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The Serena system is about living a better life. It’s about what the ancient wisdom teachers and the latest scientific research have to say about how to live a happy and peaceful life. It takes the best of modern science and compares that with age-old traditions to provide practical insight on how to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
The Serena system is based on the assumption that there is a way to live a good life and that this way is open to anyone. A grounding assumption of this system is that there is a single truth about the nature of reality. However, this does not mean that there is a single path to follow to reach that truth. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in explaining this sort of thing is that the truth looks different depending on who is doing the looking and
when they’re doing it. It’s like a prism or a diamond in this way. The light comes to the diamond and is filtered or bent or reflected in all different directions so that depending on what angle you are looking at it from and what the light conditions are, it will appear differently, or it will sparkle differently. It is the same with the truth about how to live a happy or fulfilling life. There are an endless number of ways to describe how this truth looks. And just as everyone will perceive the truth differently, each of us will have a different path to figuring out how to live the best life.
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So, the Serena system is about taking a look at this same diamond from a different angle in each episode or episode series. We have talked about concepts like chakras or levels of consciousness in other episodes and referred to them as different dimensions or planes of human experience. And we have talked about various rules or principles that help awaken us to the truth. Unfortunately, for many people, just mentioning phrases like “dimensions of consciousness” already makes it too abstract or academic. And when someone talks about chakras or rules from martial arts, this can sound too foreign.
Fortunately, there are other models for understanding the truth of human existence. For example, we could also say that comprehending this truth can be marked by the degree to which a person has progressed towards mastery of themselves. In this series we are going to explore these various stages of self-mastery. And in this episode, we are going to begin by using a model that has been around for as long as humans have kept records and probably for far longer. It is the framework of the Four Elements.
The Earth Element
Stage one on the path to self-mastery begins with the Earth Element. True to the name, this is the ground state. Really, we are talking at this stage about the beginning of the physical universe and more specifically the creation of life itself. Whether we are talking about physicists describing the beginning of our universe or the creation myths from indigenous cultures or the great religions, the concept around beginnings is actually more or less the same. You begin with nothing, and then, somehow, nothing, or zero, becomes two. The Christian and Hebrew bible opens with the words “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” You have nothing, and then you have heaven and earth. Or in other cultures nothing might be followed by the creation of light and dark or life and death. The story varies from there depending on the tradition but that is generally how things begin, regardless of the culture or religion or place or time.
Most people with some science in their background will look at these stories and say, “so what, all those stories are just made up anyway. Anyone with a bit of science education knows that this ‘something from nothing’ description violates the law of conservation of energy and therefore can’t be true.” Mic dropped.
Well, not so fast. Physicists have postulated that if you look at the universe as a whole, the positiveenergy in all matter may exactly add up to the negativeenergy of gravitation. If that is true, it means that the sum of the two energies across the whole universe is zero. We all know that one minus one equals zero so, as long as the sum total of each half of all the energies across the entire universe are of equal and of opposite sign, zero canbeget two. Lao Tzu addresses this point in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. In describing the duality that marked the beginning of the universe, he writes that heaven and earth “are the same but diverge in name as they issue forth.” (Ch. 1)
We can use the language of modern cosmology and describe this Taoist ‘issuing forth’ instead and say that a quantum wobble in a vacuum that leads to the explosive inflation in spacetime that we call the Big Bang. We can continue to use the scientific method and our observations of the world to describe how our universe unfolded from the Big Bang through time and ultimately gave rise to life. This has extraordinary value and is true within the confines of what it is describing.
But physics’ job is not to interpret the world in a way that is relevant to each of our pursuit of a good life. And that isour interest here, not science or even philosophy. So, in thinking about the beginning of our universe, the birth of life and the purpose and meaning of life, we can instead borrow the language of the ancient days, when these questions were explored in symbolic language. Zero became two and then two became four. Once you had two, you cycled back and forth from one to the other. Often this cycling was imagined as a circle and with the midpoints between each transition marking two other points, there were four points of note on the circle. For example, thinking of the 24 hour cycle of the earth’s rotation, we see the extremes of the darkest night and the brightest day separated by dawn and dusk. These are the traditional four key points of the day. Four is sacred number in nature, not just in the four parts to a day. We could just as well be talking about the four cardinal directions or the four seasons of the year or the four stages of a human lifetime. And often these four seasons or stages of life or directions on the compass were symbolized by the Four Elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. For example, the Cherokee tribe in North America linked earth with North, air with East, fire with South and water with West.
What is extraordinary is that whether it was ancient Babylonia, the Greece of Aristotle, the Islam of Avicenna, the great Asian religions, the medieval alchemists, or modern-day Acupuncturists, the symbolism of the Elements is more or less the same. And this symbolic language, as dated as it sounds in minds conditioned by Western science, arose in disparate locations, persisted for so long and was employed by some of the greatest minds humanity produced because it has real power and truth. How these elements relate to the atomic elements in the periodic table is not something we need to worry about. For our purposes, since we will be using the Four Elements from a symbolic or mythical perspective, we don’t need to get into a debate over their scientific or alchemical merit. Our focus at the moment is on the Stages that each of us can progress through to achieve mastery. And the Four Elements provide us a useful way to introduce the topic. So, let’s go through each Element!
We begin with the Earth Element. With this element, for our purposes, we can say that a physical universe exists (hence the connection to Earth or matter) and sufficient evolution has transpired for life to be present. We can also say that this life has a very basic sort of intelligence. It represents the state of matter where life emerges but consciousness as we understand it has not yet awakened. For example, at the level of symbolism of the Earth Element, we are not just at rocks and plants. The ripened Earth stage encompasses physical bodies that can convey signals from sense organs to a brain. Another noteworthy feature of the mature Earth Element is that the bodies age and move and at the advanced levels of this stage even generate emotions. But consciousness is at a level that we might describe as “Vegetative”. At this level, the organism continues to sustain life but the mode of interaction with the environment is about stimulus and response. So, at the vegetative or Earth stage we could say that the organism is unconscious and purely reactive. Anyone who has been severely depressed but not comatose will have a sense of what living close to this stage is like.
The Earth Element often symbolizes nourishment and fertility, and these are some of the hallmarks of this stage of mastery. However, the key feature that is missing in this stage of development is the sense of being a self. We can say that someone could be alive and a human, but consciousness is almost a misnomer since if we were that person, we wouldn’t have a sense of being a person. The subconscious activities continue of course. At this stage we are a living physical system and, like a plant or a completely unconscious human body, we demonstrate the mastery of living: we can self-regulate, metabolize food into energy, engage in homeostatic management to keep the body in viable physiological bounds and possibly even pursue reproduction. However, when we are at this stage, we aren’t doing much else.
In addition to being composed of matter, we are all connected to the Earth Element in at least three other ways. First, all organisms trace their ancestry back through tree of life to evolution’s earliest vegetative life forms. This means that each of us shares DNA and a common ancestry with the most primitive forms of life. Second, each of us experiences this stage as we develop in the womb and in our early weeks after our birth. So, we all have the vegetative consciousness within us. And thirdly, some of us become stuck in this state or return to it due to accidents of fate or just through the mental decline of our later years.
So, the Earth Element is the baseline or ground upon which we build. For healthy humans, it is a state of activity that persists beneath the surface of everyday consciousness. But with the mature Earth Element we are talking not just about the Earth and the physical world generally but rather we are focused on life itself and, more specifically, the state of activity that includes the physical human body and its basic functions like reproduction and emotion and homeostasis.
The Air Element
On top of this physical structure there arises things like thoughts, perception, communication and the intelligence or discernment required to understand ideas and opinions. All these phenomena happen in a non-physical dimension that resembles air in its insubstantiality. So, once we have Earth or matter, life as a manifestation of that Earth will naturally arise and represents the culmination of the Earth Element. And once we have life, evolution will eventually give rise to mental formations. We can say that these thoughts and ideas and the ability to discern and deliberate and notice separations can all be organized under the heading of the Air Element.
Taking a step back for a second, our mission here is to try to understand what we might describe as the nature of our existence and the way that our mind and body work. And again, our goal is how to the best life possible. With the Air Element symbolizing language and ideas and thoughts, we find that that same symmetry that we saw in the Earth Element between myth and science also exists with the Air Element. Where do we find that symmetry? We are talking about human consciousness, so neuroscience and psychology are the natural place to look. Indeed, the experts in these fields have quite a lot to say about these topics.
What do these airy, insubstantial scientific thoughts and ideas have to say about consciousness? The scientists in this area finally, and only very recently, have answers to some of the most basic questions about human consciousness. Because of the work of these path breakers right across the globe, we are able to break consciousness down and talk about the Air Element in a number of different but specific and testable ways.
For example, one way that these scientists explain human consciousness is by describing the contentof consciousness. Our awareness is filled with information from our senses, our emotional state, our thoughts and dreams and memories and beliefs. There is all that as the content of our consciousness of course, but one of the main things we are conscious of is this sense of being ourselves, that is, the clear sense we have of being an individuated, separate person.
This sense of being a “me” can itself be broken down in a number of different ways. For example, we are conscious of having a body and of seeing the world through our specific and private perspective from the inside of our body. These psychologists and neuroscientists also note that we have the experience of having free will within a world inhabited by other volitional actors. This world also appears to be filled with innumerable other objects, small and large. These objects appear to us to be distinct entities, completely separate from our self. And finally, they describe this sense we have of being embedded in a story. It appears to each of us that we are flowing through a dynamic and individual narrative. Whatever the character of the narrative is in any given moment, we each perceive that the world is revolving around usas thecentral character. So that is the contentof consciousness.
Another method neuroscientists use to try to understand human consciousness is by measuring the degree of wakefulness. People who are in a coma or who are under general anesthesia are labeled as being at this bottom level of wakefulness. Moving up the scale, we encounter deep sleep, then REM sleep. Here we start to perceive what most of us might call our conscious self. We begin to be able to have memories of our dreams and, with practice, some of these scientists are showing that we can even develop the ability to control our dream state. Moving along the scale of consciousness, the next level is being awake but drowsy. And then finally we reach the level of being awake. This is the spectrum of wakefulness.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Many of these same scientists are coming to realize that what all of us think of as our experience of the real world is nothing more than a hallucination. Yes, it is one that we exercise control over, rather like the people who have developed the craft of lucid dreaming. But the data supports this idea of our experience of reality as a controlled hallucination or what we might call accepting a “hypnotic suggestion”.
The great masters have understood this for millennia. For example, the Buddha taught that what we perceive as the world around us “out there,” is actually not real; rather it is an illusion manufactured by the human mind. As he put it, this so-called reality is as transient as a flash of lightening or a bubble in moving water and as unreal as a dream or a ghost. And all the more amazingly, it is our mind that gives rise to our rich experience of this illusion through the magic of our conscious dream interacting with everyone else’s awake but dreaming minds. This is the hypnotic projection we call reality.
To say this truth in modern day terms, we might use the word hologram to describe the wakeful reality outside that we project with our minds. And with the word ‘hologram,’ we are expressing a truth about the physical system that underlies our consciousness. For example, take our visual processing system. Most of us would think the way it works is that our eyes are like cameras sending up a continuous video-stream-equivalent into our brains. In fact, it is almost exactly the opposite. This is really hard to fathom but the actual physical system works almost in a complete reverse of that description. In other words, 90% of the neurons feeding into the part of the brain that synthesizes visual data don’t come from the eyes. Instead, almost all the data into our visual processing center comes from other parts inside the brain itself. Only 10% of the connections into the human visual cortex are from the eyes. Said another way, we have 10x more information coming in to our visual consciousness from inside our own heads as we do from the outside world. Our brain keeps a model of visual reality and uses the small amount of data from the eyes to update any noteworthy changes from the outside in this illusory world we hold in our imagination.
There are many more examples that scientists are working out that demonstrate how true Buddha’s words were about the illusory nature of the world. Phantom limbs, optical illusions, dark matter, and the confounding physics of the quantum world are just a few examples. But as fascinating and worthwhile as each of these areas are, none of it is actually really all that relevant for mastery and living a happy life. For the purpose of progressing towards the truth of our life’s purpose and the end of suffering, we actually don’t want to focus just on the ideas contained in the Air Element nor do we want to become bogged down in the details of the hardware of life and the universe that we find in the Earth Element. All the details of the Air and Earth Elements are fascinating and fun and incredibly useful. So, by all means they should be mapped out and put to use in our lives. However, here we are interested in how to achieve self-mastery or, to say the same thing another way, how to discover what the best possible life is, for us individually. And so, this brings us to the Fire Element, for progress and admission to a better life are symbolized by Fire.
Scientists theorize that evolution delivered a transition from the old reactive brain of animals (think Earth Element) to the new brain of humans (think Air Element). They tell us that this new brain is all about causal reasoning, about whys and what ifs, about mental simulation and imagination and communication. And when mastery is discussed, it is mastery of the Earth or the Air Element that is intended: when it comes to mastery, most of us will be thinking about the people who have spent 10,000 hours becoming an Olympic athlete or a chess grandmaster or concert pianist. But the story of self-mastery is actually much more complicated and involves dimensions of reality that go far beyond the physical or mental ones we are so familiar with. It isn’t about the content of consciousness. It’s not about snoozing versus wakefulness. It isn’t about developing the body for athletic prowess. Nor is it about developing the mind to the point where you can win a Nobel prize in chemistry.
These are all forms of mastery, to be sure, but they are not the kind of mastery we are interested in. They are demonstrating mastery over a particular physical (aka Earth Element) or mental (aka Air Element) technique. But the great masters from ancient times through to the present speak of a non-physical sort of energy that pervades the universe, a kind of visually invisible force that animates life and motion and change. And these masters have told us that this light or energy is an expression of our true nature. And for those who are interested and dedicate themselves to a path of self-discovery and stillness, this energy can not only be discerned. It can be mastered.
It’s like in the Harry Potter books. Wizards and Witches are born with magical powers, but they have to go to Hogwarts for many years to advance through the various stages of mastering wizarding. Except we’re not talking about flying on broomsticks or zapping people with a magic wand here. We’re talking about the ability to discern and master what has been called Qi or Prana or Mana. And even though connecting with this life energy can feel magical sometimes, each and every one of us is endowed with this magic. We all have the ability to connect with this force provided we can make the progress towards self-realization. This process of self-realization is variously described as mastering the life force, entering the kingdom of heaven, experiencing true freedom, acquiring authentic power, and some even would say union (or re-union) with the divine or the god head. This voyage of discovery and awakening can also be described as unlocking the upper layers of consciousness or accessing our higher self.
The Fire Element
But we need to be careful here, for the process of progression, as symbolized by the Fire Element, itself is only part of the story. Christians might call this evolution “progress towards loving god.” Muslims might describe it as submitting more and more completely to Allah. Whether we call it mastering the Fire Element, advancing through the stages of self-mastery, or learning to love or submit to god, the point in each case is the same. We are increasing our wisdom, our self-assurance, and our spirituality. The point of all these systems is to have our doubts cleared, our fears erased, and our confusion eliminated. The goal is to reduce separation, increase connection, and end suffering by creating the awareness of a pre-existing unity. The goal is self-mastery, self-realization and spiritual empowerment. This is what it means to pass through the Fire Element. And when we have made it through the Fire we can say we have been cleansed and reborn into the still waters and loving calm of self-mastery. This arrival or rebirth, as a kind of baptism, is symbolized by the Water Element.
Our life is the place of initiation, the place where we encounter our fears and learn to overcome them. This is the nature of the Fire Element. We might say that this life of ours in a solid body made of matter is represented by the Earth and the Air Elements. Once we have Earth and Air, we are in a position to experience trials by Fire and be delivered to the stillness of calm Water. In other words, with a body and a mind and the consciousness that comes with them, we have the possibility of becoming initiated into love.
A human life is an extraordinary opportunity. Given a form and the ability to think, we have the raw materials needed to pass through the fires of initiation. Through these crucibles of learning we discover what true peace and harmony look like. By figuring out how to align ourselves with the love and peace of the universe, we discover how to return to Unity, how to identify with everything and experience Oneness with All Power; or some might call it Union with the divine. Others have described this process as a journey of authentic empowerment. The fundamental or foundational force of the universe, the source of all power and movement and form and everything else is Love. And Love, therefore, is theforce that drives all within it. Conveniently, Water, as the symbol of our intuition, and intuition as our bridge to love, extinguishes the fire of this initiation and symbolizes arrival at self-mastery.
As surprising as this may sound, it is this force of love that drives these moments of initiation. What we normally think of as bad turns of events or tragedy are in fact the universe providing us with the potential for change and the push for us to evolve towards higher stages of self-mastery. It is in these moments of initiation where we experience hurt and suffering and therefore where we have the opportunity to learn the lessons embedded in this pain. So, we can think of mastering the Four Elements as a process of learning the lessons life has to teach us. We begin with our physical form as symbolized by Earth, acquire knowledge as symbolized by Air, pass through the initiations of suffering or dissatisfaction, as symbolized by Fire, and have the fire extinguished by Water, which is the symbol for intuition and, by extension, love.
Suffering is unnecessary. From Jesus to Buddha, we find the same message. The..
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In part one of this series on what makes us happy, I looked at the stories of two very successful entrepreneurs and their versions of the secret to the good life. And in that first post I proceeded to unpack some of the problems with their perspectives. In the second post on this subject, I looked at what some of the great sages from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism had to say on the subject. I suspect that many people will read about these lofty claims of misguided religious figures (as they would see them) and find them totally unconvincing and unbelievable. So in this post, I take a brief look at what the latest in science has to say about the claims of these ecstatic mystical types from ages gone by. In summary, science is rapidly producing evidence to support these extraordinary claims.
We now know that our brains have the ability to change. This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, means that who we are and how we habitually feel is not set in stone. Which suggests that with enough brain training, we can change our experience of life and break the dysfunctional habits that seem so intractable. Scientists have worked out the cellular basis for learning and memory in the brain (called Long Term Potentiation and Long Term Depression, aka “neurons that fire together, wire together”) that underlies this plasticity. Activities that these various spiritual traditions uncovered are just variations on the theme of rewiring the brain. We have seen these variations, ranging from ‘seeing the face of god reflected back at us in everything’ (Ibn ‘Arabi), believing that some guy called Jesus ‘freed us from the belief that suffering is real’ (St. Paul), melting into union with god (Mirabai), to ‘acquiring incomparable and unlimited merit’ by realizing that there is no self (Buddha). These are all just old ways of saying that with the right stimulus, the right framework and the right practice, the mind can transform. But if the mind transforms, does that really change our world?
To answer that question, we first have to define what 'our world' is. Modern neuroscientists have come to the conclusion that what each of us experiences as
“reality” is little more than a controlled hallucination in many of the same ways that sleep is an uncontrolled one. Anil Seth explains how this works in the video linked to below, explaining both our experience of the world around us, the "multi-sensory, panoramic 3D fully immersive inner movie," and the experience of being "the lead character in this inner movie". He uses the example of how we can get our hallucination wrong with the two images below. Cover the image on the right and take a look at the squares A and B. Then cover the one on the left and look at the same squares. They may look different but they are actually the same shade of grey!
As Seth puts it, "we don't just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it."
Even the experience of being a self is a hallucination. In the video, Dr. Seth uses the famous "Rubber Hand" illusion to explain how you can hack your consciousness to experience how what our body is really just a best guess, another form of hallucination. Same thing as we do with the outside world. Dr. Seth makes the point that our experience or reality, both internally and externally, is just a controlled hallucination. We take the electrical and chemical signals coming in to our brain from our senses and make the best predictions about what this means in a way that is relevant to maximizing our body's survival "in a world of danger and opportunity. We predict ourselves into existence," he says.
There are many scientists that look at elements of this idea of the world we perceive being nothing more than a controlled hallucination. For example, the number of neurons feeding from the brain TO towards the eye exceeds the number going FROM the eye to the brain by a factor of 10. What this means is that we create a version of reality in our brains based on billions upon billions of predictions about what is out there and what its function or threat is and we use our senses, like our eyes, to error check this made up reality that we “see” with our consciousness.
This fact about the brain and this idea of reality as a controllable hallucination or hologram brings us back to the insights from the ancient masters discussed in the prior post. What they discovered all those hundreds of years ago is that when people do the practices, like meditation and prayer and chanting, they are changing the way their brain makes predictions and therefore, quite literally, changing their reality. Entering the Kingdom, so to speak.
That all sounds pretty good, but the claims are so extreme, perhaps the hallucination maybe controllable but, despite what people like the Buddha have said, there are just going to be limits on how good we can make our hallucination. So, have scientists looked at this question? Is there proof that an enlightened brain is different than the average person's?
We don’t have a Jesus or a Buddha to stick in an MRI, but we do have living masters probably not too dissimilar from a St. Paul, Ibn Al Arabi or Mirabai. And we have stuck them in fMRI machines. The result? These individuals have a profoundly different pattern of brain activity than the rest of us. For example, their electrical patterns show a so-called gamma pattern that are large waves of synchrony across widely separated regions of the brain that scientists have associated with feelings of intense compassion, bliss, and heightened awareness. This is a brain pattern typically seen as erratic, localized, and appearing at low strength or low frequencies.
With the advanced meditation masters, however, these waves were found to be rhythmic and coherent and evident in harmony across far flung regions of the brain. Even more extraordinary than this never before witnessed pattern of gamma waves is that, while strongest during the times when these yogis are meditating, they continue when they are not meditating and even while these individuals sleep!
These living masters have also been tested in all sorts of other ways. When scientists have examined their brain and heart electrical signals, for example, these two areas of electrical activity synchronize or entrain with each other in ways not seen in other people. Their pain reaction, as another example, shows a striking difference to the rest of the human population. When they know pain is imminent, they show little in the way of the anticipatory stress that normal people do, their experience of the pain itself is very short (and more intense than normal), and their reaction time back to non-pain is unusually fast. As a final example of how these enlightened brains differ from most people, the biological age of the yogi’s brains show the signs of brains that are years younger chronologically.
So, in conclusion, as compelling (and common) as they are I don’t think my two conversations with the entrepreneurs I described in my first post quite matched the insights of these ancient masters or modern neuroscience. While their insights were thoughtful and representative of what many a brilliant philosopher throughout the ages have concluded, I suppose I didn’t really expect them to.
I will end with a photo of Buddhist master Matthieu Ricard after a three hour session in the confines of an MRI. That certainly isn't how I would imagine anyone looking after that long after being kept awake and restricted from moving at all for three hours, let alone in a claustrophobic tube!
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In part one of this exploration of what makes us I happy I examined the approaches taken by two very successful people to happiness. In the first case, happiness and meaning in life were to be found in achievement, hard work, and the well-earned successes that come with that work. I explained why that didn't work by pointing out that the good feeling is short-lived and anyway it represents a mistake of correlation for causation: you can never prove that your hard work was the only or main cause of your success. The second person approached this question from the angle of relationships. While it was impossible to be happy in any kind of a sustained way, according to this fellow, it was possible to make things pretty good more of the time and ensure that you had the support to endure the inevitable tough time. How? By investing in making your closest relationships healthy and warm. In response to that argument I lauded it as an excellent method but pointed out that it rested on shaky foundations. It assumes that feelings are real and that the best way to manage them was to use other people for their ability to shape how we feel. And, though we will explore this more in the final post on this question of what makes us happy, I referenced the latest neurological research on emotions which shows emotions aren't actually the real and universally and externally triggered things we think they are.
I concluded by asking, What if there is a better way? What if there was a way to have an even better life? A happier, more sustainably peaceful and loving day to day experience of life? I have been studying this question for several decades now and I can tell you that the great masters believed that, in fact, there is a better way. Let’s look at what these old sages had to say.
In the sacred Hadith of Islam it is written that God spoke of himself as “a hidden treasure” that “wanted to be known.” He created the world so “that My treasure of loving kindess and generosity might be known.” That sounds crazy, right? Most of us look at the world and we see unbelievable suffering and injustice. Or we look at our own life and it doesn’t seem to be overflowing with this treasure chest of loving kindness. So, what can god have possibly meant by this statement supposedly said by him?
It would be easy to dismiss these kinds of quotes out of hand but these were some seriously smart and visionary people who came up with this stuff. And some of the most intelligent and enlightened human beings to have lived since have examined these insights very carefully. So let's take them seriously for a moment and see what we find.
We can turn, for example, to one of the greatest Muslim scholars of all time, Ibn Al’Arabi, for elucidation on this quote. Arabi was a twelfth century Islamic mystic known as the Shaykh Al Akbar, the Master of Masters, because he was such a supremely accomplished spiritual master. He seems like the right guy to ask for some kind of an explanation. What did he have to say on this point? Where is all the loving kindness? Why is there so much injustice?
I have written at greater length about his notions of Divine Will and Divine Wish which go a long way towards explaining this discrepancy. But, more broadly than that one doctrine, he articulated a vision of life’s purpose as a journey of understanding each human’s oneness with their creator. So, at least according to Arabi, it isn’t about conquering the next goal or spending better time with our loved ones. Rather, a human could experience continual peace and love and compassion by seeing the face of god reflected back at him everywhere he looks, even in the apparently most horrible of situations. The key, as cheesy as it sounds to the modern ear, is to truly understand that we are all one with each other and one with god. He writes in “The Bezels of Wisdom” that it is “only our illusory perception and experience of otherness that is our pain, death and damnation.” In other words, when we don’t see the face of god reflected back at us everywhere then we are not in the space where we realize the truth that we are one with god and his perfection and peace and joy. And so is everyone else. When we don’t realize this and experience it as the truth of our existence, then we will perceive ourselves as separate from him and others and if that is our belief and our perception, then our experience of life will be filled with ‘pain, death and damnation.’
So, in a sense my friend and the Harvard study he speaks of are correct. The root of our suffering is in fact that each of us feels separate and longs for connection. So healthy and warm relationships with others will help. But rather than seeking a mere salve for this feeling of being alone or separate by investing in the company of others, the only way to truly and sustainably relieve suffering is to recognize that this experience of being separate individuals is an illusion. As we saw with the quote from the Hadith, according to Islam, god wants to be known. Indeed, if you believe what is written in the Sacred Hadith (which is meant to be the words of god himself), we were created for the very reason that he might be known. Our longing for connection with others and our feeling of pleasure when we do spend good times with others is the evidence for this fact. We were created for the very purpose of having this longing. Being connected with others feels so good because it is a cousin, albeit a distant one, of that connection that is available if we immerse ourself in god.
Realizing that we won’t find true and steady and sustained contentment in other people or in activities, coming to understand that our freedom from suffering is a choice, is the secret to uncovering the “hidden treasure.” It’s not that there is anything wrong with being with other people in itself. Asceticism and seclusion are not necessary or even recommended. Rather, it’s just that our relationships with other people isn’t where we are going to find lasting or true peace and happiness. Relationships change, people die, almost no one is perfectly reliable and faithful. And even if you have the most faithful and loving relationship imaginable, you are still going to feel sad, fearful or angry from time to time. Or maybe quite a lot. Even a perfect relationship isn’t going to change your personality or deliver freedom from suffering. According to the Mohammadean spiritual tradtion at least, there is the possibility of being liberated from suffering through a different method, a method of uncovering your oneness with god. This is one of the reasons you see the practice of praying so many times a day--it serves as a sort of enforced reminder of where happiness lies and ritualized submission to this oneness.
So that is a quick look at the Islamic tradition. How about the Christian tradition? What did Jesus have to say on this point? He talked a lot about this concept that has unfortunately come down to us in English as something called ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Sadly, most Christians understand this to be some place up in the clouds that good people go when they die. The problem with this concept is that that isn’t what Jesus likely ever said. Though there is a huge problem with knowing what he actually said (see Bart Ehrman’s wonderful books on this topic), there is enough evidence from enough disparate sources that we can have some confidence that his view of the the nature of “the Kingdom” is not this common notion of a life in the white clouds beyond the pearly gates. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, while being questioned by the Pharisees about when this so-called Kingdom of God he kept talking about was coming, [Jesus] answered them and said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.””
Another example can be found in the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus says, if you think the Kingdom is in the sky “then the birds of the sky” will get there first. If you think it is somewhere in the ocean, then the fish will get there before you. In other words, if you think it is a physical place somewhere out there, you are sorely mistaken. "Rather,the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you."
Different religion, same message as what we saw in Islam. The “Kingdom,” is code for union with God or a sustained place of happiness and peace and love, and it is right here, right now, inside and outside of us, available to anyone, anywhere. It is not some place we need to die to get to or that we need to find through spending time with other people or acquiring money or status or fame or power. St. Paul expresses it beautifully in the following passage:
Christ has set us free to enjoy our freedom. … Don’t let the chains of slavery hold you again... My brothers and sisters, you were chosen to be free. But don’t use your freedom as an excuse to live under the power of sin. Instead, serve one another in love... So I say, live by the Holy Spirit’s power.... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. (Galatians 5:1)
According to St. Paul, we are already free! That is what Christ did by coming among us. We have the freedom to live a life of pain and suffering (aka a life of "sin"—see my other post on the topic of how this word is misunderstood) but we also have the freedom to choose love, to choose union with our higher self, the Highest Self, in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is just like the Islamic concept discussed above of our unseen but true oneness with the Highest Self, aka god. And if we do that, what will life be like? Well, he tells us: “....the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness." Sounds great!
This insight into the nature of happiness is not confined to Islam or Christianity, which admittedly are part of the same Judeo-Christian tradition (they are all People of the Book, to use the phrase from the Koran). Hindu tradition, for example, is permeated with a similar message. Mirabai, perhaps the most famous woman in the Hindu mystical tradition, was a sixteenth century poet and Krishna devotee. In an extraordinary act of self-empowerment and spiritual renunciation that continues to inspire artists, authors, academics and even Bollywood movies to this day, she left the wealth, status and power of her royal North Indian family in order to spend her life in a continual ecstatic embrace of her Lord Krishna. In one of her most famous poems, Mira (as she is often called) writes (at least in Robert Bly’s translation):
The colors of [Krishna’s] body have penetrated Mira’s
body; all the other colors washed out
Making love with the Dark One and eating little, those are my pearls and my carnelians. Meditation beads and the forehead streak, these are my scarves and my rings. That's enough feminine wiles for me. My teacher taught me this.
Approve me or disapprove me: I praise the Mountain Energy [aka Krishna] night and day. I take the path that ecstatic human beings have taken for centuries. I don't steal money, I don't hit anyone. What will you charge me with?
I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders;
and now you want me to climb
on a jackass? Try to be serious.
(‘Why Mira Can’t Come Back to Her Old House’)
So again, we are back to this idea of oneness with ‘god’ as the secret to happiness and peace (imaged in this poem by a penetration or merging of Krishna's dark blue skin color with Mira's body). Even being the daughter of a wealthy and powerful King, the very pinnacle of the human life available in her time, didn’t even remotely compare to her experience of union with Krishna. That life of luxury and power is like riding a jackass compared with the shoulders of an elephant that a life of union with Krishna represents.
We could go on with other similar sentiments from Ancient Egypt, China, Indigenous American and Polynesian traditions or Judaism, for example, but let’s do just one more. Let's look at what Buddha has to say.
Perhaps his most famous teaching is on the Four Noble Truths which teach us that this experience we call suffering can end. There is a method which will bring a human being peace and happiness. It includes following the Noble Eightfold Path, restraining one's self, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation. Many secular people today are attracted to this doctrine because it delivers the same promise that we saw from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, but minus the idea of god. So you can be safely atheist or agnostic but still benefit from the truth that these old masters bore witness too.
What is the promise of a good life, sometimes called Nirvana, that Buddha is talking about? In the Diamond Sutra he tries to give us an inkling of what the life of bliss that flows from his teachings might be like. He says that if we understand his teachings about the nature of reality, the foundation for heavenly bliss or Nirvana will be set and our merit will be enormous. “Merit” is an old word that in the Buddhist tradition that suggests “a beneficial and protective force which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts.” (Wikipedia). So how good will our merit be? How great is the value of the teaching?
Buddha says “we can summarize the matter by saying that the full value of this discourse [the Diamond Sutra, is so great that it] can be neither conceived nor estimated, nor can any limit be set to it…” Those are pretty amazingly extreme words. In case you might think he is exaggerating, he continues by saying that whoever can truly understand his teaching “will achieve a perfection of merit beyond measurement or calculation—a perfection of merit unlimited and inconceivable.” Wow. If we can only understand what he is saying, the force protecting us from sadness and harm and ill-fortune will express itself in an unlimitedly positive way in our experience of life.
But for some, even Buddhism is too reliougous-y and claims like this just seem preposterous. Fortunately, science is beginning to shed light on the insights from these ancient masters and, tantalizingly, the evidence is building to support these extraordinary claims. I'll take a look at these scientific results in the next post.
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Over a period of just a few hours during the course of my normal business day last week, I had two interactions that surfaced two different versions of what it means to be happy and what life’s purpose is. These sound like weighty matters not normally discussed in social contexts let alone business ones, and they are, but whether we talk about them or not, all of us have assumptions about what is important in life and I happened to be speaking with two people who were at a stage in life where these questions were surfacing. Whether we are aware of them or not, these sorts of assumptions undergird the choices we make about how we spend our time, who we spend it with and how we treat ourselves and other people as we go about spending our time with these people in those ways. The two people I spoke to about this were a little different from most of us in two respects. The first is that they are both among that elite class of people who came from nothing and have made untold millions from the success of their entrepreneurial ventures. And the second is that they both were explicit on their assumptions about happiness or the meaning of life.
As they laid out their world view, I found that both of them had a compelling logic that resonated with me. I also saw that each person was a fervent and committed believer of this philosophy. Since those two conversations, I have been turning over each of them in my mind, recalling some of my own intellectual investigations down similar paths and comparing them both to what the ancient masters taught and to what modern neuroscience is teaching us. So, this is the first of a three part blog post covering these three perspectives. I’ll go through the view of the ancient masters in my next post and what modern neuroscience has to say in the third post of this series, and so for the rest of this post I want to unpack these two men’s positions.
The first conversation I had was with a successful serial entrepreneur who is very
much still in the game. Despite his repeated success, he was already working on his next big idea. And as though that weren’t enough, he is also an extreme athlete, currently focusing on Iron Man racing. I was speaking to him about someone we both knew in common and suddenly the pace of the conversation changed, and he became reflective for a few moments (which is not his normal mode by a long stretch). He told me a story of working with this mutual colleague of ours who is also a successful entrepreneur. These guys have made tons of money, more than they’ll ever need. So, what gets them out of bed in the morning? What makes it all worth it? His story went to the heart of the matter.
It had been a really tough week, he began. They were working together some time ago at one of their start-ups and things were not going well. Despite giving everything they had to build the business, working day and night, it seemed that whatever could go wrong, did. Until Friday came along. Suddenly, events started going well and in a big way. He didn’t go into the detail but whether they won a big deal or closed on a great round of financing or signed a marquee customer or whatever, they finished work up and headed to the pub for a few beers to celebrate the day and wind down from the week.
As they relaxed and chatted things over, his colleague said to him “You know, weeks like this one are what it is all about. This is why we do this. We work hard. When things get tough, we don’t give up. We may suffer along the way. We may feel fear. We may stumble or get knocked down. But we get back up. We keep going. We’re good at what we do. And eventually the world reflects this back on us with the success we’re showered with. It’s moments like these that make it all worth it.” He compared that feeling to his training for the Iron Man and other longer distance races. It may be exhausting training 10 or even 20 hours a week but when you cross the finish line on race day, that feeling you get right then makes it all worth it.
This is quite similar to what readers of Nietzsche will recognize as the "will to power." His idea (which is beautifully summarized in Steve West's second episode on Nietzsche in his "Philosophize This" podcast) is
that the purpose of life is to maximize our potential as humans. Just because we can't control every element of our life, according to Nietzsche that doesn't mean we should just give up and let the world happen to us. The lazy or stupid or fearful or mediocre among us may do that. But the great ones will rise above all these lesser motives, face their fears and make the most of what is possible. They will rule and possess and conquer and win. Facing and overcoming pain and suffering and fear is the only way we grow as people in his version of the world and the only way to be a winner. That is the true source of true fulfillment and the highest level of happiness, at least in Nietzsche's telling. He famously writes:
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: — it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
As someone who spent many years pursuing extreme sports of several varieties and is an entrepreneur and VC by profession, this was an explanation I could relate to. I have summitted some of highest peaks on the planet and scaled some of the tallest vertical walls of rock and ice to be found; I have traversed some of the most inhospitable tracks a mountain bike can cover, and I have spent weeks surviving in desert environments with little more than a knife and sometimes a blanket. So, I understand where he is coming from. You work hard, you have success. You see the one as the cause of the other and dutifully pat yourself on the back. You put in the time and effort and the rewards—be they more money, bagging another summit, or landing a big deal—are the result. You look around and see, at least for the moment, that you’re the big dog, the one that other people envy. You’re the one that was able to do what others couldn’t, go where others wouldn’t, or in my colleague’s case, make more money than you could spend in a lifetime. You’ve secured your reputation and comfort and success not just for yourself but for your family, too. All is good in the world.
There are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that ‘all is good in the world’ until it isn’t. I often think of another extraordinarily successful entrepreneur I know whose first child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. All his fame and riches couldn't put a dent in that loss. And even if you aren’t hit by that kind of tragedy, the high of reaching those lofty ambitions never lasts. And then you are stuck trying to outdo your last win or the win of the people you compare yourself to. And as you get older, this gets harder and harder to do. Many a great achiever has lived out their sunset years with an unhappy mixture of feelings like shame, confusion, impotence and regret. I have seen this unfold firsthand on more than one occasion with some of the greatest men of our times and the phenomenon is so common as to have been portrayed in literature and film from works as diverse as Shakespeare's King Lear and the recent biopic on Einstein, which depicted his descent into irrelevance at the end of his life.
The second problem is that technically there is no way to demonstrate causation here; it is an unproven and unprovable assumption that all that hard work is the reason you had all that success. I know far more people who work super hard at investing in or starting tech companies who fail than those who succeed. Did the ones that succeed work harder? Were they smarter? Were they just better people? Of course not! What about the extreme athletes? Do they owe their success at completing the races or physical challenges, or completing them in a certain time, to all their hard work? Not really. I also know lots of people who train for these sorts of competitions or who put in similar or greater levels of effort to climb mountains or traverse icecaps or deserts who end up becoming injured or lost or even dying. Was their effort, or lack thereof perhaps, the cause of their horrible injury or death? Again, not really. Does the cause-effect not apply there but does only when things go well? And I know other people who love the idea of pursuing these sorts of adventures and would put in the effort but who have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from doing so. Or others who just don’t have the personality for it and aren’t interested or don’t care. Is their psychological or genetic predisposition something we can blame them for? If not, then why do the people who do have the psychological or genetic predisposition to achieve these sorts of extraordinary feats of athleticism deserve the credit for achieving them? We have here not a case of hard work resulting in great success for which the hard worker can be credited. We have instead a case of correlations without a proximate causation.
To get to the question of why this is the case, or how, the discussion quickly devolves into questions on the nature of free will, destiny and fate. Or you find yourself investigating whether time has a direction and a flow, which sure is how it feels to us, or whetherinstead the Einstein view of things that time, just like space, exists as a pre-established ‘block’ extending infinitely into the future and the past perhaps is a more accurate explanation (the laws of physics work perfectly well in either time direction—there is nothing in the laws themselves that says time is moving from past to future. Just as all three dimensions of space exist in all places, all time in both directions might exist all at once, as it were). There are books and articles aplenty on these topics, but this post isn’t about all that. I just want to make the point here that cause and effect are perhaps not so obvious as we would assume and therefore taking credit for your success may not really make sense. So, I will leave it there for now and move on to the next conversation I had on what life is all about or what is important to prioritize in order to be as happy as a human can be.
It turns out that the other person that day with whom I had this unexpected conversation about the meaning of life was also a very successful entrepreneur (I am in the venture capital business after all) and he had a similar story about life’s purpose, albeit with a very different conclusion. Yes, we have the same situation of a person who need never work again thanks to an extraordinary career as a young tech entrepreneur but in this instance, he was a bit older and had found the ‘keep conquering the next mountain’ strategy of the other guy ineffectual. He had tried the ‘climb the next mountain’ thing and found that he wasn’t any happier, his struggles weren’t any easier, his life wasn’t getting any better.
So, he spent many years searching for the answer in all the places you would expect and ultimately concluded that the secret to living a good life, to having meaning and fulfilment if not sustained happiness, was about our interactions with other people. Investing in creating and sustaining healthy and stable relationships with the people we care about the most was the secret to happiness. Or in reality, happiness is an illusion and relationships are the things that bring more of the fleeting times that are "happy" and allow us to endure the greater amount of time we all spend struggling with one thing or another. He pointed to Professor George Valient at Harvard Medical school and a book he published about the results of a 75-year study of hundreds of American men. What did they conclude after all those decades tracking all those people? One of the main conclusions the study reached was that the “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on 'life satisfaction'”. More than any other factor they could find, by far, the one thing that determined ‘life satisfaction’ in their surveys is the people the study participants spent time with and the health of those relationships.
This also made sense to me. At first glance, that is. Our emotional life always seems to be in flux but having close, stable and loving relationships increases the amount of good times and helps us weather the inevitable down or difficult periods. And as anyone who has lost a loved one or experienced a divorce or travelled away from home for long stretches knows, when those relationships are frayed or suddenly gone, the world feels like it is ending. So, who could argue with this perspective?
Well, here is the problem with it. The underlying assumptions of this take on life are that the feelings we struggle through are a) real and b) created from outside our self meaning that our emotions are just hardwired reactions to external stimuli. Life becomes a story about feeling management. We have feelings, we believe they are true, and we use or depend upon other people to manage them. But, what if the feelings aren’t real? What if they aren’t accurate measures of our reality? What if they are nothing more than habitual patterns of self-created neurological activity that irresistibly manifest in our brains?
Unfortunately for this theory that emotions are real and are accurate reflections of a true reality, neuroscience is now showing that emotions, in the words of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, "that seem to happen to you, are actually made by you." They are not designed to be a precise and accurate reflection of what is happening in reality. Rather, they are based on predictions your brain is making using the information coming in from the senses combined with the brain's best match to past experiences. Using these predictions, the emotions that result function as efficient, body wide mechanisms to move the body to keep you alive. So, to depend on our relationships to manage these feelings is doomed to failure. Obviously, if you are better at managing those relationships, you’ll have fewer threats for your body to deal with via the creation of negative emotions so your experience of life better than those who don’t invest in those relationships. But is that it? Is that as good as it can get? Surely if it is our brains that manufacture the emotions, we have the power to make the good kind?
(There is a great TED talk by Harvard Medical School Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett on this topic that is worth watching.)
What if the science is right here? What if there is a better way? What if there is a way to have an even better life? A happier, more sustainably peaceful and loving day to day experience of life? The great masters tell us that, in fact, there is a better way. And, tantalizingly, modern science such as the work being done in Dr. Barrett's lab, is finally beginning to back them up. In my next two posts I will look at what these old sages, and the new ones like Dr. Barret, have to say on this topic.
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