38 – Life With and Without Beliefs

In this episode, I will talk about beliefs and the role they play in the fictional narrative we build around our perceived reality. The story we construct about reality is determined by our beliefs. This becomes problematic when reality doesn’t fit our beliefs because we tend to cause suffering for ourselves and others when we try to make reality fit the narrative of our own fiction.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 38. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about life with and without beliefs.
(Musical Introduction)
Have you ever noticed the T.V. or billboard ads for whiter teeth? They always show you a comparison. Here’s what teeth look like with this treatment, or here’s what they look like without this treatment. And this tactic seems to trigger in us the thought, “What would I look like with this treatment?” Or perhaps even worse, “Oh no, what do I look like without this treatment?” And this attitude of comparing, it plays a part in all forms of advertising, all forms of marketing or advertising, that pretty much says here is what life would look like with this new car or this energy drink or this product or service, and then it is left up to us to imagine what it would be like without, and we don’t want to miss out so that is what compels us to want to get something.

Have you ever noticed the T.V. or billboard ads for whiter teeth? They always show you a comparison. Here’s what teeth look like with this treatment, or here’s what they look like without this treatment. And this tactic seems to trigger in us the thought, “What would I look like with this treatment?” Or perhaps even worse, “Oh no, what do I look like without this treatment?” And this attitude of comparing, it plays a part in all forms of advertising, all forms of marketing or advertising, that pretty much says here is what life would look like with this new car or this energy drink or this product or service, and then it is left up to us to imagine what it would be like without, and we don’t want to miss out so that is what compels us to want to get something.
And we are always being presented with this dualistic set of realities. There’s what is and then there’s what could be, and all you need is this one product or this one service. This is a tactic that plays on our natural curiosity, because we have a natural eagerness to want to compare and to contrast things. So, what if we could use this natural curiosity to look more deeply into our own lives, into the nature of our own minds, our thoughts and our deeply held beliefs.
Before I jump into that though, I do want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by The Foundation For Mindful Living, a 501c3 non-profit, with a mission to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. The goal of the foundation is to make mindfulness teachings available to anyone anywhere, and we can do that with the support of our listeners. If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, perhaps even the world, completely free to the attendees.

Before I jump into that though, I do want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by The Foundation For Mindful Living, a 501c3 non-profit, with a mission to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. The goal of the foundation is to make mindfulness teachings available to anyone anywhere, and we can do that with the support of our listeners. If every podcast listener donated just two dollars a month, the foundation could host mindfulness retreats and workshops all over the country, perhaps even the world, completely free to the attendees.

Now, I love recording the podcast. I love teaching workshops, hosting retreats, and I never get tired of teaching about mindfulness or talking about Buddhism. The only part of all of this that’s difficult for me, is to ask for donations, and fortunately in the past I have been a position to be able to do this without relying on any kind of support. This has been my way of giving my time and resources, and this has allowed me to do everything on my own dime, and I have been happy about that.
Unfortunately though, as some of you may know from listening to recent podcast episodes, I am going through a difficult phase with my business, and very soon I will no longer have the business, and I will not have the same financial freedom that I’ve had in the past to continue running this the way that I have using my own resources. And during this time the podcast has grown quite a bit. Its become the number two podcast in the world for Buddhism, and it’s consistently in the top 50 now for religion and spirituality in the world. I’m very thankful to each of you for listening and for supporting when you can, because it couldn’t have grown without you. But that also means that I am dealing with significantly more bandwidth and resources to just keep it all running, and as of now it is about .2 percent of monthly listeners that are donors.

Whether that’s a one-time donation or a monthly donation, and I would love to get that percentage up a bit. I don’t know what a proper goal is, but you know, between two and five percent of listeners making a donation would make a significant difference in the resources that I would have to be able to take this and do more with it. That would allow me to make this my full-time project. So here’s my pitch to you. If you’re getting any value from these podcast episodes, if you are in a position to be able to, consider visiting secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button at the top of the page, and consider becoming a monthly contributor, or at least making a one-time donation that can go towards the cause of making mindfulness teachings available to everyone.

