Cognitive Dissonance

November 3, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable and stressful mental state experienced when our beliefs contradict the hard facts of objective reality. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about politics, religion, relationships, values, who we are, where we come from, the nature of reality, and the meaning of life. Being incredibly passionate about those beliefs however is no guarantee that they are not completely wrong. It’s that “completely wrong” experience that I’d like to talk about.

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we strive for internal consistency in our belief system, and when we experience inconsistency or dissonance, we tend to become mentally uncomfortable. This mental discomfort serves a purpose – to motivate us to reduce the dissonance and avoid situations or information that is likely to increase it.

There are generally two ways we can reduce or eliminate our cognitive dissonance. We can either 1) modify or change our beliefs to become consistent with the facts, or 2) we can try to force or change the facts of objective reality to agree with our beliefs.

Of these two options, when experiencing cognitive dissonance, I’m sure most of us would like to think we would choose the first. Recognizing that our beliefs disagree with the facts of objective reality can be an unpleasant situation, but with psychological maturity comes a certain willingness to embrace the hard truths of the world despite it going against our personal beliefs and values. Most mentally and emotionally mature individuals will, albeit reluctantly, adjust their beliefs to come into harmony with the given facts of a situation.    

Surprisingly though, the second choice of ignoring or “changing” the facts over those of our personal beliefs seems to be gaining an increasing amount of traction in our modern world. Nowhere has this become more noticeable than in the political and religious arenas. Understandably, these two realms carry an enormous amount of psychological and sociological baggage and relate directly to a person’s sense of good and bad, right and wrong, the value and meaning of life, freedom, liberty, God, and the pursuit of happiness.

But to paraphrase a quote by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the universe is under no obligation to conform to your beliefs about it. In other words, if your beliefs are totally wrong, the rest of the world is not required to conform to those erroneous beliefs. The world does not exist to agree with your worldview. Quite to the contrary, the world, universe, laws of nature, facts of the matter, or however you want to conceptualize the rigid rod of reality, simply is. The onus for change is upon us, not the world at large when we are in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Despite this rather common sense understanding, as a nation, we are largely awash in a flat out refusal to accept the facts that may run counter to our beliefs. Scientific literacy is at an all-time low, fact checking goes completely ignored, and large groups of people stubbornly cling to ideologies and belief systems that have neither evidence nor reason to support them. Issues such as the denial of climate change or evolutionary theory; President Obama’s religious affiliation; or the literal and historical accuracy of the Bible are all topics of contention that are apparently so self-evident to their believers that they require no proof whatsoever to be considered accurate. In the minds of such people facts and evidence literally do not matter.  

If you don’t find this shocking, you should. Of all our mental attributes, critical thinking is one of the most powerful tools we have for rooting out the causes of our own ignorance. But when we bypass or turn off our critical thinking simply because the answers it gives us are uncomfortable, we’re ignoring the signals our cognitive dissonance is sending us and leading ourselves down the path of self-delusion.

Here’s an example of this mindset that comes from the martial arts. For decades, or even centuries, students of the martial arts were trained by their instructor in a given style and were taught that their art was the most effective means of self-defense and realistic combative skill. As is often the case in the martial arts, newer students fall into the groupthink of the class and accept what they are taught without question. Lessons were learned, practiced, and handed down from teacher to student, perpetuating the belief in the style’s effectiveness. However, with no actual testing of the art’s functionality in true combat, the students are left believing in their art’s ability on faith alone.

Such was the case for countless martial artists throughout the decades until one fateful night in 1993 at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. During that event martial artists from multiple styles pitted their arts and skills against each other in a litmus test of effectiveness in actual combat. There were few if any rules in that early event. No weight classes, no time limits, no illegal strikes. It was as close to the brutal reality of a street fight as one could get without risking serious injury or death. What happened? Royce Gracie, a small, relatively unknown Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt dominated and forced the submission of each of his opponents. Not only that, he did the same in 3 subsequent UFC events, answering once and for all the question of what does and doesn’t work in actual combat. Where were the deadly one strike, one kill techniques? The lethal pressure point attacks, the dirty fighting techniques, the “secret methods” that were too dangerous for all but the most skilled masters? Interestingly, those techniques and the promises of their effectiveness against an actual resisting opponent suddenly turned into nothing more than armchair pontification.

UFCs 1-4 sent the martial arts community into a tailspin of cognitive dissonance. Long held beliefs about the supposed “deadly effectiveness” of martial arts styles were in jeopardy. What were you to do as a marital artist caught up in this dissonance? Well, you could either 1) recognize what happened, accept it, and choose to update your belief system to integrate the new information; in this case the absolute necessity in training in the grappling arts and the fundamental understanding that a very high percentage of actual fights end up on the ground. Or 2) you could stubbornly resist these very obvious, demonstrable facts and carry on as if nothing had happened, continuing to believe in the deadly power of your techniques and martial philosophy so as to not have to face the uncomfortable fact that your training may be incomplete.

I’ve had an experience that loosely parallels what I’ve described above – I recently started studying Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (the same art Royce used to dominate in the UFCs). You should know that I’ve been studying or training in the martial arts since I was 18. I’ve trained in several arts, earned a black belt in one, an instructor’s certification in another, and felt that overall, I had a good understanding and a significant level of skill when it came to the martial arts. However, from my first time rolling (free sparring with a resisting opponent), I became rapidly re-acquainted with cognitive dissonance. Although I had some ground fighting training in the past, this was a huge game-changer. It’s one thing to say, “If I run up against a guy who wants to hurt me, I’ll do ‘such and such’”, but it’s something entirely different to have that guy (who outweighs you by an easy 75 pounds) posted with a knee on your belly making you seriously contemplate whether to crap or go blind. Very, very little of my previous training prepared me for this – the techniques, the conditioning, the emotional content. And this is what sets this art apart – the brutal closeness to actual combat it simulates. As I’ve come to realize, without a training method in which your opponent is actually trying his hardest to submit you as you are trying to submit him, you are to a certain extent, engaging in a fantasy.  

This cognitive dissonance continues to rear its head whenever I start thinking I have an idea of what I’m doing. It usually takes the form of a higher belt student crushing me during a three minute roll, but in the end it’s teaching me a valuable lesson: the world doesn’t care what you think. What works is what works, I can either accept it and integrate this knowledge into my slow climb to self-mastery, or I can quit and go back to my old comfortable delusions. Believe me, I’ve thought about quitting and justifying it by telling myself that “this isn’t what I was looking for”, but that would just be a disguise for me sticking my head in the sand and pretending I was something I wasn’t.

I’d like to think that this post sums up why I’m so keen on the teachings of Bruce Lee and his art of Jeet Kune Do*. Bruce was all about confronting his own illusions and inspiring others to do the same. He knew that cognitive dissonance, while a crappy feeling, is a means to explore, expose, and root out the causes of our own ignorance. His art and philosophy was a very practical one. It says, do what works, ignore what doesn’t, and find your own way. He knew the facts don’t lie and we have to stand ever vigilant against the self-deception we indulge in order to avoid having to change our beliefs.

I’ll button up this post with two quotes that seem appropriate:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

– John Adams

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

* Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a component of the Jeet Kune Do I practice and it provides a set of attributes vital to the overall JKD matrix.


In Defense of Deepak

June 9, 2015

I’ve been associated with the Chopra Center for nearly 20 years. I’ve read the majority of Deepak Chopra’s and David Simon’s work, attended numerous programs, worked as a Chopra Center volunteer, and become a certified instructor of meditation, yoga, and Ayurvedic lifestyle and wellness. During that time I’ve watched Deepak and David’s focus shift and evolve from perfect health, to living an abundant and fulfilling life, to the path to love, to the philosophy and practice of yoga, to harnessing the power of synchronicity to bridging the gap between science and spirituality. Through all this Deepak has had his share of critics and detractors. Such is the result of being in the public eye while attempting to translate the world’s wisdom traditions into a modern context. People naturally resist and fear what they don’t understand and haven’t experienced themselves. Over the last several years though, that resistance seems to have become increasingly hostile.

Disagreement is part of the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with a spirited debate over opposing viewpoints. However it’s something completely different to attack, insult, mock and criticize someone for their views. Most of this criticism has come from the scientific community who take exception to Deepak’s views on science, spirituality, and the connection between the two. Personally, I find their animosity toward Deepak to be puzzling in that he’s an MD with a thoroughgoing scientific background who regularly interacts and engages with highly respected members of the scientific community in an attempt to better understand how modern science can shed light on the wisdom teachings of the East.  

One of those wisdom traditions is Vedanta, which in India is known as the Science of Spirituality. Although putting those two words together in a sentence may seem cringeworthy to the Western Scientific mind, this model for spiritual inquiry actually very closely resembles the scientific method. It begins with a hypothesis (Consciousness is the foundation of the universe) and this leads to specific experiments that can validate or invalidate the hypothesis (The four paths to unity or Yogas which provide experiential knowledge of that unity). If the experiments appear to validate the hypothesis, then one asks his or her peers to duplicate the results and provide additional evidence for the hypothesis. The key here is having your own experience. When I teach my students about meditation, yoga, and Vedanta, I always make sure to tell them, I can’t prove that any of what I tell you is true…but you can. You have to go out and have your own experience to find out for yourself if what I’ve taught you is valid. Run your own experiment. Your life is the laboratory. But realize if you’re not willing to run the experiment, you’re in no position to criticize it.

While this scientific model of spiritual exploration has proven successful for countless seekers throughout the ages, (myself included), it still does little to convince the critics. That’s because the problem with this method, if you want to call it one, is that it’s experiential. As one of my meditation teachers once said, “The only bad thing about meditation is that you have to do it.” Let’s be honest, of Deepak’s critics, from the well-known scientific community, to the hostile media personalities, to the unknown internet keyboard warrior, they all have at least one thing in common – they will most likely never attend a Chopra Center event, read one of Deepak’s books with the open-minded intention of truly understanding it, or most importantly, invest the time and energy involved in practicing the mind-body teachings that can lead to both the self-transformation and self-validation of a spiritual worldview. As such, this is a particularly safe position for Deepak’s critics to be in. They can accuse him of being a woo-woo, snake oil salesman and new age charlatan while simultaneously avoiding the heavy lifting of actually practicing what Deepak teaches.

This seems like a no win scenario for Deepak. His opponents viciously attack his dedication and passion for creating a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world and show no real interest in exploring the path he has laid down in his books, lectures, and workshops. The fact that he works and co-authors books with amazing scientists like Leonard Mlodinow, Rudolph Tanzi, and Stuart Hameroff appears to account for nothing with his opponents. As such, it seems difficult to fathom why Deepak would continue to interact or debate with such a hostile audience. In fact, I asked him this very question during a retreat a few years ago. It was shortly after a now well-known public debate between Deepak and some of his more contentious opponents that had ultimately turned into something of a science versus spirituality throw-down. I asked, If part of living a spiritual life is to practice defenselessness, and knowing that knowledge and understanding changes in different states of consciousness, and your opponents are not only unwilling but also unable to understand this worldview, why would you want to continue to engage with them; what could you hope to accomplish?

Deepak answered by saying that while on the surface it might seem to be a contentious situation, it was all ultimately all just Leela, a Sanskrit word that describes the play of the universe. As such, the conflict between Deepak and his opponents was part of a divine drama in which the One spirit divides itself into opposite factions to engage in imaginary conflict, much in the same ways children play cops and robbers. Ultimately Deepak and his critics are just opposite sides of the same coin, debating about who gets to be face up.

