One book has impacted me more than any other over the past 10 years: The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.
I first read it in 2014 about a year after becoming self-employed. The first rush of excitement at my newfound freedom had waned, and I was beginning to feel the turbulence of the uncertain freelance world.
When I think back to the young man I was at this time, in my 20s, I see someone who felt threatened by life.
I wasn’t able to simply be with many of my emotions. Fear, anxiety, disappointment, helplessness, and rage were my enemies, and I arranged my life to avoid them as much as possible. I thought that if somehow I could just not feel those feelings, I would be happy.
But my desire to start my own business had plunged me into a world of tremendous uncertainty and turmoil. I constantly found myself in uncomfortable situations – with disappointed clients, or marketing my services, or expressing my ideas with confidence – that I felt completely unprepared to handle.
I wish I could say I sought out personal growth on purpose. I wish I could say I was a naturally spiritual person courageously seeking out answers to the big questions of human existence. The truth is that life demanded it of me in order to survive.
I felt like I was at the center of a slowly constricting circle, the emotional borders of my life closing in on me inexorably.
Late one night, I was browsing Quora, searching for practical answers to my existential questions. Someone recommended the book, and I ordered it. I needed some wisdom on the intense worries and fears beginning to rage within me: Would I succeed? Would I fail? Was I making a terrible mistake that would end my career before it had even started?
I read it once, and then I kept reading it year after year. I was astonished to read Singer describe in precise detail what I was experiencing inside in a way no one ever had before. I used the book like a roadmap for my personal growth, guiding me on a journey of self-understanding that I was only dimly aware I had embarked on.
In 2015, I went on to read Singer’s autobiography, The Surrender Experiment, which tells the story of his journey from young man to successful entrepreneur to spiritual guru over the course of several decades.
Hearing about the life experiences that led to his awakening made his writing all the more compelling, and I felt a deep desire to know more.
Singer told the story of how he conducted a “surrender experiment,” which involved continuously surrendering to the flow of life’s events, rather than trying to change or control them. He made “yes” his default response to whatever request life seemed to be asking of him, even if it required giving up his own plans and goals.
I remember reaching the end of Singer’s autobiography, closing my eyes, and trying to sense what life was asking of me. I was shocked to hear the answer that arose within me: “Go for a visit.”
“What?!” I thought. I was supposed to go visit Michael Singer in person? What an absurd idea. Still, I googled his meditation and retreat center, called the Temple of the Universe, and discovered it was located in a small town called Alachua, in Northern Florida outside of Gainesville.
When would I ever find myself in Florida? I couldn’t afford to make such a trip on a whim.
Then with a start I realized I was due to visit Florida for a friend’s wedding the very next month.
With goosebumps on my arms, and after counting every last dollar in my checking account, I made the decision to extend my trip by a few days. Somehow I knew I needed to meet the man behind the writing that had affected me so much.
I’ve waited years to tell this story because it’s taken this long for me to understand what has changed for me through reading and practicing Singer’s work. These ideas have provoked a series of mindset shifts that have radically transformed how I approach business, relationships, emotions, and life itself.
This is the story of the transformational journey I made to the Temple of the Universe, the most powerful ideas I’ve drawn from Singer’s writing, and my own insights into the nature of the human psyche I’ve discovered along the way.
The wisdom of direct experience
I was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church in Southern California.
As I’ve written about previously, every aspect of that belief system points to outside sources of authority: God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, angels and other heavenly beings, apostles and prophets of the past, church elders and parents, in approximately that order.
Not only are you not supposed to trust your inner intuitions and feelings, you should be actively suspicious of them. The devil speaks in the quiet of your idle mind, so it’s best to follow the guidance of your elders.
The Untethered Soul starts with a premise that couldn’t be further from that view. You are the sole authority over your soul. Only you and your personal experiences can point you toward truth. Experimentation is not only allowed – it is essential. You must go on your own journey of self-transformation to discover the nature of that truth for yourself.
This is an empirical philosophy based on direct experience. Singer asks us to apply the scientific lens of skepticism and questioning to our spiritual life, and to be open to whatever answers arise.
What are you directly experiencing exactly? The self – the structure of beliefs, opinions, wounds, narratives, aversions, cravings, and thoughts that we call the “human psyche.”
Every experience we have in the material world is a reflection of our psyche. The experiences that hurt are pointing to the parts of ourselves that are hurt, or incomplete, or in need of protection. The experiences that give us joy are pointing to the parts of ourselves that are fluid and alive.
Singer’s message is simple: we can use the everyday experiences of life to heal our psyche of the wounds of the past. The answer lies not in theological texts or abstract theories, but in the moment to moment experience of being alive.
Learning to hear the inner voice
Singer tells the story of the day his spiritual path began.
At the time, he was working on a Phd in economics at the University of Florida, with hopes of eventually becoming a college professor. He had no preexisting interest in spirituality or metaphysics. In his own words:
Out of the blue, for no apparent reason, as he was sitting on the couch in his living room and hanging out with his brother-in-law, Singer noticed for the very first time a voice inside his head:
He noticed that the voice never admitted it was wrong, and that he would continue believing the voice even after it had been wrong a hundred times before. Every moment he was awake, he was tormented by the mad ravings of what he began to call his “inner monologue.”
Critiquing, narrating, judging, wondering, inventing stories, asking questions, answering them – we all have this voice, and it never stops. Noticing it leads to the natural next step – realizing that you are not the voice. You are the one hearing it. How could a voice notice itself? Clearly there have to be two entities in there – the voice that speaks, and the one who hears it speak.
Which soon leads to the next realization – that our problems in life don’t come from events in our lives. There is no pain, fear, anxiety, or depression anywhere out there in the natural world. Our problems come from the chaos and commotion that that voice in our heads makes about what is happening.
