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?


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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. Thanks, Ryan. Without seeing the product, all I can say is what we just tweeted back and forth:

    via : @elephantjournal fair to question, no doubt. that being said, I think Brian's intentions are very genuine. more in my comment…. 🙂

    via : His intentions may well be, I'm sure are, but the marketing is tacky, imo.

    Spiritual shopping, or spiritual salad bar approach, is integral to spiritual materialism: take a little bit here, a little bit there, only take what you want, what pleases you, ignore the hard stuff that often helps one to grow. Like the entire practice of tonglen, for example, which directly undoes our ego's tendency to cling to what we want and push away what we don't…putting us into a perpetual fight with reality.

  3. 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)

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. I think you meant "unlike" the practice of Tonglen. 🙂

    Although I'd add that Tonglen can also be spiritual materialism if one practices only superficially and is not transformed by the practice. One classic example of Spiritual Materialism that I've often been guilty of is to practice just enough to get some Big Experience and then refer to that experience again and again instead of continuing to practice working with the difficulties of life.

  9. 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

  10. 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.


  11. 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. 🙂

  12. I wasn't writing clearly…I was referring to "tonglen" as a prime example of a hard, unpleasant, counter-intuitive (to the ego, at least) practice that helps us grow, but would not widely be adopted or really integrated by those of us shopping around for pleasant, confirming spiritual practices.

    …the hard stuff that often helps one to grow. Like the entire practice of tonglen, for example, which directly undoes our ego's tendency to cling to what we want and push away what we don't…putting us into a perpetual fight with reality…

    And amen, Duff, you're right on: the foundation of tonglen practice is meditation, shunyata, without which it can become just another pleasing and confirming practice!

  13. 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).

  14. Well, that video is just an excerpt of a talk. The book itself is pretty dense, I might recommend Training the Mind or Meditation in Action or Heart of the Buddha or Myth of Freedom for more accessinble first reading.

    And the notion that he's a God in Boulder, well, come here, it's laughable. He's more like a controversial, love/hate rock star of Spirituality, round these here parts—to the increasingly small extent to which anyone who lives here has ever even heard of him.

    For further, in-depth reading:

  15. 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?

  16. 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

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. I like this line of thought!

  24. Yeah, my question above in the article was re: the marketing, not the product, as I said above. Glad to hear the actual product is solid. Thanks, brother.

  25. 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.

  26. 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 …

  27. 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

  28. 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!).

  29. Best comeback/comment ever, I'm gonna store that McEnroe line and start using it from time to time!

  30. 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.


  31. 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

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

  33. Disclaimer: disclaimers are very "prajna," very self-cutting, very "Zen." Dig it!

  34. Amen. My feeling is that if we're in such a rush we can't stop long enough to slow down, we'll never smell the roses. Reading about someone smelling the roses may point me to the notion of actually doing so, however..!

  35. 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……..

  36. swati jr* says:

    thanks! it's a miracle my eyes are open.

  37. BrianJohnson says:

    i completely agree with you re: the tackiness of "the top personal-growth product of 2010." ick. commented below about the more wisdom in less time angle.

    and, as I mentioned, I'd love to send you the product so you can be the judge!

  38. BrianJohnson says:

    appreciate your kind words, jay.

  39. BrianJohnson says:

    laughed out loud reading this, duff. 🙂

    thx for your kind words.

  40. BrianJohnson says:

    in my experience, the majority of people out there have a hard time effectively getting thru their day to day lives. it's nice to talk about tonglen and spiritual materialism and all this fancy pants buddhist stuff, but just consistently getting to the gym and getting enough rest and eating well and no longer bitching about everything is "hard" work for most people. Why? b/c they don't have the ego strength yet to fight the (id) urge to stay in bed or watch TV or smoke a joint or whatever. which is why this whole ego-war thing seems so misguided to me…

  41. BrianJohnson says:

    love it, ryan. too funny on the critique bait. 🙂

    this is the dominant theme of my Notes: "But, most of us look beyond those claims and understand that, if there is anything useful, it requires more of us outside of reading the book, something to put in practice."

    lemme know if you'd like a subscription and I'll hook you up!

  42. BrianJohnson says:

    again, noted and agreed on the tacky.

    why can't we sort thru the wisdom out there AND do the hard work? obviously a challenge, but seems like an unnecessary either/or.

  43. smithnd says:

    Appreciate the reply. I think I misunderstood the pricing scale. I was thinking it was $47/note, not $47 for the entire pack. BTW, can you purchase individual notes or just the entire pack? I also understood that this would be an ongoing process where you would continue to supply additional notes. Are you going to release them all in packs?

  44. 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

  45. Yea–I think internet marketing is in a strange state right now where it's either inadequate sales copy or hype with almost no middle ground. I hope this changes as business models get better developed online.

    Critical thinking is hard and lacking in lots of areas, including much of academia. I'm hoping to spur some thinking as best I can. But people do still need introduction to the basics and I think PNotes can help there.

  46. Without getting into the Trungpa Rinpoche conversation here (I've written on this site about his alcoholism, relationships with students, and other common questions/issues/concerns) I'll just repeat here what I've said this morning in private emails back and forth with Brian: I think your generous, peaceful, humorous response well-reflects a manifestation of what you're presenting and offering, and I look forward to reviewing said products on elephant. The above was directly primarily, again, at the marketing.

    I've been reading a book called Baked In, which may provide some inspiration, Brian and others, re how to market our products with integrity and magnetism equal to said products.

    May this question, and your answer above, and the discussion in between be of benefit—may it bring us all together in our work to be of service to the world, and all upon it. I mean that.