What is the state of radical okayness? There is a very clear message that seems to permeate through many of the Buddha’s teachings, that is, the importance of getting to know yourself, knowing your own mind. I believe that when we learn to look past our own stories and narratives we have about ourselves, others, and life, we begin to experience a state of radical okayness.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 88. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about the concept of radical okayness, or in other words, the idea of getting to know yourself. Keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.
Now, I first encountered the expression radical okayness when I was attending the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. A weekly gathering in Salt Lake City ran by friend Christopher. He was giving a Dharma talking, he used this concept of radical okayness, and I remember it really stood out to me. I thought I was a really cool expression that really gets at the heart of what Buddhism is trying to accomplish in so many of its teachings. We always talk about the middle way in Buddhism and I like to think that in the middle of, on the spectrum of, “Wow life is great and that’s what I’m chasing after.” Or, “Oh man, life is really crappy right now. I don’t like this.” Right in the middle, there’s just okay. Life is okay. And what a radical shift it is to go from chasing after the extremes, right? Chasing to get to one extreme or fighting hard to avoid letting that other extreme get close to us.
Our habitual mode is to desire more of what we think we want and to feel aversion, or to push away, that which we think we don’t want. But to be okay with things just as they are when they’re good and when they’re bad, that to me is the essence of radical okayness. Radical in the sense that that’s not normal. Most people are caught in the game chasing after one and fighting off the other, but what a radical shift in perspective to be okay and to stop playing that game. Just thinking, when it’s good it’s good to now enjoy it. When it’s bad, it’s fine. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I can also enjoy it. That’s a radical thing for me.
So I wanna dig into this a little bit more. There’s a very clear message that seems to permeate through many of the Buddhist teachings. That is the importance of getting to know yourself, knowing your own mind. I wanna correlate this with this concept of radical okayness. So the Buddhist teachings are primarily concerned with understanding suffering and the elimination of what we would call self-inflicted or unnecessary suffering.
I’ve mentioned this before in podcast episodes the parable of the two arrows. Common Buddhist teaching meant to help us to understand the nature of what we could say is natural suffering, the first arrow, versus self-inflicted suffering, the suffering that we bring on ourselves, which is the second arrow. The Buddha understood that the source of this unnecessary suffering was to be discovered within.
So think about this for a moment. What are the things that generally cause us mental anguish or discomfort? For you specifically, the things that cause you mental anguish or discomfort. Perhaps it’s the fear of death, that’s a big one likely rooted in the fear of uncertainty. Not knowing what comes next. The fear of just not knowing or not having control over how life is unfolding. When we feel anguish or stress or worry or anxiety, these are all mental states and they arise in the mind and they reside in the mind while we’re experiencing them.
But this is also how the pleasant mental states work. When we’re in love or we look up at the night sky and we contemplate the vastness of the cosmos and our smallness in this place. Or you smell a flower, or you watch a sunset, or you look into the eyes of your newborn child that you’re meeting for the first time. These are incredibly powerful experiences that all take place in our minds.
So in this sense, pleasure and pain are both experiences of the mind. I don’t know about you, but for me, I cannot think of a greater goal than that of getting to know myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly intrigued by the great mysteries of the universe and the cosmos. I’m fascinated by what we know and by what we don’t know about space and time and the big bang and the expansion of the universe and the origins of life and all that.
But somehow as I sit here and I really think and I feel, I’m also overwhelmed by a sense of awe and wonder at the fact that my mind can produce thoughts and it can produce feelings. Some so intense that I can barely even try to express the experience through words. Then those words, as I speak them aloud and they get recorded and then transmitted to another mind. In this case your mind, the listener who right now is connecting with my mind in a way that really alters everything for all of us, for both of us. How incredible is that?
All these thoughts and ideas that I share come from the thoughts and ideas that others have shared, that others have had. They’ve been shared across space and time for literally thousands of years and it almost leaves me speechless as I think about it. Our mind is the experiencer of each and every moment in our lives. Everything that I think and feel and perceive starts right here in my own mind.
Getting to know your own mind, not only leads to greater happiness in life, but it literally transforms the chaos and confusion of our habitual reactivity and it’s the key to waking up. To experience that awakened state is the very heart of Buddhist practice. It’s really a state of freedom. It’s not dependent on any external circumstances, it’s anchored entirely on the profound realization that we can be fine with the ups and downs of life. The pleasant and unpleasant experiences and mental states, what we could call a state of radical okayness.
Earlier this week I saw a meme on Facebook for a shirt that I thought would be really funny. You guys know if you follow me on social media and I talk about it here, but I am way into paragliding and paramotoring. Paramotoring is essentially just paragliding with a motor strapped on your back. I saw a T-shirt that I thought would be really fun and it was a T-shirt that says, “The world’s okayest paramotor pilot.” I thought, “Man, that’s actually quite a goal to have.” Rather than wanting to be the best paramotor pilot, what does that even mean? That what if I could be the world’s okayest paramotor pilot?
Then I thought about this in context of other labels that I carry. The world’s okayest dad. The world’s okayest mediator, and others like that. I really got a kick out of that. Just laughing, thinking, that’s actually a really profound message when you think about it. That kind of prompted or inspired this podcast episode to talk about this concept of okayness, radical okayness. I think the process of getting to know ourselves starts with the realization that we actually don’t really know ourselves very well. We think we know ourselves, we might be thinking, “Well yeah, of course, I know myself. I know myself better than anyone else.”
But do you know why you react the way you do about things? Do you know why you feel the way that you feel or believe the things that you believe or don’t believe the things that you don’t believe? Why do things bother you? The things that bother you, why do they bother you? Why are there things that you like and dislike? Why do you like it? Why do you dislike it? Just because you know yourself better than … or think you know yourself better than others know you, doesn’t mean you know yourself very well.
I think we need to recognize that our mind is often like a stranger, one that we may see often. We may hear from often when it kicks and screams or has things to say, or it wants its opinions heard. But do you really spend quality time trying to develop a friendship with your own mind? Is your mind your friend? Is it a close friend? Those are questions to explore and I believe that we actually don’t know ourselves really well. A big part of that is because we are living in a conceptual world.
When I try to understand how my mind works, I understand that I have experiences. Those experiences invoke concepts, stories, and those stories and concepts allow emotions to arise. In Plato’s analogy of the Cave, he talks about how what we perceive is not the whole picture. He talks about the situation where people are positioned where they’re facing a wall and they’re stuck that way, facing the wall and they see shadows on the wall. They perceive those shadows to be reality. But the truth is that the shadows are not the real thing.
If you’ve ever done, when you have a light source and you project a shadow on the wall, have you ever put your hand there and done the little animal shapes. I’m only capable of doing one, I can do the dog, which most people can do that one. But imagine looking at that shadow of a dog face on the wall, we don’t really mistake that as a dog. We understand this is the shadow that looks like a dog. But imagine mistaking that shadow for a dog and then living in a new reality where that shadow is the dog. That’s essentially what the Buddha came to realize. That we are living in a conceptual world where the stories have become the real thing and we’re all ignorant to the reality that they’re not the same thing.
Many Buddhist teachings allude to this same concept, this conclusion that the symbol of a thing is not the same as the thing it symbolizes. I think about this often with something like the flag. In our country, we’re really protective of our flag and what it stands for. It’s interesting to me that when we pledge allegiance, we’re pledging allegiance to the flag, not to the thing that it symbolizes. If the flag symbolizes freedom, for example, we’re pledging our allegiance to the thing that symbolizes freedom.
In the Shurangama Sutra, a Zen story, speaks to this. When the Buddha was telling his attendant, Ananda, he says, “You still listen to the Dharma.” Think of the Dharma as the teachings. You still listen to the teachings with the conditioned mind, the conceptual mind. So the teachings become conditioned or conceptualized as well. You don’t obtain the Dharma nature or Buddha nature, you’re not capable of attaining the state of seeing things as they really are.
It’s like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guiding by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon. That’s the problem with the conceptual world, a world where people are more loyal to the symbol of a thing than to the thing itself. People think the finger pointing is more important than what the finger is pointing at. I think we find this in a lot of ideologies and religions. Including, perhaps especially, in Buddhism.
Now, somewhere in the layers of perceiving of having experiences, having concepts or stories that arise out of the experience and then the emotions that arise from the concepts, we get tired. We get exhausted of playing this game of seeking after more of what is pleasant and avoiding at all costs what is unpleasant. The funny thing, well perhaps the sad thing, is that we go through life thinking that we’re tired from our job, or I’m tired of this relationship. Or I’m exhausted because of the heavy experiences I’m dealing with, like the loss of loved one, or something along those lines. But in reality, it’s all just our mind. We get tired because we’re living our lives conceptual not experientially. In doing so, we often end up missing both the finger and the moon.
It’s like we’re locked up in the prison of our own conditioned mind and the Buddha taught that ignorance is what causes us to confuse our conceptual reality with reality itself. This ignorance makes us believe that our stories about ourselves, about others, or about life, that those are real. That the story is the real thing. It’s kind of like being asleep and having a dream and thinking that the dream is real. You’d have no reason to question the reality of the dream if you don’t even know that you’re asleep.
