Virtual reality meditation is a thing — and it's actually good

Yes, you can be mindful while wearing this headset.
Yes, you can be mindful while wearing this headset.
Image: flowvr / vicky leta / mashable

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.

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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.  

FlowVR's co-founder Tristan Gribbin meditates without the app.

FlowVR’s co-founder Tristan Gribbin meditates without the app.

Image: flowvr

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. 

If only it were a game.

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Instagram's 'Hashtag Mindfulness' boom: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Check out how mindful I am everyone!
Check out how mindful I am everyone!
Image: bob Al-Greene / Mashable

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, take deep 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.

A user of the affiliate marketing company ClickBank runs a Mindfulness Instagram account to sell products online.

A user of the affiliate marketing company ClickBank runs a Mindfulness Instagram account to sell products online.

Image: screenshot: rachel kraus/mashable

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. 

Same difference? 

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, Jon Kabat-Zinn, 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 Mindful Entrepreneur, 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.”

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Competitive Meditation 101: What you need to know about the world's weirdest sport

The calmer the mind, the higher the score.
The calmer the mind, the higher the score.
Image: bob Al-Greene/mashable

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.  

I don’t meditate. Can I still participate?

Absolutely. You could be a natural. The winner of the world’s first meditation tournament did not meditate. In his best match, his world-record score was six birds away from a perfect game. 

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. 

Before and after the game, however, trash-talking is absolutely encouraged. The Onion was on to something when it published this satirical take way back in 1996 — Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship: ‘I am the Serenest,’ he says. 

What has helped players so far?

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. 

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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. 

Who is the serenest? We’ll know soon enough. 

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Samsung Health adds Calm's sleep and relaxation tools

Samsung and Calm

Samsung had a surprise in store at Unpacked last month, when it revealed its Galaxy S10 camera app will include an Instagram mode. The company is adding another, more laidback third-party integration as Samsung Health users can access content from mindfulness service Calm as of today.

Once you’ve set up or connected a Calm account through Samsung Health’s Mindfulness section, you can access Calm’s meditation, sleep and relaxation programs from there. You can use Galaxy Watch Active to play and pause sessions and track your stress levels. You’ll need a Calm subscription to use the programs beyond the free trial period. However, the integration means you won’t necessarily need Calm’s app on your phone to access its services.

“Our work with Calm is going to make it easier than ever for Samsung Health users to practice mindfulness so they can work toward achieving better overall health,” said Peter Koo, who leads Samsung’s mobile health services division. The Calm features are available through Samsung Health in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore and South Africa.

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How 'neurosculpting' can train your brain

How to shape your mind

At Silicon Valley’s spiritual retreat, the stressed seek help for their brains in a new practice: neurosculpting.

by Chris Taylor

March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.

Having sliced open my skull Hannibal Lecter style, I removed the familiar folded lump of still-pulsing pink matter — brains only turn gray when they die — and placed it on a wooden workbench. After massaging it for a while, I picked up a steak knife and started slicing neatly between the hemispheres like I’m on a cooking show. Wait, that couldn’t be good.

“Stop!” my sleeping mind screamed at the image. “What are you thinking?”

I woke, bolt upright. It was the night before my three-day workshop in a brain-training practice called neurosculpting — and my brain seemed to be taking the prospect very personally indeed. 

Initially, I signed up for the workshop because I wanted to write about 1440 Multiversity, a fascinating place where modern-day hippies and techies meet. Founded in 2017, nestled in the Santa Cruz hills 30 miles south of Silicon Valley, 1440 Multiversity is every glorious Northern California cliché in one place. It was founded by a tech CEO. Google and Facebook and TED members hold retreats here, as do hundreds of less well-known organizations like the World Changing Women’s Summit and the Conscious Companies Leader Forum, in buildings that resemble the glass-and-wood architecture of Yosemite Valley.

There’s an infinity pool hot tub overlooking ancient redwoods; it doesn’t get more California than that. You can buy both hoodies and crystals in the gift shop. The name itself is a blend of motivational math (there are 1440 minutes in a day, what will you do with yours?) and new-age dippyness (we need more than a university, man!)

Old school California meditation centers (looking at you, Esalen) might frown on smartphone usage; 1440 imposes no such restrictions. You get three tasty organic locavore meals a day, but there’s also a coffee shop and good WiFi campus-wide, so you can still grab a cookie and check Twitter between meditation and yoga. What’s not to love? 

At 1440 Multiversity’s Common Grounds cafe, the clocks always point to midday.

chris taylor, mashable

“Neurosculpting to Manage Stress, Anxiety and Depression,” to give the workshop its full name, was one of the few 1440 courses based, as far as I could tell, on actual research. I’ve written extensively about various forms of brain hacking, including one of the most powerful forms science has investigated, meditation. I’m fascinated by neuroplasticity, a relatively new realm of research that proves we can literally grow and shrink parts of our brain based entirely on what we repeatedly bring to mind. In short: You are what you think.

But honestly, the course also just sounded like the least woo-woo thing on a menu that included such options such as “Animal Magic and Earth Medicine” and “Awakening Sacred Power Through Sound.”

I knew little of neurosculpting, though, and resolved to go in with an open mind. That’s when my brain tried to fill the gap in my knowledge with its ridiculously literal dream. Take a moment to unpack what happens when we dream like this: A 3 pound, gelatinous lump consisting of 86 billion cells screens a short horror movie for itself. A movie in which the lump itself is, unusually, both star and victim. And, as with many bad stories, its message to the audience is subtle as a brick: Whatever this neurosculpting thing is, don’t trust it! You might mess me up!

Only after the course did I realize the dream had mirrored the brain-hacking steps I was about to learn. The night terror engaged my primitive brainstem, which neurosculpting takes great pains to calm down first. The second part of the practice is to tickle the neocortex — those modern, rational frontal lobes — with absurd thoughts. Check.

Once your brain is firing on all cylinders, the next steps involve mentally editing a behavior you want to change or a thing you’re afraid of. Do this whole practice repeatedly, neurosculpting veterans say, and you can slowly turn around the supertanker of your habits.

In its dumb dream, my subconscious had offered a story that was, in its twisted way, meant to protect me. It wasn’t like I was about to cancel a $700 weekend workshop on the advice of a nightmare. But setting off for 1440 Multiversity the next day, I found myself more anxious about the course than I would otherwise have been.

“We’re all neurosculpting all the time anyway,” says Lisa Wimberger, founder of the Denver-based Neurosculpting Institute and teacher of the 1440 Multiversity workshop. “It’s either for you or against you.”

If my brain was going to neurosculpt itself on the subject of neurosculpting, it was time to take charge of the process. 

Lisa Wimberger explains the 5 steps of neurosculpting.

chris taylor, mashable

Wimberger was nothing like the kind of hippyish teacher I’d expected to find at 1440. Her Long Island Italian accent may be softened by years of living in Colorado, but it’s still very much in evidence. She’s calm but firm, poised but no-nonsense, as you’d expect from someone who teaches courses for first responders.

Within minutes of the class assembling, on ground-level meditation chairs drawn around a big red circle on the carpet, Wimberger was explaining the concept of mirror neurons — the bits of our brain designed to mimic the emotions of others — by reference to what she as a kid used to call her Sicilian grandma’s “smell-bad fart face.” After a while in grandma’s presence, Wimberger would end up adopting that same face, and feeling lousy for it.

“We get triggered when someone says ‘Oh, just smile,’ but it works!” she says. “Stick a pen in your teeth, you can actually change your mood.”

Her New York-style, rapid-fire delivery also means Wimberger, a lifelong educator whose seven-year-old small business now has 56 licensed teachers around the world, is pretty damn funny. She sees comedy as “alchemy,” she says, because it’s the only thing that simultaneously calms the lizard brain (neurosculpting step 1) and tickles the neocortex (neurosculpting step 2). “In my next life,” she told me, “I want to be a stand-up comedian.”

In this one, she’s devoted to sharing the good news on neuroplasticity, forming a “bridge” between the world of the lab, the world of more out-there wellness hot spots like 1440 Multiversity. She’s all about how freakin’ high the hurdle is for most of us to truly relax, to even get through step 1 of her process, especially when you’re dealing with trauma, not to mention your own impossible expectations. “We’re like, ‘I saw that meme on Instagram that said JUST LET GO, I should know this!” she says. “No! You can’t just let go!”

Wimberger was kind of dunking on meditation — or rather, on boring old directionless meditation classes that risk forever associating meditation in your brain with dullness. She slams the dull weekends she used to spend in an intensive Zen Buddhism center in Brooklyn — wanting to scream “you’re all fakers!” at the meditating monks on day 1, finally getting settled on day 2, blissed out on day 3, only to go back to work on Monday and get stressed out all over again.

“You don’t have to have an hour-long Zen meditation practice,” Wimberger says. “You can gargle for 10 seconds and shake for 30.”

Wait, what?

Gargling, it turns out, is one of the activities that stimulates our vagus nerve — the longest nerve in the body, the one that interfaces with our heart, lungs, and gut. Researchers are just starting to probe the frontiers of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and what it can do for us; currently a pacemaker-like version is used in the treatment of epileptic seizures, from which Wimberger used to suffer (she credits parts of her neurosculpting practice for the turnaround) and certain kinds of depression.

