I took a meditation class in college, hoping it would reduce my anxiety. It helped for a while. But when the class ended, so did meditation. Then I worried about my failure to meditate. How hard is it? You do nothing. I failed at doing nothing. Eventually this knowledge made me so anxious I took a deep breath and let go of meditation.
Now — twenty-something years later – Christina asked me to review a technology designed to turn meditating from obligation to game: Muse: the brain sensing headband.
There are several styles of meditation. There’s the “Empty your mind of all thoughts” school, which is hard if you are inundated with stimulation. (Who isn’t?) There is also passage meditation, which is what I did in class. I memorized a short passage and spent thirty minutes a day reciting it silently. Muse is somewhere between these two schools.
But neither style keeps me safe from my biggest mental trap: beating myself up. First I fall for a distraction like adding items to my shopping list or getting a great idea or thinking, “Wow! I am meditating!” But as soon as I realize I fell in a trap, I’m brutal, “Look, I fell for a classic distraction. I am so bad at this!” This is, obviously, distracting.
Interestingly, this is where Muse helps.
I donned the sensor strip headband that makes me look like a high-tech hippy and monitors my brain activity. It’s connected to my iPhone via Bluetooth. I listen to it through the speaker phone or headphones. After a brief introduction, I chose a background soundscape. I chose ocean. So I could meditate to the sound of waves.
The calmer my mind is, as measured by Muse, the quieter the waves. If I get distracted, the waves get louder. This is very effective at keeping me focused. And stops my self-bully dead in its tracks. If the waves start to pick up, and I berate myself, “Oh, no! I’m thinking about work now? I’m so stupid!” The waves get louder. So Muse creates a calming feedback loop: I recognize the trap, calm down, and the waves get quiet. I let go of my frustration and the waves get even quieter. Finally, I let go of apologizing to myself, and – reward! — the waves return to gentle lapping at the shore.
If I manage to keep up a long stretch of quiet meditation, the soundscape plays the sound of birds chirping in the distance. Of course if I start to think, “Right on, now there are birds, good job,” then the birds fade away and the waves pick up again, which is exactly what should happen. If I let my praise go, the birds come back again.
It may seem silly to make meditation a game–gathering points and advancing though levels by doing something as simple as sitting in quiet contemplation. But showing up with my fellow students on a regular basis to earn a little college credit was also a game. That worked. And this works. Muse provides just enough encouragement to help me meditate regularly, so I can rediscover meditation’s rewards: reduced anxiety and increased focus. Maybe I am a high-tech hippy after all? Hey, if the headband fits…