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sujatha baliga & Scott Snibbe in conversation: How to Train a Happy Mind

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Restorative justice practitioner sujatha baliga talks to Scott Snibbe about his new meditation book, How to Train a Happy Mind.

[00:01:03] sujatha baliga: Thank you so much for joining us, it’s a blessing to have all of you here with us tonight. I am so thrilled to have been asked to be a part of this event for the launch of Scott’s brand new book, How to Train a Happy Mind. I’m really honored that Scott asked me to have this conversation here at the place where Scott and I both teach secular meditation, since that’s so much the topic of this book today. That was a no brainer to say an absolute yes. Thank you Scott for welcoming us all here.

[00:01:45] Scott Snibbe: I’m really grateful sujatha agreed to do this. Yesterday she showed me her flowchart for agreeing to do things, which has about 18 steps, and we made it through to the end, so thank you.

What inspired you to write How to Train a Happy Mind?

[00:01:57] sujatha baliga: I didn’t actually consult that. There’s a different flowchart that I used, which is simply the question of, Does my heart explode with life? Yes. I don’t consult the flow chart when I do that. But yes, I will admit that I have a very convoluted, complicated decision-making tree that Scott just got to bypass because this is really awesome. It was a no-brainer.

How to Train a Happy Mind comes from your years and years of meditation experience and your work on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, which is a fantastic podcast that people should check out. Could you tell a little bit about those two things and then what inspired you to write a book about it?

[00:02:54] Scott Snibbe: In our tradition, you have to be invited to teach meditation, which is a good safeguard. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a pretty good one. I was invited to start teaching meditation almost 20 years ago. They asked me to teach the lamrim, which is what this book is about. The lamrim is a thousand-year-old sequence of meditations that distills the Buddha’s 84,000 teachings into 12 steps.

The lamrim is a thousand-year-old sequence of meditations that distills the Buddha’s 84,000 teachings into 12 steps.

It’s very powerful and profound. The last time it was revised was about 500 years ago and it’s very much steeped in the culture and the civilizations of Buddhism. What happened when I started leading those meditations, is that we’d advertise that it was for everybody, you don’t have to be Buddhist, but the very first topic, the precious human life, in the very first sentence, says, You’ve had infinite past lives. And your karma has finally propelled you to be a human, but you might come back as a turtle, a ghost, and so you better accumulate good karma so you can attain enlightenment.

I’m not saying those things aren’t true. It’s just that isn’t part of most people’s worldviews in our culture and they don’t believe them. I felt like some people were coming to the meditation class and that was the first and last time they were meditating, which kind of broke my heart. I really had a pain in my heart that I needed to teach in a different way so it meets people in the way that we’re advertising.

His Holiness wrote a book called Beyond Religion, this wasn’t my big idea. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been promoting this idea through much of his life, that Buddhism should be adapted into a form that meets every culture where it is, in a nonreligious form. With the advice of my teachers and some creativity discussions and so on, I gradually started trying to adapt those meditations to a secular form. I used to be what I call a part-time Buddhist, and now I’m a full-time Buddhist. About four years ago I started the nonprofit A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, that honed these ideas.

I used to be what I call a part-time Buddhist, and now I’m a full-time Buddhist.

The reason it’s a book is that for many of my friends, I’m the only Buddhist, or even religious person, they know. In fact, I’ve married some of my friends, not a three-way marriage, but I was the official. People would come to me and say, How do I get started with Buddhism? Out of all the hundreds of books I’ve read, I could not recommend one that was a good start. Buddhism is very complicated, honestly, at least in this tradition. It’s really worth getting into all that complexity, but I could never come up with a book to start with.

Sujatha, you are an inspiration, because you have a beautiful quote, that says, You don’t have to be perfect to do good. Some teachers write a book just by sitting on a throne and speaking and they transcribe it and publish the book. This is more the process I know how to eventually make something good and maybe even great, which is just over and over and over again, revising, getting feedback. Sujatha gave me feedback on the book and about 25 other people, including the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

You don’t have to be perfect to do good.

sujatha baliga

It’s more that process of refinement that I learned through school and then in companies and in art. I tried to apply that same process, that’s not the genius of a Buddhist master just transcribed, but very hard work and a lot of collaboration, feedback, and critical analysis.

Scott’s journey from skepticism to belief

[00:06:53] sujatha baliga: Maybe not a Buddhist master, but definitely a long time and very committed student. Decades of practice within this lineage. I want to agree actually that it’s really hard to find a book to recommend. I have friends in the audience who have asked me for books over the years, and I’m like, Let me think about that. Now I would say this right here for real, this is not a plug.

