Practice Reflection #1: Meditation Apps

As someone who fell out of meditative practice, the idea of jumping back into it for class felt intimidating. What I enjoyed about the practice – the communal aspect, the physical grounding in a space, the long, reflective state – would all be gone in working alongside the apps we were tasked with for class. But I dive in with interest, considering our conversations around virtual-physical relationships.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 3.45.14 PMStarting out with Headspace, I’m immediately reminded of why I don’t like pre-recorded mediations in the first place. The 5 or 10-minute recording is a poor simulation of the real thing. I can feel the time pass – I know when Andy is going to speak again, I know roughly what he’s going to say. The actions of my body-as-interface and Andy’s disembodied commands creates a false sense of interactivity. Andy isn’t so much responding to my input as he is assuming my input; my body isn’t so much responding to Andy as it is acknowledging what he’s saying and maybe following along. As I start each 5-minute experience, I feel an active resistance to not follow the instructions – to not close my eyes, scan my body, or count breaths.

The Headspace experience structures your participation, slowly incorporating the practice into your day into a “journey” before you can unlock the app’s library. It sends notifications throughout the day, inserting itself into my life in unintended ways. We often think of the physical intruding on our virtual experiences – lag in Second Life, prior knowledge of individual people characters in EverQuest – but here the boundary works differently. I am being reminded of my relationship with the virtual in my physical existence, Headspace commanding me to be calm or relax or to mindful now.  

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 3.45.09 PM

The whole meditative experience starts to feel transactional by day 10, these notifications included, and so I start to think more broadly about where our interfaces fail to meet. Is it the auditory interaction with Andy that’s not working for me? Is it the direction of his script, its consistency? Is it these notifications, feeling uncomfortable about my investment in Headspace as one that seeks to explore the interfaces of mind and body?

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 3.45.49 PMSwitching to Silent Habit, this transactional feeling of performance and interface is very commercialized. Here, I have some level of customization I was looking for from Andy and Headspace The “journey” options for new users seem endless. In addition to an ON THE GO option, the home page of the app features multiple topics, teachers, and recordings to which I can listen. For Valentine’s Day alone, I could listen to dozens of customized entries: feeling single and happy, feeling alone, mindful relationships, before a date. Who needs a meditation that specific? Where is the simple habit in that customization, in that feeling?  I don’t feel that I am able to transcend the virtual or escape the day-to-day; rather, Simple Habit instead seeks to augment my physical world by tailoring each experience to the truth that exists here.

However, the tech subsumes me in a way I didn’t intend. I start out listening just before I go to sleep – and find myself lost in thought, going in and out for ten or fifteen minutes instead of the original five. Is Simple Habit even facilitating anymore? Have I slipped into a totally physical environment? Or perhaps I have flipped into the virtual without realizing it? Is the interface of my body totally in sync with Simple Habit in a way Headspace never quite achieved?

Over the course of a week, I try out a few of these different experiences. I follow Anne Douglas, a life-coach and yoga therapist, as she directs me to sleep better. Kate James talks me through feelings of loneliness and mindful relationships. Someone unnamed woman joins me on my walking commute to campus. I start to think of these listening moments less as moments of meditation, and more like watching YouTube or scrolling through Twitter – they are a means to an end.

In rethinking my initial hesitation to engage with meditation apps, I try to identify more clearly my issues with the prerecordings on either app. It cannot be the script itself – I’m comfortable with the concept of meditation, with body as interface, responding to the commands of another. If we go by the definition from Marie-Laure Ryan, I have taken on virtual control of the body in any practice or technology that has aimed to expand the sensorium.[1] To say I don’t like Andy or Anne or Kate shows my bias against the apps .

I’m hesitant to play the capitalism card, and think of the commodification of this relationship, though there’s an element of that as well. Just as Boellstorff notes Second Life’s goals of immersion for profit, both apps capitalize on the incorporation of meditation into daily life. But while Headspace recognizes this investment as the relationship between the self and the body, Simple Habit focuses on meditation as an augmentation of the physical world – meditation for a larger purpose/topic/day-to-day. Neither is truly an escape, but a focus on embodiment and virtual control for a profitable cause. And it feels like a violation for Headspace and Simply Habit to wield mindfulness in this way. Can it even really be mindfulness if it’s not acknowledging the capitalistic process that makes it so?

