Hacking the Self

#34: A Tantric Approach to Meditation with Sally Kempton

This week I speak with Sally Kempton, a master of Tantric meditation who shares her decades worth of Tantric meditation experience with us. Sally served as a Swami for over two decades in the Siddhi Yoga organization, after being ordained by her primary teacher, Swami Muktananda. As the mindfulness movement sweeps across the West, Sally offers an alternative approach to meditation. While grounded in the traditions of Nondual Shaiva Tantra, Sally has an ability to skilfully weave together the various strands of Indian religious and philosophical thought into a clear, accessible style for her students.

Guest Bio:

One evening in the early 1970s, while sitting in her Manhattan living room, Sally Kempton was overcome by a feeling of all-encompassing, unconditional love that seemed to come out of nowhere. She had never known that love like this was possible. The experience lasted for 24 hours, and turned her life around.

At the time, Kempton had a flourishing career as a New York journalist, writing on popular culture, the arts, and feminist issues for Esquire, the New York Times, New York magazine, and The Village Voice. An early voice in the second- wave feminist movement, spirituality was the last thing on her agenda. But her experience that night affected her so powerfully that within a year she had given up her career to immerse herself fully as a student and teacher of spiritual awareness.

Two years later, she encountered her Guru, the enlightened Siddha master, Swami Muktananda, and became his full time student.

An enlightened master in the Indian yoga tradition, Muktananda (1908-1982) was known for his ability to ignite the latent meditation energy (kundalini) in others through a look or a touch. When Kempton met him, he was traveling in the United States, where he awakened thousands of people to their spiritual potential.

Kempton studied and traveled with Muktananda from 1974 until his passing in 1982. She edited many of his books, received intensive training in the texts of Vedanta, yoga and the north Indian tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, and taught courses around the world. In 1982, Muktananda initiated her into the traditional Saraswati order of Indian swamis, or monks, and gave her the name Swami Durgananda. For the next twenty years, she served as a teacher in the Siddha Yoga meditation community. She created and taught workshops, courses and trainings in meditation and spiritual wisdom, served for a time as editor of the spiritual magazine Darshan, and wrote extensively on all aspects of spiritual life.

In 2002, Sally was inspired to put aside her monastic identity to create a teaching path that could help students deal directly with the challenges of 21st century life. Her current work interprets the wisdom of the tantras for mature contemporary aspirants, drawing on depth psychology and neuroscience as well as the insights of Integral philosopher Ken Wilber. From her home base in California, she travels extensively, and offers monthly telecourses as well as workshops and retreats that integrate meditation, yoga philosophy, and spiritual life-skills.

Though Sally offers many courses for beginning meditation students, she is also regarded as a ‘teacher’s teacher’, whose approach inspires long-time practitioners to free themselves from routine meditation practice, and move deeper.

She teaches meditation as a process of inner exploration, in which we learn to integrate heart, mind and body in order to experience our natural state of wisdom and love. Sally also offers a wide variety of classes on yogic wisdom texts, as well as hands-on, contemplative practices for moving through psychological obstructions, understanding the intricacies of inner life, and how to apply spiritual principles to relationships, work, and life in our time. Students say that her classes create an atmosphere of support and joy that allows deep exploration.

Shownotes:

0:00-13:40: Opening Remarks

13:40-22:36: Sally’s background on the spiritual path

22:36-30:36: What Tantra is and what Tantra is not

30:36-35:52: Overview of Tantric principles

35:52-49:40: Mindfulness vs. Tantra; Overview of Tantric Principles (continued)

49:40: Tantric approaches to working with anger

1:01:31-1:09:50: Transforming difficult emotions through Tantric practices

1:09:50-1:14:48: Expanding Our View of Grief; Tonglen Practices

1:14:48-1:26:33: Working with mantra and meditating on deities

1:26:33-1:29:50: Mindsets central to spiritual life

1:29:50-1:32:00: Closing Remarks

Links:

Sally’s Personal Website

Sally’s Books:

Meditation for the Love of It

Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga

#33: Tantra Yoga with Mark Shveima

Mark Shveima and I discuss the rich world of Tantra Yoga, specifically through the collections of lineages that has come to be known as Nondual Shaiva Tantra. Through studying Anusara Yoga with founder John Friend, Mark encountered the teachings of Tantra Yoga. It was through the Anusara scene that Mark met the man who came to be his primary meditation and yoga philosophy teacher, Tantrik scholar Paul Muller-Ortega. Mark’s journey is one familiar to many others on the path of yoga: that postural yoga can serve as an entry point into the vast richness of what the yoga tradition has to offer.
Shownotes:

0:00-14:10: Opening Remarks

14:10-18:35: Mark’s initial entry point into yoga

18:35-24:48: How Anusara Yoga introduced Mark to Tantra and to Paul Muller-Ortega

24:48-31:12: What is Nondual Shaiva Tantra? What distinguishes it from the Classical Yoga of

                       Patanjali?         

31:12-34:21: The relationship between the Bhagavad Gita and later Tantric traditions

34:21-43:05: Expansion & Contraction of Consciousness in the Shaiva Tantra Viewpoint

43:05-51:05: Practical Ways for working with the contractions of consciousness to step into a

                       Patanjali?  

51:05-1:00:00: Committing to and prioritizing your practice.

1:01:50-1:07:57: Travel abroad as practice; Mark’s reflections on life as an expat  in Japan.

1:07:57-1:14:53: Myth of the Churning of the Milky Ocean

1:14:53-1:19:16: Importance of Lineage. Integrating various traditions into a coherent path in

                            today’s globalized marketplace of ideas.

1:19:16-1:37:15: Benefits of Qi Gong vs Hatha Yoga

1:37:15-1:42:28: Role of Initiation in Tantra

1:42:28-1:46:00: Closing Remarks

Guest Bio:
Mark Shveima is currently the Yoga Director of studio BiNDU, nestled within the quiet back streets of Kyoto, Japan, where he landed after making a Hanuman leap from San Francisco in 2008. He has been immersed in the study, practice and teaching of Yoga for over two decades. Mark is an Authorized Teacher of Neelakantha Meditation, as taught by Paul Muller-Ortega, the founder of Blue Throat Yoga, a school of non-dual Shaiva Tantra practice and study.
Mark has been a dedicated and assiduous student of this path for over a decade. He is a tireless presenter of courses, intensives and workshops throughout Japan, where he is widely regarded as a deeply knowledgeable and highly experienced teacher and practitioner of asana, meditation, and Indian philosophy.
Recently, he has entered into an immersive study of Qigong and Taoism, which has opened him to new vistas of communication of the workings of the subtleties of the body, mind and emotional center.
Mark`s practice and teaching have become an ever-evolving organic expression of his heart intention to assist people in re-discovering ease in their body, stillness in their mind, and the inherent creative power and beauty of their awakened heart.
Links:
(Blue Throat Yoga is directed by Mark’s principal teacher, Paul Muller-Orega. Mark is a teacher in the Blue Throat Yoga community).

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#32: The Life of Yogananda with Philip Goldberg

I speak with American Veda author Philip Goldberg to discuss his new book on the life of famed yogi and spiritual teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda, titled The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. 
Guest Bio:
Philip Goldberg is the author or co-author of numerous books; a public speaker and workshop leader; a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister.  A Los Angeles resident, he cohosts the Spirit Matters podcast, leads American Veda Tours and blogs regularly on Elephant Journal and Spirituality & Health.
Philip Goldberg is the author of the now classic American Veda: From Emerson and The Beatles to Yoga and Meditation: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. His latest work is on the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, famed guru and author of the classic Autobiography of a Yogi, which is a spiritual classic cherished by many, including Steve Jobs, who decreed that the book be given out to attendees at his funeral. Yogananda was a fascinating and inspiring character and Philip Goldberg takes us through the life of this great man. For anyone who enjoys learning more about yoga, meditation and how Indian religion and philosophy has impacted Western culture I’m sure that you’ll enjoy this conversation with Philip Goldberg.
Shownotes:
0:00-10:40: Opening Remarks
10:40-18:20: Phil’s background
18:20-29:50: How India Spirituality Changed the West
29:50-34:14: Why Phil decide to write his new book on Yogananda
34:14-37:33: Yogananda’s early years in America
37:33-41:37: the message that Yogananda brought to the West
41:37-52:10: Yogic Science & Pragmatic Mysticism
52:10: The Various Paths of Yoga. Yogananda’s Bhakti Bent.
1:00:30-1:10:30: Monastic vs lay orders. How Yogananda was ahead of his time.
1:10:30-1:20:27: Common misconceptions of Eastern religious concepts among Westerners
1:20:27-1:23:45: Yogananda’s later years
1:23:45-1:30:15: What Philip learned from researching the life of Yogananda
1:30:15-1:32:03: Closing Remarks. Where to find about more about Philip and his work.
Links:

#31: The Unexplainable Importance of Yoga with J Brown

This week is a special week on the Hacking the Self podcast as I get to speak with one of my favorite podcasters: J Brown, yoga teacher and host of the popular podcast “J Brown’s Yoga Talks.”

Guest Bio:

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and podcaster. He is at the forefront of a quiet yoga revolution, based in healing, that seeks to change the dialogue and direction  of yoga practice in the west. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. His podcast is internationally renowned for raising the level of conversation.

Shownotes:

0:00-17:00: Opening Remarks: How I came to yoga. Background on J.

17:00-24:00: The personal crisis that drove J to yoga

24:00-34:35: J’s early yoga injuries and a life changing trip to India

34:35-51:40: The Philosophical Underpinnings of Modern Yoga

51:40-58:20: Reconsidering our intentions for yoga & conventional wisdom

58:20-1:03:00: Yoga’s impact on the nervous system

1:03:00-1:08:00: Yoga as Science vs Yoga as Alchemy

1:08:00-1:17:40: Yoga as relationship: to our beliefs, politics & culture

Rest of shownotes to follow soon…

Links:

J Brown Yoga

“The Unexplainable Importance of Yoga”

*This is a great blog post by J that I referenced in our conversation and that I’d highly recommend reading.

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#30: Spiritual Evolution from an Indigenous Reality with Mary Porter

In this conversation I speak wth Mary Porter, founder of the Looking Glass Peyote Church of Oregon, about a number of topics:
  • Nature & Spirituality
  • What we can learn from working with plant medicines like peyote, san pedro and mushrooms
  • Why psychedelics are not for everyone
  • Differences between a conventional Western worldview and indigenous perspective
  • Reconnecting to Nature
  • Spiritual maturity & personal responsibility
Guest Bio:
Mary Porter is the co-founder and director of the Looking Glass Peyote Church in Oregon. Mary is a descendant of the Nez Perce; Yakama, Wasco tribes, and is the co-founder of Looking Glass Peyote Church of Oregon. Mary is a Chaplin and former Sergeant at Arms for Northwest Veterans Motorcycle Association. Recognized by the Peyote People in Texas as a non Tribal-4/4th, full blood American Indian with intact knowledge of her ancestral descendancy that spans 50,000 years, a history that has been maintained orally and recently verified scientifically.  
Looking Glass Church is a bona fide 501c Church. They are connected with the good faith practice of the religious belief that the Earth is our Mother and we are all part of nature, therefore, we are all subject to Natural Law and the unchanging moral principals regarded as a basis for all human conduct.
Links:

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#029: Mindfulness in Recovering from Addiction with Mindfulness Teacher Paul Garrigan

In this episode I speak with mindfulness teacher and addiction and recovery conselor Paul Garrigan on how the practice of mindfulness can support people in recovering from addiction.
Guest Bio:
Paul Garrigan is the Mindfulness Program Manager at Hope Rehab Center in Thailand. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Paul struggled with addiction to alcohol since he was a teenager.
 
Paul spent his twenties in England as a nurse, before living in Saudia Arabia and eventually Thailand. Paul moved to the Kingdom of Smiles to study meditation at Buddhist temples. Cultivating mindfulness was the beginning of the end of Paul’s battle with addiction. Eventually, Paul got a grip on his addiction to alcohol. In 2010, he published a memoir “Dead Drunk: Saving Myself from Alcoholism in a Thai Buddhist Monastery.” 
Paul continues to write about addiction and recovery, in addition to working with people struggling with addiction at Hope Rehab in Thailand. 
Links:

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Yoga, Jung and the Journey through the Self — Why Do I Practice Yoga?

“Yoga is the journey of the Self,

Through the Self,

To the Self.”

–The Bhagavad Gita

Why do I practice yoga?

It’s a question to which I regularly return, less out of a sense of doubt than from a desire to clarify my intentions. We’ll never reach our destination if we’re unsure of what we’re aiming at.

Some Western students who come across Eastern philosophy object that the very notion of “searching” or a “destination,” is problematic, as to search or strive for some future goal would imply a state of dissatisfaction with the present moment. Western notions of the good life are usually predicated on an idea of striving towards excellence (notably, this is also true for other belief systems in different Asian cultures, Japan being one prominent example).

Yet to conclude that Buddhism or Taoism sanctions laziness and complacency couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s rather a call to live fully in the present, regardless of what arises. To resist the temptation to dwell in thoughts about the past or the future over reality, preferring, for example, some fantasy about how things might be better under alternative circumstances. We all know that game. “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” or “I’ll be happy when…”

Yoga asks us to shift the way we relate to our actions through having right intentions, which is also part of the eightfold path in Buddhism. In The Bhagavad Gita Krishna teaches the importance of acting without attachment to the outcome of our decisions. The Gita also states that “yoga is the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self.”

This famous phrase from The Gita hints at an important way of relating to yoga: as a journey to wholeness.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” derives from the root “yuj,” meaning  to “yoke,” or to “join.” That’s why yoga is often thought of as union: between the breath and movement, the mind and the body, the atman (the Self, consciousness) and the Divine. We can chose to interpret these ideas in numerous ways to suit our own beliefs, theistic or atheistic, but either way a theme of connection clearly underpins the practice of yoga.

The origin of the word “religion” also underscores this idea of connection. The English word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare,” which means “to bind.” At its essence, religion is about connection: to fellow human beings, to other forms of life, to our natural environment.

Carl Jung thought that the purpose of life for each individual was to become whole. The journey from fragmentation to wholeness requires us to face our shadow. “Our shadow is everything inside of us that we have avoided, disowned and kept in the dark. It is energy not integrated with the rest of our being, akin to pieces that have become compartmentalized, pushed aside and treated as an unwanted child” (Temple of the Way of Light).

Some ideas are so powerful that they transcend time and space. Jung believed these ideas, or archetypes, were rooted deep in the human psyche and revealed themselves time and again in myths from religious traditions cross culturally. In this view, “myth” is not a derogatory term implying falsehood but rather a narrative rich in metaphor that points to timeless wisdom.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell did much to expand the popularity of Jung’s ideas. More recently, psychologist Jordan Peterson has caused a revival in interest of a Jungian approach to Christianity with his lectures on The Bible.

Peterson has talked about Jung’s belief that “what you most need to find will be found where you least want to look” (from Peterson’s Biblical Lecture Volume 8: The Phenomenology of The Divine). This appears to be Peterson’s interpretation of a phrase Jung cites in his writings on alchemy “In sterquiliniis invenitur”—”in filth it will be found” (The Collected Works of Carl Jung: Volume 13, page 35).

Perhaps this is one facet of self transformation that The Gita alludes to when it defines yoga as “the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self.” It’s yet another hint at that deeply archetypal idea that what we most need to find will be found where we least want to look.

This is the hero’s journey into the underworld (the shadow of our unconscious) that is necessary in order for us to triumph over evil, or simply to prevail over own limitations or vices. It’s the movement from darkness to light, from fragmentation to wholeness. It’s an undertaking that Jung thought was necessary for every individual in order to rise up and meet his or her own destiny.

I’m reminded of the words of the poet TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.”

