Sitting silently with your eyes closed isn’t fun but it’s good for you…so you probably don’t meditate as often as you’d like. In that sense it’s quite similar to exercise. But people do show up when prodded by the urgency and peer pressure of scheduled group cycling or aerobics classes. What’s still in the way is actually hauling your lazy butt to the gym, hence the rise of Peloton’s in-home stationary bike with attached screen streaming live and on-demand classes. My butt is particularly lazy, but I’ve done 80 Peloton rides in 4 months. The model works.
Now that model is coming to mindfulness with the launch of Journey LIVE, a subscription iOS app offering live 15-minute group meditation classes. With sessions starting most waking hours, instructors that interact with you directly, and a sense of herd mentality, you feel compelled to dedicate the time to clearing your thoughts. By video and voice, the teachers introduce different meditation theories and practices, guide you through, and answer questions you can type in. Each day, Journey also provides a newly recorded on-demand session in case you need a class on your own schedule.
“‘I triedHeadspace’ or ‘I triedCalm’ . With a lot of the current meditation apps, people go on but they drop off very quickly” says Journey founder and CEO Stephen Sokoler. “It means that there’s an interest in meditating and having a better life but people fall off because meditating alone is hard, it’s confusing, it’s boring. Meditating with a live teacher who can connect with you and say your name, who makes you feel seen and heard makes huge difference.”
Journey subscriptions start at $19.99 per month after a week-long free trial. That feels a bit steep, but prices drop to $7.99 if paid annually with the launch discount, or you can dive in with a $399 lifetime pass. The challenge will be keeping users from abandoning meditation and then their subscription without resorting to growth hacking and annoying notifications that are antithetical to the whole concept. Journey has now raised a $2.4M seed round led by Canaan and joined by Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Betaworks, and more to get the company rolling.
Sokoler’s own journey could set an example of the possibilities of sticking with it. “Meditation changed my life. I was fortunate enough to move to Australia, find a book on Buddhism, and then I had the willpower to start practicing meditation every day” he tells me. “I lost 85 pounds. People ask me how I lost the weight and they expect me to say a diet like keto or Atkins, but it was because of the program I was in.” Suddenly able to sit quietly with himself, Sokoler didn’t need food to stay occupied or feel at ease.
The founder saw the need for new sources of happiness while working in employee rewards and recognition for 12 years. He built up a company that makes momentos for commemorating big business deals. Meditation proved to him the value of developing inner quiet, whether to inspire happiness, calm, focus, or deeper connections to other people and the world. Yet the popular meditation apps ignored thousands of years of tradition when meditation would be taught in groups that give a naturally ethereal activity more structure. He founded Journey in 2015 to bring meditation to corporate environments, but now is hoping to democratize access with the launch of Journey LIVE.
“You could think of it as a real-life meditation community or studio in the palm of your hand” Sokoler explains. Instructors greet you when you join a session in the Journey app and can give you a shout-out for practicing multiple days in a row. They help you concentrate on your breath while giving enough instruction to keep you from falling asleep. You can see or hide a list of screen names of other participants that make you feel less isolated and encourage you not to quit.
Finding a market amidst the popular on-demand meditation apps will be an uphill climb for Journey LIVE. While classes recorded a long time ago might not be as engaging, they’re convenient and can dig deep into certain styles and intentions. Calm and Headspace run around $12.99 per month, making them cheaper than Journey LIVE and potentially easier to scale.
But Sokoler says his app’s beta testing saw better retention than competitors. “If you’ve ever been to the New York Public Library, there’s so many books versus going to a local curated bookstore where something is right there for you. This is much more approachable, much more accessible” Sokoler tells me. “There’s a paradox of choice and having so many options makes it hard for people to stick with it and come back every single day.”
With our phones and Netflix erasing the downtime we used to rely on to give our brain a break or reflect on our day, life is starting to feel claustrophobic. We’re tense, anxious, and easily overwhelmed. Meditation could be the antidote. Unlike with cycling or weightlifting, you don’t need some expensive Peloton bike or Tonal home gym. What you need is consistency, and an impetus to slow down for fifteen minutes you could easily squander. We’re a tribal species, and Journey LIVE group classes could use camaraderie to lure us into the satisfying void of nirvana.
March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
The world final of Competitive Meditation took place last week. It was an absolute thrill ride. Two rivals from a previous match went head to head again; the one who lost last time found redemption and became the best version of her inner self.
