An oral history of competitive meditation | Mashable

2022-06-10 18:52:10 By :

Once upon a time, in the now-so-innocent year of 2014, five weirdos became enraptured by the same perverse and — we all thought — completely original idea: Using brain-reading gadgets to turn the act of meditation into some kind of sporting contest. 

This wasn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. In September 2014, a Canadian startup called Interaxon released the Muse, a lightweight headband that uses EEG sensors to read the very weak electrical signals given off by the brain. It was billed as the world’s first meditation wearable. The Muse app encouraged less noisy minds with the sound of birds: one bird for every five seconds of brain activity calmer than the baseline reading. The app also encouraged you to share your "calm score" on social media. 

"This is meditation as game," I wrote in my original Muse review. "I was rather proud of the fact that I got three birds during my first session with the device. Then I took it home to my wife, who got 19 birds on her first try. Curses." What I didn’t add was the very next thing I said to my better-at-meditating-half: Wait a minute. This could be a whole sport! In 2018, I excavated that idea and ran the first edition of the bracket contest that gave its name to this very section: March Mindfulness. In short, I was one of the five weirdos. 

What I didn’t know then was – well, anything at all about the other four. I'd no idea they had beaten me to a far more stunning iteration of the idea; heck, they’d beaten me to the idea itself. Meditation Deathmatch, as this group became known, held its first experimental contest in Austin, Texas in May 2014, four months prior to the release of the Muse. 

The founders and their followers were all part of Austin’s wonderfully weird mix of science and data nerds, programmers, hackers, artists, and Burning Man veterans. They did not do things by halves – initially using another EEG headband, the MindWave by NeuroSky, for which they coded their own program. They built grand spectacles involving platforms of colored lights, score projections, and domes that audiences could climb and watch from, Mad Max Thunderdome style. And they had insane ambition, if not yet realized, for an augmented reality version that would give participants health meters and "glowing auras." 

Interviewing them also uncovered a genuine passion for the idea of competitive meditation. The extent of my philosophy was describing March Mindfulness as an "oxymoron," one that would hopefully introduce meditation to the kind of people that could most use it. Meditation Deathmatch thought of itself as a "paradox" to be intensified and studied scientifically: What happens to the brain, the founders wondered, when the competition is the neurological opposite of competition?          

What follows is a correctly-ordered history of both contests. Part 1 is the story of Meditation Deathmatch’s founders, each of whom used hacker names: Dataglass, Upgrade, Lorax, Muff, and participants, as told in their own words (condensed and edited for clarity). A Meditation Deathmatch spin-off called Meditation Battle League, whose co-founder first clued me in to the original version’s existence in 2019, is also covered. 

In Part 2, I’ll summarize four years of the March Mindfulness contest – which, with its simple scores and tradition of "anti-trash talking," became in many ways the polar opposite of Meditation Deathmatch. With both contests on hiatus, new experiments are showing what might arise from their ashes. Two words: Co-operative meditation. 

In 2014, old friends Frank Olson and Eric Carlin – both biofeedback enthusiasts – began a fateful discussion.

FRANK "MUFF" OLSON: The original idea was Eric’s. It was "Hey, what if we had two people trying to meditate, and we’re quantifying it, and whoever lost got some sort of electric shock." And I was like "Yeah, that’s cool. But it’s also like, a bit much." 

ERIC "DATAGLASS" CARLIN: The initial conversation [at a music festival], we were talking about HeartMath, which tracks your breathing and your heart rate; it’s basically like a meditation aid. It was just like "Oh, wow, that would be an interesting thing to turn into a game." You know, the electric shock, providing a consequence for it, that’s a totally different game. I wanted to have as many different modes as possible. 

MUFF: I was like "Well you know what, I love the idea of competitive meditation. Obviously it has to be quantified some way, right? EEG or HRV [Heart Rate Variability]?" For a while, I was advocating for HRV because of HeartMath.

