March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. It culminates in our meditation competition, which this year took on a new spin.
With every major event from the Olympics in Tokyo to March Madness in the U.S. canceled, it’s fair to say that the coronavirus pandemic has not been great for sports. But there is at least one whimsical new sport that has received a shot in the arm in our new Zoom-filled world: competitive meditation.
I invented the meditation tournament known as March Mindfulness in 2018, using a meditation wearable called the Muse. Via its app, the Muse produces the sound of birds when your mind gets calm. It seemed to me that some fan of both meditation and mischief should use the Muse to make a bracket contest of one-on-one meditation games decided by bird score; the calmest meditator goes through to the next round. So I became the deeply ironic contest creator I wanted to see in the world.
After several experimental versions, I honed March Mindfulness into a workable format with the help of our sister games site, IGN. Players at IGN HQ tried to stay calm for five minutes in the same room, eyes closed, literally able to hear what’s going on in each others’ heads. It turned out to be a surprising amount of fun, and a great way to advertise meditation to the kind of people who desperately need it: Game players, sports fans, and other Type-A competitive personalities.
In 2019, March Mindfulness expanded to become a whole month of meditation stories. The game itself expanded, too. Like a burgeoning reality show, March Mindfulness 2.0 gained its first theme: Meditators vs. Gamers. Participants at a San Francisco meditation temple and at the headquarters of Calm, the most successful meditation app, went up against players from the Games Developers’ Conference (GDC) and IGN. In a thrilling final face-off at Calm, the gamers won, and were presented with the idea of a trophy.
The next contest came in January 2020. To mark the launch of the Muse S headband, we tested the minds of Mashable’s tech reporters in the midst of the most chaotic conference of the year, CES in Las Vegas. The most improved meditator walked away with a $5,000 check for her preferred charity. At the end of my account, lamenting the need to herd cats and the likelihood of sickness to spread at a vast winter conference like CES, I wrote this:
Roll on the far easier March Mindfulness 2020, where simple head-to-head Muse contests will take place in quiet and generally virus-free rooms.
So yeah, about that virus-free thing… I’d like to apologize to the world for jinxing the entire month of March.
The contest collapses
I had grand visions for the fourth contest in March 2020, then watched every one of them collapse in the face of coronavirus. For the first time, I would do it in front of a live audience. Interaxon, the Canadian company that makes Muse, helped out by designing a “tournament mode” for the app. I planned a drop-in event at GDC as part of the conference’s health and wellness track.
By February 29, GDC was canceled. Still, Calm was enthusiastic about participating again. Pax, makers of marijuana vape pens, was also interested. Based on the experience of the Vegas contest, I planned to determine once and for all whether cannabis was a performance-enhancing substance for meditation. In this contest, I imagined, the stoned would take on the straight.
But then the pandemic really made its presence known. It was impossible to ignore when a cruise ship with COVID-19 patients sat off the shore of San Francisco, their arrival postponed by the president. Residents began hunkering down and social distancing before it became a widely-known meme. In the weeks before six Bay Area counties ordered it, most enlightened companies started letting employees work from home. (Many office workers, and most non-office workers, were not so lucky).
Regardless, the idea of getting people to meditate in the same space became practically unthinkable. Even if you could do so in a medically sound way — in a large conference room, say, or outside, with 6 feet of distance between participants and referee — the stress of the situation would likely produce few birds. A fun, tongue-in-cheek contest would instantly become zero fun.
As for the stoned v. the straight theme? Forget about it. Judging by the sudden jump in marijuana sales, especially edibles, it would be hard to find a Bay Area resident who isn’t coping with quarantine by getting at least a little bit high, and I wasn’t about to shame anyone by asking.
There was, of course, one avenue left for a contest requiring lots of social interaction. Could competitive meditation happen via Zoom Party? Or would the technical difficulties involved be too great? A Facebook group of friends and acquaintances named “A Tribe Apart,” which had already tried cocktail ingredient challenges and bread-making classes via Zoom, readily agreed to try a few rounds of March Mindfulness for testing purposes.
It felt like I was conducting a series of futuristic drug deals with some highly paranoid, hygiene-obsessed cartel.
Just one problem: None of them had Muse headsets. I had a Muse S stockpile from the January challenge, still sealed. And so began one of my strangest days in San Francisco, delivering meditation headbands to the quarantined. I would stand at the bottom of gated apartment steps or below balconies, gingerly placing a white plastic-wrapped box on the ground, spritzing the area I’d just touched with hand sanitizer, then stepping back 6 feet while the recipient emerged, often in a mask and PJs, to retrieve it.
“I hope we did that right?” I would text nervously afterwards. It felt like I was conducting a series of futuristic drug deals with some highly paranoid, hygiene-obsessed cartel.
The first thing to know about the contest that resulted that evening is that we had a lot of fun. I discovered that if I put on a blazer, changed my Zoom background to one of our March Mindfulness illustrations, and held my Blue Snowball mic aloft like an old-time microphone, I could do a passable imitation of a sports commentator. The donated headbands did double duty as partners competed to see who could be the most chill during lockdown.
Even the kids joined in. Charlotte, 12, got the highest bird score of the evening, demonstrating that hot water can be a performance-enhancing substance when it comes to meditation. She had taken the family headband to the backyard hot tub.
The second thing to know is that we dealt with a lot of technical issues that didn’t exactly grind the contest to a halt, but certainly ground it down. The first issue: How could we tell what was happening in each participants’ Muse app? Screen sharing from the phone on Zoom was a bust, making every other feed in the Zoom chat lag.
Besides, two Muse meditators could not share screens at the same time, so we had to do them one at a time, further slowing our pace. The imperfect solution: Contestants held their phones up to the mic and screen, eyes closed. If they got birds, we’d all hear them, adding our sports commentary in the text chat window.
As the audience respectfully muted itself for the duration of the one or two-minute meditations, the yellow box identifying the current speaker on Zoom was able to clue us in on which of the two minds was producing birds at any given moment.
Interaxon had also clued me into the fact that the birds sound subtly different in the app’s multiple soundscapes; if one player used desert birds and the other chose rainforest birds, the difference was surprisingly easy to discern. And of course the phone screens would give us the final bird score at the end of the meditation.
It was a nice way to pass an evening. As a contest, however, it was not especially compelling. Days from the end of the month, I was ready to give up entirely and place a permanent asterisk next to March Mindfulness 2020 — just one more sports casualty of the coronavirus.
Enter the meditation gladiators
But there was one last Hail Mary option. I was part of a private Muse user group on Facebook, alongside some 10,000 other members. These are the hardcore meditation nerds for whom the Muse app is not enough. Most have moved on to a third-party app called Mind Monitor, which uses the Muse to track multiple brain waves at once. They post screenshots of their meditations, then argue like Talmudic scholars over whether it’s better to keep your Theta high and your Gamma low, or vice versa.
If anything, I reckoned, March Mindfulness might be too un-serious for these top-level meditators. Would any of these thousands of strangers get the whimsical spirit of the event and want to meet over Zoom with little notice? I posted a tentative suggestion, and was blown away by the response.
A few didn’t appreciate the concept: “I find it counter productive to even think of meditation as a competitive experience, especially now as the pandemic ravages the planet,” wrote one. But dozens more did, and started posting screenshots of how many birds they could get in 5 minutes. “This beats playing another round of computer games” in quarantine, one said.
Competitors signed up faster than I could keep track. At least half were not from the U.S. There was Paul from Sydney, Sami from Paris, Duc and Lan from Thailand, Bob from the UK, Arkadi from Toronto, and Abraham from Mexico, among many others.
Just like that, thanks to coronavirus, competitive meditation had become a global sport.
Just like that, thanks to coronavirus, competitive meditation had become a global sport.
And what competitors they were, working out kinks in the system that I hadn’t realized were there. While the two players in any given game were mid-meditation, the next two combatants were going through their one-minute calibration session and hitting pause so that we could go straight from one meditation to the next without breaking the flow.
All the group’s participants wanted to meditate for 5 minutes, but I’d seen in the friends’ tournament that 2 minutes was the longest the average audience member could stand; we compromised on 3 minutes per game, for which the maximum score was 35 birds.
After a couple of hours of tense head-to-head meditation matches, there were just three competitors left standing. One was my friend Kaila, who had used her Muse for just two months. The fact that she made it to the final three is a testament to the power of beginner’s mind. Another was a Montreal graduate student named Fadi, who had been enjoying his Muse for two years and claimed to have used it once for six straight hours of meditation. His score in both of his first two matches: 35 birds.
And then there was our mystery contender, an older bald gentleman whose Zoom ID read simply “iPad (9).” This, it turned out, was Randy Knudson, 67, a veteran attorney and personal injury lawyer from New Mexico (move over, Saul Goodman). Randy was the one who had invited me to join the Muse group in 2019, messaging me out of the blue last March to say he could beat any score in that year’s contest.
He wasn’t wrong. Randy has been a Muse user since it first came out in 2014, and an enthusiastic user since Interaxon worked out its early Bluetooth-based connection problems on the platform. “I am now on consecutive day 610, and generally meditate for two hours a day,” he told me after the contest. “I have more than 150,000 birds in total. So my secret is nothing more than a whole lot of practice.”
Of course, all the practice in the world doesn’t necessarily help you in the heat of competition. Randy also sailed through the opening rounds, but with 30 and 34 birds respectively, he couldn’t quite match Fadi’s perfect games. To whittle down the final three of Fadi, Kaila, and Randy, I instituted a round robin league. They’d all play each other in three games, and the total bird score would win.
The all-important final match, as it happened, was between Fadi and Randy. (Kaila, distracted by the sound of her opponents’ birds and attempting to meditate while using her father’s coronavirus-era gift of an oxygen concentrator — the most unusual performance enhancing substance yet — had seen her scores crater.) Going into the final game, Randy had a two-bird lead over Fadi — which he voluntarily gave up, declaring it would all rest on this last score. Sportsmanship, ladies and gentleman, is not dead.
You could have cut the tension on the Zoom chat with a knife. Had Randy made a fatal error giving up his lead? In the final three minutes, birds flew so thick and fast on both sides, and we had no clue who had won until they held up their phone screens at the end. Fadi: 33 birds. Randy: 34.
Competitive meditation had a new world champion, and it had happened by a one-bird margin. You couldn’t have scripted a better ending. Nor a better reason to continue: As I write, other members are waiting for Randy to schedule follow-up matches.
Needless to say, none of this would have happened without the brave new world into which the coronavirus has led us. It may not have been the live audience-based contest I’d envisaged, but March Mindfulness 2020 — and all the silly, social fun it engendered — will not be soon forgotten.