We’ve spent the better part of a year going step-by-step through a modern secular version of the major topics from Tibetan Buddhism’s Stages of the Path, what we call A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. In Tibetan this sequence is called the lamrim. It’s a series of meditations that progressively move our mind to better understand itself, bring out our best qualities, and create the causes for a happy meaningful life.
People who practice the Stages of the Path in the Tibetan style normally review the whole path every day as part of a meditation practice to gradually make its steps second nature. This episode offers a compact summation of the stages of the path as a complete meditation that you can practice every day.
First find yourself, as usual, in meditation posture, cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with legs straight down; hands face up in your lap with thumb touching; eyes half-closed and head tilted down.
Take a breath.
Set a motivation for meditating today not just to relax, but to systematically come to better understand my mind and to gain control of it so that I can steer my thoughts and actions toward the true causes of a happy, meaningful life and become a source of happiness and help to everyone around me: my family, friends, colleagues, and even the strangers I encounter in the course of my day; to make my life and my every action a cause for a better world.
Concentrating on the breath
Focus your attention to encompass only your breath: as it comes in and out of your nostrils or with the rise and fall of your abdomen. As you do, see how the breath isn’t a thing itself, but is something that’s reflected in the mind. If other thoughts, feelings, or perceptions intrude upon your focus on the breath, just let these pass by without pushing them away and without bringing them closer. Remain focused on your breath for one minute.
The preciousness of life
Now, think how fortunate I am to have woken up today. I am alive. I have this body that’s beautiful and useful. And I’m lucky enough to have found the interest to go beyond the mundane a little bit each day, to probe the deeper questions of the mind and of existence itself.
What can I accomplish with this day? What have the greatest people on earth been able to do with one day?
I may not know where I came from before I was born. And I may not know where I go when I die. But I know that I can be a source of comfort and help and joy to those around me today. And that determination becomes the cause of my own happiness.
Expand your mind for a moment to think about humanity’s role in the universe. It took 4 billion years for life to evolve into a form where it could reflect on itself and on the nature of the universe.
Take that responsibility seriously. What if we are the only intelligent life in a universe of billions of galaxies 14 billion years old? If that is true, how do I want to spend my day? How can I make my own life meaningful and happy, and best serve the project of human civilization?
Think now what it means to be alive. We first let our mind explore our body, coming to rest upon its parts to better understand ourselves at a physical level:
- My mind moves to my feet, my legs, my torso; inside I find my heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach and skeleton; outside again to my arms and hands
- My eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and fingers bring me all the sensory stimulation from which my brain constructs a picture of reality
- Blood flowing through my body, circulating once a second
- Individual cells, countless trillions of them, a million dying and a million born each second
- Countless spinning atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon comprising those cells, exchanging subatomic particles at the speed of light
To be alive is to change at every instant.
Focus your mind, but not your eyes, on the seat that you’re sitting on, the room around you, the furniture, the house. Become aware that these are ever so slightly changing and decaying instant-by-instant at the subtler level.
Now look inside your mind to observe how it changes. Notice how thoughts and feelings arise, grow, sustain, diminish, and disappear: happiness, sadness, yearning, fear, pain, and revulsion. Your mind is also constantly changing.
This impermanent nature of your mind means that it can be steered, it can change. I can take hold of my mind and steer it in any direction I like. So why not steer it toward meaning and goodness and benefiting others? Impermanence means anything is possible. I can choose right now what good I choose to begin and sustain with my body and mind.
Mental Cause and Effect
Everything humans have accomplished: agriculture, cities, democracy, spaceflight—they all started in the mind. Our minds even transform the planet now, as we now see with climate change. Seeing that all our actions begin with the mind, we realize that mind is more powerful than matter.
Yet we often let our mind run away with us. Don’t believe everything you think. Just because something popped into our head, it doesn’t mean we need to believe it or follow its urges or fears.
To master my mind, I start with mindfulness, simply becoming aware of what appears to the mind. Do this now for a moment. See that you can gain a distance from your thoughts and feelings and perceptions. You can label them but you don’t need to react to them or be compelled to action by them.
Probe the causes of happiness and pain for your own mind. You are likely to find that we humans are fundamentally moral creatures, as the Dalai Lama says; that when we act against others’ interests, or against our own, we create inner psychological pain that we somehow have to resolve.
