WASHINGTON — Propped against my bed's headboard, I let a kaleidoscope of lights from my iPhone dance across my closed eyelids. New Age-y synths surged in my ears. I was on a vision quest for enlightenment. But it had to be a quick vision quest: I had plans in 40 minutes. Luckily, this particular path to Zen was timed precisely at 22 minutes, 57 seconds.
Such is the promise of Dream Weaver. A meditation app recently conceived by alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra, it posits that Zen might be a pit stop on the way from the pharmacy to the dog park or coffee shop.
Dream Weaver (available at the App Store for $14.99) is a "light and sound program" that uses the LED strobe on your smartphone in conjunction with a soundtrack. The combination of soothing music, narration and psychedelic twinkling is meant to induce a trance state, entailing relaxation and perhaps visions; Dream Weaver's online promotional materials compare it to LSD.
The app uses brainwave entrainment, which co-creator David Mager defines in the Huffington Post as "any procedure that causes one's brainwave frequencies to synchronize with a periodic stimulus (sound, vibration or light) having a frequency corresponding to the intended brain-state."
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The idea is that different frequencies of brainwaves map onto different levels of alertness: Spiky beta waves are associated with hyper-vigilance; alpha waves with relaxed attention; theta waves with deep tranquility and REM sleep; and delta waves with dreamless sleep. Dream Weaver works by flashing light at you, at lower and lower frequencies. Your anxious beta-brain supposedly follows the light down to theta-Wonderland like Alice behind the White Rabbit. In any case, the testimonials are inspiring:
"I could literally feel the waves of energy and shifting of my brain into the altered state. I especially felt a definitive awareness in my 6th chakra, or third eye. After the strobes stopped, I could see many colors and shapes and what seemed like sparkles ..."
"I exploded into an archetypical state of releasing sadness and fear. Even now when writing the lines of this text my eyes get wet and I am filled with joy and compassion."
"I saw several darkly clad strangers come out of a room. I tried to offer them a message of peace telepathically. They immediately circled around me and zapped me into a state of the most joy and ecstasy I have ever felt in my life."
"I seemed to be visited by curious balls of light that just wanted to say hello."
"I was in Aruba, on vacation in Aruba!"
Methods for steering the mind into consciousness' deeper waters have existed for ages: Gregorian chanting, Native American drum circles, Hindu kirtan, Tibetan prayer bowls. But Dream Weaver marries spirituality and "science" in a way that feels peculiarly of-the-moment. Obsessed with holistic health, we are also susceptible to pitches about the mysterious efficacies of neurons and transmitters.
Many of us are willing to believe that the secret to transcendence lurks somewhere in uncharted brainwaves, just as the key to longer life might have something to do with quantum mechanics. What's more, Dream Weaver presents itself as a life hack, a technology for improving productivity by making us more creative and relaxed.
Yet there is something contradictory, or at least counterintuitive, about a meditation app. Smartphones are great at filling our brains with information; are they also suited to wiping them clean? And while technology in general exists to smoothen and streamline, isn't climbing the path to enlightenment supposed to be hard? What happens when you reinvent an ancient, effortful practice for a medium that's all about finding the perfect shortcut?
Dream Weaver is designed for people like me — spiritual slackers who lack the discipline to achieve nirvana without a tech boost. Preparing to test out the app, I felt hopeful. I reclined in bed with my eyes closed and got ready to plunge into the void. Or, more accurately, to stand in the woods.
Dream Weaver has several storylines to choose from. I downloaded one called "A Trip to the Forest." It includes avian chirping, a gentle rainstorm, and lots of gauzy, vaguely Eastern-sounding music.
Toward the beginning, a female tour guide announces herself with loud knocking, which terrified me because I thought someone was actually banging on my door. Her job is to douse you in "anti-gravity dust" so you can fly to the forest. I wondered why Chopra, who narrates the rest of the trip, couldn't administer the dust himself. Throughout all this, the LED strobe drew forked golden lines on the inside of my eyelids, which was nice. But transcendent? Not really.
Since then I've journeyed to the woods several times with Dream Weaver. I have never hallucinated, or even fallen asleep, but the app usually calms me down a little. I have come to appreciate the delicate branch work of the light patterns, though I suspect they pull me somewhat out of the zone — it's hard to surrender completely to Zen with an LED strobe flashing in your face.
Still, just because my experience has been short on "darkly-clad strangers" and trips to Aruba doesn't mean a more advanced meditator/haver-of-reveries wouldn't love Dream Weaver.
I should note, however, that there is a workaround to Chopra's workaround. One day last week I got home feeling tired and tense. As per the Dream Weaver instructions, I secluded myself "in a dark, quiet space." I closed my eyes. I played some relaxing music. And I took a nap. It may not have been nirvana, but it felt pretty awesome.