42 – We Didn’t Sign up for This

Imagine what it would be like to suddenly wake up and realize you are on a roller coaster ride. You didn’t choose to get on, you woke up on the ride. This is what it’s like to wake up to life. We didn’t will ourselves into existence. We are the result of causes and conditions. For me, the idea of not having signed up for this, allows me to be open to whatever may come.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 42. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the fact that we’re all here, but none of us signed up for this. I’m talking about life.

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were having lunch and we were talking about life. As we discussed our things were going, an expression was brought up and it’s had me thinking about it ever since. The expression is, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Has that ever crossed your mind, perhaps in referring to how something is turning out, whether it be in your career or your marriage or in any other area of life, that sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this”? There was a time in my life, in my marriage specifically about seven years ago, where I had the same thought. I was going through something difficult and I have this thought that, “I didn’t sign up for this.” In fact, I’m certain that a significant portion of my suffering at the time was tied up with this recognition that I was experiencing something that didn’t seem fair to me, something that I hadn’t signed up for, so I wanted to talk about this thought, this idea. What did we sign up for? But before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you of a couple of quick things.

First, my commonly shared quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are. On second, to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, 501c3 non-profit, whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully, so if you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 a month can make a big difference. One time donations are also appreciated, and you can make that donation by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Now one thing that we recently were able to accomplish thanks to the support from podcast listeners, I was able to hire a company to transcribe every single podcast episode up until now, and this podcast along with all future ones will also be transcribed so that there is a text version of the podcast episode. Every time I publish a podcast, there will be a transcribed version that people can read, so if you any difficulties with hearing or listening to a podcast, you can always read through the podcast episode as well. That’s something new. That’s something that costs money, and I’ve been able to do that, I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but I’ve been able to do that thanks to the support of podcast listeners, so thank you very much for that.

A couple of quick news items. I do have some upcoming workshops, one in LA, August 27th, one in Orlando on October 21st, and one in Phoenix on November 4th, so if you have any interest in attending any of those workshops or getting more information about them, I will be posting that on the website, but for now you’re welcome to email me directly with questions at [email protected] A quick reminder that the Successful Mindfulness Humanitarian trip that I did earlier this year in February, 16 of us went to Uganda in Africa, and we did humanitarian work.

While we were there, we also spent time doing a mindfulness retreat, so those were the two key components of the trip, doing humanitarian work every day, doing mindfulness work on ourselves, learning mindful meditation and discussing various topics as like an infusion of going on a mindfulness retreat while at the same time doing humanitarian work. Then for fun, we topped off the trip at the end with a safari, two days, and got to see all of the things that you would hope to see in Africa while on safari. If that sounds interesting to you, I’m doing that trip again next year, either February or March 2018, so get more information about that, email me and I’ll send you information.

That’s all the news that I have, so now let’s jump back into this week’s topic, so this idea, “What did I sign up for?” This is interesting to me because to think about this in the context of interdependence, you know, I didn’t will myself into existence, none of us did. None of us signed up for any of this. We are the result of causes and conditions, so we’re here. This makes perfect sense to me in the big picture of it all; you know, life in general. None of us signed up for this, but what is it that we expect when we’re not expecting anything? To me the answer is everything. This is the thinking behind the idea of emptiness in Buddhism. It’s essentially understanding that if I didn’t sign up for anything, then everything is possible now. It’s like a blank slate, and because it’s a blank slate, well, boom, we’re born and here we are, and the world doesn’t owe us anything. We’re just here as the result of causes and conditions.

Now I would hope that you’re not listening to this and thinking, “Well, that just sounds sad” because to me this is an incredibly liberating idea. You know, what are we signing up for when we make a choice? I think we’re signing up to embark on the path that we hope will lead toward the expectation that we have when we make that choice. Now the difficulty with this is that we do tend to live life under the tyranny of our own expectations, don’t we? Let me be clear. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having expectations, but it is important to know that it’s our expectations that may be the very source of a lot of our suffering.

I see this a lot, for instance, in marriage. In the context of marriage, people will talk to me usually when they’re going through difficulties in their marriage because they know that my wife and I went through a difficult phase and we were able to recover. Now we have a very happy and healthy marriage, so people will talk to me about their marriages and say, “How do you recover from this?” or, “How do you get through that?” Something I hear all the time is the sentiment of, “I didn’t sign up for this” when they’re venting about marital problems, and I know the feeling all too well. Like I said, when I got married I had a lot of expectations, things that I thought I was signing up for, and when those expectations weren’t met, I was confronted with suffering. In my case, loyalty was a big one in that list of things that you’re expecting.

