The Benefits Of Buddhist Practice In VR (Research)

The Benefits Of Buddhist Practice In VR (Research)
May 11, 2017

Researchers at MIT’s Media lab have conducted research on mindfulness practice in virtual reality. Video screen grab by Judith Amores.


What do dreams and video games have to do with Tibetan Buddhism? For one thing, they all introduce us to “dereification” — the creeping feeling that reality isn’t as solid as we might think. For another, they will all come together at a workshop led by Buddhist teacher and lucid dreaming expert Andrew Holocek at Shambhala Mountain Center next week, where new research on the subject will be unveilled.


Holocek will explore “dream yoga,” the Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditating in a lucid dream. In his 2016 book, Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep, Holocek blended traditional Buddhist teachings with modern sleep science research. Now he’s looking at how to further incorporate Western knowledge with the ancient tradition by exploring the potential of virtual reality.


Earlier this year, Holocek was approached by researchers from Naropa University’s Cognitive Affective Science Lab. The researchers were studying the relationship between lucidity — the ability to differentiate between what is real and unreal — and emotions. They hypothesized that people with greater lucidity would have a better relationship with their emotions. To test the hypothesis, they recruited research participants with a predisposition to lucidity, including lucid dreamers like Holocek. Then they put the participants in uncomfortable situations using virtual reality and observed the participants’ responses.


“When you slip between these two realities — virtual reality and reality — you have a hard time determining which one is real.”


Virtual reality (VR) is a burgeoning field of technology that uses a headset to immerse the user in a digital environment. It’s popular for entertainment and video games, but innovators are seeing potential for it in other fields — including Buddhism.


At Holocek’s workshop, the researchers from Naropa will present on their findings and invite attendees to participate in their research. Holocek envisions many more opportunities for collaboration between Buddhists and VR developers.


“Virtual reality, like lucid dreams, can either wake us up to the nature of reality, or pull us further into delusion,” he says. “How do you use it for the purpose of awakening? How can we use cyberspace as a lab for exploring the mind?”


For Holocek, this directly parallels lucid dreaming.


“Virtual reality either leads to a dystopian worldview or it leads to a path of awakening. If we don’t take control over these technologies — just like non-lucid dreams — they will take control over us. That’s the definition of non-lucidity. That’s super-samsara.”


“There’s a lot of confluence with Buddhist thought,” says Holocek. “We can use these technologies in a way that wakes us up instead of hurling us deeper down the rabbit hole.”


In a feature on dream yoga in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Holocek explained that in lucid dreaming you can watch objects shift shapes, and also confront your nightmares — both of which can help you discern reality from illusion in your waking life. But the vividly real experience of VR can have a dangerous side. In the case of VR, the illusion of realism is known as “presence,” and Holocek thinks it can be problematic.


If we engage with virtual reality and lucid dreams mindfully, Holocek says, we can discover wisdom.


“Cyberspace can be disembodied headspace,” says Holocek. “Presence in that regard iscognitive presence. It’s the same type of presence you can have when you’re in a lucid dream.”


If you gets too attached to cognitive presence, you lose touch with their body and your world. When you’re strongly attached to that immersive virtual reality and then take off your headset, the experience can be quite jarring — your sense of reality and illusion is shaken.


“When you slip between these two realities — virtual reality and reality — you have a hard time determining which one is real. When you come out of that experience, your world is dereified. It doesn’t really feel all that great. That is the experience of ego being threatened. It’s a very powerful intimation of teachings on emptiness.”


On the flip side, if we engage with virtual reality and lucid dreams mindfully, says Holocek, we can discover wisdom. In his book on dream yoga, Holocek quotes Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche to explain:


“Experiences we gain from practices we do during our dream time can be brought into our daytime experience. For example, we can learn to change the frightening images we see in our dreams into peaceful forms. Using the same process, we can transmute negative emotions we feel during the daytime into increased awareness.”


Holocek sees the same potential for virtual reality, and he hopes to parlay that vision into a virtual reality program that teaches the principles of dream yoga. He theorizes that it could serve as a learning aid, so practitioners could more easily learn to wake up and practice meditation in their dreams. Next week, he’ll meet with Tibetan Buddhist lamas to ask for their blessing and their counsel.


Holocek isn’t the first Buddhist to see an overlap between Buddhist practice and VR. Researchers at MIT have studied how virtual reality could be used in mindfulness training. And, in an article in Lion’s Roar magazine, Vincent Horn — cofounder of Buddhist Geeks and — argued that virtual reality posts a challenge for Buddhists to build digital technology that empowers wisdom and helps users practice the dharma.

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