Part 6: The Digital Mindset — Applying Concepts from the Wisdom Traditions to the Study of the Mind
So far, I have mentioned the realm of consciousness and mindset only incidentally. But one of the key arguments in this series is that external change has to be accompanied by internal transformation in order to be sustainable and healthy, instead of leading to an anti-humanistic dystopia, where algorithms govern humans. Accordingly, in this post, we will take a closer look at this “inner side”.
In previous posts I alluded to the fundamental shift in mindset and consciousness that accompanies our digital age. Digitisation opens up a space for us to perceive and relate to the world and ourselves in novel ways. As we confront an increasingly complex external world, we need to develop a „larger perspective“, a „broader awareness“ and a „more conscious society“, attributes I described in the blogpost Where are we coming from, where are we going to? as part of the „yellow“ woldview and the metamodern perspective. While outlining my method regarding innovation in The Ecology of innovation, I also stressed that innovations, in order to be sustained over a longer period and create progressive effects, needed to create a correspondence, a new coherence, between outside and inside.
As many of us have an aversion to concepts and language which feels „flakey“, „new-agey“ or esoteric, we tend to avoid speaking about the subjective, interior perspective altogether. Instead we limit ourselves to understanding and speaking about that part of the world, which has — since the Enlightenment — come to seem more serious and more worthy of discussion: the scientifically knowable and measurable external world.
In this post I want to dig deeper into the working of our individual and collective consciousness. How might consciousness be changing in the digital age, and what could this look and feel like from the inside? And if these changes are in fact deeply interconnected with the ubiquity of new information technologies, what does it mean for humans to develop a „digital mindset“ that meets the needs of the contemporary world?
We are now diving into the left quadrants of the AQAL (the model is explained in greater detail in the Future Sensor Part 3: Where do we come from? Where are we going to?), exploring both the upper and lower left quadrants. The upper left refers to the individual subjective perspective: our personal thoughts and feelings, our values and priorities, and our existential needs. The lower left quadrant consists of the shared intersubjective realm. This is the collective cultural domain: our societal norms and values, as well as the do’s and don’ts of the different cultural contexts, whether explicit or implicit.
Which language can we use?
As a society we lack precise language to talk about these more subtle, non-visible and often also unconscious phenomena. But this interior element is part of reality and determines how we engage with that world. Ignoring it generates a worldview that is flattened and inadequate.
Even if we make approaches at describing our inner worlds and processes, we encounter the gravitational pulls of language and society back towards rhetoric that describes external aspects, deploying objectified psychological terms and concepts. For example, we speak of “projection” or “dissonance” without describing the felt sense of these phenomena . As an alternative, we should turn to the traditions of spiritual wisdom for the individual internal domain (upper left quadrant), such as Buddhism, Taoism or the mystical teachings of Christianity and Islam. For the collective cultural level (lower left), which will be the focus of another article, I suggest that we draw upon the field of anthropology, which has a strong tradition of studying identity formation, changing worldviews, and implicit norms and values, placing high value on the “emic” (subjective) perspective of the group studied.
The challenge we face in speaking about the inner individual experience of life is that while we know quite a bit about the working of the brain, we know very little about the working of the mind and consciousness. Every one of us has only access to his or her own mind. Brain scientists have speculated that to be able to plug into someone else’s consciousness would be like a psychedelic experience, as ways of experiencing probably differ greatly between individuals. As of 2018, this is not an option. Yet even if we are only looking at our own minds for a frame of reference, very few of us really know what is going on. Our experiences and thoughts are not the result of our free will, but rather a consequence of filters and structures acquired through both biological factors and the socialisation process, which imprint how we experience and process life. Our thoughts and sense perceptions exist largely independent from our own volition. One of the very few methods to observe and study the working of our inner, subjective world is through various meditation techniques. Meditation focuses on observing our emotional and physical experiences and the mental reactions to them. The wisdom traditions have systematised the experiences of meditation and offer us the most interesting concepts to observe, study and understand the mind.
Space, Structure and Movement
One spiritual teacher, Thomas Hübl, speaks about three basic concepts relevant to the workings of the mind: „space“, „structure“ and „movement“., These three concepts enable meditators to understand and describe their inner subjective landscape more clearly. They also provide them with guidance in their journey of internal development.
