For the past week, I’ve asked people who spend their lives focused on the practice of mindfulness to do the one thing they’re not supposed to do: meditate like they’re in competition with each other.
That’s the idea behind March Mindfulness, Mashable’s annual meditation tournament — the world’s first-ever, word to the latecomers at Meditation Battle League — now in its second year. Using brain-sensing headbands called Muses, we’re able to place the world’s chillest people in head-to-head combat, comparing scores that literally measure the calmness of their brains.
The 2018 version of the contest focused entirely on the videogame fans at our sister website IGN. For 2019, I wanted to expand the circle a little wider. We’ll still feature gamers in later rounds — this time, it’s IGN versus the games developers of GDC.
But I also wanted to see if people who took meditation as their vocation would be more adept under the pressure of competition than the people who love competition. It’s a simple knockout tournament. Each match lasts for just 5 minutes. You get one point for every five seconds of calm mind, as measured by the Muse. (Every time the brain is quiet for 5 seconds, the sound of a bird chirping is played; the app records the total number of birds heard.) The player that hears the most birds in 5 minutes — from 1 to a maximum of 60 — is the winner.
Welcome to March Mindfulness Year 2: Gamers v. Meditators.
Two groups of meditators agreed to participate. Both call San Francisco home, but they could not have been more diverse. One group consisted of the employees of Calm, the world’s most popular meditation app, which claims nearly 30 million downloads. Calm just received an $88 million round of funding from Silicon Valley investors.
The other group was the local chapter of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, a predominantly female global movement with ties to the UN. Based in India, founded in 1930, it now claims more than a million full-time, live-in members. Millions more have dropped in to Brahma Kumaris centers, where they are taught to focus on the soul over the body, and to “enjoy the everlasting effects of meditation.”
The for-profit vs. the nonprofit. The material-world mavens vs. the spiritual cyphers. New school vs. old school, tech vs tradition.
Who is the most serene?
Round 1: Brahma Kumaris
The Victorian spires of the Brahma Kumaris meditation center are glinting and golden in San Francisco’s first Sunday sunshine of the year. I am welcomed into a stained-glass interior filled with people wearing white robes, each forehead decorated with a brightly painted bindi, and invited to join a group breakfast of vegetables and rice followed by delicious fried sweet jalebi.
Everyone calls each other “brother” and “sister.” A couple of girls aged 7 and 8 run around. Their elder sisters and brothers suggest the kids try the Muse first. After I explain the concept, the girls close their eyes and count the number of bird chirps they hear on the Muse app on tiny fingers. It’s too adorable. “Do we get to take bets?” asks an older man with a broad grin.
You can’t not love this place. I had feared that meditation technology would be viewed with suspicion here. Now I’m almost ready to cast aside my worldly concerns and sign up for my white robe and bindi. Almost.
On with the experiment!
All these good vibes mean that Brahma Kumaris folks aren’t much for competition. In a nail-biting 5 minutes, the first two competitors score the two highest bird totals in this particular bracket, 22 and 23 — which they would have known had they not both immediately left for the day, blissfully unaware that there was any such thing as a winner and a next round.
The next highest scores go to Olga McKenna (above, right), who settles into her lotus pose and begins happily meditating before I even set her up with the headband, and Sukanya Belsare, the cool-as-a-cucumber meditation teacher who’d been amused by the concept and invited me to Brahma in the first place.
But both Olga and Sukanya see their bird numbers drop precipitously in the round after they score above 20. It’s an outcome I’d noted often in the first year of running meditation tournaments: Victory in one round brings a flurry of expectations, a.k.a. thoughts picked up by the brain-sensing headband, in the next.
Even career meditators are not immune.
Normal folk protest when their bird score is zero. As does accountant Vaishali Jogi, insisting that she had not noticed any thoughts that might have disrupted her peace of mind. Her sisters smile and wag gentle fingers. “She is very analytical,” one says.
Joao Bridi, a quiet veteran of the center, had no such expectations. He squeaked through early rounds with low bird totals, then found his time to shine in the final. His unbreakable smile throughout, no matter his score, reminded me a lot of Alexio Quaglierini, who won the first March Mindfulness.
Would Silicon Valley tech types display that level of chill, even at an app built around meditation?
Round 2: Calm
Don’t let the soothing forest murals and cozy furniture fool you. Calm HQ, on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in San Francisco’s glass-and-steel SOMA district, is a high-pressure environment of constant meetings, movement, and Slack chatter. The company is growing fast, it’s on the move, and the meditators here are all business, in more ways than one.
With ruthless efficiency, Team Calm pulls off a number of Competitive Meditation records. It’s the highest-scoring bracket I’ve ever run. It’s the first with an audience for every match. It’s also the fastest, clocking in at just under two hours. A designated coordinator ushers them into the designated meditation room. They’re all wearing matching Calm sweatshirts.
They engage in some quick pre-match banter — “You’re going down,” says one, who promptly loses — and five minutes later, they’re off to another meeting.
In those five minutes the Calm folks display what can best be described as a furious focus, silencing their brains by sheer force of will. No one exemplifies this look better than Ben Chandler, operations manager and the red-bearded Viking of Competitive Meditation.
Ben trounces talent acquisition head Rosalind Rattan in round 1. Rather than adopt the posture of furious focus, Rosalind boldly goes for the build-a-pillow-fort-and-crash plan of total comfort. But it is thwarted when she realizes she’s forgotten to turn her phone off all the way. The vibrating Slack notifications are so distracting, she scores a birdless zero.
Ben goes immediately on to face Nick Candler, an early favorite who scored a formidable 53 birds in round one. But we know by now what happens to meditators who peak too soon. Nick scores a still-impressive 36, but Ben hits 59. It’s a new Competitive Meditation record (beating Alexio’s 54) and just one short of the elusive perfect game.
It also isn’t enough to give him the title.
In a high-drama finale, Ben is up against Aleena Abrahamian, head of strategic partnerships. Aleena has a cold and has been chugging DayQuil. This turns out to be a performance-enhancing substance, as she coasts to the final in croaky-voiced, blanket-wrapped glory.
Before the final, a dispute emerges over the neutrality of the tournament equipment. In every prior game, the wearer of the black headband won and the wearer of the white headband lost. To ensure maximum fairness, I offer to run the final in two heats. Ben and Aleena will swap headbands for the second. The total number of birds in both heats will determine the winner.
As it turns out, Aleena wins both heats, the first in a squeaker, 24-23. Ben himself has fallen victim to the curse of high expectations, and can’t improve on his 23 in the second heat. Aleena becomes the first female champion in Competitive Meditation’s (admittedly rather short) history.
Coming soon: the gamer bracket. Then, next week, the two winning gamers will go head to head against the two coolest meditators. Will the drive to win at all costs beat the serenity of furious focus? Keep it right here to find out.