Virtual Reality

Why Social Mindfulness in VR is different from anything you’ve felt before

After two sessions running group mindfulness trainings in VR (and even venturing underwater!), I wanted to step back and take a moment to describe the experience. And, as ever with VR, there’s always a shade lost in translation — i.e. you just have to be there. The Mindfulness Experience is a learning series in VR running throughout the fall. Stay tuned to hear about the next session and join us.

Our state of attention varies, just like conditions in the weather. Because virtual reality is such a closed and focused environment, it can be an ideal place for building mindfulness skills of attention, self-awareness, and presence, which allow us to connect on a deeper level. Mindfulness can be distilled down to “a choice of how to be.” It’s a way of being, a choice of how to “be present” in each unfolding moment. VR gives us an ideal opportunity to practice that. And practicing in a group there is unlike anything before.

I sense there’s some sort of paradox here. When I lead a mindfulness retreat, I’ll often also call it a “tech sabbatical”—I’ll power off my phone, unplug from my devices, and choose, quite deliberately, to dwell is the physical environment around me. I’m intentional about doing simple things, and honing my focus. Recently, I went for a walk outdoors, and I stopped at one point beside a beautiful tree. The tree was categorically beautiful, yes, but it was its singular beauty that captivated me. Do you know what I mean? It was not “a tree”, it was “the tree”, or better yet, “this tree”, with its wide-spreading yellow leaves, the way its branches reached their crooked tapers toward the sky. Its very uniqueness, its detail, its quality entirely unto itself, even as it bore a relationship to the things and categories surrounding it. My awareness was heightened, just touching this tree and focusing my attention on it, on purpose.

This was a mindfulness exercise, no doubt. Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said.

There are benefits to this sort of exercise, I’m convinced, and science is backing me up. I don’t need research to have confidence in mindfulness practices that my body knows are good for it. As the adage goes by Adriene Mishler, Find what feels good. So, what feels good to me?

Right now, mindfulness in VR feels good. Practicing it in a group, as a social experience, feels extraordinary, as the learning happens in a collective form, and everyone takes the practices and makes them their own on an individual level. And it gives me a sense that we are experiencing something special before the rest of the world discovers just how remarkable it is. That also has a buzzy sort of feeling, like discovering a band you know is great before it becomes big. VR allows me to transport myself instantly to a scene, a place, capturing the essence of “being there.” Maybe the difference is, it doesn’t depend on the tree in the woods, or the walk to get there. A mindfulness experience in VR is not a shade of one in the real world. They are entirely two different things, each with merit, and each with a focus on tuning into the quality of present moment. It’s not a substitute for the time outside with the yellow tree, and it’s not a substitute for nature, or for my “real world” experiences and encounters with mindfulness.

The difference in VR is that my attention, in practicing mindfulness in a VR environment, is able to focus, without interruption, on the essence of “being there” in a virtual world with new visceral inputs. My cellphone isn’t distracting me, my seemingly urgent needs can be put aside for the space and time I’m in VR, and I’m invited into a state where my sole focus is on attending to what’s in front of me. Everything else can wait, as my attention and state of consciousness is what is prime, and this is the essence of mindfulness in VR. Because my body and senses have undergone their own transformation to enter the VR realm, much like you might imagine an astronaut going through a chamber for pressurization and recalibration before entering a different atmosphere, in VR, my body and senses are undergoing a change already, some sort of translation exercise that’s visceral.

It’s a subconscious shift rather that a conscious adaptation, and I would venture a guess that it’s this special state of being that might allow me and encourage me to be more open, more flexible in this new environment. I’m curious about everything, and my childlike sense of wonder and curiosity takes over. We have a collective exuberance, as the newness of the shared experience involves our senses being wrapped up in it.

Sharing and learning about mindfulness practices while in a group in VR feels natural and relaxed, with a virtual sunrise across the fields.

Is it overpowering? You might wonder… the thing is, the environment can be as simple or complex as we choose to make it, and it’s our mindful attention that dwells in the quality of a space that’s both sanctuary and studio. A solace, for sure, throughout. And, there’s all sorts of tips, approaches, exercises and reminders that translate back into my “real world” outlook and practices, lasting throughout the week. So, there’s direct learning transfer.

After years of running workshops and trainings on mindfulness, design and storytelling in leadership and learning “in the real world” I’m excited to be holding these mindfulness training sessions in VR throughout the fall. They’re called The Mindfulness Experience, set in a beautiful series of VR environments hosted by Chris Madsen, using the ENGAGE social learning platform. And, I’m continuing to explore and apply the latest research as we go. Follow the updates here on the blog, and hear what course participants have to say about it in their own words. In simplest form, a VR social experience in mindfulness is unlike anything you’ve felt before! I’m dedicated to mindful learning and celebrating the unique experience of practicing mindfulness in a virtual world.

Photo Credits: Chris Madsen

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