I tried meditating using virtual reality. Here’s the scoop

Virtual reality is opening doors for those who have a hard time meditating using the traditional methods

When my roommate set up his brand new Oculus Quest 2, a virtual reality (VR) setup, I was curious enough to ask him if I could try it out but I wanted to play something interesting.

He nodded and told me to sit in the swivel chair while he set it up. Then, he strapped the bulky headset to my head and gave me controllers in both hands.

“How are you feeling right now?” the program asked me, followed by words like bored, distracted, worried, relaxed, focused and more.

I selected distracted and tense. That’s when I was jolted into virtual reality. The ground looked like water, though I couldn't see my feet and the sky was full of sparkling stars that moved in sync like a flock of birds.

I swiveled to get a 360-degree view of my surroundings, trying to figure out where I was. A soothing voice guided me into taking long and slow breaths, and a trail of sparkles moved inward and outward along with my breath.

The voice told me to look at the shining light when I felt relaxed to enter “the next phase.” When I did, the light got brighter and brighter, absorbing the whole room, until I was somewhere else. This time I was floating through what looked like an endless kaleidoscope tunnel. I was focusing on my breathing and my thoughts — I was meditating.

I’ve enjoyed meditating occasionally before but using a VR to practice this mindfulness technique never occurred to me. In a sense, I was handed a piece of the future. 

British television presenter Rachel Riley shows a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR.
FILE - In this Wed., Sept. 3, 2014 file photo, British television presenter Rachel Riley shows a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR during an unpacked event of Samsung ahead of the consumer electronic fair IFA in Berlin. Oculus, the virtual reality company acquired by Facebook earlier this year for $2 billion, is holding its first-ever developers conference and is expected to discuss the much-anticipated release of its VR headset for consumers. The two-day Oculus Connect conference begins Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, file) | Associated Press

The traditional art of meditation has existed since at least 5,000 B.C. but in recent times, it has become widespread in Western societies because of the positive impact on mental and physical conditions like anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorders, according to a study.

Now, it heads into the virtual world.

Can virtual reality help you meditate?

Technology elevates the practice of meditation. Music and videos have proven to be therapeutic and stress-reducing by providing enriched stimuli. And virtual reality only takes it to the next level with the level of immersion it offers, helping you “teleport elsewhere,” according to a study that once let meditation experts try VR to determine whether it can facilitate mindfulness.

I have a hard time focusing on the present moment when all my stressors are right before me. With the TRIPP app, which delivers wellness solutions through VR, my brain felt tricked and I felt away from my reality for a brief amount of time.

“The main difficulty in mindfulness and meditation is to quiet the mind, blocking out all external stimuli. Well, VR gives you ‘presence,’” said Giuseppe Riva, director of the Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Laboratory at the Italian Istituto Auxologico.

“Let’s say you’re at home, and you have to clean the kitchen. When you close your eyes, you will still be thinking about the mess in the kitchen,” Riva said. “But if you put on a headset, and suddenly you’re sitting next to a pond with fishes moving inside, the mess in the kitchen will be less present.”

There are many other apps like TRIPP — such as Guided Meditation, Flow, Provata, WiseMind and Chakra. Riva’s lab has also created an app called COVID Feel Good to reduce the psychological burden of the coronavirus. Usually, these apps use typical settings used by meditators to “facilitate relaxation and induce meditative states,” like zen gardens, said Riva.

The study also suggests that meditation can become particularly useful for those who don’t have access to traditional guides or content on the practice or those who struggle to commit to the practice without the VR.

After my short meditation journey on the VR, I felt energized but my eyes were strained. That digital screens can cause eye strain or fatigue, mostly because of the lack of blinking, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Additionally, VR users can struggle to tell the difference between virtual and perceived depth.

Riva explained that this isn’t a big problem when it comes to meditation since most VR mediators close their eyes after a few minutes in the virtual environment.

The technology

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VR technology is more accessible than ever before, and for the price of a few hundred bucks, you, too, can have your own setup.

There are many VR setups in the market right now — like the HTC Vive Cosmos Elite, Sony PlayStation VR, HP Reverb G2 and, of course, the Oculus Quest.

Whether it’s meditation or a racing game, VR technology is on its way to becoming even more immersive. Riva’s laboratory is currently dabbling in sonoception — sound and vibration — to change internal states.

For now, the Oculus Quest 2 is an easy way for me to dabble in mindfulness and meditation on a daily basis.

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