we’re discussing topic that didn’t exist 3,000 years ago. And yet, all of these things are very important parts of how I identify myself, my sense of self. And I think that’s fascinating.

These are all parts of how I identify myself in the world. And all of this comes form sources that have nothing to do with me. I’ve inherited all of these things. I’ve inherited my genetics. I’ve inherited the way that I think. I am the sum total of all others. How fascinating is that?

The Buddha, going back to this essay, the Buddha did not consider the I, or self to be an eternal independent categorical entity. You have the Atman, or the soul in Hinduism or Christianity. He presented the concept of life as a form of continuous becoming. A form of continuously changing. Therefore, the state of I, the sense of self is always changing. And you think about this, for example in my own life, I am a father because I have children. I am a husband because I have a wife. I am a teacher because I have students. One day I will be old because I will be compared to young. What you find is that it’s all relative existence. All relative existence. And pause for a minute and think about the sense of self that you have now. The things that you identify with that are integral part of your self identity. Think about how these have changed over time, and go back and think to how you were 10 years ago, five years ago. It might be a month ago, two months ago, I don’t know. At any point in the past look at what meant the sense of self to you and look at how they are now, and see how they’ve changed. And what you’ll discover is what Reverend Kubose talks about in this essay is that is it all relative existence.

And then the essence or nature of life is actually selfless. You see, it’s only when we’re in this selflessness, this state of selflessness that we start to have real peace, we can see real beauty, and have real happiness. And it’s this sense of selflessness that is the true self. The true self is selfless, because there is no such thing as a self that’s completely independent of everything else. Because, as I’ve mentioned before in other podcasts it’s that we’re completely interdependent with everything else.

Think about the relationship between a mother and her child or maybe between a parent and their child. And what you’ll find is, and this is in my own experience with my kids. There’s this sense of self, there’s me and sometimes we have this tendency to think well, what’s most important in life is first me, and my survival and how I am, and then how I relate to everything else. This, like in the sense of self in others is ingrained in us. But then when you have kids, at least in me experience, all of a sudden it’s like there’s an extension of the self. And my kids are just as important to me, if not more, then I am to me. And I see this with my wife, the bond, the motherly bond between mother and child I think is the ultimate expression of selflessness in the sense that to her, and to me our kids are an extension of who we are. And they become the fulfillment of our life. It’s not that there’s self in other, it’s they become just as important as the sense of self is, because it’s a continuation of the self.

Imagine that way of thinking extending beyond just your kids. And you can start to see this with people who are very passionate about whatever it is that they do. And this is common I think among artists. When you think of the painter who paints, or the musician who composes, or a singer who sings. They do this not because, it’s typically not just oh, I want to go paint because this will be fun. This is a part of who they are that the action of painting, or the action of singing, or the action of performing is they do it in the state of selflessness because it’s they’ve moved beyond their self doing something. And they become one with the process. I think that’s the notion of selflessness that’s explained in this essay is that when we’re doing something with everything that we have, we become one with that process. Just like when you have love for your children, and this can happen with your partner or your spouse as well, but when that love transcends the sense of self, the sense of self grows. And it’s not just self, there’s us. There’s we. And that’s how I feel with my family. It’s well there’s me, but then there’s we, and we is more important then me. That’s that sense of selflessness. It’s no longer just the self. There’s my family, and my family to me is more important then me.

It’s an interesting and fascinating thing to experience. And it can happen with hobbies and careers too. What you do is greater then yourself. You become one with that process. That’s the sense of selflessness that I think is being conveyed in this essay. And that’s the sense of self that I think is taught typically in Buddhism.

When we put our whole self into whatever it is that we do. Into how we love, how we live, how we work, whatever it is that you do there can be a sense of selflessness. And I want to finish this with reading the final chapter in this essay on selflessness, in the book Everyday Suchness.

He says, “Flowers bloom selflessly. Wind blows selflessly. Water flows selflessly. And children are selfless in their words and acts and that’s what makes these things beautiful. The Buddha taught selflessness as one of his basic teachings and it’s our mistake and ego, selfishness the opposite that causes human troubles and suffering.” And this goes back to Shantideva’s quote. It’s, “Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness.” And I want to flip that, it’s when we think that there’s a sense of self that’s independent of other, there’s going to be suffering. But when we understand that the sense of self that we experience is actually interdependent with other, it only exists because of other, then you realize what there is is oneness. And it’s in this sense of oneness or in selflessness that we can have joy. That’s where joy and happiness arise from.

He says, “We do not realize that we are literally able to live and enjoy life only because of other people and things. And when one really understands this truth we cannot help but to become humble and to appreciate others.” And that’s, Buddhism is the way of selflessness. That’s how I view Buddhism in general. Secular Buddhism of course, the way I teach it. And specifically the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha are about selflessness. It’s about this understanding that in life, there’s the sense of self that we experience, but it’s an illusion because we don’t exist independently of other people and other things. We exist interdependent with all other people, and all other things.

And I hope you can take a minute to pause and really reflect on this. And think about the aspects of yourself that you identify with very greatly. Maybe it’s I am an entrepreneur, or I am a parent, I am a dad, I am whatever it is. Ask yourself, I am a, and then fill in the blank and see what do you identify with in a really, really strong way. And then try to break that down and realize how illusory that can be because it’s relative. This is relative existence we’re talking about. And the way that you exist now is relative. And when that really connects with you and when you understand that, all of a sudden what’s left is this strong sense of love towards other people, and other things. Because you realize wow, I’m completely interdependent with all these things.

In my own experience I always thought it was interesting the sense of pride that we get from patriotism. And a few weeks ago we were at an assembly at my son’s school and the flag was being brought into the room by the boy scouts. And there’s song playing in the background. And I thought, “How fascinating that I sense such pride for my citizenship to this country.” And this for me is a unique thing because I am citizen of two countries. I am a Mexican citizen and I am also an American citizen. I have two passports and I get that sense of allegiance to both. And I thought, “One doesn’t take away from the other.” Because I’ve had this same experience before growing up in school in Mexico. And we have an assembly and the flag’s being raised and we’re singing the National Anthem. And it’s this sense of pride for belonging and having citizenship to this country. And I felt that for both. And I thought, when I’m in the US and I feel that for being an American citizen, it doesn’t take away from what I feel as Mexican citizen. I just happen to feel it twice now.

I think the only other place where that can really be experienced is with kids. And you have your first child, and you’re like, “Wow, I thought I knew what it was like to love. But now I know what it’s like to love because I have this child and they mean everything in the world to me. And it’s not possible to love anyone more then I can love my child.” And that’s how you think it is until you have another child, and you realize oh my gosh, I love the second child just as much as I love the first child. But it didn’t take away at all from the amount of love I had for the first child. I just feel it twice. I didn’t know it could be multiplied. And then you do that with a third and I only have three, but there are people who have several kids and I assume the process just goes on and on.

I think this eludes to what the Buddha taught as love as one of the immeasurable. It’s something that can’t be measured because there is no end to it. What you think is the most you could ever love someone, you find out oh, it doesn’t end. It can actually double in the blink of an eye by having another child. It doubles and now you feel it towards two people. And Buddhism, as I mentioned before, it’s this path of selflessness. It’s taking that kindness, that love, that compassion and learning that it’s in the state of interdependence, the state of selflessness that can grow and it’s immeasurable. It’s not finite. It’s not this finite thing that I better not love you too much because I need to save enough of that love that I have for my own family, or for my own in group, my tribe so to speak. What it’s trying to convey here is that with the proper understanding, that’s where wisdom comes in. With the proper perspective, all of a sudden what we’re left with is true kindness and compassion, which is immeasurable. And this can be extended out to everyone when we truly understand interdependence.

And that’s how I wanted to talk about selflessness in this podcast. I think the understanding of what it means to live a selfless life, it’s not focusing more on others then I do on myself, it goes beyond that. It’s realizing that there is no sense of self without other. All there really can be is the sense of oneness. It’s realizing yeah, I’m experiencing life through the lens of me. But what that really means is that there’s only we. I’m experiencing life in the state of we, through the lens of me, if that makes sense. That’s what I wanted to share with you, that’s the topic of selflessness. And this has been a very meaningful thing for me in my own life. And I hope that this makes a difference for you in your life. Thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to presenting another topic to you next week. Thank you.

9 – Carrots & Sticks

In this episode, I’ll discuss how our evolutionary hardwiring causes us to chase after carrots and avoid getting hit with sticks. This constant seeking and avoiding can make it difficult to live authentic lives. We tend to focus on showing a good front and hiding any aspect of ourselves that we deem unworthy. The Japanese haiku “showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall” teaches us to be vulnerable and authentic. I hope you enjoy this episode.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the secular buddhism podcast. This is episode number nine, I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about carrots and sticks, specifically the fact that we chase carrots and we avoid sticks. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, let’s get started.

Now before we jump into the topic, this is a friendly reminder that the secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular Humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism, so if you’re new I recommend listening to the first five episode in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order. And remember, the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Keep this in mind as you listen to and learn about the topics and concepts we discuss in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Hey guys, I wanted to talk a little bit today about, well, several things. But starting out, I watch a show called brain games on National Geographic and the first episode of this season talks about the brain, the wiring of the brain and it compares the way our brain works to a city, and specifically to London. It kind of shows, as a city grows, there’s the downtown or the center of a city and then as the city grows it expands and then you add highways or bridges or there are suburbs or neighborhoods. And the idea here was that, no matter how big the city gets, the downtown is still the same. That’s the old part of the city. The buildings are generally older, the streets are laid out in a way where, that’s just how they are, they’re not gonna change.

And it talks about how our brain is very similar in the sense that as our brains have evolved, there are aspects of how our brain works that are hard wired and they’re very, very old, it’s the ancient workings of the brain. For example, the habitual or instinctual habits that we have to seek reward or to avoid punishment, this concept of chasing carrots or avoiding sticks. And it’s hard wired in us in a very old part of the brain that comes from an evolutionary standpoint, this is like the reptilian part of our brain.

That’s why, at one point in the evolution of our species, there was a time when getting the right reward, finding the right food or accomplishing the hunt, our life depended on it. And then on the flip side of that, the avoiding the stick. There was a time when, if you were to be driven from your group, from your “in” group, that meant life or death. The hard wiring that exists in our brain that is old, as old as human beings are and even older because it goes into how we were wired that way from an evolutionary standpoint before we were even human, you can start to see the remnants of that way of thinking in our day to day life.

If can be that if someone cuts you off on the road, the habitual reactivity is to treat that like a life and death thing. You’re suddenly full of rage and you’re angry, almost like you would be if someone was trying to kill you or somebody were to say something to you, if a stranger came up on the sidewalk and insulted you, wow that’s like life or death. The reactive part of our brain treats that like life and death no different than it evolved to treat certain scenarios that way, and it can activate the fight or flight mode. It’s just important to know that that’s how the brain works. By knowing that we’re hard-wired that way, very much like a city has downtown and that’s just how it is, our brain is similar. Our brain is wired in a way where there’s a part of it that still functions that way and it treats everything life or death, it treats everything like we’re chasing the carrot as if our life depends on it or we’re avoiding the stick as if our life depends on it.

And I think it’s interesting to be able to take some time and just pause and think, “What are the carrots that I chase in life? Or what are the sticks that I try to avoid in life?” And I treat these things as if my life depends on it. It can be comical to analyze these scenarios and think, “Wow, I make such a big deal about this, and really I shouldn’t,” and then to recognize, “But I can’t help it, that’s just what happens when I react.”

When we go into that reactive mode, we have a very old part of the brain that’s taking control of your emotions and your actions. And that’s why it’s, first of all, important to know that that’s how the brain works, second of all it’s important to learn how to throttle that or to control it. That’s where meditation comes in, and in past podcast episodes I’ve talked about the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exercise that gives us the ability to observe things as they arise and to simply observe them without having to react. The reactive mind would be like, monkey mind or the reptilian mind. That’s the instinctual part of us that treats everything wrongly as if it were a matter of life and death.

But we can train our mind because it’s grown, just like the city. There are new highways, there are new parts of the city where commerce works, our brain is the same. There are other parts of the brain that work pretty well that can throttle and control and say, “Hey wait a second, don’t, you don’t need to react about this.” Meditation is a form of exercising those parts of the brain so that when something does come up, rather than reacting we can pause and just observe and recognize, “Oh wow, that’s what’s happening, okay.”

And going back to the example of driving in your car, if somebody were to cut you off, the instinct is there. Immediately you’re gonna feel anger or aggression, but you can pause for a second and then smile and think, “Oh how funny, who would have ever guessed that you could get so mad because somebody cut in front of you. So what? Now I’m 10 seconds behind the schedule that I was on.” What difference does that make? If we know that that’s how the mind works we can look at that reactivity and say, “Oh, there went the reptilian mind kicking in. Okay, I’m good now, he’s fine, his cutting in front of me is not ending my life so I’m not gonna treat this like a life or death situation.”

It sounds comical to even have to talk about it that way, but notice next time you’re in that situation, or any other similar situation, how we really do treat things like life or death. If somebody were to insult you, that’s a matter of life and death. Somebody cuts in front of you, that’s a matter of life and death. I might be losing my job, that’s a matter of life and death. Everything is treated like it’s just such a big deal. Well, that’s because we’re hard-wired to think that way.

Maybe take some time and think about, “What are the carrots that I chase in life and what are the sticks that I’m avoiding in life?” When we recognize that our hard wiring is what makes us be that way, we can have more compassion towards ourselves and recognize, that’s just how we are. I don’t have to treat that like that’s wrong and say, “That’s something I need to change,” it’s just recognizing, you don’t change out, that’s like downtown in an old city, that’s just how it is. That’s how human beings are, that’s how our brain works. But we can have compassion and then in that moment, what you try to do it, you catch yourself.

This would be the analogy of the two arrows. The first one happens, you can’t control that. You’ve been struck by an arrow and you cannot do anything about it. The second one you do control, and that’s what you do with the moment that you’re struck with the arrow, what are you gonna do with that? And going back to the example of the car, somebody all of a sudden cuts you off, boom there’s the first arrow. And you might have an emotional reaction, whatever happens with the reaction of the first arrow. Now if I decide to make that personal and say, “How dare this guy cut me off? Doesn’t he know who I am?” Or anything they start to add to that story, there’s just … What happened is one thing, the story I’m gonna add to it determines if I’m gonna get that second, third, fourth or however many arrows of suffering I’m gonna compile on top of the first arrow, those are all self-inflicted.

Because there’s what happened, and yeah it made me upset and that’s it, they can end right there and you go on, or you can start to feed that and then you start getting hit with that second, third, fourth, however many arrows that are completely self-inflicted. “Now I’m mad because I’ve been personally offended,” or, “Doesn’t he know I needed to be at that meeting? Now I’m gonna be late.” And you start compiling all these new layers of suffering on top of the first one, and the first one was the one that you can’t control, it’s just what happened, it’s just everything that you add to that that you can control.

So in what other ways do we go through life reacting to the arrows that we’re stuck with, and unfortunately reacting in a way that it causes more arrows of suffering to hit us. One of the big misconceptions, I think, as people learn or study Buddhism is that the intention of Buddhism is to prevent or stop all suffering. And that’s not the case at all; Buddhism is saying suffering is universal, everyone is going to experience it and there is no way to end that. That’s because it’s part of life. When you recognize that, then what’s the point if I’m just gonna suffer?

What Buddhism is trying to teach is this concept of the multiple arrows. That first arrow you cannot help it, life is gonna throw arrows at you. In one of my earlier podcasts I talk about the concept of walking on a trail at night and somebody comes out dressed as a bear and they’re gonna scare you. If you know that’s what’s going to happen, then as soon as it happens you can recognize it. You’ll still be startled, but you’ll recognize, “Oh, okay I knew this was going to happen at some point.”

Now the aftermath of that initial scare is significantly reduced and you recover from it much quicker. Well applying this to this concept of the multiple arrows, it’s similar. You know that the first arrow’s gonna get you, you’re gonna be hit by arrows at various stages in life and you cannot do anything about it. But now you immediately know the follow-up arrow of suffering, if you’re gonna experience that, that’s on your own because of your lack of perspective and understanding what’s happening. When we personalize things, when we make meaning of things, add to the story, that’s when we start to experience the second level of suffering, the second arrow.

And for some of us it’s beyond second, it goes third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and all these layers of arrows and suffering, and all of them are self-inflicted after the first one, the first one we couldn’t help. I would invite you to think about that for a little bit and imagine in what ways do I add multiple layers of arrows after having been struck by the first arrow. Remember, the first one we can’t help, it’s the ones that come after that we can help.

When we understand the way we’re hard-wired, we start to get a glimpse into the nature of how we are. Remember that Buddha’s very first lesson, his key teaching was understanding the nature of who you are. This would be an example of understanding the nature of how we are. We’re hard-wired in a certain way. When we know that and when we can start to see that that’s how we are then we can start to work with it. This takes me to the next part of this conversation I want to have is that there is a haiku, a Japanese haiku which is a 17 syllable Japanese poem that says,

“Showing front, showing back maple leaves fall.”

And that’s it, that’s the lesson. And you might think, “Well what the heck does that mean?” Well let me tell you. The natural way of things, when a leaf has fallen from a tree, in this case it’s a maple leaf and it’s falling. Picture this in your mind; does it just fall straight? Or is it kind of drifting, showing the front, showing the back as it naturally falls? The idea here is that we should be as maple leaves, that when we fall we show front and we show back. But for us, in reality, we try to put up a front, right? And we only want to show the front and there’s no need to show what’s going on in the back.

If we were to live like maple leaves, we would understand that there is no front and there is no back, there’s just the totality of what we are, there’s nothing to hide. And in his book Everyday Suchness, [inaudible 00:14:29] talks about this and he says, “If we were able to live as the maple leaves, showing the front as front and back, and showing the front as front and back as back, there would be no falseness, no pretense, no secrets to hide; we just show ourselves to the world, we live our life.” We live a life of front and back.

I like Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, and this ties in perfectly with that concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability, she says, is about having the courage to show up and be seen. She goes on to say that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. It takes considerable courage to show up and be seen because our tendency, again, is because we’re chasing carrots and avoiding sticks, this causes us to live a life where we treat everything as if our life depends on it. Something as simple as, “I want to liked by this group, I want to make sure this group doesn’t dislike me. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and we get caught up in a way of living where it’s not vulnerable and it’s not authentic. It’s putting up fronts and hidings backs.

The Buddhist life is a life of awareness, it’s learning to be aware of how things are and specifically how we are, and an important part of that is having the courage to just be exactly how we are; showing front, showing back. In his book, [inaudible 00:16:08] talks about how what we’re concerned with in terms of living like a maple leaf is to live with no shamefulness. We just live with straightforward honesty and sincerity in life. We don’t have to be caught up in this way of thinking where it’s like, “Is this side better to show the public? Should this side of me be hidden from the public?”

The Buddhist life is a life of honesty, it’s a life of ‘there is no front and there is no back.’ A true life is a life of complete oneness and totality. We want to live life like a maple leaf, showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall. When we understand these facts of life, how we’re hard-wired, what our reactive, instinctual way of living is, then we can start to live life in a new way. A whole new way of life begins the moment that you learn what you are and what life is. And what life is is always different than what we think life is, and what we are is always different than what we think we are; that’s why I brought up the concept of the wiring of our mind. That’s part of what we are, that’s part of how we are.

Like I mentioned before, the very first teaching of the Buddha was to know yourself. He taught that the most important thing in solving your problems is to know yourself first, and that means knowing what you are. Hopefully this week you can have that in mind, the hard wiring of the brain, the downtown part of my brain is, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s what reptiles have. It’s what the donkey has that’s chasing the carrot, it’s what the donkey has that’s trying to avoid being hit by the stick. We’re no different, that part of our brain is no different.

Try to notice in what ways does that hard wiring show up in day to day life. When something pops up, how is this a stick or a carrot? And am I really, instinctually treating this as if my life depended on it? I think you’ll be surprised to find how easily we do that with everything. Being in line, getting stopped at a red light, somebody cutting in front of you, the risk of losing job or whatever it is, notice how the hard wiring part of, the natural part of you that’s hard-wired to think this way treats everything like it’s such a big deal. See if you can pause for a minute, take a break and recognize, let’s the newer part of that city, the newer more evolved part of the brain take over for a minute and just pause and not have to react.

There’s that gap between what happens and reacting, and it’s in that gap, before we react that the more evolved part of the human brain can take over and say, “Oh I don’t have to react this way, my life’s not in danger, this isn’t that big of a deal.” Try that this week and see, see if that’s something that you can work with, see if it’s something that you can notice and I think you might find, on certain occasions, how comical it can be to have instantly been carried into this place where we were reacting in a way as if our life was in danger.

And then you can look objectively back at what it is that happened and realize, “Wow, that’s incredible that something that minor and insignificant was causing me so much stress or so much anxiety, because my poor, reptilian mind was thinking that my life was in danger.” And then have that compassion for yourself, knowing this is how we are. This is part of being human, this is part of the evolutionary process of being human, and you can have compassion for the downtown part of your brain, the reptilian part of the mind and then try to extend that compassion out. When you do something, next time you accidentally cut someone off and then that person immediately pulls up next to you and flip you the bird you don’t have to react, you can know where they were coming from and smile and say, “Wow, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to activate the reptilian part of your mind that made you think your life was in danger, and I’m not gonna escalate that because I know, I probably would have done the same thing.”

It’s a really powerful thing to be able to know, even a tiny aspect like this of how we are and what makes us do the things that we do, and then you can have compassion for yourself and extend that compassion to others, because now a little bit … You have a little bit more of an understanding of the hard wiring of the brain and have compassion for the reptilian part of our mind, the reptilian part of the brain, the downtown part of the city. Those are the thoughts I wanted to share with you guys in this podcast episode. I hope you enjoyed that and I love catching myself activating the fight or flight mode in my own head for silly things and then realizing, “Oh wow, that’s just what we do,” and trying to pause in that gap between what happens and the reaction to what happens.

The whole key is finding a gap in between the two that allows you to stop and pause and then actively decide, rather than just reacting. It’s when we react that we get ourself in trouble, because that’s the older part of the brain that reacts. If you can catch yourself before the reaction, the majority of the time you’re going to be able to react in a way that’s significantly more helpful than allowing the other part of the mind to just react and be instinctual.

And I promise you, for the vast majority of these things, if not all of them, your life really isn’t in danger, it’s not a matter of life and death even though it can feel that way. Thank you guys, and I will catch up again next week with another podcast episode, thank you.

8 – Buddhist Terminology & Symbols

In this episode, I will explore the typical problems that people encounter when first learning or hearing about Buddhist terminology and symbols. Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than individual soul. But for many secular minded people, the terminology and the symbols encountered when learning about Buddhism can still be misunderstood. This episode aims at clarifying the meaning behind the terminology and the symbols that are so common in Buddhism. The book I reference in this podcast is called “American Buddhism” by Gyomay M. Kubose

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode eight. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about misunderstanding terminology and symbols within Buddhism. Let’s get started. Hey guys, welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This podcast is produced every week and covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts. If you’re new to the podcast, I recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Before starting again, the Dalai Lama says do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. If you enjoy this podcast, feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating. Let’s jump into this week’s topic. Hey guys, I want to talk to you today a little bit about Buddhist terminology and Buddhist symbols. Back in 1986, there was a book that was published and a pamphlet by a Japanese Buddhist named Gyomay Kubose. He talks about the idea of American Buddhism because Buddhism was finally spreading in the West and there was a lot of misunderstandings among Westerners about some of the standard Buddhist terminology and Buddhist symbols. I wanted to clarify a couple of the things that he talks about in his book, “American Buddhism,” and in his pamphlet, called “Buddhism: The Path of Enlightenment,” because these are completely relevant to the secular Buddhism approach that I like to teach.

He talks about Buddhism as a way of life. I’ve talked about this before whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a psychology or a philosophy, and in reality the answer’s yes to all of those things. From the approach, the secular Buddhist approach, and I want to clarify that. I’ll probably do a podcast specifically about secular Buddhism versus Buddhism, but the reality is that there isn’t a secular Buddhism that’s different from Buddhism. There’s just Buddhism. The various schools of thought for Buddhism, like Zen or the Jodo Shin, or in this case, secular Buddhism, they’re just schools of thought to understand specific ways of interpreting the teachings of Buddhism, but there’s really just Buddhism. They don’t compete with each other. Secular Buddhism isn’t an approach that says, “Hey, Zen Buddhism is wrong,” or “Hey, Tibetan Buddhism has too much of this or not enough of that.” It doesn’t really work that way.

Buddhism teaches one thing. The understanding of suffering in life. I like the way … I really like the way that Gyomay Kubose talks about the concept of the Four Noble Truths, because the way he describes it, he says, “Difficulties are facts of life, which cause emotions to arise. Emotions can be wisely harnessed and that’s what leads to the eightfold path.” His way of talking about the Four Noble Truths is essentially understanding that difficulties are facts of life. Buddhism revolves around this concept that in life there are difficulties and then there are things we can do to diminish or eliminate those difficulties. At least the self-induced difficulties. That’s it. That’s pretty universal across all schools of Buddhism. Then the approach I like to say is if you have a secular understanding or a secular-minded approach to life, then yeah, secular Buddhism’s going to work for you, but I would never say the secular Buddhist approach is the right approach. Don’t talk to the Tibetan Buddhist or don’t talk to the Zen Buddhist or don’t look at Jodo Shin.

In fact, I would encourage you if you have a more devotional aspect and you like ritual, then I would say, “Look at the Jodo Shin school of Buddhism. That might be appealing to you.” I would never … I don’t think any true Buddhist would ever want to pull someone to their way of interpreting it and say this other way is not valid. Having that in mind, talking about the secular Buddhist approach that I think resonates really well with the American Buddhism that Gyomay Kubose talks about, there are aspects here that I really like. He mentions something that really resonated with me just as a starter to this entire approach. He says, “Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than an individual soul.” Buddhism emphasizes the Buddha as a teacher, not deity. Furthermore, heaven and hell, these are just states of like that are created by us here and now. These aren’t places that one goes after death.

Having that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about the terminology and the symbols. I think when Westerners and especially secular-minded Westerners are first learning about Buddhism, it’s common to encounter symbology, for example, and say, “What does this mean?” Then there’s an aversion to any symbolism because we tend to think it means things. We give things meaning beyond what they really are. I want to explain the actual Buddhist understanding of some of these symbols or some of these symbols because it’ll help to clarify a lot of the misunderstandings around these things. Let’s start with a couple of the symbols. Statues of the Buddha that are seen in Buddhist temples. These aren’t idols that are to be worshiped. They’re just symbols of enlightenment. They usually represent specific ideals, like wisdom or compassion. Another common one incense and really it’s just a symbol of showing the transcending of ego to become one with all of life. Flowers symbolize impermanence because they’re there and then they whither away.

All things are in constant change and they need to be appreciated in the eternal now. Candles also symbolize wisdom and impermanence because the candle, the light of the candle enables us to understand truth through direct experience. If you’ve ever seen Buddhists with their hands together, this is called gassho in the Japanese schools, but the hands come together to symbolize unity between oneself and all of life. It’s a gesture of respect and deep gratitude and symbolizing the understanding of interdependence. That we’re not just individuals disconnected between all things. Beads. Buddhist beads are used to enhance rituals, and the beads are not prayer beads because there’s not really prayer in the way that Westerners typically understand prayer in Buddhism, but they’re symbols of unity and harmony. For example, you could look at the beads and understand one bead only by itself doesn’t make up a bracelet or a necklace, but combined with all the other beads, it becomes part of a whole that’s greater than the self. Again, it’s just symbolic.

The lotus flower is a common symbol in Buddhism and in many teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how no mud no lotus. The idea here is that the lotus emerges from within a murky pond and in the mud to become this beautiful flower, and it’s symbolic that we are the same, despite the murky or muddy waters that could represent how we live. The circumstances in which we live. The lotus can remain pure and beautiful despite that. I like that teaching, no mud no lotus. The idea of sin, it’s not a Buddhist concept. The Buddhist concept here is understanding that anger, greed, and ignorance can be overcome through wisdom. Those are some of the basics, and the reason all this is important is because as Kubose mentions in his book, he says, “The only real value of Buddhism for the individual is determined by how one understands and lives it.” I wanted to talk a little bit about the understanding of Buddhism.

For a typical Buddhist, Buddhism can be a religion as well as a philosophy, as a psychology, ethics, a form of art. It can be one of those or all of those, or none of those, but essentially, it’s what makes a person feel free and brings joy, harmony, and creativity into their life. For me specifically, I really enjoy seeing Buddhism as a way of life. As a secular-minded person, the idea of religion can be off-putting because then it carries these connotations of things that are supposed to be believed or understood, and in the Buddhist understanding of things, there really is nothing to believe. There are only things to observe, but the terminology has been hijacked over years of other religious groups and a lot of these words carry so many connotations. I want to talk a little bit about some of those terms. Some of the terminology.

Something that really helped me when my teacher talked to me about the concept of symbols, and he mentioned the American flag, and this should resonate for most of you, but just imagine the flag of your specific country. He talks about how the flag’s composed of stars and stripes, and this stands as a symbol of the nation. We’re taught to honor it, and we don’t have to have the flag in order to be fine and strong and an outstanding country, yet countries have flags because it’s a way to bring people together under the symbol of one thing. In Buddhism, it’s very similar. There are different kinds of symbols, like statues and flowers and beads, but they don’t inherently mean anything. It’s nothing. It’s just a thing.

Looking at things as symbols, what do the symbols mean? They can mean different things for different people, and they certainly mean different things for different schools, but that’s how they’re to be viewed, as simple symbols, like just you would view the flag. There’s honor and respect for your flag, but you don’t worship the flag and you don’t … you can understand that there’s no inherent meaning behind it other than what it symbolizes. That’s how these things are to be viewed. Let’s talk a little bit about the terminology now. Some of the problems with the terminology, it’s important to note that Buddhists think that all things are evolved rather than created. They’re not created by someone. Everything has its causes and conditions. I talked about this in a previous podcast episode. There’s no single primal, original cause. Instead there’s whatever exists is the result of many causes, and this goes on and on and on, all the way back to the Big Bang and then whatever caused the Big Bang. Science is what the tool that allows us to continue adding to that story, but for now, that’s as far as we can go.

Therefore, everything just has its causes and conditions. Since things are evolved through natural processes, they just are. They have nothing to do with good or bad as far as an inherent goodness or an inherent badness. Things just are. This is a reoccurring teaching of Buddhism is to see things just as they are. Buddhists use the word ignorance instead of sin because ignorance is the cause of all the troubles that we have in life. I think that’s an important distinction because again, the word “sin” carries a lot of connotations for our society and our culture that’s very religious in its background. Ignorance would be the appropriate word, and if you ever hear the word “sin” in any Buddhist text or in any Buddhist context, what’s implied there is ignorance, not an inherent evil or an inherent good or bad thing. It’s ignorance.

Then we have enlightenment, which is the opposite of ignorance. Man is freed, mankind is freed or saved only through enlightenment or awakening. The concept here, again, it’s not like the Christian understanding of salvation. The Buddhist concept, rather than salvation, is freedom or liberation, and it’s freedom from ignorance. That is called awakening or enlightenment. To become awakened from the ignorance or from, yeah, from the ignorance of misunderstanding. No one can actually enlighten another or awaken another. The whole thing that we strive for in Buddhism is to become awakened or enlightened oneself, and that’s by walking the path or the way. The teachings of Buddhism are taught in a way to help somebody understand that you are your own prison guard. You can free yourself from your own prison and awaken to the fact that you are your greatest teacher. You can’t awaken someone else. There’s nothing that I can say to you that causes that. At most I could teach you that through meditation and through introspection and through a contemplative practice, you can come to understand that you are awakened.

That’s that concept. Furthermore, Kubose talks about how we become free and peaceful only through enlightenment or through awakening. Awakening is the opposite of ignorance and it’s the very purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. All Buddhist teachings have the purpose of awakening us to become free. I often talk about this in the classes that I teach, that the purpose of Buddhism isn’t to obtain happiness. It’s to obtain freedom. Yet freedom is the only condition required to have happiness. Another concept here is life. Life never dies. It’s like electricity. It’s something that’s there and it’s everywhere, and electricity flows through things, and you can look at the example of a light bulb. There’s electricity and then there are light bulbs, and the light bulbs turn on or exist because of the electricity. This is compared to life. We are like the light bulbs. The concept here is that there’s life, but nobody owns his or her life because nobody created themselves. Life is always manifested through individuals, and any differences between the life of various individuals has to do with just the makeup of the individuals.

This would apply to anything that’s living, any form of sentient being is the same thing in terms that it’s life. All of us may be different according to our physical, mental, emotional natures, and the nature of our culture, social, and family environments, but aside from that, we’re all the exact same thing. We are life. The concepts of heaven and hell in Buddhism, these are the contents of life right here on Earth. Rather than viewing these as places to which one goes after death, we make life heavenly or hellish all by ourselves, and we’re creating our own heaven and hell in the present moment. In some Buddhist texts, you’ll hear references to heaven or to hell, but this is the understanding of heaven and hell through the Buddhist lens. That’s how it should be viewed, not as actual states that one goes to.

Now I want to talk really quickly about the concept of prayer because the word prayer is used in Buddhism, but again, it’s not the same as what’s understood by the typical Western way of thinking what prayer is. There is no prayer so to speak in Buddhism because there’s no one to whom to pray to. We use the word meditation instead of prayer. There’s no form of praying to either Buddha or to a God because nothing can prevent the law of cause and effect. As soon as there is a cause, there will be an effect. We’re responsible for our own things. Meditation is what makes a person more serene and more quiet, and it’s that serenity and quietude that makes a person see things more clearly, and enables one to see things just as they are. Meditation is the word that replaces prayer, but if you ever hear the word prayer in the Buddhist context, what it’s really referring to is the meditation.

The word worship is also inappropriate in Buddhism because it connotes a prayer or a service or some form of rite showing reverence for a deity. In this sense, again, there’s no worship in Buddhism because there is no deity. The Buddha is not a deity, he’s a teacher. The understanding of worship doesn’t really apply. Even the word service isn’t quite suitable for Buddhist groups. A word that’s more common, Kubose mentions in his book, is the understanding or the word gathering. Gathering is better, I like that because people do gather, and they gather to meditate and we gather to study. To seek wisdom and to express compassion. People can gather around a teacher and listen to teachings, but the teacher doesn’t necessarily preach. It’s just a discussion and pointing out mistakes or misunderstandings in life or in perspective, or based on experiences and truths according to what that teacher has learned.

The word preach has this connotation of giving somebody something, like a set of instructions. Preacher, sermon, these things, again, don’t really apply in the Buddhist understanding. There may be an address or a discussion or a lecture or a discourse, but it’s not really a sermon or a preaching. It’s not the same. Buddhism really focuses on trying to stay away from anything that’s dualistic. Anything that divides man and God or us and them, created and creator, body and soul, life and death. Buddhism tries to stay away from anything that’s dualistic in nature because Buddhism understands that everything exists in one miss and in totality. There is no life without death. There is no death without life. It’s important to understand that in Buddhism, Buddhism is a way of life, while other religions may be focused on a specific set of beliefs or in a specific way of living that’s based on faith or beliefs.

Now one thing I want to end with, the concept of the Four Noble Truths, which are found in every major Buddhist tradition, and I’ve talked about this in a specific podcast episode early on in the podcast series, but I love the way that Gyomay Kubose talks about the Four Noble Truths in his book, “American Buddhism.” The way he states it is again, the Four Noble Truths state the universality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the overcoming of suffering and the ways in which suffering can be overcome. It’s very simple when it’s explained. The word suffering sometimes has this negative connotation, and people will hear it and they’ll say, “What do you mean suffering? I’ve never suffered. I don’t have any suffering. None of this Buddhist stuff doesn’t make sense to me or I don’t like it because it’s just pessimistic and negative. What do you mean suffering?” The way he words this in some of his other teachings I think makes a lot more sense. The way he words it, he says that in life, difficulties arise.

That’s something that I think can be understood by anyone because it doesn’t carry the connotation of the word suffering. Suffering is just the best word that comes closest, some people would disagree, but it’s the word that comes closest to the concept of the word “dukkha,” which is the way it’s taught in the original language that it’s taught. Some people may not like the word suffering, and they’ll say, “What? I’ve never suffered. I don’t like this concept of suffering.” Another way to reframe that would just be to understand that in life difficulties arise, and I think everybody would recognize that yeah, there are absolutely going to be difficulties in life. Of the difficulties in life, some of them arise naturally because we can’t do anything about it, and others arise out of our own fault. This is the area where Buddhism really focuses on. It’s the self-inflicted suffering.

In some teachings, this is called the two darts or the two arrows. The concept is if you’re struck with an arrow once, you can’t do anything about it. That’s just what happened. The second arrow that strikes in that spot, you’re going to experience suffering that was unnecessary. An example of this is somebody cuts you off when you’re driving. Your first instinct may be anger that may be habitual. It’s reactivity. That’s the first arrow. Then you experience it and then you can observe it for what it is, and then you can act on it. The moment that you feel that anger and now you start the second arrow, you’re thinking, “That idiot cut me off because,” and you’re playing up a story. Whatever that story is creates this second layer of suffering that’s completely unnecessary. We hold on to the anger because we personalize the action. That could be really dangerous, and we do this with everything.

Something as simple as being cut off while driving I think everyone’s experienced that, but it doesn’t even have to be. It could be you come home and the way that your spouse says something or alludes to the fact that you haven’t done the dishes or taken out the trash, that’s the first arrow, where you’re like, “Dang it.” Then the second arrow would be you start playing up the story around it and you personalize this, or you start remembering feelings of being rejected in your youth, and now because for this brief moment you felt rejected, now you’re experiencing the second layer of suffering because you’re adding on to the story. Buddhism’s trying to resolve this second layer of suffering. The second layer of pain that we experience. Not necessarily the first one. This is something I think I’m going to address separately in a podcast that goes in depth with that teaching of the two arrows or the two darts.

Today, I just wanted to bring that up because I do think it’s important to understand that the word suffering may not resonate with some people. May not resonate with you listening to this, but the word difficulties I think does make sense, and we can all acknowledge and recognize that in life, difficulties arise. Buddhism is all about looking at those difficulties, why did they arise, and what kind of suffering or emotions do we experience because of those difficulties? Then how do we minimize or eliminate those, the reactivity? Again, I wanted to bring all this up because I think for several listeners, Buddhism is a new concept. Listening to a podcast like this one where it’s presented in a very secular frame, what can happen is you’ll say, “This is really interesting. I like this. I like the way it’s explained,” and you go buy a book to learn more about Buddhism, and then in that book you’re starting to encounter terms like salvation or truth or sin. Then it’s a big turnoff again because “I don’t like those terms.” That’s what happened to me as I started studying Buddhism.

Then it all made sense when I understood the context behind the terms. The authors will pick words that make the most sense, but they’re not the words that make the most sense in terms of meaning sometimes because those words already carry a lot of meaning for our society. The word sin has all these connotations, especially if you come from a religious background. Same with the word salvation. Same with the symbols in general. Flowers and candles and incense, and it’s what is all this? I try to explain it again through the secular lens to make it more simple to understand, and at the same time I want to clarify that when the terminology is encountered or when the symbols are encountered, they don’t need to be rejected immediately because take a look at why does that symbol bother me or why does that word bother me? You’ll find that it’s because we have meaning attached to the word, whether it be the definition or a cultural or societal view of that word, connotation that we don’t enjoy.

I just want to be very clear that these words don’t carry those meanings in the Asian or Eastern culture where Buddhism comes from because the concept of sin has never existed there the way that Westerners and Judeo-Christian societies think of the word sin. Same with salvation. When you encounter these words, just recognize again the meaning behind what’s being implied in the description, and think of the terminology that I’ve explained in this podcast. It’ll make it all make more sense. The last thing I want to close with again is this concept in Kubose’s book, where he mentions how Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than individual soul. I hope that this explanation clarifies a few things for you.

If you have any other questions about terminology or symbols used in Buddhism, reach out to me. I can be reached by email, [email protected], or you can communicate on our Facebook page. We also have a Facebook group, a secular Buddhism group on Facebook. Just reach out. Just ask questions because if there’s something that doesn’t make sense, it’s possible that there’s a misunderstanding attached to it, and that can be explained and clarified, and discussed. Again, the intention here isn’t to convert anything to anyone. I think if anything, Buddhism is trying to not add anything new to how you view the world. It’s trying to help you understand that it’s the layers of how you’re viewing the world that need to be stripped away before you can see things as they really are. That’s my goal with presenting these concepts and the terminology and the symbols of Buddhism because these things, when they have meaning and stories attached to them, because that’s what we do. That’s our nature, because of our society and our backgrounds, then it’s hard to understand what really is. What really is is very different than what we make of it sometimes.

Please reach out if you have any questions and I look forward to sharing more in a future podcast. Thank you guys.

7 – Acceptance vs Resignation

What is acceptance?

I think there’s a common misconception around the idea of “Acceptance” and it has to do with the semantics of the word acceptance. It’s common to associate the word acceptance with the word resignation. I want to spend some time discussing what acceptance is but clarifying what it’s not. Buddhism does not encourage resignation, it encourages acceptance. So what is acceptance?? Read More

6 – How to Teach Mindfulness to Kids

This episode explores how I teach mindfulness to my kids. We know that practicing mindfulness is beneficial for adults but it’s also very beneficial for kids. Research indicates that mindfulness can help kids improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when they are upset and to make better decisions.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number six. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about tips on how to teach mindfulness to children or to your kids. So let’s get started.

