Commusings: Spiritual Advice from a Chatbot by Jake LaubJan 28, 2023
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Hello Commune Community,
It’s been nearly three years since we anchored into Port Lockdown and my dear friend Jake urged me to start scrawling this Sunday missive. Really? Three years? Is that possible?
Naively, in the wicked year of 2020, I agreed to pen this regular weekend screed. I figured words could serve as vessels for emotions. And, through sharing them, we might find comfort. We might discover that we were not alone.
But, soon, I found myself over a literary barrel. Two thousand words per week. Schuyler often asks, “How do you have anything else to possibly say?” I rejoin, “It’s not what I say that changes, it’s how I say it.” Of course, this is what makes life interesting. Stare at a leaf. It’s asymmetrical. It’s imperfect. Yet, we sense an order to it. Pick up another leaf. Its shape, its edges, its veins are different, distinctive. Yet, again, we sense the same order to it. Nature isn’t straight. It’s wiggly. And, from this wiggly diversity, life bursts forth … selecting, under pressure, for the best of it.
Probably like you, Jake and I are tooling around with AI – who I’ve affectionately dubbed Albert Inestine. “Amazing!” I thought. With ChatGPT, I’ll never need to write another essay again. My Saturdays will be liberated for hikes and house chores. However, despite its ability to give me 500 serviceable words in seconds on topics from Ketosis to the 8-fold Noble Path, there is something rote about it. It’s not wiggly. Perhaps I still have an excuse to avoid cleaning the gutters.
Jake’s wonderful, sleep-deprived essay has me thinking. I’ll add my wiggles to it in the coming weeks.
Here at [email protected] and posting deep fakes on IG @jeffkrasno.
In love, include (the real) me,
• • •
Spiritual Advice from a Chatbot
by Jake Laub
It’s 2am and I’m pretty miserable, so I text a friend.
“I can’t sleep, I’m sick, and my toddler is about to wake up any minute. I’m feeling pretty challenged by life at the moment. Any advice? Help me put it in perspective.”
My friend texts back:
“It sounds like you're going through a difficult time. Remember that this is just a temporary phase. Things will get better. Try to focus on the present moment as much as you can. This can be difficult when you're feeling overwhelmed, but try to focus on what you can do right now, rather than worrying about what's to come. Remember to be kind to yourself.”
It’s good advice, but its impact is somewhat dampened by the fact that my “friend” is not a living human. It’s ChatGPT, a “a language model trained to produce text.” In other words, an artificially intelligent chatbot.
The difference from previous chatbots you may have encountered (for example, using Siri or trying to contact customer service) is that ChatGPT appears to be much better than its predecessors. Already it is causing consternation — in education as students “write” term papers in 20 seconds, in the coding world as it potentially churns out malware, and in science as it is credited as the author of research papers.
I could spend the rest of this essay exploring the ethical pitfalls of a machine that appears to speak with great authority, yet can only ever reflect the same biases and misinformation used to train it. If the ethics of AI interest you, I highly recommend Sam Harris’ thoughts on the matter.
Instead, I am thinking about the thousands of yoga classes I have taken in which a teacher seemed to be spouting an amalgamation of cliché phrases collected from the Western yogic gestalt:
“Let your heart open and fill with gratitude.”
“Feel your connection with the earth.”
“Don’t focus on anything in particular, just be present.”
There is nothing wrong or incorrect about any of these lines – in fact, if you really want to dig in and unpack them, you could plumb great spiritual depths – but 99% of the time these sorts of sweet spiritual nothings simply breeze by me. And yet… occasionally, the timing of a universal message aligns with my personal circumstances (and usually a pigeon pose) in such a way that it really hits, cracking me open for a moment.
ChatGPT is no Alan Watts or Ram Dass. Still, it’s a tempting offer if someone says, “I just read every book by Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle. Would you like to ask for some advice?”
So let’s ask, starting with the basics.
Prompt: How can I live a happy, purpose-filled life?
Living a happy and purpose-filled life is a personal journey that looks different for everyone. However, here are a few general suggestions that may help:
- Set clear and meaningful goals for yourself. Having a sense of purpose can provide direction and fulfillment in life.
- Cultivate positive relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. Strong social connections are essential for happiness and well-being.
- Practice gratitude and focus on the present moment. Being thankful for what you have and focusing on the present can help to reduce stress and increase overall happiness.
- Take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. This includes getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, and managing stress.
- Engage in activities that bring you joy. This can be anything from hobbies, travel, to volunteering, find something that makes you happy and make time for it.
- Learn to accept and manage failure and setbacks. Failure is an inevitable part of life, and it’s important to learn from our mistakes, and move on.