Normally you have to pay for something to see if you like it or if it was useful. You know, we’ve all done this. You go but a product, you spend a couple of dollars, and then you get to see if you like it, or if over time if it is something that continues to remain useful to you. Now, that is what’s nice about this setup with a podcast. Podcasts are free, and I want that to always be that way, and I don’t want to start bringing in advertising as a form of supplementing the income that, you know, that I would need to do this. I think that kind of muddies the waters a bit, but with this format it’s a little bit different. You get to listen to the podcast and over time you get to decide or notice if these teachings are making a difference in your life, and if they are, if you are benefiting from this content, then you get to choose if you want to support it, and that would insure that I can continue recording new episodes and even more regularly than I do now because I would be doing it full time, and continue to provide you with content that in turn continues to be beneficial to you and your day to day living.
So, I’m not asking anyone to donate unless you feel that this podcast has been beneficial to you, and you are in a position to be able to, because one of my main things has always been, you know, I don’t want any of this content to be restricted to people who can afford it. That’s why the workshops that I am doing, the recent format is to make these completely free. But every donation makes a difference with the mission of the foundation and the mission of the podcast to take what can sometimes be complex teachings or complex topics, and make them easy to understand and accessible to anyone who’s interested in learning more about mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation.

o, I’m not asking anyone to donate unless you feel that this podcast has been beneficial to you, and you are in a position to be able to, because one of my main things has always been, you know, I don’t want any of this content to be restricted to people who can afford it. That’s why the workshops that I am doing, the recent format is to make these completely free. But every donation makes a difference with the mission of the foundation and the mission of the podcast to take what can sometimes be complex teachings or complex topics, and make them easy to understand and accessible to anyone who’s interested in learning more about mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation.

So that’s it. That is my one time pitch to you. I don’t want to take up nearly as much time talking about this in the future, because I just want to go into talking about the content of the specific topic for the day, and maybe I will have an occasional reminder or a quick blurb about it if it is something that is still needed, but hopefully with your help we can get the percentage of listeners who donate from .2 up to a higher percentage, and that will make all the difference.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump into this week’s topic. So, we all have beliefs. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes us function so well as a species, as a highly evolved species. The fact that we’re capable of creating and collectively believing stories, is what gives rise to our modern civilization. Now, there’s a whole book about this called Sapiens. You should check it out. But essentially our political, financial, and even religious systems all work because of our shared beliefs. You know, think about that. If we didn’t all believe that this little green piece of paper had any value, our financial systems would collapse and we wouldn’t be able to trade or do commerce anywhere near as effective as we can now, because of our common held belief that this piece of paper has value.

And today I want to talk about beliefs and the role that they play in the narrative that we build about reality. I talked about this in the past. There is reality, and then there is the story that we have about reality. In other words, there’s you and then there’s the story you have about who you are, and these are not the same thing. It’s two different things. The story we construct about reality is determined by the beliefs that we hold. So, you could say it’s our beliefs that build a fictional world, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that when reality doesn’t fit with your beliefs, then you run the risk of causing suffering for yourself and for others, because you are trying to make reality fit the narrative of your own fiction.

And here’s the thing about reality though, reality is under no obligation to make any sense to you. You know, if you’re a regular podcast listener you’ll recall this story or this incident that I had a while back about meeting with Chris in China, one of my suppliers, and how for months I had been communicating with Chris over email, and when we finally went to meet in person I just couldn’t see Chris anywhere, because I kept thinking he’s not here, and after enough time went past and I finally sat down, the girl sitting next to me that whole time, that I didn’t even realize, she looked up from her phone and said “Oh, hi. Are you Noah? I’m Chris.” And the story has stuck with me, because you know the story reminds me of how my belief blinded is what blinded me. There was no problem with reality. Reality was what it was. I was there, Chris was there, but I couldn’t see Chris, because of the belief, because of the concept. The conceptual Chris blinded me from the real Chris, and this is where, you know, I talk about there’s what is and there’s the story of what is. For me, the story was that Chris was a guy, and that is why I couldn’t see Chris the female sitting there all along.

