Ten Million Percent Happier – Interview with Scott Snibbe

Scott Snibbe headshot

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Scott Snibbe becomes the interviewee in this week’s episode as Ven. Fabienne Pradelle speaks with him about finding meaning and spirituality through art and creativity, love without attachment, misconceptions about Buddhism, the afterlife, and our infinite potential.

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Introduction

I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I’m in the odd position of introducing myself as the interview subject today, an interview that my co-founder and producer Stephen Butler planned long ago after I interviewed him for Episode 53.

Venerable Fabienne Pradelle, who is the director of London’s Jamyang Buddhist Centre, and a longtime friend, conducted the interview, a conversation that I really enjoyed in which we talk about art, meditation, and whether it’s possible to love a partner without attachment. I hope you enjoy it!

Interview with Scott Snibbe

[00:00:58] Fabienne Pradelle: Scott, thank you for inviting me on Skeptic’s Path to interview you. I’ve been looking forward to this. And I’m really happy that Skeptic’s Path is doing this because I think your listeners, of which I am one, would love to hear about you and would love to hear a little bit more about your experience. I’ve had so much fun already, just thinking about the questions that I would ask you. So welcome, Scott, to your interview today on A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment.

[00:01:33] Scott Snibbe: Thanks a lot. I procrastinated a lot on this one so I’m very happy to be here, if slightly embarrassed.

[00:01:39] Fabienne Pradelle: Yes. I thought about that as well, because I’ve known you for many years. You and I go back a long way. We’ve been friends for maybe 20 years now, something like that. And I know how humble you are. So yes, thank you for bearing with us today. 

I’d be interested to hear a little bit about your spiritual background, because you grew up in a very different tradition than you are now. Can you tell us a little bit about that? A little bit about your spiritual background.

A Jewish Christian Scientist Buddhist

[00:02:12] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I have a strange spiritual background because I mostly come from Jewish families. Three out of four grandparents were Jewish, Jewish New Yorkers. However, my own parents abandoned their Judaism and became Christian Scientists around the time I was born.

So I was raised as a Christian Scientist, which is not a Scientologist, which a lot of people get it confused with. Christian Science is a religion founded in the 19th century. It’s one of the few religions founded by a woman, Mary Baker Eddy. And you know, now that I’m a Buddhist, I kind of understand how Christian Science, more or less, is the Mind Only school of Tibetan Buddhism. It actually has quite a strong idealist position that there’s only mind in the universe. And that matter manifests as kind of a shadow of mind. The biggest practical aspect of this for Christian Scientists is that they don’t go to the doctor. They don’t take medicines, they don’t go to the doctor.

I was raised in that religion. And to be honest, I really loved it. I loved just going to Sunday school. I was always, my whole life, interested in everything invisible, and I don’t actually necessarily mean gravity and things like that, which I was interested in too, but more the infinite.

When I woke up as a kid, I used to have this feeling of just infinity. It’s quite an overwhelming feeling. I didn’t quite understand it, but just feeling like I’ve always been and I always will be, life’s great. I had a somehow naturally had a sense of something much bigger than the mundane world. 

So we were raised as Christian Scientists, and luckily, we didn’t get that sick or hurt. Because that’s the pitfall of being a Christian Scientist. You’re taught about the power of the mind. And I think, from my perspective now maybe a little bit overreach on the power of the mind. 

The causality, too, of Christian Science is a little different than Buddhism. Because they say what you think right now affects your reality right now. Whereas in the Buddhist view, it’s more, what you thought in the past is affecting how you are now, which I think science backs up a little bit more. 

So anyway, I was raised Christian Science. I loved it. But I always had these nagging doubts, which, when I found out about Buddhism, just seemed a lot like the doubts the Buddha also had, which is that I noticed everybody dies and I noticed that everybody gets sick, including Christian Scientists.

So I never joined the church, even though I loved the feeling of being in Sunday school and talking about ideas like that. Once I grew too old to go to Sunday school, I abandoned the religion because I didn’t find the services that inspiring. There are no leaders in the church and you just go and listen to something that was written about a hundred years ago for the service. So I stopped going. And that was really hard in my twenties, to not be grounded by any sense of—let’s call it faith or religion. I thought a lot about that in my twenties:

What is the purpose of life beyond ordinary achievement, pleasure, and gain and so on? 

But then, strangely, my brother became a Buddhist. My brother was a punk rock skateboarder, and he married a Chinese woman and they went to China and Tibet for their honeymoon. My brother got very sick there. And he promised himself that when he came back he would try to find some religion, spirituality, out of shock. 

He was working at Harvard. So when he went back, he started studying religion. And like a lot of people who study religion, when you get to Buddhism, you get really curious. To be honest, I was very nervous when he became a Buddhist, because he was very funny and very irreverent. And I was worried that he would become nothing.

I had this false view that if you become a Buddhist, you basically just get rid of your personality. Because I had heard, if you become a Buddhist, you get rid of yourself and I’m like, what else is there but yourself? So I was really nervous he would become really boring.

But he didn’t, he actually maintained his sense of humor and his irreverence. I saw how it made him more patient and loving and open and kind. And he kept sending me books. For four years he was sending me books. And to be honest, I did not understand them. I found Buddhism pretty impenetrable and confusing until he sent me a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, books that connected Buddhism to Christianity. Like Living Buddha, Living Christ, for example, had a big impact on me. And there were certain things in those books that got me really interested in Buddhism because they were thought experiments.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh

So I was inspired. But the way that I actually became a Buddhist was that I saw that the Dalai Lama was coming to Los Angeles. As a gift, I invited my brother, because I thought it would be fun for us. I just said, Hey, I see the Dalai Lama’s coming to LA, I’ll buy your tickets for the event, the flight. And I’ll meet you there and let’s check it out together. I know you love the Dalai Lama.

I thought, I’m patient. I can sit through anything. I am not as patient now, but at the time I was patient enough to sit through anything and just get something out of it. So, I thought I’ll get something out of seeing the Dalai Lama. You know, I’m curious, I read his biography and everything. 

But the instant I saw the Dalai Lama, I just thought I need to be like this person. I want what he’s having. Because he went through hell. He went through the worst hell as any leader has ever faced on our planet with a million of his people dying. I mean, having your whole country taken away, it doesn’t really get worse than that.

And yet he was so happy and he was so kind to the Chinese. You know, he said, We can’t even kill one Chinese person. First of all, it is wrong to kill anybody. Second of all, you create a thousand enemies. So it’s just not even useful. It doesn’t even serve your purpose. I was so moved by his presence. I actually was with my brother and a good friend who was an ex-girlfriend in college who become a Buddhist.

And they were pressuring me: Come on, take refuge, take the bodhisattva vow. His Holiness was offering the bodhisattva vow. And I said, Shouldn’t, you really know what’s in a vow, if you’re going to take it? This one sounds really serious?

headshot of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
His Holiness the Dalai Lama

They were like, No, this is a great opportunity to take it from the Dalai Lama. So the night before I was like, okay, maybe I’ll take this. The night before I’m reading. I’m like, what is this vow? Oh, you have to dedicate all your infinite lives to benefiting others. I’m thinking, that seems really hard, but it seems worthwhile. I actually think I’m going to pretty much fail. But still it seemed better to take it than not. 

Anyway, that’s what got me into Buddhism. There was a lot of, what you’d call karma, I think, involved in this situation because my brother’s Buddhist teacher, when I asked him where can I start learning about Buddhism, He said, Oh my best friend from the monastery, Geshe Dakpa, teaches in San Francisco, and you should go to his center.

So as soon as I got back, I started studying Buddhism. And it’s very difficult, sometimes impenetrable, studying Tibetan Buddhism authentically from a Tibetan teacher. But it seemed worthwhile enough that I stuck with it. And the nuns are what really helped me the most, like yourself. There were three nuns working in the center and they helped me a great deal with the practical aspects of meditation and Buddhist philosophy and just hanging out and talking about Buddhism rather than getting it in a lecture, translated from Tibetan.

I could obviously talk for a long time about this. As I was saying, that was why I started a podcast because there were thousands of hours of things worth talking about in this tradition.

[00:09:31] Fabienne Pradelle: I’m glad you shared that. Because I think it’s inspiring to hear, and for your listeners to hear, that’s what’s been driving you. But I’m interested, when you talk about in your twenties when you weren’t an active practitioner of a tradition, where there’s this kind of sense of where does meaning come from?

It’s a wonderful journey when you think about it. And also to hear, when you described about the bodhisattva vows. It’s hard not to take them when you’re in those kinds of environment with an inspiring presence, like His Holiness because it’s such a wild far out thought and it’s really inspiring.

Connecting with a sense of meaning in modern society

And obviously we live in increasingly secularized society and we hear a lot about this crisis of meaning. So I wonder how do we connect with a sense of meaning in this increasingly kind of material or secularized society? What’s your take?

[00:10:28] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. It’s interesting to reflect through that lens of when I was in my twenties. 

I was raised really where art is your religion. 

My parents were artists and I’ve gone back and forth on that. I think I’m much more on the forth side now, that creativity actually is one of the very best things you can do with your life in a very broad sense.

But the highest level I think is benefiting others, without taking any vow, without having any religion. I really think even on a common sense level, I always felt best about myself when I could help other people. And not in some huge way necessarily. But just like when I was in grad school studying computer graphics, I worked in this computer graphics lab and I just remember enjoying welcoming people. Because it was quite intimidating, you know? Especially for women, there were very few women. So when women came in and it was all these guys, super silent with giant computers, who know a ton of weird things. I remember just enjoying welcoming people into an environment where they felt very intimidated and quietly taking them to tea and saying okay, here’s how you fit in here. 

But I think if I look at my life, you know, those are the times when I felt best about myself. And also connecting with yourself. I think those two things have always resonated with me one way or another: connecting with other people in a way that makes them feel good in some way, but also connecting with yourself in a way that goes beyond the every day.

I think in hindsight, I used to meditate a lot when I was a kid, because I would just sit and be very happy just being alone or in nature or something like that. So I think that is the essence, to not talk about Buddhism or anything, but the essence of a fulfilling life is in some way to benefit other people in a way that’s really about them and not about you. Not necessarily gigantic. It could even just be giving them a cup of tea or something. 

And then the other one is connecting with yourself and figuring out who you are beneath your name and your job, and even your body, somehow going deeper and seeing what is the nature of just awareness and your being alive?

There’s a profound joy in just being still, not even with your eyes closed, or trying to focus on your breath, but just sitting still, just that experience of being in a place and not really thinking about yourself. I think whenever you’re not thinking about yourself that’s usually a good moment.

[00:12:58] Fabienne Pradelle: And that’s, I think, one reason why so many of us love being in nature. Somehow nature takes us out of ourselves where we can tune in to that. 

I wonder also about enlightenment, because when you launched your project Skeptic’s Path, which I was so excited about and really happy about, I was also intrigued that you call it Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Obviously you’re a Tibetan Buddhist, and we talk about enlightenment all the time. But of course you could have called it, Skeptic’s Path to Happiness or Skeptic’s Path to Flourishing. So what does enlightenment mean to you? Is that something that’s realistic for us in our lives?

What does enlightenment mean?

[00:13:46] Scott Snibbe: When I was a kid, when it was your birthday and time to blow out the candles, my mom would say, Make a wish. I asked her what am I supposed to wish for? And my mom said, eternal happiness. I’m like, Okay, eternal happiness.

But I think that’s a little bit scary actually. When I think of eternal happiness, it sounds okay. It actually doesn’t sound that great. It sounds like a little bit boring. And I think a lot of us think of that word in that way, enlightenment, it sounds like a lot’s missing. It actually sounds more like giving something up than getting something. Like there’s no conflict, no extreme pleasure or whatever. 

[00:14:21] Fabienne Pradelle: No personality. 

[00:14:22] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, no personality. So, I’ll actually cut to the chase. Because I have thought about this a lot over time and you and I have talked about this privately too.

More and more actually, what I really believe about enlightenment is infinite growth more than infinite happiness.

I think you may be happy all along the way doing that, and this is quite personal because, you know, it’s a personal interview. I really believe that enlightenment is the infinite growth of our positive qualities, the infinite growth of your ability to benefit others and to delight, and to discover. Robert Thurman calls it education, that what he says, like our ultimate goal is continuous education. I mean, of course he’s a professor. But I think those things ring truer to me than the Buddhist dogma which I’m probably completely misunderstanding by the way. 

But I think that, to me, is an inspiring view of enlightenment, that you can always learn more, become kinder, become more loving, become more creative and expressive, make stronger and more meaningful connections with everyone you encounter. That to me is exciting. So the reason I put that word there, enlightenment, was exactly that.

There’s a movement to use meditation to get “a little bit better” now, which is actually great. Dan Harris calls it Ten Percent Happier, right? That’s the application of meditation. And that is insanely popular for people, the idea of getting 10% happier. This, what we’re talking about is like ten million percent happier, right? That’s enlightenment actually. And that’s the hole in the market, if you want to get businessy about it. I thought what was missing is, where’s the Ten Million Percent Happier? I’m pretty happy person already. But I really believe in that joy, happiness, meaning, connection, those things can be infinitely expanded. And I think we lose a lot to have such low expectations for our life. 

[00:16:11] Fabienne Pradelle: I so agree. This idea of infinite growth or infinite potential is such a far out idea. And it completely opens up the imagination to our exploring, or even opening up to this idea of what’s our deepest potential. And the word “delight” really resonates because it’s almost like it balances out the sense of— You know, in Buddhist circles, sometimes it can seem, especially in the Mahayana traditions, it can seem like you’re endlessly striving. And so how do you balance that with also the ease in the present moment? And so I like the word “delight,” because there is so much that can bring about delight. And that, to me evokes an openness and a joy in the present moment as well, balancing these two energies.

But yes, I love the idea of infinite potential. Thank you for that. Thank you for calling it Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

[00:17:17] Scott Snibbe: Yes, you know, I wanted that tension. I’m an artist at heart. So I really liked the tension of those two things together. Because you’ve got the “skeptic’s path,” which is meant for our audience of people who are skeptical. But then “to enlightenment,” it’s very much in opposition because the conventional word “skeptic” generally means it’s pretty hard for you to accept anything.

And then enlightenment is almost like accepting everything, at least everything good. So I actually really liked that tension and I think it draws the right kind of skeptics. There are cynics, people who just reject everything. But a skeptic is curious.

Love without attachment

[00:17:50] Fabienne Pradelle: When you talked about when you heard that your brother was becoming a Buddhist and you say, Oh no, is he gonna lose his personality? His sense of humor, his edge maybe? I think many people hold this view that somehow when you become a Buddhist, you have to give up all the things you love, this idea of renunciation. But in your own path, do you feel like you’ve had to give things up as you became a Buddhist, aside from self cherishing?

[00:18:23] Scott Snibbe: That is a really hard question. And I’ll try to be as honest as I can about it. The things to give up are your delusions, right? For me, especially anger and craving, attachment. And there are dimensions in which I have been able to give those up. But the hardest is in the really close, intimate life, like here at home with my wife in particular, especially in our relationship.

I mean, this is one of these things where you look at the path of your life, especially, a person who’s in relationships, I’m married. This is my second marriage actually. And I’ve had these conversations with my wife recently too. We had this really nice conversation where I came up with these questions to ask each other, very deep questions, like, What do you want out of life? What’s most important to you in life? Strangely we’ve spent thousands of hours talking, but in some ways I felt like neither of us had ever asked each other these questions. So I asked her these questions and then she asked me.

So, one of the questions was—Boy, I guess I’m really being honest here. One of the questions was, What is your greatest fear? And when she asked me that, my answer was actually giving up my attachment to her, in particular. My wife is my greatest attachment, without a doubt.

And it’s super annoying, more annoying for her even than me. Because it actually caused us a lot of pain. Because my attachment to her makes me want her to behave in certain ways and not certain ways. The attachment is not acceptance. And she’s totally dedicated to me. It’s not like I’m worried she’s going to leave or something like that, whether or not I deserve to be left.

But, you know, I tried to answer her question really, honestly, and that was my answer, that I’m really afraid of giving up my attachment to her because I would have to confront what our relationship is without that attachment.

I actually don’t even know what that is. And so that’s a work in progress. At least I have the aspiration to give up attachment. But after having said it, I went on retreat. I actually went on retreat right after we had that conversation.

And it actually helped me a lot just to admit it. More and more, I’m just thinking practice is honesty, a gentle honesty. For me, the intimate relationship is the biggest arena of practice, more than anything else.

[00:20:37] Fabienne Pradelle: You know, What you’re saying, I think it’s really subtle, actually, this idea of giving up attachment to one’s wife, one’s partner. And obviously there’s love there. So what does it mean, giving up attachment in an intimate relationship? I think that’s really subtle, actually.

Giving up attachment in an intimate relationship

[00:20:58] Scott Snibbe: Oh, it’s crazy subtle. And I mean, the crazy thing is I know that our relationship would be better if I gave up the attachment. I just don’t know what it would be exactly. Because it causes me to have all these expectations and projections of her. First of all, it means serving her instead of myself. Looking at her purely, what does she want and what does she need? 

And then also seeing it’s not either of us; that the relationship is its own thing, it’s interdependence. it’s so intense being in a relationship with a person and it’s neither of you, you’ve created a new thing between you.

I think it requires this very radical openness to whatever might be and might happen and to really trying to serve another person. And the problem is, you know, we both have equal delusions, although in different dimensions. We’ve both got our problems. Neither of us is a bodhisattva. I shouldn’t say that because my wife might be, but I think we both are on a journey together.

And sometimes conflict is necessary if it can be done kindly and compassionately, it’s actually important and serves growth. And sometimes giving in and letting go is best. There’s no right answer. Like, it’s not just do everything your wife wants. That actually could lead to a life without much evolution. So it’s so hard and so complicated, but yeah, I think giving up the projections, the expectations. 

When I meditate on anger now, in our tradition, we meditate on everything really quickly every morning. And when I get to anger, what I think now is that anger is wanting things to be other than they are, that’s how I try to kind of get that in my head.

[00:22:35] Fabienne Pradelle: That’s a hard one. Isn’t it? It comes up in so many different ways. Because when you were talking about love that is not tainted by attachment, in my life, I think it’s been extremely humbling. In my case, it’s related to my parents, my mom in particular.

It’s really humbling how hard it is to love without wanting the other person to be different from how they are. 

[00:23:07] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:23:08] Fabienne Pradelle: To love them just as they are. And how shockingly difficult actually it is and how it’s really humbling. Like you can have this aspiration and this longing to be able to do that. And yet you notice the many ways in which— And there’s a subtle violence in there, isn’t there as well. Not quite wanting the person to be the way you want them to be.

[00:23:33] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. That just happened with me too. I’ve had these kind of issues with my dad, from things that happened through childhood. And that, honestly, is one success. It’s taken a really long time, but I just did have this realization that it was all a projection.

Like, I had a projection that my dad is selfish and doesn’t really love me or whatever. Maybe, hopefully as an encouraging note through all those years of practice, all of a sudden I did realize it was completely a projection. 

I hadn’t seen him for two years because of COVID. So I flew to see him with this very open attitude of just witnessing what the relationship was now, rather than my projection from 45 years ago of what the relationship was. And it turned out to be exactly the opposite.

It turned out my dad is very generous. My father is very loving. He’s quite attentive. And really he’s nothing, none of us are any of those things. 

But so much of what you perceive a relationship is just purely this projection.

And, you know, maybe now it’s a new projection, but at least it’s a very loving, kind projection. Like if you have the greatest, most optimistic view of the people you encounter, it’s quite likely they’ll live up to it or close to it. If you give people the room to be their best self and see them that way. Because our relationship is just so fantastic now, all of a sudden. Just in the last year. So at least that’s one to talk about, one that’s working versus one that I’m still struggling with. 

[00:24:59] Fabienne Pradelle: I so rejoice. Because that’s a big one. But you see when you experienced this and I’ve certainly experienced this, from an emptiness point of view, how there’s a co-arising of how two people are with each other and how I will manifest in a particular way, depending on how someone else sees me.

Our guest interviewer, Ven. Fabienne Pradelle

And if someone sees me with the eyes of love or sees me in a positive light, then I will manifest really completely differently and seemingly without necessarily so much control on my part. Because we influence each other and we influence how we manifest, how the other manifests to us.

It’s wonderful to see when you’re able to see through some of the negative projections and the baggage that we carry about a parent or a loved one, how the relationship completely changes and how they seem to transform as a result.

[00:25:56] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And it’s very subtle though, right? Because there’s a kind of new age approach where it’s like, whatever you think comes true. And that’s not what we’re saying. The Buddhist approach is it’s co-arising. But you can do a lot from your side.

Your side is very important. And if you bring the best expectations openness and warmth, then the best possible outcome will occur. But it doesn’t mean if I go give Vladimir Putin a hug, he’s gonna call off the invasion, right?

[00:26:25] Fabienne Pradelle: No, absolutely. Absolutely. But the way I think of it sometimes is, it’s an act of generosity. Every morning when you set your motivation of not harming, of benefiting. Seeing the best in others one of the most profound ways in which we can manifest generosity and help ourselves and others.

[00:26:44] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. There’s this mind training text I started reading sometimes in the mornings and it says, Don’t talk about the faults of others then it says, don’t even think about them! 

[00:26:55] Fabienne Pradelle: Stage one, don’t talk about it. Stage two, don’t even think about it. 

[00:26:58] Scott Snibbe: Like, wow. But actually, when I’m able to practice that, it really does help. And you can still be in a force for justice and it doesn’t mean you’re uncritical. 

Rebirth and skepticism

[00:27:06] Fabienne Pradelle: I’m curious, in your exploration of Buddhism you’ve been chewing on this idea of rebirth for several decades now. And so in this belief system, your daughter, your wife, would have had infinite lives before you came together as a Snibbe family unit. So how have you thought of the idea of rebirth and how that may be playing out in your family? Do you think about that a lot?

[00:27:35] Scott Snibbe: I do. And this is actually good for our listeners because I think I definitely play the kind of skeptical party line. I play a certain part in this podcast. I have a role. I’m not necessarily the Scott Snibbe talking now as I am when I’m interviewing people or leading the meditations. 

But from a personal perspective, I’ve gone through all these levels in my life where I was born into a belief system, like you’re infinite and this life is sort of a blip on infinity. But there was a higher plane where you came from where you went to, in Christian Science. Then, I was sort of normal person, I hate to say nihilist, but a scientific materialist. Okay, you’re born and then you die. 

I very strongly believe in some kind of universal evolutionary principle. A lot of it totally hinges on what you think a mind is or what you believe mind is? I don’t believe mind comes from matter. 

I don’t think matter is the cause of mind. But I think both these words are totally misunderstood because they’re both just concepts. 

Mind is a concept for what we can observe inside ourselves, the evolution of thought and feeling, perception and so on. So it’s real, your mind is definitely real and we’re observing it right now. And it’s not woo woo, it’s not spacey, it’s not necessarily a soul or whatever. But mind is definitely real and it’s not material. But in the same way that Microsoft Word is not material, it’s just information; or that love is immaterial, or math. The mind is just another immaterial thing that functions.

Then matter seems to also universally evolve too, that our bodies are composed of star dust. It’s so beautiful. that we are completely made of old exploded stars. It’s such a cool feeling when you think about that. And also other people, all the other people on earth and so on. 

But when you really dive into it with quantum mechanics, and I hate to use jargon, but there’s this term non-fungibility, which I only recently learned about quantum mechanics and the mind. Both the Buddhist and the quantum mechanics view are the same, which is actually that atoms aren’t tagged, like there isn’t atom 1 billion, 253 thousand, blah, blah, blah. They’re more like dollars in a bank account. They’re not separate. There’s not an individual dollar number one, dollar number two. It’s just a number, a labeled number referring to the quantity. 

So, from the best of my understanding now, matter is like that too, where it’s actually, we’re actually not made out of other people or even other stars. We’re more made out of the informational matrix of the universe that manifests in different forms over different times, obeying the laws of physics, including the ones we don’t understand yet.

So I definitely believe there’s continuity of existence and consciousness. If you believe in science, you have to believe that at least as evolution, because we have a kind of biological memory of how we evolve to think through evolution, of surviving and so on.

But to be honest, as I’ve thought about it more and more. I do tend to believe there is a kind of infinite continuity of awareness. To be honest, I think there are past and future lives. I don’t have a hundred percent evidence for it. But looking at the sum total of information that I’ve seen, I think in some way, mind has a continuity. But I’ve no idea how subtle that is.

It may be extremely, extremely subtle where it’s just a kind of aware principle that continues. Or it might be quite specific like Buddhism says, where you actually could even manifest those prior memories and so on. And I actually think there may be some scientific backing for this eventually, as we study mind.

There are all these studies of people who remember past lives too, some of them are quite incontrovertible. There’s no reason anybody would have lied about these stories, there’s no way some of these things could have existed. So I tend to fall a little bit on that side. 

The thing is, I think we’re completely mistaken most of the time about what we mean by mind. Because we think of mind as something woo woo and separate. Like you’d see in a movie. And we think of matter is so solid and real, but actually I think that there’s just one thing that’s in between. That’s more just information manifesting.

And I think that’s very much backed up by quantum mechanics. That there’s a kind of informational matrix where things, rise and fall from; through cause and effect like not through magic or will, or prayer or anything like that. But just through a continuity of cause and effect that is way too subtle for any of us to ever understand. We can talk about this for many hours.

How do Buddhist beliefs affect your closest relationships?

[00:32:01] Fabienne Pradelle: Connecting this back to the conversation we’re having about attachment, certainly such a worldview really opens things up because it’s far less solid, isn’t it? And it’s all interconnected and fluid. And so then taking us back to this realm and where we started. Does that influence how you view your closest relationships and how you relate to those closest to you?

[00:32:27] Scott Snibbe: Sometimes. Yeah. The number one is I still think, and I actually still feel this all the time in the kind of realization way like something— And by the way, we all have realizations. It’s not like a special religious thing. It’s just whenever you have a feeling that kind of transcends the words and the knowledge. But the feeling of, Wow, it’s amazing that anything exists! That I think is such a more profound realization than, Oh, we live for multiple lives or didn’t.

Just that there’s something rather than nothing I think is such a profound realization, like just to wake up and just look around. It totally transcends all the conventions that you hear about all day long. Because where did it come from? Where is it going? Like, it just is, everything is. The only thing we have evidence for is being an existence and wonder, and like magnificence and energy and life.

That said, to answer your question, thinking about relationships as greater than this lifetime, I do very much feel that the Buddhist view is really helpful when it comes to kids. Because the reason most Westerners are so mad at their parents is they think their parents made them. You’re like, You made me and then you didn’t treat me perfectly, so what is your problem? 

But the Buddhist view is exactly the opposite: that the child chooses the parents. So, I actually thank my daughter all the time. Thank you for choosing me. You know, of course I don’t have a hundred percent evidence for it, but I find it very beneficial. I say this all the time in the morning, because she comes into my meditation room and I’ll often say, Thank you for coming into my life. You know, Thank you for choosing me and Ahna as your parents. You’re a real gift to us. We love your presence in our life. You’re so joyful and creative and loving and kind. So I think that’s a nice attitude. 

[00:34:15] Fabienne Pradelle: Thank you for sharing that. That’s so delightful. It’s what we crave for most, isn’t it? Just to be held in love and to be seen and to be welcomed into the world. So I think that’s a beautiful way to relate to your child.

I loved how you also talk about this dimension of just the wonder of being aware. And you speak about it so eloquently and just even I was tuning in as you were talking and it amazes me really often just how easy it is to just take a few moments to just tuning back into that level of just being aware, just the joy and the wonder of being aware. And like what a miracle it seems like, how incredible it is.

And yet, just to remember to tune into that level can seem hard in just the busy-ness of our lives. I say even for me, because I manifest as a nun, I work for this organization. And yet, you know, it’s humbling, like how our minds are just racing, racing, racing all the time.

Being aware in the day-to-day

So how do you tune into that dimension, that level, in your day-to-day life of being a podcast interviewer?

[00:35:39] Scott Snibbe: I can think of so many different things. And the time on the cushion’s really important. The meditation, to wake up really early, that is where you can get in touch with the very, very subtle aspect of yourself and of reality the inner experience. And also process so much too.

Part of how you can bring joy to everyday is actually spend a lot of time processing what happens everyday too.

Because sometimes my meditation, whatever, it’s supposed to be seeing the nature of mind or something. But it ends up being an hour thinking about how I was arguing with my wife. Where did that come from? What could I have said that would’ve been better? What’s the right place to come from? That’s actually, I think, a really reasonable way to spend the meditation time sometimes rather than in some total other dimension. 

I think one of the joys of being in a relationship is just being able to look at someone up close for a long time. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I like just looking at my wife. Like when we go have a little picnic, we have lunch together and just looking, it’s amazing to look at a real live person up close for awhile. Especially if we’re just sitting there not talking, like that’s amazing.

And it’s not perfect. It’s not like everything’s perfect. We might be having a little argument or something. But then in those nice moments, just watching my wife, or my daughter too. It’s the same thing. I can look at her in the same way for a long time just to see the manifestation of life and being at that moment, I think is very powerful.

[00:37:08] Fabienne Pradelle: That’s such an intriguing idea and we can hear the artist in you as well as you describe it. But it’s such an intriguing idea because in Buddhism we talk about the “meaning generality,” how we perceive things. And, actually, very often it’s a mental image, how we think we’re perceiving the world. But actually we’re often just perceiving a meaning generality. So this idea of just observing your daughter, your wife in the present moment, almost like you’re discovering anew or afresh in the present moment that being as they’re manifesting anew in the present moment, it’s a lovely idea.

Connecting to the universe through creating art

[00:37:52] Fabienne Pradelle: So it leads me on to this question of your relationship with art actually. Because, maybe not all Skeptic’s Path listeners know, but you’re also an artist and that’s a big part of who you are. Could you imagine your life without art, without creating?

[00:38:10] Scott Snibbe: I couldn’t. And that’s— I do think people are born artists. I also do think every person is creative, so it’s not exclusionary. But there’s a certain type of person who has a kind of hunger, a kind of pain at not making art. That’s how I would describe it. Maybe sadly. 

But all of the artists I know share that feeling that I’ve always had of— It’s not just enjoying making things, but it’s actually feeling pain when you’re not, if you’re not making things. Which I think some people who maybe aren’t artists don’t quite experience.

I think that satisfaction can be found in many different types of people in different ways. For many people, it’s actually sports and exercise and physical activity that satisfy that same need. And it’s the same thing, they feel really bad when they don’t do it. Part of it is just the experience of making art. It’s not necessarily wanting to make a certain thing, but it’s the way your mind feels when it’s making anything.

Which I think basically is meditation. Because when you’re really in that creative activity, whatever it is, whether you’re writing or painting or playing music, the thing all those activities have in common is you are not regretting the past and not anticipating the future. You’re just present.

And you’re not even thinking about yourself. I just used to love that feeling. Even like editing video, editing film, actually, because I studied film, real film. I got lost in that process. Drawing too, I’ve always drawn every day. I had to, I would just, I just felt really bad if I didn’t draw every day.

And in hindsight, you know, that’s what’s so beautiful about getting older—I’m 52 now—is that you have more insights into your past self and your relationships. So I see that the essential aspect of art is actually on the first part, connecting with yourself, just connecting with a much, much deeper aspect of yourself and the universe too. It’s really quite mysterious because you see that the type of pen you use, the type of paper you use, it completely transforms what you’re going to draw.

It’s not you, it’s some greater accumulation of causes and effects that come together that includes your mind and your ideas and your past, but also very much includes the objects and the materials that you’re working with and the universe, the laws of physics. So there’s a very powerful interaction between your mind and the medium.

So the first part is connecting to yourself. The second is connecting to others. My main motivation in making art was to make things that were really meaningful and powerful and give a sense of wonder; not necessarily, joy. I mean, you know, someone can die in a film or something like that, but a sense of wonder of like, wow, this is possible. This is happening. In a more vulnerable, kind of tender way. Like, you get a sense of wonder when you see a Marvel movie or something, but it’s devoid of spiritual honesty. 

So I think true art, you can’t control it.

You go to make a work of art. You say, Oh, I’m going to make an work of art about emptiness or love or whatever. But you have to be really open to whatever it is the universe wants to say. And I don’t mean that in a new age way. I actually mean it in it just literally like you are a part of the universe and everything around you and that’s happened and you have to be open. 

In the same way I was saying about letting go of attachment. Like, the best art actually comes when you let go of the attachment. There’s a phrase when you’re writing, because now I mostly write. And there’s a phrase called “kill your darlings,” which is a little violent. This idea that the things you have to cut out of your writing are often the ones that you’re most attached to, that you came in and you said, Oh, this line is the best or this scene, this idea. But it turns out so often you have to remove the thing that you started with, or that you’re most attached to in order to better tell the story that wants to be told. You have to get rid of your sense of self. 

So I think it’s very fine balancing act because you do bring a lot to it from your independent self-perspective. But you’re only part of it. You’re only part of that experience.

The creative brain

[00:41:50] Fabienne Pradelle: This idea of deleting the sentence that you start off with, an idea of what’s your starting point and that you’re most attached to you. And as you start the process, things emerge spontaneously. And I guess you’d have to be really in tune in and listen and observe what’s actually emerging to be able to let go of your own preconception of what your starting point was. Like discovering, it’s its own adventure, unpredictable adventure, isn’t it?

[00:42:23] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. It’s so mysterious. I saw an interview with Sting. Actually, my friend is a neuroscientist, Dan Levitin, and he studies musicians. He did a TV series and he’s super, super scientific, you know, and he says to Sting, What is it, do you think about your brain that makes you able to create these incredible songs?

And Sting said, I actually don’t want to think about it. He actually said, I’m really nervous even thinking about that question, because it makes me so nervous that I will lose it. He said like, I don’t understand it. I love it. And I don’t even want to even think about because it’s so nice. I need to stay with the mystery of that.

And it was the same thing with Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder, what is it about you that makes these rhythms that no one’s ever made?

How did you come up with them? What’s different about your brain? Dan’s such a neuroscientist. And Stevie Wonder said, It’s a gift from God. And Dan keeps pressing him and he just keeps saying, It’s a gift from God. So I think for all creative people, there’s this connection to the mystery of that experience and a real sense of gratitude and also protectiveness, not wanting to overanalyze it.

[00:43:32] Fabienne Pradelle: Getting out of your own way. So this is a question off that. How long ago did you launch Skeptic’s Path?

[00:43:41] Scott Snibbe: It’s just two years ago. It happened to be the beginning of the pandemic. So it was February, 2020.

What did you learn from launching A Skeptic’s Path?

[00:43:49] Fabienne Pradelle: So you launched Skeptic’s Path about two years ago now. Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself in that process?

[00:43:58] Scott Snibbe: I learned how much I have to learn. I think that’s been the biggest. I did learn a lot, but the biggest thing I learned is how much I don’t know. And that’s been extraordinary. One aspect of that is a humility and gratitude for the tradition we’re in, this Tibetan Buddhist, Gelugpa, Vajrayana, et cetera, et cetera, like so many words nobody understands.

