Monday, May 18, 2009

Computer games that awaken - Part 1

In previous posts I have discussed how computer games can be structured to make the acquisition of skills enjoyable and relatively effortless. In this post I will explore their potential to train the capacities that are generally associated with spiritual development.

More specifically, I will examine whether computer games can be designed to produce the same kinds of effects as meditation. Are computer games able to motivate and guide the kinds of practices that awaken human beings? Does the ability of computer games to overlay real life give them the potential to motivate the practices needed to awaken us in the midst of ordinary life?

These are critical issues for humanity at present. We are in great need of the capacities that are claimed to be produced by spiritual development and meditation. These include: access to ‘higher mind’ (including access to wisdom, intuition and other capacities that are essential for understanding and managing complex environmental, economic and social systems); the capacity to free oneself from the dictates of negative emotions and motivations (e.g. the ability to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘resist temptation’ at will); and the ability to experience life from a position of stillness and peace, without stress.

However, it is evident from the dearth of enlightened ones amongst us that the spiritual and contemplative traditions do not often succeed in developing these capacities in their adherents. Only rarely do the practices and approaches they recommend succeed in producing these capacities to a significant degree. The traditions themselves acknowledge the difficulty in achieving spiritual development (for example: many are called, but few are chosen; the gate is small and the way is narrow; the path to salvation is like walking a razor’s edge; reaching enlightenment takes many life times; and seekers must work so hard that the soles of their feet sweat).

Do computer games have the potential to change this? Can they guide and motivate practices that will develop these higher capacities? Could they play a major role in awakening humanity? If the potential of computer games is fulfilled, will a new type of human enter history and evolution?

To address these issues, we first need to understand what ‘awakening’ is, and how meditation and related practices can train it.

It is useful to compare the ‘awakening’ of consciousness with awakening from a dream. While in the midst of a dream, we are embedded in it. We are unable to see that our behaviors in the dream are restricted and limited. We cannot ‘stand outside the dream’, think about and reflect upon how we behave in the dream, and see that our actions ignore many factors that we would normally take into account.

In contrast, when we awake from a dream, our consciousness is no longer embedded in it. Consciously we ‘stand outside’ the dream and we can think about and reflect on our actions during the dream. We can see our actions in a wider context and consider alternatives and their consequences. We can see immediately that the way we behaved in the dream was often absurd in this wider context.

Awakening in the midst of ordinary life is an exactly analogous process.

In ordinary life, we are embedded almost continually in our desires, perceptions, emotions and thought processes. In particular, we generally do not consciously ‘stand outside’ our desires and emotions. We do not consciously choose our likes and dislikes. Nor can we choose freely to move at right angles to our motivations and emotions. We cannot effortlessly ‘turn the other cheek’.

Nor do we have a well-developed capacity to stand outside our thinking as it proceeds. We tend to be embedded in and attached to our thoughts. We have some capacity to think about our thinking, but when we do, we are embedded in our thinking about our thinking. We have little voluntary control over whether our mind is occupied by thought or not. We cannot still our minds at will and just ‘be’ in the present.

Because we are almost continually embedded in thought and desires, we are not aware that we are embedded in them. As when we are dreaming, we are not aware that there is a state of greater consciousness and awareness that we are missing. Our consciousness is fully occupied by our incessant thinking and feeling, so there is no awareness left over to see our thinking and feeling in a wider, wiser context.

This is perhaps the biggest impediment to the further development of consciousness in humans. It prevents us from seeing the limitations of our existing state.

However, when we are awakened and come into the present, thinking and emotions no longer crowd out our access to intuition and wisdom. Once consciousness is free from absorption in thought and feeling, we experience consciousness as being more spacious and perceptions as being more vivid. We also experience peace and centeredness because our attention is no longer continuously jerked out of the present by desires, emotions and thinking. But this does not mean that we repress our emotions and feelings when in the present. They continue to arise and we experience them fully and vividly. But we are no longer embedded in them – they do not dictate our behavior, we can reflect on them freely, and can respond wisely rather than habitually.

How can we train ourselves to awaken in the midst of ordinary life and to stay awake at will? The spiritual and contemplative traditions have developed a wide range of practices that are claimed to do this. And they have an extraordinary array of explanations and theories about why their particular methods are effective.

But most of their practices, including most forms of meditation, include a simple but powerful training process. Most practices train the ability to dis-embed attention from thought and desires. They require the practitioner to repeatedly take attention away from thought processes and from desires and emotions as they arise.

At first this training has little effect: individuals spend nearly all their time embedded in thought and desires, as usual. But gradually the practice trains the ability to spend at least small amounts of time in the present, with attention dis-embedded.

In Part II of this series of posts I will look in greater depth at the essential elements of this form of practice, and consider how they can be embodied in computer games. We will see how computer games are not limited to producing states of absorption and immersion. They can also train us to be more aware and conscious.

1 comment:

  1. Just came across your work, Mr. Stewart, tonight. Fairly amazed I had not before. Anyway, this post is an excellent, incisive description of the workings of human consciousness. Will be reading more of your work. Thanks.