1. Science class
The principal calls this a mindful school.
Johane Ligondé is effusively warm but with the kind of emotional solidity you'd expect from someone who wakes each morning to manage more than 1,000 kids at the only public middle school in the village of Freeport in Long Island, New York. She is also an aromatherapist and life coach who hangs a sign reading "I AM AN OPTIMIST" in her windowless office.
At John W. Dodd Middle School, some of the students' primary struggles are common to many young teenagers: depression, anxiety, self-harm and the looming shadow of sudden violence.
So every morning during homeroom, a student or staff member leads the entire building through eight minutes of breathing meditation over the PA system. In detention, students are "invited," Ligondé said, to do mindfulness exercises, "so it's not just a space for punishment, it's a space for reflection." A "social-emotional learning curriculum" has been introduced, teaching them conflict and relationship management.
At 11 AM, four periods into a drizzly Wednesday in June, Ligondé watches seventh graders shuffle in for science class and take their seats between model skeletons and posters of plant-cell structures. Some stare blankly into the middle distance.
Their assignment is to meditate. Half the students slump their foreheads into the crook of their arm, resting on top of tables or thick ring binders. They are the control group.
The other half strap on purple, cardboard VR headsets and clip pulse monitors to their fingers. The teacher, Vanessa Vidalon, turns down the lights, and the class hushes, save for some snapping of elastic headbands over white earbuds and the clacks of phones dropped on desks.
The VR students find themselves in a virtual meadow, tracing the flight path of a butterfly. They match their breath to the rise and fall of its wings, guided by a gentle voice. A dreamy synthesizer plays in the background. For five minutes, this is all they do in silence. "Remember, you can always come back here in your mind," the voice says as the scene ends.
Vidalon asks, "How many of you feel calmer from when you first walked in?" About half the class raises their hands, including most of the VR group. "How many of you didn't get enough sleep?" The remaining hands go up.
The VR animation is simplistic. But the isolation factor that's long been seen as a headwind for widespread virtual reality adoption is perhaps what makes this experience work. The kids can't look around the room, giggle or get distracted. They don't feel watched or judged by one another. The transportive graphics also have a greater allure for young teens than an audio track alone. Like any guided meditation, it doesn't do the work for you though. "This is not 'Oh, I don't know how to be calm, I'm going to put this headset on,'" said Dumeetha Luthra, an ex-BBC correspondent from North London who founded Take-Pause, the company behind the experience. "For me this is training wheels. ... This is a little hack to get you there."
"For me this is training wheels. ... This is a little hack to get you there."
The students record their stress level and heart rate before and after each meditation. After three days, students in the VR group show about a further 10 percent decrease in heart rate and stress than the control group. Keep in mind these are 12- to 13-year-olds, so their experiment might not withstand peer review in the Lancet. Some students arrived pumped from third-period gym; another noted that "I really enjoyed sleeping during class." But the effects of meditation are usually felt gradually -- this was quantified evidence for the class.
There are all sorts of higher-level aspirations for practicing mindful meditation -- recognizing your conditioning, creating space around your emotions -- but for students experiencing the stressors, emotions and impulses of adolescence, this basic, measurable relief helps.
The same could be said for adults. Mindfulness has boomed in popularity in recent years. The meditation-industrial complex is worth more than $1 billion in the US, with 18 million Americans practicing. Research into meditation soared over the past decade, associating the practice with improved focus, reduced stress and less emotional reactivity, legitimizing mindfulness' entry into NFL teams, the US Marines and corporate-benefits schemes. It figures: This is an age when busyness borders on fetish, news cycles sound practically dystopian and merely being present in the moment is a commodity.
With this new market comes a proliferation of ways to perform a time-honored practice where the equipment costs are technically zero. You can use apps like Headspace to meditate from home. You can visit drop-in meditation domes ($26 for 35 minutes); co-working spaces with handmade, iPad-controlled gongs like the Assemblage in Manhattan; or high-end retreat centers like Esalen in the Bay Area. You can meditate with the corporate elite at TED-style summits like Wisdom 2.0 or with their grittier, inked brethren at Dharma Punx.
This is not Buddhism per se. The religion had a cultural rise in the US in the 1950s, part of the Beat generation and mid-century reaction to a consumerist American dream. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, was developed in the 1970s at the University of Massachusetts, giving credence to the idea of meditation as medical practice. Today, mainstream mindfulness is more self-help than spirituality, physiological rather than moral. It's part of traditional Buddhism but divorced from the rest of its practices, then secularized, gentrified, Westernized and crunched through the capitalist apparatus. And wherever mindfulness goes, technology has seemed to be stalking behind, with apps, gadgets and full-blown curricula.
Ligondé has been the principal at J.W. Dodd for the past five years and has meditated "religiously" for four. "My dream is for every student to feel loved in a school," Ligondé said. "People think I'm weird, and I'm OK with that." This June was her first time bringing tech-assisted meditation into the classroom.
As the school bell rings, Vidalon asks the students if they enjoyed the meditation.
"Yeeees," they groan, obligatorily and in unison.
Vidalon reminds them their final exams are tomorrow. There's a collective sigh, and the stress levels in the room whoosh back up palpably.
Technology may have catalyzed the students' meditation practice, but it's not like it can force them into that state. At least not this technology.