I'm attracted to Buddhism, along with Taoism, because these are forms of spirituality that can be viewed without a lens of fantastical supernaturalism.
Sure, many Buddhists and Taoists do embrace mystical mumbo-jumbo, but it is entirely possible to be a Buddhist or Taoist who considers that this earthly existence is the one and only life each of us will ever live, and that's just fine.
Stephen Bachelor is a pleasingly secular Buddhist who has written several books from the standpoint of Buddhism as a practical way of living, not as a religion that demands belief in unbelievable stuff -- such as reincarnation and the survival of consciousness after death.
In his book "After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age," Bachelor has some interesting observations about nirvana. Prior to saying that nirvana can be understood in one of two ways, as either the ceasing of reactivity or as freedom and independence from reactivity, he gave this view of reactivity:
We tend to regard the appearance of such a fearful world as a projection of our mental state.
But this reading of the situation is based on the cultural habit of interpreting experience psychologically. No matter how much we tell ourselves that the fearfulness of the world is just a projection, such reassurance does not significantly alter either how the world appears to us or how we feel about it.
From the perspective of a dharma practitioner, the task of "letting go of what arises" entails releasing one's grip on the whole picture: angry-me-facing-hostile-situation.
Letting go is not simply a question of breathing deeply to calm my rattled mind; I need to cleanse the doors of my perception. This requires suspending the default habit of seeing the world as being hostile, desirable, or boring. One of the most effective ways of suspending that habit is to train yourself to comprehend the world as an infinitely suffering world.
Now, I don't claim to fully understand what Bachelor means.
However, I have at least an indistinct grasp of what he's getting at, and that's good enough for me. The way I see it, Bachelor doesn't view life as ever being free of suffering. But it is possible to lessen the impact of suffering.
Channeling my inner Alan Watts, we don't have to find suffering insufferable; we don't have to be anxious about our anxieties; we don't have to worry about being worried; we don't have to be happy about our happiness. We can simply suffer, be anxious, worry, and be happy.
(To name but a few possible states of mind.)
In other words, we still react to what life brings us. But we understand the nature of this reactivity. Like everything else in life, it is changeable, ephemeral, something to be experienced before another experience comes along. Even if suffering always is with us, the form of that suffering changes shape continuously.
This seems to be in line with the second sort of nirvana Bachelor speaks of above: as freedom and independence from reactivity, as opposed to the ceasing of reactivity. Here's some additional quotes from his book.
The first sense of nirvana is traditionally understood as a quasi-mystical experience in which an accomplished meditator achieves sufficient calm and insight to bring his reactivity to a complete stop. But this interpretation makes nirvana accessible only to trained meditators, thus conflicting with the account of it as "immediate, clearly visible, inviting, uplifting, and personally sensed by the wise."
...For the second sense of nirvana as freedom from reactivity, we again need to turn to the dialogues with Mara. Here, one becomes aware of nirvana whenever one understands reactivity for what it is and thereby gains freedom from its control. In this case, the experience of nirvana becomes possible even while in the throes of reactivity itself.
Along this line, I'm up to Day Forty Four in Sam Harris' fifty-day guided meditations in his Waking Up course that I listen to on my iPhone. So I'm damn close to graduating!
So far I've been getting some fresh insights from Harris, even though most of what he says is familiar to me from other mindfulness exercises. However, Harris has some ways of putting things that are unique to his take on the mind, consciousness, and meditation.
Of late, he's been directing my attention to noticing whether there really is anybody paying attention within my mind. This is nicely Zen, of course. Who is the thinker of my thoughts? Who is the feeler of my feelings? Who is reacting to my reactivity?
Answer: no one, since an unchanging self who sits in my cranium and observes what's going on in my consciousness doesn't exist. And naturally the same is true of you and everybody else.
Here's some notes that I've taken after listening to Harris' guided meditations.
-- Recognize that the sense of subject and object, that too is an appearance in consciousness.
-- Simply look for the subject. See if there is something to be found.
-- Look for the one who is seeing. Then rest your mind wide open.
-- Every goal, every regret, is nothing but this: consciousness and its content.
-- Look for the thinker of a thought. Is there anyone the thought is occurring to or coming from?
-- Contents of consciousness appear and disappear on their own; you can't choose them.
-- The self's struggle to control is itself an appearance in consciousness.
-- There's no inside or outside of consciousness; things are just appearing.
-- Is there a hearer in addition to the fact of hearing?
-- Feeling there is a subject, a self, observing the screen of consciousness is just another experience on the screen.
-- Anything you can notice is not what consciousness is, since consciousness is doing the noticing.
These observations fit nicely with the Buddhist notion that while we continue to react to what we're experiencing, it is possible to diminish the sense that someone inside our head is responsible for those reactions.
This allows us to gain a wiser perspective on reactivity. It isn't something to be done away with, but rather something to be accepted as simply as possible by lessening our reactions to our reactivity.
Nirvana! Without the pressure to achieve it.