Alan Watts telling the story of the Chinese farmer. You never know what life may bring…
Alan Watts telling the story of the Chinese farmer. You never know what life may bring…
In my book The Awakened Ape I described my life-changing encounter with magic mushrooms as a teenager in college. Now scientists have begun looking at the therapeutic effects of taking mushrooms.
In a fascinating new study, 19 patients with treatment-resistant major depression were given a dose of 25mg of psilocybin, which is approximately the equivalent amount of psilocybin that you would find in 2.5 grams of dried shrooms, or 25 grams of wet shrooms. This amount is in between the range that previous research has found for a positive fun experience (20mg) and the dose that study participants will claim as the most profound spiritual experience of their lives (30mg).
The shrooms had a profound effect. All of the patients had a positive response. A follow up study five weeks later showed that half the patients were no longer depressed. Incredible. These were people for whom all other treatments from therapy to anti-depressant medication hadn’t worked. Give them one dose of psilocybin and boom, depression is gone.
In Theravada Buddhism there are four stages of enlightenment. They were originally couched in the language of how many more lifetimes one would at most need to reach Nirvana, along with the psychological descriptions of each state. We can dispense with reincarnation nonsense and just stick to the psychological descriptions of enlightenment. They are often described as different paths, the 1st path is the first stage of enlightenment, the second path is the second stage of enlightenment and so on.
1st path: One is no longer deceived by perceptions of self, and self-existent reality outside the mind. There is less attachment, less suffering, less craving , more inner peace, more love, more generosity. Obtained through the direct experience that the reality we see is largely a manifestation of our mind. The most common event that triggers this insight is called a cessation.
What is a cessation? A cessation is an event that occurs during meditation where the mind completely shuts off and reboots. Consciousness disappears, and then reappears. This is often referred to as a ‘blip’. A cessation deeply imprints into the mind that the reality we see has always been at least in part a creation of our own mind, including our sense of self.
2nd Path: Desire and aversion, while not completely extirpated, have vastly diminished and only appear when tired, or unmindful, and are easily overcome when they do arise with a little mindfulness.
3rd Path: One becomes completely and totally free from the compulsions of desire and aversion and their manifestations — greed, hatred, anger, jealousy, and sadness.
4th Path: The meditator has completely overcome the conceit and restlessness associated with “I” and has put an end to suffering.
How does one become happier? How does one become healthier? How can I function at my best? How can I be more focused, calm, and productive?
Biohacking takes the mystery out of human well-being. At it’s core, the philosophy of biohacking is that human beings are biological machines, and that human well-being is not an insolvable enigma. Instead by taking a systems-thinking approach, we can break down the causes and conditions of how humans operate, what causes us to be stressed out and unhealthy, and what causes us to feel vitality.
For a concise definition, I like this one from Dave Asprey:
Biohacking (verb): To use science, biology, and self experimentation to take control of, and upgrade your mind, your body, and your life
Biohacking (noun): The art and science of becoming superhuman.
His noun version of biohacking gets into a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea. Biohacking is about making yourself better.
Common topics that biohacker’s are interested in include: What is the optimal diet? How can I maximize efficiency in my workouts so that I don’t have to spend two hours in the gym every night? How can I get better sleep? How can I raise my IQ? How can I slow down the rate at which I age?
Biohacker’s are fond of self-experimentation and with tracking results. They’ll use sleep apps that measure how long they were asleep and how much REM they got. They’ll look for variables that could have caused a poor night’s sleep — Did I drink coffee this afternoon? Have I been more stressed out lately? In order to test for stress, they will use heart rate variability monitors and check their resting heart rate upon waking. They’ll look for correlations between mood and the amount of sunlight they got. Do I feel happier when I get sunlight first thing in the morning? How does my diet affect my mental performance? Is eating too much sugar causing me brain fog?
Biohacking is about becoming your optimal self so that you can enjoy life to the fullest. It’s hard for me to think of a more rewarding hobby to take up.
Here is the opening chapter to my book, The Awakened Ape: A Biohacker’s Guide to Evolutionary Fitness, Natural Ecstasy, and Stress-Free Living. Available on Amazon
The happiest people in the world don’t wear underwear. If they have clothes at all, it is either a simple sheath that covers their genitals or a cloth they wrap around their body in colder climates. They have almost no possessions. They don’t eat at restaurants, they don’t use smartphones, and they don’t watch television. They don’t have money. They don’t even know what money is. What they have is more valuable — a sense of serenity and self-confidence that would astound the average person. A joie-de-vivre, an easy laugh, and an absence of stress and worry. They love freely and have a deep sense of oneness with the earth.
They are also the healthiest people in the world. They know little, perhaps nothing, of cancer, heart disease, obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, allergies, diabetes or even poor eyesight. They have never been to a doctor. They are athletic, strong and muscular. They do not gain weight as they age or show signs of dementia. Most remarkable of all — for 95% of human history, this described the life of nearly every single human being on earth. Skeptical? It’s ok, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I might not have believed any of this either.
How can we most enjoy the brief moment of time we have to be alive? This question first struck me sometime during my formative years when the finiteness of life and certitude of death became palpable and utterly undeniable. A period of existential crisis took hold, and I became obsessed with finding a solution. I consulted everyone from the ancient Greeks to the most cutting-edge science in search of an answer, mixing and matching like an alchemist working on the philosopher’s stone. Take two parts psychology and anthropology, add a hefty portion of evolutionary biology and sprinkle with a dash of Eastern mysticism. Wash, rinse, repeat, until a dozen years later I have emerged with the concoction you now hold in your hands. This final elixir is not at all what I expected to find when I first set out on this journey. Many of the recommendations to follow will seem at best odd, and at worse sacrilegious, to ears molded in the technology driven consumerist milieu that is the modern world. But it is in embracing our primordial nature that the highest happiness is found.