The difficulty is that folks often try to make it simple and in so doing, really remove the most important parts of it. There are secularized versions of Buddhism out there, but I feel like they often lose the most important stuff. It’s a disciplic succession from going back to the Buddha and every single thing is passed down so perfectly by the monks who practice in this space. But that is not accessible to most people, including folks of Asian heritage who might have even grown up with this, but have parted ways.

I’m really pleased to see this book out here. It’s definitely one that I would recommend to folks who are looking for a way in and especially those who are skeptical. I would love for you to talk a little bit about your own journey from skeptic to someone who is now committed to secularizing things for others.

[00:08:27] Scott Snibbe: I think almost everyone who really gets into Tibetan Buddhism has a certain kind of mystical experience because it’s so difficult to stick with. My mystical experience was that my brother became Buddhist, which was four years before me, and he kept sending me books that I did not understand, but especially by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was like, I don’t get this and just kept putting them in a stack, but then I saw that the Dalai Lama was coming to Los Angeles in 2000, and I thought it’d just be fun.

My brother and I were best friends and I said, Look, come,I know you like the Dalai Lama. He’s your teacher I could sit through anything. Let’s go together for five days of Buddhist teachings, at least we’ll have fun in LA and I’ll see what this is about. But the instant I saw the Dalai Lama I said, I want what he’s having. Because he went through a holocaust—a million out of six million Tibetans were killed at the Chinese invasion—and yet, he was so joyful, kind, and compassionate.

He went through a holocaust—a million out of six million Tibetans were killed at the Chinese invasion—and yet, he was so joyful, kind, and compassionate.

The thing he said that really got me was he said, If we kill one Chinese person, we make a hundred Chinese enemies. We have to maintain a nonviolent stance despite, 50 years of oppression. I just wondered what he was having. I saw the result of Buddhist practice and I just thought, I don’t understand reincarnation, karma, or other realms, but I want to study exactly what he studied and get some fraction of that result.

Then I found a teacher in San Francisco, but I was very skeptical and there are logical arguments in Tibetan Buddhism for things like past and future lives that honestly, to me, don’t pass the logical test. They have axioms that are in the culture, like the proof that there are past and future lives starts with the axiom that the mind is immaterial. That’s something many people in this room would probably debate. Like, many people today believe the mind is like a side effect of neurons firing, which is a reasonable perspective.

Anyway, those are some of the things I was skeptical about, and gradually they were validated in many ways. That’s sort of my disclosure, I actually do personally believe in many, if not most of the ideas within Tibetan Buddhism, but it took a very long time, like tens of thousands of hours and experience directly with teachers. I wouldn’t expect that many people would go through that experience.

Secular Buddhism

man meditating in middle of busy city street

[00:11:10] sujatha baliga: One of my favorite quotes is one of my friends always says, Be who you needed when you were younger. You have done what is often asked in the Buddha Dharma, which is to test the gold, which is to really check to see that the thing is the thing and then adopt what you find worthy of adoption after that rigorous analysis. You opted into this tradition, yet you chose to secularize. It makes me think about “Be who you needed when you were younger” thing. Tell me more about this secularization.

[00:11:57] Scott Snibbe: There’s other teachers too, like Stephen Batchelor and Robert Wright, who take much more aggressive stances like the Buddha didn’t really mean those things. That’s not my perspective. It’s more like, if you don’t believe these things, here is still a way to practice. It’s not saying that they are, I’m not making a position about whether they are or aren’t true in an absolute sense, but I know my friends and I know the people that come to classes and they need a path that meets them where they are.

That’s the purpose, is to let people practice like a thousand-year-old tradition. It’s a sixteen or eighteen hundred year old tradition, it’s extraordinarily validated through the subjective experience of millions of people across five hundred generations or more. But to be able to practice that as authentically as possible, within our current belief system of the modern world, that’s it. The funny thing is it’s the earlier topics in this sequence that needed the most work. The most advanced topics need almost no work, like the topics of the interdependent nature of reality, compassion, love, those actually didn’t need changes from the way they’re taught in the lamrim.

However, it’s the earlier topics that are actually much more dualistic, the earlier topics of the lamrim of the sequence have a very strong divisions of ideas about right and wrong and and so on and then it gets much more subtle, inclusive, and big-hearted towards the latter stages. It was the early parts that really need the most revision and that makes me think that those are the parts that are more culturally dependent. We need more realized people than me to try to say that for sure, but it felt like the earlier parts needed more adaptation to our culture.

What did you learn about yourself in the writing process?

[00:13:57] sujatha baliga: Interesting, that kind of leads into my next question about what did you learn while working to secularize, while still hewing as closely as possible? You speak early on about the heavy burden of being this guy outside the culture of being like, here’s what we’re going to keep and here’s what we’re not going to keep.

What did you learn in that process?

[00:14:19] Scott Snibbe: I think a big part of it is just accepting who I am. I would never say I’m a teacher, I like to say I’m a teaching assistant. It’s like the person who’s one semester ahead trying to help, I’m an equal, and that’s why I ask my teachers. When I was invited to teach, I asked my teachers, I said, Should I be doing this? They said, It’s good for people to learn from someone like them, from an equal, that’s the perspective. But I’ll tell you one thing I learned is that this tradition is quite authoritative, not authoritarian, but authoritative.

I would never say I’m a teacher, I like to say I’m a teaching assistant.

When you study it from a Tibetan master and read the text, it’s very clear and authoritative. This is the way the mind works. This is an action that will lead to happiness. This is an action that will lead to suffering. I found that that’s not an effective way to come from my mouth and my pen. That’s the way we learned, like you and I learned that in a very authoritative, let’s even say patriarchal, I hate to use that word, but it is a very male-focused lineage. They are the most wonderful, compassionate patriarchs you could possibly find and I bow down to these patriarchs. But I’m not one of them.

What I found when I was writing the book is that, whenever the voice sounded like the teachings I got, when it sounded moralistic or authoritative, I just erased that whole part and told either a story or a joke. I found that was a really effective way to teach. It also keeps people reading, because people love stories.

The relationship of the immaterial and supernatural

immaterial math equations surreal art

[00:16:01] sujatha baliga: Another thing I’m noticing throughout the book is you invite people to try it out. Instead of saying, This is the way it is, you say, There’s a check and see for yourself how this lands, as you make an effort at this practice. There’s some nitty gritty stuff that I want to talk to you about in the book itself. One of the things that I was really moved by—those of us who are entirely secular, don’t generally believe in the spiritual aspects of things, and have a lot of trouble understanding the mind as being something other than brain function. You do a great job of digging into that. It’s very complicated stuff.

I wanted to talk to you about the relationship of the immaterial and the supernatural. One of the things I really love is your hardware software analogy.

[00:17:08] Scott Snibbe: This is something, the chapter before I even start the sequence is about the mind, and that’s how they teach it in Buddhism, too. Because if you’re training a mind to be happy, you need to know what a mind is. Buddhism has a very clear definition of the mind, which is that there’s a lot of different ways of saying it, but one is that it’s moments of consciousness. It’s immaterial moments of consciousness, that the prior causes the last.

Another beautiful aspect is the mind is fundamentally good. This is an extraordinarily beautiful aspect of Buddhism that counteracts a lot of the thinking that Buddhism is all about death and suffering, that’s what people kind of hear first. But at the core of Buddhism is the idea that the mind is fundamentally good.

At the core of Buddhism is the idea that the mind is fundamentally good.

With immateriality, you really do need to have some sense that the mind is immaterial in general to gain some insights into how to change the mind. Although, it is possible to look at a materialistic view of it. When people come to me and want to have that debate about whether the mind’s material, I say, You already believe in some material, immaterial things. They say, Really? I say, Yeah, what about mathematics? Where’s math? Do you have a math detector? Show me, do you believe in math? Everyone says yes. Okay, where is it? Is it in the math textbook? Is it in the universe? Is it in the computer program? People believe in math but it’s immaterial.

People believe in math but it’s immaterial.

Then I say, What about love? Have you ever been in love? Is there a love detector? Can we point it at you and know whether you’re in love or not? No, love is immaterial also, we believe in it. Then I like to use this analogy of software, because I’m a computer scientist, and I just fell in love with computer programming when I was 10-years-old, because it was the closest thing to mind that I ever found. It’s changing, it’s immaterial. This is the analogy that I think lands the best with people, because if you look at your computer, it runs software. The computer has hardware, chips, and so on, and then there’s software running on it.

Now, would you ever say that your computer is Microsoft Word? Microsoft Word runs on the computer, or Instagram runs on your phone, but no one would ever say that Instagram is the hardware of the computer or Microsoft Word is the hardware of the computer. Software is just a changing pattern of information, it’s immaterial and it’s even beyond, it’s not the electron.

No one would say the software is the electrons. It’s a pattern of information. It’s immaterial, and it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not a woo woo idea. It doesn’t mean that it has a soul, or that it’s totally separate from matter. It’s interdependent with matter, but it’s something different. It’s just to get to that point that it’s not that big of a deal. We believe in immaterial things. They’re real. They’re not like a little light that floats out of you when you die or anything like that. There are immaterial things and we rely on them. In fact, they’re the best things in life, like love and a nice conversation. Conversation’s not material, right?

The two types of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism

[00:20:31] sujatha baliga: I just want to name the part of the conversation that just happened. It’s exactly why this book is so yummy. This is what I am so loving about this book and why I think it’s so good. There’s no time to pause and think like, Oh, the software hardware could be brain and mind? How do we build those things? That’s so beautiful.

