Mass online meditation lets you zone out in cyberspace

Tune in, anytime and anywhere. Bloutiouf, CC BY-NC-SA

For the past year I’ve been experimenting with meditating live online with people around the world. Their chosen spot is not a temple or a church hall or a sitting room, but cyberspace.

Meditation is fast becoming this year’s favourite personal development tool. You can meditate alone, in face-to-face group sessions – both offline and online – or you can switch on an app. Arianna Huffington recently cemented a business partnership between the Huffington Post and the Hankyoreh Media Group in South Korea with a meditation session. And Google has been offering its employees “Search Inside Yourself”, a mindfulness meditation course, since 2007. Many other technology companies provide similar perks.

In Zen Computer, a light-hearted spiritual guide for the wired user, Philip Toshio Sudo advises: “Don’t ask where the path is. You’re on it.” In that spirit, I decided to try two different paths for my explorations: Insight Timer is an app which maps and connects fellow meditators online, and The Buddhist Geeks is a subscription-only community based in Google+

Insight Timer works on iPad, iPhone and Android. With black text on an unattractive blocky yellow on a white background, it’s not the prettiest app in the slick world of mobile design, but it has lots of great features. At the simplest level, you can set the timer, close your eyes, and get started on your own. Or, if you’re in the mood, you can choose from 61 guided meditations of various lengths. Register, and not only will it log your meditations in a tidy graph, but every time you start a session you appear as another yellow star on its little world map. As I write this, the map tells me that “438 people are meditating worldwide”. Although it’s impossible to pick out individuals, I can see that my fellow meditators are in the US, Europe, down the coast of China, in Australia, and in Africa.

So how does it feel to meditate alongside invisible people? Well if, like me, you’ve spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, gaming online, or even just chatting in Facebook, you’ll know that there can often be a strong sense of co-presence. During research for my book on technobiophilia, our love of nature in cyberspace, I found that as early as 1995 the Californian magazine Shambhala Sun described the internet as an esoteric place for meditation which provided “a feeling of complete and total immersion, in which the individual’s observer-self has thoroughly and effortlessly integrated”.

I have felt that “experience of the moment” many times while using Insight Timer to spend time “on the cushion” alongside others in virtual space. It’s not so much a sense of connecting with individual people, but more of a mind-meld moment with everyone involved. Much of this comes from the imagination, of course, but is no less potent for that.

Media theorist Sandy Stone calls this kind of tightly restricted communication “narrow bandwidth”. It has startling effects, she says, because it reveals “a deep need to create extremely detailed images of the absent and invisible body, of human interaction, and the symbol-generating artefacts which are part of that interaction.”

The Buddhist Geeks broaden this bandwidth in their daily Open Practice sessions, when members turn on their webcams and log into Google Hangout to meditate in small groups. Each daily half-hour session is usually attended by around half a dozen members. At the scheduled time we log in one by one, greet the others with a smile or a hello, then quietly settle down to our individual meditations. The leader may tap a bell to begin, or the start might happen organically.

We sit there. Sometimes we turn off our microphones to avoid making distracting noises, sometimes we keep them on and listen to each other breathe. We are thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of computers, tablets or phones to log in from our homes, offices and gardens. Although we are in different countries and timezones, we somehow feel very close to each other. We’re together on the path, being mindful in cyberspace. It’s not so very different from physical meditation meetings which share a space in silence for a while each day.

But Buddhist Geeks do much more than meditate. They are, they say, working to discover how to serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture. Theirs is a thriving online community which also hosts physical conferences and meetings in Colorado, US, where it has its headquarters.

So here is a question for them to think about. If we can already be together like this in virtual space, can that mindfulness be extended to cyborgian or machine space? In other words, rather than meditate in Google+, might we some day meditate with Google+? Imagine that: a mind-meld with the great entity which is Google itself. It would be as if sci-fi writer Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought machine had finally come alive inside our heads.