As Rabbi Josh Stanton observed in his post last week, artificial intelligence – and the idea of “technology” in general – isn’t as new as we think. Religion, as a set of strategies that solve specific problems, could even be viewed as a form of technology. Kate J. Stockly’s new book co-written with Dr. Wesley Wildman, Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, just released this week, draws upon the newest research to illustrate how religion and ritual bind us together, and what new notions like “consciousness hacking” are really doing with ancient ideas – are they trying to turn something collective individual, or is it something more complex?
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Kate J. Stockly is a PhD candidate at Boston University exploring feminism, brain science, spiritual experiences, and contemporary religious change through bio-cultural theories of embodied religious ritual, and author of the book Spirit Tech.
Geoff Mitelman: I’m sitting here with Kate Stockly, who I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years through her work at Boston University. She is the author of – when I say a new book, I mean a brand new book, it just came out today – called Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Engineering Enlightenment. Her work combines research from affective neuroscience, cognitive science and evolutionary biology to construct biocultural theories of embodied religious rituals. So she has a great area of expertise about this interplay of religion and science. So Kate, thank you for taking some time with us here this afternoon.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, thank you. I’m so delighted to be here and excited to have an interesting conversation. And thank you for having me.
Geoff Mitelman: And I see that joining us, actually, in a couple of minutes is your co-author Wesley Wildman. So I’m glad that you’re here too. So I’d love for you to actually just talk a little bit about this new book, it sounds really interesting and really exciting – you know, this interplay of spirituality and technology. And I think this comes up at the beginning: we don’t always think of these two worlds as coming together. So how do you integrate these questions of spirituality and technology?
Kate Stockly: Yeah, it’s fascinating, because I think that spirituality and technology are two things that kind of define what it means to be human in a lot of ways– our ability to create and to kind of adapt our environments to ourselves, our ability to create tools of all different sorts, sort of technology, and then also our kind of drive to understand the universe. And so it’s interesting, right, that we don’t actually ever hardly ever talk about these two things together in the same sentence. So that’s what we’re interested in doing here. And what we saw really, is that there’s this huge just kind of scattered – there’s tons, you know, it’s not a field or a very, like a viable kind of totally connected network. But if you think of it in kind of this family-resemblance approach, you’ve got people all over the world in different kinds of corners of entrepreneurship, of spirituality, of technology, and engineering, who are kind of tapping into this question of ways in which that technology can be applied to spiritual goals and spiritual purposes. And so we kind of saw this percolating, and became really interested in exploring it. So we have, you know, several different chapters that just look at the different corners that we size, the most salient in the most promising kind of the these are really things are happening in these areas – you know, virtual reality, psychedelics, brain stimulation, and just explore those, you know, tell the stories of the innovators and people who are who are creating this chronologies people who are using them and exploring that.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, what’s interesting is, you know, these are all these different sorts of bottom-up, both spirituality and technology. And they’re both words, of spirituality and technology, that are used in a very, very broad definition. So you know, if someone says “in my spirit,” that can mean a whole wide range of things. And we can talk about technology there in a second. But how do you define the word spirituality? And also, how do the different people that you’re talking to define spirituality? Because they may have a very different definition than what you might think about.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, exactly what you’re saying. And actually, research has been done on the word spirituality, and there’s, I think, 20-some different ways that become the most common ways that people use the word spirituality, so. So there’s not really an answer to that. And as scholars, we kind of let the people who were studying and listening to and hearing their stories, you know, let them define what that means for them. But for a lot of folks, it really is just about understanding themselves in relation to the universe, to themselves and to things unseen. So the classic religious questions, you know, “What is my place in this?” and “How do you seek virtues like equanimity, compassion, peacefulness, kindness?”, these kinds of things.
So when you’re talking about, for instance, “Can these technologies be authentic religious or spiritual experiences?”, a lot of times people focus on the fruits of those. So that part of what defines whether or not it’s authentic religious experiences, if it bears the fruits of that you would expect from spirituality and, and from that you can kind of tell with people are really what their intentions are, and engaging with the technologies.
Geoff Mitelman: So do you distinguish religiosity from spirituality? Because they’re, I mean they’re usually linked, but you know, people talk about this now all the time. And in the Jewish community, there was a new Pew study that came out of people who identify as being s”piritual but not religious.” I think that the largest, fastest growing religious community right now is the “nones,” which are not people who have no connection, but they don’t have a connection to a religious tradition, but identify finding something spiritual in this kind of way. So how do you tease out that interplay?
