Right now I’m suspended in the air, high above the ground, as if gripped in an invisible giant’s fist. Strangely I don’t feel scared at all. Leaves dance around me in a milky, impossible sky. This time yesterday I was on a deserted beach, the horizon ahead of me a calm cerulean line, the waves crashing on the shore and receding with my breath. I feel still. Like time has slowed down and the vice around my ribcage has finally loosened. To clarify: I haven’t picked up a supernatural penchant for flying, nor do I have Taylor Swift’s private jet at my disposal to escape to faraway places on a whim. Recently I feel better than I have in a long time, and it’s down to one surprising life change: virtual reality.
Nights are lost to flitting thoughts or memories, like a camera obscura forcing me to sit through every triggering event of my life. In the daytime, thundering anxiety and imposter syndrome loom large, my heart a balled-up fist pounding in my throat.
For context, mindfulness has always eluded me. I’ve never been someone who can easily calm the static or compartmentalise my thoughts. I'm often told by my partner – in a gentle way – that I’m not present. And it’s true. I struggle to be in the moment because the recesses of my mind clang loud and far. But post-lockdown, for whatever reason, it has become pervasive. Nights are lost to flitting thoughts or memories, like a camera obscura forcing me to sit through every triggering event of my life. In the daytime, thundering anxiety and imposter syndrome loom large, my heart a balled-up fist pounding in my throat.
Coming from Asian heritage, it’s standard practice not to prioritise mental health because of ingrained cultural beliefs: therapy means you're 'crazy', it's unnecessary money, telling a stranger your secrets will bring shame on your family. For transparency, I’ve started therapy now but I know that mindfulness – the acceptance, tolerance, awareness and presence in the moment that it can foster – can be a powerful accompaniment. Trouble is, my attention span is short and I have a wandering brain. I’m ashamed to say I’ve downloaded a slew of meditation apps and later, in the space of a day, deleted them to free up memory on my phone.
Initially, when I was sent a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset to try out, I floated through space stations, killed zombies and chopped vegetables in hyper-realistic kitchens. I was impressed. It all felt so real. It never occurred to me to try the headset for something like mindfulness; I always assumed that if the practice was about switching off, then any form of technology would surely be a hindrance. But one day, out of curiosity, I downloaded the meditation app TRIPP.
The app has a calming user interface with tranquil music and clear-cut prompts for intentions such as 'Focus', 'Calm' and other popular guided meditation courses. Because the headset completely obstructs your vision, you have no choice but to give what you're doing on it your full, unadulterated attention. It's the equivalent of choosing to have your eyes prised open and watching something, Clockwork Orange-style. You would have to remove the headset entirely in order to be distracted by something else.
The first day, I chose 'Daily Calm' and was transported to a dark forest illuminated with lanterns, impossibly huge mushrooms towering above me, shrinking and expanding like a cosy cocoon. It felt like a safe space. Prompted by the headset, I did a box breathing exercise. On every inhale it asked me to summon up feelings of compassion for myself and on every exhale to breathe them back into the world (on the headset I could see tiny clouds of sparks flying from what looked like my mouth).
You deserve peace and happiness. I could feel my eyes welling up under the headset.
Next, a gentle voice explained to me that not feeling good enough was a universal human feeling, normal and natural, but that I deserved not to let it take up too much space in my mind. You deserve peace and happiness. I could feel my eyes welling up under the headset. It asked me to focus on the last time I felt panicked and then recall the voice of someone I found powerful and authoritative. Honestly, I have zero explanation for this – you could quiz me in 50 years' time under torture-based duress and I still would not know why – but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez popped into my mind. I imagined her voice firmly dismissing the negative thought, telling it to go away. After a few times, I suddenly felt much lighter.
"If we think of mindfulness as a muscle and as a skill, it's something that we need to practise in order to get better at it, and there is a body of research that supports the idea that VR can aid the development of mindfulness practice as well as increasing positive emotions," explains Kirsty Leah, a positive psychologist and wellbeing coach. "The use of VR allows the user to enter a virtual environment of their own choice, providing a sense of control and autonomy, rather than feeling pressured to adapt to a context that they don't fully feel able to connect or engage with. Ultimately, the use of virtual reality may be a fantastic stepping stone for those who struggle to build a mindful practice in the 'real' world. It removes possible distractions that an individual might let their mind wander to. Once the skill is practised and that 'mindfulness muscle' is more substantial, it's a skill that we can then transfer to other contexts and situations."
Since then, I’ve tried guided meditation on the headset for anxiety, gratitude, acceptance, grief and finding happiness, in settings such as golden beaches, bamboo-laden forests and peaceful lake vistas. The anxiety is still there, humming away, but every day I have a tiny bit more of a handle on how I feel.
Later, when I read the reviews on the app I realised that there are a multitude of reasons why VR may work for various people. One reviewer explained: "I am a wheelchair user and my life has changed a lot since my injury, especially my mental health. Since being on this app I have noticed a huge difference...I feel a lot more focused, my anxiety has lowered a lot, and [I am] much calmer… I love all the different worlds and the awesome feeling I am floating." Another user added: "First off let me say that as someone who practiced meditation for 23 yrs, I wasn't expecting much, I mean come on it's VR. I was so wrong. I am able to achieve an entirely different and deeper level of meditation with this app shutting out the [world] and focusing is so much easier for me, at least...the way you can see your breath is amazing. The visuals are simply stunning, this app really does reduce my stress."
My biggest gripe of course is the price of the headset, which clocks in at a whopping $629.99. It certainly isn’t an affordable option for everyone. But all signs point to VR eventually becoming mainstream so it's likely that prices will dip in the coming years to correspond with demand or to make it more accessible. Participants in a recent study of medical staff working in a fast-paced trauma service reported significantly increased feelings of happiness and relaxation, and significantly decreased feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety after the use of VR. Other studies are in progress to explore whether VR could be used as therapy for individuals with chronic pain, and it is already used in hospitals to ease pain after surgery or during labour or cancer treatment.
Understanding of how VR can help or hinder different individuals is still limited but so far, for me personally, it’s doing wonders. My boyfriend laughs when he comes into the living room and I’m all strapped up like RoboCop but I would trade looking silly for 15 minutes a day to have that sensation of peace wash over me every single time.
Kirsty concludes: "Overall, VR is an exciting and interesting way to use the advances of modern technology to aid our wellness. When used in a thoughtful and conscious way, we're able to create a tailored environment to help us develop a key ingredient to our wellbeing, with that ingredient being mindfulness."