Digital Mysticism

For most people, mystics and mystical ideas seem far-off and irrelevant.  On the other hand, mystics have argued that most people's actions are, unbeknownst to them, attempts to find the insights and happiness that mystics find.  There are surprising ways in which our digital future validates both views: bringing the otherworldly insights of the mystics to everyone, at least as powerful metaphors, while making some old mystical ideas truly irrelevant.   This confluence will open up new possibilities for collaboration between the least worldly and most worldly humans.

A common mystical insight is that everything is one: all times and places are parts of one another.  A corollary is that our impacts on other people and things, and theirs on us, are more immediate that we generally think.  Indra's net, with its infinite jewels each reflecting all of the others, is an ancient image for this experience and idea. The claim is not that particles are entangled, nor because space and time can be linked mathematically, but because time and space are emergent experiences, not fundamental ones. Temporal and spatial distances, across which objects seem to be unable to affect each other, are superficial barriers compared to the "place" from which everything emerges.

Consider your cell phone. Every day your phone constantly collects data about where you are and how you are using it. The data is immediately transmitted across great distances letting other people know about your actions and impacting their decisions. You don't have to do anything for this to happen.  In both cases extreme intimacy starts to blur into identity, which has always been a crucial moment in mystical development as well.  It's not just that you're connected to people far away, it's that there is no "far away."  There's no "close by" either, because what could that mean when everything is close by.  Similarly with time: rapid access and communication transitions to timelessness just as the speed of change becomes overwhelming. There is no time when you can't keep up with it anymore. What's left?  The same thing that's left for mystics: wonder, flow, unity with a larger field out of which information seems to emerge on its own.  This digital mystical analogue gets even more striking when we consider the coming internet of things, or what David Rose of the MIT Media Lab calls "enchanted objects."

Another mystical foreshadowing our digital future is the experience that our intentions always come to pass.  Intentions are guaranteed and instantaneous experience generators.  There are two levels to look at this.  On the first, our emotions, thoughts, and other inner facets of experience are driven by our relationship to the events in our lives.  External events don't determine our feelings, our intentions do. On the deeper level, the "intentions" we're talking about aren't personal, they're universal.  We're like a phytoplankton floating in the ocean, basically moved about by the swells and currents of our total environment. To speak religiously, we might say this is the "mind of God."  To speak materialistically we might say, this is the spontaneous responsiveness of each object to the collective forces on it.  In any case, at both levels of this experience intention and action are simultaneous and unfailing.

We don't have to look very hard at the hopes we have for Virtual Reality to see the resonance with these ideas.  What do you want: a tour of the bottom of the ocean? To fall in love? To be a child again?  You got it! Immediately and without question. VR brings up the great question of the nature of these correspondences between mysticism and technology.  Is it that the mystical experiences shed light on facts about our universe that technology is simply mirroring, as if we're driven to make conscious what is implicitly the case one way or another?  Or perhaps mystical experiences simply proof of the malleability of human experience and the power of our creative imagination; in which case, regardless of their truth-value, they are even more similar to potential technological alterations of human experience.  In either case, if VR seriously gets off the ground with adequate, full six-senses experiences, then you can bet that experience programmers aren't going to stop at pre-developed "movies."  Users will want the power to immediately manifest whatever they desire.

A final mystical idea is more challenging for technology development, because it is not obvious that technologists are yet implementing, or even attempting to implement, it's analogue.  Not only do our actions instantaneously fulfill our intentions, but our intentions are only ever motivated by altruism.  Whether the action is meant to benefit others, everyone, or ourselves all of our actions are for the good, to help, to be of benefit.

Can we say the same for our digital futures?  Should we?  If so, or if we'd like to, what would that look like? This is perhaps one of potential major fields of collaboration between mystics and technologists. As Richard Thieme, who has thought about these topics for decades, says: "Mysticism is not only insight, it’s a cry for truth and justice, a deep passion for getting it right. Mysticism without action is self-indulgence; action without mysticism always burns out." In all of the cases we've looked at so far, technology has made explicit what mystics have claimed was implicit all along.  Technology has exposed these things.  Can technology expose too our intrinsic goodness? 

Mysticism is being impacted by technology too.  The consciousness hacking/contemplative tech movements are not new, but they are gaining momentum and there are far too many experiments starting up now to do an overview here. But one underlying attitude amongst these technologists will change mysticism perhaps more than mysticism will change technology.  There is no technologist I know of who claims that technological development has an upper limit. But for millennia various mystical systems have claimed that there is an upper bound to mystical development and that certain people have reached this perfect and total fulfillment of their potential.  But in a culture raised on the idea that we're entering a time of human creativity on a scale unheard of before, such an idea will feel foreign if not immediately deadening.  An end to learning?  A single direction of human development considered "highest" or "most important"? How boring and untrue.  In the midst of a digital-mystical dialogue this kind of mystical dogmatism and it's accompanying authoritarianism will not last very long.  Various open-minded contemporary mystics are already paving the way, moving beyond even a synthesis of the ancient mystical paths because they've found it unable to express the radical creativity of human potential.  We will become things we have not yet imagined they say.  For traditionalists this will be a destructive transition, but for experimentalists and hackers it will be a welcome modernizing of the great mystical paths.

The analogues between digital technology and mysticism are good evidence that these two disciplines have a constructive conversation waiting for them. For mystics, technology offers an updated worldview and laboratory of innovative new methodologies. For technologists, mysticism offers direction for exploratory development. The dialogue will likely be fairly low-res for a while, but their points of contact, questions of human nature and power, are open for infinite engagement anyway, and the opportunities for mutual benefit are profound.