This blog post is excerpted from “Designing Transcendence Technology” by Julia Mossbridge, a chapter of the upcoming book, Psychology’s New Design Science and the Reflective Practitioner, Edited by Susan Imholz & Judy Sachter.
It has been called samadhi, enlightenment, non-dual experience, and many other names. Here, I will call it living deeply or transcendence: the experience of moving beyond the self and everyday perceptual and cognitive functioning to connect with others and come to know an essential and pervasive truth. Transcendence Tech, a new field with roots in ancient mysticism, uses technology and design fundamentals to facilitate three basic elements of transcendence: moving beyond the self, connecting with others, and sharing pro-social goals and ideas.
In the past ten years, several overlapping well-being tech movements, including Consciousness Hacking, have emerged among designers and technologists. The basic idea behind these movements is that we need to start creating technology not only to improve productivity, solve business problems, and treat diseases, but to support the flourishing of well-being.
Where does Transcendence Tech fit in this space? Designers producing Transcendence Tech are specifically aiming towards helping users move forward on a path towards transcendence, which includes moving beyond the self, connecting with others, and having an internal experience of truth. This internal experience of truth can seem very much like accessing faith, a sense of the sacred, or divinity. So in addition to the specific focus on a path towards transcendence, Transcendence Tech also differs from most of these other movements in that it offers a place for technology and the sacred to co-exist and inform one another.
Transcendence Tech and Consciousness Hacking both have a deep focus on transcendence, though Consciousness Hacking casts a wider net, including other interest areas such as mindfulness, lucid dreaming, psychedelic experience, etc. Having said that, the two movements are collaborative in spirit and practice. Recently, both organizations teamed up to create a weekend work environment for Silicon Valley hackers that supports a new kind of productivity, based in deep collaboration, self-transcendence, and mindfulness (see the video).
Why is Transcendence Tech necessary? In their excellent book Positive Computing, Calvo and Peters discuss a positive psychology model in which they identify six design factors that have a direct relationship with well-being: autonomy, positive emotions, competence, engagement, relatedness, and meaning (2014). They point out that each of these factors can relate to design components that are focused on the self, relationships with others, or with a transcendent or spiritual state. Calvo and Peters state that although their work is not focused on spirituality and transcendence, it is clear from multiple studies that transcendence is a key factor supporting physical and psychological well-being. For instance, a validated measure of self-transcendence was found to directly predict self-reports of physical health (Vieten, Cohen, Schlitz, Estrada, Radin, & Delorme, 2014). Further, the self-reported experience of transcendence predicts decreased levels of depression in elders (Kim, Hayward, & Reed, 2014).
The evidence for a powerful role of transcendence in human psychology is strong enough that the World Psychiatric Association released a statement urging all psychiatrists and psychological professionals to have conversations with their patients about spiritual and transcendent dimensions of their experience (Moreira-Almeida, Sharma, Janse van Rensburg, Verhagen, & Cook, 2015). One problem, according to techno-anthropologist Genevieve Bell, is that at the same time as we are discovering the importance of transcendence to physical and psychological well-being, we are afraid of technology related to meaning and transcendence, including a sense of the sacred (Bell, 2006). Transcendence Technology is meant to help us stop being afraid and start embracing a scientifically validated path to transcendence.
But what is the path to transcendence? How can we facilitate it if it is personal and subjective? It turns out that scientists at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a research-based think-tank focused on transcendence, have been working for more than ten years to answer exactly this question. They analyzed narratives written by individuals who reported high levels of transcendence, interviewed focus groups, performed intensive interviews with 60 indigenous and modern transcendence seekers, and they coded and analyzed surveys about life changes, transformation, and transcendence from more than 900 people (Schlitz, Vieten, & Amorok, 2008; Vieten, 2009). They point out that almost all of their data came from Western individuals and therefore lack universality. But their results are at least applicable to those of us in Western culture. Although their work is still continuing, by this point the common threads in their data are clear enough that they have proposed a model for consciousness transformation based on these common threads. The model outlines common steps toward “living deeply” or what I am calling full transcendence (Vieten, 2009), and points out several pitfalls along the way that can de-rail progress on this path and produce problems in the life of the experiencer.
I have adapted this model (Figure 1) for our use here. Each step has been reported across multiple participants, along with the actions that support each step (words at the top of the model) and the potential pitfalls of each step (words at the bottom of the model). The model was originally shown in a spiral pattern to indicate that steps can be taken more than once and in different areas of one’s life at different times, and that the path continues to inform and enlighten each time it is taken. But for our purposes, I have linearized the steps are linearized so it is easier to see the facilitators and pitfalls. Ideally, a piece of Transcendence Tech should be designed to support at least one of these steps and also to prevent the pitfall associated with that step.
Figure 1. Schematic of a research-based model of the path to full transcendence or living deeply (model adapted from Schlitz, Vieten, & Amorok, 2008 and Vieten, 2009). Boxes represent steps on the path. Items above the boxes represent actions or experiences facilitating transitions between steps. Items below the boxes represent pitfalls that de-rail the progress of the path.
The greatest strength of Transcendence Tech is that, used as structure to organize the field, the ideas informing Transcendence Tech address the human need to feel united with that which is within us and moves beyond us. A secondary strength of Transcendence Tech is that it has the potential to offer wayfinding tools on a path to transformation that has been discovered via research as opposed to personal belief. In so doing, Transcendence Tech both validates a need that has been considered taboo in some scientific and tech circles and simultaneously uses scientific and technological principles to fulfill this need. To the extent that designers can create tech with both of these strengths in mind, these tools will contribute to the goal of worldwide transcendence, which will offer new possibilities for humanity that are currently difficult to imagine.
Transcendence Technology offers us an opportunity to bring to the world a new version of what it means to grow up and become an adult. Beyond self-actualization and joy, Transcendence Tech guides us to connect with others and with a sense of the sacred, and to gain insights about interdependence and unity. Through the use of well-designed Transcendence Technology, we can collectively transform our communities, one shared insight at a time.
This is clearly a utopian vision, but it is one built on science rather than the insights of any one person. The steps and pitfalls are clear and they are common across multiple lifestyles, religions, and life experiences. What is needed is clarity about the path, awareness of the pitfalls, and tech that uses this clarity and awareness to help bring us all along the way.
Bell, G. (2006). No more SMS from Jesus: ubicomp, religion and techno-spiritual practices. In UbiComp 2006: Ubiquitous Computing (pp. 141-158). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Calvo, R. A., & Peters, D. (2014). Positive Computing: Technology for wellbeing and human potential. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kennedy, S. D. (2014). TechnoWellness: A New Wellness Construct in the 21st Century. Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, 1(2), 113-127.
Kim, S. S., Hayward, R. D., & Reed, P. G. (2014). Self-transcendence, spiritual perspective, and sense of purpose in family caregiving relationships: a mediated model of depression symptoms in Korean older adults. Aging and Mental Health, 18(7), 905-913.
Moreira-Almeida, A., Sharma, A., Janse van Rensburg, B., Verhagen, P. J., Cook, C. C. H. (2015). WPA Position Statement on Spirituality and Religion in Psychiatry.
Schlitz, M. M., Vieten, C., & Amorok, T. (2008). Living deeply: the art & science of transformation in everyday life. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Vieten, C. (2009). A research-based model of consciousness transformation. Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, 23, 32-34.
Vieten, C., Cohen, A.B., Schlitz, M.M., Estrada, M., Radin, D., & Delorme, A. (2014). Engagement in a community-based integral practice program enhances well-being. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 33(2), 1-15.