March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
The world final of Competitive Meditation took place last week. It was an absolute thrill ride. Two rivals from a previous match went head to head again; the one who lost last time found redemption and became the best version of her inner self.
It had all the “do you believe in miracles” drama we expect, but so rarely actually get, from our sports. And it all took place in just five minutes.
Okay, sure, all this was just two people at a conference table in the San Francisco HQ of meditation app Calm, plus one referee (yours truly) and about a dozen spectators drawn from the disparate worlds of meditation and video games.
But for all who were there, there was a giddiness to the moment, a sense of excitement at the possibilities being modeled before our eyes, a feeling we were witnessing the beginning of a curiously addictive future sport. All it needs to be ESPN-ready is color commentators.
Competitive Meditation: not just a great joke, but a genuine sport in the making. That’s the first of many lessons I’ve learned from running our contest over the last month. Here are the others:
1. Gamers are better at this than experienced meditators.
The theme for this year’s March Mindfulness tournament was Gamers v. Meditators. The finals pitted the top two highest-scoring meditators versus their gamer counterparts. In practice, that meant the winner and runner up of the tournament at GDC, the world’s most popular conference for people who write video games, versus the winners of the bracket at the world’s most popular meditation app.
In the Calm Corner: Aleena Abrahamian, officially the Calmest person at Calm, and Ben Chandler, holder of the Competitive Meditation world record (59 out of a possible 60 birds in a 5-minute game under tournament conditions).
In the GDC Corner: gamesmiths Megan Hughes and Bunny Hanlon, neither of whom had a regular meditation practice the day they started playing.
With the pressure on, all four finalists adopted distinct strategies that verged on being superstitions.
Aleena wrapped herself in a cozy blanket, exactly as she had done the day she won the Calm contest while chugging NyQuil.
Ben had opted to cover his eyes with a black wooly hat.
Megan preferred to block out sound — somewhat, at least, wearing regular wired earbuds that trailed away, connected to nothing.
Bunny had decided from the start that she could only meditate competitively if she were sitting on the floor, propped up against a wall, which she said was the only way she could fend off accidental sleep (which actually doesn’t produce any birds, since the brain is noisy just after nodding off).
The first semi-final, Ben v Megan, looked like the battle of the see-no-evil and the hear-no-evil monkeys. I couldn’t resist having my picture taken between them, hand over mouth.
The world record holder got five birds. Megan, the mother of five, got 18.
In the second semi-final, Aleena discovered that not having cold symptoms was a disadvantage: she “pushed out” (as Aleena likes to call it) just 3 birds. Meanwhile, Bunny was on a roll with 21.
Which meant that this first world Competitive Meditation final — intended for a gamer and a meditator — would be between two gamers. It would, in fact, be a replay of the GDC final.
2. This is a sport for underdogs. Reversals of fortune are common.
More often than not, the underdog in any given game does better than expected. At least a third of the time, they win. Over and over, you see players who start tournaments with the highest scores in the first round trip up in rounds 2 and 3 as they feel the pressure of holding up to the initial standard they set.
Megan knew this only too well. By being the favorite for the final, having won the previous match-up with Bunny, she was paradoxically likely to lose. During a friendly match against Aleena prior to the final, Megan suddenly couldn’t stop laughing.
It was all too insanely, wonderfully ridiculous, she told us, how invested she now was. In the blink of an eye, she’d gone from not knowing a thing about Competitive Meditation to being a Champion to facing the pressure of defending that championship.
Aleena won the friendly, 18-5. But wait — did this lopsided loss make Megan technically the underdog again?
3. It’s about exploring your brain.
While Megan was generally reliant on her preternatural levels of chill — the kind you discover while bringing up five kids — Bunny was aggressively iterating. “My technique was trial and error,” she told me later. Focusing on her breath didn’t work for her. Nor did picturing something serene. “So I just decided to explore my brain and see if I could land somewhere that made the birds start.”
The winner received the idea of a trophy
Bunny is a narrative designer and community manager for Illinois-based nonprofit I Need Diverse Games, not a neurologist. Her plan was entirely intuitive and amounted to focusing her attention on different areas inside her skull.
It didn’t matter that she spent half a game hearing thunderstorms because she was focusing on areas that showed up as “noisy” on the Muse. It was worth it to find the point of focus that paid off as a reliable source of birds.
Once she’d found that focal point in the semi-final, Bunny found it easy to access the same brain space in the final. In all other brackets, the final was a tense affair with scores in single digits. But Bunny romped to victory in the final final, 42 birds to 7, the master of her brain domain.
As befits the sport, the winner received the idea of a trophy.
4. This is one sport that brings out the nice in people.
As much fun as it has been to write this all up in the style of sports commentary, the one aspect that distinguishes Competitive Meditation is how friendly it all felt. We’re talking Great British Bake-off levels of congeniality. Bunny and Megan were the nicest finalists imaginable; if you saw them afterwards you’d be hard pressed to guess which one of them had just won.
We’d already seen in previous rounds how trash-talking competitors lost and anti-trash talking — hardcore complimenting your opponent — competitors won. The niceness was infectious, and it was the kind of niceness that only comes out in friendly competition (think softball league).
Yes, you’re kind of gaming a system designed for quiet reflection and self-improvement. But so what? If it pushes you into discovering what works for you, then it works. Come for the game, stay for the de-stressing effects.
Meditation has oodles of benefits to bring to individuals and to society as a whole, but the lighthearted fun and super-chill atmosphere of March Mindfulness seems a paradoxically good way to deliver it — especially to gamers.