By Vanessa Bade
Because of my easily distractible nature, I am very cautious and selective regarding the apps I download. However, that principle proves ever more difficult in a world in which a new app is developed seemingly every minute and my self-discipline challenged equally frequently. I must admit, I am a sucker for a minimal design; I, like my generation, am drawn to anything presented to me in a simplified, aesthetic manner. I guess it is the complexity of our day to day life and the oversaturation of visual stimuli we are presented with, that draws us to choosing simplicity in the aspects of our lives we can control. Our choice of that “clean ingredient, no bullshit” cereal brand allows many of us to exert some control and simplify our lives at the same time. And our apps have the same function.
One such an app with minimal design and the promise to make your life easier, is Headspace. Essentially, it is an app for guided meditation sessions, provided by former monk and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe. It is no shocker that this app achieved immense popularity in the West; Eastern thought has been somewhat of a fascination for many Westerners at least since they first heard the soothing voice of Alan Watt in one YouTube video or the other. The reason why I keep my apps to a minimum is also one of the reasons for the growing interest in meditation; we are so overstimulated with gadgets and apps, advertisements, information and visuals, that it is extremely difficult to navigate daily life without exposure to these influences. As venture investor Mamoon Hamid states: “we’re at the epicenter of being stimulated with digital stuff” [i], leading not only to intrigue with the “less is more” lifestyle, but also with a more conscious attitude towards our own lives in general. Ironically, this interest in conscious living has led to another type of digital trend; “digital therapy” [ii].
Headspace has arrived just at the right time and fits right into this genre of “digital therapy”. It has achieved such popularity and success, that it recently set up a modern headquarter in Los Angeles, right by the Google offices and the health juice company Moon Juice. Writer for the New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe, visits the offices and its surroundings, remarking: “I wondered briefly if I had arrived in Nirvana”i. But is Silicon Valley really what the Buddha meant with Nirvana? Are all these mindfulness apps really helping us achieve mindfulness?
Puddicombe´s guided meditations were indeed somewhat helpful for me, especially concerning my breathing. The guidance provided by Puddicombe is comforting; his voice deep and soothing, and pleasant to listen to. The key benefit I found to his guidance, is his ability to make you feel comfortable with what is going around you and with the limitations of your mind. He does not encourage you to shut off all thought, but rather, to allow thoughts to pass by naturally, like clouds. He says, for example: “be aware of the different physical sensations, the weight of the body, the contact between the body and the chair” [iii]. Through embracing my environment, the meditation did not seem forced and I did not have to chide myself for becoming distracted.
However, I think that the depth behind the concept of meditation and its history do not necessarily lend themselves to the nature of the app and that perhaps an oversimplification of the practice is counterproductive. It makes it easier to do it anywhere and at any time, but does that perhaps reduce the quality of the experience? And perhaps making it so easy to do, also make it easy to give up? Because I knew I could “do it later” or “some other time”, I continuously procrastinated the meditation session, or ignored the app for another, more novel, activity. The app is designed to allow us to “get Headspace”, and while the superficiality and ease with which the process is presented does free up headspace, it doesn’t counteract our urge to fill that headspace with other things. Our minds are still wired to look for the next great thing, our eyes, while supposedly shut in meditation, peeled for the next novel source of entertainment. In this way, such apps only contribute to the fickleness of our 21stcentury minds; minds that “do a little bit of everything”, but nothing completely.
Meditation, however, is meant to help us develop strength of mind, a concentration that cannot be broken. What are 10 minutes of meditation everyday in this pursuit, when one is not fully invested in the process and the experience, doesn’t have to work through the background of the practice and truly understand its complexity? Perhaps these ten minutes are a welcome break for some people. Generally, however, I think this app is counterproductive. I don’t think it is sensitive to battle the stress and overstimulations we experience today with more apps, and I dare say a couple of Buddhist thinkers may agree with me here. Coining the term monkey minds, some thinkers comment on exactly this phenomenon we are seeing with the 21stcentury mind: “having left a former (object) they attach themselves to another, dominated by craving they do not go beyond attachment. They reject and seize, like a monkey letting go of a branch to take hold of another” [iv]. Like the monkey, we are attracted easily to the novel and attractive, but seldom do we stop to appreciate what lies behind the surface. We hop from one app to the next, not sure where were headed (but if we can get 10 minutes of meditation in along the way, that’s good enough for most of us).
Vanessa Bade, Class of 2019, is a Literature and Religion Major from Frankfurt, Germany
Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxyVCjp48S4