Like most people whose life depends on a smartphone and a wifi connection, meditation seems like a great concept — in theory, at least. It’s supposed to put me in touch with my innermost thoughts and out of touch with the distraction of social media and life and work — which is something I want, desperately.
In reality, I’m helpless against the flow of errant thoughts, no matter how many smooth-voiced gentlemen the App Store recruits to chase them away. I knew that if I wanted to meditate, I’d need serious guidance. So when a virtual reality company told me I could immerse myself in a VR simulation called Finding Your True Self, led by the voice of the Deepak Chopra, my distraction-addled mind glimpsed a chance to escape.
A Wevr rep sits me at a long table in a glass-walled boardroom at the heart of a bustling Manhattan PR firm. I’m alone, save for a Samsung Galaxy strapped to my face and headphones camped over my ears, plunging me into nothingness. A few days before, Wevr’s co-founder Anthony Batt told me over the phone that the VR experience would “hijack my audio and visual systems,” that the effect would be “profound.” I wince at the thought of the well-dressed New Yorkers on the other side of the glass watching me during my moment of profundity. But before anxiety can take over, the VR simulation starts, and the terror begins.
I am seated at the edge of a cliff under a tree, overlooking an empty plain straight out of The Lion King. Wind whirls in my ears as I take in the arid yellow soil, the few low-lying acacias writhing under the sun, and the sky’s relentless blue. A massive crystal teardrop hangs in the middle distance, spinning slowly like a white Zelda coin. Suddenly, Deepak Chopra’s deep, stilted voice commands me to breathe. It’s omnipresent; I look for its source and dread unfurls within me as I realize that the voice is in my skull. (At least, at this point, I’m fairly sure I have a skull.) As the coin gives way to a series of intimidating, many-faced Hindu gods and the sky melts from sunset gold to blood orange-red to majestic purple, Deepak Chopra questions my existence, and all my certainty dissolves.
I do not remember which gods reproach me as Deepak Chopra demands that I ask myself: Who am I? I dare to look up, then down, discovering that the figure before me is suspended within a six-sided cage formed by beaming mandalas in the dark sky and on the ground. Deepak Chopra is brutal. Who am I? he barks again. Listen to the sound of my voice. Who is experiencing the sound of my voice? I wish he’d stop taunting to let me think, or that I could throw my hands over his cruel mouth to shut him up, but here I can’t find his mouth, and I do not have hands. Then the ground below me crumbles into black nothingness, and Deepak Chopra reassures me: You remain always. Helpless, I have no choice but to agree.
Suspended in space now, floating among waves of color on endless blackness, I contemplate a hairy ball of light that resembles an image of a technicolor neuron. In another life, it might have made a fine desktop wallpaper. But when you confront the true nature of yourself — in the words of Deepak Chopra, my true essence is “genderless, nationless, and ageless” — space doesn’t offer the support you need. My physicality was all I’d had left, and Deepak Chopra, that bastard, had stripped it away. I am scared stupid without my shell, and I’m powerless as a green-gold Cupid’s bow, huge as the moon, rises ominously before me. I shrink as it gives way to Buddha’s upper lips — I see it all now — a massive moss-green idol with no eyes and its right hand raised as if I were a fly to crush. Deepak Chopra says that my being can’t die, and now I believe it, because what I once thought was my being would have died from fright by now, yet here I am, alive as fuck.
Maybe Deepak Chopra was right. When he commands me to listen to the sounds around me — the birds, the wind, the glassy chords of a synth — something experiences it. Is it me? I listen harder and hear a heart’s pulsing rhythm, then suddenly realize, as the edge of space flickers with the beat, that it’s my heart I’m hearing, my blood, rushing violently past my temples, shaking the Samsung Gear strapped to my skull. My skull! I acknowledge my inner essence, and it decides then that Deepak Chopra is a dick.
Buddha disappears and I’m on a cliff again, but now a red candle takes the place of the Zelda coin on the plain. It flickers into a stemless rose, and as Deepak Chopra thunders something about love and warmth, I feel unmoored and exhausted. Taking the headset off is like stepping into time; I fail to remember anything I’d experienced because there are no visual anchors in that staid, solid board room in the middle of concrete Manhattan to which I could peg my feverish memories. The Wevr rep tells me that I had been there twelve minutes. It might as well have been twelve years.
I’m mad at Deepak Chopra. This was supposed to be my chance to get some peace and quiet, and instead I emerge more stressed out than before. Even worse, this is a different flavor of stress than the one I was used to. The stress I knew was caused by other people — my obligations to their texts, their e-mails, their Instagram likes. This, though, was anxiety inflicted on myself, by myself. Deepak Chopra, for all his brutality, did deliver on meditation’s promise — to isolate me from the connected world — and that experience is far more terrifying than being inundated with connectivity. “When you put on VR, this is what you’re doing — it’s distraction-less,” Batt had told me, on the phone, in a different life.
VR, I realize, is the loneliest reality; when we are alone with ourselves, the experience is far from peaceful. My post-Deepak life is no less stressful, but I am painfully aware of why I distract myself in the first place. And that makes all the difference.