Are meditation apps the modern 'opiate of the masses'?

Coined by Karl Marx in the 19th Century to describe the role religion played in placating the working class of the Industrial Age, it seems to me that the rise of a very specific kind of “mindfulness” that has seized the (largely millennial) imagination over the last 5 years or so may also be deserving of filling the void as a modern “opiate of the masses”.

Apps such as Headspace & Calm have risen dramatically in popularity over the last few years based on the promise of helping you find - surprise, surprise - more calm in your life. More headspace.

Yet does this pursuit of greater calm really represent what meditation is intended to be in the first place?

If the purpose of using Headspace or Calm is to come out of it feeling a little more reinvigorated & calm after your 10-minute session, then it may in fact come into conflict with traditional Buddhist teaching on the subject of mindfulness.

Buddhism teaches us to be more aware of our mind by trying to simply observe what happens to us, as each fleeting thought or feeling or sound captures our attention.

By observing our thoughts, we are better able to understand that our very understanding of the “self”. The idea that we are a singular self in control of our lives, our actions & thinking independent thoughts quickly crumbles when we fail to concentrate on any one subject - or the simple act of breathing - for more than a few seconds.

True awareness, or true recognition of the complex, multi-layered nature of the mind, however, can also lead to an uncomfortable reality: It makes us acutely aware of what it is that is making us stressed & anxious in the first place, sometimes for the first time in our lives.

Our job. Our relationships. Our finances. Our ego. Whatever it may be. All of those issues we may have successfully distracted ourselves away from confronting internally are suddenly seen for what they are.

Yet this is not what modern meditation apps purport to train you to do.

Instead, they misinterpret mindfulness as, more or less, a means of simply “having a breather” - a sort of healthier version of a cigarette break or a cold beer after a bust day at work.

But does following this kind of practice really help? Does it help us actually address the root cause of our stress or our anxiety?

In fact, because we may falsely believe we are in fact being mindful and well on our way to enlightenment, we may even be more likely to not even be aware of the problem, as we never build the practice of true awareness, of truly observing our thoughts from a place of emotional detachment.

In turn, this means we may never confront the root of our problems - of the job that grinds us down each day, or the toxic relationship we may find ourselves in.

It’s an interesting thought to dwell upon, yet part of me writes this with some guilt & a lot of “yes, but….” arguments forming in my head.

The main counter-argument as I see it from my experience is that, in order to say that these apps are essentially counter-productive, in terms of helping you reach a higher plain of awareness, is that the process of using Headspace or Calm is not linear.

You don’t simplify do your 10 minutes per day for a few years and come out the same: Just a little bit more calm each day. You are in fact developing and training your mind to yes, find more calm, but also, to develop your ability to be more aware, more observant of your thoughts.

I’ve meditated for 5 years now.

I started with Headspace the day after my first business failed, to find a little corner of peace in my world of uncertainty at the time.

I used it almost every single day for 3 years & felt my ability to detach from my thoughts, to observe those thoughts & to act more in accordance with how I would like to act.

And, as I improved, I found myself exploring other aspects of “mindfulness”, moving on to Zen Buddhism (practicing 20 minutes of tracing the breath in silence in the pursuit of, well, nothingness), reading around on the subject of Buddhism & eventually dabbling almost daily with Sam Harris’ more rewarding app, Waking Up.

And there’s no doubt that Headspace helped. I was definitely calmer. But I was also more observant & more aware of my thoughts. And packaged within that promise of greater calm, were the (albeit simplified) teachings of Buddhism and of true awareness.

For that, I am incredibly grateful to Headspace for making me the calmer, happier, more centred person I have become today.

By packaging Headspace or Calm as a quick-fix - a little, healthier version of a cigarette break - the companies make what is not only an incredibly difficult habit to build easy, but they make an incredibly complex space (one of the complexity of the “self”, of the human mind, of confronting the source of stress & anxiety) far simpler to digest for those starting out on their journey towards greater awareness.

So do I think such meditation apps are an “opiate”?

Yes, but a good one. One that works as a gateway drug to a greater exploration of the self. That first step towards truly exploring what awareness means, what Buddhism (and its different schools) mean & what it means to simply exist.

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Henry Latham

Henry Latham

Founder, Prod MBA

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