It is a common sight these days, especially in urban, crowded spaces: to notice that everyone around you is hunched over, earphones in, eyes glued, fingers tapping away at their smartphones. And while these public spaces are not the typical place to engage in religious practice, the young businesswoman walking to work or the high school kid sitting next to you on the bus may be using their smartphones to meditate. Contemporary Western culture has already reinterpreted Buddhism as a secular set of beliefs, with a significant focus on meditation. And, as always, there’s an app for that. Meditation apps – with varying levels of Buddhist affiliation – have flooded the iTunes marketplace, and those with an emphasis on ambiguous spirituality have risen to the top.
The app Headspace promotes “meditation for modern life,” and emphasizes the benefits of consistent use: Decrease stress! Improve mood! Cure addictions! The app has hipster-esque cartoon figures – one is a smartphone with nothing more than a moustache and limbs – to promote its one-session-a-day ideology. Headspace’s audio sessions mix technique and practice, with the added support of an online forum and blog.
ReWire uses a meditation DJ avatar for its “meditation, remixed” tagline, telling users that by training their focus, they will “upgrade” their mind. Users test their attention level, with an app that resembles a smartphone game more than a guide for meditation: ReWire plays music and video, pulled from the user’s personal music library, and meditators must tap the screen when audio cuts out. Sessions are scored and users are given the option to post results to Twitter and Facebook.
The app buddhify is promoted as “meditation on the go” for the busy, urban practitioner. It uses podcast-style audio to walk users through meditation, and encourages people to use the app while in transit – commuting, at the gym, walking about, etc. The app’s website credits Buddhist mindfulness meditation as the inspiration behind buddhify, with the apps’ name as a nod towards its origin; but it is quick to note that religious affiliation ends there: “In no way is buddhify religious or dogmatic.”
Many meditation apps follow along the lines of these three examples – moving away from the creed of meditation and instead making the practice an issue of self-help and self-improvement. It is hard to speculate if users self-describe as Buddhist, but with the apps’ fluid definitions of “mindfulness” and spirituality, one could see a hodgepodge mix of Buddhist tech geek and religiously-unaffiliated housewife alike using the app. This is Buddhist modernism in a nutshell: Buddhism stripped of institution, doctrine and community, leaving a practical and psychological set of beliefs that anyone could easily and independently follow. In essence, it is “buddhism” without using the b-word.
Another interesting point is meditation’s transfer onto the platform of the smartphone. These apps turn meditation, fundamentally a quiet practice that involves temporary physical isolation, into a game that is played within the hurry of our everyday life. Even more, the mindful exercise is practiced on a device that, for many people, causes the very stress they are trying to cease. Luckily, most meditation apps fill up the entire smartphone screen, temporarily blocking all the behind-the-scenes chaos within your smartphone. Now, if only they could create an app to answer all those lurking emails for you; that would truly be spiritually mindful.
For more information on modern Buddhism, listen to our “Sacred Lines” Buddhism, Meditation and Technology episode, which includes an interview with Vincent Horn of Buddhist Geeks and Rohan Gunatillake, creator of buddhify.