Kate Stockly: Yeah. Actually, in November, I gave a talk in a group that was a combination of spiritual scholars who look at “spiritual but not religious,” this phenomenon that you’re talking about, and a group of theologians who call their work Theology Without Walls. And so kind of looking at the interplay between those two groups. And I do think that there’s some meaningful distinction between spirituality and religiosity, or religion. And one of those might just be denominational or religious kind of boundaries of doctrine. And so spiritual folks who – oftentimes, it is the spiritual, but not religious, folks who are engaging in spirit tech, although not always, of course. We’ve got the virtual reality churches that exist completely in virtual reality, but are very much so kind of endorsing traditional Christian (or whatever their tradition is) norms and values and doctrine. But yeah, so there’s something to be said for the type of spiritual exploration and interest and cultivation that can happen outside of a kind of traditional doctrine. I think that’s often the distinction.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think what’s interesting is that religion, at least, religion as an institution, tends to be conservative with a small-case “c,” right. Like churches, synagogues – even the most liberal churches – and synagogues tend to move very slowly versus technology, at least as we understand it, in 2021 almost, by definition, is very radical, and very fast and very innovative. And so there’s probably I would think, some sort of tension there between what’s happening in the pews and in the churches, and the religious leaders who have the organizational backing versus the people who are trying, “Let me see what can I find, some sort of spirituality here.” And so there’s probably a real tension between the institutional side and the top down versus the bottom up in the innovators there.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, it’s interesting. I completely agree. But I also kind of want to, just for fun, consider the distinction between kind of the conservative (which, I think it’s important to use conservative to the small-C meaning, in interest and investment in conserving the tradition, right), versus kind of more exploratory or openness, kind of an interest in seeing what is new and having direct experience and allowing that to flourish in whatever way it does, without really as much of an interest in conserving tradition. And I want to say that both impulses have been present in religious traditions throughout time, right. So you have a lot of mystical traditions, for example, that are a tradition and are interested in conserving the tradition, but are also more open to these acts: exploration, you know, learning directly from the source, whatever they deem that source to be. And so on the one hand, I do think that religion or that technology, and science presents kind of a push against that urge to conserve tradition. And yet also, I think there’s also space for that in the traditions themselves that have mystical areas that allow for that kind of openness.
Geoff Mitelman: And both I think spirituality and technology. And this is something that comes from Clay Christensen, who’s in the entrepreneurship world, and a lot of the work that we do through Clal, which is the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. And there’s some great stuff here, but a line that we use is “What’s the job it gets done, and for whom?” and that’s very much technology aims to do. And also, I think, what’s the role to do and what one person is trying to be able to find a little more equanimity. That’s one person’s goal. Another is to be able to lessen anxiety and to be able to have a deeper connection to God, there are going to be different ways in which people explore that sense of spirituality.
Kate Stockly: Right. Right. Exactly. And I do also think that another thing that technology and science brings to the table, in addition to the idea that there has always been technology as a part of religious traditions – meaning, I mean, I’m thinking, like, mandalas, and rosaries, any sort of, you know, in the academic study of religion, studying material religion, the material objects that people use in their religious practices, is kind of a pretty large focus of study recently. And when you look at those material objects, you often see kind of prototypical technologies. You’re seeing technologies of spirituality that might not have any wires or batteries, or beeps, or blinks happening, but they are still sort of interventions or tools that people are using to enhance their spiritual lives. So you can kind of see spirit tech in sort of this genealogy of technologies that people are using in this way. And this is kind of like a “yes, and” situation, because we’re also seeing that technology, or science and technology, and advancing brain science, our ability to image the brain, our ability to see inside the brain during prayer, or something like that, or during meditation, and see what kinds of changes are taking place, it’s really kind of opening up space and kind of forcing this re-articulation or kind of like a renegotiation, between our ways of knowingwhat is happening, right. So you know, just introducing this new level of awareness, of the fact that our brain mediates all of our experiences, including our experiences of sacred things and spirituality. So, it’s interesting,
Geoff Mitelman: Well, yeah, I’m curious as to some of the more interesting or surprising things that you discovered when you were researching and writing this book, and particularly, the role of – you talked about consciousness hacking and enlightenment, and trying to find enlightenment through all these different technologies. Now, what are some of the ways in which you’ve really been like, “Wow, that’s something that I was not expecting to see?”
Kate Stockly: You know, one of my favorite stories in the book is in talking about Jay Sanguinetti and Shinzen Young’s work. They’re kind of a team that works together neuroscience. Jay Sanguinetti is a neuroscientist and Shinzen is a meditation teacher, a Qigong monk who has meditated for his entire life. And so he knows, he knows from the traditional perspective, how these kinds of goals feel in the body. He’s done the work, he’s done the 10,000 hours plus, you know, so he’s working closely with this neuroscientist, and the way in which they kind of tackle the questions is slightly different than I expected. And I was sort of delighted by their approach, and by their devotion to doing it in the most ethical, mindful way, considering all of the different aspects of what kinds of interventions they’re offering to people, and to people’s lives and to people’s brains, and just doing that with the utmost care. And I saw that throughout actually, that was one of these kinds of a different type of answer to the same question, though what surprised me – and not that I didn’t expect to see this – but I think I was pleasantly just affirmed that a lot of the folks who are working on these technologies really see this as kind of a vocational calling where they want to help people, and they want to help. And I mean, some folks would even say they want to usher in the next phase of human evolution, which is a lot, but it’s just really earnest and vocational, very spiritual calling, and it’s a spiritual space. And it’s not really something you expect when you’re in Silicon Valley. And, you know, listening to entrepreneurs who are usually very, very fast-paced talk about like, conservative versus fast-paced – you know, Silicon Valley is like the opposite of an effort to conserve. So, yeah, I think it was, it was a pleasant surprise to see them.
Geoff Mitelman: I mean, one thing that I’m going to be curious about, and one reason one thing that I, as somebody who’s part of a religious tradition, and you know, hopefully to synagogues, I have identified – I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m politically and religiously generally very liberal, but have a little bit of a small-c conservative element of looking at religious traditions. One thing that I struggled with in terms of the level of spirituality is that sometimes it becomes very – it can be very self-centered, right? It’s like “what’s in it for me” as opposed to “what’s in it for the community as a whole.” And there was a great line that someone said, “I’m much more interested to hear somebody say I’m religious, but not spiritual than spiritual but not religious,” because a religious community can be very supportive and there are obligations towards each other and spirituality is very much about “What’s good for me?”
And I think technology has very much advanced that sort of self-centered nature of this, right? We can talk about this at the very beginning of, I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this the scattered nature of like the supermarket, right? Like, I want this, and I want this, but I don’t want this and I want to be able to choose this. That’s everything from what apps do we have on our phone, to what’s our social media feed? So how do we, how do we deal with this question of religion as it’s in my mind, it’s designed to be an outward facing manifestation either out towards others or up towards God, when both of those things can be pushed towards a very self centered perspective?
Kate Stockly: I think we address that a couple times. And I’ll use two specific examples. Mikey Siegel, who founded the international group called Consciousness Hacking, and calls himself an enlightenment engineer – he’s part of several different organizations, including one called Awakened Futures. And so he’s just kind of at the forefront of this movement. And he, after spending many years first, he had kind of a disillusionment with engineering. And, you know, he was an MIT trained roboticist. Like, he’s doing that work and then realizes, “Oh, I want something with a little bit more meaning behind it.” And so that’s when he started working in the spirit-tech realm. And then, even after working in that area for a long time, he started to feel that people really needed connection to others. It’s not only about experiencing equanimity by yourself in your room at 2am, right? It’s about connecting with people. And he saw that as kind of the core spiritual need. And so then he started using the same sort of technologies that had been developed – meaning forms of brain stimulation, or forms of – I actually don’t think he’s used brain simulation in this setting yet, but neurofeedback, training the body, synchronizing heart rates and things like that, in social settings. So he’s cultivating social rituals using these technologies. So he’s kind of bringing the two together, because he really did see this as the crux of the issue, right. This desire, and this need, is a spiritual need for connection to other people. And so his work has been really interesting in the way that he applies the technology for social and communal experience.
And then there’s also the issue of psychedelics, which is really interesting. Psychedelics are another example where you have kind of the classical psychedelics. You’ve got people – I mean, it’s almost by definition, an individual type experience, right? And yet, you know, when you look at spirit plants, psychedelics, things like ayahuasca and peyote, you hardly ever see those types of substances used outside of a ritual setting. And so we actually have two chapters on psychedelics, one on kind of the classical psychedelics that are being used right now and explored as for psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, which is incredible, and have incredible potential. They’re just just bringing so much hope. I’m very, very excited to see where this work goes. And then we have a second chapter, that’s about spirit plants.
And that chapter really emphasizes that the technology is not just actually the substance, the technology is the ritual setting, right? So you’ve got the drums, you’ve got very specific songs that are sung, you’ve got lighting, you’ve got the setting, and the setting of the experience is what makes the technology, that’s what makes it work, right. And so really kind of appreciating the importance and the necessity of the other people of the facilitator, the other people present, and that really is like an eminently social experience.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, when you talk about psychedelics, we actually talked with another person that you and I were part of this wonderful participation in this program with the Templeton World Charity Foundation. We spoke with David Adan on some of these questions a couple of weeks ago, which are fascinating. And really, I mean, there’s some great research that’s being done there. And you know, when we’ve talked about this technology a couple of times and and we’ve talked with, with previous guests on these kinds of questions, if when we think about news that we’re technology now, we tend to think about Zoom or smartphones or things like that, and don’t realize that technology is is basically any way in which humans have changed the natural world and tried to make things a little bit easier and better. Which means that rituals are a form of technology that we don’t even really recognize, because they’re not electronic in this kind of way. And in some ways, you’re talking about these kinds of questions, of the rituals and the drums and the lighting, it’s the same way of “I want to create an ultimate state, I’m trying to get to a particular goal in this kind of way.” That sometimes it might be a very long process, it might be a lot of singing, in this kind of way. And sometimes it’s a quick way to be able to get into this element, but there is still this technology of getting myself into a particular state to feel a certain kind of way.
Kate Stockly: Right, exactly. This notion of preparing your heart and mind to receive insight, or the spirit, or however you want to call it. So yeah, I mean, these kinds of interventions, you know, are part of tons of different kinds of spiritual and religious settings and spaces and practices. So it does feel jarring for it to be, you know, electronic. And currently, you know, I mean, thank goodness for Zoom on the one hand, because it facilitates conversations like this, and obviously allowed our world to continue in lots of really important ways over the past year. And, yet, we realize that there is something, something amiss, something that’s not recreated, right, with the kinds of technologies that we have. And so, just being really careful, I think that the innovators that I talked to, you know, are very much aware of this, very much aware of the – oftentimes it’s the Silicon Valley folks who write who don’t allow their kids to have smartphones. So they, they get it, and it’s a puzzle, I think, so it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds, and where people go with it. But I think that there’s a lot of potential for this type of technology, these incredible technological innovations that have to be harnessed for good and for healthy means.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think it was also challenging is, what are the different pieces? You know, you mentioned the 10,000 hours. There are certain things, particularly in a religious setting, where – like our kids, I have a seven year old and a five year old, and we’re trying to teach them Hebrew and to be able to read the Siddur. And look, and they have a great iPad app. And that’s helpful, but the only way they’re going to really know the liturgy and the prayers is if they spend multiple days every week to be able to do this. And we, I think, particularly now, want to be able to have like a, “What’s a quick life hack to be able to do this? How can we shortcut some of these things?” And some of the things, I think, actually can be very helpful to be able to cut off on the inefficiencies, but some of it is that we need the inefficiencies. Sometimes we need to be able to spend a lot of time. And I know one of one of your colleagues, and somebody connected with Sinai and Synapses, that Connor Wood has talked about that, that sometimes we need to be able to have a level of inefficiency, to be able to actually have a little bit more of an effective society here.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, absolutely. As a PhD student, oh, how I would love to be able to download every article that I need to read, and not take the time to read it. Absolutely. These things take time and practice. There’s a reason that they’re called spiritual practices, right? Because they are practicing. So I think that most of the folks, some people really want an enlightenment and button, right, you really, you know, and people and that would sell. But a lot of the folks and maybe this is somewhat of selection bias in terms of the folks that we decided to really talk with, but they’ll talk about things like neurofeedback or brain stimulation, which are two kinds of popular modalities, right? These are usually used to enhance the meditation process, the effort to meditate. And they’ll talk about this kind of as training wheels, you know – so the goal, actually, which, again, isn’t probably the best business model. But again, these folks really are interested in kind of doing this in the most the healthiest way possible. But the goal is that technology becomes irrelevant to you. Because you begin, once you sort of train your brain with the training wheels to use these technologies, when you train your brain to find that route toward something like a state of equanimity, a state of compassion. Once you see and you feel and you experience what that feels like, with the help of the technology, then the idea is that you continue practicing without it.
Geoff Mitelman: I like “training wheels,” almost!
Kate Stockly: Exactly, exactly. And so, I love that model. And I think that makes sense, and I think it opens that space for people to have these meditative experiences and to access deeper states of meditation that they just really wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Because of our busy lives, not everybody can go on a retreat and meditate for 50 hours, let alone 10,000 hours, you know. And so the idea this is kind of the refrain of Shinzen Young, who is that monk that meditates, you know, famous meditation teacher, he travels all around the country in the world teaching meditation. And you know, and part of his mission is really to just make this available to more people, because he sees how badly people need these kinds of healing, restorative experiences, and how badly the world needs a little bit more compassion and equanimity. So if we can make that even just a little bit more accessible, let’s do it.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, our conversation partner last week was Professor David De Steno, who you might know, who’s done some great work on the link of meditation and compassion, and had people doing meditation, and then actually gauged: were people more compassionate in those kinds of ways? And there actually was a marked difference. And even if you’re not trying to say “I want to become a more compassionate person,” or even “I want to be a calmer person,” that there’s a link of being able to have meditation impacting the wider world out there.
Kate Stockly: Right. Right. Yeah. And that’s, a big, big part of the puzzle, right – is the, again, as I was kind of saying earlier, like the fruits of the experience, the fruits of the labor, right. That’s how you sort of evaluate “Is this working? Is this making the world a better place?” Basically.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think that with questions of mindfulness, and I’m thinking about a link from the Torah, or from Rabbinic literature, where they talk about that, “Are you studying Torah, for its own sake,” – the Hebrew word is l’ishma (“for the right reason”)? – “Or do you do it for an ulterior motive?” And you should be doing, or studying Torah, or performing mitzvot (good deeds) just because you should, right. There’s not an ulterior motive here. And yet, sometimes, you need to have an ulterior motive to be able to go back to what you should be doing. There’s a line that says, “Which is greater, study or action?” and the rabbis say “Study, because study leads to action”. So, right, it’s not just sitting and studying Torah all the time, but how does that actually impact who you are? And I think that’s one of the things that’s always been challenging with mindfulness.
And when I was younger, before I had kids, I had a meditative practice that I liked very much. I use some of Jon Kabat Zinn’s work. And I think one thing that’s often misperceived and misunderstood in the world of meditation is you do meditation, or mindfulness to be calmer and have more equanimity and calmness. And that’s not the goal of mindfulness. And that’s not the goal of meditation. The goal of mindfulness is being able to pay attention to how you’re feeling and feel how you’re feeling, and be aware of those kinds of feelings. And so that’s, I think that’s, you know, I’m assuming that in a lot of the technological world, they’re trying to sell it, and they want to be able to say, “I want to sell this here, and you’re going to have a calmer life and a better life and better relationships if you meditate.”
And so when you sit there for the first couple times, and your mind is chattering, and you’re not feeling any calmer, some people probably shelve it, because they say, “I didn’t get anything after the first two weeks of this or three times,” when, in fact, you’ve got to have a very regular practice of these kinds of things.
Kate Stockly Absolutely. Yeah, just that. I think that’s kind of a theme within self-care. And therapy these days is really this adjustment away from this idea that like therapy is always going to feel good, or therapy is not actually supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you do the work to heal, right, which doesn’t always work or feel good. But it’s working, right, and it’ll have long term effects. S
So yeah, there are also some distinctions that I’ve heard made in the spirit tech communities that have been involved in distinguishing between a “state change” and a “stage change” is kind of talking about the difference [between] – so, for example, if you take a psychedelic and you have a trip, you’ve had a major change in your state of consciousness, right? These are often very cool. It’s very like, “Oh, it’s working,” Something that you sometimes don’t feel when you are trying to meditate for the first time. You think, “This is not working, it’s just making me feel frustrated. I’m not having any sort of fantastic state change, if anything, I’m just more aware of my own wandering mind,” – you know, which is the point, but I understand people are interested in having a spiritual experience that has a state change, right? But a lot of folks are saying, you know, “That’s not the point at all. The point is the stage shift.” By that, they mean this stage in spiritual development, or the stage in self development in healing, in kind of working toward the type of kind of presence and mindfulness that you want in life, that’s this kind of stage shift that you were really looking for.
And so oftentimes, the evaluation of whether or not a practice is working takes a long time, right. And the same with the technologies. I think that, again, with kind of the mentality that we often have toward kind of technological interventions is that you should be able to see if it’s working pretty quickly, right. But with these kinds of technologies, it’s still going to take time, you’re still going to have to do the work, you know.
Geoff Mitelman: And again, the importance of being able to define technology very broadly, there was an article I read earlier this week, and, and Kevin Kelley has actually talked about this too, as well, which is, when we think about a group that’s not very technologically savvy, we sometimes joke about the Amish. But in fact, the Amish are very involved in technology, they’re just very slow to adapt to it. And they, they, they spend a lot of time reflecting on it, of how are we going to use this? How are we not going to use this? And so having the spiritual technologies, having a longer time horizon, I think is both really challenging, I would think and really critical.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, I would definitely say it’s very challenging in our world to currently – I mean, the Amish are on to something in terms of segregating themselves away from the world and allowing that slow process to happen. But in our communities, for example, Zoom church services, and Zoom synagogue services, and these kinds of things all of a sudden became necessary, in a way that we didn’t expect, but was relatively easily facilitated in certain circles. And that was, I think, a blessing, and a lot of ways, you know, it’s interesting. I saw a couple tweets, actually, at the beginning of the pandemic, that were kind of laughing, they were kind of self-deprecating tweets saying that, “Oh, we were we were all laughing at VR church last month, you know, and now who’s laughing, because our church has this whole, you know, apparatus set up where they’re able to just immediately kind of like, tune in and adapt, while they didn’t even have to adapt to the pandemic, right”? Because, because they had it all set up. So yeah, it’s just, it’s, it’s hard, you know, most folks have a relationship with technology, you know. And for a lot of us, it’s not the healthiest relationship. And the only way to change that is to heal. We’re not really in a place where, where most folks are, right, we’re not really in a place where we can just completely stop using technology. And so that’s another thing that a lot of those spirit tech innovators will talk about, is that just kind of like it’s happening, whether we like it or not, you know, we’ve got a relationship with technology. And so part of the motive for developing spiritual spirit tech isn’t just to make religion and spirituality more fun. It’s actually to offer people a way in which they can heal their relationship with technology, that relationship that already exists.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, there was a question that came up in the chat that links to this a little bit, which is, there’s probably a gender gap there, right. The younger people are probably much more, much more facile – I mean people who love the Oregon Trail generation, or that the Star Wars mini-generation of “I grew up with having some level of technology, but my seven year old is able to show me things that I had no idea about, and very comfortable using technology to access lots of spiritual elements, and I am unable to.”
I mean, this is one thing that we were talking about with Zoom synagogues. I think that’s one thing that I think is going to be interesting to be able to see, which is how many are the people who are really dedicated to their church or their synagogue, they’re going to be part of that church or that synagogue, regardless but if there are some churches or synagogues that have the technological bandwidth, great Wi Fi, high level pieces that you know, there are people who can say, look, I live in the middle of Oregon right now. And there’s no synagogue. But I can zoom in. There’s a great synagogue in New York City that I’m going to be part of when and that generation is going to be growing up with this. Do you see generational and geographic changes here?
Kate Stockly: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s always been the case. Of course, you know, I do think that the speed at which technological innovation happens has accelerated the span, even of just how we divide generations feels like everything’s kind of condensed. Now there’s all of a sudden, elder millennials, or some people call us “geriatric millennials,” versus younger millennials, because we’ve realized that there really is a shift that happened there. Because I didn’t have social media in high school. And yet people very close to my age did. So yeah, it does feel like even generational shifts are happening faster, almost, you know, because there’s just so much innovation.
But certainly, I think that this has always been the case. And I think that, you know, growing up in the community, the religious community that I was in, you know, I was aware of, for example, services that had more contemporary music versus services that were really going to stick to the contemporary songs and hymns and liturgies. Right. And so that, in a sense, I mean, it’s not the same kind of technological innovation, as we’re seeing with spirit tech, but there is sort of a sense in which they were, some folks were were interested and willing and attracted to the idea of bringing in new types of musical instruments, you know, and new types of kind of worship practices, right. And I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, which is kind of calm, right. So the idea of more expressive worship was, was not really something that my parents generation was interested in, I think they thought it was all too emotional and stuff like that. So. So it’s interesting, you know, I don’t know if maybe part of if, traditional religious organizations are going to be interested in kind of taking on some of these technologies and seeing how they work in their spiritual spaces, it might be a matter of kind of, you know, we’re gonna offer this if you’re interested, come check it out, we’ll have it in this service, and not that service, you know, I just kind of fantasy sometimes I’m like, for example, if you had a Neurofeedback headset, sitting kind of scattered around the sanctuary, or whatever, you know, maybe where wherever the prayer books are held, or the hymnals are held. And you have a moment before an important ritual where you put the headset on and kind of just call them your mind, call your spirit, prepare your heart and mind, you know, to receive and and some people I think, would really dig that and other folks might just be like, absolutely not.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, in what I think it’d be very interesting, and this was a line that came from somebody that Union for Reform Judaism, who talked about everyone talking about hybrid services are still talking about hybrid services. And what they said is that we should move away from saying “hybrid services,” but saying “multi-access points” that people can access whatever they’re looking for, however, they want to be able to do that, particularly now, because we’re in this sort of liminal space. Right now, as we’re recording this in the spring of 2021, where there are some communities that are fully reopened, and some are hybrid, and there are some that were, they’re still totally virtual, and some people are going to be very comfortable and some are not going to be comfortable in are bound by these regulations and those regulations. But I think trying to be everything to everyone is going to ultimately be counterproductive. And there may also be there, there’s finances that come into this also, but, you know, maybe institutional religion is not where people are gonna find their spirituality. And I think institutional religions might need to be able to say, that’s okay, right, like we can equip you to be able to think about some of these kinds of questions in ways to be able to engage.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, well, you know, and I do hope, though, that the conversation continues in really, really serious ways. Because, for example, you know, what you were mentioning with – say you lived in upstate New York, but you wanted to access a religious service that was happening in New York City, and that was really the religious service that was gonna speak to you. But accessing via zoom, or via, you know, these different kinds of modalities is not the same as being in person and being able to cultivate community in person. And so as long as we continue to remember, you know, the pros and cons, both sides, you know, that it’s not that, yes, a service could be a multi access point, you know, but, but something is lost for at least some folks, I think, potentially. So, you know, for instance, even just teaching online this semester. And actually, before that might, the class that I was teaching was not hybrid, it was all over zoom. But some of my colleagues taught the hybrid model where some people are in the classroom and some people are virtual. And I don’t know, I think we’re still kind of figuring out the best practices for how to make that work, how to make that happen, and how to make everyone feel like they’re in the same space together. And so I think it can be done better and it can be done less well, so yeah, it’s definitely an interesting conversation that now I think we’ll have, we’ll be having, you know. And, I think the types of insights that, for example, Mikey Siegel kind of brought forward when he started creating the ritualized practices with spirit technology, spiritual technology that was talking about earlier, I think that was a really wise move. And if we continue to kind of keep those types of considerations in mind, hopefully, well, you know, we’ll navigate it, we’ll figure it out.
Geoff Mitelman: And ritual, almost by definition, is physical and based in the body. And everything from taking communion, to kissing the Torah, to showing up at services, you need your buttons to be in somewhere, right? Like you need to be in some location, you can’t be in six different places at once. And even if you’ve got six different screens, that you’re at services, then you’re not actually at any of them. And so, at some point, you need to say, I am making this commitment to be physically, mentally emotionally, in one place. And, technology almost by definition is all now as we think about technology in the narrow sense, all zeros and ones. So, but we are we evolved as human beings as part of a part of a community with human needs of of physicality, seeing faces seeing not just people’s heads, but the body language, um, being able to eat together, right, like, that’s the there’s a reason that every, as far as I know, every single religious tradition has some sort of, of ritual meal that happens in some way. That doesn’t happen by Zoom. Right? It’s like it doesn’t feel the same.
