Monday, August 19, 2019

"The Untethered Soul" by Michael Singer



I highly recommend the The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. In his book, Singer offers a somewhat different perspective on certain ideas that students of Buddhism may be interested in. Singer's background is in yoga and he writes about many of the more esoteric and mystical aspects of the mind in a way that is much easier to understand than the way they are presented in Buddhism.

Singer cuts through a lot of the obscure verbal gymnastics you find in Buddhism and explains very clearly how understanding the mind can cause awakening. He does not give any specific meditation instructions in the book, but if you are already meditating, the information in the book can help you understand how meditation and mindfulness practices should work and how to do them correctly. What Singer is saying is not much different in essence from my own practice (observe the mind, relax, let go of unpleasant emotions) but Singer gives a clear explanation of the nature of the mind and how to use that understanding in combination with letting go of emotions to achieve awakening.

Singer's approach is somewhat different from Buddhism's. In Buddhism you are told to meditate and someday if you are lucky something magical will happen and you will get enlightenment and your suffering will end. Singer says you have to confront unpleasant emotions to let go of them and that process leads to enlightenment.

According to his biography "He had a deep inner awakening in 1971 while working on his doctorate in economics and went into seclusion to focus on yoga and meditation."


What You Are

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer explains that you are awareness. Thoughts and emotions are not you, they are things you observe.

Singer uses the analogy of a lucid dream to explain how to experience yourself as awareness.

In a lucid dream you know you are dreaming. In a regular dream you are immersed in the dream, you think it is real.

When you meditate or practice mindfulness, you know you are observing thoughts and emotions, like you are watching a movie, you are mindful, you are lucid. But if you get distracted by thoughts and emotions and get carried away by them, you become immersed in them, you might notice after a while that you are thinking about something and not meditating, you were not lucid. It is like when you are watching a move and you become so caught up in it you forget your surroundings. The thoughts and emotions have taken over your mind.

By practicing meditation and mindfulness you can learn to be lucid during daily life. In an interview with Yoga Journal Singer describes this process. He does not suppress thoughts he observes them, "I just allowed whatever thoughts needed to arise, to arise, and simply tried to relax instead of engaging with them. No struggle, just deep relaxation..." By learning to be lucid, you can be what you are: awareness observing.



If you allow yourself to experience emotional pain (Buddhists say "suffering") you will learn to let go of it and that leads to awakening: the end of suffering. But you have to confront your emotions from a lucid state of mind or you will not be able to let go. When you experience emotions and you are not lucid, you are immersed in the emotions, they will take over your mind, like distracting thoughts during meditation. You will see the event that caused the emotion as a problem needing a solution and you will be focused on that. But when you experience emotions while you are lucid, you are not immersed in them, you see an emotion as something you are observing, not necessarily as a problem that has to be solved. Because you are detached, because the emotion has not taken over your mind, you can just relax and allow it to exist until it naturally ends which is the way to let go of emotions - relax and allow them to exist until they cease naturally. When you are lucid, if there is a problem that needs to be dealt with, you will be able to do so without emotions clouding your judgement.

Allowing yourself to feel emotional pain can be difficult, but understanding that the process is beneficial can change your attitude and motivate you to embrace it so you can reap the benefits of letting go. You also quickly learn that most daily upsets are not too bad and that you can endure them quite easily. And if you observe the emotional pain from a lucid state you see emotions as something you are observing rather than a problem.

Being lucid during daily life is useful because we are bombarded with stresses that can cause emotional upsets all day long. In order to be able to let go of unpleasant emotions as you encounter them, you have to be lucid all the time.

Letting go of emotional pain does not just free us from suffering, it changes our basic understanding of who and what we are. Over a lifetime we have built up a "reality" in our mind with thoughts about who we are, what we are, how we relate to the world, how other people should act, what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad etc. etc. But this is not reality. It is just thought. And it limits us. To escape beyond our self constructed boundaries we have to disassemble our mental prison. Allowing ourselves to experience emotional pain can help us disassemble this illusory reality. When things in our experience don't match our expectations, we feel threatened, we feel emotional pain. We protect our mental model of reality by pushing away pain or by clinging to our ideas, Every time we feel emotional pain it is telling us about a flaw in our model of reality. Emotional pain can help us to deconstruct the illusion of reality if we allow ourselves to experience the pain and let go of it because by doing that we are accepting that our mental model of reality is flawed and in time it will be so weakened by so many accumulated flaws that we will be able to see through it. That is awakening.


Keep Your Heart Open

Singer frequently says you should always keep your heart open. Never let it close. When he refers to the heart closing I believe he is referring to the feeling one gets when one feels an unpleasant emotion arising and feels anger, resentment or something that puts an emotional barrier between the person and something or someone else. It is possible to be mindful and notice when you are putting up emotional barriers and in some cases you can decide not to do it.

Singer is not advocating suppressing unpleasant emotions. In The Untethered Soul he frequently says you should observe emotions from a lucid state so they do not take control over you, but you should allow them flow freely. Don't try to stop them or distract yourself so you don't feel them. Always just let emotions flow in meditation and in daily activities. It should become a way of life. If you do this, emotions arise and pass away and you don't bottle them up or put up defense mechanisms. This is a central theme in the book. The numerous times Singer discusses the subject shows how important he feels it is.


Letting Go of Emotional Pain

Singer says you should try to let go of emotional pain during meditation and in daily life. If you want to try it, here are a few reminders that may help you to stay lucid and let go.


  • You are just awareness observing thoughts and emotions.

  • Stay lucid - don't let emotions, thoughts or impulses take over your mind. Do this by observing them, not by suppressing them.

  • Start with small things. Once you see that emotional pain will cease naturally if you just allow yourself to feel it, you will come to understand and trust the process and it will become easier to tackle the more difficult issues.

  • Try to be relaxed as much as you can. If the situation permits do relaxation exercises or a relaxing form of meditation to enter a deep state of relaxation.

  • If possible allow yourself to feel the emotional pain until it naturally ceases. Depending on the situation it might be more appropriate to do this later in private. Feeling emotional pain until it ceases naturally is how we let go of it. and doing that frees us from the delusions that separate us from enlightenment.

  • Unpleasant emotions are not "true", or "real", or "reality". They are illusions. They arise, exist for a time, and fade away - they have no permanent existence. One person may feel an unpleasant emotion, but another person in the same situation might not. You might notice that when you are lucid you do not have the same intense emotions that you do when you are not lucid and thoughts and emotions have taken over your mind. Unpleasant emotions can be eased by relaxing types of meditation. Unpleasant emotions are temporary, and subjective, they are not true, or real, or reality. They are illusions.

  • If your mind becomes turbulent, just relax and watch your mind be turbulent, watch it go round and round trying to figure out what to do, but stay lucid, don't let thoughts, emotions, and impulses take over your mind.

  • If it is too much, take a break and do a relaxing form of meditation.

  • It may also help to develop a daily meditation practice that helps you to relax and lifts your mood which may counterbalance the emotional pain to some extent.



In this interview in Yoga Journal, Michael Singer explains a little bit about how he would meditate, it involved deep relaxation:

YJ: How did meditation quiet the voice for you? Singer: When I first started to meditate, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to shut up that incessant chatter in my head. So I took the time each day to sit by myself in a meditation posture and use my will to either push away the thoughts or struggle to turn my attention onto something else -- like a mantra or visualization. That created some quiet, but it didn’t last, and it was a struggle to get into a really quiet state.

As I matured in my spiritual practices, I began to surrender inside, just like I was doing in my outer life. I just allowed whatever thoughts needed to arise, to arise, and simply tried to relax instead of engaging with them. No struggle, just deep relaxation -- regardless of what the voice was saying. Over time, like magic, my awareness lost interest in the thoughts and ceased to become distracted by them. If I walk into a room with a television on, I can notice it is there, but I don’t have to actually watch it. Likewise, I can notice that the voice is saying something, but I don’t have to actually listen to it. That became my meditation: deeply relaxing and not engaging in anything the voice of the mind was saying. Over time, as I let go of the chattering mind, I began to fall into beautiful states within, like deep peace or waves of joy and love. This began happening both during meditation and during daily activities. Interestingly, when the inner state becomes beautiful, the voice of the mind has much less to say. It’s as though the vast majority of its talking was about how to be OK. If you are already OK, both the heart and the mind become still and melt into the beauty of the moment. That is the gift of yoga.


Though I have consistently maintained daily practices, my true practice of yoga is done inside at all times. It is this internal practice of constantly letting go of whatever disturbance arises within that has allowed me to stay centered through these amazing situations life has presented to me. Yoga is like a fine wine that becomes better over time. You start by letting go of the little things that irritate you for no reason, like the weather, or someone else’s attitude. Of what purpose is it to get disturbed by things that are just passing by and are pretty much out of your control? So you begin the practice of allowing the shifts in your inner energy to just pass through internally. You do this by deeply relaxing and giving them the space they need to pass. It is very much like relaxing into an asana. The more you relax, the easier it becomes, until at some point it becomes an enjoyable experience. It can be the same inside if you begin relaxing and releasing early enough in the process. Then something bigger happens in life that challenges your willingness to relax and let the reactionary disturbance pass by within. Your tendency is to resist the uncomfortable feeling and control your environment so that you don’t have to deal with the inner disturbance. But your commitment to yoga demands that you let go and use each situation life puts you in to go beyond your comfort zone. This is the true practice of yoga, and it becomes your way of life.

A more clearly defined form of meditation that would also be a good compliment to the book is this:

In this type of meditation you first sit quietly and relax for a little while. Then begin to notice any thoughts that arise. Observe a thought but do not continue along in a train of thoughts. If there are no thoughts, just sit being aware of awareness. If you are not sure what "being aware of awareness" means, think any random word for example "automobile", when you are thinking it, you are observing a thought, when the thought is over, you are left being aware of awareness. If any unpleasant feelings arise, go back to relaxing for a while and return to observing thoughts and awareness when you feel more at ease.



Singer also discusses the subject of surrender. That subject can be best understood by reading another book by Singer, The Surrender Experiment. What Singer means by surrender is that you should not resist what life brings you. The Surrender Experiment is an autobiography of Singer's life in which he decided early on to always take the path that life presented to him without regard to his personal likes or dislikes. The result was that he started out meditating in the woods and step by step, trying to help people who came to him, he ended up the CEO of a billion dollar company and the director of a spiritual temple where yoga and meditation were practiced and taught.

Singer had bought a parcel of land in the woods in which he planned to mediate in seclusion. After he built a house for himself on his property, someone in his community asked him to do some construction work. That led to more requests from others and Singer eventually formed a construction company. Singer funneled the proceeds into building a temple on his property where people from the community met to practice yoga and meditate.

When Singer bought one of the first models of personal computer on the market, he wrote programs for himself until the owner of the store where he bought it asked if he could refer clients to Singer. That eventually led Singer to form a software company. The software company grew and grew and merged and merged until Singer was CEO of a billion dollar company.


The Untethered Soul

The Untethered Soul web site is here:

If you are interested in the book and have access to e-books from your library, you might be able to borrow a copy. I borrowed the e-book through hoopla ( It is also available to borrow from but there was a waiting list when I checked there.


Further Reading


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