The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Spirituality and Cultivation

What Catholic Confession Is Meant To Do And How It Goes Wrong

It has been observed that Catholics have a tendency towards excessive guilt, in the same way that Hindu practice devolves towards something close to OCD.

Like a lot of religious practices, the eye of someone familiar with actual spiritual cultivation practices can see what they were intended to do. Rosary practice and bajans, for example, are obvious forms of meditations (Hindus haven’t forgotten that, Catholics often do.)

If you’re riven with guilt or shame, you can’t pass beyond certain points in spiritual practice. A mind which doesn’t “let go” and move freely is an absolute barrier to progress, and as the Buddha noted, spirituality is about freedom. Being hounded by negative emotions is not spiritual.

This is one reason (though not the only reason) why almost all paths emphasize moral development at the start of the journey. If you don’t do wrong things, you don’t feel bad about them. It’s easier to avoid problems of guilt and shame than to fix them.

That said, I’ve never met anyone who never did anything which might be considered wrong, and other than psychopaths and certain types of enlightened people, everyone feels shame and guilt occasionally, and often without any or much justification.

If people are to be happy, forget enlightened or spiritually advanced, they need to be able to put guilt and shame aside.

Confession: where you tell your sins to someone, they tell you what to do to expiate your sins, and then they say God has forgiven you, is a pretty bright idea and it works for a lot of people.

But often it goes wrong. People start looking for things to be ashamed and guilty. Emphasis on examining oneself for bad actions, thoughts and feelings leads to excessive feelings of guilt and a treadmill. Instead of getting over it, people wallow in it. I suspect that for many the lows followed by the highs of relief after confession are like a merry-go-round of feeling, and rather addictive and the Church often makes it worse by its emphasis on perfectly understandable feelings and thoughts as bad.

This isn’t a total diss: studies generally find that Evangelicals, Buddhists and Catholics are the happiest faith followers and happier than secular folks. But every religion has modes of failure. (Evangelicals, with their idea of salvation by Faith Alone have a failure mode of being horribly evil people.)

If we aren’t aware of the failure mode of a faith and of its specific practices then we can easily fall into them. Confession is good, if done with a mind to its benefits, but not if it is treated as an idol: it’s done for a reason, and if it is causing harm to someone rather than relieving them, it has failed.

You get what you support. If you like my writing, please SUBSCRIBE OR DONATE

Types Of Enlightenment: Part 1 1/2 – World As Self

In my first post on the type of enlightenment where one experiences the world as self I noted that of the types I will cover, this is one I had no taste of. That changed after I wrote it, albeit for only a few hours, so I thought I’d write a follow-up post.

In many spiritual circles there is a distrust for intellectual inquiry. Words, it is true, cannot adequately describe enlightnment states (or much else, really.)

This distrust is not universal,  however. There is a role for intellectual understanding when one combines it with meditative investigation. In India this is called Jnani Yoga.

The Jnani Yoga for “world as self” is simple enough, and the basis for statement’s like “the world exists because you exist” from “I Am That.”

  1. You experience only sense objects in consciousness. You have never, nor will you every experience anything else. These sense objects may reflect something outside of you, or they may not, but what you experience is a sense object.
  2. A sense object is created out of consciousness.
  3. No matter how long you look you will never find anything but consciousness. When sense objects change or go, you remain.
  4. You are consciousness. You are everything you perceive.
  5. Consciousness can be pretty much anything. If I close my eyes, I still exist. If the objects around me change, I still exist. If my body changes (as it does) I am still me. In dreams, where I may have a different body or no body at all, I am still me.

Since you are, in fact, everything you have ever experienced or ever will experience, dividing the world into outside and inside is insane. It’s delusional. You are as much the sounds, sights, and objects you experience outside the body as you are the body (which you only experience, also, as sense objects.)

When this become “duh” to you: when you believe it implicitly, the mind starts to change how you perceive the world.

Because you have spent your entire life experiencing sense objects one way “I am the body, everything else is outside me and not me” getting here generally requires a lot of meditation, which amounts to re-conditioning yourself.

There are many ways to do this. One is to simply examine each sense object in turn, and ask “is this me? Take your time, don’t force the answer. I usually find the answer is “it’s me” or “I don’t know.” If you think that it’s not you because you can’t control it, remember all the times you can’t control your body, which you think IS you.

Either you’re everything you experience, or you’re none of it. (Which is also a path, and you can meditate on that. “If it went away would I still exist? — Don’t do this on big things, do it on sense objects – feelings in the body, thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, whatever. )

When you do experience the world as yourself it feels really good. It oddly radically reduces the sense of self, and fear, and a sense of well-being and safety arises. Some other realizations occur, almost 180 degrees to how we normally understand the world and the self, but I’ll leave those alone for now until I’ve spent more time in this state and been able to understand its insights better.

(My writing helps pay my rent and buys me food. So please consider subscribing or donating if you like my writing.)



The Simple Guide to the Happy Personality

In a lot of mystical systems, like Ch’an Buddhism and much of Hinduism, the first thing you do is a lot of meditation to realize you aren’t what you think you are.

In Hinduism, the phrase is “neti, neti,” which means, “not this, not that.”

The process is simple, put your attention on a sense object you think of as yourself (a thought or feeling in the body) and ask yourself, “If this wasn’t here, would I still be me?” Do that a lot.

After a while it becomes clear that there is no sense object that is required for you to be you. They need you to exist, you don’t need them.

One of the most important of these clusters of sense objects is your personality. Your personality is just a bunch of reflex thoughts and emotions; it’s very highly conditioned and if you spend a lot of time paying attention to your thoughts and emotions something odd tends to happen: You become very bored with your personality, because it is SO predictable.

You also realize it isn’t you.

The reason spiritual systems spend a lot of initial effort on getting to this realization is that once you realize your personality, or body, or thoughts, or emotions, or whatever, aren’t “you,” you can deal with them objectively. There’s no need for shame, or pride, it just is what it is.

With that realization, you can start to work on it.

The most important ability for changing your conditioning (and personality is mostly conditioning, the rest is the body you’re percieving, but there’s a lot of feedback between the two), is indifference or equanimity. The way your body/brain works is that if you react strongly to something, it figures “Hey, this is important, I should keep doing this/bringing this up until it isn’t important.”

React less, or not at all, and pretty soon the body is like, “Huh, guess this isn’t important, so I won’t bring it up so much or as strongly.”

If you want more of something, on the other hand, lean into it, react more emotionally and strongly. The body will decide it’s important.

To learn indifference, do a simple meditation where whenever you feel an emotional reaction you try to just observe it. Do this over and over and over again, and eventually, even fear will bore you (this is not just theory, I’ve done it, though not with everything).

Before you do this, however, let’s lay out a bit of personality architecture theory.

Assuming you want to be happy, what matters is that the personality likes itself, and respects itself. Some personalities just think they’re aces, and that they are worthy of respect. What people respect and like can be very different — perhaps it’s always keeping your word, or perhaps it’s being kind, or perhaps it is being rich or powerful or strong and taking no shit. Perhaps it’s being smart. Perhaps it’s being good at manipulating people.

Whatever it is, the problem comes in if you tend to do something, or “be” something and you don’t like or respect people like that. Perhaps you were raised in an anti-sex church but you really like sex. You can either carve your personality to like sex less or to not judge itself for liking sex. (Yes, both are possible, though you may have a stronger biological sex drive and that may make it harder. Generally, though, getting rid of guilt is wiser.)

So when you’re changing your personality, a large part is either getting rid of parts you don’t like (through indifference and pointing at something else) or you’re getting rid of not liking that part of you.


(It’s my annual fundraiser (and has been lower this year, for obvious reasons) If you value my writing and can afford to, please consider subscribing or donating.)

It does help.


When doing this you have to take into account the social circumstances you live in. If the people around you despise a characteristic you are de-guilting, it’s going to be very hard for you because most of us are effected by people around us: we want them to like and respect us and if they don’t it’s hard for us to like and respect ourselves.

The three solutions are to change who you spend time with; to decide to conform; or to change your personality to not care what others think.

The last is the hardest and it also deprives you of a great deal of emotional support, support which is very powerful and useful. Generally, figure out who the people are who would respect the person you want to be and arrange to spend time around them. Or perhaps, look at who you respect and like and become someone they like and respect.

If you decide to go full iconoclast, it’s the same as any other personality change: when people disapprove OR approve of what you do, or who you are, don’t care. Be indifferent. Don’t get angry and push back or preen under a compliment, just treat their opinions, words and actions as completely meaningless.

Be thoughtful when changing your personality. The first rule of all spirituality is “know thyself” and if you don’t spend enough time doing that, you may change your personality in ways that are more harmful than good, or that you wind up not liking because you didn’t actually understand the personality you already have.

That said, with some biological exceptions (babies have personality), much of what you think is you, isn’t, and you can change it. Even things that seem biological can be tuned: for example, there’s a lot of evidence that happiness has a set point. But, yeah, you can move that set point higher or lower, it just tends to be a lot of work (most of it comes down to learning when to give a shit. Stressing is the cause of a ton of unhappiness.)

Your personality isn’t you. If your personality doesn’t like or respect itself, you can change that. You don’t have to be unhappy.



Meditation, Cultivation, and Spirituality Books (Part One)

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for about 14 years. Only in the last three years or so did I start to get much in the way of results from it.

Meditation and cultivation practices do things. They have real effects on people, especially if done diligently and well. Certain practices, done wrong, can mess you up, in much the same way that physical exercise, done wrong, can injure you–sometimes permanently.

One of my friends described to me the time he ran a meditation class for yoga teachers in a major American city. My friend is fat, over 250 pounds, and the yoga teachers were the elite: fit, supple, glowing with health. As they came into the room, and looked at him, he could see what was going through their minds.

He said, “All the time you have spent perfecting your bodies, I have spent perfecting my mind. Let us begin.”

(The body and the mind aren’t really two things, but hey…)

This became so long I’ve split it into two parts. I’ll link Part Two when it is published, most likely Friday.

All that said, let’s start.

The Essence of Enlightenment, James Swartz

Judging by how dog-eared this book is, it’s probably my most read cultivation book. This is the clearest explanation of one type of enlightenment I’ve ever read.

Swartz belongs to the Jnani-Yoga style of cultivation, specifically Indian Vedanta. This is a knowledge based method, where the cultivator uses reason to understand the reality of experience, eventually arriving at witness-consciousness: You view the world and yourself as something you’re just watching.

This is an accurate portrayal of how the human mind, or rather body, on close introspection, actually works.  The feeling of making choices is illusionary, and when you look at the body, thoughts, emotions, or other sense objects, you find that none of them are you (alternatively, they all are, but that’s not what this book is about).

We aren’t trained to think that way; it is not intuitive, and Jnani Yoga and Vedanta are good antidotes: They are logical arguments which help to stop the mind from screaming “bullshit” (as many readers probably are).

This book, while brilliant, is limited in certain ways. Swartz has little time for meditation as commonly understood, other than the close examination of arguments he prescribes Karma Yoga, which is doing things without worrying about the results. While Karma Yoga definitely works for some people, and is a good attitude for anyone on the cultivation path, meditation can be useful for many people.

Another problem is that Swartz expects people to be “qualified,” which means detached and basically psychologically healthy. Most people coming to cultivation aren’t as healthy as Swartz requires for success; people come because they’re hurting.

The third “issue” is that Swartz’s enlightenment, witnessing consciousness, isn’t quite the only kind. There’s another, where one becomes “that in which everything exists and from which everything came,” and there are different interpretations than “witness,” such as Buddhist “no self.” (And blah, blah, other forms that are too complicated and tedious to go into here.)

Still, I recommend this book very highly. It may be the first clean look at where you’re trying to go you read. And, having dealt with Swartz a bit, he’s a good guy, who is genuinely trying to help.

The Mindful Geek, Michael Taft

Some people need their meditation instructions served atheistically with a side of science. If that’s you, Taft has you covered. This falls into the general class of books that explain how meditate and add scientific studies about meditation either working, or studies about the brain which support the mental models on which meditation is based.

Taft is an instructor who works primarily in the tradition of Shinzen Young, who has a very detailed and complicated system of primarily Vipassana (investigatory) meditation. Modern mindfulness, to use Shinzen’s own term. Shinzen and Taft are both the real thing, in my opinion. They’ve put in the work over decades.