So, that is what I am talking about when we look at this duality between what is and the story of what is, or the narrative that we’ve constructed around what is, and that narrative is influenced by our beliefs. So, in that specific event, like I said there was absolutely no problem with reality. It was a problem with the narrative that was influenced by my belief that Chris was a man. Remember, all of this happened during a time in my life when I was deliberately trying to be aware and to be mindful. So, what does that say? You know, if I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t aware of reality, well then I’m in a dilemma. You know, what do we do about that? How do we overcome that? If our beliefs are influencing our narrative, or the story around reality, how can we work with that?

So, I don’t think that we can just eliminate our beliefs. I’m not sure that we can and I’m not sure that we need to or want to, but by understanding the connection between my beliefs and my perceived reality, I can become much more introspective with the role that I’m playing in my own self-inflicted suffering, and the suffering that I may be causing to others. So, I want to elaborate on this just a little bit more by introducing you to a popular zen koan. If you’ll recall I’ve talked about this in the past. A koan is a riddle. It’s a story or a question or a saying. It’s something that’s meant to be difficult if not impossible to understand or solve, but it’s ultimately meant to serve as a tool that essentially knocks us away from our conceptual thinking for a minute.

So, koans are used as tools to help us have a glimpse of reality without the bias of our beliefs and our stories. And remember, there is no problem with having beliefs or stories, it is just problematic when we confuse those things with reality. So, a koan can introduce us to the possibility of seeing or glimpsing what the world might look like if we could see it just as it is without our beliefs, without our concepts. So, what does life look like if I’m suddenly not relying on the stories I tell myself about reality?

Well, lets look at the koan a little bit. The koan goes like this, it’s an expression that says: The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. That’s it. The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. I’ve worked with this for a while. You know, what does this mean? And I’m going to tell you what it means to me, but remember at the end of the day, with this and all other things, the only real question that matters is what does it mean to you? For me, I think of it like this: Life is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. But what is it that we don’t have to pick and choose from? Well, to me this is reality verses the story I have about reality. See, that is the game I’m always playing. I’m trying to decipher what is reality verses what’s the story I have around reality, and we are always choosing. We’re picking and choosing between the two without even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

So, we are always caught up in the fictional reality we have created because of our beliefs, and this koan is saying: What if you could learn to see reality as it is, and then you wouldn’t have to pick and choose between what is and what you think is. You know, what if events in life don’t have to be anything other than what they are? You know, no stories, no fiction. I often talk about the analogy of a car cutting you off, and you can notice how quickly the story influences your view of reality. You know, the real suffering in that event has nothing to do with being cut off. It has everything to do with thinking, you know, that a jerk just took advantage of you, or something along those lines. But you see, that’s the story. That’s the story part. That’s the fiction, and what this koan is eluding to is that life is not difficult if you don’t have to pick and choose. I can be reality as it is. You know, what if we could approach events as they unfold in life without the stories that we’ve attached to those events?
You know, I often talk about what it feels like to be out in nature, because it’s one of the few places where it seems to be very easy to drop all the stories, all the narratives, all the fiction. We aren’t out there in nature looking at trees thinking, wait a second you need to be more straight, or you know, your leaves are not green enough, or sorry there is too much bark growing on the trunk of this tree. Like, we just don’t play that game. It sounds absurd and silly to even imagine that, but that’s what we do in real life.

When we’re out in nature we simply allow nature to be just as it is, and in return we don’t feel that nature plays that game with us. You know, you don’t go out in nature and feel like the trees are judging, you know what brand of backpack I’m wearing or the color of my shirt or what ever. You know, it’s in these moments where we’re completely at one with reality. We are just with what is, and when we’re like that there’s no tension, there’s no inner conflict, there’s nothing to add, there’s nothing to subtract. You’re just there with what is. And how refreshing does that feel? You know, what if we could be like that in other aspects of our life? What if we could be like that with other people, or even more, what if we could be like that with ourselves? That’s the essence of what it means to be able to live with and without beliefs. It’s looking at the role that they play in how we are with ourselves.

So, beliefs and thoughts and feelings, you know these things arise naturally in the same way that the wind or the rain does. When the causes and conditions are right it rains, and when the causes and conditions are not right, the rain is gone. Beliefs and thoughts and emotions, this whole sense of self, it’s very similar. The key is to remember that we don’t have to agree with them, or to fight against them. You know, that puts us back at picking and choosing, and it’s not difficult if you don’t have to pick and choose. So, we all know that Buddhism teaches this concept of non-attachment, and sometimes I think that is a concept that can be difficult to understand, and in some ways I like presenting this on kind of the flip side of that notion as the wisdom of adaptability.

So, in the context of time we say that all things are changing, all things are impermanent. So, attachment is what seems to bring a sense of permanence to things that are not permanent, and Thich Nhat Hanh says: “It’s not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” And I think in a similar way a lot of our suffering arises, not necessarily from having beliefs, but from wanting those beliefs to be permanent when they’re not. Thinking this is this way and it always needs to be this way.

Sometimes I like to think a little bit about what it must have been like when science was making that transition from the geocentric view of the universe to the heliocentric, and how, you know, I don’t think the problem was that there was a geocentric view of the universe. They didn’t know, and if you were just observing the night sky without the proper knowledge it would be easy to assume that everything is spinning around us. Now, the problematic part of this is when a new model comes out that makes more sense, and you can’t let go of your current belief that the, you know, that the earth is the center of the universe. That’s where it becomes problematic. You know, because wanting our beliefs to be permanent can be problematic when they’re not permanent. Nothing is permanent. All things are changing. So, this is where that wisdom of adaptability comes in.

You know, imagine how much more healthy it was for the scientists that were able to hold a view that, you know, the earth is the center of the universe to be presented with hew information that makes sense, and say: Oh, well, okay it looks like the sun is the center, you know we are revolving around the sun, it’s not revolving around us. That’s the wisdom of adaptability, and to say, you know, that changes everything. From here I’ll view it differently. You know, that is what it means to not have to pick and choose.

You know, at that moment you’re not stuck with the cognitive dissonance of what you think is verses what it seems, you know, what reality is saying. You can just say I’m not going to pick and choose. I’m going to go with reality every time, even when I don’t know, even if it doesn’t make sense. It just allows you to loosen the death grip that you have on your view of reality. You know, I think it is perfectly fine and healthy to hold a belief and to know that this is just how I view it now. This is how it is. Doesn’t mean it will always be like this, because if new information comes along, I would be happy to change my view. You know, that’s the wisdom of adaptability.

There’s an expression that is common in Buddhism that says: Right now it’s like this”. And that’s, it’s an expression to remind us that we have the tendency to make things feel permanent. You know, if you are going through a difficult time it’s easy to think, well you know, now life sucks. As if it was this permanent thing, and the expression: Right now it’s like this, is the reminder that it’s in the context of time. Sure, it’s fine to say this sucks, you know, what I’m going through sucks, but it won’t always be that way, because the nature of things is that they’re impermanent. Things are always changing.

This is where the story The Parable Of The Horse, that I have shared so many times, in so many podcast episodes, you know, who knows what is good and what is bad? It’s trying to get us to understand that in the context of time, sure right now I’m suffering because my son fell off the horse and he broke his leg. That seems like that’s a bad thing, but the thing is, I don’t know, you know, that that’s permanent, because tomorrow I may be grateful that that happened, because now he wasn’t conscripted into the army. That’s the point is that, it’s permanence that makes it problematic. Trying to hold on, you know, as Tich Nhat Hanh says: “It’s not impermanence that causes suffering, it’s wanting things to be permanent when they’re not.”
Now, I want to deviate a little bit on another thought around all of this. Have you ever noticed how it feels whenever you’re around someone that you want them to be different than how they are? Have you ever noticed how that feels? Now, and I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong to want someone to be other than they are. I’m not saying that. I’m just asking you right now to look for a minute into your own self. What does it feel like? How do you feel when you’re around someone who you don’t want them to be how they are? You want them to be different than how they are. How does that feel? Because it’s the same way we feel in general towards life when we’re wanting life to be other than it is, and that is the very definition of suffering in the Buddhist sense, you know.

Suffering arises when we want life to be other than it is, and I remember feeling this way around a certain person in my own life, someone close that I felt was judgemental or harsh or difficult to be around, and I always thought that the solution is, when this person changes, then it will be good, then life won’t be difficult, you know, then I won’t ever have to suffer around that. And, you know, it wasn’t until later, through contemplative practice and stuff, that I realized when I didn’t want this person to be any different than how they were, that’s when there was true peace between us, and I was completely content with them being who they were. It’s fine if they want to be judgemental or harsh to me. You know, it didn’t, I was at peace. And the irony is that that peace allowed them to change. Not because I wanted them to, but because they had the freedom to.
But that’s not the goal, right? They don’t have to. You’re going to have peace when you can be content with life just as it is. And it’s not just with life and not just with others. I think what I really want to get at here is that you do this with yourself, you know? There’s who you are, and who you think you should be. And to even make matters worse, there’s, you know, there’s also who you think someone else thinks you should be. But we’re playing that same game. You know, we’re wanting life to be other than it is, and it causes suffering.

So, when you’re playing that game, there’s who you are and who you think you should be. You know, the moment that you can look at your life, and you no longer want it to be any different than it is, you will experience peace. When you no longer have to pick and choose between who you are and who you think you should be you will experience peace, or you know, when you look at someone else. You no longer have to choose between who they are and who you think they should be. Think about that for a minute. Just imagine. What would life be like if I didn’t have to pick and choose? That’s kind of the premise of this koan. You know, what if I could be with reality just the way it is. Now this is, the great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. That’s what that means to me.

Hopefully you will be able to spend some time and look at this and ask yourself that question. You know? What would I be like if I was completely accepting of me just the way that I am, and I wasn’t comparing or having to pick and choose between me and the me that I think I should be, or life and the life I think should be, or you know, another person. Who they are and who I think they should be. What if you could be around someone and accept them just the way that they are?
I promise you it’d make a very big difference in what you feel. Notice how it feels when you’re around someone that you want them to be other than how they are. Notice how it feels when you want to be other than how you are. That’s a tumultuous thing to experience.

This podcast episode was inspired by a chapter in the book Bring Me The Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by author John Tarrant. If you want to get a little more in depth with this specific koan, the great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and chose, I recommend picking up that book. And as always, if you enjoy this podcast please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on Itunes, and remember if you are new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order. They serve as a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhism. You can also check out my book Secular Buddhism Eastern Thought For Western Minds available on Amazon Kindle, Itunes, and Audible, and for more information or links to those books just visit secualrbuddhism.com. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.
(music)

  • Anonymous Coward

    Hi, I have been listening to your podcast for a while. One thing I don’t understand is how to reconcile concept of evil?

    Personally, I live very cushy and comfortable life. I had my share my problems but they were not tough. Bills, exams, break-ins, etc. But these never really stressed me out. I always been a go with flow type of person.

    But as I am getting older, the suffering of others really really bother me. Like sometimes to the point of sick in stomach feeling. Usually, happens when I read about brutal violence. It doesn’t matter if that violence was in present or in past history. It makes me sick sometimes for several days.

    I lose joy then, feel guilty if I am truly having good time.

    It is easy for me to apply Buddhist principles to my personal sufferings and be content.
    But it is really hard for me to have carefree life when I know there are innocent children in slavery or other stuff like that.

    What is my responsibility? I make donations but it still leave me feeling guilty for having a great life.

    I sometimes compare myself to Buddha, I lived pretty sheltered and comfortable life. I thought life was beautiful and good. People were poor because they were lazy or God was testing them. People got in trouble because of their own personal choices.

    But now I know it is not always the fault of people. Most people are poor not because they are lazy but because of lack of opportunities. Things are even worse in developing worlds. And it is not just poverty that bothers me.

    I can go on forever. I just don’t know how to deal with sufferings of fellow humans. I actually feel their pain.

    • Noah Rasheta

      Thank you for bringing this up! I plan on addressing some of these items in a future podcast episode. My mantra for dealing with the suffering of others is “I’m doing what I can.” I know I can’t do much, but I can do what I can. There is a beautiful little video on YouTube called “I will be a hummingbird”, it reminds us that we can always do something, we can do whatever we can do. The concept of Evil is not that it doesn’t exist, it’s that it arises out of ignorance. I hope that makes sense?