In one of his lectures, Robert Thurman once asked the rhetorical question: What would happen if the United States closed the Pentagon and redirected its trillion dollar defense budget to inner spiritual development? Now, imagine that the United States did this for 500 years, what progress would we then make in improving our own happiness and well-being?
Well, that’s what happened in Tibet, Robert Thurman said, where the country directed almost all its resources inward for half a millennium. The resulting mind-training techniques were extraordinarily effective in creating a happy inner life and a more compassionate outer world.
Tibet had a professional class of monks and nuns who precisely preserved and documented these methods, but only in Tibetan. Now, with the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings throughout the world, they’ve become freely available to us all.
I’m Scott Snibbe, the host of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Stephen Butler and I launched our podcast this year in an attempt to make these extraordinary meditations and practices accessible to modern people with a secular worldview.
Secular meditation inspired by the Dalai Lama
We were inspired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has encouraged distilling these Buddhist mind training techniques for a secular audience, making inner development accessible to anyone with curiosity and drive, regardless of their beliefs.
It’s a nice moment to recall the quotes that inspired us from earlier episodes of the podcast.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote ten years ago:
“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 founder of the Buddhist centers where Stephen and I learned Tibetan philosophy and meditation, Lama Yeshe, said back in 1983:
“Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”— Lama Thubten Yeshe, 1983
And in our interview with Geshe Tenzin Namdak, we heard him say:
“Buddhism is not meant to make more Buddhists, but to generate happy minds.”— Geshe Tenzin Namdak, Skeptic’s Path Interview
In our show’s episodes, we’ve focused on the lesser-known technique of analytical meditation, which uses stories, thought, and critical reasoning to gently steer our minds toward our best qualities of kindness, compassion, and joy. Analytical meditation is particularly well-suited to a curious and critical listener like you.
Our audience has steadily grown over this year, and we’ve received positive feedback and reviews and even a few donations. Thank you for coming along with us on this journey!
Concluding our introduction to meditating on the stages of the path (lamrim)
Our last episode, a meditation on the complete stages of the path, concluded a yearlong introduction to our secular version of Tibetan Buddhism’s lamrim meditation sequence, and we hope you enjoyed it.
Once you know the topics, you can even just recite the topic names themselves, and the words can trigger your own memory and experience with each practice. We can do this right now in a quick list:
- What is the Mind? (meditation)
- The Preciousness of Life (meditation)
- Impermanence (meditation)
- Mental Cause and Effect (meditation)
- Suffering (meditation)
- Renunciation (meditation)
- Love & Compassion (love meditation, compassion meditation)
- The Interdependent Nature of Reality (meditation)
Doing this again and again over time allows the reflections on these stages of the path to permeate our lives and practice; opening our minds and softening our hearts.
At the end of a meditation, we normally perform a mental practice of gratitude, dedication, and determination, which we’re going to do together in meditation in just a moment.
From the Buddhist, as well as the psychological and scientific perspectives, gratitude and dedication aren’t just polite bookends. The process of feeling grateful and making a resolve to continue cultivating these practices and qualities in our everyday life creates the mental and neurological causes to actually become better people and to better serve the world. In a yoga class they often say that your dedication at the end “seals your practice.” And, while that may sound a little new age, it’s a result that’s backed up by science.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a slogan that I heard from Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, who you’ll hear me interview early next year on our podcast. His catchy phrase is the scientific shorthand to understand why positive reinforcement works: why practices like gratitude and dedication and determination have a powerful effect on our minds by making it easier and more familiar for us to later experience these positive states of mind again and again.
So, let’s now do a brief meditation on this together.
Focus on the breath
Take a moment to get into meditation posture if you like. Or you can also simply remain where you are and relax your body, half-close your eyes, and rest your hands in your lap.
For a minute, focus on your breath. Let the input from all your other senses fade so that you’re only focused on the feeling of the breath coming in and out of your nostrils, or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
Try and also let go of mental activity: of any regrets or plans or inner dialogue that’s running through your mind.
As we try and focus on the breath for one minute, thoughts and sensory experiences are likely to return. But when they do, just let them pass by, without pulling them close, and without needing to push them away either. Let them just naturally fade away into the open stillness of your mind as you focus on your breath.
(Meditate silently on the breath for one minute)
We start by meditating on gratitude, appreciating everything good in our life.
First, gratitude for the basics in our life.
Recall all the everyday good things that I enjoy: delicious food; a place to live; a job, if I have one; relative safety and security. I can feel grateful for my family, my friends, the people I work with, the teachers I’ve learned from over the years.
Everything I know I learned from someone else. For a moment, think of your parents and think of all your teachers and peers who taught you everything you know and feel grateful toward them.