Hey guys. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. If this is your first time listening, thank you for joining. SecularBuddhism.com is my website and blog, and this is the podcast that goes along with it. The Secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week and covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and Secular Humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to Secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts so if you’re new to the podcast, I highly recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

I like to start the podcast with a piece of advice from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. When he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are,” please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. And remember if you enjoy the podcast please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating.

All right well let’s jump into this week’s topic. So what I wanna talk about today is mindfulness, specifically mindfulness for kids. I have a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a four-month-old, and the topic of mindfulness is something that has recently become kind of a routine at night with my kids, and I wanted to share some of the tips and things that have worked for us to start talking about mindfulness. And I say mindfulness as a topic, not really as a word. You know, my six-year-old doesn’t know what the word mindfulness means. We don’t talk about the word mindfulness, but we have specific routines or exercises that we’ve been doing that involve mindfulness, with the ultimate goal of helping him to become mindful without necessarily telling him, “Hey, this is what mindfulness is,” because young kids don’t really get that.

So a lot of this needs to be adapted based on the age of the children that you’re going to be talking to or teaching. But I think most of this stuff is relevant for kids of any age. So keep in mind that as I share this my son is six and this was kind of tailored around him. My three-year-old is a little too young to really grasp any of this but some of what we do here also works with her.

So, at night, we have these routines that we’ve developed. Meditation is one of them. And I was having this conversation with my brother on the phone last week and telling him a little bit about the things that we do and he was very interested in taking notes and finding out what works for us to start teaching mindfulness for our kids. And that made me think, “Maybe I should do a podcast episode and talk a little bit about tips and ways to teach mindfulness for kids.”

So remember, we’ve talked about mindfulness before and the whole purpose of being mindful is to train ourselves, train the mind, to become aware of things as they really are. Remember our natural tendency is we take whatever is, the way life is and then we add meaning and stories, and we get lost in these stories and in the meaning that we create about things and what we’re trying to do with mindfulness is to just become aware of things as they are. And for kids this can be pretty natural, but it’s during the period of time that kids grow into adults that they really lose track of just allowing things to be what they are and then they start assigning meaning, like we do as adults. So some of these things are just meant to increase that awareness and help them realize that the way that they naturally do things is much more mindful than the way we as adults sometimes do things.

There are four specific topics or exercises that I like to do and a lot of these are pretty new. I’m testing these now and seeing what works and I’m sure this will evolve and change over time, but I wanted to share what’s working for me and with my kids. My six-year-old Rajko is very into meditation right now, and one of our routines at night for meditation is it started out with almost like a game. I wanted to say … ‘Cause he and his little sister Noelle who’s three, we sit down, and they each have their own bed. They share a room and we’d sit down on the bed and then it was like a contest. “Let’s see who can sit still and quietly for 30 seconds.” And I would set the timer on my watch, and they would sit there and usually she’s the first one at about that 15 to 20 second mark who says, “Are we done? Are we done?”

And it’s kind of become a little game to see who can last the longest. And she has lasted all the way up to 60 seconds, which is pretty impressive in my eyes for a three-year-old. But she’s consistently reaching 30 seconds now, and now it’s become a routine at night. She says, “Okay, let’s meditate,” and she’ll sit down. She can last about 30 seconds and then she’ll lay down and lay there quietly while her brother is finishing his meditation and 9 out of 10 times she’ll fall asleep while she’s laying there waiting for him. So it’s kind of become a win-win for the whole nightly routine of getting the kids to bed.

But what’s really impressed with Rajko, the six-year-old, is that starting at 60 seconds, this challenge of, “Oh, now can I do 100 seconds?” And then he did that. And, “Now can I do 200 seconds? Now can I do 300 seconds?” And he’s reached the point now where he can quiet easily sit there for 10 minutes, 10 entire minutes. 600 seconds. And what we do is he just sits there quietly, and I have my timer on my watch and when it hits 10 minutes, I just tap him and say, “Good job, you did it.” And he’s just so excited because to him it’s a challenge and he was able to do it. And he loves knowing that it’s not easy, and that I always tell him, “Most adults can’t sit down for 10 minutes.” And he just loves knowing that he can.

So that’s how he started to get into meditation. But really, we’re just sitting there quietly. There’s no specific thing that he’s doing other than … The only rule is if you open your eyes then you’re done. I’ll stop the timer. Or if you say anything. The moment you start talking, then it’s over. And I stop the timer and I’ll tell him, “This was your score.” And it’s happened several times where he’ll say something or open his eyes, and I’ll say he’s done and he’ll say, “No I wanna do it again,” and I’ll say, “No that was your shot tonight. We can try it again tomorrow and see if you beat tonight’s record,” and I think that’s helped motivate his determination to do this well and stay sitting there quietly.

And then as he practices his skill of just sitting there and controlling his desire to talk or his desire to open his eyes, I think that’s bringing about the awareness that I’m hoping he’ll get out of it which is that there is a lot of control that can go into our habitual pattern. The habit might be “I wanna open my eyes,” or the habit might be, “I wanna start talking.” And to be able to sit there and evaluate that and say, “No. I’m not going to. I’m gonna sit here quietly until my dad says the time is up,” I think is a tremendous sense of will power that he’s building up that’s going to be helpful in so many other aspects of his life.

So that’s kind of how we have approached meditation in our house with the kids. It consists of just sitting there quietly, and they really enjoy it. And even my three-year-old, if she doesn’t hit her 60 seconds, she kinda gets frustrated. She’s like, “Ah. I wanna do it again.” And I usually let her try again because Rajko’s gonna be sitting there for a whole 10 minutes so she’ll try it until she can get her 60 seconds and then she’s really happy and proud of herself ’cause she did 60 seconds and then she lays down and goes right to sleep.

So that’s how we do meditation. There are a few other exercises that I’ve started to incorporate that I have found to be very successful in helping to accomplish the overall goal of mindfulness in the first place like I said is to become aware of things as they are. And from the Buddhist lens, becoming aware of things as they really are consists of two major things that we’re trying to teach. One is impermanence, that all things are impermanent. And the second is that all things or interdependent or connected.

And, impermanence I think starts to make more sense as we get older. It’s kind of difficult for a child, but the way we talk about that is if we’re outdoors, we can sit for a minute, and we’ll do meditation just laying down and looking up at the clouds, and we’ll talk about how you can look at the clouds and if you look at ’em long enough, they come and they go. And the clouds that you were seeing five minutes ago aren’t the same clouds that you’re seeing now. And I usually try to compare that to not necessarily thoughts but to life. And I explain to my kids that in life, life is like clouds. And whatever life has in front of you right now like looking up at the sky, whatever you see that’s what it is right now but that’s not what it will be and that’s not what it was because it’s always changing.

And, how well do they really get that? I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really dig too deeply right now into the concept of impermanence ’cause I think that’s a little harder to grasp. But interdependence has been a really fascinating topic to explore, with my kids and there’s been a really effective way to do that. And before I jump into interdependence there’s one more aspect of impermanence that I do discuss with my kids and I think this is an easy way to convey the idea that life is constantly changing, or that things that are at one point are no longer. And that’s using a bell.

I have two bells in my house, meditation bells. And one of them, it’s a little bowl with a wooden … A little wooden mallet that you use to hit it, and what I like to do, I do this when I teach meditation in general to adults but … Or mindfulness to adults but the idea here is you can take a bell and this will work with any kinda bell. And you ring the bell and you ask the kids to listen to the bell, and raise your hand when you hear that it stops ringing. And as soon as you raise your hand you can open your eyes and this works really well when you have several people in the room. Because what they’ll discover is as they’re listening intently to hear when the bell stops ringing and they think it stopped and they open their eyes and raise their hand, often they’ll notice somebody else hasn’t detected that. And it doesn’t usually happen at the exact same time. One hand will go up and then maybe one or two seconds later another hand goes up.

And, I like to explain to them that the nature of impermanence is that everything that has a beginning, or that we would typically think this has a beginning or this has an end, when you listen to the bell what you discover is what you may have thought was the beginning or the end of the sound, may just be the end of the sound for you but it’s not necessarily the end of the sound for someone else yet. And if you really pay attention to this, and listening to the sound of a bell, it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly when it stopped. You can pinpoint when for you it stopped, but you can’t really pinpoint exactly when it actually stopped. Because it’s different for people.

So yeah. The ringing of the bell is another fun way to kind of just bring up the topic of impermanence. Another one is the clouds like I mentioned before. Those are two good ones for kids. But the one that I’ve really focused more time to is the idea of interdependence. I think this is something that resonates well with kids, and it makes sense. So the way we talk about this, I don’t use the the word interdependence. The word I use with my kids is I tell ’em, “Did you know that everything is connected?’ And the way that I convey this, I’ll say … This is … Usually we’re sitting in bed, either right before or right after meditating. Usually before ’cause sometimes my daughter’s asleep after.

But we’ll be sitting there and I’ll say, “Rajko grab your pillow,” or, “Grab a stuffed animal,” or just “Pick something in your room.” And he’ll grab it, and I remember one time it was his favorite pillow. And he’s holding his pillow and I said, “So I want you to learn to discover that everything that you have connects you to someone.” And he said, “Well what do you mean?” And he said, “But nobody else has owned this pillow. This is just my pillow.” And I said, “I know but let’s look at the pillow.” And his pillow has fabric, it’s stitched, and it has a little print on the top like a sailboat print.

And I said, “Rajko I want you to look at your pillow and look at that print. Is that different fabric than the fabric of the pillow?” And he said, “Yeah. That’s not the same.” And I said, “So, I want you to imagine did your pillow grow on a tree or where did your pillow come from?” And he thought about it for a second, and I think it’s really important to allow them to make these connections on their own rather then telling them the answers. So he thought about it for a second and he said, “Oh, somebody made it.” And I said, “Yeah somebody somewhere made this.” And I said, “So you’re connected to whoever made it right?” And he said, “Oh yeah. Okay. So that’s what it means that everything’s connected?” And I said, “Yeah, but let’s explore this a little more.”

I said, “Whoever made it had to stitch it,” and we have a sewing machine at home and his mom does a lot of sewing and I said, “Mommy stitches stuff and makes dance costumes,” and I said, “Do you think somebody used a sewing machine like mommy has to make this pillow?” And he said, “Yeah. They stitched the pillow. I can see all the stitching.” And I said, “Yeah well where do you think that person got the sewing machine?” And he said, “Maybe they bought it at the store?” And I said, “Yeah so they must have bought it from someone right?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well now you’re connected to the person who made the pillow and to the person who sold the sewing machine to the person who made the pillow.” And he said, “Oh wow so it’s two people?” So I said, “Let’s keep going with that. The sewing machine, did that grow on a tree? Do sewing machines grow on trees? Or are they just out in forest or how do we get sewing machines?”

And again he thought about it for a second and realized, “No, somebody made the sewing machine.” And I said, “Okay well the … ” So this process goes on right? And I keep breaking it down. “Where did the string come from? The components of the sewing machine?” And what he kept discovering is everything would connect to someone else, and we talked about the person who drove the sewing machine once it was completed, to the store. The person who invented the car, the person who invented tires so that cars can drive and you can go on and on. This is a never ending process.

But you just kinda pick the bigger, more obvious parts of the process that kids are gonna understand and suddenly he just pauses and he’s like, “Daddy, this pillow connects me to thousands and thousands of people.” And I said, “I know. Isn’t that awesome? And we usually sit here and we look at this pillow and we think, ‘It’s just a pillow.'” And I said, “But it’s not just a pillow. This little pillow connects you to so many people in so many countries and so many processes. All of these things happened so that you could just have this pillow right here on your bed.” And then he picks up his pillow and he just hugs it and he’s like, “Oh, I love this pillow.”

And it was just this moment of excitement for me because that’s what you’re trying to teach, with interdependence, is this understanding that we truly are interdependent and connected with everything. And something as silly, or not as silly but something as simple as a pillow, that you may never think of, all of a sudden he saw it differently. And I don’t think he’ll ever see that pillow the same way again and that was a neat experience for me.

So, we continue that process. Everything is connected and I’ll say, “Rajko. Now grab your little toy.” And we started the same process. He has a little dinosaur. He’s way into dinosaurs. And he’s just studying this dinosaur and now he’s breaking it down, and he’s like, “Well this has plastic, but it also has screws.” And I said, “Yeah, do you think somebody … Look at those. Do you think somebody put those on there? Maybe using their hands?” And he said, “Yeah maybe.” And I said, “Well sometimes it’s machines that do it. What if a machine did it?” And without even thinking he just said, “Well, but somebody made the machine.” And I was like, “Exactly.” So then we were able to kind of explore the process of one of his toys for a little bit.

And I like to do this every now and then. I’ll just pick something random and say, “Rajko. What does this connect you to?” And then he’ll study it and he’ll think about it. And I’ve been very impressed with how much more in depth his understanding is with interdependence. Without ever even using the word interdependence now he looks at things and studies them and sometimes he needs to be prompted by me to get him thinking but he can see things differently. He’s learning to start to see things as being connected, and that’s the whole point. That’s the object of mindfulness is that we can start to learn to see everything as interdependent and I’m starting to see that with my six-year-old.

With my daughter who’s three it’s a little more difficult, but you can … You can still kinda talk about it and they get whatever they can get. As they get older, it makes more sense so I think it’s important to not get caught up in thinking, “How can I ensure that my three-year-old learns this,” or, “My four-year-old learns this.” It may be that they don’t until they’re older. In my case my six-year-old is really getting all of this. My three-year-old really isn’t. And that’s fine.

