I’m not one of those folks who likes to draw many comparisons from studies of computing processes and apply them to human behavior. I tend to think that computers mimic human consciousness more because of the human beings that structure and use them rather than them being intrinsically conscious. I may be wrong about that, but that’s my working hypothesis.
Nonetheless, when I see articles like this one describing hallucinogenic computer recognition results, I’m intrigued. If the computer seems conscious because it is an expression of human consciousness, then these accounts can still tell us something about ourselves.
Part of what intrigues me is that these results describing computer recognition provide strong parallels for what happens in ecstatic states, whether they are motivated by neurological misfires, the use of entheogens, and/or the disciplined cultivation of our own perceptual capacities (including dream work, singing, and dancing, as well as things like meditation). What does seem to happen is that our pattern-recognition capacities become disconnected from the schematic-habitual patterns that predetermine sensory experience before we become conscious of it.
In that space, our pattern-recognition capacities acquire a degree of freedom from our habits and can ‘play’ at ‘recognizing’ different things in the stream of sensory input. The curve of a table leg can be mapped through our animal schema, becoming a serpent or a horse’s back. Even outside the spiritual possibilities this opens, these states are likely quite adaptive, at the root of our capacity to adjust how we see and relate to the world.
I suspect these states are also useful for encountering spirits. Spirits as forms of consciousness can more readily communicate to us by taking hold of the perceptual apparatus and manipulate them in order to generate meaningful patterns.
From this perspective, the ambiguities that are inherent to spirit communication appear as necessary limitations. What the spirits take hold of are perceptual habits (learned and innate) and they aren’t likely to have more finesse working with them than we do. Schemas are applied with a heavy hand, switched out sharply for another, and so on. It is a bit like typing with your wrists and having the results read by a computer. There is a pattern and message, but there is a lot of noise.
The long arc of spiritual work should thereby be about finding ways to clarify and declutter this process, and in this we can see the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The sorts of conceptual and perceptual order these practices develop not just our conscious awareness, but discrete elements of our perceptual apparatus.
The clarified apparatus is easier for spirit to operate. This would suggest that the dramatic and vivid visions experienced by some meditators may derive only partly from the free play of perceptual mechanisms as conscious demands are withdrawn and applied to mindfulness itself. A remainder of the visionary experiences is likely to be spirits themselves operating those mechanisms.
Buddhism’s tendency to swerve from spiritual atheism toward disciplined theism may be considered in this light. While some see Buddhist spirit work as a corruption of its basic principles, it may also be viewed as an organic extension of them. If you encounter other forms of consciousness through meditation, don’t you have a responsibility to extend the possibility of Buddhist enlightenment toward them as well?
It would also explain some of the ways that simple mindfulness can go awry and lead a small number of people into extraordinarily dark, disturbing, and even psychotic states.* As the person re-enters and re-integrates their withdrawn consciousness into their perceptual apparatus, failures may occur. The pattern-recognition processes may acquire a degree of independence which doesn’t ‘reset’ when consciousness returns to mundane attention. This could lead to a breakdown in the ordering process that makes mundane perception possible.
Sometimes, that may be the result of spiritual interference (e.g., harassment from the dead and demonic), but there are surely many cases where it is simply an organic failure resulting from contingent factors ranging from the temperamental to the neurological. Hence, some versions of this failure may be responsive to spiritual treatments, while others will not be.
(It also suggests the possibility, though, that there may be some cases where a spiritual operation might help with an ‘organic’ failure, where a spirit might be able to help restructure the perceptual structures in a beneficial fashion [or vice versa].)
As Dr. Farrias suggests in the article linked above, this should also lead to changes in how mindfulness meditation is taught. If some people have difficulty reintegrating, then telling these people to ‘meditate through the trouble’ may lead them toward a more complete disintegration rather than recuperation. Similarly, telling someone having mental issues while doing magical work to magic their way out of them might be similarly disastrous.
*Take the time to follow what links you can from this interview. Having looked at a few of his sources, it looks to me like he may be overstating some of the studies he cites. I think he is doing so for good reasons, to get people accustomed to thinking of mindfulness as unproblematic to seriously re-examine the dangers, but the details suggest there are some important qualifications to his statements about lack of efficacy.