Can You Buy Your Way to Enlightenment?

We examined the science behind five high-tech meditation aids to find out if they're worth the hype.
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Somadome, the escape pod

From virtual reality to the Somadome, Yoga Journal investigates five meditation aids to find out if they actually work.

I don’t want to mess with your meditation practice. Not today, not ever. And if you haven’t joined the countless who have discovered meditation’s gifts, now may be the time to start—because we know that it’s doing something good for us. Those who have a regular practice (myself included) tend to feel happier, calmer, and less likely to lose it when the cold winds blow (which inevitably, they do). And ultimately, that’s all that the Buddha ever wanted for humanity—a little loving kindness, a little more compassion, a little less torturing ourselves (and each other) with our criticism and judgy nonsense.

But before you start investing in classes, spendy cushions, or trendy in-home meditation space, Steven Leonard, a mind-body personal trainer who runs a meditation workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health with Dartmouth College neuroscientist Andrew Heusser, says you might want to begin with defining your intention. “There are countless reasons why people might meditate, so someone developing a practice should ask themselves: What are my goals? What am I looking to cultivate? Relaxation? Focus? Spirituality? Am I looking for the nature of reality?

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Once you understand your goals, tracking your practice may help you focus more quickly, and there is a wealth of high-tech meditation aids available—think phone apps and EEG-sensing headbands to $35,000 isolation pods—all promising to launch your journey into higher consciousness and well-being. In fact, the meditation industry itself is estimated at $1.1 billion in the United States alone. (Not exactly what the Buddha had intended.) You can now spend mucho bucks on gadgets that claim to clear out the junk in your brain in a fraction of the time it takes to attain enlightenment through more traditional practices (several lifetimes for some). But do any of these devices actually deliver?

To find out, we turned to the science.

So we’re going into this technology-assisted meditation thing with a world of hope and a healthy dose of, if not outright, skepticism—and an understanding that the science may not be there yet to justify the expense (or download). The important thing to remember, as meditation teacher Steven Leonard noted earlier, is that when it comes to meditation, intention is the whole ballgame. The why will help inform the how.

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His point is that if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find the right tool. “People are multidimensional beings: physiological, emotional, spiritual,” he says. Which is why having a meditation practice, however you do it, may lead you to the ocean of possibilities that exist in the world. “The clearer a person is about why they’re meditating, the clearer they can be about their own success with it.”