Mindfulness Apps: The Future of Pop Meditation

Meditation apps like headspace are making the ancient practice more portable and accessible to the everyday person.

If 2015 was the year mindfulness and meditation officially went mainstream, the focus this year will be on streamlining technology to make the practice a more readily accessible, portable commodity. Meditation apps like Headspace are geared toward ‘real people’—from Fortune 500 CEOs to Silicone Valley techies, professional athletes and Hollywood celebrities, to the British surfers Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson who created the app in 2010.

As a Buddhist monk turned mindful millionaire, Puddicombe removed any dogma or New Age stigma from the practice, and emphasized instead on the techniques of simple, present moment awareness—learning to acknowledge the mind’s thoughts as an observer, rather than attempting to stop thinking entirely (which is not really possible!). Though the approach stems from Buddhist thought, it remains practical in nature, likening the practice to a ‘gym membership for the mind,’ with guided 10-minute sessions complimented by straightforward videos and articles. And with over 5 million downloads of the app as of last month, it’s evident the approach is working.

The success of an app like Headspace coincides with the steady rise of mindfulness culture as science continues to prove the myriad mental and physical benefits of the ancient practice. Whether the timing was divine or strategically planned, the founders of Headspace were one of the first high-tech startups to capitalize on the demand for easy, affordable, accessible meditation—for normal people with busy lives in search of inner peace.

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“We go to the gym to be more active in life in just the same way we meditate; so we can be more mindful and more present and enjoy our life a little bit more,” said Puddicombe. 

Puddicombe has made the TED Talks circuit and appeared on CBS’ “This Morning” with Charlie Rose. Virgin Atlantic offers Headspace in its in-flight entertainment. And employees at Google and LinkedIn have access to a companywide subscription.

“They’ve said it’s pop meditation,” Pierson said. “But if people actually use the product and they get into the content, they really understand how authentic it is.”

In addition to Headspace, there’s meditation apps such as Buddhify, Omvana, Smiling Mind and Dharma Seed. One app, Insight Timer, offers guided meditations and recorded bell chimes. “It goes off every 25 minutes to remind us to change our chant,” said Guru Jagat, who heads the Ra Ma Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology in Venice. “This is the future, of course,” said Jagat, 36, who has led meditations on cellphone addiction. “With these apps, you can lead a modern lifestyle and have fun and also be deeply spiritual, compassionate and calm. You don’t need to be in a cave in the Himalayas.”

Earlier this past summer, the New Yorker wrote a long form profile on Headspace, including an interesting report on the correlation between technology and meditation. The article cited issues of an overstimulated society from being too attached to digital devices. Headspace already had garnered some serious attention by then—Puddicombe was a keynote speaker at Ariana Huffington’s THRIVE conference—as had several other mindfulness apps, taking full advantage of the demand for mindfulness as a conventional way of life.

All of this has led to a strange but perhaps inevitable oxymoron: digital therapy. A new class of app has emerged on iPhone screens, promising to relieve the mental afflictions—stress, distraction—that have been exacerbated by its neighbors. A venture-funded company called Big Health is developing a suite of cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps. (Its first product, Sleepio, treats insomnia.) And though Hamid considers Headspace to be the best mindfulness-meditation app, in terms of its “content and sophistication,” there are many others, including buddhify, which collects data via daily “mood check-ins”; Calm, which offers meditation exercises set to soothing nature scenes; and Insight Timer, which provides Tibetan bell sounds. Huffington has an app, too, called GPS for the Soul.

The popularity of mindfulness has, inevitably, provoked a backlash. Skeptics dismiss it as the new aromatherapy, portraying Puddicombe and his ilk as snake-oil salesmen in religious robes. But Headspace has attracted a passionate fan base; its users tend to stay with the app, and their numbers are growing at a rate of fifteen per cent a month.

But at what point does mindfulness begin to lose its magic? When does our quest for enlightenment become capitalist gain, and we’ve sold ourselves out to “McMindfulness,” rather than mindfulness? A writer for The Telegraph argued recently that our problems might not lie in stress management, but an underlying issue as to what caused that stress in the first place.”It will only ever be a sticking plaster if the root cause of the stress isn’t being addressed,” she wrote. For instance, is it better to deal with a high stress job by taking 20 minutes a day to meditate in order to cope, or is the problem the job itself?

If there is one thing for certain however, it’s that meditation is really, really good for us. And if that means we have to spend even more time with our cell phones to undo the damage of being too attached to our cell phones, then so be it. If an app helps us to take our meditation practice with us wherever we go so we can keep up with our practice and lead longer, healthier and happier lives, then that’s a price we are willing to pay.

AndreaRiceNewHeadshotAndrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, mindbodygreen, and a variety of online magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and often as a guest teacher for Deep House Yoga. Connect with Andrea on Instagram and Twitter