Sep 29, 2020

Review: Mindfulness Apps

The next turning of the Wheel or a shallow gimmick?


Mindfulness Apps: the next turning of the Wheel or a shallow gimmick?

The Buddha once sat with his followers in a forest of simsapa trees near Kosambi, an important city in ancient India.  He took a handful of leaves and asked them:

“Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead?”

"The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, Lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous."

"In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous than what I have taught. “

This Simsapa Sutra is a guide for all those who are confronted with the challenge of passing on the teachings of Buddhism. Even the Buddha had to focus on key essentials in order to reduce the vast range and depth of his experience to something that could be passed on to others. After the death of the Buddha the First Council met at the town of Rajgir to decide on what should go into the Vinaya, the rules for monastics, and the Dharma, the transmitted teachings of the Buddha. The Vinaya and the Dharma formed the basis of an oral tradition. After the Buddha’s death his followers had to make decisions as to what to teach and what to leave out from the great store of incidents, stories and teachings they had received. When the art of writing arrived in the Indian subcontinent there must have been great debates about whether to commit the Buddha’s words to this new and unproven technology and, if so, how to do it. Throughout the centuries Buddhist teachers have had to make similar decisions. Even in Buddhist schools such as Zen, which gives primacy to direct transmission through a lineage of recognized teachers, there is always the danger of diluting the tradition as it is passed down from generation to generation.

The Mindfulness movement has sought to make the essential teachings of Buddhism available in the West by removing the cultural context or - depending on how you view it -  the baggage that comes with the traditional schools of Buddhism. Mindfulness has grown at an enormous rate and is now integrating itself into the daily discourse of life in many Western countries.  Paradoxically it is also is being re-imported into Asian countries as a Western phenomenon.

Mindfulness teaching has chosen to focus on certain aspects of what is commonly called meditation and to leave aside any devotional practices or doctrinal discussion associated with traditional Buddhist schools. The Mindfulness movement is happy to embrace the full range of modern teaching aids available. Meditation instruction with guides and classes are available on the full range of platforms from podcasts to Apps. There are in fact a large number of Apps to choose from. A London Metro station recently offered a guide to the Ten Best Mindfulness Apps, giving an indication of the range of offerings available. For this review I looked at two of the most popular Apps: the market leader Headspace and the new challenger Buddhify.

Headspace is available as a free download, but this only gives access to the introductory lesson. Everything else within the App requires a subscription or an in-App purchase. You can get a “lifetime” subscription for £299.99, a monthly subscription for £9.99 a month or an annual subscription of £74.99. Headspace uses very simple and engaging animation to talk you through the basics of a mindfulness exercise. There is the usual soothing voice that teaches mindfulness for 10 minutes every day for ten days. There are also a number of themed meditations with titles such as Competition, Focus, Motivation, and Training but all of these are on the far side of the subscription wall.

Buddhify (also Buddhify2) is a product of Mindfulness Everywhere, a company run by Rohan Gunatillake. It is available in iOS and Android versions and costs £3.99 to download. The App has an innovative greeting page in the form of a dial that offers a menu of meditations for various occasions. The hub of the dial includes the question: “what are you doing?” There are 16 spokes, each with a different meditation for a different occasion: waking up, traveling, eating etc.

Within each section there are a variety of voices or Vocals as they are described on the Buddhify website. On the dial you can for example chose the Vocal called Work Break. Once selected you can scroll down to a subsection: Couch, Sign, Texture, Network, Motivate, Ready. These can be of different durations, depending on how much time you have available. 

Many of the online reviews seem to concentrate on how soothing or annoying they find these voices, but personally I found the variety helpful and soon ignored individual accents or vocal styles and found the exercises relaxing and easy to follow.

I spent a couple of weeks with the Buddhify App. Listening to it on the train or walking in the city, I tried to match the exercise to the occasion. As someone who is accustomed to simply following the breath when meditating, I found the variety of the exercises interesting and admired their inventiveness but found that they added little to my experience. One has to imagine however that the core demographic for these Apps is not the experienced meditator but someone who might have just heard about mindfulness.  They might want to learn a little about it without wanting to go to a class or a class might not be available. In such a case these Apps could provide a very valuable service. The interactive nature certainly makes them easier to use than any book about meditation I have encountered. Although there is no explicit reference to any Buddhist teaching, the sections concerned with difficult emotions, for example, deal with the need for detachment in a way that would be familiar to any Buddhist but particularly one from a Vipasanna (Insight) meditation school.

Should serious Buddhists welcome these developments as a next turning of the Wheel or reject them as shallow gimmicks? There have definitely been overly ambitious claims for Mindfulness, describing it as a sort of quick fix for all of our ills, but the core teaching is based on a solid foundation familiar to all who come from a Buddhist tradition. These Apps in fact show both the strengths and weaknesses of the “Buddhism-lite” approach. They are accessible and immediate, but they fall short in not offering that connection with a tradition that can help sustain the student in the more arduous moments on the path. The meditative life has its longueurs and difficult patches and I am not sure how Mindfulness training deals with these or how someone who only has the App to depend upon would be able to manage the more challenging experiences that arise in meditation and in daily life practice. However it’s also true that not everyone has access to Buddhist teachers nor would they necessarily want them even if they were available. Which simsapa leaves can we leave on the forest floor and which might we hold in our hands?  Do these Apps nonetheless provide a fistful of essential teachings for today?

The Mindfulness Apps have an obvious shortcoming and it is this: while they may offer something to the stressed and harried, they cannot dig deeper into the causes of stress. They neither teach about the underlying causes nor about the ways to arrive at the cessation of stress. This may come as Mindfulness training evolves and some of the aspects of Buddhism that have been shorn off are reintroduced. It would certainly help to make Mindfulness teaching a more complete cure for life’s ills and the next versions of these Apps will be far more worth exploring when they do.


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