Meditation apps want to calm you down on the same device that stresses you out

The messy fight for mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation apps digital age
Mindfulness in the digital age.Deposit Photos

Meditation is many things to many people. The Dalai Lama’s practice is rooted in the particularities of Tibetan Buddhism. Jerry Seinfeld prefers transcendental meditation, a mantra-based exercise he’s done daily for 45 years. In many Hindu ashrams, the practice of yoga and meditation merge, bringing the spiritual, physical, and psychological together. Whatever form it takes, the goal is to quiet the mind. Thoughts may wander, but it’s within your power to return to your focus to a religious icon, a helpful saying, or the simple rise and fall of your chest.

Humans have been meditating for 5,000 years, says Stephen Sokoler, founder of Journey Meditation. But in the last decade, something changed: We've started to take deep breathing instructions from our phones.

Sokoler, who adopted Buddhism while living in Australia, founded Journey in 2015 to bring a “secular” approach to mindfulness—and the stress reduction, pain relief, and lifted spirits it reportedly affords—to corporate America. In time, instructors in 20 cities were guiding group meditations for employees at Warby Parker, Nike, Time Warner, and Conde Nast.

This month, Journey made its App Store debut with Journey Live, a pleasingly bare bones addition to the overstocked zen-in-your-pocket market. Instead of pre-recorded (and eerily perfected) meditation modules, the app offers 15 minute live classes with young, telegenic instructors at steady intervals throughout the day. This week, me and 25 of my fellow students tuned in for Azaria’s 7 a.m. class, where she reflected on the sensory experience of her commute into work—and asked us to meditate on the sights, sounds, and noises around us. At 1 p.m. on Mondays, Cheryl offers a “Community Class” just for moms. And most nights, you can wind down with evening meditations at 9, 10, or 11 p.m.

Sokoler's bet on live video has already garnered comparisons to Peleton, the ascendant exercise company that pairs in-home exercise bikes and treadmills with live fitness classes, beamed directly into a touch-screen panel on the stationary device. But streaming isn't the only thing they have in common.

Self-improvement apps like Journey Live comes at an interesting time in the history of technology. Americans are more aware of the addictive design strategies built into their smartphones and smartwatches than ever before. Yet most feel powerless to cut back or quit. At the same time, a cultural emphasis on "wellness" and "self-care" has crested. In lieu of real systemic change, people turn toward individual pseudo-solutions, many sold by the same companies creating the problem. Even after the hyped launches of Apple's Screen Time control and Google's Digital Wellbeing initiative, users young and old still struggle to put their phones down.

Meditation apps are perhaps the purest distillation of this peculiarly 21st century problem. They encapsulate, in just a few pixels, the promise and peril of these thin black bricks we navigate, communicate, sleep, pee, poop, and, now, improve ourselves with. Curious, I downloaded a few of the products on offer, and set about answering a question we’ve all been forced to ask: Can one good app cure the sickness caused by the other 99?

At last count, in 2017, there were 1,300 meditation apps ready for download, according to the Financial Times. Scrolling through the surfeit of choice, one pattern quickly emerges: Meditation companies love circles. Curling waves, colorless rings, dots, rounded letters, the halo of the moon. But beyond that, the apps present a wide variety of experiences, suggesting something for everyone. Stress, anxiety, insomnia, trauma—there's an app for that.

Headspace is the cartoon giant of this cottage industry. Andy Puddicombe, a Brit who spent a decade training as a Buddhist monk, founded the company in 2010. He brought this rigor to the product: The app is built around "courses" that allow users to progressively deepen their foundational skills. The programs are simply titled: 10 sessions on "Happiness," a quick hit on "Falling Back to Sleep." One of the oldest options in the game, it's also the most popular. Regularly listed in the top 200 apps on the App Store, Headspace has almost half a million ratings (and a cumulative 4.9 star review).

Calm, the most pop culture-conscious of the set, also claims a top spot. The app offers the usual selection of goal-oriented instruction, with guided meditations on everything from improving focus to growing your capacity for gratitude. But it's best known for its so-called sleep stories—more than 130 so far—many voiced by celebrities. I tried "Blue-Gold," narrated by Stephen Fry, who softly and slowly delivered a story about the "lavender fields and sleepy village of Provence." While I stuck to the basics (i.e. the free trial), premium Matthew McConaughey insomnia content was always begging to be unlocked. Also on offer: an "exclusive" Moby album, an Easter Island-themed story, and an opportunity to "Journey to the Stars" with LeVar Burton.

Three apps (including Journey Live) would have been plenty for my short-term self-experimentation. But Breethe, a relative up-and-comer with just 28,000 App Store reviews, also stood out. Founded by Lynne Goldberg, who credits mindfulness with her recovery from a cascade of personal trauma, it takes a broader view of mindfulness than its competitors. Goldberg, who has often been called a "guru" and a "life coach, offers experience-specific sessions on everything from financial anxiety to infidelity. In addition to guided meditation, there are also "Masterclasses," "Inspirational Talks," and even hypnotherapy.

With thousands of years of wisdom and hundreds of hours of content now installed on my phone, I set about simmering down.

The first thing Headspace, Calm, and Breethe ask you when you open their app is why you’re there. Stress reduction, anxiety reduction, improved focus, improved relationships—the list of fundamental human problems is surprisingly short. The insight helps the company serve you relevant content. It’s also useful data, letting developers quantify users’ needs. (The in-app search function works the same way; if user after user comes up empty, it signifies a gap in the app’s offerings.)

The next steps are trickier, intertwined as they are with notoriously-troubling user experience design strategies. Take notifications: I’m personally opposed. Nothing but workplace Slack messages can light up my lock screen, and even those automatically turn off after 6 p.m.. But when I tried to say “no” to the automated prompts, Calm asked,“Are you sure? It’s hard to set aside time for yourself in our busy world without a little help.” I gave in, and got regular updates like “Cobwebs of mind are cleared with the meditation broom” (from Calm) and, paradoxically, “Every time your phone vibrates or pings today, pause and follow one breath before looking at it” (from Headspace).

Megan Jones Bell, a psychologist and Chief Science Officer for Headspace, argues these notifications are fundamentally different than a Twitter ping or the siren call of Candy Crush. “The notification experience should really be thought of as an intervention, not as a consumer technology engagement tactic,” she says. “A lot of our notifications are not necessarily directing you back to the app.” Rather, they’re reminders of a user’s intentions—the desire for a new perspective that brought them to the app in the first place.

Tony Hsieh, the director of product for Calm, holds a similar view: "We focus on making the Calm experience as peaceful as possible," he wrote in an email. "People tell us all the time how the notification serves as a good reminder to take a break and reset from what they’re currently doing. Rather than a notification to open the app, it’s a notification to step away from your phone and take care of yourself."

From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense. Every one of these meditation apps works on a freemium subscription model. Headspace offers a few free units, but anything else is $13 a month. Breethe costs the same after a two week trial run. Once you provide your credit card information, Calm is free for seven days and then a $60 annual fee kicks in. (I set a calendar reminder to ensure I unsubscribed in time.) Journey Live is slightly steeper at $20 a month. Without ads or other money-making gimmicks, these platforms don’t need to drive attention to the app the way classic attention economies like Facebook do. Once you’ve paid, it doesn’t really matter if you return.

But from an emotional perspective, notifications are a little more complicated. Headspace’s reminder to “pause and follow one breath before looking” at my phone sent me into a small paroxysm of panic. Like a lab rat in a grand psychological experiment, I’ve been trained to respond to notifications as though they are urgent notes from my manager, angry letters from readers, or terrible alerts about the state of our world—because they probably are. Taking a breath before reading such missives is, undoubtedly, sage advice, but the delivery method gave me another kind of pause.

A similar wave of nausea washed over me in the middle of a Journey Live class. Unlike the pre-packaged offerings in other apps, which can (and should) be used in airplane mode, a livestream requires WiFi. Before I closed my eyes for the meditation, a banner notification for an important email flashed across the top of the screen, sending the very thoughts I was trying to calm spiraling. It revealed another of the industry’s catch-22s: If I had been attending an in-person session (the way meditation has been practiced for thousands of years), I could have left my phone in my purse. But if I had to go in person, I would never have been able to join in a guided meditation at 10 a.m. on a weekday.

Gamification poses a similar conundrum. Two of the apps, Calm and Breethe, track "streaks," or the number of sessions a user has completed in a row. Calm rewarded me for completing my first session with a "1 Mindful Day" badge, with the promise that there were many more where that came from. Breethe, meanwhile, keeps a scoreboard at the top of the homepage, with the number of sessions, longest and current streak, and total time all tabulated. These 2-D medals have become a part of the tech-savvy zen-seeker's vocabulary, with people alternately bragging about their badges on r/Meditation and stressing out over broken streaks in YouTube confessionals.

Garner Bornstein, co-founder of Breethe, says the company’s decision to incorporate a gamified element wasn’t made lightly. “Part of us didn’t want to go there,” he says. But they had to face the facts: “What we know about people is that they like to see progress.” Explicitly calculating a user’s success brought them back to the app and, Bornstein extrapolates, allowed them to incorporate meditation into their life in a meaningful way, over the weeks and months, not a few tap-happy hours. This, he acknowledges, runs “counter to what meditation is, which isn’t about the past, the present, the future, what you did or didn’t do. But at the end of the day, the goal is to help as many people as possible.”

In that, these companies seem to be succeeding. Self-reports are notoriously unreliable, but Jones Bell at Headspace and their research partners have published peer-reviewed data on their app's ability to fulfill some of meditation's core promises. In small randomized control trials, they've found evidence of decreased stress and reduced aggression. Other platforms are following suit in an effort to validate their own approaches to mindfulness. Calm, for example, just published its first formal study on using meditation to manage symptoms of cancer treatment. But there's still a lot to learn.

There’s also a lot more to build. Headspace offers content on Amazon Echo and Google Assistant, allowing you to turn off the blue light of your phone and meditate with an auditory interface. Calm has some functionality on Google Home, Apple HomePod, and Sonos, so you can listen to McConaughey’s soporific southern drawl in the dark. In talking about the ways his app could change according to user demand, Sokoler of Journey Live mentioned the potential for immersive meditation experiences in virtual reality. With a little work, it seems we can continue to create space between a tech-based mindfulness practice and the tech itself.

Even now, with pesky notifications and unproven products, I plan to continue using my iPhone’s assistance in meditating, and will recommend that anyone who asks do the same. With the number of apps available—and the sheer breadth of content within each app—there’s certainly something for everyone. When my experiment was done, I deleted Calm, Breethe, and Headspace. But I kept Journey Live. The only notifications it sends me are to let me know my class is starting. That’s the only notification I need.