The Road to Appiness
Do you use a mindfulness app? Lots of us apparently do and in increasing numbers. One such app, Headspace, developed by Andy Puddicombe, is the basis for a multimillion pound business. Type "mindfulness" into the search box of your favourite online app store and you will be faced with a choice of dozens, if not hundreds, of different products, and the developers of each one will no doubt be hoping to grab a slice of an increasingly lucrative market. But what do apps actually do and do they really help you in your practice? More to the point, can an app downloaded onto your phone or tablet, replace what you may find if you took an 8-week mindfulness course or what you might get in similar, real-life instruction in mindfulness?
It's not my intention here to recommend any particular product over any other. There are lots of ways in which you can assess the value of an app before you buy it, and in any case there are just too many of them out there for that to be a realistic task within the limitations of a short blog post. However here's some thoughts on the matter which we offer in the hope that they might help you make your mind up.
- First, it's important to know what you want to do with it. Mindfulness is often offered as a relaxation therapy - which it isn't - and if relaxation is all you are after, maybe you need to look elsewhere. Likewise, if you want to explore the practices in depth, you're not going to do that with the bite sized chunks of practice that are offered in many, but not all, apps.
- Most apps have a combination of guided practices and exercises that you can do in various situations, One such app, Buddhify, has practices that are taylored around certain everyday activities, at the gym, in traffic, at the office, on your lunchbreak and so on. It also has practices for specific situations such as being unable to sleep or feeling anxiety. Others such as Headspace and Calm offer a programme that you work through over a period of weeks or months. Most charge a rolling fee or subscription although they will generally offer an initial trial period, usually for free. So be clear when and how you intend to use it.
- All the apps I am aware of use guided practices. But the quality is variable. Some, employ incredibly good teachers to guide the practices. The Mindfulness App and Insight Timer, for example, employ some of the best teachers in the world; people such as Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield. You need to know that the guidance is offered by someone who can deliver it with an authentic voice and a depth of personal practice. Not all of them do, unfortunately.
- As a rule of thumb, avoid music and some of the more left field practices unless you're into experimentation. Things like binaural beats are interesting and can have surprising effects, but it's not mindfulness. Music sounds nice and is relaxing but it also tends to distract from the practice. Certain visualisations, although they have their place, are not generally part of mindfulness training. If you come across kindness or self compassion practices (you'll encounter them on Headspace in some form or other) visualisation is part of the practice but there are other, more elaborate forms of visualisation that don't really fit in with mindfulness training and can be a bit of a sidetrack especially if they are of the escapist variety.
- Some of the best apps offer more than just a set of guided practices. Some of them will give you a sense of community as well. Insight Timer helps you link up with groups of like-minded people all over the world and Headspace does something very similar. In some cases you can befriend other users and buddy up in a number of useful and mutually supportive ways. A lot of apps also throw you a virtual Scooby snack when you reach certain milestones and most allow you to create a log of your progress. For many people it just provides them with a bit extra motivation but it can get a little obsessive, so be careful.
So to summarise; apps can be helpul adjuncts to your mindfulness training and if you are practicing in isolation from others and don't have either the time or opportunity to go on a course or retreat, they can be a pretty good substitute. They can help you build up a daily habit and some of the features, such as the timer, are genuinely helpful. However, none of those I looked at can provide the depth of experience you can get from learning in a real life situation with other people and a good teacher. I don't think many app developers would argue with that. Also, at the end of the day do you really need an app to meditate? Guided meditations are available for free or very cheaply from a number of sources - you can stream them via Spotify for instance or download them from a site such as this - and to be honest, eventually most of us manage fine without any guidance at all. Shop around, make use of the trial periods before you commit to buy and make sure they work. Some are unecessarily complicated and buggy and many just don't deliver what they claim to. Others, maybe even the majority, don't really work as mindfulness apps at all. They give you stress reduction exercises and relaxation - not in itself a bad thing, it's just not mindfulness. You need to know the difference and make your mind up accordingly.
Best of luck if you decide to try one of these out. If you do, please consider sharing your experiences with us. We'd love to hear from you. I'm grateful to all those people who have already done so and helped me write this this post.