Want to Meditate? Don’t Use Meditation Apps
Photo by Paulo Henrique Araújo
The unintended negative consequences of meditation apps
My first encounter with meditation was back in 2017. This was a time when Medium had just come out with the concept of “Series” similar to stories that we see in every social media app.
Being an aspiring content creator and struggling to create a meditation habit, I started a 30-day meditation challenge and documented it as a series. A few months later I had nothing — the series was a total flop and so was my meditation practice.
Meditation apps are promising indeed. They portray themselves as the easiest way to get started with meditation. After all, what can be easier than putting your headphones on for 10 minutes, listening to a voice, and calling it meditation? Surely, it’s the easiest path for beginners.
But what’s easy isn’t always good.
I did all my sessions every day. I was disciplined and diligent. But even after the 30-day challenge, I felt no desire to meditate on my own. Further, to unlock new guided meditations, I had to upgrade my plan. I didn’t have the intention or the money to do that.
So I stuck with the same 10 meditation audios that got boring faster than a bullet leaves the gun. A crucial part of meditation and mindfulness is its uncertainty. You never know what’s going to show up. But whatever it is, you have to observe it non-judgmentally. Listening to audios took that away.
A year later I started learning using books, YouTube videos and eventually joined a local meditation center that trained me in Kriya Yoga after a year of preparation.
That’s the only reason I was able to establish my meditation practice. To have teachers I could talk to and learn how to meditate on my own, anytime, anywhere. But meditation apps can’t give you the same experience no matter how much you pay them. Here’s why.
On my meditation journey, I gradually kept increasing my sitting time from 15 to 20 then 30 then 45, and eventually an hour. Today I meditate for 1–1.5 hours in a sitting, twice a day.
With the quick meditation sessions designed for busy people meditation apps just can’t offer that sense of advancement. They don’t systematically train you to increase your sitting time and dive deeper into your practice.
Sitting for longer periods of time is not a linear process. You don’t keep increasing 1 minute every week and think at the end of the year you’ll practice for an hour. There’s a system you have to follow. And you need guidance along the way.
Both are things no app can give you.
Meditation apps position themselves as using the distracting devices in our hands for a better purpose. But they’re still distracting with all their friendly notifications — “Is it time to meditate?”
The notifications drag your attention from whatever you’re doing at the moment which is exactly the opposite of mindfulness. If you need reminders to meditate, you probably aren’t that serious about it.
Anyway, you can turn off the notifications. But more concerning to me is the gamification aspect of these apps.
They turn every session and every little mindful activity into a competition with yourself and with others. Clearly, that’s not the way to be mindful at all. Meditation is not supposed to be a race.
It’s observing your own mind and recognizing that it can be boring. Which, by the way, is fine! There’s no need to introduce gamification for temporary dopamine spikes.
For me, meditation is not a practice of achieving trophies and medals inside an app to then share them with my friends. I’m sure they work for some users, but it seems highly counterintuitive to me.
Post-meditation, they push you to share your progress with your friends and be proud of being better than others. First, you’re spending more time on your phone, and second, you’re leading with competition instead of compassion. So much for mindfulness!
As I mentioned above, serious progress in meditation requires some support and interaction. Even Tim Ferris started meditating seriously only after joining a TM center.
That is why people offer courses on meditation. If it was that simple, you can just download audio files from the Internet and go with it. But it isn’t.
Where Are They Guiding You With Guided Meditations?
Let me say this once and for all — guided meditations cannot replace proper practice. You need to learn how to meditate on your own.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could meditate anytime, anywhere, without your phone, and feel a sense of calm without using the app by the same name? It is great, I can tell you.
But the apps would never help you reach that level. Not because they’re evil, but because they need to put food on the table. They’ll have unlimited upsells lined up for you the moment you start progressing with your practice.
Never will they tell you “So you’ve come this far, now we recommend you unsubscribe and meditate on your own.”
If you choose to stay subscribed, you’re possibly putting in all the time in ‘meditation’ for nothing. Why? Because the aim of true mindfulness and meditation is to see things as they are. To observe the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise in your body.
Listening to a voice all the time doesn’t let you do that. This is also why meditation music (another popular choice) doesn’t work in the long run.
If your mind keeps jumping between the voice of the narrator and the object of your concentration (say the breath), what good does it do for your mind?
Guided meditations do have their place. I, too, attend them from time to time. But they’re not like your usual app-based meditation where the instructor tells you exactly what to do every minute.
The app-based guided meditations are often visualizations. Which is good, but again, it’s not meditation.
Ergo, question where you’re going with the meditation apps. Are they really helping you in the long run? Do you have plans to stop using it and establish a self-directed practice?
It’s crucial to think about this lest you’ll find yourself nowhere after investing months of time and money.
Making It Too Complex
With the plethora of meditation types and upsells, these apps make meditation harder than it has to be.
In its simplest form, meditation is a state of awareness achieved by relaxing the body-mind and stilling the thoughts using concentration techniques like focusing on the breath. Once you’ve still your mind and body, you sit in that peaceful presence for as long as you can.
It’s that simple. Instead, we’re taught that we need a different meditation for each situation.
- Going for a meeting? Take the confidence-boosting meditation
- Having stress? Listen to our stress-reliever audio
- About to exercise? Try out Fat-to-Fit visualization.
Again, this can be helpful. But they make the practice seem way too complicated. Perhaps they do this in order to make meditation seem easier than it is. But in fact, they end up giving too many options to confuse a beginner.
Further, the marketing of these companies shows meditation as the panacea for all our problems. 8 weeks of meditation and you’ll be fine. That’s not how it works because it takes time for results to show.
It can take weeks and months to start feeling real changes. Setting the right expectations, therefore, is necessary which the apps don’t do a good job at.
I’ve put forth a lot of opinions that seem subjective at best. But there’s research to back that.
“It’s hard to notice what’s going on inside or around you [in other words, it’s hard to be mindful] if you’re distracted by someone speaking, even if it is soothing speech, and some reviews of these apps point this out. Research also indicates that the self-directed, silent form of mindfulness practice is more effective than externally guided exercises.”
Further, according to research by Queenston University, the vast majority of so-called “Mindfulness apps” do not actually teach mindfulness at all. The researchers state that “Only 4% of the 700 apps identified in our search provided mindfulness training and education. Though many apps claimed to be mindfulness apps, most of them were not.”
At this point, people might point out another research that proved the effectiveness of a popular meditation app. The study showed those who used the app felt more positive than others who learned through an audio-based meditation book.
There are two problems with this study, however. First, the researchers were employed by the company that makes the app in the first place. Second, what the study actually says is that the app was better than the book. That doesn’t mean the app works well. Maybe the book was bad or the book-meditators didn’t practice properly on their own. Who knows.
With time we’ll see more research. But as far as science goes, we can make reasonable inferences on what’s available.
What’s the Alternative?
Research on mindfulness apps is still going on and we’ll see more results further down the line. But empirical data suggests that they don’t work as well as advertised. And they certainly don’t work for everyone.
While they may be good to get your feet wet, they’re not the tool of choice for serious meditators.
If you’re serious, you can take the option of either books or courses. They are more nuanced in the way they approach meditation. They avoid leaning on extremes (too easy, too hard) in favor of marketing their product.
Their job is not to make it look sexy and keep you hooked. Their job is to give you the information and guidance so you can do it on your own. Plus, commitment to getting through a book or a course prepares us to commit to our practice as well.
Meditation apps are not a bad idea. Of all people, I love that they’re trying to make meditation ubiquitous. However, there are unintended negative consequences that can derail us off the path if we’re not aware.
That was the goal of this article. To help you make an aware choice. I hope it did just that.
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