“Without saying you have to believe Buddha as a religious prophet or something, all the different sciences and arts associated with Buddhism can be shared without having to follow a particular person or a particular belief system, by just being open-minded and more realistic about the world.”—Dr. Robert Thurman
In this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, we share part two of our mind expanding interview with Dr. Robert Thurman. If you haven’t heard the first episode, you can listen to it right now. And then come back here, where Dr. Thurman picks up to share what is a healthy kind of ego, how you can be a Buddhist without belief, and his powerful vision of what enlightenment and Nirvana might feel like to someone like us.
Scott Snibbe: So you’re talking about this healthy kind of ego. Does that relate to Buddha nature? Could you talk about Buddha nature and in a way that makes sense?
Robert Thurman: Sure, it relates to Buddha nature and it relates to the view of nature. And this is my schtick nowadays, very much in the last last decade, two decades, getting stronger and stronger; which is that the main thing Buddhism can try to help the West is—
I want to just say one thing is that I follow the Dalai Lama and I learned from him and I a hundred percent, 30 years ago, agreed with him that it is really wrong to act like somehow everybody’s gotta be a Buddhist. And he disagrees with religions that try to convert other people to their religions. And so he considers secular humanism a religion, Islam, Christianity, Daoism, Bahai, Sikhism, whatever you like, Hinduism. And he’s tried to make pacts with all of their leaders that he’s met to stop converting each other and competing for market share, you know?
Ashoka, actually 2300 years ago, he also said, Don’t convert each other. Try to convert yourself to living up to the best ideals of whatever you believe. And in that way, show the virtues of your religion and don’t try and convert other people because it leads to conflict. 2300 years ago, he wrote that on the Stone Edict. You know, the emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty in India.
The Dalai Lama is totally into that and he’s told three Popes to share that message and try to get them to conspire with him, which they didn’t agree to of course, because they had the thing to convert everybody, you know, they think that’s necessary. And he loves the Rabbis, especially, because they don’t try to convert you unless you marry one or something, and then it may be better for the children’s sake. But otherwise they don’t. Which he admires that, he really does.
“Buddhism is not going to make people Buddhists and it shouldn’t even try.”
—Dr. Robert Thurman
So that’s the first thing. So therefore Buddhism is not going to make people Buddhists and it shouldn’t even try. But because it really is kind of the harbinger of, the herald of Indic inner science. You know, the more mind science type of thing—the real one, not the fake Scientology crap. But the real one from India, highly developed over hundreds of years, thousands of years.
And it can help see into secular humanism or any of the other religions to help people get rid of this being terrorized by nature. Because actually, if you look at cultural history of the last few thousand years, populations are usually mainly terrorized about nature.
The high priest and the king tell them, Be scared, be very scared. All the other tribes are enemies and they want to kill you. And all the animals are enemies. And the priest tells them, Oh, the germs are enemy. Everybody’s an enemy and only God can help you. And the king says, Only I can help you. And join my army and do what I say and follow the law. I mean, my law.
So everybody’s scared of it. And they think that it’s really bad and nothing is a blessing compared to nature red in tooth and claw. And the idea of turning off the fossil fuel industry or whatever, no electricity; things would come and get us, you know, we’re so scared.
Whereas the Buddha view, Buddha’s good news is: Nature loves you. Nature is fine. Any sensitive being, of course, is going to have pain and bang into things. It’s going to be a problem.
But the way that we have to get out of that is we die when we’re tortured; we pass out or we die. The ultimate dissociation is to die. And then we get reborn. And if we do it with a good attitude, we can try and get a better rebirth than we had. And so the overview of it is, it’s positive thing.
And also it’s, beginningless, there’s infinite numbers of other beings. There are many beings who become enlightened and who therefore love other people.
You know, the occasional saint, the occasional Christ, the occasional great Rabbi Hillel, the occasional Krishna, the occasional Buddha. Those are just outstanding kinds of sages and especially kind people. And almost all of the women are exceptionally kind people, because they allow someone to live in their gut for a year; which most people don’t normally think is a really nice thing, to have a non-paying tenant squatter in your gut here. But they allow it!
