In order to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible to the general public, the creators of the phone application Headspace have utilized a variety of media techniques to make their product popular. Meditation is generally seen as a positive practice that can cultivate relaxation, spirituality, and growth. Headspace utilizes this technology to make this helpful practice more accessible. Regardless, the ways that individuals share meditation and mindfulness through Internet technologies have brought discord among some circles, as most societal changes do. Most, if not all of the prominent arguments against phone applications like Headspace are cultural, religious, and/or ideological debates. Since mindfulness and meditation allow individuals in the West to share some of the traditions that stem from Buddhism, many critics believe that individuals cannot actually extract and secularize mindfulness. Therefore, traditional Buddhists may claim that Westerners are inappropriately and disrespectfully morphing religious techniques. For example, when mindfulness promoters exclaim that mindfulness is a wonder drug for many afflictions, these individuals often leave out much of the Buddhist morality and context that lie at the foundation of the techniques (Wilson).
Looking more closely at the digital media aspects of meditation applications, creators can now transmit meditation without the physical teacher-to-student interaction. This also creates disagreement with more traditional lines of thought adopted by hardline individuals. Likewise, other communities, who may believe that more modern ways of sharing are inevitable, could disagree with more specific facets of the technologies. These critics may believe that meditation should be available on their phones, for example, but they could think that Headspace should do a better job of replicating more ‘natural’ meditation exchanges between students and teachers. Other groups may disagree with the ways that Westerners have aggressively promoted and sold mindfulness and meditation as a product, when it has for so long been solely a religious tool for transcendence. In any case, each person has their own perspective and opinion, and there are undoubtedly other debates that arise around this topic.
In this instance, we will examine the argument surrounding the ways that Headspace utilizes digital media techniques to popularize their user experience. While some believe that it is in poor taste or impure for an application like Headspace to use methods to entice its users to return to the platform daily, this is a misplaced grievance. While in an idealistic world, Headspace should not need to utilize tools like gamification, or “game-like tendencies in non-game spaces,” to entreat its users to deepen their practice, it is completely necessary (See this video for a closer look at some of these techniques https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9NQT5-V9FI&t=8s ). In our modern, fast-paced life that bombards our awareness with an endless supply of media, so many things constantly vie for our attention. Therefore, even applications like Headspace, which serve to stabilize and calm our scattered brains, need to utilize ‘nontraditional’ methods to ensure that users will continue to meditate on the app. For example, the interface pushes users to utilize Headspace every day so that they can extend their ‘consecutive days meditated’ streak. Without this game-like stat, there is a good chance that these users would not find the time to meditate every day, which could hurt their overall well-being. In a sense, techniques like gamification may seem like a necessary evil, but even this negative connotation should be questioned. We live in a world with a setting that is so incredibly different from the religious communities where teachers originally shared meditation with each other. Therefore, when new contexts arise, the human behaviors surrounding the new context should be seen in a new light. Therefore, methods like gamification may only be seen as negative from a stale point of view, as they could be helpful and positive in modern times. Again, it is definitely reasonable to question the legitimacy of Headspace’s use of certain strategies. For example, we must consistently and constantly analyze gamification techniques so that we can expose potential negative intentions or consequences. Like anything, balance is vital, and if applications like Headspace continue to positively impact society, creator methods like gamification are necessary to keep up with and transform society itself.
Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 2014.