Your Phone Is a Mindfulness Trap

“Let’s travel now to moonlit valleys blanketed with heather,” Harry Styles says to me. The pop star’s voice—just shy of songful, velvet-dry—makes it seem as if we’re at a sleepaway camp for lonely grown-ups, where he is my fetching counselor, and now it’s time for lights out.

Styles’s iambic beckoning lies within a “sleep story” in the mindfulness app Calm. Like many of its competitors, Calm has become a catchall destination for emotional well-being. In recent years, I’ve cycled through several of these platforms. Using them turns the amorphous, slightly unaccountable act of meditation into something I can accomplish, and cross off the list. That’s the forte of the modern mobile app, after all: easing the completion of a discrete task. Send an email, watch a show, order Kleenex, run at a moderate pace for 30 minutes, doomscroll yourself to sleep. There’s an app for it, and you’ll know when you’re done.

The most popular mindfulness apps have roots in this model, outcome-oriented and timebound. Traditional meditation disciplines can be open-ended, fuzzy, and noncommittal in their benefits, which might take months or years to accrue. Plus, they are disciplines, anchored in study and practice and receiving instruction, and, quite often, traversing periods of frustration. Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, and Ten Percent Happier all offer neat repackagings of the underlying product. Don’t have half an hour to sit around in witness of your inner being’s birthright quietude? No problem: Here’s a three-minute guided option for the bus. Maybe you’re going through a bout of insomnia and heard that a mindfulness practice could help? To put you to bed, here’s a spoken lullaby from Matthew McConaughey.

There is obvious good in this—in anything that dials down the temperature, that provides some relief from the ever-present human thrum of animus and danger. Headspace—the thing, not the brand—is something 100 percent of us could use more of. And these have been popular years for Big Mindful. In 2022, Calm reportedly had 4 million paid subscribers. In 2021, Headspace merged into a health-care endeavor backed by Blackstone that was valued in the billions. Fox is expanding the Ten Percent Happier franchise into a TV show—a comedy. Peace of mind is a business opportunity.

[Read: The app that monetized doing nothing]

But what are the apps selling, really? Mindfulness—let’s define that tersely as the ability to be present in your sensations without judgment—is an aim compatible with a range of lifestyles and beliefs. It’s so compatible as to invite blanket application: mindful eating, mindful meetings, mindful sleeping, mindful fights. Stripping some of the negative charge from life’s tediums and hardships can benefit anybody. But the mindfulness platforms have taken each of these use cases as a jumping-off point for another tile on the screen, another video or podcast, another claim on your gaze. And here, mindfulness seems to blur into something bigger and so different as to verge on its opposite: mindfulishness.

The first time I quit Headspace was because of an ad—for Headspace—on the subway. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was akin in spirit and tone to “I meditate to crush it,” part of the company’s 2016 growth campaign. This frontally transactional framing so reviled me—and so differed from my experience, which is that meditation doesn’t mimic the reliability of a Toyota—that I canceled my subscription on the spot.

By coincidence, I’d recently started to frequent a place where phones weren’t even allowed: a yoga studio. I’m 6 foot 3, with hamstrings that could wire a tennis racket, and restless down to my organelles. But a cycling crash had sent me to physical therapy, which sowed the first seeds of flexibility and balance, along with just enough patience to make it through a simple restorative-yoga class. In the early days, I was treading a sea of thoughts and anxieties, my attention on everything but my breath and the poses. As the practice became less foreign to my body, and helped me release deeply buried tensions, I would leave with an unprecedented sense of stillness. This was more than a five- or 10-minute retreat from the buzz of life, and—even as I got into more vigorous classes—it was more than a workout: It was a complex orchestration, the body marshaling itself in support of the mind’s deliberate, repetitive self-grounding.

If only there were always an hour for yoga. In a frenetic job leading the news desk at The New York Times, during and after the 2016 presidential race, I missed the hand’s-reach lull of Headspace—particularly the bright, lilting vibe and voice of its co-founder and front man, Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk. There’s something primally calming about a few minutes with a pleasantly timbred human, confident and chill, and Puddicombe is as adept a meditation teacher and guide as I’ve encountered. So I signed up again, and off I’d go mid-morning to a borrowed glass-door office.

Still, I found myself more and more inclined to fidget with my phone, instead of meditate, as Puddicombe spoke. On some days, I would finish my meditation without even a single moment of interior quiet. This is a problem easily enough solved, I know: Just turn up the volume and put the phone across the room. But anyone who has ever had an hour slip away to texts knows that it’s not that simple. Your phone can be anything—including a grenade, its target the cohesion and integrity of your thoughts. For almost anyone who owns one, a smartphone is not only the most omnipresent distraction from a mindfulness practice; it’s also most likely a principal vector for much of the stuff that unfocuses, stresses, addicts, enrages, or dismays you. Just having your phone in the room—it can be in your pocket, turned off—has been found to meaningfully diminish cognitive capacity. Using it to meditate, I started to realize, is like learning you have high cholesterol and signing up for a subscription to bacon.

The most productive move for any mindfulness app would be to engineer ways for you to spend as little time interacting with your phone as possible, as you focus on centering your awareness. But most of the big meditation apps have something less obvious in common than their nominal purpose: They’re subscription-driven content machines whose existence depends on you consuming the content. Open one up and you’re likely to see a whole day of programming laid out for you. In Headspace, for example, you can start with a few deep, animation-assisted breaths, then watch a moody video about an in-the-zone English bookbinder, before you even get to the day’s main meditation, with a choice of two English-language guides or a German one. When the 3 o’clock doldrums hit, slide into “Your Afternoon Lift,” a video of nature scenes: whales frolicking, jellyfish jellying. And nod off later to a sleepcast, or switch apps and return to Harry Styles’s moonlit valleys.

[Read: The app that reminds you you’re going to die]

I spoke with representatives of Calm and Headspace for this story, and both emphasized to me the ways their apps could be used without actively looking at a screen. They also defended the value of the access that phones provide: meditation anywhere, anytime, for people who might otherwise lack exposure to mindfulness techniques. Under this view, the omnipresence of phones is a blessing. “We would have folks who would download the app in the parking lot of the hospital while their mom is in surgery to have this kind of anchor point of support,” Cal Thompson, who runs design at Headspace, told me. “Some people have great friends they can call, some people have a great teacher on speed dial, but really, not everyone can have that.” As Thompson spoke, I thought of those days back at the Times, when a few minutes with Andy Puddicombe were the only port in a storm.

Thompson didn’t buy my argument about phones being too much of an intrinsic distraction. “I think that’s the dynamic that a lot of us have created with our phones, that we’ve set it up in such a way where it can consume our attention,” Thompson, who uses they/them pronouns, said. “And what we actually need to own and change is that behavior.” Attaching mindfulness practices to more parts of our day, they contended, helps us “get more clear about what we are doing in our lives and make more mindful choices. And then, from that place, it makes it a lot easier for us to use or not use our phones.”

This way of looking at things resonated with me, to a degree, as I listened back to my recording of our conversation. Then it took me three tries to transcribe Thompson’s quote. First my boyfriend texted me about the grocery list. Then someone needed my Venmo name to sell me some tickets. Then I looked up and realized I was in the kitchen for another round of peanut-butter pretzels. I might be generalizing too much based on my own attentional inadequacy, but lots of people I know use their phone more than they want to. If it’s not a universal affliction, it’s common. In my own case, meditating has not solved that problem, but moving meditation away from my phone has made it more of a refuge.

The word mindfulness is an accurate label insofar as it describes paying attention to the content of our mind. But it misleads, as I found in yoga, in its omission of our body. The path to thinking and feeling from hormones and nerves is in some sense linear, often traceable. And the physical state of the organism—pained, eager, bracing, soft—tracks with the text and nature of our thoughts. A professor of mine once referred to bodies as “brain buckets,” an image that anyone who’s gone through the physical deprivations of finals week can relate to. Most phone apps have their business with the brain, not the bucket. But my professor was joking: Everything we are comes from the whole big blob.

A phone is not a villain, just a vessel. But with some narrow exceptions, where movement is the point, it does tend to exert on us a kind of physical binding, an arrest of motion and focus. Some of the apps I’ve mentioned include a daily yoga video or cues for a mindful run, but these serve a double purpose, roping our assertions of embodiment back into the hungry domain of the screen. Do you know what else is on that screen? Instagram. The effect of a mindfulness app, as with any other kind, is to keep you in the place you already spend much of your time. It’s a motionless place, and, not by coincidence, also a bit mindless.

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