And so, overall it’s fine. And actually the more open to it, the less scared you are about unnecessary things to be scared of; the more you can navigate, and actually deal with the necessary things to be scared of in a more efficient way; by being more connected to your fellow humans, more social, more open-minded, more friendly, more empathetic, listening to others and learning from them. And that actually you can navigate the relative world better the more open you are, and the less scared you are.
So we are the products of the European cultures in particular. Europe was relatively poor and people were relatively more violent. So we’re particularly terrorized, I think, by nature. And therefore nature is basically great.
And we are the lucky residents, the humans, not because we’re the only ones with a soul. Every living being has a soul, in the sense of a subtle mind and body that goes on; a subtle energy continuum that continues. But we are particularly more free because we’re less hardwired and we can use our genius to understand it. And by understanding it, we can maneuver more effectively. And then be more helpful to everyone.
So that was his good news. This is Nirvana, in other words, If we learn to use it properly. The first noble truth is not his discovery. Everyone knows about the suffering and everyone in every culture everywhere knows about suffering. It doesn’t take a Buddha to discover that. But the fact that there’s a way of understanding the world and relating to it where you can be free of it and you can even help others become free of it was his good news.
So Buddhism, without saying you have to believe Buddha, as like a religious prophet or something. Without having to do that, all the different sciences and arts and things that come associated with it, that can be shared without having to follow a particular person or a particular belief system, by just being open-minded and more realistic about the world.
In a way you could say the materialists have been more realistic about the way matter and energy work. And they have therefore developed a lot of good methods to use reality more effectively to exploit it for human benefit. But they didn’t apply that to themselves. So therefore they misuse it with greed and hostility and they carry over their whole fear of nature into nuclear weapons against other people and all this sort of wasted stuff.
And then consumer greed polluting the whole beautiful garden that we live in. And so they need that realism to the way their mind works and master that, which they will I’m sure be doing in the next decades. And we have to do. We will not meet the climate challenge unless we reeducate ourselves to restrain ourselves and learn how our greed and fear drive us irrationally.
Scott Snibbe: That’s great. so you’re saying our Buddha nature is our openness, our fearlessness, a sense of our connection and being part of nature.
Robert Thurman: Exactly. And actually, I used to think of it like an impersonal thing. But what I discovered more lately is that those beings who have become fully open and therefore fully empathetic, which is in theory what the evolutionary stage of a Buddha is: a being that has expanded to identify with everyone.
Their presence in us empathetically is our Buddha nature in a way. And all of them, not just this particular one or that one; but all the many enlightened beings.
You know, Parinirvana, which people think of as Buddha’s death—Buddha leaving his Siddhartha Prince, King Shakyamuni body—pari doesn’t mean final, as it’s wrongly translated. Pari means thorough or total. So it just means that his sense of Nirvana is here expanded to be everything in his own experience. And he didn’t really feel the need any longer to connect it to that particular coarse body.
He was consciously present everywhere in his own idea. And supposedly there are innumerable beings like that. And therefore, all the Buddhas think they’re me, poor things. They think so. Like when you empathize, where you feel you are another person, they are feeling that. And so their presence in me is the Buddha nature in a way already.
But that’s blocked from my own awareness because I don’t think that I’m some sort of wide open thing empathizing with everybody. To discover it, I have to expand my own sense of identity identifying with more and more people by being more and more altruistic. And I have my limits. I’m scared to do more than my limits.
Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about that view of ignorance and narrowness and self-centeredness? You know, you have some pretty entertaining ways of talking about this that I’ve really enjoyed over the years. And also the antidote: what is that antidote of wisdom or dependent arising?
Robert Thurman: One thing we could start with, maybe ignorance is not such a good word in the sense that avidya in original language was asatvidya. So it means a knowing of what is not the case, of what is not real as if it were real, in other words. So it’s a misknowing. And there is a word in the Oxford dictionary, you say misknowledge. In words that are still alive we have misunderstanding, misapprehension, mistake.
We don’t use misknowledge, but there is such a word misknowing. And so it’s misknowing that is, I think I know I’m just a limited so-and-so. And I know that I’m not the other person. And what happens to them doesn’t really bother me. And I can wall myself off from them and they can starve and whatever, they can get coronavirus. I can stay, get a shot and run around and don’t need to wear a mask and all this kind of thing.
I can do all that, but that’s because I misknow, my reality, which is complete interconnection with all these people. And so when someone gets a strong conviction, they think they’re right. How rigid we get when we think we’re right. Especially when we know something that is not the case, we can get misled; all of these structures like racism, sexism, all kinds of things are forms of misknowledge.
So the antidote to misknowledge, of course, is trying to see things, looking at them more carefully, trying to understand them. Initially, maybe receiving the encouragement from someone who knows a bit more than we do, that we can know, and that we could be critical about what we think we know. It will not ruin us if we know something more deeply than what we do.
And so then there will be lessening and lessening by degrees. It’s a gradual process. It’s actually a process of education. Like when you go to take a course in biology, you don’t think, Well, now I believe in biology and then you have mastered biology. It doesn’t work like that. You have to systematically learn the steps and all the components and how to do the experiments. And then we gradually understand it through a process of education.
And same about yourself. We learn about ourselves. We learn that what we thought we knew was misknowing. And we begin to learn better. And, we have this education. And heretofore, people have always translated what Buddhism is in practice as the Three Trainings. Because that’s our arrogance. Because we got educated, we went to eight years of grade school, four years of high school, four years of undergraduate, seven years of some sort of professional thing, usually most of us in professions.
So what is that? That’s like 23 years of education and we’re still miserable. We still don’t know what’s going on. And we worry all the time and we are running around freaking out! I mean, maybe we’re being successful in some things, but we are really upset about other things.
So we think education doesn’t help at that deeper level; doesn’t help our heart. But that’s just because we didn’t do heart education. Because somebody told us that, Oh, that’ll lead to religion and that’s just having to believe in something. But that’s not the case, when you can still be a total bastard believing in the best savior person that you can think of.
And you can be a monster anyway, and think, Oh, he’ll save me later. Which I’m afraid is what we notice happening quite a bit with religion. On the other hand, of course they all have essential different kinds of education about educating the soul to be altruistic and loving and that’s all really great.
And all of them have that. All of the ones that have lasted have that. There’s not one of them that has lasted, that has just taught hate. But lots of them have been mobilized into seeming to back hate by nasty high priests and theologians and Buddhalogians and Hindalogians and other kind of logians.
The thing is, these are Three Higher Educations, or let’s say since higher education is professional school, Three Super Educations. In ethics, super education in mind, how to use the mind like an instrument, the fabulous instrument that is the human mind. And how to learn what reality is, wisdom, meaning knowledge or science.
That’s what Buddhism actually is in practice. It’s called the three higher—the three adhiśīlaśikṣa. And then the word shiksha in Hindi still is the word for the Department of Education, not the department of “training.” But naturally there is training in any process of education. Like you memorize some things to learn a language, you memorize some formulas to learn mathematics and things.
So there’s the training aspect, always in education. But education is a wonderful thing. It’s bringing out the innate human openness and sensitivity and gentleness—sociality let’s call it—that the human being has by their evolution to having become a being that interconnects with other beings better than other animals.
Like the tigress can’t really tell the tiger he has to wash the dishes. You know what I mean? They can’t share in that way. She can just go and give him a swat if he tries to mess with the cubs. But she can’t really train the male tiger. But we can be trained a little bit or educated a little bit here and there.
And therefore we can use that badly and be more destructive of course, than any tiger or lion. But on the other hand, we can be much more benevolent than we were going to be. We’re going to restore the garden that we have been privileged to live in here on this beautiful planet, for sure. Very soon.
Scott Snibbe: I want to ask you a question about enlightenment. I heard you say a couple of different times, this idea that once we’re enlightened, we realize we were always enlightened. I wonder if you could explain what that means exactly. Do we have some fundamental misunderstanding about time?
Robert Thurman: Maybe, yes. I think we do. We misknow time like we misknow space and the solidity of objects and so forth. Sure. And the speed of light, right, there’s no more momentum and mode no more time. And it’s an absolute in Einstein’s brilliant relativity theory because the mass of the light (supposed) particle becomes infinite.
So it’s everywhere. So therefore they can’t have any more momentum. And that means it’s everywhen also in a way. It’s everywhen and everywhere as well. Because momentum has to do with time as well as space. Speed does, right? So many miles per hour or per minute or per second.
So, yes, the reason I say that is this is a complicated thing. Because Nirvana is said to be the absolute. Emptiness is the absolute.
Theologians say God is the absolute. But they can’t really say that rationally. Because anything that’s absolute cannot affect the relative or it loses its absoluteness.
“When you experience Nirvana, you have to somehow accept that it has always been the case. It’s called the uncreated, the undestroyed, meaning beginningless and endless. But it actually is the reality of which the relative reality is made. We say ‘made of,’ but in this case, our expression ‘made of’ is not accurate because it is all relativity. There is no relative person who in a dualistic way, possesses the experience of Nirvana.”—Dr. Robert Thurman
So that means that when you experience Nirvana, you have to be somehow accepting that it has always been the case. It’s called the uncreated, meaning therefore the undestroyed, meaning beginningless and endless. But it actually is the reality of which the relative reality is made. We say “made of” and of course, when you make something of something else, there are two different things.
But in this case, our expression “made of” is not accurate because it is all this relativity is the idea. So therefore there is no relative person who in a dualistic way, possesses the experience of Nirvana.
So people who say, Oh, I experienced emptiness, they are bullshitting. They lost consciousness is what they did, which was a good thing to do, let themselves go in a way and bravely lose consciousness.
But in a way they can’t experience it in the way you experience the wall over there, which is a dualistic thing where you’re still you and you possess having experienced that. In a way, Nirvana, you just sort of melt into Nirvana.
But the great thing is you don’t become nothing. Because it’s not nothing. It’s everything. So melting into Nirvana means you experience yourself as everything, which is completely inexpressible. What I just said wouldn’t make sense either.
“In a way, you just sort of melt into Nirvana. But the great thing is you don’t become nothing. Because it’s not nothing. It’s everything. Melting into Nirvana means you experience yourself as everything, which is completely inexpressible.”—Dr. Robert Thurman
And you have to therefore give a caveat that I’m just making an impression to open the imagination. But you can’t open your imagination infinitely to infinity thought of as quantifiable or quantity. Because it negates the idea of quantity. And it’s eternity at the same time, which negates the idea of time because you’ll never reach infinity. Right?
On the other hand, you’re permeated by infinity. Because you as a finite being have to be completely infinite. Because infinity cannot be excluded from every fiber, every atom, every subatomic energy in your being, or it wouldn’t be infinite. It couldn’t be delimited at the frontier of you finite. Right?
So it’s very interesting. We say that concepts, because they’re dualistic, block us from a non-dual experience of ultimate reality and therefore freedom and blah-blah-blah, and it’s partially true when we are stuck in dualistic concepts.
So absolute and relative are the same. What emptiness means is the discovery that all these presumed absolutes are just projections based on a miswiring in the center of the being that there’s something absolute about me separate from my relative. I can’t find it, but I’ll imagine that it’s there because I have a word absolute.
“Absolute and relative are the same. What emptiness means is the discovery that all these presumed absolutes are just projections based on a miswiring in the center of the being that there’s something absolute about me separate from my relative.”—Dr. Robert Thurman
And then when that word is taken and smashed flat onto the relative, then the relativity becomes absolute. That means your wish for an absolute means that you have to live absolutely relatively in the optimal way, which means lovingly, openly, compassionately, totally not conceding suffering of anybody in it. You feel you’re everything. You can’t tolerate anybody’s suffering.
The point is, Buddha’s absolute skepticality about all the presumed absolutes that people use to try to armor their own way of trying to dominate their sphere in culture, or in relations, or in the way they feel about themselves are all emptied out. And then you’re just there interconnected with everything. And then you have to make the best of it.
And actually people will go to death over it. Because they’re dying for absolute God or they’re dying for absolute no God, or they’re dying for the absolute nation, or they’re dying for absolute democracy, or absolute communism, or absolute fascism. Whatever it is, they’ll actually die over some concept.
And so when you take the concept and flatten it right into relative reality, then you’re dying to live. And in doing that you discover that’s what you always do anyway. I’ve always done it.
And now suddenly this relative thing is wide open. In other words, any particular way it is, that I have to just bang into that wall or I can only eat this thing or I can only do that other or have to be there. Then all of those things are optional in a sense.
And then things could be shifting levels of causation, and shifting ways of relating, and bringing in resources that you weren’t open to before; then something that seems to the person who’s stuck in a rigid description of reality that might seem miraculous to them.
I mean, the most miraculous thing is that you could be so blissful having discovered your true nature, that even you could give your body up, let somebody hack it up. And you would feel all those things, but it wouldn’t stop your bliss. You wouldn’t dissociate.
It’s like you have been so much in the flow yourself in some aspect of your life, I don’t know when: some people it’s sex, some people it’s when they’re running, some people sky diving. I don’t know when it is, but I’m sure you’ve personally done it. Everybody has had some flow moment where they banged their foot on something and they didn’t bother with it. They felt it. And then they had an ankle or a bruise later, but they didn’t bother with it. They didn’t not didn’t ignore it, they knew what happened. But it didn’t destroy the flow.
So the enlightened idea of being in a flow like that, that always. And yet completely open to everybody’s bumping into everything and therefore really capable of trying to help those also discover their own flow.
You know what I mean? That there is an evolutionary possibility to a rewireable creature like a human being who’s very flexible in their work. It can be badly rewired easily by Fox News. But it can be rewired by a proper education really well, and they have been endlessly. So that’s the kind of possibility.
It relates to the time—You know, we had 500 years of horrible colonialism. So when do you think it can happen, by a process of re-education, where it might become a general consensus that the people who got conquered were the superior ones. And the people who did the conquering, were the protection racket, the mafia with the guns and the bombs who went around and wrecked the environment and enslaved the people hither and thither.
And that the more gentle ones lost. And that’s what we have to reach quickly though. We have to now reach redefining civilization to be gentleness and true justice and tolerance and non-prejudice and cooperativeness. And also the elevation of women to having equal power in decision-making and so on. We have to quickly get there.
Scott Snibbe: Yes, absolutely.
“We have to now redefine civilization to be gentleness and true justice and tolerance and non-prejudice and cooperativeness.”—Dr. Robert Thurman
Robert Thurman: The wrong type of technologies of magnifying our greed and fear and anger have made life so unviable if we don’t, that we’re doomed.
Scott Snibbe: What can each of us do on a practical level to help cultivate those qualities in ourselves and around us?
Robert Thurman: Continue our education, continue to learn. Read some great books. You know, from a different culture. Read the Flower Ornament Sutra, or read the writings of Nagarjuna, the greatest of all skeptics. You know, 27 critiques. Critiqued causation, critiqued substance, critiqued intrinsic nature, and critiqued self, critiqued other, critiqued Nirvana as a sort of place apart, critique that all these types of things.
It’s like the nihilists actually. You know, the nihilists once they’re going to go into nothing when they die, which gives them their psychotic recklessness, culturally psychotic recklessness about the way that they deal with the planet and with others and so on. Because the results will be nothing ultimately.
The only way they can really logically stick with that is that they were already nothing. So inside they carry around like a nothingness of self subliminally without realizing it, which makes them very depressed, actually. But that’s probably mostly subliminal to those who are distracting themselves with worldly success and activism and things like that.
And they even misinterpret their flow state in that’s where they’re close to their nothingness. And then they even misunderstand freedom as if it were nothingness, instead of freedom being a negational opening to voluntary, joyful, and blissful interconnection, which is what freedom really is. It’s not a null state.
Similarly, at the time of the achievement of the education where one understands the uncreatedness, the clear light, the transparency of reality, and the full commitment to relativity, it’s like direct experience and inference, conceptual inference. That duality also is just dissolved.
And reason and direct experience become the same thing. It’s not like you leap with blind faith off of reason and reject it as useless. It brings you to the point of its own self-transcendence rather, and imminence if you will. And then your reasoning becomes truly experiential in your ongoing thing and you get smarter even in regular relativity. Supposedly.
And I hope it’s the same. I hope I discover it in another life. I really do.
Scott Snibbe: Once we can transcend this dualistic way of thinking.
Robert Thurman: By the way, one thing that’s also very important about this is that it helps skeptics evaluate gurus, which they should do; and cults. Because the kind of people who say, I’m enlightened so you do what I say, give me a car and I want this and that other. That person doesn’t have it, actually. Because when you realize that Nirvana is Samsara and you can’t leave suffering unless you bring everybody with you.
So you have to see them in the timeless level as already free too. And also be committed to knowing that for them they’re in time. And therefore you’re going to help them over time. Because they think there is such a thing. You’re actually beyond that time. So you see their future. But you see it could take much longer or they could suffer much more or much less if they weren’t helped. So you want to try to help them.
So the real truth is that the teacher is the servant of the student, not the master of the students. The master teacher is the servant of the student. The bullshit teacher is the master of the student and bosses them around. The real teacher is the servant.
But sometimes they might have to give some recommendations in an authoritative way. But not as a domineering way, as a way of eliciting the understanding of that option by the student basically.
Because it’s edu-cation, bringing it out of the student, the freedom and the flow that they actually already have. And we can’t take these people who are using even Buddhism to terrorize people more. That’s not cool.
Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And what you’re saying is we use our skepticism and our critical insight even with our teachers. That’s what’s really important. That’s one of the most important places to apply it.
Robert Thurman: Of course. Although there is a really double, quadruple bind there. They say that you can’t understand selflessness, which then gives you the strong relational ego, when you understand selflessness, because it’s your pronoun. You learn to use the language that you create yourself all the time.
So you can’t understand that until you learn it from someone who already understands selflessness. And yet they can’t understand it for you. You have to understand it. But you need to hear it from someone who did. So, in a way, when you read Nagarjuna in a deep way, like the wonderful Zen way, where they say you read with your body, not just your mind. When you read Nagarjuna’s 27 Critiques like that, then you are meeting a person, Nagarjuna, who does understand that.
And he’s offering to you these pathways of critique, of skeptical critique, to liberate you from reifying your concepts into things and projecting them, so that you can have experience beyond what you expect to experience since you’ve grown up in cultures that terrorize you about experiences, mostly bad, mostly it’s something to be resigned about.
You therefore trap yourself in a world of suffering.
So there’s a double bind like that. It doesn’t mean that teachers, good teachers are not really important. They are, as we know in any kind of education, it’s a massively better to have the help of a good teacher.
Scott Snibbe: So to circle back with what you were saying about enlightenment: that even enlightenment and unenlightenment and Nirvana and Samsara are dualities that we need to transcend as we move toward that state.
Robert Thurman: We need to transcend projecting them as intrinsically real, or absolutely real as they seem to be. But in a way, then we can use them creatively, something like that. So there’s a wrong idea about enlightenment that at the end of enlightenment, the cry of joy and enlightenment is like a big “Duh.” That’s not the case, not the case.
See, I like skepticism.
Scott Snibbe: Well, thank you so much. You’ve been very generous with your time. And I think we can wrap up. They say enlightenment and emptiness are beyond words, but your extremely creative use of words gives us a taste of it.
Robert Thurman: One thing I want to say is there are some people in my profession, my trade, my guild, who have had a big eureka lately that we’re not gonna say “enlightenment” anymore. We’re only going to say awakening. You can only say awakening, you can’t say enlightenment.
It’s really wrong. That’s my opinion, of course, we’ll debate it. I haven’t had a formal debate with any of them. But I think it’s really wrong. Because the European enlightenment was to break from religion to get to observing nature; which started religiously actually. And they were going to look at the book of God in his creation of nature.
So it started actually religiously breaking from the church. But the spirituality of science was to be materialistic. And therefore they call that the Western enlightenment. Which is good.
But the point is that the Buddhist enlightenment includes that. And it includes an awakening dimension as well, a sort of spiritual awakening. But you cannot proscribe the word enlightenment usefully. That’s not good. The enlightenment word really is an enlightening word. It’s really good.
And my friend, Tom Cleary, the great translator from Chinese and Japanese who lives out there on the West coast, who is the greatest in his generation, whether the academics will admit it or not. He uses a wonderful word for bodhisattva, that I think he uniquely uses. And I use it sometimes which is “enlightening being.”
I would call it “elightening hero” or “enlightening heroine,” a bodhisattva. Because I like sattva to be a hero rather than just a being. It’s not wrong, being, but he uses enlightening, which I love. Because that means enlightening the self and enlightening others, you know, bodhisattva. I like that.
I think that’s really great. He doesn’t get enough credit that guy.
Scott Snibbe: Thank you so much, Professor Thurman. We really appreciate you making the time to talk with us. This was really wonderful.
Robert Thurman: I do. I really like it.
Thanks for joining us in this incredible conversation with Dr. Robert Thurman.
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