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Using our Phones to Disconnect: Meditating With Apps

Many of us feel that we are too attached to our smart devices. We constantly check and re-check our various social media accounts, aimlessly browse the web, and waste time playing repetitive mobile games. But, by the same token, we rely on these devices to fulfill our social needs: we use our phones to make arrangements with friends and family with text messaging apps, share experiences with distant loved ones, and even rely on them for our jobs. So it seems that we are stuck in a trap: we wish to distance ourselves from the hectic and unsatisfying world of electronics and the Internet, but we find ourselves dependent upon the behavior that ties us to this world. This is the problem that mediation apps, like Insight Timer, seek to address.

The practice of meditation has been around as long as philosophy itself. It is an activity central to the religion of Buddhism and has had a strong influence on Eastern philosophy. In the West, the most popular form of meditation is mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners sit in silence for extended periods of time and attempt to focus on the sensations of awareness as they arrive in the mind. This deceptively simple explanation fails to capture the difficulty and complexity of the practice, and as such, meditation is best practiced under the supervision of an experienced instructor. However, in the absence of a skilled teacher, other forms of guidance can be tremendously beneficial.

When described in this way, meditation can seem like a pointless activity. After all, when someone meditates, they don’t appear to be doing anything at all, except perhaps repeating a chant. But the practice has been shown to have psychological benefits, especially in the areas of stress reduction and treatment of anxiety. The therapeutic technique of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was developed to treat mental illnesses in a psychiatric setting, and many people with demanding occupations have taken to the practice in an attempt to improve the quality of their work. It’s no wonder that the practice of meditation is becoming increasingly popular in our culture.

Meditation is a highly introspective and personal activity, and as such, the use of a communications device as a meditative aid can seem to be a counter-productive option. But, within this contradiction, meditation apps provide a unique and unexpected benefit, especially for beginning practitioners. Take, for example, the app Insight Timer, available for free for both Android and iOS devices. Insight Timer’s most basic core functionality is evident by its title: it counts down a period of time, during which the user meditates, with the option of listening to one of several pre-recorded ambient noises, before the ringing of a bell indicates the end of a session. But the real appeal of the app lies in its ancillary features, which relies upon a connection to the Internet to allow a community of meditators to connect.

One of the most significant obstacles to a beginner’s meditation practice is a lack of sustained motivation. Even people who strongly believe in the benefits of a daily practice can find themselves struggling to continue after fatigue and repetition set in. This is where the extrinsic influence of belonging to a group is it’s most helpful. Users of Insight Timer help to motivate one another through a variety of means: after a meditation’s conclusion, users can view other people who meditated at the same time, and send a message of encouragement or support; users can post about their personal struggles and difficulties to a forum and reply to others’ posts; and they can listen to guided meditation tracks, in which a teacher talks a user through a session, offering verbal support. Additionally, users can track their accomplishments, such as the number of consecutive days with a meditation session and the lengths of their sessions, and share these accomplishments with their friends using various social media sites.

And so, in their own unique way, apps like Insight Timer can provide satisfaction to a generation of people who long for the quiet serenity of introspective solitude but find themselves unable to detach. Meditation apps combine the seemingly opposite ideals of community and isolation to allow for a subjective sense of peace that lies somewhere in between.

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