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Monasteries of the Future & New Forms of Brain Communication...
I’m writing this from my room at the Monastic Academy in Vermont. The Monastic Academy is one of iteration of what Miles Bukiet calls “Monasteries of the Future” in his (really long, but really fascinating) paper of the same title:
“Monasteries of the Future will drive innovation in the field of contemplative science, and in so doing, promote human flourishing and ameliorate suffering. The rationale for Monasteries of the Future is built on the science of deliberate practice, emerging research on meditation and neuroplasticity, and ancient contemplative claims. On the front lines of revealing what inner skills are trainable, how to train them, and how trainable they are, Monasteries of the Future will help to answer these pressing and complex questions, that in a world of seven billion people, have become questions of survival.”
Rather than a refuge from an industrial culture at odds with contemplative ideals, monasteries of the future are looking to engage directly with culture at large.
At the Monastic Academy, residents spend time looking like this:
As well as like this:
During periods of work between meditation and meals, I found residents working on digital projects like podcasts & web design. They recently hosted the first neuromodulation meditation retreat, where retreat participants could meditate while electrodes were hooked up to specific brain areas and stimulated via transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDS). In short, they’re not trying to preserve dharma practice’s traditional form, but participate in its evolution alongside new cultural circumstances.
During a weekly meeting where logistics were discussed, Soryu Forall, a spritely but fierce Rinzai zen monk & resident teacher of the monastery asked the assembled group (I’m paraphrasing):
“As far as you can tell, is being here and receiving this training, and being a part of this community, the absolute best you can do with your short & precious life? Because I’m convinced that being here, doing what we’re doing, is the best thing we can be doing. And if you don’t feel that way, it’s best you raise your concerns now, for two reasons:
1) I’m confident I can convince you that it is, and the harder you push back and lay bare your doubts, the more convinced you might also grow of our mission.
2) If this really isn’t the absolute best you can do, then you shouldn’t be here. You should be off somewhere else, wherever that absolute best is. Because life is too short & precious to do otherwise”
Hell of a way to start a meeting. And I think I’ll be asking myself from now on, at various points in my life: as far as I can tell, is this the absolute best thing I can be doing with my short & precious life?
[Keywords being “as far as I can tell”, because we can’t really know these things, but we can direct intention towards them]
New Form of Brain Communication Discovered
Big news out of a neuroscience lab at Case Western University.
Up until this study, we’ve only been aware of three methods neurons in the brain use to communicate: synaptic transmission, axonal transmission, gap junctions.
All three of these methods are physical, material connections between two areas of the brain. In a study published in October, scientists found a fourth way brains communicate, involving no physical connection between the communicating neurons.
Basically, they removed a hippocampus, sliced it in half, then held both halves very close to each other. They watched under a microscope to ensure the halves weren’t touching, and then despite the physical chasm between brain bits, the two halves of the hippocampus kept communicating with each other.
They communicated via electrical fields. We’ve known firing neurons generate weak electric fields, of the variety observed by EEG’s (alpha, beta, delta, theta, gamma, depending on the frequency). But neuroscientists thought these generated fields were too weak to cause any neural activity.
But what they found is that electrical fields generated by neurons in one hippocampus slice was sufficient to travel across the gap and stimulate activity in the other half.
Sooo…now what? True to form, the scientists didn’t publicly speculate about their findings, but there are some exciting possible implications. If brains can communicate with each other via self-generated electrical fields…then telepathy doesn’t sound so crazy? If we can craft devices to amplify brain-generated electrical activity, and also devise some sort of headsets sensitive to receiving this activity from other brains…then…?
This all reminds me of a Tim Urban post from a while back, where he dug into Elon Musk’s most recent company, Neuralink. The essay focuses mainly on BMI’s - brain machine interfaces - and their coming feasibility. He summarizes the Neuralink/BMI ordeal in this graphic, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing:
An Understandably Worrisome, but Actually Very Fun Universal Basic Income ‘What If’ Scenario
I’ve been playing with this idea over the course of a few essays now: organizing society in a particular way also organizes the consciousness of its participants in particular ways. This is the basic idea behind ecosophy.
Socioeconomic circumstances manufacture certain forms, habits, and patterns of sentience (sentience being our overall feeling of what it’s like to exist).
I’ll go out on a limb and say the patterns of sentience that define us today began with the dawn of science, and the mentality of quantifiable, material progress born with it (I will immediately disagree with myself, arguing that biological and evolutionary factors of our sentience began waaay before that. But anyway, there’s a sentiment in there I hope comes across).
This is why I get so jazzed up with the idea of Universal Basic Income. It offers the first opportunity I’ve seen to fundamentally alter the type of consciousness we’re socioeconomically encouraging. It creates a distance, however small, between market logic and existential logic.
One common and sensible fear about UBI goes something like, “what if people just stop working and do nothing?”
Despite preliminary UBI studies finding just the opposite, this is a poor phrasing of the concern. It’s very difficult to actually do nothing. Studies have found we’d rather administer electric shocks to our bodies than do nothing for even 15 minutes. Rather, the fear is people will engage more with activities that are of no use or benefit to society at large.
David Graeber responds to this concern in his Bullshit Jobs: A Theory:
“The second, more serious objection is that most will work, but many will choose work that’s of interest only to themselves. The streets would fill up with bad poets, annoying street mimes, and promoters of crank scientific theories, and nothing would get done. What the phenomenon of bullshit jobs really brings home is the foolishness of such assumptions. No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless; but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 to 20 percent. But already right now, 37 to 40 percent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless. Roughly half the economy consists of, or exists in support of, bullshit. And it’s not even particularly interesting bullshit! If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all, how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have?”
The point of Bullshit Jobs is that the employment structure in place now, and so many of the jobs people give their lives to, are already of no benefit to society at large, beyond the paycheck employees receive.
If someone is going to live by doing totally useless bullshit, why not at least let them choose which bullshit will consume their lives?
Very Brief Book Notes
Of his novels, and maybe overall, Huxley is most known for Brave New World, a dystopian vision of a society shackled by implicit, self-perpetuated chains.
Island is the opposite: his quasi-utopian vision. He imagines what a sane society would be like - how it would live, self-govern, gather and exchange resources, etc.
“Darwinism was the old neolithic Wisdom turned into scientific concepts. The new conscious Wisdom - the kind of Wisdom that was prophetically glimpsed in Zen and Taoism and Tantra - is biological theory realized in living practice, is Darwinism raised to the level of compassion and spiritual insight.”
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