Meditating Socially in VR

Meditating Socially?

Tom Nickel
8 min readJun 28, 2021

Everybody knows that meditation is personal, not interpersonal. It’s something you do inside yourself. How can it be social?

At the check-in after today’s Mindfulness Monday, a young boyish sounding avatar said he was in VR for the first time right then and he really liked this meditating stuff.

He could have been playing ‘Population: One’ or at least ‘Beat Saber’ — but he picked something called ‘Mindfulness Monday,’ where a down-to-earth sounding older guy helped him and the rest of the avatars get calmed down with some breathing and went on to speak gentle truths about a topic he called ‘Not-Knowing.’

Then he called on people and asked them how they were doing. That’s when the young guy spoke up. And that’s a Social Meditation. Relax, Follow, Check-In. Hang around afterward and chat if you want.

It’s not the same as a personal meditation practice and I’m still exploring what the differences are. What would it mean to say one approach is a higher quality meditation than another? What is the metric of quality in meditation?

My personal practice is self-determined, my own mash-up of many teachers and teachings over forty years, and self-guided. I have to talk myself into sitting still on a bench with no back support and doing nothing for a while every morning. Nobody cares if I do it or not and I don’t get any awards or recognition for it. People know that I do it, but I almost never talk about the content of the experience.

The young man who joined ‘Mindfulness Monday’ had no intention beyond wanting to see what some event he noticed in VR was all about. It was not an isolated incident; in fact, it happens at most meditations in VR.

Some of the people at ‘Mindfulness Monday’ actually did have intentions. A bunch of them knew each other and were clearly there to relax deeply and then chill with friends. Meditation events on Social VR platforms began to thrive early in the pandemic, and are still thriving at least in part as a way to be with other people.

Social Meditation is not just about chillin’.

The Place — Social Meditation in VR usually happens in worlds that are specifically designed to help people be together. Individual Safe-Spaces within a group setting can be offered in different ways when physical proximity, gravity or other normal constraints don’t matter.

I am aware that some people do not feel comfortable with their eyes closed when they are with other people, even in a group meditation. Certain kinds of social anxieties can be reduced or even eliminated in VR Social Meditation.

The ‘Mere Presence’ of Other People — The effects of physical proximity among humans are powerful, the way micromotions lock-in and wave fronts tend to find synchronous resonance.

Some of the channels through which social connectivity flows still work in virtual worlds. Human brains in VR act like shared presence is a done deal. Knowing the headset is doing it does not seem to undermine the effect of simply being with people.

The Leader — Free public meditations in VR bring in first-timers like the young man who spoke up at Mindfulness Monday, as well as long-time practitioners. The leader plays a different role for each person. Teacher. Storyteller. Soothing Voice. Colleague.

None of these factors are part of my daily practice. My space isn’t set up for other people because there aren’t any and I have to lead myself.

If that sounds like an unacknowledged bias toward personal daily practice as better, or at least a more serious approach to meditation, I am ready to confess. And I’m pretty sure it is precisely the self-determined and self-guided nature, the overall self-discipline of doing it day after day, that elevates the personal practice just a notch. For me.

Or at least it used to.

I’m still congratulating myself, after more than forty years; in fact, that’s part of what I’m congratulating myself about. But it should be the other way around — not that it’s so great to keep meditating for forty years, but, like, why did I have to take so long to stop congratulating myself? I must have really needed it.

A surprisingly powerful and slightly extended event in my, apparently, long-term project of getting over myself was a recent Social Meditation Splurge (SMS).

I overdid it, as I love to do, joining at least two, sometimes three, Social Meditations in VR every day for a week — a week that ended with the Summer Solstice, for which I organized a personal retreat and invited others to join. I meditated three times in an hour block, for six blocks spread out over the longest day of the year.

Twelve of the eighteen meditations were social, on Zoom and in VR. People joined me in all twelve. These were silent, not guided, meditations and no one who logged into the sessions was within twenty miles of my physical location. Those who were present from the start, from before I closed my eyes, were present in my meditation experience. I did not feel those who joined us later and was surprised when I opened my eyes and saw them.

Following the Leader

In addition to meditating more than usual for a week or so, my splurge was also about meditating in a different role. For several years I have either meditated on my own or led meditations. There’s a third role, a group meditation where I’m not the leader.

I have been led in live sessions by some of the best known meditation leaders in the world, including Thich Nhat Hanh. I just haven’t been in the follower role for a long time.