Since the dawn of our existence up until the advent of agriculture, we scoured the earth from Africa to the Arctic in search of wild game and fresh fruits and vegetables. Along the way, the forces of natural selection attuned us to our environment in such a magnificent way that our hunter-gatherer ancestors felt a natural unity with their surroundings, leading to a life of robust health and merriment. There are tribes of people alive today, hidden in remote jungles of the Amazon and the sprawling Kalahari desert who still live in this ancient way and enjoy the fruits of life matched to its genetic potential. Most people in modern society look down upon these tribes as relics of the stone age. How unfortunate that they don’t have access to the wonders of technology! Yet the scientists who have lived among these ‘primitives’ describe them as the happiest and healthiest people they have ever seen.
The claims I have just made fly in the face of everything that we have been taught to believe and what is considered common sense. I majored in philosophy in college and much to the chagrin of the people unfortunate enough to sit across from me at dinner, I questioned and analyzed everything — from the color of the apples on the table to the most arcane theories in quantum physics. But it never dawned on me that things like stress, worry, and heart disease are modern illnesses. I took it as a given that as I grew older I would slowly lose my mind, my stressful life would cause my nervous system to degenerate, and I would eventually succumb to cancer. Then, while in graduate school and writing my master thesis on the evolutionary psychology of health and happiness, I began poring over the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherers. What I read blew my mind. I didn’t understand how this wasn’t public knowledge. I wanted to run out on the street and grab people by the collar, yelling what I was learning to their faces, “Did you know that hunter-gatherers don’t get cavities? Did you know this? They don’t even brush their teeth!” It is partly in the interests of not looking like a madman, and saving your nicely pressed Banana Republic button-down shirt that I have written this book instead.
Luckily in the last few years, the ancestral health movement, popularly depicted as “the paleo diet” has become hugely successful, and people around the world are thinner, stronger and suffer from fewer illnesses and chronic conditions as a result. A smashing success, and for those unfamiliar with the basics of paleo eating I have devoted a chapter to it. But in this craze to get healthier, thinner bodies, people consistently left out what I consider to be the far more interesting question. Why is it that hunter-gatherers were so happy? Why did they have such great mental health?
It may surprise you to know that psychologists began seriously studying happiness — the most important question in all of human existence — only at the turn of the new millennium. Before that psychologists were focused mainly on treating mental illness, taking a person from being sick to functioning normally. That is where all the money was; people don’t pay for a psychologist when they are simply feeling what Freud called “ordinary human unhappiness”. Since the question of how to make the most of this one and only existence we have on earth has been my driving motivation throughout my entire life and was the reason I studied existential philosophy as an undergrad, I was naturally intrigued by this new development in the field of psychology. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I decided to work in a positive psychology laboratory while pursuing my graduate degree in Mind, Brain, and Behavior Research. In the last decade, the field of positive psychology has blossomed with thousands of journal articles and seemingly as many books published on the subject. The modus operandi for studying happiness has been to take a sample from our modern society and figure out the personality, social, and economic correlations to well-being. Does money buy happiness? Yes, but only to the extent that one isn’t poor. After that it doesn’t matter much. People with lots of close friends tend to be pretty happy and those who are neurotic are not. A lot of this research has been insightful and overall a great boon to our understanding of the human condition. But when asking the question, “What is it that makes a person as happy as possible?” the field of positive psychology has come up short in six key areas. These are the issues I seek to address and clarify. They correspond to the six sections of this book. Let us begin.
The Meaning of Life
How strange a thing it is to be alive! This maelstrom of conscious experience, with its sensations of pleasure, pain, thought, and vision. How different it is to be human beings, rather than the rocks and oceans we share the planet with. How did it come to be so? Why do we feel what we feel? Why do we have the desires, likes and dislikes that we do? The average man is too busy, lost in a world of click-bait ads and Walmart aisles, ever to ponder such questions. The smarter, hard-working, type A’s among us, are too focused on achieving their dreams to question why they have those dreams in the first place. Only in the aftermath of heartache do we even pay lip service to these most important ideas.
That people can live their entire lives without knowing what it means to be a human being is a great misfortune. For without this philosophical foundation, we are liable to flitter away our short lives mired in needless dramas and pursuits. This section is about steering you on course, setting you in the direction of what is truly essential. Lest you worry that I am advocating for a life of pure asceticism or self-flagellation, or that one must devote oneself to some serious cause, I can assure you I am not. This is a book about pleasure and fun, about health and happiness. Through a series of thought experiments, I will argue the attainment of such well-being is the highest purpose to which one can aspire.
Unfortunately, there exists a cabal of contemporary psychologists who believe that any deliberate attempt to improve our happiness will only backfire. Trying to be happy they say, will only remind us of our unhappiness. Even such historical luminaries as John Stuart Mill, the philosopher most famous for espousing the view that pleasure was the greatest moral good, once said, “those are only happy who have their minds fixed on something other than their own happiness.”
As a biohacker, I never understood the affinity for these mysterian views of well-being. Biohacking is the principle that the human body is like a machine, and if we can figure out how it works, we can improve the way it functions. Happiness is not some nebulous ether, but a biophysical state that functions on the principle of cause and effect. In this way, it is similar to having a healthy heart. No doctor would advise his patient to “Stop trying to have a healthy heart if you want to have a healthy heart!”. And no psychologist should be telling anyone that happiness cannot be improved directly. If your attempts to improve your happiness are failing, it is not because it is impossible. It is because you are doing it wrong.
The majority of the research conducted on the happiest people on the planet has not been done by psychologists but by anthropologists. This happened completely by accident. When the field of anthropology exploded in the beginning of the 20th century, scientists had no idea that while traveling to the ends of the earth in search of lost tribes they would inadvertently be discovering the happiest people alive. They went out to study their social customs, their ways of gathering food, the tools they use and their sex habits. The study of their well-being was only ancillary, yet anthropologist after anthropologist would come out of the jungle remarking time and again how fit, confident, and relaxed their subjects were. The public found this hard to accept as the reigning belief was that history was a progressive march towards a better culture and way of life culminating in the apex of human existence that was modern European and American society. It doesn’t matter where you are, people around the world have an innate bias to assume that their culture is the best culture, and that everyone else in the world are poor saps who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong time and place. Unlike you.
