A decade ago, meditation was largely the realm of yogis and Buddhists. Now, with the rise of mindfulness, the practice has entered the mainstream and spawned a new category of wellbeing apps.
Five years ago, Nita Lo was at a job that was so stressful it left her wired at night and unable to sleep. “It’s self-perpetuating. You worry about not being able to do stuff so you don’t sleep properly, and that affects your concentration when it comes time to work,” she recalls.
To help cope with the sleep problems, Lo turned to long-distance running: “You’re out with yourself for a long time, and that helps my mind slow down. Within an hour, my brain sorts itself out.” But the more she researched good sleep techniques, the more meditation came up as a solution, and her curiosity was piqued. She started listening to guided meditation CDs and attended a class.
She eventually got a new job but was still determined to try out meditation. She and her husband downloaded Headspace, a popular mindfulness and meditation app. “We used it for three days and thought, ‘this is not working’,” she reports. “The guy has a nice voice and he’s quite soothing, so we fell asleep halfway through the session – that’s not supposed to happen.”
While Headspace didn’t teach Lo to meditate, it helped her understand some of the principles of meditation. “Headspace tells you the theory. Each session builds on the one before and that educational aspect is good. Initially, I thought meditation was about emptying your mind but it’s not.” Observe your thoughts as they arise, she adds, and allow them to pass away.
Keeping Meditation in Mind
Australian app Smiling Mind also places education at the forefront. It takes the core teachings from well-researched methods like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program and distills them into short lessons for different demographics – from seven to nine year olds to workers and athletes – before leading into meditation practice. Sessions range from 45 minutes to one hour.
Created in 2012 by Jane Martino and James Tutton, the app was initially developed for children. “Getting kids to learn meditation the traditional way wasn’t going to happen, so they thought technology would be a good way to introduce it. At the time, there were hardly any mindfulness apps and none were tailored for kids,” says Dr Addie Wootten, CEO of Smiling Mind.
Wootten, a clinical psychologist, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and without judgement”. Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness, the mental counterpart of going to the gym for physical exercise. “I want to be mentally fit and healthy and my meditation practice is how I do something regularly to build that capacity,” she says.
Several studies show the benefits of mindfulness meditation. “It strengthens our brain in a way that enables us to cope with stress in a more efficient way,” Wootten says. “It helps us feel calmer, connect to people and enhances our wellbeing and our happiness.”
Society’s increasing awareness of mental health and wellbeing has contributed to the growth of mindfulness and meditation apps. Wootten says our culture has opened up about mental health from five years ago. “There are a whole bunch of influential people who talk about how they use mindfulness and meditation in their life and business,” she says. This has enabled Smiling Mind to reach out to schools: more than 17,000 teachers use the app in their classrooms and the organisation hopes this will become a part of the curriculum by 2020.
Making Mindfulness Accessible
“We bring mindfulness onto a platform that anyone can use anywhere,” says Wootten. “A lot of people are recommending mindfulness meditation but it can be daunting to go for a class. So it’s really helpful to have an accessible way of getting to it.”
But while apps can help you get started on meditation, it isn’t always effective in the long term. Wootten admits that that is a challenge for Smiling Mind. “How do we keep people practising? There are those who keep at it with life-changing results, but there are also a large number of people who download the app and only use it once.”
Like Lo, who hit a wall with Headspace, prompting her to sign up for a year-long meditation course. “There’s a human face, so there’s an element of guilt if you don’t turn up, unlike with Headspace, where there’s no emotional connection.”
Gamification, making the apps social and using rewards are all ways to create user engagement. Wootten says Smiling Mind is looking at reminders and creating more dynamic content that’s tailored to the user.
On the whole, having apps for meditation are a positive, Wootten believes. “We often blame technology for our busy lives, so I like the fact that we’re using technology in a way that’s much more constructive and useful.”
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