Stockly’s Spirit Tech (St. Martin’s, May.) details how spiritual entrepreneurs and tech-savvy religious practitioners are using technology to modify spiritual experiences.
Where’d the idea for the book come from?
Since about the 1990s we’ve seen a huge increase in our understanding of the brain. Along with this came interest in things like altered states of consciousness, insights about how meditations and prayers are actually generated in the brain, and a related interest in how meditation and prayer can affect the brain, mind, and body. These kinds of insights have totally transformed the way people think about their inner lives and their well-being. We were interested in a burgeoning community that was harnessing these new forms of brain science to examine expert meditators, religious practitioners, monks, nuns—basically, the types of people who have really devoted their lives to seeking enlightenment connection with God.
What does research into brain science and spiritual experience reveal?
What they found were that these experts’ brains display markedly different types of connections and brainwave patterns than we see in the average person’s brain. And so, scientists were able to kind of intuit that there might actually be something that we could do to coax or encourage the brain into these states. This is where we see the spiritual entrepreneur type come in. They see the development of “spirit tech” as their vocation.
Are particular traditions or practices more suitable for technological innovation?
There are some traditions that are hesitant to engage in these kinds of things. However, others—for example the Dalai Lama—are very comfortable with the idea that enlightenment and equanimity and nirvana are traceable in the brain. There are theological questions about how you get there with a process aided by brain stimulation versus 10,000 hours of meditation, but the causal questions about the authenticity of the experience are a little less complicated in Dharma traditions than they are in the more monotheistic, I think.
What might you say to those who are skeptical of spirit tech?
I identify with a certain level of doubt. It’s an appropriate reaction—one that I shared at the beginning of the research. However, this skepticism, although totally valid, is based on a relationship with technology that currently exists in our society that doesn’t have to be. I found myself more and more compelled by spirit tech as I continued to research it. This isn’t about peak performance or just playing around. There’s an authentic interest in exploring ways to heal our relationship with technology. Technology is here to stay; we might as well try to harness it for good. I think that if people with good intentions don’t become part of the conversation, we are going to have more problems.