Virtual reality meditation: Awe, avatars and psychedelic designs
In January, I sat on a mountain, savoring the panorama. I could hear soft music and crystals swirling in and out of my mouth with every inhale and exhale. A few feet away, a rock projected a beam of light into the sky, and rocks in the distance produced the same beams. It signaled that other people were on the mountain, which gave me a sense of connection – a rarity during the coronavirus pandemic.
I was using TRIPP, a virtual reality meditation app that encourages users to focus on their breathing while viewing engaging visuals. During the pandemic and mental health crisis, the number of VR meditation apps has surged, which is part of why video games have jumped from 72% to 64% of the overall VR pie, according to Polaris Market Research.
The rise of VR meditation is paralleled by an avalanche of smartphone apps for mental health, which total around 20,000. Virtual reality is more immersive than smartphones and, some say, can enable feelings of wonder, relaxation, mindfulness and connection with other meditators – or their avatars, at least.
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I tried six of these relatively inexpensive VR apps (all are compatible with the popular $300 Meta Quest 2 headset) and spoke with entrepreneurs and researchers to find out how they compare to regular meditation and whether I need to incorporate VR into my mental wellness routine.
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With its surreal stimuli, TRIPP aims to elicit feelings of awe, defined as the emotional response to something so vast that it changes our view of the world. Some research suggests that wonder can improve well-being. In a recent study, 44% of VR users experienced goosebumps, a physiological sign of fear.
TRIPP’s otherworldly realms go beyond simply reproducing tropical beaches. “We focus on stimulation, not simulation,” said Nanea Reeves, CEO of TRIPP. Each of TRIPP’s “quiet” sessions, like my mountaintop meditation, ends with a few minutes spent hovering in fictional galaxies bathed in warm hues. Up there, users can experience the bird’s-eye view effect, feelings of awe and wonder experienced while gazing at the cosmos that have been reported by astronauts.
Another option: journeys through undulating and hyper-colored works of art, beautifully rendered geometric and psychedelic works. These awe-inspiring “trips” seem comparable to using hallucinogenic drugs, which can have benefits, but Reeves distinguished TRIPP from drug-taking experiences. “TRIPP comes to you” through the VR headset,” and [the drug trip] comes from you. TRIPP makes no therapeutic claims, although it is used to help patients undergo psychedelic-assisted therapy, which overwhelms some people at first.
Research suggests that meditation can increase openness to drug-induced transcendent experiences, and meditation might also increase openness to virtual reality, said Jacob Aday, a psychologist who studies psychedelics and virtual reality at the University of California, San Francisco. A single VR meditation probably won’t transform your mindset, “but with repeated use, the benefits could be powerful,” Aday said. He stressed that more studies are needed.
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Many VR meditation apps are more about relaxation than awe. “Some apps are like, how can I blow your mind,” said Josh Farkas, CEO of Cubicle Ninjas, which makes the popular Guided Meditation VR app, which features virtual beaches, waterfalls and other soothing landscapes. “Our app is like, how can we make you feel like you’re getting a big hug?”
A recent review found that VR meditation could promote relaxation; it has reduced stress for people in isolation during pandemic lockdowns, first-year medical students, students before big exams, UK office workers and over 2D audio and video meditations.
But mindfulness meditation, in which people practice being present in the moment, involves two stages, said Zindel Segal, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who studies mindfulness-based interventions. Virtual reality is a “powerful technology” for achieving the first step: calming your mind, he said. But that interferes with the second step, “investigating whatever comes into your mind with curiosity and kindness for the purpose of getting to know your mind itself.”
Indeed, “virtual reality is like putting a curtain between you and your ability to watch how your mind moves,” he explained. The breath crystals in TRIPP, for example, form “two degrees of separation from what your breath is actually doing,” Segal said.
He’s also worried about the practicality of VR meditation. If someone is lining up at the bank, “you won’t get crystals or high-res graphics,” he said. “What you have is your breath.”
But Harvard researcher and VR designer Judith Amores thinks meditating in busy VR realms prepares you for just that. “Virtual reality trains you to stay aware of the moment despite distractions,” she said. And as companies design lighter and more portable devices, more people can strap on VR headsets while waiting in line and elsewhere.
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Farkas thinks the pleasurable sensory stimuli of his app might also encourage many people who wouldn’t otherwise meditate to try it.
Amores was such a person; she was inspired to use and design VR meditation after struggling to meditate regularly. “I felt more productive when I was meditating, but it was actually hard,” she said. “I thought to myself, how can we make this experience more appealing to first-time users?”
Another hook for newcomers is gamification. With the Maloka app, your avatar, or “Spirit”, evolves and seems stronger as you meditate.
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A handful of VR apps allow for group meditations. While many Westerners view meditation as a solitary endeavor, Buddha taught that meditation should be rooted in community, said Jeremy Nickel, who launched EvolVR, a social platform used for VR meditation recently acquired by TRIPP . “Group meditations get you out of your head,” he said. “They make it easier to get back to your own practice.”
I had never meditated in a group and felt nervous about doing it in VR; this emotion only intensified when upon entering my first session, I immediately found myself invading the personal space of another avatar. We finally disentangled ourselves and headed to opposite edges of a cliff overlooking a pixelated beach for the session.
Another group meditation took place in a virtual cave. There I agreed to meet other avatars occasionally and managed to focus on my breathing and realized that the instructor was giving me very helpful advice. I can understand why Segal, the Toronto psychologist, hopes virtual reality can increase access to trained mindfulness teachers.
Meditation alone and without VR remains my daily practice, but VR is an important change. On days when I lack the willpower to sit down and close my eyes, the novelty of meditating in space or in the depths of the ocean appeals to me.
“Virtual reality is just another tool for mental health,” Farkas said. “It may scare some people. For others, it’s an incentive to take care of yourself on the schedule, get excited to sit on a virtual beach and breathe.