Why smartphone apps are sabbotaging your meditation practice.


What do you think about mindfulness…? Should I start meditating…? Will it help me fall asleep or be less stressed all the time?

I get this question a lot. Which isn’t surprising given how popular mindfulness meditation has become over the last few years. People have heard that mindfulness can help with stress and anxiety, and they’re understandably curious.

More surprising, however, is the inevitable follow up question:

What’s a good meditation app for my phone?

Again, I suppose this question shouldn’t come as a surprise given the increasing prominence of smart phones and personal technology in our lives. But it does. Perhaps because there’s something unnerving and deeply ironic about using a smartphone—the single greatest cause for compulsive distraction the world has ever known—to help us be more mindful and present.

Hunches aside, I get it. I understand why people ask.

The idea of mindfulness meditation is intimidating. So it’s understandable that we would want to use something familiar like our phones to help ease us into the process.

But I’m not sure it’s such a good idea, and here’s why:

Meditation apps tend to reinforce two common misconceptions about mindfulness meditation—that it’s complicated and that it’s easy—both of which can lead to premature discouragement and giving up.

In the rest of this article, I’ll briefly walk through these two misconceptions about mindfulness and show how meditation apps strengthen them, ultimately, to our detriment.

MISCONCEPTION #1: Mindfulness Meditation is Complicated

While mindfulness meditation is certainly challenging, it’s not particularly complicated, either in theory or practice. In fact, here’s everything you need to get started with mindfulness meditation in 24 words:

Pay attention to the physical sensation of breathing. If you find yourself distracted and your attention wandering, gently return your attention to your breath.

That’s really it. Of course there are secondary details about posture, duration, location, etc. But at it’s core, mindfulness meditation is just a simple, straightforward method for training our attention.

But most of us don’t believe it’s that simple. For whatever reason—maybe because of its roots in Eastern spirituality?—we tend to assume that mindfulness meditation is complicated and esoteric; and we feel like we need a friend or guide to show us the way—even if it’s a little cartoon on our phone with a soothing British accent.

With their plethora of options and upgrades, most mindfulness apps make the whole idea of mindfulness meditation seem much bigger and more complicated than it really is.

While these options are meant to aid us, they subtly encourage an overly complicated mindset around meditation.

This is problematic because when we inevitable struggle in our meditation practice, the tendency will be to attribute that struggle to a lack of knowledge about mediation rather than the simple fact that’s it’s just hard. But like exercise, meditation isn’t a struggle because it’s complicated and we lack knowledge; it’s a struggle because it’s inherently difficult.

So we download a couple new apps, fidget with a few more settings, and when our practice continues to be difficult we get discouraged and give up, assuming it’s just too complicated for us or that we’ll never understand it.

MISCONCEPTION #2: Mindfulness Meditation is Easy

In almost any meditation app you come across, you’ll notice that all of the marketing and branding around these apps are geared toward convincing regular folks that mindfulness meditation is easy.

But mindfulness isn’t easy. In fact, it’s extremely challenging most of the time. By selling people on the idea that anyone can effortlessly start meditating regularly, these mindfulness apps are setting up false hopes and expectations which can lead to unnecessary discouragement.

When we inevitably encounter difficulty or frustration in the early stages of our practice, our default assumption that mindfulness should be easy can lead us to interpret the fact that we are struggling as a sign that we aren’t cut out for this mindfulness thing and “just don’t have what it takes.” Consequently, we get discouraged and give up.

While the rise of smartphones and meditation apps may have increased the number of people who try meditation, I worry that they may also be increasing the number of people who try it briefly, give up, and never return.

Wrapping Up

Many people who try mindfulness meditation do it a handful of times, become frustrated and discouraged and give it up. I believe mindfulness meditation apps are partly to blame for this because they encourage two unhelpful mindsets around meditation: That it’s complicated and that it’s easy. In reality, meditation is the exact opposite: It’s simple and difficult. And if we want to stick with meditation, we need to know that from the outset and not blame our struggles on a lack of knowledge or interpret them as a sign that we shouldn’t continue.

What to do instead

Unlike most mediation apps that I’ve used, well-written books about mindfulness tend to treat the subject with a little more nuance, even if it’s at the expense of flashiness and immediate ease of use.

What’s more, the very fact that a book is less sexy and requires more effort to consume is what makes it a better place to start. The struggle of reading a whole book on mindfulness foreshadows and prepares us for the struggles that will take place in a mindfulness practice. Consequently, we’re less surprised and discouraged when we encounter those struggles and more likely to persevere with our practice.

I think the best book for most people about how to get started with a basic mindfulness meditation practice is Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation by Lodro Rinzler.

Notes:

  1. There are many types of meditation and mindfulness practice. In this article I’m referencing what is probably the most popular form of mindfulness meditation in the western world currently, which is essentially Vipassana Meditation, a kind of focused concentration on the breath.
  2. I’m not suggesting that mindfulness apps are a bad idea all the time and for everyone—just that they can have unintended negative consequences, especially for first-time meditators.

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