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The power of transhumanist meditation.

Presentation, 19 November, 2011 Society for Existential Analysis Annual Conference

Introduction

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 150 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 Sullenberger (i) 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 50 years, we have seen many technological innovations such as the rise of computers and mobile devices. However, in the next 50 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 practice 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 social level, through brain-wave meditation, which could be potentially interconnected to achieve biofeedback at a social level.

This paper 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?

These ideas form the background of my work and my book--so I welcome comments and feedback at ajit.jaokar@futuretext.com

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, nonjudgmental 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.

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 emphasises 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 meditation techniques should change with time.

The fourth age of meditation

When applied to today's world, faced with an increased rate of stimulus, the challenge of meditation is to be in this world yet to be detached from it. Unlike the monks, we do not beg and we live lives far from frugal. We live in the age of the Internet. The Internet has been a dominant factor over the last few decades and it promises to play a major role over the next few decades. It is not going away, and in spite of the efforts of politicians, media and vested interests. The Internet has already changed our lives far more than we can ever imagine.

Think back to a time before the Internet. Most of us started using the Internet and World Wide Web in the mid--to late-1990s, and today we wonder, whatever did we do with our time before the Internet and social media?

We know that with the Internet and social media, both the volume and the intensity of stimuli have increased dramatically. The increased rate of stimuli, and also the intensity of stimulus, calls for new ways of handling our response. There is a connection between stimulus and response. One of the benefits of meditation is the development of a sense of detachment; that is, you create a delay or a disconnect between the stimulus and the consequent response or 'call to action' by the body. This is the opposite of 'flight or fight' response, where the action is manifested almost instantly from the trigger. With the Internet, social media and mobile technology, the rate of stimuli has increased dramatically and the natural 'response mechanisms' take over. This is natural but we are not geared to handle the sheer rate of external stimuli.

The Hopi Indian language has the word 'koyaanisqatsi', which means a 'life in turmoil, life out of balance.' The same idea is discussed in a book called Future Shock (1970). Alvin Toffler argued back in 1970 that society was undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a 'super-industrial society.' This change would overwhelm people, he predicted, with the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from 'shattering stress and disorientation.' Alvin Toffler called this the 'future shock.' Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of this future shock. He also popularised the term 'information overload.'

So, how could we re--apply the principles of meditation in today's world dominated by social media? More interestingly, could we use this technology to rethink the meaning of meditation?

The Buddha said:
   What is the appropriate behaviour for a man or a woman in the
   midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece
   of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they
   pass each other in this flood? (v)


In this quote, the idea of 'emotional attachment' versus volume of data may be more important than you think. 'Clinging to a piece of debris' is emotional attachment, and there is simply a lot of potential debris to cling to with social media messages.

To consider an analogy, imagine you are watching cars whizzing by on a freeway. You stand for hours and hundreds pass you. But do you remember any of them? Probably not. Even if similar cars sped past (for example blue Ford sedans), you would not really remember them. So, a lot of information whizzing by is not really a problem if you have no emotional attachment to the stream of data, just like the cars. You would not be able to recall any of them, nor should you be able to. However, if you were trying to spot BMWs or Ferraris, immediately your attention would be engaged. This is a totally different experience from passively watching those cars speeding past. It is mentally engaging and tiring. After a period of trying to identify BMWs, you would get a headache. Thus, if many cars were to pass you by, it would make little difference to you unless you were engaged with the cars in some way.

It is the same with information. Passively observing streams of data is not really a problem.

Thus, the historical context of the meditation is not compatible with today's world dominated by social media and the Internet.

But the detachment from the flight or fight response is only one aspect of the evolution of meditation. To understand the wider picture, we have to consider technology as a friend, that is, an enabler of meditation, and see the evolution of meditation in partnership with technology. Here, I interpret the word technology in a wider sense i.e. including social technologies, network paradigms and neural technologies.

Transhumanist meditation

Transhumanist meditation refers to the use of technology (including social, neural and networks) to augment meditation to attain a quantum leap in human capability. The 'quantum leap' distinguishes the approach from current techniques. Thus, I see current experiments in meditation as a starting point to the evolution of our mind. Transhumanist meditation could be seen as a radical personal development technique, using social and neural technologies. It spans the intersection of technology and spirituality and, in doing so, unites the ancient and the modern.

The core belief of transhumanism is that human beings can be biologically and physically improved through radical technologies. Transhumanist meditation means that human intelligence could be augmented by technology, either through amplification or through connectivity, allowing humans to transcend physical limits. This 'intelligence explosion' of human beings through technology is in contrast to previous, but related, fields of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is primarily involved in making 'intelligent machines,' whereas the goal of transhumanism is to augment human intelligence through technology, creating 'intelligent humans' or 'transhumans.'

The idea itself is not new. For instance, a cochlear implant (bionic ear) is a device that helps improve the hearing abilities of many profoundly or totally deaf people by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve (the nerve of hearing). So, how does this idea apply to meditation? To achieve transhumanist meditation, I propose that there are two technologies that could be applied to meditation: Neural networks i.e. understanding the brain, and Social networks (aka 'facebook of the connected mind').

Neural networks in transhumanistic meditation: In 1920, in his book

Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion (vi), Emile Coue (1857-1926) described a technique called Autosuggestion. Another technique using the same principles as Autosuggestion is Autogenic Training (vii). The two ideas are similar, but Autogenic Training is designed specifically to influence the autonomic nervous system (and not the subconscious mind, as in the case of Autosuggestion). The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system. It is largely below the level of consciousness; it controls visceral functions such as heart rate, digestion etc. The technique involves daily practice sessions that last around 15 minutes, usually in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. During each session, the practitioner repeats a set of visualisations that induce a state of relaxation. The visualisations progressively scan the body, moving to different organs with chants such as 'my right arm is heavy,' 'my arms and legs are heavy and warm,' etc. The question is: Would these principles apply also to visualization of the brain? How would it be to visualise the brain and use the same ideas as autogenic training?

Social networks in transhumanistic meditation: Using brain-computer interface (BCI) (4) techniques, a direct communication pathway can be established between the brain and an external device. BCIs are often directed at assisting, augmenting, or repairing human cognitive or sensorymotor functions. BCI techniques have been available since the 1940s and have became progressively cheaper over time. However, only now has the technology been commoditised (sub $100 headsets ex from Neurosky (5)). This creates the possibility that we could interconnect neural devices to create a social network (aka the Facebook of the connected mind). Once we conceive of meditation as being enhanced through neural technology like BCI, we can then see meditation as being augmented through connective technologies, i.e. social networks. If we break down any social network, it comprises: a profile, a 'wall'--a place where you post messages that others can see, a private messaging facility and the capacity to allow users to upload and share content. With social networks, the content itself (for instance a picture) becomes a social object. Today, an individual is the most granular unit of a social network. But in future, what if you could extend this to a neural level? To take social networking to the neural level (Facebook of the connected mind), we need the ability to do the following: record brainwaves and see them; create a visual representation of the mind at a point in time (a thought form); share that thought form with others; do so cheaply and globally; possibly, do so using a neural implant, i.e. without a headset.

This image could look like a 'shared hologram,' i.e. your state of mind projected as a three-dimensional object, which can be viewed by others with whom you share it. This means you will get biofeedback at two levels: 1) the individual level and 2) the social level. The very act of sharing your 'neural profile' (the shared hologram) with others will create the opportunity to build a shared/social/collective profile. Here, meditation using the brain as an object of meditation has two roles: at an individual level, with the ability to develop the mind; but likewise also has a role at the social level where meditation becomes a shared/collective experience.

Just like the bionic ear, the ability to connect could be a future transplant i.e. embedded in the human body. This takes our approach directly into the realm of 'transhumanism'.

Living in a post tipping point world

While all of the above is fascinating, it is more interesting to see how society is affected in a 'post tipping point' world i.e. in a world when a majority of people would follow technology augmentation to enhance human capability. These are technologies that bring about an exponential change in our life. We are at a unique time in our evolution. Around 70,000 to 80,000 years ago, the Toba super volcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba, Indonesia, causing a six--to 10-year-long global winter that led to near extinction of the human population. The survivors, probably numbering as low as 1,000 individuals, were most likely forced to live and work together to overcome the dire climatic conditions. In doing so, they evolved language and social skills that we, their descendants, inherited (viii). So, crisis brought all humanity together and when we did connect together as a species there was a quantum leap in human evolution via networking. This evolution also impacted our brains because, in general, the more complex the society and its communication patterns, the more evolved the brain. It led to development of culture. Around 70,000 years ago, human beings deviated from other primates by evolving a culture such as is evident in the rock paintings in the Blombos caves of South Africa. After 70,000 years, humanity is being connected together again, but not by a crisis--by technology. Once again, like we did so many years ago, we can expect a quantum uptake in intelligence, adoption of new identities, and a new culture.

The changes of such 'network-led super-connectivity' are profound. Not many people realise that the Internet has its unique culture. In the early days, it was based on initiatives like the Whole Earth Catalog (6) and today it is based on groups like Anonymous7. But a culture exists none the less--dominated by networks. Taken to an extreme, in a world dominated by networks, a number of interesting phenomenon could come into play. One such concept is synchronisation and biologically coupled oscillators.

The brain, synchronisation and biologically coupled oscillators

An oscillator is any device that displays the principle of a periodic fluctuation, i.e. a repetitive variation, between two states around a central state, which is called the equilibrium state. Many devices, such as computers and clocks, need an internal pacemaker/clock, i.e. an oscillator, to function and to synchronise their components. Such an oscillator is normally made out of quartz crystals but operates on the same principle as a pendulum. Oscillations and oscillators are common not only in electronic and mechanical systems, but also in a range of other systems such as biological systems. The brain operates to specific frequencies. Neural and electrical activity in the brain is reflected in waves which can be measured. Depending on the state of the mind, the waves have differing cycles. Beta waves (16 to 25 cycles per second) are the fastest and we are most used to them in our waking state. Alpha waves (eight to 12 cycles per second) are generated in detached awareness and day dreaming. Alpha waves are the link between the conscious and subconscious mind. Theta waves (three to seven cycles per second) appear in the dreaming state and in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and delta waves (0.5 to 2 cycles per second) are associated with deep sleep. Most of us are used to the faster waves in a waking state but we are not used to consciously entering the lower frequencies. Meditation enables us to access to lower frequencies (alpha and lower), which in itself has recuperative properties and is one of the benefits of meditation.

But by combining the neural and social aspects of meditation and treating the brain as an oscillator, more aspects come into play i.e. coupled oscillators and resonance.

The property of resonance is common to all oscillators. The resonant frequency is an optimal frequency and its effect in many areas, such as music, is well known. But in the year 2000, the Millennium Bridge in London made headlines by almost 'falling down' (in keeping with the nursery rhyme). The Millennium Bridge (ix) is a steel suspension bridge for pedestrians crossing the River Thames. Just two days after its opening on 10 June 2000, participants in a charity walk on behalf of Save the Children felt an unexpected and uncomfortable swaying motion. Londoners nicknamed the bridge the 'Wobbly Bridge' and it was immediately closed; only to be re-opened two years later in 2002 after the problems were fixed. The bridge's movements were caused by a well-known phenomenon, 'Synchronous Lateral Excitation' more commonly known as 'positive feedback,' where small movements reinforce each other at a specific frequency. The natural swaying motion created by people walking caused small sideways oscillations in the bridge, which in turn caused people on the bridge to sway in step, increasing the amplitude of the bridge oscillations and continually reinforcing the effect. (x)

Like resonance, coupling of oscillators is also a fascinating phenomenon. Oscillators can harmonise at specific frequencies. More fascinatingly, when multiple oscillators influence each other's frequencies and behaviour, we get a coupling of oscillators. As early as 1665, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens observed the phenomenon that two pendulum clocks (of identical frequency) mounted on a common wall tended to synchronise with each other. This phenomenon of 'coupled oscillators' is observed not only in mechanics (for example clocks) but also in biology. Thus, every oscillator (and remember that the brain can also be treated as an oscillator because an oscillator is simply any device that displays the principle of a periodic fluctuation) has a tendency to oscillate at higher amplitudes at a resonant frequency unique to itself (just like the 'Wobbly Bridge'). Also, what's even more fascinating is that different oscillators, when connected or brought in proximity, can 'couple' with each other. This happens also in biological systems.

Neil Johnson, in his book Two's Company, Three Is Complexity (xi), says network level interactions can be seen in many domains from stock markets to traffic jams, where a number of objects compete for a limited resource or seemingly cooperate toward a task, each trying to outguess the other. However, the same phenomenon, when observed in nature, can be truly mysterious because it leads to biologically complex systems

Every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash their bioluminescent light in unison. For years, this exact synchronisation baffled scientists, so much so that some proposed that it is not the flies that are in sync, but rather it is an optical illusion played by our eyes. But more experiments revealed that the flies maintained their rhythm even when isolated from each other and that each insect has its own internal clock, i.e. a rate of vibration. When a group of fireflies were taken away from the main body and released in a darkened room, they settled down about 10 centimeters apart and at first they blinked independently. They had clearly lost their rhythm. Over time, they started to synchronise in pockets. Gradually, these pockets of synchronised flies got larger until they all began to synchronise again as a group. This experiment demonstrated that each fly has an internal rhythm and when brought together they continue to send and receive signals. These signals are shifted and influenced by the rhythms of others until they synchronise.

Arthur Winfree (xii), a scientist who studies biological rhythms, studied the problem of coupled oscillators across many different domains. Specifically, he studied the problem of biological oscillators, i.e. the ability of neurons and fireflies and other organisms to synchronise with each other on a massive scale. Prior to Winfree's work, scientists had restricted their investigations to two oscillators or a small number of oscillators. Winfree conducted his experiments with a system comprising a very large number of oscillators with a range of frequencies. His objective was to see under what conditions these oscillators synchronised. He discovered that such oscillators display a cooperative behaviour and that at a certain threshold the oscillators begin to synchronise spontaneously. This is one of the first examples of a self-organising system observed under experimental conditions. The phenomenon applies to many domains like the circadian rhythm (body clock), and in general to all fields where natural oscillators are seen. Winfree's work is significant because he was the first scientist to explore the phenomenon mathematically, and by increasing coupling, all oscillators in his experiment became locked. (xiii)

The synchronisation of fireflies and biological coupling of oscillators in general is an unusual phenomenon to manage from a scientific perspective since it is not based on 'cause and effect', as science normally is, but rather on what can be best described as 'synchronisation and cascade'.

Many entities (cells, objects, organisms) are connected together by some information channel, and are competing or cooperating toward a common goal. The entities get feedback. In reaction to stimuli and the interactions with each other, the entities adapt their strategy from history (memory). The system is open, i.e. it may be affected by its environment. The system as a whole adapts and exhibits both chaos and order, and at some point reaches a threshold limit where the synchronisation effect becomes dominant.

If fireflies, when viewed as oscillators, can synchronise, can human beings? Are human beings 'oscillators'? If so, where is the oscillator, i.e. the entity that creates the cycles? (In the heart? In the brain?). Most people are familiar with the concept of a body clock. For example, blind people often cannot synchronise with a 24-hour cycle, and most people know the effects of jet lag when the body clock cannot synchronise with the change of the clock during travel. But it is not clear where exactly the body clock lies. The brain could be one possibility. More intriguingly, under what circumstances can oscillators 'couple'? Can whole groups of oscillators, even millions of human oscillators, synchronise?

Is the brain an oscillator? If so, does it resonate? Can such brains synchronise or harmonise? Is such synchronisation spontaneous? Can such synchronisation be enhanced if we develop the brain?

If the brain is an oscillator, can then synchronisation of brains be strengthened through meditation? Again, if fireflies can do it ... why can't humans? Can technology augment the oscillation capacity?

In this case, the idea of 'meditation' could take on a whole new meaning and impact when we combine the idea of social and neural meditation with ideas like biologically coupled oscillators, synchronisation, 'sync and cascade'. Meditation is no longer about retreating into a bubble but more about a transformational, transhumanist phenomenon.

Conclusion

This paper talks of the evolution of meditation. In doing so, it looks at both the future and the past. This is not an easy undertaking but I believe, the future will be shaped by technology but in doing so, we will learn from the past and re-apply the lessons from the past (from shamanism) to new domains (transhumanism).

Notes

(1) http://www.existentialanalysis.org.uk/sea-conference-2011.

(2) http://www.futuretext.com/meditation.

(3) http://www.deafnessresearch.org.uk/Cochlear%20implants+1624.twl

(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain-Computer_Interface

(5) www.neursky.com

(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Earth_Catalog

(7) http ://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Anonymous_(group)

References

(i) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesley_Sullenberger

(ii) http://www.amazon.com/Highest-Duty-Search-Really-Matters/dp/0061924687

(iii) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._T._Suzuki

(iv) http://www.cosimobooks.com; originally published in 1934.

(v) http://www.brainyquote. com/quotes/quotes/b/buddha119169. html

(vi) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27203

vii http ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autogenic_training

(vii) http ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory

(ix) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Bridge_(London)

(x) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Bridge_(London)

(xi) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Twos-Company-Three-Complexity Johnson/dp/1851684883

(xiii) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Winfree

(xiv) http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v410/n6825/abs/410268a0. html

Ajit Jaokar believes in the power of networks and has studied the disruptive potential of networks over more than a decade. This article is based on his latest book Meditation In The Age of Facebook and Twitter. www.futuretext.com/meditation.

Contact: ajit.jaokar@futuretext.com and via Twitter @AjitJaokar
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Date:Jul 1, 2012
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