I want to talk a little bit about analytical meditation, which we love. Most of the time, out there in the world, people hear the word meditation, and they think it means sitting perfectly still and stopping your thoughts or observing your breath. Some people think about body scanning. In the lineage we practice, all of that stuff might be useful as a precursor for this whole other thing we do, which is analytical meditation. I would love for you to talk a little bit about that.

[00:21:31] Scott Snibbe: That is one of the other big reasons I wrote this book, is that there is almost no mainstream book—and my publisher claims it’s the first mainstream book on analytical meditation. There are two types of meditation that they describe in Tibetan Buddhism. One is stabilizing meditation, and that’s the meditation where you focus your mind on something. For most people, that’s the only type of meditation you’ve heard of, and that object you focus on is usually your breath.

The purpose of that meditation is to develop your concentration and make you less reactive, so that as things come into your mind you don’t have to be pulled by them. It’s quite beneficial. It has a lot of therapeutic uses today, like to reduce anxiety, stress, sleep better, concentrate better, and so on.

The second type of meditation, analytical meditation, is almost the opposite of that. That’s the type of meditation where you deliberately cultivate thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stories. It’s kind of like a podcast you play for yourself in your mind. In so many ways, this is a much more appropriate and effective meditation certainly for Westerners with our kind of active minds and highly educated minds, because it’s easier to follow a story than to follow your breath.

I think almost everyone in this room has probably tried, and it’s almost impossible to focus on your breath. But it’s quite easy to focus on a story, sometimes for two hours, if you go see Dune or something like that. That’s the beauty of it, they are stories that transform your mind. It’s so diverse, there are literally hundreds of topics of analytical meditation, but they’re broken down into like the precious life, impermanence, cause and effect, compassion, the nature of reality, and the ultimate nature.

The word a lot of my teachers use is tasty. It is very tasty as you get into these topics. It’s very fascinating and it really resonates as true to our human experience. That’s just a quick discussion.

[00:23:46] sujatha baliga: I’m going to ask you to talk a little bit more about the breath observation. The more you do it, and the longer periods that you do it for, you become habituated to it such that when difficult situations arise, you go almost automatically to the breath. But the true rewiring to create that happy mind, really is something that from my side only came through analytical meditation.

[00:24:16] Scott Snibbe: That’s really important. A simple way to say that is stabilizing meditation focuses your mind and analytical meditation changes and steers your mind. This is the thing that’s I think is really missing from a lot of the the popularization of meditation—which is absolutely beneficial—but the thing is there is an ethical dimension to meditation and that is really what the mindfulness misses a lot of the time.

The U.S. military uses meditation to help people get over PTSD, which is almost otherwise impossible to overcome. That’s a great use of it. Second use is to train soldiers so that they can focus on their breath, pull the trigger, and kill somebody without shaking. I’m not for that. It’s an extreme example, but a lesser example is a CEO of a company who’s doing something harmful, who meditates every morning, and it helps them focus and do a job that we don’t agree is beneficial for the world.

You need ethics as the foundation of meditation practice. Ethics comes before concentration. If you don’t live an ethical life, you can’t concentrate. I’ve noticed that, if you have even a little fight, or you say something rude to somebody, it’s hard to focus. You’re distracted. You can’t sleep at night. This word ethics makes people uncomfortable because they start to think of various people they’ve seen on television or morality.

You need ethics as the foundation of meditation practice.

It’s a bit more straightforward in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s just certain actions and thoughts lead to happiness and certain actions and thoughts lead to suffering. That’s been validated through particularly wise practitioners over the course of a couple thousand years.

The breakthrough from logical to experiential in analytical meditation

[00:26:19] sujatha baliga: Also, the Mind and Life Institute folks now are actually getting to put the fMRIs on there and getting to see what parts of your brain light up when you are practicing certain ethical states of mind. It’s pretty exciting. A little bit more about analytical meditation, Scott, you write pretty early on in the book about the breakthrough from logical to experiential is the essence of analytical meditation.

Can you talk a little bit more about that from your own experience?

[00:26:59] Scott Snibbe: This is really important because the phrase analytical meditation, the English translations of the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms are a bit awkward, but the “analytical meditation” doesn’t stop at the analytical. They often say, The map isn’t the territory, like if you have a map of San Francisco, eventually it helps you have this feeling about San Francisco. I really know it and it’s in your heart. That’s the idea is that the path, the actual experience that you have, for certain minds—not for everybody—for people who have this type of practice, have an affinity towards.

You go through quite a complex analysis of thoughts, emotions, critical thinking, even analyzing your own thoughts. But eventually there is some kind of a breakthrough to something nonconceptual. That’s the entire purpose of analytical meditation, to get through that. A good example is the difference between reading about love and falling in love.

Remember when you were younger, when you think about romantic love? Before you ever fell in love, you read about it and you think about it, you write about it, you fantasize about it, but the actual experience of being in love is quite different. It doesn’t match that, although those things did prepare you for it in ways.

beach wedding

That’s the idea with analytical meditation and those things can happen. Sometimes it happens the very first time someone meditates and has a very powerful experience. Other times, to get over a certain pain, anger, resentment, or frustration. Then one day, I love my dad, after 47 years. We’ve both been through that in different ways.

How was the writing process?

[00:29:02] sujatha baliga: That’s a really beautiful description, that comes from experiential experience that comes from that analytical meditation. I think that’s a huge part of the gift that this book gives. I hope I’m not sounding too much like a commercial, but the truth is it’s rare to see something that explains so beautifully and then gives opportunity for practice within the same book.

I’d love to know a little bit about your choices around that, how is the writing process?

[00:29:43] Scott Snibbe: Despite this tradition being so intellectual, we’re taught that there’s this order of effectiveness of teaching. They say listening to teachings is good, but that’s kind of the weakest form of learning. Then thinking about them after is stronger, that deepens your experience. Then meditating is a thousand times more effective than any of those. They say you can be a learned scholar, even someone at the highest level of learning in a monastery, but if you don’t meditate, you have very little benefit. That is very powerful.

They say you can be a learned scholar, even someone at the highest level of learning in a monastery, but if you don’t meditate, you have very little benefit.

I wanted to be true to that. A lot of the great books, even books like His Holiness’ book, it’s not a meditation book, Beyond Religion. It’s more like a manifesto to encourage people like ourselves to go out and question, How do we make this work in 10,000 different ways for 10,000 different audiences?

Everything in here comes from my teachers, this would not be a beneficial book unless it was filled with meditations. I tried to just distill them quite short, in the audiobook, I guide them, it’s a little harder to sit and read and guide yourself in meditation. In the audiobook, I guide the meditations, but you can’t gain a realization without meditation according to our tradition.

Everyone Walks the Hero’s Journey

person walking down boardwalk with field and sunset

[00:31:14] sujatha baliga: Speaking of the audiobook, I’m going to ask you to read a tiny section here, if you don’t mind, Scott. One of my favorite parts of this book is called Everyone Walks the Hero’s Journey. This is just a little bit.

[00:31:33] Scott Snibbe: Everyone Walks the Hero’s Journey. From Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker, the hero’s journey is a universal structure for mythical tales of growth and adventure. But each of us is also the hero of our own life. We may rarely acknowledge it, but each of us was born, and every one of us will die. In between, we all experience our own struggles, and as you encounter people in your daily life, a powerful meditation on impermanence is to picture the moment each of them was born.

Imagine their mother’s pain, her exhaustion and joy at creating a fragile new being whose life depends on her. Then, try to imagine how that person will eventually die. Alone or surrounded by loved ones, agitated or at peace. This technique is especially helpful when you’re angry with someone, because it helps you put your dispute into perspective.

Picture the end of that person’s life, in a hospital bed or at home. After a life that was long or short. A life of virtue or misbehavior. A life ending among friends or silently alone. Then try to imagine where that person is right now on their journey from cradle to grave. What dreams, goals, and disappointments they may have had, moments of loneliness and intimacy.

Without this kind of reflection, the people around you can seem like video game characters, mere obstacles or aids to your life’s agenda. Such a rigid, self-centered view of the people around you is disconnecting and inaccurate. They’re all constantly changing and each of them treasures their precious life just as much as you do yours. Each of them lives an epic hero’s journey.

Thanks for choosing that. That’s a good section.

[00:33:52] sujatha baliga: You can hear why Scott’s voice is so perfect for audiobooks. I’m definitely going to be doing both of them.

This is actually in a section around embracing impermanence. I thought that this was a really powerful nexus of compassion and impermanence. I wanted you to talk a little bit more about that whole combination there.

[00:34:24] Scott Snibbe: Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever had this feeling. You’re walking down the street, and you see a stranger. You think, Oh, who is that jerk? You just have an instant. Now raise your hand, if you ever walked down the street and you see someone like, Wow, I want to get to know that person or I would like to date that person. We’ve all felt that. Where does that come from?

That kind of instantaneous response really fascinates me. A lot of that is kind of self-centered, and it might even prove to be some sort of an indication of our past experience. Buddhists would say that’s an indication of your karma, like your past experience with other people from past lives.

Or when you’re at work, and someone’s yelling at you, and you’re just like, Oh gosh, I hate this person, they’re making my life miserable. That’s when, in all of these cases, it’s really useful to think about the arc of a person’s life. I’ve been in that case—and it’s helped me a lot—when someone’s yelling at me at work or some other situation, and I think of them coming out of their mother. Literally, it’s very graphic. A lot of us have seen that happen. As the person’s yelling at me, I’m looking and thinking, Wow, okay, I know where you came from. And they could die tomorrow. They could die on their way home.

