The Secret of Future Calm

The Secret of Future Calm

Illustration Credit: Exit Here by Brian Cronin/Renee Rhyner Library

As the pace of life gets faster and faster, here’s how to avoid the shock.

"Future shock,” as described by Alvin Toffler in the book by the same name, “is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”—and that was in 1970, when a computer required its own building. Today every iPhone is a million times smaller and cheaper and more powerful than its mammoth ancestor. According to computer-science guru and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, “That’s a billion-fold increase in capability per dollar that we’ve actually experienced since I was a student. And we’re going to do it again in the next twenty-five years.”

Toffler believed that most of the enormous social problems and unrest of the sixties were symptoms of this too-rapid rate of change. Now, nearly half a century later, the rate at which technological change occurs is orders of magnitude greater than that which we experienced during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of President Kennedy. Just think: In a few short years driverless cars and trucks will barely have to slow down through unpeopled gas, food, and coffee dispensers, perhaps leaving millions feeling they have nothing more useful to do than to go round and round supersizing themselves—assuming that they somehow have the money.

The changes that we’re experiencing aren’t limited to information technology. We’re seeing biological developments that were recently the stuff of science-fiction novels.

At the turn of the last century, the U.S. government-sponsored Human Genome Project was nearing completion, and a decade later, scientists in China generated a perfectly normal mouse using stem cells extracted from mouse skin cells. What this means is that we now have the potential to create a copy of any organ—or organism—from cells. And not only do we have the potential to create new body parts and bodies, we have the potential to convert the experience of an organism into binary code and download it to a computer chip.

The initial studies demonstrating this capability were conducted at MIT. By injecting mice with retroviruses tagged with proteins that could pass into the brain, then lighting them up, and employing a two-color imaging technique, the memory of the mouse’s experience was captured and recorded. As futurist Juan Enriquez explains, it is not inconceivable that we’ll be able to download—and upload—human memories into a woman or man of our own making. Not only will we be able to create people from scratch, we’ll be able to create their stories, as well. Photography and the video and Instagram have allowed us to hold on to people in meaningful ways, but what’s coming may be fundamentally different. (Will the day come when Grandma’s chocolate-chip cookies are less satisfying to us than the Grandma chip?)

Enriquez has also postulated that the accelerated rate of change in our environment is driving the evolutionary formation of variant species of humans. Some changes—such a 78 percent increase in the incidence of autism in less than a decade—are deleterious. But we’re also seeing dramatic increases in people with hyperprocessing capabilities—extreme perceptual sensitivities and computational intelligence—possibly due to mating of gifted individuals residing in close proximity in high-tech sectors such as the Silicon Valley. In evolutionary terms, this is now called the “sexy geek” hypothesis—and it leads perhaps to a 1 percent who are categorically different from the rest of humanity.

Coping with Accelerating Change

There is no question that coping with such breakneck changes in our cultural environment—and species—can be psychologically overwhelming even for sexy geeks, let alone the rest of us. What should we do?

The traditional “spiritual” solution is often seen as opting out. Like the ancient Essenes, who found refuge in caves near Israel’s Dead Sea, or the Desert Dwellers, who took to the Sahara, or countless other monastic traditions that have cloistered on mountaintops east and west.

Periods of intense upheaval create a drive toward simplicity and order. Even in this unprecedented age of upheaval, life by the Benedictine Rule or in the ashram or out on the farm should still work as well as ever, and many of us of a certain age can gauge the clock and Social Security, our IRAs and 401ks, and simply live out our lives being grateful for peace and contemplative quiet as we strive to reduce our carbon footprint.

Yet we should keep in mind that the original Essenes and Benedictines and the Buddha didn’t see themselves as opting out of the modern world. Their “retreats” created models of living that were groundbreaking—and in the process they succeeded in creating some of our best strategies for creating meaningful lives in today’s world: meditation, centering prayer, and really fine brandy.

There is hopeful news at the root of all our current upheaval: Our brains and minds—at any age—are remarkably fast self-adapting systems that are crafted by evolutionary processes to change up to 200 times per second. (That’s the average rate of neural firing and conduction going on in your brain right now, which is the shortest period of time that a modification in a neural net can occur.) Even the most sedentary stick in the mud among us is not actually static—far from it.

What grounds us—for better and worse—are our conceptual beliefs, the cognitive constructs that represent ideas or things. In a rapidly changing world, our conceptual beliefs tend to persist in the confines of our minds well beyond the point when they have any predictive value, and it is often the disparity between our conceptual beliefs and current reality that causes us to suffer.

Berkeley-based meditation scholar, teacher, and author Michael Taft offers the perspective that rapid cultural change can actually serve as an aid in dissolving conceptual beliefs that cause drag on personal growth. He points out, “While the impact of rapid cultural change can sometimes lead to overwhelm and despair, there are upsides. Attachment to static conceptual beliefs—and the agendas that arise from them—limit behavioral flexibility. Their traction on behavior is severely undermined by a rapidly shifting cultural environment. This opens up the possibility to grow in an environment where ideas are held lightly and used with greater fluency and facility.”

A Bumpy Road to Freedom

As Toffler noted, opposing social movements fueled by technological change often give rise to conflict. Letting go of beliefs and ideas that have outlasted their usefulness is not always easy, and some people transition to new ideas more readily than others. So, as rapid technological change exerts more and more pressure on society, cracks begin to appear in the consensual belief systems, and differing social factions form. Some people work to maintain the status quo, some strive to move back to early times, and some surrender to the flowing currents of change. Eventually, a new “norm” may emerge, but some change takes more time and a greater toll than others.

More than a half century has passed since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making nondiscrimination the law of the land. But social change happens in fits and starts. Today a black president resides in the White House, yet our nation is still experiencing the smoldering embers and devastating flare-ups of racial hatred. During the time that it took to write this piece, Misty Copeland was named the first black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater and nine black worshippers were gunned down in one predominantly black church. At the same time, social progress in other realms has occurred relatively quickly. Just think about how much ancient, horrible anguish is suddenly being allowed to dissipate for gays in America with a change in thought and law. How much more hurt and pain can we simply let go of? How fast can we do it? How do we “retreat” toward it?

Be The Change and Be Happy

As Heraclitus noted, “Nothing endures but change”—not the fashions we wear, nor the food we eat; not the jobs we work, nor the tools we use to get the job done. The difference between his day and ours is that the physical world is changing quickly enough for us to witness global-scale changes in our lifetime, and societal norms and mores shift dramatically in a decade, or even a day. Our conceptual minds adapt to these changes with more or less grace, while the basic elements of our mind—thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations—continue to flow in a seemingly endless stream of consciousness as they always have.

Change is what “is,” and wisdom is coming to a place of being at peace with it. The Theravada Buddhist practice of “vipassana,” or “insight meditation,” can enable us to deconstruct the concepts of our mind and to witness directly its impermanence. With time, the practice of vipassana and other forms of meditation will enable us to stay centered within ourselves in the midst of turbulent change in the world around us. And in this place of carefully cultivated serenity, John Lennon’s reverent lyrics from the beautiful hymn “Across the Universe” ring true: “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”

A Practice for Whatever’s Next

To prepare for vipassana meditation, the practitioner first does samatha, a calming practice. This involves focusing on a “primary object” of concentration, usually the breath, and allowing all distractions or “secondary objects”—sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images—to fade into the background. Once a state of calm concentration is attained, the practitioner turns his or her attention directly to this parade of objects and simply notes them as they arise and pass on. Vipassana is intuitive knowledge or insight into the true nature of “nama”—the mind—and “rupa”—our material form. It is the realization that all mental and physical phenomena, including the self, are impermanent.

Engaging in a vipassana practice eventually gives rise to a direct experience of the constructed nature of our minds, our beliefs, our selves. And once we have cultivated the capacity to stay centered while clearly observing the transient elements of our mind, and the rushing river of change in the world around us, we’re likely to find ourselves firmly grounded in the moment—and more capable of choosing the best next course of action.

Peggy La Cerra, PhD, is an evolutionary neuroscientist, author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness, and the New Science of the Self, and president of God’s Speed Pure Caffeine. Stephen Kiesling is the editor of S&H.

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