I have a new digital addiction in my life. Not since I discovered Spotify has an app been so exciting! And it is sad, I know, that the thing that is most motivating me to meditate at the moment is not my sense of well-being, calm or joy, but my attachment to my 30 day streak on Insight Timer.
Insight Timer is very clever little app. It has a perfectly designed timer, with the option to set the length of time you want to mediate, put in interval bells, have some background sound (birdsong, deep oms or silence) and record your work. It has thousands of guided meditations too, neatly organised into categories (secular mindfulness, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic psychology, yogic). You can also search by the time you have available, or by the teacher you are interested in (and there are some very respected names – Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Thich Naht Han).
But the two things that really make Insight Timer so compelling are the social media and the statistics. This is what keeps me coming back to the app day after day, which is both a good thing (I am meditating much more consistently) and a not-so-good thing (my sense of attachment is a bit contrary to the purpose of mindfulness practice).
When you log onto Insight Timer, the first thing you see is a map of the world with all the people meditating right now marked on it. When you stop to think about it, that is beautiful – hundreds or thousands of people all meditating together in cyberspace. You can send individual messages to people to say “thank-you for meditating with me” or make friends with people. It replicates the sense of community that you might get from going to a class. Obviously this couldn’t replace the deep connection you might find with people attending a real class or retreat, but it is motivational.
There are lots of discussion groups, all with different focuses. People share their problems (some meditation related, others more general) and others generously share their tips, advice and reflections. My favourite group is Beginner’s Mind, where you can ask questions about your practice. There is a lot of collective wisdom being shared and learning taking place and again, this is inspiring.
Of course, people can “like” your comments, and so there is the spiritual pitfall of judging yourself by how many people like your comments and how many friends you have. There are a certainly people on Insight Timer who seem to be gathering hundreds of friends for no particular purpose other than to bolster their ego. My rule is only to be friends with people who I have actually exchanged some comments with, and I don’t have many friends at all, but that is fine.
Then there is the stats page. Insight Timer keeps a log of how much time you spend mediating each day (and you can add your own entries for time spent on yoga, chanting or other spiritual activities). It awards you stars when you reach key milestones (ten consecutive days, for example). Clearly, there is a contradiction in here; on the one hand we are meditating to loosen the bonds of attachment to material rewards and superficial pleasures, and on the other hand, we are creating an attachment to that little dopamine hit that we get when the computer gives us a star. You can switch this feature off when you are too spiritually advanced to need it any more; those mediators who are naked of stars inspire more respect that those who show off ten brightly coloured prizes.
I am not overly concerned about stars, but I must admit to really loving the stats. I look at how many hours of meditation I have done and it feels like an achievement. In some subtle way, it has helped me to value my meditation time more. It has turned off that annoying, nagging, internal voice that said I was wasting my time just sitting (I’m obviously in the foothills of enlightenment at the moment). Hopefully there will come a time when I don’t care about the stats any more, but right at the moment, it is getting me to sit for longer than I ever have done before.
But the most amazing thing about Insight Timer? It is absolutely free! I don’t know who created it or looks after it, but it is clearly a labour of love, and I thank them.