A guided analytical meditation through Skeptic’s Path meditations, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism’s Lamrim Stages of the Path. Each meditation is part of an adventure for the mind to bring about inner joy and purpose considering Life’s Preciousness, Impermanence, Cause & Effect, Refuge, Suffering, and Renunciation.
I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Last week we meditated on renunciation, where we metaphorically step off the deep end, to stop blaming our problems on outer conditions and chasing external sources of happiness, and instead turn inward, realizing that our mind is the true source of all our joy and pain.
A more uplifting term that’s associated with renunciation is its goal, liberation. Liberation is becoming free from our disturbing states of mind: the delusions of attachment, anger, and selfishness that prevent us from being truly happy and making the most of our lives. In the Buddhist view, liberation is eventually finding complete freedom from suffering, the ultimate state of personal liberation that’s usually called Nirvana.
Nirvana’s not a place like heaven, but a state of mind that’s free from suffering. The band Nirvana understood this, too. I like what Kurt Cobain said about his band’s name. He didn’t mean it ironically. He actually said, “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans.” And this aligns perfectly with what Buddhist Nirvana is.
Cobain situated his band’s name as an aspiration that’s in perfect counterpoint to Nirvana’s songs about suffering, songs that deal with painful topics like child abuse, insatiable craving, and the meaninglessness of much of Western culture. But Kurt Cobain wasn’t a nihilist, he seemed to also believe in some form of renunciation, that by turning away from the destructive, consumptive, meaningless aspects of our culture people could find authenticity in simpler ways of appreciating life.
Buddhist Nirvana’s isn’t theoretical. There are real people alive today who have actually achieved this psychological state. If you feel like it you can seek them out and learn from them, ask them questions, and observe what it’s like to be truly free from your delusions.
This podcast is an ambitious—and in some ways crazy—project by an ordinary person trying to adapt one of the most profound and complete compendiums of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, Lama Tsongkhapa’s fourteenth-century Lamrim, or Stages of the Path.
These modified Stages of the Path that we present in Skeptic’s Path are in a secular form for modern people grounded in our scientific view of reality.
If you remember from our first episode, the spirit of this podcast is one of adventure. To find motivation in the excitement and curiosity of looking inward to create the genuine causes of lasting happiness.
This is an adventure to undertake together as peers, with similar levels of delusions and curiosity, but also the same levels of opportunity and potential: to become truly free of these delusions.
Today, we’re going to review the first part of this adventure so far, the topics of Life’s Preciousness, Impermanence, Cause & Effect, Refuge, Suffering, and Renunciation that we’ve explored in our first eighteen episodes.
This type of review is called a “glance” review I find to be one of the most beautiful and rewarding meditations. It’s a meditation that most Tibetan Buddhist practitioners do every day. The whole path includes topics that we haven’t explored yet together, topics that are coming next including love, compassion, and the ultimate interdependent nature of reality.
Guiding yourself through a mind-training system like the Lamrim is the essence of analytic meditation, an experience far different than breathing meditation.
In breath-focused meditation, you cultivate mental stability and a peaceful mind that’s untroubled by thoughts—or even free of them.
Analytic meditation is the opposite: filling your mind with thoughts that have specific psychological effects; instilling healthy, positive ways of thinking that later translate into more controlled and beneficial ways of being in the world.
The focused mental stability that you ideally have in a breathing meditation is an important step in the Lamrim. But in this tradition single-pointed concentration comes much later on the path, after you train your mind toward the positive mental habits that we’ve just reviewed in what are called the “lower scope.”
This is a good time to reiterate the proposition of Buddhist meditation, the fundamental goodness and trainability of our minds; that our minds can be trained toward greater and greater good, and that the mind’s innate nature is good, clear, knowing, and wise.
You needn’t take these as given truths, but they are offered as hypotheses to validate yourselves, as the Buddha himself advised. Meditation is an invitation to self-discovery that leads you to finding your own answers to who you truly are and what gives your life meaning.
This is also a good time to remind ourselves of the essential role that critical inquiry plays in this form of Buddhism; that these topics of meditation aren’t meant to be taken on faith, but analyzed with your critical reason and directly experienced through meditation, to see if they work for you.
Of course, give it some time, and be open-minded and curious, like the rational skeptic. But also be critical and observe whether and how these meditations are working for you.
A couple of my teachers have even said that the topics of the lower scopes that we’ve just completed aren’t particularly hard to find a deepfelt, stable, intuitive understanding, if we just put in some modest effort. They say that sustained meditation on each topic for only a few weeks, where you meditate strongly for an hour or two a day, can lead to deep realizations that then only need a few minutes a day to sustain them for the rest of your life.
Of course, this advice applies to the traditional form of these meditations, and it’s critical to say that A Skeptic’s Path diverges from tradition in important ways, especially when we talk about The Preciousness of Life and Cause and Effect, which in the traditional mediations rely heavily on a belief in past and future lives, but here do not.
Still, I’m curious how effective our modified versions might be for you, and if anyone meditates strongly on these topics and has a good result, please let us know! As the podcast evolves, we plan to provide more tools for daily meditation support, including shorter versions of meditations to support people’s busy lives.
Reviewing The Stages of The Path through Renunciation
So, let’s go into the adventure of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Let’s review briefly all the topics, and see what effect this has on us as a dynamic meditation that brings our minds through all these stages over the course of a few minutes.
Sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night, my mind turns to the Lamrim and I go through all the topics in a half-sleep. I find this very beneficial, as a great way to turn my mind away from a disturbing dream, or rumination on problems, toward more virtuous states of mind.
Then in the morning, even in a night where I’ve had trouble sleeping, I feel quite invigorated having traveled the mental adventure of the Lamrim, trying to genuinely feel each topic and make it relevant to my life the next day.
The Preciousness of Life
The first topic we reflect on is the preciousness of life. Traditionally, this is steeped in the Buddhist view of past and future lives, a kind of spiritual evolution where your mind moves through different realms and different types of bodies.
This worldview doesn’t match the Western secular one of cosmological and biological evolution. So, the way we approach this topic in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment diverges from the traditional Buddhist approach.
But the practical, yet profound way this meditation starts is completely aligned with the Tibetan tradition, requiring no belief at all. Reflecting on my good fortune, I’m so lucky to have another day alive. Of course, life is different for each of us, and we each face many hardships, but for a moment, we practice gratitude for what we have: the simple beauty of my body, my senses, every day enjoying sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Thanks to my sense organs, my brain, a healthy body, relative freedom from debilitating sickness, these freedoms allow me to appreciate the beauty of the world around me and the people in it.
I’m fortunate to have some modest level of resources: food, shelter, safety, security, education, a job, friends, and family. We don’t all have these things. And if I do, or even if I have most of them, I’m extremely fortunate.
I’m lucky to have had nurturing parents, teachers and friends, and everyone around me that supports this life of relative leisure and good fortune when compared to the suffering of so many others.
These basic gifts alone are wonderful, the gifts to most people on earth at birth.
I’ve been exposed to ideas, to teachers, and to friends who value inner happiness, who contemplate the value, mystery, and profoundness of existence that goes beyond material accumulation and external stimulation.
Think of the many who can’t take these basics for granted: people in severe poverty, war, extreme climates, suffering political, racial, and gender oppression. Or those driven by animal instincts, mindlessly pursuing pleasure and fleeing pain, or even those afflicted with the competitive spotlight of extreme fame and success.
I’m lucky to have everything I need to be happy, somewhere in the middle of extreme poverty and extreme wealth and power. Now all I need is to make some effort: to try to live each day with mindfulness of the preciousness of my life, that there’s so much to be grateful for and I need to make the most of this opportunity.
And then there’s a way to connect this precious day to all of the universe. A way that’s grounded in our observations of a universe grander and more mysterious than any religious story.
I’m sitting in the center of a universe 14 billion years old, with 3 billion years of life on earth.
The scientific magic of evolution that over billions of years transformed simple chemicals to cells, worms, fish, snakes, dinosaurs, mice, monkeys. And now, humanity at the tip of history, emerging only a hundred thousand years ago. We’ve had a thousand generations of humans, experiencing great suffering: struggling to survive, dying at birth; often hungry, violent, afraid.
And then I am born.
And now, despite its drawbacks, discomforts, and its injustices, there’s never been a safer and more abundant time on earth to be a human.
What’s a good way to spend this day? What responsibility do we owe the universe as one of it’s few conscious beings?
It’s nothing more than what I’m doing right now, trying to live mindfully and meaningfully: going inward, probing my mind, cultivating the true causes of happiness in the present moment through gratitude and self-awareness.
Rest in these thoughts for a minute, my scientific connection to all the universe and all of history, my gratefulness for being alive; how do I make the most of this day and what’s really important?
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Now we reflect on impermanence, and start by connecting more deeply to our body. Think of its parts one-by-one: your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your torso, your neck, your head, your eyes, your mouth, your nose, your ears; and then all of your skin, the boundary between you and the outside world.
Begin to see the momentary change in your body. See that your heart is beating. Blood is coursing through your veins, circulating through your whole body once a second. Breath is flowing in and out of your lungs. There’s the energy of your nerve impulses from the tips of your fingers, toes, and skin to your brain and back.
Become aware of the more subtle cellular changes—that your body is made of trillions of cells, each of them alive: living blood cells, skin cells, stomach and brain cells moving, changing, dying dividing, reproducing. They say that a million of your body’s cells die every second and are replaced with a million new ones.
And all of these cells, they’re each made of countless parts themselves: proteins, DNA, molecules, atoms; vibrating, bonding, breaking, exchanging subatomic particles.
Impermanence of the mind
Now, turn your attention to your mind. Your mind is also composed of countless parts: of thoughts, of perceptions, of feelings, of memories and plans, fears and desires. Your mind is constantly changing. Watch your mind with a distance if you can. Without trying to control your thoughts, just watch your mind for a minute. See how thoughts appear and disappear and observe them without becoming attached to them and without pushing them away.
(Meditate on watching thoughts for one minute)
Impermanence of the outer world
Now, bring your mind to the world immediately around you, seeing through your mind without needing to look through your eyes. Picture in your mind the cushion that you’re seated on, the walls, the ceiling, the space around you, the objects in the room. Try and these the way science tells us they exist: as buzzing clouds of energetic particles that our senses mistakenly tell us are solid.
Think of your possessions: your phone, your car, the place you live. Each of these is subject to change. Nothing lasts forever. Visualized them old, faded, broken: your phone recycled, your clothes rags, your home or apartment torn down. See how your feelings change about these objects.
Come to the present to realize that change is happening all the time, not just when things wear out or when they’re destroyed, but at every instant. Like the cells in your body, at a subtle level, all objects are constantly in flux.
Impermanence of people and relationships
Think of the people around you. Each of them was born. Imagine that moment with their mother giving birth. And each of them will die.
Each of their lives is a great changing adventure. And just like us, even at the moment, they are constantly changing, constantly in flux, just as our own body and mind.
Think of your constantly changing relationships: family, friends, romantic partners, co-workers. Most of us can recall friends and partners who were the most important people in our life at one point who have now become distant acquaintances or even enemies. Yet also, somewhere out there in the world, there is a stranger who might become our dearest friend, or our teacher, or an intimate partner for the rest of our life.
But even if things don’t wear out, and even if relationships don’t fall apart, our mind changes. The happiness and the pleasure we experience from objects and people is subject to change too. We can simply become tired or bored with something that once gave us so much joy and excitement.
Change means fluidity
Being aware of change helps us to realize that our current situation is also subject to change. When we encounter problems, and when things reach a very bad point, the direction of change is then quite likely for the better, as the world swings through extremes and back to normality.
Finally, even if we live a stable, happy life with few problems and little conflict, and even if our possessions don’t wear out and we have the same partner for life, eventually we still lose these through death.
Contemplating death like this in the context of change isn’t meant to provoke fear or anxiety, but to help us put our daily challenges into perspective, to reduce or even eliminate our fear, and let us be present and engaged for the problems, the challenges, and the joys facing us now and ahead.
Quietly contemplate for a moment on impermanence. Let anything at all come to mind: objects, people, relationships, your body, mind, thoughts, regrets, plans, politicians, pandemics, even civilization itself. And when you glimpse a clear, strong sense of the ever-changing nature of any one of these things, let go of the analysis and hold your attention firmly on this intangible, intuitive feeling of realizing impermanence itself.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Mental Cause and Effect
Then we consider the cause and effect of our minds; that everything we think, do, or say, comes from habits. Some of them are harmful—they hurt—like anger, compulsive desire, and selfishness. And some are beneficial—they nurture us—like kindness, generosity, and patience. The Buddhist view of our mind is that it is trainable, and that meditation is the strongest way to condition our minds toward greater happiness through greater good.
One of the easiest ways to train your mind toward good is to rejoice, reflecting on your own good actions of the day. This is good to do at the end of a workday or in the evening, but if it’s the morning you can think back to yesterday.
Think back on your day from the moment you woke up to the moment you sat down to meditate, and bring to mind all the good that you did. Just smiling at someone is incredibly beneficial, cooking a meal, helping people around you—even if it’s your job to help people—the simple ways that we serve our family, our partner, our friends
Giving money or emotional support to people who’ve lost their jobs recently; giving food, money, or labor to homeless shelters and food banks — places where people who lack basic necessities get their needs met. Helping a friend who’s distraught get through a tough time, often simply by listening, nodding, and agreeing with them.
So for a minute, reflect on your own. Catalogue all the goodness that you did today. Feel good about yourself.
(Meditate for one minute, rejoicing on your good deeds)
And now, we move on to regret, which isn’t guilt or self-flagellation, but simply, sincerely acknowledging that something we did was harmful to ourselves or to others. I’d sincerely prefer not to have done it, and would prefer not to do it again.
Bring to mind one specific action from the day that you regret. Picture it vividly: what happened, how you felt. Think, how much I would have preferred not to have done that. Imagine what I could have done instead: said something different, did something different, or simply not said or done anything at all. Not harming is such a good virtue, simply controlling ourselves when we might otherwise cause harm, to simply keep the situation neutral is a wonderful aspiration.
And then have a strong feeling of forgiving yourself, of understanding that your actions are part of conscious and unconscious conditioning, of cause and effect, the result of the human mind’s reactive evolution of the imprints made by your parents, your school, your workplace, the media. My actions have a basis in the influences and the beliefs around me, and the habits I have of reinforcing them.
But now I’m taking that conditioning into my own hands, at this very moment I’m diminishing those unhelpful habits and reinforcing the better ones through meditation on the good, and forgiving myself, letting go of the things that I regret.
Then we go beyond the rational.
Imagine that your body becomes energized, that it becomes like a hollow shell glowing, empty inside.
A bright point of light appears and expands above the crown of your head. That light, like a little sun, is in the essence of everything that is good and kind, loving, generous, patient forgiving.
Some of us have teachers who embody these qualities, and if you do, you can imagine your teacher’s mind mixed in with that light.
The light has a sense of knowing you, knowing everything about you—all your secrets, everything you regret—and still loving you, still accepting you, seeing your inner goodness.
From that sphere of light, light begins to beam down into your body, a kind of liquid, molten light. It feels warm and cleansing. And it pushes down all of your regrets, all your negativities. The things that you’ve said and done that you regret take on an actual liquidity, become a dark, viscous substance like crude oil.
The liquid light pushes the darkness down, filling your body from top to bottom with clear light. Physically feel that you’re letting go of those disturbing actions, that you’re being forgiven.
The light fills your entire body from head to toe. And those last bits of negativity, as dark oil, push out the bottom of your body until you’re completely free of those actions, completely forgiven. You’ve forgiven yourself. These problems won’t bother you anymore.
Your goodness is far stronger than any of these actions that you regret. Your goodness is your true nature.
And rest in that feeling of being filled with light, goodness, renewed.
Then imagine again what you would have rather done or not done, said or not said. Try to picture yourself acting this way, responding in the way you wish you had. Imagining like this will make it possible for you to act like this the next time, to become aware before you act, and choose to do something different.
And then make a small resolution not to react in the way that you regret, not to act the way you did for as reasonable amount of time as possible: for a day, or an hour, or a minute, or a second.
(Rest silently in this)
Refuge (in the mind’s true nature)
Having made this resolution to turn toward healthy ways of thinking and speaking and acting, we then reflect on what outer objects we turn to when disturbing experiences occur, whether triggered by outside events like conflicts with family or work, or inner events like craving and dissatisfaction.
Think for a moment of where you turn for refuge when you’re worried or stressed or craving. Sometimes we find refuge in work or entertainment or substances or sex, exercise, adventure, creativity, friends, family, teachers, or our heroes.
Which of these further agitates your mind, and which provide temporary relief? Do any of these provide a stable, lasting happiness and contentment?
There’s an inner source of refuge that we all have within our own minds, that’s always there for us to rely on. Our mind itself has all we need to support happiness and meaning forever, if we are able to get in touch with its deeper nature.
Being mindful and aware and purposeful in what we mentally cultivate and what we let go, we can harness that changeability to mold our minds into a source of joy and meaning and purpose and good for ourselves and for others.
Take two deep breaths, observe them with all your concentration if you can.
And then let anything at all come to mind: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, plans, worries. But keep a distance from these thoughts, aware that I am not those thoughts and feelings that arise in my mind. As the thoughts and feelings arise, try and label them.
There’s no need to pull the thoughts close; and there’s no need to push the thoughts away. Simply let whatever comes into your mind appear, abide, and disappear of its own accord, while you maintain a distance from those thoughts. For one minute, meditate like this.
(Meditate silently for one minute).
And then, turn the mind upon itself. Let other thoughts that arise become more distant, giving little of your attention. And we try to see the mind’s nature, the mind without thoughts.
See how that deeper, ever-present part of yourself has a different quality than your grosser mind: the qualities of clarity, of being unobscured; qualities that allows anything—thoughts, feelings, perceptions—to arise within it, without itself being disturbed.
Just as science shows that unobstructed space itself underlies and is intertwined with everything within it, so is there an open, unobstructed aspect of our mind underlying all mental experience.
There’s also a feeling of knowing in that deeper, subtler part of the mind—of directly experiencing—one that goes beyond words and even beyond concepts. And that knowing, experiencing has a quality to it, a kind of wisdom, that, if you probe it, can feel joyful.
It embraces even your most difficult thoughts and feelings. Those difficult thoughts and feelings are made of that same clear awareness, that same profound quality of clarity and knowing that underlies all mental phenomena.
Try now for a minute to connect with that deeper part of yourself. The part of yourself that you can usually find only when you are quiet and alone. The mind looking at itself.
(meditate silently for one minute or more)
Letting go of suffering
After refuge, where we understand the healthy forms of support we turn to when we’re in pain, it’s natural to start reflecting on the inevitability of pain and suffering in life.
We aren’t in control of the universe, external events, our job, or even our family. The good fortune we find ourselves in isn’t enjoyed by so many on earth: 800 million people are malnourished on earth today and the same number also lack clean water. Hundreds of millions of people are discriminated against, repressed, and even killed based on their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political beliefs.
In our ordinary lives, free from such extreme suffering, still we suffer through not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want, things that happen every day.
Loneliness is also a form of suffering we each feel from time to time, some chronically.
And impermanence means that our reputation, our job, and our relationships are also subject to constant change.
We’re not in control of the universe. No matter how much we will it, the universe won’t grant our wishes or tilt events and people and circumstances our way.
But through good fortune, through cause and effect, some people do live charmed lives and avoid much ordinary suffering.
Yet then we are subject to the next form of suffering, the Suffering of Change, which notices that even if things don’t wear out, our mind is unreliable. Our mind changes and we get tired of things: of clothes and apartments and romantic partners; each of these we once held so dear, each of these was an ecstatic cause of joy and celebration when we first obtained it.
Then, even if things don’t wear out, relationships endure, and our mind doesn’t stop enjoying them, still, we must accept that we lose everything at death. And this thought needn’t be depressing, but can be a motivation to live the most meaningful life possible right now, to not sweat the small stuff; to seek out the antidotes to suffering right now; to bring our joy and compassion and attention to the daily pleasures (and pains) of life.
We’ve all seen people who remain content through the worst traumas. Thus, we start to understand how the source of our suffering might be within our own minds, in the form of three root delusions: attachment, anger, and selfishness.
Attachment—compulsive desire—exaggerates the positive aspects of an object. See how your mind does this as you bring to mind an object of attachment. Try and see the object more realistically. What are its drawbacks? In this exaggerated state of craving, our attachment causes us to act selfishly, unethically, to give up other important and valuable things in order to obtain it.
Anger exaggerates the negative in the object. Bring to mind someone that angers you. See how you fail to admit the good things he or she does in the world, the people that love him, the misguided sense of doing good that person follows, believing their actions are justified. They also do positive things. And their actions cause me to practice patience, to improve my own mind. I can still oppose this person with a calm, stable, warm-hearted mind, and let go of my anger. In fact, I’ll be far more effective that way.
And selfishness, ignorance, is failing to see the true causes of happiness, failing to feel the impermanent nature of things at every moment; at the core believing that I am more important than everybody else: my happiness, my satisfaction are just a bit more important than everyone else in the universe.
One antidote to our delusions is to contemplate their faults—of attachment, anger, and ignorance. This is what we just did. To see more clearly that they are not my friend, they are not me, they are inaccurate ways of seeing reality.
Happiness and mental stability come from simply seeing reality as it is, rather than how we wish it to be. We bend each delusion toward realism with its antidote.
Reflecting on cause and effect—the causes our delusions, the effects, our suffering—I realize that I’m not in control of external reality, but I am in control of my mind.
Reality is an interdependent chain of cause and effect. My words and actions have some small effect on the outer world, but I am not in control of anything but my mind. Once I can control my own mind, once I defeat my delusions, I’ll be in a state to genuinely help others, and to better fight the world’s injustices.
Are we tired of living under the control of our delusions, being pushed and pulled by attachment, anger, and selfishness? Are we tired of fruitlessly trying to control people and objects and circumstances around us, so that we can be happy in a fragilely constructed edifice where suffering is just so far out of sight that we can ignore it?
Am I ready to turn away from my mind’s suffering? Do I have the courage to admit that external pleasures and relationships and jobs, while providing some satisfaction in life, are not themselves the ultimate source of happiness?
I don’t have to let go of goals and relationships and objects and pleasures, but am I ready to let go of the belief that happiness comes wholly come from these external objects?
Am I ready to commit to the inward journey of discovery to understand what my mind truly is? What are the sources of happiness? To let go of the disturbing aspects of my personality like worry, anxiety, and nervousness? To see that there’s a better, more stable way to live?
It’s a path of great responsibility: that I am responsible for my happiness and no one else.
Others have proven that liberation is possible, great teachers like the Dalai Lama, or maybe a nurse you know at the hospital nearby, or your housekeeper or a schoolteacher or a friend. There are people that have illness and little money and no place to live and many enemies and yet are still laughing and joyful, in love with life and at peace with themselves. They know themselves at the deepest level, a level some people never touch over the entire course of their precious human life.
So, let’s try and stay in touch with that part of our mind. To think long-term. To meditate as much as we are able to, every day if we can; to condition our minds with these essential thoughts of The Preciousness of Life, Impermanence, Cause & Effect, Refuge, Suffering, and Renunciation; renouncing the illusory, short-lived happiness of external phenomena for a stable, lasting happiness that comes from knowing our own minds and carrying that knowledge, that intuition, beyond words and concepts into the way we live our lives.
People like the Dalai Lama, who demonstrate this sense of ease, can give us some confidence to take on the hypothesis that it’s even possible to reach a state of stable, lasting ease and awareness that’s completely free of mental suffering and delusions.
Imagine for a moment that this is possible, and feel good that you have advanced ever so slightly toward enlightenment’s ideal as you leave this meditation and move into the rest of your day.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio