I just finished reading the book “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing“, which was written anonymously under the pen name “Jed McKenna”. I had heard about this book for years, but had formed mostly negative impression based on the words and actions of those who said that they had read it. Several friends who I trust also suggested that I read it, however, so I reconsidered my attitude, read the book, and am glad that did.
Written as the description of a month in the life of fictional enlightened guy, the book intertwines expositions of reluctantly-given spiritual teaching with scenes from the activities of his everyday life – playing video games, long-distance bike riding, skydiving, and watching thunderstorms. People come to him as students, hoping to gain spiritual wisdom, and he repeatedly expresses exasperation (either out loud, or inside his head) at their illusions and vain hopes for transcendence and bliss. He talks about his lack of interest in the things most people are concerned with – achievement, status, wealth, possessions – and expresses a certain bemused, occasionally disgusted detachment from the goings on of the world.
As I said, I was glad that I read this book – I liked it and enjoyed it. The writing was generally sparkling, richly descriptive of scenes and interpersonal interactions, and evocative of emotions and inner states. The text often felt alive, immediate, real, and compelling. And, despite not having any overarching plot, engaging vignettes made the book an engaging and readable page turner. I admired that some of the passages expressed subtle and complex spiritual ideas with clarity, simplicity, and smoothness, so much so that I excerpted a number of quotes from the book for my various writing projects. The author’s many enthusiastic online fans applaud their guy’s simple, direct, and no-bullshit writing style, and I can see their point.
I found most of the philosophical exposition in the book to be agreeable. Generally, in reading this book, it was my sense that whoever wrote it was, as claimed, at least partially “enlightened”, in the classical Asian religious sense of the word (i.e. what Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists call moksha, bodhi, prajna, satori, kensho, etc).
As I said, I thought “Jed McKenna” did a great job of communicating some of the essential concepts of enlightenment, stuff that I think is critical to people’s eventual spiritual development:
* What is called “Shunyata”, or “Emptiness”, in Mahayana Buddhism – the experience that our life in this universe is like living in a dream, a hologram, a movie flickering on a screen – that it seems real, but has no ultimate firm or actual existence, that anything you can say about anything is just words and not much more, that there is nothing that is actually true or actually exists, and that nothing ever actually happens, nothing has ever actually happened, and nothing can or will ever actually happen.
* What is called “Anatta”, or “No Self”, in Buddhism – a specific corollary of shunyata, specifically, that we as people do not exist except inside our own heads. We are actions that the entire universe is doing, the way that a wave is an action that the entire ocean is doing. We are characters in a dream, and we only truly exist as embedded within the context of the entire dream.
These two deep truths go against most people’s experience, and are, in fact, something most people will dislike, resist, and argue against. So, I admire the work “McKenna” did of being strong, resolute, clear, and unyielding in standing for these deeper truths. In the process, he presents them in an accessible and entertaining manner, while cutting them down to their essential elements, stripped of the various cultural trappings that they have accumulated in various religious traditions.
So … yeah, I liked the book. All that said, I also had some reservations and issues with it:
1. Most basically, the fact that the book was written under a pseudonym left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I think that this anonymity denies readers of any ability to observe the author’s actions and gesticulations, and to get a richer sense of the life-force and presence behind the words – which is much of the true value of spiritual teachers. It also makes it impossible to observe to what extent “McKenna” practices what he preaches, which is a challenge for most people on the spiritual path. While the author may simply want his privacy, one can say that he is not taking responsibility for what he has written and leaving himself unaccountable to his readers. One is left with mere words and no man behind them – a state that is unfortunately necessary for many of the spiritual books written by authors from the past, but which ideally is not necessary for one written by someone who is currently alive.
2. My more serious problem with this book, and the reason why I will not be recommending this book to friends or meditation students, is the author’s cold-heartedness. There are numerous passages in the book where the protagonist says things like:
Let me state it plainly, Arthur: I don’t do heart. To the extent that I advocate any path, it is a path without heart, devoid of compassion, totally free of any thought for others whatsoever.
If it’s about peace, love, tranquility, silence or bliss … then it’s not about waking up
A few pockets of resistance pop up, but I plow over them. Their indignation is as meaningless to me as the growls of little pink puppies. I’m indulging myself with a somewhat more forceful manner of communicating now, mainly for my own amusement, and their reaction at this stage is not a factor.
He repeatedly asserts that he thinks that compassion, “a path with heart”, love, interpersonal warmth, and trying to be a good or kind person are all fairy-tale pixie dust bullshit. He describes himself as “misanthropic”, and says several times that he doesn’t like or understand socializing, or people. He comes across as generally empathic, sensing and comprehending the other character’s emotions, but that doesn’t stop the other characters in the book from being no more than props in his story.
He claims that his annoyance with, and general lack of concern for, the people around him are evidence of how much more spiritually evolved he is than they are. I disagree – I got the impression that it was more a sign that he is missing something in his emotional and social development.
I have heard it taught, in Advaita-inspired circles, that Divinity has two core aspects that manifest in human life – pure untainted aware consciousness (the masculine/yang aspect), and pure and full warm-hearted love (the feminine/yin aspect). The author of “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnest Thing” seems to have reached a state of enlightenment regarding the first factor – but is still stunted and underdeveloped regarding the second.
Jed is very big on “Truth”, which is a reasonable metaphor for liberated Mind, yet he is loath to embrace or even acknowledge Absolute Heart or Love, which I believe is also an essential quality of Free Being … At this point I would like to refer to the teaching of Adyashanti as it concerns Jed. Adyashanti makes the useful point that there are (at least) three functional areas that have to be liberated in a human being before that person is fully enlightened. One area is the mind, another is the heart, and the last is the “gut” (the survival instinct). There is a great deal of evidence in Jed’s books to suggest that he has mastered the mind and the gut, but almost none to suggest that he has transcended the selfish-egoic-reactive emotional heart. So, even though he claims full Realization, I believe he has yet to be liberated at the Heart and therefore I see his statements such as “I don’t do heart”, or love, can be seen as evidence of his limitations. Adyashanti makes the point that when the Heart is liberated that there are no problems with relating to humans. Jed makes the point that he doesn’t “get people” …
“McKenna”, like the execrable “Zen Master” Brad Warner and a few others on the contemporary spirituality scene, seem to perhaps believe that acting as rude and confrontational as some of the great enlightened spiritual masters of the past, for example the giants Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and Zen master Yunmen Wenyan, means that they are also manifesting the old masters’ spiritual brilliance. It does not.
For my taste, the hard-boiled lookie-what-an-illusion-busting-realist-I-am tone gets old after about the first ten or twenty pages. The Zen masters of legend are usually content to give somebody a single sharp blow with a stick; this guy goes at you with a meat axe, over and over and over and over.
Students of Mahayana Buddhism are warned again and again not to let the development of their wisdom (their understanding of emptiness) outstrip their compassion. The teaching here is that our human lives on this Earth may ultimately be nothing but a meaningless illusion, but they sure seem to be real, and that they deserve at least some warm-heartedness as such. McKenna seems to have made not only the error of ignoring compassion to focus solely on developing wisdom, and not only be apparently unaware that he has erred, but to now claim that this blunder is the only way to go.
As I imagine most people reading this will recall, in the “The Matrix” movies, everything that happened inside of the matrix was nothing but a computer generated illusion, dreamed by the minds of people whose real-world bodies were living immobilized in pods. But the pains, joys, and struggles that people went through inside the illusion-world of the matrix was all that their minds knew, and it was real for them. And, in the movies, killing someone inside the matrix also killed their actual body outside of the grid, as it lay inert and dreaming. So, as much as the whole fantasy-world of the matrix was unreal and, in a way, perhaps worthy of disdain, simply dismissing everything that went on there was also unethical, too simple of a solution to the problem of people living in an illusion.
In early Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha warns against doing what most people do, which is to take the world (the dream, the matrix, the illusion) too seriously; he called this the “error of eternalism”. But he also warns against doing what “McKenna” does, which is to dismiss this world entirely – this, the Buddha called “the error of nihilism”. The Buddha recommended finding a middle way between the two extremes – living inside the dream while knowing that it is a dream, being, as Jesus said, “in the world, but not of the world”.
The incomparable Indian Advaita master Sri Ramana Maharshi explained this well:
From the point of view of wisdom or the reality, the pain people experience is certainly a dream, as is all of the world of which the pain is an infinitesimal part. You see others suffering hunger. In the dream, also you yourself feel hunger. You dream that you work hard and long in the hot sun all day, are tired and hungry and want to eat a lot. You feed yourself and, moved by pity, feed the others that you find suffering from hunger. So long as the dream lasts, all those hunger pains are quite as real as you now think the pain you see in the world to be.
It is only when you wake up that you discover that the pain in the dream was unreal. You get up, and find your stomach is full, and you have not stirred out of your bed. You might have eaten to the full and gone to sleep.
But all this is not to say that while you are in the dream you can act as if the pain you feel there is not real. The hunger in the dream has to be assuaged by the food in the dream. The fellow beings you found so hungry in the dream had to be provided with food in that dream. You can never mix up the two states, the dream and the waking state.
Serious students of Mahayana Buddhism are expected to commit themselves something called “the Bodhisattva Vow“. One aspect of this multi-part aspiration is to say, the beings in this universe are but dream illusions, but, until all beings fully realize this and thus are relieved from suffering, I will work endlessly to help all to wake up. An auxiliary of this is that one will not simply achieve the wisdom of emptiness and enjoy the freedom that that entails, not caring about all one’s fellow beings wandering around still lost inside of the illusion of the matrix. And, if one is not compassionately motivated to help others to awaken from the dream in such a manner, all one might be left with, post-enlightenment, is the boredom, computer games, and irritation with others’ stupidity that “Jed McKenna”‘s protagonist describes his world to be. He describes his life’s purpose as simply to “kill time, until it kills me” – which seems pretty shallow to me.
(to be fair to to “Jed McKenna”, he has taken the time to write books in an apparent attempt to help other people to awaken. Also, his fictional protagonist does take a lot of time teaching others, pointing out their delusions, pointless efforts, and how they can awaken – albeit impatiently and with irritation).
3. As I said, I had been turned off to Jed McKenna’s writing for many years based on how some people had acted after reading them. For example, I once had dinner with a friend who was apparently a big fan of the Jed McKenna’s books. She aggressively maintained that meditation, reading spiritual books, psychotherapy, and similar activities were a waste of time, that all one had to do was read Jed’s writings. My attempts to reason with her on the subject proved fruitless, and I soon noticed that the one arrow in her quiver was to mimic (what I now recognize as) McKenna’s cold-hearted dogged attachment to emptiness.
I have heard similar stories from friends, of aggressive deconstructive preaching coming from people who had read McKenna’s books. And it has lead me to conclude that, McKenna’s books probably are valuable and illuminating – but only when people are ready for them. I suspect that reading then may do a majority people more harm than good, however, because they will not know how to put its teaching in context. In Zen Buddhist temples, monks have traditionally not been given intensive training in emptiness and no-self until they have done extensive training in staying connected to this world of illusion through compassion, ethics, and hard work.
I am reminded of how Alan Watts used to chuckle at followers of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti also taught that the world was perfect as it is, that there is no need or, ultimately, means of self-improvement, and that meditation and reading spiritual books is a waste of time. So, his students would sit around reading mystery novels, as deluded one year as they had been the last, wondering why their lives were not feeling any different. Watts’ point was, yes, the ultimate truth is that everything is perfect and there is no need for self-improvement – but that that level of insight is something that people generally only feel in their bones, and live as a manifested truth, after a long and arduous process of spiritual purification.
Anyway, I agree with what my aggressive friend was saying at dinner that night – at the core, meditation *is* a waste of time, as is reading spiritual books. But she did not seem to me to truly know how, or why, or do more than mimic the words she read in a book. Perhaps if she had meditated and read more spiritual books, she would have actually manifested spiritual liberation beyond techniques, instead of just talking about it.
4. Another criticism that I have of this book is that “McKenna” sometimes takes the tack in his book that he is the only one who has ever understood the deep and real truth (or, at least, one of the few). He states that all priests of all the world’s religions are the shepherds of Maya (Goddess of Delusion), and that all the saints and prophets are her final gatekeeper (in the habit of staying asleep). This self-promotion is at its most amusing when he presents teachings that are commonly known in the spiritual/Buddhist world as if he was the only person to have figured them out, a lone maverick shouting Truth in the face of a wilderness of lies. Examples of this include saying that blissful altered states that one can cultivate through certain forms of meditation can become addictive and are not true and ultimate liberation, or that psychic powers may or may not come along with enlightenment but they are not necessary preconditions for it. Uhh, Jed, buddy – many many many folks have realized (and taught) both of those insights before you.
(To be fair, he does show humility in paying homage and respect to certain other great spiritually accomplished people from the past – off the top of my head, I can remember, U.G. Krishnamurti, certain ancient Zen masters, and, especially, Walt Whitman)
5. Finally, the combination of his dismissal of so many other historical spiritual teachers with his adulation (and repeated quoting) of Walt Whitman above all others struck me as odd. “McKenna” seems to be mostly teaching what the philosopher Ken Wilber calls “formless mysticism”, a relatively advanced form of spirituality, while Whitman seems to me to be a prime example of the clearly more simple form, “nature mysticism”.