An inspired solution to meditation apps

Moments of Space Founder, Kim Little, discusses how his experience on meditation retreats motivated him to create a meditation app that does things differently.

Meditation Background

I was born to two very Buddhist uncles and so grew up with Buddhism, and as a result have been interested in and practising meditation most of my life. I have come across many different traditions of meditation within Buddhism, both Theravada and Mayahana, but the ones I have come to love the most are those of Dzogchen and Mahamudra from Tibetan Buddhism.

It was while on many retreats and after leaving them that the idea for Moments of Space was born. As I sat in meditation halls listening to these great teachings, I got thinking about how far short all the meditation apps in the market really are. What if we could make an app that really did justice to the teachings that I was experiencing?

And after each extraordinary retreat, I would return home, and despite my best efforts, the meditative state attained would slowly fade and dissipate. I got to wondering why that was and how to stop it from happening. Would I keep having to go on retreats forever? Was that sustainable? After reflecting for quite some time, I came up with four key issues that I thought a truly great meditation app needed to solve.

The Problem

Apps don’t empower you with skill based learning

As I sat listening to detailed conceptual understandings of a canon of meditation skills, each clearly explained before we attempted to practise it, I finally felt satisfied. I wanted to understand meditation precisely and specifically, not be given vague and ambiguous or little to no explanation.

When I think of the apps out there, very few really attempt to explain things specifically. Instructions are vague and ambiguous or not given at all. You sit down and meditate, follow the breath, maybe watch your thoughts and hey presto. Is that all there is to it? What is actually happening and why are we doing that? My mind was hungry for proper explanations, and I finally felt I had found it.

Most apps don’t really empower you, they actually keep you dependent on them because they don’t help you understand exactly why you are doing what you are doing. What is really needed is skill-based learning. The Buddha taught four foundations of Mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and phenomena (or space). Within each of those is a handful of distinct and concrete skills that need to be learnt and mastered.

Each skill needs to be explained conceptually. This conceptual understanding is actually a requirement so that our mind is both satisfied and resting and so that we know exactly what to look for and try to experience. Just like a theoretical and practical driving test, we need the theory and the experience.

Most of all, we need to be able to internalise that skill, only possible through deep understanding of its purpose, so that we are genuinely empowered. We don’t want to need an app for the rest of our lives; we want to get enlightened.

Here on retreats, I had been taught how to break down the four foundations into distinct skills that could be learnt and internalised and then used together in different combinations through stacking and blending with extraordinary results.

Most apps dumb down meditation, either because they think that’s what people want or they don’t have the knowledge to explain things properly. This leads me to the second problem, which I felt Dzogchen and Mahamudra uniquely answer.

Apps don’t give you the full solution

This problem is somewhat related to the first, but what I noticed is that almost all apps only teach you the first three foundations of mindfulness: body, feeling and mind, but don’t touch on the fourth foundation of Mindfulness. The literal word for the fourth foundation is dhamma, which has no English translation. While some teachers translate it as Mindfulness of Phenomenon, the Tibetan Buddhist teachers I came across have defined it as Mindfulness of Space, space being an aspect of the ultimate nature of reality. Whichever way you translate it, the job of the fourth foundation is to point to the (ultimate) nature of things.

The way it was taught to me was that the fourth foundation is the most important of all, and the other three are really stepping stones to get to it. Of course, if you have a restless feeling in the body, emotional turbulence or negative thoughts, all of these need to be dealt with first because they obscure our true nature, which is pure awareness and compassion that rests in an infinitely open space.

The essence of the fourth foundation, at least from a Dzogchen/Mahamudra perspective, is how to step out of the conceptual mind and rest in non-conceptual awareness. It teaches what is known as ‘objectless meditation.’ When we meditate on our breath, our bodily sensations, or a sound, these become the object of our meditation. When we practise objectless meditation, we simply rest in awareness in itself. Our mind comes home to seeing its own nature.

The reason this is important is because of our tendency to conceptualise the world into self and other, into subject and object. And while this is a helpful abstraction for many reasons, it removes us from the pure experience of reality which is more like a oneness in which everything is perfect as it is. It divides reality where it is not supposed to be divided, and this separation creates fear and anxiety. It creates me and you, mine and yours, and is the basis for greed, hoarding, power, inequality, and competition.

In essence, we have forgotten how to return to the primordial awareness, which was our birth-given nature, and which you can see in every newborn’s eyes, and from a Buddhist perspective, this is the cause of our suffering. Conceptuality is not bad, but we have become a slave to it; it has imprisoned our minds. So, until we can learn the highest forms of non-conceptual meditation and step out of that prison and back into reality, we can never truly be free. Object-based meditation (awareness of body/feeling/thought) manages our symptoms, but it’s only part of the solution. The ultimate solution is understanding and practising the fourth foundation, stepping out of subject and object and back into the primordial oneness from which we have become lost. And it is this which seemed to be missing from the market.

Apps don’t give you what you need

Once you have the full solution, taught correctly and broken down into skills with their concepts and experience, you can start to treat the four foundations of mindfulness as a state toolset, and that was how it was taught to me by my teachers. On any given day, you were asked to evaluate your state, consider the loudest symptom occurring at that time, and think about which foundation you should be drawing on. Were you distracted by pain or feeling lethargic or restless? Were you resisting or suppressing your feelings? Were you being possessed by a negative emotion? Were you unconscious of your thoughts or fighting with them? Or was everything pretty good, in which case you could attempt to look for the backdrop of the mind, awareness and space.

When we look at the apps in the market, mainly they ask the users to choose what they want or give everyone the same thing. It’s true that some focus on anxiety or anger and so on, but from this perspective, the thing the user thinks they need could be very different to what they actually need. The way these four states of body, feeling, mind, and awareness interact is complex, and something on one level can be a reaction to something on another level. It takes skill and insight to pick apart the layers to find the cause and you need to be taught the toolkit to do this.

This got me thinking: what if we could find a way to teach and evaluate state and give users exactly what they need from the library of skills available in the four foundations? A challenge, yes, but what if we could take choice away and evaluate a user’s state and tell them what to practise? And what if we could do that from the outset?

An important distinction needs to be made here between mental/emotional traits, which are habitual patterns of behaviour imprinted onto your mind, feelings and body and temporary states, which come and go. So many of the apps ask you about your mood and so on, but are those states or traits? The real trick is to try and capture people’s traits and work with those over time.

And consider that the more skills a user learns, the more tools in the toolkit that can be given for their particular traits and states.

The other consideration is that, as the user’s understanding of their state deepens, which I call Mindfulness of State, the evaluatory questions should become deeper and more precise. In other words, the user needs to be taken on a journey from “I feel good” or “bad” to breaking down their state into its component parts and understanding what they need in that moment. So any state evaluation needs to be progressive and evolve with the user’s understanding. This would fit well with skill-based learning, which could expound those different component parts, and the check in could unlock accordingly.

Apps don’t teach you how to meditate throughout the day

While on many retreats, I was able to stabilise meditative awareness and begin to rest in my own nature and, from there, see that all else shared that same nature. Life became clear, and I felt meaning and purpose. I had found what I was looking for. Then I would return to the normal world, back to work but with a diligent meditation practice. I would start with three 40 min meditations a day, that should be enough! But no matter how hard I tried, the retreat state would fade, and I would return to my former self with all my problems and difficulties and unhappiness. After a while, my meditations would be reduced too, down to two 40 min meditations, then just one, and maybe even just 20 mins per day.

Time and time again, this happened, and I thought, “Do I have to live in a temple?” Or do I just need to do enough retreats per year to deal with the dissipation or half-life of the retreat state?

This got me thinking, and while it seems obvious now, what is happening on retreat is that the main activity is mindfulness, so that state prevails. But in normal life, the main activity is unconsciousness practice (unmindful thinking and feeling), so it’s that state which prevails.

Let’s consider a typical meditator’s day. We get up in the morning, do a 20 min meditation (if we have time), then go off to work feeling present and spacious. But the effects seem to fade by lunch. Why? Well, if you think about it, that little 20 min meditation is competing against 16 hours of unconsciousness practice. In effect, unmindfulness is bigger and more present than mindfulness, so that state prevails. Alas, so modern life is a problem. Hmmm…

So how could we make mindfulness more powerful than unmindfulness, given daily life? No one has enough time, so that wouldn’t work… But what about the abundance of time present in all the daily activities where the mind is not required to be focused, could those be used? I looked into this, and while there is a lot of unstructured material on being mindful throughout the day, where were the apps nudging you at those times and teaching you guided and structured meditations of ordinary daily activities? I don’t mean vague instruction but targeted practices with specific explanations and precise meditation objects or anchor points.

And what if technology could detect moments throughout your day where you could practice because you were doing an ordinary daily activity and give you meditation formats to match? If we could actually use all that time to meditate, mindfulness would become more powerful than unmindfulness, and a genuine transformation of state could occur. Combine this with giving the user what they actually need for their traits, and the magic I experienced on retreat could start happening in ordinary daily life.

One of the other things that amazed me about Dzogchen was they really promoted eyes-open meditation, as the tradition believes that keeping your eyes open makes it easier to find the mind’s backdrop and see the open awareness (of which I am now totally sold, by the way). This could really go hand in hand with mindfulness of ordinary daily activities throughout the day.

The Solution

The perceived solution to all these problems is the basis for creating the Moments of Space app, aptly named after the primary aspect of ultimate reality, and in line with some interpretations of the fourth foundation as Mindfulness of Space.

Skill-based learning

The first thing that a truly great meditation app would need to do is break down the four foundations into collections of skills and teach each properly, with a clear distinction between conceptual understanding and actual experience. The concepts for that skill would need to be explained, then a guided meditation would seek to give you the experience, and finally, you would learn how to practise it with less and less guidance until you could do it unguided. That would internalise each skill.

The goal here would be to teach the user the full repertoire of skills available throughout the four foundations. And each of those would be internalised until the user knew them without any guidance or instruction. That would be the meaning of empowerment.

The Full Solution

The second thing a great app would need to do is not shy away from teaching the full path as taught by the Buddha. It would have to teach non-conceptual or objectless meditation and really delve into the fourth foundation of Mindfulness, which concerns the ultimate nature of our minds and of all things. This of course would require some incredible explanation to really point out to the user how to practise it. This is the great challenge: to use concepts to explain a non-conceptual experience, and I had been privileged enough to encounter great teachers who had attempted to do just that.

Trait and State-based Recommendations

The third aspect would be an app that both teaches you how to evaluate your states and traits and assigns you paths of content (skills) that aim to improve those traits. To really work, that evaluation would need to be dynamic and progressive and evolve with the user’s own understanding of the component parts of their state.

In other words, an app that truly tried to figure out what a user might need and teach them that. No paradox of choice, no wall of content. An app that actually tells you what you need and progresses with you.

Meditating throughout the day

The final aspect would be to really crack meditating throughout the day. It would be an app that both intelligently understood the best time to take time out to meditate and also detect when you are performing an ordinary daily activity where your mind is not required to be focused. It would then prompt you to practise at those times and guide you through the skill (explanation, guided experience, unguided) until that was internalised.

Putting that all together

To summarise all of that, it would be an app that gives you the right content for your particular traits and present moment state, at the right times, in the right contexts, so you could easily and frequently practise meditation, little and often throughout your day, to achieve a true transformation of state. Wow! That sounds like the next frontier of meditation to me :)

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