But the infinity and the depth of the thinking and the analysis and the intellectual and the extraordinary kindness, the genius of Lama Tsongkhapa, you know, who created the lamrim sequence that we all work against. It’s so extraordinary. And a person like me, like one person’s ability to absorb even ten thousandth of it in a lifetime. 

But then the other thing, as I branched out to other traditions, is also a little bit about combating Buddhist dogma, seeing how many different points of view are also right in Buddhism. And also being a little understanding of how a little bit of dogma and patriarchy and reification and things like that are even in extraordinary Buddhist traditions.

My wife was asking me the other day, what’s the dominant Buddhist organization on earth? I was like, there really isn’t one, there is no center to it. In that way, its own form takes the essence of its teachings. There’s never going to be, like, the Buddhist Pope. There is the Dalai Lama, but it’s only because everyone loves him so much. 

And there are very specific things too, especially the views on reality. I’m very interested in going as deep as I possibly can to understand reality. It’s quite an interesting topic. But this question of mind and matter and past and future lives, the more I dive into it, especially looking at other traditions. Our tradition we’re in is actually quite firm and uses very strong language and terms.

But then when I go into some other traditions it’s softer and a little more admitting of not knowing. I think the humility and openness of what I’ve seen in other traditions, it’s opened up my mind a lot to all the different ways that Buddhism can be true. There’s a great book called Why Buddhism Is True. But it should maybe called Why Buddhisms Are True, because I think I’ve seen they’re really different both in how to practice and how to think about reality. And how do you think about yourself? I’ve been really surprised and humbled by the number of different approaches that I think are equally valid and lead to enlightenment. 

[00:46:28] Fabienne Pradelle: Thank you. And it’s been really fun actually, for me to listen to those interviews. And that’s of course, what’s so amazing about our culture nowadays is that there’s so much cross-fertilization and I feel Skeptic’s Path brings those different dimensions which is really sweet.

Skeptic’s Path listeners might be interested to hear where are you taking us? Do you have a plan?

Next steps for Skeptic’s Path

[00:46:57] Scott Snibbe: So I do, I mean, just like any creative thing, it took on a life of its own. I think the thing that might be surprising for people is that I never even planned an interview series. You know, what I was trying to do is share a secular version of the Stages of the Path, the ordered sequence in particular, that Lama Tsongkhapa and Atisha had; this innovation of a way of structuring the Buddhist teaching in an extremely beneficial way that you could practice your whole life and really make progress.

When I launched the podcast, I had this stack of ideas from seven years and from teaching meditation that I really wanted to see, whether, if you go outside the audience of people that come into a Buddhist center, would people resonate with it? And I started out with a 30-episode sequence of those topics.

And in general, people did resonate. I suppose I would say that was my goal, if you want to call it that, a hope is that other people would be as moved by those ideas as I was. They’re not my ideas. It’s just taking the ideas of a thousand year old tradition and trying to update it and make it secular and digestible for ordinary people.

But the goal was not to create a podcast. The podcast was a way to test the idea and to see if people respond to it. Then the interview series happened because my co-founder Stephen is a great audio producer and he thought it’d be cool to have me talking to people.

Stephen Butler photo
Skeptic’s Path Co-founder Stephen Butler

So we did, and it started out working out well and I’m gradually learning how to do it better and benefiting a lot from it. And our audience seems to benefit. But the real goal for the organization is to develop an educational program. I think every single tradition generally agrees that you have to meditate.

You need this deep experience that has a profound effect in transforming your mind. And, even thinking and studying relatively seriously will only have a limited effect until you go into meditation. I’ve noticed that in my own life. So that’s the number one is that we develop an educational program, which you have been a very important part of. Because you’ve invited me to test the Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment course, which we did last year and we’re going to do again. This year, we’re going to record it and then release it as an e-learning course.

Writing a book, which I’m working on. A book is generally the form of our civilization of how you package a new contribution to the world, of some idea. That you’ll probably see next year.

Those are the biggest ones, moving towards the educational program and a book. Because I would think as a listener, I might be slightly frustrated because, yes, we have guided meditations, but it’s a little tricky to figure out exactly what to do and in what order, if I really wanted to follow this program.

So stay tuned for that.

[00:49:27] Fabienne Pradelle: Yeah, we’re excited about that. And yes, I’m a huge fan of the education aspect of Skeptic’s Path because our community really resonated. And it was really interesting to see because we had people who were non-Buddhist and people who were Buddhists, including many people who’d been practicing for years and years and years who found it really beneficial because it’s presented in almost like a new language, certainly a more modern language; and weaving in scientific perspectives and examples and so forth. So I feel you’re helping non-Buddhist and Buddhists alike in reconnecting in fresh ways.

So I’m really looking forward to that. And it makes me think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he talks at the moment, there’s these two words that keep popping up again and again. One is warm-heartedness and the other is education. He’s such a far out thinker, because here he is, this religious figure and yet he keeps on talking about “beyond religion.” Just go beyond religion and focus on the education to stimulate and nurture warmheartedness so I think that’s wonderful. 

Krista Tippett, who’s of course the podcast host of one of my podcasts I love, On Being, recently I heard her say, Looking back, I wish I’d been kinder to myself all along. Which is poignant really. I think many of us, I think can relate to that. Looking back. I wish I’d been kinder to myself all along. 

What would you wish for yourself, looking back in time?

So it made me curious. What about you, if you were to look back, would you have a wish?

[00:51:19] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I would agree with that, but I would say, what does it mean to be kind to yourself? And what’s great is this wraps right around to what we were saying in the beginning. Because that’s self-compassion. But self-compassion isn’t necessarily a word that appears in the Buddhist path that we follow.

So I’ve been thinking about self compassion. I actually asked Venerable Sangye Khadro, and then I was talking to Lorne Ladner. They both gave the same answer. I said, Where does self-compassion fit on the path? They said, renunciation. So that is pretty mind blowing. And it goes back to that kind of scary admission I had that my greatest fear is giving up my attachment to my wife. 

Self-compassion is giving up your anger and your attachment and your sense of separateness. That is the kindest thing that we could each do for ourselves. And it is so frustrating to me that it is hard. Like, why is that hard to do the thing that would be best for yourself?

That’s what I wish, yeah. Is that I wish that I knew not intellectually, but in my heart, that always the best thing to do is to do the thing that would benefit the person in front of me. To see that anger is like cyanide, that is so deadly and destructive on so many dimensions, most of all to yourself but also to all your relationships around you. 

And to know, that sense of separateness, the only reason you think you feel lonely is you have this false sense of being alone. So yeah, for sure. The one thing I would wish, very practically, because I was a teenager in central California in Monterey. I grew up there, I went to high school there. And in hindsight, I know Lama Yeshe was there, at Vajrapani Institute teaching when I was a teenager.

And I was driving up all the time to see my dad too, who was living there in Santa Cruz. So, honestly, if I had one wish it was that I was introduced to Buddhism earlier. Because somehow my mind resonates really well with this tradition. That, if somehow I had stumbled into it or seen a poster or ran into somebody, like if I had encountered this as a teenager, I think my life would have gone a lot better and it would’ve saved me from a lot of pain and also burnt in some ideas earlier and easier.

But we can’t go back.

But then figuring out what self-compassion is, that’s why that’s an elaborate answer. Because self-compassion, isn’t giving yourself a bubble bath or letting yourself walk on the beach, which are all great, actually. Don’t stop doing those things. But the deepest self-compassion is that gnarly one of giving up your anger, attachment, and selfishness.

[00:54:15] Fabienne Pradelle: It’s a beautiful answer because it’s really thought provoking and makes you, when you were saying the true meaning of self-compassion is renunciation. Because renunciation is a concept and a word that is really hard to relate to. But giving up anger, it’s a beautiful idea.

And it reminded me of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who we’re both connected to who’s this, Lama who 24/7 barely sleeps and 24/7 is about others, is about benefiting others. And Venerable Roger, his amazing attendant who’s been his attendant for several decades said to him one day, Would Rinpoche not like to rest, take a day’s rest? And Rinpoche looks at him like, that’s a crazy idea. Like you know, why would you want to rest? 

So Rinpoche asked Venerable Roger, What is rest? What do you think rest is? And Venerable Roger, very kindly said what does Rinpoche think rest is? And Rinpoche stops. And he thinks, and then he says, Abiding in morality, abiding in morality. 

Lama Zopa Rinpoche

And, morality is not necessarily a very contemporary term, this idea that your mind is completely open and free and therefore utterly relaxed. Because there’s no action of body, speech and mind that harms others, because that’s what morality is, not to harm others.

And so self-compassion as this idea of renunciation, giving up anger and giving up all the things that harm self and others, it’s a beautiful answer. Thank you for that. Okay. So if we have time for one more question?

[00:56:12] Scott Snibbe: Fine by me. 

What would it mean to die without regrets?

[00:56:13] Fabienne Pradelle: In Buddhism, we focus a lot on death meditation and thinking about our death as a way to have a better life, not to waste our time and so forth. And we hear a lot about dying without regrets. So again, asking you, what would it mean to you to die without regrets? What does that look like?

[00:56:38] Scott Snibbe: You know, when my wife asked me about my fears, I’ll tell you my other fear, which was a fear of wasting my life. And so I think I would like to have felt that I made my life worthwhile. That just, I had a positive impact on the people I encountered and on society itself, society and the planet also, all life; not necessarily the biggest impact, not over-exaggerated, but that the things I did had a positive impact and made the world a little bit better, I think that’s it.

And also to have all your relationships resolved, I think that’s a really big deal with death is to make sure that you’re at peace with other people, you’ve apologized, expressed your love and so on. Those things really eat at you. So I think maybe those, you know, but in our tradition, like, death is an adventure.

We rehearse it every day, sometimes more than once. Wasn’t it John Lennon who said, Death is just like stepping out of one car into another? Because the Beatles were always being driven around everywhere. That’s how he thought of it. And I have watched a few people die, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and it did seem like an adventure when I saw them die. 

It is sad to lose somebody, but it’s better to process that before the person dies and especially yourself, to be at peace with that. The problem is that, if you have this idea that you go into nothing, then death is absolutely terrifying. Maybe, if you’re really in a lot of pain, then it might feel like, okay, I’ll be obliterated from this pain. 

But I think we don’t have any evidence of annihilation. There’s only continuity in nature and in the mind. We have no idea what that necessarily looks like. Although some people, great enlightened beings have talked about their own experience going from lifetime to lifetime, and it’s really worth listening to their accounts. I don’t think they’re lying. 

[00:58:26] Fabienne Pradelle: So why do we resist it so much? Why do we resist that idea so much? Why does it seem so radical? Because it’s true. There is no evidence that there’s nothing after life and nature itself is a continuous example of continuous renewal. Why is it so difficult for us do you think?

[00:58:48] Scott Snibbe: I think it’s because the person we think we are is already dead. Like, I think the person we think we are doesn’t exist in the first place. So, a person that is separate and singular and unitary, that person already died. That person never existed. So it’s quite reasonable to be worried about losing that person because you never had that person.

And I actually think that is where it comes from. Because you know that person’s already dead. I mean, I know that’s kind of a weird answer, but because that’s what we have to lose. 

[00:59:20] Fabienne Pradelle: Holding on to the one that never existed.

[00:59:25] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:59:26] Fabienne Pradelle: The big Buddhist mystery. 

Scott, it’s been such a pleasure to have this conversation with you and do this interview with you and really inspiring to hear about how you practice and how you apply what you contemplate in your daily life and how it shapes your daily life and how it shapes you.

I got a lot out of our conversation, so thank you very much for doing this with us today.

[00:59:59] Scott Snibbe: Thanks, me too. I can admit my bias and say you’re one of my favorite people to talk to. So I really enjoyed it. That’s my attachment. I really enjoyed spending this time talking together. Thanks. 

Thanks for joining us for this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations that keep all our content free and ad free. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.



Credits

Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Digital Production by Jason Waterman
Social Media by Isabela Acebal

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