Secret Teachings

There are so many things people say about life!   There are so many facts they shove down your throat in school.   It can start to feel impersonal.  It can start to feel cold and it can start to feel cheap.  Can this be what it’s all about?  A bunch of sentences that anybody can say, and then make you learn, and then test you on when they’re trying to figure out if they’ll give you a job?


I want to hear something about life that is special, not cheap.

I want to learn something that makes life seem wonderful and fresh.

I want to hear something that is intimate and directed to me — not something you can study for with a test prep service.

In other words I want a secret teaching.  I want to learn it mouth to ear.  I want it to feel special, evanescent, and intuitive.  I want it to be something I understand with my heart, or maybe my intuition.  Higher, unique secret faculties that speak to me from way above my head, with the tongues of angels.  I want to open a window and peer at the mysterious workings of this world and other worlds.

Who wouldn’t want that?  But I will tell you some things that the secret teaching cannot be:

  • there is a mystical essence to the self and the world and they are one
  • all is one
  • there are other universes and our universe is a pale reflection of them
  • there are secret names of God and angels
  • there are spiritual beings who walk among us
  • there is a secret history that is unfolding.

How do I know that none of these doctrines is a secret doctrine?

Because none of these named doctrines is a secret.   You can find them all on the internet with a couple of seconds of googling.

Reincarnation, kabbalah, higher realms, other universes, angels, demons, the secret names of God — not a single one of these is the single, intimate teaching meant for you or me, because every single one of them is public.

The real secret teaching has to be something else.  It is secret not because nobody tells it to you but because everybody and everything is telling it to you all the time, or, more accurately, every moment and every conversation you have with every person is giving you a jagged piece of it.

It is scattered into a million million pieces and you have to put it together yourself.  I have to put it together myself and tell it to myself — not with words but with my body, my heart, and my life.

That’s the secret teaching — the teaching you teach yourself with every waking and every sleeping moment, every pain and every pleasure, every sadness and joy and fear.

But not what I just wrote.  That’s clearly no secret, cause here it is.







On Susan Sarandon’s Opinion that Trump is Better than Hillary Clinton

In my view there is no reason to seek political guidance from actors.

The skills and training and talent that prepare you to portray a space warrior convincingly have little overlap with those that help you make sage decisions about economic and political policies.

They may even run in opposite directions. You may be a successful actor because of your skill at having an emotional reaction despite all the evidence that it is unwarranted. So for example you may scream on a movie set because your character is being menaced by a monster, even though the monster is not real. The skill at responding emotionally in a situation where the evidence points against it is counter-productive when being a political decision-maker.


Is It True “You Can’t Reason Someone Out of a Belief They Didn’t Reason Themselves Into?”

Sometimes I’ve found myself frustrated arguing with people about deep important beliefs.  I’ll come up with what I think is a good argument and they will remain unmoved.  For example I once forwarded to a scientologist the devastating New Yorker piece which showed that a major part of the founding belief of the Church of Scientology — that the founder, L.Ron Hubbard had been injured in a naval battle and cured himself through mind science — was based on a forgery.  His response was “Meh.”

It occurred to me that I was violating the old maxim — you can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into.  People embrace big views — religions and political ones — for reasons having to do primarily with emotion, aesthetic response, and group identification.  If they embrace views like that you are not going to get them out of them with a rational argument.  Even in the case of a cognitive enterprise like science, scientists embrace a paradigm because it works for them, personally and sociologically.  The new paradigm doesn’t win new adherents, but new people are born for whom it doesn’t work. In the words of Max Planck theory advances, funeral by funeral.

This view strikes me as discouraging.  If there is no way for me to convince anybody else then there is no way for anybody else to convince me.  And that means I am barred from the truth, which I don’t want.

Here is an example of how I think it can work.

I once came close to embracing orthodox Judaism.  I didn’t think it was literally true, but I thought it was a valid way of understanding reality.  I came to it from an emotional reaction to the consumer-based nature of modern life.  I really pined for some way of putting things together that didn’t reduce everything to the maximization of subjective expected utility — in other words making money.   I thought Judaism might be an alternative for me.

I never accepted the homophobia and I never accepted the rejection of science, but I thought there was something serious at its core, and even tried to observe some of the ritual laws.  I found friends I emotionally connected with and communities I enjoyed belonging to.

Nevertheless I never could quite believe it.  I had increasing cognitive dissonance which came to a head when a read a book by an orthodox mentor of mine, who argued that the ancient civilizations of the near east had access to “Spiritual technology” which they lost when human beings acquired material technology.  He thought, for example, that Pharaoh’s sorcerors literally could change snakes to sticks.

I challenged him over the email and said “Look, I know we disagree.  But surely there is a way we can resolve this that is acceptable to us both.  Why don’t we look into, for example, the health of Egyptian mummies.  If the ancient Egyptians really had spiritual technology, as you believe, that should be reflected in the health of their rulers.”  He never wrote back.  I started to re-gestalt my cognitive views and also my re-evaluate my emotional connection with my mentor.   Everything that I had put on a back burner — the intellectual naivete of orthodox thought, the obscurantism of its prose, the authoritarian nature of its institutions, the personal failings of its representatives — came roaring back, and I took off my yarmulke.

What role did my seeing through the problems in my mentor’s book about “spiritual technology” play in my evolution out of this religious belief?   It crystallized a mounting disquiet.

My conclusion is that getting out of a religious belief for me was a question of changing my emotions and my cognitions.  Reasoning wasn’t a sufficient thing to change my belief, but it didn’t play zero role either.

I’m glad.  I’m sure there will be advances made as a result of my funeral, but I’d like there to be some advances that I am around to enjoy.



Make it Obvious Where You Went Wrong

You are trying to get it right, but you might not.  Maybe though you got almost there.  If you got almost there, don’t cover your tracks.  Don’t make it seem like your work is perfect.  Make it very easy to see what you did and why.    Make it easy to see where you are wrong, if you are wrong.  That way those who come after may be able to succeed where you failed, or perhaps avoid a blind alley, if that is where you have strayed.

All the steps in the argument should be clear. All the language should be defined so a thirteen year old can understand it.

Don’t claim confidence you don’t have.

Those points you are unsure about: reveal that you are unsure.   Make an honest attempt to learn the truth.   Do not try to persuade, seduce, or convince.

We are all in this together, there is no room for tricks.


“I Wish I Were Not Troubled by Doubt! Then I Could Be Confident and Commit to Something!”

A friend complained to me that she was troubled by doubt and wished she could overcome it.  She envied the passionate lives of others — those who committed to relationships and causes.  Why can’t I be like them?  was her oft-time complaint.  Why can’t I find meaning by loving Jeremy as my friend Wanda does,  without noticing his mental and moral limitations?  Why can’t I throw myself into protecting the walrus herds of the ice floes as my college roommate Encenita does, without troubling myself with the fear that my energy could be better spent caring for people rather than those tusky ice-slugs?  “After all” and this was approximately at the crescendo of her aria contra dubitatem “Isn’t doubt itself something to be doubted?  If everything can be doubted, shouldn’t a policy of avoiding commitment be doubted as well?  And if so, does it not fare rather poorly under interrogation, depriving me as it does of love, passion, romance, enthusiasm and commitment?”

It’s hard not to sympathize with her predicament, but I believe she has made a mistake.

“I doubt that Jeremy is an interesting man.” is, once unwrapped

“I see things about Jeremy that are limiting.”

And if you see things about Jeremy that are limiting, you cannot upon pain of self-deception, be as interested in him as your friend who doesn’t see those limits.

So the wish to be free of doubt about Jeremy is really the wish that Jeremy be a less limited man, and worthy of your interest.

Similarly with the walrus example.  Your friend does not see anything better than helping walruses.  You do.  Your doubt is not something separate, floating above the situation, ruining your walrus passion.  It is another way of saying, you see problems where your friend sees none.

The world is full of projects and people asking us to lie to ourselves to achieve solidarity with them.  They are no good and you know that, because you can see through their lies.

Doubt is not truly speaking the enemy and commitment is not truly speaking your friend.

Your goal is to find something that increases your power and freedom and then get it.  Doubt is just a way of saying that you are, justifiably, worried that some thngs might not be worthy.  You may well be correct.  Commitment and passion will come, like it or not, once you discover something (or someone) that makes you powerful or free.




This Astonishment

I came across this quote from Wittgenstein.

“To be sure, I can imagine what Heidegger means by being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is *a priori* bound to be nonsense. Nevertheless we do run up against the limits of language. Kierkegaard too saw that there is this running up against something, and he referred to it in a fairly similar way (as running up against paradox). This running up against the limits of language is ethics.”
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Waismann-Gespräche, ed. McGuinness, Frankfurt, 1967-8; the translation quoted is from Schulte and McGuinness, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Oxford, 1979, p. 68). In general, cf. K.O. Apel, ‘Wittgenstein und Heidegger’ in Transformation der Philosophie, Vol. I, Frankfurt, 1973 (English translation, London, 1980

It seems he is in deep trouble here because he refers to “this astonishment”. That means that you can use language to pick out the particular astonishment that anything at all exists, as opposed to say, the astonishment that I will someday die, the astonishment that Trump may be the Republican presidential candidate, and other possible astonishments. If you can do that, then it would seem to follow you can talk about the astonishment sensibly and ask questions about it.

Wittgenstein fans — did he just get his wires crossed? Or am I missing something?


Response to a Friend Worried About Death

You are worried that your consciousness will come to an end.  This assumes that you are identified with your consciousness; that there is some thing that you are; that it is your consciousness, and it will end.

Here is another way of looking at it.

There is a process and one of the results of the process is your identification with your current consciousness and its fear of extinction.  It didn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t have to continue to be that way.  The process can unfold in other ways and it is continuing to unfold.

You are not the current state of the process.  If you are anything you are where the process is headed.

You are not a complete thing that you worry understandably will end.  You are an incomplete process that you could not stop even if you wanted to.  The disease is not death, the disease is the notion that you are currently a completed thing that could die.

Why do I think you and I are a process that is unfolding rather than a thing?

We do not own or control or thoughts or emotions or feelings.  They unfold whether we like them or not.

We do not have our identities given to us but assert them in every moment.

We feel radically incomplete.  Our nature is yearning and love and need, not self-containment.

Every day we fall asleep and wake up with a new day.

Every moment we forget so much and fail to understand so much.

We are much more failure, brokenness, and striving than we are completeness and success.

Death is our friend.  Every moment we are letting go of everything that doesn’t belong to us any more so we can receive the new and become what we are.

We don’t need to fear death because we have not yet been born.