February 23, 2013

The Dharma is Out of Control

Dr. Jay Michaelson

The Wisdom 2.0 conference, a four-day gathering of the Silicon Valley crowd to address the intersections of spirituality, mindfulness, and technology, is taking place this weekend. Author and conference attendee Jay Michaelson will be blogging his experiences at the summit here on the Tricycle blog throughout the weekend.

Wisdom 2.0At Wisdom 2.0 today, I was talking with a senior dharma teacher, a veteran of the scene for thirty-odd years. “It used to be,” he told me, “that you could pretty much know everything that was going on in the American Buddhist scene. Now, it’s grown so much that that’s impossible, and it’s totally out of our control—and that’s okay.”

There was, of course, a note of wistfulness in his voice, for a time when “we” and “our” friends were the scene, a bunch of scrappy spiritual pioneers figuring stuff out, far away from the limelight. But, it’s true, things have already grown way out of any one clique’s control. A thousand flowers are blooming—and a few fake plastic ones are littering the ground as well. And while the celebrity panels—Google! Facebook! Twitter!—have been enjoyable, I think it’s been the profusion of dharma projects, from wonderful to weird, that has struck me the most.

Yesterday, for example, Interaxon demo’d a device called the Muse, kind of a portable EEG about the size of a pair of headphones. Interaxon has created a couple of games, designed to build concentration and relaxation skills, which you control with your mind. “FOCUS,” your device says, and if you focus enough, you move a digital "moon" over to eclipse the "sun." I remember getting wired up in Judson Brewer’s lab at Yale and making a digital graph move by altering my thoughts; it was the closest thing I’d experienced to telekinesis. Interaxon says the games will teach beginners the basics of meditation. Maybe—so far I just think it’s cool.

Speaking of Jud Brewer, I met up with him and his company, Go Blue, while they were showing off their new Quit-Smoking app, Craving To Quit, which they developed with the software firm inward.me. For $49.95, wannabe ex-smokers get 21 days of interactive guidance, with mindfulness-based interventions that Brewer says have been proven in the lab and gentle-but-firm reinforcement from the digital coach and a peer community of fellow cravers. I wonder if anyone will try to eat their iPad.

Another mindfulness app, this time with high wattage backing, was debuted today by Arianna Huffington and her team. GPS For The Soul,” it was labeled, in the familiar serif font that I wondered whether the Huff Post has patented. This one had a mixed reception. The app is meant to ascertain your stress level by measuring your heart rate, and then help you calm down by showing you pictures of calming sunsets, or your kids, or whatever, while coaching you to take deep breaths. Which is all well and good, but if you’re mindful enough to reach for the app instead of screaming at your steering wheel, isn’t the hard work already done? Usually, the problem isn’t forgetting how to relax—it’s forgetting that we might need to relax in the first place. Maybe what we really need is a GPS that is always on, whether we reach for it or not. Then again, maybe not.

Really, though, the innovations I found most interesting were not those debuted on the main stage, but those being hawked and talked up by folks in the hallways. I met the directors of Inward Bound, which is just what it sounds like: a meditation intensive for teenagers, held at retreat centers around the country. I checked out the displays for the winners of the 1440 Foundation’s Challenge finalists, like Headspace (now offering meditation instructions on an airplane seatback near you) and What Matters Now (a kind of simplified blogging template for people with terminal illnesses). I connected with aspiring meditation teachers, aspiring clinicians, aspiring scientists.

There are those in the Buddhist world who, for understandable reasons, are fearful of this radical democratization of the dharma. It’s no longer possible to exercise quality control, to separate the enlightening wheat from the bogus chaff. But as open source style communities like the Dharma Overground and Buddhist Geeks have shown, innovation results from trying lots of things and seeing what works, rather than maintaining a single source of wisdom. I’m not sure if that’s Wisdom 2.0 or Wisdom 1.843, but either way, it’s pretty cool.

 

Jay Michaelson Dr. Jay Michaelson is the author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (forthcoming 2013 from North Atlantic Books).

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celticpassage's picture

Funny, but in star trek TNG (wich are actually historical records of advanced humans in the distant future leaked to humans at this time) all the computer stress reduction programs didn't work for Barkley when he thought he was suffering from transporter psychosis. So even hundreds of years from now, these things don't really work. (I just watched a re-run of this particular record on Netflix).