ARTICLE n. 7 / 2021

Meditation On Sale

I’m standing on an undulating field of hyper-saturated purple and turquoise. Pockmarked hills rise around me. I am entirely hairless, and my silver skin shines, even in the diffuse light. I have just been running, in my pink shoulder armor and green thong bodysuit, following the arrows, picking up the juicy peaches that float and spin along the paths.

A digital facsimile of the Canadian singer Peaches, whose lo-fi, angry, sexy feminist record The Teaches of Peaches underscored many nights of my youth, now stands before me in the Transformation Temple. She too has unnaturally shiny skin, as well as extra arms and a surrealist, vaguely crustacean ensemble. A court of equally bizarre minions bob behind her. The Temple appears to have mandibles. «Namaste», she says. «And welcome to the guided meditation… into your groin.»

With that, Peaches begins to lead me us – in a breathing exercise, and then a visualization, as electronic music pulses behind her. «Feel the love you have for yourself», she directs, in misty, Laurie Anderson-esque tones. «Believe it. Believe it. Imagine you are in a phone booth. Isolation. No one can hear you. You can say and do whatever you want. Imagine. What would you do? If no one could hear you. If no one could see you. And you knew this was your time, your time to say I love you. I love me

As you may have gathered, all this is part of a meditation-based video game. The game, Fill the Whole, was created by Peaches and digital artists Pussykrew and recently debuted as one of the headliners of the recent CTM festival, which is usually held in Berlin, but like everything else, took place online this year. The creators describe the game, which can be played directly in your browser, as a «transformative live gaming experience, traversing sensations, emotions, material, and ethereal synergies». The aim is to allow users to «explore the fluid virtual universe and listen to what it has to say» and «embrace the surreal state» and «meditate and grow with Peaches».

Certainly, Fill the Whole is hypnotic. Elsewhere, Peaches delivers self-effacing pep talks and positive affirmations as I run around, kicking rocks that seem to be made out of distorted human heads, hearing out and then dodging an angry avatar, a self-destructive avatar. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it before. As a work of digital art and music, it’s fascinating. But while it is soothing, in a certain way, it doesn’t have much to do with meditation.

In January, a guided meditation tv show called Headspace Guide to Meditation debuted on Netflix, narrated by Andy Puddicombe, who created the popular meditation app Headspace. Like Fill the Whole, it is artful, beautiful even, and sometimes even surprising. The animation is flexible and mesmerizing. Like Fill the Whole, the show can at least claim to be relaxing. Each of the eight episodes is about twenty minutes long, and is split between a short discussion, covering topics like «how do deal with anger» and «how to let go», and a guided meditation.

Puddicombe is an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk; he knows what he’s talking about, and his presentation is straightforward and gentle. As an introduction to meditation, the show – especially the first episode – isn’t bad. But still I have to wonder: why does it exist?

Meditation is extraordinarily simple – to teach, if not to do. Meditation requires no props or tools. There is nothing to buy. You need nothing outside yourself. And yet, over the last decade, the business of mindfulness has boomed. Maybe you’ve encountered the apps, the podcasts, the corporate retreats, the stretchy pants, the cascade of books, the 11 Mindfulness Products Under $20 To Help You With Your Practice. Meditation has been credited – sometimes with scientific backing – with everything from increased circulation to relaxed muscles to a stress-free existence for the rest of time. Meditation, and its gentler cousin “mindfulness” (gentler because it is less suggestive of having to actually do anything), is everywhere now. And while it’s been a product for years, but only lately have I noticed that it has begun to be marketed as entertainment. It’s not enough to sell it as a tea – now it has to be a television show, a video game, a podcast, an app.

Meditation is not the only ancient practice that Western society has co-opted in the name of self-help (or “self-care”). But it is odd, because meditation, the way I learned it, is the anti-entertainment. «We are talking about how on earth, how in the name of heaven and earth, we can actually become decent human beings without trying to entertain ourselves from here to the next corner», Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who brought Buddhism to the West, wrote in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. «The constant search for immediate entertainment is a big problem.»

(That book was published in 1984; I can’t imagine what he’d think of us today.)

In fact, contrary to popular Western belief, meditation is not even supposed to be relaxing. It is not, I am sorry to tell you, a stress relief tool. In a certain sense, we could say that meditation is actually about heightening neurosis, at least temporarily, because it requires you to look directly at your neurotic thoughts, in order to become more aware of them. Meditation teaches you that the story of you that you’ve been telling yourself your entire life is a fiction. Ultimately, it should lead to more clarity, but in the meantime, it’s not exactly a chill experience.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once described the primary goal of meditation as being to «loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them». It’s hard to even fathom this, because we are so used to feeling that we are our emotions, our obsessions, and yes, our minds—a feeling that is only intensified by isolation. But we’re not. And once you’ve watched your mind for hours and hours, you start to be able to see the patterns, and then, maybe, break them. Or at least not get so completely caught up in them.

When I was growing up, I never heard anyone talk about meditation, much less “mindfulness”, and I especially never heard it used in relation to “self-care”. This was the 80s. The old hippies were (my) parents now, and plastic was king. But my father had been a follower of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and so I learned to sit and watch my breath from an early age.

(Here’s all you need to know, for the record: sit somewhere, with your back straight. Notice your breath. Let thoughts arise and fall away. Notice what happens. Come back to your breath.)

Now, this simple, centuries-old practice has gone the way of feminism, pinked and branded and sold back to us with its mouth sewn shut, heavily diluted for mass consumption. Again, it’s not just meditation – as a culture, we have become increasingly babyish in our need to have everything brightly colored, candy-coated, and, most importantly: easy.  

But wait, you may be saying. What’s wrong with easy? If the meditation apps and television shows and video games help people relax, isn’t that good?

Well, sure. If people need to take some deep breaths, and all this helps them do it, that’s very nice for them. But even if we take out the capitalist component (which we can’t) and give all of these companies the benefit of the doubt by imagining that their actual goal is to make meditation accessible and available for everyone – spread the good word, as it were – I have to wonder: does selling a watered down version of meditation, turning it into the trendy workout you know you should do because it’s good for you, but only manage a couple times a month, really accomplish this goal? I don’t want to take stress relief away from anyone, but reducing meditation to a relaxation technique removes what is actually transformative about it. It might be temporarily calming to take some deep breaths, but if there isn’t enough meat there, so to speak, newcomers won’t stick around.

I want to compare this to something I hear a lot as someone who works in the literary world: that if a kid is reading something with no literary value, let’s say Twilight, it’s still a good thing, because «at least they’re reading». The underlying suggestion is not only that the act of scanning words on a page is somehow intrinsically valuable, regardless of content, but also that reading bad books will be a gateway into reading good books. I’m not at all convinced that either is true. Reading Twilight has no more intellectual value than watching reality television. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done! I’ve got no beef with reality television, or with Twilight. It just means that you shouldn’t expect it to transform your (child’s) mind in a positive way, the way that complex literature can. The same is true for playing a meditation video game, I suppose.

I’ll be straight with you: Meditation is work. Boring work – at least at first. True meditation practice is a codified system of working with your mind – a useful technique for getting through life at the best of times; even more so now. Though my family is Buddhist, meditation is not necessarily religious, or even spiritual. It’s almost mercenary. It’s a tool, not a lifestyle. It helps you to see your mind – and by extension, the world around you – as it is. No more, no less. If you learn to watch your mind, you can see what it does, how it responds to things, the loops it creates. If you watch it enough, eventually you can create a little space where there was none before. Maybe you can catch your mind before it responds to stimuli. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when something annoying entered your experience – a screaming child, a blithering troll – you had one brief moment between your experience and your reaction? Maybe even enough space that you could change the nature of that reaction? Or, to speak to the present moment a little more directly: wouldn’t it be nice if you could recognize the moment when you were about to get sucked into bad news sinkhole – leading to obsession, anxiety, and rage – and just… step aside instead? That’s the “muscle” you work when you meditate.

It’s possible that I am unduly protective over meditation practice. In the course of my lifetime, it has gone from being something esoteric, something that felt like a secret kept by my family, to something sold to me on every platform, preached by every self-help blog and ladies’ magazine. Therefore, I admit that my reaction may be slightly petty.

But, well – is nothing sacred?

(This is a rhetorical question; as a Buddhist, I know that nothing is.) 

Ultimately, there’s probably no reversing the capitalist drive. Part of the problem is that it’s not just about those who want to sell us pre-packaged, watered down ancient practices. We want to buy them. We want them made easy for us. If we could buy them in a pill and take them with our coffee, we would. I only hope that some people will decide to go a little further, to discover what’s beneath the shiny surface.

Pointing at the night sky, the Buddha supposedly said, «Don’t mistake the finger for the moon». The finger may be well scrubbed and manicured now (at home, of course, considering), but we should still stop to hear the message.

ARTICOLO n. 16 / 2021