Katie Pope first became interested in meditation and Buddhism through her yoga practice. As she learned more about Buddhism, she found that secular Buddhism's focus on how we can live a good and full life while we are here, with however much time we have, deeply resonated with her. Katie facilitates SBN's monthly reading group.
SBN Editor: When you were younger, were you religious? Did you strongly identify with a particular spiritual tradition? If so, what was appealing to you about that tradition?
Katie Pope: I don’t remember ever actually being religious myself, but I did grow up going to Catholic Sunday school and I did my First Communion, Confession, Confirmation, etc. – mainly because my mom thought it was important. As a child I didn’t mind it; I enjoyed being part of the community and being allowed to take part in these special ceremonies. I grew up in the Midwest where references to Christianity permeated everything, so I’m familiar with all those traditions and beliefs. However, even as a child I think I always knew that believing in something that I couldn’t personally validate as true was never going to resolve itself in my mind, but I didn’t mind if it was something that resonated with other people and helped them. And of course, I loved the holidays and family gatherings that went along with Christianity in Western society too – these were always full of lots of laughing and love and happy memories, but for my family there really wasn’t much focus on the religious aspects of those holidays at all.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
KP: I think it was in high school, when I started learning more about the historical aspects of organized religion and its (negative) impacts on the world, that I became really disillusioned with all Western religions. I consider myself pretty liberal leaning, and I have always had a problem with the moral constraints and judgments that some conservative religious people try to impose on others for just living their lives and making personal choices that don’t hurt anyone else. For most of my early adult years, I preferred to refer to myself as agnostic (still leaving myself open to the possibility of some greater force out there), but to be honest I just never really thought too much about religion, god, the meaning of the universe, etc. When my dad died in my early 20s, I admit I couldn’t help wanting to believe in some type of afterlife, of the thought of him ‘looking down’ on me through all my important milestones, but somewhere in that grieving process I arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing after life, and decided instead that what we do here in our short time is what really matters.
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
KP: My adventures into Buddhism are relatively recent. Probably about 8 years ago, I started to become very interested in yoga – I felt like I had finally found a community and belief system that resonated with my experience of the world. My yoga and meditation experiences so often felt very spiritual to me, even though I still didn’t buy into all the aspects of traditional yoga that felt more like organized religion. I decided to do a 300-hr yoga teacher training to dive deeper into the history and the complete path of yoga (‘The 8 limbs’ of yoga). This is where I first started to learn more about the principles of Buddhism (and Hinduism, and other eastern religions).
SBN: So, how and why did you become interested in Buddhism? Did you join a sangha? Did you read books by Buddhist authors? What was the impact on you?
KP: I have been on a journey of self-growth, understanding, and equanimity for about a decade now. Once I started learning about Buddhism, I became fascinated by the simplicity of it all, and I loved that it never asked me to believe in something I didn’t find to be true. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually called myself a Buddhist; I guess I would feel more comfortable saying that my beliefs and outlook on life are more ‘aligned with Buddhism’ than anything else. During the pandemic, I started really thinking about what life is all about, and about my relationship to life (and death). I started reading more books from Buddhist authors, and I went on a nature and yoga retreat in Guatemala to do some soul searching and reflection. While there, I read Stephen Levine’s ‘A Year to Live,’ and started contemplating and meditating on death, forcing myself to stare right in the face of humanity’s biggest fear and ultimate reality, which more than anything has helped me put life’s struggles into perspective, and helped me get closer to attaining that sense of equanimity I strive for.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
KP: Secular Buddhism was something that I only learned about recently, at the beginning of 2022, after I started a sabbatical from my corporate job. I was looking for a community of like-minded people to join and talk about life’s big questions and ways to deal with all that life throws at us. I struggled to find any in-person yoga or Buddhist communities that weren’t too orthodox, until I stumbled upon the SBN website after some google searches and joined the reading group. I was drawn to the concept of secular Buddhism because it strips away many of the superfluous aspects of the Dharma that have always been harder for me to resolve (like the concept of enlightenment). I love that secular Buddhism allows the focus to be on the core concepts, beliefs, and practices that are the most relevant to those of us choosing to live a full life in this crazy world. Religions (or schools of thought) have always shifted and morphed to fit the needs of the people at any given time in history, based on the environment and major struggles of the population, and this is one thing I appreciate about secular Buddhism – that it allows us to apply the core concepts and practices of the Dharma to our lives without imposing the more outdated aspects of many of the ‘traditional’ Buddhist lineages.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
KP: Because I don’t believe in life after death, the focus on how we can live a good and full life while we are here, with however much time we have, is something that deeply resonates with me. Also, when I’ve had periods of mourning and sorrow and anxiety in my life, it can sometimes be hard to pull myself out of the hole of self-pity, depression, and despair. But I try to keep a balanced perspective and ground myself by coming back to the Four Noble Truths and reminding myself that my current experience is just temporary. In those times, I feel less alone and more connected to humanity by remembering that suffering is just part of life, an experience that we all share. Buddhism in general has also helped me seize the present moment more – I may feel tempted to put things off until later, but I remind myself that the present is all that exists, and so I try to have the important conversation now, do the fun things today, tell people I love them more often, etc.
SBN: Do you find that secular Buddhism conflicts with other perspectives that you have? In short, has a secular Buddhist approach created any conflicts or tensions in how you think and act in the world?
KP: I personally do not feel that there are conflicts with any other perspectives I have. The core underlying belief system of Buddhism is the foundation of how I relate to this world and everything that happens in my life. The main tensions between competing belief systems in my life happen in interactions with others – such as when someone I love is having a hard time and feeling disconnected with the present moment, and what I want to do more than anything is tell them ‘But look at these truths, they can help you!’ -- but I know they have to walk their path on their own. Or sometimes there can be tension when I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to a difficult situation as the other person has, and it’s because I’m going back to the Four Noble Truths to help myself put things into perspective and practice non-reactivity. But the other person doesn’t know this, and they might perceive my non-reaction as me not caring enough.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
KP: To be honest, most of them don’t know much about it, other than I have this discussion group that I go to, and a community of like-minded people to learn from. My loved ones experience it more through our conversations and the way I approach the world now vs. how I used to be. Although they may not connect the dots and realize how much comes from Buddhism, they are happy about the fact that I am calmer, more balanced and content more often. And I have found that when my friends and I have philosophical conversations, they are always interested to hear what the Buddhist perspective is and, more often than not, it also seems to align with many of their experiences.
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
KP: My meditation practice is a little rocky at the moment. I am still very much an achiever and feel the pressure of a million things to do at any given time (a pattern I am trying to break), so it’s always been difficult for me to turn meditation into an everyday practice when there are so many to-do lists and responsibilities demanding my attention. My yoga practice is the time I find myself consistently able to meditate more than any other time. Because of the focus on the breath, all other thoughts seem to drift away while my concentration is on the physical experience of the present moment.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
KP: Earlier this year I joined the SBN reading group, and recently volunteered to help organize the group meetings and readings, as the former facilitators had to step away for other commitments. I figured that even though I am a newbie and one of the least knowledgeable folks in the group on the topic of secular Buddhism, I could still offer my skills to help the group keep going, because I really value the discussion and always learn so much. We have a great group of welcoming and inquisitive folks, and we always end up having a stimulating discussion every time we meet. We would love for others to join if they are interested! (To sign up: https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/sbn-forms-new-reading-group/)
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
KP: I would love to see more people discover secular Buddhism and bring their own unique perspectives and experiences to the discussions. From my experience so far, the main voices in the books, papers, talks, and debates on secular Buddhism are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, western scholars. I think it’s important to have people with diverse backgrounds and identities join the discussion and help contribute to the evolution.
If you are interested in sharing the story of your journey, we'd be happy to hear from you! Please contact Colette at firstname.lastname@example.org.