#37: The Science of Self Mastery with Dr. Judson Brewer

Guest Bio:

Judson Brewer MD PhD is a thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery”, combining nearly 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research. He is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at UMass Medical School and a research affiliate at MIT.

He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, trained US Olympic coaches, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TEDMED, Time, Forbes, BBC, NPR, Businessweek and others.

A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments (Eat Right Now, Unwinding Anxiety and Craving to Quit).

He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI.

His work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, Fetzer Trust among others. Dr. Brewer founded Claritas MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for eating, smoking and other behavior change into the marketplace.


Coming soon.


Personal Website of Judson Brewer

#36: Radical Dharma with Lama Rod Owens

This week I sit down with Lama Rod Owens to discuss the intersection of Buddhist Dharma and American culture and politics. Lama Rod articulates his vision for Radical Dharma: a call to make the teachings of Buddhism relevant for tending to the suffering in the United States in this day and age, starting with addressing issues of race, gender and sexuality in American Buddhist communities.
Shownotes:Coming soon.

Guest Bio:

Considered one of the leaders of the next generation of Dharma teachers, Lama Rod Owens has a blend of formal Buddhist training and life experience that gives him a unique ability to understand, relate and engage with those around him in a way that’s spacious and sincere. His gentle, laid-back demeanor and willingness to bare his heart and soul makes others want to do the same. Even when seated in front of a room, he’s next to you, sharing his stories and struggles with an openness vulnerability and gentle humor that makes you genuinely feel good about who you are, with all your flaws and foibles, you’re lovable and deserving of happiness and joy. He invites you into the cross sections of his life as a Black, queer male, born and raised in the South, and heavily influenced by the church and its community.

Through his lens you catch glimpses of your own often conflicting identities. Through it all he weaves in time-tested, traditional Buddhist principles and practices that give listeners real tools for healing and evolution.

With grace and humility, he doesn’t claim to have answers, and merely poses questions and encourages conversation so that others may find their own truth.

Lama Rod delivers his knowledge in a way that says, I’m just like you, no better and no worse. He reminds you that he too is human and a work in progress. He asks audiences to call him out if he says anything that is perpetuating misogyny, racism or anything divisive. Lama Rod has done and continues to do his own work, every day, and it’s palpable.

Lama Rod also speaks and leads workshops across the country for organizations such as Summit and Dharma Ocean, check his latest schedule here. He also officiates wedding ceremonies. Contact him to learn more!


Lama Rod

Radical Dharma


Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love & Liberation


#32: The Life of Yogananda with Philip Goldberg

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

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.


#020: The Paths of Yoga through the Bhagavad Gita with Ashtanga Yoga teacher Richard Freeman

Show Overview:

In this conversation, legendary Ashtanga Yoga teacher Richard Freeman walks us through the various paths of yoga as described in The Bhagavad Gita. Richard is an exceptional teacher of yoga philosophy. Undoubtedly, this conversation will have much to offer for those both new and familiar with this classic text of the yoga tradition.

Guest bio: Richard Freeman is one of the most celebrated Ashtanga Yoga teachers of our time. Richard Freeman has been a student of yoga since 1968. He began his yoga journey with one simple sitting posture in the Zen tradition. Richard spent nine years in Asia studying yoga asana, Sufism, Sanskrit language, and Indian philosophical texts.

In 1974 Richard began working with B.K.S. Iyengar. With Iyengar Richard studied precise alignment principles, applying them to his own internally rooted experience of the forms. Drawing from this variety of contemplative traditions, Richard teaches the Ashtanga Vinyasa method of yoga as taught by his principal teacher, the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India.

Richard’s metaphorical, humorous, teaching style appeals to students of many backgrounds and nationalities. He teaches workshops and trainings throughout the world, and remains an avid student fascinated by the linking points between different traditions and cultures.

He is the co-founder, with Mary, of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado; has produced a number of highly regarded yoga audio and video recordings; and is the author of The Mirror of Yoga and co-author of The Art of Vinyasa (Shambhala Publications).


Richard Freeman Yoga

Mentions: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Please help to make Hacking the Self a sustainable project by:

  • Making a donation at

You can also help us to get the word out by:

  • Sharing this interview with friends and on your social media platforms
  • Writing a review for the podcast on iTunes, Sticher or the Google Music Store

#019: Awakening through Ashtanga Yoga with Mary Taylor

Guest Bio: Mary Taylor teaches Ashtanga Yoga as taught by her principal teacher, the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India.

Mary Taylor began studying yoga in 1971, after graduating from Julia Child’s cooking school, L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes in Pari. Initially, she enjoyed yoga as a means of finding equanimity during the stress of University. It was this thread of balance that got her hooked.

It was not until 1988 that Mary found her primary teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The discovery of the Ashtanga Yoga system provided her with a profound and transformative impact. She continues to study and practice yoga and Buddhist teachings with great enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, with an eye on how the residue that is produced on the mat (and cushion) through these teachings informs and supports all aspects of everyday life.

Mary travels and teaches Ashtanga Yoga with her husband Richard Freeman. Mary also works as a caregiver in a hospital setting as part of the core faculty of the Being with Dying program (Upaya Zen Center) and the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Trainings. In 1988, with Richard, she co-founded the Yoga Workshop. Mary is also the author of three cookbooks and the co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women Food and Spirituality (St. Martins Press) and The Art of Vinyasa (Shambhala Publications).


In my conversation with Mary we explored the following topics:

  • Ashtanga Yoga as a practice of self transformation
  • Showing up for your practice; the need to be honest with ourselves
  • Reconciling Eastern, Western Perspectives. Holding paradoxical points of view.
  • How Psychology, and the ego, differs in Eastern and Western worldviews
  • The importance of ritual
  • and more…


Mary and Richard’s Website

Mentions: Pattabi Jois, Ram Dass, Krishna Das

Support Hacking the Self:

#018: Ajna Light Technology founder Guy Harriman

Guest Bio:
Guy Harriman is an engineer, Buddhist meditator and inventor of consciousness hacking technologies. Guy worked for many years in Silicon Valley, including for Steve Jobs at NEXT.
In 2008 Guy moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand and built Healing Center.
Guy is the inventor of the spiritual tool called the Ajna Light. It is a unique device which
helps people on their own inner journey, no matter what their path is. Since Guy
designed the first prototype in 2014, as of 2017 it is estimated that over 10,000 people have
been on the Ajna Light.

0:00-7:40: Opening Remarks

7:40-:11:00: Guy’s move from the UK to Silicon Valley

11:00-14:58: Working with Steve Jobs

14:58-21:21: The genesis of Guy’s interests in contemplative practices

21:21-24:55: What Steve Jobs taught Guy about living life passionately

24:55-28:10: Shifting from Silicon Valley to Thailand

28:10-31:23: Right View & Body-Mind Practices

31:23-36:55: How to integrate Yogic and Taoist Systems and Practices

36:55-40:00: Reconciling Different Schools of Buddhist Thought

40:00-43:40: Developing the Pyra Light

43:40-48:04: Healing the Body-Mind Right in the West

48:04-52:00: The Promises and Perils of Virtual Reality for the Humanity

52:00-56:05: Becoming a Buddhist Monk

56:05-1:12:33: Inventing Consciousness Exploration Technologies

1:12:33-1:14:15: Closing Remarks. How to follow Guy and his technologies

Please help to make Hacking the Self a sustainable project by:
  • Making a donation at

You can also help us to get the word out by:

  • Sharing this interview with friends and on your social media platforms
  • Writing a review for the podcast on iTunes, Sticher or the Google Music Store

#016: Consciousness Hacking with Mikey Siegel

Guest Bio: This week on the podcast: Mikey Siegel, founder of Consciousness Hacking: a leading organization at the intersection of technology, science and spirituality. Mikey recounts his fascinating journey from MIT to Silicon Valley, and shares his vision for how mindful intention and use of technology can help us to lead more meaningful and connected lives.


1:00-6:58: Welcome and Opening Remarks

6:58-13:30: How Mikey and I came to know each other

13:30-18:00: Mikey’s personal upbringing

18:00-22:35: Evolving as a learner at MIT

22:35-38:25: The Journey from the Outer World to the Inner

38:25-43:09: What Ayahuasca Can Teach Us about Consciousness

43:09-45:15: Mikey’s Inspiration for Creating Consciousness Hacking

45:15-49:10: The Growing Movement of Consciousness Hacking

49:10-55:28: How do we use technology more mindfully?

55:28-1:03:15: Mikey’s Favorite Technologies for Consciousness Hacking

1:03:15-1:06:30: The Potential of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

1:06:30-1:08:20: Potential Concerns about EMF Exposure

1:08:20-1:09:45: How to Become Involved with Consciousness Hacking & Closing Remarks


Consciousness Hacking

Mikey Siegel’s Personal Page

Muse Headband

Spire Technologies

Lief Technologies

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.