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Stephen Butler on Openness, Gentleness, and Mr. Rogers’ Buddhism

Stephen Butler, producer of A Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment podcast, Indigenous and Native American Music Producer

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Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. For the one year anniversary of our podcast, I’ve finally managed to convince my partner and producer Stephen Butler to step in front of the microphone. Hi Stephen!

Stephen Butler: Hey, Scott, how are you?

Scott Snibbe: Today’s episode is an interview with Stephen, who’s lived a creative and compassionate life as a multi-Grammy nominated record producer of Indigenous and Native American music, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, and Himalayan culture, and a dedicated student of Buddhism. Stephen’s a disciple of Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, our resident teacher at Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, where Stephen and I met 20 years ago. Stephen, thank you so much for getting in front of the microphone today. I know talking about yourself can be a challenge for someone as humble and as giving as you. So I appreciate you letting me give you the spotlight for a few minutes today to share your life.

Stephen Butler: Oh, it’s, great to be here, Scott. Very different to be on this side of it.

Scott Snibbe: I would love to ask you the question you usually ask people who are Buddhist, which is how you got into Buddhism?

Stephen Butler: Well, first I grew up in a spiritual household where both parents in very different ways were living a spiritual life or a life of contemplation, reflection. I grew up Catholic and was in a household and in a spiritual community as a child that was very, very nurturing. And I’m deeply thankful for that. There was an atmosphere of genuine seeking and spiritual practice that pervaded the household on a daily basis. 

But it was probably around 16 that I began with a small group of friends in high school to become interested in Buddhism specifically.

It’s kind of puzzled me thinking about it now, because I don’t really recall the little spark. But it was definitely this group of friends, just making a determined move toward understanding what Buddhism was. There were no Buddhism classes in school at that time, you know, it was something you had to go out and find on your own.

That led us to reading books. I remember going to the library and checking out book after book after book. Gradually though, by my senior year in high school, I had made connections with a Theravadin community in Arizona. And I spent a number of years studying with them and practicing with them.

In college, I was an East Asian studies major and Religious Studies minor. So a lot of my studying was thankfully Buddhism. I studied with some great teachers, Dr. Robert Gimello, Dr. Elizabeth Harrison. That really nurtured me to become very interested in Mahayana Buddhism.

And by 1993 I had encountered the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued until 1999, when I connected with my principal teacher, who you mentioned, Geshe Ngawang Dakpa. I was really, by that time, very seriously interested in studying with a teacher in the Tibetan tradition.

So that’s what led me to Buddhism. It was obviously very hard for my parents. I still remember my mother saying it was very hard to not share the spiritual path that we shared growing up. My father said, “Well, he’s trying his best to live a good life. So that’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”

And what’s interesting is, still in that household there’s daily discussions of spiritual life and seeking and self-reflection. My mother and my family they’re very close to the Buddhist community. And I still go to Mass with my family when I’m with them.

Scott Snibbe: I’d like to ask you a little bit more about that, I think if they made a movie about your childhood, they might call it, I Was a Teenage Buddhist!

Stephen Butler: And that’s the interesting thing. I go back to what started this all. My spiritual community as a Catholic was very much engaged in discussion. When I look back now, I can see that encountering Buddhism was just an extension of that. And it manifested in the form of a different faith, a different spiritual path. But it was very much the same thing.

I think going back to what we do with the podcast, Scott, I’m so thankful that I was in a household that supported everybody being skeptical and talking and having discussions; very little judgment about how that critical analysis should be conducted or in what form. So I’m deeply thankful for that.

Scott Snibbe: You’re really fortunate that your family was so open-minded. You know, there’s a book called The Good Heart that’s about the Dalai Lama’s talks with Christians. And Father Lawrence Freeman, who I talked to a few months ago who reintroduced meditation into Christian communities, borrowing from Buddhism. Have they been exposed to that? Did that build any bridges?

Stephen Butler: Definitely. That book is on our family bookshelf at home. And it’s been there for years. People who were emblematic of that: Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, these people were really respected in our household. You know, my family has traveled overseas. Some of them have lived in nunneries and volunteered at that level. We’ve had Tibetan lamas at the house for Thanksgiving dinner along with Jesuits.

So that dialogue that’s very much in that book, I feel really grateful that it was in our home and still is in our home, still in our daily conversations. 

Scott Snibbe: There’s an amazing quote from that book, where at the end the Jesuits or Benedictine monks they actually said after the Dalai Lama’s talk, he’d increase their faith in God.

Stephen Butler: And isn’t that a wonderful thing, to witness faith and to witness a spiritual path or a path of even seeking or self-development or self-reflection; to bear witness to that, absolutely. If you’re truly committed to that path in your own way, and in your own faith, I feel it has to elevate you. It has to inspire you.

That’s one thing that I think we need a lot more in the world, the acceptance of faiths and the interfaith dialogues that have been going on. I mean, we have Pope Francis. We have people like the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, members of the Muslim community, the Sikh community, and beyond. 

When you go to those interfaith dialogues, it’s inspiring because they’re all dialing into this journey that they’re all on manifesting in a different way with different tenets, different views. But there’s a bonding over that process of developing oneself in accordance with a path. And other people from another faith have developed themselves in those ways; feeling inspired by it and elevated by it.

Scott Snibbe: I want to go back to talking about Geshe-la, Geshe Dakpa. Our podcasts is typically for people who don’t have a guru, don’t consider themselves Buddhist. But even Buddhists, you know, a lot of Buddhists we encountered, even in our tradition, they have a difficult time finding a teacher or bonding with a teacher.

And in this Tibetan tradition, it’s seen as very important to have that relationship. And sometimes people are jealous of people like you who make such a close connection with a teacher like that. You know, very clearly this is your main teacher and you have a very close connection.

I know it’s very personal, but could you talk a little bit about how that connection formed, how you found that respect and devotion to our teacher?

Stephen Butler: Well, yes. Being on a path of seeking, when you encounter somebody who turns your mind, shifts your perspective, that’s kind of the spark. With my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, it was very, very immediate for me.

As I mentioned earlier, I was coming to this community with a very determined hope I should say of meeting a teacher because I wanted to study in earnest. There is a point in the path that, from a traditional Buddhist perspective, not only is it deeply beneficial to have that, but it’s really important. You know, quite often they’ll bring up the notion of, Well, if you’re climbing a mountain, you really want a qualified guide.

So definitely for the deeper precipices and trickier pathways on the spiritual path, you really want to have a guide or a mentor. And that’s from the traditional perspective.

That being said, though, there’s the element of having a teacher or a mentor who’s a constant source of inspiration, of encouraging you to remain fresh with your path, to remain open and to remain curious and critical and joyful.

You know, joy is such a huge component for any endeavor we do in life. And it’s so critical I think for meditation practice or spiritual practice, or even just self-reflection or therapy, having a degree of joy there.

And quite often the teacher is there to give you that, to renew that source of joy and that inspiration. So for me, that bond with the teacher is the most important in my life. Because it permeates all other bonds. It helps me be the best I can, quite simply.

 I think you can get that from a book, you can get that from a talk. It’s only later in the path when you really commit that it’s required, and it’s really beneficial.

Stephen Butler with Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, resident teacher at Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies.

Scott Snibbe: You can see how much devotion and love you have for Geshe-la when you’re together.

Stephen Butler: Well, along that Scott too, it’s the teachers care for the students that’s just remarkable. You know, in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, some of the deepest most moving poetry you’ll find is when students write about their spiritual teachers.

And it’s because it’s a way of repaying that inspiration and the great kindness that they’ve given. Because you see it manifest in your own spiritual development: to be a comfort, to be a guide; to get you on the right path when you need to, you know. That’s what we do when we go on a path is we, we kind of say, Oh, you know, I could have done that better. You know, when they guide you in that way, inspiring and helping somebody on the path.

Scott Snibbe: So, like me, I think you may be the only Buddhist that a lot of your friends know. And when friends meet obstacles in life, sometimes they probably go to you and ask you for advice. But also like me, I bet most of them are not ready for any religious commitment. They’re more looking how to adapt these practices into everyday life. Not to take on the beliefs of any religion, including Buddhism. So what do you say when your friends come to you asking for some help?

Stephen Butler: It’s true. And especially you and our age in relationship to the arc of Buddhism arriving in North America. It situates us in an interesting way with our friends.

So when those friends come, quite often they’re asking out of a very specific need, you know, whether they may have a stressful job or they’re not sleeping well.

And they always think, Oh, that Stephen guy, he’s been doing that for a long time. I’ll go ask him. Or in my case, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me when people have passed or they’re ill; about coping mechanisms for those kinds of traumatic things. So yeah, you never really want to encourage them to adopt something that doesn’t feel right to them. That’s not going to help anybody.

But what they usually are resonating with is this very clear tradition in Buddhism of openness. And I think it’s very interesting to see through people’s understanding of meditation or seeing the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron, these luminaries who are out there in the public sphere. There’s a sense of openness and of gentleness.

And quite often that is not reinforced in our society. You know, our society from an early age is pushing us constantly to do more, develop faster, develop in a different way, develop according to somebody’s expectations. That’s reinforced in education and the job space, in families; in travel, when you take a vacation it’s even reinforced.

So I think what people see in Buddhism at the outset, at least the friends who’ve come to me, is an openness and a gentleness and the fact that you can engage with something in a more open way at the outset, whether that’s through meditation or contemplation.

But I think that at the outset, I always think that’s what people resonate with. They may think that it’s, “Oh, I want to learn meditation, or I want to learn that.” But I think the actual essence of what they’re resonating with is this openness. And the fact that Buddhism has such amazing traditions, and very detailed traditions, of accommodating all of life. So it’s allowed into your practice.

It’s not regimented and adjudicated very heavily, which does happen in society. And other traditions may manifest that way. I feel all traditions have that kind of openness to them. But I think Buddhism definitely has a reputation, I should say, of having this open quality that accommodates all dimensions of life: good, bad, and ugly, and certainly with suffering. Because that’s quite often what people who want to pick up a book or listen to a podcast is out of some need of difficulty, dissatisfaction.

“It’s very interesting to see the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron, these luminaries who are out there in the public sphere. There’s a sense of openness and of gentleness.

And quite often that is not reinforced in our society. Our society from an early age is pushing us constantly to do more, develop faster, develop according to somebody’s expectations.

So I think what people see in Buddhism at the outset is an openness and a gentleness; that you can engage in a more open way, whether that’s through meditation or contemplation.”

Scott Snibbe: That’s really nice to distill such a complex path down to openness and gentleness. We had interviews with Rick Hanson and with Robert Thurman, our last two interviews, and both of them emphasize exactly those two points: that the brain is trainable, we have neuroplasticity and we’ve shown we can train people to be fierce and angry and so on. But really the direction we want to go to for a happy life is to train ourselves simply to be open and gentle.

Stephen Butler: It’s amazing because you begin to realize how much we adjudicate ourselves, our behaviors, the way we think. We need a little more Mr. Rogers, you know. I can’t tell you how much I quote him because his way of approaching things is, everything can be accommodated. You know, he says “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” For me, that’s deeply aligned with Buddhism. If I didn’t know any better, I would say, Oh, that was attributed to some Eastern Tibetan scholar practitioner.

Even the notion that there’s something out there that’s open and less boxed in and less codifying who I am, my experience, what I’m thinking, this thought, that thought. Everything is pushing us to codify it and adjudicate it, diagnose it, pounce on it. So as soon as you hear that there’s another approach that’s a little bit more open and accommodating, gentle, I think on the psychophysical level, people just feel like there’s hope.

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” —Fred Rogers (azquotes)

Scott Snibbe: I like you mentioning Mr. Rogers as embodying that openness in our culture. We should have had you wear a little button-down sweater for this interview!

Traveling has been a big part of your life in the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India. And I know you’ve even spent months living in monasteries and supporting cultural humanitarian causes there. Could you tell us a little bit about your travels and what you’ve learned from them?

Stephen Butler: It all goes back to 1993 while I was in college. I was studying East Asian Buddhism because I already had a job working with Native American music. So I figured I’d study something that was really dear to me.

I was able to host a monk at that time who just told me, You can go to these monasteries, you can visit these holy sites and these places where people have practiced in India and other places in Asia.

