Contemplative Technologies

Imagining the seed syllable, Guide to the Meditation on the Mandala of Sarvavid Vairocana, unknown artist, late 18th to 19th centry

This study will develop a series of virtual and augmented reality brain computer interfaces utilizing EEG neurofeedback to reproduce the visual schemas employed in a variety of meditative practices. These prototypes are designed to test the validity of the theoretical premise that the efficacy of virtual and augmented reality technologies used as tools for stimulating meditative states are predicated on the system’s ability to simulate the visual imagery used in various contemplative traditions that induce meditative states of consciousness. This proposal runs in contradistinction to the majority of VR and AR meditation systems in commercial and clinical settings which have hitherto favoured the use of mindfulness vipassana and shamatha and zen meditation techniques that focus on the non-reactive examination of consciousness leading to relaxed mental states. As a result, varieties of meditative practices involving visualization such as the Vajrayana school of Tibetan Buddhism, Taoist meditation and Neo-Platonic hermeticism have been neglected. It is our contention that the unique affordances of these technologies reside in their ability to manipulate visual environments in order to create psychological and sensorimotor effects in the user through the phenomenon of virtual presence. Virtual and augmented reality meditation systems capitalize on these visual affordances in order to produce profound psycho-spiritual states of wellbeing. Attention and relaxation function simultaneously in these meditation systems through positive feedback loops of visual stimuli and affect that amplify the probability of entering meditative states. In these terms, we suggest that VR and AR meditation systems can be situated within a tradition of visual aids used in meditative and spiritual practices such as thanka, mandala and murti in Tibetan Buddhism, the Neijing Tu or ‘inner alchemy’ maps used in Taoism and the Arbor Porphoriana in the Neo-Platonic meditative tradition.

Collaborators:

Olive Wu, Hong Kong Hospital Authority

Dr. Alex Gearin, School of Medicine, Hong Kong University

A growing body of research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology produced in the past two decades has demonstrated the unique technological capacity for virtual reality-computer generated three-dimensional immersive environments presented in head mounted displays-to simulate and stimulate various altered states of consciousness, such as out-of-body experiences (OBE’s), psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases, lucid dreaming, psychedelic and meditative states of consciousness. (Blanke, Metzinger, 2009; Carhart-Harris et al. 2016, Montez, 2018; Suzuki et al., 2017) This research has relied on the fact that the technical parameters which virtual reality engineers have defined as necessary to create feelings of ‘presence’ in VR; 360 degree field of view, high resolutions, high refresh rates, optical calibration, head and spatial tracking and low latency, are designed to replicate the brains multisensory consciousness of self-identity and self-location in the physical body, known in neuroscience as bodily self consciousness (BSC). (Abrash, 2014; Montez, 2018) Much of the experimental research produced concentrates on manipulating the spatio-temporal plasticity of visual, somatic and auditory perception in virtual space to trigger the BSC into producing specific altered states of consciousness. The theoretical framework of consciousness at the crux of this research derives from the collaboration between philosophers of the mind and neuroscientists which argues that our experience of consciousness is only the projection of a mental model of our ‘self’ and the ‘world’ created by the complex neuronal activity of the brain, known as the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). (Chalmers, 2000;  Revonsuo, 2000)

A key series of empirical experiments devised to test the ‘mental model’ theory of consciousness was conducted by neurologist Olaf Blanke and philosopher Thomas Metzinger in 2009 where they induced artificial OBE’s in participants who subjectively identified with simulated digital avatars of their own bodies in virtual reality. That consciousness could be projected onto an exterior 3D digital simulation of the body in this experiment suggested not only that consciousness was a mental construct of the brain that could exist independently of it when it is phenomenologically tricked into doing so, it also opened a new field for altered consciousness research using virtual reality. This research on altered states of consciousness has accelerated in the past 5 years with the commercial release of second generation VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive which has made the technology more accessible to researchers who might not otherwise have had access to sophisticated media technology labs. 

Much of the recent research on ASC’s using VR is now finding practical application in the VR gaming industry through the proliferation of software and applications which have either translated the phenomenological experience of meditation into the digital realm or have been developed as therapeutic aids for entering meditative states of consciousness. Examples of these apps include ‘Soundself’ developed by Andromeda Entertainment (2013), Deepak Chopra’s ‘Finding Your True Self’ developed by WeVR (2016), Brainwave Dynamics’ ‘Satori Sounds’ (2018) and ReMind VR by Vive Studios (2018). These apps can be broadly categorized under the term ‘contemplative technologies’ and the emergent community of developers and users describe this particular genre of technology as ‘consciousness hacking’

This study will examine the virtual simulations of the formal and iconographic representation of Buddhist meditation practices in these apps by looking at how they function in relation to philosophical and neuroscientific interpretations of consciousness. Associated with the esoteric Vajrayana system of thought in Buddhism, visualization is used to imagine the complex cosmology of deities described in the tantric texts during meditation in order to purify one’s perception of impure emotions to achieve shūnyavāda or non-duality, understood as the absence of separation between appearance and emptiness. In more concrete terms, the function of visualization in Vajrayana meditation is to imagine fictional worlds with such realism that the real world appears illusory. One consequence of visualization practices in Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet was the development of a rich tradition of visual art that depicts the cosmology found in the tantras through brightly coloured paintings or thankas, ritual objects and mandalas used to aid visualization during meditation. (Linroth, 1999)

This dissertation asks the following questions; what are the technological and philosophical links between meditation practices and VR which have driven the wide proliferation of ‘contemplative technologies’ released in the past five years? Is the virtual representation of Buddhist iconography and symbolism found in VR meditation apps analogous to the use of visual art as meditation aids in Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism and can computer generated imagery presented in VR effectively simulate the visualization techniques used in Buddhist meditation practices? This research will argue that there is conceptual overlap between buddhist cosmology, neuroscientific and philosophical explanations of consciousness and virtual reality which have driven this proliferation of contemplative technologies. 

Two fundamental concepts in Buddhism underlie this proposal; pratitya samutpada is the idea that nothing exists in-of-itself, but rather that all phenomena exist dependently on all other phenomena and anatman, the doctrine of the non-self that suggests that there is no independent, permanent self or soul that exists. (Veidlinger, 2015) As a precept of Buddhism, pratitya samutpada which is translated as ‘dependent origination’, can be seen within Western philosophy as a form of metaphysical solipsism, the idea that the material world and its phenomenon do not exist outside of the subjects perceiving it while anatman corresponds with the phenomenal self-model (PSM) of consciousness proposed by Thomas Metzinger which claims that there is no ‘self’ that exists, rather that human consciousness is the ‘model of the organism as a whole that is activated by the brain’ which is transparent to itself, and it is this idea of the non-existence of ‘self’ and the immateriality of the phenomenal world which Metzinger and Blanke have tested in their experiments with VR and consciousness. (Blanke, Metzinger, 2009) These experiments have taken advantage of the technological specificity of VR which uses perceptual features like 360 degree fields of view and head and spatial tracking to produce the ‘illusion’ of a virtual reality in the subjects bodily self-consciousness (while allowing them to also step outside of it). This dissertation will attempt to argue that VR produces ontological states that resonate with primary concepts of Buddhist cosmology like pratitya samutpada. At the same time, while much research has been conducted on the concept of ‘embodiment’ in VR which gives the user the ability to ‘become’ other subjects through digital avatars, (Sanchez-Vives & Slater, 2014) the phenomenon of virtual ‘disembodiment’, in which the users body and ‘self’ become invisible, has yet to be explored outside the field of post-colonial critique (Hamilton, 2017) and a further proposal of this dissertation is that the virtual ‘reification’ of anatman or non-self is a key feature which has driven the exponential growth of virtual meditation apps.

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