I’ve been meditating, off and on, for the past 14 years. The technique I learned in meditation class many years ago is old-school and austere: Find a place to sit, close your eyes, feel your feet on the floor, and focus on the in-and-out breath at the tip of your nose. No music, no mantras, just the moment-by-moment struggle of bringing your attention back to breathing every time your mind wanders away (which is just about every time you breathe). The point, and the challenge, is to train your mind to let go of distraction, to detach from thoughts, to simply “be here now.”
Mindfulness meditation is a welcome (some say necessary) respite from the hustle and stress of modern life, and from the incessant pings, buzzes, and chimes of personal technology.
So I was intrigued when I received an invitation from the folks at Oculus, the virtual reality shop at Facebook, to test out the latest application for this booming technology: guided meditation. I wondered: If being mindful requires disengaging from the diversions of modern life, can we truly meditate while mind-melding with state-of-the-art computer processing power? Is it possible to “be here now” if that “here” is a digitally-synthesized someplace else?
At Oculus’ pop-up showroom in New York City, I was first given a quick tour of the capabilities of their high-end Rift system. I was menaced by a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex (cowering in virtual terror as the beast stomped past/through me) and dropped onto the ledge of an 80-story Times Square skyscraper (dropping reflexively to hands and knees and crawling backwards to safety).
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After the stress test warm up, I strapped on the Samsung Gear VR, for a downshift into Oculus’ meditation offerings.
The Guided Meditation VR app, developed by Cubicle Ninjas, gives you a choice of environment, voiceover, and chill-out music. I picked a fall foliage setting called "Autumnshade" to start, and the "Relaxation" audio track.
The 360-degree view was splendid: Crisp brown leaves floated from trees between shafts of golden sunlight. In the narration, an English woman likened our thoughts to hummingbirds, and indeed, my mind was flitting from voice to scene (with multiple perspectives available at the push of a button) and back again, with nary a thought of my breath.
I switched to a tropical seaside setting ("Costa del Sol"), with waves sloshing on the shore, then toggled again to an icy mountain ("Snow Peak"): Blood red sky reflected in an iridescent blue lake. Somewhere behind me I heard a crunching sound, like the calving of icebergs (or the footfall of a hungry snow leopard). Each time I picked a new setting, the device asked me to press my finger to a sensor to measure my heart rate, part of the app's biofeedback feature. I started out around 76 beats per minute, and hovered in that range throughout the experience.
I shifted one last time to a sunny bamboo grove ("Hanna Valley"), leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, a pagoda in the near distance. There was even a pudgy panda dozing on the rocks behind me to add to the snoozy vibe.
Now that I’d found a calm setting, I turned on the lulling “Loving Compassion” voiceover, which was much more conducive to relaxation than the hummingbird talk, and more in keeping with my own experience practicing loving-kindness meditation. A voice urged me to think about a loved one with the following recitation:
May you be safe / May you be peaceful / May you be healthy / May you live with ease and wellbeing.
Good food for thought, yet I still found myself dazzled by the scenery, looking out and around rather than inward.
My Oculus friends urged me to try another app, so I dove into Perfect Beach, developed by nDreams, which offers a choice of four seaside views with an audio track. The most interesting feature here is that the app lets you select a lower torso (customizable by sex and skin tone) as part of your view, presumably to help you locate your floating head in the VR space. That idea makes sense, given that groundedness is one of the starting points of most any meditation practice, though I found it gave me yet one more thing to look at: undulating waves throwing flecks of golden sun, plus a pair of nicely tanned legs and muscular pecs, just below my line of sight.
After an admittedly brief tour, I yanked off the headset and defogged my glasses. The verdict: Is virtual reality immersive? Of course. Diverting? For sure. Is it relaxing? It would be, if you had enough time to steep in the experience.
Is it meditative? That's a tough one, and it depends on one’s definition of meditation. If by “meditation” you mean getting outside of yourself for a few minutes to zone out, decompress, and escape, then virtual reality would do the trick. If you’re new to meditation, and don’t have access to a class or a teacher, and you’re looking to learn some of the basics of a guided practice like loving-kindess, an app like Guided Meditation VR (as a kind of jacked-up audio program) would help.
But if you’re trying to meditate in the more orthodox, hard-way-in style—to tune in rather than out; to be here, right now; to wake up into reality—you run into something of a conundrum. It seems that a technology that pries your eyes and ears wide open to absorb as much sensory input as possible is working at cross-purposes with a discipline that asks you to forgo distraction, to close your eyes and direct your attention inward.
Oculus’ VR meditation is a fun trip, no doubt, but if I could design a setting, it might look and sound like the classroom where I first learned how to sit: careworn wood floors, mismatched chairs, a rattling air conditioner, with a teacher at the front of the room offering terse instruction and then… silence. Maybe this dazzling technology, confident enough in its verisimilitude, could also be humble enough to slip into the background, so you'd have no qualms about missing out if you just closed your eyes, and tuned in to the real.