This book includes quite a few different styles of meditation, but it’s primarily about noting meditation. You introspect, you examine something, you attach a word or phrase to it, you move on. I came to this style late, but it’s very effective and there are people it’s taken, essentially, all the way. (I find it boring, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.) It has a very Theravada Buddhist feel to it, though Taft’s background is mostly Zen and Hindu.

And you don’t have to believe a thing about God, spirit, souls, or anything else. It’s all completely materialistic.

A good first book or a good book for those with some experience looking for other types of meditation than what they started off with.

Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood

So, Ramakrishna was a famous Hindu Holy man, a Bhakti (devotional, ecstatic worshipper) of Kali. His main disciple, Vivekananda, was the first person to introduce Hindu spirituality, including a form of meditation, to the modern West.

This book isn’t useful if you’re looking for instruction. It doesn’t include much on how to meditate, and most of it is firmly in the theistic camp: For Ramakrishna, God exists, gods existed, he saw them regularly, and talked to them and so on. This is, for atheists, a full on crazy.

But Ramakrishna was a seeker, he wanted to experience every type of Awakening. He did have the full non-dual realization (and that’s much of what Vivekananda spread to the West), but he spent time worshipping as Muslim, a Christian, and seeking out experiences of a variety of Hindu Gods.

Firmly on the “right hand” side, he was celibate, lived in a temple and didn’t like tantric practices (no sexual practices here, no sitting on corpses in graveyards, etc.).

Right, so with all that, why read it?

Partly for Bhakti-style cultivation: Intense love for a divine figure or guru, works. It really, really works. That sort of absorption in one thing unifies the mind very well and heals it of a lot of its psychological issues too.

This is the sort of practice which leads to “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Pouring everything into the love of your god, to get the final liberation, you have to transcend the God. Ramakrishna had to “wield the sword of non-discriminatory knowledge” and “kill” Kali to get there. Then, having done so, he hung out with Kali a bunch more, because, hey, why not?

A lot of people on the theistic path get stuck just short of the big realization because having a personal, loving relation with God (or Guru standing in for God) is really, really nice and they don’t want to give God up.

But this book is also, well, lovely. Ramakrishna is lovely and touching. The world he lives in, of Gods and spirits and, well, magic, is lovely. The stories are great. They’re of people who live lives that most of us in the West can barely conceive, full of gods and devotion. Most see this as craziness.

I’ve read this book a bunch of times, and loved it each time.

Joy On Demand, Chade-Meng Tan

When Tan wrote his book he worked for Google. His title, printed on his business card, was “A Jolly Good Fellow, Which Nobody Can Deny.”

So there’s that.

This is a meditation manual. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read. The fact about meditation is that it can often be a shit show: There comes a point where garbage you’ve suppressed (or not) starts coming up, and it sucks. And in certain practices there can be a lot of pain and suffering.

A lot of meditators stall out when they hit this point, they quit. Meditation is so often sold as being wonderful that people can’t handle when it turns to crap.

The best antidote for that, other than truthfulness, is emphasizing joy and bliss and happiness in meditating. The right types of meditation really are wonderful experiences AND having that wonderfulness as a base from which to work will make everything else so much easier–including some of the unavoidable crap that comes up.

Tang’s manual is oriented towards getting you that base, to making meditation enjoyable as quickly as possible.

This is an excellent way to start meditating and if your practice has stalled out, it’s an excellent way to restart it. The enterprise of reducing or ending suffering shouldn’t be some sort of grim death march.

Tang has an odd sense of humour, which all readers may not like. But the book is an enjoyable, easy read, with enough explanations of technique, theory (so you know why you’re doing it and stick with it), and stories to keep you going.


I’ll have a number more books next time, and some theoretical explanations of what you’re doing and why. In the meantime, if you want a first book, Taft’s or Tang’s will do you well. If you want to know why you’re bothering, read Swartz’s “Essence of Enlightenment,” and if you want to visit a wild and crazy–but wonderful–world, read about Ramakrishna and his disciples.

If none of these work for you, I’ll have at least two more books suitable to starting to meditate in Part Two, along with various other, scrumptious reads.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén