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.



The Best Story of Philosophy I Know

A long time ago in Northern India a man called Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment.  Known now as the Buddha, or the One Who is Awake, he travelled from town to town on foot answering people’s questions.
One man, a potter named Gupta, heard that the Buddha would be visiting his town and was very excited.  He counted the days until the Buddha arrived and wracked his brain trying to think of the best question to ask the sage.
Every question he could think of though he feared was the wrong one.  “Is there life after death?”  Supposing the answer was “yes”  — what if it were not worth living.  “How should I live?”  Supposing the answer were simply “Well!” and it was not satisfactory.  “How did the universe begin?”  Supposing the answer were it had never begun!  “How can I get rich?” Surely such would be a foolish question to ask the Buddha — perhaps someone else would know better, and anyway what if being rich were not the best thing?
So Gupta spent every waking moment until the Buddha arrived.  Everyone in town asked the Buddha a single question.  Still Gupta could not think of a good question.  Gupta’s little boy came runing “Gupta!  Gupta!  You have missed the Buddha!  He is leaving town.”
Gupta ran as fast as his legs could carry him after the departing sage.  The Buddha’ followers told him it was too late, but the Buddha was compassionate.  He ran up, out of breath.  “No, no, let him ask.” the Thus Come One said to his followers.  “Come, my friend!” the Awakened One said to Gupta.
Finally, exhausted and willing to risk it all Gupta blurted out his question:
“What is the single best question for me to ask you and what is the answer?” he asked.
The Buddha looked at him, a slight smile on his face.
“That is the question, and this is the answer.”
–after Raymond Smullyan

A Few Words on the Mother Goddess


I was thinking of worshiping something because my smallness and fragility is giving me the heebie jeebies.


I get it.  Have you considered worshiping the Mother Goddess?  The Hindus call her Devi.  The ancient Greeks Hera.


I am a Jew.


The ancient Jews worship her as Shekhina — the wife of God.


I thought God’s wife was named Felicia.  Or Mrs. God.


You can call her what you will, Ernesto.  If you are going to worship something why not worship that mysterious TRIANGULAR VOID from which you came?


But I don’t really think I came from a Mother Goddess!


You came from an Inexplicable Void and to that you return….isn’t that your Mother?  and isn’t it so much more powerful than you are than you might as well…


Call it a Goddess?


You can say it, Ernesto.  Say it with me.




Pray with me.


Oh Great She Great Her/We don’t know who you are/But your bosoms are the nourishing sky/your skin is each moment/your mouth kisses us with each breath we take/And you are the sleek and fiery vulva we come from/and to which we pray some day to return.




Yes, Ernesto.


That prayer.  It makes me feel a little weird.


How so, Ernesto? Speak honestly with me.  After all — if we are children of the same mother it means you and I are brothers.


It seems like that prayer makes me want to make the love with my mother.




And physically.  And that is wrong.


Oh, Ernesto.   It is not spoken of in polite society.  It is perhaps bad for business.  But for a boy to love his mother is never, never, wrong.


Hard Questions, Easy Answers, and the Charge of Intellectual Frivolity

Life sometimes presents us with hard questions, for example how hard should we try to keep a family member alive who has severe brain damage, either through dementia, mental retardation, or accident?    These questions are not theoretical, they are simply slightly abstract formulations of very specific, real problems.  If an incapacitated person has an infection should we cure the infection or let it kill them?  If they are not eating should we install a feeding tube to keep them alive?

A friend of mine, a Hasidic rabbi, once told me that the answer to these questions was simple.  As long as the person has a beating heart that person is of full human value and needs to be saved with all the resources, emotional and financial, one would commit to saving a healthy person.

At the time I was attracted to this position because it seemed to be an example of moral seriousness.  After all the alternative would be to allow less important considerations to weigh on the scale, to allow considerations of convenience for example to trump the sacred value of a human life.  I viewed the issue as one between morality, absolutism and earnestness on one side and relativism and frivolity on the other.

I now think I made a silly mistake.  My friend the rabbi’s view that human life is equivalent with possessing a beating heart was a position of moral seriousness, only if he were correct!  If in fact he is incorrect, it was actually a sign of frivolity.  A consequence of his counsel is to keep a severely brain-damaged family member alive through a feeding tube for no good reason.  It is a decision that sacrifices another person at the altar of either a)one’s intellectual comfort or b)political commitments to a particular faith tradition.

The desire for a simple answer to a simple question is entirely understandable.  But giving in to entirely understandable desires is not a sign of care for others.