Probe your last 24 hours alive and select out a moment when you felt like you were your best self: perhaps a time when you nourished yourself through some private action that was meaningful or healing or connecting. Or maybe it was a moment when you were helping others.
Rejoice in that moment. That’s my best self. Make a brief determination to do more things like that—for yourself and for others—today.
Now think also of something you regret from the last 24 hours. See how that action didn’t come from nowhere, but stems from a long chain of cause and effect; from external influences and inner habits that get reinforced every time we repeat them.
Think for a moment what you could have done instead of that thing you regret. How could I have better handled that situation? Make a determination to act that way when the situation arises again. If there are external influences that reinforce your habit, maybe it makes sense to avoid them.
Neuroscientists say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” With each mental repeat of habits we want to reinforce, we transform our mind. Take the Buddhist model of the mind as a hypothesis: that we are fundamentally good, kind, open, and generous; and that our disturbing states of mind are fleeting and can be trained away through reinforcing our more positive metal habits.
If you haven’t already, forgive yourself fully for that thing you regret. Let go of any guilt or shame and accept that change happen slowly. I can sincerely regret the small harms that I do in the world and move on with a clear mind that opens my heart to others.
Who do I admire in life: great religious leaders, humanitarians, athletes, artists, or activists? Or more humble, anonymous people? We all know people like this: naturally selfless people who seem to only think of others.
The Buddhist model of the mind says that our capacity to change means not only that we can always be bending our mind toward greater and greater good, but also that there is a potential in our minds to become a Dalai Lama or a Gandhi or a Wangari Maathi or a Martin Luther King, Jr.; that the qualities these great beings manifest are trainable, perfectible; that everyone’s very nature deep down is good, kind, loving, patient, wise, and generous. And that the mental disturbances of anger, craving, pride, and jealousy are fleeting and shallow and can be trained away by embracing our greatest good.
Whether or not you wholly believe this, for a moment take refuge in your own inner goodness and in anyone who you admire who embodies these qualities. See how this thought of your inner goodness and perfectibility changes who you are right now.
Although we feel many different emotions and experience infinite varieties of suffering and conflict, all our mental pain resolves to three root delusions so strong that in Buddhism they call them poisons. Yet nonetheless they can be eliminated.
Simply becoming mindful of these disturbing mental states, labelling them and understanding them, is a huge step toward their elimination. Realizing their exaggerated, inaccurate way of perceiving reality, these three poisons are attachment, anger, and ignorance.
Remind yourself of the true nature of attachment, how the mind of attachment sees an object that pleases us in some way: food or sounds, the touch of someone else’s body, some status in the world.
But then the mind of attachment externalizes that pleasure and starts to believe that I can’t be happy without it; that I must get it again and that if I don’t get it, I can’t be happy. Attachment exaggerates the capacity of people and objects and experiences to bring us happiness.
It’s easy to prove this, because when you get the object of your attachment, do you really feel happy? And if you do, does that feeling last? Look closely at your state of mind when you get your object of attachment. You may see that the reason you feel good is not because you obtained that object for some short time, but because you were, for a moment, free from your attachment.
Anger is the opposite: feeling displeased with an object or with words or a situation that might be genuinely unpleasant to us. But anger then projects exaggerated negative qualities onto the object. With people we often exaggerate so badly that we no longer see any good qualities at all in the person we’re angry at.
Think of someone you are angry at right now and see if this is true. Notice how exaggerated that state of mind is, even though that person we’re angry at may not be harming us or even thinking of us right now. They might even be doing something nice for their family or friends or doing some greater good in the world—but still we’re angry at them. How does that make sense?
And then there is the delusion of ignorance, the ignorance that sees an exaggerated distinction between ourselves and others. Ignorance fails to see the interdependent, changing nature of reality, and creates the illusion of strong opposites: of good and bad, delicious and disgusting, me and you.
In truth, we are interdependent with the world around us, a world of constantly changing interconnected bodies and matter and minds. This ignorance turns into self-centeredness and selfishness as we start to absurdly think that we are at the center of the world; that we are more important—even if just by a little bit—than everyone else in the universe.
It’s almost funny when this realization hits, that I actually think I’m at the center of the universe. But see the truth there, how our exaggerated sense of independence and autonomy might be at the root of all our other forms of suffering.
