Technology has permeated through every sphere of our daily life because it simplifies tasks. Every major discovery, invention and innovation in human history is charged with changing the way humans lead their lives; this stands true for conditions dating as far back as the discovery of fire about a million years ago and the invention of the wheel in ~3,500 BC. Yet, in the long run, all of these inventions and innovations have been termed as developments in the continuum of history.
The charge levied against modern technology is that it distracts people, and the primary accused standing trial is the ‘smartphone’. The smartphone has been alleged of being a chronic distraction in multiple ways as it commands our attention and serves as an escape.
While being an essential necessity for communication, information access and realization of one’s productive potential, the smartphone is also addictive because people feel a lingering need to routinely check their messages, social media updates and favourite applications. The impact of this is reduced focus, which leads to an analysis that the modern human suffers from reduced mindfulness. However, can this same technology be leveraged to help people achieve mindfulness?
Can Tech be Used to Calm the Mind?
A pertinent yet basic question to ask within the context of the use of technology as a distraction or a disciplinarian is: “What’s mindfulness?” The Oxford Dictionary defines mindfulness as a mental state which is reached by concentrating solely on the present moment, including accepting the current thoughts and feelings that come to one’s mind with calm; it is a mental process that enables a person to relax.
The dictionary also provides for a definition that is more relevant for corporate mindfulness, wherein mindfulness refers to keeping someone or something in mind when performing a certain action or action. Thus, focus, concentration and inner peace are the core principles of mindfulness.
Modern mindfulness, and especially spiritual mindfulness, is believed to be a cultural import from Buddhism and other Eastern faiths that first made its way into developed societies in the 1960s as a parallel culture.
This culture that has steadily become more mainstream with the passing decades and modern mindfulness is now ingrained in general thought. However, several civilisations and societies throughout history have stressed on the principles of mindfulness through ritualized acts such as meditation, bead counting and prayer.
These acts cover a range of spiritual mindfulness principles by either emphasizing on inner peace through reconciliation with oneself, oneness with god or oneness with nature. It would thus be safe to say that spiritual mindfulness precedes most modern faiths and has existed in one form the other without necessarily being explicitly articulated. Modern mindfulness is hence not a new phenomenon, but merely a shift that coincides with the larger societal and cultural realignments.
McMindfulness is the articulation of the modern mindfulness, which includes practices derived from yoga and other meditation techniques, in its corporatized form to align with the contemporary, neoliberal social and economic structure.
McMindfulness, initially intended as a term of condescension, refers to mindfulness practices being marketed, branded and sold as any other commodity. Within this corporatized form, McMindfulness also becomes a tool that satisfies a person’s spiritual requirements without needing him or her to align their beliefs, lifestyles, practices and morals with a particular religion.
Modern products catering to mindfulness practises include mindfulness books, podcasts, coaching clubs, television shows, etc. Yet, perhaps ironically, the largest medium through which McMindfulness is being disseminated to the masses is the one most criticized by fanatics of mindfulness principles- the smartphone.
In spite of the irony, it should come as no surprise that mindfulness and meditation apps have become the preferred route for McMindfulness’s penetration in society for the simple reason that smartphone ownership has become a norm across the globe.
The rapid growth in the smartphone market has resulted in the mindfulness and meditation apps segment occupying the largest market share. At the same time, mindfulness and meditation apps are also responsible for robust growth in the McMindfulness market in recent years, whereas growth in the era where mindfulness books dominated was at best modest despite the increasing adoption of mindfulness practices.
An analysis of the Best Mindfulness and Meditation Apps
A plethora of mindfulness and meditation apps are now available for smartphone users. Some of the best mindfulness apps today include The Mindfulness App, MyLife Meditation (formerly Stop, Breathe & Think), Buddhify, Insight Timer, Relax Melodies, Mindfulness Daily, Simply Being Guided Meditation, Mindfulness Coach, Headspace, Sattva, Insight Timer, Calm, Smiling Mind, Ten Percent Happier: Meditation and Take A Break! Most of these apps are free to download on Android and iOS, with an option of paid purchases for certain advanced functions.