Enamored with the stories of hunter-gatherers, I traveled deep within the Amazon rainforest to see these happy tribes with my own eyes. After two days of canoeing up the river and hiking through a dense thicket of vegetation, stepping over poisonous snakes and hearing the sounds of growling jaguars, I reached a community of hunter-gatherer’s called the Waorani. I found the women and children to laugh and giggle constantly. The men were stoic, self-confident and stress-free. The anthropologists had been telling the truth all along. I have sprinkled tales from my time with the Waorani throughout this book.
The Why of Happiness
From an evolutionary perspective, it is pretty easy to understand why nature makes an orgasm so pleasurable. For our genes to live on in their quest for immortality, they must make copies of themselves. To do this, the genes of the male must escape from the body they currently inhabit and find their way into the body of the female, at which point they will bond to form a new person programmed to carry their genes further on to the next generation. This bodily exchange of seminal fluid, the crux of what carries us forwards as a species, would seem an odd and perhaps repulsive pastime that no one would indulge in if Mother Nature hadn’t designed our brains to release pleasure-inducing hormones in the process. Our genes reward us for doing their bidding by making the behaviors that propagate our genes pleasurable. Sex is easy to understand. But why do we feel love, joy, enthusiasm, and serenity? Not all animal species feel these emotions. So why do humans? What evolutionary purpose do these emotions serve? And what kind of activities and what kind of society would allow us to feel these emotions more frequently?
The flip side of happiness is unhappiness, which results from negative emotions. The evolutionary purpose of fear and anxiety is pretty simple. It’s not a good thing for our genes to wind up in the belly of a ravenous beast. So we evolved a defense mechanism against large carnivorous predators that might want to eat us. See tiger. Feel fear. Run away. But for the vast majority of us today the most fearful predator we will ever come across is our neighbor’s fenced in German shepherd. So why is it that so many of us suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, and depression? Why is our stress response on constant alert when we have relatively little to be genuinely worried about? The answer to this will be found in the dramatic mismatch between our current lifestyle and the one in which our genes originally evolved.
Training the Mind
The benefits of mind training are so extraordinary that if I were to just come right out and tell you about them, you might think I had gone off the deep end, was a gullible fool, or worse, declare me a charlatan. To win you over to my way of thinking let me first present an analogy, a fictional scenario that has a moral you are already aware of: the benefit of exercise to one’s physique and health. What would it be like if someone from a society of people who had never exercised a day in their lives were to meet someone from a society where exercise was built into the very ethos of their community? A society in which, from a very young age, all of its members engaged in physical activities like running, jumping, throwing, wrestling and lifting weights. As adults, they would resemble our Olympic athletes. Now let’s say a member of this society — we will call him Achilles— is an adventurous type and travels across the ocean to a distant land where he meets the people who are unfamiliar with the concept of exercise. All the people in this society live a desk-bound existence, and suffer the resultant maladies caused by obesity. How would a conversation between Achilles and a man from this society go? I’d imagine that their exchange would be filled with puzzlement and wonder and unintentionally offensive statements, as meetings between people from distant cultures often are.
Upon pulling his boat up on the shore, Achilles is met by a dignitary from this foreign land of roly-poly’s named Mr. Rotund.
Mr. Rotund: Well hello there! …garbled chewing noises …Sorry, sorry, excuse me, I was just eating. tosses candy wrapper to the ground… How do you do? I am Mr. Rotund.
Achilles: Hi, my name is Achilles, and I have come all the way from across the sea to observe what kind of people there are in this part of the world.
Mr. Rotund: Achilles! Ah, well that explains it.
Achilles: Explains what?
Mr. Rotund: You are Achilles! You have the muscular body of the Greek Gods we have statues of in our museums. You are only half human, your mother was a Goddess, which is where you must get that incredible physique from!
Achilles: Why thank you, but that is a silly legend. I assure you that I have two fully human parents, and there is nothing spectacular about my physique as this is what all humans look like. What I have never seen is a creature like you before. In our culture it is only the women that have protruding mammaries.
Mr. Rotund: Do you mean to tell me that you have no obesity in your society? Huffing and puffing as he waddles through the sand. That people from your society do not get diabetes and die early from heart attacks? Hold on..let us slow down the pace. I am getting winded. That they don’t have hypertension, strokes or keep their shirts on while swimming in the pool?
Achilles: Obesity? Diabetes, stroke? I have never heard of these things. Are these diseases you get due to your immense lardness?
Mr. Rotund: Yes! They are terrible conditions.
Achilles: Mr. Rotund, my friend, I do not understand. Why would you ever let your body get like this?
Returning from our imaginary meeting let me propose the following: Achilles, as depicted in our story, could very well have been one of our paleolithic ancestors. Anthropologist Jared Diamond has remarked that the hunter-gatherers he has visited have physiques that resemble miniature bodybuilders. And they don’t go to the gym! Their low fat, muscular physiques are the result of living and eating the way a wild human animal is supposed to. They move frequently, walk long distances daily, often while lugging heavy buckets of water or a large antelope leg on their shoulders. Do this every day of your life and you are going to look like an underwear model.
Contemporary life is spent sitting in chairs. As a the result of this sedentary lifestyle, we watch our bodies generate excess blubber around our midsections until the once beautiful, strong and powerful apes that we started out as, are hardly recognizable. For those of us less inclined to develop a pear-shaped corpulence, we use a technique to stimulate muscle growth and improve our cardiovascular system. We call this exercise. Modern life is so far removed from the way our natural bodies are supposed to move that without the intervention of regular exercise our physical health will rapidly deteriorate.
Now here is the important point — just as our physical health will decline from the sedentary lifestyle we have adopted in the modern world, our mental health is in equal peril from this unnatural environment we find ourselves in. The inability to pay attention, stress, worry, depression and anxiety are the mental equivalents of diabetes, stroke, and hypertension. Hunter-gatherers do not get any of these modern diseases, mental or physical.
Unlike Mr. Rotund, those of us in the modern world are lucky enough to live in a society where the benefits of physical exercise and sport were discovered long before the computer and car, and so along with a good diet we have ways to combat our poor physical health. But what about our mental health? Are there exercises to combat everyday stress and worry? If so, how often do we perform them? Are we mental Mr. Rotund’s, unaware that there is a treatment that would prevent us from getting these common maladies of the mind? Are we resigned to the idea that stress, worry, and low self-esteem are inevitable features of the human condition for which we can do little about? What would happen if we were to meet a society of people trained from a young age in the art of mental exercise, who grew to possess such great mental strength that some of us might be fooled into thinking they were divine? And what if I were to tell you that this has already happened?
One of the many hippies to travel to Tibet in the 70’s was a young Californian by the name of Alan Wallace. He had become fed up with western culture, but fascinated by Buddhism. He wanted to learn how to meditate at the feet of the greatest masters in the world and became a monk in a Himalayan monastery. It was there that his ideas of mental health were completely turned upside down.
The abbot of the monastery was giving a talk to the monks about a common psychological problem amongst Tibetans. He lamented that people have a tendency to think very highly of themselves while putting others down. At the end of the talk, Alan stood up and said, “My problem is not that I have too much pride, but that I often think negatively of myself. I often don’t like myself and don’t think I am very good.” The abbot glanced up at Alan with a sweet expression, smiled and said, “No you don’t.” The abbot didn’t believe him. He had never heard of the concept of someone not liking themselves before.
Similarly in a meeting between the Dalai Lama and American psychologists in 1990, one of the psychologists brought up the concept of negative self-talk. Since there are no words in Tibetan that translate into low self-esteem and self-contempt, it took quite a long time for the psychologists to convey what they meant. But this wasn’t a translation problem. It was a problem of conceptualization. Self-loathing? People do that? The Dalai Lama was incredulous. Once the Dalai Lama understood what they were saying, he turned to the Tibetan monks in the room, and after explaining what the psychologists were talking about, he asked, “How many of you have experienced this low-self esteem, self-contempt or self-loathing?”
Here was a psychological state of mind so ubiquitous in our culture, that everyone experiences it from time to time, if not every single day. Yet these Tibetans, trained since childhood in the art of a mental exercise they call meditation, acted like they were being told about some alien life form. The Dalai Lama turned back to the psychologists and asked, “Why would you ever let your mind get like this?”
The Nature of Reality
The final and most esoteric aspect of happiness that is left out of all those positive psychology books is talk about a deeper nature of reality. Philosophers on the other hand, have opined on this subject since the very beginning. The man who coined the term philosopher, meaning “lover of wisdom” was Pythagoras, who intertwined his philosophy into a worldview and way of life that only members of his secret sect were privy to. Concrete facts about Pythagoras’ life are few, as there are no surviving biographical sources from his contemporaries. What information we do have was written down many years later and presents Pythagoras as a nearly divine figure, saying he emanated a supernatural glow. Did he know secrets of the cosmos that have been lost to us today? Unfortunately, we will never know as Pythagoras beliefs died with him and his followers millennia ago. What we do know is that his society practiced communalism, had no personal possessions, followed a strict diet, adhered to an ethical code of honesty, selflessness, and mutual friendship. Advice very similar to what you will find in this book. While the wisdom of the Pythagoras has been buried by the sands of time, the teachings of an even more luminous figure from the ancient world remain. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha, which means “the awakened one.”
What is it that he woke up to? Buddhist philosophy states that in our everyday lives we are overcome by delusion, which creates attachment and aversion and traps us in a cycle of suffering. By waking up from this delusion, we attain nirvana. Nirvana literally means ‘blowing out,’ as in a candle flame. It is by blowing out the flames of attachment, aversion, and ignorance that suffering is extinguished. The result is a mind that experiences sublime peace.
Does this sound too good to be true? As scientists we will examine Buddhism from a secular perspective, focusing on the pragmatic teachings related to ending suffering and increasing happiness while ignoring the dubious religious elements like reincarnation. How does this secular Buddhism stack up to the demands of modern science? Is there truly a reality hidden beneath our eyes that would lead us to extraordinary well-being if we could only see? Is nirvana the highest happiness a human could possibly experience? Do people actually attain it? Or at the very least, do they get close? How far along the path can we reasonably expect to get? These questions will be the focus of the second half of this book.
The Buddhist term ‘bodhi’ is often translated in English as enlightenment or awakening. Bodhi refers to a special kind of knowledge, that of the causal mechanisms that lead to human suffering. Our aim here is the same, to fully understand the causes and conditions that lead to suffering and happiness bolstered by the latest revelations in contemporary science. This book seeks to integrate two separate traditions of ancient wisdom with modern science so that we can live the happiest and healthiest lives possible. By learning about the environment in which our Paleolithic ancestors evolved and how our genetics are still wired to that way of life, we can begin to organize the outer conditions (the diet we need to eat, the exercise we need to do, the sunlight we need to get and the social relationships we need to build and maintain, etc) that will give us the best chance to flourish both physically and mentally. From there we will add the most successful techniques ever developed by humans to work on the inner conditions (our ability to relax, focus, and experience states of ecstasy and compassion, etc) of our mental lives — that of Buddhist soteriology.
This book is also about integrating what we learn into our daily existence in a modern world. Obviously we can’t all live like hunter-gatherers in the Amazon or Buddhist monks in the Himalayas; We have jobs, families and responsibilities. Within the pages of this book, you will find tips on how to live in a more natural way while still waking up every weekday morning to brave the congested commute on your way to the office. As you make changes to your diet, begin a meditation practice and stop using shampoo (read on), you will gradually notice a sense of calm and mental balance replacing the stressed out habitual thought patterns that previously occupied your mind. Your waist will narrow, your sense of vitality will increase, and even things like the common cold will be a rare occurrence.
I assume most people will take their practice only this far. That is fine. There’s a lot to be said for being happy, calm and healthy. But for those who feel the calling to make the best of their time on earth and reach the highest peaks possible, this book is also a guide that will point you in the right direction. Follow this path and you may find that one day the world around you has become a dancing, playful thing, filled with a previously unimaginable serenity and bliss.
If there is an intellectual out there who I connect with more than Sam Harris, I haven’t met him. From his books decrying the evil of religion such as in his best-selling The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason to his attempt to place morality in the hands of science with The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, I have cheered him on, nodding in agreement with the vast majority of his claims and laughing at his stinging barbs. With his clear voice, mighty intellect and quick wit, he went from being a neuroscience graduate student that nobody had ever heard of to one of the Four Horseman of the new atheists along with Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, all seemingly overnight.
But unlike those other three intellectual titans, Harris has always struck me as the least ivory tower of the bunch. Like me he has a passion for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is a follower of MMA, and as we find out in the very first chapter of his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion he spent much of his 20’s high on LSD and MDMA. It was these drug experiences that helped send him on search for that ever elusive state of mind called enlightenment.
During his undergraduate years at Stanford, Harris and a friend ingested the drug MDMA, commonly known by its street name Ecstasy. This was in 1987, before the rave scene was popular, so Sam and his friend merely hung out inside a house and sat across from each other on two couches and chatted. As their conversation went on and the chemicals of the drug began to take hold Sam came to the sudden realization that he loved his friend. A completely selfless love that all Sam could want was for his friend to be happy. The idea of being jealous or envious of his friend’s or anyone else’s success in life seemed like a mental illness. Nor did this love just extend to his friend, but if any complete stranger had walked into the room at the moment, Sam’s love would have extended to that person too. Love he realized, was a state of being, not something we are only supposed to feel towards someone if they had a certain relationship with you. Under the spell of ecstasy he felt sane for the first time in his life.
There was far more happiness available to be experienced in this life than what is commonly known and Sam went in search of how to get it. His travels took him all across Asia to study at the feet of some of world’s best known meditation masters. He would spend two years in retreat, meditating 18 hours a day, before finally, under the guise of the legendary Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, did Sam find what he was after. The direct experience of what we consider the self as an illusion.
“Waking Up” is divided into five chapters, the first chapter deals with the nature of spirituality, how it is conceived differently in the east and west, how a secular person can glean the fruits of spiritual wisdom without having to buy into the dogma of religion. This is an important point that needs to be made to the secular community, just because the Abrahamic religions you have been surrounded by growing up are ridiculous, doesn’t mean that there isn’t some wisdom to be learned from the east. And sure some of the claims of the east are laughable too, but as Harris points out, there is a diamond in the rough, and it is possible to have it in the palm of your hand.
In the next few chapters Sam Harris put on his neuroscientist hat to wonder about some of the mysteries of consciousness. He goes over what is known as the “hard problem of consciousness”, why it is that this hunk of atoms and molecules that is us experiences the world at all in a way that a rock surely doesn’t. He sees this as an enigma that we just can’t solve at the moment. And then moves on to the nature of the self. Through some clever thought experiments Harris wants us to see how our commonplace sense of self doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The main illusion here is that we tend to think of ourselves as “possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience.”
This an empirical claim says Harris, look closely at your own mind and you will never find a sense of self. And when this absence of self is found, the feeling of being a self a vanishes. The problem is we are too distracted by the noise going on in our minds that we don’t have the contemplative tools to be able to see this clearly. In a very clever analogy he relates this to Galileo having to build his own telescope to look at the stars. If every single one of us had to be able to build our own telescopes, how much would the average person know about astronomy?
But that is exactly what has to happen in order to successfully navigate the mind. We have to build our own tools, the first of which being the ability to concentrate and not get swept away by the tornado of thoughts. For this we need to learn how to meditate. The subject of his next chapter.
Where “Waking Up” may spark the most controversy is not between Christians and atheists, between the religious and the secular, but between the Dharma practitioners themselves. In his chapter “Sudden vs Gradual realization” Harris tackles the age old question of just how to become enlightened. There are two types of paths, one gradual and one sudden. Those who follow the gradual path, such as is outlined in Theravadan buddhism assume that enlightenment is something to be attained, and that to get it you first have to pass by all these intermediate steps and do all sorts of practices. By adopting certain practices, the sense of self slowly diminishes over time. The sudden school of thought is that we are already enlightened, we already don’t have a sense of self and we can have happiness right now, we just need to have it pointed it out to us. The sudden school criticize’s the gradual school by saying the gradual school only reinforces the nature of self by implicitly believing that there is an “I” who is working towards enlightenment. While the gradual school shoots back and says ‘you dummies don’t you realize your path actually is gradual, you didn’t suddenly become enlightened all at once, you had to train your concentration first and then once you had the no-self pointed out you have to keep training in reinforcing it over and over.’
Harris first outlines his attempts in the tradition of Theravadan buddhism, studying under one of the foremost living masters in the discipline Sayadaw U Pandita. While on retreat he had many amazing experiences and all together grew happier and more concentrated but the breakthrough to realizing no-self never happened.
Harris would then give the tradition of Avaita Vedanta a chance, where he began to believe that realizing the illusory nature of self was possible in this moment right now. But it wasn’t until he met with the legendary Tibetan Buddhist master Tulku Urgyen Rinpochewhere Sam learned the practice of Dzogchen and finally had his breakthrough. It was with the absolute clarity of Tulku Urgyen’s advice that Harris finally learnt how to cut through the illusion of self…if only for an instance…
Harris has clearly thrown his hat into the sudden awakening school and he has been criticized for this by some of the gradual school folks like Daniel Ingram who point out that Harris had been training for years before receiving Tulku Urgyen’s teaching, and that the amount of ordinary people who ‘pop’ (suddenly become awake) when hearing a Dzogchen master point out the nature of the mind is very small, and those who do usually have had years of meditation training like Harris had. So not sudden at all, but gradual. Harris does admit this, as he knows that even the Tibetan Buddhists go through years of preliminary practices before receiving Dzgochen instruction. Also Harris’s awakening only lasts for a few moments, before he gets caught up in the illusion of self again. Although he says that with more practice, those moments would extend in duration and intensity. One wonders why if as Harris says, who readily admits that he often gets lost in neurotic thought doesn’t practice more if his awakening moments are so blissful? (To watch him in debate though, is to watch someone who appears amazingly focused and phlegmatic)
According to Harris the best way to learn to become enlightened is to learn at the foot of a dzogchen master. Unfortunately his teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche is no longer around, but his sons are. And I can attest they are very good teachers. Long before I had even heard of the father, I picked up his youngest sons book, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness and have found it one of if not the clearest guide on meditation anywhere. In the end, Harris wants you to give meditation a try and run the experiment in your own mind. Will you find the same fruits he did?
The cult Guru Osho claimed to have sex with more women than any man in history. Osho claimed to be enlightened and maybe he was, or maybe he was just a charlatan, but other guru’s have had similar reputations for holding mass orgies with their many groupies. But is their sexual prowess due the benefits they received from being enlightened? Or can we chalk it up to charisma and a position of power?
It seems that becoming enlightened would give you many traits that on the face of it would be attractive to the opposite sex. Non-neediness, confidence, happiness, emotional equanimity,…but then again I’ve never heard any woman go…”Oh those buddhist monks, they are so sexy!” Perhaps a side effect of enlightenment is a lack of desire, passion and worldly ambition that many woman also go for.
So what gives? I decided to ask three people I know who are enlightened and get their responses…
The question was, “Has becoming enlightened made you more attractive to women?”
Daniel: I do think that there is something about meditative accomplishment that can make people attractive, many things, in fact, and emotional intelligence is refreshing and reassuring to people, like a breath of sanity, and people who are really present to others, who can really listen and respond to what someone is bringing to an interaction or a conversation, are more compelling, and meditative attainment can generate confidence, and that is attractive, and it can reduce cortisol levels and that makes people seem healthier, and it makes people more lighthearted and people like that, and it creates pathways of thought and association that people find fascinating, and it can itself be a status symbol, and some people like those with status, and it can make the brain function better, which breeds success, and success is attractive, and so and and so forth…
Blue (nickname): Meditating has a giant potential to improve your success with women.
1) Meditation improves equanimity and unattachment. These are the single most important factors when dealing with women. They are the benevolent forms of apathy, the reason that bad boys are so attractive to women.
2) Meditation improves the vibe you give off . How you make the woman feel is the second most important thing. The gold standard is “The way you feel is the way the women feels”. If you are having a blast the woman will have a blast, if you feel super cool and awesome the woman will perceive you as cool and awesome.
The way people perceive you is exactly the way you feel
Dauphine: In my personal experience, what seems to have made me more attractive was meditation itself, not necessarily the progress/enlightenment that came with it. I think it’s somewhat like this: Once you get some decent mindfulness and concentration going, your mind relaxes, your body relaxes, your face relaxes, and you look healthier, happier, more wholesome, so people will like your appearance. As you start understanding the nature of reality, though, you inevitably come to see that “falling in love” and “passion” and “commitment”—and all the other stuff that your partner is probably going to be looking for from you—are basically nothing but deluded mental fermentations leading to suffering, so as soon as you open your mouth, especially now that you’re not really into lying anymore, the women who initially had the hots for you will change their mind really quickly.
That last response is pure gold.
Bhante G, a buddhist monk residing in Washington D.C found out that his mother was gravely ill and would die sometime in the next few days. He immediately hopped on a plane and started heading towards his native Sri Lanka. After making a pit stop in Hawaii, he switched planes to a jumbo jet. Two hours into his flight over the vast pacific ocean, he looked out the window and noticed one of the engines was on fire!
The pilots voice came on over the intercom and said that they would be turning around immediately and would hopefully be making it back to Hawaii, giving instructions on what to do in case of an emergency landing. As you can imagine, there was panic on board. People weeping, couple’s kissing, the fear of death plastered over the faces of all the passengers. Except Bhante G. Bhante G was having a grand ol’ time.
Bhante G had reasoned to himself that if he was going to die, being afraid wasn’t going to prevent him from dying, so he might as well keep his mind calm and clear. He thought to himself that he bad been doing a lot of good deeds recently and didn’t have any regrets, he thought of the moment as a good opportunity to meditate on the concept of impermanence and let go of his attachment to life.
I’ll let Bhante G explain the rest in his own words from his wonderful book “Eight Mindful Steps To Happiness”. The most clear and modern explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path out there.
“I felt no fear.I actually enjoyed watching the flames come out of the engine at 39,000 feet! The flames were blue, yellow, and red. You seldom see such blue flames. Sometimes they were streaming out; sometimes they were low. They looked like fireworks or the aurora borealis. While I was enjoying the drama, the hundred other people on the plane were suffering terribly. I looked at the other passenger’s from time to time and saw the agony they suffered from the very thought of death. They seemed to be dead almost before they died….
…We did make it back to Hawaii and the plane made an emergency landing. We went out the emergency doors as instructed, sliding down the chutes. Going down the chute was an entirely new experience for me. Perhaps everyone else on the plane had at least down a playground slide in their childhood, but I had never done such a thing in the poor village where I grew up. Thus right up to the end, I enjoyed it all very much.”
Let’s recap what was going on in this man’s life..
1. His mother was on her deathbed and he was flying halfway around the world to see her die.
2. As he is flying over the largest ocean on the planet the plane catches on fire and there is a decent chance that it is going to go down and everyone will perish. Can you even imagine the terror you would be experiencing on a plane that was about to crash over the Pacific ocean? What would you be thinking about? All the things you have yet to do in life, how you don’t want to die, how your poor mother is not only dying, but she might find our right before her death that her son died in a plane crash on the way to see her. How you would never see x,y,z person again. It would be absolutely terrifying.
3. Yet this man has such strong control over his own thoughts and emotions that he rationalizes that negative thoughts aren’t going to help him and decides to instead keep a calm mind and focus on the beauty of the flames!
Oh the power of meditation! Keep this in mind the next time you are stuck in traffic, bogged down in work or think you are in some other situation that is ‘just awful’ and ‘couldn’t possibly keep a positive attitude’. Just remember this story, think about the time that plane crash landed in Hawaii and of all the terrified passengers going down the slide, getting off and running away as fast as possible in case the engine blew up just as they were instructed. Meanwhile, here is this old, bald Sri Lankan man wearing the red and orange robes of a monk and he is going down the slide like “WEEEEE”..
There are a few different ways to go about finding happiness in life. The most common one looks something like this…
Get a job–> make money–>acquire things–>keep up with the Jones’s–>get a spouse–>fall in love–>try and maintain connection despite obvious pitfalls of monogamy–>raise children–>hope children are successful
Along the way you may or may not find happiness. Those little moments when your kid takes his first step or you finally have time off your hectic work schedule to take a vacation. Those moments are great, that is what most people live for. But in between there is generally a lot of stress, too much work, fights with your spouse, your kids get ill. Things just don’t go according to plan. I don’t have to tell you all about this, this is normal life for the vast majority of people on planet earth.
I call this the Outward Path, because it’s the path of trying to make things in your environment just right so that you can live a good life.
There is however a different way to approach life.
The Inner Path.
The inner path is in many ways the opposite of the outward path. The outward path finds happiness by trying to accomplish some goal, or do some activity that causes a positive emotional change within your body. However, if things don’t work out the way you want them to, sadness and stress appear. The inner path involves working with your own mind directly so that you can experience well-being regardless of the circumstances of your outward life.
The most popular and perhaps most effective style of the inner path is that laid out by Siddhartha Guatama (more commonly known as the Buddha) in India 2500 years ago. In the hundreds of years since the Buddha existed lots of myths and legends grew up around his life and his teachings and we don’t know exactly what is true. I personally don’t believe that he was in any way other than a normal human being who happened to gain through years of dedicated practice an immense understanding about the workings of his own mind.
In other words, he may have been the world’s greatest psychologist.
What we do know is that you can strip away all the miracles, karma, past lives, in a sense..all the religion that surrounds buddhism and break it down into a very secular philosophy and psychology on how to become happy.
Here is the path to enlightenment.
In buddhism morality is really about living a life that is going to allow you to have as little stress as possible so that you can get the most benefit out of meditation. Getting in fights with others, hurting people, stealing, killing, too much gossiping, or having a job that takes advantage of others all lead to a stressful mind from which it would be hard to meditate. Having greedy worldly ambitions for power, money and excess is also not going to lead you to a place of peace. But neither will a life of asceticism and poverty as the Buddha learned the hard way. That is why the Buddhist path is called “The Middle Way.” Sort out the conditions of your life in such a way that you are not going to be worried about the basics of food, shelter,health and good relations with others than get to practicing.
Now down to the very enjoyable business of meditating. Here is where the rubber meets the road. The end goal of meditation is to see reality clearly, without any illusions, but to do this one needs have very strong powers of concentration to focus on whatever aspect of reality you are going to be looking at later on. Therefore it is mandatory to begin your meditation practice by training in concentration. Which I’ve already outlined how to do here..
Eventually when your concentration powers get super strong two things will happen. First you will be able to access incredibly joyous and sublime states of altered consciousness called jhanas. These states of deep absorption are better than sex. And if you are really good at meditating than you can access these states of bliss whenever you want.
Second you now have requisite concentration powers for the third training.
Also known as insight meditation these forms of meditation allow you to focus on the reality that is going on within your own body and mind. You will look at the sensations that make up your feelings, thoughts, and even the nature of your sense of self and see more clearly what they really are and how they work.
There are three realizations that you will come to learn about the nature of reality.
A)Impermanence- Everything in life, and especially when we are talking about the sensations that make up your world of experience is transient. Sensations come and go, thoughts come and go, mental images come and go. This is important to know because it chips away at the notion of a stable self or mind, that we all believe we have.
B) Suffering- When you really examine your mind, you will notice that desire leads to suffering. I’m not talking about gross levels of suffering such as depression and anxiety attacks, or intense desires such as to become a billionaire or take over the world, but the smallest little minute aspects of our moment-to-moment experience. The desire to overcome boredom, restlessness (think waiting for a commercial to end), the desire to get a word in during a conversation or desire to have this person think you have this quality or that quality. The desire for traffic to move faster. The desire to be pain free or the desire to win this or that or finish whatever it is you are doing so you can do something more enjoyable. When you get really good at meditating you notice there are even more subtle levels of desire than this. What you find is that the current way you view the world as a self and everything outside of you as other leads to inherent unsatisfactoriness the keeps you from being perfectly calm and restful.
You may think, oh but I’m actually happy, I don’t suffer! Well that’s great, but remember I’m talking about very subtle levels of dissatisfaction that you may not be aware of if you aren’t really paying attention to what is going on in your mind. In other words, you think you are happy but you really don’t know just how calm you could be..
C) No-Self. Probably the most confusing aspect of buddhism, and one that I still haven’t completely wrapped my head around. But the illusion here is that there is a permanent, stable, “I” that exists instead of a series of transient phenomenon that gets weaved into a story of “Me,Mine,I.” To elaborate on this more would be take this post way too long and since my understanding of it is purely theoretical and not experienced (I am not enlightened..yet!) I will hold off for now..
What I can tell you is that this belief in a self..call it ..EGO..is the basis for all the desires we have that lead to the subtle levels of unsatisfactoriness that inhabit our moment-to-moment experience of existence. “I” want this person to think I’m funny, “I” want xyz, I want to be successful, I don’t want this person to know this about me” etc. Once the ego is seen for what is it, an illusion, then it begins to drop away and so do the desires that cause dissatisfaction.
What’s left? What happens when you have have done all of this?
After all this meditating your conscious experience is completely transformed and the way you perceive reality has changed so that your natural state is that of inner peace. A peace that is just way beyond anything you could experience in common every day consciousness. This peace is also relatively independent of external conditions. It is just there, now. You sit at ease with the world, without the need to effect or manipulate it in any way so that you could be less stressed in that moment. My friend Noah Elkrief, who has attained enlightenment said that even when his Dad was in a life or death surgery at the hospital he sat in the waiting room completely free of worry and at peace. If you want you can access those blissful states called jhana I mentioned earlier, states that are better than sex or any pleasure you come across along the Outer Path. You can do these whenever you want and they have no side effects to your health.
Author of “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha”, (the legendary underground book that is hands down the best explanation of enlightenment by someone who reached it as normal every day person and not a monk) Daniel Ingram wrote in response to the question “What is the point of all this?”
The naturally clear mind is much better than the unclear mind, the semi-clear mind and the intermittently clear mind.
The awake mind is much better than the less awake mind.
The timeless mind is much better than the mind caught in the illusion of time.
The mind without any artificial boundary is much better than the artificially bound mind.
The mind that knows there is no mind is much better than the mind that believes there is one.
The directly perceiving mind is much better than the mind that filters things through and the sense that there is attention.
The mind that knows there is no perceiver is much better than the mind that believes it is perceiving.
The mind that is stainless is much better than the mind that is stained.
The mind that is the same as bare phenomena much better than the mind that is the same as bare phenomena but doesn’t know it.
The mind that is without extraneous noise is better than the noisy mind.
The mind for which all the world arises effortlessly, naturally, lawfully, causally, this is much better than the mind that pretends it is creating effort, creating thought, creating anything.
That fluxing, shimmering field of bare experience that occurs on its own, knows itself directly where it is, as it is, is totally ephemeral, totally fresh, totally natural: this is so much better than the world perceived some other way.
In that mode: there is nothing to want anything.
In that mode: there is nothing to know anything.
In that mode: there is nothing to do anything.
And yet, wanting occurs, as there is an animal that has needs from an ordinary point of view, which is still a valid point of view, but this wanting is just a natural part of the field.
There are preferences, but they are just causality functioning, shimmering, fluxing, doing what it does and always has done.
There is knowledge, but nothing that knows it beyond the shimmering, dancing, flickering little tingling bursts that make up knowledge.
This is vastly, immeasurably better than the other ways of perceiving reality. To prefer something less is madness. 😉
When I tell people about meditation and the numerous benefits it has brought me, I am often met with a skeptical eye. Aren’t you this big science junky? How could you believe in something like meditation, isn’t that kind of spiritual or new-age? Or a I’m glad it works for you , but it’s just a placebo effect.
Meditation is legit. The science behind it is at this point incontrovertible. People have been hooking up monks and novice meditators alike to brain scanning machines for a few decades now and the science is unequivocal. Meditation, done correctly, is very good for you.
But what is meditation?
Meditation is actually a fairly loaded word, with different meanings in different contexts. What I am talking about here in this post is meditation as it is taught in the traditional Buddhist system.
Meditation is exercise for you brain. In the same way that you can workout your thighs by doing squats you can re-arrange the neurons in your brain to view the world differently.
There are three basic types of meditation. Concentration, metta, and insight. All three types of meditation have different goals, but at the same time the practice of one reinforces the others. It is recommended that you do all three, however you begin with concentration.
In concentration meditation, also called one-pointedness or shamatha, the goal is fix your attention on a particular object and keep it there. The most common object to do this with is your own breath. Your breath is always there with you, wherever you go. So it’s the perfect object to use, although others will use things like a candle flame, or a spot on the wall, but really it doesn’t matter too much what object you use. Inevitably, as you keep your focus on your breath other thoughts will come up. Thoughts about your day, thoughts about other people, conversations you had or will have. Your mind is very busy. But when those thoughts come up the instructions for concentration meditation are to just let those thoughts go and return to the inhalations and exhalations of your breath.
What’s in it for you?
Have you ever lay awake at night with thousands of thoughts zipping through your head like a tornado? Well you may not realize it, but to a certain extent that is what is going through your mind most of the time. Concentration meditation helps to curb this endless proliferation of thoughts. For the lay practitioner who meditates 20-30 minutes a day a noticeably calming effect will take place during and immediately after your meditation session that will last a few hours. After a few weeks or even months you will begin to notice this sense of calm creep into your being throughout the day. You will be more present and aware of the things you do in your daily life.
When you are doing concentration meditation you can mark your progress in terms of how often and with what intensity your attention remains on your object of meditation. In classic Buddhist literature there are 10 progressive stages of concentration meditation. In the first couple of stages it is unlikely that your full attention will be on your breath. In all likelihood other thoughts, sensations and feelings will be present in the background. You will also drift off into other thoughts frequently. The more you practice, the better you will get. Eventually, during your sit your breath will become the main focus of your attention, as other thoughts begin to fade away. After a few thousand hours of practice you may reach stage 10, which is called shamatha. At this stage you will have effortless, focused attention on any object you desire for the duration of your sit.
Meditation teacher Upasaka Culadasa describes the 10th stage as follows:
This final stage is, of course, the last great milestone achievement of this process. It possesses the same characteristics of mental and physical pliancy as the preceding stages, combined with an almost imperturbable peacefulness and calm, joy and happiness, and profound equanimity.
At first these qualities begin to fade each time not long after arising from the sitting practice. But as practice continues, they persist for longer and longer periods after each meditation session ends, until before too long they become the normal condition for the meditator. The experience of strong desire is noticeably attenuated. Negative mental reactions to events rarely occur, and anger and ill-will virtually disappear. Others will observe this meditator to be generally happy and easily pleased, easygoing and very agreeable, non-competitive and uninterested in conflict, and perhaps even somewhat passive. He or she will be relatively immune to disturbing events, and will not even be particularly bothered by physical pain.
You don’t have to assume the full lotus position order to meditate. In fact, there are only two rules that you should keep in mind when finding a posture to meditation 1) Keep your spine straight. There is a physiological reason for this. With a straight spine your are more attentive. With slumped shoulders your bodies falls into a slight stupor. 2) Assume a position that will be comfortable for you to remain still in for the duration of your meditation session. You don’t want body parts to start hurting or start going numb, or be shuffling around all the time. You want to keep your full attention on the breath. If you want to sit in a chair, you can sit in a chair. That is perfectly fine. Personally I like to lie on the floor and put my feet up on a chair. Or you can lie on the floor in a dead man’s pose. It’s up to you.
What to do with your mind.
As your breath goes in and out just keep your attention on your breath, watch the movement of the belly go in and go out. Note when it reaches it’s apex of the inhalation, the short time when your breath is full and that brief pause after exhalation when you no longer have any air in your body.
Don’t pull your breath. This is trickier than it seems. Don’t force yourself to breath slow, or more deeply so that the physical sensations become more palpable. Just let your breath be. Just watch it.
Inevitably, your mind will wander from your breath. And if you are just a beginner, this will happen very quickly. You will start thinking thoughts about your day, things you still have planned to do, a conversation you just had with someone or thoughts about your meditation. “Am I doing it right?” “I think I’m doing ok” “Just focus on the breath”. Whenever you catch yourself caught up in thoughts, just gently return to the breath. Don’t be frustrated that you were thinking. That will make it worse, just relax and go back to the inhalations and exhalations of your breath.