I can’t say I embrace that notion as fully as Deepak does, but after practicing these teachings and watching them change my life, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll admit, I don’t always understand where he’s going with some of the things he says or does, but I do recognize that he’s trying to help make the world a better place and from where I stand, I believe he’s succeeding. Besides, who says I or anyone else is meant to fully “get” Deepak Chopra? In the documentary Decoding Deepak, Gotham Chopra, Deepak’s son asks himself who his father really is apart from the fame, the books, and seminars and admits that he really doesn’t know. If Deepak’s own son can’t define his father, who are we to do any better, and should we even try?

Regarding Deepak’s critics, I’m sure they will always be there. Deepak’s willingness to openly speak about the bridge he’s trying to build between science and spirituality makes him an easy target for his opponents. But one attribute that Deepak excels at is detachment. While he does get into some heated exchanges from time to time, he seems to say what he feels without any attachment to the outcome. One of the characteristics of the soul is that it is independent of the good or bad opinion of others. The Deepak I’ve watched over the years seems to have that trait down pat. I think it’s also telling to remember the paradox of judgment is that it often says more about the one passing judgment than their intended victim. When Deepak’s critics let loose with seething contempt and vitriol in an attack against his views, his finances, or personal life, it speaks volumes about the person behind such attacks. It reminds me of a story told about the Buddha:

One day, as the Buddha was walking through a village, he was approached by a young man who began insulting him. “You have no right teaching others. You are stupid and a fake.”

The Buddha was not upset by this attack. Instead, he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, but they refuse the gift, who does the gift belong to?”

The young man, surprised by the question replied, “It would belong to me.”

The Buddha smiled and replied, “That is correct. It is the same with your anger. If you offer me anger and I do not accept it and do not get insulted, then the anger still belongs to you. You are the one who is unhappy, not me. You have hurt yourself not another.”

Ultimately, while I titled this article In Defense of Deepak, I honestly don’t think Deepak needs defending. For those of us who follow his work or that of the Chopra Center though, it might be helpful to remember that the test of any teacher or body of knowledge lies in the results you see in your life. Bruce Lee, one of my personal heroes, reminds us to absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add specifically that which is your own. In my experience, I have absorbed innumerable useful teachings from Deepak Chopra and the Chopra Center. I have sifted through and let go of those things that aren’t appropriate to me and I strive to add to and modify what I learn in the most beneficial way for my life. I encourage you to do the same.

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Hopefully we have all had the opportunity to spend time in the company of friends and family, enjoyed a delicious meal, and celebrated all that we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful occasion to embrace some of the values we hold most dear; things that can be often taken for granted in the swirl of our daily existence. But with Thanksgiving behind us, we now find ourselves caught on the cusp of the Christmas shopping season and its focal singularity, Black Friday.

If you don’t know the historical perspective, the term Black Friday had its origins in 1960s Philadelphia when police officers would use the term to describe the terrible traffic jams which annually occurred in Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was meant as a derogatory expression in the hopes that the public would find the long lines, traffic, mayhem, and general ruthless shopping environment distasteful and therefore something to be avoided. Despite the intentions to contrary, the term took off in a big way and was later co-opted by businesses trying to get their profits into the ‘black’ near the end of the calendar year. Sometime after the mid-1980s corporate America jumped on the bandwagon and behold, a modern shopping phenomenon was born.

More vibrant and thriving than ever before, Black Friday has taken on a life of its own. As the busiest shopping day of the year, it creates an unprecedented amount of momentum in our culture with newspaper ads and commercials running weeks prior to the actual event. Entire websites are dedicated to helping the buyer locate the best deals and consumers strategically organize their shopping excursions with more detail and ruthless determinism than a military campaign. It truly is a one-of-a-kind all American original institution.

But taking a deeper look at what Black Friday really signifies can tell us a lot about ourselves as a people. The world is your mirror, and Black Friday is no exception. Hidden within this yearly shopping extravaganza are some key messages that can be important to reflect upon. I’m not trying to bash Black Friday and those who indulge in its holiday splendor as much as shine some light on its hidden messages, what we can learn from them, and if they are ultimately a benefit to us as individuals and as a society.

First, we must be honest and recognize the first of two underlying prime movers of Black Friday, materialism. Materialism, as a worldview basically holds that matter and its interactions is the primary, fundamental stuff and substance of the universe. But as it relates to a deeper understanding of human nature, materialism is also the underlying notion that possessing more things leads to greater happiness. This conclusion certainly makes a certain amount of sense from a materialistic standpoint: if the world is made of physical things and stuff, then having more of the stuff that I need and want will lead to more happiness.

Unfortunately, for the die-hard materialist, the world isn’t made up of “stuff.” I won’t even attempt a quantum physics explanation of how everything in the material universe is actually just energy and information; just know that the consensus in the scientific community is clear – all the stuff we think is so hard and tangible is really just waves of information and energy moving at dizzying speeds giving us the illusion of solidity. But if that isn’t enough, just consider all the evidence to support a non-materialistic way of looking at the world. Thoughts, emotions, moods, values, inspiration, intentions, creativity, your personality, sense of “I”, or your soul; these aren’t material, but you know them to be a real part of your existence. Sure, these states might be associated to specific brain chemicals or hormones, but in and of themselves, they aren’t physical. And in when you think about it, what would you rather base your life and behavior upon, physical, impermanent matter that decays and rots away with the passage of time, or the non-material qualities that we intrinsically feel are at the heart of existence? I believe most people would lean toward the latter. Think about it, to call someone materialistic is often considered a serious affront because it implies a shallowness of being and an attachment to material things over more timeless values.

So what does this say about Black Friday? Well, simply put, like it or not, Black Friday is all about materialism. It would have you believe that owning more of the stuff that doesn’t ultimately lead to happiness is of the utmost importance. It’s a “thing-based” event (as if this wasn’t obvious). But what it says about us is that as participants in Black Friday we’re in a certain sense casting our vote for a stuff-based way of looking at the world. If this wasn’t the case, would countless shoppers be willing to mow down their competitors over an article of clothing or appliance one day after celebrating all they have to be thankful for? If those values truly reigned supreme, would Black Friday be able to sustain itself the way it has over the last few decades?

The Second prime mover behind Black Friday is consumerism. Consumerism is an economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Consumerism needs a materialistic worldview to thrive, because once we become convinced that having more stuff = greater happiness, it’s a simple matter to persuade us to continually buy more and more things. Now I know that there are things we all need for our survival, however consumerism truly flourishes not so much around the things we need, but around the things we want. As a culture, we have become buyers of stuff, often mindless buyers of stuff. We love to buy things. There’s a certain pleasure received from buying things, no doubt caused by a hit of dopamine in our brain’s pleasure centers, that makes us somehow feel more fulfilled. This is a natural response to the fulfillment of a desire, but the problem arises when through repetition, this behavior crosses the line into an addiction. I would guess a great many of us are addicted to the consumerism “fix” that leads to buying things just to buy things. It can be a double-edged sword in that a certain degree of consumerism help keep the economy going, however when it runs rampant (as in our culture) we face an ever increasing buildup of needless and unnecessary junk produced for the sole purpose of fueling the consumer machine.

As it relates to Black Friday, consumerism is the engine that keeps this shopping phenomenon alive and well. It sends a clear message that we are consumption addicts and that, given the right mix of availability and low prices, we will be slaves to the corporate giants that supply our distorted sense of demand. Yes, you already have a 65 inch flat screen LCD Television, but if you wait in line beginning at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving night you can get another 65 inch TV for 1/3 its original price. Do you need it? No, but look at how much money you “save” by buying this one when it’s dirt cheap! This is the type of logic that fuels our consumer-based mentality. More after all, is more, which of course is better than less…

Third, the hype surrounding Black Friday often turns us into puppets of the advertising media and the products they promote. Advertising is rarely what it appears to be. There is always an agenda behind every product being promoted or discounted and as much as we’d like to believe the advertisers have our best interests at heart, what they’re usually concerned about is just one thing – making money. To do so they will use every tactic at their disposal to get you to purchase their product. I’m not trying to make advertising sound like a sinister conspiracy, but I think it’s important to realize that the advertising media isn’t trying to inform you of a product as much as it is attempting to manipulate your behavior. Now you might say “I have free will, no one tells me what to buy,” but take a look in your refrigerator or closet. How many name brands do you see? Now ask yourself if you bought those items because you knew they were the highest quality, or because of an association to that product you formed through advertising. We all do it, and it doesn’t mean we’re mindless zombies just because we buy a popular, well-advertised brand. But the more visibility that item has online, in print, or on television, the greater the chances are you’ll become familiar with it and lean toward it over another less-known brand.

Some brands go to great lengths to grab our attention and create targeted campaigns to associate certain images, concepts, or beliefs to their products. Once we form an association, not unlike Pavlov’s Dog, we have an automatic and often unconscious response to that stimulus. Our attention gets hooked and for many of us the hype and glitz bypasses our critically thinking intellect and heads right for the emotional centers of our brain where it’s much more likely to take root and motivate you to take action.

What does this mean on Black Friday? Consider that long before the big day we are inundated with the flyers, ads, commercials, and targeted emails, all of which are designed to prime the emotional pump and create a powerful psychological momentum towards saving huge sums of money on Black Friday. They tactfully feed into the our materialistic and consumer-driven mentality, ramping up our need to have and buy more while directing our attention to those large ticket items that will have the biggest impact on their business. Further, notice that the advertisements primarily come from large retailers with huge advertising budgets. Smaller outlets have little chance of competing against a wall of advertisements generated by the corporate giants. As shoppers, we can easily (and unwittingly) get caught up in the media and advertising hype of Black Friday and become convinced that we need to buy more of what we don’t need. The collective pull guided by the advertising industry can be a powerful force, and without awareness we may unconsciously end up doing its bidding, for better or worse.

Finally, the popularity of Black Friday clearly demonstrates that we are an object-referral society. Object-referral means that your sense of self, of who you are is influenced by what is happening outside your Self. Situations, circumstances, people and things govern who you believer yourself to be and therefore have the greatest amount of control over your happiness and wellbeing. Object-referral is constantly seeking the approval of others and behavior is always in anticipation of a response. In object-referral, your internal reference point is the ego which thrives on approval, strives to control, and is sustained by power. It’s the sense of I, me, and mine that perpetually asks, “What’s in it for me?”

The opposite of object-referral is self-referral, meaning that your internal reference point is your soul rather than the objects of your experience. It is a spirit and consciousness based way of approaching life and asks, “How can I help?”

We only need to take a cursory look around at our society to realize that object-referral reigns supreme. It is the mentality that drives the sense of individual accomplishment, of ‘us versus them’, of ‘looking out for number one’, and getting what’s mine before someone else does.

This becomes especially revealing in light of Black Friday. Black Friday isn’t about the generous and grateful values we espoused just one day earlier. It’s about every shopper for themselves, of grabbing the prize before someone else does, of the means justifying the ends. One needs only a short visit to YouTube to see countless posts of security-cam footage during the mad rush when eager shoppers nearly crash through a doorway like a sea of humanity surging to the electronics department to witness object-referral in action. Helping others isn’t on the agenda on this day; it’s about me and mine.

Now I hear the protests: But I’m shopping to give my child (husband, parent) a wonderful Christmas or Chanukah. That may be, but what values are we upholding when we live by a win at all costs mentality, even if it’s for the best of intentions? Are we telling ourselves that our purchases are more important than those of others? And if so, is the example you set one you would have your loved ones follow? No doubt, these can be uncomfortable and difficult questions. Just the same, I think they’re important to ask. If we are only willing to hold to our values when it’s convenient, then what does that say about us as people?

As you can see by now, the spectacle of Black Friday tells us quite a bit about ourselves, and in all honesty, I can’t say it paints a pretty picture. I know many people actually enjoy shopping on Black Friday and It wasn’t my intention to offend those shoppers in this essay. I do believe however it’s important to examine what we do and why we do it, as well as what we can learn from those questions. Do I think we should get rid of Black Friday? Would it help pull our culture back from the cliff of runaway materialistic consumerism? Perhaps. Regardless, I believe it’s vitally important to recognize that Black Friday is the byproduct of our collective consciousness. Black Friday became what it is because we allowed it to happen. If we don’t like our creation, perhaps we should hold a different vision.

I’ll admit it; I get most of my news from the internet. Either from news websites or a handful of respected select sources on social media, I basically pick and choose the news that I want to read and/or be exposed to. I left televised news broadcasts years ago and only tune into them these days when there’s an event that is breaking faster than online channels can keep up with. The reason for my departure was simple – televised news had become, and largely still is a source of wholesale negativity. Here’s a sure –fire recipe for fear, depression, anxiety, anger, indignation, melodrama, hopelessness, and desperation; 1) get comfortable in your favorite couch or chair, 2) watch the evening news, 3) repeat for 2 weeks.

I want to be a positive person and put my attention on uplifting stories and experiences that give me hope for the human race. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Pollyanna. I know the world can be a rough, violent, and nasty place. But that doesn’t mean we have to invite that nastiness into our living rooms every night. Just do a little armchair reading on the neurological and psychological effects of absorbing large amounts of negative images, sounds, and other stimulus from the environment and you’ll understand why it’s so important to minimize your exposure to this type of emotional toxicity.

So, in addition to the books I read, I stick to online outlets for my news and information about what’s going on in the world. Does it paint a complete or a perfect picture of absolute truth? Of course not, but it gives me the information I feel is necessary to form what I hope is a well-informed perspective.

The reason I mention this is that as I sift through the articles, stories, and headlines, the one glaring difference between televised or print media and that of the online world is the presence of the comment section. In the old world of media information, outside of occasional letters to the editor, opinion polls, or a man on the street type interview, the average information consumer was silent. Not the case on the internet. As the internet has continued to evolve, it is no longer a one-way repository of information to be accessed and consumed by the public. Now, in addition to its role of unlimited information warehouse, the internet has become a public cybernetic forum in which everyone has a voice and an opinion. And this is a big change in the way we have been communicating about politics, religion, values, and countless other subjects.

The comment forum is in many ways a bold new frontier in which readers (or viewers in the case of video) of online material are free to add their own two cents. This can be a very good thing in that it gives a voice to people that would perhaps otherwise not be heard. However, as a fair, just, and unbiased vehicle allowing others to share their support or opposition to a particular point of view, it’s not always without challenges. No doubt a comment section helps to support our freedom of speech and gives us an outlet to voice our concerns, change minds, and sway public opinion. And while I’m not here to debate such logic, I do want to point out a few of the effects of this apparently innocuous cause.

First, as a frequently anonymous forum, comment sections allow the commentator the freedom to say whatever they want with little if any concerns over how their comments reflect on them as individuals. In everyday face to face, telephone, or email communications, we have a set of filters that help us abide by social convention, maintain good working or social relationships, and basically behave politely and courteously. In an anonymous comment section, those rules often go out the door and we see a much more primal side of human nature come to the surface. The comment section is the domain of the ego unbridled and people join the ongoing conversation for one of two reasons – to either take the side of the article or story or to attack it, plain and simple.

From a basic psychological perspective, we want to belong and feel like we are part of a group, so if we like the article’s premise, we read the comments or join the conversation so we can enjoy strength in numbers and feel better about our common beliefs. Likewise, if we disagree, we comment and seek other like-minded dissenters.

This is all well and good. However, in comment environments the best laid intentions can often pave a road of toxic mayhem. The ego’s persistent need to be right combined with the anonymity, freedom, and unaccountability of this atmosphere can very often turn the comment section into a battleground of cynicism, sarcasm, anger, vitriol, rage, and even hate speech. In the same way that people can be much more aggressive behind the wheel of an automobile than if they were on foot, online commenters are often willing to say (or write) things they would absolutely never say in person. The ‘must be right at all costs’ mentality creates blanket negativity that really doesn’t solve anything, and in the case of a particularly incendiary story or issue, may actually contribute to the problem. Making matters worse are the internet trolls who seem to take a strange delight in inflaming conflict and stirring the pot simply to raise the ire of their fellow commentators. They may not even have a dog in the fight so to speak, but relish in deliberately poking and prodding others in order to get a reaction.

This isn’t to say that comment sections are inherently “bad”; but they can certainly be a highly flammable milieu, capable of generating a great deal of negativity.

This brings me to the second point I’d like to make about comment sections: everyone’s an expert.

Due to the nature of expressing personal opinions, people tend to speak their minds with a great deal of conviction in their beliefs. They become very passionate about what they feel is is right or wrong, good or bad and are willing to proclaim it with absolute certainty. There’s just one problem; it’s just an opinion. Everyone has opinions, personal viewpoints and perspectives. It’s part of the human condition. However, having an opinion doesn’t mean it’s the absolute, objective, irrefutable truth. It’s merely one viewpoint amongst countless others, all of which believe that they are equally valid.

Furthermore, having an opinion doesn’t make one an expert on that topic. This is a really, really important point. In a very interesting article titled The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School, makes a very compelling argument that, we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. This ‘collapse’ has contributed to the mindset that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s, and this is simply, not the case.

There is a very clear line between true expertise and simply having an opinion. Having a strong opinion isn’t the same as knowing something, either as the product of thoroughgoing study (as in holding an advanced degree) or through direct experience. This doesn’t mean that your opinion doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Nichols calls attention to what’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which in essence says, the less you actually know about something, the more confidence you have in what you think you know. This effect is ironically and painfully evident when you consider ongoing “debates” around issues such as climate change, evolution, or separation of church and state.

Countless comment sections throughout the internet and social media attest to the blurring of the opinion-expertise boundary. No matter the topic, everyone is the smartest person in the room, espousing their interpretation, their personal opinion as if it were the one and only Truth. Once again, this is not meant to go against our right to free speech, nor am I saying that expert opinions are the only ones that count. They do however, carry more weight in a discussion, as they should. When considering a given topic, I believe our inclination should be to value the expert opinion over that of the layman. This isn’t to say the expert can’t be wrong, but based on their deeper understanding of the topic, an expert’s perspective is going to be of more merit than the average Joe.

Unfortunately, this typically isn’t the case in most comment sections. Everyone has something to say and very few of those commentators are actual experts. They vehemently argue and defend their position, not realizing the wisdom in Dale Carnegie’s words when he said; A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In closing, I don’t want to dump on comment sections or make it sound like they’re a horrible idea. I think they can serve a purpose and can at times stimulate some worthwhile dialogue, provided you know your fellow commentators and proceed in the spirit of a healthy debate or discussion. At the same time, they are not without risk. It can be disheartening to read an uplifting story about something you believe in, and in turning to the comments section in hoping to see how others may have been similarly inspired or uplifted, you only discover loads of negative and trolling feedback. Thus, my personal recommendation is to proceed with caution. And if you don’t have something to say that’s constructive or helpful, be quiet. Recognize that if you want to retain your peace of mind and remain positive, sometimes it’s better to avoid the comments section altogether. But if you do indulge in either reading or commenting yourself, hopefully you don’t take it too seriously or personally. Everyone has an opinion, and we all know what body part they’re often compared to…

And yes, this essay is just an opinion as well 😉

The Long, Slow, Goodbye

August 11, 2014

My mother has Dementia.

Or Alzheimer’s. Her doctors have never given us a diagnosis with 100% certainty. What it’s called really doesn’t matter though. What we do know without doubt is that my mother’s memory has been slipping away progressively and alarmingly for the last 5-7 years, and in all likelihood, the process has been going on for much longer than that. The disease is slowly strip-mining away her memories, personality, intellect, and any other mental quality with which she would define herself as an individual. She looks like herself, sounds like herself (apart from the largely incoherent nature of her speech), and has most of her lifelong mannerisms and quirks, but the mother I knew now really exists only in my memory.

Very few of my friends are aware of this situation or the heartbreak and turmoil this disease has put my family through. My father has certainly had it the roughest. My parents are boomers and were married young, raised two sons, had successful teaching careers, and have never been apart from each other for more than a couple days during their entire marriage. This disease however, has slowly robbed my father of his best friend, companion, and wife of fifty years. Not all at once though. Dementia picks away little things, one by one, with seemingly infinite patience until one day those little things add up to a big whopper, such as when my mother asked my father if they had attended my wedding 8 years ago. (In case you are wondering, yes they had).

Not only has it broken his heart, but it’s forced him into the role of her 24-7 caregiver, a job he could never have been prepared for. When a couple gets married and they recite the “Through sickness and in health” part of their vows, few imagine having to make good on that pledge to such a degree. Despite that, my father has been an amazing and compassionate caregiver for my mother as her condition progresses. In our somewhat unconscious denial of the severity of my mother’s disease, I think my father, my brother and I imagined that he could go on indefinitely providing support for her. Such is the nature of this situation, you want to believe everything is normal and that we can always make it work so we can maintain our own level of comfort.

That’s a dirty lie.

If you know of any Alzheimer’s or Dementia caregivers or read up on the subject, you’ll know the experience is incredibly taxing and can take years off the caregiver’s life, due largely to the amount of chronic stress they are under day in and day out. This was the effect upon my father, a man now 75 and a veteran of not one, but two heart bypass surgeries. My brother and I could see the wear and tear showing on him and realized that something needed to change, not just for Mom, but for Dad as well. So about a year ago, he accepted the help of a part time caregiver who would come to the house a few days a week to help out with Mom. For a while this leveled the playing field and gave my father a respite. But in time the disease upped the ante. New challenges, changes in my mother’s behavior, and the ever pressing concern and uncertainty about the future and what next steps should be considered.

All the while, I (and perhaps my brother as well) tried to go about business and usual, often avoiding thinking too hard about what the future would hold because, honestly it was just too painful. Nobody wants to consider that their mother is going to forget them sometime in the not so distant future. But despite the largely automatic and unconscious adjustment to the “new normal” I would reset to after each visit with my parents or update from my father, the situation was never far from the front burner. It was always there, reminding me of the uncertainty, the impermanence and frailty of our human existence. The byproduct of which was a tangible level of emotional toxicity in the form of anger. Not anger at someone or something, not even the disease that was taking my mother away from us, no; this was free-floating anger that seemed to settle on whatever turked my canister that day. I felt I was doing a semi-decent job keeping the anger in check, but it was still eating me up inside. As is typical for me, I turned a portion of my anger toward myself and it split off into its step brother – guilt. I was awash with guilt. Guilt for living so far away from my parents in Florida. Guilt for not being able to help my father more. Guilt for not more aggressively encouraging my parents to eat healthier, get more exercise, and meditate (all of which I believed may have slowed the manifestation or progression of the illness). Worst of all, guilt for not knowing what to do. Anger, guilt, helplessness. I felt like I was doing shots of that cocktail on a daily basis. It’s only now, with a certain degree of awareness and hindsight that I can see the insidious way the disease was messing with my head and heart.

Thus was my mental/emotional state for my most recent trip to visit my parents, a trip during which Dad and I would visit the assisted living facility that we hoped would accept my mother as a resident and patient. I flew home to Pennsylvania not looking terribly forward to the experience. I typically love to go home and stay in the house I grew up in nestled in a country valley surrounded by 92 acres of rolling Pennsylvania hills, but this was different. After a recent visit of his own, my brother recommended for me to get up to see Mom and Dad as soon as possible so I could adjust and accept my Mom’s current state as well as provide some desperately needed emotional support for my father.

I made it home as soon as I could and for the most part; the trip was typical of my previous visits, but this time I really allowed myself to soak in the extent to which my mother’s condition had progressed and witness the toll it had taken on my father. We took it easy, spent lots of time sitting on the front porch or taking minor excursions out of the house to keep my mother occupied. My Dad and I talked a lot – about the symptoms of the disease, the overwhelm he was feeling, the uncertainty about what each new day would bring. All this we could discuss with my mother at his side, since she was in a world of her own and no longer had the ability to follow a conversation in any rational sense. Despite the pain, it was a very healing time for both my Dad and I. We grew closer in ways we had never been before, and for that I am deeply grateful.

During this visit another toxic emotional state began to pay me a visit: fear. I was after all, my mother’s son. What if her condition was genetic? Could this happen to me? Had I been having trouble remembering things lately, or was it just the stress and mental static of the situation making it hard for me to think clearly? Despite being the most health conscious person I knew with my my vegetarian diet, daily meditation practice, regular yoga, strength training and martial arts workouts, I was suddenly terrified that I too could experience what was happening to my mother, but this time from the inside out. Fortunately, I was able to talk myself down off that ledge, at least for the time being. This trip wasn’t about my selfish fears or worries. I needed to be present for my Mom and Dad. This fear did however help to cultivate an important shift in my awareness by helping me to empathize with my Mom, if even just a little, and understand how horrible this disease must be for its victim, especially if you know it’s happening to you. What a nightmare.

On the Sunday of my long weekend visit, we toured the assisted living facility in which we were in the process of applying for. It was a beautiful and modern place, filled with a loving staff, pleasant accommodations, and regular activities scheduled on the half hour to give the residents the very fixed and active routine so important to Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients. All of this was a challenge to take in, but the kicker was when my Mom was encouraged to join into one of the group activities. The residents were in the large common area watching a senior’s exercise video set to music from long ago. Within seconds, and I mean seconds, my mother was studiously watching the video and moving in sync with the instructor on the screen all to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two.” My Dad and I stood in the rear of the room and watched how well my mother fit into this environment…and we promptly went to pieces in each other’s arms.

This was a good thing, though. As Mom enjoyed the exercise class with the other residents, it gave Dad and me the change to sneak away to chat with the facility administrator and ask all the questions we needed answered. We left feeling emotionally wiped out, but safe in the knowledge that this was the right thing to do for both Mom and Dad. And this was the right place. It’s not what anyone ever wants to think about – putting one of their parents into even the nicest of assisted care facilities. We all want to believe that our parents will always be able to take care of themselves in their own homes the way they always did when we were children. Sadly, the reality isn’t always the case. Placement such as we were planning for my Mom wasn’t what anyone truly wanted, but under the circumstances, it was the happiest ending we could hope for amidst the rubble left in the wake of this disease.

This decision would also bring about additional changes that were hard to anticipate. My Dad would be on his own. In the past 50 years, my Dad has never been on his own. Granted, the last few years, he’s been functioning more and more as an independent entity, my Mom might be perpetually at his side, but in most ways he’s been alone. But now he would be physically alone as well, and this would be a BIG change. The facility administrator recommended that the family members of new residents stay away for one to two weeks to help in the acclimation process. How well would my Dad handle this time alone? Would he have the opportunity to rest and recover from the 5 years of nonstop caregiving he had been providing for my Mom, or would it tear him apart? So many questions. But once again, we all realized this was the right thing to do and some bridges can’t get crossed until you get to them.

As I type this I’m siting in my old bedroom on the day I’m due to fly home to Florida. The words above are what’s been baking in my mind over the last 24 hours and I’ve felt the need to write them down. This experience, and I say that knowing it is far from over, has been the hardest thing my family has ever been through. However, as I’ve come to learn through my life, perception is reality and the way we choose to look at and interpret a situation has great power over how it will influence us. I’ve worked hard to find something positive in this situation, and while I can’t promise my insights are life changing or profound, they are mine, and are for me, completely valid.

First, as a student of Yoga and meditation, I can’t imagine how I would have made it to this point without these practices to help me stay grounded and connected to my spirit. Situations like this test you to the very core of your being, and if you have a place of stillness to return to, to let go of the stress, the emotional toxicity and heartbreak, to have a point of self referral that doesn’t change when your whole world is topsy-turvy, it can be extraordinarily helpful and healing. In addition, one of the key principles of the Yoga philosophy is that of the impermanence of the world in which we live. No matter how we might try and deny it, everything changes and transforms. Friends and family grow old and die as will we. This isn’t meant to be morbid, it’s simply the way things are. If we can become comfortable with this impermanent nature of our lives, we can cherish our time together and not take it for granted. It’s also important for us in recognizing the difference between pain and suffering. In life, pain is a part of existence, but stuffing is optional. Does it hurt that my mother doesn’t really know who I am any more? Yes, it does. But I know that agonizing over it again and again robs me of the joy life has to give me in the present moment. Though not always easy, I try to feel the pain, process it, release it and move on. I’m not an expert, but it’s a work in progress and it helps. This philosophy also helps me to have some closure with the ongoing grieving process as the result of the slow-motion loss of my Mom. A materialist might believe that my Mom’s mind and who she’s been is utterly gone, never to return. The worldview of Yoga however, holds that our mind isn’t in our body or brain; our brain is simply the instrument with which we download our soul. For me, my Mom’s true self hasn’t been destroyed, rather, the instrument has been damaged, preventing the signal from coming through. She’s still there, just in a way we can’t reach right now.

This experience, as any emotionally traumatic experience can, has shifted my perspective toward what is really important in life. As I look at the world through the media or Facebook (to which I’ll admit, I have often become more than a little attached to) I see so much nonsense. Utter nonsense. Whether it’s politics or celebrities, countless surveys or polls, or hyped up stories to hook our attention and generate meaningless melodrama, it’s all so far from what’s really important in life. Ultimately what matters is our loved ones, family friends and those we care about. Wasting precious time in meaningless, trivial online nonsense only robs you of peace of mind and the true present. Let it go. Go spend time with those you care about. Live a life worth remembering, rather than commenting on what everyone else is doing.

Take care of yourself. Health and Wellbeing are precious commodities that should be cultivated and respected. Make the most of the time you have by our enhancing your mind, body and spirit. Take responsibility for your health rather than outsourcing it to another. Over 75% of all illnesses are lifestyle related and therefore largely preventable. Do I know that my mother’s condition could have been prevented with lifestyle changes? Absolutely not. I won’t even go there because no one can know that. But what I do believe is that we should do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and fit so we can be with the ones we love for as long as possible. Creating a healthy body, mind, and spirit is not an activity to put off for a rainy day. Get off the couch, stop eating garbage, manage your stress, and LIVE!

Lastly, for me it was important to remember the words of Winston Churchill who said, “When going through hell, keep going.” My Dad and I both reflected on how there’s no instruction manual for dealing with this. Fellow caregivers offer much in the form of encouragement, suggestion, and camaraderie but like life itself, it’s essentially a pathless path. We read, we try new strategies to help my Mom, we accept and surrender to the things we can’t change. But in the end, the only way out is through it. But the important lesson for both my Dad and anyone else going through something similar is to remember above all else, you are not alone. Others have been through this and can help. Friends and family and a support network is vital. Strength in numbers, shared collective consciousness, whatever you want to call it, helps to give strength to the weak and hope to the hopeless. With them by your side, either physically emotionally or in spirit, keep going.

As such I am so grateful to all those who have reached out to help or just listened to me get some of this off my chest, including you if you’re reading this. But in particular my gratitude goes out to my wife, my brother and sister-in-law, and a host of dear friends who have never been far during this tough time. Thank you all.

In the end we’ll make this transition as a family and as best we know how; with love, compassion, and understanding. We (my Dad, brother, and me) have a wonderful support system of friends and relatives and we are fortunately in complete agreement as to what’s in my parents’ best interest. As I mentioned earlier, writing this down has been its own form of therapy for me. But there will undoubtably be new challenges to overcome as this experience changes us. If sending prayers, intentions, or healing thoughts are your thing, we’ll be happy to be on the receiving end.

Thanks for your concern.



For some time now I’ve had a growing fascination with belief systems – why we believe what we do; but in particular, where our beliefs come from. As I look around the world (and Facebook), I see people who have extremely strong beliefs about a number of varied and hot-button topics: politics, religion, gun control, global warming, abortion, GMOs, evolutionary theory, violence, terrorism, and family values, to name a few. When you think about it though, we all have strong beliefs. It’s really a matter of how vocal we choose to be about them.

Personally, I think the regular experience of contemplative practice has helped me to have a witnessing curiosity when it comes to my beliefs. Thanks to the “space” created during meditation, I’ve often found myself stopping just short of engaging in a reactive/belief-based behavior. At that time I often see the patterned thought, speech, or action I was about to automatically jump into and ask myself, “Where did that come from?” Or, “How long have I held this belief or agreement?” When you think about it, these are some pretty profound questions. To ask where a belief comes from implies a level of awareness that allows you to witness your experience, rather than getting caught up in the whole opera. It also asks you to look deep into who you are and what drives you at that fundamental level.

What is a belief? The term belief is generally used to refer to the attitude we have whenever we accept something as being true. It’s a mental construct that defines something as accurate without having to actively reflect on it. So in this sense, a belief is a more or less an automatic program that the mind runs in regards to a given subject. Our beliefs are running all the time, some commonplace, such as grass is green, and it’s the 21st century; while others are profound, such as a belief in God or the meaning of life.

But where do our beliefs come from? You might not like this answer…

We all like to believe in the freedom of choice. We want to be free to speak our minds, to go where we please, to live our lives as we see fit. We also want the freedom to choose our own beliefs. When someone says “I don’t believe in that,” they are basically saying they don’t accept that given idea as valid or true and therefore have no desire to make it a part of their life. We subconsciously know that what we choose to believe will somehow influence our lives and we want to choose those beliefs that will lead us to health and happiness.

Unfortunately, we’re not anywhere near as free as we’d like to believe. In actuality, rather than being free and independent centers of awareness, we are much more like bundles of conditioned responses controlled by our beliefs. Beliefs that, in reality, we most likely never chose for ourselves.

In this regard, beliefs are very closely related to conditioning.   By conditioning I mean the training, programming or habituated activity that leads us to act or think in a certain manner. We are all conditioned by our past experience, especially our earliest childhood experiences.

In his groundbreaking book, The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton shares a profound insight into our beliefs and conditioning by noting that neurologists have discovered that during the first 6-7 years of a child’s life they lack both the neurological hardware (as the brain is still developing) and the intellectual software (reasoning skills, logical analysis) to clearly understand the world they perceive. In a nutshell, what this means is that from the time we are born until we are 6-7 years old, we are essentially downloading the raw data of our lives as filtered through our environment. So whatever we are exposed to at that age, whether it is a mundane belief or a profound revelatory insight is simply unquestionably absorbed and assimilated as valid. During that time we are ingesting a raw “data dump” from our environment, and in regards to our beliefs and conditioning, that environment consists of our caregivers, parents, teachers, older siblings, priests, ministers and…television.

Thus thousands of hours of conditioned beliefs are poured into our sponge-like minds. Our young brains are completely indifferent to the content being downloaded; we are simply unable to tell the difference between true insight and pure nonsense.

But as we grow older what begins to happen? Those beliefs instilled at a very early age begin to grow and take root in the fertile ground of a mind searching for identity. The beliefs absorbed in childhood now serve as a reference point to support the maturing personality. As we grow into our teens, our beliefs become increasingly firm as the neural pathways that support them are continually pruned and refined. This process continues through our mid-twenties until the brain has completed the bulk of its development. In effect, it’s as if our conditioned beliefs were poured into us like wet concrete that gradually hardens as we grow older. After reaching full mental and neurological maturity, our beliefs have become a hard wired, rock solid component of who we are.

This isn’t to say that the ‘wet concrete’ model for forming beliefs is the only possibility. We can certainly choose consciously to accept new beliefs as adults based upon experiential or anecdotal evidence. And further, through repeated affirmation a thought can eventually become a structured belief. As Dr. Christine Northrup puts it, “A thought held long enough and repeated often enough becomes a belief.”

On the whole however, I imagine it’s much more common for the majority of our beliefs to be formed without our conscious awareness in childhood.  And as such it opens up an entire can of intellectual worms when it comes to our dearly held beliefs. For example, knowing that many of your beliefs were not consciously chosen by you, but unconsciously downloaded, how many of your beliefs are truly your “own”…or are they simply a mirror image of your parent’s beliefs? Or, more controversially, had you been born in another country, with a different ideology and worldview, would you be the same person and follow the same religion or belief system as you do now? With this understanding, the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” If you had been raised somewhere else with different beliefs, you would most likely hold those opinions as strongly as your current views. Things that make you go “Hmmm….”

Once we have our inherited beliefs in place, then what? Well, at this point our beliefs are like computer programs running in the background of our subconscious minds. They subtly (or overtly) guide, direct, and inform our choices in ways that seem completely natural and normal to us. Typically, most of us don’t question our beliefs unless we have a really compelling reason to do so. To question our beliefs takes us outside of our comfort zone and invites the cognitive dissonance associated with questioning the very fabric of our personal reality.

This is not to say that beliefs can’t change. They can, and in my experience this happens in one of four ways: Insatiable curiosity – for some people they are deeply driven to understand what makes themselves tick. They want to see why they act the way they do and how they can change for the better. Emotional upheaval – others, caught up in an emotionally turbulent experience might have their worldview turned upside down. The trauma and ordeal of the situation effectively tears away what a person formerly believed to be true. Mindfulness /Contemplation – some individuals, following the urging of an inner call or spiritual practice choose to investigate the content of their thoughts and beliefs. Through awareness of the origin of their beliefs they are able to transcend those that are no longer supportive or nourishing. Overwhelming Evidence – finally, beliefs can collapse when faced with hard hitting evidence to the contrary. Even the staunchest believers are sometimes forced to rethink their worldviews when conflicting evidence comes to light.

Despite these possibilities for a change of belief, we can’t underestimate the strength of the solidified conditioning that holds a worldview in place. Even with one of the four opportunities for change above working in your favor, it can take an act of enormous courage to question dogma, doctrines, ideologies that have been held for decades or longer. Most individuals, in the absence of a strong support system really don’t stand a chance for breaking out of their limiting beliefs. The odds against them are simply stacked too high. Imagine a political progressive growing up in a family of ultra-conservatives; an organic vegan married to a GMO company executive; or a spiritually curious soul living in a fundamentalist community. Under such circumstances changing and uprooting your belief system is nothing short of a heroic quest. The fact that some brave individuals manage to break out of the conditioning of their past is nothing short of a miracle.

Furthermore, the thought of being able to forcibly change the beliefs of another, even with the best of intentions, is problematic at best. Once we grasp the manner in which the brain literally shapes itself around its beliefs, we can begin to see the process of changing another for the uphill battle/vertical climb it is. Think for example of some habit, some small behavioral pattern about yourself you would like to change. If you’ve ever tried to stick to a new workout or diet regiment, stop biting your nails, or quit smoking, you know how challenging it can be to change yourself. Do you not see how exponentially more difficult it would be to try to change another’s beliefs, especially when they aren’t interested in changing? I’m reminded of a poster that used to hang in my 11th grade chemistry teacher’s classroom with a picture of a pig in its pen and the caption which read –“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Not to compare those you might be trying to change to barnyard animals, the point here is that not only are many people uninterested in changing their views to align with yours, but in fact they may be at a level of consciousness that precludes the possibility altogether.  We can have mountains of evidence along with countless rational and rhetorical arguments to support our position, but without a receptive mind that is truly open and willing to change, you’re teaching singing lessons…

Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

To swing back to the reason I chose to write on this topic – beliefs can be tricky things and as a spiritual seeker who is compelled to explore the inner worlds of consciousness and awareness, I find the process of self-transformation to be powerful and inspirational. Becoming aware and eventually transcending limiting and outdated beliefs is a necessary step for awakening to our true nature. If we are unaware of our beliefs, we are very likely being controlled by those unconscious programs as they silently run the show behind the scenes. Tied in to our subconscious mind, they can influence every aspect of our lives.

Viewed through the wisdom tradition of Vedanta, we sometimes refer to this process as the “Software of the Soul.” This software exists in all of us at the deepest level of our being and operates the same way no matter who we are. It consists of 3 components – action, memory, and desire. Although the way these three components interact may seem simplistic, the implications of this understanding are profound. Essentially, every action we take creates an impression which forms a memory. This memory in turn influences our next desire or intention. The intention then becomes the choice that takes form in our subsequent action. The feedback loop recycles, perpetually repeating the same cause-effect pattern again and again.

In the context of our beliefs, the earliest seeds of belief planted into our fertile awareness as children form the memory that then influences our desires; desires which become actions; actions which continue to reinforce the original memory.   As the wheel turns over and over, the belief grows stronger and stronger, until it eventually runs independently of any conscious thought.

This understanding begs the perennial question: If this wheel of karma is endlessly running, do we actually have free will, or are we stuck looping through predetermined action, memory, and desire for all eternity?

If we are unaware of the choices we are making, flying with the autopilot turned on, there is no hope of conscious choice making. We end up doing the same things, saying the same things, and thinking the same thoughts we always have. Perhaps these thoughts aren’t even ours at all; perhaps they belong to our parents or caregivers and we’ve been unconsciously parroting them all along.

However, if we are awake; aware of our thoughts, speech, and actions we are able to be the conscious choice-maker. No longer imprisoned by the past, we can interrupt the software of the soul mid-cycle and choose differently. We can do things in a new way, speak in a novel manner, and think creative thoughts that have never been thought before. But it takes the essential ingredient of awareness. We must cultivate the witness, the observer of our behavior and in doing so we create the space, the momentary “pause” to recognize that we have an infinity of choices in any given moment.   Here, once again, comes the benefit of meditation. Through the regular practice of stillness, the witnessing awareness naturally blossoms allowing us to simply observe ourselves in each moment of the present. In that observation, we can come to make new choices and form our own beliefs.

Ultimately, we are not our beliefs. Our beliefs are the result of our conditioning and as such are an outcropping of the collective influences that have shaped our lives. But we don’t have to be controlled by them.   Ask yourself this question: Who am I without my beliefs? The answer, if you look deep enough, is that you are the choice-maker, the infinite spirit, the ground state of reality. You aren’t your beliefs, you are the one in which those beliefs reside. The real you is much vaster than could ever be contained by an ideology or worldview. Infinite eternity can’t be crammed into a tea cup; it can only hide there for a while, as long as it chooses to play that game. Likewise, your limiting beliefs are only the smallest shadow of your true self and will only confine you for as long as you allow them to.

Walk on…

November 28, 2013 – I’m relaxing at my mother-in-law’s home following a vigorous Action Strength/JKD workout in her back yard.  It was a vacation week for me; I hadn’t all out killed myself, but was feeling strong and energized as I skimmed through my Facebook feed. Sandwiched in between posts about Thanksgiving, family and pumpkin pie was a post from Harinder Singh Sabharwal on the JKDAA group page calling out all Action Strength students and instructors to make December 2013 31 Days of the Great Gama – 15,500 Dands and 31,000 Bhetaks/ 500 Dands, 1000 Bhetaks daily.  Beginning December 1, 2013, ending December 31, 2013.


As a relative newbie, I had only been Action Strengthing for a little over a year.  I had been cranking out a minimum of 50/100 Dands and Bhetaks daily during that time and was working my way up to higher numbers so that the next time I attended an A.S. workshop I could nail the 500/1000 challenge within 30 minutes along with the bragging rights and tee shirt, but 500/1000 every day for a month?  Was I ready for that?  I think I pondered that question for about a second and a half, turned to my wife, told her about the challenge and said, “I’m going to do it.”

“Ok,” she said.  That was all she needed to say.  She knew how excitedly I had embraced Action Strength training after the level 1 certification.  She knew my mind was made up.  I looked over the details, read how to break up the sets depending on my level of strength and decided I would be up to 250/500 twice a day to start, with the goal of 500/1000 non-stop by the end of the month.  I don’t think I took the challenge out of an ego thing; granted, the whole JKDAA Community was watching as the enthusiastic and committed comments poured in to the post, but I think I just wanted to see what I was capable of. In my short time Action Strength training, I had watched previous limitations fall away as my strength increased, so I was curious to see what I could do if I put my mind to it.  In retrospect, the “challenge” was exactly what I needed.  It was almost as if Singh had said, “Put up or shut up.”…drops mic.

So two days later I began the challenge and dug in see what I was made of.  Singh had pointed out that this challenge was more about forging an iron will than anything else.  I learned that lesson pretty early as I had to push past some substantial mental barriers to hit my regular groove, but once there it became familiar and even comfortable territory.  I could do this.  I would do this.

As the days and weeks progressed, I felt myself growing stronger and unconsciously I created a new strength set point each day from which to build upon for the following workout.  The whole process ultimately came down to forging new neural habits of strength and indomitability. As it turns out, 31 days was a perfect length of time for the challenge since research shows that new habits usually take between 21-30 days to be laid down in our brains.  Repetition is the mother of all skill.  By continually firing the same neurons again and again, we were creating the mental pathways for not only physical strength, but also those for mental fortitude and unconquerable determination.

Making my way through the month, I stumbled upon a handful of insights that helped me to make each day better than the last.  I will be adding these insights to my personal Action Strength notebook and will teach them to my students, but I wanted to share them with you as well in case you find anything that might help you with your training:

  1. The importance of proper form (A.K.A. Posture) – This point although obvious, cannot be overstated. If you aren’t maintaining a neutral spine, correct hand/foot placement, and firing the three triggers – at such high numbers, you’re asking for an injury.  I found that as long as I kept correct form my tempo and endurance would eventually sink into a groove that I could maintain throughout the workout.  If my form fell apart, so did everything else.
  2. Correct breathing and Pranayama for recovery – Without the proper breathing cadence I couldn’t keep my system oxygenated enough to continue.  In other words, whenever I sacrificed my breathing to go faster or harder, I got gassed.  As in shooting, I tried to adopt the motto of “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” with my breathing.  Even, steady breathing made all the difference for me. And between sets, if I needed to recharge, the breathing exercises Sifu teaches were a major lifesaver and helped my system rebalance in time for the next set.
  3. Have a visual focal point – In yoga, the visual focal point is called a Dristhi, or focused gaze, and is used as a means for developing concentrated intention.  I can’t speak for others, but when I do Dands, I find it very helpful to place a small object on the ground about a foot and a half in front of my hands to as a visual focal point.  This serves two purposes; first, it obviously helps to keep your attention focused and not running willy-nilly all over the place.  Intention is a force of nature and it is harnessed through attention.  Locking onto one object helped to shut out distractions and kept my awareness on the task at hand.  Secondly, by keeping your eyes locked on that point helps to ensure that the spine remains straight between the neck and head.  If I looked down or back toward my feet, I broke the alignment of the spine and suffered a power falloff in the overall technique.  For the Bhetaks, I posted a small picture of the Great Gama on the wall at roughly eye level.  This helped me keep my head up and focus straight ahead.  Plus, it kept me inspired.  (I didn’t want to let the big guy down, after all.)
  4. Count mindfully and keep a tally of completed sets – This ties in with the previous point.  Staying focused and free from distractions is the key to success in a challenge like this. In fact, the mental focus needs to be almost meditative in nature.  I learned very quickly that when performing high reps of these exercises counting quality was vitally important. The counting of the repetitions is like a mantra used in meditation practice; it anchors you to the present moment along with the breath.  While subconsciously monitoring form and breathing, I found that the bulk of my awareness would rest on the count of repetitions. But just as in meditation, distractions will compete for attention. Sensations in the body, thoughts in the mind, and sounds in the environment – all would arise and fight for attention, occasionally distracting me enough to lose count.  (I found trying to use a clicker less than ideal).  And nothing’s worse than losing count and having to go back to the last spot you remembered to make sure you get your reps in – plus it jacks up your overall time.  The point is, lock your awareness on the rep count.  Make it the one thing you’re doing right now.  There will be time to think about other things later.  Just imagine, if you’re able to maintain your focus as you crank out your 500/1000, how much more easily can you keep your cool when you’re sparring or in a real fight?  I also kept a small dry erase board handy and hashed off each completed set of 50/100.  This helped me stay motivated by being able to look down and see how far I had come and kept me pushing to finish strong. But more importantly, it once again helped me to not lose count.  The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally miss a set and have to go back and do it over.  That sucks.
  5. Invoke images of archetypal strength – This one helped to power me through the days where I just wasn’t feeling it.  First thing in the morning or right after work, there were times when the whole notion of D&Bs (as I called them) wasn’t terribly appealing.  But once I tapped into an archetype of strength, be it Bruce Lee, the Great Gama, Rickson Gracie, The Mighty Thor, or whoever, I felt like I could pull it off.  Where attention goes, energy flows, and when you invoke the image of strength and superior will into your being, you are able to convert that mental energy into its physical component.  This also helped out when I hit a wall and was feeling like I was ready to give in.  One look at the Great Gama helped me dig deeper and activate those buried energy reserves.
  6. Start at a moderate pace and pick up speed – As I got closer to the end of the month, moving faster became more important if I wanted to hit my 30 minute goal.  But I also learned the hard way that even after being well warmed up, jumping right into Dands at a blistering pace was asking for injury.  My shoulders and hips protested and it set a cruddy tone for the entire workout.  So I chose to make my first set something of a warm-up in which I moved at a moderately even pace.  Actually, even by the first 25 reps, I would find my groove and could pick up speed.  The lesson here: start slow and progressively crank the speed as you catch the groove.
  7. Override negative self-talk – This might be the most powerful insight I gained during the challenge.  Know that you are stronger than what your mind tells you.  The bodily limitations you believe you have don’t exist in your body; they exist in your mind.  Through this challenge I learned that I was infinitely stronger than I had believed myself to be.  And, if it wasn’t for this experience, I would still believe in those limitations. When we push ourselves through the invisible walls in our minds, we discover a new source of strength, perseverance, courage and will.  We recognize that if this barrier falls, we can surely transcend other obstacles to our success.  Yes, the mind (ego) will complain and create seemingly convincing arguments to stop and give up, but the ego is ultimately an illusion that knows it’s losing some of its hold over you every time you complete your workout.  The ego is self-indulgent.  It wants things easy and without any effort.  And when you tell it to sit down and shut up so you can do what you have to do, it fears its own death.  Ignore it.  Move on.  Know that your mind will quit 100 times before your body does.  The idea of the impossible only exists in the mind.  Transcend the mind and work directly with the body.  It will be happy to show you what it can do when you get rid of the middleman.
  8. Persist – Just keep going.  These three words should be considered a mantra in and of themselves.  Half of forging an iron will is simply refusing to quit.  You’ll get sweaty, tired, perhaps sore, or simply exhausted.  Just keep going.  You may want to give up, puke, put it off, or make excuses.  Just keep going.  While this challenge helps to build a physically strong body, I found it was more about mental toughness than any other attribute.  You are fighting to overcome the weakness, self-doubt, and fear that weighs us down.  A challenge like this is a perfect opportunity to do battle with our own demons and send them packing, and in this case, we don’t take them on with a direct assault; we just outlast them.
  9. Listen to your body and be safe – Yes, it’s a challenge, and yes, we want to break through our limitations, but not at the expense of safety or long term health and wellness.  After hearing me talk about persisting and “Just Keep Going”, it might be easy to think that I’m suggesting you push your body to the breaking point.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a Yogi, I live to maintain mind-body balance in everything I do, Action Strength included.  And overriding negative and limiting self talk is very different than heeding your body’s warnings when you need to rest or take some time off.  Durning the month, I had to find a way to keep myself in balance while completing my daily numbers, working, traveling across the country, attending a mind/body workshop, and dealing with holiday visitors and get-togethers.  During all that, I listened to the signals my body was sending me.  If I felt low on energy, I made sure to take my time and not rush through to try and break some Gama land speed record.  I gave myself the rest and nutrition I needed and my body was able to recover and improve at a reasonable pace.  Ultimately, listen to what your body needs and honor your own sense of inner balance.
  10. Enjoy the strength – Lastly, be sure to appreciate the rewards of completing a challenge like this. Whether it was at the end of each day or at the end of the month, I found the sense of accomplishment from completing my numbers to be deeply satisfying.  Many would share their numbers on FB which not only served as an affirmation of achieving their daily goal, but also as an inspiration for the rest of us.  It felt good knowing that usually before most people were out of bed I had cranked out my 250/500 (or later in the month 500/1000).  I felt energized, invigorated and alive – and it’s a great feeling.  It’s unfortunate that most of the people you meet don’t really know what it feels like to be strong.  This isn’t a superiority thing – it’s simply recognizing that strength of this kind is a unique experience.  It’s empowering and rewarding; it makes you feel confident and believe in yourself.  I also think it’s humbling and gratifying to see what our mind/bodies are capable of.  It’s actually awe-inspiring to consider that with the correct training method, such incredible potential can be unleashed.  Our bodies were meant to be used, to be strengthened, and eventhough they are temporary and will one day wear out, we have an amazing opportunity to build and use our bodies to their fullest while we can.  A challenge like this is an assertion of our strength and an occasion to be grateful for our physical abilities.

So a month later, I completed the challenge, achieved my goal of 500/1000 in under 30 minutes and accomplished far more than I expected from two simple exercises and what amounts to an “I dare you” contest.  I changed as a person, strengthened my will, and had a glimpse of the potential that lies hidden within each of us.  How do I feel?  I feel strong, capable, empowered.  But most importantly, I feel grateful.  Grateful for the opportunity to learn this training method, grateful for my fellow Action Strength brothers and sisters, and grateful for Sifu Singh for inspiring us to roar.

Recap 2013

January 3, 2014

Although I’m a little late to the 2013 recap party, late is better than never and while a part of me resists posting a year in review, another part looks back at everything that happened in a short 365 days and realized that it’s worthwhile to recapitulate those experiences and reflect on how each one has changed us for better or worse.  Ultimately, all of the experiences we have matter in one way or another, although they may or may not have the epic importance we often assign to them.  Either way, each event becomes metabolized and integrated into our mind and body, transforming biography into biology.  We become our experiences and to paraphrase the Vedas, if you want to understand your health and body now, look at your past experiences; if you want to know what your body will be like in the future, look at what you are experiencing now.  So, as with many of my posts, awareness is a recurring theme.  Putting your attention on your past experiences can reveal a great deal about what brought you to where you are as well as inform the choices you make going forward.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a high level, quick pass through some of the more memorable experiences of my 2013: Having a front row seat to a Magic Kingdom Flag retreat ceremony honoring my brother-in-law, Mike Hall, a returning Army Veteran; Celebrating 20 years as a Walt Disney World Cast Member and enjoying a pretty epic Cast Service Award Celebration; Aligning myself with the Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association, an amazing group of folks dedicated to perpetuating Bruce Lee’s philosophy and lifestyle and wading back into the comfortable waters of martial arts instruction through teaching my first Damini Project Self Defense Program; Attending a super-memorable Seduction of Spirit meditation workshop at the Chopra Center for Well Being with my wife Dana and good friends Sujata and Nick; Re-upping my JKD training at the JKDAA East Coast Retreat in May; Taking an incredibly road trip from San Francisco to Seattle, seeing old friends and family, tasting wine and encouraging Dana’s amateur studies in Volcanology; hitting the one-year mark for exclusive training in Action Strength and feeling stronger than ever (see a previous post); Celebrating 7 years married to my wonderful wife; Continuing to teach some incredible yoga and meditation students including 20 or so WDW Executives for a special event; Deepened my own understanding of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda and made some new friends during the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health Program; and wrapped up the year by participating in a 31 Day Gama Challenge (15500 Hindu Push-ups and 31,000 Hindu Squats).

Some experiences have been less than ideal, especially situations in which I’ve had to watch those that are close to me experiencing health challenges or simply struggle to cope with the reality of existential suffering (impermanence, sickness, old age, death).  I’ve also experienced the loss of friends and family, (some close, some I knew only long ago) and felt grief, sadness as well as the twinge of my own mortality, an ever present reminder of the impermanence of physical existence.

No matter what happened this year however, I’ve tried to remain grounded in gratitude.  Each event, each experience, each beginning or ending relationship is an opportunity to learn and grow, to expand rather than contract.  Life is a continuum of experiences and the way we not only live, but interpret our experiences determines how those perceptions will affect us.  Living in mindful gratitude helps us to experience our lives, the good and the bad with grace and fulfillment, happiness and equanimity.

So, as I say goodbye to 2013, I want to thank my family, friends, students, and teachers who served as companions and guides over the past year.  Without you, I would have nothing.  You have my heartfelt thanks for making 2013 a year to remember.  You have also inspired me to make 2014 the best I can make it.

May the New Year lead you to all the peace, happiness, and fulfillment you could ever desire.



Ego Uploaded

December 20, 2013

The arrival of the internet has dramatically changed the way we access information and interact with each other. The last 15 years or so have witnessed an explosion of (mostly) unrestricted information; facts, documents, and images on virtually every topic we can conceive of. Sacred or profane, beautiful or ugly, creative, destructive, and everything in between is accessible on the internet. The volume of knowledge is so seemingly endless that the term “Information Superhighway” barely hints at the sheer amount of content at our fingertips within each browser session.

Now add to the largely objective body of knowledge contained within the internet a relatively new subjective experience – social media. Social media consists of websites and applications that are used to create, share, and exchange information in online networks and communities. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram to name a few are popular social media sites in which users can interact with other users or friends and build a personalized online environment.

So what? Who doesn’t know that, right?

True. But in this post I’d like to take a closer look at what I believe to be an interesting psychological byproduct of our online social media lives. With over 1.11 billion Facebook users and 250 million active Twitter accounts, it’s clear that a huge portion of the population invests time in social media. As an active Facebook user for the last 4 years I have been both a participant and witness to the way in which we as individuals have integrated ourselves into the social media culture. During a recent conversation with my good friend Marcus, I made an off the cuff comment that Facebook has become our “digital ego”, an idea that has been percolating within me ever since that time. The more I thought it over, the more I saw the somewhat disconcerting truth of this notion. Since my personal experience has been with Facebook, I’ll use it as my common denominator as we go forward.

Before I go into the concept of a digital ego, let me define what I mean by ego. Psychologically, the ego is the sense of a separate self that is unique to each of us. The ego is the conscious, subjective sense of I, me, and mine. It is the boundary between my personal self and the extended reality. It is the line of distinction that separates our individuality from the world and others. In the language of Vedanta, the world’s oldest and most comprehensive science of spirituality, the ego is known as the Ahankara, or the part of the mind known as the “I-former”, in which we are most deeply identified with possessions, positions, and self-image. We all have an ego, and that’s not a bad thing. Some spiritual traditions talk of destroying or getting rid of the ego as if it is an enemy that needs to be vanquished. That is not the purpose of this post, as if that is something that could even be realistically achieved. I believe we need to perhaps tame the ego, manage it, make it a potential friend rather than an enemy, but not destroy it. Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher once wrote that the ego should be like the house you live in, which you are free to step out of as you choose; not a prison that keeps you trapped.

So anyway, back to the idea of a digital ego. Think about it for a minute. Now that we understand what our ego is, when we consider social media, isn’t what we define as our Facebook or Twitter profile really the equivalent of a digital ego? In many ways, by interacting on a social media site, we are uploading our ego to share with the internet audience. If you find this notion mildly disturbing (or downright alarming), you probably have good reason to think so. Take a moment to consider the content that you routinely post or upload to a site like Facebook:

About You – Basically a summary of who you are; your story, background, where you’re from, education, where you work, where you live, relationships, ideology, and beliefs.

Photos – Some might describe social media in a nutshell as being an online photo album; snapshots and frozen moments in time from childhood, relationships, vacations, major (or not so major) life events, images of family, meals, memes, and even mundane glimpses into an ordinary day are displayed for all our friends (or more, depending on your security settings) to see and comment on.

Friends – Whether they are real people you personally know offline or online faces you’ve never shared the same air with, much can be learned from those we call our friends. To quote Miguel de Cervantes, “Tell me what company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.” The people we friend on Facebook or follow on Twitter spin a complicated web of relationships that reflect a great deal about who we are and what we stand for. To invoke some more Sanskrit terminology, Tat Tvam Asi – which means, I am that, you are that, all this is that, and that’s all there is. More simply, we can think of it this way – though the mirror of relationship, I discover my true self. This may be not as true with online relationships, where some users have hundreds or thousands of friends, all with varying interests, beliefs, and perceptions of the world. But to some degree it still applies. Your friendships are a window into some of your deeper qualities that you may not even realize are out there for others to see.

Likes – These are the ideas, people, and websites that you are passionate about. They continue to round out the picture of your digital self-image, showing others those things that you’re really into; be they a political party, a public figure, a sports team, public policy, a celebrity or musician.

Other Stuff – The ever increasing categories on Facebook that further detail out the unique bits and pieces of your online ego; Places you’ve been, Sports, Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, Events, Groups, Notes, and an Activity Log. All these things in the study of consciousness can be referred to as qualia, or the raw elements of experience that add even more depth and detail to the ego upload.

Posts – Posts consist of your regular, perhaps daily uploads. Thoughts, musings, joys, sorrows, gripes, complaints, rants, selfies, daily activity, quotes, poems, links to articles or videos all fall into this category. If the other online content is the equivalent of your digital ego, posts are your online thoughts.

So, with all these things on display for the world to view, we can see how social media can truly be thought of as your digital self-image, a projection of who you are into cyberspace. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad, it simply is. However, thanks to the insidious nature of the human ego itself, the digital ego can go awry, often leading to some less than productive results. Let’s take a look at how the digital ego can go bad.

First, as an extension of the personality into the virtual realm, the ego often views social media as another realm to conquer, a land over which to assert its strength. The ego loves to feel powerful, so it will rarely pass on an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of its position. It wants to show off, whether that’s with possessions or knowledge. It always has a point to prove and can’t resist making sure everyone knows it. The ego craves attention, so even if it’s losing a battle in a comment section of a post, it would rather fight on and get the attention than back down and feel small and insignificant.

Second, the ego loves to talk about itself. A lot. The ego can go on and on and on about its exploits, no matter how inane. It’s what drives the countless uploads of mundane images, a rundown of daily events, details of a workout, or mindless ramblings that seem to have no real point other than to draw attention to the self. The ego is incredibly self-indulgent and believes that everything it does to be of earth-shattering importance. Desperate to be heard in its search for significance, the ego will use any excuse it can find to insert itself into a conversation and co-opt it for its own uses.

Third, as an offshoot of the previous point, the digital ego loves to use the social medial environment as its own personal Roman Forum. Climbing high upon its soapbox, the ego loves to make speech after speech, pontificating on what it believes to be wrong with the world. It rants and vents away tirelessly, as if its endless complaining will change the state of the world. Even if it’s in the minority or a voice of one, the ego wants to make itself heard so it can maintain its authority and self-importance.

Finally, and perhaps the most insidious aspect of a twisted digital ego comes out in the form of rampant negativity, sarcasm, cynicism, and trolling. In a last resort to get the attention it craves, the ego sinks to its lowest level and blasts away at indiscriminate targets for sheer pleasure of irritating others and evoking a response. When another person flames back in an act of internet self-defense, the ego feels justified; if it can’t have your acceptance, it will settle for your hatred. Attention is attention, after all.

Fortunately, my experiences with these types of distorted digital egos have been very few and far between. Most, if not all of my Facebook friends seem to be wonderful people who aren’t ruled by their ego. But on occasion, on another’s wall or in a thread I’ve seen some of the behaviors described above. Perhaps you have as well. Perhaps, like me you’ve had times when you’ve felt the pull of an inflated digital ego. If that’s the case, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help avoid the digital ego traps.

1. Is it kind, is it necessary, it is true? This question from the Indian saint Sai Baba eloquently simplified the idea of what Buddhists would call right speech. If the three criteria of kindness, necessity, and truth are being met by what you’re posting or sharing online, you’ll most likely be keeping the ego in check.

2. Is it snark? This term is a colloquial combination of the words snide and remark. It often consists of biting cruel humor or wit, commonly used to verbally attack someone or something. If something you post falls into this category, it’s a safe bet that your ego is running the show.

3. Are you having a reactive response? Not far removed from the Fight or Flight Response, the Reactive response is a biological response to a threat, not to your body, but to your ego or self- image. A reactive response is just what it sounds like, an automatic, Pavlovian, knee-jerk type of behavior that is an unconscious retaliation to a perceived threat to an ego boundary. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to recognize this type of response until it’s over, but if you identify a comment or post that fits into this category, chances are high that your ego was at the helm.

4. Are you making the world (or internet) a better place? There’s a ton of negativity in the world, and it seems there’s even more on the internet. Is what you’re saying, posting or sharing making the world better off in the process? I hate to be blunt, but if you’re not helping to make things better, you’re part of the problem.

5. Is this post the result of a conscious choice? This question is the byproduct of a deep understanding of the Law of Karma that encourages us to make conscious choices in each moment. If you’re paying attention to your gut and asking if your actions will be helpful and nourishing to everyone impacted by this choice, you’re choosing consciously. If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ego-based choice, but the less awareness you bring to the table, the more likely you are to fall back into reactive behavior.

6. How can I help, how can I serve? This question is the internal dialogue of spirit. It wants to help others, to bring happiness and fulfillment into the world. The internal dialogue of the ego is, “What’s in it for me?” If you’re asking this question instead, your ego is calling the shots.

Although the digital ego clearly can run amiss at times, it can also be a great opportunity for increased self-awareness and the ability to help others. Through our social networking we can make the conscious choice to help make the online world a better place. I think the most important question we can ask ourselves if we choose to embrace social medial is “What do I stand for?” This question might sound simplistic and obvious, but I believe few of us recognize the way its answers lay the groundwork for how you define your online persona.

Your online presence is a unique opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas, beliefs, pictures and more with the whole world. And I mean the whole world. Just as a personal sidebar, I believe the notion of internet privacy* to be a complete and total illusion. Gone are the days of my childhood where a lone wolf hero could go off the grid without someone finding clues to his whereabouts or bits of his past to catch up to him. We live in a technologically rich society where information is the most prized commodity there is. If someone wants to find out about you, they will find a way to do it. Anything you upload to the internet, no matter how secure you believe it to be can always be found and exposed. Our lives are open books to anyone who digs deep enough with enough tenacity. Between the internet and cell phone technology, the idea of personal secrets that no one knows about is rapidly becoming a distant memory. But I digress.

The way you conduct yourself online is a powerful responsibility. With it you can create happiness or joy, anger or sorrow. The words and images we share with others affect their thoughts, state of mind, levels of happiness, and on a more subtle level, their overall wellbeing. When I created my Facebook account, I wanted to be a mindfully aware and responsible contributor to the world of social media. So I chose to apply the yoga principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence to my online presence. In this case, non-violence refers to the intellectual violence caused by hurtful speech or images. I made the decision to make a positive contribution to the world rather than increasing the surplus of negativity in the world. If I was going to say anything, I wanted to make sure that first and foremost, I did no harm.

This continues to be my goal, but it’s not always easy. I occasionally find myself wishing to unleash some “wrathful compassion” on someone who I think needs a little shake up to their Facebook status quo. Whenever I feel this urge though, I try to remember to stop and consider how my words or post will be received and the impact it will have on others. As one of my meditation teachers is fond of saying, “You can’t un-ring the bell”. Once that vibration is released, there’s no pulling it back. Or more appropriately one might say, “Pain is temporary, but posts on Facebook are forever.” In addition, my reaction is a lesson in and of itself. My need to defend my own point of view says something about how secure I feel in my beliefs. The more secure I feel, the more defenseless I can become. It also brings to mind a teaching from Dr. Wayne Dyer who reminds us that when an orange is squeezed, only orange juice comes out because that’s all that’s inside it. By analogy, we are all being squeezed by life’s challenges – when that happens, what comes out of you?

Ultimately our uploaded ego can bring peace or it can bring war. Just like the electricity that lights either a kindergarten or a torture chamber, we can allow our digital persona to wield social media for good or ill. The choice rests with us and that choice begins in awareness.

* or global privacy, for that matter

According to many of the world’s great wisdom traditions, the ultimate nature of reality is Oneness or Unity. Beyond all diversity and separation is a level of nature that is infinite and indivisible. This oneness goes by different names in different traditions – The Tao, Buddha Mind, Brahman, Pure Consciousness, God, or The Unified Field (to name just a few) and is said to underlie the entire universe as well as flow through, in, and around every particle of creation. These traditions claim that we are this field and it is our true nature. For most of us though, the existence of this deeper level of reality is overshadowed and hidden from us by the restless activity of our mind. However, with the right tools, we can go beyond the turbulence of our daily lives and tap into this transcendent level of reality.

Vedanta, the thousands-year old spiritual philosophy from ancient India is the tradition with which I am most intimately familiar. Translated as “The end of the Vedas,” it is the encapsulation of the entire body of Vedic wisdom as related to health, mind, body, emotions, spiritual practices, and ultimately, spiritual liberation or enlightenment. In regards to the one reality, Vedanta prescribes four paths to unity known as yogas. Each of these yogas can be considered roadmaps to higher awareness and are explored based upon an aspirant’s specific temperament or personal tendencies. Briefly, these yogas are as follows:

Gyan Yoga – The yoga of science and understanding. This is the path of using the mind to go beyond the mind and relies heavily upon intellectual study and understanding.
Bhakti Yoga – The yoga of love and devotion. This path fosters the deepening of loving relationships to a beloved or to the divine.
Karma Yoga – The yoga of selfless service. This path focuses on the practice and recognition that all action belongs to the Supreme Being.
Raja Yoga – The Royal Path. This is the yoga of meditation and all its allied disciplines (including yoga poses, breathing exercises, moral observances, etc.)

Each of these yogas are valid paths to higher states of consciousness and will be more or less appealing to an individual depending on their natural disposition. No path is superior to another and when one begins to progress along one path, the other yogas often express themselves through the individual as well.

With this brief introduction laid down, I’d like to spend the remainder of this post exploring just one of these yogas and describe in some depth the potential pitfalls along the path.

Gyan Yoga – The Razor’s Edge

As the road to unity through intellectual knowledge and understanding, Gyan yoga can be an incredibly fulfilling path leading to the heights of creativity, innovation, exploration and scientific discovery. As the yoga of science, it is a path for probing the laws of nature through our human nervous system. Every scientist that has ever lived, has at heart, been a Gyan yogi – one seeking the truth of our universe through the power of the intellect and its formidable instrument, the scientific method. It may seem a paradox to view science as a tool for spiritual awakening, but science can in fact be a powerful ally for discovering the hidden truths behind great spiritual teachings.

However, Vedanta cautions us that Gyan yoga can be a potentially treacherous path, calling it the razor’s edge. In gaining knowledge into the laws of nature, we run the risk of arrogance. Fed by this arrogance, the ego grows and inflates until it overshadows the spirit, which is the truth at the heart of reality. In an attempt to use the mind to go beyond the mind, we discover just how slippery our ego actually is. Rather than cultivating humility, awe and a sense of wonder at the unknown mysteries of the universe, the small self of the ego tries to take credit for its knowledge and assumes a locked, inflexible and rigid worldview. Thus ironically, what began as a genuine scientific quest for truth and understanding turns into a mutated form of self absorption and hubris, obscuring the wisdom once passionately pursued.

The great scientists throughout history have been truly humble individuals, deeply embracing the unknown and ever open to new possibilities, from whatever direction they might come. As Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This mindset is the mark of a true explorer, whether the field is biology, geology, astronomy, or particle physics. To admit one doesn’t know allows room for new and exciting possibilities to exist. On the other hand, assuming one has all the answers locks out countless choices, options, and prospects for new discovery.

Lost in this twisted intellectual labyrinth, an individual gets swept up into a highly critical, negative worldview that is driven by what I call the three intellectual poisons. Don’t bother looking for these in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, or Yoga Sutras – because I came up with them; or I should say, I’ve observed them to be the fundamental modus operandi of individuals caught up in this warped form of over-intellectualism. Let’s take a closer look at these three qualities and how they manifest themselves.

1. Malignant Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a form of sharp or cutting language (spoken or written) in which remarks that mean the opposite of what they seem to say are used to mock or deride another. Sarcasm is very often employed as comedic tool to deliver an amusing dig or retort to an opponent. Now don’t get me wrong, I occasionally use sarcasm. Used sparingly, it can add some spice to discussions and relationships. Throwing out the occasional well-timed zinger causes a shift in perspective and can lighten the mood. However, this isn’t the type of sarcasm we’re talking about.

As one of the three intellectual poisons, malignant sarcasm becomes a highly destructive force, especially so when combined with the other two poisons. The term comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which means “to tear or strip the flesh off.” Clearly, sarcasm is not meant to be a warm and fuzzy form of communication. It is an intentionally hurtful remark that is in no way constructive. In fact upon closer examination, we can see that sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humor. Sarcasm is a tool the intellect uses to passive-aggressively tear down another. Sarcasm is a form of intellectual violence. For some people sarcasm is their primary form of communication and for others it defines their sense of humor. Personally, I think sarcasm is the poor man’s sense of humor. A great sense of humor relies on creativity, paradox, and absurdity. Violence, not so much…but that’s just my opinion.

Additionally, for most sarcastic adepts, they rarely think about how the recipient feels. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a sarcastic salvo, you most likely feel put down, insulted and as if the sarcastic person is a jerk. At its heart, sarcasm is a subtle form of bullying and bullying is an expression of insecurity and cowardice. Therefore, the sarcastic abuse of another really doesn’t so much define the recipient as it does the attacker. In the end, sarcasm is a hurtful assault on another dressed up as humor. It’s the intellect’s way of imposing its superiority over others to fortifying its self image.

2. Cynicism

Cynicism is a general attitude of scornful or jaded negativity and overall distrust in the sincerity of a person’s true motives. Cynics are often characterized by doubt and pessimism in a general sense and bitter and scornful disparagement of specific ideals or beliefs of which they disapprove. Cynics would most likely describe themselves as realists rather than pessimists, however their unrelenting negativity often paints a different picture. The word cynic refers to a school of ancient Greek philosophy that was known for their overall contempt of innate human virtue and morality. Cynics were often known as dog-men for their fondness of public urination and had the reputation of being rude, insensitive, and otherwise offensive. In contemporary times, the term has come to broadly define individuals who have a lack of faith or hope in the human race on the whole. Although most cynics have a keen intellect and an above average intelligence, they rarely choose to put those qualities to constructive use.

This intellectual poison may come about as the result of minor or major disappointments throughout life, through the recognition that “life just isn’t fair”, or through more deeply seated existential suffering that we all face at times throughout our lives. However, the cynical attitude towards life is most likely the byproduct of what neurologists refer to the “Negativity Bias” in our brains that has conditioned us to look for threats rather than support. If not held in check, this biological inheritance makes us quick to find fault and hesitant to see the positive possibilities in a given situation. Most likely, the choice to become cynical isn’t a conscious one. Long-held cynicism is the result of habitual thoughts that reinforce a view of the world that is untrustworthy. Despite their often keen intellect and love of facts, cynics put their attention on what’s wrong with life rather than what’s right. Over time, all they’re able to see is a world filtered through their own negative perceptions. In a cynical worldview, the intellect has just enough knowledge to be harmful; just enough rope to hang itself.

Personally, I don’t believe cynicism possesses any redeeming qualities as a worldview. It’s a dark, biting, jaded way of looking at life. I’m no Pollyanna – I realize that life can be challenging, that disappointments abound, and that suffering is a very real part of our world; however I also know that the answer isn’t to be a spiteful dog-man full of mean-spirited contempt for the world. In our culture (and thanks to our biology) being negative is easy. Anyone can do it. There’s no skill involved; it takes no real effort. Being positive and choosing to see the bright side of things takes work, persistence and faith in humanity. It’s easy to have low expectations and to be perpetually disappointed when life barely lives up to them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A cynical outlook is a perception, and perceptions can be changed. There are ways out of the suffering and paths to liberation do exist. But they have to be chosen.

3. Ruthless Skepticism

One of the core tenets of our modern scientific worldview, skepticism is an attitude marked by a tendency to question or doubt what others accept to be true, especially so when there’s a lack of evidence to support a particular belief or theory. A skeptic is one who keeps an open mind, but requires evidence for any claim. On the whole, I think skeptical inquiry is a very healthy and natural intellectual instrument for looking beyond appearances or the surface level of an idea or concept. I regularly rely on skeptical inquiry to probe deeper into what I read or hear from any source. As a student of Buddhist philosophy, I have found no better representation of this ideal than in this quote from Lord Buddha:

Do not believe in what you have heard.
Do not believe in tradition because it is handed down many generations.
Do not believe in anything that has been spoken many times.
Do not believe because the written statements come from some old sage.
Do not believe in conjecture.
Do not believe in authority or teachers or elders.
But after careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.

This is wise council for any explorer, whether the field is religion, science, psychology, molecular biology, or consciousness itself. To not question long held beliefs and concepts is dangerous and can lead to blind devotion, complacency, and a tacit acceptance of the status quo. We must question…and doubt…and ask why, for these are the rules of the explorer. If we honestly wish to learn, we have to be willing to objectively explore even our most long held beliefs and ideals. Only then will we discover their validity, or lack thereof.

The problem arises when skepticism becomes pathological. I call this ruthless skepticism, but may also be referred to as “dogmatic”, “zealous”, or militant skepticism. When fueled by the philosophy of rationalism, skepticism becomes characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence. Anything that cannot be seen, measured, or empirically analyzed is excluded; revelation, mysticism, subjective experience, and knowledge of a transcendent level of reality beyond the physical universe are dismissed as primitive superstitions. This is not the open-minded inquiry in service of the search for truth we mentioned earlier, but rather a perversion of the quest for knowledge. The followers of this narrow-minded and intolerant creed take no prisoners in defending what they believe is an attempt to stave off the forces of unreason. They mock, insult, and character-assassinate anyone who oppose their rigid worldview; portraying as foolish, half-witted, naïve, gullible, ignorant, irrational and stupid those unfortunate enough to hold an alternative point of view. These people are not explorers – but rather believe they are guardians at the gates in an ideological battle between reason and the ignorant masses that risk dragging civilization back into the dark ages.

Ruthless skeptics have made science their irrefutable religion and will deny the existence of other possibilities with the intolerant zeal of a fundamentalist Christian. They refuse to acknowledge alternative views, cannot think outside of the box and are unwilling to critically examine their own beliefs. For such individuals, it is much easier (and safer) to heckle those who don’t share their worldview than to actually roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the hard work of research and personal experience. The ruthless skeptics of the world are no longer scientists in the true sense – they’re not interested in exploring all the possibilities, they are dedicated to crushing all resistance in the pursuit of their agenda.

As you can see, any of these three poisons are insidious on their own, but when combined together, they become a triple-threat of intellectual disaster that the ancient sages warned us about. The intellect becomes a self righteous monster that is more interested in proving its own position than seeking truth, understanding or enlightenment. The servant of the ego, rather than the spirit, it uses clever and hurtful tactics to create further separation, fostering unchecked pride and hubris. While justifying this behavior with claims of science and rationalism, the ego driven-intellect blasts opponents with cynical and sarcastic laced skepticism, chopping off another’s head so it can stand taller.

Sadly, such individuals can’t see past their own biases. The critical intellect is never used for its ultimate purpose – self exploration. This is ironic indeed, because it’s such individuals with their penetrating minds that have the potential to discover nature’s deepest secrets. If they could turn their intelligence inward for exploration rather than outward in the perceived battle against the “feeble minded dupes and dopes of the world,” they would experience an entirely new universe.

If we are to use our mind and intellect to the fullest, to pursue the path of Gyan Yoga and enjoy the countless benefits science, technology, medicine, progress, innovation, evolution and enlightenment have to offer, we must be willing to recognize our place in the greater scheme of the universe. To forget that it is Spirit moving through us and essentially “running the show” is to get caught in the mistake of the intellect. Rather than walking the razor’s edge, we run the risk of slipping off and loosing ourselves in the process.