Kate Stockly: Yeah, exactly. Absolutely. My dissertation is all about the kind of the embodied experience of, of ritual and sort of the cultivation of religious temperaments through that embodied experience. So I’m definitely on board with that. Also, it’s so interesting, the virtual reality is fascinating. Have you ever worn a virtual reality headset for any reason?
Geoff Mitelman: Yes, my wife and I do escape rooms. And we usually like to do the ones that are physically there. But there was one that was virtual reality. So we did a VR that was the first time that I ever was in an immersive VR space. And we had sort of no idea – we’d lost all sense of like, where we actually were in the physical room.
Kate Stockly: It’s such an incredible experience. It really is. But the point of it, right, is that it actually like the way in which it’s really a brain-based technology, for example, in a way that Zoom isn’t, because total reality works in such a way that your mind, your brain, believes, even if you know that you’re in your living room, your brain believes that you’re aware, the virtual reality headset is telling you are. So there’s different kinds of really interesting kind of VR experiences, right where you’re told to walk a plank, right? And people are just shaking in their boots, right, walking this plank, even though they know they’re in their living room. They’re not fooled, but their brain is.
And so it’s interesting because, for example, something like VR church is one that we profiled in the book with Pastor D.J. Soto, and he’s kind of a pioneer in this area. I’m sure there are several other kinds of spiritual religious groups that exist in VR. But this is one that we profile. And, you know, the point is that it actually does give you a sense of presence with other folks, you’re having a sense of presence with their avatar, you know, avatars don’t look anything like humans, sometimes they look kind of robotic, although you can make your avatar look strikingly like you, which is also kind of fun. And, but it’s really interesting because it it does seem to foster to cultivate a sense of presence and a sense of togetherness, that is not possible on something like zoom, like we’re together in this space, you and me and I can see, I can see a lot about your your facial expressions and your movements, but it’s not the same as if face together. So, at VR church, they do baptisms, you know, and they do the Eucharist. So, you know, I’m not sure if they’re encouraged to have some sort of real bread and wine in their apartment with them, but they have a virtual version of that. And even one person in recounting their experience of virtual reality baptism or a baptism in virtual reality, and talked about how it was a full immersion baptism, so they were kind of dunked all the way under the water and they talked about how it was almost almost better than being a person because they kind of they dumped under the water and kind of stuff there for a minute to really kind of, you know, soak up the experience and really think about the idea of being cleansing and of kind of having this like little death and rebirth. And then when they came out, they really did have this meaningful transformative experience. And that that was a huge turning point in their own spiritual life.
Geoff Mitelman: And there are trade-offs, because on one level, being able to access things you might not be able to access otherwise – and particularly for people who may not be able to physically go somewhere, if for whatever reason, and a lot of churches and synagogues, there’s not a wheelchair access for things, right. So there are ways where people can be involved in a way that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. But, you know, when you’re talking about the VR piece, I’m thinking about all the other senses beyond sight.
So I think about definitely, for example, Passover, on Pesach – it is all about the smell of the wine and the horseradish. And, and you feel the weather outside, there’s a very distinctive feel on Hanukkah, smelling potato pancakes. And I would think that in a church, for example, there’s a particular taste to the wafer, there’s probably a smell to the church that you don’t get in and of itself being under the water. There is a physical sense of being underwater. And, there’s also something that I can’t hold my breath anymore. And that’s an element there that’s lost. So as with everything, there’s – look, there’s pluses and minuses. But how do we make those kinds of decisions? And where do we find that, where it’s not just someone being like, “Okay, it’s gonna be easier for me to be able to do this and not have to do the work?” versus somebody who, you know, “I actually can’t access this.” And in a lot of ways, I think it’s a difference of degree and not kind of how much someone can find in this kind of way.
Kate Stockly: Right? Yeah, and maybe it’s just a matter of balance and of negotiating what kinds of pressures and demands we have in our lives, just from a really practical, realistic point. And kind of bringing it back to the idea of training wheels, you know, and it’s a different thing, but maybe understanding just fully, you know, understanding and accepting that, that a virtual kind of experience maybe isn’t the same, because you are missing these other kind of experiential elements. And yet, it’s still valuable, and it has its place, but then also trying, trying to kind of balance that with real physical presence, when you can.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think it’s thinking of it as a “both/and” piece, right. And technology is a huge part of this. And I’m thinking of our own synagogue, where we had our Purim celebration a couple months ago, and we were saying it was the best Purim celebration we ever experienced. Why? Because the sound system was good, we could actually hear the people leading it, because there’s always chaos in that battle. That’s part of the fun of it. But for what we were looking for, right, the technology, and I think what’s fascinating about technology is that it so often undergirds everything we do in ways that we’re not even aware of it. And so lifting that up to say, “These are things that you may not be aware are part of who we are, and part of what it means to be human, and part of this community,” right, having having a good sound system, knowing how to create a ritual that’s going to start in this particular way and have a high point and down, right. You don’t want to have somebody really terrible leading the drum circle, if you want somebody who can really get people into that into that emotional state.
Kate Stockly: Absolutely, absolutely. And appreciating the power of that element is so important. And it also kind of that what you just said reminded me of kind of the generational conversation and it’s hard for me even really to I think appreciate how integrated technology is with with people even just even just slightly younger than I am, you know, because there’s a way in which for a long time, it seemed as though kind of especially, especially computer screens, right screens, our particular kind of technology, and smart phones and stuff. I didn’t have a smartphone in graduate school, you know. So, um, so there’s a way in which, for a long time, for most of our lives, having a smartphone was an option. You didn’t have to have a smartphone, you know, and the idea is that you can go without it, but I think there’s a way in which for the younger generation, some of these new technological advancements are just in the air, they just “are,” so there’s no real option to not participate.
So it’s interesting, you know, just even that kind of shift in perspective. Like, it’s not for them, the question might be less of “Is our group going to engage with this form of technology?” It’s not really going to be a yes or no, it’s going to be a “How are we going to deal with this? How are we going to engage? And what kinds of boundaries are we going to set? And what’s the healthiest way for our community to deal with the presence of this new technology?”
Geoff Mitelman: And, I think, trying to be able to see what’s going to work right, like Shabbat, and on the weekend, is something that’s listed for 3000 years. Like, that’s a spiritual technology that has worked. And changing conscious states, everything from some of the psychedelics to having wine, right, that’s something that’s been there. But look, we didn’t know if you asked me in 2003, or 2004, “MySpace versus Facebook?” or “Blu Ray versus HD DVD or streaming?” like, on some level, the technology that’s going to work is the one that’s going to survive, and it’s going to be part of who we are without even really thinking about it, and just part of our daily lives.
Kate Stockly: Right. Right. And we’ll have to be part of that. But I think there’s a big resistance, because there has been this way in which technological advancement has almost outpaced our ability to deal with it. And hopefully, you know, so there’s so many of us who would just sort of rather not, [who] like the idea of maintaining the option to turn it off.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah.
Kate Stockly: And I think that that’s real, like we can, we’re still at the point where we can turn our computers off, which is great.
But there’s also a point at which we kind of have to move past that resistance and, and really grapple with the harder question of like, “How can I do this in the most healthy way?” because it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, you know, it doesn’t have to. Either I’m attached to my smartphone and having to, have a panic attack if I don’t have it with me, or I don’t have one at all. So there’s just got to be, you know – and I think the same with spiritual technologies – it’s not just “are we going to you apply technology to our spiritual religious lives?”, it’s really how – and actually, like, the biggest, at the very end of the book, we talked about kind of ethics involved in not only in applying the technologies to our spiritual and religious communities, but also from the perspective of the innovators. If their innovation is led by the values of productivity, profit, and greed, and efficiency, you know, then that’s what we’re going to get. And those have been really the goals that have driven technological advancements. And so a lot of the spirit-tech entrepreneurs are saying, “Those aren’t our goals, actually – our goals are not profit, productivity, efficiency,” you know, “it’s wholeness and wellness and connection.” And so if those are goals, that’s going to change how the companies creating the technologies are run, we’re going to change the kind of the quality of the technology that’s produced. And so hopefully, those values can continue to play a role not only in like, how we apply it, but also how its how its created.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, that’s a wonderful way to close, and to encourage people to buy the book that’s just come out today, and really raises so many interesting questions and explores so many different topics and ways in which technology is really changing our humanity and our spirituality. So Kate, thank you for taking the time to talk with us here this afternoon.
Kate Stockly: Thank you so much. This is such a delightful conversation. So I really appreciate you having me on.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, I encourage people to buy Kate’s book and she’s also co written with Wesley Wildman who’s also on the call here. You can buy it wherever you buy books, wherever you would like to be able to support that. But it’s a really interesting and exciting book and people can follow you on Twitter at @KateJStockly. So to find out more about the book and the work that she’s working on, you can follow her. You can follow me. I’m at @Rabbimitelman or Sinai and Synapses, @Sinaisynapses. We talk about these kinds of conversations on Sacred Science every week, Tuesdays at 2pm. Eastern, next with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who is an author on the interplay of science and technology and spirituality. He’s been a wonderful friend and mentor of mine. So, I hope you will join us next Tuesday, May 25, at 2pm Eastern, but thank you all for joining us. And Kate, thank you for taking the time.
Next week, Tuesday, May 25 at 2PM ET, we will be speaking with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of American Jewish University as well as the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and author of multiple books, including Renewing the Process of Creation.