March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology. It culminates in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
There are many things I like about Competitive Meditation — not least of which is the name. It’s sure to bring a confused frown or a bemused smile to the face of anyone who hears it for the first time.
Which is fitting for a sport that is at once extremely serious and utterly hilarious. Think of Competitive Meditation as the mental equivalent of a summer softball league. Using a brain-sensing headband, it lets friends and colleagues play for bragging rights over who can keep the coolest head.
At the same time it demystifies the act and pursuit of meditation, in particular bringing it to the attention of those competitive Type-A personas who often need its calming and coping effects the most. What’s not to love?
It is the only sport you win by not caring about winning.
One year after creating the sport for a Mashable tournament, a year in which I continued to referee demonstration matches and learned much more about its potential, I can categorically state the best thing about Competitive Meditation is this: It is the only sport you win by not caring about winning.
As we prepare for the second year of our March Mindfulness tournament, in which video game players will face off against meditation app employees, here’s the FAQ — everything you wanted to know about Competitive Meditation but were too serene to ask.
What is Competitive Meditation?
Competitive Meditation is a fledgling sport I invented in which two players go head to head, literally, for 5 minutes. The game is administered by a referee.
In a Competitive Meditation match, players wear a brain-sensing headband called the Muse. The headband brings a thin strip of electrodes to the forehead. It is able to pick up weak electrical signals from the brain via EEG (electroencephalogram, a standard medical brainwave-detecting test). The Muse is fast becoming an industry standard device; other apps are building atop its “EEG Anywhere” platform.
The Muse app translates your brain’s sparks of electricity, which fire any time you have a thought, into audio cues. It translates silence into another audio cue. That second cue become an objective measurement of how successful your meditation is — in other words, a score.
In one-person meditation with the Muse, headphones are generally used. In competitive meditation, both players can hear the other’s audio. Many sports see players boasting about getting inside their opponents’ head. Only Competitive Meditation fans know for sure.
How is the game scored?
When a player’s brain is noisy, various nature sounds are heard (the default is a rainstorm). Every time their brain is quiet for 5 seconds, the sound of a bird chirping is played. Every further 5 seconds of quiet equals one more bird. The app records the total number of birds heard. The player that hears the most birds in 5 minutes — from 1 to a maximum of 60 — is the winner.
The world record thus far is 54.
While competitive meditation can be limited to individual games, it is best constructed as a knock-out bracket contest (such as March Mindfulness). A tournament allows a given environment — a workplace, a social group, a team of players of any other sport — to discover whom amongst them is literally the most chill.
Isn’t meditation supposed to be the opposite of competition?
A regular meditation practice has been shown, repeatedly, by science, to be helpful in reducing anxiety and depression. Over time, it literally changes the physical size of various areas of your brain. It can help increase your willpower and change bad habits, as I recently discovered.
So you shouldn’t ever berate yourself for failing to quiet your mind or focus on your breath, because this stuff is really hard — and failing is part of the process. All that really matters with meditation is that you regularly attempt it. It’s not whether you win, it’s whether you’re playing the game.
Still, we’re pretty good as a species at turning everything into a competition, even activities that don’t have to be competitive and rely entirely on subjective judgment (synchronized swimming, ice-skating, gymnastics). Competition is how we learn, grow, and gain the desire to do more. There’s no shame in that.
Most people who use a meditation app like Calm and Headspace are already being competitive with themselves — if only on the question of how long you can maintain a “streak” of meditating every day, a number these apps are at pains to point out.
If you’ve ever compared your total meditation minutes in any app on different days and felt spurred on to do more next week, congratulations — you’re already a competitive meditator.
Try as we might to be egalitarian, we seem primed by our evolutionary programming to rank feats of mental discipline. We want to know who has their head in the game. And with good reason: it’s what makes a winner. Almost every athlete in every sport will tell you about the importance of being in a state of “flow,” where one is entirely focused, time slows down and the ego disappears.
Flow is, more or less, what Competitive Meditation seeks as well.
Competitive Meditation takes the practice as far away as possible from New Age clichés.
Besides, meditating with others is simply more fun. It helps you not take the whole thing too seriously, which is an enormous advantage when trying to keep one’s mind quiet. I also believe that turning meditation into a game helps people avoid being alone with the dark and traumatic thoughts that can come up for some meditators.
All in all, this is why almost everything you’ve read about meditation and mindfulness is missing the mark. It’s preaching to the converted. Competitive Meditation takes the practice as far away as possible from New Age clichés, and brings its proven benefits to an entirely new crowd: sports and games fans.
I don’t meditate. Can I still participate?
Absolutely. You could be a natural. The winner of the world’s first meditation tournament did not meditate. In his best match, his world-record score was six birds away from a perfect game.
Most sports require years of practice before you can even get close to being on the same level as the masters. But Zen Buddhism teaches the importance of Shoshin, which means having a “beginner’s mind.” Competitive Meditation will show the truth of that more often than you think.
Is trash-talking encouraged?
Competitive Meditation matches themselves should be held in silence, with or without a live audience. But players should not be penalized for laughter; it’s a release of tension that can actually help both sides find their calm. It is, after all, an inherently ridiculous setup.
Before and after the game, however, trash-talking is absolutely encouraged. The Onion was on to something when it published this satirical take way back in 1996 — Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship: ‘I am the Serenest,’ he says.
What has helped players so far?
Another very interesting factor in Competitive Meditation is that players love to experiment. Does focusing on your breath work for you? How about thinking of a mantra, a word or set of words or sounds that you repeat in your head over and over? Some players prefer lying down, some sit. Some stay still, others find that moving around works best for them.
In my own personal headband experiments, very little seems to bring me more birds than using the Apple Watch’s Breathe app at the same time. Congratulations, Apple. Don’t let it go to your head.
Small movements — touching fingertips to each other, say — also seem to help calm my usually overactive mind. Then again, the two finalists of last year’s tournament — seen below — stayed stock-still. In Competitive Meditation, your mind’s mileage will always vary.
Some commonsense advice has emerged from a year of practice that will improve any player’s game. Make sure you’ve eaten and gone to the bathroom beforehand, because you don’t want to find your mind distracted by an empty stomach or a full bladder. Make sure your face is as relaxed as possible, as the Muse’s EEG can pick up on electrical signals from a tense forehead.
Drinking coffee, not surprisingly, doesn’t help. Nor, more surprisingly, does falling asleep: The brain is actually quite noisy at that point (think of all those weird images that flash through your head on the edge of sleep). You want to be relaxed yet focused, completely in the zone — exactly the mental space we all long to occupy in the rest of our lives. Competitive Meditation is a sport that can literally help you live your best self.
Like any modern sport, of course, Competitive Meditation is going to have to wrestle at some point with the question of performance-enhancing chemicals. Should Xanax be allowed? How about marijuana? Further experimentation is needed to discover if these substances make all players more calm across the board — or if your mileage will vary there too.
At the end of the day, there is one attitude that seems to work for everyone, and that is lightheartedness about the whole exercise. The players who come into the room with clenched fists — the ones with something to prove to themselves, the preemptively defensive ones, or the ones who won a prior game and think they have to keep up a victory streak — are almost guaranteed to hear nothing but rain.
But the ones who come in with ridiculous grins, the ones who get the joke, who understand it’s just a game, who loosen up and have fun with it? They are the champions, my friends.
Tune in next week for our first report on March Mindfulness, 2019 edition, when the game-players of our sister website IGN take on the chilled-out employees of meditation app Calm.
Who is the serenest? We’ll know soon enough.
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