It can be scary to think that we need to give up all the sensual pleasures and relationships and joys and even the invigorating conflicts around us. Is that really the path to happiness? The term for this stage of the path is renunciation, when we let go of the causes of suffering.
But true renunciation doesn’t mean that you have to give up small pleasures like ice cream or hikes in the woods; or even give up big ones like making love to our partner or the joys of family and friends. True renunciation isn’t giving up the beautiful, pleasurable, meaningful parts of the world, but it’s letting go of the causes of suffering: our attachment, aversion, and anger.
Look into your mind and see how it feels to imagine letting go like this. Does it feel like I’m losing too much to give up these delusions? Do I see anger and attachment as intrinsic parts of who I am? Do I feel my independence and autonomy as something essential to my nature?
See how it feels to let go of our anger, our attachment, and our ignorant view of being strongly separate from the world and the people around us. When we do, it may turn out that everything actually tastes better, feels better, and that our relationships are stronger and deeper and more connected, even with strangers.
We can become a better partner or parent or teacher or student or boss or employee when we embrace our interdependent nature and let go of our self-centered way of viewing the world; when we see things as changing and impermanent, from multiple perspectives with the long view of the supreme importance of a happy stable mind that’s above being right or wrong, above winning or losing. These self-centered dualities may even stop making sense when our mind expands beyond the egocentric views of anger, attachment, and ignorance.
Love and Compassion
When we renounce our root delusions, it’s a natural step for the world of others to grow larger in our mind. Before we encounter anyone in our day we can expand these naturally occurring feelings systematically through meditation by practicing what are called the Four Immeasurables of equanimity, love, compassion, and sympathetic joy.
First, with equanimity, think of a friend, enemy, and stranger before you. Realize how your label of them as friend, enemy, or stranger comes only from your narrow self-focused perspective. From their perspective, they each want to be happy and not to suffer, just like me.
And from the perspective of others, each of these people is a dear friend or family member to someone, an enemy to others, and a stranger to many more. Even when I look at my own life, I have friends who have turned into enemies or strangers. I have enemies that have turned into friends. And every one of my friends and enemies was once a stranger.
How wonderful it would be if we could simply treat each other equally. May I be able to treat others equally, seeing relationships as relative and impermanent. May I myself be a cause for a more equitable world, where everyone is treated fairly.
Once we’ve built up this ground of equanimity, it’s possible to go further: to wish everyone not just their fair chance, but to wish them all the abundance of good that any person could have.
Think first of those close to you, sitting beside and behind you: family, friends, colleagues, and those you admire. May you all have happiness and its causes; may you have all the material things you need: money, shelter, safety, loved ones.
Now think of your enemies in front of you: specific ones in your life, and bigger ones in the world around you. They also want to be happy. Even from my own selfish perspective, if my enemies were truly happy, they would probably stop harming me and harming others. My enemies only cause harm because of distorted thoughts and feelings that make them wrongly believe that hurting others will somehow bring them happiness.
Everyone deserves to be happy. Everyone deserves to be loved. Wish that my enemies might also be happy, that they might have all the causes of happiness. And if I could, may I myself be a cause of my enemies’ happiness.
And then no one wants to suffer. In the same ways that I suffer, hundreds of millions also suffer: from physical problems, financial problems, violence, conflicts, injustice, and inner mental problems. Think about your friends and family and colleagues and all they suffer through, picturing them beside and behind you.
Many suffer much worse than I do, through poverty or severe illnesses, through loved ones who just died, through racism and political oppression, through being enslaved or forced into prostitution. Think about all the awful suffering around the world.
And then bring to mind your enemies, who also don’t want to suffer. Who also face problems with their health and material conditions and their minds. They don’t want to suffer either.
May my enemies be free of suffering, and strangers too; and of course those close to me. And I aspire to reduce and eliminate the suffering of the world, to make this an attitude that I carry with me throughout the day that affects my speech and actions and thoughts, making them more beneficial.
The last way of opening our hearts to others is to find joy in all the good that they do in the world. Think about all the kindness and good that your family and friends and colleagues accomplished over the last 24 hours. And sincerely rejoice for them.
Think of all the good things that came to those close to you: they heard kind words, they felt embraces, they ate delicious and nourishing meals, they received wealth and recognition and success, they enjoyed good relationships. Without a hint of jealousy, rejoice for all the good they enjoyed and feel that they deserve it.
