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Meditation apps don't always provide enlightenment

Religion News Service | 10/18/2019, 6 a.m.
Search your smartphone’s app store for “meditation” and you’ll get more than 1,000 results.
A variety of meditation apps available

Search your smartphone’s app store for “meditation” and you’ll get more than 1,000 results.

There’s Headspace, which offers beginner courses on how to meditate; Simple Habit, which features short, mostly 5-minute guided meditation sessions such as “letting go of work worries” and “mini retreat for moms;” and Calm, which boasts 2 million paid subscribers, 50 million downloads and a company valuation of $1 billion.

In addition to smartphone apps, startups are developing technologies to enhance meditation in other ways. Muse, for in- stance, is a research-grade EEG headband that monitors brain activity, allowing users to track their progress and tailor guided meditation sessions through sound in order to keep their concentration focused.

But technological tracking shouldn’t be confused with nirvana.

“Muse doesn’t deliver you to enlightenment,” Muse co-founder Ariel Garten said in an email statement. “It is simply giving tangible feedback on what’s occurring in your own mind so that you can learn effectively. Muse enhances your metacognition, your ability to process your own thoughts, and enables you to make choices around that knowledge.”

Mindfulness is now a $4 billion industry, according to the 2019 book “McMindfulness” by Ronald E. Purser, but commercial success often obscures the complicated relationship the practice has with Buddhism, from which many of these shoppable techniques are derived.

“The Buddhist community is of two minds about what’s going on,” said Carolyn Chen, a professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be people who think it’s a watering-down that’s compromising the tradition — and that it’s not Buddhism. Other people will say, ‘No, it’s not Buddhism, but it relieves suffering, and this is what the Buddha taught.’ ”

While the money that meditation now generates is new, Silicon Valley’s fascination with Buddhism isn’t, Dr. Chen said. The tech sector’s roots in Northern California put its founders in close proximity to members of the Beat movement and counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s, when Asian spirituality — and Buddhism in particular — started entering the popular consciousness.

“A lot of people who are part of Silicon Valley and the tech industry were also part of Buddhism becoming more mainstream,” she said. “They moved in the same circles.”

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs traveled to India to study with a guru and had a Buddhist monk come to his office once a week for spiritual counseling. In 2007, Google leadership started Search Inside Yourself, a series of mindfulness courses for employees.

Growing scientific research on the health benefits of meditation also has legitimized mindfulness meditation in corporate set- tings, Dr. Chen said. Large companies, looking to improve their employees’ health while possibly lowering health costs, have adopted meditation in the workplace and sell meditation technology.

In the process, Dr. Chen said, meditation has been stripped of its religious elements and reoriented to achieving nonspiritual goals such as relaxation or concentration at work.

“It’s been transformed into a secular tool for self-optimization,” she said.

The app designers generally respect the religious origins of meditation but have no interest in selling it. Ms. Garten makes a point of noting the practice of focused attention’s “beautiful and deep roots in Buddhism” but said Muse was “built as a secular device that is accessible to all.”