By Virginia Heffernan
Buddhism and technology are boon companions. Unlike some home-schooling, cloth-diapering evangelical Christians, or observant Jews—many of whom sanctify weekly abstinence from electricity—Zen types have long expressed nothing short of zeal for digital novelty and global circuits.
Put it this way: A talk on something called Orgasmic Meditation was right at home at the South by Southwest technology conference earlier this month. What’s more, a whole conference, Wisdom 2.0, asks CEOs and others, “How can we live with greater presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age?” The twinning of tech and Buddhist practice comes across in the name of a popular podcast: “Buddhist Geeks.”
“Electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West,” pronounced the oracular Marshall McLuhan in 1967. “The contained, the distinct, the separate—our Western legacy—are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused.”
Perhaps McLuhan was right; in any case, it sounds cool. And so it should be no surprise that Buddhism—especially Vipassana, the progenitor of “mindfulness,” and Zen, which Steve Jobs practiced—pervades the App Store.
As a tyro meditator, I rely on the brilliant free podcasts of Tara Brach, an influential meditation teacher and psychologist, for hour-long mental retreats. The podcasts include a lecture and, generally, a guided meditation. I’ve also consulted the wise podcasts and audiobooks of Shinzen Young, a Vipassana teacher. Curiously, some of Young’s lectures are classified as music. All of these talks can be found in some form or another in iTunes and the App Store.
But when downloaded lectures began to clutter my iPhone, I began to fantasize about a simple app that would simulate the perfect meditation bell sound. (Find good examples here.) Of course, in the grasping spirit of non-Buddhism, I then started to crave a bell that came with ... bells and whistles.
I soon discovered there are more than 20 meditation apps currently available for iPhone. Each has its own suite of gimmicks—and hardly any American meditator is so monastic that he won’t find one or two of these features enticing.
The first meditation app I used, beginning years ago, was “Simply Being.” I liked the plain interface and the injunction to “simply be.” But it was bare bones and maybe a little too girly bubble-bath in its vibe. I have since checked out “Insight Timer,” which offers opportunities to connect via Facebook; “Zazen Suite,” a minimalist timer and bell; and “Mindfulness Bell,” which supplies the most tranquil Tibetan-bowl ring imaginable. These three worked well, but neither had enough embellishments (or so I first thought) to command my loyalty.
ReWire (you log in with Facebook and get points for practicing and keeping up “streaks”) features stock American ways to track progress, crow about achievements and prod yourself into meditating longer and harder. In short, it makes the fertile, serene solitude of compassionate self-observation much more … social. And competitive.
Appealing to no-nonsense types looking for a mental edge, ReWire calls itself a “mind training app.” Users are expected to prove their focus—or risk getting (lightly) buzzed by their iPhones. It’s more fun, and effective, than it sounds. But yikes: the specter of competition does not help me meditate.
More recently I caught the mania for “Headspace,” an app that’s part of a wide-ranging project to “demystify meditation” and to use “the wonders of science and technology … on a mission to get as many people in the world as possible to take 10 minutes out of their day.”
That TED-style pitch sounds like catnip for investors. But I prefer invocations of soul and spirit, not to mention actual Zen koans, with my meditation practice, so I was wary of Headspace’s studied secularness. Its FAQ features the standard new argument for meditation from neuroscience, which is that time on the cushion can change the brain and make us more alert and productive. Yuck. Too much of that meditation-is-better-than-Adderall line saps the magic from my practice, and seems to require workday go-getterism in place of surrender and self-forgetting.
I like Headspace anyway. It turns out that the stylish Andy Puddicombe, a onetime Buddhist monk who leads the meditations, is firmly grounded in his tradition. Once I surrendered to his regional British accent—a Bristol soccer-thug doozy—the Headspace way took off for me.
During the longer meditations Puddicombe calls attention not just to what varieties of stress feel like (the better to observe anxiety and anger and not identify with it), but to what the dissipation of that fretfulness feels like. Puddicombe’s lovely cues helped me learn how to activate that dissipation.
Two other strong meditation apps for iPhone are The Mindfulness App and Mindfulness Meditation. Try keeping those two straight. Both offer guidance by venerable Buddhist teachers. (By the way, the word “mindfulness” may soon need to be replaced, like a mantra, lest it grow empty from overuse.)
Finally there’s Calm.com. I have used the Calm.com website for some time, enjoying especially the chance to meditate at my laptop for a lazyman’s two minutes, while gazing upon one of several not-quite-too-gauzy landscapes that rush with tidal sounds, or wind, or rainfall. The guide used to be a dude who sounded matter-of-fact and who had a kind of smile in his voice while he enjoined me to do nothing. Now that Calm.com has become a richly funded app, and asks that you pay for it, it’s added a more solemn and sexy woman’s voice. I kind of miss the kickback bro, who seemed blissfully ignorant of both Zen and neuroscience. He just seemed naturally chill.
“The Smiling Mind,” a meditation app for the young, encourages kids to see “presence” as something of a superpower. It has worked wonders helping my 7-year-old son gain perspective on his emotions. Other apps not exclusively for meditation—from “Omvana” to “The Now”—introduce, encourage and enhance mindfulness practices. “Omvana” lets you download lectures, some incisive and some hucksterish, while “The Now” sends alerts and the words of folks like Baba Ram Dass reminding you to, say, be here now.
For me, the effectiveness of these apps depends on the sonority of the voice. I like a voice that’s intelligent and slightly amused, with an American accent. (Tara Brach is my model.) I dislike to nausea anything that sounds deliberately hypnotic or like a you-are-getting-sleepy carnival sideshow. That’s my problem with the many Deepak Chopra meditation podcasts and apps. On the hugely popular and beloved “21-Day Meditation Challenge”—which friends of mine love—the Chopra guides seem to me as though they’re aiming to manipulate rather than inspire.
But maybe I’m being paranoid. Or judgmental. I’m trying, with regular meditation, to let that all go. Om.
Correction: The story has been edited to reflect that February marked the fourth year of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference. #wisdom2conf was not launched last fall.
By Virginia Heffernan