The Computer Nerd's Guide to Mysticism

Self-realisation, non-duality and fundamental spirituality for geeks.

Spirit and Tech

The first twenty-five years of my life were in many ways fairly conventional. I spent a lot of time reading about, thinking about and programming computers. I was very interested in understanding how they worked, from the raw materials, through to the end product. I sold licenses to my own software for a while, and worked in the industry for about ten years.

This article is an attempt to relate what happened next and moreover what was discovered, using familiar computing terms and a bit of humour. It will be of interest to anyone who has become existentially curious about themselves and the nature of reality.

Mysticism and spirituality are fundamentally concerned with experiential knowledge of some transcendent truth - a search for the ultimate nature of reality. The umbrella of spirituality may include altered states of consciousness, so called paranormal phenomena and unconventional healing practices. Our interest here, however, is far simpler and immediately available for exploration.

The mysticism I am talking about begins with a basic philosophical exploration of our own consciousness, and may lead to a deeply intuitive unravelling of beliefs you never knew you had. In the absence of these beliefs, the unadulterated nature of reality reveals itself.

In the immortal words of Morpheus (The Matrix, 1999):

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

An important note: None of the analogy and allegory that follow are an attempt to suggest that computers are conscious, nor even to assert that they are not. They are simply used as pointers to that which is being communicated. Do not take them too literally!

iOS or Android

Mysticism, or spiritual seeking, often begins with questions. Questions about the nature of reality and the nature of self. Fundamentally, 'Who am I?' and 'What is reality?'.

These questions hint at a deeper conundrum. That on some level, we don't really feel we know who we are. They are questions about identity.

What we really want to know, is who is the programmer? What, if anything, is the operating system of reality? How can we hack it?

Throughout the ages, there have been people who have struggled with these questions. To someone who has explored these questions, there often emerges a common theme. It is a theme that essentially points back at the questioner, and invites us to ponder the meaning in even asking such questions!

That theme is non-duality. It is the theme I will address in rest of this article.

Too Much Pizza, Not Enough Coffee

Non-duality is like a description of the fundamental nature of your computer (or portable electronic device). Except that it describes reality, not computers. It is like the printed manual you used to get in the early 1980s (you know, the one you didn't read).

The fact that you are asking big questions, implies that you suspect there is something you may have overlooked about reality (the computer). So you go looking for answers.

At first you just start watching the computer more carefully (meditation). So you open a performance monitor and have a poke around.

After a while, you begin to notice some issues. The computer has been running really slowly. Programs have been terminating for no reason (you keep forgetting what you're doing). You seem to be running low on memory. But you are still not sure why (you're stressed.) Perhaps your computer has a virus? (you're insane.)

So you start digging through the online help (cryptic Indian texts) whilst pouring yourself a fresh cup of coffee (tea). When that fails, you contact the manufacturer and ask for advice from a support representative (a sage).

They suggest there probably isn't anything wrong with the actual computer. Instead, they point you in the direction of the operating system (your sense of identity), and suggest you talk to your fellow programmers (mystics).

Eventually you come across a rogue program called 'ego.exe'. You notice that it seems to have entered an infinite loop and is leaking memory like a sieve.

So you step through the rogue program in detail with a debugger (contemplation). Sure enough, several slices of pizza later, you find the glitch. There is an object with a reference to itself. It forms a cyclic reference and the program goes around, and around gradually consuming all the free memory and starving the system of resources (insight).

You delete the reference, and restart the program. All the resources that were tied up suddenly become available again (mystical experience). Problem solved.

Debugging Reality

This contrived little story relates a hypothetical computer fault to the experience many of us have with reality. Eventually, it always has us asking the big questions.

Mysticism suggests we start by examining our own consciousness. It does this, because ultimately our own consciousness is the first and last thing of which we can be confident. It is the first ontological primitive.

We know there is subjective, qualitative experience. Beyond that, everything we know, all our life experiences, thoughts, feelings and the appearance of others within our 'consensus reality' are all known within consciousness. Even quantiative and conceptual knowledge are known only within this subjective backdrop. Philosophically there is nothing more fundamental.

Mysticism is about exploring our fundamental nature, by exploring consciousness. In that sense, we are all mystics, with or without the label and whether we act intentionally, or otherwise.

Ego.exe in the story is a metaphor for our own ego - our personality, our skills, our attributes and our story. Just as there are many programs running on a computer, there many ego's running in reality.