So, everything is interconnected is how we talk about interdependence. The third exercise that we’ve been doing is a component to mindfulness is becoming very aware of our senses, being aware of things as they are, how we are just as we are. And a good way to do this is to explore sensations, your physical senses. These are sight, sound, smell, touch, and the way we do this, I’ll kind of talk about each one separately and I don’t do all of these at the same time at night. It’s not like we go through all of these. You kinda do these throughout various times of the day. Usually at night … Our routine for nighttime is we talk about, “Everything is connected. Pick something, and let’s see how we’re connected to it.” Once that discussion is over we do meditation and that’s really all we do at night.

But at other times during the day or at random times I like to bring awareness to their physical sensations. So with sight, this is kind of a new thing I started and I got this from my dad. My dad has for years had this habit when he comes over, he’ll take one of the little toys of the kids and he’ll just go hide it somewhere. Somewhere obvious like he’ll take a little plastic figuring and put it on one of the blinds, and then see if anyone notices. And nobody notices so after a while he’ll say, “Hey, have you seen that little Batman?” And then they’re all like, “Huh,” and they know the game has started. The kids know this. He does this with my kids and with my brother’s kids, and it’s a fun game and it becomes this moment of awareness. “Where is that little toy,” and they know he hid it somewhere and so they start looking around and they’re like, “Where is it?” And it’s a really fun game.

And then, usually they’re looking around in places that they wouldn’t think to look and that’s where they find it like he’s on top of the fridge or he’s on the vase where the flowers are. It’s usually somewhere hidden, but somewhere obvious. So I’ve started to try to do this a little bit with my kids and sometimes I’ll just, when I’m playing with them, I’ll take a little toy when they’re not looking and I’ll go hide it somewhere really obvious, right in front of ’em and then I’ll ask them, “Hey. Where did that little Lego guy go?” And they know. As soon as I say that they look around and they’re excited to start looking. And the object of this game is to started teaching them to look. That’s really all it’s about. What are they looking for? What do you see that is right in plain sight but you just don’t see it? That’s the object.

And then usually, one of them will find it and then we’ll laugh and I’ll say, “Isn’t that funny how sometimes the things that we’re looking for are right in front of us but we just don’t see ’em because we don’t typically look?” And that’s about the extent of the lesson I’ll give, because again I don’t think they really grasp it, but it’s an exercise and a routine that I plan on someday turning into a powerful lesson, on insight. And on mindfulness. For now it’s just a little fun game and an exercise that we do, but that’s what I do with sight.

With smell, something you can do that’s fun is maybe when they’re sitting at the table or it’s time to eat you could pause, and play a game where you say, “Okay, everybody close your eyes,” and then you bring out what they’re going to eat or maybe it’s an orange or just a random object, and say, “You’re not allowed to touch it but you can reach down,” or not reach down but, “You can put your head down and smell.” And just see if they can smell, based on their smell, decide what it is and again it’s really simple. It doesn’t really do much other than set you up at some point for teaching them that they can become aware of obvious sensations that are there that we don’t usually pay attention to.

At dinner, it can be as simple as, “Close your eyes. I want you to take some whiffs and smell and see who can tell what we’re having for dinner.” And that exercise alone would start to train them to become more aware of what they are smelling. Again it’s one of the senses that’s there, and unless you’re paying attention and using it, it’s just … You don’t really do that. In everyday life.

So that’s one way to do smell. Sound, sound like I mentioned the bell before is a fun one to play with. Something I like to do, if we’re just sitting there, and this one might be one I’ll do at night. If you sit there and just listen and say, “Okay, we’re gonna play a game guys. I want you to close your eyes and I want you to listen. And I want you to tell me what do you hear?” And you just sit there in complete silence, and then maybe someone will say, “Oh I just heard a car drive by.” Then you could develop that over time, “Well, do you think that was a car or was it a truck or was it a semi?” And you wanna try to refine their ability to sense what they’re sensing so in this case really hear what you’re hearing.

And we live close to a bigger road that’s not that busy but it’s a state highway so sometimes it’s a truck, sometimes it’s a tractor, sometimes it’s a semi, and they can start to tell the difference between the sounds. But what you’re trying to do is train them to become aware of what they are aware of. So, that’s how we would do sounds and then touch, that’s another fun game.

You can just sit down and say, “I’m gonna put something in your hands. Close your eyes, I want you to feel it and tell me what it is.” This can be something as obvious as a stuffed animal and my kids love stuffed animals so they have like 50 of them. And I’ll take one and say, “‘Kay I’m gonna put this in your hands. You’re not allowed to open your eyes, but just feel it and tell me which one is this?” And they’ll feel it and say, “Oh, this is the rabbit. Oh this is the puppy.” But again what you’re doing is training them to become aware of the senses, to become aware of awareness. That’s the whole purpose of meditation. Or of mindfulness.

So, using sensations is a good way, it’s a fun way, it’s an easy way, and there’s not a really deep lesson, at least not yet. You don’t have to sit there and say, “Let me tell you what you’re learning here.” You don’t have to do that. You just play, and you’re increasing their ability to use their senses. That’s kind of the whole point. And at some point, it’s a very powerful lesson when they’re older and they understand and you can explain mindful living as being very aware of everything just as it is. And that includes seeing things as they are, smelling as it is, hearing things as they are. You can kind of incorporate all that at some point. That’s my plan at least.

So those are the four main ways that I try to teach mindfulness to my kids. The sound of a bell, or clouds in the sky to discuss the concept of impermanence. Playing the game of, “Everything’s connected. How are you connected to this?” And handing them an object, that’s how we discuss interdependence. And you can do this at dinner too. If you’re gonna have a meal, it’s fun to sit down and say, “Okay, where did this corn come from?” And then you talk about that for a little bit. “Where does corn come from? How do we get corn from the field, to our table?” And discuss the whole process. From transportation to the machines that husk and just whatever you have to and you can do this with any kind of food.

But it’s a moment to become very mindful about what you’re about to eat and where it comes from and how it connects you to everyone and everything, that made that process available for you to just sit there and eat corn. Interdependence I’ve found for me, is perhaps one of the most powerful ways of being mindful. Is when we become mindful of how everything is so interdependent. The causes and conditions, and the processes that are required for us to just do what we’re doing. Whether that’s eating, watching TV, playing with a toy, so much had to happen for this toy to be here. So much had to happen for this pillow to be here that I get to lay on. So much had to happen for this meal I’m about to eat. These are things you can discuss, constantly with your kids, and this trains them to become very mindful of interdependence.

So yeah those are the four things. Sensations that’s another fun one, meditation I talked about, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments on the blog or on the website or on Facebook or wherever you’re seeing this. If you’re listening to it, maybe you can email me. [email protected] I’d love to hear what works for you. How do you teach mindfulness to your kids? And hopefully these tips and hints work for you as well as they’re working for me. I’ve found it to be very rewarding, and very enjoyable to see this process unfolding with my own kids, and to see them becoming more mindful of life in general. And more mindful … I guess more mindful just about everything. It’s a really neat process. And I think it helps foster in them a sense of gratitude for everything because they realize that for everything to be happening the way it’s happening, a lot had to go into that. And that’s what mindfulness really teaches so.

Hopefully these tips are good and thank you for listening and I look forward to talking to you guys again next time. Thanks.

5 – Death, Karma, and Mindful Living

This episode explores the topics of Death, Karma, and Mindfulness. The ultimate aim of Buddhist studies is to obtain freedom, and freedom is the only requirement for happiness. There are 11 key things you can do to live more mindfully. Everything you need in order to be happy can be found within the present moment.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number five. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today, I’m talking about death, mindful living and karma, so let’s get started.

Hey, guys. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. If this is your first time listening, thank you for joining. Secularbuddhism.com is my website and blog and this is the podcast that goes along with it. The Secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week and it covers that philosophical topics within Buddhism. I also plan on interviewing other guests, authors, teachers and really anyone who’s interested in philosophy, secularism, humanism and of course, Buddhism. I’d like to start this podcast with a piece of advice from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed on this podcast episode.

The first four episodes of this podcast and including this one, so the first five episodes total are intended to be a summary of the overall Buddhist philosophical concepts. The idea is that after listening to the first five episodes of this podcast, you have a basic understanding of the Buddhist world view, the secular Buddhist world view and specifically, the philosophical understanding of the various topics. We’ve talked about several of these topics and today, we’re talking about life and death, what it means to live mindfully, what is karma and then these are kind of the final topics to have a rounded understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

I want to start talking about life and death, specifically death. According to the Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We don’t have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of cancer to force us into looking at our lives. We can actually begin here and now to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to prepare for death. In the Buddhist approach, life and death are really seen as one whole, where death is simply the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected. If we refuse to accept death now while we’re still alive, then we’re going to pay for it dearly at the moment of death.

By ignoring the reality of impermanence, which we’ve talked about, and the greatest understanding of impermanence is the realization that we are impermanent, so our own death. We’re not going to be able to live our lives fully is we don’t keep this in mind that we’re impermanent. The goal in Buddhism isn’t to achieve happiness. It’s to achieve liberation or freedom. Once you’ve come to understand that life is impermanent, you can transcend this pursuit of happiness and the constant running away from fear that is so common in our lives and learn to live by letting go. Letting go is the path to real freedom. Letting go of the idea that we are permanent and understanding that we are impermanent and death is a fantastic way to do this.

This idea is expressed by Montaigne in the following quote. He says,

“There’s no place on earth where death cannot find us. Eve if we constantly twist our heads about in all directions as in a dubious and suspect land, if there were any way of sheltering from death’s blows, I am not the man to recoil from it, but it is madness to think that you can succeed. Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come, to them, to their wives, their children, their friends, catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury and what despair. To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one. Let us have nothing more often in mind than death. We do not know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die and unlearned how to be a slave.”

Again, that’s from Montaigne. In my personal studies of Buddhism, I’ve come to understand that the ultimate goal in Buddhism is not at all about happiness. It’s completely about freedom. To practice death is to practice freedom. Yet, the only requirement to be happy is to be free. Happiness is the result, but happiness isn’t the goal, and there are two things we can confidently say about death. It is an absolute certainty that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. Keeping those two things in mind, you might wonder, “Why do we fear death?” Well, because our instinctive desire to live and to go on living and death is an end to everything that we hold familiar. Perhaps, the deepest reason why we’re afraid of death is because we don’t know who we are.

See, we believe in a permanent, personal, unique, and separate identity, but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up. This like our name, our memories, our partners, our family, our job, our friends or possessions, and it’s on their fragile and impermanent support that we rely on for our security. When these things are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are? Without these things, we’re faced with just ourselves, a person that we don’t know, a stranger with whom we’ve been living this whole time, but we never really wanted to meet and we smother our secret fears of impermanence by surrounding ourselves with more and more goods, more and more things, more and more comforts. Only to find ourselves as their slaves.

A close encounter with death can bring a real awakening, a transformation in our whole approach to life. About three years ago, my good friend and business partner, Jordan, was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. We had already been meeting regularly every Tuesday for lunch to discuss business, but over the next several months after his diagnosis, our topics of discussion were increasingly focused on life and death and our business matters kind of became secondary. Many months later, it became more and more clear that the end was getting closer, and I remember asking Jordan one time, “So Jordan, what does it feel like to know that you’re dying?” I was genuinely curious about what that would be like to know.

His response was so powerful and it caused a change in my perspective. He said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” He pointed out that I’m dying too. I just don’t know when, but there’s a chance that I could be in a car crash on my way home, and that I’d end up dying before him. He said, “Most likely, I’ll die before you, but there’s no guarantee, so what does it feel like to know that you might die before me?” He flipped the question on me. You see, we’re all dying. Some people just die sooner than others. Those who understand just how fragile life is, know how precious it is. We don’t need to go into a cave and meditate for the rest of our lives. We just need to start living in the present moment.

The past is past and the future is not yet here, and even the present as we experience it, it becomes that past. Really, the only thing we really have is now. It is only when we believe things to be permanent that we shut off the possibility of learning from change. Sogyal Rinpoche says, “Life is nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death. It’s a dance of change.” Understanding change and impermanence can bring about a new way of living, mindful living. That’s what I want to talk about next, but first, I really want to convey this understanding, this idea that the only thing we really have is now and that everything that we need to be happy can be found in the present moment.

This is what I mean by this. You might be thinking, well, we talked about this earlier. The concept of the three poisons in Buddhism, which is thinking that there are things that if we can have, we’ll be happier. If there are things that we can avoid, we’ll be happy, and the third one is ignorance. It’s the ignorance of thinking that way. For example, you might be thinking, “Well, I would be a lot happier right now if,” and then plug in whatever it is that comes to your mind. There’s no doubt there’s something there. But mindful living is the realization that everything that I need to be happy is already here. It’s used to be found in the present moment.

This is a little mental exercise you can do that helps you become aware of this. I want you to imagine that at some point during the day, you get the dreaded phone call that a family member or a loved one, someone you deeply care about has cancer and it’s terminal. I want you to imagine what that would be like. Maybe, some of you are experiencing this. This will make this experience even more powerful. Whatever the situation is that you’re in now, imagine a simple phone call away that makes it significantly worse. Someone was in a car accident, something that changes everything. I want you to imagine what that would be like, whatever that scenario is. Now, you’re in this new scenario and look back at what you are right now.

What you are right now is the past because you’re playing this part in the future scenario that is really difficult to be coping with. Wouldn’t you give anything to go back to how life was in this specific moment with everything that you currently have on your plate? Because that’s the understanding of mindful living, is realizing, I’m mindful of the fact that everything that I need to be happy is contained in the present moment, right here, right now. All it takes is a phone call to change that, to put things in perspective. In a new scenario, you would give anything to go back to how things were now and if you could … and you could back, you’d think, “Oh man. Now, life is good. Now I have everything. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I just want to go back to how it was.”

Yet, that’s exactly where you are now. That’s the scenario that we’re in now, the present moment contains everything that is perfect about what would change if the future made things worse. You don’t have to just think of something drastic like the death of a loved one. Imagine that tomorrow, you’re put in jail for something that you didn’t do, or you are stranded on a deserted island, so many scenarios. Then under that new scenario, you’d be thinking, “I’d give anything to go back to how life was yesterday with all the problems I had. Maybe work wasn’t the best, but I’d give anything to be back at work with my mean boss and my low paycheck, because now, I’m sitting in prison for something I didn’t do.”

That’s how fast the scenario can change that will make you look back and reflect on what is the present and it’ll look so much better than whatever new scenario you’re in. Yet, that’s exactly the scenario that we’re in now. This concept, this ordinary mindfulness, ordinary bliss. A friend of mine once called this “radical okayness” and I plan on doing a whole podcast episode on this concept, but I like the term “radical okayness.” We’re living in a moment of radical okayness. Everything is okay the way it is because this is just the way that it is.

With that, I want to talk a little bit about mindful living. Milarepa, a famous Tibetan poet says, “My religion is to live and die without regret.” Our minds have two positions. We’re either looking out or we’re looking in and all the teachings and training in Buddhism are aimed at this one single point, to learn, to look into the nature of the mind. To learn to look in and to free us from the fear of death and help us realize the truth of life. Looking in, it’s not easy. It’s very difficult. We’re so addicted to looking outside ourselves, whether that that we’re seeking peace or happiness or joy. We don’t even realize that we’ve made our lives so hectic and distracted that it’s virtually impossible to look in.

In a world full of distraction, silence and stillness terrifies us, but when we learn to look in, we can become awakened and enlightened to the central truth of the Buddha’s teaching, which is that we are already essentially perfect. Life is already essentially perfect. It’s this concept of radical okayness. When you awaken to this reality, it’s like having the tinted glasses removed and suddenly life looks different. Then it’s not that life changed. It’s that the way that we see life changed and yet, that changes everything. Our true nature and the nature of all beings is not something extraordinary, it is unexpectedly ordinary and yet, it’s that ordinariness that makes us so extraordinary. It’s ordinarily perfect.

Living a mindful awakened life, it’s a lot like playing at the beach with kids. I recently got back from a trip where we were playing on the beach with my kids and there, we’re building a sandcastle. What’s fun about this is, even if the kids start fighting over whose turn it is to use the shovel or complaining that their wall was knocked down or the tower was stepped on or whatever form of drama can arise for them, you as the parent or adult, you don’t feel the same level of anxiety or drama over the sandcastle because you know that at the end, a wave will come and wash it all away. It’s completely impermanent.

In a similar way, life becomes a lot like the experience of building the sandcastle when you know life is impermanent. It’s not as necessary to get caught up in the drama that … Another way to view this is like going to a movie. You can watch a movie and you still feel the emotions. You can cry in a movie. You can feel joy, sadness, fear. You jump when you’re scared. You can feel compassion for the characters, the whole time, you completely understand that it is just a story. None of it is real. This is how we start to learn to see life. We start to thoroughly enjoy the experience of living authentically because we can start to glimpse just how fragile and perfect life already is. We can enjoy every aspect of our impermanent nature. The times that we feel good and the times that we feel bad, they’re both just part of the beautiful experience of being alive.

On this topic of happiness, Wayne Dyer has a quote I really like. He says, “There’s no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. There is no way to peace. Peace is the way, and there is no way to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the way.” I want to talk about the nature of being awake in Buddhism. It’s called Buddha nature. What is the nature of being awake? Well, it’s the state in which we can truly grasp the nature of impermanence and this allows us to learn, grow and change. What is our nature, our innate way of being? Wisdom, capability, loving, kindness, compassion, these are things that we’re born with. It’s frustration, jealousy, guilt, shame, anxiety, creed, competitiveness, these are all experiences that we learn. It’s often through the influences of our culture, our families, our friends and it’s reinforced by personal experience.

But many of us don’t recognize our Buddha nature and we don’t until it’s pointed out to us. It’s kind of like a man who received a watch as gift from a friend and he just thought it was a bracelet, so he’s wearing it and every day, he’s asking people, “What time is it?” He doesn’t know that he has a watch or the ability to tell time until someone points it out to them and says, “Hey, you’re asking me all the time. Did you know that right there on your wrist, you can tell what time it is?” That’s similar to the experience of awakening. It’s like realizing, “Oh, all this time, I knew.” We’ve all experienced that, “Where is my phone?” Or “Where are my sunglasses?” You’re looking everywhere and you’re searching and searching and searching, and then you realize, “Oh, they were on my head the whole time.”

That’s like understanding or experiencing the nature of being awake. It’s realizing everything that I have to be happy was already here to be found in the present moment. That’s the nature of being awake. Remember the essential lesson of the third noble truth that we talked about? I believe in the second episode, was the truth, it’s not the limiting ideas that we hold about ourselves and others and they’re virtually every other experience, can be unlearned. In that moment, suffering ends and there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to resist, not even death can trouble you. From the moment we’re born, remember, we begin to acquire labels and concepts and ideas and beliefs. Like tinted glasses, these blind us to the reality of what life is. Being awakened is to become aware of how things really are, without concepts, without labels, without stories.

It’s like removing the tinted glasses and finally seeing life as it really is. The Buddha taught that there were 84,000 ways to achieve enlightenment. That’s to say, there are many paths. There’s not a single absolute path to achieving it and the Buddhist approach is just one path. It’s not the path. The Buddha was essentially saying, “This is just what I did and this is what I recognized, so don’t believe anything I say just because I say so, try the stuff out for yourselves.” These things that you can try out for yourselves, what are the things that we can do to experience mindfulness? Because remember, this isn’t a concept that can just be conveyed intellectually.

I can’t just explain to you, “Hey. This is the experience of enlightenment.” Boom, and explain it, but I’m going to give you 11 tools to experience this awakened nature, this mindful living. Mindful living is being able to live away in which you experience awakening or enlightenment. Let’s talk about this. I’m going to share 11 tools for mindfulness. The first one is meditation. This is where mindful living really starts, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. You just sit for five to ten minutes and you learn to just be in the present moment. You learn to just be with things. You can focus your attention on your breath. You can notice when your thoughts wonder from your breath and you gently return to the breath.

We’ve all at some point probably sat out under the sky and just watched the clouds go by. Meditation is a similar experience, but you’re doing this with the mind and you’re observing the thoughts. Really, the exercise of meditation, it’s just it’s the same thing over and over. You focus your attention one thing. You observe it, and the moment you realize you’re distracted, you bring your attention back to that one thing, for example, breathing. Just like you’re sitting outside, you’re an observer watching the clouds go by. Meditation is a powerful way of learning to experience mindfulness because it’s the exercise of learning to be present, learning to be in the moment, observing things as they are, and learning to just see life as it is without assigning meaning, without making meaning of the things that present themselves in life.

The second tool is to be present. Meditation is the practice for being present. You know that feeling when someone has been talking to you then suddenly you realize, you actually haven’t been paying attention so you kind of have to pause and say, “Wait, say that again.” Yeah, this is the opposite of that. Being present is something that you do throughout the day all the time and you have to remember, and remembering is the trick. We’re so easily and naturally distracted that it’s hard to just be present and to focus. This is kind of an exercise and that meditation can help us to learn to be present, which people will really appreciate when you can be really present with someone.

The third tool is to watch for distractions. We constantly have the urge to check e-mail, check social media. This behavior of distraction can be found, a distraction from how life is, we lose ourselves in other things. People who distract themselves from the reality of life by consuming drugs or alcohol, it’s done as a distraction because they can’t bear how life is. We want to watch for the distractions that are trying to take us away from the reality of accepting life as it is. These urges, they come and they go. You don’t have to act on them. Anything that distracts you from being present is a distraction that ultimately is distracting you from living life, so look for your distractions. What are the distractions? Then maybe ask yourself when distractions arise, what is it that I’m trying to be distracted from? What is it about life that I don’t enjoy? Why am I being distracted?

Then fourth, we’re going to let go of all expectations and here’s the thing. We all have expectations all the time. We have the expectation that our day is going to go a certain way, that people will be kind and respectful to us. We have the expectation that everything is going to go according to plan. When things don’t, we feel that we failed. When water encounters a new obstacle, it immediately adapts and it goes around. That’s kind of how we have to approach life. I recently read an article that was circulating on Facebook that I really liked that said, “Life is like a Tetris game and we need to quit playing it like it’s chess game.”

I thought, how appropriate. That really is a really healthy way of viewing life. It’s like Tetris. You’re playing and then objects present themselves and you never know in what configuration. The whole purpose of the game is learning to take what presents itself and arranging it or twisting it in a way that works best, and it’s never in the that’s ideal because you have to position it wherever it’s going to fit. Even if that’s not ideal, it might be the most ideal that you were able to work with in the time that you had. Let go of the expectations of what life should be. Quit playing the chess game and learn to see life like Tetris.

That leads us to the fifth tool, accepting people as they, accepting life as it is. When I stop trying to change a loved one and I started to accept this person for who they were, I was able to just be with this person and enjoy time with her. This acceptance has been the … has the same effect with everything you do. Whether it’s a co-worker, a family member, a child, a spouse, a loved one. It could be a situation, learning to accept a bad situation. Remember early on, I mentioned the analogy of the horse and who knows what is good and what is bad. When an unpleasant feeling or an annoying sound or an annoying situation in life springs up, much like the Tetris game, we need to stop trying to fight the way things are and just accept, “Okay. This is what is. Here is the piece that’s presented itself.” The moment you can accept, you can work with it.

The fifth tool is accepting people as they are, accepting life as it is. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with letting go of expectations. If I’m expecting life to be a certain way and it continually presents itself in a different way, think of the Tetris game. You’re playing Tetris. What if every time a new piece comes up, instead of immediately working with it, I’m frustrated saying, “No. I needed a square, not this rectangle or not this bar.” Then we’re not … The key to playing is, you have to accept the moment that presents itself, that new shape, you accept it.

“Okay, this is what is.” Now, you have more time to work with it and figure out where it’s going to fit, how it’s going to benefit you most. Sitting there and resisting it continually thinking, “This is not fair. I was not supposed to get a square. I was supposed to get a bar,” or “I was supposed to get,” whatever the shape is, it’s a waste of time. We need to accept people and life as it is just like you would in a Tetris game when a new shape presents itself. We just stop trying to fight the way we think things should and just accept what is. We’re going to be much more at peace when we learn to do this.

This kind of leads to the sixth tool, to learn to be okay with discomfort. See, the fear of discomfort is huge. It causes people to be stuck in their old habits, to not start the business that they want or, “I’m stuck in the job I don’t really like.” Because we tend to stick to what we know and what we’re comfortable with rather than trying something new and unknown, something uncomfortable, that’s why a lot of people don’t try vegetables or they don’t exercise or it’s why they eat junk. That’s why you don’t start something new, because you know that the moment you expose yourself to something new, you don’t know what’s coming. It’s like saying, “I don’t want to play Tetris because I don’t like panicking when a new shape comes in.” Yet, that’s the very nature of life.

We can be okay with discomfort and we do that by practicing. You can start that with little things that are a little uncomfortable, just expand your comfort zone and get used to being okay with discomfort. I think a really good way to do this is meditation. It can be uncomfortable to just sit there in silence with your own thoughts and yet the more you do it, the more comfortable you become with whatever arises. The exercise of learning to sit and observe the thoughts and the mind like you would clouds in the sky is an excellent way to practice being okay with discomfort.

The seventh tool, watch your resistance. When you try to do something uncomfortable or you try to give up something, you’re going to find resistance, but you can just watch the resistance and be curious about it. Watch your resistance to things that annoy, whether it’s a loud sound that interrupts your concentration. Notice that it’s not really the sound that’s the problem. It’s your resistance to the sound. The same can be true of resistance to anything. Anything that you don’t like or that you’re resistant to, the problem isn’t the sensation of being uncomfortable, it’s that we’re resisting it. Watch that resistance and just feel it melt.

Again, going back to the Tetris analogy here. Watching your resistance would be like watching while I play when the shape comes in that was not the shape that I want, watch how I resist that. How long do I hold on to the thought and the anger of that is not the shape I wanted, versus how quickly can I learn to just adapt and accept how it is and say, “Okay. This is what is, and now, I’m going to work with it.”

The eighth tool for mindful living is to be curious. See, too often, we’re just stuck in our ways and we think that we know how things should be. We know how people are, how people should be and instead of being curious in finding out, we need to allow ourselves to experiment and let go of what you think you know and let go of what you think, how you think things should be. When you start a new project or a new venture, if you feel the fear of failure instead of thinking, “Oh no. I’m going to fail.” Or, “Oh no. I don’t know how this is going to turn out.” Just try thinking, “Let’s see. Let’s see what’s going to happen here. Let’s find out.”

Then there isn’t the fear of failure, but the joy of just being curious and finding out, learning to be okay with not knowing what Tetris piece is coming up next. You can find yourself in this position where you learn to be curious. While you’re positioning whatever piece you’ve got in the game, you’re thinking, “I wonder what’s going to show up next.” The mental approach here, it’s pretty different to play Tetris and think, “I wonder what’s going to show up next,” versus, “It better be a square. It better be a square. It better be a square.” Just be curious, “I wonder what’s going to show up next.” The moment it does, you accept it and now, “How am I going to work with it?”

That leads us to the next one, the ninth step, is to learn to be grateful. We tend to complain about everything and yet, life is a miracle. Finding something to be grateful about in everything that you do, it’s an exercise. The more aware that we become, the more mindful we learn to live, the more we become grateful. It’s gratitude that makes us happy. It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that brings us happiness. Learning to be grateful about everything is a powerful way of learning to be mindful. You can be grateful when you’re with someone and you’ll be happier when you’re with them. You can learn to be grateful for the experience of being alive. Life is really amazing and you’ll learn to appreciate it when you can be grateful for it.

The tenth one is to let go of control. This is a really tough one. We often think we control things and that’s only an illusion, or obsession with organization and goals and productivity for example, they’re rooted in the illusion that we actually control life. But life is uncontrollable, and just when we think we have things under control, something unexpected comes up to disrupt everything and then we’re frustrated because things didn’t turn out the way we wanted. We can learn to practice letting go of control. This doesn’t mean that we have zero control on life. That’s what makes it so tricky. There are aspects of life that we have control over and then that feeds the illusion that, “Oh. Well, we must control all of it.”

