Digital Meditation Smackdown

Originally posted at The Wall Street Journal as “I Challenged a Star Meditator to a Digital Meditation Smackdown- This Is What Happened” by Michael Hsu. Photo by Getty Images.

IT MAY BE irreverent to turn the sacred practice of meditation into competition. But could it be fun? More important, for people like me who have trouble sticking with the practice, could it be an effective motivator?

Dan Harris is a down-to-earth, good-humored “Nightline” anchor and author of the best-selling book on mediation “10% Happier.” I email him, explaining how the Muse device assigns a score when you meditate depending on how “calm” it decides you’ve managed to be. Would he be up for a “Muse off”?

“Sure!” he replies.

I want this contest to be fair, so I ask if he wants a few days to play with the Muse before our competition officially begins.

He responds by emailing me a screenshot of the Muse app—he’s clocked 95% Calm. Subject line: “Booyah.”

I curse aloud. Very un-Zen.

I write back expressing my awe, but warn him that he will soon be eating my meditative dust.

Dan replies quickly. “I’m still not sure exactly what this machine is measuring. I felt myself wandering plenty of times, and the rig did not pick it up,” he writes. “All that being said, I am fully prepared to kick your ass at this thing.”

That night I sit down with a newfound determination. I set the timer for 30 minutes, adjust my posture and close my eyes. But the device’s feedback makes it clear I’m nowhere near Dan’s level.

Over the course of the next couple of days, though, the desire to clock points inspires me. Instead of watching TV or surfing the Web, I’m Musing.

Then one morning, it clicks. I wake up before anyone else in my family. The house is totally quiet. I get out of bed and hit the cushion—which I would never have done if it weren’t for the competition—and set the Muse timer for 20 minutes. This time, I’m in a groove. The session flies by. I check my score: I’ve topped my own personal best and am at last in Dan’s range.

Over the course of the next few days, both Dan and I hit some rough patches. Our stellar scores slip back into B and B- territory, and our trash talking turns to words of support for each other (meditation does foster compassion), then back to trash talking when the competition heats up again.

So who won? By the end, the scores have fallen away for both of us. We never bother tallying them. Which is predictable. To quote Buddhist scripture: “Winning gives birth to hostility. / Losing, one lies down in pain. / The calmed lie down with ease, having set winning and losing aside.”