How Mindfulness Apps Can Fail You

I have been fascinated with the plethora of new Mindfulness apps on the market and all the value propositions that come along with them. I actually have downloaded most, if not all, of the Mindfulness apps out there so that I could try each of them myself and gain an informed perspective on them.  I am not surprised that the tech industry has taken notice of the practice of Mindfulness, after all it has been noted that the majority of successful people have a mindfulness or meditation practice. The scientific benefits of Mindfulness have been proven again and again.

Some of the earlier versions of these Mindfulness apps were free to use and, more recently, I’ve noticed many of the new versions are fremium (they start off as free but you eventually need to pay to unlock the most important features). It makes sense since the developers need to make an income somehow. There is nothing inherently wrong with the apps on the market today - they can truly be beneficial to someone who needs guided (or unguided) meditations to help kick start or sustain their Mindfulness practice.

What concerns me more and more with the advent of new Mindfulness apps is the reaction from the clients who explain how they’ve practiced mindfulness through an app but concluded that it “didn’t help” them.  I can’t tell you how many people tell me “It’s probably just not for me. My mind is just too busy” or “It’s so frustrating that I paid for the app but it did nothing for me”.  These individuals had, unfortunately, given up on the prospect of Mindfulness skills being able to help them in their daily lives because the app was not able to train them in the actual sequential and careful skill-building process of beginning a mindfulness meditation practice.  All though the concept of mindfulness is quite simple, i.e., “Paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, in a particular way; non-judgmentally and with acceptance” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), it turns out that it’s not at all easy to do.

I have previously written about my decade long experiences of running 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) classes. One of the many things I have learned is the difficulty that people have with, initially, grasping the concepts of how to meditate and how to incorporate Mindfulness into their day-to-day lives. The majority of the scientific literature which cites the supported benefits of having a Mindfulness practice is taken from participants who have taken either the 8-week program of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). People who sign up for either of these evidence-based training programs are brave individuals who are motivated to make changes in their lives to help them (and their loved ones) enjoy life as much as they can. In addition, they are reducing the impact of stressors or symptoms of depression and/or anxiety that have such profound impacts on one’s quality and enjoyment of life. These individuals look to myself and my team for individual and group supported teaching and guidance as they make their way through the 8-week program. The skills that we teach are intentional, purposeful and follow a specific sequential order of skill-building.  What makes these programs shine is that the majority of learning that happens is set up through experiential exercises and meditations. They learn by doing and experiencing.  The mindfulness teachings are woven through a process called Inquiry, not through didactic teaching.  Participants glean insights about what mindfulness truly is, from their own inner wisdom, which is skillfully facilitated by trained Mindfulness teachers. 

There are numerous inherent challenges, big and small, in learning mindfulness meditation.  The apps that I have tried thus-far are unable to teach the subtle nuances of skillfully and wisely navigating the barriers and obstacles that inevitably arise.  Many people have complex histories, fragile mental states and difficult thoughts and emotions that can easily arise during meditation.  It is only after years of practicing as a mental health professional (Occupational Therapist) and Registered Psychotherapist, plus additional years of accredited mindfulness training and personal practice, that my team and I have learned to properly guide individuals through these challenges. Inevitably, once we reach the 8th and final week, the group has pulled through to the other side, and are in a position to be able to utilize their budding mindfulness skills to work with the challenges that continue to arise during formal (carve out time to do meditation) or informal (day-to-day) mindfulness practice. They also learn to notice, appreciate and savour the positive things that are also happening in and around them, and to treat themselves and others with more compassion.   

Guided Mindfulness training is not unlike a really good physical fitness trainer, a great teacher, an amazing boss or an excellent tour guide. You are being guided by professionals that are paid to maximize your experiences and outcomes. If these professionals have done their jobs, you will hopefully have come out the other side in a much better life position.  You will also be in a much better position to take advantage of self-help tools (such as a fitness app) that can continue to benefit you for years to come. If you complete an evidence-based mindfulness training program, you’ll be sure to have the full picture of what mindfulness actually is and what it isn’t, and you’ll very likely have established a regular personal mindfulness practice.

When looking at Mindfulness apps, my recommendation is to consider starting with some formal training and proper instruction with a certified Mindfulness trainer in your area.  It’s also important to look into your teacher’s qualifications as the Mindfulness world is moving in the direction of being regulated, however we’re not quite there yet.  The foundation and comprehensiveness of an evidence-based 8-week training program can provide you with the necessary skills to work with the complexities of your mind and life, which will then allow you to take full advantage of the great selection of Mindfulness apps and self-help tools available on the market today.  Your long-term mental, emotional and overall health will thank you for taking the time to properly invest in you (and the bonus will be the positive ripple effect on those around you).