For a number of decades I’ve been interested in self-improvement via a method I like to call metaprogramming. I was first exposed to the term via John C. Lilly’s Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (a summary report to Lilly’s employer at the time, The National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH]). Lilly explored the idea that all human behavior is controlled by genetic and neurological programs, and that via intense introspection, psychedelic drugs, and isolation tanks, human beings can learn to reprogram their own computers. Far out, man.
As the fields of psychology, neurophysiology, cognitive science have progressed, we’ve learned that the computer/brain analogy has its limitations. As for psychedelics, they have their limitations as well; they are so effective at disrupting rigid mental structures (opening up minds), that they can leave their heavy users a bit lacking in structure. From my own observations, what the heavy user of psychedelics stands to gain in creativity, he may lose in productivity, or stability, or coherence.
Those issues aside, I still love the term metaprogramming. We are creatures of habit (programs), and one of the most effective (if not only) way we can modify our own behavior is by hacking our own habits. We can program our programs, thus, metaprogramming. This is a slightly different use of the term than Lilly’s; what I call metaprogramming he probably would have called selfmetaprogramming (he used metaprograms to refer to higher level programs in the human biocomputer; habits and learned knowledge and cultural norms as opposed to instincts and other “hardwired” behaviors).
Effective metaprogramming requires a degree of self-awareness and self-observation. It also requires a forgiving attitude towards oneself; we can more clearly observe and take responsibility for our own behaviors (including the destructive ones), if we refrain from unnecessary self-flagellation.
Most importantly, effective metaprogramming requires clear targets for behavior. In my experience, coming up with these targets takes an enormous amount of time and energy. It’s hard to decide how you want to behave, in every area of your life. It’s much easier to just continue on cruise control, relying on your current set of habits to carry you towards whatever fate you’re currently pointed at.
And what if you pick a target for your own behavior, implement it, and don’t like the results? Course corrections are part of the territory.
Religion (Do It Our Way)
If you don’t want to come up with your own set of behavioral guidelines, there’s always someone willing to offer (or sell) you theirs. Moses, lugging around his ten commandments, or Tony Robbins, with his DVDs.
Religion has historically offered various sets of metaprogramming tools; rules for how to behave, and in some cases, techniques and practices to help you out (like Buddhist meditation). If you decide to follow or join a religion, you have to watch out for the extra baggage. Some religions come with threats if you don’t follow the rules. The threats can be real (banishment from the group), or made up (banishment to Hell). Judaism is perhaps the exception; there are lots of rules but the main punishment for not following them (as far as I can tell) is that you simply become a less observant Jew.
I’m an atheist, more or less, and a fan of the scientific method and scientific inquiry. I also appreciate the work the philosopher/evolutionary biologists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, both of whom have taken up strong stands against organized religion. These stands are excusable, insofar as they attack outmoded religious beliefs (creationism, the afterlife, inferiority of women, and so forth) or crime (like the abuse of children by priests — Dawkins is actually trying to arrest the Pope). But religion offers much more than belief, and in some religions (like Judaism) belief matters very little. Religions offer behavioral systems, practices, rituals, myths, stories, and traditions, all of which are tremendous, irreplaceable cultural resources.
Some religions are attempting the leap into modernity. The Dalai Lama has taken an active interest in neuroscience. My wife’s rabbi is a self-proclaimed atheist. The Vatican has put out a statement suggesting that Darwinian evolution is not in conflict with the official doctrines of the Catholicism (a nice PR move, but in my opinion it’s only because they don’t fully understand the principles of Darwinian evolution — Daniel Dennett called Darwin’s idea “dangerous” for good reason). In the long-run, religions are institutions, and they’ll do what they have to in order to survive. The term “God” will be redefined, as necessary, to keep the pews warm and the tithing buckets full. Evolutionary biologists (with their logical, literal thinking) are tilting at windmills when they attack religion; they are no match for the nimble, poetic minds of theologians.
As much as I value religions in the abstract, I haven’t yet found one I can deal with personally. My wife finds the endless rules of Judaism to be invigorating; following them gives her real spiritual satisfaction. I find them to be bizarre and confusing (maybe this is because I’m not Jewish, but I suspect some Jews would agree with me).
Still, I have liberally borrowed from the world’s religions while devising my own metaprogramming system. Jesus’s Golden Rule. Islam’s dislike of debt. A good chunk of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. And at least a few of the Ten Commandments.
The self-help movement has been around at least as long as Dale Carnegie. Decades later, the psychedelic and cross-cultural explorations of the 60’s (Richard Alpert hanging out and dropping acid with Indian gurus, Timothy Leary dropping acid and reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Werner Erhard experimenting with Zen Buddhism) added fuel to the fire of the self-help movement. East meets West meets L.S.D. = Total Transformation of the Human Psyche! We all know how that turned out.
I’m a fan of Robbins, for example, because his teachings are open (he does sell products and seminars, but he also gives away an enormous amount of content). Same goes for Steve Pavlina, Les Brown, and even Timothy Ferriss. All offer up their own insights and behavioral modification (metaprogramming) systems with a “try this and see if it works for you” attitude. It’s clear they are interested in spreading their message first, in making a living second, and not at all interested in controlling people or accumulating subjugates.
I’m also fascinated by the late anti-guru U.G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with the more popular J. Krishnamurti). U.G., by all accounts, was unequivocally an enlightened being. The interesting bit was his absolute refusal to attempt to teach, pass on, or even recommend his own higher state of consciousness. Throughout his life, he refused to take on any followers or officially publish any of his writings. I’ll write about U.G. in more detail in another post.
At the unfortunate intersection between religion and self-help lies the world of cults. Cult leaders and cult organizations can be spotted by the following attributes. Stay away!
- secret, often bizarre teachings
- brainwashing techniques (sleep deprivation, emotional trauma, isolation, sensory overload)
- enormous fees required for membership and/or access to teachings
- requirement to cut off contact from family and/or friends (nonmembers)
- use coercive methods to control their members (intimidation, blackmail, even violence)
Cults often seduce new members by offering up simple, effective metaprogramming techniques. Scientology offers “clearing,” a method of reliving painful emotional experiences and thus removing their negative subconscious influence. There’s nothing wrong with clearing — the problems come later, when you’re maxing out your credit cards and babbling on about “operating thetans.” Frederick Lenz instructed his followers in chakra meditation. The young, impressionable, and idealistic are especially vulnerable to seduction by cults, but these dangerous organizations are easy to spot if you know what to look for. They’re not looking to spread a message of truth, love, and higher consciousness; they’re looking for subjugates.
There’s nothing wrong with using somebody else’s self-improvement/behavioral modification/metaprogramming system, either ancient or modern, in whole or in part, as long as you shop around carefully. Or, you can invent your own. As a third alternative, if you are already happy with the current state of your habits (and where they are steering you in life), you may not feel compelled to bother with changing yourself.
Baby with the Bathwater
The field of self-improvement is full of half-truths, hucksters, pseudoscience, charlatans, snake oil and snake oil salesmen, bizarre beliefs, true believers, smelly hippies, narcissistic baby boomers, pitiful cases, get-rich-quick schemers, crystal wavers, cult leaders, and weird dieters, and is thus always ripe for parody (my favorite is this video parody of The Secret). A down-to-earth, rational person could be excused for steering clear of the self-improvement realm altogether.
On the other hand, energy we invest in improving our own habits (programs), including habits of thought and perception, is probably one of the best investments we can make in our own lives. Even minor improvements can yield enormous dividends in the long-run.
I’ll continue to share my thoughts about metaprogramming in this blog, including my core metaprogramming principles (not as a prescriptive, but rather in the spirit of open-source code sharing). As a quick preview, I’ll offer that my own principles involve the following areas:
- Maintaining a High Quality of Consciousness
- Taking Radical Responsibility for All Your Actions, and Every Aspect Of Your Life
- Creating a System of Functional Vitality