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I Don’t Have the Discipline for Headspace

I Don’t Have the Discipline for Headspace

  • Culture
  • Life
Image credits: Headspace 

Headspace was founded by Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson. Prior to founding the app, Puddicombe trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and Pierson, tellingly, comes from a background in marketing and branding. One criticism of Headspace has been that its product is over 5000 years old, and all the company has really done is slapped a brand and marketing strategy on it.

On one hand, this is true. Mindfulness is translated from the Pali word sati. Not only is Pali the native language to the Indian subcontinent, it is also the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. As for sati, it is the first factor in the Seven Factors of Enlightenment in Buddhism, and also known as the balancing factor.

With the practice of mindfulness, one endeavours to be freed from the delusions and distractions of the material world. In mastering it, one comes a step closer to achieving Nirvana—essentially emancipation from all our earthly chains.

These days, mindfulness tends to be packaged under the blanket term of “Eastern spirituality.” Apps like Headspace have brought it to us in a vacuum, without history or context, favouring instead the soothing tones of Puddicombe’s English accent and a great user interface.

Whether you want to be kinder, more generous, or have better self-esteem, there’s a pack for it. There’s even one for being pregnant, cycling, and coping with your fear of flying.

At this point, I’ve spent about 1 month on Headspace. Unfortunately for me, I continue to struggle with actually making it through a 10 minute session. Most days, I get frustrated at the 4 minute mark and unplug. I then end up pacing while listening to a Hammock or Takuya Kuroda album. This doesn’t relieve stress in the way I need it to, but it keeps it at bay—more than I can say for Headspace.

On Reddit, everyone from hourly wage workers to people who suffer from clinical anxiety have all attested to the app’s effectiveness. I don’t doubt for a minute that it works. At any one moment, there are over 45,000 people on the app meditating. It offers different packs for different needs.

Whether you want to be kinder, more generous, or have better self-esteem, there’s a pack for it. There’s even one for being pregnant, cycling, and coping with your fear of flying.

But the thing is, I’m also the kind of person who abhors co-working spaces because every little thing distracts me. All it takes for me to look up from a computer screen mid-sentence is for someone to walk by, or for someone within close proximity to stand up or sneeze. And I don’t even really see what I’m looking at. I look up, I sense a blur of movement within the vicinity, and then I’m back to decoding the mysteries of the universe. Now imagine this happening at 5-second intervals.

Seriously, screw the myth of co-working spaces.

Despite all this, I recognise that I’ve eschewed, whether because of exhaustion or lack of practice, the discipline that Headspace demands of all its users. Using Headspace is an exercise in restraint, and you have to just sit through the exercises. Over time, they should get easier.

For unwilling skeptics or people with short attention spans, I’ve discovered that there are other ways to circumvent Headspace for similar rewards. Carving out time to procrastinate or simply do nothing is one. Setting aside time to read or do something mindlessly enjoyable is another. When you’re fitting Netflix and Chill into your busy schedule instead of numbly succumbing to it after every long work day, it feels more like a reward and less like an opiate.

I cannot shake the feeling that what we need is an adjustment in our worldview—a fundamental realigning of desires and priorities—instead of daily quiet moments.

In a way, the idea that we shouldn’t take life too seriously is the only lesson Headspace teaches that really matters. We need to accept that life is chaotic and sometimes meaningless, and we do not always need to fight this reality. Even the app’s logo, an imperfect circle, attests to this. As Puddicombe tells you throughout all the exercises, it’s okay to be distracted, just bring your attention back to the body once you realise it.

It is less reliving the closing scene of Fight Club than it is about making fewer unnecessary social commitments or working for the things we need, rather than for the things we think we want. Once you realise you’re engaging in something that doesn’t really matter, disengage accordingly.

Headspace aspires to treat many of the symptoms of simply being alive in a modern world. Yet this is a problem, because it is clearly marketed as a companion rather than a cure. It exists to assist you on your life’s journey, to help you stay balanced. Scientific research has shown that users of the app have achieved everything from lower blood pressure to better sleep.

But what if one day, god forbid, the app crashes? Yes, Headspace strives to build long-term discipline. At the same time, its guided meditations remain central, and users tend to build their lives around the app rather than work towards a personal meditation routine. What happens should the tranquility of Andy Puddicombe’s voice cease to exist?

Perhaps this is why I can’t completely buy into the better life Headspace promises. I simply cannot shake the feeling that all we need is an adjustment in our worldview—a realigning of desires and priorities—instead of daily quiet moments. After all, why use an app that helps you get a handle on working too much rather than just, you know, work less?


Wong Jia Wei