Following can be active. I didn’t surrender control of my prefrontal cortex to any of the meditation leaders during my splurge, but I did open a portal and let them in. I paid attention to them there in the kitchen of my mind but that’s about it. I remember a few of the words that were spoken but not many. No silverware went missing.

Many experts in psychotherapy describe a construct known as the ‘Therapeutic Alliance” as the secret sauce that makes any technique work in the fuzzy realm of mental health. Without a high level of openness and vulnerability in the therapist-client relationship, the only likely benefit is to the therapist’s bank account.

Meditating socially is similar, except for the bank account.

A meditation is not a presentation, which is an instructional and, ultimately, persuasive, instrument. For that reason, I think it’s a good idea to never drop a critical perspective on most presentations and always keep them somewhat at a distance.

I think of meditation primarily as training, specifically, training attention. Brief talks often precede or follow a meditation, but to me, the heart of it is training and the purpose of the teaching is to support the training.

Training means making our brain and our whole distributed processing system different in some way, different threshold settings, different neural stacks linked in different ways. We change because our processing apparatus changes. Sometimes it takes over forty years.

Sometimes it feels like lots of important perspectives are changing in a short period. Social Meditation has special value at times like this because it adds a mirror that is not present otherwise. We see that other people are struggling too. We see our own emerging views echoed in what others say when they check-in and how they express themselves. We recognize our own path in the themes good teachers weave into their stories.

Meditating alone hasn’t usually been the norm. There have always been eccentric individuals who go off and meditate by themselves in the forests. Shakyamuni Buddha tried it for a while himself. He didn’t give it five stars.

After he became free of his conditioning and started seeing things the way they really are, the Buddha decided that meditating socially was a better idea. Coaching, feedback, and a dose of peer pressure. Now, that sounds like the serious approach to me. Makes you wonder how the disciplined individual approach ever got so much traction in the first place, until — duh, America! That’s why it took forty years.

Some of my deepest conditioning is to celebrate doing difficult things on my own. I was a wrestler in high school. Even though it’s not exactly a lifetime sport, in some ways I’m still going one-on-one with hard stuff and enjoying it, especially afterward. I expect that I will keep being this way, keep pushing myself into discomfort every day if possible. Recently I’ve begun taking a day off from it, in order to make the personal discomfort enterprise more sustainable.

Social Meditation, I’m learning, makes a lot of things in life easier to sustain. Virtual Reality does its part to help make Social Meditation itself sustainable by overcoming distance for a larger and wider community. Finally, I believe it is the personality of the Meditation Leader that most accounts for people sustaining a regular Social Meditation practice in a regular time slot.

This is not a new insight. Many meditation leaders have built substantial followings due, in part, to a strong personal presence.

There are no Social Meditation superstars in VR, yet. Will the power laws and unequal distributions of the outside world emerge in Virtual Worlds? Probably. Will the greater reach and social presence of VR result in Mega-Meditations? Probably.

Mass Meditations are already a thing, with global teacher and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar having assembled 100,000 in Buenos Aires back in 2012 and then vaulting over the six-figure limit with a 2016 gathering of 3.7 million in New Delhi. Add in Zoom, as many have, and there is no limit.

Mass Meditations almost inevitably have an intention that goes way beyond chillin’. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has stated, “When thousands of people come together with the single intention of creating a more peaceful planet, it is certain to manifest.” I’m not sure how certain anything is, much less a more peaceful planet, but many international organizations claim that meditating together can change the world.

The first widely publicized claims and research on meditation at scale came from the Transcendental Meditation organization, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. Studies conducted by the Maharishi International Management Foundation between 2007–2010 claim to show reductions in homicide and other violent crime after 1% of the U.S. population began meditating.

I don’t believe reducing crime or bringing about world peace is quite so simple, but I do think these organizations are on the right track. Since the existing institutions of society are extremely well-defended against direct frontal attack, the only chance for change is from within, within the minds of the citizens currently conditioned by nationalist and/or racial exceptionalism or some other divisive view.

When I was meditating with just a few other people on the recent Summer Solstice, I imagined everyone in the world noticing the meaningful day in the earth and sun’s relationship and stopping what they’re doing to meditate together. Of course that would be amazing, just the massive change in awareness it would require, but for the moment I prefer what I have.

Sometimes as few as 5–6 attend the Social Meditations offered in VR now, usually more like twenty, seldom more than thirty. To me, that’s Social. Everyone can check-in, everyone can be heard, even with a group of 30 and a good leader. Too much more than that and it becomes a different kind of experience. It becomes explicitly political.

I’d rather be explicitly Social, for now.

I also write an occasional free newsletter at Sub Stack:



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos