Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Society has gone cyber...are you utilizing technology effectively? And more importantly, mindfully?
Technology can be an effective tool for many things, but it can also be a hindrance to our well-being. The ever-growing app industry, that many are turning to for meditation and mindfulness, is a perfect example.
Mindfulness is a way of being that serves to heighten our awareness of ourselves and others, as well as our surroundings. Mindfulness takes practice. Mindfulness is also a tool for disrupting habits, especially the anxiety-causing negative chatter than runs through most of our minds most of the time. It helps restrain the habit of distraction, along with other habits and addictions.
Apps become popular (and profitable) by getting users at least lightly addicted to repetitive use.
Apps become popular (and profitable) by getting users at least lightly addicted to repetitive use. They are designed (as are smartphones) to reward us with those feel-good brain chemicals we all crave in exchange for usage, creating a habitual pattern of craving and satisfaction.
According to Sam Littlefair, “when we practice mindfulness, we interrupt our habits of distraction by non-judgmentally bringing our awareness back to the object of meditation. But smartphones aren’t designed to encourage us to hone our awareness—they’re designed to co-opt it.” (Can Your Smartphone Make You Mindful? Sam Littlefair. Mindful Magazine, August 29, 2018.)
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to stop using your mindfulness or meditation app. The point here is that on the surface, mindfulness and mindfulness apps seem to be aiming for opposite goals. When something becomes habitual, or even addictive, that is the definition of mindless. So if you are using a mindfulness or mediation app, simply stay aware and be present with how you are using the app. Reminders and guided meditations are great ways to begin your journey into mindfulness. But they are not mindfulness itself.
Also take care when choosing an app. Littlefair states that in 2017, mindfulness apps made an estimated $100 million, with most of the cash going to the top two players, Calm and Headspace, and in the first three months of 2018, earnings were up 150% over the same period of the previous year. Most app developers aren’t aiming for you to be mindful – they are doing their job of making their companies profitable. These app developers are also making some pretty big claims, including that their apps are “proven” effective based on thousands of studies. However, those studies are not looking at apps – they are focused on in-person training in mindfulness and meditation. Studies on learning these practices through apps are just beginning so the jury’s still out.
"Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we're too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone." ~ Steven Spielberg
Having said that, these apps may ultimately prove effective, we just don’t know yet. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you are using your app as a reminder to be mindful or to help you learn to meditate, then you are using your tool wisely. If you are relying on the app to help you feel good, to break a habit or to end an addiction, take pause.
Guided meditations can make users think that mindfulness meditation is a passive, guided activity instead of a tool for engaging in everyday experiences. The opposite is true. Guided meditations are an entry point to helping people learn to meditate on their own at a deeper level. It is an interactive process, not passive.
As with all technology, remember that these apps are only tools. The quality of the experience and/or learning is still in the hands of the user.
This week, try meditating without using an app. Sit quietly for 10 minutes, simply focused on your breath. Notice the thoughts that pop into your head and then let them go. You can tell yourself that you’ll think about those thoughts after the ten minutes are up. Anytime you feel yourself getting completely distracted, bring your attention back to your breath.