Feel gratitude for all the knowledge in the world that I’ve learned from: for books and podcasts, for schools and libraries, for television and the internet. In all these places I’ve found information and advice that’s helped me live and improve my life.
And then, we can feel grateful for all our own good qualities: the kindness and generosity, compassion, and love that are qualities we share with others; the patience we’re able to show when things go wrong. Though we may sometimes get irritable, the vast majority of what we do helps others. Even by simply going about our business without harming others, we create a more peaceful, safer, harmonious world.
Going further, I can feel grateful that I’ve had enough free time and support from my culture and environment and friends and family to sometimes probe beyond the everyday; to look for the deeper sources of happiness and meaning in life. I can be grateful that right now I am meditating, having cleared out a little time today to go inward and foster my own inner well-being.
And then we can feel grateful for the teachers and teachings that brought us the specific techniques we’ve learned and benefitted from here on this podcast: feeling grateful for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a master of the lineage where this meditation sequence comes from; feeling grateful for his good qualities and his life which he has dedicated to inner and outer peace.
The Dalai Lama lost his country but gained the world, sharing the formerly esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism so broadly that they are now taught and practiced in every major country on earth.
We can feel grateful specifically for the tradition of analytical meditation, a technique that’s so suitable to a curious, critical audience like ours; a path that lets us use our intellectual skills and our education not just to pursue a life that’s materially rich, but to cultivate a rich inner life and the true happiness that comes from mental stability, contentedness, and compassion.
The Dalai Lama learned these meditation techniques from his teachers, and they from theirs, in a precisely accounted-for lineage that goes back 500 years to Lama Tsongkhapa’s lamrim teachings that form the basis for A Skeptic’s Path.
We can trace these back further another 1000 years to Nagarjuna and other Indian Buddhist masters of our analytical, compassionate branch of Mahayana Buddhism. Then we can trace back 2500 years before the present to the Buddha himself, a revolutionary free thinker who perfected these mind training techniques; who taught the disciplines of focused meditation and compassion and the wisdom understanding the interdependent nature of reality.
And in our own life we can thank the different people and books and websites and podcasts that helped point us toward teachings like these. And we can be grateful to the scientists who have worked over the last two decades to study and validate these techniques’ success beyond anecdotal evidence. We can be grateful for the translators who gave their whole lives to render complex Tibetan, Pali and Sanskrit texts into comprehensible English.
Before this collection of everyone we’ve learned from, we can mentally put our hands together and give a small bow of thanks. I’ve made the effort, but it’s thanks to all of you that I have learned how to make my life happier, more meaningful, and of greater benefit to others.
With this sense of gratitude as a foundation, we can now make what’s called a dedication. We dedicate that all of the goodness I’ve cultivated, everything I’ve learned and practiced today and over the course of the last year; may it all become a cause for my continued mental improvement; for letting go of anger and attachment and self-centered ignorance; for cultivating loving-kindness and compassion and the wisdom understanding the interdependent nature of reality.
And may all the goodness I’ve cultivated also benefit everyone I encounter in my life: my family, my close friends, my co-workers, and strangers I cross paths with in stores and on roads and sidewalks. May I even benefit people I never meet through the chain of cause and effect of mine and others’ thoughts and actions.
May everyone be free from suffering, may they have everything they need, and may they also cultivate this sense of equality and love and compassion for all beings that I’ve been so fortunate to encounter and practice.
Though I have little control over it, may all of my family and friends and colleagues and co-workers, strangers, and even enemies have good lives and act with kindness and compassion themselves. May the teachers I’ve learned from have long lives and have many chances to continue benefiting me and others. And to whatever extent I can, may I be a cause for their continued success and health and well-being.
May I make the most of my life. May I be calm and relaxed. May I gradually move my mind more and more to thinking and acting to benefit others. And may others too develop their minds in this way, toward the moral greatness that we know is possible within all human beings.
To further amplify the power of our dedication, we can also imagine dedicating all the beneficial activities of everyone else to this same positive result. We realize that there is so much good being done every day, even in simply not harming each other. As His Holiness says, “Kindness is society.”
Now, I can make a determination to keep working in this way. Doing this channels and focuses our minds and efforts, and helps sustain our courage to continue developing ourselves and to helping others; gently, but with some effort, practicing meditation, learning from both the contemplative traditions and from science how to train my mind to bring out its best qualities.
Without ever feeling stressed or overwhelmed or guilty about it, may I continue to find the time and energy to practice meditation and contemplate whichever of these mental exercises best helps to transform my mind toward its better nature.
May I find true contentment and happiness in my life. May I be a source of benefit and joy for those around me. And may my life be truly meaningful in its unique way.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio