BOOK REVIEW: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays by Ralph Waldo EmersonEssays by Ralph Waldo Emerson by Emerson Ralph Waldo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many collections of Emerson’s essays in publication – some more complete or more recently compiled – but the one under review here was originally published by the Charles E. Merrill Co. in 1907. It contains eleven essays, including selections from both Emerson’s First and Second Series. There are around 700 end-notes that provide points of clarification. The front matter includes a brief biographical statement on Emerson, a discussion of critical opinion of his work, and a list of his writings.

Rather than discuss the essays as a whole, I’ll describe each in turn.

1.) The American Scholar: a major theme in this essay is avoiding pretentiousness and not neglecting to see the virtue in the simple and unrefined.

2.) Compensation: Emerson had an interesting philosophy on this subject, believing that everything that belongs to one or which one ought to have will come to one. There is a Taoist feel to this essay, e.g. “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else: and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

3.) Self-Reliance: This is my favorite essay, hands down. It’s full of pithy, powerful, and quotable statements. e.g. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Even where it’s not so concise and quotable, it delivers important ideas.

4.) Friendship: There is a quote that I think is quite illustrative of Emerson’s thoughts on the subject: “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

5.) Heroism: Consistent with the ideas in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson proposes that the route to heroism is in trusting oneself and having inner confidence, rather than in trying to satisfy the dictates of society.

6.) Manners: Emerson was a fan of a polite and genteel nature. This may seem at odds with his general inclination to avoid pretension or elitism, but if one treats all people with polite respect, then these ideals do not conflict.

7.) Gifts: Related to the earlier essay on compensation, this piece decries getting caught up in giving opulent gifts and thinking it a grand virtue, while it doesn’t criticize gift giving all together.

8.) Nature: This is the subject that one likely most associates with Emerson and his friend and protégé, Thoreau. As one expects, Emerson suggests one spend more time in nature. Something interesting I found in this piece was his rebuke of pseudo-science. Not that it should be unexpected, but one must consider that the line between science and the occult wasn’t as fully formed as it is today and Emerson was a mystic. But consider this: “Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology become phrenology and palmistry.”

9.) Shakespeare; or, The Poet: While honoring Shakespeare, Emerson points out that our recognition of brilliance isn’t recognition of originality. e.g. “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

10.) Prudence: Emerson insists that sagacity in managing oneself and one’s affairs is crucial.

11.) Circles: This essay covers a lot of ground in dealing with topics that are cyclical – though they may seem progressive. In parts it reminds me of the portion of self-reliance that says “society is a wave,” and which goes on to explain how it’s not a matter of society steadily advancing because it recedes on one side as quickly as it gains on the other. This can be seen in a quote such as: “New arts destroy the old.” I think a quote that drives to the heart of not falling into the illusion of believing fashions of the moment are an invariable truth can be seen here: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with not past at my back.”

I highly recommend this collection of essays. Some have maintained greater relevance than others, but all offer some interesting food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

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BOOK REVIEW: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella is divided into two uneven parts. The first part consists of eleven chapters of floating head philosophizing by an old man about all manner of topics loosely connected by a cynical outlook. The most prominent topic is consciousness and how it’s a curse upon mankind – for the more one has of it the more one is trapped in a dead-end life. (Presumably what Dostoevsky meant by “the underground.”) One really has to be interested in philosophy to get through the first part, which is about 1/3rd of the book, because there is no story and nothing in particular to make one interested in the monologuing old man’s life or thoughts. However, it’s considered the first existentialist novel, and is considered important on that grounds, and the philosophy is thought-provoking now and again.

It’s in the second part that the book gets interesting. In this part, we get a flashback to the narrator’s life as a young man and the events that presumably shaped the cynical philosophy that he’d rambled on about in the first part.

One can subdivide the second part into three subsections that each get more extensive and more interesting in turn. In the first section, the narrator tells about how he became irritated that there was an alpha male military officer who would walk boldly down the sidewalk and everyone would get out of his way. The narrator is ashamed that he consistently got out of the man’s way, himself. Since there was no rule that this man was owed the right-of-way, the narrator devises a plan to play chicken with the man. This may seem like a silly and sad little story, but it gives insight into the man’s state of mind. There are shades of “Fight Club” in this book, as the narrator feels emasculated by society and modernity. He’s a coward, but a proud coward who believes the world is ruled by fools, while men of intellect – such as himself – are trapped in the underground. He also has a masochistic ambivalence about pain and suffering.

The second and third sections flow together from a solitary event. The narrator runs into an old acquaintance from school, Zverkov, and invites himself to Zverkov’s going-away party dinner. However, neither Zverkov nor his chums particularly care for the narrator. There is a tension not only because they are of a higher status, but because the narrator has a chip on his shoulder about it. The narrator feels himself the superior man, and his self-invitation to the party is in a way another act of playing a game of chicken with those who are de facto superiors. His low-income post, combined with his feelings of superiority, compels him to assert himself to no good end.

When Zverkov and his pals slip away, in part to continue their festivities and in part to get away from the narrator, the narrator pursues them to the brothel they’ve taken their boy’s-night-out to. This is where the third part begins when the narrator ends up sleeping with Liza, a young prostitute. After the deed, the narrator rambles on about how she should get out while the getting is good, engaging in moralistic diatribe. Before leaving, he gives her his address card. Over the next several days, he swings between fears that she’ll actually show up to his shabby abode and fears that she won’t. His feelings for Liza bounce between whipping post and object of affection. And, being a classic unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to the weight of those competing feelings.

Once one gets into the second part, this book becomes intriguing. The lead character would, at best, be classified and anti-hero. There’s nothing likable about him, but still one wonders how events will unfold. The first part offers the occasional bit of food-for-thought, but isn’t a compelling read for those who didn’t major in Philosophy. Even most Philosophy majors will find it needlessly cynical – if interesting. Still, it’s worth reading, and, hey, it’s really short.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the EastThe Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.

This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.

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POEM: The Sum of All Ignorance

Oh, take me on a learning spree.

Explain the nature of reality.

Am I living in a simulation?

Perhaps, dumb luck is the world’s foundation.

Does life have meaning, or must I make one?

Should I live for love, or live for fun?

Should I consecrate or desecrate?

Do I live by chance or live by fate?

The answers, they grow no nearer.

Am I the heard or the hearer?


If I received such a knowledge bearer,

would I awake in bliss or in terror?

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations on Consciousness ed. by Susan Blackmore

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be HumanConversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Blackmore gathers together interviews from a veritable who’s who of consciousness experts from neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and physics. While the interviews are in part tailored to tap into the special insights of the given expert, a consistent series of questions is asked of each of the interviewees. Each expert is asked what they think is challenging about consciousness, what they think about the feasibility of philosopher’s zombies (a popular thought experiment about an individual who seems to behave like an ordinary human but who has no conscious experience), what they think about the existence of free will, what happens to consciousness after death, and what got them interested in the subject. This makes it easy for the reader to see not just differences in thinking across disciplines, but also different schools of thought within disciplines. There’s enough variety to make for intriguing reading. There is also a mix between individuals who have experience with meditation (e.g. the interviewer) and those who don’t, and so it’s interesting to compare views of those with such insight to those who study consciousness entirely abstractly.

I won’t list all the authors, but they include: David Chalmers (who famously coined the term the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is one of the most widely discussed ideas in the book), Francis Crick (of DNA fame who later shifted focus), Daniel Dennett (a well-known philosopher), V.S. Ramachandran (a neuroscientist famous for work on phantom limbs and behavioral neurology), and Roger Penrose (a physicist who believes that quantum mechanics may prove crucial to figuring out consciousness.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an Introduction by Blackmore and then the 20 or 21 interviews (one “chapter” is a married couple – Pat and Paul Churchland — whose insights are presented together.) The only back matter is a glossary, which is quite in-depth and which helps to clarify the many confusing concepts from various disciplines. There are a few cartoon drawings that lighten the tone, but serve no essential purpose.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. It’s quite old at this point – having come out in 2005 – but since consciousness is so intractable, it’s not like any of the questions have been cleared up. (If it were a book on AI, I’d probably say it was worthless at this point, but not this book.) I’d recommend it for anyone looking to understand the lay of the land with regards thinking about consciousness.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Spread Mind by Riccardo Manzotti

The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are OneThe Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One by Riccardo Manzotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Manzotti puts forth a bold and intriguing hypothesis that one’s mental experience is the physical world and not a model or representation of the world. Unfortunately, his book doesn’t make a compelling case for “The Spread Mind” (as he calls it) over its competition. Consciousness is one of those still dim corners of our world that isn’t yet fully understood by anyone, and this has spurred many competing ideas ranging from: a.) it being illusory; b.) it being purely a construct of a complex brain; c.) it hinging on some quantum mechanical action not yet understood; d.) panpsychic (all-pervading consciousness) arguments that may or may not resonate traditional Indian / Eastern conceptions; and e.) this idea that consciousness is identical with the physical world of which one is conscious.

However, for simplicity’s sake, one can contrast Manzotti’s idea with the most widely accepted view offered by science, which is that our brains construct mental models of the world often based on [but not identical to] sensory information they take in. (If my statement isn’t clear, you can check out neuroscientist Anil Seth’s TED Talk on “how our brains hallucinate reality,” which is as diametrically opposed to Manzotti’s hypothesis as one gets – and which, unfortunately for Manzotti, also makes a more cogent argument.)

At first blush, Manzotti’s idea might look appealing. It does, after all, simplify the picture. It eliminates the middle-man of mental models and seemingly solves the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem is how to reconcile how the body (wet, physical, objectively observable matter) relates to mind (intangible, subjective, ephemeral thoughts and feelings,) — if it does. Descartes famously suggested that mind and body were simply two separate things (i.e. dualism), and while that notion has remained popular with homo religiosis it’s all but dead in the world of science. However, there is no one monism that has unambiguously replaced Cartesian dualism. The most popular variant among those who study the brain is that some action in / across neurons creates a series mental imagery, internal monologuing, and emotional sensations that make up our mental experience. The mechanism by which this could happen is still not understood, but it’s an inherently hard problem to peer into because on can’t observe mind states directly and the best tool for studying it – i.e. functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is only a couple decades old (and it’s still looking at brain blood flow and not consciousness, itself.) [I defend that this mechanism isn’t yet explained because one of Manzotti’s points seems to be: neuroscience hasn’t yet explained how neurons produced mental experience so just believe in my hypothesis which offers not even a hint of a mechanism by which it could work.] Manzotti’s is also a physical monist argument, but one that denies the mind is anything more than our experience of the physical world. In other words, there is a spoon, but there’s no mind separate of it.

So, what’s the problem? The reader may have already thought of some challenges confronting Manzotti’s hypothesis, and many of the most common ones the author refutes in the middle portion of the book. Dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, and even memory (certainly false memories, which we know are a wide-spread phenomenon) should utterly destroy the Spread Mind, given the simple definition we’ve given so far. After all, if your mental experience consists entirely of the physical objects that you are exposed to, then how does one explain the doughnut-shaped, sprinkle-breathing dragon that you hallucinated when you did ayahuasca on your trip to Iquitos? OK, you say you’re not such a wild child? Alright, how do you explain your detailed remembrance of putting that water bill into the mailbox, but then finding it under the seat of your car after you got a late notice from the water utility? If our mental experience is identical to the physical objects we experience, mentally experiencing things that don’t exist or events that never happened should never occur.

Manzotti elaborates upon Spread Mind to fend off these crippling attacks to his “theory.” (I use quotes because a theory is usually defined as “a well-substantiated explanation of a phenomenon” and it doesn’t seem to me there’s much in the way of substantiation of this idea.) There are two main prongs to his defense, one of which is unproven but soundly stated and consistent with the thinking of many physicists. The other defense seems to simply be a post-hoc rationalization used to make his “theory” work. Even though these ideas are presented in the opposite order in the book, I’ll deal with the first one I mentioned first because it’s relatively simple to cover. That’s the idea that past and present all exist always and at the same time. That may seem like an out-there idea because we can only ever be in touch with a moment we think of as the present and everything else is memory or fantasy /forecasts. However, it’s not exactly a rogue notion in science, especially once one starts thinking about making sense of Einsteinian Relativity. So, without this idea, if Spread Mind was correct, we could never have that fond memory of Mr. Fluffers, the pet we had in first grade who died decades ago. If our mental experience is Mr. Fluffers and not our mental model of Mr. Fluffers, we can’t have such an experience so long after he passed away. But if all time exist simultaneously, then one can conceive of how such a remembrance could happen. The only thing special about the present in Manzotti’s conception is that it’s the time during which we can interact with objects that also exist in the same time. This may or may not prove to be true. If it proves false it will kill Spread Mind, but if proves true the theory still has many questions to answer to prove itself worthy.

The second, and far less well-supported, defense could actually be divided in two ideas, but I’ll deal with it as a unit for simplicity’s sake. The parts of this defense our: a.) misbelief about our mental experience can happen, somehow [potential mechanisms by which this might occur are not described and that’s a huge problem for the author]; b.) objects we’ve experienced can be reshuffled to make objects appear to be entities that we know do not exist [Again, the mechanism by which this could occur is never explained or even seriously speculated about.] Let me give an example to explain how these defenses work. Say you drop a tab of acid and are having a hallucination of a dragon flying through the sky. Manzotti’s idea is that you are experiencing a reshuffled creature consisting of legs, a serpent, maybe some fire, a backdrop of sky, and you have a misbelief that all these constituent parts are in the present and co-exist together in space and time (as opposed to being disparate objects from varied past times.) This is a very convenient idea for Manzotti’s “theory” but it’s not really clear why we should buy it. In the competing notion that a mental model is built, one can imagine how the mind might construct something that doesn’t exist due to neuronal cross-firing or something like that. (The bigger question, in fact, might be why it doesn’t happen more often.) However, if our experience consists of objects that we’ve shared space-time with at some point, how and why should such weirdness occur? If the author made a compelling attempt to explain how this occurrence is reasonable, one might leave the book thinking his “theory” is – in fact — a theory and give it equal or superior footing to other approaches to consciousness, but as the book mostly offers gratuitous statements telling us to accept this all as a given, it’s not very powerful.

I’d like to get into one crucial example where I think Manzotti’s thinking is flawed in a way that could prove devastating to the Spread Mind. The author admits that an extraordinary hallucination would kill the Spread Mind. He defines an extraordinary hallucination as one consisting of objects that are non-existent in our world. Earlier, I used the example of a dragon which we know doesn’t exist, and we can be reasonably certain never existed. However, Manzotti would say that it’s just a reshuffling of parts like legs and snakes that we do know exist, combined with a misbelief about when these objects exist and that they co-exist in the same time. Manzotti says that there is no evidence that a hallucination that can’t be explained by reshuffling and misbelief ever existed. I have no doubt that if one read accounts of hallucinations; one could come away with that conclusion. However, I think it’s more convincingly explained by the nature of language as a unit of communication (hence necessitating common vocabulary.)

Example: Let’s assume for a minute that I had an extraordinary hallucination, and I decide to document it. I could take one of two approaches. On one hand, I could describe every completely novel element with a new word. I could say I saw a gruzzy-wug which had three separpals and a florgnak and a long and bushy krungleswam. Of course, I’m not communicating at this point because communication requires common vocabulary. Manzotti would likely argue that I’m just reshuffling letters [linguistic objects] to make up non-sense. On the other hand, as soon as I use a common vocabulary and analogy saying such and such is “kind of like a leg, but sort of with a curly-cue spiral and a mouth on top” Manzotti would say, well it’s a reshuffling of a leg and a pig’s tail and a mouth all of which the individual has seen before.

However, an even more devastating oversight is ignoring vast tracks of what most people would consider their mental experience. It’s the penultimate chapter before the book even touches upon emotion, which most would argue is a huge part of mental experience. Throughout most of the book, one is left wondering whether the author thinks of such things as emotion and language as part of consciousness. One imagines Manzotti’s experience of the world is one physical object after the other (mostly red apples with the occasional pink flying elephant – examples he uses ad nauseam) without any conceptual experience. Manzotti does explain that one must revise one’s conception of an object to think in terms of the Spread Mind, and one can see how this might explain language – which has a huge and powerful role in one’s mental experience and which is left unexplored by the book. But while language could arguable be explained as consisting of objects, emotional experience seems hard to fit Manzotti’s hypothesis.

The book consists of nine chapters. It has graphics and bibliography as one would expect of a scholarly work

I think most readers will find this book to be repetitive and frustrating in its lack of explanation. It’s not that it’s speculative; it’s that it just bludgeons the reader with gratuitous assertions that we expect will pay off in at least a hint of how the Spread Mind could work, but it never does. (For example, I greatly enjoyed Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” that speculates that our world is a mathematical structure – not that it can be described mathematically but that it fundamentally is mathematical.) Spread Mind is an interesting idea, but I can’t say I’d recommend the book unless one is really interested in knowing all of the varied lines of thinking about consciousness that exist out there. I must say it was a beneficial read because it made me consider some interesting ideas, but nothing in it swayed my thinking.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

Jnana-YogaJnana-Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those for whom the term “Jnana Yoga” is unfamiliar, it’s one of the three original branches of yoga. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, which sounds more scholarly than apropos and so maybe the alternative translations of path of self-realization or of wisdom might be more informative. For the most part, Jnana yoga isn’t about reading books and collecting facts, although studying texts is traditionally a part of the approach, it’s more about turning inward and expanding understanding through practice and personal inquiry. The other two branches are bhakti yoga, which is the path of devotion followed by pious true believers, and karma yoga, which is the path of [unselfish] action or charitable work.

This is a hard book to rate. As a book about yoga and the philosophy thereof, I give it four stars and might even give it five in a gleeful moment. However, if I were to rate it as a book specifically on jnana yoga, I’d give it two. The book reads more like a bhakti yogi’s take on jnana yoga than a book on jnana yoga itself. In other words, Swami Vivekananda devotes a lot of space to telling the reader what they should take on faith and relatively little to discussing how one can glean one’s own insight through practice and introspection. I realize that if I were a bhakti yogi, my perspective would be different and I’d likely see the book as insufficient in its efforts to suggest that the reader should sing the praises of the almighty. But I’m not, and I obtained a book entitled “Jnana Yoga” thinking I would learn about the titular subject and so I was a bit disappointed at the approach of the book. There are some insights into jnana yoga here and there, but it’s not the focus. It’s telling that Chapter one is entitled “the necessity of religion” and that it begins by explaining why the existence of God must be taken as axiomatic.

There are sixteen chapters in the book. The general flow goes: a few chapters on “maya” (which is typically translated as illusion / delusion, but which Vivekananda argues is best thought of in a different light, which he goes on to explain in detail), some chapters on the cosmos and its nature, and the last few chapters are on atman (i.e. the self, sometimes translated as “soul.”) It should be said that these topics are consistent with a consideration of jnana yoga. Jnana yogis concern themselves with these big questions such as the nature of reality, the universe, and the self. However, the approach of saying that this is what the Vedas say (and thus it’s the reader’s truth) is inconsistent with the path of the jnana yogi. Swami Vivekananda is clearly highly knowledgeable and he does bring up some thought-provoking approaches. There are occasional errors on matters of science, but one must keep in mind that it was written before the turn of the twentieth century and so the state of knowledge has changed considerably in the intervening years, and so I don’t discount for them — especially, because one is often surprised by the author’s level of understanding of the science.

The book is straight text. The edition that I read had some annotations, but the book neither has nor needs any ancillary material.

My recommendation would be contingent on what the reader is looking for in a book. If one is seeking a general understanding of yogic thought on the nature of reality, the universe, and the nature of self, then this is an insightful book. If, however, one is interested in the path of the jnana yogi and what it entails, I’d suggest you look elsewhere (e.g. Swami Saraswati’s “Sure Ways to Self-Realization.”)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Path by Michael Puett

The Path: A New Way to Think About EverythingThe Path: A New Way to Think About Everything by Michael Puett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.

That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists–i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.

The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.

Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.

The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.

The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.

Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.

The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.

The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.

I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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