Log on and bliss out: It’s virtual meditation

Too busy to breathe? Too frazzled for fun? Meditainment’s for you. The strange thing is, writes GAYLE MACDONALD, it actually works

‘Imagine you are the navigator of a canoe, gliding down a river on a warm sunny day,” says a honeyed voice. “You are looking forward to arriving at a destination that is all your own. There is no need for any haste. This place is always here for you.”

Ah. Forget virtual reality. This is virtual relaxation. I am not actually in a cedar-strip canoe, floating down a river. Instead, I’m sitting at my computer, headphones on, eyes clamped shut. The chirps of birds and the sound of water lapping against my boat is all, literally, in my head, the brainchild of a British Web designer named Richard Latham.

For under 15 bucks a month, Latham’s Web site, http://www.meditainment.com, provides its harried customers a 15-minute reprieve from their frantic lives, whenever they need it. Only in business for four months, Meditainment Ltd. is already branching out. There are Meditainment CDs and DVDs. And three weeks ago, Latham took Meditainment to the big screen. First at a theatre in London’s Soho district, and then to a 200-seat Odeon cinema in his hometown of Brighton.

For roughly $12, audiences can “meditate” en masse. The experience lasts 45 minutes, and participants get to choose their own mental escape: canoe to the lost city, fly like a bird to a mountain hideaway, or take a space ship to a constellation far, far away.

“Once people get the idea it’s not a cult or some kind of weird religion thing, they feel more comfortable,” says Latham, who sold his Web design company, Blue Wave, two years ago to a Danish conglomerate. Flush with cash and freed from the demands of running a business with offices in New York, San Francisco and London, this 39-year-old father of two started Meditainment. “The concept is basic and simple. We help people quiet the mind, and get rid of the mental chatter of day-to-day life.”

Latham knows the concept of computer-aided meditation is bizarre. But he’s convinced that Meditainment is the ultimate nerve-soother for our punishing lifestyles. And if all goes according to his plan, Meditainment will come to theatres in North America next year.

Last week, Meditainment held its second communal experience in the 200-seat Odeon theatre in Brighton, a picturesque town on the English seashore. The place was packed with people, young and old, who queued up half an hour before the doors opened for the chance of an aural ride to mental oblivion. “About one-third of the audience got into a deep meditative state,” says Scott King, Meditainment’s communications manager. “A third got very relaxed, and the remainder said they just settled back and enjoyed themselves.”

When I first heard about Meditainment — specifically the cinematic version where you meditate en masse in a dark theatre with a bunch of strangers holding glow sticks — I was skeptical, and chalked it up to another fad that would quickly pass.

But the British media, including the BBC, have been filled with mostly glowing reports about the holistic healing powers of Meditainment. A headline in the Independent called the theatre version “Cinema Paradiso.” The conservative Sunday Times urged readers to forget East Enders, and to “log on and chill out.”

In Britain, Latham’s tapes are hot sellers. Some are being used in hospitals in London and Glasgow to relax patients who are chronically ill.

On the Internet, users log in and then custom-make their own audio idyll. You pick a favourite destination (a deserted beach, mountain hideaway, a swim deep in the ocean with whales). You choose a preferred form of transportation (fly like a bird, journey by canoe, horse and carriage or space ship). Then you pick the music (orchestral, classic, rhythmic or ambient). And you decide what to think about (stress management, happiness, or self-motivation). There is also a choice between a male or female guide, both with the silky British accents that Hollywood loves.

Then you click and let the journey begin. After 15 minutes on the Web, after climbing a rocky terrain past a waterfall and visiting the ancient civilization, you find that you feel less frantic than usual.

The big-screen version is a bit more complicated. People enter the theatre and instead of being handed a ticket stub, they get a glow wand. The audience then takes part in an on-screen voting system; meditation by democracy, let’s say. The audience chooses two journeys.

They come in a bundle of raw nerves. They leave, Latham insists, in a much more serene state. “Suddenly you have a couple hundred people who are very relaxed all at once. Meditation alone is nice. But the group aspect to meditation is a dynamic that breeds a sense of community.”

Latham was on the treadmill himself two years ago, working day and night, spending no time with his kids, when his wife told him to chill out and try meditating. “I’d never been interested in it,” he admits. “I always thought it was something that was very backward-looking. I tried it. Just by myself with a CD and did the basic stuff, quieting the mind, getting rid of the mental chatter. Things like, Maybe I should have done more today. Did I pay that bill? What did that person say about me? All valid aspects of living, but we need to give our minds a rest. Not long after, I started to appreciate the fact that I could get into a state of mental stillness, as well as physical stillness. And that interested me,” he says.

“What I’m doing with Meditainment is making meditation very quick, easy and pleasurable. Like you can get lost in a really good movie or a really good book, we’re trying to make sure our Meditainment experiences have an element of that. And it’s fun. All the work is secular. There is no reference to any form of spirituality or religion. We are not preaching.”Next month, Latham is taking his computer-aided meditation concept to the Glasgow Planetarium, where he has tailor-made something he calls an “imagination reality journey” for the science centre crowd.

Called Earthrise, it will take the audience on an interstellar voyage to the moon, where it climbs a mountain ridge to watch the Earth rise over the lunar horizon.

And this October, he has got a new Loving Minds CD, ideal for couples, say, who may have been married for a number of years and need to reconnect through body and spirit. “This is a way, without showing graphics, without the couple even having to talk to each other, of stimulating the larger sexual organ, the brain,” Latham says.

Just that morning, Latham had tried yet another innovative meditation CD he is trying to perfect. “I’m quite a heavy smoker,” he confesses, “so it’s a meditation CD where you smoke at the same time as meditating. You draw on the cigarette, and at the same time you visualize all the damage it’s doing to you health-wise. At the end, you make a commitment to stub it out and not pick up another one again.”

It’s been roughly two hours since his last butt. “I’m not sure if it’s going to work or not,” says Latham, a bit embarrassed. “I rather enjoyed that last cigarette very much.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Globe and Mail, Canada
Sep. 20, 2003
Gayle MacDonald

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 23, 2003.
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