While the Buddhist in me resists language about “ceaseless exploration” and the restlessness or discontent that such a state might imply I believe that the essence of Elliot’s statement and Jung’s call to confront the shadow hints at a deeper truth that’s compatible not only with Buddhism but with all of the world’s great religions and myths.

Indeed, the story of The Buddha is yet another telling of the hero’s journey: he heads off into the unknown to confront the difficult aspects of life that he has attempted to avoid at all costs. He is eager to work with all of the great teachers and practices of his time in order to attain a grand notion of liberation, until ultimately his strenuous efforts leave him in a state of exhaustion.

Siddhartha sits down and turns within, vowing not rise until he has found the way through his own inner darkness into light. The journey to his awakening requires him to face down his own demons, personified by Mara.

After moving from teacher to teaching and method to method he discovers that what he most needed to find was in the place that he least wanted to look: inside himself. Through confronting his shadow, he finds not only answers to his most pressing questions, but integration for the fragmented parts of his being.

Of course, it was the arduous nature of the journey itself that shaped Siddhartha along the way, a struggle without which he would not have had such a profound set of insights that changed not only himself but the world. This was how the Buddha walked the path of yoga: through the darkness to the light, through the self to the self. And at the end of all his exploring he was able to come to know the true nature of himself, finally, for the first time.

Upon his death bed, the Buddha gave this parting words to his distraught disciples:

“Be a light unto yourself

Betake yourself to no external refuge

Hold fast to the Truth

Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”

–The Mahaparinibbana Sutra

We can invent concepts, stories about the future in which all of our present problems will no longer persist, a place free of pain and suffering. Heaven. Paradise. Nirvana. But the reality remains that it’s simply another story that the mind feels a need to create about the way things might or might not be.

In moments of honesty with ourself, we can admit that our very need to ask the question–is there life after death–is because we suffer. Even for those who spend much of their lives complaining about how terrible it is, when the ego is confronted with its own demise it’s hardwired to hold on for dear life. Very few of us truly wish to go gently in that good night.

But the hard truth is that there is no easy way out. No express lane to salvation. The temptation to engage in self delusion is understandable, particularly considering the unimaginable burdens that some people have to bear in this life.

We can dare to set our sights on a goal that’s brazingly high but potentially attainable: to imagine yourself on your death bed at which you can honestly say to yourself that you’ve lived the life that you were supposed to have lived. That you didn’t run and hide from that which had to be faced. That you weren’t still haunted and devoured by the demons from your past.

That’s why the hero’s journey begins with a descent into the underworld, in order to confront the shadows of the unconscious, before it involves the arduous ascent to the summit of the mountain. This is why we cultivate attention in our practice: to begin to recognize the parts of ourselves at which we’ve avoided looking for too long. This is the Jungian sense in which I’ve come to understand yoga: to undertake the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self.

Perhaps along the way we learn to forge those deeper connections: between the various parts of our fragmented Self, our body and our mind, between each other. This is the promise of yoga: to make us whole.

Be a light unto yourself. Perhaps through more conscious attention to each present moment, you can start being a light for others. Then, at the end of all your exploring, perhaps you’ll arrive where you started and finally know the place for the first time, just in time, to offer it all away, one last time.

#028: Buddhism and Psychedelics in America with Dr. Douglas Osto

Scholar of of Indian Buddhism Dr. Douglas Osto talks about the intersection between Buddhism & Psychedelics in his most recent book Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America. 
Guest bio:
Doug Osto grew up in the woods of Redding, Connecticut. He has studied and practiced Buddhism for over thirty years, and has advanced degrees in theological studies, Asian languages, and the study of religion from Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of London. 
He is the author of Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America (Columbia UP, 2016), Modern Samkhya: Ancient Spirituality for the Contemporary Atheist (2016), and Power, Wealth and Women in Indian Mahayana Buddhism: The Gandavyuha-sutra (Routledge, 2008). 
Currently, he teaches Asian philosophies at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Links:

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#027: What Fredrich Nietzsche Can Teach Us about Today with Peter Sjostedt-H

In this episode I spoke with philosopher Peter Sjostedt-H about the work of Fredrich Nietzsche. Peter tells us why the great German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche is still relevant to our own era.

Peter and I discuss he following topics including:

  • Why Fredrich Nietzsche is considered one of the precursors to modern psychology
  • Why Nietzsche’s writings are often thought of as prophetic
  • The implications of Nietzsche’s ideas for our contemporary age (particularly in the Patreon Bonus section where we get more into politics)
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • How psychedelics have influenced Peter’s perspective as a philosopher of mind

Guest Bio:

Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher of mind and a metaphysician who specialises in the thought of Whitehead, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, with special regard to panpsychism and altered states of sentience. Peter received a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, where he was awarded a first-class distinction for his dissertation on Kant and Schelling in relation to ‘intellectual intuition’.

He subsequently became a Philosophy Lecturer in London for six years but is now engaged in his PhD at Exeter University where he also teaches philosophy modules and writing skills. Peter is the author of Noumenautics and an inspiration behind the inhuman philosopher Marvel Superhero, Karnak.

In the words of futurist, philosopher and pop star Alexander Bard: ‘One of our favourite contemporary philosophers, Peter Sjöstedt-H…think a psychedelic Nietzsche’.

Links:

Personal Website for Peter Sjostedt-H

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Lost Connections: How our Modern Lifestyle is Undermining our Physical & Mental Health

Recently I’ve read two books that have compelled me think to about the idea of “tribalism” is a very different way: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression: and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari and Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastien Junger

Tribalism is a word that usually carries negative connotations and not without good reason. It conjures up images of religious sectarianism and political rivalries, both of which are all too often accompanied by divisive, dead end discussions at best, and, at worse, horrific violence.

While I think there are many authors out there who have romanticized our hunter gatherer past (nostalgia is a powerful force), I think both of the works by Junger and Hari offer compelling arguments for how the design of our social institutions now mistmatch our evolutionary design. While the benefits of modernity are plentiful, many of these developments are having a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health.

In this post I briefly consider why this might be the case, largely through sharing some of the findings of Junger and Hari.

The Central Problem: Lack of Connections

Both works underscore very similar themes that are worth grappling with, regardless of where you live, for the problems of modernity that these two authors describe affect the vast majority of people alive today. Both authors describe ways in which the modern world exacerbates mental health problems, from addiction to anxiety to depression.

The authors contend that the changes wrought by economic development disrupt connections to each other and to our natural environment that are essential for our mental and physical health. Junger, in particular, makes clear that these problems affect not only those in the developed world, but the vast majority of people on this earth, save for those rare pockets of tribal peoples whose lifestyles mirror those of our hunter gatherer predecessors.

These works follow a similar theme that I’ve mentioned in previous posts about taking the implications of evolutionary biology seriously, for understanding ourselves individually and at the level of society.

Hardwired for Tribalism

Essentially, for nearly our entire existence as a species we have evolved to live in tribal communities. The last 500 years of modernity in the West is a brief blip on the screen of human evolution. Even the last 10,000 years–since civilizations around the world arose through innovations in agriculture, domestication of plants and animals, and when human beings switched from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one– is just a snapshot of the longer timeline of human history.

As Junger notes in Tribe: “Genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans, so the enormous changes that came with agriculture in the last 10,000 years have hardly begun to affect our gene pool.”

In other words, the hunter gatherer lifestyle that characterized most of our existence on this earth has shaped how we are wired to live in this world. A central feature of our design is that we’re hardwired to be part of a tribe. Like chimpanzees and bonobos, we need to be deeply embedded in social networks–physical, not simply virtual ones!–in which each member of the tribe is deeply interdependent with one another. Competition is absolutely part of our nature, but so is cooperation, reciprocity, and trust trust that bind us together.

Disconnect between modern life and evolutionary design:

Both Junger and Harri contend that the more a society develops economically the more atomized and disconnected its inhabitants become. This shift from community to the (isolated) individual accounts for much of the mental health problems today. Consider the following claims and supporting evidence from Junger’s work:

  1. As a nation becomes more affluent and urbanized rates of depression and suicide tend to go up–not down.
  2. According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries
  3. People in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.
  4. Urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.

