Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering

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Richie’s Plank Experience, for some users, starts with set-up: a board on the floor, sometimes with one end resting on a stack of sponges to make it “bounce.” Players don the Oculus Quest 2, a virtual reality (VR) headset that engulfs the line of vision and peripheral senses. Then after a simulated and dizzying ascent aboard the elevator of a skyscraper, to your abject surprise, the doors open to reveal the vertiginous effect of you standing on a wooden plank.  Now far above the street, over the tops of towers, untethered, you walk that plank.

This virtual thrill-seeking comes with an elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and panic, all at no extra cost. Some users tremble, on all fours, clutching the very board that they — moments prior—lay on the floor in the first place.

I haven’t tried it. My nerves can’t even handle the write up. The book Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, however, clues us into the lengths to which seekers will go in “man’s search for meaning.”  The plank walking was just an example of the effectiveness of technology at persuading the senses.  Authors and researchers Wesley Wildman, Ph.D., and Kate J. Stockly, Ph.D., investigate the assistive technology and science behind such futuristic spiritual quests. 

Now, you may immediately think of “spirit tech” in terms of online church services, giving, or Bible study apps, but I’m talking about something way more involved, and sometimes controversial.

Virtual Reality Church, as an example, offers services and Bible study that you can attend, dressed in your avatar, and where some have even been virtually baptized.

“People are attracted to church in VR many times out of curiosity. While ‘world searching’ they see a church in VR world and want to see what it’s all about,” L.Michelle Salvant told me. Salvant is a member of the Governing Board for VR MMO, one of the longest standing VR churches, and along with her husband Christopher, owns LMichelleMedia where they are developing ways to bring more spiritual content into the metaverse. Aside from entertainment, there is a real need.

“For others who may have physical limitations in the real world, or even real world social challenges (like anxiety, etc.),” says Salvant, “VR Churches give them an option to stay involved.”

In addition to “church” in the metaverse, spirit tech encompasses “spiritual-delic” experiences where users under the supervision of a guide who offers hallucinogenic mushrooms, or the traditional ayahuasca, are tracked and monitored technologically.

Other seekers even try a process whereby electromagnetic beams are aimed at areas of the brain all in the quest for a spiritual experience with the brain’s “god-spot.”

Spoiler Alert: there is no god-spot. For one thing, brain mapping shows religious experience engages different regions and processes of the brain. There is no one locale that could simply be jiggered.

However, some who have submitted to these processes claim a deep experience that rivals a lifetime of meditative practice. It’s a hack into a mental and spiritual state they’ve tried forever to achieve. The experience is the Comforter, one devoted user exclaimed. Others see it as now necessary for spiritual recalibration, and they think such processes are the religious sacraments of the future. (“Psychedelics, Spirituality, and a Culture of Seekership” Harvard Divinity School (hds.harvard.edu))

So, I’m not against the idea of seeking, and who hasn’t wanted to escape the church folk and the struggle that is organized religion occasionally? But just as the users who walk Richie’s Plank Experience find themselves wholly surrendered to suggestions so powerful that it can trigger a physiological deception, so, we wonder about the same potential, spiritually.

I’m not here referring to deception in the moment — in misapprehending a spiritual experience — although that could happen. Neither am I referring to the deception resulting from the taint of human bias in the technology. This could also happen, as has been shown in the field of Artificial Intelligence that sometimes mirrors the racial biases of its human creators or rule-makers. Further, I’m not talking about the potential for malicious manipulation of the brain, which is a fantastical horror movie in the making.

I am thinking about a baseline deception, a human tendency that has us hoping to shortcut meaningful spirituality, and a real encounter with the Creator, without actually having to go through Him. That was the first temptation in the Garden, wasn’t it? It was the allure of being god (“like god” or “as God,” in Isaiah 14, is the same thing as saying, “you could be god!”). So, the same temptation that caught Lucifer in the courts of heaven, is the very temptation he seeks to cosign in us.

But, without God, there is no revelation within.

Without God, there is no enlightenment.

Without God, there is no hidden meaning in our purpose.

Without God, there is no better you inside waiting to be discovered.

We’re tempted to think that there is “wonderful knowledge” to be had, apart from who He is. Or, that there is something more than who He is. And when we don’t like how long our change is taking, or how imperceptible our progress, or how much faith we need to grow into, the serpent’s original shortcut looks like an option. What human among us wouldn’t rather push the “That Was Easy” button to sidestep the seemingly protracted process of personal transformation that comes with grief, sorrow, repentance, and pain?

“Remember tech is a tool, but God is the source,” said Salvant. “Sometimes we can mix up the roles. That can cause apprehension from some as to using it, and overuse by others. When we seek God, I encourage people to have an openness for God to meet them wherever they are. Whether that’s in person, on social media, through audio, through AR or VR…but open to welcome a meeting with God wherever you are.”

This article is part of our 2023 November/December Issue
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