Common characteristics of most of these apps include provision of a personalised guided meditation experience by professional mindfulness practitioners, activities that help achieve mindfulness, and informative videos and audios. Mindfulness and meditation apps cater to different levels of mindfulness enthusiasts ranging from beginners to experts.
Several mindfulness and meditation apps also offer unique functions. For example, Calm offers guided meditation sessions of 3, 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 minutes so that users can choose the appropriate time-frame in the midst of their busy schedules; Buddhify similarly offers guided meditation sessions ranging from three to 40 minutes. Several of these apps also offer reminders to users to ensure that an individual gets the daily required dose of personal time.
The primary purpose of mindfulness and meditation apps is to help users relax, increase focus, de-clutter their minds, reduce stress and anxiety, induce better sleep, manage pain, anger management, improve work and personal relationships, and increase work performance.
By achieving these objectives, users of mindfulness and meditation apps can lead healthier and happier lives by addressing psychological and health concerns that were reigning in their professional and personal growth. However, there are also apps that cater to specific requirements, such as Relax Melodies, which helps in inducing sleep to users through calming music and sounds.
Some of the mindfulness and meditation apps also enjoy the support of psychologists, neuroscientists and teachers from renowned universities, besides the support of seasoned mindfulness and meditation experts; Insight Timer and Smiling Mind are two such apps.
Other apps, such as Buddhify and Sattva, base their USP by invoking traditional mindfulness and meditation techniques from age-old civilizational cultures such as Buddhism and Vedic theology, respectively. Notably, Mindfulness Coach is a mindfulness app that is now publicly available, but was originally developed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs’s National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for soldiers returning from war zones where they had been subjected to complex and often bloody counterinsurgency operations and asymmetric warfare tactics.
On the other hand, Meditation Oasis, which originally produced podcasts to help people with their mindfulness and meditation practise, has developed the Simply Being Guided Meditation and Take A Break! apps where users can meditate while listening to soothing music.
Criticism of Mindfulness
Despite the various previously stated benefits of mindfulness, criticism of mindfulness as a practice also exists. A leading criticism of mindfulness is that there has been inadequate research done into the benefits of mindfulness, and where done it has included methodologies that lack adequate scientific screening, small sample sizes and a lack of measures to control external factors affecting subjects’ mental and physical make-up.
Much of this criticism stems from viewing mindfulness as an absolute science. Besides criticism on research methodologies, some other criticism of mindfulness comes from a perception that a state of mindfulness reduces mental agility and the ability to carry out multiple tasks at the same time. Furthermore, detractors of McMindfulness also state that the trend emerges from the social and economic factors that are responsible for increasing stress levels in the first place, namely hardship and economic inequity stemming from the exploitative nature of the capitalist system.
However, counterarguments to criticism of mindfulness can also be made. Firstly, treating mindfulness as a researchable science leads to focussing on the quantitative rather than qualitative aspects of mindfulness. Secondly, self-awareness is not akin to self-centeredness. A state of mindfulness is intended to increase focus and reduce distractions, but there is no evidence to suggest that a person who practices mindfulness cannot effectively multitask in a non-mindful state.
Ultimately, the charge of McMindfulness emerging due to the capitalist system is a charge against capitalism more than against mindfulness and does not take away from the fact that mindfulness can in fact, reduce stress levels and anxiety, induce peaceful sleep and provide other health benefits; perhaps the most compelling narrative against this argument comes in the form of mindfulness’ ability to combat complex psychological disorders such as PTSD.
All the discussions notwithstanding, two things have become clear in the contemporary scenario. The first is that mindfulness will endure since it is a centuries old phenomenon that has witnessed a resurgence lately, and the second is that McMindfulness will lead the trajectory of this resurgence. Thus, technology is yet again disrupting an established cultural pattern without destroying its core principles.