It had all the “do you believe in miracles” drama we expect, but so rarely actually get, from our sports. And it all took place in just five minutes.
Okay, sure, all this was just two people at a conference table in the San Francisco HQ of meditation app Calm, plus one referee (yours truly) and about a dozen spectators drawn from the disparate worlds of meditation and video games.
But for all who were there, there was a giddiness to the moment, a sense of excitement at the possibilities being modeled before our eyes, a feeling we were witnessing the beginning of a curiously addictive future sport. All it needs to be ESPN-ready is color commentators.
Competitive Meditation: not just a great joke, but a genuine sport in the making. That’s the first of many lessons I’ve learned from running our contest over the last month. Here are the others:
1. Gamers are better at this than experienced meditators.
The theme for this year’s March Mindfulness tournament was Gamers v. Meditators. The finals pitted the top two highest-scoring meditators versus their gamer counterparts. In practice, that meant the winner and runner up of the tournament at GDC, the world’s most popular conference for people who write video games, versus the winners of the bracket at the world’s most popular meditation app.
In the Calm Corner: Aleena Abrahamian, officially the Calmest person at Calm, and Ben Chandler, holder of the Competitive Meditation world record (59 out of a possible 60 birds in a 5-minute game under tournament conditions).
In the GDC Corner: gamesmiths Megan Hughes and Bunny Hanlon, neither of whom had a regular meditation practice the day they started playing.
With the pressure on, all four finalists adopted distinct strategies that verged on being superstitions.
Aleena wrapped herself in a cozy blanket, exactly as she had done the day she won the Calm contest while chugging NyQuil.
Ben had opted to cover his eyes with a black wooly hat.
Megan preferred to block out sound — somewhat, at least, wearing regular wired earbuds that trailed away, connected to nothing.
Bunny had decided from the start that she could only meditate competitively if she were sitting on the floor, propped up against a wall, which she said was the only way she could fend off accidental sleep (which actually doesn’t produce any birds, since the brain is noisy just after nodding off).
The first semi-final, Ben v Megan, looked like the battle of the see-no-evil and the hear-no-evil monkeys. I couldn’t resist having my picture taken between them, hand over mouth.
The world record holder got five birds. Megan, the mother of five, got 18.
In the second semi-final, Aleena discovered that not having cold symptoms was a disadvantage: she “pushed out” (as Aleena likes to call it) just 3 birds. Meanwhile, Bunny was on a roll with 21.
Which meant that this first world Competitive Meditation final — intended for a gamer and a meditator — would be between two gamers. It would, in fact, be a replay of the GDC final.
2. This is a sport for underdogs. Reversals of fortune are common.
More often than not, the underdog in any given game does better than expected. At least a third of the time, they win. Over and over, you see players start tournaments with the highest scores in the first round, only to feel the pressure of holding up to that standard take them down in rounds 2 and 3.
Megan knew this only too well. By being the favorite for the final, having won the previous match-up with Bunny, she was paradoxically likely to lose. During a friendly match against Aleena prior to the final, Megan suddenly couldn’t stop laughing.
It was all too insanely, wonderfully ridiculous, she told us, how invested she now was. In the blink of an eye, she’d gone from not knowing a thing about Competitive Meditation to being a Champion to facing the pressure of defending that championship.
Aleena won the friendly, 18-5. But wait — did this lopsided loss make Megan technically the underdog again?
3. It’s about exploring your brain.
While Megan was generally reliant on her preternatural levels of chill — the kind you discover while bringing up five kids — Bunny was aggressively iterating. “My technique was trial and error,” she told me later. Focusing on her breath didn’t work for her. Nor did picturing something serene. “So I just decided to explore my brain and see if I could land somewhere that made the birds start.”
The winner received the idea of a trophy
Bunny is a narrative designer and community manager for Illinois-based nonprofit I Need Diverse Games, not a neurologist. Her plan was entirely intuitive and amounted to focusing her attention on different areas inside her skull.
It didn’t matter that she spent half a game hearing thunderstorms because she was focusing on areas that showed up as “noisy” on the Muse. It was worth it to find the point of focus that paid off as a reliable source of birds.
Once she’d found that focal point in the semi-final, Bunny found it easy to access the same brain space in the final. In all other brackets, the final was a tense affair with scores in single digits. But Bunny romped to victory in the final final, 42 birds to 7, the master of her brain domain.
As befits the sport, the winner received the idea of a trophy.
4. This is one sport that brings out the nice in people.
As much fun as it has been to write this all up in the style of sports commentary, the one aspect that distinguishes Competitive Meditation is how friendly it all felt. We’re talking Great British Bake-off levels of congeniality. Bunny and Megan were the nicest finalists imaginable; if you saw them afterwards you’d be hard pressed to guess which one of them had just won.
We’d already seen in previous rounds how trash-talking competitors lost and anti-trash talking — hardcore complimenting your opponent — competitors won. The niceness was infectious, and it was the kind of niceness that only comes out in friendly competition (think softball league).
Yes, you’re kind of gaming a system designed for quiet reflection and self-improvement. But so what? If it pushes you into discovering what works for you, then it works. Come for the game, stay for the de-stressing effects.
Meditation has oodles of benefits to bring to individuals and to society as a whole, but the lighthearted fun and super-chill atmosphere of March Mindfulness seems a paradoxically good way to deliver it — especially to gamers.
March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
$3.99 for the Oculus Go app
Easy to make into a habit • especially with short sessions • Can meditate anywhere you have the headset • Calming and approachable
Limited choices that don’t update — after a while you want more than the six options • Doesn’t take full advantage of VR
The Bottom Line
FlowVR is a great place to get comfortable with the idea of meditation — and feels like a mini-vacation.
⚡ Mashable Score 4.0
😎 Cool Factor 4.0
📘Learning Curve 4.5
💵 Bang for the Buck 3.5
I’m on an Icelandic cove, watching the sunset and the small waves lap at the rocky shore while a soothing Sigur Ros instrumental track plays around me. A voice instructs me to take a deep breath, fill my lungs, and then release, letting go of any tension. I look behind me and there’s a grassy hillside, on which I am alone. I look down and I have no feet.
Welcome to meditation in virtual reality.
Using an Oculus Go headset ($199) I downloaded a meditation app called FlowVR ($3.99). The app contains just six guided meditation sessions, each about 5 minutes long. The sessions: Breathe; Focus, Move, Let Go, Calm, and Restore.
Each one is set in a different Icelandic scene, deep in nature, and thoroughly isolated. (You never see anyone else at your meditation spot.) The sun is usually shining; you don’t experience any of Iceland’s harsher weather. But it also felt more muted and realistic than, say, a fake Caribbean beach scene.
The app was first released in 2017 by Tristan Elizabeth Gribbin. She’s a Bay Area native who moved to Reykjavik in 1995 — hence what she calls the “Icelandic flavor” throughout the app.
Gribbin told me, via Skype from her home in Iceland that she’s been “hardcore into meditation since 2000.” With the zeal of the convert, she started dragging everyone she knew to try out the practice. “Getting people to meditate can be hard,” she says. Therefore, the more novel the experience — and the more you can do it at home — the better.
When mobile virtual reality headsets arrived on the scene, Gribbin seized the opportunity. She began working on the app in 2015, and soon found that the same friends who wouldn’t go to meditation classes were more willing to try the practice in VR.
Gribbin said 60 percent of the app buyers are from the US, where mindfulness and meditation has caught on with a vengeance. It certainly caught my attention — and as a casual meditator with no regular practice, I’m probably the target audience.
Instead of an app simply telling you to close your eyes and breathe, you can go somewhere exotic and mesmerizing for a one-on-one relaxation vacation without really going anywhere. “You feel immersed in nature and are transported to another place and you can just be,” Gribbin said.
The app is pretty rudimentary, VR-wise. You can’t climb the mountains or wade into the enticing lake. You just stare at the waterfall or grassland or mossy lava bed. Occasionally a bird flies by. Of course, being still is kind of the idea. Each time I logged in and settled in for a quick, calming, restorative, or focusing session I found myself able to clear my head.
It was easier to meditate — not to mention uncurl my toes and loosen my spine — while looking at a sunny mountain ridge than it was when I just closed my eyes.
There is one technological pitfall common to VR apps that’s especially annoying here. During my “restore” session, a notice abruptly popped up on the screen: “Headset power low!” Talk about distracting. Suddenly I couldn’t help but see that this flowing waterfall was a substitute for the real thing. A low battery notice can make you mindful … of the fact that you’re just wearing a VR headset in your bedroom.
Over time, Flow VR’s breathing mantras would get tiresome, or at least predictable. It’s like a workout video that makes the same corny stretching joke every time you play it.
