Jalice May is a busy mom who works almost full-time at her church.
On Sundays, she oversees the nursery during services at Tibbetts United Methodist in West Seattle. Throughout the week, she runs the church’s front office. And in her spare time she’s part of the church’s Congregational Care Team, which visits and prays for sick and struggling members of the congregation.
Oh, and she’s learning to manage the church’s website, too.
May downloaded a meditation app that sent her alerts, thinking it would be just the thing to remind her to pause in the midst of her hectic schedule and pray. She soon deleted it.
“You download these little apps and they have reminders and calendars and all these fun things,” May said. “You play with them for a few hours. It ends up being too many notifications. … You end up ignoring it.”
Today she subscribes to a simpler method from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who was nominated in 1967 for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.: Meditate every time the phone rings.
Mediation apps are legion. There’s HeadSpace; Present; Calm; Aura; Breethe; Stop, Breathe & Think; 10% Happier — the list goes on. For Christians and Muslims there are apps that remind you to pray. And for the particularly adventurous, there’s WeCroak, which, in the Bhutan tradition, serves up five daily quotes about death. (WeCroak’s unique premise is that meditating on your own mortality turns your focus away from petty distractions and squarely to what matters most — the pithy substance of goals, dreams, people and values.) Most other apps offer reminders, timers and guided meditations. You turn them on, then set your phone by your side while you meditate.
If you’re like a lot of Americans, you downloaded one or more of these apps just after the New Year to somehow improve yourself. And on some level you may have bought into the promise that an app will help you change on some fundamental and deep-down level — be calm and present in the midst of insane work hours, the constant shuttling of kids to basketball practice, volunteer work, finances, dating, home life and whatever else is crammed in the mix.
How’s that going?
You’re not alone if that mindfulness app you downloaded as part of a New Year’s resolution has gone untouched for a while now. About this time of year, a month after the determined glow that comes with scanning the App Store in pursuit of Nirvana, comes the jolt that you can’t magically download a better self. You have to, you know, use the thing.
Just as May observed, apps like HeadSpace and Calm can’t find the right time in your schedule to meditate, which is why it can be so annoying when a reminder to “Take a moment…” springs up in the middle of an important meeting.
So how can spirituality-by-app refresh your outlook on life — in a real, noticeable way? And where do these apps come up short?
All mindfulness apps owe their existence in some way to 1970s counterculture — the revolt against the Vietnam war and the post-World War II intellectual constraints that so heavily burdened the Baby Boomers. It was during that time that a generation of young American seekers, among them, the now well-known Buddhist authors and teachers Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, boarded planes for Thailand, India and Burma to learn Buddhist meditation, then returned and founded meditation centers across the U.S.
Today, mindfulness, once thought to be the quarter of hippies and mysterious gurus, is firmly in the mainstream. The number of Americans who meditate more than tripled between 2012 and 2017, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a jump from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent.
Research publisher SAGE said mindfulness apps generated $1.2 billion in revenue in 2017, the most current figures available. And the meditation app Calm, the 15th top-grossing iOS app, announced this month that it raised $88 million in a series B funding round and has reached a total of $116 million in funding. The company, which quadrupled its revenues last year to $150 million, is now valued at $1 billion. More than 40 million people have downloaded the app, and over 1 million people pay for its premium features.
For a simple meditation and wellness app, those numbers are staggering. These apps are popular, in part, because you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. Sure, mindfulness has its roots in the East, but most app developers aim to keep their programs secular. ABC news anchor and 10% Happier co-founder Dan Harris refers to mindfulness in his app’s video series simply as “the ability to see what’s going on in your head without getting carried away by it.” (Harris also says, “I really knew meditation was starting to work when, just a few weeks after I started to do it, I would overhear my wife telling our friends at cocktail parties that I was less of an asshole.”)
Who can’t get onboard with that? With apps like 10% Happier bringing the idea of meditation down from the cosmos, you can see why people are turning to its simple appeal. Apple, Google, Nike and others encourage their employees to meditate. Public schools, often at the elementary level, teach mindfulness as well.
Meditation has also taken root in Christian traditions, helped in large part by the late Catholic monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, who befriended Buddhist practitioners and wrote at length about what they called Contemplative Prayer and Centering Prayer, respectively.
Mediation experts and software developers say apps like 10% Happier, Calm and Headspace (which declined an interview for this story) are a good way to get started with a simple and unambitious meditation routine. Apps, they say, help build meditation into insanely busy days because they encourage bite-sized time-outs.
“Just 10 minutes a day changes the way the brain reacts to difficulty,” said Tuere Sala, who has practiced mindfulness meditation, known as Vipassana in the Buddhist tradition, for more than 25 years and is one of the lead teachers at Seattle Insight Meditation Society. (Full disclosure: I meditate at Seattle Insight on the occasional Tuesday — when my youngest son doesn’t have basketball practice. Which is by way of saying, would-be meditators, I feel your pain.)
