I. Overview

"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.

II. On Becoming Enlightened

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.

III. "Emptying Somebody Out"

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.'"

IV. Enlightenment and Rationality

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.

V. Living as an Enlightened Person

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.

VI. The Point of Life

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?

VII. Should You Try to Become Enlightened?

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. I'm curious what your guys thoughts are!


New Comment
19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:50 AM

Just another casualty of meditation gone wrong.


On the whole, this account reads to me like “what to do if you want to commit suicide while also continuing to infect hapless others with the idea that they, too, should commit this form of suicide”. That is really what struck me about this particular “enlightenment” story: the whole business seems like a destructive meme.

I agree it can be seen as a destructive meme. At the same time, I wonder why it has spread so little. Maybe because it doesn't have a very evangelical property. People who become infected with it might not have much of a desire to pass it on to others.

Jed talks about how you need to "empty somebody out" before they can be "filled back in".

Run, do not walk, away from this person.

It reminds me of "jailbreaking", as advocated and practiced by certain prominent members of the rationalist community.

Or that part in "The Matrix" when Agent Smith copies himself into all the other occupants of the Matrix. His purpose has become to tile the future lightcone with copies of himself, which I believe was also a central tenet of Zizism.

What do we want to tile the future lightcone with?

I looked briefly into Ziz. My conclusion is that she had some interesting ideas I hadn't heard before, and some completely ridiculous ideas. I couldn't find her definition of "good" or "bad" or the idea of tiling the future lightcone with copies of herself.

Thanks for reminding me about that scene from the Matrix. Gave it a look on YouTube. Awesome movie.

I'm wondering, how do you look at the question of what we want to tile the future lightcone with?

Hey thanks for the link Richard that was an interesting read. There definitely seems to be some similarities.

I was actually thinking about what we want to tile the future lightcone with the other day. This was the progression I saw:

  • Conventional Morality :: Do what feels right without thinking much about it.
  • Utilitarianism I :: The atomic unit of "goodness" and "badness" is the valence of human experience. The valence of experience across all humans matters equally. The suffering of a child in Africa matters just as much as the suffering of my neighbor.
  • Utilitarianism II :: The valence of experience across all sentient things matters equally. i.e. The suffering of cows matters too.
  • Utilitarianism III :: The valence of experience across all sentient things across time matters equally. The suffering of sentient things in the future matters just as much as the suffering of my neighbor today. i.e. longtermism
  • Utilitarianism IV :: Understanding valence and consciousness takes a lexicographical preference over any attempt to improve the valence of sentient things as we understand it today because only with this better understanding can we efficiently maximize the valence of sentient things. i.e. veganism is only helpful in its ability to speed up our ability to understand consciousness and release a utilitron shockwave. Everything before the utilitron shockwave can be rounded to zero.
  • Utiltiarianism V :: Upon understanding consciousness, we can expect to have our preferences significantly shaken in a way that we can't hope to properly anticipate (we can't expect to have properly understood our preferences with such a weak understanding of "reality"). The lexicographical preference then becomes understanding consciousness and making the "right" decision on what to do next upon understanding it. In this case, it would mean that all of our "moral" actions were only good in so far as their contribution to this revelation and making the "right" decision upon understanding consciousness.
  • Utilitarianism VI :: ?

Utilitarianism V has some similarities to tiling the future lightcone with copies of yourself which can then execute based on their updated preferences in the future.

But "yourself" is really just a collection of memes. It will be the memes that are propagating themselves like a virus. There's no real coherent persistent definition of "yourself".

What do you want to tile the future lightcone with?

I'm curious what your guys thoughts are!

He sounds like someone who learned to think for himself, at the price of living a life like Diogenes. And that inner freedom is so important to him, that everything else comes second. He wrote a few books, but didn't try too hard to be a guru. He's rather live as a slacker, rather than risk losing sight of truth. 

He's like a wise kindly hobo. He may offer perspective to the people who happen to run into him, but in important ways he has retired from the arena of life. He's not being a leader or assisting someone who is a leader. There are probably many many more people like him than you realize. 

Disclaimer: I've never heard of him before, I know nothing about his actual circumstances, I'm just sharing the picture I got of him. 

You're assessment seems very accurate!

It didn't occur to me that there are probably many more people like him than I realize. I'm not sure I've met any. Have you?

I've met at least one person who was just giving away their independent writings on the nature of enlightenment. 

You might also want to look at "Meaningness", which has been influential among "post-rationalists". 

I took a look at meaningness a few months ago but couldn't really get into it. It felt a bit too far from rationality and very hand wavy.

Did you find Meaningness valuable? I may take another look

Meaningness is a great example of the art of deferral. Chapman promises much, but always there are preliminaries he has to explain first, and preliminaries to those preliminaries, and the promised meat course never shows up. I have to wonder if the endless hors d'oeuvres and pre-banquet entertainments are the whole of it, and the promises are just the carrot on the stick, jam tomorrow to get people to keep reading.

I have found him illuminating on the history of Buddhism and meditation.

Yea I like the way you describe it.

I'll check out his writings on the history of Buddhism and meditation, thanks.

No, I couldn't get into it either. 

I think Meaningness has some interesting discussion on what "post-modernity" can mean in terms of epistemology and (scientific) thinking https://metarationality.com/stem-fluidity-bridge

I think he writes well (unlike OP, sorry :D) and gets to his point with relatively little text. I think his STEM-fluidity-postmodernism idea is on the more useful side, out of those I've seen in the whole rationality scene.

Here are examples of things that you can't really know to be true: [...] That you will wake up tomorrow

At certain age you don't need spirituality to realize this.

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.

Well, yeah. Rationalists strive to separate true from false. Jed strives to declare everything as false.

Then again, he seems happy, and it is not obvious that a parallel reality without "enlightenment" would be better.

Rationalist version: all maps are false, but some are useful.

Lots of personality traits seem to stick around. If he's weirdly nihilistic after awakening the simplest explanation is that he was weirdly nihilistic before awakening and it just altered the flavor slightly.

But how can we do anything until that most fundamental of all questions is answered?

Meaning is backwards facing, temporally. You don't say you need to understand the meaning of a movie before you watch it. More broadly, I don't trust meditation teachers that don't do stack traces of mental processes, since they're exactly the people who are supposed to be good at that.

The enlightened have awakened from the dream and no longer mistake it for reality. Naturally, they are no longer able to attach importance to anything. To the awakened mind the end of the world is no more or less momentous than the snapping of a twig.

Looks like I'll have to avoid enlightenment, at least until the work is done.

New to LessWrong?