There was a 'bug' in ego.exe. It was a self-referential object that was not managed properly by the program logic. It resulted in the program spending a lot of time perusing this particular object, and thus using a lot of system resources.

Ego identification is the spiritual term for the analogous phenomenon in our own experience of reality. It means that we become fixated or overly focused upon a particular part of reality, the ego. This fixation actually stops the ego itself from working effectively, just as the program logic was forced to iterate around the same point in the program.

Actually, it is more nuanced than that. Though there are many programs in a computer, from the hardware point of view there is only software. There is no fundamental distinction between individual programs. If one program monopolises system resources, it has an impact on all the other programs. Programs often interact with each other too.

In the same way, there is actually no fundamental distinction between egos. They are all just different, interdependent aspects of reality.

If we take the hardware to be analogous to the fundamental nature of existence (non-duality), then the software and data are analogous to the subjective experience of reality (duality). Without hardware, there can be no use for software. But without software, the hardware is fundamentally useless. The hardware is general purpose and there exists the potential to run an infinity of possible programs.

Similarly, whilst the fundamental nature of reality is said to be fundamentally undivided, whole and infinite (non-duality), reality itself cannot be known except by the appearance of form (duality).

The hardware is responsible for running software programs. When a program writes a file to permanent storage, it asks the operating system software to perform this task. There is the appearance of co-operation. Though in reality, it is the hardware that ultimately performs the request, the communication and the action. From the perspective of the hardware, the only agency is the hardware itself.

Similarly, the fundamental agency of reality is said to be reality itself. Reality is the actor. Reality is the observer.

Individual egos, their observations, intentions and actions, and indeed all objects and concepts are merely appearances within the one undivided whole. This is the principle of non-duality.

Memory leaks and program logic errors can be difficult to find without appropriate tools (valgrind and gdb). In the same way, ego identification is so entrenched in our social conditioning that it is often very difficult to see without approriate tools (meditation and contemplation).

The bug in ego.exe caused havock for the program itself, and more generally for other programs running on the computer. Human ego identification causes similar havock. It is a deeply held belief in separation, which manifests as fear of reality. Fear of anhiliation and fear of change.

It is as if upon attempting to modify or quit a program, the computer were to exclaim, 'The program ego.exe does not want to be terminated or modified!' We would find this pretty silly, because we understand that the software is merely a temporary appearance in the computer.

Strangely, this is exactly the kind of irrationality that the human ego manifests in subtle and not so subtle ways all the time. It is all premised upon the assumption of fundamental independence. Separation from others, when there is really no separation.

Fix it Properly!

Just as there are many ways to deal with a misbehaving program, there are many ways to deal with ego identification. We could, for example, install a program called 'nonduality.exe'. This would be a kind of monitor program, to keep an eye on 'ego.exe' and restart it if it misbehaves. The situation is not ideal, however, because we use more system resources unnecessarily and introduce the potential of additional bugs in the nonduality program.

You may think this sounds like a silly thing to do. In fact, it is common amongst students of non-duality. Though, it is merely the difference between knowing there is a troublesome program and taking the time to really examine how the program becomes an issue.

Just as there is only one fundamental way to be rid of the bugs in your program, there is only one fundamental way to be rid of ego identification. By stepping through the troublemaker in a debugger, you come to understand precisely how the defect functions.

In the same way, by repeated and intimate examination of the contents of consciousness, that which constitutes identity will naturally be uprooted. Even though you can never examine the workings of reality in the same way as a computer (because you are inside it), you can still make useful observations about how it seems to work. This is particularly so when it comes to the conceptual, thinking mind.

What is Love?

The computer hardware doesn't care if the software is in English, Chinese, German, Russian or even American 'English'. It doesn't care if you use Open Office or Microsoft Word. It doesn't care if your software works, or crashes and destroys all your work. It doesn't even complain if you program in the brainfuck programming language. It just keeps on going, regardless.

It always tries to do whatever the software 'wants', even if the software is full of bugs and makes no sense. It does not discriminate. It accepts viruses and malware, just as openly and lovingly as it accepts epic multiplayer adventures and spreadsheets.

If the computer hardware is analogous to the fundamental nature of reality, then the funamental nature of reality is unconditional acceptance - love.

The consequences of a deep exploration of reality are profound. Aside from scratching a very deep itch, there is the potential to live as real freedom. It is an opportunity to know a profound peace (bug free) and no longer leave a trail of destruction in your wake (resource abuse).

The challenge presented by mysticism is not for the faint of heart. Ultimately the very concept of identity (the separate program) will be shown up as the illusion that it is.

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