girl looking at a virtual reality reflection of herself in a phone

Madrid, Spain—Breaking research suggests that the best compassion meditation might a virtual reality [VR] intervention.

As a meditation teacher, I find that one of the most popular questions I’m asked is: What is the best compassion meditation?

Traditionally, there would be two answers to this question.

The best compassion meditations are:

These techniques are Buddhist methods of cultivating Metta and Karuna, “Loving Kindness” and “Compassion”. They have been used for thousands of years. And science has proven that these techniques do indeed increase compassion (see the links above for more on the science).

Over recent years, however, we have seen technology becoming increasingly involved with meditation. And this has led to many new ways to meditate, such as by playing relaxing VR games.

Whether or not these VR meditations actually help with compassion, however, was always just a guess. Until now.

VR could be the best compassion meditation, say Madrid-based researchers

While there can be no doubt that traditional meditations, like the two we looked at above, are excellent, there are many people who struggle to do them.

It requires focus and concentration to truly use traditional meditation techniques. And the simple fact of the matter is that in 2020, many people have reduced levels of concentration. That’s why a VR intervention could be a better solution for many people. Especially if you struggle to meditate.

It is much easier to get into meditation with the help of technology. Imagine putting on a VR headset. Your surroundings are blocked out. You immediately remove most of the distractions that keep you from meditating. Everything you see and hear is the meditation. And it is all delivered to you, as opposed to you having to use your imagination.

Clearly there are benefits that VR brings to meditation. But does it work?

To test the efficacy of VR-based meditations,  a group of Spanish researchers took 16 university students. They divided the group into two. One of these sub-groups were given traditional compassion training. The other group were given VR meditations on compassion.

The VR-meditation group were able to view themselves via a camera that faced them. They were able to reach out and touch themselves by touching an interviewer’s hands (this is an experimental technique used in psychology studies that goes by the name The Machine To Be Another).

The results showed that both of the groups did indeed “increase positive qualities towards self/others, decreased negative qualities toward self, and increased awareness and attention to mental events and bodily sensations.”

However, after two weeks, the VR group had observably higher levels of self-care behaviours, such as regular sleep, nutrition and exercise.  This begs the question of whether VR meditations are more effective than traditional methods.

As a meditation teacher, I’m certainly aware that many people do struggle to meditate, and some of the traditional methods can be hard for beginners. Certainly, the use of technology could provide an aid to new meditators. But what I would be interested in seeing is whether the long-term effects of VR meditation are as good as traditional methods. The current study only involved two weeks of meditation. Would the results be the same across a longer period? That remains to be seen.

Another question I have is whether VR is helpful for all people regardless of age. The current test was performed on university students who likely are comfortable using technology. Would VR be helpful for people who aren’t technology-proficient?

What is for certain, however, is that VR does offer clear benefit to meditators, and especially beginners. If you struggle to do the traditional methods, such as Karuna and Metta, then the best compassion meditation for you could well be a VR-based meditation.


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