The call went out on Facebook — which, despite its increasing levels of creepiness, is still where we turn to make something inherently ridiculous happen with a large number of co-conspirators.
“Who wants to take part in the first ever high-tech competitive meditation tournament?” I wrote. Naturally, it took mere seconds for a friend to say what I would hear a hundred times over the rest of the month: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
“Exactly why I love it!” I shot back.
By turns performance art, subtle comedy, nail-biting sport, cutting-edge tech demo, and something with the genuine potential to help a large number of people live better lives: competitive meditation, I thought, had it all. The first friend to declare it an oxymoron also gave my tournament the perfect title: March Mindfulness.
To create a sport, of course, you need a way to score it. How do you measure meditation? In the ancient Hindu texts called the Puranas, another friend replied, there are stories of meditators trying to prove they were the best by slowing their pulse rates or holding up a mirror to their mouths to show how little they were breathing.
Turns out we’re hardly the first competitive society. It’s just that these days, we have a more precise way to measure meditation. One that doesn’t involve trying to asphyxiate yourself or induce a coma.
Birds on the brain
For years I’ve followed the burgeoning field of brain-scanning technology. A quick science lesson: brains broadcast a weak electrical signal on the skull; we can pick up what they’re sending out with regular old non-invasive electrodes. It’s called EEG, we’ve known about it since the 19th century, and we’ve only just started to figure out what it might actually do for us.
In the early 2010s, a small group of startups were developing lightweight EEG devices that promised to let you play games in which you, say, move objects with your brain by simply thinking “left” or “right” rather than using a controller. (The trouble with this business model, as I found out when I tried the Emotiv Epoq, is that mind-controlled games follow the arc of every tech novelty: Wow, this feels like the future! Wow, this is weird and actually hard work! Wow, I want my Xbox controller back!)
One of these startups was Toronto-based InteraXon, which in 2012 raised double its asking capital in an Indiegogo campaign for the lightest, simplest, best-looking EEG device anyone had seen: the Muse.
By the time the Muse went on sale in 2014 for $299 (it’s now $199), InteraXon had narrowed its portfolio to just one purpose. It was going to be the brain-sensing headband (with connected smartphone app) that helps you meditate.
This was a wise pivot, as it turned out. Meditation apps were all the rage. Headspace and Calm were well on their way to six million users each. But Muse could give you something those all-talk subscription services couldn’t: actual real-time scientific feedback on whether your mind was wandering.
Get your birdsong on
When your brain was noisy with thoughts, the Muse app would provide the sound of a rainstorm. If it was really noisy, the rainstorm would be torrential. (This is why it’s hard to fall asleep with the Muse — the brain gets really noisy on the edge of sleep too.)
And when your brain was at peace, you’d hear the glorious tweeting of birds.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, for the days when tweeting was considered a peaceful activity! But by jingo, the Muse’s version of tweeting really worked as encouragment, as I noted in my enthusiastic review at the time.
I’d had trouble trying to meditate in the past, and this thing gave me a sense of direction. It reined me in — or should I say, rained me in — when I got lost in thought, as I invariably did when faced with the boredom of total silence. I found I was able to quiet my mind, stop the rain, and hear as many as five birds per five-minute session. (No need to count them; the app gives you a bird total at the end.)
Then I handed it to my wife, who promptly got 19 birds on her first try. Curses! One of us made a joke: Hey, we should use this thing for competitive meditation.
Then the laughter subsided into an “actually” moment: actually, why not? Most meditation apps and books, however well-intentioned, are preaching to the choir. The type-A personality is the least likely to have considered the benefits, and these are the people who need those benefits most. How do you appeal to them? Make it a sport.
The founding moment of a future tournament was quickly filed away. And so, after a few months, was the Muse, banished to the cabinet of good but unused technology.
As helpful as the feedback was, the Muse app wasn’t quite ready for primetime in 2014. It insisted on a long and bizarre calibration before every session, in which you were asked to make your brain noisy to establish a baseline. The app’s soothing voice would ask you to think of, say different kinds of fruit. Am I meditating, I’d think to myself, or preparing to go on a game show?
Fast forward to 2018. Seeking stress relief in the age of Trump, I read an advance copy of Strength in Stillness by Bob Roth. He’s a former student of the Maharishi — yeah, the Beatles’ guru — and has since taught Transcendental Meditation to top CEOs and celebs like Jerry Seinfeld, Hugh Jackman, and David Lynch, whose testimonials pack the slim volume.
Perhaps you too are TM-curious. It’s a hugely successful practice that comes courtesy of an organization whose seminars cost $1,000 a pop. The practice is simply sitting in a chair with your eyes closed for 20 minutes, twice a day, repeating your personal mantra in your head. I did a bit of Googling after reading and it turns out official TM mantras are readily available for free, broken down by age and gender, thanks to disgruntled former teachers. (Sorry, Bob. Namaste.)
So I tried TM, and it seemed to work. I felt calmer overall. But was this just a placebo effect? Did TM actually work better for the brain than regular old paying attention to your breath (which always struck me as the most mind-numbingly boring thing possible)?
There was only one way to find out: dust off the Muse.
The accompanying app had done a lot of growing up in the time I’d been away. The headband connected much more quickly and its battery drained more slowly. Pre-meditation calibration was much faster, and no longer involved being asked to think of office supplies or kinds of land mammal. There were more soundscapes if you didn’t like rain: ocean waves, desert winds, and what I consider the boss level of ultra-hard competitive meditation — city noises.
And after a few days practice I was able to confirm: for me, it’s true. Mantras, according to the Muse, do not a noisy brain make. They drill down into your subconscious and don’t rise to the level of brain-activating thought. Doing the TM thing scored me more birds. (As a Beatles fan I can’t suppress the urge to add “that’s what the Maharishi said.”)
But here’s where it got really interesting: other stuff worked even better for me. I tried what they call loving-kindness meditation by repeating words like “gratitude” over and over, and trying to feel like they’re coming out of my heart. My birdsong became more frequent. I tried meditating by focusing on my fingertips, rather than my breath, as I gently connected each one in turn to my thumb.
Sounds odd, but that one really worked. That focus completely shut down the chatter of my monkey mind and made more tweets happen than — well, than a certain White House phone at 5am.
Perfect calm, your way
At this point I had the strongest sense of being on one of those frontiers of human experience that technology periodically opens up. What if everyone has an unusual form of meditation that really works for them that they never knew about?
What if every venerable meditation tradition in the world has barely scratched the surface, because they never had feedback like this? What if the Muse, or any EEG device-app combo like it, could help us all uncover what our own special style of finding mindfulness is?
Meditating with the Muse one afternoon, my mind flashed on an image of a Buddhist monk meditating next to an athlete. Both aim to be effortlessly “in the zone,” after all. Whose mind would be quieter? Whose birds would be noisier?
That’s when I remembered the competitive meditation idea from years earlier. You could have all sorts of professions represented. You could ask the CEOs of all the meditation apps to go head to head(space?). Each bout could be preceded with Buddhist smack talk: “I am the serenest!” Andy Kaufmann, eat your heart out.
I was brought back to the present moment by the sounds of a torrential rainstorm. My mind had wandered, of course, and how.
But what a heck of an interesting place for it to go.
How to start a sport from scratch (twice)
How do you conduct a March Madness-style bracket tournament for an entirely new kind of sport that you — and all your potential players — are not entirely convinced is a sport at all?
The answer: exactly the way you’d run a startup. With lots of beta testing, sudden pivots, and disappointing dead ends.
I ran two versions of March Mindfulness over two weeks. March Mindfulness 1.0 was janky and uneven as hell. It was basically me bringing my Muse to any office where a friend had declared interest and convincing their co-workers to give it a try, trying to scrape together a round of 32
victims guinea pigs brave players whom I would then match up against each other by drawing lots. The one who got the most birds in 10 minutes would go through to the round of 16.
The environments ranged wildly. At Slack HQ in San Francisco, participants used actual quiet, dark meditation rooms, which was probably unfair on opponents at other companies who did their 10-minute session in a regular conference room. (Indeed, the tournament record was set by a Slack employee who got a stunning 79 birds in the first round.)
Then in what you might call an accidental control experiment, I brought the Muse to a party at a ski house in Tahoe, where participants elected to try their luck amidst a constant hubbub of background chatter and music. Amazingly, two of my highest-scoring contestants succeeded in this environment: one a startup CEO (38 birds), the other a 14-year-old boy (46 birds, and that was on the city noises soundscape).
Any unevenness didn’t matter: this was all just proof of concept stuff, a way for me to iron out the kinks in the process. I was also looking for emergent behavior: the players who would try lying down, or walking slowly around the room, or whatever, without being told.
victims guinea pigs players enjoyed the experience so much they immediately ordered their own Muse, at least proving that this “sport” can get people interested in meditation. (For the record: no, I’m not getting a commission.)
But maybe it can also turn people off. “That was so stressful!” was what I heard most commonly at the end of a 10-minute session. This was possibly because I’d decided to have the rain and birdsong play on a Bluetooth speaker rather than (as the Muse app suggests) headphones, leaving each participant literally alone with the sound of their thoughts.
It’s competitive meditation, people. It’s not supposed to be easy.
Stressing over a meditation tournament and enjoying the multiple layers of irony. How’s your morning?
— Chris Taylor (@FutureBoy) March 27, 2018
If the first round wasn’t easy, the second was a nightmare. Trying to coordinate between every participant’s busy schedule was like herding cats. I’d planned to bring each pairing together in person, but in most cases it was all I could do to get any time on anyone’s calendars for individual sessions.
With the competition now a real thing in their minds, players’ scores started to collapse across the board. This is the essential challenge of competitive meditation: When you hear a bird, congratulating yourself for hearing a bird is itself a thought, which stops you from hearing birds.
You have to be really in the zone to not get stuck in that downward spiral, or the other spiral where you have angry thoughts about hearing so much rain, which in turn causes more rain.