“We’re a very app-oriented society,” Sala continued. “The fact that you have a mindfulness app alongside your life is a good thing. … If you are looking for a way to get calm and relaxed, a guided meditation is probably the best thing that’s going to help you do that.”
Mindfulness apps also allow you to carry, depending on the one you pick, your own personal guru in your pocket, which comes in the form of short tutorials and videos by experts, many of whom have been studying meditation for decades. Golstein and Salzberg, those early American seekers who helped establish American Buddhism, are among 10% Happier’s coaches, providing guided meditations and advice in videos and audio tracks. (And, yes, their talks are very secular.)
But even the people behind apps like Calm and 10% Happier say that, if you manage to make a habit of opening that app and following its instructions, you can hit a dead end. At some point you need more coaching from a real, live person to dive deeper into yourself and what makes you tick. You’ve got to talk with others who are struggling with the same emotional and metaphysical hurdles you are.
It’s not possible to “push a button and it will result in less stress,” said Ben Rubin, the CEO of 10% Happier, who co-founded the company with Harris.
In fact, meditation isn’t all about feeling like you’re floating on a cloud — far from it. While it’s true that meditation apps will, as Sala put it, “help you steady your mind for 10 minutes” and provide “a sense of relief,” people who stick with meditation inevitably uncover the ugly, hairy emotions and thoughts we all have — what Robert Downey Jr., a well-known recovering addict, once called “hugging the cactus.” Sala and others said people may be inclined to give up once they start feeling that kind of pain. That is, if they don’t get coaching from experienced meditators who can provide encouragement to stick with it and keep faith that moving closer to discomfort will result in freedom from it, which is precisely what a deep mediation practice is intended accomplish.
Exactly why meditation apps have become so popular now depends on who you talk to. Sala, the Seattle Insight teacher, suggested that, perhaps ironically, it’s our screens that are making us more mindful. Television has taught four generations to focus obsessively on the screen, somewhat the way meditation turns one’s focus toward the mind, the breath and the body. And with that focus comes awareness of what’s going on in your life.
“People have the capacity to be in this kind of headspace,” said Sala, who has used an app called Insight Timer, which has been downloaded by 48 million people, according to the company. “We’ve trained ourselves that way. It’s evolution. People can see how stressed out they are in a way they couldn’t before.”
“With that concentrated mind, I think you see a lot more pain,” she said. “You see a lot more difficulty. You see a lot more harm. I think people are looking for ways to manage now, because they see a lot more harm.”
Dun Wang, the chief product and growth officer for Calm, said mindfulness apps are booming because the stigma around mental health difficulties is wearing down. People are talking openly about their anxiety, depression and lack of sleep, and they’re looking for solutions, including therapy, support groups, medications and apps.
“People are rushing to this resource,” she said of meditation apps like Calm.
Take the example of Brandon Zahl, who had been working on Microsoft’s Office team for more than seven years when he realized he was more troubled and less happy than he used to be.
“I found myself experiencing a lot of stress, anxiety and unhappiness — dissatisfaction with what was happening. It got to a level that I couldn’t ignore it anymore,” he said. “In Buddhist terms, I woke up.”
Zahl started meditating, on his own and with groups, including Seattle Insight. He also began using the Insight Timer app.
Last year, Zahl quit Microsoft and is now earning a masters degree in mental health counseling from Antioch University in Seattle. He plans on opening a one-on-one and family therapy practice.
“I felt there was no greater calling than to support… turning toward the core of your experience, examining your core experience and finding out how you were causing yourself pain and suffering — and causing others pain and suffering,” said Zahl, who added that he is heavily influenced by Buddhist meditation but does not call himself a Buddhist.
The founders of 10% Happier had a similar, albeit more perilous, experience. Harris, the ABC anchor, started his meditation app (and wrote a book by the same title) after he had a panic attack on national television. His business partner, Ben Rubin, said in an interview with GeekWire that he started meditating after the implosion of his sleep technology company, Zeo, because he wanted to be less stressed and become more compassionate.
Rubin said he had been “a pretty typical young tech founder” who didn’t work well with people and was “getting into constant battles and challenges at work.”
That led to Zeo “ultimately blowing up on me,” he said.
Rubin said people who meditate are “recognizing that their mental patterns don’t make them happy” and that living a life devoted to getting more — more possessions, more attention, more achievements — isn’t going to make them happier.
“You’ve got to find another way,” said Rubin, who recently participated in a meditation retreat in Massachusetts with Seattle Insight co-founder and former Buddhist monk Rodney Smith.
Rubin compares the modern meditation movement to the sudden popularity of physical fitness in the 1970s. Suddenly, he said, it became en vogue to hit the gym, something virtually no one had done in decades past.
Today, “most people either want to work out or do work out now,” he said. “We think the same thing will happen in the world of training the mind.”