It is the opening day of the 2020 All and Everything International Humanities Conference. I sit on my meditation cushion, rocking gently back and forth to settle in as I peer expectantly at my laptop’s screen. The small table in front of me, just large enough for my computer, several books, and an obligatory cup of coffee, I’ve arranged by the meditation nook where I now sit in preparation for the three-day online event. Navigating to the Conference’s primary web page, I click the link to the “main Zoom room,” a small wave of anticipation passing through my body as I wait for the page to load.
The A&E Conference, now in its twenty-fifth consecutive year, has always been an international forum, but never before online. Hosting groups of around fifty to eighty participants, the gathering has moved between major cities of North America and Europe where independent Gurdjieff groups exist. Wherever it goes, members of these local Gurdjieff groups or others just interested in his teaching get a rare chance to attend a series of presentations on the writings of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. Without fail, a dedicated group of yearly staff and attendees, clothes packed for a week and a worn copy of Gurdjieff’s magnum opus, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in tow, make the long pilgrimage involving many hours of plane travel and much jet lag.
Momentarily, the “main Zoom room” opens on my laptop screen, neat rows of little square boxes bubbling into existence, until several pages with dozens of human lives are arrayed before me. Some show an empty chair, the occupant having left to put the dog out, take a quick bathroom break, or open the window for better lighting or more air before beginning. Others paint an intimate portrait: one attendee lovingly scratches her cat’s ears as its body contracts with pleasure while another raises a cleverly branded coffee cup to sip as he waits. Scanning all these little vignettes, I see many recognizable comrades from past conferences. But I also see many faces I do not know, folk for whom the Conference has perhaps been an interest but for different reasons impractical to attend.
Zoom has a format called “Speaker View” that shows only one participant’s video feed. We are instructed to select this viewing mode, and then ushered by endlessly patient facilitators through a kind of “roll call” process, each participant saying their name and location as their face fills the computer screen for one brief, introductory moment. I am fascinated to hear the names called out of Asian and South American cities typically unrepresented at the conference.
The A&E Conference occurs each year in May, but as news of Covid-19 developed in the early months of 2020, the life-deranging nature of the disease gradually made clear an in-person gathering would be impossible. What to do? The conference, a hybrid creature equal parts academic and spiritual, found itself contemplating how to adapt to the situation without compromising its spiritual leanings. With so many secular government, business and school organizations moving online, the Zoom platform presented one solution. But how would this affect the atmosphere of the conference?
Listening to others introduce themselves and waiting for my turn, I fight small upwellings of impatience as this initial session of the conference stumbles repeatedly and awkwardly through the succession of hellos. We move systematically down the list of participants in alphabetical order. The instructions are clear, but some are having audio difficulties or bandwidth issues. Perhaps the most irritating downside of “Speaker View” in Zoom is that the main screen is automatically taken up by any non-muted user making noise. Just as one participant comes center stage to say their name and location, another, accidentally unmuting themselves, pops to the front of the Speaker View as a family member innocently grinds coffee in a nearby room, unaware their sounds are the object of attention for some sixty-odd people scattered around the world.
My own two-dimensional vignette, the upper body of a young, red-bearded man with long hair tied in place behind a glossy black headset, seated in front of an unadorned white-painted wall, is also present on the screen. But am I present? In another open browser to the left and right of my Zoom window, shifting and bobbing advertisements, cleverly tailored to my online history, make attention to the opening introductions, already a bit arrhythmic without this, decidedly more difficult. My phone, positioned an arm’s length away on the table, buzzes intermittently, notifying me I have emails and texts awaiting my attention. I hear my dog whining at the front door as the Amazon delivery person drops a package off, an almost daily occurrence thanks to next-day deliveries. My turn to speak appears won’t be for a while, so I decide I can quickly grab a snack from the fridge. In the process, I get distracted in a conversation with my wife. Having turned off my video feed before leaving, nobody knows I am not present at the roll call for several minutes.
Adherents of the Gurdjieff Work commonly describe the tradition as “a Work in life.” For this reason, many of the practices Gurdjieff left are either done in the midst of daily life or, in the case of his writings and Movements (sacred dances and gymnastics that are practiced in controlled conditions), foster stillness within motion. This sentiment can be found in most other wisdom traditions: the recognition that spiritual practice, while perhaps more easily stabilized or deepened in a retreat context, realizes itself most fully in the context of ordinary, non-retreat life. The Gurdjieff Work particularly emphasizes this point, beginning and ending in one’s daily life with all its attendant challenges and responsibilities.
However, practicing spirituality in life does not imply a wholesale acceptance of every aspect of culture and technology as it presents itself today. After all, “ordinary life” in 2020 is not the same as it was when many spiritual masters, like Gurdjieff, brought Eastern or Eastern-influenced teachings to the West during the twentieth century. The average U.S. adult today spends approximately three hours on their smartphone daily, with almost half of it immersed in social media. They also reportedly watch five hours of television each day. With an average work day of just over eight hours, it would seem the average American primarily works and watches TV during their waking hours, punctuating these two periods with short but frequent increments of smartphone time. Many people also use computers during their working hours to one degree or another. So much time spent on devices speaks to the degree to which we have entangled ourselves with technology.
Can we with any seriousness call this kind of life “normal”? Ordinary, perhaps, but normal? Few meditation teachers would countenance so much discursive time spent online for those students wishing to establish a deep ability to pay attention to their lives. Rather, there seems a need for a sense of proportion: an acknowledgment of the benefits of technologies and at this point, their necessity with the wisdom to course correct away from their unwholesome aspects. During the first session of the All and Everything Conference, I encountered many distractions. The question arises whether using a platform like Zoom for a spiritual seminar is ultimately useful for the development of Being.
It is the final day of the All and Everything Conference. The Introductory session, with all its minor foibles, was more or less successfully completed two days earlier. In the ensuing days, folk from many backgrounds have presented on various topics relating to Gurdjieff’s writings. Sitting once again on my cushion, I listen as conference facilitators guide one final closing session, led with a question: “Where do we go from here”?
The screen of my laptop is placed at eye level on a makeshift platform of cork yoga blocks. I find this helps maintain an attentive sitting posture as I listen to others and wait my own turn. The Zoom window I am watching I have now learned to maximize to “full screen” to block out those alluring advertisements. I am not distracted by my smartphone, which I have hidden in a drawer in another room. I now wear a noise cancelling headset to shut out other distractions in my home. I notice that the question and answer session hums along with fewer mishaps, the participants and facilitators having gained skill with the Zoom platform. Surprised, I even notice an almost imperceptible sense of a group atmosphere as the discussion proceeds, something I’ve repeatedly felt in retreat settings but had not thought to find in a video conference.
There is rough consensus as we reflect on the conference collectively. It was better to have an online conference rather than no conference at all, but it just wasn’t the same. Staring at a screen can’t replace the physical presence of other human beings. As much as I agree with the group’s conclusion, I also sense something missing in the conversation, and chime in.
Early on in the conference, I had noticed people attending from South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Technology has the benefit of democratizing accessibility. I point out as I speak that video-conference platforms could be used to include more people. The All and Everything Conference is largely conducted using the English language in North America and Europe where groups consist of an aging demographic. Meanwhile, there are burgeoning Gurdjieff Work groups in Central and South America. Already we have several new attendees to the conference, which can now reach worldwide. Video conferencing eliminates travel costs and reduces rates for admission tickets, cutting across not only spatial distance but economic boundaries. This could be an important development at a time when global income inequality continues to increase. If an online conference is better than no conference, then surely those too distant to attend would appreciate an accessible online version in their own language.
As I finish speaking, I also highlight the future of technology. Organizations and communities like the conference that incorporate technologies now will be better prepared to navigate changes later. My central proposition: What if Zoom and other applications like it are the precursors of far more advanced human interfacing?
Video conferencing in its current manifestation is a highly visual, somewhat disembodied experience. What will conferencing look like through the lens of a virtual reality (VR) headset or feel like with a haptic bodysuit? Virtual reality headsets allow for highly immersive visual environments. Haptic technology imbues this visual field with kinesthetic reality by applying pressure or vibration to the user’s body. Haptics come in many forms, from localized bands to full-body suits. Already, haptic gloves can enable the felt experience of a handshake between two people across the world, with no chance of Covid transmission in the exchange. When full-body haptic suits are employed with VR, the online experience will acquire a three-dimensionality now missing.
Historically, the primary drawback of VR and haptics have been their expense and the cumbersome equipment required. This is less and less the case, particularly for VR. Oculus Rift, one of the latest and best selling VR systems, currently sells for just under $500 out of the box. Playstation VR, a competitor released in 2016, costs $350.
Eventually, unwieldy equipment will likely be replaced by direct-brain implants. Elon Musk, the billionaire most famous for his electric car company Tesla, has another company called Neuralink, whose stated goal is to create brain-implantable technologies. Recently, Musk claimed a new chip could soon be available, allowing music to stream directly to implantees’ brains. No headphones or earbuds. We may see products like this hitting markets in coming years, and it seems plausible such technologies could incorporate visual, smell, taste and other sensations. Conference rooms could be joined remotely through a direct-brain interface which may not seem so “virtual.” No clunky body suits or chunky goggles required.
Even more mind-bending are the boundary dissolving possibilities of brain-to-brain interfacing. Brain-to-brain interfacing is still very much in its infancy, but would take humans from merely receiving recorded or simulated sensations to exchanging much more directly. Already, wearable EEG devices like Muse give users feedback about their own brainstates, allowing meditators to accurately pinpoint when they have reached states of concentration or relaxation. As neurologists study the brains of meditators from various traditions, mapping the brain in ever more detail alongside the stated subjective reports of practitioners, neurotechnologies, as they are called, will become increasingly precise and effective. Once these devices become brain-implanted chips they may be used as part of brain-to-brain interface technology. What will a conference look like when the listener knows intimately the state of the presenter, who, rather than only speaking and gesturing, is capable of directly transmitting not only visual and auditory signals, but also smell, taste, touch, and others? What role will physical proximity, so crucial to us now, play in gatherings like the A&E Conference?
Closing the Zoom browser, my laptop clicks shut as I place it on a nearby shelf. The All and Everything Conference is over. Consciously coming back into the room, I feel a strange sense of physical dysphoria from four days spent staring at people through a screen, and decide to go for a walk. Reflecting on my own experience, I realize how much depends on one’s personal environment. I know very little of how others experienced the conference. Sure, I had decided to take a meditation posture, turn off my phone, and wear noise-cancelling headphones, but many other participants, perhaps most, did not. Were they experiencing a group atmosphere? Perhaps they were, more so than myself. Perhaps some turned their video feeds off and half-attentively played games on an i-Pad, listening in only when something piqued their curiosity.
Even futurologists, who use scientific techniques to try and gauge trends, vary wildly in their assessment of where we are headed. No doubt all forecasting is purely speculative, and presumably my own musings will be regarded as a mere pouring from the empty into the void.
But one thing is certain: deep transformations of the human species are on the way. More than ever, a sense of the unknown, at a time when human beings have come to know more than ever before, may increasingly pervade our experience year to year as powerful technologies erupt into our daily lives.
For thousands of years, humans have tread the path to awakening. Why do so few achieve this state of being and understanding? Could it be that technology, properly cultivated, will help bridge this gap? After all, teachers nearly unanimously say enlightenment is universally available, regardless of age, circumstance, or intelligence. Why then is it so rare? Why have no societies managed to make this state ubiquitous? Could studying and understanding the brains of awakened beings help us create an awakened society?
It is essential that the small demographic swath of human beings engaged in deep spiritual work, what Gurdjieff called the growing point of humanity, become leaders in the moderation, integration and development of technology for awakening. Communities and organizations that play an active leadership role in integrating technological advances are likely to fare much better in this new world. This is not to say all technologies should be used. Leadership may equally or even primarily take the form of technological fasting, abstinence, or moderation. Each new technology needs to be thought about carefully in relationship to the spiritual needs of human beings. Ultimately, rather than simply reacting to technologies already developed, it will be very important that researchers and inventors are informed by spiritual principles. Many neurologists studying meditation scientifically and developing meditation devices, who themselves are in fact closet Buddhists, are doing exactly this kind of work.
All technologies are two-sided. Whether technology is used for consciousness in the end rests on our own purity of intent. What role will spiritual teachings and organizations play in this century of tumultuous change? Where do we go from here? ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Parabola, SECRETS. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.