High-tech training of Olympic athletes adds fuel to an
old controversy: Are human beings just machines?

Once every four years, human society is presented with the great spectacle called the Olympics, full of stirring images of human endeavour and achievement. In magazines and on television even on postage tamps everywhere are the exciting figures of exuberant young bodies running and jumping, lifting and diving, their intense exertions reaping for some the fruits of lavish praise, medals of gold, and the pleasures derived from a sense of accomplishment and honor.

As we behold any masterful performance of this sort, the rest of us may quite naturally be moved to think how thrilling it would be to perform with such speed, power, and grace, just as one might dream of playing some instrument and spontaneously producing beautiful music that gives expression to one's deepest feelings. Apart from these fantasies, though, we know that even patently gifted persons engage in countless hours of practice with expert guidance often aided by expensive high-tech equipment to be able to manifest such feats.

Gold Medal Happiness

This great Olympic spectacle inspires us, then, to consider what accomplishments might be possible for us. Do we have latent abilities that might be brought forth quickly or greatly enhanced by the application of the new technologies and techniques we hear about? And would we want to do these things even if we could? Would it be worth the cost in time and energy and tension to become a gold medal winner, an accomplished specialist in some field?

In assessing the cost, we are well aware that the energy expended for results in one area is thus made unavailable for investment elsewhere. Unknown numbers of other possibilities will remain forever unrealised once we have limited ourselves to acting upon the choice that has been made. For example, one couldn't be developing a closer relationship with a friend or spouse and at the same time be pole vaulting with full concentration.

And so the thought may then arise that "Perhaps I wouldn't want to sacrifice so much of life by focusing so intensely on just one area. Maybe I should spread my resources a little thinner and gain a broader experience of the possibilities life holds." But then of course one runs the risk of becoming not merely a dilettante but someone who gradually becomes habituated to vacillation, noncommitment, and noninvolvement another one of millions of spectators who move about like so many shadows in our society. Passively trickling into the stadiums and theatres to merely watch and perhaps dream of being like their idols, they have no real life-flow of their own, only the shining images of their stars glimmering upon the surface of their minds along with their own projected fantasies.

Those not so inured sense a tragic loss in this modern limbo. Apart from the health considerations of such passivity, there is a more disturbing feeling that somehow real life is being missed. The opium den's sickening-sweet scent of surrender hands about the living rooms where the self-proclaimed "couch potatoes" undergo a parody of growth in the mutagenic glow of the tube.

All too frequently confronted with this pervasive vortex of inaction, ineptitude, and ennui in our modern society, we find the hustle and bustle of the athletes a relief, and their dedication and determination to overcome their limits and set new records an inspiration and a challenge to our own acceptance of different forms of limitation.

In recent years our concepts of what is possible for human beings have been greatly expanded by the application of new methods of analysis of physical and mental processes. "We look at the human body as if it were a machine," says Dr. Charles Dillman, one of the scientists who has worked with U.S. athletes at Olympic training centers. "For us, muscles and limbs are pulleys and levers with their own measurable moments of inertia and torque. For every motion in each sport, we hope to find something close to an optimal movement of the body, whether it be the most efficient way a hockey player can accelerate on the ice or the maximum torso rotation over the high-jump bar."

Observation of the laws of physics and the application of concepts of mechanical efficiency have brought about the use of machines like the ubiquitous Nautilus, as well as a number of other devices for developing the body. Now there is even something called "Electrical Muscle Stimulation" (EMS), in which electrodes strapped to the skin deliver a mild electric current to the muscles, making them twitch and flex and thus grow bigger. Since the nerve signals that normally stimulate muscles are themselves electrical pulses, EMS can lead to enhanced muscle bulk and definition. Whether or not strength is increased as well as bulk remains a question, but this does not seem to bother many of the young professional men who form the principal clientele at most salons.

In addition to these "biomechanical" analyses of the body, there has been an increase in the analysis of the human mind that plots the competitive strategies, guides the senses, and controls the emotions of the would-be superstars. Here again we find we find many mechanistic concepts, with a great deal of computer lingo, talk of proper mental "programming," and so forth.

Noting the connections between states of relaxed concentration, with their accompanying brain-wave frequencies, and enhanced possibilities for suggestion and learning, scientists and entrepreneurs have sought to make more readily available through technology some of the great "mind-over-body" control experienced by yogis in deep meditation after prolonged physical and mental cultivation.

One of the specialists assisting U.S. athletes uses a form of visualisation called "Visual Motor Behavioral Rehearsal" to "program," as he says, mind and body to work together for the event. Flotation tanks, soothing musical tapes, and alpha-wave-producing "brain machines" are often used to create the relaxed state seen to be an important part of this process. They are also used with hypnosis and subliminal suggestions to break down undesirable emotional, behavioural, and thought patterns as a necessary preliminary to effecting desired changes in personality and performance.

Many things thus seem possible now that were scarcely dreamed-of before. In sports, for example, the concept of "EMG cloning" has recently been introduced. This technique seeks to employ procedures developed in dealing with stroke victims, whereby computer-stored electromyograms of the patterns of normal muscle activity are played back through electrodes to stimulate the muscles of the victim. In the EMG cloning concept this same principle would be applied to produce the muscle patterns of superstars in other athletes.

EMG cloning, the use of anabolic steroids, and a number of other controversial new techniques based on biomechanical analysis have caused some to wonder if we may not be awarding medals to synthetic athlete-cyborgs. Thus new fuel is added to an old controversy: Is the human body just a machine? And even more disquieting for many is the human brain just a computer? Is there anything we can do that machines cannot?

Back as far as the 1600s, Descartes suggested that the human body "be considered as a kind of machine," and these days the machine is widely used as a metaphor for human existence and not surprisingly: even children play with computers now. Biomechanics, robotics, and artificial intelligence have become quite common in sports and industry, and androids and cyborgs frequently appear in science fiction books and films.

In a popular movie of a few years back, Blade Runner, the hero, played by Harrison Ford, drove off with his girl for the traditional happy ending even though he knew she was an android! A very advanced, organic android, to be sure, a very attractive illusion of humanness with a brain-unit containing two trillion constituents. In the book version, Rachael the android tells our hero that having sex with an android is "convincing if you don't think too much about it. But if you think too much," she says, "if you reflect on what you're doing then you can't go on … don't think about it, just do it. Don't pause and be philosophical, because from a philosophical standpoint it's dreary."

While the thought of android sex may be somewhat dreary, the thought of being an android is downright bleak. Perhaps that's why so many people rush to take advantage of the by-products of the results of observing the machinelike nature of the human body and mind but scrupulously avoid reflecting on the implications that might spoil the show. Yet increasingly subtle analysis of the body and brain is leading us to precisely this conclusion that we're nothing more than androids.

In fact, with the development of modern physics, our comfortable concepts of ourselves have been undermined in an even more fundamental sense. Our bodies and, for that matter, all the physical phenomena that make up the familiar world of our experience which at one time had seemed to be such solid physical matter, were first revealed to be congeries of atoms and molecules. Then Einstein showed that matter is a form of energy and that even the particles cannot be thought of as separate from the space that surrounds them. Now quantum theory characterises particles as only "having a tendency to exist," and matter has in effect been reduced to a kind of mathematical fiction. Our so-called real world now seems to be based upon a phantom world consisting of transformations of energy.

The parallels between these concepts in physics and the Sankhya cosmology of the Vedic knowledge, with its philosophy of maya, or cosmic illusion, have not gone unnoticed. A number of books have come out in recent years exploring those areas in which physics and "Eastern philosophy" tend to agree that the universe is really a dynamic interplay of varying aspects of energy and consciousness.

This feature of consciousness is the crucial factor for consideration. The question is not whether the human brain is like a computer. According to the Vedic philosophy, these mechanistic metaphors, though crude in their present form, are essentially correct in envisioning the human body and brain-mind as mechanisms; in fact, the word used for the body is the Bhagavad-gita is yantra, or "machine," and the subtle mental bodies are often referred to as "vehicles."

The Vedic philosophy goes beyond these manifestations of material energy, however, and describes consciousness as being of an altogether different nature. Consciousness is the symptom of the true self, referred to as atma in the Vedas. This self is a spiritual being, different from and unattached to the machinelike material bodies and minds he inhabits in material existence. The self is the constant, conscious principle underlying all the perpetually changing states of psychological consciousness, such as waking "conscious" awareness, the so-called "subconscious," and the dream state. The self is capable of things no android will ever do. The self desires, wills, and loves, although and mark this well when the self expresses these through the mechanisms of the material body and mind (the firing of synapses and the creation between these events and their reproduction by some analogous material mechanism becomes blurred.

The nature of the real, spiritual self is described by the terms sat, cit, and ananda. The self is eternal he has always existed and always will. The self is full of knowledge, and the self is by nature blissful in a manner transcending all the temporary and relative forms of so-called pleasure experienced through matter.

And now here is the real point: In all our endeavors for knowledge or gold medals, we are really seeking to overcome the limitations on our natural eternality, knowledge, and happiness. We seek to become "Olympians" (godlike, immortal) because we are eternal and this imposition of death is terribly unnatural. In forgetfulness of this fact, however, and not knowing how to re-experience our original consciousness, we are forced to try symbolically to transcend the limitations of time and space by beating the clock or vaulting over a bar. Through games, in other words be they favoured with the name "Olympic" or otherwise. But precisely because they are mere games, symbolic victories only, they cannot offer true happiness, but merely some manufactured challenges and consolation prizes in the face of inevitable death.

