Technology-Assisted Meditation

Is this the future of meditation?

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Meditation was originally a practice in learning to be alone with oneself. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it powerfully: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I’m not sure it is that simple, and one could easily argue that sitting in meditation isn’t a panacea for humanity’s problems. The process of learning to meditate has posed a multitude of problems as well. Meditation centers, as we have seen in the past year, and years before that, are rife with scandals of the abuse of power and sexuality.

Since the advent of meditation apps (Headspace was launched in 2010, more than 31 million have downloaded the app), it seemed that learning and practicing meditation had become simpler. But has it?             

The Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School recently held a symposium on Technology-Assisted Meditation. (For more on the creation and goals of CMC, see this post.) Organized by Richa Gawande, Ph.D. and Zev Schuman-Olivier, M.D., the symposium was a thought-provoking and comprehensive look into this emerging landscape. What are the risks? What are the benefits? Is this how we will all learn to meditate in the future?  Unfortunately, I don’t have space in this blog to discuss all the talks, but I will focus on the ideas that have most relevance for Psychology Today readers.

Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation teacher, started with a striking statistic—18 million adults have an active meditation practice. He felt that the "biggest benefit of technology-assisted meditation is that it can help more people to meditate" and thus has "great potential" to help many individuals. Meditating with an app can be a relief--the practitioner doesn’t have to interact with a teacher—or be judged. But "how do we practice meditation the right way?" Rinpoche asked. He brought attention to the ethical concerns that arise. Mindfulness is about more than reducing stress and increasing concentration. The intention is to help other beings. And teachers have a responsibility to impart ethical guidelines. While it may be convenient not to deal with the complexities of the student-teacher relationship, it is important to commit to doing no harm. The aim of the practice is not merely feeling good, but developing insight into the ways we create suffering, and the ways that we can find freedom from suffering.

Paula Gardiner, MD, MPH, an associate professor of family medicine at UMass Medical School, has developed an Internet-based platform for low income and diverse patient populations dealing with chronic pain and depression. When she began teaching a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class at the inner city hospital where she works, there was, as she put it, “a revolt.” Listening and responding to the needs of the population, Gardiner and her colleagues developed interventions that included the larger community. The innovative technology that emerged employed “embodied conversation agents” (think avatars) in virtual reality, offering patients an online toolkit that they could use in their daily lives. As one patient who has seen positive changes in herself put it, “It’s not the load that brings you down, it’s how you carry it.”

Judson Brewer, MD, Ph.D., Director of Research and Associate Professor at Brown University School of Public Health, has a deep understanding of how our devices can control us and how craving can run our lives.  His mindfulness training programs help people with emotional eating, smoking, and anxiety.  Brewer uses the principles of mindfulness to help us break harmful habits. Defining addiction as “continued use despite adverse consequences” his interventions show the power of mindfulness with elegant simplicity. Or as Yogi Berra quipped, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Brewer asked his participants simply to become aware of what they were noticing when smoking a cigarette. “It smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals” a chronic smoker observed. Mindfulness meditation, Brewer concluded, helps us get out of our own way.

Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., Director of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University Medical School, has focused her research on adverse reactions to meditation, which can take the paradoxical form of depression, anxiety, and traumatic re-experiencing. She noted that technology-assisted meditation was subject to adverse reactions as well, adding that it was hard to monitor these reactions since there is no teacher or a holding environment to help support a struggling student. It is a safety risk if no one notices that a practitioner is experiencing adverse consequences. What is most troubling is that no one is checking to see what impact the apps are having on the users. Who is having trouble? Might it be harmful for some users? This is something that will be important to study in the future. Britton also raised the complex issue of liability. If an online meditation triggers an adverse reaction, who is responsible?

The symposium raised many questions about how meditation will be taught in the future. And, as Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche aptly observed we need to have an "ethical compass" as there are many potential pitfalls. As Willoughby Britton noted, on the other hand, apps are non-shaming and not punitive. The question, she put to the audience of researchers and practitioners, is how do we make a better product.

I find myself returning not to Pascal’s question, but to a modern version articulated by psychologist and MIT cyber-guru Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., who reflects that the promise of technology is that we’ll never have to be alone. But, she wonders, if we don’t learn how to be alone, are we destined to be lonely? This is a conversation worth having.