UNPLUG: Staying Spiritually Sane in the World of Advanced Technologies
When I was sixteen our family moved to western Kentucky, about sixty miles from the Abby of Gethsemani where the famous Trappist (Cistercian) monk Thomas Merton lived. I became acquainted with Merton the year before when I read No Man Is An Island – the book had a significant impact on my spiritual journey. Within months, my mother, father and I decided to spend a day at the Abby. I remember we turned off the main highway onto a winding tree-lined road, suddenly after crossing over a small hill, a steeple-cross appeared in the distance, and we were in the most serene setting I had ever been in. That day marked a major transition in my spiritual life.
After that day at the Abby I entertained becoming a monk, but circumstances would lead me away from the monastic life. Although I never pursued becoming a monk within a community, I would spend the rest of my life periodically going on retreats in monasteries and retreat centres. It was at the Abby of Gethsemani some twenty-five years later I had a religious calling while on retreat that eventually led me into the Priesthood.
In the oncoming years, I studied a variety of meditational practices, beginning with Christian contemplation in which I focused on a religious icon or sacred symbol incorporating the image and the attributes into my spiritual self. This meditation led to Kabbalistic pathworking meditation, Buddhist Diamond meditation, Transcendental Meditation, chakra meditation, and finally settled on mindfulness meditation and Qi Gong. Decades later I incorporated Passage Meditation into my practice. I used several of these meditational practices to reduce stress and anxiety with myself as well as my psychotherapy clients, and currently use them with clients in spiritual direction. With these meditational practices I eventually developed a secular contemplative lifestyle that keeps me connected to the sacred as well as keeping me balanced and sane when it comes to new technologies.
Staying Spiritually Sane in the World of Advanced Technologies
It took many years of intense work for me to develop a contemplative lifestyle amid my work as a psychotherapist, priest, writer and adjunct professor. The challenge in developing a spiritual lifestyle in our changing world of advanced technologies is to commit to a daily routine and practice. One needs to create an internal personal and outer physical environment that allows one to disconnect from the world of technology. Contemplative practices facilitate and promote this type of setting, and they all come from the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.
These traditions promote a calmer, quieter and relaxing environment in which one can experience an inner focus, a calmer mind, a balanced life and a profound change in conscious awareness. The contemplative practices that achieve this type of lifestyle include inner reflection, centring prayer, imaginary journeying, sacred reading, journal writing, Qi Gong, contemplation and all types of meditation.
To understand the foundations of contemplative lifestyles, one needs to know where they derive. All contemplative practices come from religions and spiritualities. There are major differences between these two concepts. According to Timothy Freke,1 religion focuses on “rituals, observances, creeds and codes of social morality.” Religion also centres on major “life transitions such as birth, marriage and death with appropriate rites that bind together a community. Religion is the outer form of spirituality,” which is a personal journey of transformation. Within this context, spiritual practices are used to transform a person’s inner life from baser needs into higher needs. To attain this inner transformation, spiritual practices such as prayer, contemplation and meditation are used. However, it is “possible to be religious without being spiritual,” such as “many people piously participate in religious customs without ever understanding a personal journey of spiritual transformation. Fundamentalism of all religious persuasions,” including scientific materialism and scientism with its “insistence on blind faith in dogmas, is religion without spirituality. This is why it divides people rather than uniting them.”
On the other hand “spirituality is the inner content of all religions, but it does not necessarily have to have a religious context. Spirituality is about setting out on a personal journey of transformation, searching for answers to the most profound questions of life.” In this context, “spirituality is a journey of awakening to who we really are; a journey of opening the heart to the love that permeates the universe; a journey from confusion to meaning; a journey from fear to faith” (faith meaning trust); “a journey from” malaise or dissatisfaction “to a life filled with magic and wonder; a journey from feeling alone in a hostile world to being one with everyone” and everything, a journey into the awakening that all existence is an interconnected whole, in essence, a journey from fragmentation into wholeness or oneness.2
As stated, contemplative practices are significant components of both religion and spirituality in the development of a personal spiritual lifestyle. A contemplative lifestyle is a life of spiritual unfoldment coupled with the experience of spiritual oneness. Spiritual unfoldment is the process of becoming aware of one’s spiritual nature and aware of the spirit within. Spiritual oneness is the recognition that everything that exists is part of one grand experience, and within that grand experience everything is interconnected or interdependent. Within the experience of spiritual unfoldment and oneness, there is a personal awareness of a divine presence within one’s self and outside of one’s self; this awareness is totally absent in Artificial Intelligent (AI) machines.
To live and develop a contemplative lifestyle one cultivates a daily spiritual practice with methods and techniques that open one to become consciously aware of their connection with all existence. The various contemplative practices cited above facilitates conscious awareness and being mindful of the present moment. However, Passage Meditation or PM is a special type of meditation because it is a multi-sectarian practice appealing to both the religious and the non-religious.
PM uses mindfulness, wisdom passages and a mantram to centre and keep a person balanced and calm. In this practice, one chooses a wisdom passage from the world’s wisdom traditions and memorises it. During meditation, the meditator says each word in the passage, one word at time, which brings the meditator into the present moment. The passage is repeated over and over for 30 minutes. Then, throughout the day, the meditator says a mantram over and over to keep calm and balanced. The mantram one chooses can be as simple as saying Buddha, St. Frances, Om, or just the word calm over and over. One interesting result of PM is over time the meaning of the wisdom passage becomes incorporated into the meditator’s spiritual life – they become one with the passage.
Religion and spirituality have always been major parts of my life as well as science. With science, Einstein had a deep impact on me, especially when it comes to how I understand the connections between religion and science. The moving statement from Einstein that became a beacon for me was “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.” These words have guided me through my years in scientific research as well as my perceptions of religion and spirituality.
In our contemporary world with advanced technologies we have forgotten what Einstein’s words really mean. It takes both of these areas working together and in harmony to keep us balanced as we move into the world of advanced technologies. We already see negative results of these technologies. People are unconsciously becoming addicted, dependent, obsessed, angry, frustrated and anxious with the Internet and technologies in general. If we can’t keep ourselves balanced as we use the technologies we already have, then how are we going to react to new advanced technologies that are now creeping into our lives. Because of these technologies, our spiritual selves or the core that makes us human is fragmenting.
This fragmentation is the result of awareness lag. Awareness lag is a phenomenon in which our awareness lags behind the rapidly changing technologies prohibiting us from adequately adjusting to these innovations and inventions. In this phenomenon, we don’t know what to do with our lives or whom to trust because we are blind-sighted by the rapid changes affecting our lives – we simply can’t adjust. We have not prepared for the present or the future, and we don’t understand what is happening and we don’t know where advanced technologies are leading us.
Because our awareness lags behind our rapidly changing world, we are overloaded with useless information. By the time we understand what is happening and able to sort through the data, it’s too late because new AI technologies such as smartphones, robotics and the Internet have taken over our lives. Awareness lag can be addressed by slowing down one’s daily pace by using contemplative practices that allow us to be in the moment so we can centre ourselves, freeing our minds, allowing us to understand the direction our lives are heading and what is happening in our existential world.
Advanced Technologies Shaping our Spiritual LiFe
The current technologies that are responsible for fragmenting and overwhelming us are smart TVs, advanced computers, smartphones, robotics, and self-driving vehicles with their accompanying AI algorithms. These technologies are taking us away from intimate face-to-face interactions as we lose sight of our humanness. Many people are becoming lost in these virtual AI realities, and many can’t distinguish the virtual world from the real world. The image of your wife on your smartphone is not your wife, but photons and electrons arranged by AI algorithms creating specific human-like patterns. People mistake the virtual world for the real world, which furthers spiritual fragmentation. Although these technologies add conveniences to our hectic lives, our spiritual selves are suffering.
Current technologies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spiritual fragmentation because these new technological innovations seeping into our lives will create more alienation and fragmentation. The following five technologies are destined to change and reshape humans forever. However, to maintain our sense of humanness, there are ways to sustain our spiritual connections through contemplative practices. These practices will keep us centred and in the present moment as we adjust to the radical changes that are here and those that are coming as a result of quantum computers, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology and gene editing tools.
The major invention that will be here soon is the quantum computer that uses quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform operations on data. Quantum computers are very different from our conventional computers because the storage capacity is enormous and speed is exponentially faster. This computer with its quantum effects will further fragment our core selves because it will change our reality into something unforeseen.
Artificial intelligence, also called synthetic intelligence or Machine Learning (ML), is the ‘intelligence’ exhibited by machines or software. Quantum computers will use and control AI programming with unanticipated consequences. There are four types of AI and the first two are already here on your smartphones and self-driving vehicles.
Type I AI is purely reactive and is in the category of narrow or weak AI, and is the most basic form. According to an infographic by the website Futurism.com, “It perceives its environment” or “situation directly and acts on what it sees. It doesn’t have a concept of the wider world” and “can’t form memories or draw on past experiences to affect current decisions.” This type of AI is very specialised and was the basic programming for “IBM’s Deep Blue” that “beat [Garry] Kasparov at chess.”3
Type II AI is called limited memory and is a category of general AI, but currently has very limited decision-making capabilities. This type of AI takes portions “of past information and adds them to its preprogrammed representations of the world,” and “has just enough memory” or experience “to make proper decisions and execute appropriate actions.” Type II examples are self-driving vehicles, chatbots and personal digital assistants. Personal digital assistant is a term for small, mobile, handheld devices that provide computing and information storage and retrieval capabilities for personal or business use, often for keeping schedules, calendars, and address book information. The latest innovation is scheduling using AI voice interactions in which one cannot distinguish between the AI voice and a real person.4
Type III AI is called theory of mind, an advanced type of general AI that will have the capabilities “to understand thoughts and emotions affecting human behaviour.” This type of AI hypothetically will “comprehend feelings, motives, intentions and expectations” as well as the ability to “interact socially.” However, Type III is “yet to be built,” but will “likely be the next class of intelligent machines.” Examples are C-3PO and R2D2 from the movie Star Wars.5
Type IV AI is self-aware and “can form representations about themselves,” which is “an extension of the theory of mind.” It is Type IV AI that troubles many in the AI field, a fear that intelligent machines could render humans obsolete or even eliminate humans altogether. Type IV would be aware of “internal states” and “predict the feelings of others.” It will be able to “make abstraction and inferences.” This type of AI is “the future generation of machines” with “super intelligent, sentient and conscious” capabilities but not on the human scale. No machine will fully exhibit humanness. How can you program true emotions, intuitions, hunches, leaps of insight, spiritual transcendence and numinous states into a logical structure – you can’t – because we don’t really understand these experiences and humans are both logical and non-logical – machines are only logical. An example of Type IV would be Eva in the 2015 movie Ex Machina.6
Robotic systems are mechanical or virtual artificial agents; usually an electro-mechanical machine guided by a computer program such as AI, including machines resembling a human being, and able to replicate specific human movements and functions automatically. These AI machines will eventually take over most of the work presently performed by humans.7 As robots continue to take over many jobs in the workforce, stressing the human psyche, the result is spiritual fragmentation and a loss of internal cohesion.
The next technology is nanotechnology, also called atomically precise or manufactory machines. These machines are created by the manipulation of matter on the atomic, molecular, or supramolecular scale. The earliest description of nanotechnology refers to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, now referred to as molecular nanotechnology.8 These small micro-machines are similar to robots and they will take more jobs from humans, further fragmenting our core selves.
CRISPR-Cas9, or CRISPR, is a gene-editing tool. The word CRISPR stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is a specialised region of DNA with two distinct characteristics: the presence of nucleotide repeats and spacers. Repeated sequences of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, are distributed throughout the CRISPR region. CRISPR is the first genome-editing tool that is faster, cheaper and more accurate than previous techniques for editing DNA, and has a wide range of potential applications. CRISPR is the protein with their RNA guide that finds the area in the DNA to be edited. The Cas9, also a protein, is the editing component that snips and removes the DNA allowing the DNA to be restructured.
CRISPR-Cas9 enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. It is currently the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation.9 This technology will reshape us physically as well as mentally, further fragmenting our humanness. However, on the upshot, this technology may offset human extinctions due to superintelligent machines creating new forms of humans, but that would also contribute to spiritual fragmentation.
Contemplative practices facilitate a calmer mindful environment. Mindful in this context is the ability to focus attention in the here and now by controlling distractions. Being mindful also means taking time for what really matters in your life by being conscious or aware of where your attention is focused, and what you are doing and feeling. In a mindfulness mode of awareness, you are being sensible, accepting and non-judgmental of what is going on in the present moment and being attentive to your emotions, thoughts and sensations.
An example of how mindfulness is used in one’s daily life is to take the time and move into the present moment. Take a few minutes and settle down becoming mindful in the moment, either in front of the technology you are using, or in the room you are in, or what’s going on around you, and focus on your present experience. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax. What are you feeling? Are you frustrated, angry, anxious or happy, content and at ease? What are the smells in the room you are in? Are they pleasant or noxious? What are you thinking, is it something specific or non-specific? Where you are sitting, are you comfortable? Do you have aches, pains, itches, tingling sensation or a subtle calmness throughout your body? What do you hear? Do you hear natural sounds such as birds singing, traffic sounds or undefined sounds? Are you comfortable or tense being where you are now? Be mindful of these sensations and experiences for a few minutes. Now slowly move your awareness back into the everyday world.
Being mindful in our world of advanced technologies is essential in reducing awareness lag, technology addiction, obsession and dependence by keeping yourself calm, balanced and centred. In this regard, approach all technologies with a mindfulness perspective. Before turning on your computer or any other communication device, sit for a few minutes in front of the technology and close your eyes and focus on your breath going into your lungs and your breath going out of your lungs. On the in-breath, say to yourself “I am calm,” and on the out-breath say to yourself “and I’m at peace.” By sitting in front of your computer or any technology performing a meditation, you centre yourself before being exposed to the Internet, email or Facebook. When you are on a computer or any technology, pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and emotions – if you become anxious, frustrated or angry, stop, take time out and meditate to centre yourself. I say the Buddhist Metta Prayer before turning on my computer to centre and calm myself.
When on the Internet, selectively pay attention to what you are viewing, and how much time you spend on each such as e-mails or Blogs. While on the Internet, or using your smartphone or on Facebook, always pay attention to your emotions – are you angry, frustrated, happy or in an upbeat mood. In being mindful, do not surf the Internet without a specific goal, always be aware of where you are emotionally. After viewing, take a short 10-minute rest period, re-centre yourself by doing something non-technical or just sit and meditate. At the end of the day, turn off your computer and smartphone, prepare to rest, and relax before going to bed. Take control of technologies and don’t let technologies take control of you because this helps to prevent technology addiction, obsession and dependence. By being mindful, you avoid spiritual fragmentation by moving into a state where your life has purpose and meaning. I control my time at the computer by turning it off each day around 6 PM, and on most Friday afternoons I turn the computer off – in most cases, I don’t turn it back on until Monday.
Once you have created a mindfulness set of practices in working with technologies, it is time to broaden your contemplative lifestyle to assure you have purpose and meaning in your life. To achieve a contemplative lifestyle and keep yourself mindful and centred, take a no-technology day by limiting your use of technology. As the five advanced technologies discussed earlier take centre stage in our global world, we need time to connect to our humanness – finding meaning and purpose in our life. We ask ourselves, what really matters in my life? It’s not these advanced technologies; it’s our connections with ourselves and with other people, the beauty of a sunset, the songs of birds, the simple evening meal with our loved ones – meals where cell phones are forbidden. When loved ones eat together, there needs to be a rule – no cell phones and no texting, only face-to-face communication – we are humans not AI-driven robots. Find a day you can set aside to reconnect with yourself or life partner or family.
On the no technology day, UNPLUG and choose the technologies you want to UNPLUG from. I set aside all technologies except for the CD player in which I only play slow relaxing music and Gregorian Chants. Before bed, I may watch a non-violent commercial free movie for a short time and then turn on the Music Choice channel and fall to sleep listening to Soundscapes. As you UNPLUG from your hectic consumer driven materialistic outer life, you will begin to engage in quiet time, listening to slow relaxing music in the background, reading poetic stories or spiritual reading also called lectio divina. Throughout the day, sit and relax by centring yourself in the calmness of meditation. DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE PAST OR THE FUTURE; ONLY BASK IN THE PRESENT MOMENT.
I have found the contemplative lifestyle centring and rejuvenating. Setting aside one day in which I can reflect on what has meaning and purpose in my life is very fulfilling. What’s fulfilling are not new technologies, buying things I don’t want or need, but the interconnections with friends, family and everything around me. It’s our face-to-face human communications with each other that is important, not the phony one-sided view of a person on Facebook. You will never honestly get to know that person electronically; it’s only in our flesh and blood interaction one gets to know a person.
If we are not mindful and acutely aware, new advanced technologies will take total control of our life, rendering us pawns in a world of fragmentation. We end up shallow, with no real meaning and purpose in our life. The antidote is to cultivate a contemplative lifestyle using various mindfulness practices such as Passage Meditation and simply UNPLUGGING.
1. Encyclopedia of Spirituality: Information and Inspiration to Transform your Life by Timothy Freke, Godsfield 2000, 152
7. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford, Basic 2015
8. Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization by K. Eric Drexler, Public Affairs 2013
9. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna & Samuel H. Sternberg, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017; also see Brett Lothian’s article ‘The Rise of Homo Technicus’ in New Dawn 169.
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