He really set the spark. So in 1996 I went to 13 different countries, I think it was about seven months, and did the traditional Buddhist pilgrimage at that time.

And for me, it was deeply moving because I was able to see the living tradition of Buddhism and the devotion that is in a Buddhist community on a large scale. And then that set a course for me to continue going back again and again.

I go back to India quite regularly for teachings and for pilgrimage. Eventually the travels turned into less traveling and more going for a specific purpose that ties into my spiritual path.

I have some teachers that live over there. Some have passed away. So I would go over whenever those events were happening. But it’s been a real privilege, you know, because I grew up in a household that was involved in being an ally of Indigenous and Native American cultures.

It was very normal for me to go over to those cultures in the Himalayas and find a way to plug in to help support what people were doing. I recorded music and produced video, wrote text, just tried to be of use in any way, shape or form. It felt good to be helping and applying my skillset in communities that were upholding Buddhism, something that was near and dear to me.

Being able to go over for large events and seeing the devotion and the history around these contemplative traditions, specifically in India, that we’ve talked about a lot on the podcast. And just to know that they’ve been there for millennia is deeply inspiring.

And that they’ve survived. They’ve survived warfare. They’ve survived tremendous cultural genocide. They’ve survived just the normal ravages of time. And that these traditions of trying to make yourself gentle and compassionate and loving and beneficial are still there and venerated has been deeply inspiring for me.

Stephen Butler in Kathmandu, 1998, taking a break while producing the world’s first detailed recordings of the music of sapera, the snake charming lineage of North India. On the left, Rohotashnath (player of the premtal) and on the right Jodhanath (player of the pungi). “It is such an honor to have worked with Indigenous musicians from around the world since I was a teenager. The world needs to hear these crucial voices of our planet now more than ever.”

Scott Snibbe: So to experience the unfiltered roots of this tradition. Very nice.

The things you mentioned about audio recording, most of your adult life has been being a producer of Indigenous and Native American music. Can you tell us a little bit about this work and what meaning it has in your life?

Stephen Butler: Again, it goes back to the household I was raised in. My mother in particular. My mother was working for a company called Canyon Records. It started in 1951 and it specialized in recording Native American and Indigenous music in Phoenix, Arizona.

My mom was already there before I was born. So as white as I am, I managed to grow up in a household where some of the first music I remember hearing was Indigenous music. It’s still bizarre to me because obviously at that time, very few people, if any, in the United States were getting an education about Indigenous Peoples in public schools.

And thankfully I had an atmosphere where it was just part of life. On our family trips, when we were young, we would stop off at trading posts and my mom would check in on clients and we had friends in the community since I was very young.

So that was the atmosphere I grew up in. And I started working there probably when I was about 13 years old, just after school, helping out here and there. And then about the time I was 20, I started producing. And so I ended up with Canyon somewhere between 200 and 230 productions of traditional, neo-traditional, which is a genre that I helped give birth to, and contemporary music.

And when Canyon Records stopped producing new music the core creative team and many of the artists, we’ve set up new shop as Buffalo Jump Records, continuing the same work with virtually the same people.

But alongside my spiritual path, it’s been a huge source of education, a huge privilege, an extreme honor. As I get older and older, I’m more and more appreciative of that honor to be able to work under such intimate conditions with cultures and cultural representatives that have experienced marginalization in addition to genocide and in addition to racism; to be a white man who has in a very strange way, spent most of my life around indigenous music and cultures.

I’m very thankful for that privilege. So I continue that work to this day. Even as we speak, I have 13 productions that are coming out this year. Many of them multi-generational connections I have with people in the community. So it’s been a deep joy.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the work you do is beautiful. People can’t see it in the podcast. You mentioned your racial identity, we’re both white males. I think it’s worth talking a little bit more about how, especially right now, you know, these issues of racial identity and respect and also just getting out of the way are big right now.

How do you navigate that, as someone whose job is to preserve and promote Indigenous culture, Native American culture, how do you walk that tight rope of being respectful and yet not being directly in that culture?

Stephen Butler: Well, again, it came very early. The unique circumstances of how I got involved with it, it was really out of a pure partnership. There was a degree of partnership with the man who established Canyon Records, where he just wanted to partner with a certain singer at the time to get a collection of songs recorded.

And that was it. It was not about adjudicating. It was not about saving the culture. I’m very careful about the cultural preservation notion. Because there’s a dimension of that, but it’s never coming from my side. Of course I’m there to support it, but really what I’m there to do is reflect what’s happening in the communities and with the artists that I’m working with.

So the notion of being an ally has to be defined at the very outset and permeate every workflow that you have. You want to go in and not be the one who’s telling these stories yourself. You never think that you’re telling these stories yourself or that you need to be the one telling these.

What you do, though, is in tandem with these people that you’re working with, whether they’re an artist, whether they’re a thought leader, an elder, a culture or a knowledge holder, you know that their story needs to be told. You’re very clear that I’ve come in to not tell the story. But these people’s stories need to be told.

And be open and be very knowledgeable that you are there as a guest. You have to constantly be educated. You are there as a person who is constantly learning, and staying open to learning, and will make mistakes. I’ve made many, many mistakes in the course of that learning. 

But I always come to it with the point of view that I’ll learn from those mistakes and let the people that I’m privileged enough to work with educate me on that journey.

Some of the people I’ve been privileged to work with, who for me are as important to North American traditional culture as Woody Guthrie; names like the Baker Family, the Tootoosis Family, Bill Runsabove (obituary), names like that. William Horncloud. For me, these are Woody Guthrie’s.

Stephen Butler in the studio recording “Angel Eagle” with Grammy-nominee Young Spirit from Frog Lake Cree First Nation, 2019

Scott Snibbe: We had Dr. Jan Willis on the podcast last year, and these issues of race and gender and class came up with Dharma centers. Have you seen or thought about those issues, you know, being white and then being in a community of people that aren’t white as it relates to Dharma centers in Buddhism in America?

Stephen Butler: What Dr. Willis said was really crucial advice and crucial guidance for all of us involved in any way, shape or form with Dharma organizations and Buddhist centers, is to acknowledge that we’re swimming in the water of systemic racism. And we have to work actively to address that.

Because that’s really the Dharma. You know? If you go back to the historical roots of Buddhism in Northern India, Buddhism was open to all and we have to remember that.

And that’s a core principle. So that has to be brought to bear on the disparity within Dharma organizations in terms of gender and racial equality and how the organizations are structured. I don’t see it coming from the faith, obviously. The core message is there.

It’s just the inherited structures of organization that still are really based on gender and racial lines. So I think Dr. Willis is just a beam of light for that, because she’s saying there’s a pathway to deal with it, but you do have to acknowledge it.

Scott Snibbe: Thanks for sharing that. It’s a tricky topic to talk about and I appreciate how honest you are about it.

Stephen Butler: Oh yeah. And as I mentioned, about Indigenous music, in my work with that, there’s a time to step out of the way. In fact, from the beginning, you’re never supposing that you’re to be the center of the dialogue. You’re never really envisioning that you’re part of it.

That’s really important. And I think with this evolving discussion of bringing in racial bias and gender bias into Dharma organizations, we have to also be willing to step aside and to also not place ourselves in the center of the solution either; it’s to let that dialogue come in and be a participant, but be a participant on the outside and then recalibrate as we go forward.

Scott Snibbe: This is a little bit personal, but I wonder if you’d be willing to share anything about your own meditation practice and any techniques that have been particularly helpful for you? Of course, in the spirit of benefiting the people who are listening.

Stephen Butler: Yeah, I don’t really talk too much about that. You know, I’m really privileged to have tried my best to meditate since I was in high school. The one thing I would say in particular about meditation is I’ve really come to appreciate the qualities of being gentle, the Buddha’s pith instruction to not push and to really bond with the meditation, even in its more rudimentary or more course stages.

I think that’s something that’s really struck me as I get older is those earlier stages of meditation: awareness of the body, awareness of the breath, to really bond with those and let them permeate.

Because all the study you do, whether it’s devotional practice or a willingness to read a book, all of that is anchored by awareness of body awareness of thoughts. Great teachers really emphasize that point. And I think I’ve also gotten an appreciation that it’s really hard to do.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah.

“The one thing I would say in particular about meditation is that I’ve really come to appreciate the qualities of being gentle, the Buddha’s pith instruction to not push and to really bond with the meditation, even in its more rudimentary or more course stages.

I think that’s something that’s really struck me as I get older is those earlier stages of meditation: awareness of the body, awareness of the breath, to really bond with those and let them permeate.

Whether it’s devotional practice or a willingness to read a book, all of that is anchored by awareness of body awareness of thoughts.”

Stephen Butler: You know, really having a broad view, but having a long view. Committing to developing yourself to benefit others is long work; and to really kind of slow down and say, It’s a lot of work and just be patient and gentle with yourself as you go.

Quite often in the West, we book time, right? You know, everything’s booked. We, we always say, I’m booked. I don’t have time for that. And we book our retreats, we book our spiritual sessions. You know, that’s a necessary component, but it’s also something to be really conscious of, that you don’t want to rush and push. And even study, study is the same way.

You know, you want to have the openness and the quality, the natural quality of the mind in its restful state, its centered state brings so much benefit to devotional practice, to study, to meditation, to questioning, Q and A’s, whatever it may be. So really paying attention to that, that’s really helped me.

And I go back to that quite often. You know, teachers have said, even just having awareness of body, really true awareness of body, is a deeply profound practice in and of itself. And it’s very, very hard to achieve. So those instructions have been really helpful.

I think the other thing that’s particular to Tibetan Buddhism is this tradition of mind training. The Kadampa Geshes and the people who uphold that tradition, it was a school of thought that’s been absorbed into the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism and upheld. But they were known for these very pithy immediately applicable sayings of how you apply tricky spiritual practices to daily life.

It’s a gold mine of instruction. And so those are really helpful to me. And to work with what you have and to be willing to. You know, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, who we interviewed in our podcast here. He says, “The mind of practice is a poised mind. It essentially can accommodate anything.”

So pith instructions like that, that are upheld by the Kadampa Geshe’s as well and teachers like the Dalai Lama, and so many of our teachers are so profound. As Geshe Ngawang Dakpa always says, “Very easy to understand, but very difficult to do.”

But really the mind of practice can accommodate anything. Those are instructions that really help everything and any difficulties that come up on the way.

“Even just having awareness of body, really true awareness of body, is a deeply profound practice in and of itself. And it’s very, very hard to achieve.”

Scott Snibbe: And can you say what mind training means, a definition of mind training for people who aren’t familiar with it?

Stephen Butler: It’s this tradition of working with the mind. In Tibetan, it’s called lojong. There’s a whole category of texts, tradition, meditative practices. They trace their origin of course, to the Buddha.

And in particular, they trace their origin to Nagarjuna and Shantideva and practices that come out of a couple of texts that they wrote. But it’s really about working with the emotions and the difficulties, and immediately overcoming them by acknowledging that they can be worked with at the outset.

That’s the principle of all Buddhism, that the mind can be transformed. But mind training is really saying even these very difficult, tricky things like jealousy, ingratitude, defamation, anger, lust, all of these things can be worked with. And that they’re all the substance of spiritual practice. They all become that.

That’s really what mind training is. Thubten Jinpa has done some great translations. He’s translated the classical compendium of mind training teachings. Pema Chodron brings those into her talks and teachings quite regularly. It acknowledges there’s a lot of grist for the mill.

And that that’s what we have to do, is to get our hands a little dirty and be willing to, and be open to and not run away from that. Quite often the word that Pema Chodron in particular uses when she talks about this is this quality of fearlessness, you know?

So in mind training, you have this acknowledgement that it can be worked with. Right there, it’s saying, don’t be afraid of it. It’s saying better to be curious than to be afraid.

Whereas in society we’re trained, we’re reinforced to retract from difficulty, recede from it, pull back from it, bypass it. Mind training is saying the total opposite, which is, work with it. It’s the substance of the mind. And it can be transformed.

Scott Snibbe: So mind training means that we can work with anything.

Stephen Butler: Yeah, absolutely.

“The mind of practice can accommodate anything.”

Scott Snibbe: Tara Brach also talks about that. I was really struck by her Radical Self-Acceptance. I went through that a number of times. And she says exactly the same thing, that when you have the mind of curiosity, there’s no room for fear.

