S2E17 Enlightenment

Enlightenment is often misunderstood in western culture as something to achieve. In this episode, Dr. Pete clarifies that there actually is no arrival or achievement of enlightenment (what?!) and both docs discuss what this means from a Buddhist lens and how it may connect with spirituality. Dr. Rubin also identifies how our human brains will continue to interfere with this process because we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Tune in to begin to explore this complex concept.




Pete: Well, we are all seeking enlightenment as we traveled down this journey of life, mindfulness or Zen Buddhism. Hey, Nikki, you enlightened?

Nikki: Hey. Yeah, I was just thinking, I'm like, ‘yeah, so we picked a really light topic for this week, super light topic of enlightenment'. Easy discussion here.

Pete: Easy, breezy. But here we are, just going to break down what enlightenment is, how it is interpreted and taught within Zen Buddhism, maybe thinking about how that is in behaviorism.

Nikki: Well, not going to be a lot to say about it on behaviorism. But I think, I would maybe like to talk about and hear your thoughts about sort of maybe how it's misunderstood…

Pete: I was going to say, maybe personality disorders in behaviors.

Nikki: Right yeah, maybe that. I'm saying even broader than psychology. It's sort of just like a Western culture, I think has a, that word is thrown around a lot, I think. But we don't often really, I mean, I never really learned about it. What it really was until, I learned from you honestly.

Pete: Yeah, we don't talk a lot about it. I mean, I went to Catholic school. So we have world religions. Did you ever have a world religion class?

Nikki: I did not, no.

Pete: It's so crazy.

Nikki: And I wasn't as interested in that when I was in college.

Pete: If you had the choice today, would you take it?

Nikki: Absolutely, 100%.

Pete: I know, and I wish I was more engaged and probably learned and cheat on a test. I’m just kidding.

Nikki: Yeah, you're like, “nah”. Okay, so can you maybe start with, can you talk a little bit about maybe what enlightenment is from a Buddhist lens.

Pete: So the way they teach it, and I've talked about the Four Noble Truths on here before. So the first noble truth that we all suffer, the second is that suffering is created by attachment. The third noble truth is that the Eightfold Path allows to release that attachment. The fourth is enlightenment.

Nikki: Okay,

Pete: Sometimes also called Nirvana.

Nikki: Oh, right. Okay.

Pete: Depends on whatever lineage you're reading. The idea is, it's like the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Nikki: Can you say more about that? Because I'm guessing probably a lot of listeners don’t know about the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Pete: Well, Siddhartha, and I don't know, there's definitely going to be a scholar listening, or maybe not, because they're not listening. But if there were a scholar listening, they would say this is wrong or inaccurate. The way that I understand it is that Siddhartha was like royalty. And he said, like, “I'm still suffering, like what's going on with this, I want to go be in the common people”. And so he left all his jewels, left the palace, and went and sat underneath a Bodhi tree, which is just a really pretty tree with lots of branches that go on all over directions, and become enlightened or just detach and find some peace. And so that was termed enlightenment. Now…

Nikki: And I think, maybe to say, and then that's who the Buddha was, by the story, right?

Pete: By that story. Yeah. But there's no real Buddha. Because everyone's Buddha. So like after…

Nikki: So keep going with that. Because I'm imagining the metaphorical wheels turning or the…

Pete: So for our two Yogi friends that is probably listening. When you say ‘[inaudible 3:47]’ at the end of the class, what you're saying is, ‘I see the light inside you that's also inside me'. And that's really the teaching within Zen Buddhism is that we all have that inner light, no matter how dim or bright it might be. And that's what the Buddha teaching is, is that…So, in Christianity, you're praying to Jesus or to God, in Hinduism, you have multiple Gods depending on which branch you are, in Islam, you have Allah. Buddhism doesn't have one person that they're, they're not praying to, there's no deity. And so while the story is meant to embody the art and act of relinquishing attachment. Because it also depends, there's many different images of Buddha too depending on the part of the world that you're in, so I think that's important. There's not just one Buddha. So yes, Siddhartha was seen as like, maybe the first Buddha, I don't even probably, I guess, because he made that step, but all of that to say, Nikki there's no such thing as enlightenment.

Nikki: I bet everybody's like, “Whoa, why did I tune into this episode?” Yeah. So say more about that. Because again, and I'm, by the way, just for listeners to know, as I've said many times, I've not studied Buddhism in depth as Pete has. I consider myself like Buddhist informed so to speak, because of…

Pete: I’m Buddhist informed too, but yeah.

Nikki: Yes well, but significantly more than myself that I ascribe to the worldview and all of the practices and I just love hearing Pete talk about this stuff, because I learned a lot of things that I don't know. So I'm all speaking for myself. And I'm like, “Oh, help explain, like, there's no such thing as enlightenment”. Say more about that.

Pete: It's hard. A lot of this is in the mind. And so I had a colleague of mine, who was remembering the anniversary of the passing of their father, is a really good friend of mine. And she said to me, “how do you deal with death? I just want to hug my dad.” And I was like, “you just did”. And that was like, I watched her brain kind of work to process because she was like, “I don't get it”. I'm like, “well, that's really what this is all about”. It's like, whatever you want to accomplish, you've already accomplished. And so with enlightenment, the issue about it not being existing is, because once you feel like you've arrived at that, which is supposed to be this ultimate inner peace, like freedom from attachment, freedoms from suffering is really what it is.

Nikki: Right, yes.

Pete: If you've ever feel like you've arrived, then you're not arrived, because then you're posturing that you've arrived. You're like, “Yes, I've gotten this thing. And I've won”. But there's no arrival.

Nikki: Well, and I think what's coming to my mind is you're saying that as well, is this concept that, and I can't remember if I've said this on this podcast before, but I've definitely talked to Pete about it. I have a friend who always says this quote of like, ‘we're spiritual beings having a human experience'.

Pete: I love that, yeah.

Nikki: I love it. Yeah. Dr. Mia Sage, she's the one that,

Pete: Hey Mia.

Nikki: Yeah, hey Mia. Mia says that,

Pete: She better be listening.

Nikki: Yeah, she maybe. I'll tell her to listen to this episode, if she hasn't. So this concept of we're spiritual beings having a human experience. Like that kind of stands out to me in what you're saying right now, Pete, because it's like, the point of the human experience is that we're not going to figure it out. We're not, that's like the whole point, there's never going to be a moment where we're free from attachment, or we don't feel pain, or we don't struggle, or we don't suffer, or we don't fight reality, because that's how human experience is designed as another colleague of mine likes to say, like, “I don't know who's in charge of this stuff. But this is how it works”. And I think, like, I don't know, does that resonate with you?

Pete: It's beautiful, it's spirituality. I think that that would probably be what we're trying to do in any kind of enlightenment, is just trying to get to a place of like, ‘Can I connect to a spiritual existence?’ And in whatever way that means. So in relinquishing attachment, I'm able to connect in a more deep way. And that's what we're ultimately trying to do. I mean, I haven't let go of anything so that I can connect in this moment as deeply as possible. And it's a really beautiful thing.

Nikki: It is, and it brings a tear to my eye when you're saying that because I think…

Pete: Well that’s easy.

Nikki: Yeah, well. There are degrees of what tearing [inaudible 8:38]

Pete: Wait, hold on, let me ask you because Maslow, so I think we were saying like, it's not really behaviorism but Maslow would say it's like self realization, that self actualization. I wonder if you could, do you see connection there?

Nikki: I mean, sure, though, I think that puts, like a little bit, but I think self actualization again, has a real quality of, Like there is an endpoint where I think… And again, the English word enlightenment has an endpoint sound to it, though, the concept that you're describing it's like we don't reach it, not in this human experience and what you're saying Pete, part that brings a deeper tear to my eyes that yes, what is being on this planet about as spiritual beings having these human experiences? Yeah, I ascribe to the belief that it's about connection. And connection is something that we always have access to, connection with ourselves, connections with other humans, connections with animals, connections with nature. And we're going to keep getting in our own way, as humans,

Pete: All the time.

Nikki: All the time, we can't undo that.

Pete: What just came to my mind as you said that is, Seas piracy, have you seen that?

Nikki: Oh, I've seen it like on advertising,

Pete: Is it Netflix, it's one of the…

Nikki: I think it's on Netflix. I think so, yeah.

Pete: Watch it.

Nikki: Okay. What's it about, like, just for those,

Pete: Well, for the listeners, Seas piracy is about the sea, and just really the conspiracies of the sea and fishing. So it starts off with this gentleman's journey about like all the plastic in the ocean. And there's really a lot of like, ‘aha' moments, like 80% of all living beings are in the ocean. And I know I learned that at some point.

Nikki: Yeah, it's like when you hear it, yeah.

Pete: I was just like, “wow”, that's just like, blows your mind, and they're showing some of the less favorable practices in fishing, which includes killing dolphins and whales, because they're eating like tuna or more expensive fish. And I'm watching it, and again, you don't have to be vegan, you don't have to be anything other than if you connect, like Nikki just said to like, other animals, of the trees. Again, I always tell a story, when I started studying Buddhism first I started with Tibet, and one of the first things I connected with were trees, which not in like a tree hugging way, so slow your roll. But in a way of like, they're not worried about how they're being seen as they're either being blown in a really windy day or not. They're so grounded in the earth. And they're still.

Nikki: Yeah, and I think those are those things we can all, that kind of connection hits us in a way that sometimes we can't cognitively explain. And there's the, Pete just said it, and we've said it on the podcast before, it's like, that is to us how we would define spirituality. And of course, it's up to every person to decide if that word resonates with them, or if they consider themselves to be spiritual beings. It's just one way to look at it, though, I will say whether someone wants to use that word or not, I've actually never met a person that hasn't told me of that kind of experience of feeling connection to nature, to people, to animals to something. And I think that's maybe what you're sort of explaining when it comes to enlightenment. It's like, moving towards that, I don't know, is this kind of right, that we're working to move towards that. And it's the process of moving towards that, that allows us the opportunity to connect? It's not sort of the endpoint here?

Pete: Yeah, well, one of the main teachings from Dogon is that we all are already enlightened, it's inherent in us.

Nikki: Is it like, remembering, I think there's like a concept sometimes in Eastern traditions, where it's like, remembering who like we, in our…

Pete: I don't get that stuff. There is a big piece of that, yeah.

Nikki: Well, it's because…

Pete: Oh, you're so right, yeah.

Nikki: Because I'm thinking about, Pete and I also did an episode on intuition. And it's like a reconnecting…

Pete: I was just going to say that.

Nikki: Yes, ESP, it's about like, returning back to listening to a part of yourself that's always been there that we get, like our human experiences get in the way and our human brains get in the way of accessing that. And so, I don't know there's something about like, remembering a part of ourselves that we disconnect from, that we forget.

Pete: Well, and I was also thinking intuition, I think it was last week we talked about that it also about how it's all in us, it's a matter of accessing it. That's really sort of this teaching that Dogen gave around enlightenment is that it's all in us. It's just a matter of accessing it. When you go into like remembering your reincarnate selves. That's where my human brain is like, putting on the brakes.

Nikki: Oh, yeah. Well, that's because like, that's where, and I mean, it would be interesting to do, actually, I would love to do an episode talking to somebody about belief about reincarnation, because I've limited knowledge about that. But I also like a lot of the concepts of that, which I guess, I'll just share one of the ones…

Pete: Sure,

Nikki: I hope it helps anyone listening. Please message us if I'm incorrect about this, but one thing I read once was that, reincarnation is not the concept of like, ‘Oh, you were bad in this life, so you come back as a slug in the next life’. It's that something, and I believe that comes from Hinduism I think, that the concept is that in order to learn all the lessons, that we're meant to learn that humans have to live 100 lifetimes, or spiritually. And that you have to be every experience, you have to be the one being hurtful to somebody and be hurt, you have to like have all, and so I find that very comforting because the teaching is that, from my understanding, is that if you encounter somebody, for example, that's doing something that's not okay, or inappropriate, it's like they would say, that person has more lifetimes to live to learn the lessons.

Pete: Yeah, that's the teaching and it's hard for me to understand it. One of the teachers I followed and read a lot about originally was Gelek Rinpoche, and he was one of the last Tibetan monks that had to flee the monastery. So as a young kid, he was picked out as a reincarnate of one of the Dalai Lama's. So he was put into the monastery. And he had to flee Tibet, so that ended up…and then he fled. Right English teacher?

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: Okay.

Nikki: I'm like, yes, what? I'm like, “yeah, he fled”.

Pete: And then he also became a normal person, he kind of said goodbye for a little bit for that part of his life, and then eventually kind of returned back to it. So he's a very interesting kind of human life. And my human brain really puts the brakes on, because I believe in reincarnation, for whatever that means. I don't even know what it means. But I remember learning it in high school because I went to Catholic High School, and be like, “yeah, okay, that makes sense”. And I remember being like, “Well, isn't that what”, I thought I was taught that as a Catholic. But I wasn't.

Nikki: You weren't.

Pete: It just felt right to me.

Nikki: Well, it's funny, because I keep hearing you say you're like “my human brain, my human brain”, but it's like, not saying there isn't any human brain limitation stuff going on here. But actually, I don't think that that's what the dominant thing getting in the way is, I think that's the western cultural context getting in the way,

Pete: Okay, fair.

Nikki: Because, you know what I mean? Because I think that, in addition to the Catholicism potential,

Pete: That get in the way of a lot of things.

Nikki: It's just like a different lens. It's a different system of beliefs. And so, these concepts Pete and I are discussing today, and, of course, enlightenment, in particular, it's like, it's not a part of Western culture, and a lot of Judeo-Christian religions. And so, I think, somebody that's raised in an Eastern spiritual tradition, I don't know, if they would, maybe feel those limitations quite so much, you know what I'm saying? It's like our sort of impulsivity culture or instant gratification culture, and also goal oriented, it's like, I think that's where these concepts like, these more sort of circular nonlinear concepts are hard to integrate, you know what I mean? It's like, even that's one thing about like Nirvana or enlightenment, it's like, the way it's talked about in Western culture, at least in American culture. It's always seen as like, something to achieve.

Pete: Well, because we're always looking to achieve. Well, maybe that's our behaviorism, maybe that's Western behaviorism part of it, why it gets so confused and convoluted.

Nikki: Yeah, because that's how we organize things. And we talk with our values episode.

Pete: Yeah, we do. And I was just texting about, my pilot is reading the book and listening to our podcast. And he was like, “I don't get it, if someone cuts you off, and they keep getting in your way, at a certain point, you got to watch your back and you got to do something to get to where you're going”. And I'm like, “Yeah, but then you're trying to win”. And so what about if you could just relinquish winning?

Nikki: Well, and then it comes back to what you said, of like, be in this moment, and see that there's an opportunity to connect in this moment, what can you connect to? I mean, I got to tell you like this, I actually, I'm learning a lot right now talking to you about this, because I never understood until just this conversation, that that's what enlightenment was. Like that it was about that were already enlightened. I actually didn't realize that, that's like, I'm really going to carry that with me today. That was really powerful.

Pete: Because you are enlightened. Dr. Reuben.

Nikki: And as are you, Dr. Pete. And as according to what you're saying, as are…

Pete: All of you listening.

Nikki: All of our listeners, yes.

Pete: Well, this was great, listeners, we are all enlightened, access it, be open to it. And if you feel like you've achieved or that you've arrived, stop, look back and let it go.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.