The mystic in Silicon Valley

attempts to hack consciousness

Credit: Mashable


Silicon Valley finds itself in the crosshairs of consciousness. Mostly because they are hacking their way ‘inward’ through apps, mind hacks, biofeedback, micro dosing LSD and yes, corporations hiding ulterior motives.

Let’s consider hacking. Hacking’s historic forte is based on an unauthorized breach of a system, including incursions into the source code. Human source code is far from understood. We can’t even define consciousness yet. Not only that, we are deeply uncertain regarding the existence of multiverses, and can only theorize about the holographic nature of the human mind and of the universe. Yet we want to start hacking the human mind.

Silicon Valley’s, “We can solve anything” mindset champions the notion that we can find ways to hack the soul, using high tech to bring about technologically-induced soulful bliss. According to Mikey Siegel, it is essentially an overturning of the so-called guru model, including the one-teaching-works-for-many approach.

There’s clearly nothing wrong with wanting to improve things. Yet, as we watch these ideas and technologies emerging, one of the questions becomes: does it really work? Because some of the same people who may be developing apps and technically-fueled ‘soulful’ connectedness, are often the same stressed-out people who are crowding into seminars and martial arts dojos, and embracing yoga and meditation practices. Why? Because apps notwithstanding, these very innovators of consciousness find themselves bent beneath the soul-crushing pressures of their high intensity life styles and careers.

Embedded in all this, whether we acknowledge it or not, is the extent to which naïveté plays a part. (In my opinion, I’ve no question whether it plays a part or not; it does.) To my way of thinking the question is, are the people playing with the human mind willing to slow down and consider naïveté? When you’re fiddling with the source code, is that really too much to ask?

20th century mind hackers

Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) is, by any definition, a pre-software guru of the mind. A close associate of Timothy Leary, these men essentially cracked open the research into hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, LSD-25 and other psychedelic chemicals. Alpert earned a doctorate from Stanford. His father, George Alpert, was a lawyer in Boston, president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, one of the founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They weren’t lightweights. Leary earned his doctorate from Berkeley. Both men taught at Harvard. By any definition, they were pre-Silicon Valley pioneers given where they were educated along with their subsequent research into the hot topic of the moment: mind and consciousness.

When he was around 35 years old, Alpert went to India to study mysticism. Today, at 86, his perspectives have changed from his youth. One way to sum this up is to paraphrase him by saying that he sees certain things differently now, and wouldn’t necessarily express or do them the same way.

And this goes to one aspect of my point. Things change as we age, and more importantly, our perspectives and realizations change as we develop experience. A significant, mind-altering realization by a man or woman in their thirties, may end up being only a tenth of their understanding four decades later.

So when we say that time has its benefits, it’s an oversimplification to think that means nothing more than a cushy retirement. What changes as we age is not as simple as viewing an old man as feeble. It’s that life has had its way with him. It’s coursed through his blood and his mind longer than when he was a young man. Yet Silicon Valley is dominated by young men and women, who often arrive at modern-day twists on the same themes, unfolding similar conclusions that the Ram Dass’s of the world arrived at when they too were 20–40 years old.

The other aspect to my point is that when people venture into the unknown, how do they know where they are going? How do they know what to do? How deep are they, really? Can they truly be the judge of these things?

21st century examples

1. Boosting with plants and drugs

With LSD microdosing becoming a trend, places like the Big Sur-based Esalen Institute are offering workshops to provide some historical and clinical context. For some, microdosing represents a significant change in life, a new way of seeing things.

“The group will also explore the powerful and grounding mind states that can be cultivated through the practice of meditation, and examine how these states relate to states of consciousness associated with psychedelics.” — from Esalen’s workshop syllabus of Psychedelic Medicines and the Mind

2. Hacking the mind

Mind hacking is the new consciousness buzzword. It includes Transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDCS), along with a variety of approaches that include utilizing biofeedback, to monitor the heart, blood pressure and brain mechanisms. The object is to identify peak performance.

“Most of us are living in a highly distracted, over-stressed, ego-driven experience,” says Jamie Wheal. Angular, with landscaped eyebrows and a methodic vocal cadence, Wheal lays out the central burden of our time: “No one built an off switch,” he says. To self-soothe, “We rock Ambien on a nightly basis.”
We binge-watch Netflix, drink three whiskies a night and “jack off” to YouPorn 24/7. We swipe Grindr, join Headspace, and Fitbit away our anxiety in a desperate bid to keep up. “Everyone,” he says sympathetically, “is trying to alter their consciousness.” — Wired

3. Hacks include fasting and biohacking

Every Tuesday, the employees of Nootrobox, a startup that develops “smart drugs” for heightened cognitive functioning, fast for 36 hours. Co-founder and CEO Geoffrey Woo recently boasted to Quartz that Tuesdays are now “one of our most productive days of the week.”
The team framed the fast as “biohacking,” a trend that seeks to acutely manage the human body in order to operate with the highest clarity and focus. It’s an extension of the quantified-self movement and is behind the Valley’s obsession with meal-replacement drink Soylent.
The Nootrobox founders explained that through fasting, they are seeking to reach of state of ketosis, where the brain uses ketones (from fat tissue) instead of glucose (sugar) for energy. Because of the side effects (increased energy, loss of appetite), the team says it has adopted fasting as a bonding ritual. “Everyone can benefit from the work we’re doing at Nootrobox,” Woo told Quartz. “But not everyone should work at Nootrobox.” — Quartz

4. Bring in the Buddhists

More than a thousand Googlers have been through Search Inside Yourself training. Another 400 or so are on the waiting list and take classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy in the meantime. Then there is the company’s bimonthly series of “mindful lunches,” conducted in complete silence except for the ringing of prayer bells, which began after the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh visited in 2011. The search giant even recently built a labyrinth for walking meditations.
It’s not just Google that’s embracing Eastern traditions. Across the Valley, quiet contemplation is seen as the new caffeine, the fuel that allegedly unlocks productivity and creative bursts. Classes in meditation and mindfulness — paying close, nonjudgmental attention — have become staples at many of the region’s most prominent companies. There’s a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute now teaching the Google meditation method to whoever wants it. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook have made contemplative practices key features of their new enterprises, holding regular in-office meditation sessions and arranging for work routines that maximize mindfulness. — Wired

Some views of Silicon Valley’s flirtations with spirituality are understandably harsh. As Vice points out, “Silicon Valley is exploiting age-old spiritual practices for the benefit of tech companies.”

But despite the criticism of corporations, it’s nevertheless obvious that Silicon Valley’s overstressed workforce, the people themselves, are grasping for alternatives. (Here’s one of many examples of ‘consciousness tech’ at work.)

“I saw spiritual attainment and I thought, ‘That does not need to be religious. That can be scientific.” Mikey Siegel

5. Is it working?

In her excellent article, Silicon Valley Gets Spiritual, Mia Quagliarello asks, “How do you really know if any of these things are working?”

“How do you really know if any of these things are working?”

A mystics perspective

What’s it like to be a mystic, a monk or nun in everyday life? If we climb up a few thousand feet and look down at Silicon Valley’s efforts, the answer can be, “It’s confusing, and all over the map.”

The monastery views these things from the perspective of people who’ve been engaged in consciousness practices for years, often decades. Our practices tend to have emerged out of teachings and traditions that were traditionally relegated to the world of the mystic, sometimes dating back thousands of years.

In the high tech world it can be exciting and trippy to ride the wave of making centuries of teachings seemingly obsolete overnight. It seems to be that a counter voice to all this is dismissed by people who’ve already figured out all the objections and moved on. When we ask fairly simple questions in return, the silence is deafening. This notion of dismissing thousands of years of insights into the mind is foolish. Just because we’ve had air and water on the earth for millions of years, doesn’t mean we should be finding hacks to get rid of them.

We understand the urge to push religion off to the side, and as an inclusive monastery we often state we are non-religious in the sense of being inclusive. We also understand the urge to find ways to ‘break through’ consciousness faster. But faster at the expense of being deliberative, or at the expense of ignoring time-tested speed bumps is not smart.

As a monastery we are religious — perhaps spiritual is a better choice — in the sense of acknowledging the sacred. In fact, some of us in the monastery are high tech, software type people… and some of our members are even agnostics and atheists. And collectively we say, slow down just a bit, don’t get too zoomie. As a monastery we are far more reluctant to throw it all out than “the really smart guys” who are weaving and driving in the fast lanes.

We are, in a sense, a non-religious monastery that is deeply religious about the sacred.

While we are encouraged by a growing focus on consciousness, Silicon Valley has some explaining to do. For example, it’s unfortunately clear that there is a deep human, even soulful, motivator that the tech company’s are tapping into and manipulating when they recruit: you can help us change the world.

Using that buzz phrase is a bit unfair though, because many of us would jump at that opportunity, particularly if it’s soaked in the warm waters of implied altruism. But most companies are not altruistic by nature, they’re short-term profit-driven — quarter-by-quarter

Putting such accusations to the side, however, it is clear that many people are looking for things that will not only help them be more productive but will also help them experience a deeper connection to consciousness and stillness within themselves.

So from our perspective, a monk or nun or mystic in everyday life is generally striving not to be excitable. To take a longer view. To focus on natural ways of living that help induce calmness, stillness and steadiness.

Silicon Valley tends to see themselves as the masters of stepping up to solve the problems of the world. What that often implies is that technological solutions can sometimes do what fast trains can sometimes do: they can quickly take us to specific destinations, but we can miss the vital texture that’s only seen from a car, or a bike or a hike. And more to the point, trains only go from city to city: They never stop on a mountain or next to a calm lake. And the faster the train, the greater the damage if derailment occurs.

There’s a difference between an app that’s like a train, pushing your mind to a certain city, versus the decades of work that places you in the calm countryside instead. And there’s a difference between pushing our minds into a space versus being gently pulled, falling invited into the emptiness.

A calm mind is not only about calming the mind. It’s also about what you’re going to do once you’re there, once you’re floating there, staring out on the limitless horizon known as the unknown.