I think a lot of my frustrations lay back in this conversation around interactivity and liveness. What I enjoyed about my past experiences in meditation were its physical manifestations: working together with the guide and the community to get into position, to feel a personal element to the space in which we’re inhabiting, to have bodies work as interfaces together in order to fuel a moment. What about Headspace is interactive other than pressing a button? I could play it as I please and no one would be the wiser. I never have to really participate, or even enter the “magic circle” of the game of meditation for the app to do its work.

All that I enjoy about the live “performance” of meditation is lost in the mediatized meditative experience on these apps. The “recorded liveness” feels fake when you can see how many times a recording has been played, or the commenters who have used it. If we follow the ideas of performing liveness as discussed in Fritsch and Strötgen, the meditation apps lack the ability to authenticate my expectations. There’s no image-based element to reinforce the implied experience from the guiding voices, and the body’s refusal to directly participate most of the time removes the crucial element of perception of the playing body (59).  But are there ways to make that performance live?

[1] Ryan, Marie-Laure. 1999. “Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory, ed. Ryan, 94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

3 thoughts on “Practice Reflection #1: Meditation Apps

  1. Hey Emily. As someone who has never meditated prior to Headspace, I found your comparison of virtual and non-virtual meditation interesting. I personally thought the non-interactive and prerecorded nature of the apps worked because they dealt with meditation, but it seems to have brought out the opposite reaction from you. That the notifications and reminders brought such contrasting reactions from the two of us perhaps signifies that, as virtualization of various activities occur, the normalized version of the activities and how they are perceived will transform accordingly.

    Do you think more interactivity would have made the meditation apps more engaging? I found myself entering the ‘magic circle’ of these apps even though they weren’t interactive, perhaps because I didn’t have much expectations towards meditation to begin with. Personally, interactivity in meditation apps seem like they could be distracting as focusing on the mind is the gist of meditation. Our contrasting reactions to these apps make me wonder how one’s previous level of experience with a certain activity affects his/her assessment of the virtual version of that activity.

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  2. Reblogged this on vat Z. and commented:
    Dear Emily,

    Hey, I’m not sure how to comment on your post? So I hope you see this!

    I found your piece very well-put/clear in what it said and also appreciated the visuals. I am interested in your experience with face-to-face meditation. You talk about the two meditation apps you used and how they are left wanting, but less so your different experience with the “”””live”””” thing. You write, “Andy isn’t so much responding to my input as he is assuming my input; my body isn’t so much responding to Andy as it is acknowledging what he’s saying and maybe following along.” That makes me wonder what is unique about a face-to-face meditation. What does a meditation guide notices about your practice that they respond to? How does your body respond as opposed to just follow along (for some reason I read this turn of phrase, “body” “responding” as being almost out of your conscious acknowledgment or control)? You talk about face-to-face meditation as a kind of performance, a kind of mutual back-and-forth “response” or feedback. To me, it seems that meditation is rooted in the body, its rhythms, its position, and yet so much of the work of meditation is in the thoughts, invisible to a spectator. I wonder how that influences these apps. Perhaps they take advantage of the subjective, invisible nature of meditation somehow; harder to tell that you’re doing it wrong or right than a dance move. Anyway, it seems that you are unsure exactly of what you are pushing back on when they, in their “prerecorded” way, tell you to close your eyes and say Great! without knowing whether you’re doing it or not, like Dora the Explorer (mark my words though, they’ll have these apps hooking up to your heart rate or brain activity in no time; there are already anti-anxiety computer programs for that). I wonder if reflecting upon your experience with face-to-face meditation more directly would provide some answers.

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  3. A lot of fascinating twists and turns here – I particularly appreciate the way that you contextualize the apps in the context of other “push notification” technologies and media platforms in your life. (I always turned off those kinds of reminders from the beginning, so I have not personally reflected much about that angle.) The question you raise about whether/how these apps afford interactive or “live” experiences is one I thought about a lot in connection with Guitar Hero (which obviously indexes a very specific discourse of spectacular, authentically live musical performance). Thinking through the players’ experiences in terms of “just pushing a button” versus feeling like a creative musician generating musical sound in real time led me to think more about the player’s body as the “output” channel that verifies something genuinely interactive has occurred (assuming the model of interactivity that foregrounds a technology’s apparent responsiveness to human input) — akin to what you refer to as “physical manifestations”. I’m fascinated by the idea that your meditation experience felt somehow less “live” or physically-manifested in your own body due to the mediatized nature of the guidance, particularly in contrast with group meditation settings. Again, there seems to be something crucial about co-presence in connection with liveness.

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