Throughout my life, I’ve taken a keen interest in meditation and the concept of achieving enlightenment through reaching the ideal mental state. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, which on a whole confused me more than they helped me reach Nirvana. I quickly discovered that no matter what method you used to reach this state you’d find someone who would disagree with your approach. Some would even say that the more you try to reach enlightenment the farther away you’ll get because the only way to reach enlightenment is to let go of all desire and ambition until you’re left in a state of immediate stillness and clarity.
I can’t argue with any of these self-proclaimed authorities, because arguing about what enlightenment truly is…is like arguing about what a party or a lover truly is. You can define any concept however you want and argue until you’re blue in the face about what the true meaning of a word is, and nobody can say who is more correct.
Despite the elusiveness of enlightenment, there’s something in the concept worth exploring. There’s value in the theory that an ideal mental state exists which can be achieved through some kind of mental feat (or the lack thereof). If an ideal mental state doesn’t exist then it doesn’t matter if you spend your life watching cheap sitcoms and reality television; it doesn’t matter if you go to school or think or don’t think about any topic in particular. Everything is equal.
But it does matter what you think. What you think defines who you are, and who you are defines what society is and where society is going. If there were no mental standards, then there would be no laws, religions, leadership courses, degrees or awards; we would live in anarchy. And on a personal level, we wouldn’t have any goals to strive for.
Some people would say this is a good thing; that our ambitions are chains that tie us to the vulgar world, and the only way to achieve true enlightenment is to let go of those anchors and simply exist in the here and now free from ego or wants. I’ve looked at life from that point of view, and I can see the value in it. At some point, you have to just stop and smell the roses and wallow in the grandeur of existence in its purest form. If you can’t do that, then what are we doing here? We’re just chasing after goals that are going to be rendered useless by time.
Still, every generation of humans has been faced with colossal questions and problems. If we made it a categorical imperative that every human being should spend their entire life escaping thought, then we’d still be living in caves and pooping in bushes. It’s only because of the conscious, ambitious, logical, scientific thoughts that humans have cracked the mystery of the Periodic Table of Elements, The Red Shift or the Big Bang. Without logical thought, we wouldn’t have invented fertilizer, antibiotics, stitches, hearing aids, refrigeration, human rights, legal processes or any other inventions or concepts that solve the problems of life.
If we hadn’t discovered these insights into life through rigorous, scientific thought, we’d still be worshiping the sun and sacrificing humans to appease the thunder gods. So I can’t make a moral imperative out of the idea that humans should abandon logical thought in favor of pure experience… until we’ve solved the problems that hurt us and force us to waste our lives toiling away just to survive.
I can’t empirically prove what “enlightenment” is, but I know what truth is. Truth is that which is, and scientific thought tells us what is true. So my theory (at this point in my life) is that in order to understand truth and live in reality you need to follow the path of scientific thought. Once you understand the scientific nature of the universe and master the art of reason then you’ll see reality as clearly as possible. Then, after you solve the immediate problems that cause you and the people around you suffering then you can relax and soak up the grandeur of existence in stillness. But until you know who, why, what, where, when and why you are, and until you’ve solved the very real, very tragic problems in front of you than sitting around mentally masturbating is inherently irresponsible.
That’s why I hold the philosophy that enlightenment is achieved through logic.
Over the course of 10 years, I wrote a book on the meaning of life titled “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life.” I didn’t do it to get rich quick, or because God told me to or because I’m the smartest person alive. My motives came from somewhere much more down to Earth. To understand why I wrote this book, you need to know the whole story.
I’ve always been an introvert, predisposed to working alone on long projects, and I’ve always loved puzzles. At the age of seventeen, I made a conscious decision to make a hobby out of solving difficult logic puzzles for the fun and challenge of it. Originally, this consisted of completing puzzle books, which I did with varying levels of success. That got boring quickly though because I was just rearranging words, letters, and numbers, which felt tantamount to mental masturbation. I wanted to solve real problems that had useful implications for myself and hopefully the rest of society.
The first big challenge I picked was creating a perpetual motion machine. Although I failed to build a working perpetual motion machine, I don’t count the quest as a failure, because it provided me hundreds of hours of entertainment and valuable problem-solving practice. When that thought-experiment had run its course I started looking for a new one. It wasn’t long before the question of the meaning of life caught my attention.
