This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Death, Karma and Mindful Living
The first five episodes of this podcast are intended to be a summary of Buddhist philosophical concepts. The idea is that, after listening to the first five episodes of this podcast, you will have a basic understanding of the Buddhist world view, the secular Buddhist world view and, specifically, a 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 and what "karma" means.
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.
We're not going to be able to live our lives fully if we don't keep in mind the fact 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. Thinking about 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, even 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 has unlearned how to be a slave."
In my personal studies of Buddhism, I've come to understand that the ultimate goal in Buddhism is not happiness. It's 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.
It is an absolute certainty that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. Our instinctive desire is 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. 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, 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 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 a person that we don't know, a stranger with whom we've been living this whole time but who 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 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 but his response was so powerful that 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. There was 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, becomes the past. Really, the only thing we have is now. It's 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. Everything that we need to be happy can be found in the present moment. 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 realisation that everything that I need to be happy is already here. It's right here 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. Whatever the situation is that you're in now, imagine a simple phone call 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, and then look back at where you are right now.
Where you are right now is the past. 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: it's realising that everything that you need to be happy is contained in the present moment. All it takes is a phone call to change that, to put things in perspective. In the new scenario, you would give anything to go back to how things were now and if you could you'd think, "Oh man. Now, life is good. Now I have everything. I couldn't ask for anything more."
Yet that's exactly where you are now. The present moment contains everything that you need. You don't have to 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're stranded on a desert island. There are so many scenarios where 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."
This concept, this ordinary mindfulness, this ordinary bliss, was once called by a friend of mine "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 ourselves from the fear of death and realise the truth of life. Looking in isn't easy. We're so addicted to looking outside ourselves, seeking peace or happiness or joy. We don't even realise 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 terrify 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, which is the 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 has changed. It's that the way that we see life has changed, and 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.
Living a mindful awakened life is 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 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 don't feel the same level of anxiety or drama over the sandcastle because you know that, in 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. Another way to view this is that it's like going to a movie. You can watch a movie and you still feel the emotions. You can cry. You can feel joy, sadness or fear. You jump when you're scared. You can feel compassion for the characters but, 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 it is. We can enjoy every aspect of our impermanent nature.
Wayne Dyer says, "There's no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. There is no way to peace. Peace is the way. 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, particular creeds and competitiveness that we learn, often through the influence of our culture, our families and our friends. It's then reinforced by personal experience.
But many of us don't recognise our Buddha nature until it's pointed out to us. It's like a man who received a watch as a gift from a friend and he thought it was a bracelet, so he's wearing it and still asking the time. He doesn't know that he has a watch or the ability to tell time until someone points it out to him. That's similar to the experience of awakening. It's like realising, "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 realise, "Oh, they were on my head the whole time."
That's like understanding or experiencing the nature of being awake. It's realising 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? It's that the limiting ideas that we hold about ourselves and others 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 and without stories.
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 recognised, so don't believe anything I say just because I say so, try the stuff out for yourselves." But 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 say to you, "Hey. This is the experience of enlightenment." But I'm going to give you eleven tools to experience this awakened nature and this mindful living. Mindful living is being able to live in a way in which you experience awakening or enlightenment.
The first one is meditation. This is where mindful living really starts, and it doesn't have to be complicated. You 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 wander from your breath and then 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 your thoughts. Really, the exercise of meditation is the same thing over and over. You focus your attention one one thing. You observe it and, the moment you realise you're distracted, you bring your attention back to that one thing, which in this case is breathing. It's just like when you're sitting outside and 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 realise that you actually haven't been paying attention, so you have to pause and say, "Say that again?" This is the opposite of that. Being present is something that you do throughout the day and you have to remember. Remembering is the trick. We're so easily and naturally distracted that it's hard to just be present and to focus. Meditation can help us to be present, which people will really appreciate.
The third tool is to watch for distractions. We constantly have the urge to check email and check social media. 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 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 them. What are the things that distract you? 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 allowing myself to distracted?
Then, fourth, we're going to try to let go of all expectations. 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 how we should try to 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 a chess game." I thought: how appropriate. That really is a very 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 to learn to take what presents itself and arrange it or twist it in a way that works best. It's never ideal because you have to position it wherever it's going to fit. 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, which is accepting people as they are and accepting life as it is. When I stopped trying to change a loved one and I started to accept this person for who they are, I was able to just be with this person and enjoy time with her. This acceptance has the same effect with whatever you do. Whether it's dealing with a co-worker, a family member, a child, a spouse or a loved one, or learning to accept a bad situation. Remember that, in an earlier episode, I mentioned the analogy of the horse and the phrase "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 it. "Okay. This is what is. Here is the piece that's presented itself." The moment you can accept it, you can work with it. What if every time a new piece comes up, instead of immediately working with it, you're frustrated and saying, "No. I needed a square, not this rectangle and not this bar?" The key to playing is that you have to accept the moment that presents itself; to accept that new shape, whatever it is. Now you have more time to work with it and figure out where it's going to fit and how it will benefit you most. Sitting there and resisting it is a waste of time. We're going to be much more at peace when we learn to do this.
