Straw Dogs by John Gray, 2002 (Second Review)

In humans, as in insect colonies, perception and action go on as if there were a self that directs them, when in fact none exists.  pp. 73

Amazon Link

This is the second review I’ve written of this book (first review).  On the first reading, I focused more on the book’s primary argument: technological and scientific progress are real, but ethical/moral progress is an illusion.  The knowledge and tools humanity has gained persist and accumulate over time, but human nature hasn’t changed, and our new powers simply give us new means to settle old scores.

During the second reading I focused on another current that runs through the book: free will doesn’t exist.  Gray draws on Eastern thought in support of this claim.  The West views the self as pivotal: through our efforts we improve, we civilize the world, we progress.  The Eastern view sees humans as another part of the ecosystem, created and constrained by the background we inhabit.  History is cyclical, with floods balancing droughts, and good and bad stretches replacing one another.  Processes unfold without an individual author—the system itself is the author.

Even after a second read, I’m surprised by how many ideas are fit into this relatively small book, and in a smooth and natural manner.  It’s interesting to consider how lack of self connects to the notion of progress.  I think that is very creative connection, and a useful one.  I feel that the book was just as exciting on the second reading, and I will plan to read it again.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (high)

Related Books: The Silence of Animals, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern both by John Gray; Waking Up by Sam Harris; Incognito by David Eagleman

Recommend to Others: Yes

Reread Personally:  Yes, but read some of the books mentioned in this one first


37 As commonly practiced, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs.

61 Very often we are at our most skillful when we are least self-aware.

104 We cannot give up the pretense that being good is something anyone can achieve.  If we did, we would have to admit that, like beauty and intelligence, goodness is a fight of fortune.  We would have to accept that, in the part of our lives where we are most attached to it, freedom of the will is an illusion.  We would have to own up to what we all deny—that being good is good luck.

109-110 we are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply.  Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.

114 Animals in the wild know how to live; they do not need to think or choose.

114 For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving.  For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures.  The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.

126 For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice.  For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.

150 Fernando Pessona writes:

Only if you don’t know what flower, stones, and

rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the soul of flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, 2015

Amazon Link

Religious critic Sam Harris and former Islamist Maajid Nawaz discuss the problem of political and/or violent forms of Islam, and the best way to promote the more secular, cosmopolitan, and peaceful forms of Islam.

Harris has long argued that the Koran itself (the claims and dictates contained in the text) is the primary cause of political or violent Islam.  He sees a clear line between scripture and how people decide to behave.

Nawaz argues that any text is always interpreted inside of some context, and the political/economic/social context surrounding those who purse violent or political Islam are framing interpretations of the text in harmful ways.  He believes moderate readings of the Koran are still true to the text, and that in certain contexts people who are now Islamist or jihadist would read the texts in those more moderate ways.

The book is dialogue between its two authors, reading like the transcript of an interview.  The tone is softer than a debate, mainly it’s a conversation. I enjoyed the format, and I think it works well for this kind of contentious topic where there isn’t a clear answer.

I wonder about why the book was written—who the authors hope would read it, and more importantly, who they actually expect will read it.  I imagine their target audience is secular/moderate Muslims.  I wonder if they really think it will have an impact where they’d like it to have one.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (lower)

Related Books: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Recommend to Others: Only if previously interested

Reread Personally: No


19 …an Islamist attempts to impose his version of Islam on the rest of society, and a jihadist is an Islamist who attempts to do so by force.

32 …the polls that were done in Britain immediately after the 7/7 bombings in London revealed that more than 20 percent of British Muslims felt sympathy for the bombers motives; 30 percent wanted to live under shari’ah; 45 percent thought that 9/11 was the result of a conspiracy between the United States and Israel; and 68 percent believed that British citizens who “insult Islam” should be arrested and prosecuted

36 …four elements exist in all forms of ideological recruitment: a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; and identity crisis; a charismatic recruiter; and ideological dogma.

41 Some Jihadists are not “pious” in the sense of having firm religious convictions.  …religious sincerity of the lack of it, fluctuates between, within, and among groups.

51 The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups.  And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal.  The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims—all the vulnerable and bullied individuals who are not just stigmatized but in many cases violently assaulted or killed merely for being against the norm.

53 I was not surprised to learn that Breivik quoted al-Qaeda extensively in his terrorist manifesto.  One of these extremes is opposed to a “Muslim takeover,” and the other is in favor of it, but they both subscribe to that divisive, sectarian apocalyptic vision.

58 Even more preposterous is the fact that if a pastor in Florida burns a copy of the Qur’an—or merely threatens to do so—it reliably produces more outrage in dozens of Muslim societies than the atrocities committed daily by Sunnis against Shia ever will.

69 You can’t say, for instance, that Islam recommends eating bacon and drinking alcohol.  … One simply cannot say that the central message of the Qur’an is respect for women as the moral and political equals of men.

72-3 …hate crimes against Muslims in the US … appear to be of greater concern than the enslavement and obliteration of countless people throughout the Muslim world.

119 Launching more drone strikes than Bush ever did and compiling a secret “kill list,” President Obama’s administration took the view that al-Qaeda was like an organized crime gang—disrupt the hierarchy, destroy the gang.  Theirs was a concerted and dogmatic attempt at pretending that al-Qaeda was nothing but a fringe criminal group, and not a concrete realization of an ideological phenomenon with grassroots sympathy.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




Robotics – A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield, 2012

…when the Symbrion organism self-assembles, individual robot cells will need to adopt a specialist function according to their position; when it self-disassembles, individual robot cells will in a sense revert to undifferentiated ‘stem cell’-like robots.  pp. 106

Amazon Link

A professional roboticist writes about the basics of robotics—the definition of a robot, the different types of robots, major problems in robotics, the state of the art (as of 2012), and what the future might hold.

It’s wonderful that the book was authored by someone working in the field.  Winfield uses simple explanations and avoids specialized vocabulary, and is careful to define key concepts in straightforward ways.  His enthusiasm for the field is obvious, and keeps his writing fresh and excited.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly; You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier;

Recommend to Others: If you have interest in the field

Reread Personally: No


…a robot that can react on its own in response to its sensors is highly autonomous.  13

43 Solarbot provides us with a remarkable illustration that simple, apparently purposeful behaviours require no computational machinery at all.  Solarbot is an example of wheat roboticists refer to as a Braitenberg machine.

47 Thus a mobile robot, just like an insect, should be able to move around in the world, avoiding collisions with static objects, simply by sensing those objects and reacting only when they get close enough to pose a threat.

48 A high-level behavior may well build and maintain a map; a low-level behavior doesn’t need that map: instead, it will react directly to the sensory inputs.

52 However, fueled by just eight dead flies, it [EcoBot II] operated continuously for nearly two weeks.

53 EcoBot III thus represents the only known example, to date, of a robot with a complete artificial digestive system.

55 Rats, for instance, see in the dark in 3D with texture, using their whiskers, and neuroscientists have estimated that the rat uses a greater proportion of its cortex for processing data form its whiskers than from its vision system.  There seems to be little doubt that the predominant sense for the rat is active touch using its whiskers.

103 Remarkably, this experiment appears to confirm Hamilton’s rule: that altruistic behavior will evolve when the relatedness of individuals multiplied by the fitness benefit to the receiver of the altruistic behavior is greater than the fitness cost of performing the behavior.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1994

Work at allowing more things to unfold in your life without forcing them to happen and without rejecting the ones that don’t fit your idea of what “should” be happening. pp. 46

Amazon Link

A collection of very short essays on the philosophy of meditation, the rationales and benefits of meditation, and different strategies you can use to guide or enhance your meditation.          

I don’t think this book broke much new ground for me, as I’d done other reading on the topic and have watched a few videos that discussed meditation in similar ways.  The book does contain a number of quotes that nicely summarize the main principles contained here and in other sources.  I feel that the book wasn’t designed to be completed in a short span.  It seems more like a daily devotional or guide book for people who are engaging in meditation frequently.  Maybe a week could be spent on each essay within the context of meditation/quiet time.

Again, implementation of what’s discussed here is more important than reading it through quickly, as I did.  I was, in a way, happy to discover that the main principles he discusses were nothing new.  A few of the strategies, like imagining yourself to be a mountain or a lake were new to me, as well as bit hokey.  However, having such an image in mind appeals to me, as it scaffolds the experience in a way that makes meditation seem more possible than silent meditation.

I’d be interested to learn more about the personal life of Jon Kabat-Zinn—what inspired him to dedicate so much effort to meditation and educating people about meditation.  I also find it interesting that he is rather professionally accomplished, which seems at odds with a serious meditative practice (at least at first glance).

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana; The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal

Recommend to Others: Only with pre-existing interest

Reread Personally:  No, I think other Buddhist sources first or reread Plain English first


11 If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died.

26 One practical way to do this is to look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.

47 These inner qualities which support meditation practice cannot be imposed, legislated, or decreed. They can only be cultivated, and this only when you have reached the point where your inner motivation is strong enough to want to cease contributing to your own suffering and confusion and perhaps to that of others.

55 part of our mind is constantly evaluating our experiences, comparing them with other experiences or holding them up against expectations and standards that we create, often out of fear. Fear that I’m not good enough, that bad things will happen, that good things won’t last, that other people might hurt me, that I won’t get my way, that only I know anything, that I’m the only one who doesn’t know anything.

59 If we are unaware of what we are doing a good deal of the time, and we don’t particularly like the way things turn out in our lives, perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention, to be more in touch, to observe the choices we make and their consequences down the road.

61 See if you can give yourself gifts that may be true blessings, such as self-acceptance, or some time each day with no purpose. Practice feeling deserving enough to accept these gifts without obligation—to simply receive from yourself, and from the universe.

62 practice sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, above all, your presence. Share it with yourself, with your family, with the world.

76 It doesn’t mean trying to change or be different from how you are, calm when you’re not feeling calm, or kind when you really feel angry. Rather, it is bearing in mind what is most important to you so that it is not lost or betrayed in the heat and reactivity of a particular moment.

88 This means in part acknowledging that sometimes, often at very crucial times, you really have no idea where you are going or even where the path lies. At the same time, you can very well know something about where you are now (even if it is knowing that you are lost, confused, enraged, or without hope).

94 Meditation does not involve trying to change your thinking by thinking some more. It involves watching thought itself. The watching is the holding. By watching your thoughts without being drawn into them, you can learn something profoundly liberating about thinking itself, which may help you to be less of a prisoner of those thought patterns—often so strong in us—which are narrow, inaccurate, self-involved, habitual to the point of being imprisoning, and also just plain wrong.

109 This includes a deep knowing that whatever is present, whatever has happened to shake your life or overwhelm you, will of itself inevitably change,

115 But he had trained himself to march to the drumbeat of his own growing vision of what constituted wise action.

183 I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

196 Look virtually anywhere and you will find broken relationships, broken families, broken people—wanderers with no roots, lost, going from this place to that, this job to that, this relationship to that, this idea of salvation to that, in the desperate hope that the right person, the right job, the right place, the right book will make it all better.

238 everything is interdependent and that there is no isolated, independent core “you.” You are only you in relationship to all other forces and events in the world—including your parents, your childhood, your thoughts and feelings, outside events, time, and so on.

239 We might begin by taking things a little less personally. When something happens, try to see it without the self-orientation, just for fun. Maybe it just happened. Maybe it’s not aimed at you.

240 you can stop taking yourself so damn seriously and get out from under the pressures of having the details of your personal life be central to the operating of the universe.

255 Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.     –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters

262 meditation really is the one human activity in which you are not trying to get anywhere else but simply allowing yourself to be where and as you already are. This is a bitter medicine to swallow when you don’t like what is happening or where you find yourself, but it is especially worth swallowing at such times.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal, 2005

Neither mother nor father,

Nor any other relative can do

One as much good

As one’s own well-directed mind (43)

Amazon Link

The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings attributed to Buddha.  It is one of the most popular Buddhist religious texts.  Each saying is arranged like a small poem, and though the verses are related, there is no direct connection between them, and—as far as I can tell—reading them in a random order would be fine.

There are a few central points made in the text: the mind is the arbiter of experience; everything is impermanent; attachment leads to suffering; it is very, very good to become enlightened.  There is little discussion of the steps one might take to see the truth of impermanence or not-self, and even less about the concrete steps to enlightenment (presumably covered in other Buddhist texts).

Many of the verses are redundant, obsessed with the fact that enlightenment is superior to ignorance: by becoming enlightened and surrendering attachments, one becomes free from suffering.  Freedom from suffering and eternal rebirth is vastly superior to eternal rebirth and the suffering it entails.

Although I wish similar verses could have been combined or eliminated, there were many useful verses (quoted below).  It was also interesting to see prohibitions against violence, lying, and sexual misconduct, as in other texts from other religions.  The Dhammapada is also very focused on the behaviors of the reader—with little mention of god or particular religious figures.  Enlightened people are seen as examples, but not as messiahs.  The individual is responsible for their own pursuit of enlightenment.  Minds can only be truly changed from the inside.  It was also notable how this book contained no violence.

I would be interested in reading more about the Buddhist prescription for how to actually make progress toward enlightenment described in specific steps; essentially a self-help book.  I’ve read about meditation and attended meditation retreats, but looking at the primary sources would also be interesting.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Recommend to Others: Only with pre-existing interest

Reread Personally:  No, read quotes below, then read other related books


…the overall message is not to avoid the world, but rather to avoid being attached.  XXIX

Note: I am going to use the verse number (instead of the page number) to identify the quotes taken from the text, as you might with bible verses

Do not consider the faults of others

Or what they have or haven’t done.

Consider rather

What you yourself have or haven’t done.  (50)


A fool suffers, thinking,

“I have children! I have wealth!”

One’s self is not even one’s own.

How then are children? How then is wealth? (62)


Better than one hundred years lived

Without seeing the arising and passing of things

Is one day lived

Seeing their arising and passing. (113)


Having done something meritorious,

Repeat it,

Wish for it:

Merit piled up brings happiness.  (118)


Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector.

What other protector could there be?

With self-control

One gains a protector hard to obtain.  (160)


Don’t give up you own welfare

For the sake of others’ welfare, however great.

Clearly know your own welfare

And be intent on the highest good.  (166)


Ah, so happily we live,

We who have no attachments.

We shall feast on joy,

As do the Radiant Gods.  (200)


Health is the foremost possession,

Contentment, the foremost wealth,

Trust, the foremost kinship,

And Nirvana, the foremost happiness.  (204)


Therefore, do not turn anything

Into something longed for,

For then it’s dreadful to lose.

Without longing or dislike,

No bonds exist.  (211)


“All created things are impermanent.”

Seeing this with insight,

One becomes disenchanted with suffering.

This is the path to purity.  (277)


“All things are not-self.”

Seeing this with insight,

One becomes disenchanted with suffering.

This is the path to purity.  (278)


As long as even the slightest underbrush of desire

Between man and woman is not cut away,

For that long, the mind is bound

Like a suckling calf is to its mother.  (284)


If, by giving up a lesser happiness,

One could experience greater happiness,

A wise person would renounce the lesser

To behold the greater.  (290)


Just as a felled tree grows again

If the roots are unharmed and strong,

So suffering sprouts again and again

Until the tendency to crave is rooted out.  (338)

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, 1992

Vipassana is a simple practice. It consists of experiencing your own life events directly, without preferences and without mental images pasted onto them. pp. 21

Amazon Link

Bhante Gunaratana, experienced meditator and Buddhist monk, describes the motivation for meditating, and provides some of the historical background in which meditation developed.  Then he gives instructions about how to do vipassana meditation (also called “mindfulness” or “insight” meditation).  He gives an overview of what it means to meditate in this tradition, and then describes the behaviors—both mental and physical—that will allow you to maintain a detached focus on your present-moment experience.       

The book lives up to its name: it describes the actual process of mindfulness practice in clear, easy-to-understand language.  The core of the book is a how-to guide to vipassana meditation, with small digressions from the nuts-and-bolts behaviors of meditation scattered throughout.

I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are last summer, which deals with greater levels of abstraction and more advanced techniques within meditation.  Its language is more sweeping and poetic.  I should have started here, but the contrast between different levels of thinking about meditation is interesting.

The book’s how-to approach is great, but, as the author discusses, meditating is more important and useful than reading about meditation.  Although the book strives to be concrete, many of the instructions may not make sense without some time spent meditating as a reference point.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal

Recommend to Others: Only with pre-existing interest

Reread Personally:  Maybe, read quotes below, more retreats, then other books


3 We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy.

4The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience.

5It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.

12 We are dealing exclusively with the vipassana system of meditation. [AKA insight meditation]

13 Vipassana, by definition, is the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness.

14 Meditation needs to be understood that same way—by doing it. It is not something that you can learn in abstract terms, or something to be talked about.

14 Learning to look at each second as if it were the first and only second in the universe is essential in vipassana meditation.

14 Some people may experience some intuitive understanding or memories from past lives; others do not.

15 There is a point in the meditator’s career where he or she may practice special exercises to develop psychic powers.

19 Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself from the thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out of your own way, and that’s a pretty useful skill in everyday life.

19 Vipassana is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and free yourself from all the polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. You are who you are, and lying to yourself about your own weaknesses and motivations only binds you tighter to them.

25 The object of vipassana practice is to learn to see the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena.

27 When you seek to know reality without illusion, complete with all its pain and danger, real freedom and security will be yours. This is not a doctrine we are trying to drill into you; it is an observable reality, something you can and should see for yourself.

29 You set up a collection of mental constructions—“me,” “the book,” “the building”—and you assumed that those were solid, real entities. You assumed that they would endure forever. They never do. But now you can tune into the constant change. You can learn to perceive your life as an ever-flowing movement.

30 We learn to watch the arising of thought and perception with a feeling of serene detachment. We learn to view our own reactions to stimuli with calmness and clarity.

34 Don’t expect anything.

34 Don’t strain.

34 Don’t rush.

34 If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is fine, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it all mindfully.

34 Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate.

35 Be kind to yourself.

39 we strongly recommend that you start with focusing your undivided attention on your breathing to gain some degree of basic concentration.

44 Once you sit, do not change the position again until the end of the time you determined at the beginning.

46 begin focusing your attention on the rims of your nostrils. Simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out.

46 Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Simply notice the incoming and outgoing breath without saying, “I breathe in,” or “I breathe out.” When you focus your attention on the breath, ignore any thought, memory, sound, smell, taste, etc., and focus your attention exclusively on the breath, nothing else.

47 While breathing in, count “one, one, one, one…” until the lungs are full of fresh air. While breathing out count “two, two, two, two…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air.

49 After inhaling do not wait to notice the brief pause before exhaling but connect the inhaling with exhaling, so you can notice both inhaling and exhaling as one continuous breath.

52 notice whatever sensation arises in the body. When thought arises notice it, too. All you should notice in all these occurrences is the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of all your experiences

53 You will see the subtlety of impermanence and the subtlety of selflessness. This insight will show you the way to peace and happiness, and will give you the wisdom to handle your daily problems in life.

54 Here we see how even a small degree of desire for permanence in an impermanent situation causes pain or unhappiness. Since there is no self-entity to control this situation, we will become more disappointed. However, if we watch our breathing without desiring calmness and without resenting the tension arising from breathing in and out, and experience only the impermanence, the unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of our breath, our mind becomes peaceful and calm. The mind does not stay all the time with the feeling of breath. It goes to sounds, memories, emotions, perceptions, consciousness, and mental formations as well. When we experience these states, we should forget about the feeling of breath and immediately focus our attention on these states—one at a time, not all of them at one time. As they fade away, we let our mind return to the breath, which is the home base the mind can return to from quick or long journeys to various states of mind and body. We must remember that all these mental journeys are made within the mind itself. Every time the mind returns to the breath, it comes back with a deeper insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness. The mind becomes more insightful from the impartial and unbiased watching of these occurrences. The mind gains insight into the fact that this body, these feelings, the various states of consciousness and numerous mental formations are to be used only for the purpose of gaining deeper insight into the reality of this body-mind complex.

64 There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, with apparently no gap between them.

64 normal conscious thought is also greedy. It grabs all your attention and leaves none to notice its own effect. The difference between being aware of the thought and thinking the thought is very real. But it is extremely subtle and difficult to see. Concentration is one of the tools needed to be able to see this difference.

65 We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.

67 When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically placed in the present.

67 The first step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find it. What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils.

67 Once you have located your own breath point with clarity, don’t deviate from that spot. Use this single point in order to keep your attention fixed.

67 Make no attempt to control the breath.

68 Every breath has a beginning, middle, and end. Every inhalation goes through a process of birth, growth, and death, and every exhalation does the same.

69 You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not.

70 Feel the touch sensation of the out-breath. Breathe in, breathe out, and watch what happens. When you have been doing that for some time— perhaps weeks or months—you will begin to sense the touch as a physical object.

71 Let your meditation be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust your own ability to deal with these issues later, using the energy and freshness of mind that you built up during your meditation. Trust yourself this way and it will actually occur.

72 Mindfulness of breathing is a present-moment awareness. When you are doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the present.

74 The best way to clarify the mental fluid is to just let it settle all by itself. Don’t add any energy to the situation. Just mindfully watch the mud swirl, without any involvement in the process. Then, when it settles at last, it will stay settled. We exert energy in meditation, but not force.

76 If, however, you find that your schedule has ceased to be an encouragement and become a burden, then something is wrong. Meditation is not a duty or an obligation.

79 decide on the length of your session before you meditate.

87 The most damaging psychic irritant arising in the mind, particularly at the time when the mind is quiet, is resentment. You may experience indignation remembering some incident that caused you psychological and physical pain.

92 If you are miserable you are miserable; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine that experience, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom.

96 These students are conceiving mindfulness as something distinct from the experience of pain. It is not. Mindfulness never exists by itself. It always has some object, and one object is as good as another. Pain is a mental state. You can be mindful of pain just as you are mindful of breathing.

99 Try to resolve your immediate daily conflicts before meditation when you can.

100 If you are frantic and you can’t do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you. The result will be one more step forward in your journey of self-exploration. Above all, don’t get frustrated over the nonstop chatter of your mind.

100 Don’t assume that you know what breath is. Don’t take it for granted that you have already seen everything there is to see. If you do, you are conceptualizing the process. You are not observing its living reality. When you are clearly mindful of the breath or of anything else, it is never boring.

102 No matter what the source of your fear, mindfulness is the cure. Observe the fear exactly as it is. Don’t cling to it. Just watch it rising and growing. Study its effect. See how it makes you feel and how it affects your body. When you find yourself in the grip of horror fantasies, simply observe those mindfully. Watch the pictures as pictures. See memories as memories.

104 It should be pointed out that you learn about meditation only by meditating. You learn what meditation is all about and where it leads only through direct experience of the thing itself.

105 If you are discouraged over your perceived failure in meditation, that is especially easy to deal with. You feel you have failed in your practice. You have failed to be mindful. Simply become mindful of that sense of failure.

105 The instant that you realize that you have been unmindful, that realization itself is an act of mindfulness. So continue the process. Don’t get sidetracked by an emotional reaction.

109 Just say to yourself, “Okay, I have been distracted for about two minutes,” or “since the dog started barking,” or “since I started thinking about money.”

110 When your mind is wild and agitated, you can often reestablish mindfulness with a few quick deep breaths.

111 Just direct your attention to the breath and mentally tag each cycle with the words, “Inhalation…exhalation,” or “In…out.” Continue the process until you no longer need these concepts, and then throw them away.

114 You can say to yourself, “I’m not sitting here just to waste my time with these thoughts. I’m here to focus my mind on the breath, which is universal and common to all living beings.”

115 These distractions are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped in them. That’s what we are here for.

116 When any mental state arises strongly enough to distract you from the object of meditation, switch your attention to the distraction briefly. Make the distraction a temporary object of meditation.

116 The breath will always remain your primary focus. You switch your attention to the distraction only long enough to notice certain specific things about it. What is it? How strong is it? And how long does it last?

117 We must stop thinking the thought or feeling the feeling in order to view it as an object of inspection. This very process is an exercise in mindfulness, uninvolved, detached awareness. The hold of the distraction is thus broken, and mindfulness is back in control. At this point, mindfulness makes a smooth transition back to its primary focus, and we return to the breath.

118 Breathing. Breathing. Distracting thought arising. Frustration arising over the distracting thought. You condemn yourself for being distracted. You notice the self-condemnation. You return to the breathing. Breathing. Breathing.

118 Every bit of energy that you apply to that resistance goes into the thought complex and makes it all the stronger. So don’t try to force such thoughts out of your mind. It’s a battle you can never win. Just observe the distraction mindfully and it will eventually go away.

120 The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness.

124 Happiness, peace, inner contentment, sympathy, and compassion for all beings everywhere. These mental states are so sweet and so benevolent that you can scarcely bear to pry yourself loose from them. It makes you feel like a traitor to humanity. There is no need to feel this way. We are not advising you to reject these states of mind or to become heartless robots. We merely want you to see them for what they are. They are mental states. They come, and they go. They arise, and they pass away.

125 Let us use pain in the leg as an example. What is actually there is a pure, flowing sensation. It changes constantly, never the same from one moment to the next. It moves from one location to another, and its intensity surges up and down. Pain is not a thing. It is an event. There should be no concepts tacked on to it and none associated with it.

126 For most of us, we have earned high marks in school and in life for our ability to manipulate mental phenomena, or concepts, logically. Our careers, much of our success in everyday life, our happy relationships, we view as largely the result of our successful manipulation of concepts. In developing mindfulness, however, we temporarily suspend the conceptualization process and focus on the pure nature of mental phenomena. During meditation we are seeking to experience the mind at the preconceptual level.

126 When you introduce “I” into the process, you are building a conceptual gap between the reality and the awareness viewing that reality. Thoughts such as “me,” “my,” or “mine” have no place in direct awareness.

129 Realize that you have been off the track for such and such a length of time and go back to the breath. There is no need for any negative reaction at all. The very act of realizing that you have been off the track is an active awareness. It is an exercise of pure mindfulness all by itself.

129 The very fact that you have felt that wake-up sensation means that you have just improved your mindfulness power. That means you win. Move back to the breathing without regret. However, the regret is a conditioned reflex, and it may come along anyway—another mental habit.

132 It is the purpose of vipassana meditation to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.

133 Whatever experience we may be having, mindfulness just accepts it. It is simply another of life’s occurrences, just another thing to be aware of. No pride, no shame, nothing personal at stake—what is there is there.

143 Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray.

145 Mindfulness is not dependent on any such particular circumstance, physical or otherwise. It is a pure noticing factor. Thus it is free to notice whatever comes up—lust, hatred, or noise.

145 Really deep concentration can only take place under certain specific conditions.

147 Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quick to notice any change that occurs.

149 put your effort on concentration at the beginning until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness. Overall, mindfulness is the one to emphasize.

159 A state of mindfulness is a state of mental readiness. The mind is not burdened with preoccupations or bound in worries. Whatever comes up can be dealt with instantly.

160 Sitting anxiously in the dentist’s office, meditate on your anxiety. Feeling irritated while standing in a line at the bank, meditate on irritation.

161 If your meditation isn’t helping you to cope with everyday conflicts and struggles, then it is shallow. If your day-to-day emotional reactions are not becoming clearer and easier to manage, then you are wasting your time.

180 Cultivate loving friendliness toward yourself first, with the intention of sharing your kind thoughts with others.

185 When we are angry with someone, we can ask ourselves, “Am I angry at the hair on that person’s head? Am I angry at his skin? His teeth? His brain? His heart? His sense of humor? His tenderness? His generosity? His smile?” When we take the time to consider all the many elements and processes that make up a person, our anger naturally softens.

194 Most systems of meditation emphasize the samatha component. The meditator focuses his or her mind on a certain item, such as a prayer, a chant, a candle flame, or a religious image,

195 The vipassana meditator uses concentration as a tool by which his or her awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that blocks the living light of reality.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, 2017

homo duesHaving secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness, and divinity.  pp. 21

Amazon Link

Yuval argues that humanity’s next major pursuits will include ending death, ending unhappiness, and ending the limitations of human limitations on our bodies and minds.

Humanity has already made transformational changes across history, by near-total elimination of famine, pandemic illness, and war.  But changing technology and changing myths will allow us to pursue new aims.  The end of hunger, illness, and war once seemed absurd, something that only the gods could end—if they were not participating in or causing these events themselves.

Our myths shifted from god being central to humans being central.  They will shift once again, with data processing becoming central, as humans come to rely more on algorithms for advice and upgraded powers.

This book shares much with Sapiens, and it’s helpful to have read Sapiens before starting.  Especially important in both books are the power of intersubjective realities—commonly held myths that allow transactions to occur that would otherwise be impossible (e.g., trading worthless green money because everyone believes that it has value, which actually makes it valuable and makes transactions possible).

While in the past fictive gods and nations were able to “cause” pain through famine or “grant” victory through war, in the future our technology will be powerful enough to change many intersubjective realities into objective realities in much more direct and literal ways.  In the past, intersubjective realities allowed people to “live on” in heaven. In the future, intersubjective realities will foster that development of technology that will allow people to actually live on, either here on earth, or in digital worlds that make heaven a reality.

As in Sapiens, Harari discusses a broad range of interesting topics, and insightfully analyzes them on the way to cleverly revealing underlying causes or overarching connections.  At the same time, he weaves these ideas together into a coherent, entertaining, and convincing thesis about what major projects humans will pursue in the near future.

While the book’s primary thesis is interesting, the way Harari musters and presents evidence to support it is often times more interesting. As you see in the quotes below, there is a broad range of topics covered, and he pulls no punches.  I hope that in the future he writes longer explorations of some of the concepts he briefly hints at in this book.

A final point of interest is the way that Homo Deus is influenced by Buddhist principles and meditation practices.  I learned recently that Harari is a devoted meditator, meditating two hours daily, and taking annual silent retreats of forty to sixty days.  The influence of meditation can be seen in his thoughts on reality, sentience, and consciousness.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (high)

Related Books: Sapiens by Harari

Recommend to Others: Yes, after reading his first book. Between the two, read Sapiens

Reread Personally:  Probably not, read Sapiens again.


32 The right to the pursuit of happiness, originally envisaged as a restraint on state power, has imperceptibly morphed into the right to happiness—as if human beings have a natural right to be happy, and anything which makes us dissatisfied is a violation of our basic human rights, so the state should do something about it.

36 The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies.   … A thousand things make us angry, but anger is never an abstraction.  It is always felt as a sensation of heat and tension in the body, which is what makes anger so infuriating.

40-1 What some people hope to get by studying, working or raising a family, other try to obtain far more easily through the right dosage of molecules.  This is an existential threat to the social and economic order, which is why countries wage a stubborn, bloody, and hopeless war on biochemical crime.

47 Yet there are no good answers to the question, “What would being with a different kind of mind do with biotechnology?”

150 Nobody in twelfth-century England knew what human rights were.  You want to travel to the Middle East and risk your life not in order to kill Muslims, but to protect one group of Muslims from another?  You must be out of your mind.

That’s how history unfolds.  People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously.

151 …this ability to create intersubjective entities also separates the humanities from the life sciences.  Historians seek to understand the development of intersubjective entities like gods and nations, whereas biologists hardly recognize the existence of such things.

152 As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history.

163 It may sound strange to credit imaginary entities with building or controlling things.  But nowadays we habitually say that the United States built the first nuclear bomb, that China built the Three Gorges Dam or that Google is building an autonomous car.  Why not say then, that pharaoh built a reservoir and Sobek dug a canal?

169 When schools began assessing people according to precise numerical marks, the lives of millions of students and teachers changed dramatically.  Marks are a relatively new invention.  Hunter-gatherers were never marked for their achievements, and even thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, few education establishments used precise marks.

170 Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students and marks were merely a means of measuring success.  But naturally enough schools soon began focusing on achieving high marks.  As every child, teacher and inspector know, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics.  Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.

177 When a country suffers a defeat in war, the county doesn’t really suffer.  It’s just a metaphor.  In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. … This is reality.

180 It is often said that God helps those who help themselves.  This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn’t exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves—it helps.  Antibiotics, unlike God, help even those who doesn’t help themselves.  They cure infections whether you believe in them or not.

182 Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.  It legitimizes human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

183 Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.

199 Religion is interested above all in order.  It aims to create and maintain the social structure.  Science is interested above all in power.  Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.  …science and religion prefer order and power over truth.

207 …both capitalists and communists believed in creating heaven on earth through economic growth, and wrangled only about the exact method.

273 Why did Marx and Lenin succeeded where Hong and the Mahdi failed?  Not because socialist humanism was philosophically more sophisticated than Islamic and Christian theology, but rather because Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time that to scrutinizing ancient texts and prophetic dreams.

285 However, if an animal ‘freely’ chooses what to eat and with whom to mate, then natural selection has nothing to work with.

360 Before the emergence of the global village the planet was a galaxy of isolated human cultures, which might have fostered mental states that are now extinct.

377 Rather, capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralized data processing.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.