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 noah@secularbuddhism.com 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.

  • Sue Urquhart

    I just discovered your podcast and listened to this episode twice today. It was exactly what I needed to hear – thank you!

    • I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you for taking the time to comment on here!