Having spent years oversharing on Twitter and Facebook – and getting stressed by it – we are now looking to technology to find inner peace, writes Claire O’Mahony.
Our relationship with technology and social media is in a constant state of flux. We love it, we hate it, we can’t live without it, we fear it. While our Snapchat addiction makes us anxious and our smartphones stress us out, we somehow never seem to get around to embarking on that long-promised digital detox.
The last few years have seen a growing interest in mindfulness as the panacea to constant connectivity and information overload. Countless studies demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness, linking it to a strengthened immune system and reduced depression and anxiety.
The fact that people are trying to reduce their stress levels (which is often linked to their tech use) by using mindfulness apps seems ironic – The Guardian has questioned whether it’s comparable to holding an AA meeting in a bar. But unless you plan on turning full-on Luddite, and given that we use tech to try and improve and curate nearly every other aspect of our lives, providing that we are “mindful” of our usage of them, it seems wasteful not to tap into mindfulness apps.
Apps providing guided mindfulness can be a great starting point for anyone who wants to grow the practice, but doesn’t know where to start. They can help you develop breathing techniques, learn how to visualise calm places, and ultimately help you be “in the moment”, even if that moment happens to be smack in the middle of the commute home from work.
Finding ‘The One’
It’s not a case of one size fitting all. Discovering a mindfulness app that suits you is usually trial and error. Chris Flack is the CEO of UnPlug, which runs retreats and workshops to help people develop a better tech/life balance. He has been using mindfulness apps since 2011. “Everyone is different,” Flack says. “If you consider sports, people like different things. One person might like running, one person might like fast walking; but with meditation and mindfulness apps, people assume they’re all the same. A lot of the cleverer ones, Buddhify for example, offer [different] accents, and accents make a huge difference.” Straightforward, guided mindfulness apps might not be your thing, but you could find Recolor, the colouring book app for adults, beneficial instead. Flack uses an app which turns your smartphone into a dumb phone for selected periods of time. “That for me has an element of mindfulness because you’re then spending time doing things that are more important, like being with your family or going for a walk, as you don’t have the distractions of notifications,” he says.
There isn’t necessarily a preferred time to practise mindfulness, according to expert Padraig O’Morain, the author of Mindfulness for Worriers (Yellow Kite, €12.65), who holds mindfulness courses online and across Ireland. It’s something that can be worked into your schedule. “If you have the freedom or space to do some mindfulness practice in the morning – and that could be three or four minutes or 20 minutes – I think it really does get you into good shape for the day, and people who do this say that it’s a different day if you like,” he says. “Let’s say you live in a place that’s a madhouse in the morning; then if you can do it in the evening, that’s also a good time.” He advises that you can practise mindfulness on your train journey, or even at lunchtime. “Eat mindfully by being aware of the food as you are eating it, instead of just shovelling it in, in a trance.”
The Future Is Wearables
Apps aside, devices that help you on your mindful journey are becoming a big growth area. Wearable tech in general – your smartwatches and your Fitbits – is projected to become a €66 billion euro industry by 2025, and mindfulness is very much part of this. Muse, for example, which costs €299, advertises itself as “your personal meditation assistant”. It’s a headband that measures your brain signals in real time as you meditate. When your mind is calm, you’ll hear settled winds. When you’re not so calm, the sounds turn stormy, with data provided to show how calm you remained in session, and how you can improve future scores. The Pip, €179, is a stress-busting wearable from an Irish company, which measures changes in your fight-or-flight mode via your fingertips and feeds the data back to a device. It then externalises the changes, for example using gaming scenarios where the more you relax, the faster your character gets. “It brings a bit of playfulness to it [mindfulness],” Flack observes.
Apps and devices are not necessarily the magic bullet for serenity, with a study last year published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research questioning their efficacy in developing mindfulness. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t find them useful, especially if you’re looking for a jumping-off point. “The key headline for me with mindfulness apps is that they’re a gateway to mindfulness and meditation. They’re not everything,” says Flack. “They’re a platform to help people develop a practice.”
This article originally appeared in the October issue of IMAGE magazine, on shelves nationwide now.