Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Tag Archives: Self Actualization

Secrets from the Yogis

I just came back from spending a few of days at a Kundalini yoga “ashram” (a yogic community-living arrangement). In the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, amidst the chaos of a subway station and endless rumbling of metropolitan life, stands one most fascinating places I have been to. The magic of this place I think is that its inhabitants possess a collection of secrets; a dainty collection of immensely valuable principles and practices adorned in ancient religious rhetoric. I did not realize this at the beginning.  In full disclosure, my first day at the ashram was not focused on analyzing the wisdom of their philosophy, but rather on the whimsical eccentricities of their environment. Among other things, I was amazed and somewhat envious –alright, very envious– of the men’s ample facial hair , the vibrant colors of their furnishings, and the unique cultural fusion of their names( e.g. my host “Sat Tara Singh Sanchez Gomez”) and their food (e.g. vegetarian tamales accompanied by tea made from traditionally Indian Ayurvedic  spices). However, when I began really listening and reading what they had to say, I noticed an uncanny overlap of their teachings and actions (mostly founded on Sikh philosophy) to Abraham Maslow’s characteristics of self-actualized people. From what I gathered,the yogis at the ashram, much like myself, are on a life-long learning journey to become better versions of themselves.  The practices and principles on which they operate (and that have been around for millenia) act as a mental model or framework towards becoming self-actualized individuals.


Self-Actualization vs Mukti

A central backbone of Sikh philosophy takes the form of a list of five principles or virtues. These virtues provide a guide with which to achieve Mukti, a mystical union to their concept of the Divine.  I observed that these five virtues and the steps to achieve them perfectly encompassed Abraham Maslow’s  characteristics of self actualized people.


Sat (Truth)

Sikhs place special emphasis on recognizing and living in line with  the true nature of reality.  They do not proclaim to have the only divine truth, but recognize that their “path to divinity” is but one of many ways to achieve Mukti. Therefore, Sikhs are open to other faiths, philosophies and ways of thinking (religious and non-religious), and independently judge these ideas in order to discern what is beneficial or not in their own lives.  I am non-religious and was completely surprised at the acceptance and genuine curiosity that these people demonstrated, even as I voiced some premature skepticism towards their ideas.  They explained that they believed truth to be a practice which welcomes analysis and starts with the premise that everyone is equal.  They are constantly testing their beliefs by comparing them with their own subjective experience.

This concept of truth clearly overlaps with three of Maslow’s characteristics, 1. Efficient Perceptions of Reality, 1. Spontaneity and Naturalness 2. Reliance on Own Experience.  In other words, their process of meaningful, systematic and inclusive  questioning is compatible with humanistic psychology.

Daya (Compassion)  

When I stayed at the ashram, there were about nine guests, at least two of whom (including me) were not yogis or Sikhs but random travelers who were offered a place to sleep. We were not only offered lodging and hot water, but were overwhelmed with offers of delicious food, traveling advice, German classes, yoga classes, and pleasant conversation. Everyone at the ashram treated us like family. They would get out of their way to see that we were happy, that we were fed, and that we were warm. They explained that they believed in the sacredness of hospitality; that all human beings are part of one community and that cherishing compassion towards each other keeps the heart content. They are exercising what Maslow referred to as “Social Compassion” and “Task-Centered Altruism” in a way that gives them meaning and fulfillment.

Santokh (Contentment)

I had some of of the most pleasant conversations of my life while at the ashram. Everyone had a fascinating story to tell and seemed genuinely interested in hearing everything I had to say (Maslow’s “Continued Freshness of Appreciation”). It was obvious that most everyone had a strong appreciation of community. Yet, a substantial part of their day was spent in solitude. Most of them would find a time to practice their chants and meditations or just take a moment to sit by themselves and savoir vivre. They were some of the few people I have ever met who deliberately practice autonomy and who seek to achieve comfort with solitude (two key characteristics of self-actualized people).

Nimrata (Humility) and Pyare (Love)

The permanent residents at the ashram were a perfect representation of social diversity. The group’s members included students, farmers, a biologist, a lawyer, and a cook. Yet despite the disparity in social status, material wealth and education level, there was no underlying hierarchical structure at the ashram. Everyone’s opinions and ideas were equally valuable and the loving connection they had with one another was palpable.  This was perhaps a result of their love of humanity and their recognition that despite their different circumstances, they were on a similar path.


The goal of my learning project is to find the models and skills necessary to help me develop intellectually, emotionally and socially.  My experience at the ashram enriched my perspective on the essence of emotional development. By being open to different ways of thinking and comparing their philosophy with my subjective experience of truth, the principles I learned at the ashram have meaningfully added to my conception of self-actualization.  For example, the Five Virtues of the Sikh tradition and  some of the practices they entail (hospitality, meditation, openness to criticism, self-discipline) are now part of my  mental model and I predict they will be key to this ongoing process of emotional development.


Open Source Learning: A Personal Manifesto

Ever since I graduated high school I have been experimenting to find out how to learn and how to think better. This journey has been extremely rewarding and worthwhile; I have been introduced to theories and people who have inspired me and have discovered the tools that have allowed me to forge my career path relatively effectively.

When I started on this journey in the summer of 2013, my goal was to make up for what I had missed in high-school. My educational mindset back then was very knowledge-based; I believed that the purpose of education was to give students the necessary the canon of knowledge that they would need in order to succeed in the “real world”. Given this mindset, I set out to construct a comprehensive reading list that would provide me with this education. My reading list consisted of about 150 volumes that were divided into the general subjects with which I was familiar during high-school: Literature, History, Mathematics, Physics, and Theology/Philosophy.  Along the way, I also discovered MOOCs  (Massive Open Online Courses) and decided to complement this canon with about 15  MOOCs that seemed the most relevant to my project. I was able to complete this journey, and the results have been  mostly positive.

Some of these results have been:

  • I have been exposed to amazing works of art, scientific theories, and learning resources that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.
  • I have developed a deep, introspective understanding on how I best interact with information.
  • I have learned how to engage with different media.
  • I have gained a new perspective on what it means to be educated and to think clearly. In other words, I have begun to understand how little I actually know.

However,  despite the positive results my initial plan seemed to be delivering, I am very frustrated with the whole endeavor. I look back at my canonical list of books and I am ashamed to admit that a lot of the information and details have effectively vanished from memory. Moreover, despite the breath, depth, and quality of the resources with which I was interacting, I see too few effective skills developed. I see only glimpses of skills being formed in me: I am a slightly better writer, I can do rudimentary computer programming, I can even produce  passable  introductory papers on niche topics like existential philosophy and philosophy of religion. However, despite the effort I have given to the project, I feel more like a clumsy, glitchy, hopelessly incomplete human encyclopedia than an educated person capable of divergent thinking and able to produce creative output.

Which brings me to my current project. This knowledge-based way of education is clearly not giving me the results I want. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a reference, my original plan mostly provided me with lower-order cognitive skills (knowledge, comprehension, and some application), while what I was aiming for was higher order cognitive skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). It also failed to develop me emotionally and socially, making the information I had acquired of little use.


What I will now outline is a new plan with improved aims and a radically different framework.  This new plan will no longer follow a rigid, curriculum-based structure with the aim getting me to specific places such as a prestigious college or a better job. Rather, it will be a holistic blueprint with the aim of producing a more self-actualized version of myself.

This plan will have three general aims: 1. Intellectual Development, 2. Social Development  and 3. Emotional Development.  These three aims are based on the principles of Goldstein’s theory of  self-actualization and largely borrow from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


1. Intellectual Development

My previous approach to intellectual development had failed in that it tried to do many things incorrectly and accomplished very little. My interaction with the material was very passive and my choice of material was somewhat unstructured, and therefore didn’t produce any meaningful output. This new approach for intellectual development will focus on collaboration, mentorship, and interdisciplinary projects that produce real results. These results will be the components of a learning portfolio which will provide me with evidence of learning and a means for self and peer assessment.   The material with which I will be interacting and the activities I will be doing will be varied and for the most part freely available (I will provide a preliminary list of resources at the end of this document), but they will all focus on tackling three core competencies: Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Effective Communication. These three competencies  are inspired by John Taylor Gatto’s analysis of elite prep schools in the United States,’s summary on the Trivium Method, and Minerva School’s first year Cornerstone Courses.

  1.  Critical Thinking-  Pedagogically, my studies in critical thinking will consist of training in deductive and inductive logic, rational thought, Bayesian statistics, computational thinking, and heuristics and biases.  The material I will mostly be using for this core competency includes but is not limited to LessWrong sequences,  the Overcoming Bias blog, Quora, Code Academy, Coursera MOOCs, and Bayesian statistics textbooks.  This list is by no means exhaustive and is subject to change. Like I have previously said,  I will not focus on the resources themselves but on the skills they will provide which I will then incorporate into real-life projects in my learning portfolio.
  2.  Creative Thinking-   The basis of this core competency will be the generation of ideas (see James Altucher’s guide to becoming an “Idea Machine”).  By integrating the knowledge and skills I will be continuously learning, the goal is to come up with ideas and act upon then so that hopefully some will come to fruition and be part of my learning portfolio.
  3. Effective Communication- John Taylor Gatto continuously stresses the benefit of the active literacies of persuasive writing and public speaking.  In order to exercise these skills, I will keep updating this blog and will ask willing individuals to give me feedback and constructive criticisms. I will also seize every opportunity, whether it be though essay assignments in online courses or posts in academic forums, to write my thoughts and defend my opinions.  To exercise my public speaking skills, I will be actively involved in Toastmaster’s clubs and seek opportunities to verbally share my ideas with other people.


2. Social Development

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” — Jim Rohn

Richard Branson in his book Loosing My Virginity, and Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich say that a big part of achieving success is the people you choose have around you. In order to integrally develop myself socially , I will seek opportunities to interact with people who possess qualities that I want in my life.

The first way I will try to achieve this is through apprenticeship and mentorship. Charles Tips, entrepreneur and Quora writer, has an excellent story of how his son was able to get a million-dollar-quality education through apprenticeship.  Likewise, I will contact people whom I admire with the hope of offering them something of value in exchange for the opportunity to learn from them. My ultimate aim is to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with like-minded people. I’m going to have to learn how to listen effectively,  communicate meaningfully and build a network of personal and professional contacts that will challenge me.

3. Emotional Development

  • Total Immersion Method for Emotional Independence. It is now very clear to me that in order to be truly independent and self-actualized, I need to place myself in an environment that radically challenges me in every way possible.  Chapter two in Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction illustrates the principle that I will call  the “total immersion method for emotional independence”. In the book, Gatto tells the stories of various businessmen, artists, and entrepreneurs who say that the pivotal experience that turned them into self-reliant, successful individuals involved going out into completely unknown environments, both physically and intellectually. I have already taken the first step by deciding to move to another city, by myself, and follow my own path.

Population sign on Highway 395 leading into Independence, CA.

  • Physical  and Mental Well-being- Emotional problems have been shown to be causally related to physical discomfort. Therefore, I will encourage physical and mental well-being by continuing capoeira training, taking long walks to foster creative thinking (following the footsteps of Steve Jobs, Goethe and Beethoven) , and by taking advantage of the numerous mental and physical benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Woman looking through binoculars at Pumori in Mount Everest Nati

Concluding Thoughts

I am sure I am not the only person dissatisfied with my educational experience. In fact, there are millions of us. Western education has systematically interfered with our development as intellectually autonomous individuals, and higher education has failed to deliver the critical and creative thinking skills that are going to be vital in this upcoming economic paradigm shift. I have chosen “open source learning” partly out of necessity , but also because I am convinced the we have more than enough resources openly available to us to circumvent this mostly ineffective, archaic educational system. That is a big thing to claim, but  many others (Dale Stephens, Scott H.Young, Jonathan Haber) have succeeded, and  I am completely willing to “put my money where my mouth is”, and be the guinea pig for this experiment.

This new project of mine is going to take a lot time, effort, and resilience. Unlike my previous attempt at an integral education,  this time there is not an obvious predefined goal to be accomplished. Rather, it is a ever-changing process with many goals that aim towards self-actualization. I am going to make many mistakes and I am probably going to fail many times before I succeed, so I need all the support I can get. If you are interested in mentoring me or want offer a word of advise; if you want to talk about any of the things about which I wrote; if you wanna join me and take a similar path; or even if you just want to tell me how naive, stupid and reckless I am for choosing alternative education, please feel free to contact me and I will get back to you.