What are the benefits and limitations of using a Mindfulness meditation app to improve your wellbeing.

“Mindfulness” is the buzzword of the moment – but it’s a lot more than a passing trend. The word has been out for some time. Mindfulness is everywhere. Whether you’re looking to curb negative thinking, manage anxiety, or just get a better night’s sleep, mindfulness meditation is one of the simplest ways to retrain your brain and recharge your emotional energy.

It’s easy to point to our phones and all the addictive apps as part of the problem making us more stressed, but ironically there is a shift. Many apps now are moving in the opposite direction trying to help us relax. Apps designed to improve mental wellbeing have skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years. Most of these focus on managing stress and anxiety. If it’s your first foray into the world of mindfulness practice, a phone-based app could be a useful first access point into an area some may find taunting. It’s now a skill that anyone can learn from their comfort of their home (and phone).

Meditation apps can help you carve out time in your day to meditate, and can teach you how to meditate or introduce you to new techniques. They range from simple timers to extensive series of lessons and subscription tutorials. There are numerous options in the marketplace to choose from. Personally, I have tried Headspace, Insight Timer and Smiling Mind. Beyond my own mindfulness practice I found these apps very useful at certain times, but as with everything, each has minor draw backs.

Headspace seems to be the global king of mindfulness apps. In 2015 it reported over 30 million members and 1 million paying subscribers. Many celebrities endorse this app such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds. He recently revealed he uses the app to help him cope with anxiety and stress. Headspace is not free and I only used the app for the short trial period. Ironically, as a daily meditator, I found myself getting a little stressed trying to remember to use it each day. Nevertheless, the voice of Headspace creator and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe is very soothing and relaxing. I have no doubt if I wanted to pay for a subscription it would have been a worthwhile investment to keep me accountable.

Insight Timer is free and has a crazy number of meditations to choose covering a wide range of themes. I found picking one that worked for me frustrating at times. Some were great, but it can be a little hit and miss with what you get if you don’t know the style of the facilitator. Now I tend to only use the bell timer and rely more of my own practice to guide me.

Recently, I tried the totally FREE Smiling Mind app. If I had to critique something I would have to say I was not a great fan of the guy’s voice guiding the meditations (too clinical). Nevertheless, I really liked the way they ask you to check-in and record your mood prior to each session. Makes you really consider was going on for me in the present moment.

Needless to say mindfulness apps have a place and can serve a useful purpose for introducing people to the world of mindfulness and meditation. However, long-term there will be something missing when technology becomes the main way to practice. A recent research study by Queensland University of Technology assessed 560 mindfulness apps from Google and Apple stores and found only 23 proved to be effective in helping people meditate. Headspace proved to be the most consistent app from the study.

The insights from this study raise some points worth consideration. I do not doubt mindfulness apps can serve a useful purpose, but I feel their use needs to be a limited as you get more experienced for it to remain effective. Through your progression with apps the 100% guidance through the meditation will start to diminish, while the time in meditation will gradually increase. This is when the problem of sustainability starts to come into question. Relying on what you think is right allows the wandering mind to start to regain control and sabotage your efforts. If someone really wants to keep improving and gain all the benefits meditation can offer they need to strongly consider joining a group and, more importantly, invest in finding a teacher. These are the two main ways the practice will thrive and grow. Each of us travels and learns in differing ways; therefore at some point we will need help and support to guide us.

My journey over the last 10 years is a good example of this. The reasons I choose to visit monasteries in differing countries over the years was to learn how to take my practice to new levels. At differing stages I started to struggle and recognize a lack of knowledge to keep me moving forward. What I learnt from the monks in Japan differed greatly from what I learnt from the monks I stayed with in Thailand or Vietnam.

I would not expect you to go to such extremes, but the general idea of discipline, commitment and accountability is the key. You cannot put your faith in apps that guide you 100% of the time. At some point that guidance needs to come from within and that’s where the problem starts for many. The wandering mind leads to frustration and that’s when many will struggle to stay the course.

The idea of mindfulness meditation every day is an intimidating prospect, therefore my suggestion would be a combination of apps, groups and teacher. It will provide greater options to accommodate your time restraints and schedule. Likewise, it will keep you motivated to maintain a regular practice. This will offer you the opportunity to develop and build the habit that will serve you well in combating this relentless competitive world we live in.

If you have any questions or would like some guidance feel free to contact me. We can all try to do it on our own but sometimes its ok to reach out. That’s exactly what I did.

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