These are some of my thoughts on what tantric meditation traditions have to tell us about how to pro-actively deal with situations where technology triggers culture-wide crises of identity and ethics. It’s all about training the mind.
In 2001 Dr. Vladimir Chaloupka at University of Washington invited me to participate in a graduate seminar on “Knowledge Enabled Mass Destruction” whose purpose was to foster interdisciplinary discourse about the feasibility of, and possible responses to, the kind of global threats posed by Eric Drexler’s Grey Goo Problem and Bill Joy’s related essay Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. In short, if you measure the progress of civilization in terms of the amount of damage that could be wrought by five determined people acting on their own, what does it mean when you reach a point where those five people could wipe out civilization completely, or make the planet uninhabitable? Is that even possible? Have we already reached that point? What can/should we do in response? As discourse and speculation about the so-called singularity continues to build, this topic seems more relevant than ever.
I think Dr Chaloupka’s reason for hosting the seminar sheds useful light on the subject. He said that the nuclear bomb led Physicists to talk about ethics for the first time in a field that is designed to be entirely focused on observable facts, explicitly excluding any deference to normativity. He painted a picture of this high-minded pursuit of pure science being stopped in its tracks by that single moment where the hubris of scientific progress led to holocaust on a previously unimaginable scale. He said the discipline of Physics was forever changed by the burden of knowing that their work had produced nuclear bombs, and thus indirectly made nuclear proliferation possible. This has led Physicists to tackle issues of global ethics in ways that most other traditions haven’t. As other fields have now taken on a pace & tone of innovation that almost promises the invention of new horrific dangers, he wondered if the contrite inventors of the atom bomb might offer some guidance or preemptive inspiration towards caution.
Dr Chaloupka asked each participant in the seminar to present some contribution from zir own field of expertise. For example, a virologist addressed questions about weaponized superbugs and an engineer described the nuances of nanotech. I, an undergrad pursuing a Bachelors in Comparative Religion, spoke about Tantric Sex. My presentation focused on the fact that tantric traditions include meditation practices that are dangerous if you engage in them if you’re not adequately prepared.
Though the idea of a meditation practice being dangerous may seem strange, there’s ample evidence floating around these days. Some people definitely get really messed up when they do this stuff. Even with carefully maintained traditions, things get seriously colorful at moments. For this reason, before teaching these meditation techniques, authentic lineages are extremely careful to ensure that practitioners have first completed the appropriate foundational practices to stabilize their minds.
There is a wild and colorful variety of tantric traditions. Most of their practices do not involve sex at all. I chose to focus on tantric sex for this presentation because it’s something appealing and potent that has come to be taught outside the original traditions. I drew the parallel that tinkering with potent technologies in pursuit of exciting innovations is like going to some snazzy weekend course on tantric sex and then tinkering with the techniques in pursuit of better orgasms.
In the end, I was happy with my choice of subject matter, but I wasn’t satisfied with my presentation. When I finished my slides, the other participants asked questions to the effect of “Ok. So these traditions say you should be careful to prepare before you let the cat out of the bag, but what does that tell us about how to deal with a situation where the cat (technologies allowing determined people to do global harm) was never in a bag?” I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer, despite being convinced that there was something to be gleaned from this parallel. I simply didn’t know enough about the subject.
For years afterward, I’ve periodically sought to formulate a more complete presentation of the idea I was trying to get across. Now finally, I think I might have put my finger on it. I’m not going to speak about tantric sex, though it’s such a compelling idea. Instead, I’m going to look at the traditional purpose of initiation and secrecy in tantric traditions and how that applies to the contemporary crisis of ethics that Dr. Chaloupka challenged us to address. This analysis definitely applies to the idea that humanity is approaching a technological singularity, but it also applies to run-of-the-mill crises of ethics triggered by technological advancement.
Tantric meditation traditions carry thousands of years worth of repeatable observations, drawn from trial and error, about the potential and limitations of the human mind. They also carry myriad praxes/technologies for fulfilling that potential. What does that tell us about super viruses and murderous nanobots? Actually, it tells us a lot. Remember that technology is created and used by humans. To understand technology, you must look at the human mind. In that sense, these tantric traditions are particularly useful because they’re all about skillfully working with the mind when it’s at its most potent, when it’s overwhelmed by its own energy.
Why do tantric meditation traditions have structures of secrecy and initiation? Within these traditions, the few practices that are kept secret are ones that are particularly potent. They’re designed to dismantle the ego and obliterate our ordinary, confused ways of seeing things so that the practitioner can perform the profoundly simple act of nakedly seeing mind as it is. In a way, these practices are invoking a deep crisis of identity that cuts straight down to your fundamental concepts about reality. If you encounter practices like this outside the context of the tradition in which they were developed, there are four main dangers:
1) You could pose a danger to yourself.
2) You could pose a danger to others.
3) You just might miss the point, or get the wrong point. In other words, for pragmatic pedagogical reasons, things are presented in a particular order.
4) You could pose a danger to the tradition.
What does that mean, and what does it mean to be adequately prepared? Of course the details will be unique to every tradition, practice, and teacher, but there are some basic patterns that apply consistently.
1) Without mental stability you could pose a danger to yourself.
2) Without loving kindness and compassion, you could pose a danger to others.
3) Without precise understanding of what you are/aren’t doing, what’s being communicated, and why you’re doing it, you might not get any benefit from the practice or might harm the tradition by developing an incorrect understanding of the practices being transmitted.
So the reasons for this secrecy are actually very practical, and the fundamental requirements for doing these tantric practices are the same key things that all Buddhist traditions emphasize: mental stability (shamatha), loving kindness & compassion (bodhicitta), and precise understanding (prajna) combied with insight (vipassana).
We can apply this directly to the crisis of ethics posed by technological advancement, which actually comes down to a crisis of psyche and a crisis of society triggered by the fact that technology is outpacing our psychic and social capacities. Specifically, this manifests as
1) Crisis of mental stability
2) Crisis of ethics & normative decisions
3) Crisis of realizing that we lack understanding, lack connection with reality, and lack insight into what we’re doing or why we’re doing it
As you can see, it’s the same issues. We’re encountering a crisis of identity — one that could challenge our fundamental concepts about reality — and what we lack are mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. It’s the same situation, with the same solution.
Say you did take that snazzy weekend course and instead of groovy orgasms you got a tantra-style psychological crisis and totally freaked out. Now your mind’s been blown and it keeps re-blowing and you can’t cope at all. What do you do? If you’re lucky, it occurs to you to go find an authentic master and ask zir for help. While the advice you get from that master could end up being almost anything, we can be certain that the remedy is going to eventually focus on those same ingredients that I keep repeating — mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight.
Solution: Training the Mind
Here’s the good news. Absolutely every moment is a crisis of the sort we’re talking about, and always has been, because our confused way of seeing the world doesn’t line up with reality. Our ordinary way of thinking assumes that reality is made up of finite truly existent things experienced by a finite truly existent self, but we know that’s not true. That friction manifests as constant dissatisfaction, which Buddha called dukkha (suffering). The Buddha spent a lot of time cutting to the heart of the matter of suffering and he found that it has a cause — confusion/ignorance — which can be cut. What methodology did he use to cut that cause of suffering? Mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. [This paragraph is paraphrasing the Four Noble Truths, which is the first thing the Buddha taught and comprises the most essential Buddhist tenets.]
The mind is plastic. You can cultivate these things. These are the authentic, tested means. Test them. Until you do cultivate them, the crisis will continue and you will continue to harm yourself and others over and over and over and over. Grey goo is just the latest turn.