Stephen Butler: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, Pema Chodron will bring in a nice confluence of indigenous topics and Buddhism. But Pema Chodron recounts the story of Ishi this member of the Yahi tribe. Some of us have probably seen this old film called The Last Yahi.

Scott Snibbe: When you grow up in California, we all study it in middle school. We all read the book.

Stephen Butler: But she brings up this great quote, which I believe if I recount it correctly, is Ishi, once he was brought out and his story was shared, he recounted the experience of encountering these very foreign and challenging aspects of modern culture. At one point he says he remembers seeing a railroad snaking through the mountains.

I use that word in particular, because he said, “For us, we just thought it was a snake that gobbled up people. We saw people just get into the train and it just gobbled us up!”

And so right there, I mean, that’s a terrifying image, you know, especially if you’ve never encountered it. But I believe when Ishi was brought out in one of these forums where people could ask him questions, somebody said, “Well, then why did you decide to get on the train? And why did you decide to come out and encounter this other culture around you?”

And he said, “Because I believe it’s better to be curious than afraid.”

And Pema Chodron, recounts that even in her Buddhist teaching. That is such an important quality, to not recede.

You know, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says when something difficult happens, don’t turn around like a dog that’s been bitten and run away. You have to be poised for practice. You have to have the mind that can accommodate anything. And that’s at the core of mind training teachings.

And it is radical as Tara Brach says. I mean, I love that phrase, radical. She’s acknowledging that it’s a challenge and that it may feel uncomfortable at the outset.

But it’s so crucial to do. And so liberating, you know, its power to overcome things like anger. If we’ve habituated ourselves to anger in a certain way, a mind training teaching in conjunction with meditation or even a supportive community. Whatever it may be, you can leap over that very, very quickly.

The pithy instructions have the power to kind of unlock those knots in our habituated selves.

“That’s the principle of all Buddhism, that the mind can be transformed. Mind training is really saying even these very difficult, tricky things like jealousy, ingratitude, defamation, anger, lust, all of these things can be worked with. And that they’re all the substance of spiritual practice.”

Scott Snibbe: Thanks. Well, that’s emphasizing the openness and the curiosity again. That may be a nice place to end so we can take those thoughts with us into the rest of our day.

Stephen Butler: Especially now with what we’re going through. Right? I mean the political stuff we’ve gone through, we have a global pandemic. And all of those narratives are boxing us in. We want to remain fresh and joyful and open to the possibility of transformation and the reality of transformation.

Scott Snibbe: That openness extends to our enemies and our problems and the obstacles in the world.

Stephen Butler: It reorients our whole selves, our whole body, to a different way of life, a better way of life for ourselves and the people around us, whatever your faith may be.

“In mind training, you have this acknowledgement that it can be worked with, don’t be afraid of it. It’s saying better to be curious than to be afraid.”

Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. Well, thanks a lot for joining us, Stephen. It was amazing to get to talk to you and I’m excited for our audience to get to know you a little better.

Stephen Butler: It’s a unique experience to be on this side of the mic, but it’s wonderful to work on this podcast with you, Scott. So I’m really, really glad.

Scott Snibbe: Well, thanks a lot. I was really overjoyed when you volunteered to help. Still amazed that you put in so much effort and your perfectionism to so many aspects of it. So thank you so much.

Stephen Butler: No problem. Thank you.

Scott Snibbe: For everybody listening, thanks a lot for joining me in getting to know our producer Stephen Butler. I hope we’ll be hearing more of him in future episodes as we coax him in front of the microphone again.

If you’d like to get updates on podcast episodes, as well as Skeptics Path meditations, talks, and classes, please join our newsletter or our social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can find us under the name skepticspath.

If you’d like to support the podcast, there’s a link on our website to donate. And even very small amounts go a long way, as all the proceeds go to producing the show. 

If you’re on an Apple device in particular, we’d be grateful if you took a moment to review us in the podcast app. It’s easy. You can put a little rating. Hopefully you like the podcast if you’ve listened this far.

The reviews help people discover our podcast and we keep all of our content free and free from ads. So thanks again to Stephen Butler. Thanks a lot for not only being our guest today, but also for producing producing this and all of our episodes. And everybody have a wonderful day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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