VR meditation: awe, avatars and psychedelics

In January, I sat on a mountain, savoring the panorama. I could hear soft music, and crystals swirled in and out of my mouth with every inhale and exhale. Several feet away, a boulder projected a beam of light into the sky, and rocks in the distance produced the same beams. This 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 breath while viewing engaging visuals. During the pandemic and mental health crisis, VR meditation apps have increased in number, which partly explains why videogaming has dropped from 72 to 64 percent of the overall VR pie, according to Polaris Market Research.

The uptick in VR meditation parallels an avalanche of smartphone apps for mental health, which total about 20,000. VR is more immersive than smartphones and, some say, can enable feelings of awe, relaxation, mindfulness and connection with fellow meditators—or their avatars, at least.

I tried six of these relatively inexpensive VR apps (all are compatible with the popular $300 Meta Quest 2 headset) and talked with entrepreneurs and researchers to learn how they compare with regular meditation and whether I should plug VR into my mental wellness routine.

With its surreal stimuli, TRIPP aims to stir feelings of aww, defined as the emotional response to something so vast that it shifts one’s worldview. Some research suggests that experiencing awe can improve wellbeing. In a recent study44 percent of VR users got goose-bumps, a physiological sign of awe.

TRIPP’s otherworldly realms go beyond just replicating tropical beaches. “We focus on stimulating, not simulating,” said Nanea Reeves, TRIPP’s CEO. Each of TRIPP’s “calm” sessions, like my mountaintop meditation, concludes with a few minutes spent hovering in fictional galaxies bathed in warm hues. Up there, users can experience the Overview Effectsensations of awe and wonder felt while gazing down from the cosmos that have been reported by astronauts.

Another option: journeys through undulating, hyper-colorful pieces of art, beautifully rendered works of geometry and psychedelia. These awe-inducing “trips” seem comparable to using hallucinogenic drugs, which may have benefits, but Reeves distinguished TRIPP from drug experiences. “TRIPP is coming to you” through the VR headset, “and [the drug trip] eats from you.” TRIPP doesn’t make any therapeutic claims, though it’s being used to ease patients into psychedelic-assisted therapy, which overwhelms some people at first.

Research suggests that meditation can increase openness to drug-induced transcendent experiences, and meditation could similarly increase openness to VR, said Jacob Aday, a psychologist who studies psychedelics and VR at the University of California, San Francisco. A single VR meditation probably won’t transform your mind-set, “but with repeated use, the benefits could be powerful,” said Aday. I have emphasized that more studies are needed.

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 offers 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 might promote relaxation; it reduced stress for isolated people during pandemic lockdowns, for first-year medical studentscollege students before big examsBritish office workersand in comparison to Audio and 2-D video meditations.

But mindfulness meditation, in which people practice being present at the moment, involves two stages, said Zindel Segal, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist who researches mindfulness-based interventions. VR is a “powerful technology” for achieving the first stage: setting your mind, he said. But it interferes with the second stage, “investigating whatever shows up in your mind with curiosity and kindness with the goal of getting to know your mind itself.”

That’s because “VR is like putting a curtain between you and your capacity to watch how your mind moves,” I explained. The breath crystals in TRIPP, for instance, are forming “two degrees of separation from what your breath is actually doing,” said Segal.

He also has concerns about the practicality of VR meditation. If someone cuts in line at the bank, “you’re not going to have crystals or high-resolution graphics,” he said. “What you have is your breath.”

But Judith Amores, to Harvard research fellow and VR designer, thinks that meditating in busy VR realms prepares you for just this situation. “VR trains you to stay mindful in the moment despite distractions,” she said. And as companies design lighter, more transportable devices, more people may strap on VR headsets while waiting in line and elsewhere.

Serving as a gateway to meditation

Farkas believes the pleasing sensory stimuli of his app could also encourage many people who wouldn’t otherwise meditate to give it a try.

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 meditated, but actually doing it was tough,” she said. “I thought, how can we make this experience more engaging for novice users?”

Another hook for newcomers is gamification. With the Maloka app, your avatar, or “Spirit,” evolves and looks stronger the more you meditate.

Offering a way to connect with others

A handful of VR apps enable group meditations. Whereas many Westerners see meditation as a solitary endeavor, Buddha taught that meditation should be anchored in community, said Jeremy Nickel, who started EvolVR, a social platform used for VR meditation that was recently acquired by TRIPP. “Group meditations get you outside of your head,” he said. “They make it easier to return to your own practice.”

I’d never meditated in a group and felt nervous about doing so in VR; this emotion was only heightened when, upon entering my first session, I immediately found myself invading another avatar’s personal space. We finally disentangled and headed for opposite edges of a bluff overlooking a pixelated beach for the session.

Another group meditation happened inside a virtual cave. There, I accepted that I would occasionally bump into other avatars and managed to focus on my breath and realized the instructor was giving very helpful guidance. I can see why Segal, the Toronto psychologist, hopes VR can increase access to qualified mindfulness teachers.

Meditation alone and without VR remains my daily go-to, but VR is an important change-up. On days when I lack willpower to sit down and close my eyes, the novelty of meditating in space or the ocean depths reels me in.

“VR is just another tool for mental health,” said Farkas. “It may be scary for some. For others, it’s the incentive to put some self-care on the calendar, get excited to sit on a virtual beach and breathe.”

Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md. In addition to writing about health and technology, he is editor in chief of Leaps.org, a journalistic platform that covers health innovations. Follow him on Twitter.

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