As I look back now, I try to imagine the start of my marriage as I would the start of a giant rollercoaster ride. What did I sign up for? The ride. I’ve mentioned in previous episodes that I had a really rough patch in my marriage about four years into it. There was a breach of trust and it was devastating to experience that. I clearly remember thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this,” but when I took the time later to become more introspective about this whole thing, I did have to ask myself, “Well, did I sign up for?” We were just two young kids getting ready to get on a rollercoaster, and it’s like we looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to ride this with me?” I mean, that’s really how I see it now. I signed up for the ride, that’s all. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have expectations. I’m just saying that what if we weren’t attached to the expectations? What if we had the wisdom to adapt to the ride as we go along?

When you get on a rollercoaster, part of the excitement is the mystery. We don’t know how many ups or how many downs, how many loops. You don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s the highs and the lows, the fasts and the slows. They’re all part of the ride, and then you have the uncertainty of whether the person sitting next to you is going to make it through the ride, whether they’re going to last as long as you. Are they going to throw up all over you? Are they going to have their arms up and waving, and yelling with joy when yours are down and you’re scared or vice versa, when your arms are up and you’re enjoying the ride, and they’ve got their arms crossed and they’re really upset? These are all dynamics that marriage, you could think of as marriage on a rollercoaster. I think of couples, couples who lose a child or perhaps they lose each other, or couples who have a child with a disability. Did they sign up for that?

Do we sign up for that in life? I think if you really think about it, did any of us sign up for any of this? Did any of us will ourselves into existence? We’re here, again, because of causes and conditions. We’re the result of those causes and conditions, and here were are and we didn’t sign up for this. I think if we look at this mindfully, we’ll see that because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of it. You know, this idea of come what may. For me, “I didn’t sign up for any of this” means I’m open to all of it and I like to think about that idea of the rollercoaster. I have many friends who have encountered ordeals that are very difficult. Like I mentioned before, losing a child. You didn’t sign up for that, but at the same time, because you didn’t sign up for it, it is a possibility.

You start this ride and here we are, and we don’t know what to expect. I think that’s life, right? Life is the rollercoaster, but we’re on it, but we didn’t get to choose to get on it. It’s like we opened our eyes and woke up, and we’re on a rollercoaster. I think part of the problem is that we go through life trying to get something out of it, usually happiness or the cessation of suffering, and that becomes the very source of our problem. We’re trying to get something out of life and life isn’t something to get something out of. Life is always changing. There is no permanent state, and therefore we can’t get what we want. I think as soon as we realize that life itself is the rollercoaster, the ups and the downs, they’re both part of the ride, the sooner we can make peace with the fact that, “Hey, we’re on the rollercoaster and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

I think this is where this idea of learning to be comfortable with uncertainty really plays a part. This idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” when we have that attitude, we can look at it and ask, “Well, what is the expectation that I have tied to this specific event I’m going through?” Again, it’s not about not having expectations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having goals or having expectations, but I think there’s wisdom in being able to adapt quickly: to have an expectation, to realize it’s not being met, and then to be able to adapt, to be able to go with the flow, so to speak.

There’s a famous parable, the parable of the two arrows or the parable of the two darts. I think I referred to this in previous podcast episodes, but I want to discuss this just a little bit more today in a different context because I think it has to do, in some way, with dealing with expectations. The premise of the parable is that when you’re struck by an arrow or a dart, that first dart, you can’t help it, right? You’re walking and boom, you get shot by an arrow. That’s it. That’s what happened. There’s nothing you can do about it. Now we have all of the control to decide if we’re going to pick up a second arrow and start prodding the spot where we were struck with the first arrow, or if we’re going to start poking ourselves with that second arrow.

It’s the second arrow that we’re very concerned with in Buddhist practice, and contemplative practice, I should say, because we want to look at things and understand, “Is part of the suffering that I’m experiencing part of the first arrow or is it part of the second arrow?” because the first arrow is natural, it’s completely normal, but the second one is self-inflicted. For example, and again because we I went through this myself, discussing recently with a friend a specific scenario that he was going through in a relationship, he was really upset and feeling bad about, I guess, the loss of the dynamic or the relationship that he was in before. He lost someone he cared for and he was very upset about that, but in looking at this little bit, what we were able to conclude and what he was able to realize is a significant portion of the suffering that he was experiencing was the suffering that comes from feeling bad about feeling bad.