The reality is, we don’t. There are circumstances that we’re somewhat in control of, but overall, we’re playing a Tetris game, remember, and whatever comes up is just what comes up. We don’t control that, but we do control what we do with each shape as it shows up, how we use. Learn to just go with the flow like playing Tetris. Go with whatever life is presenting and then as it presents it, you live moment to moment to moment. See, you can play Tetris thinking, while I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing with this bar that just showed up, I can’t be thinking, “Well ten shapes from now, what am I going to be doing with whatever that shape is?” Because you don’t know. We don’t know. We can only deal with these from moment to moment to moment.

Now, I want to talk about the eleventh step. This to me is the most important one. It’s to learn to be compassionate. It may sound trite, but compassion for others can literally change the way you feel about the world on a day-to-day basis. Compassion for yourself is life-changing. You need to remember these two things. Mindful living is about remembering to be compassionate after you forget. It’s remembering to be mindful. I mentioned before, the purpose of Buddhist teachings isn’t to obtain happiness, it’s to obtain freedom. When someone who’s been held captive is released and they regain their freedom, freedom from their captors, freedom from whatever torture or suffering they were made to endure, freedom from a cell bock or a room that they were in. With this freedom, new opportunities exist that were not available before.

It may be as simple as the freedom to go outside for a walk, but it’s important to understand that freedom is always relative to something else, freedom to, freedom from. As sentient beings, we’re held captive, we’re constrained by world views of our time, our language, our societal views, our finances, our geographical limitations, our beliefs, our physical bodies and even the laws of nature. The freedom of awakening to the concept of, like Buddhist concept of Nirvana, it’s grounded in the cessation of craving. Craving for a fixed sense of identity, craving for permanence, craving from suffering or craving for an answer or craving for the next shape in the Tetris game to be whatever that shape is.

The twist here is that we’re actually our own captors. We keep ourselves captive by clinging out of delusion and fear to a self that is independent of all other causes and conditions. Ironically, it’s the sense of independence that’s confused with a sense of freedom. The aim of Buddhist teachings is to free ourselves from this illusion. We can achieve freedom by understanding the nature of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness. Meditation and skillful living allows us to cultivate awareness of the freedom present in every moment we experience. Applying this again to the Tetris game, it’s the freedom to enjoy the game as it unfolds moment to moment with whatever the game throws our way, whatever life throws at you contained in the present moment as everything that you need to enjoy and be happy with the experience of living.

Consider how your breathing carries on independently of whether you’re mindful to it or not, but as soon as you start paying attention to it, you tend to try to control or constrain it. Now, it’s under … You’re breathing under the pattern that you are controlling. It’s difficult to try to just observe it because the very active observing, it makes it controlled, but next time you’re meditating, try to wait for the in breath to happen on its own. When your body determines that it’s ready, it just breaths. By holding or waiting for a second, you know that the in breath is coming, but you’re not exactly certain when. You’re just paying full attention and you’re free from any intention to control or your expectation of when it’s going to happen, but suddenly, it will. It just happens, and then you’ll understand it’s not the I, the self that’s breathing, it’s more like it is breathing and you realize you are a part of the experience of being alive.

It can be unnerving to experiencing the breath this way because again, we’re constantly in control. As you focus on mindfulness, the breath is one of the bodily functions that is both automatic and controlled. While the breath may initially serve as the object of concentration, it’s by letting go of any urge to control it that we can witness in its rhythmic motions the intrinsic freedom of reality itself. Breathing is the movement of life. It’s the vital process that connects our body with the environment. The more we open and deepen our awareness of the breath and body, the more we understand the dynamics of our entire experience of living.

See, nothing stands still are permanent, whether it’s our breath, our heartbeat, our body, our feelings, our thoughts. What part of any of this can we really claim as me or mine? As we sit there aware of the breath, it is on the one hand ordinary and obvious and yet on the other, it’s a mystery that we breathe at all. Reality is a dynamic play of relationships. Awakening to this reveals our own intrinsic freedom because we too are by nature, a dynamic play of relationships. When we’re locked into the assumption of the self and things are unchanging, they’re absolute and permanent, we’ll continue to remain confined and unfree.

Not only are we our own captors, but we’re really good at convincing ourselves that we’re not captive in the first place. You could say that Buddhist teachings or practice has two main objectives. The first is to let go of self-centered craving so that our lives can become gradually more awake and the second is to be receptive to the sudden eruption of awakening into our lives that can happen at any moment. Awaking is both a linear process of freedom that’s cultivated over time and at the same time, it’s an ever present possibility that can arise at any given moment. Awakening doesn’t provide us with answers or with a set of ideas. It doesn’t provide us with a philosophical or religious doctrine. By its very nature, it’s free from the constraints of any preconceived idea, belief or doctrine.

It offers no answers. It only offers that possibility of new beginnings. This would be like playing the Tetris game again. Awakening is the realization that at any given moment, whatever presents itself is now part of my game. I get to decide what to do with it. Nirvana is like simply breathing. You breathe in and you breathe out. You breathe in and you breathe out. You breathe in and you live, but you must also let go and breathe out. We don’t breathe in a way that we breathe in. We need oxygen and now, I’m going to hold on to it. See, if you don’t let go, you suffocate. The key to awakening is to let go. Letting go of expectations, it’s really that simple.

We have the tendency to want to make the idea of awakening this big grandiose thing when the reality is that, awakening or enlightenment, it’s just simply letting go. Letting go of the concept of awakening, letting go of the concept of enlightenment. It’s letting go of everything and accepting that we’re playing a game of Tetris and that the most we can do is play with each part from moment to moment to moment as it presents itself.

I want to finish this section on mindful living with a quote from Robert Ingersoll. It says, “May we realize that happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so.” Now, I want to mention the concept of karma. This is one of the most well-known words from the Buddhist vocabulary. It’s probably also the most misunderstood. Typically, when you hear the word karma, you probably think of something like “what goes around, comes around” or some form of cosmic form of justice, but that’s not quite right. I’m sure you’ve noticed that what we deem as good things, good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people. Where is the justice in that?

Well, the understanding of karma is that there is no justice system. Simply stated, karma is nothing more than the law of cause and effect within a system of interdependence. We talked about interdependence. Everything depends on other things, right? Cake exist because flour, eggs, sugar, et cetera. Remember that analogy. Karma is the law of interdependence. Rather than thinking of karma as, if I do something good, I’ll get something good, or if I do something bad, something bad will happen to me. It’s really a lot more simple than that. The proper thinking of understanding karma is as simple as knowing, if I do something, something will happen, and that’s it.

We don’t have to assign meaning to that, good or bad. It’s as simple as understanding that karma means action. The lesson here that we need to really pay close attention to is that, what we do affects not only ourselves but others. It affects everything. I think with the proper understanding of karma comes this incredible sense of responsibility and knowing that the things that I say and do and think are constantly changing everything. It’s like we’re in this intricate web of causes and conditions that all of us are a part of, every sentient being, and the things that I say and do and think are affecting that, not only for myself, but others around me. Sometimes, others in ways that I could never even begin to conceive.

That’s the understanding of karma. It just means action. The mistake that we make is giving meaning to that action, thinking there are good things and there are bad things and what goes around comes around. That’s all based on, remember the three poisons. The things that we want and things that we don’t want, don’t allow those things to crowd into the understanding that all this really means is, if I do something, something will happen. When something is done, something happens, cause and effect, causes and conditions. Everything has causes and conditions. That’s the law of karma, the law of action.

With that, that essentially covers all of the main topics that we could say would be a brief introduction to Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhist thinking. These first five episodes in the podcast were intended to be an overview of secular Buddhism in general. What is the philosophical understanding of concepts that come from Buddhist philosophy. I want to finish this with a quote from Dogen, and he says, “The way of the Buddha is to know yourself. To know yourself is to forget yourself is to be awakened by all things.”

I hope as we’ve discussed these topics that you can really come to understand emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence and specifically how understanding these concepts, what are the implications of the self, of other, myself and other. You realize it’s an illusion. All we are is al we are. The moment that we add stories and meanings and ideas and beliefs to things, it makes it very difficult to just see things as they really are. I think perhaps the best way to view life, just like I mentioned before in that article. View life as a game of Tetris and we’re playing the game, making the best use of whatever shows up when it shows, accepting it for what it the moment it’s there and working with it rather than resisting it, or wishing it was something other than it is, because that’s exactly how life is.

Things present themselves and our only option is to accept it and work with it and you play this game on and on and on til the game is over. Rather than sitting there unhappy about the game that I have versus the game that you have and why I got this piece and you got that piece, I can learn to accept what I have and be grateful that I’m actually here playing. See, that’s the beauty of gratitude, is that we learn to be grateful for the fact that we’re alive. What could we possibly want more than just being alive?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first five episodes and I’m excited for the next several episodes. I still intend on doing various more in-depth studies on these topics, but these first five were designed to just kind of lay out the entire landscape of Buddhist thinking, of Buddhist philosophical concepts. If you have any questions on the things that we’ve discussed so far, please reach out to me. My e-mail is [email protected] and just feel free to reach to me if you have any questions or comments or concerns or further clarification on any of these topics. I’m really excited to continue doing this podcast and I look forward to the next episode. Thank you for being a part of this and for listening.

4 – The illusion of the ego

This episode explores the topic of the ego. What is ego? What part of me is really me? When we view ourselves and others as independent and permanent, we tend to view ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress. The reality is that the sense of self is an illusion, we are impermanent and interdependent.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 4. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the illusion of the ego. So let’s get started.

So today we’re going to be talking about the ego, specifically the illusion of the ego. But to understand this a little bit better, we need to talk about what the ego is. Poor ego gets a bad wrap or we often talk about the word ego attach to meanings like megalomania or vanity. When you talk about someone who has an ego, it’s usually with a negative connotation. But strictly speaking, it is only a psychological term that was popularized by Freud meaning the consciousness as opposed to the unconscious mind. So, it’s the awareness of one’s own identity and existence. So, your ego is your conscious mind. It’s the part of your identity that you consider yourself. With that definition in mind, what we’re going to be talking about today then is essentially the sense of self. What is the sense of self? What am I? That’s a question you can be asking yourself throughout this entire podcast episode. What am I? What is the self? That’s what we’re going to be exploring today.

Our natural tendency is to view, not just ourselves but others as well as permanent things. In the last podcast episode, we talked about the reality of impermanence and interdependence. And yet when we’re thinking of the self, the sense of ego, generally we see ourselves as permanent fixed things. So, taking what we learned or talked about on the last episode, if everything is interdependent and everything is interconnected, then what are the implications for the sense of self that we feel?

On the last podcast episode, I talked about interdependence and impermanence seen through the eyes of wisdom. So, understanding that everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent is vital for having a proper understanding of the sense of self. Because when it comes to the self, the sense of the ego that we feel, the tendency is to think backwards. We think of ourselves as independent of everything else, their self and other, and we tend to think of ourselves as permanent rather than impermanent. I am an entity that exist independent of anything else and I would go on and on. When the reality is as we saw on the last episode, everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent. So what does that mean for the self of self? What is the ego? Well, as the title of this podcast episode implies, there is the illusion of the ego. When we think of ourselves and others as independent and permanent things, the tendency is to view ourselves and others as finished products continually viewing ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress.

In Buddhism, we talked about the concept of no self. The idea that things have no intrinsic existence of their own. Take a moment and look down at your hands right now. They’re probably holding your phone or on the keyboard or perhaps on the mouse or holding something. But look at them and ask yourself, “Are these hands really me?” What if you lost your hands in an accident, would you still be you? Of course, right? Now, look at your legs and ask the same questions. If I didn’t have these legs, would I still be me? Then ask yourself what part of you is really you. I mean, what part of your if removed, would make it so that you are no longer you? Take a minute to think about that. Is there any part of your body that if it was gone, you would know what the certainty that you are no longer you? Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, it’s my brain. My brain is what makes me who I am.” Well, what specifically in your brain makes you you? Is it your personality, your memories, your abilities and skills?

Look at those for a second. Look at your personality. Does personality change overtime? Can a traumatic brain injury change your personality? It sure can. If your personality would’ve change due to a traumatic brain injury, would you still be you? Well, the answer is absolutely. It might be you with a different personality than the you from before. It doesn’t even have to be that drastic, though. Just think back to the you from 10 to 15 years ago and ask yourself if you’re the same person. Compare the you from middle school versus the you from high school versus the you from college, the married you, the parent version of you. If you’re like me, you’re going to notice that all of those are different people and yet they’re all me. Think of it like this, that’s who I was back then, this is who I am now. So if your personality isn’t you, then what is you. Maybe memories. What about memories? What if you lost all your memories, would you still be you?

My grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years of life, when I’d go visit her, I had to remind her who I was, and often I had to remind her of who she was, her own name and where she was and where she was from. But even without her memory, she was still my grandma. Your memories are precious part of you but they’re not you. See, we often believe that our abilities and skills are what make us who we are. I consider myself a techy or a computer nerd, yet if I was stranded on an island for the rest of my life without any technology, I would still be me. I wouldn’t be a techy or a computer nerd because I wouldn’t have those things. Or consider as singer who loses their voice, or an artist who loses the ability to paint because they’ve lost their limbs or something, or a dancer or an athlete who becomes paralyzed. You see where this is going?

The things that you think make who you are end up only being parts of who you are but none of these things alone is you. It’s like we talked about in the last podcast episode like the car. You can take the car apart, take it and separate all of it’s components. You can take out the engine and ask what is the car and the answer is that you take several parts of this together and you start forming the idea of car, but none of these parts alone by itself can constitute the car. For it to be a car, all it needs is one or more of those parts and the same applies to us, the individual self. There is no part of you that is you without all of the parts of you that make you you. So you are who you are because of everything that makes you who you are, and yet none of those things alone can be called you.