The music and scenery have more staying power; Gribbin calls them “wild and pure.” They are detailed enough to give you something different to focus on within the 360-degree experience if you were to do this everyday. Still, the app needs updates, more levels and experiences.
At one point, as the sun winked behind a moss-covered tree inside my headset, I became so relaxed that I started nodding off. “You may find yourself getting sleepy,” the app said, encouraging me to close my eyes even with the headset on. It wasn’t a problem. I felt utterly in sync, at one with everything, like I’d won meditation VR.
Can simply “being mindful” while, say, sipping a kale smoothie, constitute a mindfulness practice? Some experts say, yes!
But what being mindful means to you — especially when you’re posting about that moment on Instagram — may constitute a different version of mindfulness than the one that has prompted medical studies and attracted serious adherents across the globe.
The recent explosion in popularity of mindfulness is a well-documented phenomenon. One place in particular where mindfulness — or what some people think of as mindfulness — is enjoying a boom is on Instagram. Currently, there are over 11.8 million posts tagged with the hashtag #mindfulness; there are hundreds of thousands more with variations like #mindful or #mindfulnesspractice.
Many of the posts contain images of inspirational quotes that vary in their relevance to mindfulness practice. Current top posts under #mindfulness include “Please smile at strangers” and “Everything will fall into place, just be patient.” (Not exactly what mindfulness experts are trying to preach, per se). Others depict selfies or yoga poses, books or beverages, and are often posted by influencers or would-be influencers. Mindfulness on Instagram is a hashtag anyone can append to a photo to indicate they are experiencing a “mindful” state of, well, mind. All of this is not necessarily the meditation practice and quality of attention being studied by researchers and therapists.
Hashtag Mindfulness is mindfulness lite, an all-encompassing wellness trend.
Many of the Instagram posts are innocuous, and as some experts say, the more people talking about mindfulness, the better. However, problems can arise when non-teachers become the figureheads of a movement. The dilution of the definition and its championing by non-experts could lead to confusion, or even trick people into buying misleading products. Furthermore, those who struggle to experience the feelings mindfulness influencers preach can be left feeling dissatisfied.
Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.”
But that’s not typically what you’ll find on Instagram.
“What’s happened is both wonderful — and a bit of a mess.”
“The word mindful is just this very popular word right now,” Winston said. “Just like when anything enters the mainstream, it’s going to get diluted to a certain extent.”
But for the influencers and their followers, or quote posters and likers — who have the potential to be inspired by Hashtag Mindfulness, or perhaps learn more about mindfulness meditation through deeper discovery — maybe the fact that the broader expression of mindfulness on Instagram differs from the more specific definition of the practice can be OK, in it’s own way, experts say — with exceptions, of course.
“These days, there’s incredible access to mindfulness teachings, and some of that happens through social media,” Winston said. “What’s happened is both wonderful — and a bit of a mess.”
A quote image is worth 11 million words
One of the most popular types of mindfulness posts is the quote image. At their best, these posts have the potential to inspire a mindful moment in their readers. But often, Hashtag Mindfulness in this form exemplifies the most commercial aspects of social media vapidity.
Many of these #mindfulness quote images come from influencers, yogis, or self-promoters. This phenomenon is relatively harmless, except for when Instagram allows non-experts to become some of the leading sources of mindfulness knowledge. (Mindfulness promotion isn’t alone here.) If, for example, an untrained influencer teaches a mindfulness practice to someone who’s experienced trauma, that could be potentially harmful if they don’t know how to tailor the meditation appropriately.
“Setting oneself up as a teacher without a rigorous training is not a good thing,” Winston said. “What an incredible world that anyone can go online and learn to meditate. However, you don’t know who you’re learning from.”
Where the quote posts come from on Instagram is a mixed bag, though. A look at some of the top #mindfulness quote posts shows therapists or mindfulness centers also using this technique.
“Social media can be a wonderful way of getting the word out,” Dr. Elisha Goldstein, who runs the Center for Mindful Living in Los Angeles and is a contributor to the popular Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook, said.
However, he noted, “it depends on how it’s done.”
Goldstein and his team frequently post quotes on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that express mindfulness principles. Quote images have the potential to spread knowledge, or even enable a “S.T.O.P.” mindfulness moment: a technique that advises you to stop what you’re doing, takedeep breaths, observe your experience “just as it is,” Goldstein said, and proceed in a way that will benefit you.
