“Go back to the time of your ancestors, and be still,” meditation guru Deepak Chopra said as lights flashed onto my eyelids. “Journey back to the beach or a grassy knoll or the cool forest or the dessert oasis or the waterfall or mountain top or river bank or the campfire where your ancestors sat millennia ago as the sun rose or the sun set or the moon rose and stars twinkled. And then, be still.”
For the next 20 minutes, lights continued to flash into my eyes at what is allegedly the beta brain frequency, slowing down to the theta brain frequency, until the lights stopped flashing altogether. Now I was just a misguided fool lying on my bed in total darkness with LED-equipped sunglasses perched on my face. I was supposed to feel as relaxed as one might in a dreamless sleep, but instead I had a headache. Twenty minutes sacrificed to enlightenment that never came.
A few weeks before this strange waste of time, my editor had dropped a box down on my desk. “I want you to review this,” he said. From the side of the box, Chopra’s face peered up at me. I opened it up, pulling out what looked like a gigantic knockoff iPod with mixed up proportions; the button interface is about the same size as the screen. DREAM MASTER, the device announces itself at the top. Chopra’s name is emblazoned on the front, too, in text nearly as large as the name of the product itself. Ah yes, this thing was created by the ego of a man who needs to superfluously mark his territory. The purpose of the device is to “increase your motivation, personal growth, intuition and creativity,” according to the website. The blinking lights and sound pulses are theoretically supposed to help you achieve heightened states of meditation and maybe even some lucid dreaming.
For the uninitiated, Chopra is famous for spewing pseudoscience disguised as alternative medicine gospel, which is all detailed in scores of books with titles like Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams. He has millions of followers on Twitter, and has written essays for august publications, including Fortune and Huffington Post. Earlier this year, he delivered USC’s baccalaureate speech.
A few years ago, researchers found that a Chopra tweet—“Attention & intention are the mechanics of manifestation”—was indiscernible from bullshit. The tweet, while dripping in profound buzzwords, doesn’t actually make any sense. The researchers noted that while the tweet is grammatically sound, it is illogical. Chopra has found success because people aren’t able to determine the difference between the profound and gibberish disguised as the profound.
Chopra co-founded the Chopra Center in 1996. The wellness institution offers services like a $2,375 Seduction of Spirit meditation retreat and myriad online courses. It also sells products on its website. Besides the Dream Master, which is currently being blown out for the sale price of $300 (down from $354), you can also buy a $133 harmonizing necklace. In other words, Mr. Chopra has built an industry of his nonsense, and I aimed to get to the bottom of just how much enlightenment I could attain if I bought in.
Setting the Dream Master’s clumsy iPod clone aside, I turned my attention to a pair of sunglasses with LED lights attached inside each lens. A sticker on the side read, “WARNING SHOULD NOT BE USED BY PERSONS WITH ANY SEIZURE DISORDER.” Noted. The purpose of the device is to help you “reach a variety of interesting and beneficial states of consciousness,” the box reads. To use the device, you insert the included microSD card into the big ass iPod, and plug into it both the glasses and the headphones.
I started with “Trip to the Forest,” one of the five available sessions. Chopra’s voice came through the headphones, introducing himself. He told me that I should be seated or lying down, and that my head should be supported. I was laying flat on my back in my bed. Check and check. Lights began blinking into my eyelids. “If you have problems with blinking lights, do not use this program,” he said. If I did in fact have problems with blinking lights, this warning would have felt maybe a little late at this juncture. “The brighter the light, the richer the experience,” he said, explaining that you can adjust the light settings to your preference. He then passed things off to a colleague.
“Before you leave I’m just going to check your headphones,” a woman said, after I heard her knocking on a door and entering my virtual room. “To prepare you for travel, I will briefly cover your head with a sheet of paper and sprinkle some anti-gravity dust on your body,” she said. Then there were some crinkling sounds. “Don’t worry, the dust won’t stain your clothes and wears off during the trip,” she continued, followed by more crinkling sounds. “I know that you will have an enjoyable and relaxing journey. I’ll be here when you come back.”
For approximately 20 minutes, lights blinked aggressively onto my eyelids as I heard birds chirping, and then a rainstorm, and then some ambient music. While at moments the lights did achieve that cool kaleidoscope effect as promised, it was mostly unbearable. I kept squeezing my eyes, forgetting they were already closed, and that there was no escape unless I took the glasses off.
The visual experience of the LED lights reminds me of the flashing spots you see after you stare directly into the sun. I would also describe the visual sensation as what someone who has never done LSD (me) believes LSD is supposed to be like. It… was not great! But, as promised, it was “interesting.” It was also not exactly relaxing, although about 15 minutes in I did start feeling bored. I guess boredom is the closest I have come to relaxed in a while, if that counts for anything. Perhaps the tagline for the device should be “reach a variety of bored states while wondering if you will suffer long-term damage to the eyes and/or brain.” Elevate your consciousness by feeling like you are on the brink of death! Follow the light, but for the love of god, don’t open your eyes.
Lights furiously blinking onto your eyelids doesn’t seem like it is a healthy, sustainable meditative practice, but I’m no expert. So I asked James Reynolds, a professor and chairman at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Ophthalmology, which means he is an expert in vision science. Reynolds told me that, based on the power and speed off the flashing, the goggles should be safe to use, but he was unconvinced that they would achieve Chopra’s claimed benefit.
“Probably all placebo,” Reynolds told me by email. “But I am not expert enough in these holistic things to be definitive.”
When I asked Reynolds if he had a colleague who was an expert in “these holistic things,” he apologized. “I only hang with my own kind, i.e. scientists.”