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Creating/Discovering New States of Mind

Our society puts a fair bit of energy, these days, into creating new technologies and discovering new scientific facts. But we don’t put hardly any effort at all into creating/discovering new states of mind. I think maybe we should – at the end of this blog post I’ll suggest a specific type that synthesizes spiritual mindfulness and intense scientific creativity.

On Old and New States of Consciousness

When I read Stcherbatsky’s book Buddhist Logic years ago, I was struck by the careful analysis of 128 states of consciousness. Allan Combs’ book The Radiance of Being provides a simpler, smaller conceptual analysis of states of consciousness, with similar foundations. These and other similar endeavors are very worthy – but how can we really know that the scope of all possible varieties of human consciousness-state has been thoroughly explored?

All sorts of amazing new states of consciousness will become possible once the human brain has been enhanced with technology – brain-computer interfacing, genetic engineering, mind uploading, etc. Advanced AGI systems may enjoy states of consciousness far beyond human comprehension. However, it seems quite possible that ordinary human brains may be capable of many states of consciousness not yet explored.

The individual human mind is not all that individual – so the states of mind accessible to an individual may depend to some extent on the culture in which they exist. The catalogue of states of mind available in medieval India when Buddhist logic was invented, may include some states that are extremely hard for modern people to get into, and may omit some states of which modern people are capable.

The Perceived Conflict Between Scientific and Spiritual Mind-States

I’ve often wondered whether there’s some intrinsic conflict between the states of mind labeled “spiritual enlightenment”, and the states of mind consistent with profound scientific discovery.

Great scientific creation often seems to involve a lot of struggle and persistence – along with long stretches of beautiful “flow” experience. Great scientific work seems to involve a lot of very hard thinking and analysis, whereas enlightenment is generally described as involving “stopping all thought.”

Personally, I find it a lot easier to be mindful (in the Zen sense) while walking through the park, washing the dishes, lying in bed, or building a chair—than while analyzing genomic data, working out the details of a new AI algorithm, writing a novel, or debugging complex software code. Subjectively, this feels to me like it’s because being mindful requires a bit of mental effort at first – to actively pay attention to what my mind and body are doing. Once the effort is done, then mindfulness can flow along effortlessly for a while. But then I may drift away from it, and that little jump of effort is needed to become mindful again. This dynamic of mindfulness drifting and returning, or almost drifting but then not actually drifting after all, seems not to function properly when I’m doing something highly cognitively intensive.

When I’m doing the highly intensive thing, I get deeply “into” the process, which puts me in a wonderful flow state for a while – but then when the flow state ends, I’m not necessarily in a quasi-enlightened mindful state. I may be elated, or I may be exhausted, or I may be frustrated. I can then try to be mindful of my elation, exhaustion or frustration – but this is then a moderately substantial effort; and definitely my degree of mindfulness is lower than if I hadn’t bothered to do the cognitively intensive thing.

Now, it might just be that I’m not a particularly enlightened guy. Indeed, I have never claimed to be! I do have my moments of spiritual purity and cosmic blissful wisdom and all that—but then I also have some pretty boring routine moments, and also moments of being totally un-mindfully overcome with various kinds of positive or negative emotion. However, observing other humans around me, I note that the same dichotomy I feel in my mind occurs in the outside world. I know some enlightened minds, and I know some productive, brilliant artists and scientists – but I don’t know anyone in the intersection. Maybe someone of this nature does exist; but if they do, they’re an awfully rare bird.

You could argue that, since being a spiritual genius is rare and being a scientific genius is rare, it’s not surprising that few people lie in the intersection! But I’m not just talking about genius. I’m talking about passion. Who has true devoted passion for spiritual enlightenment, and also true devoted passion for doing revolutionary science? Most people I know, if they like either, pursue one as a central goal and the other as a sort of sideline.

I don’t particularly want to be this way myself – I’d like to pursue both simultaneously, without feeling any conflict between the two. But in practical life I do feel a conflict, and I tend to choose science and art most of the time. Yes, from the enlightened view, the dichotomy and the conflict are just constructs of my mind. And when I’m in certain states of mind, I feel that way – that dichotomy and all the rest feel bogus and mildly amusing. But when I’m in those states of mind, I’m not doing my best art or science! Similarly, thinking about playing the piano, it clear that my best music has been played in states of heightened emotion – not states of enlightened emptiness.

I think the difficulty of maintaining a mindful mind-state and scientifically intensely creative mind-state, is deeply tied with the conflict between modern scientific culture and some older cultures like those of ancient India or China, that were more spiritually focused. The enlightened master was one of the ideals of India and China; and the great scientist or artist is one of the ideals of the modern world. The differences in ideals reflect more thoroughgoing cultural differences.

You could say that both the great scientist and the enlightened master are exaggerations, and the right thing is to be more balanced – a little bit scientific, a little bit spiritual. Maybe, as someone said to me recently, an enlightened master is like an Arnold Schwarzenegger of the spirit – hyper-developed beyond what is natural or useful (except in contexts like the Mr. Universe contest where being at the extreme is useful in itself!). And maybe great super-scientists are unnecessarily and unhealthily obsessive, and science would progress OK without them, albeit a little more slowly. But something in me rebels against this kind of conclusion. Maybe it’s just that I’m an unbalanced individual – reeling back and forth endlessly between being excessively scientific and excessively spiritual, instead of remaining calmly in the middle where I belong—but maybe there’s more to it than that.

A New Scientific/Spiritual Mind-State?

What if, instead of being frustrated at the apparent contradiction between the mind-states of spiritual enlightenment /mindfulness and intense scientific creativity, we took it as a multidimensional challenge: to create a new state of mind, synergizing both of these aspects?

The ancient Indians and Chinese didn’t include this sort of mind-state in their catalogue, but they didn’t have science or modern art … they had a very different culture.

Can we discover a new, intrinsically mindful way of doing science and art? Without sacrificing the intensity or the creativity?

What if we pursued the discovery/creation of new states of mind as avidly as we pursue the creation of new machines or chemical compounds? What if there were huge multinational organizations devoted to mind-state discovery, alongside our chemical and pharmaceutical and computer engineering firms?

Zum: A Thought-Experiment

To make the above idea a little more concrete, let’s imagine a specific social structure designed to produce a synergetically scientific-spiritual state of mind. Imagine an agile software development team – a group of software developers working closely together on a project – that was also, simultaneously, a “zendo” or “dojo” or whatever you want to call it … a group of people gathered together in the interest of their own enlightenment. That is, they were simultaneously trying to get stuff done together, and to help each other maintain a state of mindfulness and individual & collective spiritual awareness.

I can’t think of a good name for this kind of combination, so I’m going to call it a “Zum”, because that word currently has no English meaning, and it reminds me of Zen and scrum (the latter a term from agile software development), and I like the letter “Z.”

I have heard of a new type of Vipassana meditation, in which a group of people sit together and while they meditate, verbalize their feelings as they pass through – “cold”, “breathing”, “warm”, “stomach”, etc. One can imagine a Zum engaging in this kind of discussion at appropriate moments, in the midst of technical discussions or collaborative work. Would hearing others describe their state like this interrupt thought in an unacceptable way? Possibly. Or would people learn to flow with it, as I flow with the music I listen to as I work?

What would a Zum be like? Would it help to have a couple enlightened masters hanging around? – maybe sitting there and meditating, or playing ping pong? That would produce a rather different vibe than a usual software development lab!

The key ingredient of the Zum is the attitude and motivation of the individuals involved. They would need to be dedicated both to producing great software together, and to helping each other remain mindful and joyful as much as possible.

One thing that might come out of this is, simply, a kind of balance, where the team does reasonably good work and is also rather happy. This certainly wouldn’t be a disaster. Maybe they’d even be a bit more effective than an average team due to a diminished incidence of personality conflicts and fewer stress-induced errors.

Another possibility is that, if this sort of experiment were tried in a variety of different styles and places, eventually a new state of mind would evolve – one bypassing the dichotomy of spiritual mindfulness versus intensely creative science or art production.

Solo Zum?

But do we really need a Zum? Organizing groups of people in novel configurations involves considerable practical difficulty. Why not become a one-person Zum? Experiment with different ways of practicing intense scientific creation and mindfulness at the same time – maybe you’ll come up with something new.

Try to describe your internal methodology so others can follow in your footsteps. This sort of experimentation is every bit as valid and important as scientific experimentation, or personal experimentation with smart drugs. The human brain is far more flexible than we normally realize, it’s hard to say what may be possible even without technological brain modification.

Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (agiri.org).



COMMENTS

Our appalling ignorance of the vast altered states of consciousness that the human brain is capable of is yet another gift the drug war has given us.

Since I tend to see mindfulness as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, it doesn’t particularly bother me that it is more difficult to achieve after intense cognitive/creative activity. I see mindfulness as a means to get into the kind of mental state that allows one to undertake the creative tasks in the first place, or otherwise act in accordance with one’s values, including in times of emotional stress or when temptations and distractions call. It’s a bit like getting a good night’s sleep: something one might think of as positive in itself, but mainly because of the refreshed, wakeful state it leads to, and one does not expect a hard day’s work to have the same effect.

None of this is to say that it wouldn’t be great to be able to do both at once, but in the mean time I can live the dichotomy. A time to be mindful, and a time to be creative.

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