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1. Science class
The principal calls this a mindful school.
Johane Ligondé is effusively warm but with the kind of emotional solidity you’d expect from someone who wakes each morning to manage more than 1,000 kids at the only public middle school in the village of Freeport in Long Island, New York. She is also an aromatherapist and life coach who hangs a sign reading “I AM AN OPTIMIST” in her windowless office.
At John W. Dodd Middle School, some of the students’ primary struggles are common to many young teenagers: depression, anxiety, self-harm and the looming shadow of sudden violence.
So every morning during homeroom, a student or staff member leads the entire building through eight minutes of breathing meditation over the PA system. In detention, students are “invited,” Ligondé said, to do mindfulness exercises, “so it’s not just a space for punishment, it’s a space for reflection.” A “social-emotional learning curriculum” has been introduced, teaching them conflict and relationship management.
At 11 AM, four periods into a drizzly Wednesday in June, Ligondé watches seventh graders shuffle in for science class and take their seats between model skeletons and posters of plant-cell structures. Some stare blankly into the middle distance.
Their assignment is to meditate. Half the students slump their foreheads into the crook of their arm, resting on top of tables or thick ring binders. They are the control group.
The other half strap on purple, cardboard VR headsets and clip pulse monitors to their fingers. The teacher, Vanessa Vidalon, turns down the lights, and the class hushes, save for some snapping of elastic headbands over white earbuds and the clacks of phones dropped on desks.
The VR students find themselves in a virtual meadow, tracing the flight path of a butterfly. They match their breath to the rise and fall of its wings, guided by a gentle voice. A dreamy synthesizer plays in the background. For five minutes, this is all they do in silence. “Remember, you can always come back here in your mind,” the voice says as the scene ends.
Vidalon asks, “How many of you feel calmer from when you first walked in?” About half the class raises their hands, including most of the VR group. “How many of you didn’t get enough sleep?” The remaining hands go up.
The VR animation is simplistic. But the isolation factor that’s long been seen as a headwind for widespread virtual reality adoption is perhaps what makes this experience work. The kids can’t look around the room, giggle or get distracted. They don’t feel watched or judged by one another. The transportive graphics also have a greater allure for young teens than an audio track alone. Like any guided meditation, it doesn’t do the work for you though. “This is not ‘Oh, I don’t know how to be calm, I’m going to put this headset on,'” said Dumeetha Luthra, an ex-BBC correspondent from North London who developed (and voiced) the experience, called Take-Pause. “For me this is training wheels. … This is a little hack to get you there.”
“For me this is training wheels. … This is a little hack to get you there.”
The students record their stress level and heart rate before and after each meditation. After three days, students in the VR group show about a further 10 percent decrease in heart rate and stress than the control group. Keep in mind these are 12- to 13-year-olds, so their experiment might not withstand peer review in the Lancet. Some students arrived pumped from third-period gym; another noted that “I really enjoyed sleeping during class.” But the effects of meditation are usually felt gradually — this was quantified evidence for the class.
There are all sorts of higher-level aspirations for practicing mindful meditation — recognizing your conditioning, creating space around your emotions — but for students experiencing the stressors, emotions and impulses of adolescence, this basic, measurable relief helps.
The same could be said for adults. Mindfulness has boomed in popularity in recent years. The meditation-industrial complex is worth more than $ 1 billion in the US, with 18 million Americans practicing. Research into meditation soared over the past decade, associating the practice with improved focus, reduced stress and less emotional reactivity, legitimizing mindfulness’ entry into NFL teams, the US Marines and corporate-benefits schemes. It figures: This is an age when busyness borders on fetish, news cycles sound practically dystopian and merely being present in the moment is a commodity.
With this new market comes a proliferation of ways to perform a time-honored practice where the equipment costs are technically zero. You can use apps like Headspace to meditate from home. You can visit drop-in meditation domes ($ 26 for 35 minutes); co-working spaces with handmade, iPad-controlled gongs like the Assemblage in Manhattan; or high-end retreat centers like Esalen in the Bay Area. You can meditate with the corporate elite at TED-style summits like Wisdom 2.0 or with their grittier, inked brethren at Dharma Punx.
This is not Buddhism per se. The religion had a cultural rise in the US in the 1950s, part of the Beat generation and mid-century reaction to a consumerist American dream. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, was developed in the 1970s at the University of Massachusetts, giving credence to the idea of meditation as medical practice. Today, mainstream mindfulness is more self-help than spirituality, physiological rather than moral. It’s part of traditional Buddhism but divorced from the rest of its practices, then secularized, gentrified, Westernized and crunched through the capitalist apparatus. And wherever mindfulness goes, technology has seemed to be stalking behind, with apps, gadgets and full-blown curricula.
Ligondé has been the principal at J.W. Dodd for the past five years and has meditated “religiously” for four. “My dream is for every student to feel loved in a school,” Ligondé said. “People think I’m weird, and I’m OK with that.” This June was her first time bringing tech-assisted meditation into the classroom.
As the school bell rings, Vidalon asks the students if they enjoyed the meditation.
“Yeeees,” they groan, obligatorily and in unison.
Vidalon reminds them their final exams are tomorrow. There’s a collective sigh, and the stress levels in the room whoosh back up palpably.
Technology may have catalyzed the students’ meditation practice, but it’s not like it can force them into that state. At least not this technology.
2. Meditation’s dirty secret
The basic idea of mindfulness — meaning modern, Western-hybrid mindfulness — is to pay attention to what’s happening around you dispassionately.
Though there are many meditative traditions, this one derives much from vipassana, or “insight,” meditation. You start with nothing more than focusing on your breath, paying attention to bodily sensations and observing fleeting thoughts and emotions. You recognize that your highs are unquenchable, your lows ephemeral.
When it works, it’s a respite from the thoughts that bombard consciousness, if only for a hot second. It’s a permission — even if circumscribed by a 15-minute smartphone timer — to not obsess over anything.
With practice, a path becomes grooved in the mind, leading to a nook free from the tyranny of conscious thought. There are no text notifications, to-do lists, deadlines, regrets, desires, considerations of what to eat for lunch. Your attention is not split between future plans and past analysis but rather focused on witnessing what’s in front of you.
Eventually, anyway. Because the dirty secret of meditation is how unpleasant it is most of the time.
The caricature of the modern meditator may be a blissed-out millennial wearing neutral tones in magic-hour light, but any practice that scratches beneath that granola surface is more like sitting cross-legged in a stew of your own emotional filth, full of childhood traumas, papered-over insecurities and subconscious resentments bubbling to the surface. Part of seeing things as they really are is seeing the unfiltered negative too. The change is incremental, and at the beginning it’s hard to even tell if you’re doing it right.
This is where Silicon Valley comes in. Today, barely a month goes by without a new gadget in the wellness gold rush that pledges to make attaining your peace of mind smoother.
The most basic, and mature, are of course the guided-meditation apps. The dulcet tones of British monk-turned-CEO Andy Puddicombe have led Headspace to a $ 320 million valuation and a self-reported 30 million users while Calm, which Apple deemed app of the year in 2017, is close behind at $ 250 million in value and 26 million users. There’s an app for kids and an app for fans of Russell Simmons. Effective as they may be, however, most of these are just well-designed digital houses for audio tracks.
There are also VR experiences that beam you into a meditation center or abstract world. Biofeedback devices measure heart rate variability, breathing rates and skin temperature, giving you real-time measures of whether you’re reaching a meditative state. There’s a certain paradox at work when technology sets quantified goals on a process that’s about being present, immersing you in hallucinatory worlds instead of forcing you to live with the banal now.
But it certainly sounds like the solution for our era, when free time is an ancient concept and taking five requires an active choice.
We like to point the finger at Big Tech for our permanent distraction, and that backlash is tentatively being reified through regulation and an ethical-design movement. But on a day-to-day personal level, unplugging from the digital world seems unfeasible, and people are turning to gadgets to get out of the hole. The day after the 2016 presidential election, Headspace says, the use of its emergency-meditation feature spiked 44 percent.
For Mikey Siegel, a figurehead for the “transformative technology” movement who founded the now-5,000 member San Francisco Consciousness Hacking community, the allure of fleeing technology is understandable but misguided. “If you’d only ever been exposed to fast food, then you would think of food as something which is sort of inherently unhealthy to the body,” he said. “I believe we’re in an era where most of what we’ve seen is the equivalent of technological fast food.”
“I believe we’re in an era where most of what we’ve seen is the equivalent of technological fast food.”
The philosophy embedded in much modern technology is efficiency and optimization; Siegel proposes that this is not inevitable and that these values can be divorced from our products. We don’t necessarily have a tech addiction, only a productivity one. “The tech industry has a profoundly limited sense of what technology can be,” he said. “The best technologies are basically going to be the ones that most elegantly confront us with the parts of us we don’t want to look at.”
Yet the closer you get to the front line of technology-assisted meditation, the more ironies abound.
Cutting-edge devices not only hold your hand as you practice but also try to shunt you toward enlightenment more quickly. It’s a paradoxical clash of a Buddhist acceptance of life’s inherent instability and a tech culture of peak performance. Mindfulness preaches learning to live with pathologies; Silicon Valley, for the most part, wishes to zap them away. Where a traditional vipassana retreat can be run solely on donations, access to brain-hacking gadgets can run you into the thousands.
Everyone wants a cut of the McMindfulness trend, but are the cultures of tech and mindfulness even compatible? And as these questionable bedfellows grow closer and closer, who’s going to change whom?
3. The fast track
Do not go to Sedona, Arizona, if you harbor skepticism toward any of the following: sweat lodges, Reiki healing, the chakra-balancing effects of crystals, energy vortexes, psychic consultations, vision quests or a tourist information center with a “metaphysical/spiritual” section. Here, New Age culture is as ubiquitous as the tourists en route to the Grand Canyon and the iconic regional red rocks.
If those do pique your interest, however, so might the Biocybernaut Institute, which has been in the game of harnessing neurotechnology to supercharge enlightenment since long before it was Silicon Valley’s favorite self-care routine.
The claim is audacious: Check in for seven days, leave with a brain that looks like it’s been practicing Zen meditation for 21 to 40 years.
“It is not an analogue. It’s not similar to, it is exactly like 21 to 40 years of Zen: exactly the same pattern,” James Hardt told me before I visited the center, the emphasis denoting his shouting. Hardt founded the institute in 1983, and it now has centers in Sedona, Canada and Germany and counts professional optimist, multimillionaire and life coach Tony Robbins among its endorsers. “Nobody has been able to show these exact same results except Biocybernaut,” Hardt said.
Think of it like an accelerated meditation retreat, souped-up on technology. Also, it costs $ 15,000 for the basic program and $ 25,000 for the premium program that Hardt leads personally.
Neurofeedback purports to work through basic Pavlovian conditioning. The brain is hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) via electrodes on the scalp that detect electrical activity. In order to incentivize that brain into firing in a specific way, the participant may, for example, listen to music. When the “correct” brain waves are detected, the music plays; when the brain is firing incorrectly it stops instantly. Soon, the brain, yearning for the reward of continuous music, subconsciously figures out how to make the real-time feedback loop continue. By giving participants visual and audio cues for their neural patterns, proponents of the technique claim to make subtle physiology conscious and therefore manipulable.
Hardt, with his mop of curls and tendency to wax eccentrically off topic (say, on the wonders of “remote viewing” where one can be trained to close their eyes and travel in their mind’s eye to a bunker in Moscow), cannot help but remind me of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. He has worked in this field for the past 40 years, developing his seven-day program in 1971, he said, adding that at the institute he sees participants’ IQ increase 12 points, creativity increase 50 percent (in his own studies) and emotional quotient increase 16 points.
The “brain training” takes place in chambers for two hours at a time. Here, participants try to cajole their minds into producing alpha waves, associated with calm and creativity. Numbers and colors on a screen show whether their amplitude is going up or down.
Participants then enter the “debrief room,” a collection of couches and amethyst-colored fairy lights beneath a blue, tinsel-lined canopy. There are tissue boxes within reach of every seat.
Here, they go through a 14-step “forgiveness process,” pinpointing traumas and resentments, though Hardt is keen not to call it psychotherapy or counseling. Instead, it’s a way to “systematically process negative emotion,” said Aaron Brindger, the institute’s director of marketing. “When an astronaut comes back from space, they debrief with the command center,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing.”
I meet Georg Rosenblum in between her neurofeedback sessions. She’s a 49-year-old foster mother from California whose father passed away a week before her arrival. Rosenblum has dabbled in meditation before, but it’s never stuck. In the neurofeedback chamber, though, “there’s something about being hooked up and listening to the tones that makes my brain feel clear,” she tells me, multicolored wires sprouting from her scalp like exposed nerve endings.
Neurofeedback has been studied since the 1960s, including for disorders like ADHD, PTSD, epilepsy and substance abuse, but the science is still patchy at best.
There is even less research for neurofeedback’s use in meditation. While academics — such as those at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and University of Wisconsin-Madison — have a decent idea what a meditating brain looks like under EEG or fMRI, it’s a leap to associate that with a psychological state. The presence of alpha waves in a monk doesn’t mean those waves are causing them to be monk-like. And it doesn’t mean one can reverse-engineer that state, essentially shoehorning one brain into the mold of another.
“[To] suggest that neurofeedback can be helpful to people meditating is really grossly overstating the case,” said Richard Davidson, the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leading neuroscientist in the study of meditation. “The brain is ridiculously complex. Our measures, even though they’ve come a long way, are absurdly limited and very coarse, and it’s nothing short of hubris to think that we have the right measures at this point in time that we should be providing feedback on.”
“It’s nothing short of hubris to think that we have the right measures at this point in time that we should be providing feedback on.”
There are hundreds of meditative states, many of which don’t affect alpha waves at all, Davidson said. “I’m a fan of going ahead with the research… but to market it to consumers I think is irresponsible.”
Even Siegel, who has completed the program, had his reservations. “People that do it consistently have a positive experience and a transformative experience,” he said. “With regard to particular claims around how many years of Zen practice or whatever, I would say no, absolutely not. It’s not the same as 40 years.”
Still, neurofeedback has become a major site of exploration for meditating technologists — from Biocybernaut to the at-home device Muse (slogan: “meditation made easy”), which costs $ 249 for the newest model. Six weeks after we met, Rosenblum emailed: She had “major epiphanies” on her seventh day and was “really just enjoying life as a less reactive person.”
More than three months later, she told me, “I’m not sure I would know what 21 to 40 years of meditation is, but I know before I arrived I couldn’t even quiet my mind for two to three minutes. … I am a happier, more content, less triggered person than before, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
The thing is, people are biased toward what works for them — or the thing they think works for them. If it gets them there — and the app makers, wearable designers and retreat gurus surely know this — then the question of how may be moot. For instance, a review of placebo surgeries — i.e., fake surgeries — showed that patients felt improvements 74 percent of the time. An MIT study from 2008 showed that participants were 24 percent more likely to feel that fake codeine relieved pain when they thought it cost $ 2.50 rather than 10 cents. Telling people their $ 10 Cabernet Sauvignon is worth $ 90 makes them neurologically experience greater pleasure. (Now imagine the subconscious incentive to feel results when you’ve spent five figures in the Sonoran Desert.) Ultimately, all the credentialed lab coats and replicable lab studies can count for little in our mind’s scales compared to our personal n of one.
To see why transformative technology is booming, therefore, requires looking beyond the proven science. It also helps to understand what brought these two apparently incompatible worlds of tech and Buddhism together in the first place.
Video: Broader perspectives
4. States versus traits
Chade-Meng Tan started life at Google as an engineer and employee No. 107 but soon became best known as the company’s in-house guru.
In 2007, he launched Search Inside Yourself, a seven-week meditation course that has now expanded into an independent institute that teaches mindfulness to organizations like Ford and American Express.
The initial key to getting wildly overworked Googlers on board, he said, was stuffing the practice into the Trojan horse of productivity and self-interest. He sold it as “the science of emotion.”
“They wear stress on their sleeves. They’re so proud of being stressed,” said Tan of his former co-workers. “We help them become successful, with goodness being the necessary and unavoidable side effect.”
Meditation by now is fully ripened in Silicon Valley’s culture. Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, Sergey Brin — all have talked about their practices.
On a basic level, working 60-to-80-hour weeks requires some kind of release, and mindfulness is a data-validated, nonintrusive method of lowering your blood pressure. “I think sometimes [through] pop culture representations of Silicon Valley, people forget that they’re not just douchebags; they’re really hard-working douchebags,” said Jay Michaelson, columnist, author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment and meditation teacher.
At the same time, the Bay Area’s hippy lineage and culture of innovation mean unconventional solutions don’t freak anyone out. “This is a segment of the business world that’s interested in disruption,” said Michaelson. “They’re not afraid of looking weird, because that’s how you succeed.” It’s also a solutionary culture: Every challenge can be fixed, and that extends to the challenges of being human. It’s taking a risk on something unproven for an extra advantage.
“Rather than presenting the whole toolbox to the audience, people are just glorifying screwdrivers and hammers.”
Tan, a jovial and humble guy, joked that “people want to be successful, and they don’t mind world peace.” But the world peace part may no longer be an inevitable part of the package. Where stress reduction was once a byproduct of being a compassionate person, today it’s the goal in itself. Psychologists like to talk about states versus traits: The former are temporary, the latter lasting. A lot of today’s mindfulness tech is sold as inducing desirable states — but so can DMT or porn.
“It’s still some permutation of traditional disciplines that are observation of breath, observation of sensations, observation of emotions and so on. … It is still deriving from the traditional toolbox, so to speak,” said Tenzin Priyadarshi, the director of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, who is also a monk. “But rather than presenting the whole toolbox to the audience, people are just glorifying screwdrivers and hammers.”
The traditional Buddhist would ask if these tools are making you kinder, more engaged in society, said Priyadarshi. The idea of mindfulness was that the attitude would permeate your daily life and become a path to higher virtues. But we’re a long way from Buddhism now: Priyadarshi has been asked to train military snipers.
Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab who teaches a conspicuously low-tech class about mindfulness with Priyadarshi, put it this way: “The more Silicon Valley CEOs that do vipassana, the better Silicon Valley will be. But it has also become like [progressive schooling method] Montessori: When you have a bunch of uptight parents, it isn’t Montessori anymore.”
Mindfulness was supposed to be about accepting that bliss will always be elusive. Like most religions, Buddhism recognizes that life is inherently hard and everything is transient.
“Some of my big concerns are that these technologies are actually going to inflame people’s tendency to try to escape that groundless pit of existential uncertainty by chasing states, by giving them more tools to chase states, and to become addicted to a certain states,” said Vincent Horn, the co-founder of the Meditate.io platform and Buddhist Geeks podcast. “To essentially avoid this recognition of the nature of states, which is that they change and they can’t be held on to.”
5. The business of consciousness
The secularization of spirituality. The adoration from the technology world. The agitation of the modern attention economy. The valorization of the screwdriver over the entire toolbox. The logical end point of all this can be found in a McMansion down a leafy cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Seattle.
If Sedona’s Biocybernaut Institute laid the groundwork for the accelerated meditation program, 40 Years of Zen has refined it into the retreat of the future.
Refined or replicated. The cost is the same, $ 15,000, but this program is five days, not seven. It doesn’t contend to give you 21 to 40 years of meditation experience but the full 40: It’s right there in the name.
40 Years of Zen has its own Willy Wonka, too, but with a modern twist.
Dave Asprey is best known for popularizing Bulletproof Coffee, which is basically coffee with butter in it. (Or if you’re an acolyte, Bulletproof-brand coffee beans, Bulletproof-brand grass-fed ghee and Bulletproof-brand brain octane oil.) It’s part of the Bulletproof Diet, which is basically the Paleo diet with proprietary branding and supplements.
A former VP at Trend Micro, Asprey has said he’s spent more than $ 300,000 on biohacking himself, and his book Head Strong has appeared on The New York Times best-seller list under “science.” In it, he talks about how he “upgraded his brain” with “a totally modern, bio-hacked version” of meditation. He lists techniques like Neurofeedback Augmented Reset™ and Retroframing™ that will help you “achieve your life goals.”
His pitch? “You have a choice: you can wait a generation before this information hits the mainstream or you can benefit now.” (Based on the neuroscience experts interviewed, “before this information hits the mainstream” sounds like a euphemism for “before empirically proven.”)
We met at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where, wearing black five-finger-style shoes, he essentially told the crowd how every problem in your life has a hidden cause, whether that’s mitochondrial dysfunction or “junk light.” Everything, in Asprey’s worldview, is up for optimization.
I asked Asprey about 40 Years of Zen. For all of his vigorous self-promotion, he seldom promotes the center loudly. We arranged for me to visit. Then another attendee asked him about a similar program he’d heard of, led by someone named Jim (though he couldn’t quite recall the name Biocybernaut), which Asprey feigned only a vague familiarity with.
The story goes like this:
Around 2010, Asprey, impressed with the Biocybernaut Institute, arranged with Hardt to become an affiliate. Asprey subsequently sent $ 2 million worth of clients to Biocybernaut, according to Hardt, in return for credit for Asprey and his staff to go through the training. Asprey took to calling the program 40 Years of Zen. Then, in 2016, Asprey started his own center, keeping the name.
“He wants to take what I have and use it against me,” Hardt told me. He also derided Asprey’s labelling of 40 Years of Zen as upmarketing. “It’s really 21 to 40 years,” Hardt said.
“He wants to take what I have and use it against me.”
Through a spokesman, Asprey contends that he introduced new supplements and “mitochondrial enhancement technologies” to Biocybernaut’s program, among other tweaks. “However, feedback from higher-end clients was mixed, and [Asprey] was unsuccessful at convincing Biocybernaut to evolve the program,” said the spokesman. “Whereas the old partnership focused exclusively on alpha brain states, the 40 Years of Zen program now includes newer research on gamma brain waves and states of synchrony [between the left and right sides of the brain].”
He added, “Dave does not receive compensation for his ownership of 40 Years of Zen, but he believes that the good it does for clients has a greater impact on the world, and it allows him access to the latest brain enhancements.”
I asked Chris Keane, the CTO of 40 Years of Zen, who essentially runs the center day to day, about the former affiliation with Biocybernaut. Without breaking his equanimous character, he told me, “We don’t feel anything about them, but I have a funny feeling that they do not like us at all.
“The basic premise is very similar, but the implementation is wildly different,” Keane said. “Our actual implementation of neurofeedback is well in advance of anything else that exists in the world.”
Keane was the one who invited me to not only visit their retreat but experience the full course. An Australian who’s lived in the US for most of his adult life, Keane comes from a computer science background, having spent a decade at Sun Microsystems. Yet he connected with Asprey outside the tech world: He’s married to Asprey’s sister. His speech is calm and modest in the way that Asprey’s is not, and he tells me that Asprey is “completely hands off” at the center.
The day before my course was due to start, Keane told me, “I personally can attest that I’ve had the most amazing experiences of my life” — and here he karate chopped the air for emphasis — “by far while doing neurofeedback.”
