Try to google “meditation machine”. You will get lots of results, from promises of “a new way of entering a meditative state” to “special patterns of light and sound to lead you gently into the peaceful, calm states of mind and body that will help you to relax deeply”. Some of them attempt to look serious and assure you that the machines “are not meant as a replacement to meditation practices”. There are also many suggestions for alternative searches: yoga machine, zen machine, hypnosis machine, biofeedback machine, light and sound mind machine, and meditation glasses.
Most people recognise that meditation cannot be done by a machine. Personal participation is essential. But some of the attitudes that create a market for meditation machines are probably also present in many meditation groups. Let us look at some of them.
State of mind
First of all, the widespread focus on meditation as a state of mind rather than an activity creates an impression that if you can recreate a certain feeling or mood, you are meditating. It is true that most forms of meditation make you calm down and relax. It is also true that scientists have measured certain brain waves and activities in certain brain areas in connection with meditation. It is even true that meditation may produce positive feelings that some groups call, perhaps misleadingly, “bliss”. But this hardly means that you have meditation as soon as a machine can use “patterns of light and sound” to create a similar feeling or even similar brain waves.
When this orientation towards states of mind goes even further, it easily becomes a quest for peak experiences – mystical, ecstatic, otherworldly or blissful. At worst, people begin to believe that synthetic drugs like LSD and mescaline can do the job. I’m sure “meditation machines” are less harmful, but they build on similar misconceptions.
One of the greatest challenges of meditation is to instigate a change that works from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Because such changes are elusive and cannot be easily pinned down, it may be tempting to look instead for external aids: incense, music, a sacred place, a spiritual person. I’m not denying that some such elements may have positive effects, but in most cases the effect is marginal, and it is far too easy to lose sight of the actual inner process. Instead of starting from yourself you tend to wait for effects to come to you from the outside.
Finally, while many forms of meditation stimulate a receptive mode of attention, only some forms also stimulate a subtle and sensitive mode of action. This focus on attention rather than action may create an impression of the meditator as a passive recipient rather than an active and dynamic person. Meditation machines are at best geared towards receptivity, not action.
I doubt that machines can produce the same kind and degree of deep relaxation as Acem Meditation and similar techniques, though I’m sure some of them are pleasant enough to use. But the main point is that meditation is so much more than just feeling good in the moment. It is a long-term process involving personal participation, and it may set in motion and change profoundly some of our underlying patterns of perception and behaviour. Though most often pleasant, there are also periods of resistance – as in any process of groundbreaking change.