The great hope of Slack HQ, who’d received 79 birds in the first round, got only 5 in the quarter finals and crashed out to Rebecca Ruiz, Mashable reporter and professional meditation app reviewer, who got just 7. Sometimes the pressure was too much. After the startup CEO was randomly drawn against the 14-year-old in the quarters, I never heard from him again.
The tournament ground to a halt. And to top things off, I hadn’t heard a response from InteraXon. Would they hate that I was doing this? Would it be seen as cheapening the Muse brand?
Was the sport of competitive meditation over before it had really begun?
As it turned out, the solution was right under my nose. Mashable‘s SF team recently started sharing an office with our sister website IGN, which covers video games. Maybe that’s who I needed for this experiment, I reasoned: people who are passionate about games.
So like any good startup, I started again from scratch: March Mindfulness 2.0. I sent an office-wide email announcing a “brain-sensing headband contest” to determine “who the most chilled-out person at IGN is.” The m-word was not mentioned once.
The email was a huge success. I didn’t have to seek anyone out; they started pouring into the room, bringing their own opponents. Maybe capital-M Meditation is its own worst enemy, I thought. Being alone with your thoughts is a dark and scary prospect for a lot of people. But a test of your chill? That can’t not sound like light-hearted fun, perhaps even the kind of thing you’d do on Spring break.
Meanwhile the more I asked around experienced meditators, the less concerned I was that I was doing some profane thing. I was reminded that most avowed Buddhists I’ve met seem to have light hearts; just look at that giant smile on the Buddha’s face. They can see both the amusement in an oxymoronic game and the serious intent behind it.
And InteraXon, as it turned out, concurred. After all, this is a company that started out thinking the Muse might be a gaming device — and still has “challenges” built into the app based on frequency of use. Internally, the company competes within teams on challenges.
As for comparing the number of birds in your session? “We definitely expected people to be competitive,” says InteraXon CTO Chris Aimone. “The competitive aspect didn’t seem to hinder practice … They’re ether competitive or they’re calm about it; either way they get to the same point.” Just so long as they keep practicing.
At SXSW and other events, InteraXon has started experimenting with group meditation events where people get to hear each others’ birds (but don’t compare counts). A subset of people love it, a subset of people get freaked out — but for those who love it, there’s often an odd sense of connection. If you’re in the right compassionate frame of mind, hearing others’ birds can trigger your own.
March Mindfulness 2.0
For the second version of the contest, I purchased a second Muse. Now two competitors could go head to head, each connected to different iOS devices with speakers at opposite ends of the room. There would be no mistaking whose bird was whose, or whether your opponent was all wet in a tropical downpour.
I also brought the time down per session to the minimum allowed on the app, 5 minutes. Because c’mon, 10-minute competitive meditation? What was I thinking? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
The first thing I discovered in the first match-up was a new noise in the room: not just tweets and water droplets, but giggles. Good old stress-reducing, tension-alleviating, Buddha-style laughter. This would break out at random during subsequent matches.
And it helped. On average, March Mindfulness 2.0 participants got more birds in 5 minutes than their predecessors got in 10. Rebecca, the only person to appear in both tournaments, rebounded from a score of 7 to a score of 41. Turns out being alone in a room facing an unknown opponent is more thought-provokingly scary than sitting next to a warm body you’re playing a friendly game with. Who knew?
Though many did well, there were a few clear giants of the tournament. One of them was Pablo, facilities coordinator, 39 birds. His secret? “I just kept thinking the word forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness,” he said. He’d stumbled across both a mantra and compassion meditation, and they worked for him.
And then there was Alexio Quaglierini, 29-year-old video technician and force of nature. “I wasn’t going to do it, but my manager tricked me into it,” he said. His boss immediately had cause to regret that trick: he went down to Alexio 51-29.
Cruising through the rounds in true hey-man-it’s-all-good smiling SoCal style, Alexio started to seem less like a man when he put the Muse on — he was part rain-annihilating machine, part aviary.
In the semi-finals, against the formidable Rebecca, the pressure cranked up as far as it would go, Alexio scored 56 birds in 5 minutes. That seemed abnormally high, so I checked in with InteraXon on the theoretical limits. That’s when I learned it was a simple formula: one bird for every 5 seconds. He was a mere 4 birds away from a perfect game.
“60 would be the max for 5 minutes,” confirmed InteraXon exec Ben Nachmani. “That person is a zen master!”
“I guess that’s cool,” said Alexio.
He kept grinning widely. “Yeah. I can sit still and relax and not think of anything better than other people, that’s cool.”
Not surprisingly, Alexio walked away with the trophy — well, with the bragging rights of being by far the most chill person at his company. In the post-match interview I ascertained he was no ringer. He was a natural. Other than a session or two in an Eastern studies class at SF State University, he’d never really meditated.
“I do occasionally lose my temper,” Alexio said. He made sure I knew that he got quite shouty when he watched hockey, and that he had gotten mad at someone as recently as 2016.
And then the first world champion of high-tech competitive meditation went back to his desk, where there was work to be done. As the zen proverb puts it: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
Or to put it another way: Enlightenment? That’s cool, I guess.