Tech moguls and gamers aren’t the only ones plugging into artificial virtual worlds these days. VR programs have helped treat phobias and PTSD, NASA scientists to envision life on Mars, and elementary schoolers to engage with science and history lessons.
VR has also taken up shop in contemplative communities. In the Colorado Rockies, a few early adopters are welcoming the new medium for its “explosive spiritual potential.” According to Tibetan Buddhist teacher, author, and gung-ho VR proponent Andrew Holecek, these emerging tools can—and should—be leveraged by Buddhist practitioners for spiritual insight, growth, and transformation.
In 2017, Holecek partnered with Jordan Quaglia, PhD, a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist (and director of the short film Seeing Through), to plug a bevy of modern-day masters and meditators into Quaglia’s cognitive and affective science lab at Naropa University for a study they published earlier this year. Participants were placed in terrifying scenarios, such as stepping off of a plank suspended high above a cityscape, to see how their grasp of the illusory nature of the experience affected their levels of fear. After taking their headsets off, many of the subjects remarked on the possibilities that simulated environments opened up, from facilitating experiences of empathy and emptiness to enhancing dream yoga and bardo training [the transitional journey between death and rebirth] to taking visualization practices to the next level. “They can’t stop talking about it,” Holecek reported. “It’s a big deal.”
But where some Buddhist thinkers see promise, others see serious red flags. Why create even more realities, they say, when we already struggle with the one we’re living in? Will this new wave of technology really enlighten the way we understand ourselves, or will it keep us distracted from and defined by our deepest problems? Such questions fueled a lively back-and-forth among Holecek, Quaglia, and a critic of their initiative, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, a veteran teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The following debate is an edited version of the panel discussion that took place on July 8, 2018 at the Buddhist Arts and Film Festival in Boulder, Colorado.
—Julia Hirsch, Community Development Manager
Andrew Holecek (AH): Like any technology, virtual reality is neutral in and of itself and depends entirely on how it is harnessed. I like to think of VR as a kind of stem cell. Depending on what type of environment it develops in, it’ll either grow into a tumor or healthy, new tissue.
As we know, VR is already being used in unhealthy ways. The entertainment and pornography industries are running with it, and Facebook recently invested $2 billion in Oculus, one of the hottest tech companies in the field today.
From a pedagogical view, virtual reality has a lot to offer. When it comes to how we absorb and remember information, the education researcher Edgar Dale has said that we retain roughly 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we see; and up to 90 percent of what we do.
There is a strong relationship between virtual reality and lucid dreaming, which is when you realize you are dreaming as it’s happening. It’s a fundamental Buddhist teaching that we have a delusional experience of the world around us, and to study the nighttime dream is to look head-on at a delusion inside of that even larger delusion.
In these vivid 3D systems, you begin to see the dream-like nature of alternate realities and can start to break them down. By extension, we can train ourselves to de-reify this reality. To borrow the language of dream yoga—the practice of using sleeping hours for spiritual development—you can bring insights of lucidity back into the primary delusion, back into this.
When I first did VR, the most transformative and lingering aspect came when I removed the headset. I looked around and thought to myself, Wow, look at the resolution here. What a remarkable app design this is. When the headset comes off, you realize how hung up you get in the “display.”
Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel (EMN): To be frank, I’m new to VR. But when I was hooked up in the [Naropa] lab I ran through a number of programs. I had a creepy clown drop down on top of me, a bus crash into me, somebody rush at my face with a drill, and enormous spiders crawl all over my body. In other programs, I was able to fly and flex my creative muscles by painting art in space. Yet I emerged from these simulations feeling like I had been enclosed in an airtight MRI machine—the virtual world seemed sterile and dead. You can argue that VR is neutral and has a range of benefits, but the medium is very unsettling.
As I wrap my head around the coupling of Buddhist practice and virtual reality, two things come to mind. The first is that it can be a tool for understanding the mind and the nature of reality, frequent visitors at any Buddhist dinner table. Buddhism takes a deep look at phenomena and tries to understand consciousness, how it manifests, and what happens when we misunderstand the fundamental nature of things.
VR creates and simulates experience, but why construct even more realities when we have so much difficulty relating to ourselves, our families, and our environment in a sane and clear way to begin with? Our bodies, on the other hand, know how to do this very naturally. When we eat, we know how to ingest the food, distribute its nutrients, and eliminate it. When it comes to the way we relate to our experience, we don’t know how to take it in, digest it, or let it go.
Are these new modalities really necessary to investigate the mind? The dharma helps us train the mind to become a reliable tool so we can engage in first-person science. The idea of needing tools “on the outside” is a very Western phenomenon—and a problematic one.
Jordan Quaglia (JQ): When they first screened the film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in Paris in 1896, the 45-second-long recording caused near panic in the theater. The audience sprung from their seats and ran from what looked to them like a train headed in their direction.
I’ve now witnessed hundreds of people trying out virtual reality for the first time, and I can’t help but think of those 19th-century Parisians who were overwhelmed by the apparent realness of a virtual environment. In the lab, we’ve been studying why people react the way they do. A lot of it has to do with how well they can see through the illusion of a given situation while they’re in it—a level of insight that we’re calling virtual lucidity, which is analogous to lucid dreaming.
Our research suggests that it is not sufficient to know intellectually that you are having a virtual experience; you have to be able to translate that recognition into something more embodied. One of the biggest opportunities VR offers is a safe illusory space to explore our range of reactions to situations and what we project onto them.
To up the ante of our scientific study, we’ve asked people to ride a virtual elevator, walk on a wooden plank suspended 80 stories in the air, step off the edge, and plummet to the ground (video below). When we face our greatest fears, be it heights, snakes, or public speaking, we may be able to peel back some of the layers that cause additional suffering.
A new train is arriving, but it hasn’t fully pulled into the station. How and why we choose to get on this train will make all the difference in terms of tipping this technology toward collective benefit or harm.
AH: It’s not like I’ve invested stock in Oculus Rift. I wish VR weren’t here, but it is. In the spirit of the Buddhism that I study and practice, mainly Vajrayana and tantric Buddhism, there is an acknowledged alchemical quality in everything: the greater the poison, the more potential for medicine. We have a choice here. If we can use these tools for pedagogical and spiritual purposes, then at least we can make something out of it beyond another weapon of mass distraction.
In fact, more and more people are talking about virtual reality as a powerful form of virtual embodiment. By donning a pair of goggles, you can perceive the world through someone else’s eyes and walk in their shoes, which is why some researchers are heralding VR as an “empathy machine.” Clouds Over Sidra, for example, was the first-ever film shot in virtual reality and premiered in 2015 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where global leaders saw the world through the eyes of a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan.
Virtual reality is driven to make people feel more “present” in the virtual reality experience. I thought we could discuss how this technological understanding of “presence” compares with Buddhist thinking.
EMN: We don’t have to look far to see how easily people get distracted from the present moment. Just think of how we interact with cell phones, television, and all forms of technology nowadays. To me, presence goes hand-in-hand with embodiment, and I don’t just mean physical embodiment. I’m talking about feeling connected to the nature of dependent arising, one of the most central principles of the Buddha’s teachings.
On the dawn of his awakening the Buddha said, “This being, that exists; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that does not exist; from the cessation of this, that ceases.” This is the way he teaches dependent arising in the Pratityasamutpada Sutra. It may sound cryptic, but in short, the Buddha is simply saying that everything is interconnected.
Take three wooden sticks, for example. They vary by size, thickness, and function, yet only by virtue of their relationship to each other. Do these sticks have intrinsic characteristics? Or do they have purpose and efficacy based on context? It’s always relational and context-dependent, according to the dharma.
Embodiment is not just about having a body; it means knowing who you are within the great nature of infinite contingency. You can’t be all-important because you are just a little piece in a vast, sensitive system. You also can’t be diminished because everything leans on everything else, so all that you think, do, and say matters. It really matters that you don’t jump off a bridge.
To be hooked up to a VR headset is a hermetically sealed, limiting mental experience. You can’t expect to become part of this beautiful, complex, and dynamic system through a machine.
JQ: The term “presence” is used differently in VR research than it is in contemplative traditions. In VR, presence is a broad umbrella term that has driven a lot of technological development. It is the goal of convincing you that you are somewhere else. That’s the very opposite of what we tend to think of as presence in Buddhism, which is feeling exactly where you are more fully.
Wisdom traditions add an imperative to presence: practitioners train in discerning what is real from what is illusory; work toward feeling in touch with the vastness of interdependence; and aim to see through the display of the phenomenal world.
I’ve seen a number of spiritual practitioners delight in VR trips, but even the most advanced meditators have been physically overwhelmed by the presence that they’re encountering in these virtual worlds. Technology has created what’s called the illusion of nonmediation, when, at least for a few moments, we forget that we have the headset on.
AH: What we do in a virtual medium can have profound real-world applications. We need to inject some wisdom into this trajectory because the cancer is already developing. This is uncharted territory, and we are just planting the seeds.
EMN: The Heart Sutra ends with one of the most popular mantras in Mahayana Buddhism: Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha, or “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.” The verse is not encouraging us to make judgement calls on what is or isn’t real. Buddhist teachings like this one challenge us to step outside of this entire system, so while it’s great that people are finding VR useful for deepening their awareness, we practice the dharma to ultimately “go beyond” dualistic notions of what we perceive to be “real” or “virtually real.”
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