But Hashtag Mindfulness can have a more nefarious side. At the time of this writing, one of the top #mindfulness posts came from an account called @MindfulMeditationDaily, which has over 25,000 followers. The account’s posts mostly contain images of peaceful nature scenes or joyously jumping women, overlaid with words like “JOY” or “CHAKRAS” or “VIBES.”
Who’s behind this account? The link to the account’s profile promises a free Reiki healing bracelet. Taking the account up on its offer requires paying $11 for shipping and handling. And you can’t get this “free” product until you read through six pages of “INCREDIBLE OFFERS” to buy digital booklets promising to increase your energy and vitality. The Instagram @MindfulMeditationDaily appears to just be a marketing tool for an internet “entrepreneur” who makes money by selling products through the affiliate marketing company ClickBank. ClickBank not only connects marketers to shakes, e-books, and self-help DVDs, but it also shares how you too can earn a 7-figure salary through affiliate marketing right now.
We often associate social media with “mindless” scrolling. In the best iterations of the #mindfulness quote images, these posts can prompt you to break that cycle, and perhaps even take a moment to inhale, non-judgmentally observe your thoughts, and progress with purpose. But often, Hashtag Mindfulness on Instagram is a tool to get likes and attention. Or at its worst, suck you into a click-to-buy cycle, filled with rote images and promises of healing your crowded mind.
Mindfulness as a lifestyle
In the world of Instagram influencers, mindfulness has also become a popular ethos infused into food, beauty, and other lifestyle choices.
“It’s being used to describe everything from just general wellness to actual mindfulness,” Winston said.
Influencers actually seem to agree with Winston’s assessment, as they assert a more all-encompassing, and moment-to-moment idea of mindfulness, rather than an attention technique linked to meditation.
“Whether it’s mindfulness or holistic wellness, for me, it’s different for everybody,” Jules Hunt, who practices mindful living, and runs a popular blog and Instagram account called Om and the City, said. “When you’re able to tap into what’s important to you, that’s you tapping into your own mindfulness.”
For Hunt, that means she takes a moment every morning to bring attention to the needs of her body. She uses a mindfulness meditation practice to bring greater patience and intention to her work throughout the day.
Alyssa Brieloff, who runs a site called Holysstic Living, agreed. She brings a spirit of what she considers mindfulness — of being tuned into the needs of her body and mind — to the food she eats, the beauty products she uses, and even how much time she spends on her phone.
“It means a lot of things,” Brieloff said. “For me, it’s about knowing where I am right now in the moment.”
Brieloff and Hunt practice mindfulness in their own lives, but they, and other influencers, also make it a tenet of business blogging. The way that manifests is not just adding #mindfulness to a photo of a meal they particularly enjoyed; they often gesture to “making the most” out of something and emphasize the need for self-love, honesty, and gratitude.
They also say they bring mindfulness to their work in the form of “intention.” Or, the idea that their businesses are not primarily about making money, but about expressing themselves and helping others.
Much of what Hunt and Brieloff told me about their mindfulness practices, actually does — to use Hunt’s word — somewhat “align” with mindfulness principles. Goldstein said that one can practice mindfulness while meditating, but also in a more “in the moment” way, as many influencers express when they use hashtags like #mindfuleeeeeats alongside a picture of a ‘gram-worthy organic meal.
Additionally, the ideas of “being present,” self-loving, and in tune with one’s body are not far off from how one of the founders of contemporary mindfulness,, defines it: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
“I don’t think it’s an issue to pop mindfulness on the top of something,” Goldstein said. “If you’re teaching people to be intentional and present and non-harming, then I think you’re welcome to throw that title on there. That’s just letting people know that you’re not ‘get rich quick.'”
Of course, plenty of Instagram personalities do pop #mindfulness on their pics just to try to get more likes, followers, and eventually sponsorships. Hunt runs a program she calls the , where she mentors other individuals growing their businesses in how to bring their ideas to life with intention. But if your end goal in participating is to grow your following and work with brands, she said, “this isn’t for you.”
Even with intentional uses of #mindfulness on Instagram, the difference between Hashtag Mindfulness and mindfulness practice can be in the execution. Mindfulness, for Winston, is not something that is “different for everyone,” or even just an approach to living — but is instead “a quality of attention.”
“It’s really about training our mind to be in the present moment, not lost in the past, not lost in the future, but right here, right now,” Winston said.
