The Problem With Headspace and All Those Mindfulness Apps

Photo: Rob Lewine/Getty Images

If you have been watching the NFL or riding the New York subway, you may have spied an ad for the meditation app Headspace. The spots include “I meditate to crush it,” “I meditate to go full salsa,” and the like. It’s the mindfulness equivalent of a get-hyped Nike commercial: Just buy this product, and you’ll realize some would-otherwise-be-neglected part of yourself.

The ad campaign, reports David Gelles at the New York Times, are the fruit of a $30-million funding round contributed to by the likes of Jared Leto and Jessica Alba. An introductory ten-day course on the app is free; yearly subscriptions will run you about a hundred bucks. The company now employs 160 people in its Los Angeles office. To date, the app’s been downloaded 11 million times.

“It’s great if people think it can help them with sleep and productivity and the rest, but really what we’re trying to do is get them to be more compassionate,” Rich Pierson, who was an ad executive before co-founding the company, tells the Times. “And wouldn’t that be an amazing skill for the world to learn at the moment?”

But, as Gelles observes, those aspirational subway ads aren’t selling compassion; they’re selling performance. And therein lies the tension with meditation-based businesses. Headspace and its ilk are trying to turn a profit (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but at least the way the app is positioning itself, it’s making meditation look like SoulCycle.

As a social phenomenon, “mindfulness” is a secularization of Buddhism. Within contemporary Buddhism, there is a handy phrase for turning meditation practice into a spiritual fitness program: spiritual materialism. It’s when you turn meditation into a competition, into something you succeed or fail at, “do right” or “do wrong,” and regard with the punitive, puritanical self-aggression that American culture is so expert at teaching people.

Similarly, in How to Not Be Afraid of Your Own Life, American Buddhist teacher Susan Piver argues that meditation isn’t an instrument of improving yourself, but a break from it. “Meditating with a goal or in order to accomplish something is not giving the practice a fair shake,” she writes. “Instead let yourself off the self-improvement treadmill, and simply be with yourself in your natural state. The practice isn’t about achieving something. It’s about letting go.” In Tibetan Buddhism, one of the words for meditation is gom, which translates directly as familiarization.

This is the essential point: When sitting down to meditate, the key is to behold mental phenomena as they arise and re-center your attention when it drifts away, thereby getting to know your mind in a way you never did before. It’s a kind of metacognitive loosening-up, and with that come the emotion-regulation effects that social scientists are finding so powerful. It’s not about winning or acquiring or maximizing. You may end up crushing it, but that’s not the purpose of the practice, at least not in the Buddhist tradition. And by framing it that way, these ads — convincing as they may be — misrepresent the 2,500 years of inquiry that they’re profiting off of.

The Problem With Headspace and All Those Mindfulness Ads