Why the Best Meditation App Is No App at All

There’s a maxim of the smartphone age, probably popularized by the 2009 book by Chase Jarvis: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Fancy cameras are expensive and complicated, and we don’t have good reasons to carry them around all the time. They may be the “best” cameras, but if they aren’t with us when something memorable is happening, the camera on our phone is better, at least for the purpose of that specific shot.

So the constant presence of our smartphone cameras have enabled this golden age of photography. But what else has happened? We’ve become obsessed with photographing every moment instead of living in it and experiencing it. If we don’t have our phone with us to take a picture, the experience isn’t real.

Meditation apps are also a double-edged sword like this. They support and motivate our practice, but then they become essential parts of it, so we struggle to practice without them. Photography is an external technology; we have to rely on outside tools for that. But meditation is an internal technology, so outside tools can easily become dependencies that threaten our practice.

A timer is a timer, a chime is a chime. Those don’t create dependencies on any particular way to do it, and you can create your own ad hoc substitutes, like a number of breaths, or when the sun hits a certain point in the room. But most meditation apps have features more complex than timers, and those have drawbacks. Analytics motivate us, like fitness trackers, but then they create the feeling of wasted effort if we can’t get our points. More content-heavy meditation apps, like ones that guide you or use particular sounds or images, insinuate themselves into your meditation. They don’t teach a practice you can do without them.

But meditation is an app in itself — a mind app. Focusing on your breath, mantra, counting, body scan, lovingkindness, these are all meditation software that we can install. But they don’t run out of batteries. They don’t require good reception of signals beamed into your head from a tower. All you need to use them is your own mind.