Humming, chanting, singing, even blowing raspberries are low-key means towards the same end. By soothing the vagus nerve — think of a cat’s purring — they help get us out of the classic three primitive fear-driven modes of behavior: flight, fight, or freeze. In our stressful workaday world, we enter these modes more than we know. Try to remember the last day in which you didn’t tense up, hunch up, get angry, avoid facing something, shut down or clam up in some way. I’ll wait.

Which is seriously fine, Wimberger says: that’s our survival mechanisms doing the job evolution designed them to do. Give them credit, they kept you alive thus far. Trouble is, neuroplasticity can’t kick in until we knock all that off. You can read all the self-help books in the world, but you can’t change a habit when you’re stressed. All other things being equal, brains are just naturally drawn to resisting change in everything, especially patterns of thinking.

That’s also the reason for the shaking, which is the first thing Wimberger makes us do after we share our names. We’re told to visualize a difficult moment in our lives, then to stand up and flail our limbs and torso as vigorously as possible.

As dorky as that sounds, it’s a thing. TRE, or Trauma Release Exercise, is a protocol based on a growing number of studies on the tremor reflex. Shaking is supposedly a signal to the body that the stressful event it was preparing for is now over. Shaking isn’t a sign of fear itself; it’s how we regulate the fear. Kids instinctively know this. Your dog knows this. When I arrived at 1440, I joined a class in the ancient Chinese exercise Qi Gong; that too, coincidentally, included a dog-mimicking shake.

Any kind of uncontrolled energetic movement has the same effect; dancing works, yoga doesn’t. But a quick shake is the one thing you can do any time, before a meeting, or before a speech. “‘Shake it off’ is not a metaphor, it is neurological homework,” Wimberger says. “Do it every day, and it will start to subtly give you more control.”

In short, Taylor Swift is the neurosculpting genius of our age. 

By this point, the class is rapt. These kinds of explainable, rational, memorable tips and tricks seem to be exactly what these 1440 Multiversity patrons have paid for. Most of them are in, or have just left, some kind of stressful job. There are two attorneys, two advertising executives, a psychologist, one developer who left Salesforce, another who quit Google. One guy is from Jordan; he flew in to see if neurosculpting could help him deal with his PTSD, his guilt about living and surviving in a war zone.

Cross-legged next to him is a slight, gray-haired guy who speaks so softly, in this room with ceiling panels designed to absorb sound, that I can hardly catch a word he says. This, we later discover, is Scott Kriens, chairman and former CEO of cybersecurity firm Juniper Networks, founder of 1440 Multiversity. Along with his wife Joanie, Kriens spent around $50 million buying and renovating a former seminary school into a home for the 1440 Foundation, a nonprofit that launched in 2010. (Bible college becomes spiritual center for stressed tech types: a very telling change in 21st century America.)

It’s hard not to be impressed by the couple’s handiwork, even if the packed schedule means you’re often appreciating it on the fly. It’s like being in a quiet, sparsely populated and particularly beautiful hive; there’s a constant low-level buzz of activity. The campus never feels crowded and strikes the right balance between spread-out and walkable. In addition to the infinity hot tub and coffee shop, 1440 has a spa, 3 miles of redwood trails, two outdoor amphitheaters, a building solely for cooking lessons, a labyrinth for walking meditation (etched on the ground in stone and moss), a common dining hall with a large fireplace, and five fire pits surrounded by benches and chairs for relaxed night-time decompressing.

The courses and accommodations aren’t cheap, but you can get a “pod” — a classy, curtained-off, wood-lined bunk bed in an 8-bed dorm, complete with all the USB outlets your devices can eat — for $160 a night. You’re not likely to be in your pod much (I shared my pod room with two others and barely saw them). Even if you’re not taking a course, you can still participate in other one-off classes, which seem to be bursting out everywhere. After dinner on the second night, looking for the singing group (gotta keep soothing that vagus nerve!) and stumbling into the wrong room, I found myself accidentally joining an improv class held for TED’s social team.

Words in the woods: inspirational signage at 1440 Multiversity.

chris taylor, mashable

At the same time, maddeningly, you’re never far from the woo-woo element. Some groups were attending workshops that assumed the existence of psychic powers. I met a number of folks in the dining hall with whom I struggled to keep a straight face and an open mind. It was the same weekend John Oliver released his segment on “cold-reading” TV psychics that profit from gullibility and grief, to which I can only say: this.

Wimberger herself is not immune to the woo-woo, as she freely admits. Her book on neurosculpting contains descriptions of meeting a meaningful figure she calls “Zahara, the mother” during her seizures. Such spiritualist leanings don’t show up in the class at all. But just knowing Wimberger is that way inclined trips alarms in my professional skeptic brain, and I resolved to fact-check the research she based the class on.

It passed the test, largely because of the fact that she’s naming her sources and giving frequent caveats. She’s upfront about times when she’s simplifying something: “Now this would make neuroscientists go a little twitchy,” she says at one point. 

Besides, this part of the workshop is just preparation for the hands-on segment. After the gargling, the shaking, the comedy and the face-training, neurosculpting comes down to a series of 20-minute guided meditations where we’re invited to close our eyes and lie on the floor.

This being tech-friendly 1440 Multiversity, we are encouraged to record the meditation for later practice. A circle of sleepers — literally, in the case of a woman who just flew back from India and has jetlag — is joined by an intersecting circle of smartphones.

Like a circle in a spiral: an ex-Googler named Matt walks the labyrinth at 1440 Multiversity.

chris taylor, mashable

To start, Wimberger asks us to choose a habit or behavior we want to change, a fear we want to remove, or a story that we keep telling ourselves about our lives that we’d like to edit. Perhaps, she suggests, you want to quiet the little critical voice that pops up at the back of all brains from time to time, the one that tells you you’re worthless. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of that little liar? (Calling them out as a liar is a pretty good start.) Her meditation takes us through five steps:

1. Calm the primitive brain and its flight, fight, or freeze mechanism. Recognize that it’s really hard! Reassure yourself that you are comfortable, safe, in familiar surroundings; your needs are met. Wimberger lingers on this step longer than the others, even going so far as to remind us that bottles of water are at our side, the bathroom is steps away, and gravity is still working.

The guy from Jordan is too tense to get past this step. He has a moment that reflects the concerns of some researchers that mindfulness can sometimes backfire, bringing us closer to our trauma instead of dissipating it. My colleague Rebecca Ruiz took a lengthier look at this topic; the bottom line is that trauma sufferers need to choose mindfulness practice with care.

2. If you can get this far, stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Wimberger suggests a series of strange ideas to visualize: If you have a third leg, how would you walk? If you had 12 toes, what would your shoes look like? Humor, novelty, wonder, awe: all these things our clever front brain adores. They give it something to work with instead of grumbling about meditation. “The analytical brain’s like, ‘Hey, I’m invited to the party!’” says Wimberger.

3. Only once you’re past the first two steps, start to visualize the thing you want to change, while “toggling” across the left and right brains. Wimberger interjects with requests to mentally spell out words, to think about various numbers, colors, textures and smells. Choose new ones to associate with a positive version of whatever you’re working on. “Don’t ever go back to a traumatic thought the same way twice,” she says. “Neurosculpting is about keeping you safe from that kind of reinforcement.”

4. Do an inventory of your body in relation to the subject in question. Where do you seem to be holding any tension when thinking about it — your shoulders? Your gut? Touch that spot. When you’re affected by the problem in the future, touch the same spot and see if it helps remind you of the new association.

5. To keep the rational brain happy, come up with new names and descriptions. In my mind, for example, I had found the low-key fear I was experimentally sculpting away — the fear of writer’s block, the fear of an empty page — was represented by a jumble of jagged blue lines. I turned them into a smooth wooden globe.

A single meditation like this, Wimberger says, is just a light pencil sketch. To build new habits, new thought patterns and feelings, you have to keep going over the sketch. So long as the “bottom up” reassurances of step 1 is firmly in place before the “top-down” steps 2 through 5, any kind of mental change you want, within reason, is in your grasp, over time.

I’d already gotten into the habit of a 20-minute-a-day meditation practice, so it was easy to slot neurosculpting into my day by listening to the recordings instead. Does it work? Hard to tell, given that, at time of writing, it’s been fewer than three days since the workshop. With that caveat, however, I have found I have more energy and focus for writing; I’m more receptive to exercise, and it became easier to nudge myself into a new diet I’ve been meaning to start.

Placebo effect? Possibly. Regardless, the participants in the 1440 workshop all gave neurosculpting enthusiastic thumbs up. The anxious faces that walked in on Friday had turned into smiles by Sunday, though a few were bathed in tears. Facing your deepest fears and darkest critical voices in the arena of your mind is no joke. As the 17th century poet John Milton put it in Paradise Lost, that gelatinous lump of ours is capable of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Class dismissed, we stepped outside into the redwoods on a crisp, sunny California winter Sunday. It may not have felt like hell-free heaven for all of us. But to a pupil, our desire for further study was piqued. “I’m just so fascinated by my brain,” said the no-longer-jet-lagged traveler, “that I really wish I could be present at my own autopsy.”

I agreed, and promptly flashed back to my weird, self-slicing dream. Again I heard the anguished internal cry of that movie’s audience. I considered shaking it off, but then I realized it was also the constant question of the present moment, the question that sits at the heart of 1440 Multiversity, the heart of neurosculpting, and indeed all mindfulness practice:

What are you thinking? 

  • Top illustration by

    Bob Al-Greene

  • Written by

    Chris Taylor

  • Edited by

    Brittany Levine Beckman and Keith Wagstaff

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