“Let’s walk now to the heather-covered moonlit plains,” Harry Styles says to me. The voice of the priest – he has a soft voice – he knows that we are in the middle of a hole to talk about the respectable people, who is my mentor who is picking up the sword, this is what we need to do.
Styles’ singing is part of the “sleep talk” in the mindfulness program Calm. Like many of its competitors, Calm has become a great place to stay positive. In recent years, I have cycled through several of these towers. Using it transforms an amorphous, slightly unreadable meditation into something I can handle to achieve, and delete the list. That is the power of the modern mobile application, after all: simplifying the completion of a special task. Send an email, watch a show, order a Kleenex, go for a 30 minute jog, spoil yourself for a nap. There’s a program for it, and you’ll know when you’re done.
The most popular mindfulness programs have roots in this model, its results and its timeline. Traditional meditation courses can be open-ended, vague, and uncommitted to their benefits, which can take months or years to accrue. Also, they are education, focused on learning and doing and receiving instruction, and, often, going through frustrating times. Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, and Ten Percent Happier all offer a clean overhaul of the underlying product. Don’t have half an hour to sit around witnessing the innate calmness of the inner man? No problem: Here’s a three-minute guided bus route. Maybe you’re struggling with insomnia and you’ve heard that mindfulness can help? To lull you to sleep, here’s a soundtrack from Matthew McConaughey.
There is obvious good in it—in anything that cools the heat, that gives relief from the ever-present human throes of animals and accidents. Headspace—the product, not the brand—is something 100 percent of us could use more of. And these have been notable years for Big Mindful. In 2022, Calm says he was 4 million paying subscribers. In 2021, Headspace including in the healthcare industry backed by Blackstone that was worth billions. Fox is growing Ten Percent Happier franchise to be a TV show – comedy. Peace of mind is a business advantage.
But what exactly are these programs selling? Mindfulness—let’s make it clear that the ability to be present in your feelings without judgment—is the goal of being compatible with different lifestyles and beliefs. It is very compatible to invite the use of a blanket: mindful eating, mindful meetings, mindful sleep, mindful fights. Removing some of the negativity from life’s problems and challenges can help everyone. But intelligent platforms will take any of these functions as a place to jump to another tile on the screen, another video or podcast, something you’re looking for. And here, thinking seems to be nothing so small and so different that it contradicts itself: thinking.
The first time I left Headspace was because of a commercial — for Headspace — on the subway. I don’t remember what it said, but it was similar in spirit to the words “I contemplate breaking it,” part of the company’s growth campaign in 2016. This advance plan was so insulting to me — and so out of touch with my experience, suggesting that meditation does not take Toyota’s credibility — that I canceled my subscription on the spot.
Coincidentally, I just started going to a place where phones weren’t allowed at all: a yoga studio. I’m 6 foot 3, with braces that could hold up tennis strings, and not as stable as my organelles. But a bike accident sent me to physical therapy, which planted the first seeds of flexibility and stability, and enough patience to get through a simple restorative-yoga class. In the early days, I was treading a sea of thoughts and worries, my attention on everything but my breath and appearance. When the practice became familiar to my body, and helped me to release deep-seated conflicts, I would withdraw and become silent. This was more than five or 10 minutes away from the stress of life, and – even though I joined the strength classes – it was more than that: It was singing difficult music, the body driving itself to support the mind on purpose, repeatedly calming itself down.
If there is always an hour of yoga. In the hectic work of leading a story on The New York Times, during and after the 2016 presidential race, I missed the comfort of Headspace—especially the bright, clear sound and voice of its co-founder and director, Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk. There’s something about being calm for a few minutes with someone as calm, confident and cool as possible, and Puddicombe is as smart and controlled a coach as I’ve ever met. So I registered again, and I used to go in the morning to the rental office at the glass door.
However, I found myself playing with my phone, rather than meditating, as Puddicombe said. Some days, I would finish my meditation without a single moment of silence. This is a problem easily solved, I know: Just turn up the volume and put the phone in the room. But anyone who has had an hour to write a text knows that it is not easy. Your phone can be anything – including a bomb, which requires communication and the integrity of your mind. For almost everyone who owns one, the smartphone is not the most disruptive at all from a practical point of view; It should also be the main source of many things that are mindless, stressful, addictive, annoying, or frustrating. Just having your phone in the room—it could be in your pocket, turned off—is found it greatly reduces cognitive abilities. Using meditation, I began to realize, is like learning you have high cholesterol and signing up for bacon.
The most beneficial move for any mindfulness program would be to create ways to spend as little time interacting with your phone as possible, while you focus more on your awareness. But many meditation programs have something that is less obvious than their purpose: They are text-driven systems whose availability depends on how you use the content. Open one and you can see a whole day of programs planned for you. In Headspace, for example, you can start with a short break, supported by animations, then watch the latest video of English book builders in-the-zone, before settling down. find for the main meditation of the day, I choose English or German language guides. When the 3 o’clock doldrums hit, enter “Your Afternoon Lift,” a video of nature scenes: whales spouting, jellyfish jellying. And then nod off to sleep, or switch programs and return to the moonlit plains of Harry Styles.
I spoke to Calm and Headspace representatives about this, and they both assured me that their software can be used without looking at the screen. They also defended the value of the opportunity that phones offer: meditation anywhere, anytime, for people who may not have the ability to think. Under this view, the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones is a blessing. “We’d have people downloading the app in the hospital parking lot while their mom is in surgery to get help,” Cal Thompson, who runs production at Headspace, told me. “Some people have great friends they can call on, some people have a great teacher, but really, not everyone can have one.” As Thompson spoke, I thought of those days at school Timewhile a few minutes with Andy Puddicombe was the only port in the storm.
Thompson didn’t buy my argument about phones being too disruptive. “I think that’s the power that most of us have created with our phones, that we’ve put it in a way that it can distract us,” said Thompson, who uses their pronouns. “And what we need to have and change is that quality.” Integrating mindfulness into many areas of our day, they argued, helps us “understand better what we’re doing in our lives and make better decisions. Then, from there, it makes it easier for us to use or not use our phones.”
This perspective struck me a little, as I listened to what I recorded of our conversation. Then it took me three tries to type Thompson’s words. First my boyfriend texted me about a grocery list. Then someone needs my Venmo account to sell me tickets. Then I looked up and realized I was in the kitchen making peanut butter pretzels. I may be doing too much based on my own inadequacy, but most people I know use their phones more than they should. If it is not a global problem, it is common. For me personally, meditation hasn’t solved the problem, but moving meditation away from my phone has made it an escape.
Words thinking it is an accurate sign as it describes paying attention to what is in our mind. But it is misleading, as I found in yoga, in leaving our body. The process of reaching thoughts and feelings from hormones and nerves is circular, often followed. And the nature of the body of living beings – painful, longing, hard, soft – corresponds to the writing and nature of our thoughts. A professor of mine once referred to bodies as “brain buckets,” an image that anyone who has experienced a finals weekend crisis can relate to. Most mobile apps have their business with the brain, not the container. But my professor was laughing: Everything we are comes from a big blob.
The phone is not bad, but the device is. But with narrow exceptions, where movement is the point, it tends to make us have a kind of body building, a construction of movement and focus. Some of the apps I’ve mentioned include a daily yoga video or exercise routines, but these do a double duty, chasing our background noises into the window-hungry area. Do you know what else is on that screen? Instagram. The result of a mental program, like any other program, is to keep you in the place where you spend most of your time. It is a static place, and, not coincidentally, also without emotions.