12 October 2017

Adventures in Meditation: Using Headspace

I started to meditate about three years ago. Starting to meditate was definitely one of my better decisions.

I started by using Headspace (www.headspace.com) Looking back, I think Headspace was a really good place to start. It gave me a basic meditation pattern that I still often use now. I think some of the various packs that Headspace offer are quite interesting - I liked the Appreciation meditation that again I still use now and again. Although I struggled with them initially, I came to quite like the various visualisation techniques I learnt from Headspace, and again continue to use them. Some of the packs were less successful, at least to me, but I do think Headspace are trying to represent meditation as something that starts with a human need, rather than as a good thing to do in itself, and that's not necessarily a bad approach.

Headspace costs money and that is something that rankles with some people - it is explicitly a product in a way that traditional forms of meditation don't seem to be. But if you go to your local meditation group, there will probably be the expectation of a contribution to support that grouping. I'm not sure any form of meditation is happening completely outside of an economic context.

One thing Headspace couldn't really teach me was good posture. I only learnt that by going to my local Buddhist centre and having kind, friendly Buddhists insisting that I improve the way I sat. At the time, I found this a little annoying, but in retrospect they were absolutely right to gently harass me about posture, because without it you can't sit for any length of time, and you spend all your meditation time thinking about how much your back hurts.

You could argue that Headspace doesn't make meditation a challenging process - there's the sense that Headspace is a kind of lifestyle brand, which allows people to find some calmness without the kind of deep questioning that accompanies more traditionally religious forms of meditation. Calmness commodified. I'd partly agree, and I found I needed something bigger and wider than Headspace. But I'd also say that firstly, giving people some moments of calm is a pretty good end in itself, and that secondly, I think the Headspace meditations do subtly encourage a different perspective on life, once less tied to an insistent sense of self.

I'd also say that while meditation practice tied to established religions (e.g. Buddhism) can offer a challenge to our current compulsively consumerist society, those established religions have so many of their own dogmas, barriers and assumptions that I actually rather like and admire Headspace's attempt to change and simplify the language and presentation of meditation.

Like the wider mindfulness movement, what Headspace does is to de-contextualise meditation, pulling it out of the religious and cultural contexts in which it has broadly been situated for thousands of years and pulling it into a twenty first century, customer-led, productised context. Vincent Horn, from Buddhist Geeks, calls this the "great unbundling", (see https://medium.com/@meditateio/making-meditation-modular-567b3e5cd68d), and uses the current Wikipedia definition of unbundling:

Unbundling is a neologism to describe how the ubiquity of mobile devices, Internet connectivity, consumer web technologies, social media and information access in the 21st century is affecting older institutions (education, broadcasting, newspapers, games, shopping, etc.) by “break[ing] up the packages they once offered, providing particular parts of them at a scale and cost unmatchable by the old order.” Unbundling has been called “the great disruptor”.

In that sense, Headspace is the perfect digital piece of product - structured around the needs of users rather than the institutions and culture of traditional meditation: the "old order". If you start using Headscape, you also avoid the often complicated, and occasionally inappropriate and troubling power relationships that can be found in that "old order" of religious groupings.

That approach is, of course, full of dangers: for example, mindfulness becoming a way of calming the anxieties produced by a consumerist/capitalist society without questioning the assumptions that society is based upon. Or really questioning one's own ethics and behaviour, or in any way breaking down the boundaries between the self and the rest of the world, which is kind of the point of the whole process.

One example of these danger is the app's use of statistics. Headspace encourages you to meditate more by feeding you statistics on usage: another very digital approach. One particularly incentivising stat is the number of days you have consecutively meditated. This use of stats really helped me build a solid practice - I wanted to get to 365 consecutive days, which I managed. But there is a negative side to this gammification of meditation - it gets to the point that the statistics can be more important than the practice ("oh I really don't feel like meditating this morning, but I better do something, even if I only go through the motions, because I don't want to lose my current run streak"). This is both an insane and utterly contemporary distortion of the rationale for meditation, and a very effective way to build a robust practice, at least in terms of the numbers. But you need to reach the point where the practice is genuinely what matters.