Meditation, technology, and Google Glass

glass buddha projectNew Hampshire magazine had a nice piece on some of the meditation facilities and teachers available in the state, and part of the article was about my work.

The Future of Meditation?
You’d think not much has changed about meditation in the two and a half millennia since Siddhārtha Gautama sat beneath the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. After all, it’s hard to modernize a practice that involves little more than sitting down and shutting up.

But according to Bodhipaksa, the founder of, an online meditation resource, meditators have been early adopters of technology ever since the invention of the book. “The world’s oldest printed text was a Buddhist book.” He explains that they understood the potential. “Buddhists were on it, ‘Oh, this is a way to reach people.'”

Bodhipaksa (pronounced bo-dee-pack-sha) started Wildmind as a grad student in Montana when he realized meditators were falling behind the curve in the Internet age. Now from his offices in Newmarket he publishes guided meditations online and via CD and mp3. He leads live Google + hangouts where meditators chat (and meditate) together. People from as many as six different countries have attended online sessions.

“For some people the sun was just rising and for some people it was kind of late in the evening and for some it was right in the afternoon,” he says. “It was fascinating.” On the other hand he has at least one student who attends classes online from just up the road in Newmarket.

The website gets about a million and a half visitors a year, he says.

“Whenever new tools come out, my first thought is ‘how can I use this to reach more people?'”

He’s currently experimenting with Google Glass (pictured) and has found that it can be a tool for teaching good meditation posture and perhaps offer a view of a serene landscape to someone actually surrounded by a bustling environment.

With various apps and social media, it’s possible to find support and fellowship online. “Someone who is geographically isolated can feel the power of being involved in this community,” says Bodhipaksa.

“How can I use this to reach more people?” pretty much sums up my attitude to technology and meditation, although “How can this be used to teach meditation better?” is an equally important question.

I’ve had Google Glass for a month now, but for most of that time I’ve been involved in a rather intensive project to teach study skills and personal development skills (including meditation) to teens from low income families, in order to boost their chances of getting into college, and that’s slowed down my explorations of Glass as a teaching tool.

But I have found Glass to be very useful as a recording device. I recorded several of the guided meditations I led for my summer teens, and although for reasons of confidentiality I probably won’t be posting the video on Youtube, I plan to extract the audio and make that available.

I’ve also made a couple of initial explorations of the potential for using Glass to show how mindfulness can be practiced in daily life. For example I might be driving while wearing Glass (yes, it’s safe) and get stuck behind a garbage truck doing its pickup, and record just a 30 second video explaining the situation and showing how rather than getting impatient you can use the time to connect with your body and your breathing, and to experience gratitude that there are people who help make our environment a better place to live in. It’s very early days with these explorations, but I hope to post some videos along those lines before long.

Lastly, I’d like to express my gratitude to the many people who contributed to our Glass Buddha Project in order to help me buy Glass so that I could experiment with it. In particular I’d like to acknowledge the exceptional support of Adrian Lucas of Sassakala Microfarm. Sassakala promotes “urban homesteading” — creating vertical microfarms in tiny spaces. Earlier this year I visited Sassakala’s microfarm in Florida and was blown away by the amount of food that could be produced in a truly minuscule space. Please visit Sassakala’s site. You never know, it may bring out the farmer in you!

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Not watching the news as a spiritual practice


Yesterday morning, on Google+ (my social network of choice) I shared a newspaper article by novelist Rolf Dobelli, called News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.

The lede of the article is “News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.” That’s the story in a nutshell.

Coincidentally, I’d just decided to go on a news fast. I’d been lamenting that I don’t have enough time to read books these days, and yet I commonly spend 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, and a similar amount of time dotted around the rest of the day, reading news articles and commentary. I tend to gravitate more to the commentary since this offers more of a analytical perspective — not just what the news is, but what it means.

Thinking about this, I realized that it’s not that I don’t have time to read books, but I’m choosing to do other things. So it seemed like it would be a good move to drop my news reading and to devote that time to more rewarding and productive activities. And so far that’s been great. I got half-way through a novel in the past week. And I’ve started reading On Intelligence, which Brendan wrote about a few days ago. (It’s a great article, by the way. Do read it.)

And I should say right here that I don’t have a television, and don’t watch news. The most I do is to read it. This is relevant, because not long after I posted the article by Dobelli, I heard the news that there had been a bombing at the Boston marathon. I got as far as skim-reading one article about this tragedy, and then remembered my news fast. The news was disturbing. Boston is close to home for me, and I probably know people who were running in the marathon.

The bombing comes four days into Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness, which is a way of consciously focusing on love and compassion. So yesterday I did lovingkindness as I walked to work and as I walked home. I felt very buoyant in the morning, and just a little less so in the afternoon. But I felt fine. A little sobered by the news, but basically OK.