We all have friends who died in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, right? It could happen to anybody. For me, it just softens anybody, even down to Vladimir Putin, where you think, Okay, even that guy, he came out of his mom, and, and he’s gonna die one day. Like he’s doing a lot of harm, but his life’s impermanent, and he wants happiness, and he has his own awfully misguided way of trying to seek happiness. But he’s just like all of us, trying through a particularly deluded mind to make himself happy.

What was the hardest and most joyful part of working on this book?

[00:36:53] sujatha baliga: That’s beautiful. Last question before we open up for Q & A, which is that writing books is really hard. There are also really joyful moments. I’d love to know what was the hardest and what was the most joyful part of working on this book?

[00:37:08] Scott Snibbe: Let me start with the most joyful one. Most people when they write books, and I know I have some authors here, I’ve heard them say they get sick of their book. I did not get sick of my book. I don’t want to say that for an egotistic reason, but because it was like doing a retreat. Every time I went through a revision of the book—I think my wife saw like, Oh, you’re acting quite nice right now. It was like doing a retreat every time. In fact, I even listened to the first chapter again today while I was driving. I listened to the whole first chapter driving to a dentist appointment today.

It’s not just me like, Oh, I wrote such a good book. It’s just the material itself. It’s a meditation, and it’s actually quite nice to hear meditation in your own voice. Even for yourself, to record your own meditations, it’s something my teachers recommend. It’s nice actually to hear your own voice, because it’s like thinking.

That was probably the most joyful part, I really enjoyed it. It surprised me, because I write fiction, too, and I kind of thought that was the kind of art form I was getting into when I started writing, and hopefully that book will be published eventually. But I love this so much, I was surprised how much I loved writing it, because I thought it was a little bit more of a service than an art, but I do feel like there’s craft and art in the final product, and I’m proud of it.

The hardest thing was showing people early revisions, because I knew that the book would be so much better if I show people the really early, rough version. But it’s also embarrassing. I had to just throw my ego out the door and show it to 15 people including like great heroes of mine and ordained people and get that feedback. There were 14,000 more words, there was so much that had to get cut from this book. That was probably the hardest part, letting out what I knew was a bad version of the book. But it was so critical, and having people come back and say, This needs some work.

[00:39:22] sujatha baliga: I was smiling at a friend who’s here, I’m working on a book as well, and I sent an early version to her. She was very kind in being honest about what worked and what didn’t work. It was mortifying, and also like, the book is going to be a million times better. Given what you want the world to have, it was a necessary, and it’s so perfect because it’s like the practice is in the work of it. You have to put your ego aside, which is a huge part of this path for that to happen. Thank you for doing that for our benefit.

[00:39:50] Scott Snibbe: In our tradition they say, the things that harm your ego are the ones you just want to welcome into your life. It’s actually a slightly more advanced practice, but you welcome the things where you’re humbled. You make mistakes. You’re shown to be wrong. That’s what you welcome in your life in Mahayana Buddhism. But it was a little bit hard.

Q&A

[00:40:00] sujatha baliga: Questions?

Struggles with analytical meditation

woman meditating outside

[00:40:57] Audience member: Thanks for this conversation. I want to kind of go back to analytical meditation. I have more experience with the other type you were describing, stabilizing, whether it’s the breath or consciousness itself. I think one reason that I’m drawn to that is that I feel like I spend already so much time with my mind and my thoughts and my emotions that when I sit on the cushion, I just want a break from that.

I just get a little turned off by all meditation sometimes. I’m curious—since you both teach that, maybe you could both answer—but does that ever come up with you? How do you work with it?

[00:41:37] sujatha baliga: As much of the analytical piece as is required to pop us into something that actually becomes the next stabilizing focus, we go back and forth, in a sense. What does it look like to create the story that produces the compassion? We want to leave space for that, being in that state of compassion, which feels somewhat like stabilizing meditation. That’s a piece of it.

The other thing is that the more, in the feelings of it, that leads more to the experience rather than the story of it. Letting someone else guide it so that they’re giving you the story. You don’t have to come up with the thoughts yourself. You’re not thinking, you’re feeling the story. That’s that’s a really good analytical meditation.

Then from there you get to drop in and just really stay with that state of compassion, a feeling of expansiveness, that feeling of letting go of anger and feeling the absence of that anger and the peace that comes with that, staying in the peace can actually feel quite similar to staying with your breath, it’s just tastier.

[00:42:54] Scott Snibbe: The other thing I would say is that of course not every thing is for every person, and it might be quite perfect the way you meditate for yourself. But the one thing I would say is there is an aspect to Mahayana Buddhism that’s worth taking on to anyone who does like mindfulness or stabilizing meditation, is the motivation.

