New Thinking

Meditation Apps Could Lower the Cost of Workplace Meditation

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You can’t open up iTunes without stumbling across a new app or podcast promising to guide you through the brave old world of meditation. But can technology really augment this ancient technique? Moreover, is it something that executives should invest in for their employees? We talked to a number of developers, teachers, and ABC anchor Dan Harris for their take on how apps are changing the meditation marketplace and changing the minds of businesspeople everywhere.

ABC’s Dan Harris spotted the first rumblings of meditation in corporate spaces back in 2009 or 2010. The no-nonsense anchor’s memoir/self-help book 10% Happier details his own journey from full-bore skeptic to mindfulness evangelist. He even has his own podcast and an app that offers video interviews with experts like Harris’s mentor Joseph Goldstein, guided meditations, and text-based support with vetted meditation coaches. According to Harris, the change in the public’s perception of meditation, especially in the workplace, comes down to science.

“The science is really in its early stages,” he says, “but I think we can say it strongly suggests a long list of tantalizing health benefits – lower blood pressure, lower release of the stress hormone cortisol, boosted immune system. It can help with focus, anxiety, depression, so if you’re a corporation and you want employees to be happy and healthy and productive, this appears to be a promising route.” Abrams compared offering meditation programs at work to “health club memberships or smoking cessation … The most craven part of it might be the desire to bring down health care costs.”

Mindfulness has become a buzzword among dot-com giants and mainstream businesses alike that want to get the most out of their employees; they figure meditation improves cognition, health problems, and emotional stability, so why not put it to use in a more enterprising way? While large corporations like General Mills and Google have been quick to embrace internal programs like Search Inside Yourself to encourage employees to get Zen, not every company has the means to provide such services. A meditation program can be expensive, and if you’re not in a major metropolis, it can be downright impossible to find a suitable teacher.

That’s where apps come in. While most apps aim to disrupt a pre-existing industry, from co-working spaces to ride-sharing, meditation apps don’t seem to cannibalize the mindfulness market in quite the same way. If anything, apps help spread the word of an industry that’s not actually as widespread as it may seem at first glance. “I think that the meditation industry, such as it is, is so small, that there’s a massive structural problem,” Harris explained. “There are so few qualified meditation teachers out there, and so few meditation studios – in fact, if you don’t live in a big city on the coast, there aren’t any meditation studios in your town – that actually, the app world has a massive amplification effect that I think is very healthy.”

Distributing an app can be a cost-effective way to implement company-wide meditation. Patricia Karpas, co-founder of the top-rated Meditation Studio app, describes a deal with Hospital Corporation of America, where Chief Human Resource Officer John Steele “gifted” several hundred copies of the Meditation Studio App to HR employees around the country during the company’s annual conference.

While nothing beats an in-person teacher or lecture — the social aspect of what’s essentially a silent practice is surprisingly important — apps can fill in the gap for those who can’t make it to a regular class. It can also be intimidating to start a meditation practice, even if it’s being taught in your own office. Apps give people the chance to privately dip their toes into mindfulness one minute at a time; they normalize what can seem like a fraught endeavor.

New York City’s Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist teacher and author, points out that apps can help people get started with a regular practice or boost their own at home. “I’ve heard of a lot of people who get introduced to meditation through apps,” says Nichtern. “I also think it helps them establish a practice, which is really important; really one of the biggest struggles people have is just getting consistent with a short, daily practice.” Having a home practice means employees are more likely to take advantage of corporate meditation programs as well.

Nichtern is a founding teacher for the new app called Awaken, which was developed by two people who took his yearlong teacher training course. “If we’re going to have these devices, we may as well have mindfulness on them,” he says. Plus, apps like Awaken also offer the educational tools to explain the underpinnings of meditation itself. “Because most meditation traditions come from pretty in-depth philosophical and ethical systems, it’s nice to also build parts of the app that relate to the philosophy, the psychology, the ethics,” notes Nichtern.

Harris said, “I think there’s some poetic beauty in the fact that our technology, which is the engine of so much distraction and frankly unhappiness, really, can be co-opted to teach you the opposite – you know, focus and mindfulness, so I love it. Everybody’s got a phone and you can use this device to engage in these very simple practices that will, I think, almost certainly have a positive effect.”

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