When I opened my meditation app this morning, I was greeted by a new icon in the upper right corner: a butterfly with a red dot. Assuming, correctly, that this was a notification of some kind, I tapped it and discovered that my meditation app is rebranding itself and redesigning itself, with new features.
I used to meditate using the timer on my phone. I’d set it for, say, 15 minutes, and begin to focus on my breathing, relaxing into the relative silence of my apartment before my husband gets up and turns on the TV. Focus on breath in, breath out, in, out, notice that I’ve become distracted, label it thinking, return to in, out.
Rude awakening when the really annoying timer alarm along went off: BWANH! BWANH! BWANH!
This worked for a while, despite the jarring nature of the timer alarm. Then, one day when I was meditating, the timer didn’t go off. I’m not sure why the timer on my phone randomly decides not to alert me that time has come but, for some reason, it sometimes just starts counting negatively: minus one second from the time you wanted to stop, negative two seconds, etc. The first time it did this while I was meditating, I was late to yoga.
After that, when I used my phone timer, my meditation became in, out, in, out, how long has it been, is the timer working or am I going to be late to yoga again, notice distraction, in, out, in, fuck, but if the timer doesn’t go off, I’m going to be late again, in, out, in, out, shit, it has to have been 15 minutes by now.
Clearly that was not acceptable. I needed a timer that a) didn’t give me a heart attack when it went off; and b) had some kind of interim chime, so that I could trust that it was working and relax into my meditation. So I downloaded the meditation app.
For months, I just used the timer feature, although I could see that the app also offered classes and guided meditations, and a whole community feature: you could connect to other people who were meditating, see when they were online, show them when you were online, chat about meditation, etc. But I just was there for the timer, and that’s what I used.
One day, for some reason, I tried one of the guided meditations and liked it. So I tried another. After that, I still mostly just meditated with the timer but sometimes sprinkled in a guided meditation. Recently I tried a 30-day class from a guide who had led one of my favorite guided meditations; and I didn’t really like that – it was more about his philosophy on life than on improving my meditation practice. So no more classes.
Then the app started asking me to rate my mood before and after I meditated: four more screens – one asking me how I felt before I started then another asking me to link that feeling back to something happening in my life: sleep, work, etc., a third asking me how I felt after I meditated; a fourth showing me my patterns. At first I filled these out but then I decided that it doesn’t really matter why I am in whatever mood I’m in. I just accept my mood and meditate. Sometimes my mood changes; sometimes it doesn’t. Moods are like weather: sometimes it’s sunny; sometimes it’s rainy. It doesn’t really matter if it rains because of a storm from the south or a storm from the west, it just rains, and you deal with it.
Now this app has decided to rebrand itself and redesign itself. The redesign is all about improving engagement – it positions it as engagement with the community but, really, it’s about engagement with the app. This is what apps do now: they want you to engage with them. This is how they prove their worth. The organization I work for is all about engagement: keep leads engaged so that the convert to customers; keep customers engaged, even when they’re not actively using the product; pay customers to encourage their friends and family to engage with the company.
We’re quickly becoming an engagement economy. Every transaction is supposed to lead to greater engagement. I expect it from LinkedIn – my only social media vice – but even my bank wants me to engage with them. Each of my doctors has their own app and they want me to engage with the app: I can’t get my test results without engaging with their app. My telco provider wants me to engage with their app. My grocery store pings me, wanting me to engage with their app.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to engage with your fucking app.
I want my bank to protect my money; to put it in my account when I make a deposit; to pay me interest on my savings; to disperse money when I need it, to me or to someone I specify as the recipient; to keep other people out of my money; and to provide reporting about what I’m doing with my money so I can make plans and pay my taxes; to not donate money to political wackos. That’s it. I don’t need to engage with my bank beyond that. I don’t need to be part of a community of people who love the bank. I don’t need to receive stories about how much other customers love the bank or how their employees make customers happy. That’s too much.
Same thing for my grocery store. I need my online grocery store to have the selection of products that I want; to remember my grocery list and previous purchases; to allow me to place an order and select a delivery time; to deliver the right things in good condition on-time; to protect my credit card information; to treat their employees humanely. I don’t need to be part of an online community who loves my grocery app, to see what other people are buying, to hear how much they love the grocery app. Just do a good job and I’ll keep using you.
Ditto for my doctors. I didn’t need five different medical practices texting me all spring to tell me that I was not eligible for the Covid vaccine. I’m not an idiot, I watch the news, I knew I wasn’t eligible yet. In the same vein, I didn’t need all five of them texting me all summer to tell me that then I was eligible: by the time they had vaccine available, I had already been vaccinated. I don’t need to be part of their community, or be engaged with.
I don’t need the app for the East River Ferry – which has maps, schedules, and virtual tickets – recommending new destinations for me, or sharing stories about how much people love riding the ferry. I already ride the ferry because I, too, love riding the ferry. I don’t need to be engaged with and made part of a community.
Maybe this is very Gen X of me, to not want to be marketed to, to be made part of an online community all the time, to be engaged with. I am not a luddite or a recluse: I have friends, I am part of many communities, most of which have amped up their online presence over the last year but are already returning to in-person meetings, masked. I’m not anti-community.
I just find all this online engagement exhausting. Think about it: if I responded by becoming part of all the online communities that I listed above – and these are just a fraction of what I am pushed to join – I’d never leave my computer or look up from my phone. I’d never walk in the park. I’d never sit and let leaves fall around me. I’d never have time to read to children, or call my mother, or cook a meal from scratch. I’d never have time to mourn yet another loss by my stupid Jets.
How do people have time to live with all this online engagement?
So, no, I will not be joining the thriving community of my meditation app. Meditation is a solitary practice. Even if you are in a room with a lot of other people, all meditating, you meditate alone.
That is what meditation is about: