Meditation Apps: Do They Work for Us or Against Us?
"Meditation takes practice, and in the beginning, like any new skill, meditation can seem challenging."
Meditation has become part of our mainstream conversation in the West years after we began studying its health and well-being benefits. Celebrities and business moguls espouse it, while various websites, in-flight meditation options on airlines, online training, retreats, and apps proliferate.
Research groups here in the West are exploring meditation's positive effects on stress, depression, anxiety, emotional angst, pain, heart disease, sleep, mood, productivity, focus, and more. We are busy proving the biological and mental benefits of a powerful tool that people have been practicing for thousands of years in other parts of the world.
Meditation has deep and wide historical roots in the East, where a consistent meditation practice has been a part of daily life for up to 7,000 years in some areas. Their experience was that meditation fosters health, equanimity, and joy, and can bring the meditator into a closer relationship with their spiritual or religious life. They also get all those more tangible benefits that we are seeking in the West, but they are considered side benefits, as opposed to the goal.
In many parts of the East, people grow up learning how to meditate like we grow up learning how to tie our shoes or wash our hair. This is not typically the case in the U.S., and learning to meditate as an adult can be a challenging endeavor.
Meditation was originally practiced as part of a spiritual life; and, although it doesn't belong to any particular religion or philosophy, it can deepen and enrich one's personal relationship to any religion. It can also be practiced without any spiritual threads at all, as is more common in the West.
However, like most imports, meditation and its purpose has become twisted and shifted by cultural lexicon. Meditation is not napping, checking out, or escaping. It's not stopping or silencing thoughts, nor is it about getting somewhere or achieving something. It's not even about introspection. Meditation, at its very core, is a journey that we embark on that shifts us—from external busyness and activity—to inner silence.
Meditation takes practice, and in the beginning, like any new skill, meditation can seem challenging.
And Then There Were Apps
Technology has come to the rescue, and one of the most popular forms of meditation technology is meditation apps; as of 2017, there were 1300 meditation apps available. These apps can be helpful if we're starting a meditation practice. They can guide us in creating a meditation habit, and help instruct us in the foreign-seeming task of watching thoughts and letting them pass. Of returning to our focus on the breath, or ambient sounds, or a candle flame, or a mantra. They can help us understand what mindfulness meditation—the most common meditation practiced here in the West—looks and feels like.
Instruction can be helpful in any new task; hence the rise of apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. This proliferation of meditation apps also serves another noble purpose: making meditation feel mainstream, accessible, and decidedly non-woowoo. That said, as is often the case with our general lack of scrutiny around new technology, there is a downside that's rarely discussed.
The Meditation App Paradox
Some meditation apps have levels or use badges to encourage you toward success, much like a video game. You log your minutes and/or get congratulated. Some more advanced meditation technology, such as a meditation headband, tells you how quiet your mind is via feedback. And, by definition, most of the 1300 meditation apps and technology devices out there are talking you through a meditation. Listening to instruction invokes our cognitive mind—we think about what's being said. This is actually activating the mind, as opposed to allowing it to settle.
Meditation apps and guided meditation forums can be helpful in getting started in our practice. To remind us to not get swept away in the never-ending and sometimes turbulent river of our thought-stream and to be kind and gentle with ourselves as we learn something new.
This technology can serve as an inroad for folks who are skeptical of, afraid of, or frustrated with meditation. I certainly benefitted from meditation instructors and a daily guided online meditation when I was learning and creating my own meditation practice. However, after that short training period, these apps can actually become a hindrance to practicing and experiencing true meditation. Turning meditation into a technology experience (of which we are already getting plenty) can actually become stressful for people.
It's best to use these apps as a beginner's tool, and then learn to lean into your own personal journey with meditation. These apps can be a valuable ally in creating a meditation practice, but are not the practice itself.