Spirituality vs. Intelligence

Is there an inherent conflict between spirituality and intelligence? Are they perpetually at odds with each other? Must we choose to embrace either spirituality or rationality but never both at the same time?

Several years ago I would have said yes to these questions. But today I see that this conflict is nothing but an illusion. In fact, I think intelligence and spirituality ultimately follow the same path, and I don’t mean this in the sense of trying to program your head with religious doctrine and then trying to convince you of it by manipulating the facts. I mean that by embracing your intellect to its fullest extent, you will eventually arrive at a sense of spirituality. You may not label it as such, but you will find yourself generating similar results to some of the most enlightened people around.

In terms of the question of intelligence vs. spirituality, the problem arises from the perceived sense of conflict between these two supposed opposites. This perception prevents us from trusting and following either side far enough. We’ll only go so far down one side or the other before flipping back to the other side. We have our intellectual pursuits and our spiritual pursuits, and never the twain shall meet. They are both kept separate and compartmentalized. In the business world, our actions are governed by intelligence; we achieve the best results when we make the most intelligent decisions. But if we go home, meditate, and begin asking questions like, “What is the purpose of my life?” we have to load up a different set of rules. Now we’ve supposedly left the territory of the intellect and entered the spiritual realm. We try to interact intelligently with our outer world and spiritually with our inner world.

However, this perceived conflict is a fabricated one. If you were only to follow your intelligence or your spiritual beliefs far enough — really push them to the limits — you’d see they end up at the same place. The conflict is purely imaginary. It exists only in our thoughts.

Let me explain how this is possible and how this realization played out in my own life.

My upbringing fell squarely on the intellectual side. My mother was a college math professor, and my father an aerospace engineer. My family was fairly religious, but I never considered us to be spiritual. I was raised with a strong sense of religion – attending church every Sunday and going through 12 years of Catholic schooling made it hard to ignore – but for me there was no deeper spirituality behind these installed beliefs. Religion was just another school subject like mathematics or history. It was mostly about memorizing things, following complicated rules, and enduring sacraments like confession where I had to tell a stranger all of my sins and then do penance. By the time I was 17, this disconnect caused me to shed what little religion I had, so I became an atheist, much to the chagrin of my family. I think this decision made perfect sense. I was taught to be intelligent and to make rational choices, and I found my religious upbringing to be highly irrational. In my own way I probably thought I was correcting a logical error made by my parents, an impression which only grew stronger after experiencing their reaction to my decision, which as you can probably imagine left the realm of rationality far behind. I was happy to move out after graduating from high school. And aside from weddings and funerals (not my own in either case), I never set foot in a church again.

In college I double-majored in computer science and mathematics, two subjects where rationality reigned supreme. I tended to regard spiritual people as a bit wacko. To me they were wasting their time and not making worthwhile contributions to the world, aside from a few notable exceptions (but I had my doubts about those too). In my mind spiritual people were of a lower order of intelligence, ruled more by fleeting emotions than by intelligence and common sense. I generally regarded such people as dumb and inept; at best they were simply misguided. I devoted myself to a purely rational existence, shunning all things spiritual or religious.

Years later I began considering how my beliefs might be creating (rather than merely observing) my experience of reality. I learned the difference between empowering and disempowering beliefs. This came from being exposed to a wide range of personal development material in my early 20s. Thinkers such as Earl Nightingale, Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Brian Tracy, and Tony Robbins taught me that my own thoughts and attitudes would play a critical role in my results. If I believed I could achieve something, I was far more likely to be able to do it. If I defeated myself in my own thoughts, I would only hinder my own progress.

This concept resonated with my intellect. It wasn’t hard for me to see the role that my own thoughts played in my results. I had already seen evidence of this, both in my life and in the lives of other people. I could see that by keeping a positive attitude and staying focused on what I wanted, I achieved better results than I did when I was pessimistic and worried. To me this was a common sense realization, but it was still a powerful breakthrough for me because I had not previously considered that my own attitude could play such a crucial role in my life. I also did not previously realize that I could change my attitude and thereby change my results. Around the age of 21, I thought to myself, Wow… I’d better make sure I keep my attitude positive then. I’d better stay focused on what I want. Otherwise I’m just going to sabotage myself. And self-sabotage would not be very intelligent.

This concept gradually expanded beyond keeping a positive attitude as I continued to read more books on personal development. Tony Robbins’ books (among many others) introduced me to the concept of empowering vs. disempowering beliefs. For example, if I believe that computers are too complicated and confusing, I’ll avoid using one. If I hold the opposite belief, I’ll embrace technology. The latter belief is more empowering because it gives me the option of using technology when it’s effective to do so, but with the former belief I am left with fewer options. Being capable is a more intelligent choice than being incapable.

As I went through college I became increasingly curious about this notion of empowering vs. disempowering beliefs and especially how my own beliefs might be affecting my results, perhaps in ways I didn’t even realize. There was no spirituality here. I was still an atheist at this point, and this was purely an intellectual matter. I was deeply interested in time management and productivity, and I began asking myself, “What if my current beliefs are not the most optimal ones I can have right now?”

As a computer programmer who saw rapid improvements in technology from age 10 when I learned to program in BASIC on an Apple II to age 21 when I programmed in C++ on a 486DX-50mhz PC, I thought of these concepts in terms of computer analogies. My physical brain was the computer hardware. My beliefs and attitude were the operating system (OS). And my thoughts (including those which directed my actions) were software programs. The software runs on top of the OS which runs on top of the hardware. How do you make a better computer? You can upgrade the hardware. While it would be great to upgrade my own brain, I didn’t see too many viable options there other than diet and exercise. But what about upgrading the OS? I remember upgrading from MS-DOS 6 to Windows 3.1 at some point and noticing what a big difference it made. The computer hardware was still the same, but by upgrading the operating system, everything changed. I ran different software programs. I achieved different (arguably much better) results.

I thought to myself, “What if I could do an OS upgrade on my own brain? What would that look like?” This would require “upgrading” my personal beliefs and attitudes. It would mean reprogramming my most fundamental beliefs about reality. That would cause me to think different thoughts (i.e. run different programs), which would guarantee different results. The problem though was that it wasn’t quite clear which changes would be upgrades and which would be downgrades or if this whole thing was even worthy of my attention. Would changing my beliefs even make a noticeable difference in my results? However, by following the computer analogy a bit further, I developed a suspicion that I might be sitting on top of a hidden intellectual goldmine.

What is the nature of a good OS upgrade? You gain new features. Your software runs faster. You’re more productive. You can do more and better things in less time. So if I wanted to upgrade my brain’s OS, these were the types of results to look for. Otherwise, I might be just wasting my time. I might even be risking a downgrade and get worse results.

Despite the risks, this realization sparked me to undertake a quest to explore other belief systems — a quest that continues to this day. I decided to consciously and deliberately recondition my own beliefs to see what effect different belief systems would have on my results. I began messing around with my own operating system. Externally this looked like a spiritual pursuit, and I’ve often referred to it as such, but really it was an intellectual pursuit. My goal was to optimize my own belief about reality – my personal operating system – such that I would be able to do more and better things in less time.

This was not a simple process. I’ve been at it since the early ‘90s and am still experimenting. The tricky part is that I can’t really know what effect certain beliefs will have on my results until I try them. There is too much underlying complexity to be able to accurately predict everything in advance. I have to dive in and test it. For example, is a belief in God empowering or disempowering? If I believe in God, will it allow me to achieve more and better results in less time than if I’m an atheist? And if so, what kind of belief in God is the best?

As you might imagine, a deeper problem is that certain beliefs also redefine what I mean by “results.” But because I was looking to “upgrade” myself, at least I wasn’t starting from scratch. I already had an OS running. So I could always compare my current results with my past results and then decide which was “better” for me. Since the difference in results was often pronounced and obvious, it wasn’t hard for me to select which one I considered better, even given the ambiguities in such pursuits. For example, if I become a millionaire, I would say that’s a better result than being broke, all else being equal. Few people would argue with that. Being healthy is better than being sick. Being happy is better than being depressed. Being in love is better than being lonely. Being organized is better than being disorganized. Being productive is better than being unproductive. Being smart is better than being dumb. Success is better than failure. If it wasn’t clear whether or not something was an upgrade or downgrade, I simply considered it neutral. When in doubt I simply fell back on my own common sense.

I’ve already documented my path through this process of trying different belief systems in The Meaning of Life series, so I’m not going to repeat that whole journey here. What I found was that by pursuing my intelligence far enough, it led me to experiment with different spiritual beliefs, since those beliefs were fundamental to my experience of reality. To my surprise I found that atheism was not the optimal belief system for me in the sense that it did not produce the best results, but nor was Catholicism. I found both of those to be suboptimal operating systems for me. The belief system that I hold today and which has produced the best results for me so far has been a set of beliefs which are pretty close to Buddhism. Many have argued that Buddhism is not really a religion though, and I’d say that’s accurate. I explained some of the details of this belief system and how it allowed me to let go of fear in Podcast #8 – Overcoming Fear.

The main reason I experiment with different belief systems is to discover which one appears to be the most intelligent. It’s all about effectiveness. 2005 has been my best year ever, and I expect 2006 to top it by a landslide. I credit 99% of my results to my beliefs about reality — my personal operating system. My current OS (Pavlina 2005) dictates my thoughts and actions and therefore my results. By my standards this has been an outstanding year of achieving more and better results in less time. Your beliefs will probably be different, so you may not value my results in the same way I do. And that’s perfectly fine. I’m not suggesting you would care to have my results. What I’m suggesting is that you can tweak and refine your own operating system to achieve the best results for you. You’re the one who must run a self-diagnostic to decide whether you’re functioning optimally or whether you could use an upgrade. No one else can do it for you. Does your software (your thoughts and behavior) run smoothly and efficiently, or do you have problems with bugs like fear of failure, procrastination, or depression?

Run a self-diagnostic by making three lists: 1) new features to add, 2) opportunities for upgrading and optimizing existing features, 3) bugs or defects you’d like to fix. This will give you ideas for where you need to make changes in your beliefs systems. For example, if you’d like to learn to play a musical instrument (a new software program that runs in your brain), you may notice your OS has a bug that says, “I’m not a musical person.” So you have to fix the OS and reprogram that limiting belief before you can install the new software that allows you to learn and play a new instrument. Such beliefs may include, “I am a musical person,” “I love music,” and “I can and will learn any musical instrument I set my mind to.”

One of the core tenets of my current belief system is how I identify myself. I don’t identify myself as a physical body walking around in a physical world. Rather, I see all of reality as existing within pure consciousness, and I identify myself (what I think of as “me”) as that consciousness, not as my physical body. I have a physical body, just like I have fingers and toes, but it is only one part of me. I perceive reality the way most people would view their dreams from the perspective of being awake. If you recall one of your dreams, you see it as a mental experience taking place within your consciousness. The “you” isn’t really your dream body – it’s the person lying on the bed having the dream. Everything in the dream takes place within your own consciousness, and the real you is what’s having the dream, not anything in the dream itself. As strange as it may sound, this is how I perceive my waking reality.

My current belief system might seem unusual, but it’s also the one that produces the best results for me of all the ones I’ve tried. I’m able to function perfectly well, I can set and achieve big, ambitious goals, I’m not afraid to fail or to be rejected, I generate a nice income, I’m taking care of all my needs, I’m helping people every day, I strive to do no harm, and I’m gushingly happy and optimistic. To me this is an intelligent choice compared to how most people live their lives. I direct my intelligence towards achieving the greatest possible effectiveness, for the highest good of all. But these results didn’t merely come from taking different actions. If only it could have been that simple. I had to dig much deeper and fix the OS before I could install and programs like, Peace 5.0, Joy 7.1, Abundance 3.2, and Contribution 4.0. When I tried to install such programs before upgrading my OS, they invariably crashed due to compatibility issues. Damn drivers!

If reality is taking place within consciousness, then all of life is an expression of consciousness itself. This realization doesn’t make me passive as many people would assume – quite the opposite. It removes fear so that I can take action more easily and achieve results with less effort. Instead of seeing conflicts as me vs. them, I view conflict as occurring between different aspects of my own consciousness. It is then up to me to decide how I wish to resolve these conflicts by making changes within myself.

