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 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. 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. And they'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 o 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. This is certainly a topic for another blog (or blogs or books!), but the main reason for this is that, at worst, some people appreciating 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 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.
At this point people will be able to literally create their own lives, which is an idea more New Agey than classically Buddhist or Hindu, though some subtraditions of contemplative Hinduism do view the world as a kind of projection out of one’s essential Self, and both traditions see what you experience in any one life as a causal consequence of your actions in previous lives). And they’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.
What’s most interesting though - yes more interesting than being able to create whatever life you want - 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 safe, 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.