96 – What if the Problem is the Problem?

Pema Chodron says: “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” What does that mean? How do we give ourselves difficult times? And perhaps more importantly, how could we be giving ourselves difficult times and not even know that we are doing it?

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Transcript:

Welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 96. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about problems.

Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. In this podcast episode I want to talk about problems. And when we refer to problems, first of all I want to recognize that while we all have problems, not all problems are equal. What we jokingly refer to as first world problems may seem to be ridiculous when looked at from the perspective of someone who’s not in a first world situation. Maybe someone in a third world for example. But the emotional suffering experienced during a so called first world problem can be just as real as any other form of mental anguish in any other given set of circumstances.

So I want to be careful as I address the idea of problems because I recognize that there are different types of problems, but I don’t want to make the mistake of categorizing these problems and saying, well, your problem isn’t as real or as valid as this other person’s problem because theirs is worse than yours. I don’t entirely agree with that line of thinking because the truth is all of the emotions and the experiences that we have are real regardless of the circumstances. So I wanted to kind of preface this a little bit with that line of thought.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this or perhaps experienced this idea of first world problems. Someone on the airplane being upset because their seat won’t go back or the Wifi isn’t working or countless first world problems. That’s pretty much all the problems that we experience living in a first world country, are first world problems.

Several years ago I was working with someone. He had to make a quick stop to pick up some tickets for an upcoming football game. I think it was a that he was going to go to. So we stopped at the house, his parents house, to pick up the season tickets that I think the parents had. Anyway, as this all unfolds, he realizes that the parents had given the tickets to one of the other siblings or to an uncle and these tickets that he had been waiting for were no longer available.

And suddenly I saw this other side of this person. It was a full blown, I’m not sure tantrum is the right word, but an absolute anger unlike anything I had seen before. And it was actually startling and kind of scary to see how upset this person was over not having the tickets that he was told he was going to be able to get. He was really upset and like scary upset, like I didn’t know what was going to happen next. He didn’t act out and do anything violent, but he was bright red and he was punching the air and cursing. It was quite the spectacle to behold.

And as I thought about that, it was easy to want to have the initial inclination to dismiss the experience as like seriously, all of this over tickets. But I had to play with that thought a little bit and be like well, wait a second. I don’t know what’s really going on here. Is this really about the tickets? It may seem tempting to dismiss the emotions that people feel when they arise in circumstances that we don’t really agree with or understand, when instead you can take that moment to recognize that the emotion is real and perhaps try to dig deeper into exploring what is the problem.

In this case, like I said, was it really about the tickets? Was it something deeper going on? Maybe a trigger feeling of rejection because a sibling got the tickets or the uncle got the tickets or whatever that was? It kind of emotional trigger that takes place when maybe this person that doesn’t get what they want.

Long story short, there were countless things that could have been deeper underlying emotions that were just coming to the surface with this experience of the tickets. And as I played with that in my mind, I was able to finally conclude at the end of this mentally exploration is I don’t know what just happened. I don’t know what’s going on and it’s not my place to make an assessment. I didn’t have to make an assessment say, well that was valid or that was not valid. What I do know is that felt very real. This person was very clearly upset and you can’t fake those emotions. I don’t know if it really was about the tickets or something deeper.

But this experience I’ve noticed in other occasions throughout my life, whether it’s standing at the DMV waiting to get your license renewed and you’re frustrated with the seeming inadequacies of how that system works or whatever the problem may be. I’ve often pondered this line of thinking from Pema Chodron where she says the most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.

I’ve thought about this when I’m experiencing a problem, whatever the problem is. I tend to ask myself, what if the problem is the problem? And I explore more about the problem usually. Instead of getting caught up in the circumstances that are making me feel upset, I kind of ask myself, why is this such a big deal? And I tried to explore that a little bit deeper.

So I want to explore this idea just for a moment here on the podcast. How do we give ourselves, if the most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves, how are we giving ourselves difficult times? And perhaps more importantly, how could I be given myself difficult times and not know that I’m doing that?

In my own experience? this mental exploration has led me down the road of exploring all of my views, my opinions and especially my beliefs. And I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, when I was going through the loss of my company and going through the bankruptcy, the attachment that I had to my labels and my stories, specifically the story that I have about myself. And at the time that story and that label was that I am an entrepreneur. And the suffering I was experiencing in that moment of losing my company really didn’t have to do with losing my company. It had to do with losing my sense of identity with this label that I’ve given myself. And that was a very radical eyeopening experience to realize in that moment that the problem wasn’t really the problem. The problem was I didn’t understand why the problem is the problem.

And since then I’ve come to question every story, every label, every belief that I have, whether it’s about myself or about reality in general. As I mentioned in episode number 93 on the topic of groundlessness, I’ve found this incredible space of peace in not knowing and being in the space of uncertainty and allowing my beliefs and my labels and my attachments to just kind of be there. But I’m no longer attached to the attachment. I’m no longer attached to the label and I’m playing the Tetris game now more skillfully where I’m just letting it all unfold and I’ll figure it out when each shape shows up.

So that’s kind of the overall idea. I think our beliefs especially can trap us in these mental prisons of difficult times that we’re giving ourselves. It can happen on superficial levels, but it also happens on really deep levels, like our deeply held views and convictions. And with me I’m suspicious of any ideology that conveniently positions itself as the only solution to a problem that it presented in the first place.

I think you can encounter this in Buddhism where you start to study and learn a little bit about Buddhism and then suddenly you’re presented with this idea of enlightenment and you’re like, oh, oh no, I’m not enlightened. I want to be enlightened. And now the problem has been presented and the ideology around it happens to be the solution. It’s like oh, you want to be enlightened? Well, you’ve got to practice meditation and you’ve got to sit down in this pose and you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to avoid doing that. And suddenly before we know it, there we go on the road to solving a problem that only five minutes ago we didn’t even know was a problem.

I grew up with the same experience in my religious upbringing. It was a similar thing that happened. I was presented with the problem, you are a sinner and you need to be saved. And the specific ideology that was telling me this was also conveniently the only path to solving the problem. In other words, the religion telling me that I needed to be saved also happened to be the only valid path to salvation.

Later in life, as I mentally explored this problem, I found the problem to be the problem. In my case, it felt as though my difficult times where the ones I was giving myself and I couldn’t see that. And it was in the form of my beliefs. It was as though my beliefs were saying to me hey, don’t worry. We’re here to save you. And when I questioned saved me from what, my beliefs said to save you from what we’re going to do to you if you don’t let us save you. And that in itself was the problem. My beliefs were there to save me from my beliefs.

In that moment I understood that while my beliefs were indeed a solution to a problem, more importantly, they were first and foremost the problem itself. And that was a profound shift for me.

And then from there moving on to studying Buddhism, the more I’ve studied Buddhism and spent time studying the specific teachings and the concepts, the more I think these teachings are trying to tell us something deeply profound. And that is that the problem is not the problem. The problem is that we think there was a problem in the first place. In other words, like with enlightenment. Maybe the most profound thing we can realize in life is that there’s nothing to realize.

I want to be clear that when I’m referring to ideologies, I’m not just talking about religious ideologies, but also the cultural ideologies. You can take, for example, the idea of marketing and products in general. Usually the system that’s selling you products to improve your looks is also the system that’s ensured that you’ve been bought into the idea that you don’t look good in the first place. That they perpetuate that. So here you have the problem. The problem is I don’t look good. The solution is XYZ product is going to make you look good. But when you explore this a little bit more, you realize the problem was the problem in the first place. The problem is I don’t look good. There you go. Well there’s the problem. Why do you think you don’t look good? That’s where it all starts. Who sold you on that idea? And you’ll find that the cultural norms and views that sold you on that idea happen to be the same cultural norms and views that are selling you the solution. Buy this makeup or get this hairstyle or drive this kind of car or date this of person or be seen doing this kind of a job or whatever it is.

And the belief presents the problem. So yeah. So that’s one other way to explore this whole concept of what if the problem is the problem? I think the product ends up doing the same thing that the religion was doing, which the product is going to save you from what will happen to you if you don’t buy the product. And that is, in my opinion, faulty thinking.

Again, I’m not talking about the basic difficulties of life like poverty or crime or the very real difficulties that a lot of people in the world experience in their day to day lives. I’m talking about the mental difficulties that we often give ourselves. They usually emerge in the form of either regrets about the past, worries about the future.

But I think when we spend time in the present moment, something else entirely happens when we become fully engaged with the present moment. It’s like the expression of stop and smell the roses. You can stop and smell the roses and something deeply profound happens. You see the interdependence of the roses and of all things. And I think this is something that we can learn to do in our own minds with all of our problems, all of our difficulties.

And it’s fair to say when I stop and I analyze this difficulty, oh yeah, that’s a very real difficulty. And there’s something real I have to do about it. For example, if you can’t make ends meet and you have a family to feed, that’s a real problem and there’s a real skillful way to deal with that problem. And then there are unskillful ways to deal with that. And that’s, again, going back to the skillful versus unskillful, that’s kind of what we’re dealing with here.

But I do think that many of the difficulties that we give ourselves in our specific culture, especially if you’re listening to this podcast, it’s very likely you have a smartphone or some form of access to technology or some of the things that we would start to call first world problems, even if you’re not in a first world country. We can stop and we can analyze our own views, our beliefs, our opinions, the ideas that we have about ourselves, about others, about reality. And perhaps in that moment of exploration, by looking inward, you’ll find some kind of insight into the nature of some of the problems that you’re dealing with in your life right now. And with that introspection and with that insight, perhaps you’ll find a more skillful way of dealing with the problem.

That was the goal of this podcast episode, to explore the concept of problems simply from the perspective of analyzing what if the problem is the problem. So I wanted to share those ideas with you and hopefully you can take something away out of that.

I want to end with this funny meme that I saw I think on Facebook about, it was two cartoon characters and one of them was all concerned saying oh no, I think I may have been cursed. What do I do if I’ve been cursed, what’s the best cure for a curse? And I think it’s a cat that’s sitting on the couch and says something to the effect of the best defense against curses is to not believe in curses and says it with the arrogance of a cat, right? Where it’s like, come on, that’s not even a problem that you should be worried about.

I really enjoyed that and thought that was kind of fun. The best cure against, or the best defense against curses as to not believe in curses and perhaps some of that line of thinking can carry on into other aspects of our lives.

Again, if you want to learn more about Buddhism and mindfulness, you can check out my book, No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. You can pick up the Five Minute Mindfulness Journal to start practicing mindfulness in your day to day life. Both of those, along with my original book, Secular Buddhism, are all available on noahrasheta.com.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com, click on the donate button.

And that’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife and three kids.

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