After outlining these concepts, I will relate these three concepts to the digital dynamics outlined in the second post, The Digital Dynamics. I will show that digitisation can be understood as an invitation to develop an inner capacity capable of dealing with greater complexity. It can encourage us to enlarge our inner space, thus accommodating more structure and movement within.
Using the three concepts of space, structure and movement can help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to develop a „digital mindset“, or the kind of higher-level thinking which, according to Einstein, is needed to solve the problems created by existing modes of thought. Let’s outline each of them and see how they are connected.
Before zooming in on the three concepts, let me provide some more context.
For these traditions, the real consciousness — the boundless presence — that is associated with our true nature is an alchemical force that can transform the human organism, opening its various perceptual centers — thought, feeling, and sensation — to new levels of sensitivity and responsiveness. This opening enables us to experience dimensions of reality unavailable to our ordinary awareness. The great spiritual and philosophical traditions of both the East and the West tell us that it is only through this higher, more-inclusive consciousness that we can uncover our true potential and destiny as human beings.
In these traditions, the idea of consciousness spans a vast continuum of human experience, from the profound “no-thing-ness” of deep sleep, to the faint glimmerings of subjective awareness in ordinary sleep, to the subject/object awareness of the so-called waking state, to the cosmic unity (non-duality) or emptiness of ultimate awakening.
Space, the first one of our fundamental concepts, is the realm through which humans progress through all these different stages. In its ultimate form it is the realm of pure presence and unlimited consciousness. Whereas most (but not all) brain scientists understand consciousness to be a function of the brain, most wisdom traditions have held that consciousness is more similar to a property of the universe, such as gravity. In space, energy emerges, moves and forms structure.
Movement refers to the fact that all energy in life emerges, moves and morphs indefinitely. We experience movement in many different varieties, as aliveness, sensations, emotions, thoughts, inspiration, motivation or innovation.
Structure is solidified energy. It is everything that takes a form, such as words and concepts, social norms and furniture. Structure can be healthy when it gives us a base in life or unhealthy when we have started to fix free moving energy, for example in order to protect ourselves from something which stresses or scares us. If we are fixed into one specific structure we lose our ability to respond to situations adequately and move through life fluidly.
Exploring space, movement and structure
All wisdom traditions speak of the concept of space, and give it many different names. In Thai Buddhism it’s called „the original mind“; in Tibetan Buddhism it’s „Rigpa“, meaning „silent and intelligent“; and in Zen it’s referred to as „mind ground“ or mind essence“. The Hindu non-dualistic traditions speak of the „timeless witness“. While people grounded in these spiritual traditions, or secular people with a meditation practice, might understand what “space” refers to, most other readers will likely be lost. For those latter, I’ll try to convey a felt sense of the meditators experience.
When closing your eyes and observing what is going on inside you, what do you notice? Most likely some bodily sensations and your mind spinning in a million directions. A meditation teacher would instruct you to observe everything happening inside yourself. Focussing on your breath, you might notice certain body sensations (often uncomfortable ones from sitting still for long periods of time), and lose yourself quickly in a maze of thoughts and other sensations. When your mind wanders off, your job consists of reigning in these thoughts whenever possible, coming back to yourself and resting in an awareness from which you can observe the sensations, instead of being unconscious of and flooded by them. After some practice, you will be able to stay in this observation mode for longer periods of time. From this quieter vantage point, you will be able to observe all kinds of movements — thoughts, emotions and other sense perceptions coming and going. Staying in this mode for longer, you will experience the space around the sensations. You will notice that not everything you observe is a sensation, but that there is a place in which sensations are appearing. The more your center of awareness rests in this open space, the more it expands and you are able to observe your emotions and thoughts as if from the outside.
Thus meditation allows you to become aware of space and the movement of energy and structures within it.
Cramped versus open space
Structure is the name for all solidified energy, all more or less fixed forms, that appears in empty space. Each of us has a different balance between empty space and structure. Some people have a lot of space and can hold many structures in it, for others, space is smaller and consequently structures have far less room. The Buddhist term for the latter, a mind cramped with restless and capricious forms, is the “monkey mind”. The balance between structure and space differs between individuals, but also for individuals at different times of the day or in our lives.
As this may sound very bewildering to readers without an inner practice, let me try to explain it with the help of two images. The first image consists of a cramped space full of objects and structures. The structures are very close to each other and thus unable to move freely. The second image consists of a great expanse with a lot of space, in which structures can float freely. There is so much space that the structures are tiny specs of material moving in the vastness. If these two modes represent opposing distributions between space and structure, there is a whole continuum of different subjective experiences between them. Each mode stands for a distinct inner world.
How do you experience the world in the very spacious mode? Your awareness is strongly anchored in space. Your mind is probably calm. Your depth of experience is large, but detached. During meditation, you observe your own thoughts, one word coming after the other, like pearls on a string. In real life encounters, for example, when someone misbehaves towards you, you observe your reaction as it arises. You notice your heartbeat accelerating. Anger is welling up inside you. You see yourself thinking „what an idiot“.
As you are observing all this, you are not identified with your sensations; they are not the subject but the object of your observation. This way you are also able to see what is going on in the other person who provoked you. You can see, for example, that her outburst comes from her deep psychological need to assert herself. Not being completely identified with your experience enables you to take a short break. You have enough space to decide whether to show your anger or suppress it. You are able to do what Viktor Frankl so memorably phrased: „Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Now consider the other extreme, the spaceless mode. Imagine your awareness is completely occupied by thoughts and emotions. You can’t distinguish one sensation from the other, let alone order them. Strong heartbeat, thoughts and complex emotions are all diffuse and intertwined. They overwhelm you. The only world you are aware of, your only reality, is the world of these structures. If someone comes up to you and provokes you, you react instantaneously. You snap. There is no space to choose your response. As you are fully occupied and identified with your sensations, there is neither space for a break nor the chance to see your counterpart properly and recognize his perspective. The latter would mean to open yourself up to him. Connecting to someone and seeing him for what he is, involves hosting him inside you. But you have no space for that. Instead of responding, you are reacting.
The relation between space and structure changes along the adult development process. Small children are very identified with their own immediate needs: they see an ice cream and want it right now. Later, most of us learn to achieve some distance from our most raw sensations by having our rational mind control our impulses. The more we mature, (a process which can be supported by a contemplative practice such as mindfulness or walking in nature), we are able to extend our awareness beyond our physical and psychological structures, creating a distance between the observer and the observed forms, thus expanding our awareness into a more spacious realm.
Space crammed with structures
Open space with very few structures
Belonging and Becoming
To the triad of space, structure and movement I would like to add a second pair of concepts: Belonging and Becoming.
Our lives revolve around those two poles. On the one hand we need to feel anchored and secure, both in the world and ourselves. On the other hand, humans have an inherent drive for self-expression and growth. We want to evolve and become. Again, the balance between the two varies. Different people need more or less safety or have a weaker or stronger drive for self-expression. The same applies to humans across their lifespan. Typically infants have a strong urge to belong, to release tensions and fear in the comfort of the embrace of their significant others such as parents. Growing up, the “becoming” drive gest stronger and stronger as children are eager to unfold their potential.
The capacity for self-realisation depends on the individual’s access to empty space. Growing up always involves a step into the unknown, a letting go of belonging. People need to be able to step outside of their conditionings and habits, their known structures, and instead follow their intuitive capacity to meet life moment for moment in a fresh and new way, thus allowing for more free movement. The more psychologically mature people are, the more are they able to find a healthy balance between belonging and becoming.
The relationship between space and structure and between belonging and becoming change respectively moment to moment and throughout the maturation process of the human psyche. The more psychologically mature a person, the easier it is for her to rest more in space than in structure. Her awareness is more anchored in consciousness itself than in inner experiences and external observations. At the same time her need for security and belonging is less tied to stable structures, but more able to rest in movement, thereby continuously „updating“ and self-actualising herself.
Here comes digitisation
Now let’s look at the digital dynamics described in the Digital Dynamics blog post against the background of this map of our mind and consciousness.
Digitisation is exerting pressure on our habitual range of consciousness and perception of the world. For most of humanity, people had direct knowledge about the things most important to their everyday lives. They knew the people who provided their food, shelter and clothing (themselves, their neighbours or a local ruler), With increasing political units (from tribes to nation states), division of labour, industrialisation and globalisation the processes affecting our lives became more and more removed from our direct experience and largely unknown. I don’t know who made the shoes I wear or the coffee I drink, nor do I have any concrete idea why they cost what they do and which environmental or social consequences their production entailed.
The already bewildering complexity of the industrial world is amplified by the digital revolution. Not only is there suddenly an infinite amount of information available to all of us in real time, digital technologies also disrupt many of our established habits and institutions with a speed and force previously unknown. Using the concepts of space and structure, becoming and belonging introduced above, the range and speed of this development leads to an onslaught of new structures (new information, new objects, new practices), for which our habitual inner space is too small. Consequently many people suffer from overload and are overwhelmed. At the same time their sense of belonging is threatened. (This trend, accompanied by deeply political power dynamics in which elites manage to superimpose their interests on other classes, is one of the more subtle reasons for the re-emergence of nationalism and authoritarianism.)
In order to cope with this structural complexity in the outside world, we are experiencing pressure to expand our inner world, to become more conscious and aware. This process means that we need to enlarge our awareness of inner space so these new structures and the inherent experience of complexity have more room to move in. More internal space also means that humans have more room to witness structures and understand their real nature better than before. What do I mean by the “real nature” of structures? That forms are not permanent, stable givens, but moveable, ephemeral constellations. Once this is understood, not only in a cognitive way — everything is constantly changing — but has become deeply embodied knowledge, people can seek new ways to feel safe in a constantly changing world. They can anchor their need for belonging in dynamically moving structures. This jump into a larger and more aware consciousness enables humans to express themselves more fully, i.e. follow their intrinsic impulse to “become” and (in the language of development psychologist Robert Kegan) be more self-authoring.
Decentralisation goes hand in hand with the gradual dissolution of fixed structures, such as hierarchies. People can function and thrive without the need for stable points of orientation. Instead they are able to find stability in moving constellations. At the same time the letting go of a fixed position in life and society enables people to become more flexible and change perspectives accordingly. This coincides with the capacity for multiperspectivity, which I described to be a central characteristic of the „yellow“ metamodern worldspace. Healthy decentralised spaces have the capacity to self-organise: the system can adjust its own structures, adding or reducing complexity as needed for the tasks ahead.
Sharing and Collaboration
Once structures become lighter, more open and interconnected, sharing and collaboration become easier, as people move more flexibly back and forth. People I formerly identified as strangers are moving closer and I recognise them as fellow human beings with whom I can collaborate and share. As more and more humans become individuals I can relate to, it suddenly seems absurd to do large projects alone. This trust in people I formerly saw as strangers rests in my new ability to see them more clearly as real people with needs, interests and skills. This helps me to connect to others more and more finely.
Flowing, Constant beta, Continuous becoming
The central digital dynamic of representing reality not as something static and fixed, but as flowing and in continuous emergence, in a state of constant beta, mirrors my image of ever more fluid structures moving in space. Increasingly, our perception keeps pace with the fact that life, on the most basic level of elementary particles, is moving. With our awareness resting more and more in space and observing the movement of structures inside and around us, we perceive and approximate the pulse of life more closely. Whereas before I needed to fix structures in order to feel stable, I can allow these structures to move. I feel stability and belonging in movement. Importantly, this movement is both inside myself and outside, thus I become „movement watching movement“.
This dizzying point of view was well captured in the movie Interstellar (2014), when the astronaut Cooper needs to spin his ship in order to dock the rotating orbital station. The docking scene, when translated from the physical world to a psychological experience, gives viewers an almost visceral feeling of what it means to navigate in multidimensional moving environments (thanks for Pavel Borecky for coming up with this reference).
The Docking Scene from Interstellar, 2011
When space is getting bigger (both geographically, as the whole world comes into view and experientially, as our awareness increases), humans see how much of everything is already there. Surrounded by plentitude, they can overcome the habit of thinking and acting based on scarcity, but instead start to think and act from a position of abundance. This also explains why post-material values are rising: amidst plentitude people don’t need to own as much as before in order to be satisfied. Access to a wide range of emotions, inspirations and connections, they have other sources of joy than a new car or an all-you-can-eat buffet. In this setting it makes much more sense to share a lawnmower with neighbours than to own one oneselves.
Digital tracking also changes our level of awareness. Tools allow for a broadened set of perception skills, both on the individual as well as the societal level. As individuals people first outsource self knowledge to devices — have I walked enough today? Do I eat a healthy diet — a heightened sense of self-awareness can develop in a feedback loop between human and device. On a societal level tracking and big data analysis can broaden our vision of reality, as we grasp connections, correlations and casualties on an unprecedented scale. This can enable us to transcend linear ideas of cause and effect to reach a more adequate appreciation of complexity.
With space expanding and structures moving around more freely, it becomes possible to hold more perspectives than the one we usually identify with. More emotions, facts, meanings etc. which seemed contradictory from the narrower perspective can co-exist. This allows for a remixing of previously separated entities. Suddenly old polarities — between love and hate, right and wrong — seem weird and restricted. There is a parallel from development psychology: growing up, the 6–8 year old child learns that it is possible to have two conflicting emotions at the same time, for example to be angry at your mother and seek her comfort and approval at the same time. As the space is bigger, the „cake“ which can be distributed to conflicting parties gets bigger. Instead of viewing the world as a zero-sum game, people can see win-win scenarios. People can play more freely with different aspects and facets of their personalities, which before seemed inconsistent and too large a stretch to combine. Space gives humans the freedom and pleasure to embrace ambiguity and occupy „the spaces in between“ well-defined structures. This “both/and” has been described by metamodern philosophists as the typical avantgarde sensibility of our time.
Cognification and AI
All of these developments seem to focus on humanity’s inner development: our capacities to connect and communicate with others, access our emotional landscape, and face up to psychological needs and wants. The trend of cognification and artificial intelligence encourages this emphasis on our inner lives and subjectivities. Machine learning and the possible threat of a superintelligence forces us to develop a more nuanced understanding of intelligence and what it means to be human. It seems inevitable that machines will outperform us in many areas of „thinking“ and outer intelligence. It seems also a given that algorithms will come to know us very intimately and will be able to manipulate us on an emotional and cognitive level. But so far we know nothing about the ability of machines to emulate or acquire consciousness. So as we are outcompeted in the outer intelligence realm by artificial intelligence, it is in the realm of consciousness that we find our uniqueness. If this is true, then we will see many more people, research and industries focussing on the as yet largely unknown inside subjective experiences.
Global awareness is the last digital dynamic on our list. As humanity moves from small (family, tribe, clan) via medium (tribes, region, nation) to large-scale (global, planetary) connections, our vision of the world changes accordingly. The globe-spanning connections enabled by digital media enable us to move from an egocentric to ethnocentric to global worldview and mindset. I don’t believe there are many people today who truly have a global perspective, as most of the so-called „global players“ move in a very limited space in terms of social and cultural diversity and even show a heightened disregard for the environmental and social problems their economic practices and lifestyles cause. But as I described above in more detail, digital technologies encourage and push our awareness to encompass ever-larger fields.
In previous posts, I already mentioned that my vision of current digital developments focuses strongly on the upsides and potentials. Nowhere is this truer than with regards to global awareness. We all know how information overload overstrains us. We can’t acknowledge and digest everything that is happening around the globe. We simply don’t have the space inside us to host this multitude of impulses. In order to cope with the global information flow and with the other dynamics I’ve outlined here,we need our awareness to expand. We can do so step by step. First, we can notice the overload. Perhaps we experience a frightening loss of stability and belonging in an increasingly decentralised, flexible, open, fluid, expanding, constantly moving world. One option, which many people take, is that they give in to the feelings of fragmentation, alienation and disconnection. Anxiety is very likely the consequence, and in their need to re-stabilise themselves many people are inclined to attach themselves to old ideologies such as nationalism. The phenomenon of filter bubbles and echo chambers, which featured prominently in the public discussion of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, strengthen this regressive movement.
But we have another option. Instead, we have the option to take things slowly and do no more then register the overload and observe how we shut down internally or turn our awareness away. With time, we can learn to rest in this ambivalent, uncomfortable space and might notice how our inner space changes and expands. We can notice the fragmentation and identify our longing for a larger, meaningful framework and observe and navigate complexity, helping the emerging movements to manifest and become new lived and felt realities, adequate answers for the burning questions of our times.