And then I started encountering people who had been watching the news on TV. I could recognize them. They looked collapsed, shrunken, defeated. They looked haunted. I was reminded of the reports I’d read that levels of PTSD after 9/11 were directly correlated to how many times people had watched the towers collapse. The same footage, over and over again.

I started to pick up some of this haunted feeling myself, just by seeing and talking to my neighbors. I did a meditation in the evening called the karuna bhavana (development of compassion) and it was curiously flat. I was cultivating compassion for those affected by the tragedy, and for those who perpetrated it (I want to see them brought to justice, but I refuse to hate them). But the meditation felt a bit lifeless. That’s OK, though. It’s just how it was. But it felt not so much like the event itself was rolling through me, but that the toxic media coverage was seeping into me. It was like second-hand smoking for the mind.

I talked to one neighbor about how in times past it might have taken days or weeks for news like this to have reached us. And when we did hear about it we might literally have heard it in the form of a story delivered orally, or perhaps we might have read about it in a newspaper report. But there would have been no images. Now people’s consciousness is on the front lines. I haven’t watched any of the footage, but I know some of it features the explosions themselves, and bloodied bodies. I find it’s enough for me to know that a tragedy happened. I don’t need to see the severed limbs. Our minds don’t respond well to being on the front line of tragedy, day after day after day.

The news gives us a false sense of power, as if watching it will somehow protect us from events. But I remember the first few times I went abroad in countries where I could basically scrape by in the language for day to day purposes, but didn’t have a chance of understanding the details of a news broadcast. I worried that I’d miss something big. But returning home after two weeks it was as if I’d never been away at all. I hadn’t really missed anything. Not anything that directly affected my day-to-day life.

And in fact Dobelli makes the point that the news disables us. It fills us with anxiety.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

Dobelli uses the word “desensitization” and I think I see that. When I visit houses where the TV is always on, I’m shocked to see children (my children!) playing in the living room while a newsreader revels in the gory details of some murder-dismemberment. Would you talk to a five year old about such a thing? Why let a stranger do it? And yet this goes on in many, many households. I ask for the TV to be turned off.

I hear an objection: that I’m being overly detached by not watching or reading the news about a tragedy like this. You’ll have to take my word for it that I care. As I said above, until recently technology would have kept my awareness of such an event much more muted. Just because technology gives me an invitation to a ring-side seat at the carnage, I don’t see why I have to accept it. I choose not to attend, because I don’t want to “connect” in fear and horror. I’ll save my energies for being as loving and compassionate as I can, with the limited resources at my disposal.

And no, I’m not criticizing anyone who watches the news. I just invite you to consider that it is a choice: that you have a choice. I invite you to become aware of the toxic effect of watching TV news, and of the time-wasting effect even of reading it. The only way to do this, of course, is to stop, at least temporarily. Some people will panic at the very thought, which really makes my point for me.

Yesterday was a heckuva day to give up reading the news. But in a way it’s a good test. I’m going to continue testing out the hypothesis that news is bad for you, and that giving up reading it will make me happier. Just based on yesterdays events, I believe that’s true.

Update: Here’s a great comment from Facebook.

There is a big difference between “turning a blind eye” or not caring, and this approach in which you do not traumatize yourself through repeated watching of violent events, and anxiety-driven reporting. Not watching the mainstream news constantly does not equal being uninformed!

I absolutely agree.

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New magazine aims to capitalize on ‘mindfulness’ movement

Holly Bailey, Yahoo! News, The Lookout: Meditation used to be a ritual associated largely with the serene setting of the yoga studio. But in recent years, a wide range of people—from Marines and office workers to even a member of Congress—have embraced a modern take on the practice called “mindfulness,” a Buddhism-inspired mental technique that encourages participants to focus on “being in the present” in hopes of leading a less stressful and more productive life.

Another sign of the movement’s journey into the mainstream: the arrival of Mindful, a new bimonthly magazine aimed at encouraging the mindfulness movement and helping average Americans apply…

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News of selfless acts has positive effect: study

Good news begets better people.

That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of “moral identity” were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans’ selfless acts.

According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.

He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.

“Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people,” said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

“The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen’s recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour.”

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.

“These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness,” Aquino said in an interview. “We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we’re talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.

“Acts that require enormous…

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sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others.”

Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.

However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.

The second story recounted a couples’ experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.

Those exposed to the story of the Amish community’s uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.

In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you’d typically expect.

Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it’s described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.

A second group was shown McLachlan’s Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.

Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.

“It’s a group of people that generally wouldn’t evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you’re presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help.”

Media role
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.

“Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation,” he said.

Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.

“Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful,” said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. “There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others.”

People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.

“These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts,” he said.

Aquino said he didn’t know if a person’s culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem “virtuous.”

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