Guest Post By: Dr. Michelle Wang, PsyD
What a year it’s been. Precarious, strange, extravagant, horrific, real. It is staggering to know we are at once capable of feeling disillusion and awe, love and suffering, stillness and chaos. Where one ends and another begins is hard to tell. In times like this we are tempted to lose focus, but it is exactly this time that our full presence and participation is required.
Our participation is our awareness and our willingness to ask the important ‘whys.’ We’ve been roused from the American Dream and awakened to a new American story. When we are lost and without direction isn’t it our nature to return to the basic, that which is simple, and turn to those whose kinship we can rely on? It’s what I call the return to a Virtuous Reality.
Life, as it always has been and continues to demonstrate, is truly a remarkably complicated journey, taking us on the ride of our lives, and demanding our capacity for both intrigue and sobriety.
“From Sea to Shining Sea”
The intrigue is what drew my Chinese-Korean immigrant parents to this country in 1985 with $250 USD in one hand and the sweet promises of the American Dream in the other. I heard the familiar lines immigrant parents say sometimes – of needing to work three times as hard to get half as far, that great things will happen to you as long as you work hard, and if great things aren’t happening you haven’t worked hard enough. Dreams of becoming an artist or musician were quickly funneled into a box labeled “Hobbies,” and I was summoned to pursue more serious vocations – you know the type.
Growing up we had a straight row of white picket fences and a very effective home alarm system. I tagged all my school supplies with my name written in cursive for more grades than I can count. Warnings of “stranger danger” and poisoned Halloween candy were well-versed mantras. “The Country of Beauty” is also the literal translation of “America” in Chinese so the vigilant guarding of personal property, the blatant racism my parents and I encountered, and the arbitrary nature of authorization confused me as a young child. Perhaps the beauty was in the possibility of raising free-thinking children in this country or in the promised equal opportunity for those who could exhibit hard work, determination, and initiative. A few others might have been missed: nepotism, segregation, privilege, misogyny, discrimination, competition, etc. But who’s to say? Maybe in the back of their minds they secretly understood hard work and determination can get you places, but first-world standards of success usually require an extra shot of moral concession. The Dream was a temporary solution to a deeper wound and my parents really needed a salve.
““The Country of Beauty” is also the literal translation of “America” in Chinese”
The Sojourner Experience
Within 17 years my parents grew to experience the sobriety of what quickly became referred to as “The American Dream” in air quotes and often accompanied by a deep sigh. After almost two decades of paving a successful path for themselves in spite of being treated like second-class citizens, no amount of opportunity no matter the price tag could convince my parents to remain in the States any longer, confirming once again that financial wealth is a terrible predictor of happiness. When I graduated high school in 2002, the 3 of us boarded a plane to Urbana Champaign, IL where I would embark on the next chapter of my newly adult life; my parents were to jet back to Beijing where my father had a cushy tenure position waiting at Beijing University and my mother did not have to feel humiliated on a daily basis for her accent.
Now, the American Dream wasn’t a failure for them – far from it. They had simply come to realize that it was more of a single paragraph on a page out of a much longer novel. It was not the destination they hoped it would be but it was an important and necessary leg of a much larger journey. I too give it as much credence as I would any dreamy enterprise. My parents traversed the great unknown, carried largely by their faith and determination to do the right thing. And for them, the right thing was to assimilate, acculturate, and acclimate. I cannot underscore my gratitude enough for the foundation and stability they provided. I could earn a doctorate in clinical psychology – a career that seems frivolous to many of their peers – and I have the luxury to explore the depths of my consciousness and garner a real sense of self-assuredness about my place in the world. A success by all accounts, just, not the end of the story.
The New American Story
My parents gifted me the luxury to question. Their preoccupation with safety gave me the luxury to question the value of it. They created the sandbox, and I was allowed to play freely, but as is the case with human nature, in due time I began kicking at the boundaries wanting more than what security and containment could provide. I questioned my parents in ways they never dared to question theirs. And I found this to be a sentiment shared by many of my peers. One by one we all heard ourselves exclaiming at one point or another, “This can’t be all there is to life!” We quickly familiarized ourselves with the parameters of safety and then began the search for courage, because we knew it was courage, not safety, that will take us deeper, higher, wider, and ultimately beyond our dreams and certainly that of our parents’. We felt empowered enough to disrupt status quos, reconfigure beliefs that have gone unexamined for too long, and challenged systems that were never designed for growth but the preservation of stasis.
“My parents gifted me the luxury to question. Their preoccupation with safety gave me the luxury to question the value of it.”
We began asking more questions. What was all the fear mongering really about? How do our picket fences interfere with community and trust building? How can we combine all of our 1.5 bathrooms, 1.5 children, surveilled units into one shared living space? Can we share more of our resources and avoid feeding into a hoarding culture of possessions and ownership? Is working hard for a lot of money really all that rewarding? And might we consider redefining “work?” Or “work-life balance for that matter?” And will there even need to be a balance as more and more of us feel wedded to work, self, and romantic interests with equal vigor and devotion, what David Whyte refers to as “The Three Marriages?”
We began to ask how we can better address the concerns of the rightless: the working class, immigrants, refugees, the displaced, and the stateless. We allowed ourselves to admit that we don’t have any tidy answers but we are trying. We began re-enlisting members into the humanities, the arts, trades that address not only the intellect but the corporeal, no longer “wishy-washy” careers but perfectly viable ones for a soulful life. We embraced technology, albeit with conflicting measures, as a compelling inflection point that holds so much potential for good. We started to redefine what constitutes a “family” as more of us feel we can belong to many tribes and communities that feel no less kindred than those related to us by blood and no less meaningful than traditional nuclear family units. We began re-exploring the ideas of marriage and romantic partnership since so many of us witnessed the archaic paradigms simply, truly, repeatedly not work or demonstrate relevance to our present-day values.
Friends, we’ve woken up from this American Dream and now it’s time to reimagine The New American Story – of tearing off concealing draperies, of repatterning and retelling, of countering the blistering “over-politicized and under-moralized” culture David Brooks claims to have been our country’s problem for the last century and guiding ourselves gently back to grace and morality, of bringing back lost virtues. The New American Story is the creation myth of the ever-evolving, steadily-unfolding of our prodigal return to a more Virtuous Reality.
“Friends, we’ve woken up from this American Dream and now it’s time to reimagine The New American Story”
A Virtuous Reality
One glance at Burning Man culture, festival culture, the tribal revival movement, and the rise of intentional communities, and it becomes glaringly clear the kind of Virtuous Reality more, and more of us hope for, and for some, return to, for this way of living is not new even if it is revelatory. A Virtuous Reality offers opportunities to meet our fullest potential, to courageously move with and beyond our fears, to find communities in support of our psychological and spiritual growth (and with whom we may consider co-parenting our young), for the sowing of social consciousness seeds around matters of space, ownership, ecosystems, and disparities, to foster wisdom in knowing how to meet human suffering with compassion and quiet stillness, and for the allowance of our collective weakness, fragility, and failures because those qualities are what drives evolution.
We may differ in how we imagine this Virtuous Reality, but most of us would agree that a virtuous one, however defined, is vital to a life well-lived. So I’ve started a Virtuous Reality Manifesto, intended to open dialogue, be edited, and begin setting a framework for our New American story.
Virtuous Reality as a Nondual Space
Anyone who’s ever experienced a non-ordinary or altered state of consciousness – be it through daydreaming, a meditation practice, flow state, REM sleep, floatation tanks, entheogens, or immersive virtual experiences – can understand what it’s like to be in an elevated or expanded state. That feeling of expansion in our physical bodies that allow for deeper exhales; of feeling bigger than our worldly concerns; of being struck with awe and gratitude at the simplest things we’ve grown accustomed to overlooking; of not being limited by our physical bodies and intellectual capacities; and perhaps my own personal favorite, the unlocking of our creative genius – a treasure trove of ideas and concepts we can sometimes hardly believe are our own.
In these states we find ourselves holding multiple realities, states of mind if you will. One reality is our ordinary consciousness, and at least one other is our expanded one. They may often feel like seemingly opposing realities and yet they co-exist. An example is Virtual Reality (VR). VR floored me the first time I experienced it. There was the bizarre phenomenon of at once feeling emotionally affected and intellectually robbed as my body responded to stimuli my intellect was fully aware wasn’t there. Underscored in this state was the process of my brain indiscriminately registering all subjective perceptual input as valid and real, regardless of the version of reality.
That there are co-occurring truths was not what floored me. What floored me was how, for the first time I had encountered a technology, an actual piece of hardware, that serves as a tool to show me (not tell me) that the stubborn Cartesian dualism of “subject” vs. “object,” “good” vs. “bad” was indeed far too simplistic and frankly insulting to the intelligence of profoundly complex humans living in an even more complex tapestry that is the phenomenon of life. I no longer needed to imagine nonduality, it was available for me in first-person, cutting through all intellectual and egoistic disbelief and filtered through my body’s somatic knowing. What floored me was the existence of a platform that offers the experiential knowing of nonduality, which I view as the acknowledgment and willful acceptance of multiple realities and multiple truths; the essential oneness of everything – a worldview much more compelling and with far greater reaches into the human potential than the alternative.
“…the stubborn Cartesian dualism of “subject” vs. “object,” “good” vs. “bad” was indeed far too simplistic and frankly insulting to the intelligence of profoundly complex humans living in an even more complex tapestry that is the phenomenon of life…”
As a practicing Emotional Intelligence Coach I see people clinging onto old narratives that no longer serve them, and of course, this makes complete sense if the belief is that there can only be one story and the hand dealt at birth is the only story available. No matter how much we may want to give up our narrative, as long as the belief is in either/or’s and zero sums, our attempts will be futile. The moment we let go of the idea that our stories are fixed is the moment we begin inviting in new ones. We may no longer look to define ourselves solely by a Meyers Briggs type or an astrological sign; we may see ourselves as both an introvert and extrovert under very different conditions; our partners saying “you’ve changed” may not be a sign of a doomed relationship, rather, an evolving one because we are all many things at once.
In a Virtuous Reality, there is a belief that everything is interconnected and many narratives exist at the same time. Nonduality begets liberation.
Virtuous Reality as a Possibility Space
Since my first VR experience, I have explored a wide range of others. One of my favorites is Fantasynth, a VR experience where the player leisurely glides through a hypnotic array of colorful backdrops and light shows synchronized to electronic beats. There is no need for controllers, and the experience does not require an avatar, so in the virtual world, I am quite literally without a body. Staring down at the empty virtual space where my brain expects my body to be, I considered this might be what it feels like to be without consistent form and disembodied. As you might’ve guessed disembodiment is not part of my repertoire either as a coach or Chief Psychology Officer. In fact, disembodiment has become such a rampant present-day concern that embodiment and mindfulness have become household names and digital detox and meditation commonplace practices.
And yet, I never fully bought into the idea that embodiment could only be learned through locating our physical bodies. I imagined if we placed intentional awareness on the sensation of being disembodied, we might find cues that teach us how to (re)embody. But I wasn’t quite ready to prescribe that to anyone. So every Friday, for four consecutive months, I very intentionally explored the relationship between VR and my corporeal awareness. What I found was a strange, beautiful, and surprising assortment of states and contradictions – disembodiment and embodiment, empathic transcendence, amplified awareness of consciousness, and an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief, which freed me from judgment and afforded me the psychic spaciousness to wonder and wander much as I would as a child. I was simultaneously the creator and the creation, the object and the subject, philosophically and neurologically the differences all collapsed and I had never been more aware of my own consciousness, at once distinct and imperceptible.
“What I found was a strange, beautiful, and surprising assortment of states and contradictions – disembodiment and embodiment, empathic transcendence, amplified awareness of consciousness, and an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief, which freed me from judgment and afforded me the psychic spaciousness to wonder and wander much as I would as a child.”
But I also noticed I had very few people with whom I could process these wonderments because in the larger community still, very few people have tried VR let alone own headsets, and in the clinical psychology community the numbers are even fewer. While I hear so many espouse the healing potential of VR, meditation, therapy, entheogens, etc., what I don’t hear being discussed but might be the most integral element to the sustainability of transformation: the formation and maintenance of in-person communities to balance out our media ecosystems. We don’t need research to tell us that in order to reach our highest potential we need in-person communities operating in real time to physically hold and nourish us with touch, food, witnessing and acceptance. After we’ve experienced other truths we need spaces where we can share those realities; this is where we derive courage and a sense of ground.
Without the support of one it is unlikely anyone will embark on the path towards awakening. This is why I think so many people enthusiastically download meditation apps but immediately stop using them when they realize they have no idea what to do with this newly heightened awareness and there’s no one qualified or trusted enough to guide them.
Enlightenment, after all, comes with responsibility and anyone who’s ever taken on a heavy knapsack without support knows, we simply don’t get very far. In a Virtuous Reality I envision community-generated, peer-facilitated, in vivo and virtual meet-ups for people exploring contemplative and consciousness expansion practices. Communities will gather regularly with the intent of exploring the elusive self and rooting insights garnered through these expanded states in meaningful ways relevant to our daily lives. Over time I imagine the process of integration will be internalized and become the default mode by which we approach all of life’s significant experiences whether in community or in solitude, virtual or analog.
And then there’s the fear of a Virtuous Reality, as counterintuitive as it may seem to some, it also makes a lot of sense. Most people I talk to are still very afraid of mind expansion tools such as psychedelics and VR and while I do not share the same fears I can understand more generally the anxiety towards any unknown medium. My guess is there are deeper, more subconscious forces fueling this anxiety. The limiting of human consciousness is not just reserved for “evil” institutions to bestow upon us, we do it to ourselves all the time. I believe the fear of our own possibility and potential far exceeds our fear of our own bondage and demise. Abraham Maslow describes this as the “Jonah Syndrome,” the fear of our own greatness and actualization –
“It is precisely the godlike in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.” – Maslow
The fear is of our highest possibility. In any Possibility Space, be it a Virtuous Reality or a virtual reality, we will notice resistance to possibilities and we can often trace the resistance back to ourselves. As I like to ask my clients, if you knew the view from the penthouse was breathtakingly spectacular but the inevitable plummet would be equally so, would you still want to visit the top floor? Or would you consider the 4th floor where the view isn’t very impressive and neither is the fall? Our fear of being morally shattered by our experiences – high or low – is often what keeps us stuck, smack dab in the middle.
Like any tool, technology, or human, Virtuous Reality has the possibility for both “good” and “bad.” Of course it does. It has the capacity to be as remarkably favorable as it does severely distasteful because it is simply a reflection of our collective humanity and we are capable of everything. And that’s what I like about this Virtuous Reality – it is a Possibility Space that can surprise us, delight us, and teach us. I think the next level of this game will require us to collectively move beyond our desire to be safe and the illusion that we are distinct organisms separate from everything else. We’ve got to possess a voracious appetite for truth and exploration so that we can reweave another narrative that can dance alongside all the other ones, no one more or less important than the other. Our challenge is to step on the path of nonduality and devote ourselves to the practice of radical inclusiveness.
Possibilities of a Virtuous Reality have always been there and it is not outside our scope, our brilliance, or our humanity. The question is, do we have the moral imagination, the courage, and the responsibility to choose it?
Dr. Michele Wang, PsyD is also Chief Psychology Officer of my company, NewPathVR.