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What is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment?

skeptic's path to enlightenment

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“The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.”

— The Dalai Lama. Beyond Religion, 2011

The first time I went to see the Dalai Lama I was skeptical, but one of the first things he said at the start of a five-day intensive Buddhist teaching was, “Don’t become a Buddhist.” His message disarmed me, and he offered his teachings not as dogma but as practical, testable tools for training the mind toward its better nature.

At the time, I was young but had already attained much of what I’d hoped for in a career, with outer signs of success in both art and technology. At the same time, I was plagued by a low-level anxiety I couldn’t pin on any external problem, and a vague sense of dissatisfaction that had soured some of my intimate relationships.

The presence of this anxiety and dissatisfaction was why I’d accepted a friend’s invitation to attend the teachings, and I was curious to hear practical advice from the author of The Art of Happiness. I knew the Dalai Lama himself was a living example that this path worked: a powerful leader who’d lost his country, seen a million Tibetans massacred, and yet remained dedicated to nonviolently fighting injustice as a joyful, humble human being. He even refused to call his enemies anything worse than mischievous, showing his genuine belief in the good of all human beings.

The other provocative thing I heard the Dalai Lama say during his lecture was how the Buddha taught that none of his teachings should be taken on faith, but that we must each test them through study, reflection, and meditation. And if any of his ideas proved invalid or irrelevant, we should set them aside.

The Dalai Lama taught that the Buddha was a skeptic.

A path for rational skeptics

People in the West have become skeptical of the ideas pushed down on them over hundreds of years by religious and political authorities, so before talking about “enlightenment,” which we hear so much about in Buddhism, let’s consider The Enlightenment from 17th-century Europe, when people woke up to the democratic ideal that everyone has the right to pursue happiness, to critically debate ideas, and to choose their own leaders; the social innovations that ushered in the age of rational skepticism.

Skepticism has a spectrum. It’s a delicate balance to maintain the rationally skeptical sweet spot, where you’re curious enough to be open to new ideas, but critical enough to examine them with an unbiased mind. If you’re too skeptical, you’re paranoid, stuck with whatever ideas you had before you lost trust, or even falling into nihilism where you trust nothing at all. And if you’re not skeptical enough, you’re gullible, uncritically believing anything at all, prone to wasting your life’s limited energy pursuing inaccurate, unhelpful, or even harmful advice. We all know people in each of these categories: the cynic and the sucker.

The “rationally skeptical sweet spot” via Wait But Why, where Tim Urban pursues ideas to their first principles.

If you’re rationally skeptical you’re like a scientist, welcome to new ideas, but testing them thoroughly; open—even eager—to criticism, to debate, to being proven wrong. So how do we apply skepticism to meditation?

Dan Harris has done a great job as a bona fide skeptic, exploring nonreligious meditation for skeptical audiences with his 10% Happier podcast. His app, and other secular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace have helped popularize practical meditation systems that are free from belief and focused on the scientifically studied, everyday benefits of meditation to reduce stress, aid sleep, diminish anxiety, and increase your creativity and productivity.

This approach has created millions of new meditators who are benefiting from daily introspection. But what exactly is meditation? Why was it invented in the first place? Why would we need A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment? And what is enlightenment?

Why A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment?

After the Dalai Lama’s teaching, I found a Tibetan teacher and committed to 15 minutes of meditation a day. I soon experienced those worldly benefits of meditation in more restful sleep and the easing of my angst. But I also noticed subtle changes in my personality, feeling more present and open to the people around me; changes that suggested meditation offered more than just a remedy for anxiety or sleeplessness.

From my teacher, I learned that meditation’s deeper purpose is to increase the virtues of the human mind, decrease our disturbing thoughts, strengthen our connection with others, and awaken to the changing, interdependent nature of reality. The therapeutic benefits of meditation are merely the early effects of training the mind toward its better nature.

The Buddhist origin of meditation explains that we’re plagued by thoughts and emotions that agitate our minds: anger, selfishness, jealousy, pride, self-loathing, craving, and more. It also explains how emotions we might ordinarily think of as positive can also be problematic, like craving a cup of coffee, anxiously anticipating another’s touch, or feeling righteous rage at the world’s injustice. Feelings that also agitate the mind.

The Tibetan Buddhist view of mind is particularly attractive to Westerners, in that it doesn’t require us giving up pleasure, work, relationships, or conflict. It simply gives us the contemplative tools to let go of the addiction, rage, and fear that accompany these experiences. Our agitation comes from how we react to experiences, rather than the experiences themselves.

Have you ever longed for the next piece of cake even as you’re eating the first? Or made your next swipe right even as you’re enjoying the company of the last? A byproduct of wanting less is that when you do experience pleasure, success, or human connection, you enjoy these moments more fully—far more than that craving mind. You’re able to feel fully present without fearing the moment will vanish or grasping for the moment to return.

An unagitated mind is contented, and this state is achievable through meditation. But contentedness doesn’t mean sitting around like a bowl of Jello, giving up hopes or goals. You can stay engaged with the world, while choosing activities that give you the greatest meaning, purpose, and connection. Instead of feeling anxiety, frustration, and craving, you find that you are happy and fully present pursuing you dreams—but still maintain the realistic view that external achievement only brings temporary satisfaction, and if you fail to achieve your goals, you still maintain your happiness and presence, with the stable sense that the real causes of happiness lie within your own mind, and not outside.

A thousand-year-old path

During his five-day teaching, the Dalai Lama taught the Lamrim (Tibetan for “stages of the path”), the thousand-year-old sequence of meditations that form the inspiration for A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. The topics of the Lamrim range from perfecting concentration and understanding perception to feeling a kinship with all beings and finding happiness in the face of life’s suffering. The progressive series of meditations gradually enrich one’s kindness, compassion, concentration, and ability to see the impermanent, interdependent nature of reality.

Over the past twenty years, I have practiced this path under the guidance of several extraordinary teachers, studying, meditating, and attending retreats. It’s a beautiful but complex path, embedded with the beliefs, rituals, and metaphors of medieval Tibet and the Buddhist society of India that preceded it.

This authentic spiritual tradition is out there for the taking: You can buy books on Amazon and watch videos on YouTube that patiently explain these formerly secret teachings step by step. But the benefits are hard for Westerners to access in Buddhism’s archaic language, with concepts and examples alien to our culture, and beliefs unverifiable by modern science.

“Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”

Lama Thubten Yeshe

Buddhist meditation for nonbelievers

A dozen years ago I became a meditation instructor. Over time, I came to find that the scientifically unverifiable elements of Buddhism—karma, rebirth, and literal hell, and god realms—could be insurmountable obstacles for the practical, curious, skeptical students who might otherwise benefit from this profound meditation tradition.

The Dalai Lama himself had been actively encouraging a secular approach to the Buddhist Path. In one of his many books on secular ethics he wrote that “The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.”

Lama Yeshe, one of the pioneers in teaching Buddhism to Westerners, urged his students in 1983 to “Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”

And I’ve never been able to forget a provocative quote by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who wrote that “If you still define yourself as a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.”

I drew from sources like these, and from the intuitive, creative style of some of my teachers, who had studied with the wild and wise Lama Yeshe. I found that fresh, modern metaphors and a grounding in our scientifically accepted inner and outer universe opened these powerful teachings to a more mainstream audience.

A science of the mind

There’s growing scientific backing for mediation’s practical benefits, especially in reducing stress and anxiety and increasing focus. But we’re all familiar with the skepticism we need to bring to any sentence beginning “Studies say…” Science’s understanding of the mind is still primitive, and scientists are the first to admit this. Though psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to probe inward, science still lacks even an agreed-upon definition of mind or consciousness. There’s no such thing as a consciousness detector, and we’re not sure which creatures possess it.

More urgently, there’s no such thing as a happiness detector. Yet, each of us has a pressing need to steer our minds toward happiness, meaning, mental stability, and heartfelt connections with others. Luckily, using even modest levels of honest introspection, we each know when we are genuinely happy, content, and connected. We each have a precision scientific instrument for exploring our own minds: the mind itself.

Meditation is the mind turned inward, looking critically at our thoughts and realizing we are not those thoughts, that we can let go of disturbing thoughts and emotions, and condition our minds toward ways of thinking that enhance our happiness and well-being.

Meditation applies the scientific method to inner experience, using a centuries-old empirically tested model of how the mind works. It systematically creates the inner causes for happiness instead of fruitlessly searching for happiness outside ourselves.

What is enlightenment?

Just as science sees no ceiling on accumulating knowledge and understanding the universe, the contemplative path sees no limit to eliminating disturbing thought patterns and cultivating wholesome ones. Enlightenment is the theoretical end to such a path, the elimination of all disturbing thoughts and the cultivation of the beneficial ones, where one has attained stable concentration, boundless joy, unlimited compassion toward others, and the wisdom to most effectively benefit humanity.

Holding such an ideal, even if it might be an unattainable concept, has practical benefits, filling one’s life with a directionality and sense of purpose. Like to the ideal of doctors to cure all illnesses, peace activists to end all wars, and scientists to understand all things, an ideal of human goodness drives us as far toward achieving it as one possibly could in the course of a meaningful life.

An invitation to curious skeptics

If you’ve landed here you’ve likely already developed a cautious interest in meditation as a path to less stress and greater calm. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is for you rational skeptics who want to go further, who are curious to explore life’s biggest questions through meditation yet unable to base your practice on unprovable beliefs. I invite you to skeptically explore our inner realities here, together with others drawn to meditation’s highest purpose. We’ll use precision guided meditations adapted to our current culture of science, technology, and media.

As we venture together along this path, we invite your feedback. It’s an experiment, so let us know the usefulness of the mediations, questions that arise, or topics worth exploring. And if you’re a meditation expert, a scholar, a psychologist, or a scientist, please share your critical wisdom.

If this introduction has piqued your curiosity, you may want to listen to next week’s podcast episode, “What is Meditation?” or our first guided meditation, “Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts.” Our episodes usually alternate between a 15-to-30-minute introduction to the topic, followed the next week by a guided meditation on the same topic.

Further Reading

Beyond Religion by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a New World, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The Universe in A Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The Universe in A Single Atom, , His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – The Dalai Lama’s personal reflections on the intersection of science and Buddhism based on his dialogues with scientists and psychologists (the audiobook read by Richard Gere is particularly well done)

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor



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