Virtual Reality and Mystical Maturity


Development in virtual reality technologies, and increasing interest in technologies that directly transform conscious experience, or help users train conscious experience, bring up very interesting parallels with common tenets of some mystical traditions.  Mystical claims point toward where VR will most likely go in the future and what some of the implications will be. VR and consciousness hacking technologies will lead to classical mystical insights and powers, but what's really interesting is what happens then…


For decades technologists had tried  and failed to create significantly believable, immersive virtual realities that didn't make people nauseous with extended use.  VR technologies progressed, but the holy grail of a Star Trek Holodeck style virtual environment seemed much harder to achieve than expected.


But in the last few years VR has been having a momentous revival.  Mostly this has been because of Oculus Rift, a VR headset developed by 23 year old Palmer Luckey (who was recently featured on the cover of TIME) with the assistance of an extended community of professional and amateur VR engineers.  Oculus seemed to break the code and create 360 degree VR landscapes that are immediately compelling and exciting.  Oculus eventually raised $2.4 million dollars on Kickstarter to develop their prototype. (A tactic that later became controversial when Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. None of the Kickstarter supporters received equity in the company, as early stage investors would have if Oculus had raised their initial funding that way.) The ability to create experiences or put VR users into faraway places is exciting to, well, pretty much every industry, from gaming and porn, VR's most obvious initial applications, to religious ministry.  But there are major steps still to take. Let's imagine where VR is going and then we'll see how this links up with mysticism.


Right now VR experiences are primarily visual and auditory, and obviously, no matter how good the sights and sounds get they will never be enough to recreate our full multisensory experience. People are working on including our other senses. Several companies are bringing touch to VR. Taste is still missing of course, and so is smell, which is very important for creating meaningful emotional experiences and lasting memories.


These all may be pretty hard to crack, but I expect us to do it eventually. So let's assume that we have already created fully immersive VR that's like real life in every sensory way.  What would people want next? The next huge step, even bigger in fact, would be being able to influence our thoughts and emotions more dramatically and directly than by changing our external sensations, including our sense of identity and narrative memory of our lives.  When I enter VR I still know that I am "me" in real life having a VR experience. Every VR experience would be a lucid dream by default.


However, we wouldn't yet be able to "forget" ourselves in the dream. But we’ll overcome this too, because people will want to literally become the character in the dream, to change their identities, their histories, their character traits, and their behaviors, and to forget whoever it was they were before. We’ll see that the sense of identity is fluid, undetermined, and mutable, rather than fixed, which is a decidedly Buddhist insight. But more than this too, pleasure, insight, beauty, diversity, challenge, experimentation, stability, any existential ache or craving to have something, to be someone, to finish it all off - all of that will be available to us in true abundance. And we'll want to do it over and over again to experience many different kinds of lives - lives that are better than their real lives, and sometimes worse as well, or just different, to see what it's like. It will be exactly like Alan Watt’s famous Dream of Life talk.


It will also be a lot like the vision of reincarnation of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which hold that all creatures are moving through many many lives.  Over the course of these infinite numbers of lives, beings are presented with challenges and opportunities to learn and grow and, specifically, to become more wise and compassionate. In both Hinduism and Buddhism the last goal of all beings is to exit this cycle of birth and death, because all lives, no matter what kind, are seen to be replete with unavoidable suffering. Virtue, logic, and the intrinsic desire for happiness all overlap in the motivation to end one's own and others' suffering by gaining enough wisdom to cut through the mechanics that maintain the cycle, which requires developing mystical insight into the nature of identity (presented differently in each tradition). Once this is done the mystic just isn't born again.


But, ending the cycle of lives and experience isn’t going to be the goal for VR users.  It may be that some people get tired of life, have no more interest in new experiences, and would just like to fade out peacefully. (Two interesting side questions this brings up is whether people will still want to die if they can create a VR experience in which they are a person who loves living; and how VR might be utilized to help people die in particularly interesting ways.)  Others, however, may not tire. They may enjoy living different lives infinitely and enjoy the creative work they get to do in each of these lives.  It does not seem likely to me that all people will come to the conclusion which serves as the foundation of Buddhism and Hinduism: that all life has suffering in it and is ultimately not worth living.  The main reason for this is that, at worst, some people appreciate creativity and beauty more than simple peace, even if it necessarily includes suffering, and, at best, life can get good enough that we end up disproving the original premise of Buddhism and Hinduism after all.  It may be that VR offers an opportunity for infinite joyful creativity.


This leads to the last great obstacle: duration. There may be physical limitations on the time that someone can stay in VR. Perhaps VR experiences will be expensive, or the user will need to emerge to eat or pee, or the computer itself will not be able to run continuously.  Like the other obstacles, demand from users to overcome this problem will be so high that we will undoubtedly do it.  Users will then be able to fully immerse themselves in any sensorially and mentally realistic environment and character they want indefinitely. They would be able to choose whether to be themselves or be someone new.  And They will be able to choose to stay in these lives for as long as they want.  


What’s most interesting though - yes more interesting than being able to create whatever life you want forever - is how that will change our sense of values.  In part because I've been influenced by the contemplative traditions' thoughts on multiple lives I imagine that one consequence of VR will be that people will become more mature, more insightful, and more empathetic by living through the great diversity of experiences that VR will make possible.  Moreover, what will be demanded of us is a new way to relate to desires and their satisfaction in the first place. When even the most wondrous experiences are at our fingertips, I think we’ll be surprised to find something even more wondrous set in on its own: a way of relating to experience that will feel simultaneously deeply safe yet fully enlivened, a kind of awe and wonder at the plenitude of reality, a mature relaxation into watching what new potentials unfold for us as we continue to develop even further, which is also a love of creating new goals but without any longer any individual or collective naive or despairing hope that there will ever be a final end to things, unless as a matter of personal choice.


This maturity is what I am most looking forward to for us as a species and collective presence on this planet (and potentially beyond).  This relaxation away from thinking that any kind of experience is going to solve all of our problems, and yet enjoying every experience we have makes me feel that at that point we will be making decisions out of collective enjoyment of life much more than collective fear, which feels more common now.  Fully immersive VR will end up being a fast track to world awakening in a classically mystical sense, but of course we don’t have to wait for immersive VR.  The same way of living I’ve laid out is at least in principle available to all of us now through both traditional and more contemporary means. In any case, the first step is simply recognizing it as a desirable and realistic way to live. And for those of us who weren’t already aware, VR is hinting at the possibility.

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Comments: 5
  • #1

    Evan (Wednesday, 10 February 2016 11:42)

    Hey I see what your saying about the vast new range of experiential opportunities that this technology will open up but won't users still have to undergo old age and death? Perhaps VR could also create a schism between the virtual and physical world that would hinder our ability to care for one another as we go through the inevitable processes of human existence. It sounds like you may be hinting at a kind of "omega point" of infinite creativity, which you don't think people will ever tire of?

  • #2

    Zach (Thursday, 11 February 2016 15:26)

    Hey Evan, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I think people will still age and die unless we solve those problems separately. However, there's lots of ways in which VR could address our death anxiety and help us come to peace with it, or even come to enjoy! or at least appreciate it, and appreciate change and endings of all kinds more broadly. One way would be to have the experience of many more endings of relationships and even of whole lives in VR, a kind of phobia-desensitization like process.

    Will VR create a decrease in care? I think it's a risk. In fact, there is a certain amount of increased objectification of life, and of other people, that will almost certainly happen as VR users gain more control of their VR experiences. However, I don't think we should underestimate our love of surprise and of other people having their own interests. I don't think that VR experiences in which the behavior of the VR characters is fully known and programmed by the user will ever get as popular as VR experiences in which the characters surprise us and behave in ways that don't automatically conform to our will and our desires. And if VR characters surprise and have their own interests then they will be more like real life, and offer more like a training ground and play space for alternative realities and choices, than worlds in which we have utter dominion over what happens. These kinds of VR experiences will probably build empathy and care on average over time, rather than decrease it, in the same way that reading literature is a powerful way to build empathy, but even more effective.

    An "omega point" of infinite creativity? Well, if we're talking infinite creativity, which can never be reached, then we are already there. But, I do think that we have the opportunity to liberate ever greater creativity. Unlike some interpretations of (the) omega point(s) though, this will also lead to greater diversity, rather than uniformity.

  • #3

    Evan (Friday, 12 February 2016 13:03)

    That's true, haha, there already are infinite possibilities of creativity, however limited our means of communicating them are, so VR could be a deep well of possibility in that regard beyond paper and pen, or linear visual entertainment.
    About the phobia desensitization process: I have actually been doing that recently, and am thinking of another (fiction) novel that I could read to better come to grips with the future. Actually, I read "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" in one night after opening to the possibility of death a few months ago. This may seem tangential:
    He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.
    In place of death there was light.
    "So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
    Also Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's account of his 4 years as a wandering yogi, where he almost died on the street in India, inspired me a lot. But this is all just fodder for conceptual understanding, which must be fully integrated with the "heart" to truly liberate us from fear. I'm optimistic about technology and the incredible vistas it could open for humanity, but how far do you think it could potentially go in improving our lives? I'm cautious about the unbridled optimism we have in our inventions. Aldous Huxley's idealism inspired him to believe in a Godhead accessible by means of psychedelics (the wondrous novelty of his era) but on his deathbed, accompanied by his wife who documented their talks and his state, described him as seemingly confused and bewildered, and only after administering a high dose of LSD did he pass away. So it's just that I don't know if we can wholeheartedly, if not recklessly, idealize the novelties of this generation, however wondrous they may be.
    So let me know what you think
    Also there's this book I'm reading called "The Master and his Emmisary" right now which you may like, it's a kind of feedback on our striving to encapsulate the world in thought and manipulation, i.e. the left hemisphere of the brain.
    What caused you to lean away from "mysticism" too if you want to answer?

  • #4

    Zach (Monday, 29 February 2016 16:30)

    Hey Evan.
    You say, "I'm cautious about the unbridled optimism we have in our inventions." I agree. You might want to check out my most recent writing, Three Principles to Do Consciousness Hacking better, here I'm my blog. It's something I've written for the new website for the consciousness hacking community ( Mostly they are engineers interested in using technology to improve our wellbeing directly. I think it's a well intentioned bunch, but of course good intentions are only the beginning. I lay out a few principles that will make positive technologists work more beneficial.

    I don't think I've leaned away from mysticism really. I love that doorway, those practices, and those ideas, and I think mystical practice and philosophies hold a great number of gems that will become increasingly relevant. It's just that I got clear that what I actually care about is flourishing, and then mysticism is just one piece of that puzzle.

    Thanks for the recommendation, that sounds like something I should read, it's certainly an issue I often find myself grappling with.

  • #5

    Evan (Saturday, 19 March 2016 01:35)

    Thanks for that answer it sounds like there really is promise there, and whatever endeavors alleviate suffering are worthwhile in the end.