Traps of the God Realm

From Opening the Heart of Compassion by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pages 132-136).

Seeking Oneness

In this realm we want to be “one with the universe.” We are trying to return to a time when we felt no separation, when the world of our experience seemed to be the only world. We want to recover the experience and comfort of the womb. In the universe of the womb, everything was ours without qualification and was designed to support our existence and growth. Now we want the cosmos to be our womb, as if it were designed specifically for our benefit.

We want satisfaction to flow more easily, naturally and automatically. This seems less likely when we are enmeshed in the everyday affairs of the world. Therefore, we withdraw to the familiar world of what is ours, of what we can control, and of our domain of influence. We may even withdraw to a domain in the mind. Everything seems to come so much easier in the realm of thought, once we have achieved some modest control over our minds. Insulating ourselves from the troubles of others and of life, we get further seduced by the seeming limitlessness of this mental world. 

In this process of trance formation, we try to make every sound musical, every image a work of art, and every feeling pleasant. Blocking out all sources of irritation, we retreat to a self-proclaimed “higher” plane of being. We cultivate the “higher qualities of life,” not settling for a “mundane” life.

Masquerade of Higher Consciousness

The danger for those of us on a spiritual path is that the practices and the teachings can be enlisted to serve the realm rather than to dissolve our fixations and open us to truth. We discover that we can go beyond sensual pleasure and material beauty to refined states of consciousness. We achieve purely mental pleasures of increasing subtlety and learn how to maintain them for extended periods. We think we can maintain our new vanity and even expand it to include the entire cosmos, thus vanquishing change, old age, and death. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this process “spiritual materialism.”

For example, we use a sense of spaciousness to expand our consciousness by imposing our preconception of limitlessness on the cosmos. We see everything that we have created and “it is good.” Our vanity in the god realm elevates our self-image to the level of the divine–we feel capable of comprehending the universe and the nature of reality.

We move beyond our contemplation of limitless space, expanding our consciousness to include the very forces that create vast space. As the creator of vast space, we imagine that we have no boundaries, no limits, and no position. Our mind can now include everything. We find that we do not have concepts for such images and possibilities, so we think that the Divine or Essence must be not any particular thing we can conceive of, must be empty of conceptual characteristics.

Thus our vain consciousness, as the Divine, conceives that it has no particular location, is not anything in particular, and is itself beyond imagination. We arrive at the conclusion that even this attempt to comprehend emptiness is itself a concept, and that emptiness is devoid of inherent meaning. We shift our attention to the idea of being not not any particular thing. We then come to the glorious position that nothing can be truly stated, that nothing has inherent value. This mental understanding becomes our ultimate vanity. We take pride in it, identify as someone who “knows”, and adopt a posture in the world as someone who has journeyed into the ultimate nature of the unknown.

In this way we create more and more chains that bind us and limit our growth as we move ever inward. When we think we are becoming one with the universe, we are only achieving greater oneness with our own self-image. Instead of illuminating our ignorance, we expand its domain. We become ever more disconnected from others, from communication and true sharing, and from compassion. We subtly bind ourselves ever more tightly, even to the point of suffocation, under the guise of freedom in spaciousness.

Spiritual Masquerades of Teachers and Devoted Students

As we acquire some understanding and feel expansive, we may think we are God’s special gift to humanity, here to teach the truth. Although we may not acknowledge that we have something to prove, at some level we are trying to prove how supremely unique and important we are. Our spiritual life-style is our expression of that uniqueness and significance.

Spiritual teachers run a great danger of falling into the traps of the god realm. If a teacher has charisma and the ability to channel and radiate intense energy, this power may be misused to engender hope in students and to bind them in a dependent relationship. The true teacher undermines hope, teaches by the example of wisdom and compassion, and encourages students to be autonomous by investigating truth themselves, checking their own experience, and trusting their own results more than faith.

The teacher is not a god but a bridge to the unknown, a guide to the awareness qualities and energy capacities we want for our spiritual growth. The teacher, who is the same as we are, demonstrates what is possible in terms of aliveness and how to use the path of compassion to become free. In a sense, the teacher touches both aspects of our being: our everyday life of habits and feelings on the one hand and our awakened aliveness and wisdom on the other. While respect for and openness to the teacher are important for our growth and freedom, blind devotion fixates us on the person of the teacher. We then become confined by the limitations of the teacher’s personality rather than liberated by the teachings.

False Transcendence

Many characteristics of this realm–creative imagination, the tendency to go beyond assumed reality and individual perspectives, and the sense of expansiveness–are close to the underlying dynamic of wonderment. In wonder, we find the wisdom qualities of openness, true bliss, the realization of spaciousness within which all things arise, and alignment with universal principles. The god realm attitude results in superficial experiences that fit our preconceptions of realization but that lack the authenticity of wonder and the grounding in compassion and freedom.

Because the realm itself seems to offer transcendence, this is one of the most difficult realms to transcend. The heart posture of the realm propels us to transcend conflict and problems until we are comfortable. The desire for inner comfort, rather than for an authentic openness to the unknown, governs our quest. But many feelings arise during the true process of realization. At certain stages there is pain and disorientation, and at others a kind of bliss that may make us feel like we are going to burst (if there was something or someone to burst). When we settle for comfort we settle for the counterfeit of realization–the relief and pride we feel when we think we understand something.

Because we think that whatever makes us feel good is correct, we ignore disturbing events, information, and people and anything else that does not fit into our view of the world. We elevate ignorance to a form of bliss by excluding from our attention everything that is non-supportive.

Preoccupied with self, with grandiosity, and with the power and radiance of our own being, we resist the mystery of the unknown. When we are threatened by the unknown, we stifle the natural dynamic of wonder that arises in relation to all that is beyond our self-intoxication. We must either include vast space and the unknown within our sense of ourselves or ignore it because we do not want to feel insignificant and small. Our sense of awe before the forces of grace cannot be acknowledged for fear of invalidating our self-image.

Above the Law

According to our self-serving point of view, we are above the laws of nature and of humankind. We think that, as long as what we do seems reasonable to us, it is appropriate. We are accountable to ourselves and not to other people, the environment, or society. Human history is filled with examples of people in politics, business, and religion who demonstrated this attitude and caused enormous suffering.

Unlike the titans who struggle with death, we, as gods, know that death is not really real. We take comfort in the thought that “death is an illusion.” The only people who die are those who are stuck and have not come to the true inner place beyond time, change, and death. We may even believe that we have the potential to develop our bodies and minds to such a degree that we can reverse the aging process and become one of the “immortals.”

A man, walking on a beach, reaches down and picks up a pebble. Looking at the small stone in his hand, he feels very powerful and thinks of how with one stroke he has taken control of the stone. “How many years have you been here, and now I place you in my hand.” The pebble speaks to him, “Though to you, I am only a grain of sand in your hand, you, to me, are but a passing breeze.”

Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism


Above: “Virtue Signaling” by Geoffrey Miller. This presentation was given at EAGlobal 2016 at the Berkeley campus.

For a good introduction to the EA movement, we suggest this amazing essay written by Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex, which talks about his experience at EAGlobal 2017 in San Francisco (note: we were there too, and the essay briefly discusses our encounter with him).

We have previously discussed why valence research is so important to EA. In brief, we argue that in order to minimize suffering we need to actually unpack what it means for an experience to have low valence (ie. to feel bad). Unfortunately, modern affective neuroscience does not have a full answer to this question, but we believe that the approach that we use- at the Qualia Research Institute- has the potential to actually uncover the underlying equation for valence. We deeply support the EA cause and we think that it can only benefit from foundational consciousness research.

We’ve already covered some of the work by Geoffrey Miller (see this, this, and this). His sexual selection framework for understanding psychological traits is highly illuminating, and we believe that it will, ultimately, be a crucial piece of the puzzle of valence as well.

We think that in this video Geoffrey is making some key points about how society may perceive EAs which are very important to keep in mind as the movement grows. Here is a partial transcript of the video that we think anyone interested in EA should read (it covers 11:19-20:03):

So, I’m gonna run through the different traits that I think are the most relevant to EA issues. One is low intelligence versus high intelligence. This is a remarkably high intelligence crowd. And that’s good in lots of ways. Like you can analyze complex things better. A problem comes when you try to communicate findings to the people in the middle of the bell curve or even to the lower end. Those folks are the ones who are susceptible to buying books like “Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs” which is not evidence-based (your cat will die). Or giving to “Guide Dogs for the Blind”. And if you think “I’m going to explain my ethical system through Bayesian rationality” you might impress people, you might signal high IQ, but you might not convince them.

I think there is a particular danger of “runaway IQ-signaling” in EA. I’m relatively new to EA, I’m totally on board with what this community is doing, I think it’s awesome, it’s terrific… I’m very concerned that it doesn’t go the same path I’ve seen many other fields go, which is: when you have bright people, they start competing for status on the basis of brightness, rather than on the basis of actual contributions to the field.


So if you have elitist credentialism, like if your first question is “where did you go to school?”. Or “I take more Provigil than you, so I’m on a nootropics arms race”. Or you have exclusionary jargon that nobody can understand without Googling it. Or you’re skeptical about everything equally, because skepticism seems like a high IQ thing to do. Or you fetishize counter-intuitive arguments and results. These are problems. If your idea of a Trolley Problem involves twelve different tracks, then you’re probably IQ signaling.


A key Big Five personality trait to worry about, or to think about consciously, is openness to experience. Low openness tends to be associated with drinking alcohol, voting Trump, giving to ineffective charities, standing for traditional family values, and being sexually inhibited. High openness to experience tends to be associated with, well, “I take psychedelics”, or “I’m libertarian”, or “I give to SCI”, or “I’m polyamorous”, or “casual sex is awesome”.


Now, it’s weird that all these things come in a package (left), and that all these things come in a package (right), but that empirically seems to be the case.

openness_2Now, one issue here is that high openness is great- I’m highly open, and most of you guys are too- but what we don’t want to do is, try to sell people all the package and say “you can’t be EA unless you are politically liberal”, or “unless you are a Globalist”, or “unless you support unlimited immigration”, or “unless you support BDSM”, or “transhumanism”, or whatever… right, you can get into runaway openness signaling like the Social Justice Warriors do, and that can be quite counter-productive in terms of how your field operates and how it appears to others. If you are using rhetoric that just reactively disses all of these things [low openness attributes], be aware that you will alienate a lot of people with low openness. And you will alienate a lot of conservative business folks who have a lot of money who could be helpful.

Another trait is agreeableness. Kind of… kindness, and empathy, and sympathy. So low agreeableness- and this is the trait with the biggest sex difference on average, men are lower on agreeableness than women. Why? Because we did a bit more hunting, and stabbing each other, and eating meat. And high A tends to be more “cuddle parties”, and “voting for Clinton”, and “eating Tofu”, and “affirmative consent rather than Fifty Shades”. 


EA is a little bit weird because this community, from my observations, combines certain elements of high agreeableness- obviously, you guys care passionately about sentient welfare across enormous spans of time and space. But it also tends to come across, potentially, as low agreeableness, and that could be a problem. If you analyze ethical and welfare problems using just cold rationality, or you emphasize rationality- because you are mostly IQ signaling- it comes across to everyone outside EA as low agreeableness. As borderline sociopathic. Because traditional ethics and morality, and charity, is about warm heartedness, not about actually analyzing problems. So just be aware: this is a key personality trait that we have to be really careful about how we signal it. 


High agreeableness tends to be things like traditional charity, where you have a deontological perspective, sacred moral rules, sentimental anecdotes, “we’re helping people with this well on Africa that spins around, children push on it, awesome… whatever”. You focus on vulnerable cuteness, like charismatic megaphone if you are doing animal welfare. You focus on in-group loyalty, like “let’s help Americans before we help Africa”. That’s not very effective, but it’s highly compelling… emotionally… to most people, as a signal. And the stuff that EA tends to do, all of this: facing tough trade-offs, doing expected utility calculations, focusing on abstract sentience rather than cuteness… that can come across as quite cold-hearted.


EA so far, in my view- I haven’t run personality questionnaires on all of you, but my impression is- it tends to attract a fairly narrow range of cognitive and personality types. Obviously high IQ, probably the upper 5% of the bell curve. Very high openness, I doubt there are many Trump supporters here. I don’t know. Probably not. [Audience member: “raise your hands”. Laughs. Someone raises hands]. Uh oh, a lynching on the Berkeley campus. And in a way there might be a little bit of low agreeableness, combined with abstract concern for sentient welfare. It takes a certain kind of lack of agreeableness to even think in complex rational ways about welfare. And of course there is a fairly high proportion of nerds and geeks- i.e. Asperger’s syndrome- me as much as anybody else out here, with a focus on what Simon Baron-Cohen calls “systematizing” over “empathizing”. So if you think systematically, and you like making lists, and doing rational expected value calculations, that tends to be a kind of Aspie way to approaching things. The result is, if you make systematizing arguments, you will come across as Aspie, and that can be good or bad depending on the social context. If you do a hard-headed, or cold-hearted analysis of suffering, that also tends to signal so-called dark triad traits-narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy- and I know this is a problem socially, and sexually, for some EAs that I know! That they come across to others as narcissistic, Machiavellian, or sociopathic, even though they are actually doing more good in the world than the high agreeableness folks. 


[Thus] I think virtue signaling helps explain why EA is prone to runaway signaling of intelligence and openness. So if you include a lot more math than you really strictly need to, or more intricate arguments, or more mind-bending counterfactuals, that might be more about signaling your own IQ than solving relevant problems. I think it can also explain, according to the last few slides, why EA concerns about tractability, globalism, and problem neglectedness can seem so weird, cold, and unappealing to many people.