At the very beginning of a meditation to think, May my meditation be of benefit to myself and others. May this meditation be a cause for my happiness, a cause for me to have peace. Better relationships with the people around me, a cause for me to help make the world a little bit better in whatever way I can.

If that’s the only analytical part of your meditation, that alone is very beneficial, and it kind of colors everything, like you put a drop of food coloring into water or something. It subtly colors the rest of your meditation session. If you really only want to practice stabilizing meditation for anyone who’s more a Theravada practitioner, to add that little bit that isn’t always a part of those traditions can be very beneficial.

Just a little drop of the positive motivation at the beginning. And also at the end too, we call it dedication. It’s to just wrap it up with the same thing. May, the past you know, 15 five, three minutes that I spent doing whatever practice it was helps me be a kinder and more beneficial person for myself and others.

Audience member: When you first started your journey and recognizing that you want to be on this path, how do you actually start to make it happen? this path.

Scott Snibbe: In the beginning I talk about when to meditate and so on. My own teacher is very kind, gentle, and slow. My first Tibetan teacher said meditate for five minutes a day; I did that for three years and it had an enormous benefit. That’s what our teachers say is to create a small habit, establish it firmly.

My first Tibetan teacher said meditate for five minutes a day; I did that for three years and it had an enormous benefit.

After, you have to think about your own life and the things you wouldn’t leave the house without doing, whether it’s brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, taking a shower, whatever. Meditation can quickly become one of those things, but it’s just like any habit. It really helps to meditate first thing in the morning and to not look at your phone before. The phone is a real nightmare for attention and focus; I speak from experience. There are days I look at my phone or iPad before I meditate, very big difference in my whole day.

Like to start the day and just go into your own mind and you go to the bathroom splash some water on your face, but then sit down and meditate, it has an enormous positive, no matter what type of meditation you’re practicing. That’s what I would say, try to put a little bit of force. You need some forceful discipline in the first two months do it and do it first thing in the morning, before you look at your phone.

Those two things I think will help. Those are validated if you read any kind of books about habits, they say after that there’s a kind of neuroplasticity, works on that. This is actually the scientific proof of why meditation works is that our mind, they used to think even 25 years ago, only kids minds adapted and we became fixed as adults. But now they know through neuroplasticity, every time you have a thought it reinforces that pattern in your mind over and over again.

That’s why you really want to cultivate some beneficial thoughts, because it’s easy to get into the groove of feeling critical, discouraged, lonely, afraid and so on. Spend a little time cultivating the positive.

[00:47:22] sujatha baliga: Other questions or reflections?

Reconnecting with nature

two kids exploring nature in the mountains

[00:47:29] Audience member: Buddhism is fundamentally about interconnection and about the dynamic nature of the world. I’ve found that a lot of the juicier parts, like we were talking about editing and finding places to revise, and parts that maybe wouldn’t be suitable for the Western mind or the skeptical mind, that some of those juicier parts like reincarnation or karma tend to be about that connection to nature and the bigger natural system.

We’re in a place where realizing that Western culture has forgotten a lot about that connection to the bigger system, to the natural systems. I think there’s a lot more awareness that we’re seeing that that disconnection is actually the root of a lot of our global problems. In so many ways, the West is coming back.

We need to reconnect to nature. We need to reconnect to this dynamic fluid nature of the world and remember the bigger earth system. I’m saying there’s these juicier parts that might relate to the bone tradition, but also kind of animistic things that come out of whether they’re through karma, what does that resonate for you and can you point to a place where you were making some decisions like that about a revision, like this is too edgy, and that made me thinking about that systems and interconnected and natural stuff.

[00:49:02] Scott Snibbe: The real genius statement on this comes from Thich Nhat Hanh. This is the first book I ever read about Buddhism. My brother sent it to me. He said, You’re only made of non you elements. That has really just stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s so powerful. He is the most incredible Buddhist teacher, I have to say, of the modern era. Because he didn’t mention the word emptiness or interdependent. He just wrote that you are only made of non you elements. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

So you think about that two tiny selves from our parents, that’s the part that came from somewhere else. Then everything, our mother ate and drank, everything we’ve eaten and drank over that time, all of that, everything, we’ve each breathed in each other over the course of this talk and we’ve breathed out, we have literally become each other. We will leave with a tiny part of everyone else in this room. That’s interdependence.

Many people have never thought of that before. We are part of nature. We’re not separate from, we don’t need to reconnect with nature. We are part of nature. We’re not separate. Also, down to ideas. Every word we spoke tonight, we did not make up. Every single word we learned from somewhere else, every concept we learned everything in this book came from somewhere else.

