Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism: Embrace, Let go, Stop, and Act

Dec 14 2019
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Stephen Batchelor, whose seminal book Buddhism Without Beliefs made his name nearly synonymous with “secular Buddhism.”

Robert Wright: Hi Steven. 

Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob. 

How are you doing?

I'm okay.

Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather. 

Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are... 

Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.

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Stoicism vs. Buddhism (cont’d): Ancient wisdom for modern-day struggles

Dec 06 2019

In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection. 

This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at nonzero.news@gmail.com

I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.

WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]

Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:

I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...

He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative. 

You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?

Buddhism vs. Stoicism: Compare and Contrast

Nov 23 2019
Interest in Stoicism has grown lately—as has interest in Buddhism, particularly the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Is this just a coincidence, or do these two schools of thought have something in common, something that speaks to a widely felt contemporary need? A while ago, I had a podcast conversation about this with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of the book How to Be a Stoic and a leading figure in the Stoic revival. That conversation has proved popular in video and audio form, so we thought we’d transcribe it and share some of its highlights with newsletter readers. Hope you like the result.

Seeing yourself from the outside (pretty literally)

Nov 16 2019

For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.

And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.

If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.

The strange efficiency of enlightenment

Oct 26 2019

I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person. 

Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).

But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.

Meditation as a meaning maker

Sep 21 2019

I’m afraid I must take issue with my friend Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Columbia University (whom I had the pleasure of talking with on meaningoflife.tv last year).  

On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning. 

It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.

Ten days off the grid

Jul 12 2019

The first rule of meditation retreats is, You do not talk about meditation retreats. The reason is that, by and large, people don’t want to hear about them. They don’t want to hear about how beautiful the world started to seem on day three (you had to be there) or about the aches and frustrations of days one and two (first world problems) or about the dark night of the soul toward the end of the retreat (ditto).

Still, I’m going to say a bit about the 10-day retreat I finished this week, because the second rule of meditation retreats is, Meditation retreats are hard not to talk about. A good retreat—and all eight I’ve been on have brought more good than bad—fills you with an urge to rhapsodize, even evangelize.

But don’t worry: I’ll try to repress the rhapsody. Though my retreat had plenty of powerful moments, my aim here is just to soberly make a couple of points about the virtues of staying off the grid for 10 days—and about the added benefits of combining that with the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness at work

Apr 26 2019

Three weeks ago, I suggested a way to use smartphones to (ironically!) weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that in a subsequent issue of MRN I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” So here goes.

First, a quick review: The anti-addiction exercise I recommended was to hold your smartphone and, upon feeling the urge to open some app, close your eyes and examine the urge. “The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them.”

The reason this exercise can bring benefits beyond the realm of smartphone addiction is that “feelings like this” is a pretty broad category. Consider this lamentably common sequence of events:

You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work. (Not that fun is a bad thing!—but there’s a time and place for everything.) Maybe you’ve checked into your favorite social media site, maybe you’re checking out things you could buy (next-day delivery!), maybe you’ve surrendered your autonomy to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and are watching passively, almost helplessly, as a series of increasingly unredeeming videos parasitize your consciousness.

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