Living Mindfully in a Digital Universe

Culture is not your friend. . . . It invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines.

— Terence McKenna (1946–2000)

Since Descartes arguably decapitated our mind from our body and turned the world into a mechanistic principle, enabling the total relinquishment of responsibility from any malpractice upon another biological entity, let alone anything that may be deemed inanimate, we have moved through our lifetimes, to greater or lesser degrees, in a strange dissociative trance. And while many humans live within the bounds of some sort of moral compass or a personal ethical notebook—often priding themselves on the attainments of their cherry-picked virtues—most of us tango regularly with hypocrisy and intolerance.

The ancient Greeks, regardless of their many faults, were really quite spectacular at intellectually breaking the world down into recognizable fragments. They introduced us to the word and concept of the atom,* and also to the complex nature of what it means to be human—including the multifaceted nature of mind, personality, and relationships—as they molded diaphanous concepts into archetypes that we, albeit predominantly in the West, still refer to today. Dissecting the complex is clearly a logical and often very helpful thing to do. It’s invaluable when learning a new subject that might otherwise feel like swallowing a week’s worth of food in one go. Evidently, the way to avoid your body’s rejection of such overfeeding is through bite-sized consumption. 

That said, while we may well be learning and thinking in bite-sized chunks as part of our daily existence, the fragmentation of the mind from the body has clearly created environments in which there has been a dangerous focus on the mental at the expense of the physical. And vice versa; be it due to practices that have turned into fashion trends, or the compulsions of zealots of one denomination or another. From the dizzying heights of global corporations to the off-grid collectives of Goa; from the gym bro to the academic; each wears their uniform with conviction. 

The wise among us have long recognized the realities of this living organism that we are all a part of during our time on Earth, and some have even tried to explain to us the nature of what appears “real” beyond the atom in this holographic universe of plasma tendrils that give the illusion of distinguished form. The issue is that the mind is integrated into our entire being. Brain cells are found in the heart and gut in such an intrinsic way that heart transplants can affect the personality of the recipient and, likewise, so does the food we consume. 

Our senses are described as the faculties with which we abstract and discern information from our environment, the external world, while negelcting to appreciate the fundamental importance of our internal or “metaternal” (I may have just made that word up, although I like so it’s staying) world. The film The Matrix gave us relatable visuals for how we might be moving through the true nature of reality. Although I don’t think that the universe is so unimaginative as to exist at that such a basic, binary level, the film’s story does do a good job of illustrating the illusion of form; of how we cannot separate one element from another; that bionic motion is not apart from the structure of the universe. 

Yet we increasingly entrench ourselves, our minds, in a mechanistic universe. Perhaps not in the same way as Descartes had intended, as how could he have imagined the internet? We dissect matter and even the very nature of what it means to be alive, and then we computerize ourselves, treating our being as if it were akin to a silicon motherboard. And, yes, while our brain structure is very programable—something I find fascinating and a quality that our “higher mind” can use as a tool—we are not computers; we are energy. Life-saving technology is one thing, but a “cyborg” future—in which we plug in and rely on software to give us abilities that may actually be intrinsic to us already but, like an atrophied appendage, have stopped working—is a prospect I find very sad, due to the great loss of an alternative that would be far more glorious. 

The American ethnobotanist and mystic Terrence McKenna was an interesting character: highly intelligent with passionate ideas on mind expansion. Some of his thoughts on what culture does to us really resonate with me. Most of us live at the bottom of the mountain, where we have to deal with all the implications of being incarnated in a human life. It’s not easy, and we are easily distracted and controlled. We don’t yet have the privilege, if you will, of living higher up the mountain. As such, we still have the rather repetitively boring age-old human stories of bills to pay, children to raise, and relationships to navigate. Nevertheless, life at the bottom of this mountain, with all its messiness, can be such an adventure. Yet instead, within the citadel of culture, we diminish ourselves while paradoxically aggrandizing an illusory image of ourselves via social media. 

In fact, the alternate cyber-universe of the internet is often times more appealing to many than this physical universe. This everyday reality may be viewed as a place in which we need to earn a living and source sustenance, but increasingly, it’s only the need for basic functions to keep the body alive that keep us at all anchored here. Meanwhile, the cyber world goes beyond scrolling for hours, sucking us into its vapid black hole, and becoming a platform where a living can evidently be made. 

I am one of the millions, if not billions, of people who earn at least some revenue via the internet. It has come with real-world life changes as I have also been able to reconnect with people from my past and connect with people I would never otherwise have known—even people with whom I once only ever dreamed of connecting. Not to mention the fact that these online connections have moved into the “real” world and have had real-world effects on my life. The internet keeps me connected with family and friends across the globe and has resulted in incredible opportunities, again with real-world implications. Aside from connectivity, the internet and all its accumulated cyber knowledge can facilitate any number of activities, processes, and abilities that we have come to take for granted. It can bring food to our table, offer information and knowledge at the touch of a button, and is a lifesaver for those who are unable to easily engage in the outside world for any number of reasons.

I do, however, still find it a curious thing how many people prefer the cyber-universe over the physical one; the world of virtual reality where one can lose oneself for days on end. This realm of “magic” touches a nerve with so many that they would rather live “there” than “here.” And here I feel a touch of caution is needed, as the unconscious mind doesn’t recognize any significant difference between what is “real” and what is imagined, virtual reality poses some potential concerns—especially when it’s a reality of violence, and even worse placed in the hands of young children. The biology of the brain becomes hardwired by our experiences (in that respect it can behave like a computer) and these brain connections form part of a person’s mental narrative—the lens through which one views life. And without intervention or the internal quiet and space to hear what the higher mind has to say, the brain of learned base reactions will rule supreme. 

Stories of a world in which people are plugged into their chosen alternative realities have existed since at least the early 1800s, when the telegraph birthed a new era of rapid communication. But what happens when people plug in at the expense of their body and their intrinsic connection with both the natural world and the quantum universe? Would the quantum universe notice if the feedback was from a virtual experience rather than a sensual one? Terrence McKenna was only able to comment on culture until his passing in 2000, and so much has happened since then. In the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the author reminds us of the importance of staying in the real world at least some of the time. Because we are not Descartian machines, we must refrain from willingly succumbing and becoming literal machines of culture, as McKenna suggests:

You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.

― Terence McKenna (1946–2000)

Hopefully, this world isn’t dying just yet, but we do need to recognize that there has never been a separation between mind and body and other. Yet there is now a very real risk is that we might easily waste our lives away, in the process taking our beautiful home with us. 

Perhaps many readers already mindfully practice movement, breathing, and meditation, undertaking regular walks in nature. Perhaps you engage as an active and compassionate member of society, eating healthily and with respect for all life, and using the internet with moderation and wisdom. In which case, thank you. The world needs more people like you. Without further exploration here into why many of us are attracted to a universe in which we can converse with animals, elements, and, along with our peers, have supernatural abilities, as well as with numerous other pros and cons of living in a virtual world, I shall instead leave you with this suggestion: switch off your device as soon as you can and go hug a tree. Or better yet, plant one.

* The ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus recorded the concept of the atomos, an indivisible building block of matter, as early as the fifth century BCE. www.courses.lumenlearning.com/introchem/chapter/early-ideas-about-atoms/

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Tilly Campbell-Allen (Dakini as Art)

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