What I’m describing is a meditation. That is how you do an analytical meditation on what you call emptiness or the most advanced topic in Buddhism, the interdependent nature of reality. I don’t think anyone in this room could disagree with anything I just said. These are just true statements about reality that most of us just don’t think about that much. The more we think that way, the harder it will be to harm anybody, the harder it will be to feel separate. The harder it will be to ever feel lonely, because even when you’re alone, you’re still part of nature, and you have every single person and thought and word that you can remember with you.

That’s why you feel so close to your teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. A lot of our teachers we meet only once, and they don’t even know or remember us, but we feel really close to them because we remember them and their words, and they’re alive in our mind. This topic you could talk about for days, but that’s just a little bit about it. You’re only made of non new elements.

What needed to be revised in the book?

Audience member: Did you find anything where you had to revise?

Scott Snibbe: Well, I was told to revise. This book was about to get published in September. Then we heard from the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, two days before publication we got a note back and said, His Holiness thinks it’s a very beneficial book, we want to write a forward and we have a few corrections. I was very happy and a little nervous, like how long they might take.

The funny thing is none of them were about like the really radical things in here, like a totally psychological approach to karma. I even talk about Seinfeld being just as good a teacher about suffering as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They’re like, no problem. But it was this topic of emptiness. Because it’s very subtle. In our school, they say is the highest school, the way we teach about emptiness. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it is very subtle.

I used a slightly lower school because they say it’s more beneficial for people coming to the topic of interdependence to find something. So when you start looking for yourself to stop and say, Okay, I found myself in my atoms or I found myself in moments of consciousness or something like that. His Holiness’s office didn’t like that approach. They said, No, you need to use the highest approach and so I’ll tell you the approach right now, since you asked such a such a nice question.

It’s like the last thing in the book almost. This very subtle approach to emptiness, the ultimate interdependent nature of reality in this tradition, is that everything is infinitely subdivisible. You keep looking for you in atoms, Oh there’s subatomic particles, below that there’s kind of quantum fluctuations. The position of Tibetan Buddhism, it can’t be proved because it’s an infinite regress.

It says that everything is infinitely subdivisible forever. We’re never going to find a base for anything. It’s a very subtle view on the ultimate nature of reality. Same thing with thoughts, moments of consciousness get smaller and smaller and smaller, and you never find a granular moment of consciousness. It dissolves into infinity, which is almost like, if you do calculus, it’s like that. You subdivide into infinity, and then strangely, it’s the thinnest slice of infinitely thin slice of reality connects to everything.

It’s how you find the area under a curve, or how fast a rocket is going. That was their correction. They wanted me to use the highest school of infinitely subdivisible, which you can’t prove. It’s not really scientifically provable because it says things are infinitely subdivisible. You’ll never find an essence, for anything.

[00:54:33] sujatha baliga: This was the thing about what do I leave out that isn’t going to necessarily reach everyone. You’re talking about some of the more esoteric Bon things, deity worship, all this stuff. It’s not in any way a disrespectful way in which you’ve set it aside.

If anything, you continually say, and there’s deeper levels of this to be found if you were to actually want to follow this path. This is for us starting here, I think that there’s there’s a real beauty. I thought it was amazing the progression we made, the insights in each part of here. And shall we break that were beyond continue to I do do a lot of studying, but it was beyond that.

Diving deeper into the topics

[00:55:39] Audience: What I noticed after that class, there were different levels of awareness and insights each time that I revisited it, or you revisited it, or led us along there. If you pointed that out in the book, that again and again it goes deeper and deeper and it can morph into other aspects. It really was remarkable following the sequence, I don’t know if anybody else did the online class, but it’s really pretty amazing. Thank you. The question is about how the practice deepens over time.

[00:56:15] Scott Snibbe: Thank you. They really say you have to keep meditating on these topics and you don’t just get it and move on. I’ll tell this as more kind of a funny anecdote. I was in a class with Geshe Dagpa, our Tibetan teacher, and at the beginning of most classes in Tibetan Buddhism they review, they would kind of go over the last things and sometimes going over the last things, takes almost the whole class.

One of the students raised their hand and said, Oh Geshe la, we did this last week. Geshe la kind of stopped, and he’s like, Well, I’m reviewing, and he went back. The person raised his hand again, and he’s like, No, we did that, we did that part too, he went on to the next, and they’re like, No, we did that part too. Then Geshe la, who was almost always so kind to people, said, Being bored with the teachings is a sign that you have not learned them.

Those were the times I really learned the most from our teacher. There’s just moments like that that just totally blew my mind. It really should get tastier and tastier. Just like any field, if you’re a writer, if you’re in media, film, you love going to the introductory class because you want to see how the teacher teaches it. And you learn something. That’s a really good question.

Thanks you so much everyone.

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Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

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