Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chappie: Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness! A Missing Link?

I had the misfortune to see the movie "Chappie." I might as well admit it now for the fact will haunt me as, indeed, does the movie. (Well, not really, but it is beneath my "pay grade!"). However, I will NOT disclose the name of my companions for the sake of their prestigious reputations (ha, ha).

My spiritual teacher and friend, Swami Kriyananda (1926-2013: founder of Ananda) spoke and wrote a great deal on the subject of consciousness. Just a few of his books which discuss this include "Out of the Labyrinth," "Hope for a Better World," and "Awaken to Superconsciousness." The current scientific belief, if I may dare attempt to articulate it, is that consciousness is the product of the evolution of various species of life. It has no innate properties of its own, being dependent entirely on matter as its source and reason for being,

On the subject of the possibility that AI (Artificial Intelligence) would become so sophisticated as to become self-aware, Kriyananda simply scoffed. "Chappie," while just a dumb movie, trades on the public's gullibility (or, desire for "entertainment"), to posit a "what if" the robot became human: alternating among various feelings and behavior such as being childlike, violent, hurt, loyal and self-sacrificing!

Over dinner with a friend, we discussed, "Well, what IS the difference between we, humans, and a (very sophisticated) robot? Later, in the theatre, we saw at least one movie preview which also intends to explore the world of humans and robots. In the preview, the robots evidently intend to become human partners: emotionally, and, yes, even sexually! Egad!

Organic life forms are created by the transmission of life-giving biological material. Simply put, the fertilization of a human egg by human sperm. Science and medicine are of course exploring that process and will continue to push the limits of the bare essentials of fertilization, seeing how far conception can be removed from natural biological processes. This isn't my subject today, but however removed the process becomes, there's presumably the essence of organic life being dealt with.

In the yogic teachings, we say (Paramhansa Yogananda, at least, taught) that at the time of conception, the soul enters the embryo. Well, no matter re the details. What matters here is the assertion of an invisible and non-material substance called the soul. Even if future scientists can clone or grow human beings, metaphysicians will presumably still insist that at some critical moment, a soul enters into the process!

But a robot is not made in this manner: at least not yet. It's built from parts and programming, including programming that is (said to be able to be) adaptive and can learn from experience. There is no biological transmission of biological material, what to mention soul-force. In "Chappie" the protagonist devised a way to transfer "consciousness" (see the file: consciousness.dat) from a human to a robot. This essentially made the human (who was, of course, on his or her deathbed) immortal, for he/she awoke inside a robot body. It was assumed that "consciousness" was a substance or energy force that resided in the brain and could therefore be "sucked out" and moved elsewhere. To another human brain might have been one thing, but in this case to the "brain" of a robot.

Does the brain create consciousness, or, does the brain allow for consciousness to manifest? The difference isn't important to us day-to-day but it becomes what appears more than a curiosity when we encounter individuals who can function either without significant parts of the brain or show functionality that has nothing to do with the brain (telepathy, bi-location, and other para-normal phenomenon). These so-called anomalies, including near-death experiences, challenge some deeply held beliefs about the dependence of consciousness on the brain.

If one had such a "perfect" robot that you could not tell the difference between the robot and a human, would the robot be self-aware? This is the funny-bone part of this whole thing. Consciousness cannot be seen directly by the senses; its presence is evidenced by movement, emotions, words, and so on. A brain scan or other such machine can detect the presence of brain waves and various movements of thought, but if a machine can detect brain waves, a machine can create them, too. One can presumably mimic all the signs of life and consciousness but none of that would be proof of self-awareness. A person in a coma or asleep is generally not self-aware.

The robot may exhibit emotions but are they "real" emotions or contrived (programmed) ones? In some ways, it might be said there are no differences since our "real" emotions are as fleeting (and usually off-base) as the robot's are without feeling! Where the average movie goer or sci-fi writer may cross the line or be confused is between the appearance of emotions and the reality of self-awareness.

A sleep walker (or, hey, a zombie!) is presumably NOT self-aware! Walking down the street, however, you might not be able to tell that the sleep walker is, in fact, unaware.

Thus it is that future robots might well and easily replace human companions and co-workers rather comfortably (for us). We might chat with them and find it stimulating and helpful to us. Our only interest may be what the robot can do for us: emotionally, practically, and intellectually. But that doesn't necessarily make them "human." Only, functional! And, let's face it, isn't that how most people relate to one another? Functionally, that is?

The robot could easily mimic human love: after all, it can say "I love you" with the best of 'em. Sounds weird, I admit, but some futurists may find that completely satisfying (although at this point even I am doubtful). Nonetheless, how many real humans say "I love you" and don't mean it or stick to it very long?

Ok, you think I'm nuts. Well, that's YOUR opinion. To paraphrase Forest, Forest Gump, "Love is what love does!" Now, mind you, I don't really buy it. But I don't need to (as it is not a reality yet).

My point, rather, is that "self-awareness, "me-ness," is something only "me" can perceive and attest to you. I can't prove it to anyone else. Assuming robots someday become human-like, we will encounter the appearance of me-ness and we may not be able to know which one is "human" and which one is not. And, most of the time, we won't care, provided they do their job! (Not unlike how real people are treated.)

The difficulty in knowing the difference does not, however, erase the difference. That's what I am trying to say. Just because scientists can't isolate God in a test-tube doesn't mean God doesn't exist. If God is the essence and source of self-awareness (consciousness), it makes sense that only consciousness can know that God exists and does so through direct, intuitive perception. Like recognizes like.

No machine can detect consciousness except by its manifestations (brain waves, speech, movement etc.). But that does not necessarily mean that consciousness is always and all times detectable. Just as energy can be latent or potential, why can't consciousness be present but undetected. You can gaze out the window or meditate deeply and not be having any internal thoughts or verbalization. You can be "processing" ideas even as you focus on the conversation or task at hand, Consciousness can lay hidden.

The debate in re artificial intelligence will, I believe, rage on for a very long time: perhaps centuries. After all, as A.I. gets more sophisticated, the line will become finer and finer! Swami Kriyananda asked "Can a computer write a scripture?" (Or art, music, etc.?) Well, in fact, I suppose I could imagine a computer so powerful and with access to the world's art or scripture, that, yeah, maybe it could put something together. But that won't mean the machine is a genius or saint. Nothing you can say to me can convince me otherwise. Write me off to junk heap of history, if you will..............the difference may someday be slight in appearance but there will still be, I aver, an unbridgeable chasm of consciousness for which the "missing link" will never be found.

The link between consciousness (as "God") and the material world has always been and will probably always remain a mystery to the intellect but one revealed to the soul's intuition if it has refined and internalized its powers. Whether hidden behind the creation of the cosmos or inserted into the conception of a child, or fleeing upon the death of a body, I believe that only "God, indwelling, can perceive God, omnipresent."

Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Does Meditation Have a Dark Side?

Everything has a dark side. But this is because people are not perfect. Whether politics, business, religion or family, our ideals and goals are wonderful but the people striving for them are flawed. As the practice of meditation continues to grow exponentially, this aspect will become increasingly visible.

There's an internet article on aspects of the downsides or shortcomings of meditation. If you are interested (and I didn't find it very illuminating) here it is:

In fact, it's a bit like whining! None of us who teach meditation should ever hold out meditation as the singular cure for our personal shortcomings and psychological cracks. Nonetheless, meditation CAN change your life and I maintain it is (as my previous blog article asserts) the FUTURE, holding out great promise for humanity. Historically, in fact, so has religion functioned, however flawed, to uplift society and rescue many from utter darkness. So, let's not whine about the reality of the human experience.

But, then, since "you" brought the subject up, let's focus on it.

I've been on a campaign for many years to get meditators to be mindful of the purpose of their meditation practice-----and not mistake the practice for the goal. Meditation is not merely the temporary cessation of ego-active mental and emotional meanderings and self-identities. The fact that becoming still and mindful brings relief to stress and other self-involved emotions doesn't guarantee anything more profound than the effects of sleep: a temporary cessation or suspension of our problems!

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. Yes, the daily practice of mindfulness gives us a tool to become more conscious and aware of our mental processes and unexamined habits. It certainly helps give us greater range of choices in behavior and attitude: all towards the more positive. But, as the practice grows in popularity, you can be sure that most will eagerly accept that diluted promises of "only 15 or 20 minutes" a day benefits! Or, the promise that it's not "religious" (meaning, don't worry, there's no god whose going to tell you what to do or to whom you are accountable!). In other words: no threat to the ego.

Well, Bud, I've got news for you! Meditation is a greater threat to the ego than suicide! Yes, ok, I again exaggerate. (In the metaphysical tradition of reincarnation, the ego never dies until it voluntarily surrenders! No "outside" force or God will "kill" or "destroy" the ego!)

But as meditation grows in popularity, its true intention and tradition will become known. The clinical practice of meditation is largely taken from and influenced by Buddhist traditions. I respect and love these traditions as truth and compassion but the real reason our culture is attracted to them (according to our spin upon them) is that they "appear" not to ask the ego to surrender its control. Ha, ha, ha! Wrong, again!

Long before our beloved Buddha appeared in India, yogis were meditating and seeking Self-realization. The Indian tradition is less appealing to our western ego-affirming culture because in India there is a confusing plethora of deities and ego-surrendering vocabulary and imagery. Buddha simplified all of that in favor of focusing on what our job is, without regard to more subtle realities that we had not yet encountered nor yet are our responsibility. Yet, the Buddha himself, at the last moment of his enlightenment was beset by alluring demons of temptation. His role in spiritual tradition was to emphasize self-effort: chop wood, carry water. Forget the rest. A wonderful, practical and life-saving tradition, to be sure!

For the millions and some day billions who meditate for health and sanity, none of these issues need surface. Meditation will be a part of physical and mental hygiene and that's enough. But because of this far more limited use of meditation, many of our other human shortcomings will only be addressed superficially or even inadequately.

But even clinical mindfulness is not, technically, suppression. Hence its value in achieving greater self-awareness. And hence the invaluable contribution to the evolution of human consciousness on a mass scale.

But so long as the true and highest purpose of meditation is ignored or suppressed or denied, no single human will make notable or permanent progress toward full integration of their humanity into action. 15 to 20 minutes a day is child's play. Yet, transcendence (enlightenment) cannot be cheaply bought by the clock. Too many of those who are sincerely seeking enlightenment imagine the mere act of sitting for a longer time will do it. Not that simple, Bud!

If you want to ignore the time-honored and otherwise undeniable tradition of surrender to divine consciousness, well, fine! Good for you! Keep "coming back" for more, lifetime after lifetime. Your choice! The pathway to enlightenment is too narrow for both ego and soul to walk. Moses, and those born in "captivity," could not enter the Promised Land because (in the allegory of the story), ego consciousness is, by definition, held captive by delusion (of separateness). It must surrender by self-offering. When it does so, it discovers, like the after-death experience itself, that not only has it not died but it has never lived so fully before! The great irony and paradox of enlightenment.

Like Abraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, his faith and humanity was challenged but when he passed the test, he was rewarded. When life challenges us, we think we are "going to die (fail)" but when we rise to occasion with faith and energy, we find that we can be victorious and strengthened by the experience.

In the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the warrior Bhishma represents ego. As such, Bhishma is gifted with the boon that he can never die until he surrenders. On his deathbed, his body riddled with arrows, he gives a great speech on leadership and governance before he surrenders his life.

The real "dark side" of meditation lies not in the seeming failure meditation supposedly has in solving a person's psychological hang ups. The real dark side is that the path to enlightenment requires engaging and strengthening the ego (via will power, self-discipline, non-attachment, etc.). At various points in the process of purification, the ego can rise like a "demon" and tempt one to use one's newly found psychic abilities for ego gratification. Worldly fame, power, beauty, wealth and influence have their natural enemies in the form of time and competition (which we call "karma" and "duality"). But spiritual power has no equal for it is our true Self and is the only real "wealth," because "god-like."

When, therefore, the ego is tempted to keep spiritual power for itself, it can and will inevitably "fall." Hence the long history in drama, mythology and in real life where spiritually advancing person (teacher, etc.) is tested and sometimes falls. (I will add, in place of "sometimes," "always." Enlightenment is not, nor cannot be, a straight line. Space-time is curved!) The inner path of meditation has for its most obvious flaws arrogance, indifference, and aloofness. These the true devotee combats by developing the natural love of heart: through devotion, compassion, and servicefulness.

Thus, until meditation becomes prayer; becomes self-offering; becomes uplifted by devotion, courage and faith into a greater Power (named, unnamed, defined, or undefined according to your own lights), we cannot truly make notable progress in achieving our true humanity, which is, in its essence, divine.

In my last blog post, "Meditation: A Revolution Rising," I commented that ours is an age of Individuality. The dark side of that is, obviously, egotism! The antidote of that isn't only unselfishness or humility, as the ego itself might imagine (though both are fine, so far as they can take us), it is the recognition of a higher Power! To quote Paramhansa Yogananda, "How can there be humility when there's no ego." True "humility" is self (ego) - forgetfulness. So long as there is a sense of personal doership, even in virtue, we are bound by the constraints of our hypnosis of ego-identity and existential separateness. Perhaps in a future article I will discuss the "Confrontation with God."

Any unwillingness to be open to and to, later, acknowledge the natural limitations of ego-born self-effort, is doomed to failure. Thus we find in the 12 Step Recovery tradition the acknowledgement of a Higher Power and the need for us to turn and look up (unto the hills) for divine assistance.

Lastly, just as we scan the universe perceiving hundreds of billions of galaxies, so too, perhaps, we might have the openness to imagine that our personal evolution towards true greatness might take, shall we say, more than one lifetime! We are greater in size, time and space than we can possibly imagine when we limit ourselves only to view one another as human bodies and egos, defined and constrained by gender, age, health, talents, and culture.

I know this "thesis" transcends the appropriate limits of clinical research and vocabulary, and ego-protective consciousness, but this is "the truth that shall make us free." And this is the truth that meditators will, eventually, see (or come to learn about). So, stop whining and keep meditating.


Swami Hrimananda!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Meditation: A Revolution Rising

If you use your Internet browser to search on "benefits of meditation" or just "meditation," I think you'll be very surprised. Between the non-stop publication of scientific studies on meditation's health benefits to the growing use of meditation in business, sports and in the lives of leaders and celebrities, there is only one conclusion you can reach: meditation is hot!

David Gelles, author of "Mindful Work," spoke at the World Post Future of Work Conference in Britain claiming "There's nothing religious about meditation!" (
So, there you have it: see?

The Transcendental Meditation people have conducted numerous tests to demonstrate that a small percentage of meditators can even reduce the local crime rate. A test case led by quantum physicist John Hagelin in Washington D.C. using 173 meditators (minimum is the square root of 1% of the local population) claimed a 23.3% reduction in violent crime during the test period.

I have frequently compared the spread of "yoga" to the growth of the Internet. (footnote: by "yoga" I mean "meditation." The physical postures of hatha yoga were originally part and parcel of that holistic discipline from ancient times that prepared a student for long periods in meditation.)

What's the connection between the Internet and yoga? Simple: both represent the rapidly spreading consciousness of "I want to know how to do things for myself." Social media, too, represents the power to make changes at the broadest, most inclusive level, devoid of hierarchy. This new self-identity of "I" and the "I can do it, too" transcends cultural, religious, or national boundaries. While not all of it is positive, the power of it remains, whether for good or ill. Both yoga and the internet, then, and not exclusively, but by analogy, represent a worldwide cultural revolution that is taking place before our eyes. Just as a powerful tsunami may travel hundreds of miles before it appears as if suddenly offshore, or, just as the 100th monkey creates a tipping point, so too does yoga represent a powerful force which is inexorably rising steadily into view and effect.

Let me digress for a paragraph: During the life of Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952: one of the first Indian teachers to take up residence in U.S.A.), he noted the obstinacy of the Los Angeles city building department. In a casual conversation with friends, he remarked, in frustration with the bureaucracy, "There ought to be a revolution." He paused, then added: "There will be a revolution." There are many revolutions ahead of us in the next decades and, likely, at least the next century.

Yes, a revolution is underway. America was the first nation to give practical birth, expression and scope to what is now and clearly the Age of Individuality! The American revolution was the first but by no means the last for what has been and continues to be a non-stop series of worldwide revolutions: some successful and inspired, others merely destructive and angry. Like a ring of fire of volcanoes erupting around the world, cultural revolutions seeking freedom from oppression of all kinds haven't stopped since 1776.

And yes: I do think a revolution will come to America, though it will necessarily take its own shape and form. I think the pendulum of power and "I can do it" is shifting from the federal level downward to states, counties, and cities. The formation of intentional communities, Paramhansa Yogananda predicted, would "spread like wildfire." (Whether because of widespread cataclysm or by more natural and organic means, or perhaps both, he didn't specify.)

But, having digressed, let us return to meditation! Paramhansa Yogananda predicted that in the future, faith traditions and those self-described "spiritual but not religious" individuals would use meditation as their primary form of personal spirituality. Dogma, ritual and charitable activities will no doubt play their roles but for those whose spiritual seeking go deeper than cultural observances, and there will be many for whom meditation will become their primary spiritual activity.

How can we not change in our views about spirituality? Right next door to you and me live people of different faiths. We work together; go to school together; intermarry; assume roles of leadership in every arena of human activity. The end result is guaranteed: we will learn to live together and in the process we will influence each other to think more broadly and also more deeply about what is truth, what is meaningful in life, and what does it mean to be spiritual.

Meditation is the active and natural expression of that common ground. I say active because distinct from intellectual recognition. For some the first step is, in fact, an intellectual perception that we are not really so different, one from another. But as we step away from the traditional forms of religion, we also lose something. That something was the vessel that bore the deeper truths and experience of spirituality: sacredness and upliftment of consciousness toward God, or Oneness. Meditation is one of, if not THE one most effective and consistent means to achieve such states of consciousness (no matter how they are described). Nonetheless, as humans speak, paint, dance and sculpt, we have an innate need and tendency to communicate by symbols our most deeply cherished feelings. Sacredness will no doubt evolve new symbols or bring new meaning and depth to traditional ones.

Once we "know" that being spiritual is a state of consciousness the next step is meditation and it is right in front of us. And, it is growing in recognition and usage everyday: meditation! Yes, an explosion and a revolution.

This is plenty but there's more. The great cultural god SCIENCE has declared it to be "good!: meditation is for everyone! What greater endorsement could there possibly be for a society that bows and scrapes before the cathedrals and high priests of science, medicine, and the sacred idol of double-blind evidence?

Scientific studies continue non-stop to pour forth the praises and the practical, secular benefits of meditation. They may scoff at the intervention of a nameless and invisible deity, but guess who'll get the last laugh! Paramhansa Yogananda was no fool, indeed one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our age, when he named his first book and the theme for his life's work: the Science of Religion.

The practice of yoga postures achieved an initial stage of popularity in the coming-of-age of my own generation in the Sixties and Seventies. What we observed, then, we see continuing and growing now: every week we hear someone declare, "Gee, there's more to this yoga-stuff than just exercise!"

We in the yoga field simply have to accept the downside of popularity: the celebrity-status of hip yoga teachers; the fashion trade that panders to students; and use of sexy women in yoga poses to sell not just yoga but just about anything. We accept this because we know yoga "works." Yoga is for real. Yoga can transform not just your health but your life. One out of every X number of dedicated students discovers "there's more to this yoga than just exercise." Students become calmer; more self-aware; more self-honest; happier, kinder, healthier, and on and on and on. What would the world be like if even the square root of 1% of the world's population practiced yoga? No religious affiliation or terminology is needed, even if, owing to our own human proclivities to communicate and express enthusiasm, some such terms are bound to emerge.

Physical yoga, then, can lead easily and naturally to meditation. So, too, then, with meditation itself. One may begin the practice of meditation with a secular, personal growth, health and stress-reduction motivation. But, by degrees, in becoming calmer and more centered, one finds that awareness and sympathy and insights grow daily until, looking back one day, one is a changed person.

Every day people can be heard saying that "If everyone in the world meditated daily, we would solve all of our problems!" If that's not a revolution, I don't know what is. That's my point: it IS a revolution and it IS happening before our eyes.

I am therefore hopeful for the survival of humanity. And, not just "mere survival" but growth in consciousness, happiness and relative prosperity. But, if my eyes are still wide open, I must also admit that plenty of prejudice, ignorance, violence, poverty, exploitation and hatred remains in the consciousness of humans on this planet.

Meditation, then, is like an invisible tsunami of hope rising silently (naturally!), like the sea level of expanding awareness and hope, around the world. In the meantime, however, many lessons, tragedies, wars, and suffering remain to be experienced. And, yet, given the inevitability of suffering from change, I believe that such misfortunes will only serve further incite people to seek peaceful alternatives and a higher consciousness. The best you and I can do, then, is to meditate daily. We can help ourselves in our commitment to meditation and help others, too, if we can find others to meditate with. Going further, we can each find appropriate ways to spread and support the spread of meditation.

Maybe it's at the office water cooler; in casual conversations; or, for some, learning to teach meditation to others. Assuming you do meditate already, begin visioning yourself and identifying yourself AS a meditator. While true that in the highest states of meditation, there's no meditator, no meditating, and no object of meditation left, it is also true that a more expansive self-identity can replace a narrower one (the usual self-identities, being a cause for conflict, being based on age, gender, nationality, skills and interests, etc.).

It is helpful to learn that meditation is not only an act you engage in each day by "sitting." Meditation is a way of life: a kind of "political party of consciousness" if you don't mind my using the "p" word. At a stoplight, between conversations, or between tasks, become aware of your breath. Instantly and silently enter, however briefly, the meditative state at will. For some this is prayerful and devotional; for others, more psychological; and yet others, it is simply physiological. That doesn't matter. Be true to your own meditation practice and intention.

A scientist knows that beneath the infinite variety of forms of matter lies the universal substrata of energy (in all its variety of manifestations from gravity and electromagnetism and light, to atoms, molecules and quantum particles and waves). So, the yogi (meditator) can discover and be reminded throughout the day that underlying the differences of individuals is a substrata of universal consciousness. As Paramhansa Yogananda expressed his essential message over a century ago: we are ALL seeking happiness and seeking to avoid suffering. Some more wisely than others but universally we seek the golden ring of happiness. View, therefore, all life as seeking fulfillment. Most are of course unaware that the fragrance of our goal, like the pouch of musk in the belly of the musk deer, lies within ourselves.

Meditation is a lifestyle and a philosophy that sees unity in diversity; connection in separateness. It is the inner journey to the heart of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have done to you."

Anyone who can more or less function in this crazy world, can (and, heck, "should") meditate. We can and will change the world.

I am a member of the Ananda communities movement (9 communities around the world), I see that what we are doing (by combining meditation with cooperative communities of like-minded souls) is to help give birth to the future: here and now. "We ARE the future!" is how I like to say. (By this I don't mean "Ananda" as an organization. I mean Ananda as reflective of the principles of meditation, sustainable living and high ideals which has inspired the work of Ananda.)

This is true even if we are, for the time being, all but invisible to the public eye. We, who have committed our lives to the lifestyle of meditation, are blessed to live, more or less, in a golden age and bubble of consciousness. We don't exclude others or the world by way of rejection or condemnation. Indeed, we openly share and invite anyone sincerely interested to enter this golden age with us or or to do so in their own way.

But, alas, and for now, "Many are called, but few 'have ears to hear.'" I do not mean to imply that this choice requires residency in an intentional community. Anyone can live in an intentional community by virtue of intention and connection with others of like mind whether that community is virtual, energetic, or residential.

Ours is the future, and the future is NOW! In this age of individuality, it's your choice!

Blessings to all,

Swami Hrimananda