This leads us to the sixth tool, which is learning to be okay with discomfort. See, the fear of discomfort is huge. It causes people to be stuck in their old habits. We tend to stick to what we know and what we're comfortable with rather than trying something new and unknown. That's why a lot of people don't try vegetables or they don't exercise or it's why they eat junk. 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 can do that by practising. You can start with little things that are a little uncomfortable and then just expand your comfort zone. I think a really good way to do this is by practising 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 is to 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 you. For example, 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.
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 and how we feel people should be, and we need to allow ourselves to experiment and to let go of what we think we know and of what we expect. When you start a new project or a new venture, if you feel the fear of failure, just try thinking, "Let's see what's going to happen here. Let's find out."
Then there isn't the fear of failure but, instead, 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". This is so much better than, "It better be a square. It better be a square. It better be a square." Just be curious. Think, "I wonder what's going to show up next". The moment it does, you accept it and think, "How am I going to work with it?"
This leads us to the ninth step, which 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 is a productive exercise. The more aware that we become, the more mindfully we learn how to live, the more we become grateful. It's gratitude that makes us happy; it's not happiness that brings us gratitude. 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 step is to let go of control. This is a really tough one. We often think we control things but that's only an illusion. An obsession with organisation and goals and productivity, for example, is 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 practise letting go of control. This doesn't mean that we have zero control over 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 we can control all of it. The reality is, we don't. You can play Tetris thinking, "Well, ten shapes from now, what am I going to be doing with whatever that shape is?" But you don't know. We don't know. We can only deal with things 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, new opportunities exist that were not available before.
It's important to understand that freedom is always relative to something else: freedom to; freedom from. As sentient beings, we're held captive by the 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 you get from awakening is grounded in the cessation of craving: craving for a fixed sense of identity, craving for permanence, craving for a release from suffering or craving for an answer.
But 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 that 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 skilful living allow us to cultivate awareness of the freedom that is present in every moment. Applying this again to the Tetris game, it's the freedom to enjoy the game as it unfolds moment to moment. Whatever life throws at you in the present moment is what you need to enjoy and be happy with the experience of living.
Consider how your breathing carries on independently whether you're mindful of it or not but how, as soon as you start paying attention to it, you tend to try to control or constrain it. It's difficult to try to just observe it because the very act of 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 breathes. By holding on 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 it. It just happens, and then you'll understand that it's not the I, the self, that's breathing; it's more like the breath is breathing on its own. You are a part of the experience of being alive. It can be unnerving to experience the breath this way because, again, we think that we're in control. While the breath may initially serve as the object of concentration in meditation, 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 or is permanent, whether it's our breath, our heartbeat, our body, our feelings or 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 that things are unchanging, that they're absolute and permanent, we'll continue to remain 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 and practice have two main objectives. The first is to let go of self-centred 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. Becoming awake 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 the possibility of new beginnings. This would be like playing the Tetris game again. Awakening is the realisation 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. Letting go of expectations is really that simple.
We have the tendency to want to make the idea of awakening this big grandiose thing when the reality is that, with awakening or enlightenment, it's simply a matter of letting go. Letting go of the concept of awakening, too, and of the concept of enlightenment.
I want to finish this section on mindful living with a quote from Robert Ingersoll. It says, "May we realise 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 justice, but that's not quite right. I'm sure you've noticed that good things happen to bad people and that bad things happen to good people. Where's 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 exists because of flour, eggs, sugar, etc. Rather than thinking of karma as something good happening if I do something good, it's really just that, 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 pay really close attention to is that what we do affects not only ourselves but others. It affects everything. I think that with the proper understanding of karma comes this incredible sense of responsibility and of knowing that the things 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 for others around me. Sometimes, too, in ways that I could never even begin to conceive.
And that essentially covers the main topics that make up my brief introduction to Buddhist philosophy. I want to finish this with a quote from Dogen, who 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 that you can come to understand emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence and specifically the implications for the self; for the concept of myself and other. You realise that it's an illusion. All we are is all we are. The moment that we add stories and meanings and ideas and beliefs to things, it makes it very difficult to see things as they really are. View life as a game of Tetris and we're playing the game, making the best use of whatever shows up when it shows up, accepting it for what it is the moment that it's there and working with it rather than resisting it or wishing it was something other than it is.
Things present themselves and our only option is to accept them and work with them and play the game until the game is over. Rather than sitting there unhappy about the game that I have versus the game that you have, I can learn to accept what I have and be grateful that I'm actually here playing. 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 that?
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 studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.