Our psyches are deeply connected to the material and symbolic worlds we weave around us. The habitat of our daily lives re-inforces our habits, for good and ill. All our stuff – our apartments, our clothes, our books, our TV, our online activity, our food, our relationships – helps make us who we are, in a powerful feedback loop.
We saw the dark side of that last week, when Robert Bowers killed eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers was an avid user of a right-wing social media site called Gab, which fed him toxic conspiracy theories like the idea Jewish oligarchs finance mass migration to try and destroy white America. He sought belonging, identity and meaning through the online church of Gab, just as many young British men and women are radicalized into extremism and terrorism through a daily diet of xenophobic videos, blogs and tweets.
We can say ‘how could this monster commit such evil?’ But let’s look at ourselves. We know social media worsens people’s moods, and brings out anti-social behaviour. And yet we’re all still addicts.
Six months ago, I deleted my Twitter account, because I realized it was feeding my inner jerk. Twitter is a hellish party in which everyone is a bad version of themselves. It fosters narcissism, polarization, virtue-signalling, competitive outrage and mindless reactivity. I wanted to leave, but was addicted to its dopamine-fuelled distraction and ego-amplification. After I deleted my own account, I started tweeting from my university centre’s account instead. When I found myself, one morning, swearing at a complete stranger for giving away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, on my centre’s Twitter account, I realized I had to take desperate measures. I told my centre administrator to change the password for the Twitter account and not tell me.
But there’s a silver lining to the dark narrative of how the internet poisons our psyches. It shows the extent to which our behaviour is modifiable. It shows how malleable our psyches are. If we can be conditioned to hate, we can also be conditioned to love.
Over the last two years, the practice that has changed me the most is loving-kindness meditation. Every morning, I practice mindfulness of breathing for 30 minutes, because I have a very scattered and over-busy mind. Then I end with five minutes of loving-kindness.
I wish myself happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy, and great equanimity. I bring to mind someone I love, and wish them the same. Then I bring to mind someone I feel neutral about, and wish them the same, then someone I have difficulties with. Then I imagine us all sitting together – this can be a very strange group of people, like, my mother, my neighbour, and Donald Trump, all holding hands. I imagine us wishing each other happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy and great equanimity. Then I imagine us spreading this loving-kindness to all beings in all dimensions.
That regular imaginative practice has changed my habitual mood, I’m sure of it. I notice myself smiling at strangers more often in the street or on the Tube. I am also kinder to myself, less likely to take a dump on myself for being single, or not earning much money.
The loving-kindness script is a very old and successful technology for behaviour modification. I also use external technologies – props for the construction of my better self. I’ve made a little shrine where I meditate, and put up pictures of my favourite teachers – Pema Chodron, Epictetus, Thomas Traherne, Ram Dass, Tenzin Palmo and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I like sitting down in the morning and bowing to them, and then opening my eyes to see them smiling down on me. I also light candles and a joss stick while meditating – another technology for the alteration of consciousness.
Around my apartment, I have various other props to remind me of the wisdom I am trying to embody. I have a Buddhist thangka that I bought in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. It’s the last thing I see when I leave the apartment, and the first thing I see when I come home. I have a string of Tibetan prayer flags hanging on my balcony – I love to see them flapping in the wind, releasing blessings.
I also use some apps on my phone for my spiritual practice. I use Insight Timer, a free meditation app which I recommend. I use the Shambhala app to watch videos of Pema Chodron’s lectures. And I use an app she recommended – WeCroak – which sends me a message five times a day saying ‘Remember you’re going to die.’ According to a Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, the way to happiness is to remember you’re going to die five times a day. And then there’s old-school technologies like my books, my journal, my writing. I have written intentions stuck to my wall. And I have this blog. This is also a spiritual technology, for me and hopefully for you.
There is some excitement around ‘spirit-tech’ at the moment. Yuval Harari thinks the next religion might use virtual reality to immerse us in alternate worlds and fill us with a sense of presence. Virtual reality is already used as a form of distraction therapy, to reduce pain in burn victims, and it’s being developed as a technology for calming meditation. ‘Take a holiday, wherever you are’ is the slogan for a company called Guided Meditation VR.
I got the chance to try out meditation VR earlier this week, when I took part in a one-day retreat designed by Jose Montemayor, founder of the Cyberdelic Society, together with mindfulness teacher Tamara Russell. A group of ten of us meditated together, then listened to a lady talk about her near-death experience. Then we took turns to plug into a VR near-death experience Jose designed, in which your avatar is hit by a car, and its soul leaves the body, flies into space, and goes into various heavenly realms, before returning to Earth. I sat next to the lady who’d had a near-death experience, and she had tears in her eyes when she removed the headset. ‘How did you know what I had gone through?’ she asked.
VR has wonderful potential as an aesthetic and spiritual technology, but this is not new. Humans have always used spiritual technologies to alter consciousness. The cave paintings at Lascaux, which are around 20,000 years old, conjured up a virtual reality in which our ancestors immersed themselves to alter their consciousness. The 72-foot-long Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is an extraordinary textual and visual technology designed to guide the soul on its final journey. Plato’s Phaedo described a near-death experience, and was sometimes read to Greeks and Romans in their final moments. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another spiritual technology, designed to train the mind and the imaginative memory, so we’re not too confused in the afterlife.
While the written text is an incredibly powerful technology for self-modification, pictures are even more powerful, because, as Aristotle said, ‘we think in images’. Medieval illuminated manuscripts are technologies for altering consciousness and transforming the self. So are illuminated books of hours. So are rosaries, icons, statues, shrine rooms, stained glass windows, zen gardens, cathedrals. So are psalms, hymns, oratorios, symphonies. The song is perhaps the greatest technology humans have discovered for altering consciousness.
And then there’s plant medicines like ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories – not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director, and helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it. Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the ancient and awesome intelligence of nature.
The habitual use of any of these technologies alters the self. Habitual exposure to a beautiful garden or a sublime landscape soaks into the memory, and gives one an inner reservoir of peace and joy that one can draw on in difficult times – this is Wordsworth’s great creed. One of the advantages the rich have over the rest of us is they can frame their habitat to reinforce serenity, confidence and joy. They have access to better spiritual technologies – gardens, chapels, libraries, works of art, retreats, gurus, drugs - although every technology can become an escape from reality, which leaves the self weaker, less resilient, more proud. Anyway, with a bit of ingenuity, we can cobble together our own technologies, like a spiritual MacGyver. The quality of the intention matters more than the sophistication of the technology - a devoted peasant with a wooden crucifix may go deeper than a distracted billionaire with his own chapel.
What technologies and props are you plugging your self into? What is the quality of the content in your mind-stream? What filters have you set up to protect you from toxic ideas and habits? Does your habitat reinforce habits of kindness, open-heartedness, peace and courage? What prop could you install, this weekend, to strengthen your better self?