Thoughts on Spirituality
All You Have is Now
There’s an essential fact of life which everyone should know but is often overlooked: now is all you have. I mean right now, as in the present. Not 2 seconds ago. Not 2 seconds from now. But right now. This is it. This moment is what you’ve got.
As a matter of physics and neuroanatomy, we know that now is ill-defined. As a consequence of general relativity theory, you can’t just talk about two events happening simultaneously. It depends on the observer. Neuroanatomically, the brain has different processing speeds for different senses and different parts of the brain process the same sensory input before other parts.
But subjectively, there is a present moment consisting of the whole collage of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, thought, emotion, proprioception, your sense of self, etc. It’s anything and everything that can be noticed. So to be clear, assuming you’re reading this indoors, everything in the building that’s not in your peripheral vision is not in consciousness. Unless you start thinking about it because I just mentioned it. Then it is.
The Problem-Solving Mindset Narrative
The contents of consciousness are what they are in this moment. If you don’t like them, you can change them by changing your environment. For example, noticing muscular discomfort might prompt you to change posture. But changes only take place after you’ve already experienced the unpleasant thing that made you want to make a change. You first have to notice that there’s a problem with experience before trying to solve it.
Recognizing The Problem
The trouble is there’s always another problem to be solved. After you shift posture, you’ll have an itch or you’ll have to use the restroom or you’ll become hungry or restless. So we find ourselves fighting a war against experience that’s only ever momentarily won. Most of the time we’re just dissatisfied and seeking out those momentary wins. So how do you start being content in the present? If only you knew that, you wouldn’t have any more problems.
The Inescapable Trap
The trouble is you’re invoking your problem-solving mindset to get rid of your problem-solving mindset. But the problem-solving mindset isn’t the problem. It’s necessary. You need to recognize hunger so that you know when to grab a bite to eat. The real problem is you’re identified with your problems. To say it another way, when there is a problem, you have a problem.
So you might ask “How do I stop identifying with my problems?”. Why do you want to? See, now you’ve decided that identifying with your problems is a problem, and you’re looking for a solution. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re sleepy, you sleep. And that temporarily solves your problem until you get hungry or sleepy again. So there must also be some action you can take to stop identifying with your problems, right?
Well anything you do with the intention of trying to stop identifying with your problems takes you right back into the problem-solving mindset again. So you’ll never make any progress not identifying with your problems by trying to force it to stop. The only way is to realize the futility of it. You might ask “How do I have that realization?” and we’re right back where we started.
I can’t tell you what to do about your situation other than to say you can’t force your way out of it because forcing is what got you into the mess to begin with. You’ll only solve your problem when you completely give up trying to force things to happen. But I can’t tell you to stop forcing things as an instruction. Because then you’ll try to force yourself to stop forcing things and it won’t work.
It basically never happens through dialog alone that people realize the futility of trying to stop identifying with their problems. Maybe they’ve been convinced on an intellectual level that forceful resistance is futile, but that’s not enough. Mere knowledge acquisition doesn’t actually change one’s experience, especially not in the radical way that is hoped for.
Most spiritual advisors realize having that dialog is useless, so they take a different tack. They give you a goal. Maybe the goal is to put you on a strict diet, a grueling workout regimen, or have you meditate every waking hour of the day. They give you increasingly difficult goals until it takes absolutely everything in you to complete their routine. They’re trying to exhaust the problem-solving, goal-seeking part of your mind so that you give up. Then, when you’ve finally given up trying to force your experience to change through effort, it happens on its own.
Now that doesn’t always work for everybody because some spiritual seekers convince themselves they’re getting nowhere because they have a bad advisor and maybe there’s a better spiritual advisor out there who can untie the knot you’re in. So you find a new advisor which gives you a different set of instructions to complete.
Going Off By Yourself
After that doesn’t work, you decide you’re done with teachers. None of them know what they’re talking about. You become utterly convinced that no spiritual advisor can be of help. So you go off on your own trying to figure things out. This narrative can be dragged out indefinitely. It’s just a question of how far you need to go to see that resistance against the present is futile.
Pathways to Spiritual Awakening
The narrative I offered above starting with the dialog, then spiritual advisors, and it ended with solo spiritual journeying. But that’s only one narrative through which the process of “waking up” can happen. It’s different for each person. What it takes for me to live in the present and surrender my ego is different from what it takes for you to do the same.
It’s possible for a person to have a spiritual awakening purely by accident. For some, it might only take the simple instructions found on headless.org. Others might need to spend years of their lives going through one spiritual advisor after another.
Psychedelics can be used as a shortcut to spiritual awakening, although they don’t force it in the sense I suggested earlier of making you do anything. Psychedelics “force” a spiritual awakening by changing the contents of consciousness so much that it becomes impossible to hold on to the sense of self, which is where your problems come from.
Imagine not being able to recall your name, or your family members’ names, or the concept of a family member or a name. Imagine forgetting what words mean, not being able to see what’s directly in front of you because it’s warped into a higher-dimensional vortex of geometric patterns, shapes, colors, and lights. Imagine not being able to form a coherent thought let alone hold beliefs. Consciousness becomes so utterly chaotic and out of the ordinary that anything you were previously attached to is inaccessible from your current state. That’s one way to lose your ego.
Obviously tripping has the drawback of being unsustainable. You quickly build up a tolerance to psychedelics. They’re also very risky. Also, you need ordinary consciousness to function in the world. Psychedelics are a good introduction to the possibilities of consciousness, but the more sustainable pathway to “enlightenment” is with meditation.
With meditation, you’re more likely to realize when you’re fully connecting to the present moment and why that’s significant. Psychedelics may get you the same experience, but people tend to chalk it up to “I’m just on drugs”, which makes them miss the point that ego loss doesn’t require mind-altering substances at all.
The Non-Contradiction of Meditation With a Motive
Now you might be confused why I advocate meditation when I just finished saying that one cannot make peace with the present moment by force. Isn’t meditation just another way of forcing? Some gurus insist that there is no method by which a person can surrender to the present, but they also advocate meditation. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Allow me to clear up what’s going on here. If you try to use meditation to stop identifying with the problem-solving part of your mind, it won’t work because you have an ulterior motive. You aren’t meditating for its own sake. You’re meditating to try to change the present moment. As long as you’re treating meditation as a tool to make something else happen, you aren’t meditating.
Using meditation to try to make something else happen means you’re not giving full attention to your present experience. There’s a stream of thought distracting you which is saying “I’m meditating. Am I enlightened yet? No. I’m still dissatisfied…what about now? Nope. Still not enlightened. This isn’t working…”. This sabotages your attempt to fully connect to the present moment.
But there is a sense in which meditation enables real progress, even if you have an ulterior motive. If you spend enough time doing mindfulness meditation, you strengthen your attention. You start to become aware of your ulterior motive as a mere thought happening in the present moment. Then it ceases to motivate you because you see it for what it is: just another thought. It’s unable to sneak up behind you and sabotage you any more because there’s nothing to sabotage.
Ulterior Motives For Meditation
A big problem with novice meditators is they develop ulterior motives for meditating without realizing it. For instance, they meditate once or twice just to see what will happen and it produces mild calming effects. So they start using meditation as a stress reduction tool. But then, instead of meditating without expectations like they were before, they spend the whole time thinking about what’s making them anxious and how the meditation they’re not doing is supposed to be stopping it.
It’s completely normal to start out using meditation as a means to an end. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that’s why you’ve decided to meditate. The stronger your ulterior motive is, the harder time you’ll have doing any real meditation. But everybody has to start somewhere.
Sharing The Spiritual Instructors’ Secrets
There are some spiritual advisors who would hate me right now for explaining all this to you. This knowledge used to be a closely guarded secret. They believe that if the spiritual seeker knows all the tricks they use, then the tricks won’t be effective. So why am I making this information available?
Why Sharing The Secrets is Okay
Because I don’t think this information makes it significantly harder for anybody to transform their experience by sharing this. For one, meditation brings people to terms with the present moment without depending on the practitioner’s ignorance of how it works. Second, psychedelics can be used to glimpse what’s possible with meditation. Third and finally, knowing in the abstract the tricks used to induce egolessness doesn’t directly translate into being immune to them. Mere knowledge acquisition, recognizing something as true in the abstract, is completely different from understanding it as a matter of lived experience.
Refuting Spiritual Nihilism
So please don’t think after reading this that I’ve spoiled the spiritual journey, because I’ll let you in on another secret. All spiritual teachers including the Buddha himself turned towards meditation, asceticism, mantras, yoga, and other practices with an ulterior motive. The inspiration to meditate has to come from somewhere.
So just meditate. Don’t worry about having an ulterior motive and don’t worry about achieving “permanent” enlightenment. There’s no need to be “permanently” enlightened to reap benefits from meditation. I think some people do reach that level. They couldn’t be knocked off mental balance even by an asteroid impact. That level of mental composure may not be in the cards for everyone, but I think many of us can get close and it’s worth it to try.
Do watch out for other ways that the ego can creep back in though. Many novice meditators, after having insights about the nature of the mind, become convinced they’re permanently enlightened and try to act as if they are all the time. This can be very psychologically destructive. It’s called spiritual bypassing, a term coined in 1984 by American psychologist John Welwood. I’ll let Wikipedia explain it:
“On the other hand, when spiritual bypass is used as a long-term strategy for ignoring or suppressing unaddressed mental health issues, negative consequences can include “the need to excessively control others and oneself, shame, anxiety, dichotomous thinking, emotional confusion, exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behavior, codependency, compulsive kindness, obsession or addiction, spiritual narcissism, blind allegiance to charismatic teachers, and disregard for personal responsibility” - Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
It’s not a hard trap to fall into. I think staying humble is a good way to avoid it. Admit that you don’t have it all figured out, that you’re probably not “permanently” enlightened, and you still get lost in thought and let your emotions get the better of you from time to time.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Goal Pursuit
Also don’t get the idea that goal pursuit or problem solving is wrong. That’s another misunderstanding. You can solve real-world problems while also living in the present moment. The difference is you’re content before, during, and after the problem is solved, not only immediately after it’s solved. If you’re not being present, you’re waiting for the problem to be solved with the tacit expectation of lasting deliverance afterwards.
In my case, there’s always going to be another journal entry to write. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write journal entries. It just means I’d be a fool to expect anything more than temporary satisfaction from completing a journal entry.
A Note About Language
Another note: don’t get hung up on the language I’m using. I talk about “solving a problem”, but there are other ways people formulate it. For instance, people identify with negative past experiences, which causes suffering. When I say “solving a problem”, I mean it in the broadest possible sense. In my definition of the word problem, I’m including negative past experiences which drive the sense of self.
Regardless of how the problem is described, the basic solution is the same: non-identification with thought or to use less technical language, recognizing thoughts as thoughts. Non-identification with thought is synonymous with the absence of problems. So if you hear someone else talk about non-identification with thought or non-attachment, they’re just using different words to describe the same thing.
Spirituality And Skepticism
In the past, myself and others have lamented the fact that the atheist/skeptic/rationalist community doesn’t get more involved with spirituality. When sane, rational people don’t write books about spiritual inquiry or speak about it, the floor is given people who promote incoherent pseudoscientific pseudospiritual technobabble. Their technobabble sounds just scientific enough so lay people have a hard time distinguishing between the quacks and real scientists. People like Deepak Chopra who promote alternative medicine and make proven false claims such as “you can tell your body not to age” cannot continue to represent the spiritual movement.
Myself And an Unnamed Youtuber
That’s part of why I’m writing this entry. If people like me don’t want quacks like Chopra to continue being the authority on all things spiritual, we have to step up and start our own dialog rooted in the principles of science and skepticism.
A famous Youtuber whose name I won’t say recently made a video trying to recount his secular spiritual experience, worrying aloud that he would sound crazy, and deleting the video soon after it was posted. It was reposted, but I won’t share it here out of respect for him. Reading through my earliest journal entries on spirituality, I notice that I really struggled to explain myself too. I think this entry does a much better job at it though.
The presence of so much spiritual mumbo jumbo out there is a testament to the difficulty of putting spiritual concepts into words. It’s very hard to explain it in such a way that people won’t horribly misunderstand you.
Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and self-help author, has written many sane sentences correctly diagnosing the problem of suffering and offering the solution. But Eckhart also says some things that are unclear how to interpret and other things that are just plain false, even when reading his work with the most charitable interpretation. It shows that even well-meaning people struggle with this.
With so much mumbo jumbo out there, I think it’s very important to be clear on this subject and the only spiritual book I’ve read so far that satisfies the level of clarity I’m looking for is Waking Up. There’s absolutely no mumbo jumbo in Waking Up. I feel comfortable recommending it without any caveats. It you haven’t read it yet, it would probably be a good thing to read after this journal entry.
Criticism of Spirituality
“It’s Only For Affluent White People”
Those who write about spirituality often receive a lot of criticism by people who frankly don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. For example, it’s been said that spirituality is an affluent white person pursuit. If you look at the actual history of meditation and spiritual tradition, you’ll see that’s just outright false. Historically, people of all social classes have meditated including underprivileged groups, some in awful environmental conditions.
One can meditate just as well in a quiet room as one can right outside a construction zone. Having free time to yourself to meditate certainly helps when you’re starting out, but the “end goal” of meditation is to become just as mindful and free of self during normal waking life as you are sitting with your eyes closed and legs crossed. Meditation is not confined to any particular time or place.
Dismissing Social Problems
Good criticism has been leveled against spiritual authors like Eckhart though. The criticism goes something like this: “You claim that giving up one’s ego, ceasing to identify with life problems, stops suffering. But what about systemic social issues? Aren’t they worth solving?”. It’s here where people like Eckhart Tolle fail to give satisfying answers. So I’ll take my crack at answering that.
The Non-Contradiction of Spirituality And Activism
The reality of today is that almost everyone is identified with their thoughts all the time. I live in a society where the thoughts people get lost in can be very negative. Thoughts like “I got fired today. There goes my healthcare. How am I gonna pay rent? I’m fucked”. The way society is organized directly influences people’s life situations, which influences the character of their thoughts. A poorly organized society leaves millions of houseless people sleeping on street just waiting to be harassed by thugs while centibillionaires amass great fortunes. Of course that causes negative thoughts and suffering.
Mindfulness and non-identification with thought may help to reduce the suffering of a few individual houseless people, but to suggest mindfulness as an alternative to a real solution for houselessness would be moronic. Houselessness is a social problem. It’s easier to eliminate the suffering that comes along with houselessness by dealing with its social causes than by telling mentally unwell houseless drug addicts they just need to meditate. As I said earlier, there is always another problem and identification with problems causes suffering, but at least the problem wouldn’t be not having a safe place to sleep. Failing to find an entertaining television station is a better problem to have.
The naive understanding of spirituality is that you can’t simultaneously be free from desire and also be an activist marching in the street trying to make change. An “enlightened” person perceives no problems and therefore doesn’t try to change anything. Right? Not exactly. This is another misunderstanding.
An “enlightened” person is someone who accepts the present moment as it is. Whether their activism succeeds or not, they remain unphased either way. Either outcome is accepted. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about the outcome. It just means they recognize the futility of becoming attached to it.
That’s completely different from fighting against social injustices. There’s no contradiction between going to protests and fully accepting the present moment. It is possible to have values and act on them without being identified with them. Mindfulness can and should be combined with other methods of reducing suffering in the world. And that’s what people like Eckhart Tolle misunderstand.
I don’t mean for my criticism of others to sound harsh, because it really is a difficult subject to talk about whilst not sounding like a kooky new age fraud. Reasonable people may disagree on some of what I’ve written here, but I don’t think I’m in any danger of being seen as “crazy” over this entry. It has taken me several attempts to make this much sense on this subject. So I’d appreciate it if you share this with friends.
Stay tuned for my next journal entry!