Update: 140 of your fellow adventurers are now enrolled in Amplify, our new creative productivity deep dive. Join us for this epic journey as you amp up your creative flow for 2021 and beyond! Save 40% when you join by March 12.
In Hinduism there are said to be several paths that lead to the cessation of human suffering. These are known as the four yogas: karma yoga (action, work, service), bhakti yoga (love, devotion, worship), raja yoga (meditation, mental control, “psychic” exercise), and jnana yoga (knowledge, philosophy, enquiry). No one yoga is better or worse than any other, but individuals will tend to find themselves drawn to one yoga more than the others.
If you’ve been following this blog regularly and digesting some of my lengthier posts, then it should be fairly obvious that among these four, my personal preference is jnana yoga, which is the path of attempting to understand reality through the process of enquiry, i.e. through the mind. In practice, however, I spend time working on all four of these yogas. I express karma yoga through the act of writing and striving to help others grow. Bhakti yoga (love) is an internal, less public path for me. And I’ve done a variety of meditations in the practice of raja yoga. But jnana yoga remains the most compelling for me. I seem to have an insatiable curiosity to understand reality on an intellectual level. It isn’t enough for me to simply feel the truth of something in my heart or to find peace through action. I strive to create a mental model of reality that’s as accurate as possible.
If you share the path of jnana yoga, you’ll likely find the process of enquiry to be fascinating and rewarding. You probably enjoy open-minded, intellectual discussion of high-level subjects. And you may often feel frustrated or isolated to meet few people around you who seem as curious about such things as you are. Formal religion is likely to be too static and ritualistic for you, even downright boring. For you the path of spirituality is the path of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Your desire to know is very strong.
But if jnana yoga isn’t your cup of tea, then you may simply find the notion of enquiry into the nature of reality to be pointless, overwhelming, or impractical. In that case you’re more likely to be interested in this blog for the practical productivity articles that help you improve your ability to do what you’re already doing… as opposed to those that challenge you to consider whether what you’re doing even makes any sense to begin with. Nothing wrong with that — these are just different paths.
The Quest for Accuracy
One of the great challenges in personal development and in human life overall is that we exist in a world where we don’t fully understand the rules. And yet we cannot simply call a time out and refer to the instruction book, at least not in a direct and obvious way.
When I was a teenager, I began to question the nature of reality instead of merely swallowing what I was taught, whether it came from a priest or a scientist.
What led me to start asking such questions in the first place? It was something very simple — inaccuracy. I would occasionally notice that the world did not function in the manner I expected it to function. And as a consequence of that, I experienced a certain degree of suffering. When your beliefs are incongruent with reality, some form of suffering is the result.
It took me many years to realize that my sense of suffering, pain, or otherwise unpleasant sensations were NOT caused by reality itself. They were caused by my own lack of understanding of reality. Inaccuracy is the root of all suffering.
Following the path of jnana yoga is like playing detective, where everything you experience is a clue, a pointer to the underlying reality. My biggest breakthroughs have come about from noticing a piece of data that just didn’t seem to fit my current working model of reality. If you take the time to reflect upon your own experience of reality, you’ll probably find at least a few pieces that just don’t seem to fit. Have you ever experienced something that you just can’t explain? Does fitting that experience into your current model of reality feel like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole?
For example, consider the concept of objective reality, which suggests that we’re all physical beings in a physical universe, and our thoughts and consciousness are merely epiphenomena of the physical world. Can you think of a piece that just doesn’t seem to fit this model, something that sticks out a bit?
How about the fact that you’re you? You’re you and you alone, not me and not anyone else. Does anything seem odd about that?
You notice that you have a physical body, and by looking around you notice that there are a lot of other physical bodies walking around this world as well. You can even touch and interact with them. You’ve been taught that there are over six billion of these bodies walking around on earth. No problem there so far.
However, how many consciousnesses do you perceive? You can perceive lots and lots of moving, talking bodies in the world, but you’re only able to perceive one consciousness. By consciousness I mean awareness, and that awareness appears to have a localized connection to your particular body, but you aren’t able to perceive the connection between your consciousness and other people’s bodies, at least not to the same degree you perceive the connection to your own body. Doesn’t this seem a bit strange to you? Why on earth should your consciousness be localized?
You can be fairly sure that I have a body just like you — you can at least perceive it through your senses. You can come find me and access my physical form. But can you access my consciousness? Do you actually have any reason whatsoever to believe that I’m conscious at all in the same way that you are? Your senses tell you that there are lots of people in the world with physical bodies similar to yours. But you don’t have that same perception of consciousness. In fact, I dare say the only consciousness you perceive is your own. As far as you can tell, you’re the only truly conscious being in the world, aren’t you? Why would you assume that any of those other bodies walking around in your world experience individualized consciousness as you do? Isn’t that a pretty big stretch, considering the available evidence?
Do you make this assumption when you’re dreaming? Do you assume that your dream characters have a separate consciousness different from your own? Why on earth would you make this assumption in your waking life then?
The raw experiential data you’re able to know with certainty is that you can perceive lots of other physical bodies walking around, but you only directly perceive that one of them is conscious and aware — you.
Now why is that? Does the model of objective reality provide a clear explanation for this? Does it tell you why your awareness is connected to you and not me or anyone else? If objective reality is to be believed, then why should you have a localized consciousness at all? Wouldn’t it make more sense for there to be no consciousness or awareness at all in such a universe? Or at the very least, if there is consciousness in the world, wouldn’t it be more logical that it should be totally non-local, not identified with any particular physical body? These are some pretty significant holes in the objective reality paradigm.
The process of enquiry can create cracks in certain belief systems, and by shedding those cracked beliefs (no matter how attached to them you may be), you’ll gradually develop a deeper understanding of the true nature of reality. In order to understand reality, you must first shed your false and inaccurate beliefs about it. This process is even more basic than science because science assumes the existence of objective reality. However, the process of enquiry begins with what you’re able to know through direct experience and doesn’t require you to make such unprovable assumptions. Your own consciousness is fundamental to your experience of life, so you don’t need to be convinced of its existence — this is why your consciousness is perhaps the best place to start when attempting to develop an accurate model of reality. Any model of reality you strive to create must, at a bare minimum, explain the existence of your consciousness and why you experience it the way you do, including its apparent localized connection to your physical body. Otherwise, you’re ignoring a very crucial piece of data.
The belief in objective reality requires a rather large leap of faith. It isn’t fundamental. It’s simply one of many theories, one that begins with an assumption and which contains some problematic holes.
Another flawed model of reality would be a purely subjective one, suggesting that all of reality is created by your own thoughts. Through trial and error, you may find that a subjective model of reality (with respect to your own mind) doesn’t appear to be accurate either.
As you search for the real truth, you may perceive that reality has both objective and subjective elements to it. Some parts appear to be influenced, even controlled, by your thoughts. Other parts appear to be independent of your thoughts. But the most fundamental thing you’re able to perceive is the existence of this one consciousness, one awareness silently noticing reality unfolding.
You’ll know you’re making progress with jnana yoga when your constant experience of reality becomes one of utter amazement and wonder. You should be amazed, perhaps even freaked out a bit, when you attempt to stretch your mind to understand reality as accurately as possible. What is reality? It’s not fully objective, not completely subjective. Not quite a thing, not quite a thought. How does it work? What’s under the hood? What is its nature?
While you might be willing to settle for living with your current model of reality, begin to notice where that model begins to break down. You will know when it breaks because you’ll experience some form of suffering. But suffering is not there to punish you. It is there to serve as a wake-up call, telling you that you have an inaccurate model of reality and that the way to end your suffering is to correct the errors in your mental model.
Debugging Your Beliefs
What happens when a computer program is created by a programmer who makes inaccurate assumptions? The program will contain errors — aka bugs. It won’t function optimally, and it may even crash. Your own mental software works the same way. When your beliefs about reality are inaccurate, you will experience bugs. Occasionally you may crash. Just as a computer program runs on certain hardware, you must work within the confines of your own physical hardware. But if you are experiencing software (not hardware) crashes in your life — such as depression, hopelessness, anger, frustration, apathy, guilt, resentment, shame, or fear — it’s because your code contains bugs. It means you’ve made some inaccurate assumptions. Your “code” consists of your beliefs about reality.
If you want to run more accurate code (and thereby experience less suffering and pain in your life), then you must develop an accurate understanding of the hardware, the operating system, and the environment in which your code will run. You need to prevent the introduction of coding errors, and whenever you notice errors (which appear as some form of suffering), you must debug them. This means you need to identify the belief that’s causing the suffering and then either delete or rewrite it.
Your mental software doesn’t have to provide every possible feature in order to run properly. It just needs to be free of bugs. Code that isn’t written is inherently bug-free. You cannot crash code that doesn’t exist. Similarly, you cannot experience suffering if your beliefs about reality are bug-free, meaning that they contain no inaccuracies. When your code is accurate (even if there isn’t very much of it), you will experience states of peace, wonder, and amazement as your normal daily existence. Your code will not only run smoothly, but it will also be elegant. One of the deepest pleasures in computer program is the creation of elegant code. Elegant code is both accurate and efficient in a way that transcends mere logic and begins to cross into the domain of art. It is as close to perfection as computer programs can get.
Similarly, when your beliefs about reality become elegant, you will find that the program of your life takes on an almost unfathomable smoothness. This is the manner in which jnana yoga makes it possible to transcend suffering and experience peace.