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This Augmented Reality of Ours

It was around four in the morning when I was awakened by a drunken group of weekend party people on the street outside my window singing an off-key rendition of Don’t You Want Me Baby. I was amazed at how a song I’d always loved so much could suddenly sound so awful and intrusive. 

As I gradually began to drift back to sleep in my darkened room, I was startled by the sight of a shadowy stranger sitting in my favorite lounge chair across from my bed, staring at me. His menacing and motionless demeanor paralyzed me with fear, and it took nearly three minutes for me to muster up the courage to sit up in my bed and flip on the light so I could confront this intruder and get him out of my apartment.

When the light went on I was relieved and somewhat amused at what I saw: a pile of unfolded laundry covering that lounge chair in such a way that it vaguely resembled the outline of a seated human body. It was no wonder that in my frazzled state, and without being able to see clearly in the dark, that I’d mistake a pile of unfolded clothing for something more treacherous.

Recently I heard about the Augmented Reality Expo that’ll be taking place this spring in San Diego. Augmented reality is a technology that combines virtual reality with the “real” mundane world around us. It promises to revolutionize this world—ranging from the way medical students are trained to how cargo ships navigate through stormy waters. I came of age in the era of the Jessica Rabbit movie and Paula Abdul videos, where for the first time ever, real-life humans could intermingle with imaginary cartoon figures, and that was quite a technological feat back then. But visual antics like that pale in comparison to what’s happening right now.

Yesterday I started playing around with an app called Augment which enables you to place virtual objects into whatever kind of scene you can capture through your phone’s camera. As soon as I downloaded the app I had a good old time tinkering with the reality of my home: I captured a crow perched on my bathroom sink, a levitating cat in my living room, and a plushie taking a slash in my toilet. Sadly, this isn’t the first time I’ve imagined such surreal scenarios—it’s just the first time I’ve been able to manifest them with photograph-like precision, but that’s a whole other matter entirely that I won’t go into here.

While this technology is rather newish, it reminds me of the way in which our human brains tend to operate. 

On one hand, these minds of ours have the capacity to do wonderful things. They can solve huge worldly problems and help us navigate from one end of a room to another. But much of the time, we allow our minds to do us a disservice without even realizing it’s happening. Since it’s the function of the brain to solve problems and to make sense of whatever it perceives, it’s always working extra hard to solve what it considers to be this puzzle called reality. What this means is that our minds have a way of putting pieces of information together that don’t necessarily compute—just as my brain did that night when I thought a menacing stranger was plotting to kill me in my sleep (and in my own lounge chair for Pete’s sake!)

The Buddhist view is that true clarity and wisdom is attained by the simple act of being completely present with things as they are. That’s why we sit in silence and stare at the floor, and walk around slowly in circles without any particular destination in mind, why we chant, and why we can even make an art of the most mundane of tasks like dishwashing. We train ourselves in simply coming back to whatever we are doing with as full a presence as possible, and when we do this we find that our pervading dissatisfaction with life begins to diminish. 

When we’re not being present we’re inadvertently allowing our minds to run the show—and in this state we’re much more likely to mistake a rope for a snake, a pile of clothing for a potential murderer, or an otherwise innocuous look or statement to be deeply offensive. We’re always inserting an overlay of virtual reality into our everyday experience, and this is how we get pulled off course so easily. 

Playing around with augmented reality apps is all good fun—and just like this incredible technology, our thinking is not good and not bad—it’s just thinking. But when we mistake our thoughts about our experience as the reality of our experience, we’re straying away from what’s really happening and therefore we’re much more likely to cause suffering for ourselves and others. 

- Lawrence Grecco

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