- Seek professional help if you are struggling with depression or anxiety.
Remember, happiness is a journey, not a destination. Keep working towards your goals, and strive to be the best version of yourself.
I mean, nothing groundbreaking, but it hits the key points. Eat well, practice gratitude, nurture meaningful relationships… It might feel more meaningful if I received this advice from my grandmother or therapist, but as a general reminder, it works.
Now let’s get a little more technical.
Prompt: How can I trigger satori?
Satori is a Zen Buddhist concept that refers to a state of enlightenment or spiritual awakening. It is the experience of sudden and profound understanding of the nature of reality.
There are several practices that can be used to trigger satori:
Meditation: Zen meditation, also known as "zazen," is a traditional method for achieving satori. It involves sitting in a specific posture and focusing on the breath to calm the mind and achieve a state of heightened awareness.
Koans: Zen Buddhism also use koans, which are paradoxical riddles or phrases that are used to break down the logical and rational thinking process, leading to the sudden enlightenment.
Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness, which involves being fully present in the moment and non-judgmentally aware of one's thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, can also be used to achieve satori.
Service: Engaging in acts of service, such as volunteering, can also help to trigger satori by shifting the focus away from the self and towards helping others.
Self-reflection: Engaging in self-reflection and introspection, examining one's own thoughts, feelings, and actions can be a powerful tool for triggering satori, by understanding the true nature of oneself.
It's important to note that satori is not something that can be forced or attained through techniques alone, it is an experience that occurs naturally and unexpectedly.
Informative… I like that it threw in bhatki, the yoga of service, into the mix.
Prompt: Now, tell me a koan.
One well-known koan is:
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
This koan is often used in Zen meditation to help practitioners break free from the constraints of logical thinking and reach a state of heightened awareness. The question is designed to be unanswerable through rational thought, and the goal is to contemplate it deeply until a sudden understanding or realization arises. The sound of one hand clapping is a paradox, as it doesn't make sense, but the purpose is to break down the logical and rational thinking process, leading to the sudden enlightenment.
Hey, why the need to editorialize? Let me get there myself! Not that a rational explanation helps me authentically answer the koan anyway, but it kind of kills the simple mystique.
Prompt: Write me a Zen poem about one hand clapping.
The sound of one hand clapping,
Echoes in the silence of the mind,
A riddle to confound the thinking,
And leave the ego far behind.
The hand that strikes the empty air,
Is but a symbol of the quest,
To find the truth beyond the noise,
And find true inner rest.
For in the stillness of the moment,
And the emptiness of space,
The hand that claps in solitude,
Reveals the human grace.
So let the hand that strikes the air,
Be a reminder of the quest,
To find the truth that lies within,
And find true inner rest.
The sound of one hand clapping,
Is the sound of the universe,
A symphony of all things,
And the song of the universe.
So let the hand that strikes the air,
Be a reminder to seek,
The truth that lies within us all,
And to find true inner peace.
Hmm, impressive as a piece of artificial intelligence, but something about a rhyming Zen poem doesn’t work. And it’s all just … a bit too “on the nose” for Zen. Let’s try one more time.
Prompt: Write me a haiku in the style of Matsuo Bashō.
Autumn leaves falling,
Silent in the morning mist,
In a classic 1969 talk, Ram Dass opens by saying,
If I could sing or play an instrument for you, I would sing and play an instrument for you. If I could dance for you, I would dance for you. If I could paint for you, I would paint for you. My thing is words, but the problem about words is — you may listen to them, and that would be a mistake. For all I am doing is painting with words, and the message that is being sent is non-verbal. For in fact, I am not going to say anything you don’t know already, but the perplexing problem is that you don’t know you know.
Chuang Tzu says, “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit trap exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve got the rabbit you can forget the snare. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”
Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.
For better or worse, ChatGPT represents a massive synthesis of human knowledge and learning — remixed and relayed back to you whenever you want to open a computer. It has the potential to derail democracy and propagate misinformation. It is yet another “tool” that further distances us from face-to-face, heart-to-heart. It is not exactly where I prefer to see humanity direct its vast problem-solving capabilities.
But … for daily encouragement and a light dose of spiritual wisdom, if it can offer the right words at the right moment, if it can spark in you what you already know at a soul level, then maybe it has a part to play.
Let’s not forget to leave the trap behind, however, once we have the rabbit.
Jake is a Commune Co-Founder, writer, photographer, dancer, chicken wrangler, and amateur fermenter. You'll find him, Julia, and their daughter tucked away in a yurt at Commune Topanga, just behind the beehives.
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