This story, by Dan Ackerman, appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine
The first thing I see is sunlight glistening off the gently rolling waves in the distance, while I stand on a small foliage-decked island so green it almost glows. Later, I’m standing on the balcony of the kind of aggressively minimalist luxury apartment only seen in movies and television shows. I can imagine a soft breeze flowing through these expansive spaces, but it’s only that: imagination.
In fact, I’m standing in my own living room and in a virtual reality creation, one especially designed to complement the practice of meditation, or at least one very specific version of it.
The program I’m using is called Guided Meditation VR, and I’m experiencing it through an HTC Vive virtual reality headset connected to powerful desktop computer. Besides choosing from about a dozen different locales to meditate in, I can listen to a wide variety of audio programs, called guided meditations, that run from 2 to 10 minutes and cover topics from breathing to compassion. (The app is $15 on the Steam platform for Vive, and a limited version is available for free for the phone-based Gear VR headset.)
Meditation in virtual locations isn’t the most traditional way to approach the practice, but it may entice sceptics who aren’t keen to sit in their living rooms with their eyes shut. “VR adds a really powerful, emotional ability to be in another place and to actually feel that emotional weight of another place,” says Josh Farkas, CEO of Cubicle Ninjas, Guided Meditation’s developer. “You can meditate anywhere, but at the end of the day, the ability to actually go to a virtual world and take a breather lowers the barrier to entry, and I hope gets people more excited.”
Meet the modern meditators
Meditation is trendy again, as corporate CEOs, athletes and even Navy SEALs embrace it as a potential performance booster. But compared with earlier flirtations with mainstream acceptance dating to the 1960s, this modern approach to meditation has a harder, more scientific edge, built around taking advantage of the cognitive benefits it offers. One Harvard Medical School study found meditation actually increased the volume of gray matter in the brain, improving memory, learning and empathy.
ABC News reporter and anchor Dan Harris has played an outsized role in popularising the concept of a modern, science-based form of meditation. In his popular 2014 book, “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works,” Harris described how he discovered the benefits of meditation once he was able to separate it from “the bearded swamis, unwashed hippies and fans of John Tesh music.”
While Harris is a believer in technology-assisted meditation, including iOS and Android apps like Headspace, Insight Timer and his own 10% Happier app (based on his book), he thinks virtual reality may be one step too far.
“I’ve done some thinking about using VR for meditation,” says Harris. But he also says he has yet to find a way to “harness what the technology is capable of to truly augment your meditation experience.”
And that’s because for traditional meditation, the idea of having a lush virtual environment to look at is actually counterproductive — if anything, you’re supposed to create it yourself. Harris says using virtual reality and 3D graphics for visualisation “seems obvious on the one hand, because there are all these elaborate, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, visualisation techniques. But if the VR is doing it for you, then you’re not actually doing it. You’re supposed to be closing your eyes and creating it on your own, that’s a mental exercise.”
Farkas disagrees. He sees virtual meditation environments as perfect for “Type-A, very process-oriented, very analytical” people whom he describes as “the folks that have the worst time just sitting there with their eyes closed.” By providing jungles and temples and other virtual landscapes, he says, an app makes it so “they can get distracted by this environment, and then they learn how to turn off those processes in their mind.”
I can see both sides to this argument. The visuals in Guided Meditation VR are some of the best I’ve experienced in virtual reality, and there are plenty of customisation options for program length and content, and even background music. But at the same time, it’s hard to be mindful when there’s a 1.2-pound headset strapped to your skull.
The biggest hurdle for me was actually time. Many casual meditators devote just 5 to 10 minutes per day to practice (a baseline suggested by Harris in his book), and simply setting up the HTC Vive headset and launching the required software can take that long by itself.
Beyond virtual reality
Despite being a VR sceptic, Harris thinks there is potentially a way to use virtual reality for meditation that makes sense. “It’s very rare to have an opportunity to be in the room with a true meditation master,” he says. “So one thing I think VR could do is put you in the room, maybe even a live setting, where you’re actually interacting with the teacher. There’s something really interesting, and, dare I say, special about being ‘around’ somebody who’s spent decades of his or her life intensively meditating.”
But while phone and VR apps can help, and are especially valuable for beginners, a practice thousands of years old is never going to be entirely dependent on technology. “I do think that technology can obviously be very useful,” says Harris. “But I don’t think it’s the only answer.”