Guided meditation VR

Learning to Zen out in virtual reality with ‘Guided Meditation VR’

Meditation is all the rage. For years I’ve heard raves about its benefits: It reduces stress, improves focus, and improves your overall world view. It is said to make you happier, more grateful — even smarter. It even, apparently, helps you live longer, and slows the aging process.

I began writing this blog right after downloading an Oculus Rift app called Guided Meditation VR. I told myself I would try it a few more times, however, before finishing, so I could provide a more well-rounded review. I can honestly say that, after several sessions and some practiced meditation, I feel markedly better. I’m more calm, relaxed, and clear-headed. I may never become a Zen master, but I’m hoping to make meditation part of my regular practice. (I even have enrolled in a meditation class — stay tuned for more on that in the future!)

Apple Watch breathe app

I had tried meditating before, but it never stuck. Back in college (in the days when answering machines still existed) I regularly attended a yoga class where we meditated at the end of each class. We focused on a candle flicker. The instructor guided us with the goal of removing all racing thoughts. Clear the slate. That was never an easy task, however. Clearing thoughts from my head felt like sweeping sand off the beach. At the time — when I was more interested in watching punk bands and going to Lollapalooza — the benefits were lost on me.

More recently, I tried various YouTube videos and iOS apps designed for meditation, and they were a little helpful, but, again, never stuck. The only app that has worked for me consistently is the Apple Watch’s “Breathe,” which has you focus on your breathing for 60 seconds. It’s quick, easy, and the watch alerts me when I haven’t used it in a while. Good stuff.

A few weeks ago, however, when I was browsing apps for the Oculus Rift, I came across one called Guided Meditation VR, which promises to “[b]ring peace, joy, and calm back into your daily life” as “your mind vacations in exotic locations across the universe.” I was instantly compelled to drop $15.

Step 1: Find the right place — and right meditation — to relax

The calm did not start right away, and the exercise of downloading the app — which seemed to take forever — was evidence I could benefit from regular meditation. Finally, however, it was loaded, and I started.

Guided Meditation VR initially positioned me above the floating clouds and asked, “Where would you like to relax?” It gave choices of 16 worlds. My first pick was “Valhalla,” thinking of one of my favorite shows, Vikings.

There was no Thor or Freya, however. And the graphics — trees, plants, rocks, fish, etc. — were . . . meh . . . and reminded me of objects I myself had made ten years ago in Second Life. Not quite the land of the gods.

No problem. I picked a different world. Other choices were Redwood Forest, Nokia Bay, Moon Café, Costa Del Sol,

Gobi’s valley in Guided Meditation VR

Autumn Shade, Kilika Temple, Gobi’s valley, Kongo Jungle, Crescent, Adonis Resort, Olympus Heights, and — marked “new” — Borealis, Perdido, Earth, and Serenia.

I picked a setting, and another screen asked, “Which meditation suits your mood?” Options: Hawaiian, heartfulness, compassion, relaxation, Zen, movement, or “no meditation audio.” I was intrigued by “Hawaiian” and picked it, then went back to change the scene to Nokia Bay to match. (How wrong would that be, to do Hawaiian meditation in a snow setting?)

I entered a tropical cove with a waterfall and a little pond surrounded by rock formations. The plants, again, were made with two dimensional prims. But it was still pretty, and relaxing.

For Hawaiian, I could choose a guided meditation of two, five, or ten minutes. Lacking patience, I chose two minutes. However, it seemed rushed, and I should have chosen at least five minutes. At the end I was left in the setting, without guidance. I spent my time teleporting around the area, which was fun but . . . defeated the purpose of meditating.

But I wanted more. I tried realm “Earth” and found myself hovering in space, looking down at the Earth and the moon and the cosmos. I then selected the “movement” meditation series, which let me choose among ten 10-minute selections: calming, clarity, clearing, comfort, energizing, focusing, nourishing, releasing, spaciousness, and stability. I chose “clearing” — because I have been wanting to clear my mind — but quickly realized why the series was called “movement”: You move. This confused me because I thought meditation was about being still. It asked me to lift up my arms and put them back down. If I wanted to move, I’d have gotten on my Peloton or looked for a Tai Chi app. (Incidentally, I have looked for a Tai Chi app, on the Oculus, and it does not exist. Someone make one immediately!) I found the movement distracting to the clarity of mind the meditation was supposed to create.

Another series, “relaxation,” has three guided meditations: “care,” “anxiety,” and “perspective.” I clicked the preview of “care,” and an English female voice said, “The world is hard. And your life has not been as kind to you as it should have been.” What is this, a pity party? What the hell, I thought, and picked the 10-minute version.

The “care” meditation was all about letting go of fear. It repeated a mantra: “I deserve to live a happy life.” Over and over again.

I didn’t find it very helpful. If anything, it was a tad patronizing.

Step 2: Learn what works for you (for me: Zen)

I decided I didn’t need these fancy-schmancy programs. I needed the tried-and-true, centuries-honed Zen meditation method. Bring it on.

I went to Serenia, a setting of Western desert plains, for Zen 1. I liked Serenia, because it made me feel like I was truly in a place where no one could disturb me. Clouds move slowly across a blue sky and birds fly in the distance. Once you get over the fact that, yes, the clouds are digital rather than gaseous and flicker rather than float, the place is quite calming.

Zen is by far my favorite of the Meditation sequences.  It helps me to clear my mind and focus more than any of the others. It is set up as a series, with Zen 1 through Zen 9 — more like a course. In Zen 1, the narrator, a British male, calmly says you should pick a spot to do your meditation, and return to that spot for future meditations as it will create a sense of calm. Having 16 settings to visit, and within each setting multiple vantage points, however, seemed to defeat the purpose of having one central meditation spot. Theoretically, all I really need is a mat to sit on and a candle to look at. But it is nice to actually leave my home, so to speak, and visit the the desert, a tropical waterfall, or a mystical cave. Somewhere truly far away where I won’t be disturbed.

A few days later I was ready for Zen No. 2, but it wouldn’t play; I just got silence. I had had a frustrating afternoon, and I really wanted to just zen out. I was disappointed that No. 2 was missing, so I skipped to No. 3. I sat in “Borealis,” which I soon liked even more than Serenia. Borealis is a snowscape, with the arora borealis — the Northern Lights — in the sky above. Snow-covered mountains glisten and snowflakes fall slowly. The sky is dark, with the exception of the multi-colored lights. Ice-covered tree branches crackle as they sway in the whistling wind.

The Zen narrator told me to focus on my breath, so I did, but then found my mind wandering. The narrator said if a thought arises, treat it like it’s an arriving guest when you’re hosting  a party: Acknowledge it, then let it pass on by. Thoughts kept coming. The narrator told me it was OK, just let them pass, and go back to the breathing. I thought about the digitally created trees around me, imagining how the creators had made photographic images of tree branches into textures for each tree branch, then realized, crap, I’m thinking. So I went back to the breathing. I recalled the events of the day. Nope — back to breathing. After the meditation had finished, I had had enough. I sat to take down some notes for this blog, then realized, hey, I felt a lot calmer than when I had started. The frustration I felt at the beginning was gone.

Overall: Guided Meditation VR was a good introduction to meditation

Since then, I have gone back in about five or six times, usually four about ten minutes at a time. I tried the different worlds and enjoyed exploring through them. And I have been progressing through the Zen course.

I like how meditation in virtual reality allows me to escape the distractions of home such as clutter and constant reminders of tasks.

I think, however, that, given the amazing graphics in some of the games I’ve seen in Oculus, this world could be improved graphically. For example, the rock and mountain formations in worlds such as “Crescent,” when examined up close, look like they could have been made 10-15 years ago, or more, and are nothing like climbing the rocks in The Climb.

I looked up at the app’s website and read a review that said:

Each time I picked a new setting, the device asked me to press my finger to a sensor to measure my heart rate, part of the app’s biofeedback feature. I started out around 76 beats per minute, and hovered in that range throughout the experience.

I quickly learned, however, that the heart-rate monitoring only works on the Gear. Basically, it takes your heart rate before, then after, the meditation. Oculus does not have such a function, however. Oh well.

Regardless, amazing graphics and heart rate monitoring are not the point. For knock-out graphics, I can go somewhere else. Same with heart rate. Here, the point is a place to relax. A get away. And this world does the trick. The guided meditation sequences enable you to relax.

For me, I see this app as a segue, a gateway, to more serious meditation practice. It has inspired me to look further and I have even found a meditation class, which I signed up for and will start this week. If anything, by mixing meditation with virtual reality, this app got me more interested in meditation than I was before, which is an awesome thing.

How could it improve? First, it could boost the graphics. Increase the resolution on some of those rock textures. Also — this is always frustrating — let the user turn around! I was never able to turn around without turning my body around physically. Finally, add a second level, more courses, for the meditation tracks, for when people graduate from Zen 1-9 and want more.

Is it worth the $15 price? Yes. If you stick with it and, like me, are at or near a beginner level. It is worth paying $15 for the benefits that you can get from the clarity of mind and relaxation meditation can bring. Think of it as the cover price of a single book. Guided Meditation VR is like a good book on how to start meditating. But, is it the only book you should buy? No. It’s a start. A beginning. But, yes, it’s worth $15

Overall, I welcomed this introductory course into meditation, and, as I said, I’ll be advancing my studies elsewhere, and I hope to blog about them soon.