I have become utterly enchanted with virtual reality and its ever-expanding possibilities.
During a year when most of us have been forced to spend ungodly periods of time in isolation indoors, I have had the privilege of having my very own portal to other realms. The constraints of location and geography dissolved. The risks of travel and social interaction became irrelevant. Even the limits of the laws of physical reality fell away. I spent more and more time in these virtual worlds, playing games, shooting baddies, solving mysteries, sight-seeing, making art, and even connecting with real people (in the form of their digital avatars).
I’ve felt very lucky to have had some incredible, surreal experiences, especially during a time when so many of us have been so deprived of connection and discovery. But more than the value of these experiences for mere entertainment, what has captured my imagination above all, are the glimpses into the potential of VR as a tool for developing our minds and changing the way we experience the world. It can help us to see differently and more clearly and to live better -- essentially, it is a potentially powerful tool for developing “mindfulness” (forgive the use of this worn-out, beaten down word, which I may henceforth replace with the word awareness).
Leave it to me to find in everything an opportunity for mental training, psychological shifts, and spiritual development. But I am not alone. There is growing, buzzing interest in virtual reality beyond gaming and entertainment, and it is exciting to be discovering the possibilities and seeing the research unfold in real time.
But let me slow down.
Since the average person has not yet experienced the wonders of virtual reality, I will spend the next lines explaining my recent fascination and what I see as the exciting potential here.
Talking about virtual reality as leaving this realm and entering another is really no wild exaggeration. When you slip on a VR headset, it feeds your visual and auditory sense doors with input that is so immersive that it essentially tricks your brain into believing, on some level, that you are somewhere else. This new virtual world is convincing enough to your brain that stepping off the edge of a cliff, or having a sword swung past your face, makes your body respond physiologically to a threat, even though your intellect is still aware that you are standing in your pyjamas in the safety of your living room. Likewise, floating outside the International Space Station and looking back at planet Earth, climbing Mount Everest, or painting a surreal landscape around you, is thrilling and evokes a sense of magic and awe. Suddenly, all this is at our fingertips -- endless possibilities, with little regard for the limits of our physical ability, our financial means, or the robustness of our courage.
Beyond the magic and wonder -- and pure fun -- of exploring these surreal and unbounded virtual worlds, what does VR mean to the meditator, the philosopher, the spiritual seeker -- to me, and to you, who may be some or all or none of these?
It simply means a new tool, unlike any before it. One that may, for you, or for that person over there, be the key to developing skills of awareness (“mindfulness”) and insight into the mind, that were previously unattainable, or required so much time and effort, they felt esoteric and far from reach.
The virtual world is a cloistered realm, where sensory information can be purposefully designed, rather than run amok, unpredictably as it does in real life. Virtual reality can offer us a supportive training ground for the development of our awareness skills -- a new way to meditate. Distractions are limited, novelty and wonder and awe are amplified, and so new depths of attention and concentration may be within reach with more ease than ever before.
With our awareness and focus sharpened, we start to view the world in a new way, even when we remove the VR headset. These skills we practise and develop in the virtual world can be applied to our “real” world and give rise to a new way of seeing and being. We begin to see with eyes that are steady, bright and clear, less clouded by our filters of feeling and thought, conceptual ideas, judgments and fears, like and dislikes, but seeing and sensing what is really there -- appearing in front of us, and perhaps even arising inside us.
Our skills of wakeful attention and awareness sharpened, we can also start to notice parallels between our experiences in the virtual world and this “real” world. Here too, we notice a dream-like quality of reality, and question whether what we perceive with our senses is really what’s there, or just another hallucination, just another virtual reality, projected by the hardware that is our brain. Here too, we start to see the futility of grasping onto objects as if they are solid and will last forever. Here too, our experience is just a spectacular flow of sensory delights, with even more stunning detail and sharper edges. Maybe we start to enjoy and appreciate more, and interact more playfully. Maybe we are less upset at endings and changes and more accepting of the grand parade as we watch it from a safe distance.
Maybe there is a sense of spaciousness and we feel a bit more free.
Virtual reality can be a gateway to clarity and insight previously only rumoured by meditation masters, sages and wise ones. Now, it is available to me, and you, and nearly all who are willing and ready to use this tool for its highest potential.
So what are you waiting for? Take a deep breath, get ready, come along and see for yourself.
I would tell you to strap on your sturdiest adventure boots and pack your bags. But we won’t need them where we’re going.