So how does the Buddhist concept of no-self apply in your everyday life? Why is this concept even useful? Well, consider this next time you’re offended by something that someone says or does. Ask yourself, what part of me has really been offended? Analysis it like we did in the previous podcast taken its parts. It’s causes and conditions, and you’re soon going to discover that this concept of no-self can actually be an incredible tool for letting go of the ego because you’ll discover that the ego is an illusion, because the ego isn’t you. The sense of self that makes you think you are who you are is only a part of you, but that’s not you.

I think this concept is illustrated beautifully in a letter I received from a friend of mine and I want to read this letter to you because this is about dementia. And my friend writes this letter and this is what he says. He says,

“My mother-in-law works at a dementia unit at a rest home in Australia. Today, we visited her at work and met some of the residence each with a vary in degree of this difficult, at times tragic condition. The visit gave me much to reflect on between the challenges of getting old, the final phases of life and mortality itself. But one tiny thing in particular stuck with me. At the dinning room, each member has a seat at a table. They use the same one everyday, a routine crucial to a suffering memory. Still, they often forget which seat is theirs. To help them remember, each person’s place at the table has a laminated page stuck to it. The page has their name and a set of pictures and photos that are meaningful to them.

For example, I met Patricia who told me guided by the pictures that she’d been traveling around Australia. I could also see from the pictures that she loved scones with jam and cream, and had some recent grand children. Each person’s laminated placeholder was the same, 10 to 15 photos that reminded them of who they were. It was beautiful and somehow deeply sad. The thought that someday your life, however long and prosperous, might be the still down to 10 photos that will define you.

I can’t help but notice the kinds of things these pictures were, too. Patricia had 90 something years to her name. Ninety years of stuff that might have been on that page, all the accomplishments and the memories, the people and places, friends who came and went, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, love and hate, and boredom and anticipation, anxiety and calm, fear and peace. And at the end of it all, there were scones with jam and cream. Ten percent of her photos were dedicated to that. Ten percent of who she is. It struck me that with the brevity of life, the constant coming and going of things, what remained in the end for these men and women was what they had loved. Sitting their past 90 years of age, suffering from dementia, most of what you ever though was important is gone. The arguments and the hurts and the conversations and the judgements and the regrets, they’re all faded or forgotten. Your friends might be gone, your bank balance definitely isn’t going to be on that page and even the business you built doesn’t photograph well, and it probably isn’t that interesting anyway.

And there is a view of what you loved and you don’t score more points if that thing is world peace when Patricia’s thing is scones. If there are any points, you only score more by the intensity of your love, not by the object of it. What do you love? What pictures will tell your story in the end? Have a great day.”

This letter was very moving and very touching. My own grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years and months continued to deteriorate to the point where she didn’t recognize who I was when I would come to visit her. Sometimes she thought I was her son, my dad. Sometimes she would remember that I was one of her grandkids. And what’s interesting is you take this concept of the mind and you think, “Well, my memories, that’s who I am, the things that I remember and know or my personality. And what you’ll find like this example with Patricia, even the things that we think are solid in terms of defining who we are, our memories, can be gone and yet that doesn’t change who you are. Now, you’re just you without the memories that you had. So again, I ask you to ponder on this question, what part of me is really me? What part of me is the essential self that I feel so connected to the sense of ego. Because the conclusion should be that if you spent enough time pondering on this, what you’ll discover is that the ego is an illusion.

Much like this idea of a car. A car is real and it exist and at the same time it’s an illusion because it doesn’t exist independent of all the parts that allow it to exist. Well, the self is the same. We exist and we’re experiencing life the way we’re experiencing it, but we are a part of everything that allows us to exist. I like the way Alan Watts talks about this concept. He says, “You are something that the universe is doing in the same way that the wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” Now, the implications here of understanding that the ego is an illusion to self of sense or the sense of self is an illusion is actually really powerful because what is the conclusion of realizing I am not independent of everything else. I am not a permanent thing than what you realize is you are interdependent with everything and impermanent just like everything on earth. So, what we essentially realizes that we are one with everything. The sense of self can become really strong when we’re talking about things like religion, politics, sports, anything where we identify really strongly with the things that we like or don’t like, the things we believe or don’t believe, which reminds me of an experience I had while traveling to the Middle East.

My wife and I were doing the Mediterranean cruise and we had a tour guide in Israel that was showing us all of the key attractions and sites in and outside of Jerusalem. And we had spent hours with him. He was telling us the Jewish perspective of the various sites we were visiting. And something that happened that I thought was interesting, it really stuck with me was when we crossed over to Bethlehem to see the sites in Bethlehem, we had to switch tour guides because this was territory now controlled by Palestine and our Jewish tour guide couldn’t go in there with us.

So we switched to a new bus and a new tour guide and as soon as we got in the bus and now we’re in Bethlehem driving, the first thing we wanted to know because everything we had just been experiencing was very clearly from the Jewish perspective, the assumption was, okay, you must be Muslim maybe or you’re probably not Jewish. So we wanted to find that our really quick. So we were just asking our tour guide as soon as he introduced himself and we all introduced ourselves, and I remember asking, “So, what are you?” And he kind of looked with a surprised look and said, “What do you mean what am I?” And we said, “Yeah, our tour guide on the first part of the tour was Jewish and it was interesting to get his perspective. So I was wondering what you are.”

And he kind of laugh and he said, “Well, I am a human being. A human being who lives in Bethlehem.” And that immediately realized, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s the topic we’re not going to go into then.” At the same time, it seemed just so wise. Well, of course, what else could you be. And it made me realize in the months and years after that experience, we do tend to view each other through the labels that we use as if those were nouns. It doesn’t matter what he believes. What he believes isn’t who he is and what I was asking is who are you.

And yet, I treat that question of who are you with, in terms of whatever you respond, you know your beliefs or the ideas that you have, the … You know, all of these things that describe you, I would tend to treat as, well [inaudible 00:16:04] as you. And that was a powerful lesson to me to realize, well of course, all you are is a human being and nothing else. Anything that we add to that, we should add to it as an adjective and that’s fine because that’s a description but not as a noun, because the noun has already established your a human being.

So it was a neat experience that stuck with me. And then to develop on that, I realized, well, then courage, what is the concept of courage with the understanding that the illusion of the ego. Courage ends up being the courage to be as we are, right here right now. The courage to be free from attaching ourselves or chasing after other’s acceptance and avoiding their rejection. The things that we think make us who we are prevent us from having the courage to just be what we are, to be what we are right now and recognizing that what we are right now as I mentioned before is that we are works in progress. We tend to take snapshots of ourselves or snapshots of others like a Polaroid that’s printed and once I’ve interacted with you once, I’ve created this mental Polaroid an image of who you are and the problem is that’s not who you are. First of all, a snapshot just like imagine a picture, it’s a fixed thing. And as soon as I have it there, I’ve decided who you are without realizing that who you are is constantly changing.

So, an image certainly isn’t going to allow me to see the you that’s constantly moving. So if I was able to see you without putting that permanent image of who you are, then I would recognize that who you are is constantly changing and I would hope that you recognize that who I am is constantly changing. And then this gets more complex because there’s who you are and there’s who I am, but what makes this even more complicated is that there is who you think that I am and then there is who I think that you think that I am, and both of those layers of the complexity and how we perceive each other are blinding us from what we really are. Think about that. We do this all the time with the people that we interact with. We give ourselves labels and then as soon as we do that, as Kierkegaard says, once you label me, you negate me. You don’t give me the opportunity to see who I really am because there is already who you think that I am.

Consider the way that we use labels on our society. We use these labels all the time. I’m a republican. I’m a democrat. I’m a Christian. I’m a Buddhist. I am dumb. I am smart. You know, we use these labels as if these were permanent things that make us who we are. But we, like everything else, exist because of causes and conditions. We are who we are because of the countless things that make us who we are. Like the cake, like the car. We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and these things are part of how we are, but they are not what we are. The problem with our labels is how we use them because as I mentioned before, we tend to use these as nouns instead of adjectives.

So when I use a label like I am a Buddhist as a noun, then it separates me from everything that is not a Buddhist. It divides and separates. But now consider the label I am a Buddhist as an adjective. It becomes a description of how I am, the noun me which is human. I am a human being. That’s all I really am, and I tend to view things through the Buddhist lens. That’s different than trying to separate myself by using that as a noun to describe who I am because the reality is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t be a Buddhist or a Christian or an anything. Because those things aren’t things to be. We already are something. We’re human.

So, when we learn to view our own labels and perhaps more importantly the labels that we assigned to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be more like talking to someone and realizing, “Okay, I’m wearing a blue shirt and you’re wearing a read shirt.” But the color of the shirts that we wear doesn’t make up who we are. It’s just part of how we are at this specific moment in time, at this specific moment of being human. Try to start viewing labels. Yours and others as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others.

And this doesn’t just happen with people. It happens with everything. From the moment we’re born, we acquire labels and concepts and stories and beliefs, and these things can tent the way that we view things. It’s removing this tent that allows us to see things as they really are, to see ourselves for who we really are. In Buddhism, this is taught as Buddha nature. Being able to understand who you are is in your true nature. And we do this with reality as well, you know, when you can see things as they really are beyond the stories, and the meanings, and the concepts, and the labels that we attached things, then that is awakening, that is enlightenment. It’s learning to see things as they really area.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about Plato’s allegory of the cave, and this concept has seen shadows and thinking that that shadow is the real thing when the shadow of the thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. But we wouldn’t know that because we exist in a world where what we’re seeing are the shadows.

So the important lesson here is that we need to start learning to see things as they really are and to see ourselves as we really are and understanding that the sense of ego that we experience is an illusion because what I am is constantly changing whether that be the physical form, you know, in the physical way my … The cells of my body are constantly changing or growing and dying, and physically we’re constantly changing. But every other aspect of me is changing as well throughout my experience of being alive, my belief changed, my personality can change, my memories are changing. We’re constantly adding new ones, we’re forgetting old ones. We’re constantly changing and involving. So that sense of self can really be examined and what you’ll realize is that just like the car, the self is the creation of everything that allows the self to exist but none of those things are independent of the causes and conditions that allow it to be that way.

Several months ago, I was hiking in Park City close to where I live with some friends who were visiting from Mexico, and about half way into the hike, I noticed this curious tree with an odd bend in it. I took a picture of it to remind me of how I felt when I saw this crooked tree. When we look at trees, we see all sorts of trees. It doesn’t matter if they’re bend or straight, it they’re oaks or pines, if they have bark or no bark. In most cases, what we see is just a tree being a tree. And we might even think, “How unique. I love that bend or that curve.” We can start to imagine that maybe it wasn’t getting enough light so it turned this way or it turned that way. Perhaps the strong wind or the weight of too much snow may have caused it to bend. Either way, we don’t get caught up in the emotions of judgment. We simply appreciate the tree. Yet when we look at humans, we lose all that. It’s easy to judge and say you’re too this or you’re too that. We judge the shape of the leaves and the color of the bark or whether or not it has bark and everything else about it. But what if we look at people the way we look at trees? What if we could appreciate people just the way they are without any judgment?

Understanding that this sense of self, this ego is an illusion that helps us to remove the meanings that we attach to people, that people are supposed to be this or supposed to be that, then we can start to appreciate ourselves and others simply for being where human beings being human. And when we can learn to see ourselves and others that way, it will be like when we look at trees. We simply appreciate the tree for just being a tree. There is no distinction of, well this one is a bad tree because it’s crooked and this one is a good tree because it’s straight or silly things like that.

Beyond asking ourselves who apart of me is really me, you can start to ask yourself this in various situations or circumstances in life. You know, next time you’re offended by somebody who cut you off on the road, ask yourself … Because you’re going to have that sense of anger, but then observe that for a minute and think, “What part of me is really mad? Why am I even mad about that?” Look for the causes and conditions of things. Because what you’ll find is there is no independent permanent thing even if that thing is a sensation like anger, an emotion like anger. You can see it naturally arise, analyze it and then it’s gone just like everything else in life. It’s interdependent with the circumstances that allowed it to arise and it’s impermanent because it finally goes. And when you can view it that way, suddenly it doesn’t grip you quite as tight as it used to. Explore this with your various emotions. Explore this concept of interdependence and impermanence with all the things that you think are part of who you are, your memories, your emotions, your personality, your skills and abilities. Explore all this things and see where that takes you. See how that makes you change they way you perceive the sense of self, and as you realize that the illusion of the ego is simply that an illusion.

Try to notice what aspects of you life change and how simple change in perspective of the sense of self is enough to alter the way that you experience the various events that you go through in life. And perhaps one of the conclusions you can draw is this sense of [interbeing 00:26:40], the sense of being connected with everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this in the teaching he give where he’s talking about his left hand and his right hand. He says, Imagine you have a hammer in your right hand and your left hand is holding a nail. You put in the nail in the piece of wood and the hammer slips and it hits your thumb, you’re first reaction is to drop the hammer. The right hand is going to take the thumb of the left hand and hold it and comfort it because it’s experiencing pain. And as it does this, the left hand is thinking, “As soon as this stops hurting, I’m going to pick up that hammer and I’m going to hit the right hand back.” It doesn’t think that way because it understands that it is one and the same, and it doesn’t benefit the left hand to retaliate on the right hand and make it experience the same type of pain that the left hand is feeling. And this seems so simple when you’re thinking about your hands, these are two separate things and yet because of the understanding that it’s all part of being the same, you don’t experience those types of thoughts.

Yet we do that with ourselves, the sense of self being separate from other allows me to want to retaliate on someone else if they do something that makes me hurt or upset. But you can study that and realize the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence allows me to get past those emotions and realize it does mean no benefit to turn around and inflict harm on someone else who inflicted harm on me. This is that very foundation for starting to understand compassion and love and kindness which is going to be the topic of a future podcast episode.

So I hope you enjoyed the topic of today, the illusion of the ego. And I would love to here what you think about this topic either on the podcast comments or on the secularbuddhism.com website. The specific post on this podcast topic, I would love to get your feedback there. But I hope that this has been a good podcast and I look forward to the next one. Thank you.