In the same way, think about people you don’t know but who you admire: people with outsized impacts for good in the world, like great religious leaders, compassionate politicians, humanitarians, activists. Take a moment to rejoice in the great things they accomplished in the last day that you know of or that you can easily imagine.
And then think also of your enemies. This is harder, but try also to feel good for them about all they have: the praise they received, the power they enjoy, their achievements, their wealth, their good relationships. If you can, for a short moment rejoice in all these good things that your enemies enjoy without feeling jealousy or spite.
These four ways of opening our heart to others through equanimity, love, compassion, and sympathetic joy unfortunately aren’t a trick that magically eliminates people’s suffering by wishing it away.
But the evidence over a thousand years’ practice for those that do these meditations regularly is that meditating on such heroic and everyday acts of goodness makes our minds happy, stable, and open; and leads us to live a fulfilling, meaningful life, to benefit the world as best we can; and to feel, at the end of our life, that it was worthwhile and meaningful, no matter what we believe comes next. As the Dalai Lama says, if we want to be selfish, be intelligently selfish; the way to achieve true happiness is by cherishing others.
The interdependent nature of reality
With this greatly expanded heart coloring our minds and the motivation for continuing to develop ourselves, we now move to examining how things exist at their deepest level: interdependent with the universe and the bodies and minds around us.
We look at our self and examine who we are with curiosity and critical insight.
Look first at your body, just as we did with impermanence. But now as you move through the parts of your body—the cells, the molecules and particles comprising you—at each step, see if you can find yourself in any of these parts.
You may stop longer at the brain if you believe that is where you can be found. Look for yourself in the different areas of the brain: brain cells, neurons, one side of the brain or another. Do I find myself in any one part of the brain? If not, am I my whole brain? How could it make sense to be found in the whole but not in any part? Ask these questions openly, without assuming an answer.
Then we move to the immaterial aspect of ourself, our mind: the immaterial activity and ideas that comprise us. Without getting supernatural, just like math or love are also immaterial, yet real, so are our minds.
Look for yourself in the pleasant, unpleasant, and indifferent feelings you have in response to your senses and to thoughts and ideas and fantasies. Can I find myself in these emotional reactions to material and immaterial reality?
Look for yourself in your capacity to wrap collections of atoms and energy and thoughts into labeled objects and beings and ideas. This capacity we call perception or discrimination. Am I my capacity to label and organize my inner and outer realities?
Or am I any of the other mental factors that course through my mind like love or faith or mindfulness or pride or distraction?
And then look for yourself in the space of the mind itself. The aspect of the mind in which the other mental factors appear. Does this space appear to have a dimensionality? A spaciousness or a tightness? A brightness or a darkness?
If the mind appears to have spatial qualities to it, ask, Am I this entire space? Subdivide the space of mind and ask also whether I am any sub-part?
Look at the mind’s temporal aspect too. The mind is made of moments of consciousness that begin, grow, abide, diminish, and disappear. Am I any of these moments? Am I the sum of the moments that have passed? If so, where did they go?
Let go of this intellectual analysis when you start to feel a sense of the dependent origination of the self in a more intuitive way, felt rather than imagined. The words are not the experience, they’re just a pathway to the experience. Let your mind rest into that non-finding of the self. This non-finding doesn’t negate my existence, but shows that the way I truly exist is much richer, interdependent and changing than it seems.
Now we come back from the meditation on ultimate reality to conventional reality. We see that things do exist by convention of our mind applying a label to a collection of parts with causes.
But we don’t exist in the solid, unchanging, separate way that’s the root of ignorance, the root cause of making us feel separate and needy and unsatisfied.
Still, things exist at the conventional level. Now we understand better what existence truly means. We can feel and express love and compassion. Our smallest harmful or beneficial actions have lasting effects on the world and on our minds. The path of our inner development is real, not solid and separate but interdependent. If things weren’t interdependent, if we were self-sufficient and separate from the world and the minds around us, that would mean we couldn’t change; and that we couldn’t change the world around us. The interdependent nature of reality means that we are alive and changing and interconnected with everything and everyone else.
Feel that I’ve accomplished great good already today by imagining the heroic arc of these stages of mental development. I’ve increased the strength of beneficial neural pathways that create the cause for a happy, meaningful, connected life. May all the good from this meditation manifest in helpful and skillful actions and interactions as I go through my day today, so that I might make the world a kinder, more compassionate, just and abundant place.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio