Armaan Shah
Jan 31, 2018 · 5 min read

Meditation is Hard

Practitioners study meditation for years to develop mastery. It took Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, years of study before he became ordained as a Buddhist monk.

Despite the difficulty of the actual practice of meditation, people who are unaccustomed to a culture of meditation have an even more difficult barrier to entry:

Why should I meditate? How is it relevant to my life?

These barriers exist because meditation is, literally, a foreign concept to many of us — and our media reinforces that image.

Meditation in Our Media

Meditation in our media is most powerfully depicted through movies and TV shows. Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange journeys to a temple in Nepal where meditation is a frequent practice. Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love travels the world in a mid-life crisis and meditation becomes an important part of her self-discovery in India.

Rarely do we see people in our media practicing meditation in stride with their daily lives. Imagine Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter in Suits or Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada meditating. It just wouldn’t fit. Our culture and media work in conjunction, shaping meditation as relevant only for people undergoing a significant life change — no one else has the time for it. Consequently, any meditation product or service faces the uphill battle of changing that perception.

Bridging the Gap

While many apps deliver meditation as a product, very few focus first on the broader issue of reshaping the perception of meditation. This is where Headspace stands apart.

Equipped with a deep understanding of how meditation can improve one’s mental health and lifestyle, Headspace focuses on connecting the foreignness of the practice with the needs of the user. Most importantly, Headspace has identified the user’s jobs to be done.

1) I feel as though I am always busy and I need to focus on the things that matter

2) I’d like to lead a more fulfilling life and focus on being grateful

Users that lead busy and fast paced lives have a tough time focusing on what provides the most value to them. The gazillion productivity posts on Medium and the even larger number of readers is demonstrative of the need to live deliberately. Headspace’s approach to solving this problem is entirely different and non-obvious.

Headspace aims to provide mental clarity as the product to their service by helping their user identify what they value most and focus on internal fulfillment.

Even as Headspace delivers on such a service, an important barrier still remains: how can Headspace actually convince potential users of the value of meditation? The question still stands: how is this relevant to my life?

Marketing to Touchpoints

If Headspace aims to enable widespread adoption of a product lacking a clear use case, they will need to evolve the perception of meditation for their users and create the need.

Headspace targets institutions of authority and influence. Scientific fact, famous individuals (a.k.a. influencers), and talk shows or TV media are important vehicles of widespread adoption.

As of this writing, the landing page of quotes Emma Watson on the “genius” of Headspace and references research analyzing the (ultimately positive) effects of meditation. Andy Puddicombe gave a Ted Talk and appeared on several talk shows to speak to the value of meditation. Ryan Seacrest, Jessica Alba, and Jared Leto are all investors in Headspace.

Headspace is using these touchpoints as a means of establishing a new perception that emphasizes the value of a peaceful mind and the corresponding focus and fulfillment that comes with it.

Designing the Experience

With a strong set of user insights, Headspace uses the in-app experience to tie perception and need together. The app’s friendly, animated characters and warm colors invite you into the world of meditation. An animation of a character traveling through snow-topped mountains or floating around the world in a hot air balloon resembles the “finding yourself” themes surrounding meditation in media. The next animation presented, though, might be of a more relatable animation of a character stuck in traffic or working out.

The animations simultaneously confirm the user’s belief that meditation is a foreign concept, as well as, relate to the user’s daily struggles.

Headspace has taken a nuanced understanding of a perception and taken on an even more impressive challenge of reshaping that impression through design and marketing. If successful, the app could define the form in which many people in our culture meditate and in the long term, impact how meditation is portrayed in our media. I admire the company’s work in a space of high risk, high reward and the unique strategy they employ to acquire new users.

Food for Thought

Yoga once was a similarly unknown activity in western cultures until it began to take a fitness-centered focus. With its popularization, there is a considerable amount of discussion on the appropriation of yoga from a religious/spiritual practice to a more external, health and fitness one.

Meditation could take a similar route. Headspace has been able to deliver meditation as a service to their core user, but by catering to the mainstream, they risk making similar changes to the practice for the sake of fitting the needs of their users 😟. My next question is, how will they balance the broadening of meditation as a service to serve more people with the original intent and spiritual components of the practice?

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