The Paradox of Meditation Apps

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Stressed at the thought of my anxiety-inducing to-do-list. I decide to test the popular Meditation and Mindfulness App – Calm. My curiosity piqued by the fact that this app has been downloaded  12 million times to help people de-stress. I click on the chasing wonder thumbnail and soon I’m immersed into the sights and sounds of a gushing lake surrounded by trimmed fir trees dwarfed by ice-capped mountains, and it buoys my consciousness back into a relaxed state.

It’s only recently that meditation has become fashionable, popularised by the likes of Lionel Messi, Nojak Djokovic and Katy Perry who practice it to boost their performance. Historically, however, meditation had very different purposes – its practice was tethered towards something transcendent.  How has the use of meditation change in this secular age? And why does it leave us impoverished?

An Overstressed World

The proliferation of mediation apps like Calm and Headspace has become an 11 billion pound business because they’re doing an essential job of addressing a larger scale problem we have – work is giving us more stress than ever. The increasing pressure and burnout we face at work stems from a new religion that has been coined by Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson as Workism”. It’s adherents closely follow the doctrine that “work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centrepiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose, and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work”.

When work becomes the centrepiece of our existence, it will inevitably beckon us to strive harder and set us up for exhaustion. This is the trap I fell into, in my late twenties. Hustle-Eat-Sleep-Repeat became the pernicious beat I marched to because I was chasing the secular standard of perfection in London. Days would feel like a race to the finish line that any time for breaks and lunch were tinged with guilt having squandered away time that could have been better spent on work.

Times are changing. Today it’s not uncommon to find a crowd of hipster-employees sitting in zen-like poses, meditating on the boardroom floor during their lunch breaks. Whilst this was once considered weird, it’s no longer the case “Especially in Silicon Valley, it’s surprising if somebody doesn’t meditate” explains CEO of Calm App Alex Tex whose app boasted 30,000 new users per day last year. Employers are aware of this problem and recognise that employees need space to de-stress and meditate. Many testify to the benefits including singer  Katy Perry, “I meditate before I write a song, before I perform. I feel my brain open up and I feel my most sharp.”

The Beauty of Nature

Whilst there are different forms of meditation, the most popular app – Calm draws upon nature – immersing you into an ecosystem of natural beauty. For a moment – the grandeur of the mountain caps and the sounds of crystal waves crashing against the shore – lifts our head above the doldrums of our day and remind us that there is more to life than what our strict enclosures offer us.

The beauty of nature awakens our soul, even evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin, when confronted with the breadth of the Brazilian forest, describes it like this – “it’s not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind. I will remember my conviction that there is more in man than the breath of his body”. When hit with the thrust of beauty, Darwin used spiritual language to adequately describe what he sensed.  There’s something about the vastness of creation that shrinks the self and makes our problems seem insignificant.

But such experiences are flattened when meditation is reduced to a lifehack – efficiency tools made popular by the upper echelons of Silicon Valley to help squeeze every minute of our day into economic value. It’s entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who once worked 120 hours a week, who is admonishing us to sacrifice at the altar of work because “Nobody ever changed the world on a 40 hour week”. It’s this very belief that is internalised by a generation and fosters a culture where outwardly burnout is celebrated, and work is worshipped. But inwardly, we all know we live by an order which suppresses what’s important.

Historically, the practice of meditation and wonder of the world around us moved us towards an upward belief. Humanities scholar Mark Lilla puts it like this: “To most humans, curiosity about higher things come naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned”.  This was my experience growing up. Even though I was raised in a non-Christian household – I found myself drawn to the bigger questions. At night, gazing into the stars and the infinite beyond, alone with my thoughts – I would ponder the “higher things” – What was the purpose of life? Was there something else out there? As Mark puts it – we shut down that curiosity and it’s indifference we learn. Indifference that cuts us off from curiosity and reorients us back to our 2D secular frame.

Meditation for Self-Optimisation

As a result, meditation becomes decontextualised from its original purpose and on flattened planes – dislodged, it lacks coherency. Instead, it becomes our lifehack to the gospel of self-optimisation. By borrowing from creation, meditation has become a self-defeating tool, akin to an eerie scene plucked from a Black Mirror episode – we’re powered up from meditation and optimised as human capital to increase our net productivity. The result – meditation has become a tool to help raise a generation of lean, mean production machines and it’s leading to burnout that is not making us any happier.

But the right side of coherence draws us towards deeper meaning. In an early scene in Christopher Nolan’s movie “Interstellar.” Coop laments about the existential state of the planet. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt”. This observation follows a long tradition of thought where humanity would look to the stars in awe and seek transcendence, less pre-occupied with their status and the pecking order of things. 

Mindfulness that Points Upwards

One of the earliest forms of mindfulness in the Bible was practised by King David of Israel over 3000 years ago. Without the encroachment of technology, when King David considered all of creation around him, he was free to contemplate the reality of nature’s wonder. It will astound us to remind ourselves of the following facts from NASA;

“We are one of 7.4 billion people who live on Planet Earth. Earth is part of the Solar system. The solar system and trillions of stars make up a galaxy. A trillion galaxies make up the Universe”

It is against this backdrop that King David’s process of thought makes complete sense.

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them? human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

A Mindful God

We are not unique snowflakes, we are not special, we are the literally the lowest numerical denominator possible – nano blips to the minus nth degree yet the mind behind creation says that he has “crowned us with glory and honour”. (Psalm 8:5) The implicit assumption being – we don’t have an impersonal designer but one that is mindful of us despite our smallness.

The ancient roots of meditation were always tethered towards God, creation was designed to testify to God’s magnificence. When we isolate meditation and use it for its own sake – we take away what meditation was supposed to incline us towards – the ultimate Beauty of all – God himself. Nature points us towards a Personal God and leaves us malnourished without Him.

This is what it means when the books of Romans talks about creation. “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). God’s glory meaning God’s magnificence reveals itself beautifully through creation and are signposts to Him. Juxtaposed this passage with the following, and we get a better picture of who God is “It is the Glory of God to conceal a matter, it is the Glory of Kings to search it out” (Proverbs 25:2).

This is the mystery of a God that we can embrace – God reveals enough of himself to point us to Him but conceals enough, that we can search Him out and revel in that lifelong discovery.

Written by Ann Ajet

Ann Ajet is the lead writer at Bread and is based in London.  She writes articles that cover the intersection between Culture and Faith. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring street food markets with her husband and daughter.

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