You know, this idea that, “I’m going through this loss. This is a difficult thing and it sucks. It feels bad,” and somewhere in the back of the mind is this idea that you’re not supposed to feel this way, “So now I feel bad about feeling bad.” He’s trying to get out of that funk and asking, “Why do I feel this way? How can I get out of this rut that I’m in and feel differently?” What I reminded him of was this parable of the two arrows. What part of the suffering is the first arrow, loss, and what part of it is the second arrow, the self-inflicted part, which is feeling bad about feeling bad? There was a moment of recognition there where he concluded, “Yeah, I think a significant portion of this comes from the suffering that I’m experiencing that’s the second arrow.”

That’s how I felt when I recalled the experience that I went through. The pain and suffering that I was feeling during my marital crisis was one thing, but there was a significant portion of hurt and sorrow and pain associated with feeling the hurt and the sorrow and the pain because I was feeling like, “I’m not supposed to feel this. I didn’t sign up for this.” Like, somehow, in an ideal world people like me, who are going about doing the right thing, are not supposed to experience these emotions of being hurt or betrayed. It was really interesting to arrive at the conclusion through contemplative practice that a significant portion of my pain had to do with not being able to just be with my pain, you know? I was mad about being mad. I was sad about being sad. That’s essentially the second arrow. That’s where the parable of the two arrows or the two darts kind of fits in here.

That’s something that you can look at in your own life when you’re experiencing suffering. You know, from the Buddhist approach we try to say, “Whatever it is you’re experiencing, that’s it. That’s reality. That’s how you’re feeling, so don’t push it away. Don’t think that it’s wrong. Be with it. Befriend it. If it’s fear, be with the fear. If it’s sadness, sit with the sadness. If it’s anger, sit with your anger. Allow it to be what it is. Try to befriend it.” Don’t resist it or push it aside because it’s very easy to start being angry about being angry or to be sad about being sad, and then we’re dealing with situations where we’re not entirely sure how to fix it because we’ve added multiple layers of complexity to the reality, which is just the first arrow.

I want to deviate from that thought for a moment and talk about something else, a lesson that we can learn from Japanese psychology. This is talked about by the ToDo Institute who has a website (http://www.todoinstitute.org/naikan3.html) and a really neat practice called Naikan practice, but here I want to talk about shifting our perspective from the sense of “I have to,” to a sense of “I get to,” so “I have to” versus “I get to.” The lesson is very simple. We want to be aware of every time we have the thought, “I have to do such and such” or, “I should be” or, “I have to” whatever. Transform that statement replacing, “I have to” or, “I should” with “I get to.” See how that simple, yet profound shift, can have a powerful change in how you experience life, how experience whatever it is you’re going through.

For me, again going back to this analogy of life is the rollercoaster, if I decided, “Hey, there’s a rollercoaster. I want to get on it,” and then I do get on it, and now I’m going through it and I’m not enjoying the experience, it’s easy to think, “Well, I have to because I chose this and now I have to endure the suffering I’m experiencing on this rollercoaster because it was my choice to get on the rollercoaster.” It would make sense to say “I have to” there, but going back to the scenario where if I understand that I didn’t choose to get on this rollercoaster, I woke up on the rollercoaster. This is waking up to life, right? I woke up. I didn’t will myself into existence. I woke up to this experience of being alive, so I don’t have to any part of it. I get to because there was no choice involved with that first decision of choosing life.

Now this is a topic that in some faith traditions … I think I’ve alluded to this before, but my wife and I share different faith traditions or different, I guess, paths. For her, this idea was kind of goes against her understanding of life. From her background, life is a choice, right? There was where you are before you were born. There’s a realm, a spirit world, and we chose to come to this earth to prove ourselves worthy of returning after this life to be in the presence of God, but even in that context, we were talking about this and I brought this up, I said, “Well, did you choose, before you became a spirit, did you choose that or was your spirit created by God?” You’re back at the same dilemma. It’s like, “What were you before you were what you think that you were?” At some point, you have to recognize, again, the same analogy of the rollercoaster. You didn’t will yourself into existence whether you were intelligence that was created into a spirit in the form of God or born in life, born in the image of a god.

It’s still the same dilemma, right? You didn’t choose this, in the same way that my children didn’t choose to exist. They were the result of causes and conditions, and now here they are, and they exist and they have their personalities and they have all these choices that they can make, but they woke up in this rollercoaster of life the same way that I did, the same way that any of us did. Whether that be this life is the start of the rollercoaster or you happen to believe in a prior life, that’s the start of the rollercoaster, but you can’t ever get to before the rollercoaster. At some point, we all woke up on this rollercoaster of life. That’s what I’m trying to get at with this little explanation. It doesn’t matter how far back you can go. You’re stuck with the same dilemma, which is that we woke up on a rollercoaster and here we are in existence, and we don’t have to look at it with this attitude of we have to or should.