Muff told his friend Joshua Jackson, a programmer, veteran of the Eagleman Neuroscience Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, and self-described "brain hacker", about the concept. 

DATAGLASS: Maybe a week later I went to this party. I’d only met Josh very briefly, and he’s telling everyone about this crazy idea called Meditation Deathmatch. And I just kind of walked up like "Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Can you explain it to me?" Then listen to him go off for like five minutes. Muff is laughing watching the whole thing. But by the time [Josh] explained it to me, it had been stewing in his brain for a couple days. So it was like "Oh, hey, wow, that’s an interesting little addition." 

JOSH "UPGRADE" JACKSON [in an unpublished 2015 paper]: "We’ve recently seen the release of multi-channel dry sensor EEG headsets that deliver quality data. Previously, wet-sensor devices required a prohibitively long setup time … low-end EEG headsets don’t have to have the most exciting and innovative applications to be the center of growth. They just have to pay their way by delivering some value to a large number of users."  

MUFF: We hung out at a rooftop bar in downtown Austin with Upgrade. We knew he was the guy to actually make it happen, code the software; he could do that kind of shit. Josh was immediately like, yep, that’s happening. Just 100% immediate yes. He brought in Shanta, who is an excellent coordinator, a director; he makes things happen. I’ve never gotten to work with people so intelligent, so talented, with a lot of strong personalities. It was a bit of a dream team scenario.

SHANTA "LORAX" STEVENS: Josh and I have worked on some weird underground hacker projects before. The four of us met and agreed to make Meditation Deathmatch happen as long as it was open source. That way it could grow on its own, could continue to have a life, even if we were unable to devote time to it.

DATAGLASS: I was just all about the data, and wanted to record every session. The basic concept for me with Meditation Deathmatch was to use game theory – to get people to participate in the research process, voluntarily. My idea was to record all the information in a large anonymized database [of brain activity during various forms of meditation], even though we don’t really know how to analyze it yet. You could turn it into an open-source resource for academic research. 

Upgrade coded an early version of Meditation Deathmatch for two participants, scoring their meditations according to the EEG readings in the NeuroSky device, giving bonus points for "calmer" brainwaves such as Theta and Gamma. A second and third version of the game relied on the Muse instead. 

CHRIS AIMONE (CTO of Interaxon, makers of the Muse): We definitely expected people to be competitive. The competitive aspect didn’t seem to hinder practice. They’re either competitive or they’re calm about it; either way they get to the same point.

DATAGLASS: When we migrated to the Muse, it had a lot better data accuracy. But the Muse is so expensive and its software is proprietary. I wasn’t happy. A big part of my push was that everything be open.

Performed on LED-covered boards that could change color according to participants’ brain activity, the game was demonstrated at various Austin parties that summer. Scores would be projected in real time behind the participants for the benefit of the audience. At Burning Man 2014, the popular Mad Max-style "battle" camp known as Thunderdome provided inspiration for Meditation Deathmatch’s location: the Thunder OM. According to Muff, Shanta contributed oft-shouted slogans such as "Namaste, maggot" and "Relax harder!" Shanta disputes this.

MUFF: My contribution was adding a Las Vegas element to it. I watched a shitload of game shows growing up, so I internalized this persona. 

SHANTA: What we really had to offer was the bizarre absurdist humor of our MC, who had a technique of really being able to throw people off. We also found that laughter is a powerful tool for changing your mental state.  

MUFF [at a 2014 contest, during the meditation]: "Don't laugh at any of my jokes. Don't listen to anything. I'm saying pretend I don't exist. I am the universe. I'm an asshole. I am Maya. I am a Demiurge. I'm everything that distracts you on a daily basis. Sometimes I'm funny. Sometimes I'm tragic, but either way I'm a fucking distraction. Don't pay attention to me, especially when I'm saying 'Don't pay attention to me.'''

SHANTA: I remember Muff wearing a tank top on which he'd written "fuck you" in Sharpie on the front and "I love you" on the back.

MUFF: One time Shanta told me afterwards, he said some of the people meditating almost felt a little bit assaulted by you. That really wasn't my intent, to traumatize anyone. Sometimes you get really deep into character, like "I'm just going to embody the chaos and see what happens." 

BREY TUCKER (a friend of Upgrade’s who brought Meditation Deathmatch to a wellness event in Vancouver in 2018): Hilariously, I had a few mothers come up to me, really offended. It was ruining the idea of meditation. And I would always follow up with "Oh, what is your active practice?" They didn’t have one. Then someone leading one of the yoga workshops came up and said "I’m an active practitioner and I think this is amazing." People who love meditation think it’s great to have something that makes it accessible, because it’s often not. 

MUFF: You know, what we might call the Om Shanti crowd … they read the right books, they wear the right beads … they’re very nice, sweet people, nothing against them. But this was a little bit more punk rock, you know? More avant-garde. I was a devil's advocate ... Some of the highest teachings and greatest observations are couched in hilarity. It’s kind of a Trojan horse for truth.  

SHANTA: A research paper [by a team in the Psychology dept of the University of Central Florida] published in a journal used Meditation Deathmatch metrics ... and they found evidence that women performed better than men. Every single session we played, women were the champions. 

The all-time highest score in Meditation Deathmatch is held by Heather Ray, who has worked on the meditation program SoundSelf. In her first game, she achieved the program’s highest possible score.

HEATHER: I remember Shanta and Upgrade being really excited, wanting to get in my face afterwards and be like, "What were you doing just now?" And the way I described it was I was just allowing all my different sensory inputs to equalize. Like there was an array of knobs in front of me and I’m turning them all to the middle. Neutralizing all the inputs. 

MUFF: I was just shocked by her ability to resist all the shit-talking I was doing. I was like, "Wow, she really has transcended. Good for you." Because most people can’t. 

Upgrade tweaked the program based on Heather’s data, attempting to make it harder for her. She achieved the maximum score under the new system, too. 

HEATHER: Once I was a champion, they wanted to pit me against people, put me on the spot. And there were times I utterly failed. The one that stands out where I didn’t get a good score, I had been drinking a lot of coffee that day.

BREY: I remember one person [at a festival] was way too high on cocaine. When they attempted to meditate, they said it was a real struggle. But when they came out of it, they were like "This is the best game for people who’ve done too much."  

MUFF: We had an ongoing joke that the only performance-enhancing drug banned from Meditation Deathmatch was ketamine. 

BREY: We found there were some motor activities with your hands that really get your score to increase. Chinese exercise balls where you rotate them in your hands. The thing that really cranked up my score was this kind of visual mantra I got from a book: Imagine the you above yourself, trying to take the you that you’re within. Also, certain people who just fell asleep performed really well. Our second highest score was someone who fell asleep.  

SHANTA: We always threw monstrous events that attracted hundreds of people. [An Austin event in 2014] was the first time the participants learned how to operate the show completely so we could all walk away from it and become part of the rowdy audience … We used Meditation Deathmatch to judge a rap battle, and found that some people are in fact able to enter a deep calm flow state while rapping, and can get competitive high scores! 

As Meditation Deathmatch became more expensive to produce, its members became more interested in exploring alternate versions. 

DATAGLASS: I was always pushing for people to be using the software at home, rather than just doing it as a performance. 

SHANTA: I was funding this out of my pocket, about $2,000 a show. We did lightweight versions without the Thunder OM dome, and called the events "Texas Meditation Rangers." We did some gaming stuff, where people had to do a meditation session in order to find pieces of a puzzle for a scavenger hunt … I suggested that there may be a way to partner with a game developer, and there started to be a campaign against my efforts within the group. 

DATAGLASS: The ironic thing about Meditation Deathmatch is, I was always the brokest person in the group, I've never had any money – but I was always the one that was fanatically opposed to monetizing.

MUFF: I was doing my best to play peacekeeper. You know, there’s nothing wrong with making money, really. As long as the core idea is intact. You have to at least break even, right? 

SHANTA: We toyed around with doing it as a festival circuit kind of thing. But it was hard to find people willing to pay for it. It was just so outside of anyone’s experience. And we couldn’t find companies interested in investing in the idea if they couldn’t get their hands on the biometric data. 

DATAGLASS: I personally wanted to focus on the Massage Therapy Deathmatch spin-off. Austin is full of all kinds of people who do bodywork therapy. So we did an event where we wired the neurofeedback into [color-changing domes.] It gives the therapist a much better handle: You can measure very precisely what you’re doing in that moment and how it’s actually affecting the person you’re working on.

In 2016, Upgrade began experimenting with San Francisco biohacker Eric Matzner on a different version of Meditation Deathmatch called Meditation Battle League. This version dropped the Devil’s Advocate MC in favor of a suite of sounds that could be played to distract participants. Meditation Battle League began fully-realized events in 2019.  

ERIC MATZNER: Meditation Battle League turns the Muse app on its head. The Muse app gives you the sounds of nature – a beach, the park – and you’re lightly reminded [by bird sounds] that you’re doing well. But I thought, what are the most stressful parts of the real world? So I went with, for example, offices – you know, people are yelling on the phone, there are fax machines and typing. Or you’re in a car and there are horns honking. We had one for parents: the sounds of kids going "Hey mom, hey dad," and you’d watch their brainwaves being immediately disrupted. And we did this based on the philosophy of Shanta. 

SHANTA (during a 2016 Meditation Deathmatch game, one of Matzner’s first): "If you can meditate on the top of the mountain, it’s no good. If you can meditate in the middle of rush hour traffic, when your kids are screaming at you … see, if you can’t transcend the material plane’s distractions, it’s not really meditating." 

MATZNER: [In 2019] we had some really competitive ones, down to the wire. I got a kick out of watching people drinking beer on a Friday night while watching people meditate. Who would think you could get people to sit with their eyes closed and quiet at a party in the middle of the craziness? We turned on a lot of people to meditating. That was such a great feeling for us. 

Rewind to 2018, the first year of March Mindfulness. In San Francisco, unaware of any of the mental acrobatics in Austin, I recruited 32 friends and colleagues to use the Muse in an experimental March Madness-style tournament bracket. 

The irresistible image that guided me in this endeavor had popped into my head the previous month – ironically, in the middle of a Muse meditation where I was trying to let go of thoughts. It was that of a Buddhist monk and an NBA superstar on a stage, in front of an audience, each wearing a headset. Which professional’s version of “being in the zone” would produce more birds? And how large an audience would be interested in such a contest?

To beta-test it, I brought my Muse headset to the participants. One by one, mostly in office-building conference rooms downtown, they did ten-minute meditations to see how many birds they could get. I would pit players’ scores against those of a randomly-selected opponent; highest number of birds advances to the next round, with the app’s calm score as a tiebreaker. Participants who worked at Slack got the highest scores, thanks to what might be considered an unfair advantage: The company offered “meditation pods” to employees, enclosed spaces bathed in soothing colored lights.

Players were, by and large, people without a meditation practice — exactly the audience I wanted to reach. For them, the Muse setup itself was intimidating enough, without any of the unsettling obstacles that Meditation Battle League was then working on – even though they were doing it solo, with no distractions. The most common comment after ten minutes? “That was so stressful!” 

In the third round, a very type-A, ultra-competitive startup CEO had been drawn against a 14-year old who had scored more birds in the previous round. The CEO suddenly had no time to participate further.

So I scrapped March Mindfulness 1.0, and tried a second iteration of the concept with the assistance of the fine gamer folks at Mashable’s sister publication IGN. I made two key changes to the experiment: Firstly, I didn’t use the weighty word “meditation,” merely inviting colleagues to “find out who is the most chill.” Secondly, I used two Muse headbands and two iPads. Contestants would now go literally head to head in the same room. 

