I had the good fortune to attend Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco this past weekend, a conference dedicated to exploring mindful living in the digital age.
As someone more inclined to discuss a Zendo than an IPO, I was eager to hear how companies across Silicon Valley have been integrating mindfulness into their workplaces, and to see presentations by people I admire, like Jack Kornfield and Roshi Joan Halifax.
One thing I was less prepared for was the onslaught of tech-based products designed to facilitate mindfulness practice.
I’ve used a zen timer app of my iPhone to time my morning sits, and have a software on my laptop that rings a bell of mindfulness every 18 minutes during my work, so I’m no stranger to seeking a little help in my practice from the digital world. But as I quickly learned at Wisdom 2.0, there are a plethora of new products available to help me meditate better (whatever that means), track my brain waves and heart rate, and inspire me to maintain a regular practice.
In the debut session of the conference’s New Technology Showcase, a group of Canadian scientists and developers shared the Muse, a brain-sensing headband. Sleek in design, the band fits over your ears just like a pair of glasses and can detect what’s going on in your head. T
he Muse allows users to track brain wave patterns, in addition to engaging in games where using thoughts alone, users can shift objects on the screen of a tablet or smart phone that has been synced with the headband. On the heels of a wildly successful IndieGoGo campaign last year that raised over $280,000, the Muse is on track to be available later this year at a retail cost of $199, and parent company Interaxon is making data available to developers who want to design software and apps that sync up with the device.
According to Interaxon founder Trevor Coleman, while the headband was in development, a question arose as to how the Muse could be used for a higher purpose. Ultimately, it was decided that the Muse could be of benefit to humankind as a tool to encourage meditation practice by helping novice meditators have some reassurance they were on the right track in their practice. By providing graphs and other metrics that chart progress, the developers of the Muse believe that people will be more inspired to meditate if they can see that they are “getting better” in their practice.
As the Muse was discussed and demoed, I could sense the discomfort amongst the seasoned group of Buddhist meditators I was sitting with. For 2,600 years, we’ve gotten by just fine without any gadgets or gizmos to start up our practice. Moreover, as teachers throughout the ages have shared, meditation is not about trying to reach any particular end state. This sentiment is well summed by Yogi Mccaw, a dedicated practitioner who has sat for over two decades:
“If you’re meditating in order to achieve something—even if it’s a deeper state of meditation—you are missing the point, and probably sabotaging your meditations to boot. Meditation is a whole different universe from the achievement-driven universe of the ego. Normally, we always do something to get something. It’s intrinsic. If you’re actually in meditation, you’re not doing anything, and you’re not getting anything.”
The potential danger in treating meditation as an achievement-based activity is the door it opens for pride to develop.
Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki-roshi said it best:
“If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra.”
It seems to me the Muse sets up a slippery slope wherein we potentially invite more pride and other ego baggage into our lives. And what happens if a couple days running one’s “progress” declines? It seems to me that could just lead to frustration and suffering.
While the founders of Muse assert that people new to meditation struggle because they’re unsure if they are “doing it right,” it’s been my experience that the bigger obstacles are a perceived lack of time and/or discipline, neither of which the Muse fundamentally helps users to overcome or address.
I have difficulty seeing the Muse as a beneficial tool for meditation practice, however I can’t help but be amazed of what it is capable of in terms of measuring brain activity, and see its potential value as a tool to help cultivate the art of maintaining singular focus in various contexts. A demo by an Interaxon scientist, wherein he used his mind to drag a moon graphic across a screen to overlap an image of a sun and thereby cause a solar eclipse was incredibly cool and a testament to the ingenuity of humans. But, I left the session unconvinced that the Muse was going to be a healthy aid in stimulating a mass meditation movement.
Interestingly, the conference began with a call from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, to reassess the emphasis our society places on doing (as opposed to being). During the 20 minutes that the Muse was discussed and demonstrated, it seemed to me that it was mainly a gadget to appeal to Type-A overachievers who judge success by doing alone, the type of people who might attend a retreat seeking to be the best meditators in the room.
As someone with a tendency toward over-achievement myself, I was keenly aware how such a device would simply fuel a spirit of competition and striving within myself, possibly counteracting much of the benefit I might actually gain from my sitting practice.
I had a very real experience with this exact phenomenon when on my trip home from the conference, I downloaded and took a go at using another product featured in the course of the conference, the GPS for the Soul app from the Huffington Post. Using your smartphone’s camera lens, the app can sense your heart rate (both actual beats per minute and variability over the course of 60 seconds) to determine whether you’re in a state of stress.
As I sat with my finger positioned for my first reading, I was very aware that my stress level was rising slightly as I sat awaiting an assessment of my heart rate. My inner overachiever waited with baited breath, hoping I would get a “good” result. When I was finally diagnosed as being “in sync” I let out a deep sigh of relief. But, I was noticeably more stressed than before I used the app. Would I use it again? Probably not.
GPS for the Soul seeks to counteract stress by offering users the ability to view a “guide” after their state of being has been calculated, which may be anything from a pre-recorded guided meditation or short yoga sequence from a leading teacher, to a collection of pleasant or inspiring images set to a song that an individual user has programmed. While such an approach is seemingly harmless, and can potentially offer temporary relief from stress, it does seem to run counter to a basic tenet of wisdom teaching that spans across all traditions, namely that peace and healing comes from within, not from external objects.
As the historical Buddha advised,
“Don’t take refuge in anything, anyone, but take refuge in the island within yourself.”
In the Plum Village Buddhist tradition to which I belong, the practice of returning to the island within is pivotal, and I’m skeptical that any app can truly help me come to find it. Finding that unshakable place of stability within is a journey each of must endeavor upon for ourselves, and there’s not a GPS that can take us to that destination. Taking refuge in objects outside oneself, even the prettiest pictures, creates unhealthy and unsustainable dependencies. And, beyond that, if we come to rely on our smartphone for refuge, where are we to turn when we hit rock bottom and the iPhone battery is dead?
While I like to believe that the creators of GPS for the Soul truly want their users to lead lives that are more peaceful and equanimous, at the end of the day, I can’t help but be skeptical that more than anything, the desire is for me to click on one of the ads from the app’s sponsor, Weight Watchers. As a free app, I understand that it must sustain itself through ad revenue, but somehow seeing the name of a company that I (and I’m sure many others) associate with promoting the need to “fix” some aspect of ourselves rather than cultivating self-acceptance is unlikely to help me feel better on a bad day, especially if it’s a day when I’m feeling hormonal and bloated.
On the trip home, I also downloaded Headspace, an app designed to inspire people to meditate regularly by offering guided meditations and tools for tracking progress over time. I’d first come across Headspace a few months ago after watching a TED talk with founder Andy Puddicombe, the former Buddhist monk who today is a Clinical Meditation Consultant in the UK, and got a private demo of all its features during the opening night reception of Wisdom 2.0. Sleek and visually enticing, Headspace seemed to be the most promising of the various tech-based tools I saw over the course of the weekend, as it seeks to encourage discipline and help people overcome perceptions that meditation is time-consuming by suggesting 10 minutes of practice per day.
To get you in the door, Headspace promises 10 days of free meditations, but after day two, your e-mail address will be requested, and should you wish to continue beyond the trial period, you will be enticed into a monthly plan ranging from roughly $6 to $15 per month. And as I have learned, Headspace will quickly occupy space in your consciousness through default alerts that seem to pop up on my phone nearly every hour offering sweet aphorisms and bits of wisdom, which my inner cynic simply sees as attempts to pester me to sign up for a monthly plan, rather than true well-wishes for my practice.
Headspace promises that for the cost of a couple lattes per month, I can find more healthy ways to relax my mind, and perhaps if I were a newer practitioner, I might be sold. But for those with a dedicated practice that has no monthly cost, there seems to be little incentive to sign up, save for perhaps the joy one feels hearing Andy’s lilting British accent during guided meditations.
One aspect of meditation that I have always appreciated is its accessibility, the fact it’s available in any moment, with props like cushions or timers being entirely optional.
I am hopeful that tools like the Muse headband and Headspace can be gateways for a new generation of mindfulness practitioners to discover the benefits of sitting, but that they can be embraced with non-attachment and eventually released. No matter how sophisticated technology gets, no device can uncover the Buddha nature that lies within each of us. To discover that is a purely analog journey, no batteries required.
Meredith Klein is passionate about helping individuals to experience radical transformation through the practices of mindfulness and meditation. A student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Meredith teaches at retreats and workshops, in addition to offering one-on-one coaching. Meredith is influenced in her teaching by her studies of yoga, Ayurveda and nutrition, allowing her to help clients to create balanced lifestyles that support their practice. As part of her business, pranaful (www.pranaful.com), Meredith creates internationally-inspired, plant-based, organic cuisine for yoga retreats across the country, in addition to offering nourishment education workshops and consultations. It is Meredith’s deepest aspiration to see everyone she works with completely at home and healthy in their own skin, while thriving in the pursuit of passions that electrify their spirits.
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger