May 19, 2024


“Do nothing for 15 seconds.”

The ad on my iPad screen taunted me with its invitation, set against a soft-focus image of rain-kissed greenery.

Do nothing for 15 seconds! I cracked up. I’d already been doing nothing for 15 minutes. “Doing nothing” is pretty much my raison d’être when I pick up my iPad. I do nothing in the form of playing Words with Friends. I do nothing in the form of making rows of colored blocks disappear in the game 1010! I do nothing in the form of almost anything you can imagine except actually, literally, doing nothing.

Now this come-on for a meditation app called Calm was offering me a window into tranquility. Of course, the ad didn’t truly want me to do nothing; it wanted me to install the Calm app. The thought arose in my mind: Peddling a mindfulness app via digital advertising is like depositing a temperance pamphlet at the bottom of a booze bottle. You’ve got the right target market, for sure. But it’s kind of an awkward place to put the message.

I bit anyway. I’ve dabbled in simple, non-flaky meditation for years—no crystals, please!—but have never managed to make it a regular part of my routine. I installed Calm on my phone, clicked impatiently through the pop-up box that told me to turn on notifications “to fully experience Calm,” and checked out its offerings: introductory meditation sessions; guided sequences; sleep relaxation techniques. I made a mental note to give the app a try early the next morning. And then I went back to my usual drill of doing nothing, unassisted.

Bzzzz! Not more than five minutes later, my phone vibrated, nagging me with a notification from Calm. “It’s time to meditate.” Really?

Then my eye snapped to the next notification on the screen. The New York Times wanted me to know that “a violent protest in Charlottesville, Va. turned tragic.” Of course, I clicked on the news. Nirvana would have to wait.

With 12 million downloads, Calm is part of a broader wave of apps that aim to counter digital anomie and smartphone numb-out by planting a flag of mindfulness in the citadel of distraction. It’s an alchemical strategy—a bet that you can somehow transmute your phone from an engine of diversion into a lens of mental focus. “It’s almost like a bit of jiu-jitsu,” Calm’s CEO Alex Tew explained to me. “You use the device’s power against itself in order to fix some of the issues that it’s causing.” Could that possibly work?

Andy Puddicombe, the monk-turned-entrepreneur behind Headspace—another popular meditation app—thinks so. As he put it on a recent TV appearance, “for most of us, the phone is the most stressful thing in our life—and I love the paradox in that, the irony. The phone’s a piece of plastic, a piece of metal, a piece of glass. It’s not good or bad…We define the relationship with the phone. I love the idea that the phone can actually serve up something really good, that’s good for our health.”

Headspace claims 18 million users who tune in to Puddicombe’s phlegmatic British accent to build a meditation habit. Both Calm and Headspace provide free intros to a basic follow-the-breath style of meditation, teaching you not to suppress or fight wayward, restless thoughts but simply to observe them and detach yourself from them. It’s the same approach—nondenominational, stripped of myth and chant—that I’d first encountered decades ago in the pages of Lawrence LeShan’s classic book How to Meditate.

But unlike the book, which you can buy for a one-time cost of $8.66, these apps are masters of the upsell. Like the free samples? They will offer you upgrades that unlock more advanced lessons and lectures. This mercenary approach might feel out of place, but I don’t resent the in-app purchases—everyone’s got to eat, app makers and meditation teachers alike (for the latter, at least, you know, in between fasts).

The notifications are more of a problem. Headspace uses them, too; it’s less pushy than Calm, but it will, if you allow it, litter your lock screen with messages like, “Is it time for your daily meditation?”

Still, you can always tame or turn off notifications, as a growing chorus of declutter-your-life advocates urge. The tougher question meditation apps raise stems from their reliance on the tactic of gamification—the app makers’ irrepressible impulse to track every activity, incentivize every decision point, and transform any pursuit into a competition, whether with others or yourself.

Some meditators swear by gamifying, but to me, it seems ludicrously wrongheaded and self-defeating. This is not an endeavor where offering gold stars for milestones makes any sense; if anything, it is one that ought to lead you gently away from the entire score-keeping mindset. That’s why I found Calm’s encouragements—“You star! You completed your first session!”—so jarring. This article’s editor, Jessi Hempel, reports uninstalling her Mindfulness App when she discovered herself cheating by setting the timer to count minutes while she was actually in the shower. Another app, Buddhify, boasts, “More than 50MM minutes of meditation clocked up so far.” Maybe when they hit 100, as in the famous Arthur C. Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” the stars will start extinguishing.

All these apps’ scorecards and “minutes meditated” counters are intended as motivators, and I’m sure they work for some users. For me, they just bring to mind the old comic gem from The Onion, “Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship,” in which a guru pumps his fists and cries, “I am the serenest!” (From the article: “Bikram averaged 1.89 breaths a minute during the two-hour competition, nearly .3 fewer than his nearest competitor.”)

When they’re not trying to turn meditation into a statistics game, these apps insist on transforming an inner experience into something shareable. Each time you finish a session with Insight Timer, a useful app I’ve employed for years to time intervals in yoga poses, the program insists on routing you through a screen that tells you how many other people around the world have used it to meditate at the same time. I guess for some people, even mindfulness has to be social. Pics or it didn’t enlighten!

Between their nagging screens and their gamifying tendencies, today’s crop of meditation apps might well drive you to find a lower-tech alternative. People somehow managed to meditate for thousands of years without the help of iPhones. As Lifehacker reminds us, “like music, incense, and floor cushions, apps are never necessary to meditate. You need nothing at all to get started…You’re even meditating when you are being mindful about washing the dishes or walking around your neighborhood.” For a bit of inspiration, just head over to YouTube, take in a fine old Alan Watts lecture, and then sit down and start following your breath.

At least, that’s the path I’m more likely to take. To hell with 15 seconds of nothing! Meditation isn’t about “doing nothing”—it’s about learning to do one thing deliberately. Computers and phones are general-purpose devices; multitasking is their essence. Apps will always want to add more features and track new data. I began getting seriously worked up about the absurdity of expecting an app to lead you to enlightenment when my phone lit up with yet another message: “It’s time to meditate.” And I laughed again.

I won’t claim any sudden flashes of insight. But the reminder did prompt me to dial back my critical reflex for a moment—to realize that my rebellion against my meditation app wasn’t a simple, open-and-shut example of the superiority of unplugging. There’s a long, rich debate in humankind’s meditation traditions about the choice between seclusion from the world or immersion in it. Some people need to become monks to tune out the world; others pursue tranquility from inside the chaos of life. Smartphones just confront us with the latest version of this choice. App makers like Calm’s Tew say they’re aiming to meet people where they already are—which is glued to their devices.

There’s a road to calm that leads away from your phone, and another that routes you right through its touchscreen. Why quarrel over which is superior? Better just to figure out which one works for you, and then to take a few steps.

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