Your Best Life: Reading Michael Singer’s ‘Living Untethered’

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Reading Michael Singer’s book “The Untethered Soul” was a big deal for me. Early on, I think in the first chapter, he writes something to the effect that — A. you can choose to be happy; B. you can be happy for your entire life, no matter what; and C. is it worth ruining your lifelong happiness because someone cut you off on the highway?

That was it.  I thought “OK, I’m going to choose that option, because spending time in emotions like frustration, anger, envy, disappointment, is useless, and just makes me miserable without solving anything.”

That’s not to say I don’t feel those things anymore, or that my goal is to stuff all negative emotion down to my toes. My goal is to notice those emotions when they surface, register them, maybe why they’re activated now, and then redirect. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve entered “head in the sand” territory.

If you don’t know bestselling author Michael Singer, he leads a multi-faith yoga and meditation center called the Temple of the Universe in Florida. 

Singer’s latest book “Living Untethered: Beyond the Human Predicament,” takes things to the next level — the uppermost level really, if we’re counting — and I think, the most challenging. His premise asks us to throw off our humanity, in essence, our basic way of relating to the world.

While a much shorter book than 2007’s “The Untethered Soul,” “Living Untethered “could be distilled into about a chapter of simple content, but Singer repeats his refrain, expanding with a new arc of nuance in each chapter. Like a koan, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” it’s deceptively simple. There is a lot of repetition, yet if you pay attention, there’s also a lot to think about.

His premise is that human suffering is caused by the central duality of preference we live by. If something good happens, we’re happy. If someone annoys us, we’re angry. The problem is, we tend to gloss over those negative emotions, and stuff them, if not to our toes, somewhere.

Singer believes in human energy systems operating in and around the body. Many traditions have words for the life force perpetuating our energy system you may have heard, such as shakti, qi, ka, or prana.

He says over time those ignored resentments — and even happy preferences — create almost an energetic scar tissue called samskaras in the Hindu tradition when you hold on to and repeat them. These are psychological imprints living in the body for years after an event, blocking the movement and release of energy, causing problems. For most of us, counting irritations all the way to traumas, that’s a lot of samskaras.

(Happily, I’ve also read you can foster positive samskaras from feelings of compassion, acceptance, and gratitude — I don’t know how Singer thinks these affect your energetic system.)

The very act of having preferences activates these samskaras, Singer writes.  Some main points include:

Don’t make It personal:
“One of the most amazing things you will ever realize is that the moment in front of you is not bothering you – you are bothering yourself about the moment in front of you. It’s not personal — you are making it personal.”

Lose-lose situations:
“You have just made life a lose-lose situation. If anything reminds you of what bothered you before, you lose. If you are not getting to reexperience what you liked before, you lose.”

“You are not going to change the weather by complaining about it. If you are wise, you will start to change your reactions to reality instead of fighting with reality. By doing so, you will change your relationship with yourself and with everything else.”

It starts with you:

“Instead of thinking that the new job will do it, the new relationship will do it, or more money and popularity will do it, do the necessary inner work to make it beautiful inside.”

At first, I thought Singer wanted us to delete preferences entirely from our mental programming. Mid-book, I began hearing internal alarm bells when asked what I wanted for dinner. Of course, that is not only impractical, but it would also rob us of the growth of trying new experiences, as well as the pleasure of our favorite ice cream flavors.

As I read on, I realized it’s not the act of having preferences that messes us up, it’s out attachment to our reactions. The goal, he says is to clean up these attachments and make yourself ok inside, so that external events no longer have the power to hijack your experience.

The central practice of releasing these attachments is one of paying attention to your internal reaction to life, catching moments of frustration or disappointment that things aren’t going according to your preset preferences.  Singer suggests when you do, to ask yourself “What wants to be released?” and give yourself a minute to process it.

Given that humans think upwards of 6000 thoughts per day, even if you only catch a fraction of them, this will take time. After all, it took you this many years to get here, it will take some time to unravel those accumulated patterns.

Singer covers a lot in “Living Untethered,” in a somewhat meandering style that expounds on everything from consciousness to the cosmos. Some Goodreads reviewers found references to Christ off-putting, but there were also many references to Buddha and other religious teachings. It is largely a conceptual approach, without much specific practicum or exercises. At 216 pages it is not difficult to read, but it could have been edited down. However, there are gems to be found in the turns of the winding river that kept me engaged.