The challenge started out as a game, but the more I thought about it, the more seriously I took the question. I considered myself a responsible person who followed all the rules and lived a successful life by modern society’s standards, but could I say for certain I knew the meaning of life? No. So could I honestly be sure I was fulfilling it? No. I was just expecting I’d nail it by chance; I was leaving it up to chance whether or not I validated my existence or wasted it in vain. For the first time, it struck me that the meaning of life might not be a novelty riddle after all. It might be a matter of life and death. In fact, it might even be a matter of eternal life and death… and that wasn’t even the worst part.
What shook me even more profoundly was the realization that if I didn’t know the meaning of life then I couldn’t teach my future children what it is or how to fulfill it. I was leaving their fate up to chance as well. How could I do that in good conscience?
To my surprise, I found I wasn’t playing a game any longer. I was waffling at a crossroad in life. Should I go down that rabbit hole or find a way to write these thoughts off and get back to my routine, comfortable life? I didn’t have to second guess myself for very long. Regardless of anything else, the bottom line was I was planning on becoming a parent, and I had a responsibility to my unborn children. A father’s job is to teach his children how to make the most out of life, and since I didn’t know the meaning of life I didn’t have an end goal to teach my children how to accomplish. I was going to have to find some kind of answer to the meaning of life so I could teach my descendants everything needed to know to have the best chance at validating their existence and making the most out of life.
Being a child myself at the time, I had no idea where to begin answering such an enigmatic question, but I knew history was full of people much smarter than me. I assumed/hoped one of them had already figured it out. So I started making trips to the library and bookstores hunting for the book the master wrote his/her revelation down in.
Some of the things I read had promise, but without exception, they were all flawed in one way or another. Most of the self-help books were oversimplified and based on emotion more than logic. You could sum up most of them in the phrases, “The meaning of life is a good cup of coffee.” Or “Love everybody.” Nice sentiments but vague to the point of being useless.
The books written by self-proclaimed spiritual gurus tended to ramble incoherently and not be based on any kind of evidence whatsoever. The authors just said, “This is the answer,” and expected the reader to accept their mystical conclusions without asking for any logical or empirical proof.
As for Western philosophy… I know I could get crucified for saying this, but I would describe most of what I read as nine parts academic masturbation and one part insight. For all the amazing and useless things I read, I never found a systematic, logical, empirically valid explanation of the meaning of life.
And then there are the world’s religious books. The first problem they pose is that most of them claimed to be the final truth on life and state it is foolish, arrogant, or outright immoral to question them let alone believe in any other belief system. So even if I quit searching for the meaning of life and bet my soul on any religion, I would still be committing blasphemy according to multiple other self-proclaimed holy books. This concerned me deeply because I don’t want to go to Hell. If blasphemy is immoral, then I don’t want to commit it, but we’re all in a no-win situation. In the end, I figured if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, you may as well do your best.
All things being blasphemy, the way I chose to commit it was to put all the religious books I could find to the test of empirical and logical truth. Without exception, they all contained historical and scientific errors, textual problems, absurdities, contradictions, and incoherent moral codes. Hundreds of thousands of books have been written about each religion, attempting to explain their mysteries. But Occam’s Razor can explain all of them in one sentence: All the religions humans have created are mythologies.
If that’s true, it creates as many questions as it answers. How was the universe created? What defines ethics? Is life meaningless, or is the purpose of life simply beyond the grasp of human intelligence?
The last question bothered me the most. If it really was true that we can never know the meaning of life then that would mean we have one, but can never sure if we’re succeeding at it. Does that mean we were never meant to fulfill it? Would that mean, for all practical purposes, life has no meaning? Are our lives nothing more than pieces in a cosmic game of Periwinkles? Are we not important?
My inability to answer any of these questions drove me to existential depression. I tried to act like nothing was wrong and continued going to work and socialize with friends but found it hard to be enthusiastic about anything since it seemed nothing we did mattered in the long run.
Walking through my tiny corner of the universe, I couldn’t shake my suspicions that it would be absurd for life to exist without a purpose. Surely there had to be a reason why such a complex universe full of complex living beings existed. So as I went through the motions of life I continued to think about and observe the world around me hoping to find the clues I’d missed.
On my way to work in the mornings I passed by a large oak tree, and I’d often stop to stare at it and ask myself, “What are you doing there Mr. Tree?” One day I was studying Mr. Tree when I found the clue I was looking for. The tree contained patterns. The branches weren’t geometrically organized, but there was a pattern to how trees in general look. Then I looked down at myself and found patterns in my body. We can recognize humans from other animals because our structure follows the same pattern. Skeletons follow patterns. Heredity follows patterns. Biology is all about patterns. For that matter, so is the rest of nature: gravitational pull, chemical reactions, and mathematical equations. These all behave according to patterns which reflect phenomenally elegant order in the universe.
It would be illogical to assume that everything in the universe behaves according to predictable patterns, but life (and all the patterns it contains) came into existence on accident. It’s no more an accident for life to exist than it is for water to freeze. The universe was meticulously designed to produce living beings. The immeasurable level of detail in the design of the universe isn’t an accident.
Atoms, molecules, solar systems, and DNA are so ingeniously designed that I can’t discount the possibility an intelligent God created them. If that’s true, then why does God let bad things happen? Does/should God answer prayers? How do you learn about an absentee God of science? Do you even need to know God, or were we put here to do something else?
I wanted to explore these questions, but a voice in the back of my head kept asking, what if I’m wrong about religion, and there really is an angry, jealous God? If I ever claimed to figure out life for myself, would I be punished? Would I go to hell? Were humans not meant to think for themselves? Why would God create children who aren’t supposed to think for themselves?
With or without God, is it still impossible (or at least too difficult) for humans to figure out? If the question can be answered, who’s smart enough to do it? Could I do it or should I leave it to the professionals? But who are the professionals? What would make someone qualified/disqualified to find the meaning of life anyway? Do you need a doctorate degree, a Nobel Prize, membership in a high IQ club, or at least published book under your belt before you’re certified to… ask questions?
I lost sleep asking myself these questions. I knew if nobody else had life figured out, then I’d have to do it on my own, but I didn’t think I could or should for all the reasons stated above. But then again, not trying was as good as suicide…and in the case of my potential offspring I was responsible for, manslaughter. This infuriated me. I kept telling myself, “This is insanity. It doesn’t make any sense.” Then, after a long night of tossing and turning in bed, I finally let myself admit the simple and obvious truth of the matter. It was insanity. It didn’t make any sense because it was illogical.
There may or may not be a God. We’re all just stranded in this big, elegant universe. We’re so lost we don’t even know how lost we are. If God’s out there, we’re left on our own to sink or swim. We don’t know the difference between right and wrong or if there is one. There is no instruction book. All we can do is figure out life for ourselves.
Whether we know or will admit it, everyone does this. We look at everything around us and come to our own conclusions. So I said, “To Hell with taboos,” and made a decision to consciously do what I’d already been doing all along. I’d figure out my own systematic, logical explanation of the meaning of life. The point wasn’t to create a book to publish. It was to create my own personal guidebook to life.
Having decided that, I turned my attention to the enormous task of figuring out where the hell to begin. Ask yourself, “What is the first thing you need to do to answer the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’” That’s a riddle within an impossible riddle. When I posed it to myself, I felt completely dumbfounded, but in that boggled, fuzzy state of mind I had a moment of horse-sense clarity. I realized if you want to answer any question, you need a step-by-step guide to answering questions.
So I went back to the library and the bookstores and read a stack of books on logic and problem-solving. I learned a lot of useful things from those books, but I didn’t find the streamlined guide to answering questions I was looking for. So I looked back over everything I had learned about thinking and boiled it down to a neat list.
Ask a question.
Identify the variables you have.
Identify the variables you don’t have.
Sort the data.
Question your answer.
Apply the solution.
I spent years applying these steps to the question of the meaning of life and piecing my conclusions together in this book. I included a detailed breakdown of my method of problem-solving in Chapter 14 since everything you’ll ever do in life will be the product of questions you’ve asked yourself. No matter what the meaning of life is, it involves problem-solving since everything does.
If you read “Why” you’ll see how I applied these steps to the question of the meaning of life. If you just want to know the final conclusion I came to, read the next paragraph for the spoiler:
Regardless of whether or not God or an afterlife exists, or even if there’s no meaning to life at all, the most logical thing a living being can do with their brief time here is fulfill their potential. If that sounds anticlimactic, it’s because the most interesting part of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” isn’t “what,” it’s “why.”
This book isn’t the final answer on life. God didn’t reveal it to me. It’s just the conclusions I’ve come to that I base my life around. If you read my book and find even a single sentence lacking I hope you don’t dismiss all my observations and conclusions. Takes what you find to be true, and leave what you don’t. If you have a better answer, the world needs it. I need it. The way I’ll measure the success of my book isn’t by how many people believe me but by how many I inspire to ask questions.
Everyone has heard of enlightenment, but most people don’t care enough about the topic to study or practice it and probably couldn’t even give you a coherent definition of the word. I’m not a genius or a spiritual guru. I’m a poor white trash kid from Texas, but I spent thousands of hours studying and thinking about enlightenment, and I came to some novel conclusions. In order to fully appreciate their meaning, you need to understand why and how I tried to teach myself enlightenment in the first place.
I have an identical twin brother, and we were born two months premature. My twin was born healthy, but my heart was underdeveloped. So I spent most of the first year of my life in and out of the hospital surviving a series of near-death experiences. These factors forced me to be lucidly conscious of my mortality and the surrealness of existence for long as I can remember.
I believe the sensory deprivation I experienced in the hospital during the formative weeks of my development wired my brain to adapt to solitude, stillness, and quiet. This may be where my INTP personality type comes from. Either way, I’ve always been an introvert who enjoys spending time alone thinking, writing and working on long, tedious projects. So my temperament and life situation predisposed me to ponder philosophical questions.
I wasn’t raised rich, with every education opportunity money could buy, but the small Texas towns I lived in had old-fashioned, strict, rigorous schools. So I received a solid understanding of science, history, English and critical thinking skills. I was also put in “gifted and talented” classes from the third grade where I was encouraged to think outside the box. These two education styles shaped how I approach philosophical questions.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I took Christianity for granted, but I didn’t really practice it until high school when I made a conscious decision to accept Jesus as my savior and devote my life to being a Christian. Then I applied all my skill sets to prove the Bible to be the true word of God, but within a year I found so much evidence that the Bible is mythology, I wrote a book on it.
After losing my faith I plunged into existential despair and read as many religion/philosophy/self-help books as I could, searching for new insights into the riddle of life. I found the ancient Eastern religions and philosophies like Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism the most interesting.
The concept of enlightenment, in particular, appealed to me. I already knew enlightenment existed, but my deconversion gave me new motivation to take it seriously. I’d lost the need for faith or salvation, but I still needed a purpose to strive for, and enlightenment made the perfect substitute. It offered a way to become more than I am without having to surrender my life to a mythological deity invented by a primitive tribe to justify their culture.
When I was a Christian, I reasoned that if connecting with God was the best thing we could do, then we should do it. Now I reasoned that if a man has the potential to reach a higher state of mind, then he should, not because God commanded us to, but because it offers the most benefit to the individual. The cost/benefit analysis simply adds up.
I wanted to make the most of my life on a personal level, and I wanted to justify my existence on a philosophical level. To be completely honest, I also thought achieving enlightenment might give me some kind of superpowers. So I approached the study of enlightenment with childlike enthusiasm. To my surprise, my zeal dissipated into disillusionment as I found at least five holes in traditional theories of enlightenment:
1. There’s no agreed upon definition of what enlightenment is.
Hindus, Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, New Age gurus and thousands of other groups have different definitions of enlightenment and instructions to achieve it. There’s no test you can use to prove which definition or methodology is the true one. Ultimately, it’s all one big pile of stuff people made up. Some schools of thought claim enlightenment can’t be labeled or bottled, because that’s the point. It’s beyond words. That idea is vague to the point of being useless. If it does mean something, skeptics can’t disprove whatever it means, but proponents still can’t prove it’s true or disprove anyone else’s theories either.
2. You can’t prove a higher state of mind exists at all
10,000 years of religion and 200 years of psychology have proven if you commit your mind to connecting with Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, a higher level of consciousness, a parallel universe or Elvis, eventually you’ll find something that feels real to you.
There’s no scientific evidence that a spiritual-level higher state of consciousness exists at all, and the burden of proof doesn’t lay on the skeptic to disprove its existence. The burden of proof lies on the self-proclaimed gurus of the world to prove their “higher” state of mind isn’t just a subjective experience that satisfies their subconscious desires, but it’s impossible for them to do that. So their personal testimonies are hearsay.
3. Every self-proclaimed authoritative source contains evidence of lack of authority
Any Hindu Yogi will agree that you can’t put Om in a test tube, but when you look at Hinduism on a whole you’ll find text-book signs of mythology such as an oppressive caste system, astrology, scientifically unsupported statements about the nature of the universe and animistic deities. New Age books on enlightenment are just as baseless. When a belief system contains inconsistencies, absurdities, and culturally relative idiosyncrasies, it casts doubt on its authority on any subject.
The authority of a book doesn’t come from who wrote it, how long it has been around, or how many people believe it. Its authority comes from how rigorously its conclusions have been vetted. If you want to learn about the human mind, then study psychology, not mythology.
4. It’s unlikely that our design is flawed
Some theories of enlightenment claim your average state of mind is inherently flawed, and enlightenment is achieved by eliminating or escaping your base state. Advocates of this school of thought point to stress and crime as evidence that we need to eliminate some part of ourselves. Being a self-loathing Christian, I latched onto this idea quickly and held onto it for a while, but studying astronomy and anatomy led me to the conclusion that it takes less faith to assume our minds work correctly than it does to assume our minds are cosmically/spiritually flawed.
I don’t know if there’s an intelligent creator, or if the universe came into existence by random chance. I don’t know why or how humans came into existence, but I do know that the universe is designed to behave very specifically and elegantly. Subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and solar systems are ingeniously structured to snap together in powerful and predictable ways.
It can be no more of an accident that humans exist in this universe than it is for stars or planets. The amount of forward-thinking it would take to design a universe that can rearrange itself from nothing, into to an expanding gas cloud, that condensed itself into rotating galaxies full of planets that sprouted sentient beings is staggering.
The complexity of the human body is magnitudes greater than the complexity of the planet that germinated us. Our bones and muscles are a series of levers, counter-levers, and pulleys that are positioned to anticipate the need to use opposing forces to create a system of tensegrity that can hold a body upright and perform acrobatics. Humans beings are still years away from designing a robot that can move as nimbly as a human. We’re even farther away from creating a computer anywhere near as powerful as the human brain. We don’t fully understand how the human brain works, but so far we haven’t found anything arbitrary about its design or functions.
If water is supposed to freeze at 32 degrees Celsius and light is supposed to travel at 186,000 miles per second, then the human brain is probably supposed to do exactly what it has been meticulously designed to do by a force infinitely more “intelligent” than a hermit who probably can’t even tell you what the pancreas does.
5. I can’t make a categorical imperative out of devoting one’s life to meditation
If everyone who has ever existed, spent their entire lives meditating in monasteries, we would never have discovered the Periodic Table of Elements. We’d be fighting wolves with clubs and entertaining ourselves around the campfire by making up fantastic, mythological theories to explain what lightning, wind, and the sun are. That’s not the perfection of the human experience. That’s a wasted opportunity.
I can’t tell you what enlightenment is, or if it even exists. I have a theory that I try to apply to my life. It could be wrong in all or part. Take what you can from it. Leave the rest.
Enlightenment is like love. It’s a feeling, a state of mind, and an action at all once. You can be in love and actively love someone. You can’t put your finger on it, but everyone’s lives have been revolving around this intangible force for as long as humans have existed. There’s no definitive book on love, but millions of books have been written about it.
Love is a feeling of attraction between people. Enlightenment is the feeling of existing. It’s how it feels to be awake and conscious of your own individuality. The experience of being you is mind-fuckingly fluid. You slip in and out of states of consciousness constantly. In a single day, you can experience sleeping, waking up, rushing, resting, fearing, loving, fighting, reminiscing, meditating, obsessing, planning, daydreaming, problem-solving, memorizing, fantasizing, hating, hurting, regretting, celebrating, hungering, and giving up.
