Josh Hild

Virtual Reality to help with Grief and Anxiety

Grief. Anxiety.

Main ingredients in the cuisine of human suffering.

How much of our collective energy is focused on eliminating or understanding these primary fears?

Scientists, thinkers, artists, healers, and anyone seeking to better understand these shadow parts of our psyche have offered innumerable ideas, songs, medicines, and rituals in an attempt to solve, or at least reduce, these challenging elements.

One of the more interesting efforts in recent history is called the Psychomanteum, which is being re-popularized Marilyn Schlitz and Dorote Lucci at Sofia University (formerly Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, where Arthur Hastings laid the pioneering foundation for this work). 

The Psychomanteum is essentially a small, enclosed area set up with a chair, mirror, and a candle, with the intention of having the participant sit with her grief about a lost loved one, and make some sort of contact with that person in order to resolve any unsettled emotion.

Note: I DO NOT ENDORSE any connection between the Psychomanteum and its parapsychology, divination, or spiritualism roots. This article is purely an investigation of the potential psychological benefits of using virtual reality.

What’s particularly interesting about what Marilyn and Dorote are doing at Sofia University is that there are both an IRL (in real life) and virtual reality portion to the Psychomanteum experience.

These experiments are meant to parallel one another, and their connection is reflected in their design, intention, and length of experience. The studies are also set up in rooms right next to each other, making the experiments feel like they’re truly in tandem.

I personally went into the experiment not knowing about the Psychomanteum history, nor did I have any intention of contacting a departed loved one.

I suppose my tabula rasa mentality made the visions and feelings more robust, especially after closing my eyes and connecting to my inner world. I saw images that reminded me of an ancient battle, carrying the energy of medieval or dark ages flashing through fantastic images and swift motions. 

Pendulums, faint greys and purples, wooden clockwork devices, and themes of beginning-end-completion all swirled among the cacophony of emotions and sensations inside the cave of my mind. Each image or thought made their appearance in dramatic yet familiar fashion.

I first felt intrigued; then some boredom. Minor anxiety surfaced moments later as I questioned whether I was doing the experiment “right”, or if I was perhaps “being tested” or “watched”. 

I found that being in an enclosed space, both physically and virtually, without much light, created an echo chamber where my deepest thoughts and emotions surfaced inside the virtual darkspace. It was a new, unfamiliar reality.

In “actual” reality, I was sitting in a physical chair that was also reflected in digital form. I looked out into a dark abyss lit only by a software-produced light inside a glowing facsimile of a mirror. I intermittently heard a soothing male voice trying to hypnotize me into an alternate [non-dual] state. I suppose it worked.

Lux Interaction

The following is a creative excerpt of an interview with the creator of the VR portion of the experiment, Dorote Lucci:

J: Thanks for meeting with me, Dorote. What you’re doing fascinates and intrigues me. I think it’s laying the groundwork for some transformative ideas and technology that will help evolve our understanding of human wellness.

D: And happiness, Joy…

J: Yea, all of that! Using the tools of our external reality to impact our internal experience.

D: Interesting you view it that way!

J: Yea. I was wondering, can you speak more about the connection between technology and human consciousness? I feel like an appropriate metaphor would be the Genesis Pattern, or Seed of Life, if you’re familiar with Sacred Geometry at all.

D: You mean “the Rose”? Like… the Vesica Pisces, but numerous times over and over again.

J: Yea exactly.

D: To me, I see what we’re doing as involving our 3 major centers of consciousness: the gut, the heart, and the mind. I see technology as a tool to better understand ourselves as humans. It can help us dive deeper, or help us align these 3 centers. Oh, and also…gratitude!

J: Yes! I feel exactly the same way. Could you describe the experiment a bit more?

D: The project that we’re doing is about the fear of death, and the mitigation of that fear using immersive digital experiences. They’re available online, so it’s different than having an in-person workshop. 

The workshop is called Death Makes Life Possible, based on the movie and book by Dr. Marilyn Schlitz and Deepak Chopra. It basically focuses on death awareness, and goes into a plethora of worldviews around death. It includes archetypes like the critic, the cynic, the nonbeliever. It’s interesting to look at people’s belief systems about death, and how it affects the way they live. 

This project dives into those different beliefs. There are meditations, readings, and exercises to help the participant increase her own awareness of it. It’s a personal dialogue. The question is, what kind of effect does this have on the participant? We essentially check for changes in grief and absorption levels. 

J: By absorption, do you mean how much one is affected by the present moment, like her ability to experience wonder, awe, or the sublime?

D: Yes. We also look at the before-and-after effects of fear and anxiety surrounding death.

J: What will the user actually experience? 

D: One part of it is an online workshop with meditations, readings, and videos that the participant goes through. The data you get reflect different viewpoints about death. 

The VR experience is more immersive. It’s based on touch, audio, visual, and the feeling of a non-dual experience...meaning that you would experience yourself as being interconnected with the universe rather than as a separate being. 

But that’s a difficult experience to invite people into because it’s deeply personal and different for everybody. So in trying to design something universal, we designed the Starflight App, which is essentially a virtual flight through the stars.

J: That sounds amazing. And this is related to the workshop?

D: Yes, the workshop is an invitation to the experience, and the VR immerses you fully into it. I think that’s the nature of VR. It cuts through your rigid thought structures and becomes a full immersion through sound and movement. 

J: Fascinating. How long is the study?

D: It’s 6 weeks. Then there’s the questionnaire before and after. So right now I’m looking into gathering other types of data, like heart rate and sleep quality, on top of everything I’ve already gathered to see the differences in sensations and experiences for people. 

J: And what is the experiment that I went through just now?

D: That’s the Psychomanteum. That one consists of both a physical setup and a VR setup, which you went through. What happens is you go into a dark room with a mirror, and there’s a light behind you, and its light – along with your image – is reflected back through the mirror. You look at this apparatus in silence for about 25 minutes. This particular research is directed at grief mitigation. 

J: The two seem related: the fear of death and grief mitigation.

D: Yes, the fear of death is the mother of all anxieties, as they say. So grief ties into that–grief of change, grief of people passing, of environmental changes.

J: Yes, definitely.

D: The participant comes in with the intention to connect with a departed loved one. I designed the VR portion to be immersive in the same way you experience the physical chamber of the Psychomanteum, but also has some of the specificities of VR to control certain aspects of the experiment. 

So it may not look exactly the same as the physical presentation but the sensational experience might be very similar in both. So the question was: how could I use VR to get closer to an out-of-body experience and the feeling of self dissolving?

We introduce people to that concept a bit beforehand, and they get used to the VR space itself because a lot of people haven’t experienced that world yet. Then the experience finally brings you into a chair, sitting in front of a mirror with a bright orange light.

J: So would you say that you’re trying to replicate the physical experience as much as possible, but with an added component in the VR?

D: I don’t think there’s an added component necessarily, but if you’ve never done VR, it’s going to be a new experience for you, which can open up different possibilities for what you might feel. But in all other ways, we try to replicate the same experience for both. 

J: And what are you looking for in the experiment?

D: We’re looking for changes in grief and “absorption” levels, as mentioned earlier. Immersion and absorption are kind of like brother and sister. The more you’re absorbed, the more you get a feeling of immersion.

We’re looking at this relationship from the perspective of psychology rather than just immersive technology. We also look at the idea of presence, a term that wasn’t really used in this way before VR became accessible. 

J: Well, I’m interested in the intention behind grief mitigation. What I know about grief is that it’s a natural response to an important loss, like the loss of a loved one, loss from a major transition, and so on. It’s a natural human response, so I’m wondering why it needs to be mitigated.

D: I think grief is a type of tension, especially if it’s stuck. I think we could be sad when someone isn’t around, but grief is slightly different. It’s sharper. So in this experiment, people get a chance to be in touch with the departed loved one. When people have not resolved things, or couldn’t say their last words, or if there’s guilt involved, there could be a lot of stuck grief. It can be underlying in every experience, almost like a trauma. And it could be really difficult. 

J: Hmm, I get that.

D: And through this experiment, if you give them a chance to resolve things with their lost loved one, sometimes they’re able to access whatever their subconscious is holding for them.

J: I see. So you’re helping them process their grief and create some sort of movement or resolution through it?

D: Yes. It’s both a literal and metaphorical reflection. There’s the mirror, which creates depth. You’re involved in a different dimension, especially in the VR, because it’s “not real.”

J: And I assume it’s safer because of that “make-believe” element. But the experience they’re having inside is very real.

D: Yes, of course.

J: Thanks so much for sharing. As I’ve said before, I see the importance of what you’re doing, and glad that there is this technology helping people resolve things on an internal level. I appreciate your time!

D: It was my pleasure!


…….

Dorote Lucci and Marilyn Schlitz are two of the foremost psychotechnology pioneers looking to use technology to help people cope with the more difficult aspects of life. 

You can find their work respectively at marilynschlitz.com and corereboot.com.

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