The 21st century does seem like the matrix sometimes. Especially in the west. Even more so in the summer. Picture perfect homes along wide boulevards. Children playing football in open fields. But the undercurrent of anxiety never goes away. Entire industries have vanished, some for ever. Strange people from across the oceans have taken our jobs. Yet others are seeking revenge for crimes that no one remembers committing. The worst is yet to come — a planet as a whole bent upon ruin, an almost biblical future of plague and destruction raining down from the sky.
Meanwhile, machines are getting better and better at being human, at least as far as economic life goes. Soon, there will be no need for doctors and lawyers or any other white collar profession. The middle class, as we know it, is about to end, and with that will come the end of all the political and economic systems that depend on middle class support. Liberal democracy, market economics, civil society: these are time-bound aspects of the human condition that we take for granted, almost as if they were part of the furniture of the universe. If current trends hold, these institutions might reveal themselves to be flimsy.
Waking up from the dream
The matrix is a misleading term. The dream metaphor leads us toward a sharp dichotomy between this world and another one, between heaven and hell (interestingly, the matrix reverses the usual relationship between the two — heaven is the dream you are in right now, while hell is what you experience when you wake up), but there is no other world, no there there. To really understand, adapt and perhaps thrive under the changes that are afoot, we need to go back twenty five hundred years to the axial age when the previous “total disruption” of the human condition was underway. It is no surprise that both the Buddha and Socrates arose at that time, for the new human condition needed its archetypes.
MIT meets the Monastery
How do we respond to the challenges of our times? Surely, we can learn from the previous era of total disruption. Then, as now, things arose, subsisted and passed away. Meditation into our 21st century human condition is absolutely essential and these ancient beacons will help light the way to our future.
Too much adherence to the past isn’t the answer, for our condition now is different. While the essentials are arguably the same as 5th Century B.C.E India, the main drivers of impermanence and change are different in scale, if not in quality: scientific and technological progress, the complete human domination of the earth and unbridled consumption. An exploration of the human condition will be incomplete if it doesn’t take these new developments into consideration. Our challenge is to adapt the Buddha’s meditative inquiry and Socrates’ examination of human life to our times. We need to take the middle path between rejecting these ancient insights as relics of the past and a fundamentalist insistence upon their literal and complete truth.
The 21st century human condition also demands the addition of a third element to these two classical strains: an understanding of scientific ways of knowing. I say scientific ways of knowing, not science. We don’t need the technical details that excite the expert, but the core methods that everyone can adopt fruitfully. Just as sitting meditation can help the novice negotiate stress in their lives while opening up entirely new vistas to the advanced practitioner, the essence of scientific inquiry can help people at all stages as well. Exposure to contemplative, rational and the scientific practices can and should become part of a universal mental toolkit. This is what I call “MIT meets the Monastery,” a triangle connecting the ancient east, the ancient west and modern scientific and technical knowledge.
This is the triangle I want to explore over the next year with fellow travelers. I do not know what this triangle looks like in full technicolor; the year long exploration would have no purpose if I did. However, I can say with confidence that the merger of meditation, reasoning and science requires us to embark upon a collective journey. A journey of not knowing as much as knowing. A journey we must embark upon for our well being and that of future generations.