Each of these states of mind exists because our brains evolved to use them to solve real-world problems. Devoting your life to holding onto or letting go of any one of these is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and sabotaging your opportunity to fulfill your all-around potential. The key to experiencing the most ideal reality is to master every facet of your mind and become the best You that you can be. Through fulfilling your potential, you’ll achieve as much clarity as humans are designed to achieve. You won’t become a higher form of life. You’ll just be more mature, which is profound enough.
You are your reality. Everything you experience is defined by what’s in your head. In order to live in the best mind-space, you need to do at least 7 things:
1. Learn science.
The universe is a big, scary place, but we can study nature and figure out why things happen. Having a basic understanding of science will give you more peace of mind than turning your brain off and ignoring the mysteries of the universe.
Science also gives us the power to create reliable shelters, warm clothing, mass-produced food, medicine, and spaceships. These luxuries empower people to live more comfortable, meaningful lives than sitting on a mountain training your mind to ignore the cold.
With understanding comes peace and empowerment. Ignorance confuses and disempowers us. So if you want to maximize your mind, the first thing you need to do is learn science.
2. Learn problem-solving skills.
Everything you ever do will require you to solve problems. The better you are at solving problems, the better you’ll be at navigating life. The weaker your problem-solving skills are, the less control you’ll have over your life. The more you master the art of problem-solving, the more effortlessly you can stride past the obstacles that stand between you and your goals. This is a far more effective way of achieving peace of mind than clearing your mind and convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist.
3. Learn psychology.
You are your mind. If you ever hope to cope with your existence, let alone maximize the experience of being you, then you need to understand how your mind works. Studying psychology will teach you why you have so many different states of mind and how to control them. Mastering your mind will bring you more peace and fulfillment than denying it.
4. Define and refine yourself.
The universe doesn’t need us. We don’t serve any practical purpose outside of ourselves. Nothing would be lost if we disappeared. Yet the universe went through almost 14 billion years of trouble rearranging itself to create the conditions necessary to create us. If we were supposed to be nothing, then the universe would have made us nothing. I believe throwing away your identity defeats the purpose of existing in the first place. I believe you’re here to be you.
Studying science, problem solving and psychology give you the toolsets to accomplish whatever goals you have. The morality of an action is determined by how much it helps/hinders life achieve the most important goal, and the most important goal is to become the best you that you can be. To do that, you need to define who you are, who you want to be, and then create/execute a plan to improve yourself.
5. Meditate and smell the roses.
Psychology classes can prepare you to be yourself, but the world off-campus is a brutal place full of idiots and sociopaths with agendas. You’ll be pulled in every direction, and every aspect of your mind will be put to the test. If you never spend any time in solitude, focusing your mind inward, exploring and feeling what it is to be you, then the world will force its definition of you onto your mind.
You don’t always have to sit in a quiet room and clear your mind to feel at one with the universe. You can find moments during the daily grind to stop and smell the roses or to take a deep breath and just be. Schedule time in the evening to stop and marvel at the stars.
If the drama of life is too overwhelming, then turn your mind off for 15 minutes to experience the peace that comes from quietly being one with the universe. Once you’ve centered yourself, pick yourself back up and resume your quest with renewed focus.
6.Do what you love.
Existence isn’t just something you passively experience. It’s something you do. Being a unique individual isn’t only accomplished solely by sitting in a room exploring the space behind your eyes. It’s something you do. The way you actively “be” yourself, is by doing what you love.
Doing what you love will bring you more peace and fulfillment than suppressing your passions. Those passions aren’t unnatural. Nature put them there. Nature gave you the freedom to express, enjoy and validate yourself through doing the things you love. If you’re not doing them, then you’re just letting life pass you by.
Solitude is an important tool in the quest to refine yourself, but if you were meant to be alone, then you would have been the only person to ever exist. If you want a transcendental experience that is more real and powerful than words can describe, then host a dinner party at your house and invite all the most important people in your life. The joy you’ll experience while communing with your loved ones will bring you closer to “God” than cutting yourself off from the world.