[00:00:12] Scott Snibbe: I’m so excited to be here. And as we mentioned, every class is going to begin with a meditation. You’ll see right away, even just one minute of meditation, it changes your whole mindset and your attention. So I’ll try to begin every class with a very short meditation.
[00:00:29] You can get yourself into any meditation posture you like. We’ll talk more about posture in detail when we do the longer meditation at the end. If you are in a traditional meditation posture, you have your seat elevated on a little cushion and legs crossed. Or if you are in a chair, that’s fine too. You can have legs out and down, and we’ll talk more about posture a little later.
[00:00:58] But for now, just think how in meditation we walk a kind of tight rope of, on the one hand, accepting everything that we are right now. Everything that goes through our mind. But then on the other hand, also gently steering our mind and our behavior toward its greatest good and its greatest potential, greatest possibility for connection.
[00:01:30] Like a lot of things in the Buddhist path. It’s a kind of contradiction and accepting yourself as you are, and then also steering yourself toward your greatest potential.
[00:01:44] So starting out with our body, becoming aware of our weight on the cushion, whatever sensations are moving through our body right here, right now. And then putting our attention on our breath just for one minute without pushing away or pulling forward any other thoughts that come to mind. Just focus on the breath as it goes in and out of your nostrils or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
[00:03:11] Then you can come out of the meditation.
[00:03:15] So I’m going to start out a little bit just by introducing myself. Obviously I’m not a Buddhist lama or a monk or nun or anything like that. I’ve been studying this tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for about 22 years and teaching for about 15. In this tradition, you can’t volunteer to teach, you have to be invited. So for some reason they invited me to start teaching at a Buddhist Center, first at Buddhist Center in San Francisco. And I was specifically asked to teach the lamrim, which is what the Skeptic’s Path is based on, the specific sequence of analytical meditations that, you know, gradually steer your mind toward its greatest good.
[00:03:57] So what I saw were various challenges that people had, you know, as I was leading these meditations for everyday modern people. Um, and also for my friends, you know, a lot of why I’ve done with what I’ve done with A Skeptic’s Path is because of friends of mine who kept coming to ask me, you know, where can I start learning this type of meditation? And not having that great of an answer for them.
[00:04:21] Because the traditional elements of and approaches to the lamrim meditation include these elements of reality that we can’t currently validate with science or psychology like karma, rebirth, and other realms, you know, other realms of existence besides the observable universe.
[00:04:41] And so I felt like in a lot of ways, I felt like we were disappointing or even kind of betraying the people that came to a meditation class that said it was for beginners and, and non Buddhists. And so with the blessing of my teachers, I started developing a more secular version of each meditation, with teachers like Venable, René Feusi, who’s my main meditation teacher, Venerable Robina Courtin, Venerable Sangye Khadro, um, great Western teachers who studied with Lama Yeshe, who founded the tradition I was trained in called the FPMT.
[00:05:15] But I like to emphasize that I’m a teaching assistant really. I think that’s the best term for what I am. In Buddhism they call this sometimes a Dharma friend. It’s someone that you learn together with rather than learning from. And you have great advanced teachers in this tradition that you can learn from including Geshe Namdak, who you have at the Jamyang Center, who’s fantastic, a very authentic teacher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, you can go watch him on Zoom every week. So if you want authentic Tibetan Buddhism, there are many, many places to get it.
[00:05:48] But if you want to learn this entry level place particularly for Westerners and for non-believers, then you know, we can learn together as equals.
[00:05:59] The other thing I want to do is mention the encouragement of the Dalai Lama himself. Just to let you know, I’m not totally going rogue in this activity. So, the Alma has written several books about secular approaches to meditation and ethics, and he mentions this goal frequently in his public talks also, of developing a secular form of the Dharma And Mind Training.
[00:06:21] He has wonderful books like Ethics for a New Millennium, Beyond Religion is a particularly strong one with a particularly clear title. And if you like, those are great books to accompany this class if you want, They don’t have the same curriculum, but it’s the inspiration. They’re almost like manifestos for what we’re trying to do in this class.
[00:06:41] In particular though, there’s a quote in Beyond Religion where the Dalai Lama says, “The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.” So I think it couldn’t be clearer than that, from the best known Buddhist on the planet, an encouragement to do what we’re trying to do here.
[00:06:59] I also have a nice quote from Geisha Namdak, who’s the resident teacher at Jamyang Center in London. When I interviewed him for the Skeptic’s Path podcast, he said very beautifully, he said, Buddhism is not meant to make more Buddhist, but to generate happy minds. I like that very much. You know, Buddhism really doesn’t market itself very heavily it’s is quite, um, gentle and and generous.
[00:07:27] Another thing I want to talk about is this word enlightenment, because of course that’s part of the course’s title. And I want to say a little bit about that. Obviously I don’t have any firsthand information about enlightenment but I’ve been taught about it. And I have a suspicion that certain people I’ve seen may be enlightened, you know, certain highly realized teachers, maybe even the Dalai Lama— certainly based on his behavior.
[00:07:51] But what I’d like to say is that on one level, A Skeptic’s Path isn’t even Buddhism, because it’s only concerned with this life. And the type of Buddhism that Skeptic’s Path is inspired by is called Mahayana Buddhism. Maha means great, and yana means scope. So this great scope, it actually doesn’t mean it’s the best path or the best scope. But it means that it has the greatest goal of enlightening all beings, or of helping all beings to whatever extent you can.
[00:08:25] But you might even call it a kind of price of admission to the Mahayana path when you study this topic formally, is to be concerned with your future life. You know, they say that’s actually the entrance to the Buddhist path is that you’re not just concerned with this life. So I want to just say that honestly, especially for anyone who is a more experienced or practicing Buddhist, that Skeptic’s Path is grounded only in what science and psychology currently know about the mind and reality.
[00:08:53] So we focus on this life. It’s the only life that we know for most of us. And just this one life is a pretty amazing opportunity. That’s the topic we talk about in the third class. That was the hardest topic to adapt in fact, to Skeptic’s Path was the preciousness of life, the first topic in the lamrim because it so much relies on past and future lives and karma and so on.
[00:09:16] So instead we focus on how to make this life a happy one. How to make it a life that’s full of meaning and connection. And also how to make it a life that’s a force for making the world a better place.
[00:09:29] And I think those three things are very important. I think a lot of times people can think Buddhism is just a personal path towards personal peace of mind. But I think when you look more clearly, you know, at least in this tradition, the Mahayana tradition, it’s very clear that the purpose of the Buddhist path is to build a happy, stable mind for yourself, make stronger connections with others, especially the people you’re closest to and improve the world, make the world a better place.
[00:10:00] So the reason I still use this term enlightenment in the title is because the ideal of enlightenment is still worth having as a skeptic. At a basic level, the ideal of enlightenment says that all our good qualities can be limitlessly improved and that all our negative qualities can be gradually let go.
[00:10:19] If you’re a skeptic, you should definitely question whether the ideal of enlightenment is possible. But as we talk about the ideal of enlightenment, I want to talk about another ideal first, and that’s the ideal of world peace because I think it makes a really good example.
[00:10:36] During one of the Dalai Lama’s talks, actually one of the first time I heard him speak, someone asked him whether achieving world peace is really possible. And they said, Isn’t there always going to be some kind of fighting on earth? Which is a totally reasonable question.
[00:10:49] And I’ve heard people ask the Dalai Lama this a couple times and he always gave the same answer. And he says, At least what I remember him saying is, Yes, realistically there is always going to be some fighting on earth. However, when you have the ideal of world peace as your goal, it means that you make the most progress toward at attaining that ideal. In fact, more progress than someone who has a lesser goal or no go at all.
[00:11:17] So holding the ideal of world peace, even if it might be an unattainable fantasy, has this practical benefit of filling your life with meaning and purpose and power.
[00:11:29] I like to use that analogy because just like peace activists’ ideal to end all wars, the ideal of enlightenment puts you on a lifetime path to expand your best qualities, to let go of the harmful ones, and become a force for good in the world. So it’s a kind of theoretical end, enlightenment is, to such a path.
[00:11:49] It’s the elimination of all your disturbing thoughts and the cultivation of all the beneficial ones where you’ve attained stable concentration, boundless joy, unlimited compassion, and the wisdom to know how to best benefit humanity. I like talking about it that way more as a theoretical limit even if we don’t know whether it’s actually possible or not.
[00:12:13] But let’s set aside whether Buddhist enlightenment is real or possible and just see if we can make our own minds happier together over the course of the next 12 weeks. Let’s be practical.
[00:12:24] So the main discussion for today is What is meditation? I really enjoy this discussion because over the past few years, meditation has become quite popular as a way to help reduce stress and be focused at work, sleep better, or just relax. And I think you’ve probably seen or tried apps like Headspace or Calm that offer meditation as a practical tool for dealing with a variety of mental problems and everyday problems.
[00:12:55] But meditation isn’t just a tool to improve focus or to relax. As I was saying before, it’s a way to strengthen the positive qualities that we all naturally possess; of openness and compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, humor, and finding joy in everyday life. You know, that may be one of the nicest benefits of meditation.
[00:13:18] And though the class is secular, it’s rooted in the Buddhist tradition and from the Buddhist point of view, meditation isn’t just a useful therapy for problems that come and go, but it’s a way to condition the mind on a daily basis to expand beneficial thoughts and emotions and let go of painful, unproductive thoughts and emotions.
[00:13:38] Ultimately, it’s the way of becoming the best human being we could possibly be, and deepening our connections to others.
[00:13:47] So in one form of meditation, you’re totally honest with yourself. You’re completely accepting yourself while you gently and honestly observe the thoughts that pass through your mind. That’s a type of meditation where we’re observing and stabilizing our minds like we do in mindfulness meditation. That’s the well known term for stabilizing meditation that’s used probably more than stabilizing meditation today.
[00:14:13] So stabilizing meditation’s main purpose is to help calm your mind, and it’s the meditation most people have already heard about. And for many people, it’s the only type of meditation that they know of; that you focus on an object to stabilize your awareness, to slow down your thoughts and to attend to your body and mind.
[00:14:33] The most common object for stabilizing meditation is the breath. And that’s because your breath is always with you. If it’s not, you know, you have bigger problems. And your breath is also a reflection of your inner state. So if you notice, it’s really great to notice your breath as you’re going through your day, because you see that it’s quick and shallow when you’re nervous, it’s slow and steady when you’re calm.
[00:14:57] Sometimes they call meditating on the breath, the king of meditations, because it’s one of the most immediate ways of positively connecting the body and mind; grounding yourself, opening up to yourself.
[00:15:09] So that’s stabilizing meditation. But then there’s also meditation techniques for steering the mind toward happiness and meaning and benefiting others. And that’s the tradition of analytical meditation that we focus on in this class.
[00:15:24] With this type of meditation, it’s possible to direct your thoughts and emotions towards openness, happiness, compassion, and other subjects. It’s almost the opposite of stabilizing meditation in one sense, because in analytical meditation, you deliberately fill your mind with thoughts and emotions.
[00:15:42] So An analytical meditation is kind of like a mental movie or a podcast that moves from scene to scene, idea to idea, taking your mind on a kind of narrative journey with the purpose of cultivating beneficial states of mind.
[00:15:57] And I think one of the encouraging things about analytical meditation is that I’ve noticed how many people right from the start, can focus a hundred percent on the experience, even for a whole hour, in an hour long meditation session without distraction.
[00:16:13] And I think this is because we’re used to watching TV and listening to stories, and at its root analytical meditation is just another type of story.
[00:16:22] So the topics of analytical meditation include love, compassion, wisdom, patience, generosity, I permanence, suffering, and death. And these don’t all immediately sound like beneficial states of mind. But cultivating topics like suffering and death with the right attitude can be useful in giving your life a sense of urgency and purpose.
[00:16:50] A nice way to make the distinction between the two types of meditation is that stabilizing meditation calms the mind. And analytical meditation changes the mind. You need them both. Because without stabilizing the focus that you need for analytical meditation is impossible. And without analytical meditation, the calm of stabilizing meditation might just be relaxing rather than mind transforming.
[00:17:18] Now, when you hear me talk about the benefits of meditation, if you’re a skeptic, you might say, What basis do you make that claim upon? And one way is that some of us have met great Buddhist lamas or advanced meditators who directly demonstrate these qualities, which is a nice way to validate it for yourself. And it’s also encouraging.
[00:17:38] But still, you could argue that the, those kind of people were just born peaceful and kind, and meditation just reinforced what was already there in them. So luckily there now have been many scientific studies on meditation, both with long term meditators and also people new to meditation. The latter ones are even more encouraging because studies by people like Richie Davidson suggest that meditation improves health, happiness, self control, productivity, and our social connection to others.
[00:18:12] And it’s this principle of neuroplasticity in particular, that’s one of the strongest scientific supports for meditation. This was a recently discovered aspect of the brain we didn’t know of 20 years ago. What neuroplasticity tells us is that our mind is changed by every thought and action. So we reinforce habits, not just when we’re children, but into adulthood and old age. There’s a catchy phrase neuroscientists say, which is that neurons that fire together wire together. And that sums it up in a nutshell.
[00:18:47] There’s an awful lot written about this topic, and I think one of the most accessible books about this is by Dr. Rick Hanson, a book called Buddha’s Brain. If you want to read a little more about how neuroscience validates meditation’s claims.
[00:19:01] Some people come to meditation out of desperation, you know, which is a reasonable place to start any kind of practice to help yourself. People that feel like they’re losing control of their minds, wanting to diminish fear and anxiety, um, compulsive desire.
[00:19:20] But I think an interesting aspect of meditation is that there are also people who come to meditation at a point in their life when they’ve achieved their goals. So when their life is actually looking great on the surface and they start to ask, Is that all? They still don’t feel satisfied. And they ask questions like, Why am I still worrying? Why am I still competing, craving, getting angry? Are fleeting moments of pleasure all I can hope from in life.
[00:19:51] And this is a point where people move from, or at least want to move from surviving to flourishing. You know, when we realize that our mind is the source of our problems and the source of our solutions and not our outer achievements and possessions.
[00:20:08] Something else is really important. You know, when we’re talking about the benefits of meditation, it can sound very compelling and even exciting. I personally find meditation very exciting and I look forward to meditating most of the time. One of my personal goals is to make meditation cool enough that people get together on a Friday night for meditation parties. And when you’re on a meditation retreat, you do that actually, If you’ve never been on a meditation retreat, it’s kind of interesting to go in on a Friday night and see that you can have a lot of fun just meditating together.
[00:20:41] Even if you compare it to hang out at a bar or something like that, it compares quite favorably or even better, sometimes. And that brings me to another point, which is that it’s worth talking a little bit about what meditation isn’t. And one important point is that meditation isn’t always relaxing.
[00:20:58] There are easier ways to relax than closing your eyes and sitting down on a cushion. You can relax by going to the beach, by listening to music, by taking a bath, by hanging out at a bar, um, by watching YouTube, or even by vaping. People do these things to relax and they’re genuinely relaxing. It’s really important to admit that.
[00:21:21] So what’s the difference? How do you compare them with meditation? Well, none of these activities intrinsically enhances our better nature. You know, none of them enduringly diminishes our disturbing states of mind. That’s the purpose of meditation.
[00:21:36] I think it’s really important to mention this because if you’re coming to meditation just to relax, it may compare unfavorably to binge watching your favorite show on Netflix, which is okay to do and, and is also relaxing and might be more relaxing than meditation.
[00:21:52] So understanding the unique benefits of meditation helps keep you on the cushion even when it’s difficult. I actually like to say that the days that meditation feels hard are, in a sense your best meditation sessions because you’re not just doing it because meditation feels good, you’re doing it for the long term benefits.
[00:22:13] And in that way, meditation’s also like working out, getting exercise. Meditation is an exercise of the mind that puts you into a supple, open, warm, wiser state of being.
[00:22:25] And also like exercise, just reading about meditation or just listening to a talk about meditation has limited impact. So according to the Buddhist tradition, you can study meditation for a lifetime. You can even become a meditation scholar. But without actually meditating, you won’t gain an experiential understanding of your mental states. You won’t train your mind. An analogy that’s often used is that it’s like someone accepting medicine from a doctor, but then never taking it. That’s why we always meditate in these classes and don’t just talk about it.
[00:23:02] Another thing is that meditation isn’t spacing out. The state of mind that you’re in during meditation is alert, concentrated, sharp, focused. It’s the level of attention, like we were talking about with Netflix. You know, when you’re enthralled in a story, when you’re completely engaged, it’s that level of attention.
[00:23:21] But how do you develop that kind of focus for objects of meditation instead of for Netflix? Somehow it’s easy to focus on a TV show.
[00:23:28] If you’ve tried, I’m sure you’ve all tried meditating on the breath, and people often find it very difficult to focus on the breath, this most common object of meditation. Your mind drifts. You think of plans and regrets, the pain in your knees, what’s for lunch.
[00:23:47] But in daily life, I think you may notice that we actually are able to focus sometimes for hours on objects besides the breath. And that’s when we desperately want something. So whether it’s a girl, a boy, an iPhone, an apartment, a job, we can stay focused on that fantasy, you know, our strong desire for something. And, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that desire either, but we can stay focused on things that we really want in life, sometimes for hours without drifting.
[00:24:22] And then also when we’re upset about something, when we’re feeling resentful, indignant alone, angry, we can also stay with that feeling for long stretches of time without drifting from it.
[00:24:36] So this shows that we do have the ability to focus single pointedly, and maybe all we need to do is change the object of focus. So it’s encouraging on that level. Uh, it is important to say though that rumination and obsession aren’t meditation. They aren’t exactly the same thing, but they do prove our ability to give various objects of our mind our focused attention; that we have the ability to control and direct our mind.
[00:25:03] So with meditation, what it does, it takes our natural power of attention that we have, and it controls it. It directs us toward beneficial states of mind and makes us fully self aware, no longer overpowered by craving misery, rage.
[00:25:21] Another thing I like to talk about is that it’s possible to meditate for the wrong reasons. And I’ll start off with myself as an example. I’ve been meditating for more than 20 years, but I think for long stretches of that time, I used some of the stabilizing effects of meditation just to heap on more activity and ramp up my pace and achieve more in my worldly life. Sometimes
[00:25:44] you hear, you know, various leaders and CEOs talking about their meditation and, and I think that’s what it was for me, you know, at least for a while. And I think that’s the pitfall of focusing just on stabilizing meditation because it can be used as a kind of relaxation technique to escape your troubles for a while, or even recharge so you can go out and cause more trouble, you know, whether that’s for you or for someone else.
[00:26:09] A really potent example of that is that the military, at least the US military, uses mindfulness meditation now sometimes for good reasons, like for helping people get over PTSD. But they also use it to train the attention of soldiers so that they stay focused and, you know, don’t shake their hands while they’re trying to kill another human being.
