Michael Singer’s thinking and writing have provoked four fundamental mindset shifts in my life.
First, I began to view everything as information.
I was already biased toward this view with my work, but reading The Untethered Soul helped me apply it not just to quotes from books or academic papers, but to all the data streaming in from the world through my senses.
Seeing everything as mere information is powerful because it depersonalizes life experiences. I gradually learned to stop taking everything personally, as if I was the center of the universe and everything negative that happened in the world was a direct affront to me. It’s not about me – it’s just data.
If I run out of money and can’t pay the rent this month – that’s data. If I receive a threatening legal letter – useful data. If I can’t get out of bed in the morning because I’m dreading my work today – valuable data. The separation from self that I was learning on a somatic level through meditation began to seep into my intellectual life as well.
Once an experience could be broken down into information, I could capture it and get it off my mind so I could sleep at night. I could organize and distill it into observations, lessons, theories, and frameworks so that no failure or mistake went to waste. And most meaningfully of all, I could share my life experiences with other people so they didn’t have to go through the same pain as I had.
The ability to tell my story and share my truth has changed everything for me. It means that there is a reason for the ways I’ve suffered. There is a higher purpose at work in the seeming randomness of my life. My purpose is to be a channel for the data flowing through my life, and to extract from it as much meaning, fulfillment, and joy as I can before the information that makes up who I am returns to the primordial entropy of the universe.
If everything around me is made of information, then I must be too. All the time, the boundaries of the self are being tested and renegotiated, torn apart and reconstituted, by the flux of events small and large, at all levels. The “self” that I feel inside is an informational construct that has been built piece by piece.
Which means it is invincible – information cannot be destroyed, only transformed. It means I am fluid – the information that makes up “me” is constantly shifting, with modules of code getting swapped in and out. And most of all, it means I can direct my own evolution – every book I read, course I take, and interview I listen to shapes the body of information that constitutes my identity.
Second, as a consequence of the first shift, I began to see everything that limits me as an opportunity for growth.
As Singer writes, “Your views, your opinions, your preferences, your concepts, your goals, and your beliefs are all ways of bringing the infinite universe down to the finite where you can feel a sense of control.” Which means that if your reality feels threatening, that doesn’t say anything about reality. It says something about your limited mental model of reality.
When we confuse our mental model with reality itself, we struggle day and night to make the world fit our model. Anything that doesn’t fit, we call wrong, bad, or unfair. But to go beyond the limits of our mental model, we have to take the risk of not believing it. Our choice is to either resist reality, or change our model of it.
There is a point when you begin to accept that your mental model of the world is limited, and it’s time to change it. And then there is a point where you can actually start to enjoy your model being challenged. Every pain, every loss, every conflict, every unmet expectation, and every crisis can become an intervention in your own addiction to control.
Singer proposes an experiment to help you find the limits of your mental model. If you want to know where your walls are, just start walking toward them. Maybe you have a fear of speaking in public. In third grade you raised your hand to answer the teacher’s question, and everyone laughed at you. They forgot about it within seconds, but not you. That impression stayed with you. It is one of your walls.
If you don’t believe it is a wall, try walking through it. Let’s say something happens that activates the old fear. Your manager asks you to deliver a presentation at the upcoming all-hands meeting. The closer you get to that wall, the more you will have the urge to pull back. That’s what we do with walls – we avoid running into them. But because we avoid them, they lock us inside their perimeter. They become a prison. Since we are not willing to approach them, we cannot see what is beyond them.
Life is a constant spiritual battle, and life in the modern world is no exception. There are so few pockets of certainty and stability left anywhere. Technology and the Internet have upended all our institutions, all our plans, all our sacred and protected realities. There is no authority shielding you from the storms of change anymore.
There is a way for us to meet the moment and transform some of this change into a change for good. You can think of yourself as a great athlete, training yourself to immediately relax through your edges every time they are hit.
Once you learn how to do this, then it’s all over. You know you will always be free, because the worst that life can do to you is push you to your edges. You’ve already decided you want to go past them. You end up loving your edges and your limits because they always point the way to your freedom. All you have to do is relax and lean into them.
Third, and most profoundly, I am learning to trust life to bring me what I need.
Time and again, the natural flow of life collides with my walls and tries to tear them down. Not because there is a will or intention behind it, but simply because my flawed mental model is constantly bumping up against the reality it is trying to describe. Instead of defending that reality, I try to allow reality to correct and improve it. I do this because I know that every time I defend myself, I am really defending my walls. When I decide that I am going to face reality, just as it is, no matter what it takes, I am free.
Singer closes with an observation that I’ve adopted as my own: that the only thing we really want from life is to feel enthusiasm, joy, and love. If we can feel those things all the time, then who cares what happens outside? If you can always feel excited about the experience of each moment, then it doesn’t make any difference what the next moment brings.
There is tremendous, almost indescribable joy, beauty, love, and peace living within us already. Sometimes I get a small glimpse of it and it is breathtaking. The worst that life can throw at me is welcome, because the worst that life can throw at me is the best means to unlock those forces inside me.
And fourth, I’ve embraced the idea implicit in Singer’s work, though he never states it directly, that reality is enough.
This physical universe is enough. It is meaningful enough, vivid enough, interesting enough, varied enough. There is more than enough of everything we want and need available in just the concrete reality we can see, hear, touch, and feel.
One of the most inspiring implications of Singer’s work for me is that it dispenses with the need for religion, while retaining the meaningfulness and sense of purpose that religion used to have a monopoly on. We don’t need to invent authoritarian mythological beings or alternate worlds of heaven or hell. We don’t need stories to reassure us of what happens to us after we die. We don’t need systems of judgment or penance or sin or redemption. We don’t need to personify the universe through the lens of our human drama for it to make sense.
The universe we have is enough. It has no mind of its own, no personality, no goals or purpose, no standards of truth or morality. It has a relationship with each of us, because we are part of it, but it doesn’t care about us. All these possibilities feel incredibly threatening to the religious worldview, but they don’t have to be. We could decide that there is enough information in this universe already, and that we’re going to spend our time working with the data that we’re sure exists, rather than creating more.
I’m not sure why that possibility – of a strictly secular, materialist worldview that is still imbued with meaning – is so inspiring to me. It feels more egalitarian – it’s no longer about who was born into the right beliefs, or who curried the most favor with the right divine entity. It is about who pays the most attention, and is the most willing to change, and is fundamentally the most open to discovering something about the reality they emerged into.
A secular, materialist universe would demand much more of us as humans. We wouldn’t be able to outsource our ethical reasoning to a moralistic framework created thousands of years ago. Or at least, we’d understand that all moral frameworks are circumstantial and temporary, made for one era but not others. It can be terrifying to embrace a relativist mindset when all you’ve known is the One True Path.
On the individual level, we would have the privilege and the responsibility of developing our own beliefs, instead of adopting wholesale the beliefs of others. We would be able to run experiments about what it means to live a good life, and to test whether they really work, and assemble a mix of beliefs from different sources. Each person would be free to craft their own belief system as a singular creative act.
More practically, this worldview helps me to accept the flow of life’s momentum. There are no secret underlying forces at work, no narrative that explains why things happen the way they do. There is no purpose to the universe, much less a purpose for my life. Which means there’s no point in stressing out about “finding” it.
He continues elsewhere:
There is no way to prove that the universe we see is all that exists. No more than any religion can prove its version of events. Thus it lies beyond faith, but also beyond science. It is a choice about one’s orientation toward life.
I’m trying on this perspective for now, knowing that not only can I change my mind in the future, but that is the whole point.
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