If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Power of Transhumanist Meditation | Ajit Jaokar


The traditional view of meditation is that of a monk who renounces the world and maintains a state of calm, peaceful demeanour. But, here is another viewpoint.

In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River in New York City with no loss of life. All one hundred and fifty passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots were rescued in freezing weather. Flight 1549 had departed LaGuardia airport New York at 15:03 local time. The pilot reported a ‘double bird strike’ less than a minute after take-off and asked to return to the ground. When he could not return to an airfield, he was forced to land the plane in the Hudson River. Observers said that the plane landed on the river just like it was landing on a runway. Within minutes doors popped out, rafts unfurled and people got out. It was indeed a miracle.

When I first heard of this incident, I was fascinated by it. The actual technique of landing the plane is complex enough, but even more interesting for me is the mind-set of the pilot and the pilot’s perspective. The pilot of Flight 1549 was Captain Chesley Sullenbergeri and we now know of his mind-set from his book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (William Morrow, 2009).ii

The metaphor of an airline pilot like Captain Chesley Sullenberger is an excellent example of a meditative mind. The landing on the Hudson demonstrates the importance of a meditative state of mind. While most of us never have to deal with a situation remotely as complex as landing a plane on a river, the incident points to how the meditative state of mind is absolutely relevant today.

In the last fifty years, we have seen many technological innovations such as the rise of computers and mobile devices. However, in the next fifty years, we could see three key trends:
1) Existing technologies will become the fundamental building blocks accelerating the next generation of innovations (ex – faster microprocessors means quicker identification of gene sequences etc).
2) New innovations will arise from the interconnections and interplay of currently discrete domains. Often, this will give rise to entirely new domains and/or transform existing domains.
3) Technologies will have a social component and social factors will lead to emergent (i.e. unpredictable) evolution of technology

Against this backdrop, the ancient practise of meditation could be both transformed and also reapplied.

Most people accept that meditation can bring about a lasting change in their life. At the simplest level, meditation can help you relax. But meditation could be a lot more. Social technologies can augment meditation. Connectivity could be a catalyst both at a neural and at a social level through brain wave meditation, which could be potentially interconnected to achieve biofeedback at a social level.

This article explores the following: Could meditation be seen as a mechanism that could augment the human mind through technology (neural and social networks)? What would a ‘tipping point’ look like for society when a critical mass of people use these techniques and connect through social networks? How could these ideas be used in personal development?

The Evolution of Meditation

The evolution of meditation is the theme of my work. Meditation, as most people understand it, is about directing attention and about mindfulness. You can meditate in two ways: either by focusing your attention on a single object or by focusing it on a stream of thoughts and becoming aware of consciousness. If you focus on a single object, your attention needs to be continually brought back to the object of the meditation. If you focus on a stream of thought, then you need to be mindful and allow the attention to follow the stream of consciousness in a detached, non-judgmental manner.

The object of meditation may be a specific object (like a lamp or a fruit) or it may be an abstract concept (like a mantra). If you are focusing on a stream of thought, you are playing the part of a passive observer. Your challenge then is to observe the thought, be aware of it, and let it go – that is, remain detached from the object. Ideally, with either technique, your goal is to reach a state of ’transformed consciousness,’ or an altered state. This state is distinct from a normal, waking state. Ultimately, the benefits of the transformed state will blend with a normal, waking state, i.e. you will be able to ‘take into your daily life’ the calmness from the meditative state.

The medical benefits of meditation are scientifically proven. From a scientific perspective, we already know that meditation leads the brain to create specific brainwaves (for example alpha and theta waves). From an emotional perspective, one of the goals of meditation is to cultivate detachment, develop a reduced intensity of emotions, and to reduce your desire for novelty. If you meditate regularly for a period of time, you cultivate a sense of detachment from your hectic life – and by extension your outlook toward work and life changes. By reducing the stimulus field, you reach a state of ‘Flow’ which involves the merging of action and awareness. Meditation leads to a feeling of integration, such as in the experience of the Buddha, who saw that joy and grief were two facets of the same entity. Meditation also leads to a sense of connection and hence to a feeling of empathy. It leads to greater intuition by reducing the stream of thoughts.

So, where will the evolution of meditation take us in the next few decades? To answer this question, we have to look to the past and to the historical evolution of meditation through the Four Ages of Meditation. I see four stages, i.e. ages in evolution, of meditation: 1 – Shamanic, 2 – Religious, 3 – Leaderful (guru-led), and 4 – the Transhumanist stage. In the transhumanist stage of meditation, technology and networks are the underlying paradigm of the Fourth Age of Meditation along with the promise of an exponential uptake in human intelligence and evolution. The premise of this work is that we, as humanity, will learn to use our minds to gain a quantum leap in human understanding by augmenting the ancient principles of meditation with modern technology, social networks, and neural networks.

How would you teach Elvis Presley to meditate?

But before we look into the future, we have to first look at the past and our motivations for meditation leading to the idea of the need to rethink meditation in today’s context. We have to consider the opposite of meditation, a state of constant input and interaction and of following a pace of life which is not sustainable. Think of Elvis Presley. A cocktail of as many as 14 drugs to which he was addicted were deemed to be the cause of his death. But his addiction to drugs was just the effect and not the cause. A deeper motivation lay in his overall lifestyle and that lifestyle was partly due to his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who took up to half of his earnings.

So, given these circumstances, how would you teach Elvis Presley to meditate? On the one hand, for Elvis Presley, no amount of ‘going to a retreat’ or contemplation would help unless his lifestyle itself changed. On the other hand, the act of meditation, however brief, would lead Elvis to look inward. The contemplation would be an uncomfortable process because it would not be compatible with his outward lifestyle. In a meditative state, Elvis would not like what he saw, and at that point either his lifestyle would have to change or he would stop meditating because meditation would become too uncomfortable.

This ‘incompatibility with lifestyle’ is probably one of the most common reasons for which many people abandon meditation. The process follows a familiar pattern. You start meditation for a while. You begin to look inward. You don’t like what you see in your daily life. Meditation becomes uncomfortable. You realize that either your lifestyle has to change or meditation has to change. Most often, you choose the easier path instead of the one less travelled and you choose to ‘drop’ meditation and continue with your lifestyle. In doing so, you take the same path as Elvis took. Hopefully, the end result may not as dramatic for you as it was for Elvis, but it is a personal loss nonetheless if you abandon meditation at this initial stage.

Were monks ever meant to be on Facebook and Twitter?

If we see the mind-set of a contemplative monk and Elvis Presley’s lifestyle as two opposites, let us consider another question: were monks ever meant to be on Facebook and Twitter?

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the Japanese author and teacher of Buddhism,iii describes the traditional lifestyle of a monk eloquently in his book The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (New York: Cosimo, 2007),iv when he emphasizes the importance of begging.

Yes, begging.

Traditionally, a monk needs very few possessions. These include a bamboo hat, straw sandals, and cotton leggings. He dresses in traveling attire, and even when modern transportation is available, he walks. These and other meagre possessions are designed to be carried in a bundle on the monk’s back. The monk limits his possessions to a minimum and thereby also limits his desire to possess. He (and yes, monks were always male) leads a life of humility and also often makes his income through begging.

So, if we accept the concept that meditation cannot be separated from society, then both meditation and society will evolve together and that meditation techniques should change with time.

Continue reading - The Power of Transhumanist Meditation (Long Read)

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