“Mindfulness is getting lumped into a new, ‘new age.'”
Mindfulness practitioners can bring that “quality of attention” to both a meditation practice, or utilize it throughout the day — even while, say, eating avocado toast. But another difference arises between institutionalized mindfulness and Hashtag Mindfulness in its combination with other lifestyle trends — notably general wellness, but also astrology, crystal healing, reiki healing, and more.
“Mindfulness is getting lumped into a new, ‘new age,'” Goldstein said. “If there’s someone who believes in crystal healing, you can certainly enhance your experience with mindfulness. So it’s not in conflict with any of it, but it’s been shown to be a far more mainstream, science-based treatment or approach than maybe some of the new-age alternative methods.”
These conflations can have the effect of misconstruing mindfulness into a tool for bliss. Hashtag Mindfulness often finds expression in serene looking yogurt eaters or tree posers, but mindfulness can often be difficult work that requires acknowledging discomfort.
Is Instagram changing the meaning of “mindfulness”? It might be broadening it for the social media masses, but that has little impact on experts or researchers. For Goldstein, the definition matters most when it comes to studying the impacts of mindfulness in a research setting.
“There needs to be a strict definition of it so we know what we’re researching,” he said.
It’s easy to be alarmed by the “dilution” of mindfulness on Instagram, but it’s not always cause for hand waving. If a hashtag can inspire someone to stop, breathe, and bring their thoughts to the present, perhaps non-judgement is the best way to approach the phenomenon.
Or, in Goldstein’s words, “if something’s good, it’s good.”
March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology. It culminates in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
There are many things I like about Competitive Meditation — not least of which is the name. It’s sure to bring a confused frown or a bemused smile to the face of anyone who hears it for the first time.
Which is fitting for a sport that is at once extremely serious and utterly hilarious. Think of Competitive Meditation as the mental equivalent of a summer softball league. Using a brain-sensing headband, it lets friends and colleagues play for bragging rights over who can keep the coolest head.
At the same time it demystifies the act and pursuit of meditation, in particular bringing it to the attention of those competitive Type-A personas who often need its calming and coping effects the most. What’s not to love?
It is the only sport you win by not caring about winning.
One year after creating the sport for a Mashable tournament, a year in which I continued to referee demonstration matches and learned much more about its potential, I can categorically state the best thing about Competitive Meditation is this: It is the only sport you win by not caring about winning.
As we prepare for the second year of our March Mindfulness tournament, in which video game players will face off against meditation app employees, here’s the FAQ — everything you wanted to know about Competitive Meditation but were too serene to ask.
What is Competitive Meditation?
Competitive Meditation is a fledgling sport I invented in which two players go head to head, literally, for 5 minutes. The game is administered by a referee.
In a Competitive Meditation match, players wear a brain-sensing headband called the Muse. The headband brings a thin strip of electrodes to the forehead. It is able to pick up weak electrical signals from the brain via EEG (electroencephalogram, a standard medical brainwave-detecting test). The Muse is fast becoming an industry standard device; other apps are building atop its “EEG Anywhere” platform.
The Muse app translates your brain’s sparks of electricity, which fire any time you have a thought, into audio cues. It translates silence into another audio cue. That second cue become an objective measurement of how successful your meditation is — in other words, a score.
In one-person meditation with the Muse, headphones are generally used. In competitive meditation, both players can hear the other’s audio. Many sports see players boasting about getting inside their opponents’ head. Only Competitive Meditation fans know for sure.
How is the game scored?
When a player’s brain is noisy, various nature sounds are heard (the default is a rainstorm). Every time their brain is quiet for 5 seconds, the sound of a bird chirping is played. Every further 5 seconds of quiet equals one more bird. The app records the total number of birds heard. The player that hears the most birds in 5 minutes — from 1 to a maximum of 60 — is the winner.
The world record thus far is 54.
While competitive meditation can be limited to individual games, it is best constructed as a knock-out bracket contest (such as March Mindfulness). A tournament allows a given environment — a workplace, a social group, a team of players of any other sport — to discover whom amongst them is literally the most chill.
Isn’t meditation supposed to be the opposite of competition?
A regular meditation practice has been shown, repeatedly, by science, to be helpful in reducing anxiety and depression. Over time, it literally changes the physical size of various areas of your brain. It can help increase your willpower and change bad habits, as I recently discovered.
So you shouldn’t ever berate yourself for failing to quiet your mind or focus on your breath, because this stuff is really hard — and failing is part of the process. All that really matters with meditation is that you regularly attempt it. It’s not whether you win, it’s whether you’re playing the game.
Still, we’re pretty good as a species at turning everything into a competition, even activities that don’t have to be competitive and rely entirely on subjective judgment (synchronized swimming, ice-skating, gymnastics). Competition is how we learn, grow, and gain the desire to do more. There’s no shame in that.
Most people who use a meditation app like Calm and Headspace are already being competitive with themselves — if only on the question of how long you can maintain a “streak” of meditating every day, a number these apps are at pains to point out.
If you’ve ever compared your total meditation minutes in any app on different days and felt spurred on to do more next week, congratulations — you’re already a competitive meditator.
Try as we might to be egalitarian, we seem primed by our evolutionary programming to rank feats of mental discipline. We want to know who has their head in the game. And with good reason: it’s what makes a winner. Almost every athlete in every sport will tell you about the importance of being in a state of “flow,” where one is entirely focused, time slows down and the ego disappears.
Flow is, more or less, what Competitive Meditation seeks as well.
Competitive Meditation takes the practice as far away as possible from New Age clichés.
Besides, meditating with others is simply more fun. It helps you not take the whole thing too seriously, which is an enormous advantage when trying to keep one’s mind quiet. I also believe that turning meditation into a game helps people avoid being alone with the dark and traumatic thoughts that can come up for some meditators.
All in all, this is why almost everything you’ve read about meditation and mindfulness is missing the mark. It’s preaching to the converted. Competitive Meditation takes the practice as far away as possible from New Age clichés, and brings its proven benefits to an entirely new crowd: sports and games fans.
Most sports require years of practice before you can even get close to being on the same level as the masters. But Zen Buddhism teaches the importance of Shoshin, which means having a “beginner’s mind.” Competitive Meditation will show the truth of that more often than you think.
Is trash-talking encouraged?
Competitive Meditation matches themselves should be held in silence, with or without a live audience. But players should not be penalized for laughter; it’s a release of tension that can actually help both sides find their calm. It is, after all, an inherently ridiculous setup.
Another very interesting factor in Competitive Meditation is that players love to experiment. Does focusing on your breath work for you? How about thinking of a mantra, a word or set of words or sounds that you repeat in your head over and over? Some players prefer lying down, some sit. Some stay still, others find that moving around works best for them.
In my own personal headband experiments, very little seems to bring me more birds than using the Apple Watch’s Breathe app at the same time. Congratulations, Apple. Don’t let it go to your head.
Small movements — touching fingertips to each other, say — also seem to help calm my usually overactive mind. Then again, the two finalists of last year’s tournament — seen below — stayed stock-still. In Competitive Meditation, your mind’s mileage will always vary.
Some commonsense advice has emerged from a year of practice that will improve any player’s game. Make sure you’ve eaten and gone to the bathroom beforehand, because you don’t want to find your mind distracted by an empty stomach or a full bladder. Make sure your face is as relaxed as possible, as the Muse’s EEG can pick up on electrical signals from a tense forehead.
Drinking coffee, not surprisingly, doesn’t help. Nor, more surprisingly, does falling asleep: The brain is actually quite noisy at that point (think of all those weird images that flash through your head on the edge of sleep). You want to be relaxed yet focused, completely in the zone — exactly the mental space we all long to occupy in the rest of our lives. Competitive Meditation is a sport that can literally help you live your best self.
Like any modern sport, of course, Competitive Meditation is going to have to wrestle at some point with the question of performance-enhancing chemicals. Should Xanax be allowed? How about marijuana? Further experimentation is needed to discover if these substances make all players more calm across the board — or if your mileage will vary there too.
At the end of the day, there is one attitude that seems to work for everyone, and that is lightheartedness about the whole exercise. The players who come into the room with clenched fists — the ones with something to prove to themselves, the preemptively defensive ones, or the ones who won a prior game and think they have to keep up a victory streak — are almost guaranteed to hear nothing but rain.
But the ones who come in with ridiculous grins, the ones who get the joke, who understand it’s just a game, who loosen up and have fun with it? They are the champions, my friends.
Tune in next week for our first report on March Mindfulness, 2019 edition, when the game-players of our sister website IGN take on the chilled-out employees of meditation app Calm.