It would be nice to begin the journey with who we are. But "who we are" is a house of mirrors, a tangled knot, a great and terrible Oz that in the final analysis may consist of nothing more than, well, nothing. The self, I am afraid, may be more of an onion than a fruit, and "who we are" is the skin we shed.
So instead we start, as the Yankee Tibetan Pema Chdrn suggests, from where we are -- which is another way of saying where we've been. It is no accident that the freshest spiritual writing these days is largely autobiographical and confessional. When it comes to spirituality, that amorphous and easily misheard inner call, we have come to trust experience, however mundane and confused, more than belief systems or philosophical reflection. Practice, along with the mutations in subjectivity that practice brings, is our primary tool. But this tool warps the hand that holds it, and that warp is our story.
For my generation, the turn towards practice and personal experience in matters of the spirit is part of our heritage, not just as Americans, who have always fetishized know-how and the explorer within, but as kids who surf the spiritual wake of the baby boomers. In their desire to crack open the nut of spirit and eat the meat within, the 60's generation raided the world storehouse of mystical techniques. They experimented with spirit, along with drugs, sex, food, and unconventional social structures, and their protocols and inconclusive results still dominate the spiritual scene. We came of age as they gradually turned away from the heady dreams of Enlightenment, chemically induced or otherwise, and moved towards everyday responsibility, sobriety, and the practices that support a mindful but ordinary life. Our own turn towards autobiography reflects this legacy as well, but it also expresses, I hope, a tiny bit of spiritual wisdom often lost in the absurdities and revolutionary excesses of the counter-culture: that we are not just children of the moment, but of history, and especially of the biological and social forces that shape and constrain our bodies, our perceptions, and the still infinite potential that lies shrouded within the hooded self.
But again, we start with where we are, or rather where we have been, which in this particular case means a tent in the mountains of Southern California. The portable alarm clock chirped to life at 3:30 am, finding me in an all-too-familiar state: disoriented and in the dark. Tugging on loose black pants and yanking a long-sleeve pullover over an Aphex Twin t-shirt, I staggered out of my tent into a night filled with stars and satellites. It took a moment before I recalled my exact coordinates: east of Los Angeles, in the San Bernadino mountains, on the grounds of the Zen Mountain Monastery. It was deep summer, in the middle of 1995, and I had just driven down from San Francisco for sesshin, a weeklong silent retreat consisting largely of interminable hours of zazen. Barely half an hour after rising, with a blast of coffee in my gut, I was at it again: sitting with my legs scissored in the half-lotus position, eyes hazily gazing at a blank wall, my mind gradually settling into the breath that filled and fled my belly like the air in a bellows.
A week later I would hurtle down the mountain into the heart of Los Angeles to attend SIGGRAPH, a huge industry convention devoted to the latest advances in computer graphics: video games, animation, web technologies, virtual reality. But I wasn't thinking about any of that at the Mountain Center -- in fact, I was trying not to think about much at all. The monastery's strict regimen gave me a rare opportunity to tune out the details, distractions, and seductive chimeras of our yammering information age, the glut of signals and noise that I, like so many folks today, navigate for bread and butter -- and sometimes, it must be admitted, for a sense of self as well.
For people habituated to media, its abrupt and total absence can be both refreshing and alarming. Cult "deprogrammers" (notice the technological metaphor) warn that authoritarian religious groups severely restrict or eliminate access to information from the outside world in order to inculcate their worldview in new recruits. While a number of sects have certainly abused such tactics, the deeper implication of these warnings is that today's barrage of media is healthy and normal, and that the stream of images, ads and information that saturate our world is not already infested with vivid and manipulative seductions, with cargo cults of consumerism, greed, and celebrity worship.
In any case, I felt a brief media fast would do no harm. In fact, I hoped it would allow me to do some de-programming of my own. Our ordinary stream of consciousness flows from deeply ingrained habits: cultural, biological, karmic. Practice partly consists of creating the space for these tics and knots to gently deconstruct themselves, until the whole constricted sense of "I" begins to loosen like an old sweater.
But sitting there hour after hour, watching my body settle into a relaxed immobility and my brain trance out on its own babble, all I encountered was a tumultuous buzz of restless chatter -- what sages have dubbed the "monkey mind," but which I rapidly came to think of as "TV mind." I was amazed how much media clogged the pipes: Led Zeppelin songs, Simpsons episodes, Wallace Stevens poems I read in college, the most recent reports from the latest distant war. Though I occasionally channel-surfed into moments of pregnant stillness, I spent far more time realizing what anyone who feels lonely or anxious and instinctively flips on the television knows: media is much easier to process than a moment of unvarnished experience.
A number of channels were showing "The Erik Davis Story," though most of the episodes appeared to be reruns. I weathered collegiate video porn and scratchy 8 mm films of embarrassing childhood flubs, high-production fantasies of future triumphs and tests of the Emergency Anxiety System. But as the tatters of autobiography flapped by, they also begged the inevitable question: well, how did I get here?
As a kid growing up in Del Mar, the suburban Southern California beach-town name-dropped by the Beach Boys in "Surfin' U.S.A.," I was exposed to about as much traditional spirituality as you can string on a pine tree. I was a child of Gilligan's Island, Bugs Bunny, The Hobbit, and the sandy arroyos and red-rock cliffs of my hometown, wild places where my friends and I created fantastic playgrounds of elves and superheroes on the way home from school.
When I hit teendom in 1980, my fondness for such reveries bloomed into a fondness for drugs, especially LSD, pot, and psilocybin mushrooms. My friends and I stoked the dying embers of the California counter-culture. We read Carlos Castaneda and Be Here Now, traveled to Dead shows, took psychedelics seriously, and meditated at the local Siddha Yogi joint. I was a huge reader, and became particularly fascinated by religion and the occult. Like the Lovecraftian dungeon novels and science-fiction classics I also devoured, the "metaphysics" section of the mall bookstores offered up coherent but astoundingly imaginative worlds that somehow mirrored, mocked, and resolved the tensions of the rather disappointing one I greeted everyday. Because I was basically raised a heathen (I learned the Gospel from a scratchy copy of Jesus Christ Superstar), I had no sour taste of dogma in my mouth; I found atheism boring and accepted the appealing if somewhat fuzzy notion that all paths led to God. I met Hare Krishnas, yoga freaks, witches, I Ching Taoists and mystical Catholic teens wielding Ouija boards; I bonded with heavy-metal Satanists and born-again Christian surfers.
I had many dreams, trips, and experiences that bordered on the fantastic and occult, but it's pretty easy to write them off today as a morass of bubbling hormones, naivete, and a drug-induced eruption of what psychologists call the "primary processes" of the psyche. In any case, the inevitable loss of that adolescent magic was hastened by the Ivy League college professors who initiated me into the deeply skeptical traditions of critical theory, deconstruction, and other post-everything razzmatazz. I was taught that neither science nor common sense nor Enlightenment categories of knowledge were fixed in stone; I grew to believe that all claims about reality took their place in an ambiguous and shifting network of language games, historical constructions, and political power grabs.
Though it took me many years to wed my younger seeking self with the East Coast intellectual I was coming to be, the postmodern house of mirrors also confirmed my already strong suspicion that reality can only be glimpsed through a kaleidoscope of overlapping and even contradictory points of view -- an "aperspectival" sensibility first nurtured by psychedelics and the motley spectacle of California's spiritual culture. And so I came to see the world as a carnival of hybrids, of people and places and things woven from nucleic acids and epiphanies, money and Mind, sex and technologies. Though I found traditional religious claims as suspicious as any absolute truths, I understood that people's gods, myths, and everyday spiritual practices were irreducible strands in the webwork of the real.
After college, I found myself a freelance writer, covering the popular culture of the day -- rock music, television, digital media. Like the religious historian R. Laurence Moore, who once wrote that he followed religion the way others followed baseball, I continued to track the spiritual and religious dimensions of our world, and I did so with the same enthusiasm and curious fascination I brought to the colorful subcultures that populate our age. Unlike religious traditionalists who bemoan rap stars and the horrors of heavy metal, I found that many of mass culture's fandoms, images, and electric rituals distinctly echoed the more populist and imaginative expressions of religious activity in earlier ages. And so I followed those echoes: Star Trek fans who held Pagan rituals; Elvis devotees who found in the King the solace they no longer felt in Jesus; computer games that raided the occult; freaks who turned raves or Dead shows into psychedelic Eleusinian Mysteries.
And the spirit never stopped tugging inside me, but exactly what that spirit was became more and more difficult to explain. The cultural trends I tracked spoke to spiritual needs unsatisfied by the secular technoscientific world of late capitalism, but they hardly touched my own aches. What called me was something more intuited than described, more experienced than codified, more wagered than known. Books fed it, but those wonderful word-machines weren't enough, and most spiritual groups I checked out seemed plagued with the mystical equivalent of office politics. I grew to suspect paths that depended on powerful teachers or an unleashed imagination, for those strategies often seemed to play off, in a different key, the same obsession with fantasy and celebrity that undergirds the so-called "society of the spectacle."
Like a lot of over-educated people, I became attracted to Buddhism for the simple reason that it seemed to emphasize practice over belief. In other words, I could follow the bare-bones recipe of following the breath with the experimental attitude one approaches any intriguing technology -- or drug, for that matter. The first Zen priest I met was a crazed Texan with a bad back who described himself as a "Zen failure." As we talked, the topic turned to UFOs, and he showed me a videotape of Darryl Anka channeling an intriguing and rather amusing extraterrestrial being named Bashar. Six months later I met a monk at a Tibetan monastery in the Indian state of Karnataka, a diamond-eyed American man who had been practicing solidly in the Gelugpa tradition for twenty years. We talked about Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, and he showed off the laptop he used to prepare for the intense philosophical debates his monastery was hosting that month, an event he likened to a Buddhist Olympics. Returning to the States, I hooked up with my first serious meditation teacher, a Zen lesbian who taught multimedia at New York University. Then I met Taizan Maizumi Roshi, a diminutive Japanese monk who, rumor has it, may have partly inspired the Star Wars character Yoda. Definitely my kind of path.
So that's how I wound up staring at a wall on a mountain above San Berdoo, with a warm belly, aching knees, and an internal monologue that oscillated between a relaxed embrace of the passing present and a feverish spew of memes. As the days passed, I no longer paid much attention to the internal play-by-play, and my inner sports-caster gradually faded like the sound of a transistor radio carried away down the beach. Cresting into one particular heartbeat one particular afternoon, I felt myself expand and dissolve into a spacious and enormous web of interdependence. There was no longer a world "out there" that sent me information that I processed "in here." Events simply occurred within a shimmering and bountiful field of lazy and luxurious becoming. A stomach rumble, a bird call, a flash of intense warmth in a knee, a warm breeze -- they were like notes in an atmospheric symphony, organically related but freed from the linear rule of melody or the steady beat of clocktime.
Of course, kindergarten satoris like this disappear faster than sky-writing. But my experience that day helped me realize that meditation, which many outsiders see as an ascetic disengagement from reality or at best a kind of relaxation exercise, can actually bloom into an awareness of the world far more crisp and, dare I say, information-rich than our usual murky and multitasking consciousness can allow. Though I don't believe that my zazen did a damn thing for the kids in Bosnia or the stressed ecosystems that fringe LA, I began to see that sitting practice can not only affirm the "binding" with things and beings that lies at the core of religion, but can train and nurture one of the most vital and highly-prized commodities of our time: attention.
This lesson really hit home when I descended from the mountain a few days later. I still felt a serene balance, as if a gently whirling gyroscope was centered in my belly. But from the moment I slouched into the SIGGRAPH convention, it was clear that the center was not going to hold. At least 35,000 people had traveled to the downtown heart of LA's glittering strip-mall void to attend the event: company reps and computer geeks, Hollywood schmoozers and goateed digital hipsters, and hundreds of civilians who coughed up big bucks just to ogle the tech. And there was lots of tech to ogle: hundreds of games, software packages, virtual reality systems, media art projects, hardware platforms, Web technologies, and loads of digital eye-candy. Add that to panel discussions on everything from artificial life to feminist critiques of the Cartesian coordinate system, and mere anarchy was loosed upon my mind.
For a wide-angle cultural observer like myself, conferences like SIGGRAPH provide convenient one-stop shopping for signs of the zeitgeist. In my sensitized state of mind, SIGGRAPH's frenetic hype, mind-bending machines and garish color schemes began to take on the apocalyptic momentum and incandescent hubris of the information age itself. It was as if my newly-hatched subtle body was loosed in some bad electronic bardo, cacophonous and claustrophobic.
Like modern airport terminals or malls, the LA Convention Center is one of those abstract, weightless structures that belong in orbit. The poorly-ventilated cavern serving as the main showroom floor was devoid of windows, because the game here -- like the game at the Zen Mountain Monastery -- was attention. Attention, after all, is the money of the information age, the one genuinely scare resource in the false infinity of the Internet. Both on and offline, the marketing engines of late capitalism have turned the capture of that attention into a science of psychological tease that rivals the fascist propagandists and religious mesmerists of earlier ages. Advertisements saturate the social field, as tag lines and slogans infect our speech and manufactured images organize our unconscious perceptions of the world.
Of course, hucksters and salesmen have been catching people's eyes in the dusty din of the marketplace for millennia. But at SIGGRAPH I began to feel like the machines themselves were attempting to lock onto my central nervous system and draw it in like a Star Wars tractor beam. And perhaps the best way for a machine to get your attention is to swallow your senses whole -- in other words, virtual reality. Like the digital paint programs that specialize in simulating human flesh, virtual reality promises to translate our very bodies into the weightless condition of life inside the media. The old dream of angel flight, of rainbow bodies and astral doubles, has been electromagnified into the virtual avatar.
The first VR machine I test-drove at SIGGRAPH was a simulated hang-glider flight that used a full-body sling to provide a sense of floating as you navigated the twists and turns of narrow red-rock canyon projected on the screen before your eyes. As with some other VR experiences that have quickened my blood, the hang-glider triggered a bit of the quicksilver serenity I've felt in lucid dreams. It's an odd and somewhat disturbing experience to have your most intimate forays into the otherworlds of the psyche recalled by an arcade game on a show-room floor, but there you have it. Moments like this have led me to take the connection between media technology and the archetypal imagination seriously. In this sense, SIGGRAPH was a savage temple of the electronic image, its booths and exhibits shrines for a cacophony of cults, whose terminal screens offer magical gateways into the surreal and tacky landscapes of the digital unconscious.
"See the Unbelievable! Witness the Unthinkable in 3D!" the garish sign proclaimed. It was a Straylight "virtual theater," and featured a dozen blank-faced folks reclining on chairs that occasionally shook, each person outfitted with a bulky head-mounted display that projected a computer-animated 3D video into their eyeballs. These folks looked like zombies in a liquid-crystal opium den, though I had to remind myself that I had just spent a week staring at a wall.
The video that so absorbed their attention was an intense, hallucinogenic spin on one of the most potent and infectious mythologies of the modern West: the extraterrestrial encounter. The video's creator was Steve Speer, a brash and innovative computer animator who mixes scatological satire with archetypal splendor -- his "Carl Jung's Dream" brilliantly fuses images of cathedrals and Norse gods with golden feces and giant worm-like penises. In this piece, a little kid gets sucked into an alternative dimension by a crew of the diminutive, almond-eyed gray aliens.
Strapping on a head-mounted display, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed with the ride, mostly because the point-of-view kept switching between first- and third-person perspectives -- jarring cuts that ruined VR's goal of psychic immersion. But when it came to the primal scene of UFO abduction lore, the piece became all too compelling. "I" lay on a surgical table in a flying saucer, and a group of impassive Grays leaned over me with buzzing surgical drills in their spidery hands. I shivered as their tools descended toward me, even though I do not usually fear psychic surgery at the hands of cartoons.
Perhaps what spooked me was the sense that this VR "experience" symbolized the secret dream of contemporary media: to invade and rewrite consciousness itself. It drove home how insane technological culture has become. Unmoored from folkways, grasping after figments, addicted to the novelty and tyrannical demands of our hyperactive society, we drift in overdrive. Amidst all the distracting noise and fury, the hoary old questions of the human condition -- Who are we? Why are we here? How do we face others? How do we face the grave? -- sound distant and muffled, like fuzzy conundrums we have learned to set aside for more pragmatic and profitable queries. Unless we open up clearings within the space-time of our lives, unless we take media fasts and dare to wander off the grid, such questions may never arise in all their implacable awe.
And so we recover our attention, and draw it back towards embodied experience, towards real earth and the mindful now. We hear a lot about ordinary enlightenment today, about embracing our own ordinary equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water. Of course, this desire for authenticity, for reality and the natural, is also part of our popular culture, packaged and marketed in New Age catalogs and the shelves of beauty salons and health food chain stores. More paradoxical is the fact that we in the advanced West don't really live in a world of wood chopping and water carrying anymore, or even one simple enough to qualify as such. The processes that we call, variously, "globalization," "the information age," "postmodernism," and "the biotech revolution" are now the backdrop of our seeking, but they have a nasty habit of stepping into the foreground. The fact that you can buy CDs of Siberian shamans or score a paperback copy of secret Dzogchen manuals by aiming your Web browser at amazon.com is only a trivial symptom of a far more tumultuous transformation in the world spirit.
Some fear that the relentless growth of global capitalism will dash whatever hopes we have of creating a sustainable future on the surface of this bleeding and tottering globe. Others fear that the new world order will lead to insidious forms of media surveillance and social control. And even if we dodge this multinational 1984 , we still have to face Brave New World, and its specter of rampant genetic engineering, happy pills, and an entertainment culture of soulless simulations. So how do we embrace spiritual practice in a world of digital capitalism, commodified DNA, psychopharmacology, and a steady stream of information about a planet falling apart at the seams? Though nostalgic and even "reactionary" sentiments have their place in a world intoxicated on novelty, I do not believe that a romantic retreat into old religious myths or Luddite primitivism is the answer. Though pockets of the gone world persist, there are no "traditions" that have not been marked by the peculiar dynamics of our time -- not Tibetan Buddhism, not esoteric Christianity, not Native ways.
Slowly, tentatively, a "network spirituality" suggests itself from the midst of yearning and confusion, a multi-faceted path that might humanely and intelligently navigate the technological house of mirrors without losing the resonance of ancient ways or the ability to slice through the venality and delusion that court human life. Against the specter of new and renewed fundamentalism, freethinking seekers both inside and outside the world's religious traditions are trying to cut and paste a wealth of teachings, techniques, images, and rites into a path grounded enough to walk upon. The mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the lightness and grace of our step.
Such a networked path opens up an ecumenical space far more radical than New Age fantasies of global unity or the bland interfaith chats between liberal monotheists. We log onto this emerging Indranet when we accept that we will not transcend the sometimes agonizing tension between the world's various structures of belief and practice. Nor will we simply overcome more contemporary conflicts between faith and skepticism, the stones and the stories, the mundane absurdity of everyday life and the incandescence of the absolute. Instead, these tensions and conflicts become dynamic, calling us to face the Other with an openness that does not seek to assimilate them to our point of view. By replacing the need for a common ground with an acceptance and even celebration of our common groundlessness, network spirituality might creatively integrate these tensions while also learning when to let the gaps and ruptures alone. These are the spaces in which we simply breathe.