Faith. It is a word with which I have uncomfortable for much of my life. One reason is the association that it has in particular religious contexts, and the way commonly cited descriptions of this world view did not sit with the skeptical, rationalist approach to viewing the world that I harbored for a long period of time. 

Another reason is that faith implies a willingness to yield to forces outside of one’s control, and this notion doesn’t sit well with people who believe they have the power to change circumstances around them to satisfy their own needs and desires, rather than trying to accept, and to find contentment within, whatever circumstances arise within the present moment. 

If this latter reason describes your personality then perhaps you’ve learned, like me, that the journey is an on going one: of continually reminding oneself to LET GO. One essential lesson on the spiritual journey is that you don’t get to bring all of your baggage with you. 

I have also learned to appreciate the value and perspective of many people who identify as part of a faith based religion, even if I do not identify as part of such a group myself. Moreover, while I certainly view religious dogmatism as a reactionary societal force, I’ve come to recognize that ideological extremism is a problem in many schools of thought, not simply those of a religious nature.

If you’ve followed this podcast or blog for some time now, you appreciate that, in fact, religious studies is very much something that I value. Perhaps you’ve even picked up on the sense of “faith” that I’ve slowly cultivated over time. Ram Dass’ notion of Grace has been a powerful teaching in this regard.

Recently, though, faith has taken on a new meaning for me in a different context: healing. I’m realizing that faith is essential on the healing journey, regardless of if you call yourself a Christian, a Buddhist or an Atheist.

In India, they say when you are ready, the guru appears. Perhaps a more accessible way in which to think of this idea is the notion of serendipity: if your eyes are truly open, you find that life will present you with the right teacher when you need him or her at the right time.

Jeffrey Yuen, Daoist Priest and renowned Doctor of Classical Chinese Medicine, has been that person for me. Dr. Yuen has said many things to me that have been indispensable on my healing journey, but his most powerful message was a very simple one, which I will paraphrase in my own words:

Whatever form of treatment you chose—Western medicine or Chinese Medicine—you have to have faith that it will work. If you do not truly believe that this course of treatment will make you better then your condition will very likely not improve. Therefore, faith is an indispensable asset on the healing journey. 

Like many good ideas, this one seems obvious. However, like many timeless pieces of wisdom, there is a reason that people have to repeat them again and again. Every day, in every culture, there are people who are talked into, even coerced into, forms of treatment that they do not truly believe will make them better.

For many people this is sadly because this is the only form of treatment they can afford. Undoubtedly, though, there are many people who are talked into forms of treatment because the proposed approach is the dominant medical paradigm around which consensus has emerged in their society. Simply put: it’s what everyone else is doing.

Westerners find it quite dumbfounding that something like taking herbs or acupuncture could actually treat serious conditions or diseases. Here’s one interesting thing that I’ve learned from living eight years in Asia: many people in Asia find it quite curious that many Westerners believe that popping a pill will solve all of their problems.

As with other issues, there is wisdom in different cultural perspectives, and as I’m arguing for in this post: the optimal approach to medicine integrates the strengths of both Western and Eastern approaches to medicine. Personally, I very much want to leverage the power of western science and medicine in many aspects of my life, many of which I enjoy discussing on this platform. 

But I would have gladly taken my chances with a Chinese Medicine doctor to treat my acid reflux rather than a conventional Western medicine approach. If I had never touched PPIs, it seems very hard to believe that I would have osteoporosis today, at the age of 37. If I didn’t have the opportunity to mask the unpleasant symptoms by simply popping a pill, I would very likely have addressed the underlying cause: what I ate and the way that I ate. As with many other areas in life, short cuts are often too good to be true.

Western medicine is slowly waking up to the reality that the conventional approach of viewing the body as a set of isolated parts, rather than an integrated system, is a very limited approach to treatment, to say nothing of healing (and no, treatment and healing are not the same thing). Moreover, Western medicine is also very slowly waking up to the fact that simply treating the symptom, rather than addressing the underlying cause, often creates more problems than it solves. 

I accept that faith is not rational, but it is deeply personal. It is not only my own experiences but also the experiences of people about whom I cared most that have shaken my own faith in the conventional Western medical approach. My parents had access to some of the best health care in the United States, being based in St. Louis with Washington University and hospitals like Barnes-Jewish.

In hindsight, this blessing has seemed more like a curse, as their health care left them with experience after experience with which too many Americans are familiar: taking a prescription drug eventually created a new set of problems which demanded the use of..yet another prescription drug, which then created a new set of side effects, which required yet another prescription drug. Continuing on and on in a vicious cycle.

Yet the main point of this post is not to indict conventional western medicine or the pharmaceutical industry but to share one truth I’m learning through this healing journey: you must have faith in whatever system of treatment you are pursuing. 

I’m a big fan of data and evidence and rational arguments. But personal experience and stories should not be discounted. Intuition should also be honored. The particular patterns of our past weave the context in which we make decisions in the present moment.

If you believe a conventional western medical approach is the right treatment for you, perhaps because you’ve seen it work for family members or friends, then I genuinely believe that’s the course of treatment you should pursue…if that’s the treatment plan in which you have faith.

Clearly, there are many positive stories out there. Everyone is indeed different. Notably, there are different schools of medicine within western medicine which seem to take a more integrated approach due to the very nature of the discipline (from my novice perspective, endocrinology seems to fit this bill). 

Moreover, there are emerging paradigms within Western medicine that are more integrated, such as functional medicine. Clearly these approaches are a response to the limitations of the western medical approach from within the system itself. In trying to understand osteoporosis and to repair my own gut health, it’s become evident that there are some very exciting, innovative approaches to medicine happening in an integrated way from an increasing number of doctors in the US and other western countries.

Yet it seems like for far too many people in developed countries their health care is leaving them with pernicious, unintended consequences. This is perhaps most acutely the case in the United States.

Since being diagnosed with osteoporosis, I have had a number of doctors tell me that I should be on prescription drugs, many of whom I deeply respect and trust. But I’m also very clear on what feels right to me and, personally, I don’t believe I’m going to dig myself out of this ditch using the same shovel that got me in here. 

To a large extent, I’m in this situation because of prescription drugs and a reductionist approach to treating my acid reflux. Clearly, not all situations are the same and perhaps one day a prescription drug will be an important response to a condition that I have. Dogmatism isn’t good in any form, regardless of the underlying ethos.

Right now, I want to put my faith in a treatment plan that is premised on the idea that 1) the human body is an integrated biological system that must be treated holistically, not in isolated parts and 2) the body-mind-spirit has an innate capacity to heal itself. 

While I certainly do not wish that I had osteoporosis, particularly at this age, I feel gratitude that I am confronting this challenge at this time in history, for we are on the cusp of witnessing a paradigm shift in western medicine that is moving towards precisely a model of treatment that integrates the rigor, precision and innovation of the West with the holistic and integrated approach from the East.

An approach to medicine that leverages the best of both Western medicine and Eastern medicine, specifically Classical Chinese medicine, is an approach to healing in which I am willing to put my faith. The sense of optimism and hope that comes from this sense of faith has already shifted the way that I not only approach my treatment, but the way that I live my life on a moment to moment basis. And that, in itself, is healing.

Dealing with Dis-ease

In January of 2017, just shy of my 36th birthday I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Conventionally, a diagnosis of osteoporosis is determined by a DEXA scan, which assesses, among other things, one’s Bone Mineral Density (BMD). If you have a T score below -2.5 you are said to have osteoporosis. 

Usually, they will measure a few key parts of the body to assess BMD. Typically, it is the lumbar spine and the hip; often, the forearm is included as well. My T score left me with a diagnosis of osteoporosis in my lumbar spine and forearm, and “osteopeonia,” basically low BMD, in my hip. 

Given my age, I was shocked. Above all, I was scared…frightened less of the reality that I was facing in the present, because my attention did not linger in the present for too long, but rather fearful of an imaginary future, the disturbing contours of which my mind was rapidly constructing. 

As the mind often does when it builds a picture of the future, it drew on memories from the past, and my past was filled with ammunition to make me particularly terrified of such a diagnosis. 

I recalled images of my childhood, watching my father have one vertebrate after the next blow out, leaving a man who was an active outdoorsman, full of vigor and life, largely incapacitated and unable to pursue the passions and hobbies that gave him joy.

Though my father had degenerative disk disease, and only later had osteoporosis which undoubtedly exacerbated but did not cause his condition, this knowledge offered little consolation. It was the association my mind latched onto. Even now, understanding the distinction between his situation and my own, the specter of this image still haunts me.  

Yet here’s the bizarre thing about even the most shocking of medical diagnoses: the mind has a powerful capacity for cognitive dissonance.

This is the story I told myself: 

My condition could only be explained by prolonged use of Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), such as Nexium and Prilosec, which I used to treat my acid reflux, from the time I was in my late teens. 

I will write more on PPIs in another blog post but I’ll cut to the chase right now: if you are taking PPIs, stop taking them

[It turns out that you need stomach acid, that long term use of PPIs can significantly put you at risk for osteoporosis and increase your chances for a fracture. PPIs can also lead to other digestive problems, as you need stomach acid to break down food and absorb essential nutrients, including calcium. There are other, more effective ways to treat acid reflux.]

Clearly, I surmised, what else could explain osteoporosis in someone my age if it weren’t for the PPIs? So I stopped taking the PPIs immediately. I started some relevant supplementation, in particular increasing my levels of Vitamin D. 

In retrospect though, my efforts seem paltry. I stopped far short of asking questions, and was not nearly aggressive enough in my treatment strategy. Underpinning this complacency was the assumption that surely my problems could be explained by a single variable, and the removal of this variable from the equation would gradually improve my condition. 

When I went back for my follow up scan nearly two years later I was hoping for at least a modest improvement in my BMD, thinking that a bad case scenario would be no improvement. In retrospect, it seems incredibly naive, but my mind had not even seriously entertained the possibility that my condition could have worsened. Without the PPIs, given my otherwise very healthy diet and lifestyle, what else could have explained my initial diagnosis? Surely, my condition would improve, if not hold stable. 

Or so I thought.

While there are many things I would have done differently following that initial diagnosis, the biggest thing I want to share with other people is this: do not make assumptions about what is causing your condition, whatever you might be facing. 

Do not accept the first opinion of your doctor no matter how good. You need to be persistent and relentless in getting to the bottom of what’s ailing you. As I’m now discovering, this often entails a process of elimination before you can even begin to hone in on a set of plausible explanations for what might be underlying your problems.

This is the position in which I now find myself, and this is one of the central dilemmas that I find myself facing: how to manage The Fear?

Fear: we can respond to respond to it in so many different ways. Denial is one. Determination is another. It didn’t take too many days after my second diagnosis to transition me from this first phase to the second one.

I can honestly say that I don’t spend a day, even a minute, regretting how I spent the last two years, not because I wouldn’t have done things differently (clearly, I would have), but simply because regretting the past is simply a waste of precious mental bandwidth I need to solve my problem, to reverse my condition. 

Right now there is only conceivable outcome in my mind, one possible end to this story: changing these circumstances. Not managing it, Not learning to live with it. But reversing it. Overcoming it. Triumph.

Sometimes acceptance means learning to live with your condition, and undoubtedly one day, whether it is this disease or another one that I meet on the way to my ultimate demise, that will clearly be a worthwhile mindset to embrace. 

But I’m not there yet. I’m not ready to entertain the current set of conventional treatment options with their predictable prescription drugs and typical litany of caveats and side effects, the inevitable outcome of a reductionist approach to medicine that focuses only on treating the symptoms, not addressing the underlying cause and restoring the imbalance of an integrated mind-body system. 

Right now I’m focused on one thing: re writing my story. Through this process I hope to learn a few things that will enable me to help others lighten their load on the healing journey as well. 

In the meantime, I’m trying to savor the small things more, to deepen my gratitude and appreciation for all of the things I can now do, with the heightened awareness that one day, whether in one year or in many years down the line, I will be unable to participate in not only the things that I love, but in all of the little things that I too often take for granted.

Every day I’m making anew the conscious decision to allow hope, not fear, to be the guiding force in my life.

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.

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.


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.


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.

The Morning Routine that Keeps Me Calm & Centered throughout the Day

I’m a big believer in the power of routines, especially a well structured morning routine that’s adapted to your lifestyle and temperament. As someone who’s not naturally high in orderliness routines are particularly important to give structure and coherence to my life: physically and psychologically.

The following morning routine, including breakfast, usually takes 2-3 hours. I’m an early riser, usually up at 6 am, so even if I go for 3 hours I can begin work by 9 am. I appreciate the fact that many people don’t have this kind of time in the morning; it makes a huge difference that I no longer commute to work.

However, even just two or three of these practices could significantly optimize your morning. If you take away one thing it is: you need a morning routine. No, your morning routine is not an oppressive system of rules meant to impinge on your liberty.

Rather, your morning routine is a carefully designed sequence of events that optimizes your capacities for physical, mental and emotional health. It should boost your energize and enhance your productivity. It should set you up to conquer the day.

You will find the right mix through a process of iteration. Everyone is different according to their lifestyle and temperament.

In chronological order, here’s what works for me. I think you’ll find at least some of it useful for you:

Body Scan

Before I hop out of bed I do a quick body scan meditation, noticing the sensations in different parts of my body. This is a way to start training my attention, even before I’ve gotten out of bed.


I start my morning with a cup of tea. Admittedly, I enjoy the caffeine boost, but it’s also a way to start my morning not only by hydrating myself but with a good dose of antioxidants. I rotate the teas that I use but it’s usually one of the following:

-Green Tea

-Pu-erh Tea

-Oolong Tea (preferably with Ginseng)

The process of making tea–and slowly, consciously sipping it–serves to anchor me in a mindfulness practice at the outset of my day.

Neti Pot

Using a neti pot is an excellent way to clean out any dust, pollen or other irritants and pollutants you’ve collected in your nasal passages. It’s also a wonderful precursor to practicing pranayama, or any kind of breathing technique.

You need to use a tiny amount of salt to balance out the PH in the solution. It’s a tricky balance–not enough salt, it burns; too much salt, it really burns. Just a small pinch (about half a tea spoon) goes a long way. Ideally, use pink Himalayan salt.

If you don’t want to use an actual pot, which can be a bit trickier with tilting your head, this bottle does  the trick and is good for travel. It also comes with the appropriate amount of salt to add, for which you can buy refills:

Source: Neil Med.

Morning Journal

Tip of the hat to Tim Ferris for this hack. Tim has spoken at length about the value of journaling for five minutes in the morning. It’s a form of therapy. Get your thoughts out of your head and onto the page. It feels great. If I had a vivid dream I might write it down.

I might start my day with a gratitude exercise: stating three things for which I’m grateful, or by acknowledging what I fear most, how that might be holding me back, and how I imagine myself overcoming that obstacle. Just five minutes of writing, while I’m enjoying my tea, provides an excellent, cathartic start to my morning.

Here is the journal that Tim Ferris recommends, which I’ve been using:

Note: it’s a very nice journal, but if you travel a lot for work consider a smaller notepad. This one is bulky. Your morning journal should be pen and paper–not on any electronic device. Try to not look at a screen for one hour after waking up.


I might practice for an hour or for ten minutes, but I always practice yoga in the morning. It’s so crucial for a number of reasons:

-it increases my alertness and energy levels

-yet at the same time it down regulates my nervous system, increasing feelings of calm and relaxation

-it continues the training of mindful attention I started from brewing my tea

-it just feels really, really good to stretch and to improve the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout my body

Note: I appreciate the fact that many people have to rush in the morning to work. I used to wake up early to beat the traffic and then get into work early to practice yoga, instead of spending that time in traffic.

But even if you just do one downward dog in the morning it can make a world of difference in terms of how you feel. Everyone has one minute for one downward dog.


In Sanskrit “puja” refers to prayer or ritual of devotional offering. Hindus perform a puja to a particular deity, Buddhists make offerings to the Buddha and Jains to Mahavira. So why on earth do you care about this if you don’t think of yourself as a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Jain–or as a theist, at all?

I think of puja as a positive psychology hack. Just as psychologists know that we can increase positive emotions through techniques designed to enhance those emotions–such as gratitude exercises or compassion training through a metta meditation–puja cultivates certainly qualities in yourself and in your life.

I have a meditation room in my house, a specific space that’s reserved for my practice. I took the advice of others to allocate a specific room in my house for my practice and it’s made a huge difference. On the altar in my meditation room, I have an arrangement of statues on my table, such as this iconic statue from Shaivate schools of Hinduism:

This is a statue of Natasja, Lord Shiva in his incarnation as The Dancer. 

Image source:

While the intricacies of puja can be complicated–from the specifics of the rituals to the recitation of mantras–consider this simple principle: religious rituals can play a positive role even for people who may not consider themselves theistic.

Currently, I would consider myself religious, though not necessarily theistic. Perhaps that sounds like a paradox, but only if you assume that religious life is defined solely by adherence to particular belief systems. Religion is about much more than metaphysics or the supernatural.

What do religious rituals cultivate…even for the non believer?

  • a feeling of offering: to something larger than yourself
    • it doesn’t matter if you believe in the divine qualities of the object to which you are offering or not. It need not be an offering to the supernatural, but rather something larger than yourself (“the universe,” or “for the awakening of all beings”)
    • it’s a way to train yourself in the mindset that you offer whatever arises–your attachments, your aversions. It diminishes the sense of an author behind your actions (i.e. the ego)
  • a relationship to an archetype
    • Carl Jung wrote extensively about the pervasiveness of archetypes across human cultures. For Jung archetypes were collectively inherited patterns of behavior or symbols that spoke to timeless characteristics about the human condition: the hero, the trickster, the magician, the lover, the ruler, the rebel, the sage, and so on
    • Religious iconography reflects these primordial archetypes that are an essential part of the human condition. These figures are actors in the drama of life who reflect the roles we  have to play at various points; the mythology around these characters offers insight into how we should act in the world. This is the function of myth.
    • Puja can help us to cultivate a relationship to these primordial archetypes
  • a sense of the sacred
    • While I have plenty of issues with organized religion, I think that in our modern world we have largely lost a sense of the sacred, and not for the better. My trip to India this past winter affirmed the power of religious rituals and symbols to endow people’s lives with a sense of beauty, veneration and meaning.
      • Not only can we derive value from these rituals without committing to particular (theistic) belief systems, perhaps those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural, and who lack the ancient traditions that support these systems, are the most in need of what religious practices like puja can offer

Deliberately developing a sense of the sacred will change the way that you start your day.


After puja concludes, I’ll go into a few minutes of pranayama: yogic breathing exercises. Pranayama is a vast subject matter, which include some advanced techniques. But here are two very simple tips:

  • Emphasizing the inhalation
    • Ex: breathing in for the count of four, breathing out for the count of two
    • this activates your sympathetic nervous system
      • increases feelings of alertness
      • can be ideal for the morning, especially if you feel the need to wake up
  • Emphasising the exhalation
    • Ex: breathing out for the count of four, breathing in for the count of two
    • this activates your parasympathetic nervous system
      • induces feelings of calm and relaxation
      • promotes optimal function of your bodily systems

Pranayama is a huge subject deserving of a series of posts, but if you’re not familiar with these breathing exercises consider looking them up. A great place to start would be studying with a very knowledgeable teacher. Richard Freeman has an online introduction to pranayama course which you can purchase through Sounds True.

Disclosure: Richard Freeman is one of my yoga teachers. I do not, however, receive any commission whatsoever from the promotion of his courses. I suggest them to others only because I highly value what Richard and his wife Mary have to offer.

Pranayama is the bridge that can take you into deeper states of meditation.


Ideally, I’ll do twenty minutes of seated meditation in the morning. However, some days I need to start my day quicker than others. Even sitting for just a few minutes in silence–especially after making a series of offering and the recitation of mantras–makes a massive difference in the rest of my day.

I’m more focused, more centered in the heart, more open to whatever will arise. Nothing is a guarantee against the difficult things in life, but this morning series of practices–puja, pranayama and meditation–makes me far more likely to respond mindfully, rather than reactively, to situations that could trigger me.

It not only helps to buffer me against the negative, it cultivates positive emotions: feelings of reverence, gratitude and serenity.


Now that I’m done with my morning mindfulness practices I’ll take my phone out of airplane mode and listen to a podcast or music as I go for a morning walk. Studies have been shown to demonstrate upticks in creativity from standing and moving, which is one reason I do so shortly before starting my work.

I also prioritize getting some form of cardiovascular exercise before I’m going to be in front of a screen for hours on end.

Cold shower

Tony Robbins jumps in a frigid plunge pool to start his day. Tim Ferris takes an ice bath. I don’t have these luxuries, though I take as cold of a shower as possible.

How cold? So cold that you should be shaking, as one advocate put it. For how long? 5-10 minutes.

Placing the shower head on the top front of your skull (prefrontal cortex area of the brain) or on the chest (near the heart) will increase the impact of the cold shower–assuming you’re not doing the full plunge like Tony or Tim, which undoubtedly is more effective.

Arguments for taking a cold shower:

  • improves mitochrondial function, boosting your immunity
  • drains your lympathic systems, removing cellular waste
  • burns brown fat at increased rate
  • increase your heart rate…and your circulation
  • can help to lower levels of stress in your body
  • increases alertness!
    • at the very least…it will do this!

Make your bed

Growing up, my parents couldn’t get me to make my bed. I didn’t see the point when I was just going to sleep it in again anyways. Funny, I know. Probably a lot of people, especially guys, who are low in orderliness still do this for many years. If you fall into this camp this is the first, small thing that you can and should change.

Finally, I relented to Jordan Peterson’s exhortations to “clean your damn room!” Cultivating orderliness in the physical aspects of your life will help you to develop more orderliness in other facets of your life, and psychologically, as well.

Tidy up anything that you can clean up, or put away, in a minute or less, as well, then move on.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem for many people, especially people living in urban environments spending all of their day in offices, and/or those living in climates that don’t see much sunlight or suffer from high levels of pollution.

Vitman D is essential for a number of reasons, ranging from calcium absorption to build strong bones to melatonin production that’s vital to a good night’s sleep.

Fortunately, I live in the tropics so there’s no shortage of sunlight. That said, because the sun is so hot I make a point of getting Vitamin D before the sun gets too high and too intense.

Wherever you live I’d highly recommend downloading the app D Minder. This app will notify you when the sun is above 30 degrees elevation–which is what you need in order to get Vitamin D from the sun.

You can select a variety of options that state the amount of skin exposure to the sun then click on a timer that will tell you how much Vitamin D your body is absorbing based on the sun’s elevation in your particular location at that time.

Download the app D Minder to track your Vitamin D levels.

Grounding  (Earthing)

While I’m getting sunlight I stand barefoot on grass. “Grounding” or “Earthing” allegedly helps our bodies to reconnect to the natural, electrical charge of the earth’s energy. While studies on grounding are still seeking to verify the extent of the alleged benefits that advocates claim studies suggest it can decrease cortisol levels and inflammation. It also feels really good, and natural, just to stand in the grass!


As I mentioned at the outset, I totally appreciate the fact that many people don’t have time for such an exhaustive routine, whether it’s because you’re commuting in traffic or getting your kids ready for school. But incorporating just two or three of these routines could make a big difference in enhancing the quality of your morning.

Start small and go from there.

I sincerely hope that some of you will find benefit in these morning routines. They have certainly had a profoundly positive impact on my morning and I hope they prove to be a game changer for you as well.


What I’ve learned from Maps of Meaning: a course by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Over the last month I’ve been watching a series of lectures entitled “Maps of Meaning,” which is the title of both a book and a university course delivered by psychology Professor Jordan Peterson. These lectures were for a course that Peterson taught at the University of Toronto. I’ll share my thoughts on the lecture I watched today, #6, as it provides a useful introduction to some key ideas to understanding the worldview of Jordan Peterson, as well as some of the debates he has had with scientific materialists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Two methods for determining truth: A Newtonian Worldview vs. A Darwinian Worldview

For the last 400 years of Western civilisation has become increasingly preoccupied with one approach to the truth: the scientific method. Thinkers like Renee Descartes and Francis Bacon pioneered a method of rigorous inquiry that developed over time into the scientific method. The revolution in physics, often associated with the discoveries of Isaac Newton, displayed the power of the scientific method to reveal essential truths about the world that we occupy. This is what Peterson refers to as a Newtonian worldview: perceiving the world as a place of objects.

Science and the scientific method are an indispensable form of knowledge. However, Peterson argues, this isn’t the only way to arrive at the truth, which is the mistake that scientific materialists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins make.

Seriously considering the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution gives us a different understanding of how we perceive the world. Given that we’ve evolved to survive, human perception creates a world not of objects, but of tools. Specifically, our minds perceive two things:

  1. tools that facilitate our movement forward towards goals
  2. obstacles that obstruct our progress towards our goals

We perceive the world in relation to us–there is no other, “objective” way to view it. Perception is inseparable from the one perceiving it (an insight that Buddhist philosophy emphasizes as well). Your implicit value structure determines your perceptions. It decides what to focus on, and what to omit, which is the vast majority of things in your field of sight–otherwise you couldn’t function.

Motivation is not a drive or a set of goals. Your underlying motivational system is nested in a value system that literally determine your perceptions.

This is why Jordan Peterson agrees with the philosopher David Hume’s famous assertion that “you can’t derive an “ought: from an “is.” In other words, you can’t derive ethical guidelines from “factual” knowledge because the process of determining these facts is inherently subjective. Which facts are you going to pick? How are you going to select them?

Our attachments to the Newtonian worldview is why secular people struggle to understand religion: they are using a framework to interpret the past which our ancestors did not share. According to Peterson, this is what atheists like Harris and Dawkins ironically share in common with religious fundamentalists: they view these texts as consisting of facts that must be proven or disproven to be correct or false–as we would in a scientific experiment.

The World as a Drama

While this approach to truth is wonderful for understanding physics we need a different way of looking at the world to wrestle with what is arguably the most essential question for a human being to ask: how should I act in the world?

Shakespeare famously captured this worldview in As You Like It:

Image Source:

This is how our ancestors viewed themselves: as actors in a drama. The religious narratives they developed reflect the collective wisdom of their culture’s answers to this crucial question: how should I act in the world?

Peterson’s approach to religion–largely inspired by the depth psychologist Carl Jung and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell–comes directly out of this Darwinian worldview. Our brains have evolved with certain fundamental patterns of behavior that are reflected in our eternal “archetypes” lodged in our “collective unconscious.”

We need to tell stories so that we can understand how to act–and how not to act–in the melodrama that unfolds in our own lives.

We can get rid of The Bible and replace it with Stars Wars or Games of the Thrones but the power of stories continues to serve its function in our lives: as a map for how to act skilfully in a world fraught with chaos and prone to human error. Religious fundamentalists fail to appreciate the message of these stories when they insist on these texts being a literally true set of “facts;” however, so do many atheists.

Peterson’s Maps of Meaning course seeks to explain how stories across all cultures have a basic meta structure that provide useful answers in response to the most pressing question facing the human condition: how should I act in the world?

One crucial idea: make sacrifices. What is sacrifice? It’s the recognition that you can bargain with the future. Don’t give up what you could be tomorrow for who you are today.

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, is one of the most famous stories from The Bible. Dr. Peterson talked about the significance of this parable, and its lesson about the value of sacrifice, in his series of Biblical Lectures.

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While I still agree with some important points that atheists like Sam Harris have to make about problems with organized religion, my views on religion have evolved. They had shifted well before I came across Peterson’s work but Peterson has provided me with a renewed appreciation for the Judeo-Christian traditions, which were not religious traditions to which I was naturally drawn.

Myths are tremendously powerful maps of meaning for how to chart one’s journey in life. I’ve come to recognize that just because others make the mistake of taking myths literally doesn’t mean that they have no value to offer. Nor does it preclude me from speaking out against the serious harms that can come from dogmatic interpretations of religion. But I also do not want to smugly, and naively, dismiss the great collective wisdom of the past.

Peterson likes to exhort his listeners to “have some damn respect” for our modern culture, which he emphasizes is the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. “These people were not stupid. They were seriously not stupid.” He’s right.

We share the same hardware–our brains–as those living in the times when these myths were created. It’s not as if our anatomy is fundamentally different. In many other respects human nature has remained constant: the aspirations that we share for the future and the temptations to which we succumb largely hold true across time and space.

Furthermore, people in the past–even the relatively recent past–lived in conditions that were far more difficult than our own, to put it mildly. They forged their character through enduring hardships that are unimaginable to most people living in the modern world.

For all of these reasons we should listen carefully to, and learn from, the messages and warnings of those who lived before us.

Peterson is also right that we should seriously consider the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary to help us understand knowledge–not just those in the hard sciences, but also in the Humanities. Peterson’s lectures are a portal into what our education system could look like if it could transcend the traditional, rigid boundaries that divide knowledge between disciplines. While this division is not without good reason it has become too limiting to provide insight into some of the most important questions.

What might education look like if we updated it for the 21st century? What if those who were so highly educated, and often secular, developed a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the past? Perhaps those lessons from the past could provide some clues about how to bring some semblance of order to an age marked by chaos.

Such a discovery would not only yield new knowledge, it might provide us with access to an even more useful artefact: ancient wisdom.


Maps of Meaning Course

Jordan Petersons’ Website

How Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein have changed the way that I think about human behavior

Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein are two renegade college professors who are making a splash in larger discussions of interest to many modern, Western societies, from challenges to free speech to what evolutionary biology can teach us about human behavior.

This latter point is of direct consequences to the topics that I’d like to explore on this platform: as I’m interested in interdisciplinary approaches to learning that can help people better understand themselves. I enjoy drawing on methods from a range of disciplines, from techniques that touch on the esoteric and the exoteric, and that focus on the individual as well as the role of the individual in relation to the group.

My training is in the Humanities, specifically History. Over the last eight years, since I’ve moved to Asia, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the study of religion: both practical techniques such as meditation and yoga that allow me to cultivate more self awareness, as well as the study of myths from cultures around the world.

What both Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, and Brett Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist, have helped me to appreciate is how evolutionary biology can provide us with tremendous insight into some of the questions raised by the study of the Humanities. Listening to Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein has helped me to realize how viewing many topics strictly through the lens of the social sciences–without any informed view from science–can be very limiting, and even deeply misleading.

One prominent example would be the concept of “dominance hierarchies,” which Jordan Peterson has become well known for popularizing. This idea refers to the universal biological fact that animals that have to compete for territorial space tend to organize themselves into fairly predictable hierarchies. This is true not simply of our primate ancestors but of all animals, extending all the way back to lobsters, 300 million years ago.

The behavior of male chimpanzees within a dominance hierarchy most closely mirrors the behavior of human males in several key respects, according to primatologist Frans De Wall.

Image Source:

Some of us mistakenly assume, Jordan Peterson argues, that the assembly of these hierarchies are due to socio-cultural-political forces, when in fact the hierarchies we find in society are the result of deeper biological forces. It’s a fascinating point worthy of deeper consideration.

It seems that we can debate the degree to which our specific cultural hierarchies are the result of socio-cultural-political forces or not–a combination of both seems undeniable in my view–but Peterson has made two basic points which should be beyond controversy:

  1. The organization of human beings along hierarchical lines is inevitable. An appreciation for this irrefutable biological fact helps us to appreciate that political ideologicies that seek to eliminate hierarchies in human societies, such as Marxism, are completely antithetical to human nature and thus destined to fail.

     2. A closer study of our evolutionary ancestors could provide us with much insight into human             behavior at the level of the individual and the group

On The Joe Rogan Experience, Brett Weinstein stated Peterson’s great contribution to the public discourse has been to encourage others to take the implications of evolutionary biology seriously: to really consider what evolution can teach us about human psychology.

As someone who has trained in the Humanities at the undergraduate and the graduate level (specifically, History and the teaching of History), I’m fascinated by many of the points that Peterson has been making. The Humanities always raised certain big questions for me, for which they were unable to provide satisfactory answers. For someone who likes to learn in an interdisciplinary way I have found Jordan Peterson to be a tremendous resource.

Rather than attempt to give some overview of what I’ve learned from Peterson, and Weinstein, I’d like to start by focusing on one big idea and developing it in depth over a series of blog posts.

My first series will be to take up Peterson’s challenge to seriously consider the implications of evolutionary biology for understanding human behavior–a journey that will touch on topics from psychology to sociology to politics.

I’ve started reading the work of Frans de Waal, a professor at Emory University who has dedicated his career to the study of our primate ancestors. De Wall has written a number of books on the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos, and what they can teach us about ourselves and the way that we interact with each other.

In my next post I’m going to share some of the big ideas that I’m learning from reading de Waal’s work The Bonobo and The Atheist. I’m totally blown away by how fascinating our primate ancestors are and how much they can teach us about ourselves. I look forward to sharing what I learn with you.

If there any big questions on this topic that interest you please feel free to share them. I also enjoy hearing your comments.


Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Website

Dr. Peterson’s YouTube Channel

Bret Weinstein’s Website

Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

The Power of Right Intention and Radical Acceptance

Right Intention and radical acceptance are two of the most important qualities of living a life filled with great purpose and inner peace.

However, if we want to find happiness we have to hack our biology because we’re not hardwired for happiness: we’re hardwired for survival. Modern scientific breakthroughs from fields such as positive psychology teach us techniques for cultivating contentment and improved emotional well being. Ancient wisdom traditions and great contemplative figures also offer us time tested tools for achieving similar aims.

In Radical Acceptance, meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach talks about the importance of acceptance for healing, happiness and mental health. In Chapter 2, “Awakening from the Trance,” Brach writes: “When I first started practicing yoga and meditation I didn’t realize that acceptance was at the heart of spiritual life” (Brach 31).

I certainly didn’t realize this either when I first started practicing yoga or meditation. In fact, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which acceptance was so central to spirituality until I read this passage in Tara’s book. As I’m currently enrolled in a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training with Tara and Jack Kornfield I’ve wrestled with the wisdom of this statement over the past few months.

Radical Acceptance highlights the need for a challenging and often under appreciated act in a society that associates strength with aggression and dominance: the power of forgiveness, of oneself and of others. Tara talks about the “trance of unworthiness” in which so many of us are caught. Underlying this trance is the nagging feeling that we’re not quite good enough.

I’ll be honest: when I read this is I thought to myself: “I can see that what she’s describing is relevant for many people, but I don’t have that problem. I have the opposite problem: I have too much pride.”

But Tara’s work reminded me of the nuanced ways in which emotions are inseparably connected. While excessive pride is certainly problematic it also has a subtle shadow side: the underbelly of unworthiness. A superiority complex is an inferiority complex in disguise. When we witness someone else who is in the grips of a superiority complex this is often quite obvious to us.

Launching Hacking the Self has been an invaluable exercise in reflecting on my own intentions. I started this podcast because I wanted to connect with like minded people, to express myself creatively, and to hopefully provide some content that others might find useful.

Yet I’ve found that years of meditation and yoga and studying spiritual texts hasn’t made me immune to the same old temptations that seduced me in the past: to measure my success by the approval of others. Same game, new variables: how many people viewed the website, how many downloaded the podcast, how many new likes and shares and followers on social media?

Gain, praise, blame, loss, the tried and true infatuations of the ego, the same old set of mental traps that conspire to ensnare us in the most pernicious web of lies: that we will finally find happiness and fulfilment in some distant imaginary point in the future, when it’s graciously bestowed upon us by the approval of others.

One of the classic spiritual texts of India, The Bhagavad Gita, offers a powerful lesson in setting right intention and finding radical acceptance for one’s predicament in the most challenging of terrains.

At several points in The Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna that he has a right to his actions alone, but not to the fruits of his actions. In other words: do what you’re doing without any expectation or attachment to a particular outcome.

Buddhism makes a similar point, with its emphasis on right intention, right action, and non attachment. The great Stoic poets of Rome, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, expressed the essence of this wisdom as well.

Today, research from positive psychology has consistently demonstrated that intrinsic motivations for our actions are far more reliable sources of happiness than extrinsic considerations. Translation: when you do something because you genuinely love it you are far more likely to find happiness. When your actions are inspired by external motivations (money, status, the approval of others) it tends to be a very poor predictor of joy.

Here are three questions to ask yourself before every action (and if you forget to do so beforehand, at least to reflect upon after!):

  • What’s my deepest intention for doing this?
  • Towards what end am I aiming?
  • Who am I serving?

To hardwire our beliefs into our brains we need rituals. One great ritual for setting intentions is journaling.

Tim Ferris persuaded me to start journaling and he’s right: it’s an excellent form of self therapy. Journaling involves carving out a small chunk of time each day to be real with yourself about what brings you joy, what triggers you, and what’s holding you back from realizing your full potential. Have a set time each day when you reflect upon your own reasons for your actions. Tim suggests doing it within the first hour of waking up; usually, I do the same.

Having a conversation with someone you trust is another option. Research on how we learn demonstrates that metacognitive activities such as writing and speaking play an important role in how we process information and learn. At the very least…wrestle with these questions in your head!

Neuroscientists and psychologists have shown us why social media is so addictive: receiving a “like” on social media triggers a dopamine surge, similar to taking a drug. This is why organizations like the American Marketing Association write articles like “Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High” with a subheading like: “Here’s how it works and what marketers can do about it.” No, this is not a headline from The Onion.

Science affirms a central tenet of the Buddha’s teaching: that the impermanent nature of the senses makes worldly pleasures ultimately unsatisfying (the work of Rick Hanson and Robert Wright are excellent for those who crave a scientific explanation for this state of affairs). It’s what positive psychologists call the hedonic treadmill: the concept that “humans will return to a relatively stable level of happiness regardless of which events, positive or negative, happen in our lives” (“Break the Twitch: An Intentional Living Philosophy”).  

We spend so much of our effort striving for a particular outcome–often bound up in status symbols and how others will perceive us–thinking such extrinsic motivations will bring us happiness. Yet experience and research are quite clear that such satisfaction is transitory.

If the secret is acting without attachment to a particular outcome how do we actually go about doing this?

Here’s a hack for practicing non attachment to the outcome: offer everything. One of my meditation teachers, Sally Kempton, taught me this practice in an excellent course that I took with her on The Bhagavad Gita.

Start small. Offer your meal or a cup of tea or your morning yoga practice. You can offer it in a completely secular way, such as for the benefit of all beings (it needn’t be so lofty either, if that doesn’t work for you). Then start offering other actions, serving others in small ways. If you look at the great spiritual teachers they all do this to the point where their actions become an endless series of offerings, a life fuelled by service.

At times the most meticulously planned of our efforts will inevitably fall short of our own standards and those of our loved ones. But if our actions spring from right intentions–motivations that flow from a sense of innate joy and a virtuous intention to have a positive impact on others–it will be much easier to find the radical acceptance and true forgiveness that all of us require to flourish.

Religious Devotion for Skeptics

Religious Devotion for Skeptics

 For many years I harbored serious qualims with organized religion. In all honesty, I still do. But when I moved to Thailand in 2010 I began to study various Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which has had an incredibly positive impact on my life and which helped me to view religion in a different and more positive light  Yet even among the helpful practices I learned I shunned overt displays of religiosity and specific religious subsets that advocated theism and smacked of dogma.

 Suffice it to say that I certainly did not ever imagine myself writing a post extolling the benefits of an overtly religious act such as kirtan, which is a Hindu musical ritual of religious worship, involving chanting and singing directed towards praising the Divine.

 However, recently I attended a retreat with Ram Dass and Friends that helped me to reframe religious devotional practices such as chanting and singing in a new light: as an effective and efficient technique for accessing higher states of consciousness and for cultivating positive mindsets and habits.

 How can a practice as overtly religious as devotional chanting to God possibly have something to offer to religious skeptics?

 In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that bhakti (devotion) is the easiest path of yoga, by which he means union with the Divine. If we think of a hack as a shortcut or the most efficient route then a bhakti yogic technique like kirtan has much insight to offer for anyone interested in accessing expanded states of consciousness.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Arjuna personify the archetypal guru-disciple relationship.

Image Source: Krishna and Arjuna 

Important note on the word “Divine.” Undoubtedly it’s just semantics but I find it easier to work with the word Divine than the word “God,” which has too much baggage for me. Considering the root of the English word “Divine” is instructive: the word derives from the Sanskrit verb “dev,” meaning to “shine” or “to illuminate.”

 Rationalists can think of the Divine in a modern scientific sense as an infinite source of energy. For Nondual Shaivate Tantrikas the essential quality of the Divine is prakasha, or “the Great Light of Consciousness,” which is another viewpoint to which a more modern and educated audience might be able to relate.

Yet of all the paths of yoga–jnana (knowledge), karma (service) and bhakti (devotion)–Krishna tells us that bhakti is the easiest. While the Gita is a foundational text for fervent Hindu theists it has also served as a highly valued source of wisdom to nondualist intellectuals such as the Kashmiri polymath Abhinivagupta.

 Religious thought and practice in India is vast and diverse. When I first learned of Bhakti it was the path that mapped most easily onto what I knew from my own understanding of religion in the West. It emphasized devotional practices and worship of God. From my vantage point, it seemed heavy on faith and light on rationality. In other words, it was the least appealing.

 The path of jnana (knowledge) yoga offered techniques like meditation for getting to the same truths but without compromising intellectual honesty about what I can honestly know or not know about the nature of reality. This approach also appealed to my preference for arriving at conclusions through rigorous study and reasoned arguments.

 But this Bhakti love fest in Hawaii helped me to understand what Krishna meant when he praised the path of bhakti yoga, or devotion. I came to understand what he meant when he said that bhakti was the easiest path. I came to recognize through experience value in devotional practices such as kirtan, which involves chanting or singing praise to the Divine.

 At this gathering with Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Jack Kornfield and other great spiritual teachers, I encountered an entirely different kind of spiritual community. It was one that fully lived up to its promise for the retreat: to open the heart.

 To say this was different to other retreats would be an understatement. I’ve been to silent meditation retreats during which we meditated all day long, with occasional dharma talks interspersed. I’ve been to yoga retreats in which we practiced asana–the physical practice of yoga–for several hours a day, along with intense pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and lectures on yoga philosophy.

 There is immense value in such styles of practices, as they afford the opportunity to go deep within, to become self aware of one’s own fears, neuroses, and habitual patterns, to cultivate compassion for oneself and others, and to begin to learn to work with the mind more skillfully.

 But the Ram Dass & friends experience is far different. If a silent meditation retreat is all about connecting with oneself this bhakti retreat was all about connecting with others. In short: it’s all about community.

 There are talks all day long from fabulous teachers, which are filled with huge nuggets of wisdom from some of the great spiritual teachers out there, mixed in with humour (Duncan Trussell was there, bringing not only comic relief but also a vital sense of grounding for those in the audience who resonate with much of what’s taught but also crave a healthy sense of skepticism and reason).

 We feasted on three fabulous meals a day, right on the beach in idyllic Maui. These meals are not only delicious but incredibly social, with people being very open to making new friends. When you’re not eating or listening to inspiring talks, you can swim in the gorgeous blue waters in the secluded bay at which the retreat is held, or hike the coastline in the surrounding area.

 But all of this activity largely serves as a prelude for the main event, which happens every evening: two hours of kirtan, or devotional music and chanting, with Krishna Das and his band. Since my first yoga teacher training two years ago people advised me to go to kirtan, and specifically to listen to Krishna Das. I did listen to Krishna Das and I’ve always liked him and appreciated his music.

Image Source: Krishna Das, “Kirtan Wallah Tour,” Youtube

 Yet still kirtan seemed like the last thing in which I was interested: overt displays of religiosity to God by another name. While the Hindu conception of the Divine certainly resonates much more with me praising God was certainly not why I got into Eastern religions.

 The scientific, rational agnocitism of Buddhism has always suited me better. In the last year I have also studied in the Tantric Shaivate tradition, which opened me up greatly to the value of myth and metaphor. Of course, Buddhism and Tantric Shivaism also entail devotion–especially as practised in their original contexts in Asia instead of in the West–but belief in a deity is not a central part of these traditions: Buddhism is agnostic on the notion of a Creator and in non dual Tantric Shaivism the deities is not separate from oneself. In fact, the deities, Shiva and Shakti, serve as metaphors to convey deeper truths.

 These approaches are particularly well suited to those for whom the path of jnana yoga resonates. The Dalai Lama once said: “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I’d love to see the Pope say that, or the Mullahs in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Would all of humanity’s problems magically disappear? Of course not. But I absolutely believe that such a world would be a much, MUCH better place than our current state of affairs.

 Krishna Das and his crew, as well as the entire community, or satsang, of beautiful people who regularly attend Ram Dass’ retreats, helped me to appreciate devotion in a new way.

 In the past I had glimpses of how religious devotion could be different from the unappealing model to which I was first exposed. Though the Protestant upbringing of my youth never struck a chord with me, I gave Christianity a second chance in my twenties. I went to several African-American churches, both on the south side of Chicago and in Washington, DC. Ultimately, I did not stay for the same reasons that compelled me to leave in the first place: the faith based belief system of Christianity is not a package of beliefs to which I feel I can subscribe.

 Sure if key tenets of the faith as metaphors I’d feel differently about it, and I’ve read the works of some very thoughtful and intelligent Christian mystics and liberal theologians who make such arguments (if you’re interested check out: Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and Pittman McGee). Perhaps it’s simply because the language and symbols of the tradition in which I was raised just aren’t for me. Perhaps it’s also because I know that most of the other people in the tribe aren’t speaking about these claims metaphorically and I’m not comfortable being part of such a movement.

Father Thomas Merton was a Christian Mystic who had a keen interest in Eastern religions and in promoting inter faith dialogue.

Image Source: PBS

 But these experiences in my twenties did shift my view on Christianity in a different, more positive way. Growing up, I always felt that going to Church was more like going to a funeral: it was a solemn affair, drab and dull. But the churches in these African-American communities were in one crucial sense what I thought precisely religion should be: a celebration of life.

 They emphasised a relationship to God that was not based out of fear but based on love. Though I left because I didn’t buy into much of Christian metaphysics and the claim that Christ was more than human, I really appreciated how Christianity in these contexts brought people together and shaped their behaviour in overwhelmingly positive ways. Though I knew virtually no one when I walked into some of these churches people could not have been more friendly and welcoming. There was an overwhelming feeling of love and open heartedness in those communities.

 The Ram Dass satsang cultivated this same sense of a loving, cohesive community yet accommodated a conception of the Divine with which I can find some sort of relationship: God (though still not a word that I care to use) in a non dual sense, in which one can equate “God” with consciousness or the universe or the source of all that is–rather than in a dualistic sense of a creator deity.

 “Loving Awareness” is the phrase that Ram Dass prefers to use. Non dual thought exists even within predominantly dualistic religious belief systems, as evidenced by Gnostic mystics in Christianity and Sufis in Islam. To each their own. Everyone has to find what works for them. I have no interest in arguing for a particular point of view in what is the most personal of decisions. Not only is such a position intellectually dishonest; it reproduces the rigidity of the ego that spiritual practice should be dissolving, not strengthening.

 I share my own story for those who traditionally have been turned off by organized religion yet recognize that the hard core materialism of modern societies leaves many human beings feeling ultimately unfulfilled.

 Thus I have come to view the most overtly religious of practices–religious chanting or singing–as a sort of consciousness hack.

 I’ve come to see that chanting or singing in this context is similar to meditation or asana: it’s another technique for training the mind. Many meditation techniques teach people to keep coming back to a point of attention–the breath, a mantra, a visualised object–as a way to cultivate attention. In so doing, we train the wandering mind to become more disciplined, and as we begin to live more in the present–instead of a past we cannot change or a future that has not yet materialized–we become more content and happier people. We know this from a range of scientific studies, including this study from Harvard.

 Similarly, in kirtan we continually come back to familiar words–often only a few throughout a  song–as an anchor for our attention. In this way, singing or chanting is a form of meditation. What makes this different is that this is meditation in motion. Of course yoga asana is also a practice of mindfulness based movement.

 However, the combination of the chanting with the movement and the music in a group setting makes for a different experience. If you want to reframe religious chanting here it is to all my fellow Westerners with ADHD: you get to move AND listen music while you’re meditating. Sounds good to people constantly on the go?

 Here’s another good reason: if you’re sitting all day long at a desk, it’s worth considering that you might want to find some sort of mindfulness training that encourages movement, rather than more sitting around.

 Personally, for me, seated meditation is crucial: it allows for dropping deep into stillness that is never experienced in our busy, day to day lives. It’s a technique for consciousness exploration that comes to be, through much practice, indescribably profound.

If you have this desire yet struggle with being in a seated posture here are two pieces of advice:

1) sit in a chair (with a small cushion to support your lower back)

2) try floating

 Yet just as going into one’s own consciousness is an essential, esoteric aspect of religious practice so too is cultivating community. No less an advanced meditator than the Buddha himself is purported to have said that of the three facets of his teachings the most important was the sangha, or the spiritual community.

 Having heard this jewel of Buddhist wisdom before I felt I experienced it for the first time in Hawaii with Ram Dass and Friends. I came to understand one of the most important teachings from Krishna in the Gita: that the path of devotion (bhakti) is the easiest path to yoga, or union with the divine.

 For me, that “union with the divine” is a state that arises when the mind stills and begins to rest in a space of pure consciousness, rather than from constructing a relationship with the supernatural. In that space of internal stillness we’ve let go of clinging to memories about the past, we’re not fretting about the future or fantasising that things might be better under an alternative set of circumstances.

 We all know the mindset: “I’ll finally be happy when….fill in the blank: I have a new job, new home, new spouse, new spiritual teacher”–you name it.

 When the mind quiets the ahamkara (the ego maker in traditional Indian metaphysics) comes to a halt. When the small sense of self dissipates we merge with something greater. This is yoga.

 Modern neuroscience allows us to think about it in a scientific way: in advanced meditators activity in the default mode network quiets (this is also true of people under the influence of psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, as studies from Imperial College London have demonstrated). The result is the same: the boundaries between subject and object, “me” and “the world” collapse. We merge into the collective of the group, into the ocean of consciousness. This is the mystical experience.

When the mind lets go of its incessant chatter it leaves space for the heart to open. Though you can certainly use the mind to deliberately cultivate feelings of love and compassion (such as using a Metta meditation), this is still at the ahamkara, the “I” maker, the ego at work. It’s a dualistic practice (this isn’t to say that metta is an inferior method–it’s an indispensable one–but simply to point out that it’s a practice predicated an object/subject relationship).

 As the mind lets go of its need to categorize and to analyze, to judge and to blame, we begin to open into the mystery of life. Instead of fretting about “why are we here” and “what should I do?” we just offer gratitude and praise to whatever miraculous of circumstances has afforded us this opportunity to be alive. This was the essence of aliveness and presence pulsating throughout each evening’s kirtan.

 Too much of religious devotion has gravitated towards simplistic responses to this fundamental dilemma of the human condition: in the face of overwhelming fear and uncertainty around life ceasing at death, religion has assuaged this anxiety by offering people certainty where simply none exists.

 We know we will die and we do not know if life–a soul, consciousness, whatever you want to call it–will survive the ultimate demise of the body. Notably, atheists asserting that the “lights will simply go blank” is itself a belief based on faith.

 We simply DO NOT KNOW and until it can be conclusively proven otherwise–an  outcome that is repeatable, on numerous occasions with predictably similar results–then agnosticism strikes me as the only honest intellectual position.

 But I’ve come to appreciate that religion has much to offer, and even those elements of religion which I once shunned have value, including a tool like chanting that can refine one’s own consciousness, leaving one feeling happier and promoting greater group harmony.

 So there you have it folks: the post that I never predicted that I would have written while I was reading the entire collected works of Sam Harris: religious chanting as a consciousness hack.

 Ultimately, you have to pick whatever is right for you. If you’re still totally thinking “bullshit” I can empathize with your position, even though I no longer share it. Personally, I chose to test out the bhakti path not because I thought it would be a good fit for my personality but for precisely the opposite reason: I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone.

 In the process, I discovered what people often find when they finally relent and try something they’ve been resisting: that their experience is, in fact, quite different from their preconceived notions, and that much wisdom can be gained through examining a question from multiple perspectives.

 At this particular moment I see bhakti less as an exclusive path but rather as an alternative approach that cultivates particular mindsets and sharpens certain techniques for hacking higher states of consciousness. It offers invaluable insights for cultivating mental and emotional health and leading a more fulfilling and purposeful life, along with Buddhism, other esoteric approaches to religion, entheogens and positive psychology.

 I figure that I’m in no position to refuse the assistance of anything that might work; I need all of the help that I can get.

 As Rumi writes: “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there a thousand ways to come home.”


Ram Dass with Zen Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax.

Image Source: Love Serve Remember Foundation

If you’re interested in attending a future retreat with Ram Dass and Friends you can find information about upcoming retreats and other events here. The next retreat will be from May 2nd-7th with guest teachers Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Registration opens at 12 pm EST on January 3rd.

Announcement: Changing the Name to Hacking the Self

 I’m sure some of you have already noticed that the name of the website and podcast recently changed from Hacking Consciousness to Hacking the Self. I’m writing this post to explain the reasons for the change of the name.

  The main impetus for the name change was to avoid confusion with the organization, Consciousness Hacking, which is a group of individuals doing pioneering work at the intersection of technology and consciousness. More than an organization, it’s quickly becoming a movement of people who are interested in using technology mindfully to explore consciousness and to optimize health. Anyone who has found conversations on my podcast interesting will undoubtedly enjoy what they find on Consciousness Hacking.

 Though distinct in certain areas of our approach and emphasis, my interests very much overlap with the work of the people involved with this organization and those who are inspired by their work. I hope to find more ways to support the efforts of Consciousness Hacking and, in the process, I want to avoid any confusion with the group. This is the primary reason for the name change.

 Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the founder of the Consciousness Hacking movement, Mikey Siegel. He’s a great guy with tons of insight to share about the latest trends for those interested in this convergence of technology and spirituality, or as some might simply like to think of it, as consciousness exploration. I’m looking forward to having Mikey on the podcast in the near future.    

 In Indian philosophical and religious thought, “the Self” (or “atman,” in Sanskrit) is synonymous with consciousness (it’s also analogous to “soul” if that notion appeals to you). Exploring the wisdom of India and integrating ancient sources of wisdom with modern technology and science is a big part of my interest in this project. So referencing this notion of “the Self” that’s central to Indian thought was one motivation for the name selection.

 But more significantly, rebranding the show to Hacking the Self will also expand the boundaries of the show’s content in a subtle but significant way: to emphasize the mind-body connection that is integral to consciousness and to living life in a way that’s integrated and holistic. I do not believe that consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain. Whatever it is, consciousness is a process that emerges from an inseparable connection between mind and body. On this show we’ll not only explore questions of consciousness and the mind but also discuss nutrition, exercise, biohacking and wellness.

This show will explore the intersection of technology, science and spirituality with an ultimate goal of promoting conversations relevant to people’s physical, emotional and mental health.

 For what we put into our bodies very much affects the state of our thoughts and feelings. The body is the temple in which consciousness resides and critically examining that mind-body connection–ignored for far too long in Western thought–is an essential quality of our existence that Hacking the Self will consider.

I look forward to bringing you conversations and written pieces on all of these topics in the near future. Thank you for your interest and your curiosity.

Adrian Baker