Whether meditation apps are effective or not will depend on what you hope to get out of them.
Are you looking just to relax? Do you want to learn traditional meditation? Are you hoping to cure a mental health problem?
I enjoy the simplicity of apps. With a meditation app, I can simply choose a technique and listen to the vocal guide. I find it so much easier than performing the proper, traditional, like the Buddhist meditations and methods used in yoga.
However, I must say that if we actually look at Guided Meditation VS Silent Meditation, they are massively different. And the truth is, there are some serious limitations of meditation apps. Let’s take a look.
How meditation apps work
Meditation apps are good for relaxation.
When you listen to a meditation app, you generally practice mindful breathing and perhaps focus on positive mental images. And both are good ways to relax.
I do indeed find meditation apps relaxing. And on the occassion that all I want to do is just to chill out a bit, then yes, meditation apps are good.
That said, if you are seeking help for a serious mental health issue such as stress and anxiety, meditation apps are not effective. Indeed, some are even dangerous, as I will discuss in a moment.
If you want help with a specific issue, then you need to take both your mental health and meditation seriously. And using an app is not a serious solution.
Meditation apps are also not exactly great if you are legitimately interested in learning meditation. Proper meditation requires a great deal of focus. The problem with guided meditation apps is that they split your focus. Half the time you’re focusing on your breath, but the other half of the time you are focusing on the meditation teacher’s voice. This means your mind is never really still, which is why apps don’t work.
The entire nature of meditation is about focusing on one thing. You cannot do that when you are also listening to the instructor’s voice.
Apps VS tradition
The big difference between apps and traditional meditation is that you can focus more when you do traditional meditation. And that is a big deal for most techniques.
Consider Yogic Dhyana.
Dhyana meditation is a method in which we focus the mind 100% on an object (which could be the breath or another object). You focus on the object and become one with it. You cut out all distractions and concentrate 100% of your consciousness on the object.
Were you to do this using a meditation app, you would also be listening to the guide’s voice. And herein lies the problem.
It is not possible to focus 100% of your mind on a meditation object if you are also focusing on the voice of a narrator. If you do this, your mind will be bouncing back and forth between the object and the instructor’s voice.
One minute you’re listening to instructions, the next you’re meditating on your breath. Your mind is bouncing between those two things (the guide and your breath). This is a) not proper practice, and b) not healthy (because your mind is constantly jumping between two things).
That’s why guided meditations cannot, even theoretically, replace proper meditation. Why? Because we cannot listen to someone’s voice while also focusing on something else.
Bodhipaksa said something similar on WildMind about it being impossible to listen to music while meditating at the same time. Yes, you can meditate on a sound, but you cannot listen to a sound while also meditating on something else. Sadly, this is precisely what most mindfulness applications ask you to do. And that is why meditation apps are ineffective.
So, I’ve shared my opinion as a teacher on whether meditation apps work. But what does science say? Research is mixed.
On the one hand, you have a 2018 study that showed that the Headspace app is effective. Researchers tested Headspace on 70 adults. Before the study, adults answered questions regarding stress, irritability, and positive and negative feelings.
Half the group then used Headspace for a month while the other half listened to Andy Puddicombe’s audio-based mindfulness and meditation book [note: Andy Puddicombe is the founder of Headspace].
Afterwards, the group was feeling more positive and less stressed, and researchers state that the results showed that Headspace is effective.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of glaring problems with this study.
Firstly, the researchers were employed by Headspace, the very app they were testing. And so the research was inherently biased.
And secondly, why the hell would they use a control group based on reading Andy Puddicombe’s book? It is an inherently biased study that bases all research on one person: Andy Puddicombe.
In trials like this, one group is tested against the other (the control group). So, what this research is really saying is that the Headspace app works better than its creator’s book. So what? Maybe Puddicombe is just a terrible author. Maybe the readers didn’t actually meditate properly. What, really, does this research prove? Very little.
Sadly, a lot of research is equally biased. Companies pay for research. And obviously that yields biased results.
So, what about the real research, the unbiased stuff? Let’s ask Harvard.
Harvard points out, as I’ve stated above, that meditation apps are problematic because we are distracted by the vocal guide.
Harvard says, “It’s hard to notice what’s going on inside or around you [in other words, it’s hard to be mindful] if you’re distracted by someone speaking, even if it is soothing speech, and some reviews of these apps point this out.
“Research also indicates that the self-directed, silent form of mindfulness practice is more effective than externally guided exercises.”
What really upsets me about this is that Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe is (supposedly) a former Zen monk who is well-trained in Zen techniques. Surely, he must know that listening to someone’s voice while meditating is not the same as proper meditation. The fact that he has never outright admitted this makes me question him.
Not even meditation
According to research by Queenston University, the vast majority of so-called “Mindfulness apps” do not actually teach mindfulness at all.
The researchers state that “Only 4% of the 700 apps identified in our search provided mindfulness training and education. Though many apps claimed to be mindfulness apps, most of them were not.”
Researchers tell us, “Little evidence is available on the efficacy of the apps in developing mindfulness.”
Mindfulness apps are not the answer for anyone who is genuinely interested in meditation. Rather, you need to learn the proper techniques and to perform them correctly in the traditional way.
I’m not saying we should stop using meditation apps altogether. However, it is definitely wise to consider their limitations.
For instance, if you just want to generally relax, mindfulness apps are fine. But if you’re looking to either learn to meditate properly, or you need help with a mental health condition, apps do not work.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison