Which I Can’t Change?

A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths.

Machig Labdron

Let’s start with a few questions, questions about identity.

What does it mean to say we are a certain way? When we claim that we are like this or that, what are we really expressing? Who is making such a statement? Why?

What kind of statements am I talking about? Statements like “that’s who I am,” or “it’s a me thing,” or “you know, I’ve always been like this.”

These sort of expressions are commonplace, part of everyday conversation. They serve a key role in identity formulation, both individually and as a group. What’s the big deal about them?

Well…

Their frequent use is correlated with serious health issues, from depression to heart attacks. On an absolute level, they are pernicious falsehoods, the root of all suffering.

How can this be? How can such a seemingly innocuous phrase lie at the heart of all our pain?

Like all inquiries around our true nature, these are difficult questions, and must be examined carefully. Let’s start with the absolute.

Scientifically speaking, from the smallest unit of existence to the largest, there is no permanence in anything, anywhere, ever. Particles are just vibrations, energy.  The majority of cells in your body are replaced throughout your life, and even those that are with you from birth to death will eventually be ash or wormfood. The universe is gonna die at some point.

The same is true in terms of human identity, both on a societal and individual level. Culture, contrary to what champions of identity politics would have you believe, is not and has never been a fixed thing. No one really owns it, because it is never the same. It is continually reinterpreted and reformulated to provide a sense of continuity and meaning in a world constantly in flux.

The mind is like this as well. What we consider to be a coherent whole is, in fact, a dynamic dance of interconnected neural subsystems that mesh together into a cascade of momentary experiences. Something as simple as happiness or pain is, in fact, a very complex and fluid thing.

This phenomenon extends beyond our emotions, encompassing literally every aspect of our cognitive experience. Indeed, our very self-identity – the thing we refer to when we speak of being ‘like this’ or ‘like that’ – is actually a series of subpersonalities that emerge based on specific, moment-to-moment conditions. For example, in dramatic situations, we can behave as either a victim, a persecutor, or a protector – and change our character at a moment’s notice.

This is not to say that there isn’t a certain continuity to our lived experience. On an experiential level, every moment emerges out of the previous one*, while on a neurological level, our synapses serve as well-trodden paths for our sensory experiences to coarse through (though we can certainly change them dramatically!). Evolutionarily, the ability to pick continuity out of constantly shifting circumstances helped us survive the savannah, which is why it’s such a strongly ingrained tendency.

It is to say, though, that any conceptual notions we hold with regard to ourselves as permanently possessing any subjective characteristic whatsoever are false, and, indeed, delusional.

In fact, it’s fair to say that when a person says “I’m just like that,” it is not a ontologically true statement about one’s deepest identity, but rather a momentary expression of certain characteristics in an attempt to find continuity amidst the chaos.

It is also fair to say that delusions make us unhappy, either by blinding us to reality or hurting us when they are proven illusory.

Okay, so saying we’re permanently a certain way is harmful because it is ontologically false. Who, then, is saying such harmful things?

It is in the context of this question that we come to the great Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdron, and her concept of demons.

Machig Labdron

Machig Labdron was, in many ways, a singular figure in Tibetan Buddhism; she was a visionary practitioner who is widely recognized as the originator of Chöd, a powerful, shamanistic practice and the only Vajrayana technique to come back from Tibet into India.

To Machig, the root of suffering was the notion of the self, and all things that caused the self to strengthen were to be viewed as poison, as demons or devils.

Wait! You might say. You were just talking about neurological circuitry and now you’re discussing devils, make-believe spirits. What gives?

In much of the modern West, the notion of demons and devils is considered preposterous, an outdated narrative designed to scare the masses into submission. However, this understanding of the demonic is simplistic and misguided, as it assumes that the existence such creatures are to be taken literally, and externally.

Machig saw it very differently. To her, demons exist only within the human mind. That which torments us, condemns us, possesses us are to be found within our own mental continuum.

When considered neurologically, this is a scientific fact; for example, when someone who was neglected as a child displays attachment issues and insecurities, the cause is not the external circumstances, but rather a disconnect between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. Behind every negative tendency lies a particular configuration of neurological systems.

However, most of us are not neuroscientists, and terms like ‘amygdala activation’ and ‘serotonin depletion’ are not overly useful for understanding our lived experiences. The concept of a devil or demon or negative entity, metaphorically speaking, is.

See, a demon isn’t us. It’s separate, removed from our endless narratives of self-judgement and self-aggrandizement. It’s a negative entity, with one mission only: to feed off our energy and replicate itself. This is done by diverting the attention of the host, causing them to fixate on an external phenomenon instead of on the internal process at work.

Pictured: a demon and/or your brain.

When people say ‘misery loves company,’ it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a demon named Misery, living inside one person’s brain, trying to summon more Miseries into the world by infecting the brains of others.

Herein we find the answer to our questions: when someone says they are ‘just like that,’ or that they’ve ‘always been this way,’ it’s actually an internal negative entity, trying to prolong its own existence by avoiding being scrutinized.

This may seem extreme, especially if you’re not actively seeking on the spiritual path. However, even if you just want to be happy in your day-to-day life, getting rid of your demons is a pretty good place to start.

So, the next time you hear yourself saying ‘I’m like this,’ or ‘I don’t want to change this,’ or ‘this is who I am,’ ask yourself: who is saying that? What do they – ‘I’ – want here? Is that what I really want?

It’s worth doing this, because if you don’t come to understand your demons, they’ll come to understand you.

 


* This is true on the coarse level of mind. On the more subtle levels of perception, there is no linearity.

Swimming in the Heart

Fun fact: this sculpture was originally from a work called “The Gates of Hell.”

For most of my life, if you asked me where I was in the body, I would have pointed to my head. In the West, we’re constantly associating ourselves, who we are, and what defines us as living beings with our head and physical brain. On some level, this makes sense: the head is where our rational mind lives, where we perceive our thoughts as occurring, and where our primary sense organs are located.

However, I have found this to be a rather miserable mechanism for defining myself. Why? On the most fundamental level, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I get stuck in my head.

To elaborate: there appears to be an inherent dualism that comes with identifying ourselves as existing in our physical brains. We come to imagine that we are up here and the rest of the world is out there, and that there is a difference between the two. As a result, we get lost in loop after loop of conceptual cognition, often allowing our default mode network to make us miserable.

This, of course, is nonsense. On a fundamental level, to both the mystic and the scientist, there is no difference between you and anything else.

So, if thinking of ourselves as residing in our brains is an ultimately incorrect (and fairly depressing) framework, what should we center ourselves around instead?

The answer is quite simple: we should center ourselves around our hearts.

The heart-center is found in most of the world’s major religions

While, at first glance, such an idea has all the trappings of New Age woo, focusing our attention on our heart (or heart center, in between the sternum) is an ancient practice found in mystical traditions across the world. Orthodox Christian monks view the heart as the seat of unborn light of God. Tibetan Yogis consider it the home of the subtle clear light mind of enlightenment (interestingly enough, the Pali word ‘citta’ means both mind and heart). Adherents of Sufism claim that dissolving oneself in the heart is the quickest way to know the Beloved. Even the Aztecs viewed it as the seat of the individual and as a drop of the sun’s energy.

For the more scientifically minded among us, it’s worth remembering that the heart is, in many ways, a much more essential organ than the brain. There is a reason why we have the concept of brain-dead, but not heart-dead; the latter is just dead. There is also some interesting science behind the heart-mind connection, but it is a nascent field of study and full of less-than-rigorous concepts, so I won’t be covering it here.

Regardless of how you approach it, though, there is a effortless wisdom to identifying ourselves with our heart. It is the first organ to develop in a human embryo, and it is the one organ that we share with almost all complex living being on the planet, from elephants to earthworms (sorry, sponges!).

In more practical terms, the heart is in the middle of the body, and centering yourself there gives you enough distance from your thoughts to watch them without getting attached. When your thoughts, going on in your brain, are viewed from the perspective of your heart, they cease to be so immediate, and it becomes markedly easier to avoid empowering our emotional reactions and creating self-perpetuating loops.

Instead, by focusing on our heart and perceiving it as an indestructible center, and generating a sense of existential wonder, we are capable of rapidly experiencing a feeling of nondual, ocean-like bliss. Thoughts may come and go in our mind, but they are seen for the transient phenomena they are, and more easily transcended. Using this technique, we are capable of perceiving all things around us – and ourselves – as impermanent, unique to this moment, and blindingly beautiful. A friend of mine described it as ‘swimming,’ and I think that’s an excellent metaphor for it.

Like this, but with your mind and on land

Okay, this sounds pretty cool. How do I do it?

There are a large number of meditative techniques for focusing on the heart, and, if you subscribe a particular religion, you can easily find one that corresponds to your belief system. However, in the interest of saving you the effort of a Google search, I’ve shared the (self-invented) technique I use (and, like the Sufis, I try to do this more or less every moment of the day):

  1. Calm your mind by taking a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
  2. Focus your attention on your heart center, which is to the right of your actual heart, right above your solar plexus.
  3. Take a few moments to strengthen this focus.
  4. Imagine that there is an indestructible ball of light in this heart center.
    • If you’re religious, imagine this as the light of God.
    • If you’re more spiritual, this is the light of enlightenment.
    • If you’re more scientific, you can think of this as a ball of quantum chronodynamic binding energy (which, technically, it is).
  5. Notice how, when you focus your mind here, your thoughts seem more distant and removed from your immediate experience. Notice how they come and go within your mind, as if they were wind passing through the trees.
  6. Cultivate a feeling of wonder and amazement at the fact that you exist at all. Given the mind-boggling amount of complexity involved in you existing, this shouldn’t be too hard.
    • It is important that this is more of a feeling than a conceptual understanding, though you can use a thought or three to get this feeling started, like ‘I’m made of fucking stardust and so is everything else’.
  7. Now, expand your awareness outward, to the full extent of your sensory experience. Maintain your sense of wonder as you come to see the totality of your vision, hear the symphony of sound playing in your ear, and feel the multitude of sensations occurring within your own body.
  8. Stay here. Avoid focusing on any one thing. Instead, allow everything, including yourself, to dissolve in the transcendental totality of the moment.
    ……


Superpowers Must Be Earned

Any attempt to reconcile the more advanced and esoteric – some might say supernatural – aspects of the spiritual path with hard scientific data is faced with a conundrum.

On the one hand, what few studies exist of highly advanced practitioners (like Tibetan Yogis) reveal seemingly extraordinary mental and physical abilities. For example, highly realized Vajrayana monks are able to do things like raise their bodily temperatures by 15 degrees Fahrenheit via visualizing a ball of energy in their navel or experience a constant state of mental hyperawareness that is inaccessible to the average person. These talents are just a small subset of mystical powers described in ancient texts.

Given the unprecedented results of these studies, either claiming that you can’t rewire your brain to have what can be credibly called superpowers or categorically ruling out the possibility of further abilities seems foolhardy. This is without examining a literal mountain of anecdotal evidence, which points towards even more magical powers, like clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation, and the ability to take eight hits of acid and have nothing happen.

On the other hand, these studies are far and few between, very difficult to replicate, do not offer any clear causal mechanism for these abilities, and are vastly outnumbered by volumes of literature debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense. This makes it very difficult to assert that the abilities demonstrated are accessible to the average person.

For example, there is credible evidence (from the study linked above) that senior monks and nuns at Nepalese monasteries can actually work with their ‘energy’ or ‘subtle’ bodies – via a practice called g’tummo – to both produce physical heat and create genuine health benefits:

Traditional illustration of g’tummo – note the short A above the practitioner’s head

However, the results of Studies 1 and 2 also suggest that the neurocognitive component (“internalized attention” on visual images) of the..practice may facilitate elevation in [core body temperature] beyond the range of normal body temperature (into the fever zone), whereas the [core body temperature] increases during [the practice without visualization] were limited, and did not exceed the range of normal body temperature.

This would appear to offer convincing proof that the ‘subtle body’ is real and has tangible health benefits, an idea that would revolutionize much of modern medicine. However, drawing this conclusion is not so easy.

Before we explore why, there are few things to note here:

  • The ‘internalized attention’ described here refers to literally imagining your body as a completely clear deity with various channels, chakras, and seed syllables. This sort of notion is the textbook definition of the subtle body in Tibetan Buddhism (and many other esoteric schools).
  • All monks and nuns being studied had at least 6 years experience with this practice, including a three-year retreat that would likely include ~10,000 hours of practice.
  • The study offers no concrete causal mechanism for why such a visualization would create profound changes in temperature.
  • Voluntarily being able to place the body into a fever state would offer a wide array of health benefits and would serve as effective treatment to a variety of ailments that currently require allopathic medicine.

Given all of this, why is the notion of a subtle body (containing things like chakras) considered fringe or pseudoscience (especially in light of these stark and, arguably, revolutionary findings)? If the nuns tell you they’re concentrating on the short A syllable in their navel chakra and the scientists have nothing better to go on than ‘something something biofeedback brainwaves’, why do we completely disregard the nuns explanation?

This guy isn’t exactly in it for the fame

You can blame the New Age pseudo-gurus for this: the vast majority of people running around making claims about their subtle bodies can demonstrate next to nothing beyond the standard placebo effect (which, as an aside, is actually very powerful). More specifically, it is only in studies of people who have dedicated decades to meditation and practice that we find much evidence of things far beyond ‘the power of wishful thinking.’ These people are very few in number, usually don’t care to be studied, and often actively eschew any kind of publicity (they tend to see it as an obstacle to their practice). Their remarkability makes an intuitive sense; if you think of the brain as a trainable muscle, these folks have spent a long time in the mental gym.

It’s a little like if you were conducting a study about whether a human being is capable of a 55″ vertical (answer: yes), and your entire population sample was made of aging 9-to-5ers who hit the gym once a week. You can perform your study rigorously, repeatedly, and objectively, but unless you go add some NBA players into the mix, you’re always going to get the wrong results.

On a more personal level, throughout my own journey I’ve met a handful of people (Hindu saints, nomadic Qi gong healers, etc) who appear to have abilities that the average person does not. The one thing these people have in common? A profound and life-encompassing dedication to their practice. They devote hours every day to it, and, equally importantly, weave it into every moment of their life. It defines how they get up, how they go to bed, how they eat, how they work, how they date. In many ways, their practice is their entire life.

In short: Gaining superpowers takes a ton of work.

(But that doesn’t mean they’re not real).

Evolution, Karma, and the Pursuit of Happiness

(Note: This is an attempt to pair the concept of karma with a purely scientific worldview. Many topics here – like the definition of biological essentialism – are difficult to pin down. I have done my best to explore the nuance in these broad ideas, but they are, well, broad.)

In the Western world, few things are as cherished as our animal instincts. Food, shelter, pleasure, sex, kin and procreation; these animal pursuits are often thought of as the goal of our lives, the ultimate objects for which we toil, earn and strive for.

However, such a materialistic outlook often turns out to be profoundly unsatisfying. We run from one instinct, one pleasure, to the next, expecting a transcendental taste of life’s bounty (this is what we mean when we say that a certain dish is ’to die for,’ for example). Invariably, though, we are unable to find lasting, permanent satisfaction in anything, ending up proverbially fat and sunburned.

How can we escape this loop? What can we do differently?

I believe that we can find an excellent answer in that most ancient of concepts, karma. However, in order to bring karma into the 21st century, we need to understand it from a scientific perspective. Before exploring what we can do differently, though, we must understand how we got here.

More than Molecules

Underlying much of modern-day discourse about man’s nature and purpose is an unquestioned biological essentialism, an understanding of the human condition as simply a byproduct of a series of evolutionary mechanisms. This belief system, which emerged the second half of the 20th century and is often associated with Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, concludes that everything we think, feel, do, and want is simply a product of our genetic, Darwinian journey from amoeba to ape.

Such an approach is intuitive when it comes to behaviors like eating and sex, but biological essentialism views all behaviors as having a purely evolutionary and material cause. Altruism, for example, is conceived of as merely a mechanism for replicating genes that are similar to our own, or an ‘honest signal’ to prospective mates that we have enough resources to provide for any offspring.

It is important to understand that this form of biological/material essentialism is not a hard, scientific fact. It is, like every other interpretation of that most mysterious phenomenon, the human experience, a belief system, replete with unprovable statements like ‘everything that exists is simply a product of the material world.’ While such a statement possesses a certain logic insofar as it grows out of – but is not proved by! – concrete scientific findings, it is not ultimately provable or disprovable via conventional analysis. For example, this view dismisses the possibility that consciousness is a key component of existence as we define it.

In fact, it can be readily argued that biological essentialism, as a belief system, trends towards a fundamentally limited understanding of the human experience. The argument goes something like this: because there’s nothing greater out there than the impulses hardcoded in our DNA, we should just enjoy those impulses as much as we can, and (if we decide to have them) leave something behind for our kids. This school of thought, when followed on a societal level, promotes a lifestyle and practice that encourage the fulfillment of our most stimulating biological desires above other aspects of life.

This worldview, while pleasurable in a material sense, leaves little room for art or wonder, to say nothing of the inner journey that is at the heart of every mystical tradition on the planet. As Donald Symons puts it, “the anthropomorphism of genes…obscures the deepest mystery in the life sciences: the origin and nature of mind.”

On a much more immediate level, though, it’s a boring way to go through life.

How is it boring? Take the example of our sense of sight: our eyes are these amazing organs that are constantly processing an uncountable number of minute sensations in every given moment. When we still our minds and look without focusing or discriminating, we are capable of non-conceptually seeing ten thousand things at once, experiencing a marvelous display of light and movement in every moment we live.

However, chasing after whatever instinctive desire currently possesses our mind, our field of focus narrows, and we only perceive one or two things at once, like the cake we are eating or the painting on the wall. Transcendental wonder – the one thing that truly separates man from other animals – is traded for our next dopamine hit.

Don’t Blame the Genes

Why has modern Western society embraced a worldview, an ideology, that is clearly limiting in terms of an individual’s cognitive and experiential potential? More importantly, how can we understand our biological hardwiring in more liberating terms?

We cannot blame our evolutionary, genetic tendencies for this, per se. Many, many civilizations, both past and present, do not think of man’s animal proclivities in terms of impossible-to-overcome tendencies, or as the highest aim in life. A priest in medieval England, for example, would have considered such tendencies as part of the innate sinfulness of man, and may have dedicated his life to transcending them in the pursuit of God. While such a worldview can seem overly pessimistic in today’s society, it certainly demonstrates that we don’t have to think of our instinctive programming solely through the lens of scientific analysis.

To no small extent, it is actually science’s specific inability to offer an actionable path to cognitive growth and the eradication of our unhappiness that lies at the heart of our obsession with our baser impulses. We have split the atom and glimpsed the edge of the universe, but all the studies and scientists on the planet have yet to deliver a comprehensive account of how to just be happy all the time. In many ways, science has become too widespread and ill-defined to be a truly prescriptive force in our individual lives, leaving the organization of our worldview and wants to the capitalist. This has caused some serious problems, to put it mildly.

Karma for Scientists

Where to turn to, then, if not the scientists or the marketers? How do we come to a more productive understanding of our biological heritage, without rejecting the undeniable scientific findings (like DNA) that have revolutionized every aspect of our understanding?

On the face of it, turning to religious or spiritual sources – like the aforementioned English priest – seems doomed to failure, as science offers a much more verifiable and detailed explanation for our biological heritage than the ancient texts. There can be little doubt that our tendency to reproduce, for example, came from the primordial soup of early Earth, and not from the Garden of Eden.

On top of this, the two belief systems have been at war ever since the first distinction between theology and science was drawn. A careful examination of the conflict between science and religion reveals three primary dynamics:

What is missing here? Science co-opting religion. While there are a few promising examples, this hasn’t happened on a large scale for several reasons, chief among them science’s blanket dismissal of anything not peer reviewed, as well as the tendency of modern-day scientists to view themselves as not responsible for questions of morality. However, a religious understanding of scientific concepts has much to offer humanity; it acknowledges the astounding amount we’ve learned about the universe via the scientific method, while offering a path in life that goes beyond transitory material satisfaction and towards a deeper form of happiness.

It is in this framework that we come to the Vedic concept of karma.

Karma, in popular parlance, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Westerners often think of it as a kind of ‘cosmic justice,’ speaking of ‘good karma,’ and ‘bad karma.’ This is often paired with the concept of reincarnation, with the assumption being that ‘good karma’ will lead to a rebirth as, say, a prince, while people with ‘bad karma’ come back as cockroaches. While this is not technically wrong, it is fundamentally misleading and obscures the beauty of the concept of karma.

So, what is karma? Karma (at least to Hindus and Buddhists) can best be thought of as a version of the law of cause and effect that only applies to conscious actions. These actions are intentional, in that the actor is consciously looking to do something. If we act with a certain intention in mind (to help another person, for example), we create a cause that will eventually, through some mechanism or another, lead to a given effect (in this case, it may be someone helping us). This process has nothing to do with ‘good,’ or ‘bad’ – it is to be considered a natural law like any other.

What does this have to offer science? First, let us dig a little deeper into a few additional dynamics of karma:

  1. Karma is not an external agent; because it requires intentional consciousness, all karmic causes and effect are intrinsic to the conscious being creating the karma. Karma is not done to us; we create and are subject to our own karma. In the words of Jung, ‘when an inner situation is not made conscious, it manifests as fate.’
  2. In Buddhism, karma is caused by the Three Poisons, which are Ignorance, Anger, and Desire. These three dynamics, located at the center of the Wheel of Life, are considered the product of all our karmic tendencies. Ignorance of our true, nondual nature is the first cause, which leads to attraction (Desire) and aversion (Anger) to various phenomena we interact with, as we mistake them for being separate from ourselves.
  3. The ignorance at the heart of karma is not caused by our rebirth and past lives. It’s a far deeper aspect of our being; in the words of the Lanka Sutra, it is ‘the habit-energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time’.
  4. The path to happiness lies in getting rid of our karma.

How, exactly, can we frame these dynamics in a way that matches the tenants of biological essentialism? Like this:

Karma is any biochemical or psychological tendency that leads us to act as if there is any difference between ourselves and anything else. The highest happiness in life belongs to those who have transcended these tendencies.

None of these dynamics require any belief in the supernatural or reincarnation. Instead, they can be viewed as purely material phenomena occurring within one lifetime, as they are, in many ways, definitional aspects of all living beings. From the emergence of the first organisms all the way to the present day, every creature that has ever existed has sought out certain things and avoided others. These behaviors occur because life, unlike every other other phenomenon in the universe, is something that preserves, further, or reinforces its existence in a given situation.

In a nutshell, every living organism acts like it is separate from its environment, and is attracted and repelled to various things as a result. This can be considered a biological definition of karma. The unique gift that humans possess is the ability to overcome these dynamics.

Transcending the Instincts

Armed with this definition, we are now able to look at our modern, materialistic world afresh, and re-evaluate what, exactly, we should do the next time we find ourselves unsatisfied.

If we do decide we want a more lasting form of satisfaction and meaning in life, the answer is more or less the same as it was 4000 years ago: get rid of your karma. In terms of the above definition, this means that we seek to transcend our biological hardwiring that leads us to chase after cake and avoid brussel sprouts (assuming you like cake and don’t like brussel sprouts).

However, we should not jump to extremes and attempt to immediately jettison all of our instinctual programming. This is not just extremely difficult to do, but actually counterproductive. As Sadhguru puts it, “the desire to not want karma is in itself a big karma.” Westerners live in a world so full of pleasure and stimuli that, were we to leave all our instincts behind right away, we would irrevocably isolate ourselves. On top of that, we will have not learned how to actually overcome these tendencies in a sustainable and enjoyable way.

Instead, if we truly want to move towards a more contented, blissful state of mind – and life – we should simply, progressively learn to watch what our mind does: when our instinctual urges arise, how they cause us to act, and what happens after their completion. We will not be transformed in a day, or a week, but over time, we will come to understand how our biological wiring compels us to act, and how it ultimately leaves us always, always, wanting more.

This is not to say that we must renounce all of our material enjoyments and retreat to a cave in the mountains. Rather, it’s that we should gain a moment-to-moment awareness of our biological programming and understand it for the limited phenomenon it is. We can still eat ice cream (or pursue any other pleasurable activity), but we should be aware that eating ice cream will only bring a temporary reprieve and that chasing that feeling will ultimately be unfulfilling. In the words of the great Tibetan yogi Tilopa, “the problem is not enjoyment. The problem is attachment.”

It is very important to state that there is no one right way to develop this awareness. Humanity, throughout its long history, has come up with thousands of techniques to turn inward, and one of the blessings of the modern age is that we have access to (almost) all of them. In order to cultivate awareness of the mind and transcend our biological karma, we can:

Whatever technique we choose, though, we must keep our goal in mind, which is to ultimately free ourselves from the bondage of our biological hardwiring, which keeps us chasing after temporary pleasures in a never-ending dualistic cycle. Even if the materialists are right and we, as humans, are nothing more than an aggregate of particles, we can still aspire to something higher than our next dopamine hit.

In Defense of Good Vibes

‘Good vibes, man.’

When you read those three words, what do you think of? Is it some surfer on a beach, freshly stoned, getting ready for a day of beach bumming? Or is it a fundamental description of the universe, entrenched in both the teachings of Gautama Buddha and the smashing of protons beneath the Swiss countryside?

Is it possible that one of the simplest, most basic concepts in New Age thought — that of a universe where everything is energy, is vibrations — is actually backed by both the most rigorous spiritual paths and the most rigorous scientific experiments?

in-defense-of-good-vibes
Is this guy onto something? Probably.

One of the ironies of modern society is that we needed to build giant particle accelerators and derive incredibly complex theories to discover things that the average mystic/Yogi/Buddhist monk has known for thousands of years. While the parallels between quantum mechanics and spirituality have been trumpeted since the 70’s, most people have never bothered to critically examine the technical aspects of them, and, as a result, have dismissed the comparisons, or used them to make vague and unscientific arguments. This is a shame, as one needn’t be a particle physicist to see concrete, describable similarities.

An example:

in-defense-of-good-vibes
Electrons behaving as waves over time. All elementary particles exhibit wave-particle duality.

Everybody knows that people — and the universe — are made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of electrons orbiting a nucleus. The nucleus, which represents 99.95% of the mass in an atom, are comprised of protons and neutrons, held together by the strong nuclear force. These particles — called nucleons — are, in turn, comprised of three quarks each, which are held together by the transmission of gluons (this is analogous to the transmission of photons between charged particles).

Within a neutron or proton, the quarks themselves represent maybe 1% of the mass. The gluons — like photons — are massless.

Where is all the mass, then? It’s actually in a field of a certain type of energy, called quantum chromodynamics binding energy. As mass and energy are equivalent, the energy here — specifically, the kinetic energy of these particles, moving at near the speed of light — is responsible for 99% of the nucleon’s mass.

So, to put it simply, you (and everything you’ve ever known) is literally comprised almost entirely of energy, of waves, of — if you will forgive a slight linguistic liberty — vibrations.

This is a notion intimately familiar to Eastern religions, from the Chinese belief in qi to the Vedic notion of Prana. There’s even an entire lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that uses the notion that we are made of light to achieve remarkable meditative practices, like generating immense heat in the midst of the Himalayan snows.

Yet, in most conversations in the West, people dismiss this idea out of hand.

Tell the average American that there are Buddhist monks who can dry sheets dipped in ice water with their body heat, and they might express mild interest. Tell them that a comprehensive study has been done by Harvard scientists into the same phenomenon, and they’ll accept that it’s true. Tell them that the monks achieve feats like this by visualizing their entire body as being made of clear white light, and they’ll go ‘huh’ and forget about it.

Much of this dismissal has to do with the superficiality of New Age spirituality, which substitutes the tremendously arduous dissolution of the self that undergirds all true mystical paths for platitudes about ‘consciousness’ and deriving happiness from purchasing overpriced crystals. The ignorance of true mysticism — and the scientific method at the heart of it — is so strong in our ‘spiritual’ cultures that mainstream particle physicists have gone from being open-minded spiritualists to materialistic skeptics over the past forty years.

Still, the extent of close-mindedness in mainstream Western society is breathtaking. The average person is so entrenched in (hedonistic) materialism that, even when confronted with dramatic evidence, they actively ignore it. Tell someone about these heat-generating monks, or how observation of a quantum system irrevocably reduces it (a physical phenomenon that, because your brain is very possibly a quantum system, poses serious questions for the notion of the objective, detached self), and, 99 times out of 100, you’ll get a disinterested ‘that’s deep,’ or ‘that’s trippy,’ as a response.

good-vibes
This phrase is probably not going to remake someone’s life.

No contemplative silence, no openness, no attempt to understand it or examine how such notions can radically remake the self and our society. This doesn’t just go for monks and particles, either — people, by and large, brush off just about anything that doesn’t help them get their next dopamine hit.

This is no one’s fault, per se. The effect of centuries of rationality, materialist worldviews, and ever-intensifying sensory pleasures on seven billion people cannot be laid at the foot of any person, or group of people. And yet…

And yet it’s destroying our planet, our culture, our mental health. We have both empirical evidence of a worldview that teaches us we are more than material bodies and dozens of millennia-old, tried and tested techniques to access this deeper level, and yet we remain asleep, engrossed in our smartphones and bank account balances.

As we rush headlong into 2018, each of us is confronted with a choice. We can stay in our loops, our mindstreams, repeating the same patterns that have caused one in five Americans to suffer from a mental health disorder on a yearly basis and 200 species to vanish from the earth every day. Or, we can change.

The good vibes are here, all around us, inside us. We just need to wake up and see them.