Introducing A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, bringing the inner science of Buddhist meditation to twenty-first century people hungry for happy, meaningful lives. We take a secular approach to meditation that requires no belief beyond our current understanding of science and psychology, based on powerful Buddhist mind training techniques that use imagination, intelligence, and emotions to probe our inner and outer realities, and expand our compassion.
This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. Welcome to our very first episode! I wanted to start out this podcast by sharing some of the skepticism I first felt myself toward meditation and toward Buddhism. Twenty years ago, I was obviously much younger, and I’d already attained a lot of what I’d hoped for in a creative career that mixed art and technology. But at the same time, I’d been plagued through my twenties with a low-level anxiety that I couldn’t pin on any external problem, and a vague sense of dissatisfaction that had soured some of my intimate relationships.
This anxiety and dissatisfaction was why I’d accepted a friend’s invitation to come hear the Dalai Lama with him. I was curious to hear practical advice from the author of The Art of Happiness. And I admired The Dalai Lama as a living example that this path could work. I knew that he was a powerful leader who’d lost his country, seen a million Tibetans massacred, and yet he 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.
Even so, I was skeptical to be attending a five-day Buddhist teaching. But at the start of the teachings, one of the first things The Dalai Lama said was, “Don’t become a Buddhist.” That definitely disarmed me. The Dalai Lama offered his teachings not as dogma, but as practical, testable tools for training the mind toward its better nature. He echoed what others had told me about Buddhism, that it’s more of an invitation to a set of practices than a set of beliefs.
The other provocative thing I heard the Dalai Lama say was that the Buddha taught that none of his teachings should be taken on faith, but that we must each ourselves test them through study, reflection, and meditation. And if any of the Buddha’s ideas proved personally invalid or inapplicable, we should set them aside.
The Dalai Lama taught that the Buddha was a skeptic.
A path for the rationally skeptical
People in the west have become skeptical of the ideas pushed down on them over hundreds of years by religious and political authorities. And before talking about “enlightenment,” which we hear so much about in Buddhism, I’d like to talk about 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. These social innovations 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. You’re stuck with whatever ideas you had before you lost trust. You can even falling into nihilism where you trust nothing at all. And if you’re not skeptical enough, you’re gullible. You uncritically believe anything at all. We all know people in each of these categories: the cynic and the sucker.
If you’re in the rationally skeptical sweet spot, you’re like a scientist. You’re welcome to new ideas, but you test them thoroughly. You’re open—and even eager—to criticism, to debate, and even to being proven wrong. But how do we apply skepticism to meditation?
Dan Harris has done a great job as an authentic skeptic, exploring nonreligious meditation for skeptical audiences with his Ten Percent Happier podcast. His Ten Percent Happier 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 backed, 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 anyway? 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?
Soon after I saw the Dalai Lama, I found a Tibetan teacher in San Francisco 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, to decrease our disturbing thoughts, to strengthen our connection with others, and to awaken oneself to the changing, interdependent nature of reality. Those therapeutic benefits of meditation—reducing stress, increasing focus—are just the early effects of training the mind toward its better nature.
The Buddhist origin of meditation explains that we’re ordinarily 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 to give up pleasure, work, relationships, or conflict. It simply gives us the contemplative tools to let go of the addiction, rage, and fear that ordinarily 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? Have you ever swept 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 the mind that swings from craving to anger. You’re able to feel fully present without fearing the moment will vanish, without grasping for the moment to return.
An unagitated mind is contented. And this state is achievable through meditation. But being content doesn’t mean sitting around like a bowl of Jello, giving up your 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 your dreams. Yet you still have the realistic view that external achievement only brings temporary satisfaction. And that if you fail to achieve your goals, you can still maintain your happiness and presence, with a stabler 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, which is Tibetan for “stages of the path.” It’s the thousand-year-old sequence of meditations that form the inspiration for A Skeptics 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 your kindness, your compassion, your concentration, and your ability to see the impermanent, interdependent nature of reality.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve 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 Tibetan Buddhism’s archaic language, with concepts and examples alien to our culture, and beliefs unverifiable by modern science.
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, like karma, rebirth, and literal hell and god realms—could be insurmountable obstacles for the practical, curious, skeptical students who were coming to meditation class to benefit from a profound meditation tradition.
The Dalai Lama himself has 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.”
“The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.”— The Dalai Lama. Beyond Religion, 2011
And Lama Yeshe, the founder of my local Buddhist organization said something similar back in 1983. He said, “Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”
“Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”— Lama Yeshe, 1983
And I’ve never been able to forget a provocative quote by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who said, “If you still define yourself as a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.”
“If you still define yourself as a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.”— Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, 2008
In teaching meditation, I drew from these sources, and from the intuitive, creative style of some of my teachers, who had learned from Lama Yeshe, a wild, wise teacher who came early to the West. 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 scientific backing for meditation’s benefits, especially in reducing stress and anxiety and in increasing focus. But we’re all familiar with the skepticism we need to bring to any sentence that starts out “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 even 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 can 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?
So, perhaps meditation can make you happy, but 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 patterns of thought and cultivating wholesome ones. Enlightenment is the theoretical end of such a path: the elimination of all disturbing thoughts and the cultivation of all the beneficial ones. Enlightenment is the point where one has attained stable concentration, boundless joy, unlimited compassion, and the wisdom to most effectively benefit others.
Holding such an ideal, even if it’s an unattainable concept, has practical benefits. It fills you with a directionality and a sense of purpose in being alive. It’s just like the ideals that drive other professionals: like doctors who have the ideal to cure all illness; peace activists who have the ideal to end all wars, and scientists who have the ideal to understand all things. Their ideals carry them as far towards their goal as they possibly could get in the course of a meaningful life.
An invitation to curious skeptics
If you’ve discovered this podcast, you’ve likely already developed a cautious interest in meditation as a path to less stress and greater calm in your life. 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 higher purpose. We’ll use precision guided meditations adapted to our current culture of science, technology, and media.
As we venture together along this path, I invite your feedback. It’s an experiment, so let us know the usefulness of the mediations, any questions that arise, or any topics that you think are worth exploring. And if you’re a meditation expert or scholar, a psychologist, or a scientist, please share your critical wisdom too.
If this introduction has piqued your curiosity, you’ll want to listen to our first practical podcast episode, “What is Meditation?” Podcast episodes are usually spread over two weeks. The first week is a short introduction to the topic, and the next week is a guided meditation.
There are some books that are worth reading as well, if you want to explore nonreligious meditation and Buddhism. The Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion and Ethics for a New Millennium are his guidance on secular approaches to meditation, ethics, and simply being happy. The Universe in a Single Atom, which has a great audiobook read by Richard Gere, is the Dalai Lama’s reflection on a lifelong interest in science and technology, and his many dialogues undertaken with scientists through the Mind and Life conferences. Stephen Batchelor wrote a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs, which is his personal reflection on having been a monk, a dedicated practitioner, and even the Dalai Lama’s translator, before deciding that he could not truly accept the metaphysical belief systems that accompany the Tibetan Buddhism he was taught as a monk.
Beyond Religion: Ethics for a New World, 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, by Stephen Batchelor
What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Khytentse Rinpoche