Whatever change I wish to create in the world, I work to manifest that change in myself first. These changes in me then ripple outward from me into the world… through all of conscious creation. That is how I can change the world in a positive way. Like a virus, any upgrades I make to my own OS eventually infect others too. Of course, downgrades can have the same effect, which is why it’s important to carefully consider the long-term consequences of any changes.

My body is the primary vehicle through which I interact with all of conscious creation. I influence the whole consciousness through my thoughts and actions. I decide how I would like consciousness itself to be, for the greatest good of all, and then I aim to embody those qualities. For example, I want the world to be at peace, so I work on being at peace myself. I want the world to exist for a reason, so I center my own life around a purpose. I want the world to be compassionate, so I refuse to harm animals or people. I want the world to be courageous, so I face my own fears willingly.

Whenever I see conflict in the world, I interpret it as a conflict within myself. Once I resolve the conflict within myself, I have done the best I can hope to do. I cannot eliminate conflict by creating more conflict. I can only eliminate conflict by first eliminating it within myself, achieving a state of peace, and then resonating that peace out into the world. Trying to force people to change is futile. I cannot teach anyone how to run the program called Peace until they first upgrade their OS to allow such software to run, and such upgrades can only be achieved by conscious choice, never by force. I can force people to run programs like Fear, Greed, and Cowardice if I wanted to, but that’s only because such programs have much lower system requirements than Peace, Courage, and other more demanding programs. Even animals can run them.

Whenever I become aware of a conflict that causes a surge of emotion within me, then I know this is a conflict I must resolve within myself. I cannot in good conscience choose to ignore it. Many people will become aware of something that tears at them and then turn their backs on it out of fear. I do my best not to allow myself to do this because it lowers my consciousness to do so. It makes me less human.

For example, if you watch a video of factory farming and see how the animals are tortured, do you feel any sympathy for the animals’ suffering? Do you feel at all conflicted when you become aware of such things? Do you connect that suffering with your own food choices… with your own lunch? Do you embrace this information consciously and integrate it into your model of the world such that you can make more intelligent choices, or do you attempt to ignore it and thereby lower your intelligence?

I resolved such a conflict within myself by consciously choosing to be vegan. Once I became aware of how my actions were contributing to such brutality and suffering, I could not continue. It would lower my consciousness to do something I considered harmful. I did not allow myself to ignore this data and try to persuade myself it was OK to do so, regardless of what other people did. There are many conflicts I am still working on resolving within myself. In those situations I choose to acknowledge the conflict instead of shrinking from it. I simply say to myself, “Yes, there is a conflict here that awaits resolution. But I am not yet strong enough to resolve it in this moment.” Then I focus on the intention of attracting the strength I need to change, and eventually it does come. And every time I’m able to resolve such conflicts within myself and stop contributing to suffering “out there,” I experience greater peace and happiness, and I feel myself becoming ever more conscious and aware. I actually feel as if I’ve experienced a mental upgrade.

This is not an easy way to live, but it is the one that seems most intelligent to me. One of my requirements for living intelligently is that I cannot ignore data. I must account for every piece of information I’m aware of. If I know that people are suffering somewhere in the world, I have to take that into consideration when deciding how to live, particularly if I become aware that I’m contributing to it. If I prepare a meal for myself, I must consider the consequences of my choices. For example, I do not patronize certain businesses such as McDonald’s or Burger King because I am unwilling to contribute to the consequences such businesses create. I am far from perfect in my application of this principle, but every year I am growing stronger and more congruent. It is an ongoing, unfolding process.

Once I resolve these conflicts within myself, I not only cease to create them for myself, but the change that occurs within me ripples outward into the world through my actions. My choice to be vegan induces others to consider it, to try it, even to adopt it. But this occurs mostly as a result of my internal shift in identity, a natural consequence of who I’ve become, not because I’m spending my days actively trying to convert people to veganism. In fact, I think it’s largely a waste of time to try to convince people to change their beliefs. This usually just results in frustration; it perpetuates conflict. It’s more effective to help people raise their awareness and then let them decide for themselves. At my current level of awareness, veganism is simply the intelligent choice. To do otherwise would require me to consciously choose to harm myself, to support the torture and slaughtering of animals, to perpetuate harm to people who are trapped in the current system, to shamelessly waste resources, and to do serious damage to the environment. If I participate in this pain and suffering, I invite it into myself. I become a more numb, less compassionate, more savage person. A piece of my own divinity gets buried beneath a layer of fear. The only way I could do such a thing today would be to lower my consciousness… to forget what I’ve become aware of… to ignore data. If I refuse to accept the consequences of my actions (out of fear), then it means that suffering and cruelty will occur because of me. I can run from the knowledge of that, but I can never escape the responsibility for it. To me this isn’t so much a spiritual choice. It’s an intellectual one. It is not intelligent for me to cause unnecessary suffering. I do not walk around my neighborhood torturing people’s pets and then bashing them to death, so why on earth would I pay someone to do it for me? Would you buy the excuse that it was perfectly OK for me to do so because your kitty cat just happened to be delicious?

Many people would consider these to be spiritual beliefs. And they would be right. But they are primarily intellectual beliefs. At this place there is no conflict between intelligence and spirituality. They both point in the same direction. As I see it, if I want to intelligently help cure some of the problems of the world, these set of spiritual beliefs empower me to go about doing it. My whole life is centered around improving conscious creation – not merely myself but everything that falls within my field of perception. This purpose is more important to me than money, than career advancement, than my own safety and security. I am able to pour my energy and resources into this pursuit without fear of failure or rejection. If I fail then it will be because the universe stopped me cold, not because I was afraid to try. I can do no better than my best, and if that ultimately results in a failure verdict from the universe, then I will accept its judgement.

If this planet is to be transformed for the better, then we as individuals must first transform ourselves. Whenever you become aware of a conflict in the world, realize that you only perceive it as a conflict because it resonates with something that’s already inside of you. It is a signal to resolve a conflict within yourself. You cannot fix a problem in the world unless you’ve already resolved the underlying conflict within yourself. It is pointless to complain about the problems of the world as long as we continue contributing to them. We must begin by reversing our own contribution to conflict and suffering. We must first achieve peace within ourselves. Only then can we take that peace out into the world and invite others to make similar changes.

In my belief system there is no separation between others and myself. We are all parts of the same unfolding consciousness. When one being harms another, that conflict is the projection of two opposing thoughts within consciousness itself. We resolve these conflicts by becoming more aware — we investigate the conflict and make the most intelligent choice we can. This has the effect of elevating our own consciousness. We experience personal growth, thereby becoming capable of resolving even bigger conflicts and creating even deeper peace. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

One of the key conflicts for us to resolve within ourselves is that of intelligence vs. spirituality. I perceive that this is becoming a big global issue for the world, and I suspect it will only increase in the years ahead. On earth it takes the classic forms of West vs. East, conservative vs. liberal, male vs. female, matter vs. energy. We perceive the physical and the spiritual as separate and distinct, but many of us are beginning to release that veil of separation and create lives that embody the union of these seeming opposites.

Perhaps you are a person who considers him/herself far more intellectual than spiritual. I think that’s a good thing. Too often so-called spirituality is used as a tool of manipulation and control, or it’s so far gone as to leave any connection to rationality far behind. By pursuing your intellect deeply enough, you’ll eventually begin to confront the limitations of your own mental operating system. A good way to look for bugs is to ask yourself, “What am I afraid of? Are these fears logical and rational, or are they unnecessarily holding me back?” These are very practical, down-to-earth questions. If you’re afraid of failure or rejection, your prospects in life will be seriously limited. Your results will certainly suffer for it. But if you can debug your own mental OS and eliminate fear altogether, your life will run far more smoothly. You’ll be able to do more and better things in less time.

Ultimately this debugging and upgrading process will lead you to question your most deeply held beliefs about reality, the ones most people would consider spiritual in nature. There is no need to fear this experience. Your religious and spiritual beliefs are part of your operating system. They are in fact the kernel upon which all your other code runs. If your kernel contain bugs or runs suboptimally, your results in life will be permanently suboptimal. None of your software will run correctly. Your thoughts and actions will be a jumble of incongruencies. You will often feel like you’re fighting yourself in your own mind. It’s like trying to make sense of the IRS tax code, which is now the length of 12 Bibles.

However, if you can fix even one small bug or make one minor upgrade to your kernel of spiritual beliefs, it can make a huge difference in your results. All the software you run on top of it will be affected. All of your thoughts and actions will be different. Few things will change your results in life so dramatically as a shift in your spiritual beliefs. Yet this type of optimization requires the utmost intelligence. It is not a fanciful spree through the grassy hills of Woo Woo Land.

Get curious about your most sacred beliefs. Ask questions. Is there a God? If there is then what is its nature? Is there an afterlife, and if so, what might it be like? Are psychic experiences possible, and if so, how do they occur?

When selecting beliefs, aim for accuracy first, then empowerment. First, you want your beliefs to be consistent with your existing understanding of reality. Inaccuracy is disempowering. It won’t help you to believe the earth is flat. But because there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the world, you’ll still have plenty of “I don’t knows” left over where you can’t be certain one way or the other. The known facts don’t provide enough information. Fill in those gaps by choosing the beliefs that empower you to get the best results. This part requires a great deal of experimentation and patience. Above all, remain open to the possibility of changing your beliefs, even those you hold most sacred, as you pursue greater accuracy and empowerment. Never assume that your operating system is finally bug-free and optimal. Upgrading is a lifelong process, and sometimes in order to achieve performance gains, you have to go back and refactor old code that you once considered beyond reproach.

Beliefs occur along a spectrum from uncertainty to certainty. If a “1” means that you are totally in doubt and a “10” means that you are completely certain, you will find many of your beliefs falling in the 4–7 range. Unlike a computer’s hardware, your hardware isn’t binary. You’re capable of dealing with shades of gray. You have the ability to make very fine adjustments. Whereas a typical digital computer must handle fuzzy data via software, such capabilities are built right into your hardware. You can adjust a certainty slider for every belief you hold. Even if you maintain the same beliefs you did yesterday, you can achieve different results by raising suspicions to convictions or by dropping convictions to mere suspicions. You can choose to become certain about what you once doubted, or you can begin to question and doubt what you once held as fact. You do not have to turn every belief into a 1 or a 10 though. In fact, one of the key strengths of our squishy neural networks is their ability to handle ambiguity and change. We can recognize people even after they’ve gotten a new haircut. We can successfully perform old tasks under new conditions. We can function well with fuzzy beliefs.

What you believe is up to you. But let it be up to you intentionally. Choose your beliefs consciously.

If you don’t choose your beliefs consciously, then someone else will do it for you. Someone will come along and program you to optimize their results, which may not be the results you’d choose for yourself. Be aware that you are already being programmed. Mass media has probably had a huge impact on your core beliefs. If you work for a large corporation, it is a virtual certainty they are going to work on your beliefs, conditioning you to serve the corporate interests but not necessarily your own. Is your operating system infected by the consumerism virus by any chance? What about the fear of failure firewall? Will I find OBEY_MY_BOSS.EXE on your active process list?

You have the option of upgrading your own operating system. Even if you’ve been seriously neglecting its maintenance, it’s never too late to upgrade. If you don’t like what the world has installed, you can uninstall it. If you come across a set of beliefs you think would be more empowering, you can install them. You probably don’t want to jump in with a “del *.*” command and revert to being a baby again, but you can still debug and optimize the code even as it’s running. That’s one of the great things about living as a human. We can upgrade our software in place without requiring a complete reboot.

Every belief is a choice. Very few people realize this because they’ve never made such choices consciously. But when you realize that your beliefs are choices and that you can change them through intelligent decision-making, you will have much more control over your own hardware and the results that it produces. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, you have the option of fixing your own code.

You may fool all your peers into thinking that you are a victim of the world, but you will not fool me. You and I are fully responsible for what we contribute to the world, either directly or indirectly. You can give up control, but you can never give up responsibility. At any time you are faced with the choice between living in denial and ignoring information, or living consciously and summoning the courage to act for the highest good of all. If you have not yet deliberately chosen the latter, then you have chosen the former. But it’s never too late to change your mind.