Lunch №3: Meditation, Consciousness and Spirituality in the Digital Age.
This series documents a string of lunches hosted by bUm, Berlin’s new hub for civic engagement. We started the project as a way to discuss the intersection of digitization and what it means to live a good life. As it evolves, we hope to inspire conversations about how we use technology, while offering some insights from people who work in this field every day.
Our third lunch took place at the Co-Creation Loft. If you haven’t read my previous posts, I am writing about a series of round-table discussions that explore digital well-being. The first conversation explored our relationship to technology, both in our personal as well as professional lives. The second explored how digitization effects health, with a particular focus on mental health interventions. For our third meeting, we wanted to explore something that many find a bit more ambiguous but nevertheless very important– the meeting point between digitization and the world of consciousness and spirituality.
This led us to invite participants who are involved in creating mindfulness apps, researching meditation and empathy, as well as interested in where analogue spaces should be protected. Many feel that the rising tide of digitization marks a steep decline in our ability to be mindful and present. To explore this question, we asked if digital tools could offer some aid in an area where they are often blamed.
Can an app make you mindful?
Let’s start with our phones. With about a 3rd of the world’s population now using smartphones, apps have become one of the most efficient ways to reach people. Meditation apps, or more broadly mindfulness apps, have therefore become an effective way to bring mindfulness techniques into mainstream culture. Apps like Calm , Headspace , 10% happier, or Stop, Breathe & Think all claim that they can introduce more tranquility and attentiveness into your life, but is this really true and how does it work? What is the motivation behind these companies, and are their products meaningful in daily life?
One of our lunchtime participants, Jonas Leve, is the co-founder of 7Mind, an app that offers guided meditation and mindfulness notifications. I first heard about 7Mind from a friend, and at first I wasn’t convinced. Even during the lunchtime discussion, as Jonas described the product and the company, I couldn’t get passed the idea that meditation apps are somehow a short-cut to personal growth.
It has been a few weeks since the lunchtime discussion, and in that time I decided to give 7Mind a try. I have some experience with meditation in an analogue sense, but in the past I have only used apps for the timer, never for the guided courses. Throughout my few weeks of using it, however, I gained a different and I think more nuanced opinion about mindfulness apps.
The first thing that became clear to me was something Jonas had said during our lunch, but hadn’t really sunk in. That is, that apps have difficulty providing a comprehensive experience of meditation for the user, but they can give you a window into a world of inner exploration– and they can do this for millions of people. Apps might not create the most idyllic setting for meditation, but they do allow such large swaths of people to access a practice which otherwise might be totally unavailable. Sebastian Baier, one of our hosts at the co-creation loft, talked about how he tried for years to get his mother to meditate using the transcendentalist techniques. However, she never latched on until she found an app on her phone, and started using it every day. For her, an app was the perfect introduction to meditation because it walked her through the process step-by-step.
The second realization was more personal. Although I had all these ideas about how mindfulness apps were sort of fake, I also liked using the app. When I meditate alone, I sometimes drift deep into my head. I don’t stay grounded and come away from the meditation with headaches and stress. Using the app helped me stay grounded, it reminded me to feel my body, and particularly my legs and feet. My experience with the app made me recognize more fully that meditation is an acquired practice, very rarely is it something that we can just sit down and do with little guidance.
This brought up another point that we talked about during our lunch, digital tools can help solidify a practice or habit which we otherwise don’t know how to manage. The reminders, notifications, and guided processes can be very helpful, especially when we are seeking more structure.
At the end of my short 7Mind experiment, I don’t think that the app necessarily made me a more mindful person, it didn’t install any fundamental change within the course of a few weeks, but it did help me solidify a practice which I was trying to bring into my life anyway. And I think it could have this benefit for many people.
However, it did make me wonder how much mindfulness apps can influence a person’s sense of well-being in the long term. How do we know if change is taking place? Do we measure it? Rely on user feedback?
This brings us to a fundamental question for mindfulness and inner growth in the digital age– what are the metrics for success? That is to say, how do we know what’s working and what’s fake?
What are the Metrics?
In the past, questions about consciousness and spirituality have floated between science and religion. Today however, the world of economics and business dominate what becomes mainstream. This is a strange place for meditation to lie because it means (in the west at least) that a capitalist system negotiates how mediation is brought to the public. If we want to understand the metrics of meditation, spirituality, and consciousness in a digital setting, then we have to keep in mind the economic landscape in which products like mindfulness apps exist. What drives their growth? Is the mission of the company diluted by investor demands?
According to Jonas, most mindfulness and meditation apps rely on retention rates, testimonials, and ratings to measure user satisfaction. While this is a good way to measure if people are happy with the app, it doesn’t necessarily express if the app is bringing more self-awareness and reflection to the user. In other words, it doesn’t express the long term effects of the product. These kinds of metrics are really good for growing a user base, but they don’t tell you if your product is actually opening a door to a deeper state of self-awareness.
Tania Singer, a well-known social neuroscientist and psychologist who researches empathy and meditation, helped us understand the difficulty of measuring how meditation affects the brain. Self reporting, she informed us, is actually very unreliable when compared to what is happening on a biological level. When people say that they like a product, it doesn’t tell us what kind of effects, if any, are occurring in the individuals life. What we do know, from Tania’s research team (among others), is that apps and digital tools can be extremely effective at helping people stick to a daily routine. They are perfectly situated within our lives to remind or notify us about something that we previously learned or agreed to.
To experience real results from meditation, one has to practice regularly and for significant amounts of time. Tania brought up the analogy of exercise to illustrate this point, “If I thought I would lose 20 pounds by going to the gym a few times then I would go, but I know that’s not true. That’s why I don’t go to the gym.”
She asked us then, should meditation companies tell the user that to experience real change they will have to dedicate significant amounts of time, that they need to create a routine, etc? Though this might be true, it isn’t great for app downloads or potential investment. 7Mind has a significant advantage in this area, as it is financially sustainable. In this way the company can focus on delivering a product which is in line with their values, and doesn’t need to dilute the mission to fit investor demands. However, in the broader landscape of mindfulness in the digital age, this question of how meditation fits into a financial system is large and rather murky.
Well-being Needs Embodiment
At the moment, the way in which we interact with digital devices is very heady. We get sucked into our computers or phones and forget about our physical needs. Often, when we break out of this state, we feel like we feel drained but can’t think of anything we actually accomplished. Bettina Rollow, an organizational developer, talked about the power technology can have when it brings us closer to ourselves, and the harm when it brings us further away.
When it comes to technology and well-being, embodiment is a key factor. It is very hard to express our needs if we are not aware of our body. There is one digital trend I want to focus on in relation to embodiment because it holds a lot of ambiguity– and that is the trend of notifications and reminders. Notifications can be a perfect tool to remind us to take a break, go on a walk, take 10 deep breaths, etc. But they can also externalize the responsibility for recognizing these needs to technology rather than letting us identify them ourselves. On top of that, we are bombarded with so many notifications– from email, apps, news, slack, etc. — that they contribute to a sense of overwhelm and anxiety.
I don’t think this means mindfulness apps like 7Mind or Calm shouldn’t use push notifications, but that we should be thoughtful about how we integrate them into our lives. During my time using 7Mind, for example, I appreciated that I could control how many notifications were sent to me each day. After a while I started to ignore them because they felt too automated, and eventually I turned them off altogether. However, since I cancelled them I have noticed that I take more breaks while working to feel my body. Of course, I am only one person so I can’t draw any bold conclusions from my experience, but I did feel that receiving those reminders habituated me to notice when I needed a break for myself.
Importance of Community
In a digital world, the aspect of community and a sense of ‘togetherness’ drastically changes. In one sense, digital tools enable so many more people to access services and knowledge, but in other ways they contribute to isolation and diminished communication. It is easier than ever to eliminate human interaction from our daily lives. Spiritual practice is deeply connected to a sense of community, and is one of the reasons that it holds so much power for many people. Whether it is going to a synagogue, church, mosque, ashram, or meeting house, many religious practices center themselves around a place where people come together.
In the digital age, spiritual practices like meditation or prayer are generally stripped of their religious origins and put in the context of secular mindfulness techniques. I don’t necessarily think it is a bad or good thing that these practices become more secular, but often this shift goes alongside an individualization of the practice. Solitude is an important part of meditation, but as Tania and Bettina pointed out, there is something incredibly powerful when people sit together in silence or share their inner experiences with each other.
In societies dominated by digitization, it is important to cultivate these spaces– and apps like 7Mind might be an important part of this process. For the past few years Jonas has organized an annual conference called MIND in which the online community can come together.
What is most important here is that we recognize what technology is good at and what physical spaces are good at, and use each when appropriate. Physical and shared spaces are good at fostering a sense of belonging, helping people feel connected and seen. At the moment digital tools are good at integrating practices into daily life, including people who were previously unseen, and reaching large numbers of people across physical divides.
Into the Future
As we look into the future of digitization, it is important that conversations about inner life, spirituality and consciousness are adequately addressed. In order to do this well, there needs to be a partnership between technologists, coders, designers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders. If these people work together closely to develop tools, products, services or organizations I think we will start to see the quality and thoughtfulness of technology move to a new level. The obsession we currently have with apps might also dissipate, leading the way to new formats for people to engage with mindfulness practices. MR (mixed reality) for example holds a lot of promise to expose people to new worlds, feelings, and experiences. At the moment this technology is too expensive and niche to have the kind of influence that smartphones and apps have, but within a couple of years this will change. As the technology advances, we need a simultaneous investment in understanding how technology affects us mentally, emotionally, and physically. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “For every dollar and every minute we invest in improving artificial intelligence, it would be wise to invest a dollar and a minute in advancing human consciousness.”
Jump to our fourth conversation on values, software, and design.
As a last note, thank you to all of our participants listed below!
- Sebastian Baier: Entrepreneur and project manager at co-creation loft.
- Dr. Joana Breidenbach: Anthropologist and social entrepreneur, co-founder of Betterplace, Betterplace Lab, and Das Dach, co-author of New Work Needs Inner Work.
- Mike LaVigne: Artist, designer, social entrepreneur, co-founder of Das Dach and female health app Clue.
- Jonas Leve: co-founder of 7Mind
- Ben Mason: Project Lead — “Digital Routes to Integration” at the Betterplace Lab.
- Siena Powers: Writer and researcher at Das Dach
- Bettina Rollow: Specialist in organizational development, co-author of New Work Needs Inner Work.
- Max Senges: Philosopher and Lead for R&D Partnerships and Internet Governance at Google.
- Prof. Dr. Tania Singer: Psychologist and social neuroscientist, scientific head of the Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society in Berlin.
- Jan Stassen: CEO of co-creation loft, co-founder of The museum of Values.
As far as necessary, all rights to the images used here have been clarified with the artists or producers. For some images I have paid a small amount of money. For others I made a donation to non-profit projects in agreement with the artists. However, most of the creators agreed that their works are used here free of charge. I’d like to express my gratitude to all of them.