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The Precious Life—Chapter Reading from How to Train a Happy Mind

scott snibbe, how to train a happy mind

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Scott Snibbe shares a chapter from his new book, How to Train a Happy Mind: The Precious Life. If you enjoy this episode, check out the whole audiobook on Audible, which includes guided meditations!

[00:00:11] Scott Snibbe: Hi, I’m Scott Snibbe, and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. If you’ve listened to our podcast for a while, you’ve probably noticed that our episodes alternate between talks, meditations, and interviews. In the talks I give personally, over the course of a year or so, I gradually go through a sequence of analytical meditation topics that bring out your mind’s best qualities, like kindness, compassion, generosity, and joy.

In Tibetan, this sequence is called the lamrim, and it means the stages of the path. But you don’t need to be a Buddhist to follow the sequence in the way that I’ve adapted it for the podcast. This is the same sequence that I use in my book, How to Train a Happy Mind, which just came out.

Today we’re on the very first topic again. I thought I’d give you a preview of the book by reading the chapter for this topic of the lamrim, The Precious Life. Next week I’ll guide the meditation for the same topic, also from the book. If you want to buy the book or audiobook, click here. I’ve donated all my proceeds from the book to the Skeptics Path to Enlightenment nonprofit, so it helps to support this show.

Stage One: The Precious Life

mom and baby cuddling, happy

It’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this paragraph right now, you’re alive. You’re also healthy enough to be awake and aware. You have a little bit of leisure time, a place to rest, and you’re likely in a country where you can freely choose what to read and believe. From a Buddhist perspective, these basics may be all you need to enjoy the fruits of analytical meditation, developing your best qualities, building a life of meaningful connections, and making the world a better place.

Thich Nhat Hanh expressed this beautifully when he wrote, “Every morning when we wake up, we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift.” We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others. This is the essence of the first stage in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment: The Precious Life.

Every morning when we wake up, we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Billions of people aren’t fortunate enough to have these basic freedoms of health, safety, and leisure. For those of us lucky enough to possess them, remembering this each day helps us reset our minds to realize how fortunate we are, and how much good we can accomplish. Making the most of our lives doesn’t mean we need to act like superheroes. The Dalai Lama once said, Whenever I see someone, I always smile. I think sometimes it’s better to see a human smiling face rather than meditating.

A simple smile and everyday kindness can have a huge positive effect on the world around us, an everyday compliment to the power of meditation. The practical benefits for your own mind of meditating on the precious life include countering hopelessness, apathy, and depression, while promoting gratitude, enthusiasm, and awe. It is empowering to know that you may already have everything you need to achieve a happy, meaningful life.

It is empowering to know that you may already have everything you need to achieve a happy, meaningful life.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

The traditional Buddhist approach to meditating on the precious life is to not only appreciate the profound worth of simply being alive, but also to consider how this life compares to the many others that came before it. Buddhists appreciate how, after an endless chain of prior lives, their good karma has finally propelled them to a rebirth as a rational, empathetic human being, instead of an instinct-driven animal, a tortured hell being, or a pleasure obsessed god.

But if you weren’t raised Buddhist, you probably don’t believe in past lives, karma, or other realms, and the logic of the lamrim’s first topic doesn’t make much sense. If you’re a skeptic who only grounds your beliefs in what science and psychology can currently prove, Thich Nhat Hanh’s words probably grab you more urgently, Each new day you’re still alive is a gift. And there’s the possibility of creating joy and connection in these next 24 hours.

Because, whether you believe in reincarnation or not, life is precious. In fact, it may feel even more precious to those of us who believe we have only one life to live, and not infinite future ones to try again, if this one doesn’t work out. I had a powerful realization in my 20s, when I first came across a quote attributed to Voltaire, It is no more surprising to be born twice than to be born once. Reading this, I awakened to the recognition that just existing at all is far more miraculous than any hypothetical possibility of existing again and again.

I awakened to the recognition that just existing at all is far more miraculous than any hypothetical possibility of existing again and again.

Gottfried Leibniz stated the fundamental question of existence even more bluntly in 1714 when he wrote, Why is there something rather than nothing? No one is likely to ever answer this profound question, but it is a reminder that all we have evidence for in our universe is something. Robert Thurman, the foremost Western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, illuminates this existential truth when he says wryly, The idea that nothing is something is simply irrational.

The idea that nothing is something is simply irrational.

Robert Thurman

Nothing is a word that has no reference. It’s just a negation. It means something that isn’t there. The definition of nothing is nonexistence. All anyone has ever observed is something. So another point in this first stage of the precious life is to feel how miraculous it is to be part of the only something that any of us know of; life on our planet in all its glorious diversity.

The scientific miracle of life

starry night sky with purple hues and mountains

For a long time I struggled to find a scientific analog for the natural sense of awe and responsibility a Buddhist feels in the face of infinite past and future lives. Is it possible for a skeptic to feel the same sense of awe about a finite life? I eventually discovered a sense of wonder that expands on Leibniz’s existential mystery by reflecting on the scientific origins of life.

As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I couldn’t get enough of a TV show called Cosmos, hosted by the eminent astronomer Carl Sagan. He gave me my first sense of the vastness of a universe that seemed more awesome to me than any religious creation story. When Sagan intoned his tagline, Billions and Billions, I got the shivers as he went on to tell a tale of an impossibly old universe that ends at a miniscule stretch of history in which we humans have at last evolved the capacity to know, think, and feel.

Cosmos introduced the cosmic calendar, which compresses the entire 13.8 billion years of our universe down into one Earth year. It’s a clever device that helps our human minds comprehend the newness of our species. On this calendar, a single day is 38 million years of our universe’s existence, and a second is 500 years.

Big Bang occurs in the first nanosecond of January 1st, and the present moment is the last instant of December 31st. From January to September, the universe evolves over 9 billion years until our star and solar system finally form from the debris of earlier stellar explosions. All the Earth’s heavy elements, including the building blocks of life, came from those stars that exploded before ours even formed.

Soon after the Earth’s formation, simple life appeared, 3.8 billion years ago. Three more months pass on the cosmic calendar, which is another 3.6 billion years, until dinosaurs show up and live for just one calendar day. Mammals emerge the next day, another 38 million years of universe time, and gradually evolve into monkeys, apes, and early hominids.

Modern humans show up late to the party, on New Year’s Eve, December 31st, at 11:52 p.m., only 200,000 years ago in real time. Recorded history, starting 12,000 years ago, begins at 11:59 p.m. and 33 seconds. The cosmic calendar’s final second holds all the past 500 years of modern civilization, from Leonardo da Vinci to the internet.

So far, everything we currently know about the universe’s evolution says that it took 13.8 billion years for humanity to emerge. And out of 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion other galaxies, we have yet to find evidence of other creative, rational beings like us. Carl Sagan poetically proclaims, We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. That humanity’s formidable role in the universe may be to serve as its mind.

We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Carl Sagan

I now lead meditations in this more scientific way, according to these profound facts that awed me as a boy, reflecting not only on the cosmic evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, but also on our remarkable intelligence and compassion. Every once in a while, you may reflect on the marvel of the universe and your miraculous place in it. But what happens when you do this every day, grounding yourself in the wonder of why is there something rather than nothing? Bringing Carl Sagan’s famous quote down to everyday reality, you are a way to know yourself.

Maybe this is the great responsibility of a human life, to become genuinely aware of your place in the universe at the end of 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, and to make the most of it. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? A more grounding approach to appreciating your precious life is to ask, What’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Today, most of us check our phones, and for a lot of us, this is not a matter of urgently helping humanity or gently pressing play for a guided meditation, we check the news, social media, sports, stocks, or work.

When I dive into these distracting activities before meditating, my compulsions and fears can dominate the rest of the day. I find it hard to shake off the chain of mindless impulses that follows from a day that starts off indulging my hunger for information, entertainment, or praise. But when I start the day quietly, getting to know my own thoughts, experiencing the simple beauty of awareness, steering my mind toward stability and satisfaction, and setting a motivation to make the day meaningful, I find that I am more present. I connect more easily with others and I make choices that I’m proud of.

When I start the day quietly, getting to know my own thoughts, experiencing the simple beauty of awareness, steering my mind toward stability and satisfaction, and setting a motivation to make the day meaningful, I find that I am more present.

A powerful morning ritual in the Tibetan tradition is to recall your great fortune in having one more day on this earth. As soon as you wake up, you think, I’m alive. I made it through the night. Life comes with no guarantee, and many people died yesterday from accidents, illness, violence, or old age.

With this sobering view in mind, you set an intention to make the most of your day. Seeing the briefness of your life helps cast off pettiness, mindlessness, and compulsive behavior. Thoughts of our shared fragility can help you to meet people’s gazes with affection and respect, and to pursue actions that genuinely benefit yourself and others.

If you have some safety and security, if you’re lucky enough to have a job and money in the bank, then maybe you already have everything you need for a happy life. The fact that you’ve explored books and teachings about self-reflection becomes the basis for the tremendous adventure you embark on in analytical meditation to transcend the mundane mechanics of everyday life, become self-aware, and gain control of your mind.

It’s worth making the small effort each morning to dive into your mind for a few minutes, to see who you are beneath thoughts and stimulation, and create the causes for genuine happiness by simply being present and aware. Gratitude like this can seem sappy to those of us raised in a culture of ironic detachment. But gratitude is one of the most researched practices of positive psychology, associated with well established beneficial outcomes.

In studies of people who practice gratitude regularly, participants experienced greater happiness, more positive emotions, increased resilience, better health, and stronger relationships. Analytical meditation on the precious life is a specific type of gratitude practice that helps you ground your day in the rarity and awe of your place in the universe, and a wish to make the most of it.

In studies of people who practice gratitude regularly, participants experienced greater happiness, more positive emotions, increased resilience, better health, and stronger relationships.

Why we don’t seize the day

woman sitting in chair sad, on her phone, doing nothing

I want to acknowledge that cultivating a reverence for simply having another day alive might seem indulgent to someone who’s trying to slog through a life that feels lonely, painful, or unjust. You might not feel that you have the luxury of savoring life’s philosophical value as you struggle to pay the rent, endure an angry boss, mourn a breakup, or suffer illness, inequity, or any of life’s other stresses. I’ve had stretches of life like this, where problems pile on top of problems, and you may be enduring such a time in your life right now.

But even if your own life is okay at the moment, how can you selfishly treasure 24 hours of safety and peace when billions of others suffer from poverty, illness, famine, war, and injustice? Not everyone has the opportunity for peaceful self-reflection and many people live in countries where they’re not permitted to freely study and discuss the ideas you’re reading about right now. Is it really appropriate to chill out in meditation and appreciate the beauty of a safe, privileged life?

Your upbringing can also become an obstacle to appreciating your life’s precious opportunities. Many of us were raised with values like boys don’t cry or be a good girl that seal off our ability to express or even know what we are thinking and feeling. You may also fail to appreciate the potential in every moment when your powerful primitive brain takes hold of your mind and body.

This instinctual part of yourself is genetically adapted to the hunt-and-kill savannas our ancestors evolved in, which hardly bears any resemblance to our safer modern world of supermarkets and smartphones. When someone cuts in front of you at the store, or when your boss says the work you did was only okay, those old, instinctual ego-driven forces can make you feel just as threatened as you would if you’d been attacked by a tiger, and cause you to lash out in anger or freeze in fear.

Your primitive mind can also drive you to compulsively seek pleasure, to excessively eat, drink, or take drugs, to mindlessly chase bodily pleasure in your next sexual partner or physical thrill, or to relentlessly pursue your next deal or promotion. I share these insights from personal experience. They’re all ways that we can grope mindlessly through life without appreciating its opportunities.

But even if you’re fortunate enough to be free from the harsh difficulties of poverty, war, oppression, addiction, severe illness, or chronic pain, you may still lack something that’s critical to making your life meaningful right now. That’s because many of us still fail to find the interest in time for self-reflection. This is the final obstacle to achieving a meaningful life of happiness and connection.

Even with sufficient money, relative health, a safe home, and a bit of free time, many of us fill it with the endless array of entertainments available to us. Or we’re driven to work through evenings and weekends, instead of simply enjoying being alive and aware in the company of people we love.

In a life free from the worst forms of suffering, one of the most disheartening situations to end up in is to have found an interest in life’s deepest questions, but then to never take the time to explore them, never make the effort to become educated about the true keys to a happy, purposeful life.That is why the Buddhist definition of a precious life is for us to not only be healthy, intelligent human beings living in a safe place with modest levels of resources, but also for us to have the interest and the inner drive to seriously probe the mysteries of existence.

I hope you’ve enjoyed me reading this sample chapter from How to Train a Happy Mind. If you’d like to buy the book or audio book, click here! In the next episode, I guide you through the meditation for this first topic from the book, The Precious Life. Meanwhile, I wish you a wonderful day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

Marketing by Isabela Acebal


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