Michael Singer:

"The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself " (2007)

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Why people read this kind of "spiritual" books will always amazes me; and it scares me a little bit. The level of frustration and unhappiness must be very high in this world. I guess i'm one of the few lucky ones who doesn't need these books in order to live a decently satisfied life. Don't read this book if you are a happy person because the language, the structure and the content will upset you. If you are very unhappy, frustrated, neurotic, etc i am not sure that this is the right therapy, but, what the heck, it probably doesn't hurt to try.

The title of the book is obnoxious enough, but then, after the first two chapters, it gets worse. Its five sections are titled: Awaking Consciousness, Experiencing Energy, Freeing Yourself, Going Beyond, and Living Life. Enough to put me off even before reading the first chapter.

First of all, these spiritual books never admit and analyze the fundamental misunderstanding that hides behind the word "meditation". That word means two completely different things in the Western and in the Eastern traditions. In the East it means "empty your brain" whereas in the West it means "fill your brain". I frequently meditate, meaning that i think intensely about a particular subject. This is a very stressful activity that usually results in much writing, and very often the result of my meditation is painful. Eastern meditation is the exact opposite of Western meditation: do not think, empty your brain. Western philosophers and scientists meditated a lot, as did many Indian, Chinese and Japanese philosophers; but that's not the meditation that spiritual people talk about. They think that my kind of meditation (i.e. intense thinking and studying) is pretty much a waste of time: i will never find out the ultimate truth of the universe if i "meditate" in the Western sense (as in "read, study, discuss, think a lot"). (I personally think that these two different forms of meditation ended up deciding the winner: the East was way more advanced than the West before they started meditating, but later the West won out because the East was "meditating" and we were instead "doing". But this is a very unpopular thing to say so pretend that i didn't write it).

Secondly, this book (like many other books of "self-help") shows absolutely zero awareness of the vast body of contemporary literature on the neuroscience of the self. Most of this book could have been written centuries ago, even before science found out that the site of your emotions and thoughts is in the brain, and that the brain is made of interconnected neurons, etc etc.

But it is not only neuroscience that is missing from this book: it is science in general. For example, chapter 5 talks about the "inner energy" and begins with "It's actually a shame how little attention the Western world pays to the laws of inner energy". I guess we have different definitions of the words "law" (that to me means "scientific laws") and "inner energy" (that to me means something measured in joules). He is totally unaware of the vast body of literature on the thermodynamics of our body. Science has discovered a great amount of things about how our body generates, stores and uses energy, down to the very molecular machines in our body's cells. It is not that the Western world has not paid attention to it: he has not paid attention to what the Western world has discovered about it. No wonder that he is stuck with stone-age concepts like "chi", "shakti" and "spirit".

The first couple of chapters are well written if not terribly original. Singer argues that the real "i" is the one observing the thoughts going on inside the brain. This has some moderate scientific evidence although he doesn't know it because he never studied neuroscience. Except that it is not clear who is the "i" that he is talking about when he is not talking about the observer. He accuses me of building realities based upon false perceptions, but it is not clear who is the "i" who perceived those perceptions and who is the "i" who builds those realities. Besides, i personally think that "i" am mainly my fears and desires: remove those, and i am just a robot made of flesh instead of electronics. It sounds like he believes that there are two "i"'s in my brain: one is what we normally call "mind" (all the perceiving, reasoning, feeling, etc) and one is the real "i". This misleading mischievous mind makes up all sorts of stuff for reasons that elude him (ever heard of evolution?) and the real "i" has to be smart enough to realize that this artificial mental stuff distorts reality and screws up your life. Problem is that i think the real "i" is precisely what Singer shows as the artificial "i". The real "i" is the one that creates the reality that makes us suffer. Again, if you remove the perceiving and (alas) suffering, you reduce the human to little more than a robot, a zombie, or a junkie high on drugs: artificially happy all the time. If the goal of the spiritual journey is to free myself from suffering, thank you very much but i'll stick to the material journey. And, in my humble opinion, happiness is always defined in contrast with unhappiness. People who have been very unhappy can find happiness in simple things, whereas people who are always "happy" probably can never find real happiness.

Singer contradicts himself many times, as typical of all religious books (and typical of books that try to please as many readers as possible). For pretty much every statement he makes you can find in the book also the logical opposite of it. The book is also fairly repetitive, but maybe it was meant to be.

None of his statements are supported by a speck of evidence. He just blabbers because it's free.

By the time i reached chapter 17 i was exhausted by how little science this book contains. But "Contemplating Death" showed that he is equally ignorant of philosophy. Sentence after sentence i was rolling my eyes: how can he be so ignorant of Greek philosophy? So many great philosophers spoke about preparing for death, starting with the Greeks. The very first paragraphs of his chapter are simply paraphrases of great Hellenistic thinkers (but i won't tell him which ones: you got to study and THEN write, not viceversa). Do his readers really find it so difficult to get an education in (Western) science and philosophy? Do they really enjoy living in such depths of ignorance?

The last chapter is on god. Yes, i know, i know: you can find it inside yourself. There are no special rules to obey (yeah!), just find god inside yourself (and, basically, do whatever you want to do in your life, yeah). Gone are those lengthy and annoying "commandments" to obey. These days my reaction to spiritual people who believe in the existence of an infinitely powerful god-creator is to ask them: Can god do anything? Then he can also commit suicide, right? How do you know that he didn't commit suicide already? Just answering "i feel it inside me" sounds a bit arrogant. You may also feel that you are very clever, but that doesn't mean that you are.