Need some calm in your life? Feeling spiritually dissatisfied? Maybe it’s your job, city, love life. Maybe the world is out of whack—politically, economically, or environmentally. Maybe it’s the constant barrage of information and shallow exchanges you face spending hours each day online. Maybe it’s just the human condition. The reasons don’t matter. As with just about every other problem in the digital age, a technological solution is available for a price. Relaxation? Focus? Enlightenment? There’s an app for that.
Dozens of applications for iPhone or Android tell you that the best way to disconnect from stress is by connecting to their service. Calm, Omvana, Breathe2Relax, and The Mindfulness App offer relaxing background sounds—water, wind, crickets, binaural hums programmed to entrain brain oscillations and bring altered states—along with timer settings and recordings of calm voices to let you bring yourself to heightened awareness or deeper sleep.
These technologies for guiding users to monitor and alter their internal states are the sparkling foam on the crest of a new wave of Western Buddhism. Mindfulness, the practice of sustained, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, has become mainstream, thanks in large part to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced this secularized form of Buddhist sati in a biomedical framework as a treatment for chronic pain and stress. A boom of research tracking the EEG and fMRI [brain activity] patterns of meditation practice has subsequently brought scientific credibility. These trends have intersected with the digital startup scene emanating from Silicon Valley, where 1960s experimentation with psychedelics and Eastern religions— exemplified by Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog fame and maniacal dabbler Steve Jobs—seeded new styles of capitalist self-development.
American Buddhism is undergoing a changing of generational guard. New contemplatives reject the religious, esoteric, and incense-suffused takes on dharma they associate with hippies, the New Age, and baby boomers. Now they talk about meditation as “brainhacking”: a flexible toolkit of methods for reprogramming the internal operating system. In the often hyped-up representations of this new contemplative culture, the driving forces are presented as technology, science, and consumer choice—not speculation, faith, or tradition. As it both continues and denies its traditional precursors, we might call this new configuration “post-Buddhism.”
Embodying key elements of post-Buddhism, two of the most successful mindfulness apps, Headspace and Buddhify, have invested heavily in their brand, interface, menu options, and business models. These digital technologies of the self offer a glimpse into some of the most accessible and commercial aspects of what’s been called “the mindfulness revolution.”
Headspace calls itself “the first gym membership for the mind.” In its website’s promos, cartoonish block figures—between robot, isotype, emoji, and Hello Kitty—engage in activities enhanced and amplified with mindfulness. A brain lifts weights, characters wearing ethnically marked headgear shake hands peacefully, a scientist diagrams a brain morphed into a heart. The gateway app is Take Ten, a program of ten guided meditations of ten minutes to be taken once per day; after this taste, two further “foundational” sequences lead into meditations aimed at improving health, performance, and relationships. Others offer techniques for walking, cooking, and eating. The idea is to get you hooked: further content can be accessed by subscription as in a phone plan, starting at twelve dollars monthly, less if you commit to one or two years, or a lump sum of four hundred and twenty dollars for “forever” access.
Related: Don’t Believe the Hype: Neuroscientist Catherine Kerr is concerned about how mindfulness meditation research is being portrayed in the media
Headspace’s public face, and the calm voice on the meditations, is Andy Puddicombe, a buff, shaven-headed man, with a smile destined for TED talks (he juggles too). Born in 1972 in Bristol, United Kingdom, he trained in sports science before becoming a monk in Tibet; after a degree from a circus school he partnered with an advertising executive to found Headspace in London in 2010. The New York Times says that “Andy Puddicombe is doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food,” putting connoisseurship in the hands of the masses in a lively, low-risk form. This guru on a surfboard eschews religious or mystical claims; it’s not about nirvana or rebirth, only mental fitness and general improvement.
“The difference it has made to the way I feel about just about everything is amazing,” goes one very general testimonial. Perhaps most striking is the central emphasis the website and promotional materials place on scientific findings about the proven effects of meditation: headings for stress, creativity, focus, anxiety, and relationships open to punchy summaries of articles on meditation in scientific journals, along with full citations. Religion-free, individualized, technophilic, with an emphasis on choice, fun, and self-improvement, Headspace encapsulates a generational, aesthetic, and epistemic shift in Western Buddhism. It’s also a market expansion: launching the app in East Asia in early 2015, Puddicombe said that since starting in 2010 Headspace had been accessed by 2.7 million people in one hundred fifty countries.
In contrast, the app called Buddhify, running only since January 2014, counts its growth in smaller units: five million minutes downloaded since November 2014. It seems to aim to undersell competitors: instead of a subscription, it charges a one-time fee of $2.99 for all its content—“the price of a coffee.” Its founder, Rohan Gunatillake, a former business consultant and currently a “mindfulness entrepreneur” now living in Glasgow, says he wanted to offer busy people meditation in a playful, flexible way—“very digital, very engaged, very modern.” His vision of “urban meditation” is not restricted to the pristine space of retreats, but offers instead the possibility of “mindfulness everywhere.”
The screen features a color wheel for which each slice is an activity or mood—clicking one opens another color-coded submenu of specific meditations for that state or aspect of daily life, from five to thirty minutes each. The guided meditations are spoken by different, calm voices, male and female, with British and North American accents: the website reveals that one these is Lodro Rinzler, a self-confessed “dharma brat,” offspring of the Shambhala movement, whose books and teachings (available on multiple platforms) seek to bring the dharma to urban millennials. Others are Vincent and Emily Horn, co-directors of the website Buddhist Geeks, a highly visible online hub for practitioners, teachers, and entrepreneurs—with regular podcasts and conferences—who practice “meditation in the digital age.”
Buddhify thus positions itself at once in a discerning young urban market and within the emerging networks of post-Buddhism. In line with the Pragmatic Buddhist and Dharma Overground forums (both allied with Buddhist Geeks) which champion “whatever works” and resist both the secrecy and the authority of established Buddhist traditions, Gunatillake says his “user-centered meditation product” aims to “disrupt the guru model.” Because it allows users to choose modules in any order according to their needs and context and goes where you do, “personalization is at the heart of Buddhify”; if you rate your concentration, mindfulness, and balance after each sitting, a graph shows your progress in terms of time spent in meditation and your self-reported improvement.
Related: Tricycle’s special section on Buddhism and technology
Humans have always made and remade themselves through technology: the child knows who she is by saying and writing her name; we learn our power, limits, and place in the world through toys, tools, and clothing; our entry into our culture is coordinated by clocks, batons, metronomes, mirrors, windows, and walls. At some point, some may hear a call to live otherwise; they acquire new techniques or apply old techniques in new ways. Ascetic practices from religious and philosophical traditions alter rhythms, modify intakes and outputs, restrict sleep, food, and sex, demand writing or repetitive speech, silence, or physical strain. The result can be a new relation of the self to the self.
It’s no surprise that today’s asceticisms follow the contours of today’s defining technologies. We all know the addictive compulsion of text messages, likes, rankings, and status updates. Some now take online existence to an extreme, monitoring their heart rate, temperature, calories, and other indicators of fitness through sensors strapped to the body at pulse points, sending their data to distant servers where it is aggregated into norms against which the individual reappears as a data signature with both current state and goal. The “quantified self” movement offers you an analytic version of yourself for inspection and improvement, at the same time as your personal details, web habits, and purchasing patterns are sold to various agencies. These make more exact marketing profiles to find better ways to sell you the objects and experiences that will make you more the you you wish you were.
To the extent that mindfulness apps embrace the Buddha’s aims—to end suffering by reducing attachment to the ego—they’re part of a wider apparatus of the quantified no-self. The ethical experience they sell is not only a reworking of the self’s relation to the self; it’s a reworking of technology’s relation to technology. They’re digital devices that aim to release us from the suffering caused by excessive dependence on digital devices. In line with fundamental tendencies shared by consumerism, self-help, and long-established religions, they offer the promise of liberation at the price of a new attachment.
This article will appear in French in the book Persona, étrangement Humain, eds. Emmanuel Grimaud and Anne-Christine Taylor, Paris: Actes Sud, 2016. There is an accompanying exhibit with the same name at the Musée du Quay Branly starting on Jan. 26 and running through Nov. 11, 2016.