Dreaming and Waking up, These Days: Which Is More Real, Online or Offline?

The expanding set of responsibilities and duties that come with technological progress has made living well with AI and VR a key requirement. As if in a dream, everything appears intensified— freedom, fun, and creativity; obligation, control, and terror. According to Buddhism, the whole world is like a dream, and fact and fiction are ultimately equally dream-like. How can we best embrace the challenges and potentials that come with life beyond dreaming and being awake?

New Responsibilities

Knowing how to live well with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) has become a key requirement. We rely on digital platforms to make sense of our world and the roles we play in it. Throughout our public and private lives, we are invited, or gently but insistently required, to interact with machine-powered intelligence. To be responsible and reliable citizens, we must to some extent also know our way with and around the internet. That web brings us all together, instantly and across great distances. But it also often leaves us with a feeling of being all alone and isolated, sometimes despite being right next to each other. As when for example a loved one is wholly absorbed in virtual encounters and business that take place somewhere altogether different.

Where Things Really Happen

When do we then really come together? How and where does that happen? In the course of a day, the bulk of significant events—professional, educational, romantic, religious, what have you—may well take place online. At times, we may even catch ourselves feeling as if being offline is just surviving, living a sort of pseudo-life that has not yet become what it needs to be. At the same time, if we feel that way, we will likely feel rather embarrassed about it, and if we speak of it to others, we may talk with an air of irony, as if we were sharing a joke. In other words, we behave as if our dependency on AI-powered tools and experiences indicates some sort of deficiency, or confusion. And yet, just as undeniably, we hardly have any choice but to skillfully appropriate and inhabit the spheres of expanded activity and imagination that the emerging technologies open up. Why then do we feel as if doing so wholeheartedly is somehow a sign of confusion, or of being out of touch? Undeniably, being offline for an extended period of time means being out of touch with much that we do need to keep in touch with. But at the same time, so does apparently being online—at least that is how we often speak, think, and feel. So, if in this way we are just about always out of touch, whether on or offline, when is there ever time and space to find the elusive “good life”?

The Spectrum of Events Intensifies

The amazing freedoms that our emerging technologies afford us are also accompanied by an expanding set of responsibilities and duties. Not only can we travel to virtual dream destinations and meet fun and exotic companions there. For the very same reasons that make such travel possible, we may now also find ourselves compelled to work strenuously at times and places that would before have been unthinkable. And because we can now both work and play in unprecedented and innovative ways, it becomes incumbent upon authorities to find new and much more comprehensive ways to track our activities. Likewise, because we perform so many of our vital activities within a network of intelligence that is as universal as the air we breathe, those up to no good may strike us in ways that can be devastating and yet extremely hard to trace. So, everything appears magnified: freedom, fun, creativity, obligation, control, terror. Quite like in a dream. Still, baring global catastrophe there is little reason to doubt that technological progress will continue—perhaps taking new and stunning turns. It seems then safe to assume that the spectrum of our technology-induced dreams will keep intensifying.

We Cannot Quit Dreaming

Because of the intensity of it all, and because of the lingering feeling of constantly missing the point, we may at times feel an impulse to just pull the plug, drop out—at least for a while—and return to whatever we may think of as the fundamentals of life. We may then try to purge our life of what we at that point think of as pseudo-events and distractions, and instead aim to live in touch with the “authentic” – nature, each other, and/or the divine. But if, beyond lip service and sporadic dramatic gestures, we try to follow through with such projects we may soon lose track of where to go and how to get there. Perhaps it will even seem as if confusion and dissatisfaction have gone from bad to worse. Ignorance is obviously not bliss but compared to knowing that one is dreaming, but not knowing how to wake up, it might seem better not to know in the first place.

Dreaming with Buddhism

In Buddhism there is a long tradition for facing up to life being just like a dream. The whole world, me and you, love and hate, heaven and hell—all just like a dream. This is not a tradition for extricating dream and illusion, because here simply knowing the nature of the dream is awakening. But who, we may well ask ourselves, would find such a perspective appealing? Why would we call reality dream-like in the first place, and even if we were to do so, wouldn’t that sort of thinking and that sort of language make for an extremely unappealing perspective on things? We have just noted how nauseating the feeling of being stuck in a dream can be. Rather than dwelling on things being dreamlike, if we aim for a good life, wouldn’t it seem more relevant to look for the real and the genuine? Yet according to the Buddha, the real is just as dreamlike as the false.

Dream Challenges, Dream Potentials

The image of dream is a curious one, because we associate both insubstantiality and intensity with dream. In dreams, things can happen that otherwise could not—during dreams we might see, feel, and act in ways we find stunning and amazing, also after we wake up. And yet because it is all just a dream, when we try to capture the dream and hold on, everything rapidly fades and disappears, or turns into something else. Let us for a while set aside the question of how and why one might want to say that everything is dreamlike. Let us just imagine that this were the case. Nothing could then really be something else than it seems, and yet, nothing could truly be what it seems either. If everything were indeed like a dream then nothing would be grounded in anything—even the sense of dream would be just like a dream. If such a perspective seems dizzying and disturbing then that is perhaps only natural.

Nevertheless, according to Buddhist teachings, true happiness—the truly good and meaningful life—hinges on being able to genuinely accommodate that sort of perspective. The person who does so will be free, as well as bright, warmhearted, and dependable. Ultimately, such insight—as it is indeed referred to in Buddhism—is the key to super-intelligence and the perfection of noble qualities. In this way, Buddhist practice is about achieving sound and meaningful existence within worlds of illusion. About mastering illusion; finding meaning by finding none. This is also a heroic path, the path of giving up hope to become hope.

Buddhism as Religion

Buddhism is, of course, also a religion that one can be a follower of, and so it offers its own set of comforts and supports of the type that religions tend to provide their followers with. By subscribing to the ideals of clear insight into the nature of reality and loving care for all sentient beings, we can join global communities, connect with ancient traditions, and become equipped with moral values that give us a sense of depth, meaning, and direction as we step into the future, whether in this world or in terms of what may lie beyond it, after death.

Cheering at the Sideline

But if we dream of taking our Buddhism beyond admiration at a distance, or beyond being an active supporter of the project as carried and brought forward by others, then taking the Buddhist path means constant challenge. Perhaps this is somewhat like becoming an active scientist, as opposed to an admirer or supporter of science. All that we think and do as scientists is then under constant revision and everything must, one way or the other, be brought to a concrete test of experience. It’s not for all of us to become a living and breathing scientist, and most of us will probably prefer watching the spectacle of emerging science from the sideline. That way we can come in to celebrate when important victories have been won and when there are fine things to share. And we don’t have to struggle, despair, or face the full force of potential defeat. Being a Buddhist is for most of us perhaps quite similar. We would like to enjoy the leadership, inspiration, and strength that our Buddhist heroes provide. We are happy to wear their colors and sing their songs, but we would like to do so without risking anything, standing only to benefit, ready to pick up the fruits that may fall into our lap.

Expertise about Illusion

But the way our illusory world is going—both dislocating us and bringing us together through the magic of technology—Buddhist views and practices take on a new sense of concrete relevance. The skills, insights and ethics that define Buddhism as a path of sharing awakening through recognizing dream are becoming much more than distant ideals or topics of intellectual fancy. They are, arguably, the need of the day. To seize our fluid days and nights we need expertise about illusion. Or to be more precise, we need to become experts ourselves, masters of illusion, on and offline. Whether we actively seek to understand them, the signs of illusion are in our face regardless. Living with AI and VR, we feel the indicators of illusion in our body and mind. Just to be happy, in the good old sense of that word, we then need to see deeper and clearer than we likely ever thought we would have to. The choice that begins to present itself is between slowly succumbing to the stresses of unwanted illusion, or going straight for its heart blood, mastering illusion by skillfully embracing it. To do that, we need to develop the strength and acuity that it takes to see beyond the distinction of dream versus reality. And whether we like it or not, that distinction is already beginning to cave in on us. That which was until now in many ways the preserve of adepts and mystics is then turning into a common life skill.

Beyond Reality and Illusion

Nagarjuna is traditionally known as a philosopher, alchemist, adept meditator, and even a “second Buddha” capable of conveying the profound wisdom of the Buddhist teachings through pithy steps of reasoning. In his Insight treatise of 27 analytic investigations, Nagarjuna takes on the structures that form the backbone of reality: arising, cessation, movement, self, other, perception, agency, time, and so on. His approach is one of asking clear and simple questions, and then pressing for answers. For the one who takes up his challenge to reply, Nagarjuna’s questions will reveal the voidness of the concepts and entities in question—including voidness itself. The difference between the virtual and the real collapses. Nothing can then in ultimate fact be something else than it seems—there cannot be any unseen reality somehow hiding behind the appearance. (If there seems to be, then that candidate for transcendent reality is merely apparent just as well.) At the same time, nothing can be exactly what it seems either, because the potential for transformation is in principle unlimited.

Picturing Transformation

Let us here return to the constant-out-of-touch syndrome that we considered before, and that we said is quite symptomatic of our AI-powered lifestyles. Let us imagine that we approach that condition with this sort of understanding under our belt, not just as part of our belief system, but as an active stance and living perspective. It stands to reason that what before was an existential crisis now may appear a non-issue. Because nothing is by default false or unworthy, every situation carries an equal potential for meaning and healing. Whereas before there was a measure of poison in everything, preventing us from sensing meaning regardless of our best efforts, we can now in principle embrace all contexts and situations, seeing them as workable, and potentially medicinal. If in our heart of hearts, the dichotomy between the real and the illusory has dissolved, the crisp features of our cognitive fields can still be accessed, employed, enjoyed, and transmitted. Only now the restless search for more and better, and the accompanying fears of failure, can be allowed to unravel within their own groundless condition.

Not that hard to picture.

The Promise of the Future

Finally, with such a perspective in mind, the great and often broadcast promises of our emerging technologies can begin to seem less unrealistic. When in this way AI and VR can be cultivated and allowed to emerge in environments that are not driven by greed or fear, why should not these powerful technologies could become genuine sources of goodness? Living skillfully and perceptively with them, we can together extend networks of caring, natural intelligence between all forms of life.

Accompanying the great, empowering strides of the ongoing technological revolution, we often find an underlying sense of alienation that threatens, ironically, to give way to powerlessness and despair. But the sources of despair are not in the technology. AI and VR can be embraced as honest and precise means that allow us to share and build in unprecedented ways. And at the same time they cannot but reveal the illusion-like nature of all—our common “ground of no ground.” Artificiality, alienation, and potential despair can be turned around in a flash. As falsity gives way to transparency, the promise of the future is now.

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