We live in a time of great technological advancement. The German historian Oswald Spengler once wrote that if someone wants to do something that has any importance today, one should become an engineer, not a philosopher. And I think it is true that our age will rather be remembered for Steve Jobs and the iPhone rather than for its pioneering contemplatives and their revolutionary technologies.
Recent technological developments are even starting to show potential for use as a part of contemplative practices such as meditation. There are ways of training the mind with the help for instance neurofeedback. Machines can recognise the signatures of a brain that is focused; if you do concentration meditation and drift off, the machine can notify you of that for instance by making a sound. In that way you get external feedback whenever you drift off and you can return to meditating as intended. This could potentially make you a much better meditator.
I don’t use technology as a support for my meditation practice and I never have. Will I ever? Probably not. Here I will try to make my reasons for this clear. The points I present are in a sense theoretical in nature. They may be contradicted by empirical findings. Still, I want to justify my stance, and I think that empirical results need to be viewed in light of evidence that isn’t necessarily empirical anyway. So here are my reasons for not using technology as a means of improving my meditation (points 3-5 are actually variants of the same point, namely that using external means to support a development process will generally lead to a weakening) :
- The contemplatives that I look up to and who have influenced me in significant ways have not – to my knowledge – made use of technology to improve their practice: Rudolf Steiner, Ken Wilber, Shinzen Young, John Yates (Culadasa). I could potentially add every representative of the all the contemplative traditions here; meditation has almost always been done without the help of technology. I recognise that this in a conservative argument and to a certain extent based on authority. Nonetheless, until great contemplatives emerge who have had their practice influenced in a major way by technology, I see no reason to change my mind.
- I don’t think we have a good understanding of how the brain works and how it relates to consciousness. Therefore I’m generally sceptical about any claims that a specific technology can influence consciousness through influencing the brain; such claims are based on more or less rudimentary theories.
- There is something about the whole attitude of using external support for meditation practice that seems wrongheaded. It is like going to the gym and attaching an exoskeleton to your body to help you lift heavier weights. This will not make you stronger; it could potentially make you less strong, since the machine is doing the work for you. So what may seem like quick progress in fact leads to deterioration. Meditation is, for me, about liberating the mind, making it more self-supporting and free. Using external means to make this happen contradicts this basic gesture.
- Using external means to support practice is also an expression of an attitude that I’m suspicious of. It is an attitude that is based on the idea that you only have to find the right thing, the right pill, or the right technology, and everything will be fine or improve significantly. Again, technology may make things easier for us, but there are secondary effects to this that are not easy to notice at first; we become lazy, weaker, and complacent. If I used technology with the intent to to improve my meditation skills, I think this the attitude behind this choice will seep into the rest of my life, making me in general less sharp, less self-supported, and less active.
- There are specific ways in which I think technology may hinder meditative progress in the long run, although it provides short-term benefit. Consider the case above of receiving external signals when your mind-wanders. This might improve your concentration quickly. But when you reach the stage of sensory pacification, i.e. when the external senses shut of, you cannot rely on external means anymore. If you have become depended on external feedback, then you couldn’t possibly complete the process of pacification.
This may sound negative – and it is – but I don’t really consider myself as someone who is unfriendly towards technology. I programmed a C64 when I was a kid, played a lot of computer games, and I hope to get a new iPhone soon, which I actually use as part of my meditative practice: I use Insight Timer to track my time on the meditation cushion. One reason for this is to check how much I actually meditate, which is in a sense a form of feedback. But I draw the limit there. However, I’m fully supportive of doing research on how technology may support meditation practice and investigating whether it actually works. And to do that properly, we need cases to compare with. I’ll be a case of someone who meditates (mostly) without the support of technology. If you go down a different route, very well. We’ll see each other at the other side of enlightenment and compare notes.