VR Meditation TAPAS

Small Plates of Attention for Getting Started

Tom Nickel
8 min readApr 27, 2021

Many people are meditating for their first time ever — in Virtual Reality. Having no other experience, sitting in some cartoon world with a brick on their head is meditation for some folks.

One OG response might be, ‘ha, they are clueless,’ which is judgmental, but not entirely incorrect.

I am an OG when it comes to meditation and I’m very pleased that people are discovering any kind of practice that helps them feel better so safely and easily. No one owns Meditation. No organization has the trademark.

Meditation apps represent specific implementations of different techniques and the variety already available for VR Headsets demonstrates how broad the category is. There is no one way. Meditation leaders adapt their technique to the audience. Meditation for Seniors with Suzie Smith (made-up name), Meditation for Chronic Pain with Someone Else.

It was not always like this, back in the day.

When Zen Buddhist Meditation as well as Hindu-ish Transcendental Meditation became popular in the West in the late 1960s, the emphasis was on traditional lineage and proper technique. People adapted to the practice, not the other way around.

Zen in particular had a distinct vibe of unapologetic difficulty. There are not obstacles in the path. The obstacles are the path. That’s Zen.

Who am I to say technique matters or doesn’t matter? I have my own understanding of meditation from practicing it daily for almost 50 years. I think it’s about training attention and de-conditioning and I think there’s lots of ways to do that.

More importantly, people are starting from different places.

After leading sessions in Virtual Reality for several years, it is clear to me that newcomers are not starting VR meditation with the intention of training their attention. People are anxious and stressed and lonely. They are buying Headsets and looking around in VR for some way to feel those feelings less.

The difference between VR meditation apps and VR meditation live events is that the events are social. Apps can help with the anxious and stressed part, but not so much with the lonely. Group meditations feel like you’re doing something with other people. Opening your eyes at the end and seeing the others there with you is exhilarating.

Then there’s the check-ins. There’s a formal part, where people raise their avatar hands if they want to and share what they’re feeling right then, and an informal part, when everyone’s been called on and people just hang out.

That whole process is A Meditation!

Relaxing, sharing feelings and chillin’.

What would DT Suzuki think? As the scholar who many would say led the way for Modernist Buddhism, would he be appalled at how far the essentialist spirit has strayed from its cultural roots? I know some people have mixed or negative reactions, but I don’t.

I will never forget my first try at Zen meditation. It was an afternoon event in April, 1972, at the new Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A Buddhist Priest gave an introduction I didn’t understand at all and we were then instructed to sit silently facing the wall in an uncomfortable position. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into or how long the torture would last.

But I got an idea of where the leaders were coming from when an Assistant Priest whacked me hard on my shoulder because I was slouching. If he wanted me to stop slouching, it worked. If he wanted me to ever come back, it didn’t.

I don’t whack people. I welcome them. I am suggesting that the traditional approach to Introduction and Orientation followed, sometimes for centuries, within many communities of meditative practice may not be the only approach.

In fact, I think we are at a moment of historic opportunity. People are more open to new practices that can help bring peace of mind than ever before.

I’m strongly in favor of sparing the rod and meeting people where they are.

People need to relax? Fine, I will never tell anyone meditation is not for relaxation and that it is really about something deeper and more important to your spiritual journey. If it actually is about something deeper and more important, they will figure it out. Especially if no one throws cold water on their initial steps and tells them they have no idea.

For now, I’m glad every time anyone comes to join us in what amounts to a group activity. Even though our physical bodies are who-knows-where, our attention is co-located in Time and in Space. This shared social presence with VR friends and strangers might be the main draw for a Meditation event.

That’s what people say when they check-in afterward: It’s great to be here with other people and I feel much more relaxed.

Extending the welcoming spirit further, it dawned on me that newcomers to any tradition are frequently shown a overview of whatever it is, with brief selections, like a Mezze platter in Mediterranean cuisine. Or Tapas in general, a sampler of small plates.

What is common to almost every form of meditation is an Object of Meditation, something to attend to. It might be visual or auditory. It can be a progressive body scan. Frequently, breathing is the object, or the endless arising within the mind itself. Twenty minutes can be a long time to stay even lightly focused on one of those objects. Moving to a new object every few minutes shows people new to the practice a range of possibilities and makes getting used to meditation easier.

A three minute stretch with a mantra does not produce the same effect as a thirty minute session with a mantra. TAPAS meditation is not the fast track. It lets beginners be beginners.

Even though “Beginner’s Mind” is frequently held up as a model, most people don’t like it because it’s uncomfortable to not quite get what’s going on, to not be good at what you’re trying to do. The Big Secret about Meditation is there’s nothing to be good at.

Introducing meditation as a difficult and lengthy process with a long-term pay-off can’t help but make that pay-off something to strive for. I don’t think it is helpful to discuss the potential benefits of meditation at the beginning because it is too easy for them to become expectations and goals. If a beginner’s meditation can be enjoyable enough in itself, the motivation to keep doing it comes from actual experience.

As a long-term meditator and a cognitive scientist, I am aware of many beneficial outcomes from various meditation practices, as reported in thousands of qualitative and quantitative studies. I do not maintain my practice because of the reported benefits even though I am aware of them. It’s self-sustaining. I did it today because I did it yesterday and it is highly likely although not certain that I will do it tomorrow.

We are in a long-term relationship that works, meditation and I. I see many people just starting their relationships and I hope some of them can find what I have found. They are in the honeymoon phase, so why not celebrate it? And why not help them have an excellent honeymoon. Meditation Leader as Social Director on The Love Boat.

Pardon my hyperbole, but purists who are still shuddering at the juxtaposition of cornball comedy and meditation may have forgotten what the prospect of even two minutes of silent contemplation felt like for the first time. Being alone with our own thoughts can be frightening — some people would rather have an electrical shock.

People can relax and enjoy and still have an accurate preliminary sense of what it means to work with their own attention.

Time for some tapas!

Components of a TAPAS Meditation

TAPAS Meditation has no lineage.

Introductions to meditation are introductions to a tradition, to a form of meditation, usually one that has evolved and perfected itself over a long period of time. A TAPAS meditation is an introduction to several different forms, each with their own tradition.

I say before we start that I will be leading a non-traditional form of meditation, stripped of any legitimacy other than my own practice and what I have learned from others.

Each TAPAS meditation has been improvised as the form itself is unfolding. There’s been a vague thread that links together practices we linger on for a few minutes each.

  1. Breathing — In from the diaphragm and out through the nostrils, feeling the air pass over the receptors there to keep awareness on the breathing process. Breathing in, breathing out. Remembering not to work at an unwavering focus , but to notice when attention has drifted and bring it back, with no blame.
  2. Sound —Using a Mantra, a simple two-syllable sound to make inside themselves.
  3. Sound — Using the sounds in their own ear as the object of meditation, a continuous sound.
  4. Visualization — Picturing the sound wave and then reducing it to a point a particle before you in space.
  5. Quantum Visualization — Now you see a closed box with an airtube going into it. If the particle decays, a signal will mix poison into the airtube and the cat will die. If the particle stays there, the cat will not die. It is a 50/50 chance so both are True. Picture the cat as alive and not-alive.
  6. Visualization — Now look in the box. The cat is alive. She jumps out and leads you on a walk in a cemetery you know, one you grew up near or one you live near now. What do you notice as you walk in the cemetery? There’s a bench up ahead with someone sitting on one side, leaving room for you to sit down and tell the person silently what you noticed.
  7. Inspiration — Getting up from the bench, walking back toward home, ask yourself: What Inspires Me?
  8. Breathing — Bringing the attention back to the start with a deep breath in from the diaphragm, feeling the lungs filling up, and noticing the air going out through the nostrils.

Checking-in afterward, I ask for feedback on the experiment.

At first I thought quantum superposition might be unique as an object of meditation, until someone pointed out it’s a lot like a Zen Koan. Some people feel strong emotions when they try to visualize the dead cat.

Many people comment on the cemetery and have an easy time visualizing one they like to walk in. Maybe it will become a staple.

I hear about the parts. No one questions the whole, the idea of small samples strung together. TAPAS Meditations are fun for me to lead. I know there are aspects that have not revealed themselves to me yet.

I also write an occasional sub-stack e-newsletter: https://tnickel32.substack.com/

Learn more about Meditation in VR from EvolVR.org



Tom Nickel

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