Book Review: Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing
“Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing” is the first in a three part Spiritual Enlightenment series by Jed McKenna.
It’s quite unlike any other book I’ve read before. I came across it as it was recommended by a friend and appears on Naval’s recommended reading list. This review can’t do it justice, so I recommend picking up a copy for yourself. That being said, on with the review.
The premise of the book is to help you understand what it’s like to live life as an “enlightened” person and offer some advice for getting there if you so desire. The person in this case is Jed McKenna, the author of the book. It is written in a secular and no BS style which makes it a fun read.
Here are some of the ways he describes enlightenment:
- I’m defining spiritual enlightenment as truth-realization and that doesn’t require anything but purity of intent.
- Enlightenment is about truth, not about becoming a better or happier person.
- Enlightenment is the unprogrammed state. That’s a scary place to go.
- The enlightened view life as a dream.
- The enlightened don’t operate at the level of belief.
- Most people who claim to be enlightened and show the way, are not enlightened and pointing the wrong way.
As far as becoming enlightened goes, his suggestion is to apply a technique called Spiritual Autolysis.
Autolysis means self-digestion, and spiritual means… hell, I don’t really know. Let’s say it means that level of self which encompasses the mental, physical and emotional aspects. Put the two words together and you have a process through which you feed yourself, one piece at a time, into the purifying digestive fires.
All you have to do is write down what you know is true, or what you think is true, and keep writing until you’ve come up with something that is true. While it sounds pretty friendly at first, Jed describes it as a painful process:
It’s actually a painful and vicious process, somewhat akin to self-mutilation. It creates wounds that will never heal and burns bridges that can never be rebuilt and the only real reason to do it is because you can no longer stand not to.
Anyone headed for truth is going to get there over the ego’s dead body or not at all.
The thinking is that by actually questioning the truth, you will start to realize that most of what you believed to be true is actually false. And this can very quite painful.
Jed says that after going through this process long enough, you will wind up with the answer that there is no truth. But Jed emphasizes that being told the answer is very different from computing it yourself. Only in the latter case will you actually experience a change in the way you perceive the world.
If you want to benefit from knowledge, you have to own it for yourself and the only way to do that is to fight for it. Emerson said “No man thoroughly understands a truth until he has contended against it.” Having the answer isn’t enough. You have to do the math.
Here are examples of things that you can’t really know to be true:
- That you weren’t born 5 seconds ago
- That anybody else actually exists
- That you will wake up tomorrow and experience the rest of your life
- That the laws of physics will continue functioning in the next minute
- That morality is real (i.e. that good and bad exist)
While many of these examples are ideas that people will have considered, most people haven’t taken seriously the possibility of them being false. The typical reaction is to see one of these ideas and dismiss the possibility of their being false as silly, ridiculous, or impossible.
A powerful idea is that of Descrate’s Evil Demon:
This evil demon is imagined to present a complete illusion of an external world, so that Descartes can say, “I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.”
To reiterate: for all you know you are in a dream and nothing that you believe to exist actually exists. What if it’s the case that every good thing you perceive yourself as doing is actually something bad at the base layer of reality? How can you possibly exclude this possibility? (Fun fact about Descartes is that even after presenting this idea he claimed the ability to prove the existence of god.)
Overall, this way of seeing the world resembles Pyrrhonian skepticism. Just because something is the type of thing which gets remembered as true does not make it true.
One thing Jed emphasizes is that you can’t rely on a teacher to hold your hand the entire way. You’ve got to find your way on your own with purity of intent. Society is designed such that the passive action is that of the blue pill. If you want the red pill, you’re going to have to actively seek it out yourself.
The first rule in this business is that you are on your own. Ego clings to a teacher like a drowning man clings to a log.
Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.
Jed talks about how you need to “empty somebody out” before they can be “filled back in”. If you dismantle somebody’s false preconceptions too quickly, they’ll simply scurry back to wherever they came from. This means retreating to whatever semantic stopsigns they have been filled with in the past.
A semantic stopsign or curiosity stopper is a meaningless, generic explanation that creates the illusion of giving an answer, without actually explaining anything. Semantic stopsigns destroy curiosity, giving surrogate answers and stopping the search for truth prematurely. Can preserve incorrect beliefs for a long time, insisting on following cached thought without rethinking anything. A tool of dark arts and an important part of any anti-epistemology.
I don’t have enough experience in real life with the difficulty of unmooring people from their semantic stopsigns to really understand it, but it seems to check out. Jed offers a peace of advice here:
Just a little heads up, Jolene. People don’t like to have their version of reality fucked with. Try it if you still need to get it out of your system, but prepare yourself for unpleasant results.
Many athiests today scoff at religious people for believing in unfalsifiable ideas, but Jed levies this same argument against athiests and sees it as just another religion. Some of the largest sources of semantic stopsigns today are religion and athiesm.
The genius of athiesm is that it feigns not believing in a higher power, but really you are still believing in something else, be in humanism or nationalism, etc.
Religion is the opiate of the masses.
Socrates used to call popular beliefs “the monsters under the bed” - only useful for frightening children with.
Possessing the ability not to see truth, now that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
“It’s all contradictions. Whitman said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.'”
While reading the book I kept making connections between Jed’s point of view and that of the rationality community - both have a strong desire to rid themselves of false beliefs.
Rationalists like to follow the Litany of Hodgell: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”. Jed has his own similar expression: “Destroy everything. Burn it all. Nothing false will survive. Nothing true will perish.".
I think Jed takes it one step further than the rationalists. In some sense the rationality community is clinging on to the semantic stopsign of bayes rule and empiricism, while Jed lights even those on fire and declares truth as non-existent.
One interesting aspect of the book is that you got to learn about how Jed, an “enlightened” one, goes about living his life.
His lifestyle is relatively simple. He lives in a house and mainly just hangs out without trying to satisfy some higher purpose. He watches TV and plays video games like a normal person. People who are trying to become enlightened will stop by occasionally and ask him to offer them guidance, and he’ll help when he feels like it.
I play video games, read books, watch movies. I’d say I probably blow several hours a day that way, but I don’t see it as a waste because I don’t have anything better to spend my time on. I couldn’t put it to better use because I’m not trying to become something or accomplish anything. I have no dissatisfaction to drive me, no ambition to draw me. I’ve done what I came to do. I’m just killing time ‘til time kills me.
The thing I like about this description is that it is consistent with the view of “nothing matters” and perfect tranquility. Sometimes people will suggest that you can be both perfectly free from desire and work on improving the world, but those properties seem contradictory. If you are free from desire, why would you do anything or help anyone? You might do something “just because why not”, but there’s no actual “reason” for you to do anything at that point. You might as well go meditate in a cave.
He also describes what it’s like for him to interact with other people:
I have a very distinct impression of life as a stage drama, and I find it endlessly mystifying that anyone truly identifies with their character.
I can’t stand in line at the grocery and carry on a normal conversation if it gets much past the weather. I can’t go to a bar and have a beer and shoot a game of pool because I can’t pretend to share the experiences and interests of the other patrons. There’s no commonality.
The main idea here is that he has become so separated from the memes and beliefs that inhabit other people, that he has begun to lose the ability to communicate. The ability to sympathize and communicate comes from shared programming, but he no longer shares the same programming. He started to see himself as somewhat of an alien compared to other people.
At one point one of his students, Arthur, is asking for guidance on becoming enlightened and “the path with heart”. Their conversation is interesting:
“Let me state it plainly, Arthur: I don’t do heart. To the extent that I advocate any path, it is a path without heart, devoid of compassion, totally free of any thought for others whatsoever. The thinking is simple: Wake up first. Wake up, and then you can double back and perhaps be of some use to others if you still have the urge. Wake up first, with pure and unapologetic selfishness, or you’re just another shipwreck victim floundering in the ocean and all the compassion in the world is of absolutely no use to the other victims floundering around you. Resolve your own situation first, and then maybe your compassion will translate into something of value to others. I suppose that sounds cruel or unspiritual or whatever, but it only works the way it works. Make sense?”
Arthur nods thoughtfully. “It sounds like you’re saying I may not even want to think of helping others once I myself am liberated.”
“I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how you’re wired, I suppose. You see what I do, this teaching thing, right?” He nods. “Maybe you’ll do something like this. Maybe you’ll teach. Or, maybe you’ll go back to building bridges and just keep it to yourself.”
This supports the idea that there is no rhyme or reason to what you do afterwards. You just choose something to do arbitrarily.
Here’s another passage that helps understand how Jed lives his life. He doesn’t try to fake being some mindful happy spiritual teacher:
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says that there are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes. The other is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. I do it in order to wash the dishes, but since I spend maybe an hour a week in this attempt at mindfulness, I figure it’s best not to make myself out as being a real in-the-moment kind of guy. Many very bright people seem to agree that there’s a great deal to be said for mindful action, but except for an occasional stint at the kitchen sink, I’m not one of them. Nor do I think of myself as one of those simple people who takes pleasure in the little things. In fact, if I can get back upstairs before Chris or anyone else snags me for some conversation, then I’ll be spending the rest of my evening with Lara Croft battling our way together through perilous Himalayan monasteries in search of the Dagger of Xian.
Having learned a bit about how Jed lives his life, it’s clear that he sees the world very differently from the average person. It’s reasonable to say that those who become enlightened become “insane” by the standards of society.
One passage in particular stuck with me after reading this book. Jed was at a campfire with some of his housemates when one of them, a pretty sincere guy named Brendan, asked Jed what the meaning of life is. Brendan tossed out the question casusally in a way suggesting that he considered it unanswereable, so Jed let it go at the time.
Later on when the discussion moved to a more philosophical one, Jed brought it back up.
“Okay Brendan,” Jed says. He looks startled to be singled out. “What’s the answer to your question?”
“I, uh, I don’t know. What question?”
“The meaning of life. Didn’t you ask me what the meaning of life was?”
“Um, well yeah, I was just, uh, joking. I didn’t really expect…um, an answer or anything.”
“Why not?” I address my comments to the whole group. “Why shouldn’t we ask what the meaning of life is? Hell, shouldn’t that be, like, the first thing we ask? Why should that of all questions be a joke? What are we, livestock? How can we do anything until that most fundamental of all questions is answered?”
Brendan’s treatment of the point of life matches the way I see most people treat it, while Jed’s response showed me how ridiculous this is.
As an example, sometimes I ask people what the point of life is, and the most common answer is “42”. “42” is a joke answer to the question and reinforces the meme that it deserves to be treated as a joke. But how can we do anything until that most fundamental of all questions is answered?
A natural question is: What kind of person becomes enlightened? Should you try to become enlightened? Here’s Jed’s view:
I would advise anyone who didn’t absolutely have to leave to just head back in and enjoy it while it lasts. The good and the bad. The white and the black.
As far as his own journey, he describes it as follows:
I started struggling with cogito ergo sum in my early teens. Throughout my teens and into my twenties I wrote short stories and essays that were trial assaults on the nature of reality, which helped me bring my thinking into focus.
I like happiness as much as the next guy, but it’s not happiness that sends one in search of truth. It’s rabid, feverish, clawing madness to stop being a lie, regardless of price, come heaven or hell.
I severed all ties—no job, no friends, no family—and had only a few possessions. I did nothing else. I had no other thought. I went for long walks, thinking, pounding away at whichever door I was stuck behind at.
When I myself went through this experience I knew it was immense. I knew it was uncommon in the extreme. I knew it was the supreme accomplishment beside which all others paled to insignificance. I could look at or listen to any person and know instantly that they hadn’t been through it. And yet, I wasn’t to know for years that it was enlightenment.
With that, I guess it’s up to you where you take things from here.