Contemplative AI: Google’s “Bard” Answers My Questions About Mysticism, Centering Prayer, and Interspirituality

Contemplative AI: Google’s “Bard” Answers My Questions About Mysticism, Centering Prayer, and Interspirituality March 23, 2023

So I got invited to be a beta-tester for Google’s new AI assistant called Bard. Yesterday I received an email from Google that said, in part:

Meet Bard, an early experiment by Google
Because you’re a Google One member, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to be among the first to sign up for the new Bard experience and provide feedback. Think of Bard as your creative and helpful collaborator, here to bring your ideas to life using generative AI…
You might ask Bard to outline a blog post about summer mocktail recipes, draft a packing list for a weekend fishing and camping trip, or help you understand if lightning can strike the same place twice.
We can’t wait to hear how people start using Bard, but we also know that large language models will not always get it right. Input from a wide range of experts and users will help Bard improve.

It sounded like fun, so I signed up, and today I got an email that said “It’s your turn to try Bard.” So I did. I clicked through to Bard’s home page, agreed to the terms of service (noting tidbits like a warning not to use Bard for legal, medical or therapeutic advice), and then I was brought to a simple page where I was invited to enter a prompt, a question to pose so that Bard could show itself off.

I typed the following request in:

Help me to write a blog post about Buddhist-Christian interspiritual practice.

And here’s what Bard came up with… almost instantaneously:

Buddhist-Christian interspiritual practice is the practice of combining elements of both Buddhism and Christianity in one’s spiritual life. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as incorporating Buddhist meditation practices into one’s Christian prayer life, or studying Christian texts alongside Buddhist scriptures.

There are many reasons why someone might choose to pursue interspiritual practice. Some people find that both Buddhism and Christianity offer valuable insights into the human condition and the nature of reality. Others may be drawn to the complementary nature of the two traditions, which can provide a more holistic approach to spirituality.

Whatever the reason, interspiritual practice can be a rewarding and transformative experience. By combining the best of both worlds, it can help us to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.

Here are some tips for getting started with interspiritual practice:

  • Start by learning about both Buddhism and Christianity. The more you know about the two traditions, the better equipped you will be to integrate them into your own life. There are many resources available, both online and in libraries.
  • Explore different ways of combining the two traditions. There is no one right way to do interspiritual practice. Experiment with different methods and see what works best for you.
  • Be open to new experiences. Interspiritual practice can be a journey of discovery. Be open to learning new things and having new experiences.
  • Be patient. It takes time to develop a new spiritual practice. Don’t expect to see results overnight. Just keep practicing and you will eventually see the benefits.
    Interspiritual practice can be a powerful tool for personal growth and transformation. If you are interested in exploring it further, I encourage you to do some research and find resources that can help you get started.

While it may not be the most innovative explanation of the topic, it is solid, informative, and helpful. I was impressed.

So, let’s see how Bard does with the mystics… I asked this question:

Write a blog post explaining why mysticism is an important dimension of Christian spirituality.

Once again, Bard took only a matter of seconds to generate this response:

Mysticism is an important dimension of Christian spirituality because it is the experience of direct contact with God. Mystics believe that they can experience God through prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices. This experience can be transformative, leading to a deeper understanding of God and a more intimate relationship with Him.

Mysticism has been a part of Christianity since the early days of the church. The Bible contains many examples of mystics, such as Moses, Elijah, and Paul. These individuals had profound experiences of God that transformed their lives and the lives of others.

In the Middle Ages, mysticism flourished in Europe. Many monasteries and convents were founded by mystics, and their writings and teachings continue to influence Christian spirituality today.

In the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in mysticism. This was due in part to the work of scholars such as Evelyn Underhill and William James, who studied and wrote about mysticism. It was also due to the experiences of many people who sought out mystical experiences during times of crisis or upheaval.

Today, mysticism is still an important part of Christian spirituality. Many people continue to practice meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices in order to experience God. These experiences can be transformative, leading to a deeper understanding of God and a more intimate relationship with Him.

If you are interested in learning more about mysticism, there are many resources available. You can read books, attend workshops, or talk to people who have had mystical experiences. You can also find many online resources, such as websites and blogs.

Mysticism is a personal journey, and there is no one right way to experience it. The important thing is to be open to the possibility of experiencing God and to be willing to put in the time and effort to grow in your spirituality.

No bullet points this time, and it certainly feels very general — but how specific can you get in a 300 word blog post? But it touches on the history of mysticism, the core practices, and the essential role that experience plays. Not bad.

I don’t think AI is going to make flesh and blood writers like myself obsolete; at least not yet! But it’s fascinating to see the facility for creating readable and useful prose, in literally just a few seconds.

But can AI deal with matters of conflict? For my third experiment (and the last one for tonight), I decided to spice things up a little bit:

Write a blog post to refute the objections of Christians who are opposed to Centering Prayer.

This time I timed Bard — it took all of 10 seconds to deliver this almost-500-word response, written in the first person no less!

Centering prayer is a form of prayer that is based on the idea of silently resting in the presence of God. It is a simple and effective way to connect with God on a deeper level. However, some Christians object to centering prayer, claiming that it is not biblical or that it is a form of meditation.

In this blog post, I will address some of the common objections to centering prayer and explain why I believe that these objections are unfounded.

Objection 1: Centering prayer is not biblical

Some Christians object to centering prayer because they believe that it is not biblical. They argue that there is no mention of centering prayer in the Bible and that it is a man-made invention.

However, there are many biblical passages that support the practice of centering prayer. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) This passage suggests that one way to find rest and peace is to come into God’s presence.

Centering prayer is simply a way of doing that. It is a way of taking some time to quiet your mind and body and to simply be in God’s presence.

Objection 2: Centering prayer is a form of meditation

Some Christians object to centering prayer because they believe that it is a form of meditation. They argue that meditation is a form of idolatry and that it is a way of emptying your mind of God.

However, centering prayer is not a form of meditation in the same way that other forms of meditation are. In centering prayer, you are not trying to empty your mind of God. You are simply trying to quiet your mind and body and to open yourself up to God’s presence.

Centering prayer is a way of praying that is based on the idea of simply being in God’s presence. It is a simple and effective way to connect with God on a deeper level.

If you are interested in trying centering prayer, I encourage you to find a quiet place where you can sit or kneel comfortably. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Then, simply begin to focus on your breath. As you breathe in and out, bring your attention to the present moment. If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to your breath.

You can do centering prayer for as little as 5 minutes or as long as 20 minutes. There is no right or wrong way to do it. The important thing is that you simply take some time to be in God’s presence.

I believe that centering prayer is a valuable tool for Christians who want to deepen their relationship with God. If you are open to trying it, I encourage you to do so.

While I am not entirely happy with its description of Centering Prayer — Bard has completely ignored the 4-step method for Centering Prayer as developed by Thomas Keating and Contemplative Outreach, instead offering a simple practice of following the breath which has more in common with shamatha meditation than with The Cloud of Unknowing — overall I am still impressed with a very helpful brief article. The two objections it offers are, indeed, common criticisms put forth by Centering Prayer’s detractors (Bard could have also addressed the common complaint that Centering Prayer is “too eastern” or “too Catholic,” but for a short post that would focus on just two common criticisms, I think it’s chosen its content well.

So, is AI perfect? Absolutely not. Bard is still very much what Google is calling an “experiment.” In other words, it’s very much in a beta stage, and I’m sure it’s susceptible to making worse mistakes than just confusing Centering Prayer with shamatha. But I for 0ne am going to play with it some more, and I imagine it will be very helpful for a writer like me to do initial research on a topic and to get a broad overview of what is getting about a particular topic or area of research, especially online.

So how do we list Bard — or other AI tools — in a bibliography? Ah, the problems that our postmodern world presents to us.

Images courtesy of Unsplash.

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