Much of the hype in virtual reality these days comes from gaming and full-immersion storytelling, in which the technology’s powers are harnessed to overwhelm the senses, to stimulate, and to titillate. At the same time, innovative developers are investigating ways in which VR might help us block out the chaos of the real world, to focus inward, even to help us meditate.

A promising new entrant in the mindfulness VR space is Lumen, a self-guided meditation program in the LIFE VR app (launched by Time Inc., the parent company of Health), and developed in collaboration with Walter Greenleaf, PhD of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

I tested out Lumen to see if it delivers on its promise of helping users de-stress mindfully. (I tried it with a high-end HTC Vive headset, which offers a totally immersive experience. But you can also use it with a smartphone, headphones, and a Cardboard viewer.) 

The program begins with a guided deep-breathing exercise. A voiceover instructs you to inhale and exhale in sync with the throbbing of a glowing 3D geode. From there, you emerge into a moon-lit landscape, purple mountains looming in the distance, the night sky fringed with a shimmering aurora borealis.

To engage with the environment, you start by directing your gaze toward a seed on the ground. As you focus on it, the seed grows into a tree, with branches reaching to the sky, and as more seedlings appear on the ground, you cultivate the growth of a forest around you.  When flower buds burst through the ground, staring at them causes them to pulse and quiver. Once your original tree has fully grown, a directed stare disintegrates it, sending the pieces floating up into the air. 

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Meanwhile, you can alter the hue of the VR space by aiming your gaze at the northern lights above, selecting shades of blue, purple, pink, green and yellow from the skyward color palette.

While you’re not exactly meditating in the traditional sense, the experience is nonetheless meditative. By directing your attention to specific points in the environment, each in turn, you do practice the single-pointed concentration that is a hallmark of many forms of insight meditation

By directing the gaze (and in turn, your attention), to one point, you learn to calm the mind; the stillness you achieve helps you relax your body and, with practice, can ultimately enable you to observe your mind’s activity with detachment and objectivity.

Interestingly, Lumen’s effectiveness derives from what it leaves out rather than what it includes. Instead of overwhelming with excessive sound and intricately-layered imagery, Lumen’s pared-down aesthetic allows for a keener focus on specific points in the environment. It’s a simple program designed to achieve subtle yet meaningful results, and the applications are compelling: Stanford’s Greenleaf and others are currently researching whether Lumen could help pediatric patients calm themselves down before undergoing surgery.

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While those results are forthcoming, Lumen is worth a try if you’re looking for an easy-to-use app that will help you find a few moments of calm. It won’t blow your mind, but, in a world with so much competing to do just that, it’s a welcome break.

Lumen is available through LIFE VR’s mobile app for iOS and Android (free), and on Viveport for the HTC Vive ($4.99). It will also become available through Steam ($4.99). For a preview, check out