[00:26:30] So that’s a stark example, but it’s meant to say that meditation isn’t inherently virtuous. And when I think of these worldly or even, you know, quote evil ways of meditating, I remember Darth Vader in the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t know if you remember, but Darth Vader is meditating all through that movie. It’s almost like whenever he’s not killing people, he’s meditating. He has this giant black egg that opens up like an evil lotus, and inside it, he’s mindfully watching the deepest evennest breaths you’ve ever heard. That’s kind of his defining, characteristic.
[00:27:07] So I like to say you don’t want to be like Darth Vader in your meditation. You can easily have a negative, or at least a selfish or worldly motivation for meditating. Which I can tell you from, I tell you from my own experience, you know, not as a moralistic finger pointing.
[00:27:24] So it’s good to be in every session with some kind of a wholesome, expansive motivation for your meditation. That you have this intention to weaken your disturbing states of mind and to cultivate the beneficial ones, to bring joy to others and to ease others’ pain. To see the fleeting nature of life and to make the most of it, and to find meaning and happiness just in being alive and aware in the present moment.
[00:27:51] So again, in this tradition, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the motivation you have for meditation is seen as essential, and you usually do it right at the beginning of every session.
[00:28:01] So when we talk about disturbing states of mind and beneficial ones, it can seem like they’re equal opponents fighting each other like the angel and devil. You sometimes see on people’s shoulders in old cartoons and movies. You know, you have one whispering in one ear, one, one in the other. But there’s an assertion in Buddhism that our inner angels and devils aren’t equals at all.
[00:28:26] And this is nice because despite how much Buddhism talks about death and suffering, at its root, it has a profound optimism about our minds that says, At our core, we’re fundamentally good. So Buddhism says that our beneficial states of mind are said to be our deepest ones, the ones that are our very nature. And that are disturbing states of mind, even though they can sometimes overpower us, are supposed to be transient. They come and go and they aren’t our deepest nature.
[00:28:58] Again, you know, taking a skeptical look at this, a critical look at this. I have asked a few scientists whether there’s any evidence for this fundamental goodness at our core. I asked Dr. Rick Hanson this question, and he told me this is by no means definitive, but that in neuroscience and in animal behavior, there’s evidence that when creatures are free from stress and pain, that their inherent resting state of contentment, of peace and relaxation and openness might be a sign that there’s this inherent goodness within us all. Not just humans, you know, even animals.
[00:29:34] Whether true or not, it’s sort of sweet thought that the cat curled up on your couch purring after breakfast might be one of the pieces of evidence for our potential to become enlightened.
[00:29:45] There’s just one more thing. The last thing I wanna say about meditation is that it isn’t meant to end when you get up from the cushion. The point is to take the peace and the insight that you cultivate in a quiet place and then take it out into the world. So ultimately, this is the most important practice. You know, I even had one teacher actually said you’re more likely to find a bodhisattva- a bodhisattva is a being who dedicates their life only to the benefit of others. You know, you take a special vow. And he said you’re more likely to find a bodhisattva at a football game rather than in a meditation cave. So ultimately this is the most important practice, how we engage with others to form meaningful connections, to achieve shared goals, to soothe each other’s pain and to share our joys.
[00:30:33] And this was something my teacher, venerable Kathleen McDonald said once to me, is that the true measure of meditation success is that you become happier, more at peace, more present, but also that your relationships improve. So you know, you can trick yourself that you’re at peace and stable and blissful on your cushion, then get up and have a fight with your wife. I tell you from personal experience.
[00:30:59] So the real measure of meditation’s success is that your relationships get better, which I think is a nice external way to measure your success, just like a scientist. So you can know yourself through your insight, how your meditation is improving your state of mind.
[00:31:15] But our practice on the cushion nurtures, strengthens, and renews these qualities that we then go out to test and engage as we interact with others out in the world.
[00:31:27] So that’s the introduction to meditation. What is meditation? I think there’s quite a few surprises in there. You know, I think there’s quite, quite a few things if you are new to Buddhist meditation, that there’s a few things you that you didn’t expect to hear about what meditation is: not just focusing but focusing on the good in order to bring out your best qualities.
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