40 Years of Zen takes four people on average through the course each week, he said, about half of whom are usually senior executives. He explained the program to me with this analogy: Say you look at your smartphone and scroll through your apps. There are bound to be several gathering dust whose purposes you’ve forgotten. In real life, when we experience intense emotions, they also install apps in our brains that try to pair new events with past highs and lows, either engaging or shielding us. “Those apps just sit there constantly spinning, draining the battery, using up processing power, using up memory,” he said. “And what we do in this program is help you go through the apps that are installed in your brain and uninstall the ones that are not useful to you.”
I also spoke with Asprey on the phone, who warned this is “hardcore personal development work” but, he claimed, better than regular meditation or ayahuasca.
“This isn’t my money-making thing,” he said of the Monday-to-Friday program, which costs about a quarter of the median American household annual income. (Engadget did not pay for the 40 Years of Zen course.) “This is my helping-people thing.”
6. My 40 Years of Zen
Of course, the first thing I’m offered on arrival is a Bulletproof Coffee served in a mug made to look like a chemistry-class beaker.
There are subtle ads for Asprey’s products around the house: Bulletproof snacks, vibrating plates that activate your lymphatic something. The 40 Years of Zen branding is around, too, the zero on “40” resembling a power symbol.
Dan Harris, the ABC news anchor and meditation apologist, called his book about the practice 10% Happier, but the staff here is at least up by 15, which is just aggressively cheery enough for me to feel disconcerted. It’s hard to tell how performative the earnestness is, and whether they’re the most or least well-adjusted people I’ve met lately. Maybe this is just how people treat you when you’re pretending to be in an elevated tax bracket.
Me and my two cadres sit in the living room and are introduced to the staff who call themselves sherpas for the journey. I stare out of a window for 20 minutes while getting a baseline EEG done and have my optimal breathing rate (5.5 breaths per minute) measured using a heart rate variability monitor.
Soon, we get to the core of the program: the neurofeedback. In a converted garage there are five smooth, white pods resembling oversize pebbles, each with a reclining chair and a plush blanket inside. At Biocybernaut, the chambers are more like closets with desk chairs and Ikea furniture, but the function is pretty much the same.
Conductive EEG paste is smeared on our scalps, electrodes are attached, and we enter the pods. We put on headphones and listen to the sound of rain and try to make the sound louder. The feedback is responsive: The moment I open my eyes to jot down notes, it dims to a quiet, and the more I focus — though I’m not sure on what — the heavier the patter.
A presentation follows, emphasizing how the exercise was all aimed at generating alpha brain waves. “We’re Going to Get You There Faster” appears on the slides as we discuss meditation.
By day three, it’s dawned on me that I’ve been ambushed into something resembling group therapy.
There’s Bulletproof-friendly lunch from the private chef, a smorgasbord of supplements (“Let’s get our supps going!” says the facilitator) and more time in the pods.
Then they walk us through their “reset process.” In a nutshell, we’re to scrape through all of our life’s traumatic events, try to viscerally relive them in the pod, activate our alpha waves on demand and replace negative emotions with gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance.
Afterward, a plasticky banister leads upstairs to the debrief room, where there are four chairs facing inward, four tissue boxes and no canopy. Over Pukka tea, a naturopathic doctor asks what we thought about in the pod and follows up with a lot of “why” questions. By day three, it’s dawned on me that I’ve been ambushed into something resembling group therapy.
There’s also acupuncture, brain training using pulsed-electromagnetic-field therapy and another form of neurofeedback using a 21-channel EEG cap.
In some of our twice-daily, 90-minute pod sessions I fall asleep or can’t focus. Other times I end up in conversation with myself about memories I haven’t considered in years. It’s not unlike the thoughts that bubble to the surface during intense meditation anyway, but here the reconstruction is intentional and systematic. I get better at finding the spot where the sounds get stronger.
On day five, I see my final brain scans. The amount of time my brain is in “synchrony” between left and right hemispheres has gone up about 15 percent, apparently. I can see how my alpha brain wave production spikes during a certain neurofeedback session, but it doesn’t seem on average much higher. I am assured that it always goes up within a week.
I was told at the outset that participants feel more “space between your thoughts and emotions” by the end of the week, and I do. But how much that’s to do with the neurofeedback and faux therapy I’ve gone through versus the simple act of disconnecting from nearly everyone but my smiling sherpas and Airbnb hosts for five days while eating fresh cauliflower bread is impossible to tell. If I had truly expected to emerge feeling like I’d mastered four decades of meditation, I’d have been disappointed.
I sit on the outside deck with a fellow participant.
In the year and a half since selling his gaming company, Lincoln Brown has tried a different self-improvement scheme every month. He’s boiled down his growth to seven key areas.
“There are probably 40 things I’ve tried, of which 25 I’ve seen value in,” he says. Those include Wim Hof breathing, DNA testing, food-sensitivity tests and 14 different supplements. He wears an HRV monitor on his wrist, does CrossFit (and founded an affiliate) and sticks to a pegan (Paleo and vegan) diet. When it comes to biohacking, he told me later, “I’ve probably covered 95 percent of what’s available.”
He has done neurofeedback before and says he can’t recommend 40 Years of Zen. “I thought there was a 25 percent chance it was going to be really worthwhile, but if it was, it’s so valuable. I thought that it’s certainly worth the 75 percent risk. It’s not,” he says. “I’m very driven by things that I can measure, and I haven’t been able to discern or ascertain exactly the measurable impact of being here yet.”
Two months later, though, he told me he’d unexpectedly realized its benefits. By way of example, Brown said that the night he flew out of Seattle he must have answered 50 emails on the flight, at “80-90 percent capability,” all while watching Black Panther on the airplane’s monitor. “It really caught my eye that I was able to [find the] mental capacity to do both,” he said.
7. To have it all
We can’t all be monks. Modern capitalistic life seldom allows the kind of tranquil pace, focused appreciation of every moment and letting go that this existence might entail. The fundamental challenge with mindfulness is integrating it into the world we live in, with its rent or mortgages at home and key performance indicators at work. With all the freshly polished meditation techniques on offer, it’s still not clear what the new middle way might be.
Perhaps the new culture around mindfulness, driven by transformative tech, is really the dream of not having to pick. Choosing between processes and end goals, the mindful technologist might select both. A unicorn startup, 18-hour days and peace of mind too.
Through this lens, they’re not connecting with a religion; they’re trying to hack it. They’re upgrading the operating system of our consciousness. That may not sit well with Buddhist purists, but the ethos isn’t run-of-the-mill contemporary iconoclasm; it’s irreverence for stasis, the idea that everything is there to be transcended.
It sounds profoundly masturbatory — arrogant if not completely unpalatable.
After all, the optimistic futurist’s ethos is all about non-scarcity. If AI can be unfathomably intelligent, if radical life extension can make us live forever, maybe some believe that our capacity for humanity can be infinitely augmented too.
It sounds profoundly masturbatory — arrogant if not completely unpalatable. But it also points to a dilemma that, for me, is at the heart of modern mindfulness.
The need to set goals and fixate and optimize is not just part of living in a global economy of scarce resources and competition. For better or worse, these needs animate life. The very possibility of stakes — of failure, of change, of ambiguity — is the engine of scientific breakthroughs, political revolution, unimaginable sporting feats or classic love stories. The fact that the stakes are ephemeral makes them even more valuable.
Only by holding onto things does life have meaning. But to hold is also to eventually lose. For all its flagrant yuckiness and elitist price tags, whether in earnest or vulgar ways, this is what modern mindfulness is grasping at: whether we possibly stand a chance at reconciling both. Perhaps to make life cohere, the trick is to be as good at holding tight as letting go. And if our modern, modular, open-source version of mindfulness is deeply paradoxical — well, life is too.