Our plight is that we chosen to dream of being something we are not, in a situation that obscures our true connection and relation with the greater whole of which we are all parts, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna. This material cosmos, somewhat like a multidimensional holographic projection interacting with its observer, is the stage where we act out our delusions of separateness from Krsna through a series of alter-egos, which are like the karate figures on the screen of an arcade video game with which the player identifies himself.

It is this identification with the material alter-ego that involves the consciousness of the real self in the transformations of matter, which appear to his mind and body according to the nature of the "hardware," "software," and "programming" he has received as pain and pleasure. These "read-outs," reflected in the consciousness of the self, where it has been projected into the material mind, are then taken by the self to be his own feelings. This false ego is the knot that binds the consciousness of the self to the play of the material energy.

Therefore, the pursuit of real "gold medal" happiness begins first with dismantling the underlying delusion and the false ego responsible for the innumerable desires for material objects and situations. These desires keep the mind constantly agitated as it schemes and plans to satisfy them, only to discover that as soon as one is satisfied another quickly pops up. As these are removed, consciousness can gradually shift to more and more refined states in which the light of truth becomes increasingly reflected. "The greatest common understanding for all yogis," the Srimad-Bhagavatam extols, "is complete detachment from matter, which can be achieved by different kinds of yoga."

In astanga ("eight-fold") yoga, the yoga that includes the exercises with which the term yoga is commonly associated in the West, this process of refinement is really a kind of progressive withdrawal of consciousness away from the grosser mechanisms like the physical organs and into increasingly subtle vehicles of mental energy. But astanga-yoga is totally impractical in our age. With the exception of a very few "gifted" yogis who have already spent many lives reaching their present levels, those endeavouring on this path even with the assistance of such things as alpha-wave-generating "instant meditation" machines are largely wasting time and deluding themselves.

Vedic cosmology describes the evolution of the universe as cyclic, there being a cycle of four ages, or yugas, that the universe repeatedly passes through. The age we are now in, which began approximately 5,000 years ago, is called Kali-yuga. Far from being the "Age of Aquarius" so wistfully imagined by naive New Agers, Kali-yuga is a 432,000- year-long devolution, a progressive breaking down of a universal pattern to total disorganisation.

In such a time as this, what can be done? What reasonable hope of spiritual progress is there?

In the Katha Upanisad it is stated that although there are innumerable spiritual living beings, among all of them is one supreme living entity who is the Absolute Godhead, the Lord of all. Throughout the Vedic literature it is stated that this supreme being is Krsna, the Personality of Godhead. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna explains that He Himself enters into the cosmic manifestation periodically as an avatara for the benefit of the conditioned souls. The avatara descends into the cloud of material energy, where the "movie lot" is manifesting and erring souls are acting out their robot romances and android adventures with special effects created by Krsna's illusory potency. By His teaching and actions the avatara re-establishes the principles that once again make clear the distinction between playing games and actual living, and that make the return to real life possible.

At the end of the previous age, just before the beginning of Kali-yuga, Lord Krsna appeared and left His instructions in the form of Bhagavad-gita, in which He asked all living entities to abandon their egoistic desires and pursuits and take up their true positions in relation to the Supreme. He promised that for anyone who did so, He would Himself cut the intricate network of chains of cause and effect (karma) that bind the conditioned soul to the wheel of repeated birth and death.

Since the beginning of Kali-yuga, however, people have been practically unable to surrender to Krsna, being victimised by ever-increasing materialism and a deteriorating environment, which combine to further the obfuscation of the soul's covered spiritual instincts. Therefore, five hundred years ago, Lord Krsna appeared again as Sri Krsna Caitanya just to teach the world how to surrender unto the Supreme Lord in this difficult age.

Lord Caitanya, popularly known as Gaura, or "golden," because of His brilliant golden aura, offered a special dispensation of the age of Kali, namely that by humbly and sincerely chanting the names of God, we can free our consciousness from contamination. Lord Caitanya taught that the name of God is the sound incarnation of God. Thus, by chanting the holy name of Krsna one can directly associate with the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, by sound vibration. As one does so, one's consciousness naturally becomes purified of all illusion, and one's original, formant Krsna consciousness is uncovered, just as a cloud dissipates in the presence of the mighty sun, leaving the clear sky. Furthermore, the seeds of latent reactions to one's sins are all nullified by this process, just as seeds that have been cooked will never germinate. Thus freed of all material contamination, the soul returns to the spiritual world in his original, spiritual body, where he eternally experiences the highest perfection of life and spiritual ecstasy in variegated relationships with the Supreme Lord and the liberated souls.

Faced with these wonderful possibilities, will we then remain "couch potatoes," languishing amid the stage props of maya, dreaming of fool's gold, or will we truly "go for the gold" the greatest happiness of all, awarded by the merciful Golden Avatara? The choice is ours.