We get to look at it with this attitude of, “Well, here I am, so I get to. I get to experience this.” Now this was really powerful for me applying this to negative experiences that I’ve had in life. I get to go through this ordeal. I get to experience what it feels like to be hurt. I get to know what it feels like to feel pain, to get emotional, to cry. I get to experience joy beyond what I can possibly describe. “I get to” in all of these scenarios is a really powerful shift in perspective when compared to, “I have to,” so I hope you can look at different instances in your life and try to reframe them with that perspective, and think, “What would this look like if my attitude was, ‘I get to’ versus ‘I have to’?” See how that feels. See how a specific scenario of your past or your present looks like when you shift that from have to, to get to.

Again, this is an idea that’s talked about by the ToDo Institute specific to Naikan practice, N-A-I-K-A-N practice. Naikan practice is the practice of self-reflection, so as we go through life, we have a relationship with everything that we interact with, right? Whether that be a person — spouse, children, parents, friends, coworkers — we have a relationship with people, but we also have a relationship with things. I have a relationship with the shoes that I wear, the clothing that I choose, the house that I live in, with the car that I drive, so the different objects that I have, I have a relationship with these things. Naikan practice is the practice of becoming intimately familiar with the relationship that we have with people and with things.

The way Naikan practice works is that you pick a specific relationship — again, it could be a person like a sibling or a spouse — and then you ask three questions based on that, the relationship. What have I received from, what I have given to, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused? The point of this exercise is to be able to be reflective about the relationship. When I think, “What have I received from my spouse?, what have I given to my spouse, and what troubles and difficulties have I caused my spouse?” I start to gain insight into this relationship I have with my spouse. Now this can apply to anyone. You can do this exercise on anyone or on anything. You can do this with your shoes, for example. “What have I received from my shoes? What have I given to my shoes? What troubles and difficulties have I caused my shoes?” I start to gain some insight into the relationship that I have with my shoes.

Now one of the end results of Naikan practice is that you start to experience a tremendous sense of gratitude because you realize that you depend on relationships. None of us exist alone in a vacuum. We don’t go through life, we can’t go through life without depending on other people and other things. We can’t. If you live completely alone out in the forest, your interdependencies would be with the sun and with the plants, with the animals if you hunt, with the climate. Whatever it is, you have interdependencies. You can’t exist alone, none of us can, so reflecting on the relationships that we have with these things can be a really neat exercise. It’s called Naikan practice or Naikan reflection. You can learn more about it on the website todoinstitute.org, T-O-D-O Institute dot org. I’ll post a link, but it’s a neat exercise. I think it’s relevant in the context of this idea, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Again, what I’m trying to get at, the heart of this entire podcast episode is how we feel is one thing, and how we feel about how we feel is another thing, so feeling bad about feeling bad, sad about sad, happy about happy, that’s the second layer like in the parable of the two darts or the two arrows. The first dart is what is and the second is the story we construct around that reality, so this idea of, “I didn’t sign up for this,” if you really sit with that and look at it, what you’ll find is there’s a story there. There’s a story that we’ve constructed around reality and because reality is not fitting with the story, now we’re experiencing a whole new layer of discontent or of suffering that may not be necessary.

It only arises because of the perspective we have, which is that, “I thought I signed up for this or that, and what I’m really experiencing is this other thing or that other thing.” We create problems there, but problems in the sense of the two darts. There’s a very big difficult between the first dart of reality and the second dart of the story of reality, so I hope you can look at that in your own life. It’s been very beneficial for me in my own life to look at certain instances and ask myself, “Was there an expectation here that wasn’t met? Was the expectation the problem or was the actual circumstance or the event the problem?” Typically what you’ll find is there is a portion of suffering that’s related to the expectation not being met rather than just whatever it is that happened. Then that gives you a new, fresh perspective of something to work with, with whatever it is you’re going through. That’s what I wanted to share in this podcast episode. We didn’t sign up for this and because we didn’t sign up for this, we’re open to all of this.

I hope, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, that you’ll be willing to share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. Again, if you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of the podcast in order. They are somewhat of a summary of the key concepts talked about in Buddhism. You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links, visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, for this week, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon, so thank you and until next time.