Having read Michael A. Singer’s latest book, Living Untethered: Beyond the Human Predicament, I found it be both useful and insightful for many of those progressing on their spiritual paths. However, while reading it, I also found various inaccuracies and misunderstandings that led me to question whether I would recommend the book to anyone. On the one hand, I could see the potential for people to benefit from understanding his perspective. On the other hand, I could also see the potential for people to drift towards dysfunctional behaviors if fully embracing the misunderstandings he expressed. So, as sort of a comprise, I decided to write a short series of articles to offer corrections to his otherwise valuable work, for the potential benefit of his readers.
To make it easier for readers to refer back to Living Untethered, I’ve written 8 articles to address each of the 8 parts of the book individually. The first part, titled “Conscious Awareness”, begins with a prime example of misunderstanding when it states that “resistance creates tension and anxiety, and it makes life a burden.” In fact, resistance correlates with tension but resistance does not create anxiety — nor does resistance necessarily make life a burden. To better understand this, consider that resistance slows things down, whereas tension is the state of being stretched. Anxiety, which is fear about the future, most often results in internal tension and stress, as well as resistance to reality. However, resisting harm, for example, need not create any anxiety and does not make life a burden. Indeed, resisting harm can save life from becoming a burden. Point being, not all resistance is problematic and some resistance is sometimes helpful.
Mr. Singer is quite correct in asserting that it is essential to accept reality. However, in claiming that “all of science is based on studying reality, learning her laws, and then working with those laws to improve our lives”,he reveals a common misunderstanding of science and its relationship with reality. As a means of study, science creates tools, both physical ones and mental ones, in order to test hypotheses about reality. The more reliable the tools are, the more useful they are in solving problems. Some of the mental tools are so consistently reliable that they are referred to as “laws”. Yet, reality can and, often enough, does reveal deficiencies in the tools that science creates. In other words, the laws belong to science rather than belonging to reality. Furthermore, science works to solve problems not necessarily to improve our lives but rather to solve whichever problems appear to be most interesting to solve at any given time. As for whether those solutions improve our lives, that is another matter entirely.
Mr. Singer’s misunderstandings of science and reality are also evident in his attempt to explain vision in Chapter 2. Although we customarily think of our world as being composed of physical objects, physics has revealed that what we perceive as material objects are merely patterns of energy in motion. This means that what we perceive as physical objects are merely mental constructs that our minds create in order to make it easier to interact with our environment. So, yes, “you are actually seeing the objects inside, not outside.” But, that is because there are no objects outside; they only exist as objects inside your mind.
A common misunderstanding of reality is the assumption of finity, which Mr. Singer expresses when he writes that “self-realization … means you have fully realized who you are in there.” In fact, self-realization is an infinite process of realizing the self, both in becoming ever more aware of the self and in making the self real through the process of witnessing it. This process extends infinitely beyond the awareness of one’s bodily self outwards towards the universal self that contains all selves. Admittedly, this topic may have been deemed too advanced for the intended audience of the book — but claiming that there is such a thing as fully realizing “who you are in there” can easily lead people to delude themselves into thinking that they are “fully” self-realized, when they are only in a relatively early stage of that process.
In general, the book contains a lot of overgeneralizations, most especially ones in which Mr. Singer assumes that his own experience applies to everyone. Statements such as “That is what everybody’s doing”, for example, are presented as true when they most certainly are not. In Chapter 4 Mr. Singer claims that, regarding sensations, thoughts, and emotions, “these three inner experiences are the arena in which your consciousness plays the game of life on planet Earth”. While that may be true for the majority of the population, as well as Mr. Singer himself, there are also other types of inner experiences to be had when one is sufficiently open to experiencing them. When Mr. Singer writes, “... that’s all you’ve done your entire life – try to be okay”, it’s safe to assume that he is communicating more knowledgeably and pointedly towards himself than towards his audience.
A key overgeneralization that Mr. Singer expresses in his book pertains to the nature of spirituality. When he writes, “What is your nature? What is it like to sit back and be conscious of being conscious? That is what all spirituality is about”, he limits spirituality to the rather tight constraints he has chosen to place upon it. In reality, spirituality is much bigger than what Mr. Singer supposes, because spirituality is actually the process of aligning with truth. So yes, exploring one’s nature and being conscious of being conscious are both part of spirituality. Yet, they are certainly not “what all spirituality is about”, not even close!
It is because of such misunderstandings that Mr. Singer misconstrues the journey of spirituality. In his words, “That is the journey before us — to free ourselves from the distractions that keep drawing us away from our greatness and leave us struggling with life.” Well, actually no. In truth, we are not victims of our distractions, struggling to free ourselves. In truth, we are always free to choose how to direct our awareness, even when we are accustomed to distracting ourselves.
The primary reason that we distract ourselves with thoughts of potential opportunities and/or potential threats is that doing so is how our species was able to evolve to where it is today. Our nervous systems evolved to be excited by thoughts of potential opportunities and alarmed by thoughts of potential threats. So, when you choose to disregard such thoughts and feelings, you are choosing to disregard the subconscious tendencies of your nervous system that enabled the survival of our species.
It is true that disregarding your feelings of excitement and alarm frees you from anxiety — but it also makes it more difficult for you to be responsive, both to desire and to danger. This is why so few people have chosen to devote much of their lives to freeing their consciousness from their subconscious tendencies. It may feel blissful but it doesn’t necessarily serve the aims of survival and procreation that in turn facilitate the natural evolution of our species.
Ultimately, your choices are an assertion of your values. So, if you value bliss above all else, letting go of all attachment will free you to experience it. If not, you are invited to consider which of your attachments are worth suffering for and consciously welcome that suffering as part of your life. The choice is always yours, to live untethered, to remain fully tethered, or to choose your tethers wisely.