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The Digitally Divided Self

There’s an unusual but apparent alliance between two philosophies which are barely aware of and rarely come into contact each other, which conjure against the physical reality and the body. The first “philosophy” is represented by what have variously been called Cyberspace, Technopoly, Cyburbia and other names.

I prefer to define it as “The Digitalization of Reality,” wherein more and more human activities are being translated into bytes. Work, communication, media, entertainment, friends, dating, sexuality, culture, shopping, politics and causes are among the growing number of human needs that have gone digital.

While the Internet was something which earlier we mostly visited, now we are inhabiting the virtual worlds full-time and engineer them according to our mental projections. The Cartesian dream of a mind without a body has almost been fulfilled (even though in his old age Descartes, in Passions of the Soul, affirmed that “the soul is jointly united to all the parts of the body”).

This separation has a long history of Western thought starting from the Judeo-Christian separation between body and soul up to people like the transhumanist Hans Moravec, the artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky, or the singularity guru Raymond Kurzweil who want to download the biological human mind to a safer mechanical medium in order to achieve nothing less than immortality.

Technology itself is less and less “embodied” and physical. Technology is going toward Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and various wireless ways of communicating and even wire-free charging for devices. We have made even hi-tech tools withdraw physically from each other.

Weizenbaum, more than 30 years ago in Computer Power and Human Reason, described a typical computer programmer thus:

Bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice…Their food…coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer…Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move.

Brenda Laurel, designer of human computer interaction, notices differences in gender:

We have a class of people we call nerds who are radically uncomfortable with their bodies and their sexuality…When men talk about virtual reality, they often use phrases like “out-of-body experience” and “leaving the body.” These guys are not talking about out-of-body experiences in the way that some Eastern mystic or Peruvian Indian would. They are talking about it in the sense that if you slap a screen over your eyes you won’t have to see air pollution…When women talk about VR they speak of taking the body with them into another world. The idea is to take these wonderful sense organs with us, not to leave our bodies humped over a keyboard while our brain zips off down some network (Susie Bright, Sexual Reality, San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1992).

What was an attitude confined to technicians and nerds became “mainstream,” where most people are in front of a computer, TV or mobile screen for most of their waking lives, distancing themselves from a felt connection with their bodies, living in a purely mental world. Alexander Lowen, in Joy, wrote that in the more than 50 years since he began studying the human condition, he has seen a general deterioration in the bodies of the people who come to him; the bodies are less energized, less integrated and less attractive than those of the patients he used to see earlier. He writes that the old-fashioned hysterical patient that Freud wrote about is almost never seen. While the hysterical person couldn’t handle his feelings, the schizoid individual nowadays – dissociated from his body and living predominantly in his mind – just hasn’t many.

If technology is conducive toward the disappearance of physical reality, there’s a second philosophy which seems allied to the same goal. Several mystical traditions and spiritual teachers of the past and present consider physical reality as a dream – maya – as something to overcome in order to expand our awareness and connect with our deeper soul and with the ultimate. Physical reality is then something to be abandoned while advancing on our path toward spiritual enlightenment.

Shri Ramakrishna, in L’Enseignement de Ramakrishna, said that when a man becomes crazy for God, he becomes unconscious even of his body. Taking Chaitanya Deva as an example, Ramakrishna said that he “many times fell on the ground. He didn’t have any more hunger, or thirst, or even become sleepy. He completely lost the consciousness of his body”.

In Ramakrishna’s description of God’s crazy state we can see some similarities with Weizenbaum’s programmers. Apparently. Mystics abandon the body/mind in order to reach what is beyond the mind, while our society has relegated the body to a marginal role in order to give the mind the superior and controlling role.

Technologically-oriented people and mystics have another common point in saying that the world is unreal, an illusionary state. The former involve neurophysiology and psychology, while mystics talk about their first-hand experience in having reached a state where a broader awareness comes to the forefront, not depending on our body/mind filters any more.

But while virtual reality disconnects us from our bodies to give priority to the mind (considered the ultimate attainment of human beings), the spiritual paths toward awareness need to know, feel and live in the body as a source and object of knowledge before going beyond mind and body. In the spiritual path the body is seen as a whole body/mind entity, observed by a broader awareness. In that journey, both body and mind might be lost for a while, to be retrieved later. David Cooper in The Grammar of Living wrote: “We have to lose our heads to enter our bodies. There is a time for minds, a time to leave our minds and a time to recover them.”

The body in the spiritual path is a fragile bridge toward the ultimate which has to be crossed with respect and care, sensing and feeling it without rushing to overcome it, otherwise we risk falling into the waters, losing our minds prematurely as well. Some religions discouraged or prohibited a close meeting with our bodies, particularly in the monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being far from the sinful body was supposed to bring us closer to the divine incorporeal entity. But mystics – even the ones who came from those traditions – could not escape experiencing the body in its fullness.

The body can’t be ignored in our will to expand our awareness. Almaas (the pen name of Hameed Ali) expressed the connection with the body in the spiritual search for the truth in these terms:

As we get more present in our bodies, in our bellies, we can get closer to our essence which is truth, which is what makes us know what is true, what is false, not from logical deduction, or from the unconscious. You just know. You are close to that subtle sense which is truth. (A.H. Almaas. Elements of the Real in Man (Diamond Heart Book One). Diamond Books. Berkeley. 1987)

Eckhart Tolle expressed it in similar terms:

The most powerful anchor for staying present is to inhabit the body. That means to have some of your attention in the inner energy field of the body – to sense, to feel the animating presence that gives life to the body, which ultimately is consciousness itself. The physical body is a temporary expression of that consciousness, but the essence of it is the consciousness itself. So to connect with the physical body, and even as you perceive the world and interact with the world, to have some attention in the inner energy field and to feel the aliveness that is there in every cell and every organ as a single feeling. You are then rooted in your body, which becomes the anchor for staying present and for staying out of the mental noise (from Lynn Marie Lumiere and John Lumiere-Wins, The Awakening West, Oakland: Clear Visions Publications, 2000).

Feeling our presence and connection with our bodies works as well as the needed grounding for keeping our minds healthy in a technology-saturated disembodied schizoid condition. “The person who does not act in reality and only acts in fantasy becomes himself unreal,” wrote Ronald Laing in 1959, based on the observations of his patients, in The Divided Self (London: Tavistock Publications, 1959), while Marshall McLuhan wrote that, “By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms”. Through our technological race toward the digitalization of reality, we risk abandoning our bodies and split our minds as well, without finding anything superior for our soul to join, as is conversely contemplated in the Eastern spiritual paths.

There’s an echo of a deeper truth in the desire of replacing reality with a virtual one: the truth that the world as we see it is not the whole story. But through virtual worlds we might bend the distorting lenses of the mind even more, creating a further layer of illusionary maya. Instead of liberating ourselves from the deceptive mind, we liberate the mind from the “restrictions” of the body, coming closer to fulfilling the Cartesian dream. But the mind without a felt connection with the body doesn’t have support from our embodied intelligence and becomes compulsive in chasing every small bit of information which appears in our already-scattered attention, transforming our mind in servomechanisms of technology. Is it not a case that meditation techniques reinforce our concentration ability, usually giving attention to a part of our body or to our sensations.

However, even without any virtual technological life, the unreal can’t be avoided. Lila, the divine game played by the universal consciousness, has been playing the hide-and-seek game much before the human mind created a new hi-tech version of the game. Many spiritual teachers say that we live in a dream state, looking at reality filtered by the veil of maya which gives the mind many layers of conditionings. Perhaps lila is having fun in hiding even deeper, adding another layer by encouraging the collective mind in building its own virtual representations of reality. Ultimately, lila will become tired of playing and will reveal the true nature of reality, maybe through apparently hiding even more.

“To consider Maya, a deeper Maya is needed,” said Swami Nityananda, while Nisargadatta Maharaj said “Let the dream unroll itself to its very end. You cannot help it. But you can look at the dream as a dream, refuse it the stamp of reality,” suggesting that one be attentive and aware of recognizing the nature of the false. Since the real timeless soul (the atman) can’t be simulated or manufactured, Osho said that, “By going deeper and deeper into the artificial, science helps religion, extending the limits of what can be manufactured and thereby defining what the Atman is not”. What will be left from the limits of the artifice can be no more than the real.

In the Buddhist tradition there’s the metaphor of our illusionary ego as a thorn we have in our skin, where the Buddhist teachings represent a second thorn, useful in extracting the first one. Then we can discard both. Even an illusion can break into the ultimate reality as the Zen story, “No Water, No Moon,” where the nun attained enlightenment when the old pail broke and there was no more water in the pail, no more moon reflected in the water and, suddenly no more mind also distorting reality.

So the technological way of disconnecting from reality could be like the moon reflected in the pail which, once we become aware of the unreality of it (perhaps through the supposed big electromagnetic storm forecast in the next few years, which could block every electronic equipment), can break the mind free from any other obscuration?

I don’t know what the plans of lila are – and maybe there aren’t even any – as when kids are playing, but since the nun was carrying water, not Twittering, chatting, browsing websites, trading online or updating her Facebook page, she was present in feeling her body and her mind was probably empty for most of the time, in a state more receptive to be filled by Truth. In many spiritual paths the students are suggested to make repetitive actions, as cleaning the rice as a way to strengthen our presence and attention, taming the wandering mind. Those tasks would bore us to death, while we prefer instead, paraphrasing Neil Postman, to be amused to death.

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