The Human Operating Manual


**Working Intro**


Spirituality (author’s definition): The concept of convergent experience without an apparent or objective way to define it. Meaning, the sensations that we are aware of (sight, olfaction, auditory, touch, taste), their constituents, shared experience, our environmental conditioning, as well as our epigenetic alteration and genetic underpinnings, all combine to create an individual experience of the world, which cannot be defined due to the constrained and polarized nature of language. Using language to define something requires the separation of ideas in order to distinguish the difference between them. Every time we come up with an idea, we feel we are bridging the gap between thoughts. The reality is we can only do so by breaking a branch from the proverbial tree of knowledge. Many people would argue against this, but to define the qualities of a leaf is to take away from its relationship with the roots. There is a connection assumed, but in order to investigate the micro details of the leaf, knowledge of the whole must be put on the back burner. It is the age-old idiom of not being able to see the forest for the trees.  

Definitions are conditional. They are snapshots of a given moment and are dependent on all the conditions of that snapshot being met. If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you’ll be well aware of how much information one painting can hold, and yet, be completely oblivious to what the artist truly meant. We might get the gist if we’re lucky, but the act of trying to explain experience is incredibly subjective. This is why spirituality continues to be so mysterious and variable. To try and define personally accumulated and combined experience, which cannot be explained by language, with a singular word or ideology is like trying to hold water in your hands, and then attempting to pass it to somebody else. What they have is still water, but the quantity and quality of the water has changed drastically. So, while you both may use the same terminology to describe the experience of holding water, they will be very different experiences.  

Which brings us back to spirituality itself. We know there is something going on within us, that makes us feel connected to everything else, but the inability to communicate connection with division is seemingly impossible. It makes sense that we would assign the spirituality definition to certain dogmatic practices, such as religion or misinterpreted Eastern exercises, for the purpose of eliminating the fear of the unknown. Faith allows us to forgive ourselves for our ignorance and by following a set of rules, which provide us with those unexplainable feelings, we are able to become one with our felt state. Albeit, with the same divergent mindset that they were trying to run away from in the first place. Nobody should be considered spiritual, just as they aren’t purely logical. These are definitions that miss the point of what they are trying to achieve. Living as a human being requires learning and growing, just as it involves finding purpose and specialization within a group. To only learn results in flakiness and undependability. To always trust without evidence results in a stagnant mind that is inflexible to change. To be open-minded does not mean you need to accept all the fringe ideas that come your way. In a sense, this is a form of closed-mindedness, by refusing to accept that the world changes, more often than not in a way that conflicts with our desires, and that we need to if we want to survive. Relying on evidence too heavily can also lead to inaction and the inability to change too.         

Finally, this brings us back to the whole point of defining spirituality in the first place: what is it and what part does it have to play in our lives? Personally, I think spirituality can be accepted as our felt experience and used as a guiding star for further investigation of the world. If we feel something is unexplainable, we don’t need to explain it, but it is usually a good sign that it is something worth investigating. Strive for joy, awe, and curiosity and resist unwarranted fear avoidance and stagnation.   

Before upsetting a lot of people, I’d like to begin with a caveat: Regardless of how much that I argue that modern day spirituality needs to be renovated, I still believe there is incredible value in the participation of spirituality practices. There is something out there that we don’t understand, which is influencing our existence. In fact, there is very little (if anything) that we can actually say is “the truth”. However, the belief in man-made theories, to the extent of constructing towers of dissonance to defend said theories, is inconsistent with the self-professed open-mindedness that spirituality so often bases its belief systems around. With this in mind, I would like to preface the next paragraph with the suggestion that there is a way that we can take the best of spirituality without investing wholeheartedly in the dogma. Before we do that, we need find the useful parts first and then reinvent them, so that we don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. With that out of the way, let’s delve deep into the issue with hyper-spirituality.

The current definition of spirituality is slippery at best. A doctor’s definition of spirituality may be incredibly different to a scientist’s view, and perhaps even more variable than the weekend yoga practitioner’s definition. What makes this even more confusing is the acknowledgement that we don’t take on two-dimensional identities, based on our careers or hobbies, that assign predetermined ways of thinking into our consciousness. Meaning that an agreed upon belief about an intangible and globally variable concept like spirituality is quite challenging to establish when each of our lifetimes of environmental exposure to information shape our individual beliefs. Yet we all still use spirituality conversationally without reservation. An unknown and vaguely subjective understanding is fine if we are talking about what color we think a picture of a dress is. Spirituality, however, is tied into the very fabric of the history of humanity, and is often used as a way to unite extremely large groups of people with widespread culturally specific rules of morality. 

The standard Western definition of spirituality (which we will focus on as it appears to be the vaguest) tends to be defined as either a mystical force within the believer that gives them a sense purpose, a clear moral compass, or even a connection to some unknown force that is in control of their fate. So far so good. These definitions can all help the individual to feel in control of their lives and connected to someone or something that has everything under control. As mentioned earlier, spiritual beliefs and dogma are an excellent way of getting a population of strangers to agree upon a set of rules, which helps to prevent unnecessary individual conflict and promotes adherence to authority (for the greater good).

With the explosion of technological advancement and the complete upheaval of our traditional ways of living, our stress levels have escalated dramatically. The obsession with capitalistic values and the individualistic pursuit of happiness has made us especially susceptible to accepting whatever belief system appears out of nowhere, which tend to fulfill our desperate tribal needs for acceptance and communal participation. Finding a group or a charismatic leader in an unprecedented time of isolation and instability can feel both synchronous and personal. It only makes sense that the person would want to display gratitude for their savior, not to mention restructuring their identity and belief system to easier integrate it into their lives (observed in the born-again spiritual warriors). Often confessing that this new way of living must be the TRUTH, because of how much meaning it provides compared to their old dysfunctional way of living. Any evidence on the contrary may cause discomfort and cognitive dissonance, which quickly gets brushed aside as a test of faith. Otherwise, the crutch that saved them could be at risk of being lost, leaving them to defend themselves against the scary world again. Now, I’m not saying that we intentionally choose ignorance over reality. Reality just isn’t the highest priority for our brains. We attach ourselves to any information that makes our lives easier and guards us from pain. An excellent strategy if the goal is survival in the wilderness and to save as much energy as possible.   

These are all potentially very painful statements that will often get dismissed as information from the uninformed, unenlightened, or at the very extreme end, the devil testing your faith. As far as I’m aware, ignorance, spiritual bypassing, and repressed anger don’t seem to be very spiritually enlightened responses to new information in my opinion. Luckily, there is another way of allowing the core of spirituality to still guide our lives without needing to deny ourselves our true authenticity. First of all, we need to assign a new meaning to spirituality, so that it no longer gets used as an excuse for willful ignorance. 

What I propose, is that “tapping into our spiritual side” can be seen as the process of alleviating our anxiety and fear, by accepting reality for what it is. Which can be achieved by cognitive reappraisal and the acceptance of impermanence. The understanding that we are transient beings that are brief expressions of energy, and by proxy the universe, should disconnect us from the inevitability of suffering and give us the freedom to express ourselves in a positive manner. In such a way that allows us to see past the differences in human expression and create a better world, without defaulting to reliance on dogma to cover up the fear of the unknown and perceived lack of control.

Using spirituality/religious identity to facilitate an avoidance strategy. Useful for transitioning into a more favorable lifestyle or to be accepted within a new group without acknowledging the traits that harbor self-hate. Resulting in a festering pit of cognitive dissonance that slowly eats away at their mind and body in the form of chronic stress. The reminder of the thoughts that inspire self-hate lock that trauma in by using the new identity as a way to bypass self-truth. Concepts like the ego are constructed as an intelligent self-defense system, developed during a lifetime of interactions in a hostile environment. Generally, of a social/relationship nature. Whatever your environment was, your body adapted with these self-defense mechanisms to survive. They are not to be hated, just acknowledged so that you can give yourself permission for the freedom to change. Ego mimics essential qualities for survival. 

Alternative Definition of Spirituality: Burning off all that is false (heard from Rebel Wisdom: Growth and Awakening – Rafia Morgan. Aisha as the source?).

Another comment from that film was: Joy is the radiation of the heart when truth is appreciated. 

  • The purpose and benefits
    • Binding large groups with the commonality of belief that inspires a set of rules that everyone can agree upon. Ascends Dunbar’s Number.
  • The difficulty of explaining why it is useless when people find positive effects as a side effect. Such as having somebody attend to you whilst distributing homeopathic remedies.
  • The negative side and restrictions on personal development. If you blindly follow the worlds of spiritual warriors, you’ve put a cap on your growth. There is no enlightenment. Too much positive thinking results in a disconnection from reality. Negative appraisal can be useful. Use critical thinking rather than absolute vulnerability.
  • The charlatans
  • The “death”/rebranding of spirituality. Awe as a definition rather than faith in the absence of evidence.

If I was to make a complete guess as to what makes the concept of spirituality persist, I would assume that there is an unrecognized electromagnetic sense between humans, as it is not detected via receptors and mapped onto the brain, but felt at the level of “consciousness.” The experience of being exposed to the electromagnetic field of another human may be a way to interact and pick up on subtle emotional cues. This could have been a way for tribe members to feel a greater attachment to others and to detect when something is going wrong. However, because this “sense” is emergent behavior of the cellular conditions of the body and possibly evolutionarily selected for so that tribes could interact at a deeper level and have greater survival odds, it requires additional stories to understand the cause of this sense. We don’t exactly have a field sensor like how we have ears for sound, so an invisible feeling seems mystical. 

This would explain why we “vibe,” resonate, or be “on the same frequency” of others. Or how we can influence the behavior of animals without using verbal cues. The positive emotional valence and certainty of an individual provides comfort to the receiver of the electromagnetic frequency and entrains their frequency. Which implies that the average frequency of a group can influence behavior of the participants, unless there is complete disagreement or a confusion as to the state of the other participants. It would be a great way of influencing group cohesion. 

Now that we are isolated (other than nuclear family systems) and the deprivation of social acceptance and authenticity is rife, when we feel the frequency of somebody or a group that is confident/certain, we find them incredibly appealing and mistake their confidence for safety. This now seemingly rare feeling can be misinterpreted as love or as a spiritual bond, where you feel like you have known them forever (home = safety). In the past we would have been exposed to this feeling constantly. Now that we are made to fend for ourselves, we are more likely to fall for the overconfident and arrogant individuals, unless we spot a reason to doubt them early on. The longer you place your trust in that individual or group, the harder it is to disconnect your life from them. The fear of loss is a way stronger motivation than the potential to gain, resulting in us staying in unfavorable conditions regardless of obvious discomfort. It is much easier to believe that the person or group has the answers and has yet to explain them to you. It is all part of their master plan that we aren’t ready for. A trait that narcissistic cult leaders are quick to take advantage of. Their misplaced belief in themselves as a messiah or ordained purpose gives them the self-assigned authority to do what they want. Especially when they start to accrue followers that hang off their every word, supporting their overconfidence.   

Let’s get back to the idea of feeling another’s electromagnetic wave at the level of consciousness… If you recognize consciousness as a byproduct of the analysis of sensory data for the greater prediction of future events, rather than a mystical soul-force that represents your identity, it becomes much easier to understand how the influence of another’s emotional valence can be detected as an overall expression of their intentions. A healthy and calm individual will give the impression that they have things under control and may possess information that could also assist you in reaching a similar state. Whereas an anxious or agitated individual is repellent to another being who wants to avoid trouble, unless they are sympathetic to that person. Then they will be more likely to want to help the anxious being to increase the overall wellbeing of the “group”. Every cell has a certain electromagnetic charge, that represents the health of that cell. As a consequence of this, the overall state of the individual will be expressed as a different frequency of electromagnetic wave around them.       

Bear with me as I go really far out into my fringe theory, by addressing the effect on indigenous populations and their colonization by populations who completely destabilized them with unrecognizable frequencies (I’m riffing here so don’t take this seriously). What if, the act of using religion as motivation for claiming land and “educating the savages” was enough to give the invaders the confidence to believe in their cause? If you were part of an indigenous community that was in touch with their spiritual roots and was confronted by a strange but confident human that was seemingly powerful, you would be taken aback. Especially if they come with the purpose of showing the ways of their god that they claim has given them this power. Many would distrust these invaders, but all it takes is a few younger, less educated, and more ambitious members of your group to trust them. Once that happens, they may be convinced to adopt destructive and selfish behaviors that result in a destabilization of the group coherence. Distrust narrows the perspective and makes an individual more hyper focused and vigilant. A state that is highly predictable and easy to take advantage off. If the invader is able to create a rift within the tribe (divide and conquer) they can fuel the destruction and make economic deals that are rash on the part of the emotionally charged party. Once the battle is over, the community is left in tatters and the invader is able to “help” restabilize them with their values and resources. Resulting in a community that has lost their culture and given up all that was valuable to them. The last thing the “winners” of the cultural war would want to do is to admit that they shouldn’t have trusted the invaders and to try and boot them out. Especially after accepting their help. 

The indigenous victims of colonization are left feeling disenfranchised and unexplainably empty. Something is not right but they can’t explain what it is. Those who rebuild their communal systems and learn about their history and culture often get a glimpse of purpose and meaning again. This then becomes their spiritual belief system that they tie deeply into their identity and associate as truth. This seems to be what is happening all over the world now. We are beginning to celebrate cultural differences now that the internet has allowed us to connect on a ridiculously huge level. Unfortunately, we have been raised with Western views woven into us from early on, so the act of reintegrating the “old ways” is seen as mystical ancient wisdom and becomes packaged in a Westernized fashion. Businesses that use indigenous methods for example, often feel homely and do well, but they are difficult to accept for most people. 

I will mention, that this is not the fault of the Westernized public. We are all stuck living in this system, due to the greed and ignorance of our predecessors. It just so happens that the people who have benefitted from their indiscretions are the offspring of those power hungry and ignorantly confident few. However, the unfortunate reality is that it is those who are the victims of institutionalized racism suffer more from health problems and economic disparity. This is why we need to learn to understand the different aspects of spirituality and to discard any inefficiencies. If we can create cultural rituals without the dogma, we can unite under the banner of humanity and reshape the way we live and to destroy the broken power structure that rewards selfishness and greed. 

Hunter Gatherer Notes

Culture we define as beliefs and practices that are shared and passed between members of a population. These beliefs are often literally false, metaphorically true, implying that they result in increased fitness if one acts as if they are true despite the fact that they are either inaccurate or unfalsifiable. Culture is a special mode of transmission because it can be passed horizontally, rendering cultural evolution immensely faster and more nimble than genetic evolution. This also renders culture noisy in the short term, before new ideas have endured the test of time. Long-standing features of culture, by contrast, constitute an efficient packaging of proven patterns. Culture can spread horizontally, but its consequential parts are ultimately passed vertically, from generation to generation. Culture is received wisdom, generally handed to you by ancestors, and efficiently transmitted.

Consciousness we define as that portion of cognition that is newly packaged for exchange, meaning that conscious thoughts are ones that could be delivered if someone asked what you were thinking about. It is emergent cognition, where innovation and rapid refinement occur. Conscious thoughts may never be conveyed, but they can be, and the most important ones are, as consciousness is most fundamentally a collective process in which many individuals pool insights and skills to discover what was previously not understood. The products of consciousness are, if they prove useful, ultimately packaged into (highly transmissible) culture.

As mentioned earlier the human niche is niche switching. They argue that the human niche is to move between the paired, inverse modes of culture and consciousness.

Through parallel processing of multiple human minds, our consciousness can become collective, and we can solve problems that neither we could solve as individuals nor our ancestors could have even imagined.

  • In times of stability, when inherited wisdom allows individuals to prosper and spread across relatively homogeneous landscapes: Culture reigns.
  • But in times of expansion into new frontiers, when innovation and interpretation, and communication of new ideas, are critical: Consciousness reigns.

That said, novel levels of novelty, such as we are experiencing now, are a special danger. This means that what’s needed today—and urgently—is a call to consciousness on a scale that we have not seen before.

Consciousness in Other Animals

Sociality involves recognition of individuals, the tracking of social fate, and iterated interactions that are, at least plausibly, continuing into the future.

Aggregation of animals like tree frogs and salmon are not conscious as they are not sociable in that way. Congregations of baboons in the other hand have very conscious culture.

Innovation at the Margins of the Ancestors’ Wisdom

As a people move across space, it is relatively easy to notice as the ancestors’ wisdom becomes less applicable. As a people move through time, however, as we all do, elders may not recognize their wisdom becoming out of date. The young see it. It is no accident that those who are coming of age in times of change and push boundaries, and that language and norms change somewhat with each generation. Throughout history, the ancestors’ wisdom has generally remained relevant long enough for new generations to get their footing, to know what needs to be pushed against. As a people move through time that is changing extremely rapidly, however, as our world is now, it is more difficult to know what to do with the increasing irrelevancy of the ancestors’ wisdom, and with what to replace it. The margins of the ancestors’ wisdom are rarely hard and fast. At those margins, wherever they are, it is time to niche switch.

Consider three broad contexts in which humans have learned and innovated in times past.

  • The first is the utterly new idea: the idea that springs to mind often unbidden and without explanation. This was the territory that the first Mayan, Mesopotamian, and Chinese people were in when they innovated farming. Similarly, the innovation of the wheel, metallurgy, and pottery. Before those things existed, nobody knew they were possible.
  • The second context in which innovation occurs is when you know that something is possible, on the basis that it’s been done before, but you have no idea how to make it happen. The Wright brothers saw flight in other organisms, and felt confident that it could be accomplished by machine.
  • Third and finally, you might have instruction: you know what you’re shooting for, and have someone or some set of rules or instructions telling you how. Between school and YouTube, we often conflate this third kind of learning for the only kind of learning that is possible. The third type of learning is the most cultural; it is the learning of received wisdom. In contrast, humans are at our most conscious, and therefore our most innovative, in the first two contexts.


Conformity has a time and a place—like most traits, it is not simply worse (or better) than not conforming.

There is a tension between conforming and disagreeing in the face of apparent inconsistency. This tension is a hidden strength of humans—the push and pull between wisdom and innovation, between culture and consciousness.

Historically, we have combined forces in social groups, such that in a single group, many people with distinct skills created an emergent whole, one in which generalist capabilities emerged even if all members of the group were specialists. Now, though, it is time to innovate, because change is accelerating, and the received cultural wisdom isn’t sufficient. Individuals themselves becoming more generalist—through learning skills across domains, for instance, rather than diving deep into only one—will help us in this endeavor.

It is important to know what the group thinks, but that is not the same as believing or reinforcing what the group thinks. In a time of rapid change in particular, then, it is important to be willing to be the lone voice. Be the person who never conforms to patently wrong statements in order to fit in with the crowd. Be Asch-Negative (in regards to Asch’s psychology experiment where people would change their answer to the length of a line based on the answers of their peers).

Literally False, Metaphorically True

It is easy to dismiss many myths and beliefs, precisely because they are literally false. Indeed, doing so is almost a sport among some hardheaded people. Take astrology. It is clearly beyond reason to imagine that the stars that we see, many of which are thousands of light-years away, are having a direct impact on human behavior. Similarly, it is beyond reason to believe that a passel of angry gods is the reason for tsunamis, yet among the Moken, those who believe in those gods survive at higher rates than those who don’t. And it is surely beyond reason to believe that a full moon is protective of crop health, yet among Guatemalan farmers, precisely that belief results in more productive farming.

This is how religion and other belief structures spread. Even if such things are not literally true, acting as if they are benefits people; sometimes it even benefits the biodiversity and sustainability of the land on which they live.

Distortions that help you survive and thrive are adaptive. Myths and taboos often make little sense to outsiders, and some of them are surely misguided, even counterproductive for those who honor them. Some surprisingly precise taboos are likely overgeneralizations from an actual event.

Beware Chesterton’s fadys—the old ideas may have hidden truths, and those truths may be difficult to recover once they have been dismissed.

Religion and Ritual

All cultures have ritual. Some rituals are rites of passage to celebrate new babies, coming of age, marriage. There are rituals—traditions, perhaps, given their reliably repeating nature—to celebrate the first planting of the year, and the harvest, and astronomical events like the solstices and the equinoxes. As we have come to live in larger and larger groups, surrounded by ever more anonymity in our daily life, regular holidays, with their attendant shared cultural norms, help to keep us in sync, to act as though we are in fact part of something larger than ourselves. Rituals, which are not inherently religious but have a strong tendency to be so, often include food, music, and dance.

Not only do most cultures spend a substantial fraction of their resources and time on structures and ceremonies intended to impress a cold and indifferent universe, but religions expend a great deal of social capital telling believers what they are not allowed to do. If anything dwarfs the cost of religion, it is the opportunity cost of religion. Were it true that religion was maladaptive, these huge costs would constitute a major vulnerability for faithful populations.

Atheists who behave just like these believers, except for the fact of skipping religiosity and reinvesting the massive dividend, should displace them as a regular feature of history. If religiosity had no adaptive benefit, great leaders in every population’s history would have said, “All you must do is work hard and ignore their mumbo jumbo and their lands will be yours.” But that’s not what we find. Instead, we find great leaders saying things about God and his quirks, his preferences and his plan for us.

Religiosity is adaptive, and moralizing gods, while not being a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, seem to help sustain multiethnic empires once they have become established. As moderns, we are often eager to throw off the spiritual and religious chains of the past, but beware Chesterton’s gods. Religion is an efficient encapsulation of past wisdom, wrapped in an intuitive, instructive, and difficult to escape package.

Sex Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: On the Sacred versus the Shamanistic

Culture is in tension with consciousness, much as the sacred is in tension with the shamanistic. The sacred is to culture as the shamanistic is to consciousness.

The sacred is the reification of received religious wisdom, the sine qua non of a particular religious tradition, that which has stood the test of time and proved valuable enough to the ancestors to be passed on as holy. That which is sacred has a low mutation rate—it changes infrequently—and is highly resistant to change; it is built for a static world. The sacred is protected from corruption (or at least, it’s supposed to be), and is often insulated from the corrupting influences of secular power, wealth, and reproduction. The orthodoxy of the sacred exists in persistent tension with the heterodoxy of the shamanistic.

The shamanistic is high risk, high creativity. It has a high mutation rate, and therefore a high error rate. It explores a huge number of new ideas, most of which are poor. It challenges orthodoxy—that which is sacred. The shamanistic is practically mandated to explore and play with cultural norms. It does this in a variety of ways, such as through altered states of consciousness, which include dreams, trances, and use of hallucinogens.

In nearly every known culture there is use of something, be it strictly hallucinogenic or not, that breaks a person out of the normal, everyday experience and allows for a different perspective to emerge. This is consciousness revolutionizing culture.

When the ancestral wisdom runs out, humans pool their dissimilar experiences and expertise to discover how to bootstrap some new way of being. Identifying when the ancestral wisdom has run out in a particular domain is tough, and there will always be tension between those who want to stay the course and those who are looking to break with tradition and try a new way. Functional systems need those advocating for both—for culture and for consciousness, for orthodoxy and heterodoxy, for the sacred and the shamanistic.

Waking Up Notes


Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.

Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Our world is dangerously driven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support.

  • Spirituality must be distinguished from religion— because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake.
  • Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another.

Authors who attempt to build a bridge between science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes:

  • Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind (parental love, artistic inspiration, awe of beauty). One finds Einstein’s amazement at the intelligibility of Natures laws described as though it were a kind of mystical insight.
  • New Age thinkers go to the other extreme: They idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics. Here we are told that the Buddha and other contemplatives anticipated modern cosmology or quantum mechanics and that by transcending the sense of self, a person can realize his identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos.

In the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.

Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

  • Experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self.

The Search for Happiness

The terms spiritual and mystical are often used to support religious beliefs or to make generalized and unsubstantiated claims about the universe and reality. Unfortunately, these terms are the most fitting for those who have experiences that are hard to explain any other way. The use of those words brings annoyance and discomfort to those who assume the user to be mentally unhinged or self-deceptive. There is a midway point though.

Meditation, yoga, and prayer have been utilized by many to achieve an altered state of perception. Helping them to realize that happiness is elusive when chased. Often driving them to wonder whether there is anything beyond the repetition of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.

  • Occasionally, the prospect of eternal bliss is aligned with the religion at hand and considered the pathway towards it. Possibly due to the mindfulness practices and priming that are associated with that religion.

A lot of people consider being isolated the ultimate form of torture, whereas some claim to find extraordinary depths of psychological wellbeing while in isolation.

Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.

Our struggle to navigate the space of possible pains and pleasures produces most of human culture. Medical science attempts to prolong our health and to reduce the suffering associated with illness, aging, and death. All forms of media cater to our thirst for information and entertainment. Political and economic institutions are expected to seek peaceful collaboration with one another—and the police or the military is summoned when they fail. Beyond ensuring our survival, civilization is a vast machine invented by the human mind to regulate its states. We are ever in the process of creating and repairing a world that our minds want to be in.

A true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only briefly, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. 

The phenomenon of self-transcendence is generally sought and interpreted in a religious context, and it is precisely the sort of experience that tends to increase a person’s faith.

Religion, East and West

We are often encouraged to believe that all religions are the same: All teach the same ethical principles; all urge their followers to contemplate the same divine reality; all are equally wise, compassionate, and true within their sphere— or equally divisive and false, depending on one’s view.

No serious adherents of any faith can believe these things, because most religions make claims about reality that are mutually incompatible. Exceptions to this rule exist, but they provide little relief from what is essentially a zero-sum contest.

  • Hindus are committed to specific metaphysical ideas—the law of karma and rebirth, a multiplicity of gods—that almost every other major religion decries.
  • Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation—because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
  • The Abrahamic religions are incorrigibly dualistic and faith-based: In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God’s love and grace provide some relief—but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy.
  • The Eastern tradition, at its highest teachings, found within the various schools of Buddhism and the nominally Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, explicitly transcend dualism. By their lights, consciousness itself is identical to the very reality that one might otherwise mistake for God. While these teachings make metaphysical claims that any serious student of science should find incredible, they center on a range of experiences that the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam rule out-of-bounds.

Like Huxley, anyone determined to find a happy synthesis among spiritual traditions will notice that the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-ca. 1327) often sounded very much like a Buddhist: “The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.” Had Eckhart lived a little longer, it seems certain that he would have been dragged into the street and burned alive for these expansive ideas. That is a telling difference between Christianity and Buddhism.

One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing their stories. To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible—and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam. If one should happen to discover that the sense of being an individual soul is an illusion, one will be guilty of blasphemy everywhere west of the Indus.

The aspiring yogi is traditionally encouraged to lengthen his tongue—even going so far as to cut the frenulum (the membrane that anchors the tongue to the floor of the mouth) and stretch the soft palate. This enables him to insert his tongue into his nasopharynx, thereby blocking the flow of air through the nostrils. The yogi can then imbibe subtle liquors believed to emanate directly from his brain. These substances—imagined, by recourse to further subtleties, to be connected to the retention of semen—are said to confer not only spiritual wisdom but immortality. This technique of drinking mucus is known as khechari mudra, and it is thought to be one of the crowning achievements of yoga.

The teachings of Buddhism, and of Eastern spirituality generally, focus on the primacy of the mind. There are dangers in this way of viewing the world. Focusing on training the mind to the exclusion of all else can lead to political quietism and hive-like conformity. The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems.

Gradual versus Sudden Realization

The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.

  • The urge to attain self-transcendence or any other mystical experience is a symptom of the very disease we want to cure. There is nothing to do but give up the search.
Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles

Spiritual teachers of a certain ability are often described as “gurus,” and they elicit an unusual degree of devotion from their students. If your golf instructor were to insist that you shave your head, sleep no more than four hours each night, renounce sex, and subsist on a diet of raw vegetables, you would find a new golf instructor. However, when gurus make demands of this kind, many of their students simply do as directed.

In cults and other fringe spiritual communities, we often find a collection of needy and credulous dropouts ruled by a charismatic psychotic or psychopath.

  • When we consider groups like the People’s Temple under Jim Jones, the Branch Davidians under David Koresh, and Heaven’s Gate under Marshall Applewhite, it is almost impossible to understand how the spell was first cast. But each of these groups proved that intellectual isolation and abuse can lead even well-educated people to willingly destroy themselves.

For our purpose, the only differences between a cult and a religion are the numbers of adherents and the degree to which they are marginalized by the rest of society. Scientology remains a cult. Mormonism has (just barely) become a religion. Christianity has been a religion for more than a thousand years. But one searches in vain for differences in their respective doctrines that account for the difference in their status.

Teachers in any field can help or harm their students, and a person’s desire to make progress and to win the teachers approval can often be exploited—emotionally, financially, or sexually. But a guru purports to teach the very art of living, and thus his beliefs potentially encompass every question relevant to the well-being of his students. Apart from parenthood, probably no human relationship offers greater scope for benevolence or abuse than that of guru to disciple.

  • Given that the entire purpose of a devotee’s relationship to a guru is to have his egocentric illusions exposed and undermined, any unwelcome intrusion into his life can potentially be justified as a teaching.
  • A student’s moral intuitions and instincts for self-preservation can always be recast as symptoms of fear and attachment. Consequently, even the most extraordinarily cruel or degrading treatment at the hands of a guru can be interpreted as being for one’s own good.

The role of guru seems to attract more than its fair share of narcissists. This seems to be a natural consequence of the subject matter. One can’t fake being an expert gymnast, a rocket scientist, or even a competent cook, but one can fake being an enlightened adept. Those who succeed in doing this are often quite charismatic, because a person can’t survive long in this mode unless he can bowl people over.

One of the first things one learns in practicing meditation is that nothing is intrinsically boring—indeed, boredom is simply a lack of attention. Pay sufficient attention, and the mere experience of breathing can reward months and years of steady vigilance. Every guru knows that drudgery can be a way of testing the strength of this insight. And, needless to say, this truth about the human mind can be exploited.

It is usually easy to detect social and psychological problems in any community of spiritual seekers. This seems to be yet another liability inherent to the project of self-transcendence. Many people renounce the world because they can’t find a satisfactory place in it, and almost any spiritual teaching can be used to justify a pathological lack of ambition. For someone who has not yet succeeded at anything and who probably fears failure, a doctrine that criticizes the search for worldly success can be very appealing. And devotion to a guru—a combination of love, gratitude, awe, and obedience— can facilitate an unhealthy return to childhood. In fact, the very structure of this relationship can condemn a student to a kind of intellectual and emotional slavery.

A relationship with a guru, or indeed with any expert, tends to run along authoritarian lines. You don’t know what you need to know, and the expert presumably does. The implied hierarchy is unavoidable. Contemplative expertise exists, and a contemplative expert is someone who can help you realize certain truths about the nature of your own mind.

Believing in one’s own perfect enlightenment is rather like driving a car without brakes—not a problem if you never need to stop or slow down, but otherwise a terrible idea.

When we look into the eyes of another human being, we seem to see the light of consciousness radiating from the eyes themselves— there is a glint of joy or judgment, perhaps. But every inflection of mood or personality—even the most basic indication that the person is alive—comes not from the eyes but from the surrounding muscles of the face. If a person’s eyes look clouded by madness or fatigue, the muscles orbicularis oculi are to blame. 

  • It is not an accident, therefore, that gurus often show an unusual commitment to maintaining eye contact. In the best case, this behavior emerges from a genuine comfort in the presence of other people and deep interest in their well-being. But maintaining eye contact can also become a way of “acting spiritual” and, therefore, an intrusive affectation. There are also people who maintain rigid eye lock not from an attitude of openness and interest or from any attempt to appear open and interested but as an aggressive and narcissistic show of dominance. Psychopaths tend to make exceptionally good eye contact.

Of course, there can be clear indications that a teacher is not worth paying attention to. A history as a fabulist or a con artist should be considered fatal. A fetish for numbers is also an ominous sign. Math is magical, but math approached like magic is just superstition—and numerology is where the intellect goes to die. Prophecy is also a very strong indication of chicanery or madness on the part of a teacher, and of stupidity among his students.

If one person on earth possessed psychic powers to any significant degree, this would be among the easiest facts to authenticate in a lab.

21 Lessons Notes


It is natural for humans to form loyalty and close bonds with smaller groups of people and highly odd that we would take on a national identity. It is perhaps only due to necessity and a lot of reinforcement that we feel such patriotic pride. Feeling a part of such a large group has allowed us to overcome huge obstacles and ensure resources for larger groups of people. If we were restricted to our smaller groups, we could be wiped out by a natural disaster overnight. Nationalism causes us to feel like our group is special/unique and commands our respect. This way we pay our respects to the group in the name of something greater than us as individuals. It may be wrong but it enables larger groups to coexist. The problem arises when ultra-nationalism takes hold and convinces the people that their country is superior than others rather than just unique. Wars would start over superiority complexes and defense of their way of life until the fear of atomic bombs took hold.

Before a somebody yells “Our country first” they need to figure out whether they can function as a civilization without external help and defend themselves from atomic destruction.

We are also destroying the ecology. Pumping toxins into the air, water, and soil. Phosphorus is good for plant growth but poisonous in large quantities. It runs off into water and kills sea life. Nationalist isolationism is dangerous because it causes countries to think in terms of themselves and their own economic survival rather than the global climate effects its fossil fuel dependency has. In the grand scheme of things, most countries will benefit from the change to clean energy but the change from our current production will show a brief decline in profits. It requires those in power to give up a little to save the world. A big task when those in power don’t think the average person are even classed as the same species. Unfortunately, some countries like Iran and Russia have poured too many resources into fossil fuels and their economy depends on it. This will make the change even harder. Skepticism and denial usually stem from people trying to preserve their interest such as nationalists claiming that climate change is a Chinese hoax. You barely hear left-wing people say this. They believe they need to deal with their own national issues before even considering dealing with a large and vague problem like climate change that doesn’t affect them directly.   

Nationalism, as an ideology has become quite useless when it comes to dealing with the new technological era. You can’t take unstoppable change and respond by holding onto the ways of old. Especially with climate change getting worse and the arms race. People are capable of having multiple loyalties so why not add the people of earth to the list of family, culture, and country? We now have global climate, global science, and global economy but national politics.

“Nationalists may be too short-sighted and too self-absorbed”

Side note: the power of attraction is a good idea in theory, based on psychology fundamentals, but it was highjacked by charlatans who took advantage of those looking for help. Positive thinking is the process of eliminating stressful thoughts from the mind and the power of attraction is about thinking about the things you want to have in abundance in your life. The very act of thinking about certain things primes your mind to search for them in your environment. It is the seen in the act of buying a new car. Suddenly you see that car everywhere. Or searching for your friend in a crowd. You have a group of signals that you combine and comb through a crowd for. If we couldn’t do this, we would use far too much time and energy to do a simple task. We group images we know are not necessary and skim past. Every magician understands this since they rely on the limitations of the brain and commanding your attention.

Unfortunately, the people who usually take to the charlatans are people who are victims of feeling isolated and defeated by life who are looking for answers (people who will attack if confronted to defend their self-perceived fragility). By packaging positive thinking as a magical and spiritual endeavor you are shutting of the brain to the questions by filling them with whimsical mystery. Whimsical mystery that has no threat but abundance for the user of such accessible powers. Just like religion, there is no longer any fear of the unknown and now all they need to do is put their energy into attracting all the “positive” things in life. The funny thing is, in order to convince their followers to give them money, they convince them that they are a new age messiah who possesses the power, which for a nominal fee you can acquire and also gain your own following or funding. “Yes, I am ripping you off, but I deserve it because I am a spiritual being in this universe. Want to be like me? Pay to play my children.” They believe greed is okay because there is “abundance” in the universe. Meaning there is an unlimited amount of money and things out there that you can wish into being.

They also highjack scientific terms, like quantum entanglement, to gain recognition for their mumbo jumbo. When questioned by real scientists about their usage they usually say it is an “obvious” metaphor. However, when they are talking to those in their following, they may tell them that we don’t understand everything in the world, science can’t explain everything, therefore the scary mysteries can be explained by our spiritual filler. 


While modern religions have proven useful at directing large communities in the past, they have very little application these days. For example, policy problems (like climate change regulations) and technical issues (climate change responses) should not be handled by religions that were not created while these issues were not yet acknowledged. However, identity problems (who you are and who you belong with) can still be addressed cautiously. As we are all aware, those identity issues can also pose the problem of drawing a line between “us and them” creating fear and anger towards the other.

Religion use to fall in the domain of agriculture, medicine, and other broad areas of life. Now there is a collective amnesia amongst zealots who claim to have forgotten their religions ever held those roles. They pick and choose what analogy or metaphor based on what the social norms currently are. Back in the times when they would use priests to solve famine or some medical issues the priest’s responsibility would be to claim divine intervention when it worked or explain why it didn’t if it failed (usually not enough prayer or donation is the culprit). The major difference between science and religion is scientists are supposed to admit when they are wrong and learn from their mistakes. Which is why more and more of the world is turning to science before anything else (the problem occurs when people put too much trust in scientists rather than learning how to understand the purpose of science). Making the world a superficial single community under the scientific procedure. Religion also has no part to play in economics. Some religions will stay close and be consulted in some countries when an economic decision must be made but there are no answers within the Quran or Bible that would help. Unless that individual is also a modern economist they will be misinformed by extremely outdated suggestions about the global financial markets. After religious leaders consult experts, they tend to wrap their answers in their religious explanatory garb before presenting them. However, their answers are usually the same to most other people seeing as the origin is the same but the explanation is different. The holy books go from historical scripture to just a symbol of authority (just likes priests in a monarchy). There are no such things as Christian, Muslim, or Hindu economics (if anything they would probably be communists). An evangelical would be more likely to interpret the bible as saying climate change is a hoax and to be seen driving a gas guzzling SUV whereas a catholic may drive an electric vehicle and say Jesus believed in saving the environment. All interpretation is dependent on your current scientific understanding.

Religion is really just a shortcut to understanding. When your scientific understanding is waning, you need to fill it with stories to feel safe. The alternatives are to be in fear of the unknown constantly or to have to try to use energy to learn, which is incredibly difficult when you’ve had a lifetime of ignorance. We are always trying to take the path of least resistance to save energy unless we convince ourselves it is necessary.

“Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not scientific facts or even on economic necessities.”

In order to draw the line in the sand between group religions use rites, rituals, and ceremonies but they all incorporate some sort of group activities where they search for meaning. This builds bonds, with community and affection for their group and religious idea. There is a lot of disgusting unfairnesses in each religion but the unification is what draws them together.

These days religion is now just considered the handmaid of nationalism. “We are god’s chosen nation, so whatever is good for the nation will please our god.”


Some people give this name to an all-knowing being, whereas others have attributed the term god to mean anything in the cosmos that is unknown. Some believe they know every detail about what God likes or dislikes and will argue over it based on their interpretation of a book that was written by man many years ago when language and culture was different.

If science can’t irrefutably explain something the religious will attribute this unknown to God. Once science figures something else out they change their minds when they are forced to. They also make bold claims about things like God not liking same sex marriage, albeit with no evidence. God becomes the authority to get what they want and prevent what represents change.

The religious laws may have been useful at maintaining the social order when we knew no better but they have no place now. Every violent act begins with a violent thought in mind. It hurts the victim as well as the actor. It disturbs their peace and all who are victims of their actions. For a lot of people, a belief in God has helped them to resist feeling immense anger towards others and prevents them from hurting them. Although, others use God’s name to inflict pain on others. The value of a lawgiver depends on their devotees.


To people who believe in religions a secular lifestyle may appear hollow, nihilistic, and amoral. Secularists tend to disagree and still have morals as well as not claiming to have all the answers. They believe that morality and wisdom are the legacy of humans rather than passed down from the heavens. Whether religious or not all ethics tend to promote truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility. The first ideal for secularists is truth – based on observation and evidence rather than faith. If you have a strong belief, it says more about your psychology and upbringing than truth. Next is compassion. They choose not to hurt others because it inflicts pain and suffering. This is compared to those who don’t hurt others because of obedience. They aim to do as little harm as possible in difficult circumstances. Keeping in mind that all are created equal and should have equal opportunities (equality). Courage is required to fight biases and oppressive regimes, which oppose equality, and to admit ignorance. We shouldn’t be afraid to doubt ourselves and look for more evidence. Fear of the unknown can paralyze more than any tyrant and so some believe they must have an answer for every question, leading to filling space with God. Those scared of truth are more likely to be violent to defend their ideas. Finally, secular people need to take responsibility because there is no God taking care of us or supporting our beliefs. Secular people take pride in scientific achievements like curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing about world peace since they know they worked hard to accomplish it without any divine intervention. We worked together as a species not in spite of each other. We also need to take responsibility for all the bad stuff we have done and to learn from them.

Understanding these values sets the bar quite high and many who are considered “secularists” will not meet the expectations. Capitalism started out as a secular idea until it fell into dogma. Repeating the words “free market” and “economic growth”, irrespective of the reality.

The story that everybody has the right to liberty and a right to life has protected many but it is just a story we tell ourselves to govern without a dictatorship or gods. This dogma inspired ideas such as everybody has a right to free speech instead of “should”. When we say this, we gloss over the fact that we are all shaped by our environments and our upbringing and may not have an opinion that reflects what is best for the species overall, trending towards free speech that contains a negative narrative. We can’t have everybody saying what they want and guarding their erroneous beliefs with the defense of authority to speak.

To claim freedom of speech over anybody else is denying the other person. Hate speech should never be encouraged if it means causing harm to another being. AI is being developed based on our ideas so when they become more integrated, they will make fast executive decisions on behalf the developer’s beliefs.

The power of secularism is the power to see your own shadow. To admit wrongdoing and to evolve from such mistakes. If you place all your intentions in the hands of an all knowing God you are leaving no room for mistakes and therefore, learning. We must look out for our blind spots fervently and try to avoid over confidence without relieving resolution when things work in everyone’s favor. A quest for truth regardless of our own personal flaws is one where we will constantly strive for improvement. The first question that should be asked of anyone who claims their religion or idea is the greatest should be what have you or it gotten wrong in the past. If they can’t admit anything they are not to be trusted.

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