The Meditation Start-Up That’s Selling Bliss on Demand

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Written By Pinang Driod

The first time I heard about the jhanas, they sounded too good to be true. These special mental states are described in the sacred texts of an ancient school of Buddhism. Today, advanced meditators usually access them by concentrating on something: a flame, their breath, the sense of loving kindness. The meditators unclench their minds bit by bit, until they reach a state of near-total absorption. If they direct that focus in just the right way, a sequence of intense experiences ensues, beginning with bliss and ending with full-body peace. The jhana bliss state is not like the little uptick in well-being that comes with mindfulness meditation. It is not like a runner’s high. “This stuff is really powerful,” says Matthew Sacchet, the director of the Meditation Research Program at Harvard Medical School. An orgasm is said to be tame by comparison. Tears of joy will sometimes stream down a meditator’s face.

The early Theravada Buddhists put no restrictions on the jhanas, but some later traditions taught that they were extraordinarily difficult to attain. Over the past 20 years, a small group of teachers has introduced the jhanas to a new generation of advanced meditators in the West, and a tech-adjacent subculture in the Bay Area has recently taken them up with gusto. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a tech start-up is now trying to make the jhanas accessible to almost anyone, at almost any time. It is called Jhourney, and according to its founders, Stephen Zerfas and Alex Gruver, the combination of artificial intelligence and EEG recordings of the brain will give novice meditators bliss on demand.

I recently joined a video call with Zerfas and Gruver. They were pulled over to the side of the road, on the way to one of the jhana meditation retreats they’ve been leading as they develop their proprietary technology. (Attendees pay up to $3,000, they said.) Zerfas did most of the talking, and communicated almost entirely in founder-speak. He told me that Jhourney’s goal is to teach 100 million people how to enter the jhanas. I asked how he’d arrived at that number. He said that he was pretty sure that the Headspace meditation app had tens of millions of subscribers, but that otherwise he had “pulled it out of thin air.”

Zerfas first experienced the jhanas while he was navigating two different breakups—one with a girlfriend and the other with a co-founder at an earlier start-up. After reaching emotional rock bottom, he went on a meditation retreat, where he unexpectedly stumbled into the first jhana state. With time and coaching, he learned to enter the jhanas at just about any moment. He said that he still does a jhana meditation every morning and intimated that I wouldn’t want to deal with the version of him who didn’t. Learning the jhanas was one of the most important things that ever happened to him. It gave him a feeling of emotional abundance and imbued him with a particular kind of tech-world evangelical fever: “Why isn’t this happening at mega-scale?” he remembers wondering.

Zerfas learned to enter the jhanas the old-fashioned way, with sustained practice at lengthy meditation retreats, but he and Gruver want to fast-forward that process. They insist that by presenting students with real-time biofeedback from sensors attached to their scalp, they will soon be able to foster bliss within a single day. Afterward, they want their students to be able to reenter the jhanas anytime, in as few as 15 to 30 minutes. Terje Sparby, a philosophy professor at Rudolf Steiner University College, in Oslo, Norway, who studies the phenomenology of jhanas, told me that it usually takes him multiple days of meditation at a retreat before he enters one. The idea that someone could get there every morning in the time it takes to watch two episodes of Bluey struck him as unusual.

For the past year, Zerfas and Gruver have been collecting data by attaching EEG electrodes to experienced jhana teachers while they meditate. They want to use it to train an algorithm that determines whether someone is experiencing a jhana state in real time. They imagine their future teachers presiding over a class of novice meditators who are all wearing EEG headsets. (A tennis instructor can see what’s wrong with your stroke, but today’s meditation teachers can’t look inside your mind.) If Jhourney’s algorithm could track your progress toward entering a jhana state and display it outside your headset, the teachers could give you tailored real-time instructions. “You’re on the right track, keep going,” they might say, or, if things weren’t going well, “Let’s take a minute to relax before returning to focus.”

Eventually, Zerfas said, the algorithm itself could do the teaching, by playing the same sort of instructions through speakers in a consumer helmet that Jhourney eventually hopes to manufacture. I pointed out that there are already EEG-based meditation headsets on the market, but they tell you only if you’re in a general, meditative state—and none seems to work well enough to have transformed meditation practice. “Those products are a good idea,” Zerfas told me, “but they aren’t targeting life-changing experiences.” If his product is successful, he said, it would be the “most important intervention in human well-being in a generation.” He sent me a document that explained more. “Imagine if Biden and Putin shed tears of joy and gratitude for 30 minutes every morning,” it read. There would be “all kinds of cascading effects.” The implication seemed to be that Jhourney would help bring about world peace.

No one should disband their armies just yet. Jonas Mago, a neuroscientist who has consulted for Jhourney, told me that the company’s algorithm has not been able to achieve enough precision at classifying neurological states. When I asked Zerfas and Gruver how reliably their software can identify whether a person is having the intense experience of being in a jhana, they would say only “above chance.” So far, they’ve primarily collected data from expert meditators. Kathryn Devaney, a neuroscientist and co-founder of the Alembic, a nonprofit body-mind center in Berkeley, California, has also advised Jhourney. She told me that whatever brain data Zerfas and Gruver are able to record from advanced meditators may not generalize to other people. Even if the EEG sensors could reliably detect jhana states, that might not be enough. For the product to be useful, it would need to recognize the intermediate states that precede the jhanas, and then deliver the sort of feedback and instruction that could coax a person across the finish line.

EEG data are also notoriously difficult to collect and isolate. Extracting bona fide neural activity from the noise created by muscle movements and other sources is tedious work, even for experts. When I asked Zerfas if Jhourney has a full-time EEG scientist on staff, he said no, but added that he’d “read a bunch of textbooks,” and taught himself with the help of a tutor. The current state of EEG research coming out of academia underwhelmed him, he said. And in any case, he saw this as more of a machine-learning problem than a neuroscience problem.

Academic research into the jhanas has indeed been pretty thin, but it is ramping up. Michael Lifshitz, a psychiatry professor at McGill University, in Montreal, recently led an EEG study of an experienced jhana meditator. His group chose a respected Western jhana teacher named Shaila Catharine because she belongs to a strict tradition—jhanas, for her, count only if they are extremely prolonged states of absorption. Lifshitz hasn’t yet published his results, and he stressed that they’re still preliminary. But he told me that when Catharine entered the deepest states, her brain still seemed to be having sensory experiences, yet the neural signals that might be associated with complex cognition about the sensations were “reduced to the point of being nonexistent.”

Lifshitz hopes that more scientists will take up bliss as an object of scientific study. He and Josh Brahinsky, a researcher at UC Berkeley, have been studying evangelical Christians who report having an intense blissful experience while speaking in tongues. Their ecstasies look quite distinct from those of your average Buddhist monk: Tongue-speaking Christians are physically active to the point of being spastic, and they churn out streams of nonsense syllables. They also have a very different worldview from the meditators, with very different metaphysics. But they might be “hacking the same feature of the human brain” to produce a very similar inner state, Lifshitz said. “Maybe instead of accessing it by being really quiet, they’re becoming so loud that they drown everything out. It could be a different way of flattening the landscape.”

Last fall, Sacchet, the director of the Meditation Research Program at Harvard Medical School, published detailed brain-imaging data from a meditator entering the jhana states, with the help of an MRI machine. A fuller understanding of these brain states could have “incredible potential for humanity,” he says, so long as the science is done with rigor. “I worry about a ‘move fast, break things’ approach when it comes to the mind and these deep states of consciousness.”

There may not be reason to worry: Zerfas and Gruver aren’t moving that fast. Before we hung up, I asked them when they could imagine the first headset-aided retreats happening. As soon as 18 to 24 months from now, Zerfas told me, while granting that it was an optimistic assessment. He then detailed for me the consumer-headset development plan that would follow. (The final stage: “Then we SpaceX it!”) Gruver was more circumspect. “I would love it if it was working in two years,” he said, but it might also take five or 10. “A lot depends on how seriously we take this as a society.” Society, in this case, meant investors. I told him that I would expect his pitch to be quite welcome among Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. It brings together a lot of their interests. “There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley who like to say that they are countercultural risk takers,” he said, “but very few actually are.”

I get what Gruver was saying, but Jhourney doesn’t seem all that countercultural to me. When I’d discussed the jhana states with Sparby, the philosopher, he reminded me that they were not cultivated as ends in themselves, but rather as way stations on a longer path to wisdom and enlightenment. Jhourney is trying to extract the bliss from that path, and to optimize and productize it in a gadget for the mass market. What could be more mainstream than that?

Ross Andersen is a staff writer at The Atlantic.


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