Notably, other researchers cast doubt on the claim that depression rates rise in proportion to the degree to which a country becomes developed, including the findings of a team at the University of Queensland in Australia, summarized in this article from The Washington Post, which concluded that countries in the Middle East and North Africa suffer the highest rates of depression.

Undoubtedly, complex problems pertaining to mental and physical health defy simplistic reductions to one or two variables.

Yet even if one wishes to doubt Junger’s claims about the association between rising prosperity and rising mental health problems there does seem to be strong evidence to suggest that the way in which virtually all modern societies are organized has hindered our mental and physical health

[Note: by modern in this context I don’t mean “wealthy” or “developed” but societies that are not tribal, hunger gathers].

Junger quotes cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm who neatly summed up the problem of modern humans this way:

“In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

In recent years more scientists and social commentators have written about how our modern, urban, sedentary lifestyle has taken a toll on our physical health. A few of the common culprits include:

  • Obesity rates
  • Physical activity (or lack thereof)
  • Sunlight deficiency
  • Poor sleep

Trapped in office buildings we don’t get adequate sunlight. Stuck at desks all day long, and commuting to and from our work, we don’t get enough exercise. Congested in cities we breathe air that is polluted. The list goes on and so many of these problems (light and sleep, diet and obesity) are inseparable.  

Of course, we also know that our mental and physical health are inseparably connected. Exercise, diet, sleep, sunlight: all of these play a significant role in regulating our mood. Yet another crucial variable in shaping our mental health and happiness is the quality of our personal relationships.

Social relationships have a significant impact not only on life expectancy but also on a range of other health outcomes, from cardiovascular disease to cancer to inflammation. This peer reviewed study outlines a number of these findings.

Impact of Income Inequality on Mental Health

Both Junger and Harri talk about how the highly unequal allocation of resources within many countries today has serious implications for mental health.

Regardless of your political philosophy on the role of your government, the effect of income inequality on the mental health of people living in these cities is quite compelling. Notably, I encountered this evidence long before reading the work of Junger and Harri. Studies tend to show that rising levels of inequality (as measured by the gini coefficient) leads to declining levels of mental health overall, and particularly for those at the lower end of the income scale.

Again this is where evolutionary biology and related fields like primatology can be highly instructive. We know from studying our primate ancestors that those animals on the bottom end of a dominance hierarchy experience higher levels of stress. If you’re interested in detailed evidence for the impact of dominance hierarchies on primate mental health, and the implications of this findings for humans, you should check out the work of Frans de Waal, or Robert Sapolsky Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Many reputable, peer reviewed studies such as this one, “Income Inequality and the Prevalence of Mental Illness: a preliminary international analysis,” suggest that this is also evident in humans when we compare societies with varying levels of income inequality. The greater the disparity in income, the greater prevalence in mental health overall.

Moreover, when we look within countries and smaller geographic areas, like states in the US, we can see strong evidence for the argument that those at the bottom end of the income ladder (i.e. the dominance hierarchy) have significantly worse outcomes for mental and physical well being.

Conclusion:

People living in modern societies have “lost connections” in many ways: to the natural environment and to each other. The implications for this disconnection span a whole series of issues pertaining to physical, mental and emotional well being: obesity, poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and substance abuse–to name just a few.

While turning back the clock is clearly not a viable solution, findings ways to re-establish the most basic of connections to life on this planet–to the natural environment and to each other–seems to be the most central challenge of our time, as well as the most reliable way to improve your own physical, mental and emotional health.

Books Referenced in this Article:

Johann Hari. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions.

Sebastien Junger. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Robert Sapolsky. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Disclaimer:

If you purchase the above books through the links that I provided I’ll earn a small commission through Amazon Affiliate Marketing. I do not have a relationship with the authors of these books to market their works. As of the writing of this post I have never met or spoken to any of the above authors. I merely enjoyed these books myself and I want to recommend them to others. They are all books that I would highly recommend. Affiliate marketing is one of the few ways that I attempt to earn an income stream to offset the costs of operating this website.