This I assumed to be even more stressful a setup than meditating alone. I expected the average amount of birds in any face-off would be lower. In fact, the opposite was true. Invariably, here’s what would happen: The two people sitting wearing headbands, eyes closed, listening to the sound of birds made by the inside of each others heads, while a referee watched … would very quickly start to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the whole situation. The laughter would infect the other player. 

And after that joint release of tension, the serious work of finding the birds inside one’s own head could begin.

The year 1 winner was Alexio Quaglierini, 29-year-old video technician, first-time meditator – and easily the most smiling, calm, happy-go-lucky guy in the office.   

Looking back now on that first successful experiment, while I'm a little embarrassed at how basic it was compared to the high-tech spectacle of Meditation Deathmatch, this communal aspect is what stands out. Competition leads to bonding. We meditate better together. That also, in retrospect, seemed to be the simple hook with the elaborate Austin version. 

An irresistibly silly paradox brought the founders together; it also brought participants to the mat. Even the savage humor and hectoring of the MC served a communal purpose by entertaining, educating and challenging everyone in the room at once.

Basic or not, using the Muse app meant that March Mindfulness could go anywhere and be easily explained to anyone. The Meditation Deathmatch scoring system was inscrutable and often changed, but “number of birds” was an easily-explained metric. (A score in the thousands seems less memorable than one that maxes out at 12 per minute.) No $2,000-per-event budgets for me, and no need to sell tickets; all I needed was my trusty satchel containing two Muse headbands and two iPads. 

In the year after the first event, I brought that satchel to more offices, events, parties and friends’ homes. The silly little game kickstarted, or restarted, more mindfulness practices than I knew at the time — plus a whole lot of experimentation. Nothing pleased me more than when players wanted to try standing, or walking slowly, or lying down, or covering their ears. 

The simplicity and portability of the game meant I could more easily demonstrate it to various groups of people who might not otherwise think of participating. In 2019, year 2 of March Mindfulness, I took advantage of that fact to conduct what I thought of as a Survivor-style bracket contest: Gamers vs. Meditators. Would playfulness triumph over experience? Gamers were represented by volunteers from the annual Games Developers Conference (GDC conveniently falls in March) as well as IGN veterans. Meditators were represented by the San Francisco office of the Calm app, and by the residents of San Francisco’s Brahma Kumaris meditation temple. 

The result? Well, in tense semi-finals at Calm HQ, Team GDC clinched both final spots. The last two developers standing were women (and the runner-up, Megan Hughes, credited her preternatural calm to being the mother of five kids). But also, as gamers, they were more experimental. Whereas the meditators were earnestly going about their practice, the developers played around with biofeedback. 

The winner, Bunny Hanlon, explained that she had divided her brain into zones, and tried to rest her attention in the zone that seemed to bring the most birds. Such experimentation had cost her in earlier rounds, when she’d squeaked by with low scores; by the final, her preferred bird brain space was unstoppable.     

Gamers vs. Meditators was a demonstration of what March Mindfulness could do: Tell a story over the length of a tournament. This may not have matched Dataglass’ vision of a vast research-ready database filled with complex EEG information; still, this kind of themed game could provide plenty of fascinating data in the aggregate about what kind of groups were more amenable to Muse-style meditation. 

And then what? Perhaps a generation game (Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials vs. Gen Z). Or maybe an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs: Could the stoners of newly legal California out-meditate the alcohol users? At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2020, weed vape pen maker Pax was keen to offer up its employees as test subjects in the former category. 

This was the same show to feature a Mashable meditation contest with the Muse S, with Interaxon offering $5,000 to the victor’s charity of choice. The winners: my colleague Rachel Kraus and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Rachel’s victory in the final round came despite the fact that our editor-in-chief was present; looking back, there was something a little Meditation Battle League-esque about this literal boss level.

Interaxon was becoming progressively more enthusiastic about the game. For March Mindfulness that year, the company coded a special “tournament mode” version of its interface that showed an updated bird count during the game, all the better to project it on a large screen and put on a live audience-friendly version during the next GDC. It was to be held in March 2020. I couldn’t wait. 

Nor could the Meditation Deathmatch folks, it later transpired. The group, all but defunct in 2019, was planning a let’s-get-the-band-back-together tour for 2020 — and dropping in on March Mindfulness in San Francisco was part of the plan. 

I was finally getting a taste of their style of meditation too, thanks to Eric Matzner’s Meditation Battle League events. The loud annoyance of the real-life soundtracks was certainly intriguing, but they also encouraged noisy ripples of chaos in the audience, which made understanding the stakes and progress of the on-stage meditation game that much harder. 

What this game needs, I thought, having not yet heard of Muff, is an attention-commanding MC. 

Speaking of ripples of chaos: COVID-19 began its destructive rise in the U.S. in February 2020. GDC was canceled on February 28. One by one, the offices that had hosted previous contests started to close. I was left to scramble for an alternative that would work in lockdown. (In retrospect, a socially-distanced outdoor meditation contest would have probably been fine, but this was back before we knew the virus prefers to spread in indoor conditions.) 

So that left Zoom — which, we may find it hard to remember now, was barely a thing before March 2020. As in the first contest, I did a beta version with friends first; this led me to deliver Muses around a San Francisco that was just starting its strictest lockdown. 

At that point we didn’t know if you could catch COVID via packaging, so I had to enact this kind of protocol: Sanitize the plastic-wrapped Muse box on the sidewalk in full view of the recipient, who waited at the door. Place box on sidewalk and retire a safe distance. It felt like we were dealing with live ordnance. Or, as I wrote at the time, “conducting a series of futuristic drug deals with some highly paranoid, hygiene-obsessed cartel.” Life, and Competitive Meditation in particular, was starting to feel like a William Gibson novel. 

But that first Zoom meditation contest was the antithesis: A bright moment of connection, and calm, in that lonely and frightened first month of the pandemic. To our delight, Muse meditation worked as a spectator sport, in part because viewers could easily tell whose birds were whose: just look for the telltale green box around their screen. 

Participants were giddy about experimenting with what calming methods they could find around the lockdown home and garden. The winner was Charlotte Fine, age 12, who strapped the Muse to her head while sitting in her family’s hot tub. And providing color commentary on all of it, I had become the MC I wanted to see in the world. 

So how far, I wondered, could I expand the circle of this much-needed, very friendly competition? How about inviting the 10,000 member Muse group on Facebook, full of the hardest of hardcore “post your calm score” nerds? 

Thus was born, pretty much by accident, the first game of international competitive meditation. Half of the participants joined from outside the U.S., and we got the whole thing done in two lively sessions, spaced out to suit all time zones. The players self-organized, with the two about to play calibrating their Muse during the previous match so there would be no break in the action. 

Plus, we really couldn’t have scripted better drama for the final stages. Kaila in Colorado had sailed through to the semis on high bird scores, only to crater at the last minute because she decided to experiment with using an oxygen concentrator. The final between New Mexico lawyer Randy Knudson and Toronto student Fadi Kyle may be the single most tense game of competitive meditation I’ve ever witnessed. Randy clinched it at the buzzer, 34 birds to 33.

Perhaps it was inevitable that March Mindfulness 2021 — which, again, we had to do on Zoom — would feel small-scale by comparison. Keen to experiment with formats, I abandoned the bracket tournament template for a boxing style “mandatory challenger” setup. What that meant: anyone in the world could take on Randy, who had meditated with the Muse for two hours every day for the past three years, and seize the “champion of the world” title if they won. 

The crown passed first to Fadi, the previous year’s runner up (and another hardcore multi-hour meditator). But then it was seized by a novice, Paulette Waltz in the Sacred Valley of Peru, who saw off challengers around the world. Randy took it back a few days later, but Paulette (like Heather Ray in Meditation Deathmatch) still enjoys the bragging rights of saying she was once the meditation champion of the world. More importantly, she was meditating more than she had in months. 

Randy saw off his final challenge, from the formidably calm Paul Poulos on Australia's Gold Coast, and became the first repeat winner in March Mindfulness’ brief history. “Paul is the future of the sport, I’m the past,” Randy said. And then the champion retired, abandoning not only meditation technology but also his online presence, vanishing back into the real world. It seemed a fitting final act for the ultimate practitioner of this strange self-effacing sport.

Randy’s retirement wasn’t the only headwind that March Mindfulness was facing in 2022. 

For one thing, interest in the Muse among its most passionate users on Facebook was in decline. Many had favored the first-generation Muse, the coding for which had been open-source enough to allow for a popular third-party app, Mind Monitor. Mind Monitor let people see the strength of their various brainwaves during their meditation — the same data Meditation Deathmatch used — and the forum was a place to post, argue, and subtly boast about your brainwave patterns. 

Now the older generation Muses were starting to die off; Interaxon was pushing the Muse S as their replacement, a model that doesn’t play well with Mind Monitor. (It also employs a headband that some users find uncomfortable, and that design has a harder time picking up signal from the scalp around your ears — particularly for those of us who’ve grown our hair during the pandemic.) 

As COVID and its variants kept us locked in a mostly-online world of minimal in-person events, my own level of interest was flagging too. Two years of Zoom-based March Mindfulness was fun, but also exhausting — particularly in 2021, when I had to schedule multiple matches around the globe during a month in which time zone clocks change sporadically due to daylight saving time. 

I wanted to get back to testing different groups against each other and building Survivor-style storylines in the process, but this was increasingly hard to achieve online when the pool of interested Muse users was shrinking. Then, in late February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Against that clear and present horror, a paradoxical meditation contest seemed to matter very little. I canceled the 2022 tournament. 

But I did invite a select few March Mindfulness veterans to participate in a little experiment. You see, the more I learned about Meditation Deathmatch and Battle League, the more March Mindfulness seemed to fill a niche at the end of a spectrum I can only describe as nicer competitive meditation. Deathmatch got in your face with the fury and frustration of life; my players had discovered that they were more likely to gain birds if they effusively praised each other before the match, a practice we had come to call “anti-trash talking.”

What if we took that principle and applied it to the game itself? What if players meditated co-operatively in teams, trying to boost each others’ bird scores? Or, to make it even nicer, what if you were scored not on how many birds you got, but on how many more birds your opponent got when they were meditating with you (relative to the same amount of meditation time alone)? Well then, perhaps, we would fully leverage the social applications of a seemingly helpful game.  

“My meditation practice involves other people,” Paulette Waltz in Peru said when I had my first Zoom with her and Paul Poulos in a year. “If it were just myself, I wouldn’t tend to use [the Muse.].” Indeed, thanks to her March Mindfulness experience, Paulette had entered a Muse contest, and won, in order to get a device for her sister Therese in Boston, so they could meditate together in different hemispheres.

“I do need acccountability [to meditate],” Therese said. “I like the social side of it, I’m an extrovert and workaholic.” 

Without revealing my cooperative meditation intentions, I asked Paul and Paulette to meditate as if it were a regular March Mindfulness contest. Primed for competition, they got a total of 76 birds in 5 minutes. Then I asked them to meditate as if they were on the same team. Boom: 96 birds. 

Zoom-based experiments continued with Therese and Paul’s friend in Canada, Youseff, joining in, the birds flew, and I wondered how large teams could get by March 2023. The Meditation Deathmatch folks, Shanta especially, were intrigued by the cooperative meditation idea. With all contests currently on hiatus, noises were made about us weirdos who’d fallen in love with the idea back in 2014 collaborating at some point down the road.  

Because ultimately, when it comes to meditation, aren’t we all on the same team? 

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