This article titled “Meditation in virtual reality: it’s like French philosophy meets the Matrix” was written by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 17th August 2016 10.00 UTC
The cosmos swirls, wisps of purple, yellow and orange light flickering across the darkness of space, then across the visage of Buddha. An otherworldly plain fills the horizon, framed by the branches of a tree – the tree of enlightenment.
A familiar voice intrudes. “What or who is having this experience right this moment, right now?” Pause. “It is your own being. It is your innermost being that is having the experience, your true self.”
The voice continues. “Live here, with no regrets, no anticipation, no resistance, and you will be free. Freedom is always now. Being is now.”
Even if you enjoy psychedelic animation graphics you may struggle to live here, however, because visits last just 20 minutes and they are not real, not free and not quite now.
Welcome – if you have the headset or appropriate app – to Deepak Chopra’s latest venture: virtual reality (VR) meditation.
The new age entrepreneur and self-help guru unveiled the simulation, titled “Finding your true self”, this week at the headquarters of Wevr, a VR firm in Silicon Beach, Los Angeles’ tech hub.
Chopra, who narrates the simulation, hopes to sell the experience via booths at airports, hospitals and other locations, and via phones and laptops enabled with VR platforms.
“In 20 minutes you get a journey to enlightenment. The goal is to feel grounded and understand yourself a little better,” he told the Guardian. The technology, he said, facilitated an understanding of consciousness which eluded even René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher. “He was good for his time but didn’t have VR to take it to the next level.”
A bold claim for a nascent technology more associated with gaming and pornography than reflection and contemplation. But Chopra, 68, has not built a lucrative brand and sold millions of books such as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success through timidity.
Meditation’s benefits – improved focus, lower stress, inner peace – require investments of time, effort and discipline which frustrate many would-be practitioners. A vast market, Chopra hopes for a simulation which mixes “insights, contemplation and entertainment”.
Meditation purists may wonder if that is cheating. Those who simply wonder if it works will be able to find out when the product launches, perhaps in a few weeks. “Soon, very soon,” said Anthony Batt, Wevr’s co-founder. The app will cost $10, he said.
For that, according to a three-minute trailer shown to the Guardian and others at the company’s headquarters, you get trippy graphics, heavy on purple, with otherworldly sound effects laid over statements which, depending on perspective, are insightful, gnomic or nonsense.
There was no paradox between finding your true self via virtual reality because everyday reality is itself a simulation, said Chopra. An insect with 100 eyes, for instance, views the world differently than a human.
“For 30 years people have been coming to my lectures saying they don’t get it. Well now they can.”
Asked if the simulation tried to cross Descartes, who coined the maxim “I think, thefore I am,” with the science fiction film The Matrix, Chopra beamed. “Absolutely!”
The project is the brainchild of Chopra’s son, Gotham, a Los Angeles film-maker. “I’ve been hearing my father talk about simulation for 30 years. I realised this would be a tool for him.”
Earlier versions featuring water were discarded for an impressionistic interpretation of the Bodhi tree in eastern India under which Buddha is said to have sat around 500 BC, seeking and eventually finding enlightenment. “We wanted to replicate that,” said Gotham.
Designers worked on the project at Wevr’s headquarters, a Frank Gehry-designed house where Dennis Hopper lived, partied and encountered his own virtual reality through alcohol and drugs.
Strapping on a headset or peering at a computer screen were not inimical to contemplation, said Chopra. “I’ve never been too attached to tradition. We’re an evolving species. If you don’t keep up with technology you’re not in touch with the zeitgeist and you may as well pack it in.”
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