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Computing Contemplation

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the things I like best about the Vancouver Observer (besides the fact that they seem to gladly publish my ramblings) is the variety of topics covered. There’s books, city politics, civil liberties, Olympics pro and con, food, technology, holistic health and many others. For example, the other day I discovered an article by Alfred DePew on meditation, Becoming Still. Having just begun meditating last year, I read it with interest.

My first experience with meditation was at a Hollyhock course called A Way With Words: Writing and Meditation, taught by Ruth Ozeki and Kate McCandless. Not only did the course introduce me to meditation, but it greatly enhanced my creativity and productivity as a writer. Meditating before writing empties my mind and allows the words to flow. I’m able to better ignore distractions and concentrate on what is important.

Many of those distractions are caused by technology -- emails, tweets, Facebook updates, text messages, instant messages, phone calls, enticing web links. But is technology really the enemy of contemplation?

Not so, or not completely so. I’ve discovered several technological tools that can assist meditation and/or help with distractions.

A few months ago I discussed the research of Simon Fraser University professor Diane Gromala (disclosure: Gromala teaches an SFU graduate course, Computational Poetics, in which I am enrolled). Gromala has created something called Virtual Meditative Walk which combines a Virtual Reality headset with a treadmill to train chronic pain sufferers to meditate while being physically active. “Clinical studies,” Gromala says, “show that meditation reduces chronic pain, stress, anxiety and improves our immune systems. Studies also prove that Virtual Reality is an ideal training method, and is more effective than opiates in reducing pain.” You can find out more about Gromala’s research at

So, scientists are investigating how computers and meditation can merge. But there are also tools available for your home computer or smart phone to help either with meditation or distractions. For example, type “meditation” into the iTunes Store apps page and you can choose from more than 75 apps for the iPhone or iPod Touch  -- ranging from Tai Chi for Seniors to Shamanic Journey Drumming to MeditationChime (one of my favourite -- all it does is play a nice chime at the beginning and end of a meditation session -- what more do you need?). The iTunes store also has meditation podcasts catering to different levels of expertise and of course, music to help you meditate.

I don’t have an Android phone or a Blackberry, so can’t speak about their meditation-oriented software (if any -- somehow Blackberry meditation seems like an oxymoron to me, but maybe that just shows how far from enlightenment I am.)

Meditation websites abound -- type in “meditation” in Google or Bling and you’ll have a choice of millions of sites where you can book retreats, read contemplative passages, listen to soothing music or chants, learn how to meditate, buy books and music and more. I can’t vouch for the quality of any of them -- as usual on the web, it’s caveat emptor.

Then there are the computer applications to help you with distractions. One of the best for taming Mac monkey mind is Freedom. This donation-ware program disables networking on a Mac computer for up to eight hours. Start it up and you’re free from email, the web, instant messaging, Skype and all the rest. And don’t think you can cheat; once Freedom’s going, you can’t disable it except by rebooting your computer. I use it all the time -- it really does boost productivity by removing distractions and the temptation to procrastinate. Now, if Freedom could only sense that my iPhone is in the same room and shut down its network access as well and I would really be free from temptation.

Once I’ve activated Freedom and am ready to start writing, I find putting my word processor into full-screen mode also helps. I would recommend avoiding that bloated monster of a word processor, Microsoft Word, in favour of Mellel or Bean. Both these Mac-based word processors have beautifully simple full-screen modes - I’d call them Zen-like, if that wasn’t such a cliché. Activate either of them and you’ll be staring at nothing but a gently pulsing cursor, helping you to tame that monkey mind and let those creative juices flow.

Contemplation and computing can be compatible. Meditation and Macintosh can mix. Namaste.

Update: Another Mac-based tool for aiding concentration is Ommwriter. This bare-bones (no printing, limited font selection, text files only) word processor turns your screen into a full-screen depiction of a wintery landscape, on top of which you type your text. And if you put on headphones, you get a choice of seven New Age-type background soundtracks. It's disorienting at first, backgroundut after a few minutes, the creativity just flows. But if you're trying to compose the next Communist Manifesto or write a blistering letter to the editor, I would choose another word processor -- you can't maintain an edgy, angry mood while using Ommwriter. That's probably a good thing.



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