We don’t really experience the world itself. We experience a mental model of the world we are running in our heads. And the voice is the hidden narrator of everything going on in that little fake world we’ve created for ourselves.
The purpose of the voice is to protect you from the uncertainty of reality. To filter the raw stream of sensory data into a nice story where you can feel in control. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel in control. But true personal growth is about transcending the part of yourself that thinks it needs to be in control in order to be okay.
You are not a human; you just happen to be watching one. The thoughts of the human you are inhabiting are not your thoughts. The feelings of the human you are watching are not your feelings. There is something about you that exists apart from all the experiences and memories of the human you happen to be monitoring.
Singer’s story gave my meditation – and through it, my spiritual life – a goal and a direction: I wanted to learn how to separate my sense of “me” from the inner storm of thoughts and feelings that never let me rest. I had learned the “how” of meditation at this point, but now I had the “why.”
So much of spiritual language speaks of “oneness” and wholeness, but paradoxically, before I could appreciate oneness, I first had to experience a sense of separation – between myself and the voice inside that never stops speaking.
A monument to late-stage capitalism
I touched down in Florida on a winter afternoon in early 2015.
This was a Florida winter – blazing sun, with everyone dressed in t-shirts and shorts. As I picked up my rental car, a white Jeep Grand Cherokee, that voice started speaking up inside me.
What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy? What do you think you’re doing driving out here uninvited? Who do you think you are? You have no plan and no justification! What a weirdo. What will everyone think of you when you show up there unannounced? You’ll probably be arrested for trespassing.
As these thoughts raced through my mind, I decided to take a break from driving and reconsider my plan. I saw a sign on the side of the freeway for the annual Florida State Fair, and thought this might be a fun diversion from my worries.
I parked the car and began walking the grounds, amazed at this monument to late-stage American capitalism. Hot tubs, huge televisions, putting machines, tires, drones, and every kind of junk food imaginable – it felt like a cornucopia of everything modern consumer culture had to offer.
It was all so clearly unnecessary. Like a caricature, all this excess and materialism only served to highlight how meaningless it all was. I was looking for something different, something deeper and more timeless.
My resolve strengthened, I got back into the car and exited back onto the freeway, determined to find what I had come here for as the voice raged louder and louder. I didn’t know why I was going to the Temple of the Universe, or who or what I expected to find there. I only knew that there was something there I needed to see.
Opening and closing the valve of the heart
Think of a time when you were in the presence of someone you loved.
You trusted them, so you lowered the walls protecting your heart. This allowed energy to rush into you, filling you with a sense of exhilaration and joy.
Now let’s say that person does something to offend you. Now you feel a tightness in your chest. A closing and restriction of the heart’s energies.
The next time you see them, you don’t feel so high. You feel guarded and wary. There doesn’t seem to be anything to talk about. This happened because you closed your heart. The energy flowing in and through your heart center was choked off.
Now imagine that person apologizes and makes it right. Your heart opens again, doesn’t it? With this opening you are once again filled with energy, and the love starts flowing again.
Singer asks us to closely examine what is really happening here. Clearly there is energy involved. A mere exchange of words can open up or close down vast amounts of energy within us. This source of energy is distinct from the calories we consume. It isn’t biochemical in nature. It is a kind of energy governed by the emotions flowing through our heart.
Every great faith tradition speaks of this spiritual energy. In ancient Chinese medicine, it is called chi. In yoga, it is called Shakti. In Christianity, it is called spirit. It goes by many names.
The important thing to understand is that this kind of energy is your birthright. You can call upon it any time you want. When this energy fills you, you feel like you can take on anything. It gushes up spontaneously from within and washes over you in waves, restoring and replenishing you.
Which raises the question: What causes us to stop feeling this energy?
There are various energy centers in the human body, which the yogis call “chakras.” The one we are most familiar with is the heart. Singer asserts that when something happens to us that we believe shouldn’t have happened, we decide to close our heart center and cut ourselves off from this energy source.
The first time I read this, I thought it was outrageous. Of course no one simply decides to close their heart! I couldn’t see that that was a choice, much less a choice anyone would make consciously.
But as time passed, and through a lot of meditation, I began to see that there is indeed a brief moment when a choice exists. Someone cuts me off in traffic, and for a split second I get to decide: Do I let this experience pass through me, or do I cling to it and allow it to shut me down?
I’ve come to deeply appreciate Singer’s advice on the matter: “Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.”
At first this feels unnatural, because we have been trained to close down in a wide variety of situations: when someone criticizes us, or disagrees with us, or takes something from us, or accuses us of something. We are conditioned to close down at the first sign of any uncomfortable emotion – anger, fear, grief, injustice, shame, sadness.
If you really look, you’ll notice that we create long lists of conditions for when we will remain open, and when we will close. We decide that we will remain open as long as things go our way, and people are nice to us, and life is predictable, and our plans come to fruition.
But by defining what we need in order to keep our heart open, we are defining our limits. We are allowing the mind to create triggers that open and close us.
We are taught as children that we must close down to protect ourselves. But closing our hearts doesn’t really protect us from anything. It only shuts us off from the infinite energy source that is accessed through the valve of the heart. This is how the world becomes frightening: when any one of a vast number of events has the ability to close us off from the energy source that sustains us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can actually train ourselves to do the opposite. When someone disappoints us, or a conversation upsets us, we can teach ourselves to open our hearts in response. The disappointment and upset isn’t coming from the outside anyway – it’s coming from a wounded part of ourselves that is being aggravated.
There is a very simple method for staying open. You stay open by never closing. It’s really that simple. All you have to do is decide that you are going to stay open no matter what happens.
To be continued…
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