More wisdom in less time.

Via elephant journal
on Jan 29, 2010
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As seen on Facebook: an ad reading:

“…Top Personal Growth Product of 2010: PhilosophersNotes – more wisdom in less time.”

Spiritual Materialism…or Accessible Practicality meets Self-Help?

We here at elephant are on the fence when it comes to spiritual products like The Secret…the materialistic focus seems out of place on a path or system of paths that’s devoted to connecting us more directly to reality.

Still, though, of course, we don’t have a problem with money, with buying or selling, with basic practicality. It’s all a part of life. And Brian Johnson is an established entrepreneur in a self-help, spiritual demographic that is willing, nay eager to live life fully, and wisely, and well.

Still, though, this latest…er, “personal growth product” via our colleague Mr. Johnson—a Serial Social/Spiritual Entrepreneur (he was the founder of Zaadz, a spiritual networking site we took part in that was bought up by Gaiam)…gives us a goose bumps.

So, on behalf of, I hereby cordially invite Mr. Johnson to enlighten us as to said Product in comments below and/or in his own writeup, which we’ll feature on this site…and while we look forward to reviewing and learning more, we promise in the meantime to refrain from outright cynicism.

Still, though, doesn’t mean you have to. Vote below, enlighten us, which way doth the spiritual materialism or practical wisdom winds blow?

brian johnson philosophersnotes personal growth product

Yay or nay?


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive. Questions? info elephantjournal com


75 Responses to “More wisdom in less time.”

  1. smithnd says:

    Wow! Complete unanimity! Oh, wait. I'm just the first vote.

    Seriously, this looks like a worthy project. Website is nice. The price sounds a bit steep, though. Get rid of the "scholarships" offer and make 'em 10 or 15 bucs. But, overall, certainly a worthy effort. I hope you make money at it, Brian Johnson.

  2. I might be the odd person out here, but I've actually read a lot of the books on this list. When you're an entrepreneur for 30 years you learn a lot about how people develop themselves to succeed. And you learn a lot about how to develop yourself to succeed.

    First though, let's stop confusing spirituality with making a living! They're not completely separate, but they are not the same thing either. The books on this program run the gamut from leadership to spirituality, but let's not confuse the two.

    Secondly, you guys have to understand that the term "spiritual materialism", which you throw out unthinkingly as a powerful concept, means nothing to many of us. I can guess what it means, but it has no resonance with me. From what I can tell it encompasses a whole set of assumptions about what is good and bad that I don't necessarily buy into. I made my living as a software entrepreneur. I tried to make money and grow and hire lots of people so they could make money and support their families, too. I loved my work and considered it part of my spirituality. Does that make me a spiritual materialist?

    (continued below)

    • Spiritual Materialism is well-defined by the seminal book Cutting Through Spiritual Materilaism—but for the purposes of this conversation I'll just say that

      Spiritual Materialism is the danger presented by the subtle, overarching ego's tendency to use anything and everything—including the spiritual path—to cushion itself from reality, to perfect oneself instead of opening oneself and reconnecting with the present moment. It often manifests in a tendency to shop around, to quit when things get tough, and to adopt the more pleasant, cool, hip, fun aspects of various traditions that make us look good and feel comfortable.

    • I've read most of the books that are part of Philosopher's Notes. Many of these books explicitly intertwine spirituality with making a living. I agree that this is very problematic, yet somehow entrepreneurs need information and inspiration for making their businesses work (I have been an entrepreneur at many times as well).

      For example…
      Money and the Law of Attraction: money-making advice from channeled beings!
      Harmonic Wealth: from James "Death Lodge" Ray
      Think and Grow Rich: the classic text on how to cultivate greed ("desire for riches," as Napolean Hill calls it) in a spiritual/religious rhetoric ("faith" is reframed not as faith in God but faith in your own ability to get rich)

      Alongside The Science of Getting Rich we have the Dhammapada, a classic Buddhist text wherein Buddha says this about worldly pursuits (from my translation from Ananda Maitreya)…

      What a fool hungers for
      Is false fame, authority,
      Power over others and generous offerings.
      He seeks recognition as a doer,
      A wielder of power,
      A knower of right and wrong.
      His craving and pride are insatiable.

      There is a path that leads to worldly gain.
      Another road leads to Nirvana.
      Let the seeker, the disciple of Buddha,
      Embracing seclusion,
      Take the path to wisdom and enlightenment.

      Whether you agree or disagree with this passage from the Buddha, these words are in direct opposition to the teachings of Napolean Hill, Abraham-Hicks, Tony Robbins, etc. I do think it can be valuable to read them all and contemplate such things for yourself and discuss with others however.

      Spiritual Materialism is a term from Chogyam Trungpa and specifically means something like collecting spiritual experiences or sayings in a shallow manner instead of being deeply transformed by your spiritual or religious path. Treating your work as sacred does not necessarily mean you are a spiritual materialist.

      • With you all the way, Duff. It's useful to be familiar with all this stuff.

        I think most people will use this service to go deeper, not stay shallow. They will use it to find the small number of books they really want to dig into. And they will still benefit from a summary knowledge of the rest.

        For example, if I had read a 6-page summary of "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism", I would have been better prepared when I encountered the term in this article!

        Thanks for your thoughts.


        • For example, if I had read a 6-page summary of "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism", I would have been better prepared when I encountered the term in this article!

          Maybe Brian will whip one up for us. 🙂

        • I disagree, Bob, with respect: "…I think most people will use this service to go deeper, not stay shallow." That's precisely the point of CliffNotes: to skip the depth and get the gist, so you can pass or excell whatever test you're walking into.

          That said, again, I haven't seen the actual PhilosophersNotes, or heard from Brian, who does have a good track record, so I can't judge (anything except for that ad).

          • rsqst says:

            Spiritual materialism may be an unfortunate, necessary step a lot of people have to make before they find the one school or lineage or tradition they can drill down into. Has anyone in this discussion gotten "where they are today" without a little shopping around in the beginning?

            Plus if Johnson is cutting out some of the rhetoric, the branding, the good & bad design and the hype and setting up these authors' ideas on an even playing field, we're all better off.

            How many amazing ideas are pitched in hideously designed books in shamefully unselfconscious language? How many shallow ideas are posed in well-written expensively designed books?

          • Good thoughts, rsqst.

            Once one steps outside one's direct spiritual heritage, how is one to find what works without looking around a little? Inherent in much of this talk is an assumption that some among us can decide what spirituality is superior to another. I personally don't feel able to do that.

            Anything I say about spirituality is strictly personal preference, not a general value judgment. I've known excellent, highly moral, compassionate people from all spiritual persuasions.

            Bob Weisenberg

          • Within academia, the debate over CliffNotes is between those who see it as a method for cheating and therefore less education vs. those who see it as an adjunct to reading the source material (or at least this was the debate when I was in school–with the internet, the debate has surely changed). The additional complication is that schools assign more and more work to already overburdened students.

            Similarly, more people are burdened by the overwhelm of information. The self-help section of your locally-owned bookstore (or Amazon if you must) has grown enormously in our information and individualistic age. It's only a matter of time before someone creates a product to help with this need to sort through all the info. Whether or not this service does so effectively is up to the customers to decide. And whether or not it leads to shallowness or greater depth also remains to be seen.

          • Agreed, Duff. And to me there's a big difference between using Cliff Notes to shortchange one's required educational assignment (which is just cheating oneself) and using Philosopher notes as a voluntary first step in a sincere effort to improve oneself.

  3. I think Philosopher's Notes is fine. I believe it will help people find the right self-help books for them. I believe deeply in books for self-development, whether it is for making a living or spiritual development or both. If this is what helps someone find the right source for them, then I'm all for it.

    That said, there is nothing here that can't be accomplished by just spending a couple of hours browsing in the book store, or reading reviews of these books online.

    But if it's leadership and professional development you're after, you can just read my own essay on the subject:

    "Leadership is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology"

    It covers pretty much the same ground as Brian's leadership books, and it won't cost you a dime.

    Bob Weisenberg

    • I agree with this too. There is a place for products like Philosopher's Notes and I'm sure it will be a useful product for many people. Others will find that libraries or reading on Amazon or something else entirely works for them. No problem here.

  4. Thanks, elephantjournal.

    I know Trungpa is like a God around Boulder, but I did not find the Trungpa video particularly helpful in understanding "spiritual materialism" or Trungpa himself, for that matter. I do have a copy of the book. I found it pretty obtuse when I tried to get into it a few months ago, but at your suggestion, I'll give it another try.

    Thanks for your definition, but that just deepens my lack of understanding. It's not at all clear to me what your definition has to do with Philosopher Notes. I took a closer look at Brian's 100 books and there's even more variety than I saw at first glance. But there are a lot of very serious books on this list.

    Whatever it means, it's hard for me to see someone being a "spiritual materialist" from the mere fact of wanting to learn more about any of these books!

    Bob Weisenberg

  5. Spent last night catching up on my Trungpa. More on that later.

    But now it's time for True Confessions. When I was in my late 20's I came upon two books that utterly changed my life. One was "Succeed in Spite of Yourself" by Evert Sutters and the other was "Unlimited Power" by Tony Robbins.

    I won't spend a lot of time defending these books, except to say they were exactly what I needed at the time. The theme of both is that you are only using 10% of your capabilities at any time. The way to tap into the other 90% is to deeply study the methods of the people you most admire.

    The focus was certainly on business success, but equally about finding out what gives you the deepest satisfaction in life. If that's entrepreneurship, then great. If it's music or art or becoming a priest, then you need to go off and do that. There's a lot of emphasis on getting beyond your ego and seeing the world more objectively if you want to succeed at anything.

    So that's why I can't discount the power of any book for a given person. Even in the frothier of Brian's titles, there is a lot of great stuff for a particular individual at a particular time in his or her life. Sometime it's just one big idea hitting you at just the right time. In my case it was the startling idea that I was vastly under-utilizing my talent (everyone is) and nuts-and-bolts advice on how to develop myself.

    It seems to me Trungpa is making a very similar point in "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism", albeit in a very different realm. Trungpa is all about how to get beyond the restrictions of your ego. You are already way more than you think you are. But to realize that, first you have to remove the ego roadblocks. And here's a nut-and-bolts method for doing so.

    This is exactly the main point of Sutters and Robbins. They even emphasize, like Trungpa, choosing one method and practicing it with great depth and focus, as opposed to just collecting superficial markers of advancement.

    The difference, and it's a big one, is that they see a great deal of satisfaction in life coming from financial and career success, whereas Trungpa believes it can only come from spirituality (at least in his writing, perhaps not so much in his actions.)

    Bob Weisenberg

  6. JayGaddis says:

    I personally think Brian Johnson is solid and is providing a kick ass resource in PN. Who has time to dive into all those amazing books? He has cut to the chase and if it means more folks have access to, and easily understand critically important teachings, all the better! The guy is bright. If it were some chump doing this, I would have an issue, but I trust him and his offerings.

    I'm actually shocked that someone would think this is spiritual materialism. How is it different than Byron Katie or Eckhart Tolle writing a book, working their ass off, and wanting to get compensated? I'm happy to pay teachers whatever I can. It is money well spent.

    • Good to hear. I'd love to hear more about "why" you think he's solid—I put stock in your research, integrity, opinion.

      You're shocked that "more wisdom in less time" might sound warning bells? That "the top personal-growth product of 2010," advertised as a convenient, digest-version of philosophical classics, sold for profit, might strike some as tacky marketing? My guess is you've got some connection to Mr. Johnson, as do many of the above commenters.

      My angle, and I'm sticking with it until we hear from Mr. Johnson or review the "product," is that the marketing leaves something to be desired. Whether the product is too, I have no idea until we see it and I'll hope for the best.

    • Great to run into you and your family, Jayson! And thanks for connecting this post with Brian himself, his comments and emails add a great deal to our view of this product.

  7. swati jr* says:

    starving is never good. worrying if you will be sleeping in your car tomorrow is not fun. even yogis need money. we are not meant to suffer. even spiritual people need material wealth. and i would argue that we need it more. and more now than ever before. we need the money to be in the hands of the conscious. unfortunately, it is not that way currently. let's turn the tides. bring on the wealth!

    • I like this line of thought!

    • Duh. I agree with you passionately, Swati, you know that, as does Bob. This isn't about "poverty mentality" being preferable to making a good living and enjoying life etc. There's a story about Trungpa Rinpoche, in the 70s, first decade he was in the US, lightly chiding his teacher the Karmapa on the Karmapa's first visit to the US about the Karmapa's over-the-top gold Rolex. "Dear Karmapa, that's considered a bit tacky or gaudy here in the US," Rinpoche said (or something like that. The Karmapa replied, with a smile: "Nothing's too rich for the Dharma." There's a long good tradition of nobility and ruling one's world in the Shambhala tradition. We're not afraid of wealth.

      That said, it's cynical to excuse tacky or materialistic marketing or spirituality because "we need to make money."

      While, again, I haven't seen Mr. Johnson's product, and haven't heard from him, the marketing above does, to my mind, ring in-authentically, as spiritual hucksterism. Dr. Deepak Chopra, back in the day, was accused of much of the same sort of thing—and he's obviously got a lot going for him and has come through most of that. So none of this is to say that Mr. Johnson isn't offering a lot—it's more to say that, god help us, I hope the product is better, and more authentic, and inspired more genuinely, than the marketing.

  8. if 'timeless wisdom' is capable of being summarised in this fashion, there's probably nothing particularly timeless about it ….

    I don't have a problem with the product, per se, simply that 'self development' never brought lasting peace or freedom to anyone (there was a book published a few years back called "We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World's Getting Worse" – i think the same could be said of personal development – in a shorter time zone)

    So i question the value of the product from that perspective – after all, personal development requires one to build upon an individuated person, the existence of which has yet to be proven (despite more than 10 000 years of recorded human history).

    … and if a book DOES contain timeless wisdom, perhaps summarising it is not the wisest thing to do …

    • Cameron! Great to hear from someone who also has questions about such marketing. Again, as for the product itself, I'll maintain an open-mind, ready to be pleasantly surprised (and enlightened!).

  9. Couldn't disagree more, Cameron.

    1) The more timeless wisdom is the simpler it is.

    2) Who said anything about "lasting peace or freedom". Most of these book aim to help people live a more satisfying life–to support their famlies, to have better relationships, to be more compassionate–today and tomorrow and next year, not forever and ever.

    3) The world is filled with ordinary people who's lives have been immeasurably enriched by these books. I told my story above in my "True Confessions" comment. What's yours?

    4) I don't know what to make of your obtuse "individuated person" remark!

    As John McEnroe would say, "You can't be serious."

    Bob Weisenberg

  10. Good thoughts, smithnd.

    I agree with you that timeless wisdom often takes many years to absorb. But sometimes, as it says in the Yoga Sutra, it can come "in a flash of spontaneous illumination". It all depends on where the individual happens to be in his or her life. The long process is often triggered by the simplest of ideas. And the simplest ideas are what often finally clarify and consolidate years of seeking.

    But while we're on the subject of the Yoga Sutra, did it occur to anyone that these were the original Cliff Notes? This was Patanjali's attempt to simplify the already complex Yoga wisdom of his day. And the Yoga Sutra is far shorter than the average Cliff Notes. To top it all off, I've heard the Yoga Sutra referred to as the first recorded personal development book.


  11. But it doesn't stop at the Yoga Sutra. I would argue that many if not most of the great spritual leaders have been radical simplifiers. The Buddha certainly was. Jesus, no question about it. Whoever wrote the Upanishads were the greatest simplifiers of all. While voluminous, each individual Upanishad is the ultimate in spare profundity, often openly scoffing at the complex Vedic priestly wisdom of the day. The greatest Upanishads are only a page or two in length.

    Can you think of any great spiritual leader who was not a simplifier and a synthesiser? Moses? Rumi? Ghandi? The Dalai Lama? Who are the great spiritual complexifiers? I'm sure they're out there, but right now I can't think of even one. (One of the reasons I'm having trouble with Trungpa right now is that, with my limited knowledge, he comes across as a great complexifier rather than a simplifier. But I know I need to give him more time.)

    Bob Weisenberg

    • Shambhala Training was Trungpa Rinpoche's expression of a more direct boiling-down of Dharma for a Western audience. You can read Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, or a few other books that focus on the Shambhala teachings. They've certainly helped me to anchor myself in sanity, to some extent, and to open my heart and enjoy life and care about others, personally speaking.

  12. Enjoyed your comments, Gwen. Very glad you stopped by.

  13. Farnoosh says:

    Bob you gotta tell me more about those books. I just started a book contest on my blog today and it's exactly about writing up the description of a book that touched you!

    Intriguing discussions here. I need to read more to connect with the wisdom aforementioned in these comments but thank you for sharing your thoughts……..

  14. Hi, Brian. Thanks for your throrough and sensible response.

    I have the same reactions to Trungpa as you do, as I hinted at above, but didn't say so clearly and directly as you do. (I said he was a "complexifier".) I keep giving Trungpa more tries because I can see how influential he has been for many Elephantphiles, starting with Waylon himself. Because of that, I will continue to work a little extra hard to see what they see in him.

    What you said about Trungpa's approach to the ego was part of another really interesting disucussion on Elephant recently about Buddhism vs. Yoga. I think you would enjoy it:

    "Bad Day? Here’s a reminder not to take yourself too seriously"

    Bob Weisenberg

  15. John Tischer says:

    I was a student of Trungpa, Rinpoche and around him when Cutting Through was just being published, and, yes,
    he drank…vast quantities…but…he never hid anything he did…and every moment of personal contact I had with him
    was on the dot and very helpful. He was an intense human being…incredibly kind and thoroughly uncompromising.

    • Thanks so much for providing first-person context, John. I wish other students of Rinpoche's would. Seeing him called an "alcoholic," dismissively, by a prominent member of the American spiritual community, and seeing no one provide context…is a bit heartbreaking.

  16. John says:

    Holy Shit! I have to go with having a primer to prepare for future study can be helpful. If used just to sling new-age barbs at people then its crap. But then again, any book gets put into that category.

    Did Bob Weisenberg comment like 45 times on this post? Damn, I may have dreams about him tonight…..


  17. Greg says:

    I was in Boulder at the time Trungpa started his public lectures. First, I had met with him privately in the mtns then I went to the first public event. At that time, he appeared on stage in local garb (plaid shirt, jeans, boots) and carried a bottle a fifth of Jack Daniels on stage with him.

    My understanding of what he was doing ties in directly with Spiritual Materialism. The crowd that had gathered was totally into worshiping the spiritual guru – their image of what he should be. And Trungpa was set on defeating those expectations, which stood in the way.

    Those who criticize Trungpa for being an alcoholic perhaps bought off on his ploy and were stuck at that same condition of looking for a guru to worship rather than moving ahead in their practice toward enlightenment.

    Comparing the work above with Spiritual Materialism is definitely comparing apples and oranges. Not even on the same playing field.

    I am always amused by the reaction (and no reaction) I receive when I point out the last verse in the Dhammapada:

    "Whoever knows all his past lives,
    Sees both the happy and the unhappy realms,
    Is free from rebirth,
    Has achieved perfect insight,
    And has attained the summit of the higher life,
    Him do I call a Noble One."

    • Thanks, Greg! That said, not sure if you read the post, I"m not comparing Trungpa Rinpoche's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism with Brian Johnson's Philosopher's Notes.

      • Greg says:

        Right. I knew you were not comparing. They just ended up on the same page, so I yanked out my soapbox. I never miss an opportunity…. :>))

  18. "marketing and advertising are inherently awkward for anyone sensitive to self-promotion…"

    They don't have to be. Again, check out Baked in, by Winsor and Bogusky. It's vital for marketing to have the same style, fun, integrity and seriousness of purpose as the product. You don't have to sucker folks in with cheap hooks.

  19. "As an employer and businessman and friend, to me he embodies more integrity than nearly anyone else I know."

    That's awesome to hear. He feels like the kind of gent to walk his talk, it's great to hear so, firsthand.

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