So Buddhism teaches that the key to waking up is first recognizing that we’re not awake. Then we can unlock the door of our conceptual prison through self-knowledge. This is why Buddhism is such a contemplative practice. It’s not about telling others what you should do or what you shouldn’t do, it’s entirely about looking inward and getting to know yourself. When I hear, “What does Buddhism say about this, or teach about that?” It’s often troubling to me because I think, here we are getting caught up into the conceptualized form of Buddhism. Why would you want to know what Buddhism is telling you what you should think about this or that? Now, that’s entirely irrelevant. If anything, Buddhism would say, “Buddhism doesn’t have a position on the Buddhist position.”
As you get to know yourself, it’s like turning on a light in room that’s been dark for so long. I love this analogy, I’ve used it before talking about the idea of being in a dark barn and confusing a coiled hose for a snake. Seeing things as they really are can bring about a sense of radical okayness. There’s almost a relaxation or even a sense of humor that arises. Suddenly, nothing could be better than just okay. I can’t believe I thought this coiled hose was a snake, but the moment I realized oh, it’s not a snake, it was just a coiled hose, there’s that sense of relaxation. You would probably at that point maybe laugh about it. I can’t believe I jumped up on the counter or whatever your reaction was. I think so much of what we’re experiencing in our day to day lives, fits with this analogy.
So to wake up, it’s like turning on that light and seeing oh, how funny that I’ve been chasing after this thing. Thinking that the next job or more money or whatever the thing is you’re chasing, that that was gonna do anything. Some of you may be listening to this and thinking, “Well, wait a second. Is this radical okayness similar to some kind of radical blandness? With this kind of awakening does life become more bland?” My answer, in my experience, the answer is absolutely not. I think life becomes more rich and vibrant when we experience a break from our habitual reactivity and our conceptual labeling of everything as either pleasant or unpleasant. Suddenly we can see more clearly. We can think more clearly. We’re free to just feel and experience life.
I think getting to know yourself is not easy. It requires you to challenge and question one of the things that is closest to you. Something that is deeply meaningful to you, that is the story you have of yourself. But it’s totally liberating to finally be able to see yourself stripped of all the concepts and stories. The Buddha taught that the root cause of suffering is attachment or clinging. In this case, when it comes to the story you have about yourself, perhaps it’s skillful to ask yourself why am I clinging to this story I have about myself? And sure, it’s hard to do but I can promise you that an incredible sense of relief and peace arises when you do. Your very freedom depends on letting go of your attachment to that story.
Now, when I think of the Buddha sitting and meditating under the fig tree, that moment of his enlightenment or his awakening, I like to imagine what he achieved is a sense of radical okayness. That life was radically okay and others who saw this change in him started to call him the Awakened One, the one who’s awake. That’s what the word Buddha means. He went on to live for a long time after that doing a lot of radically okay things. Teaching these ideas and these concepts to others. If you’ve ever experienced these glimpses of moments, of feeling that awaken sense, that feeling like you can see past your own storylines, I’m sure you’ve also felt that sense of peace that comes with knowing that radical okayness is actually a phenomenal state.
I think with this shift we start to develop a sense of confidence in ourselves and in our ability to handle whatever Tetris pieces come our way. I like to think of it like a bird, that comes and lands on a branch with all the confidence in the world. Never having to stop and worry about whether or not it has enough faith in the strength of the branch to hold it, right? That’s entirely irrelevant because the bird has faith in its own ability to fly. Its own faith in its own wings. Whether the branch breaks or not doesn’t matter. If it breaks, it’ll fly away to another branch.
That’s the sort of confidence I think we can develop as we go about walking on the path of life. We no longer put our faith in the path itself, that the path is gonna do what we think it needs to do. That’ll go this way or that it won’t get too steep going uphill, that’ll be a slight downhill. What we do is we start to develop our faith and our ability to navigate the path regardless what the path looks like. Regardless of whatever turns it may take. Whether it’s going uphill and it’s steep or if it’s going downhill.
I think as we approach the end of the year we often look forward to the next year with goals and resolutions of how we want things to go. How we expect the path to twist and turn. Well, I’d like to invite you to add getting to know myself as the top priority on your list. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of getting to know yourself and getting to know your own mind as a key to a more peaceful life, an awakened life like that modeled by the story of the Buddha. So I wanted to share this concept with you and this topic with you as we approach the end of the year. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this. I hope it inspires you to want to get to know yourself.
If you wanna learn more about general Buddhism and mindfulness, you can check out my books, Secular Buddhism. The second book No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners. And my most recent book, The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal, which does a lot to help in this task of getting to know yourself. You can learn about those books by visiting, noahrasheta.com. That’s N-O-A-H R-A-S-H-E-T-A .com and as always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes.
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