Are we just a few clicks away from enlightenment? Buddhify meditation app founder, Rohan Gunatillake, talks about the new tech that’s shaping the future of wellbeing.
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At a glance, technology and mindfulness seem to be an unlikely coupling. Often pitted as the enemy of sleep and the source of our distraction, increasingly, we are told that the first step to finding peace of mind starts with a digital detox. But, Rohan Gunatillake, the founder of the Buddhify meditation app, asks us to try a new perspective. In his book, ‘Modern Mindfulness’ he writes, “if technology is a set of tools and methods employed to solve certain problems or achieve certain objectives, then meditation is absolutely that.” Speaking about the future of mindfulness, we discuss ways in which we can be mindful in the technologically-entangled world that we inevitably live in.

Rohan Gunatillake

A good meditation app is one that gets you to a point where you no longer need an app.

TBE: Why are apps an attractive option?

Rohan: Whether it’s taking a meditation course or class, it takes quite a lot of bravery. It’s very vulnerable and not everyone feels comfortable in those environments. Apps allow people an introductory experience on their own terms. A majority of the traditional practices are wrapped up in a spiritual, religious or clinical context and they tend to a large number of people off.

TBE: Do you think that there are any drawbacks of using an app to guide meditation?

R: The standard experience is that you put your headphones in, press play and listen to some British guy telling you what to do. Very quickly people become dependant on guided meditation and aren’t learning the skills to do it for themselves, which for me is a core part of the training process. My line is, a good meditation app is one that gets you to a point where you no longer need an app.

The second limitation involves the social aspect. The danger of practising individually means that we miss out on a lot of the social benefits of meditation. Very few apps allow you to actually talk to someone who knows what you they talking about. That human social interaction, be it with a teacher or with a peer group, has historically been central to the practice.

I’ve met lots of people who have been practising 2-3 years but all they’ve done is 10 minutes of the same practice every day. There are benefits to that, as some meditation is better than none but, they are never taught or given opportunities to understand that there are so many more different things they can do, different approaches and different traditions. This is partly down the fact that the people making the apps tend to be entrepreneurs, rather than people who have experience in meditation. This way, meditation teachers tend to get reduced to being an mp3 factories rather than the brilliant and wise human beings that they are, and I think that’s a real shame. My hope is that people who actually know about mediation become involved in the leadership side of things, otherwise mindfulness is just seen as another content marketplace and that’s the real danger.

Rohan Gunatillake

“I think it’s a sign of maturity for us to criticise ourselves and to get better.”

TBE: One of your criticisms is that mindfulness apps are for the 1%, which is interesting because a lot of people speak about mindfulness apps as democratising mental health practices. Can you explain a bit more about that?

R: Yeah, there are a couple of factors. One is cost; the most popular meditation apps are expensive and therefore they are financially exclusive. If a year on a meditation app costs $100 then it’s is not an accessible product in my opinion. People struggle to justify the $5 they spend on Buddhify.

The other factor is to do with the diversity of voices and teachers and faces within products. Because if meditation apps are presenting themselves with a certain aesthetic, face, or voice then there will people who would feel excluded by that and meditation already has enough barriers. The three most well-known meditation apps now are Headspace, Buddhify and Calm. They are all set up by middle-class, British guys in their late 30’s. As one of those, I know that we have really quite similar backgrounds and that does inevitably mean that our product and the marketplace isn’t particularly diverse. So I am definitely excited to see more and more different types of people start to make products, or work or become teachers in this space because it will only make my business better. I think it’s a sign of maturity for us to criticise ourselves and to get better. At the moment, I don’t hear many people speaking about the limitations and that’s why I’m so motivated to do so.

TBE: Is there’s ever a chance that mindful technology will threaten the careers of traditional teachers?

R: To be fair it’s hard to be a traditional meditation teacher anyway, it’s a fairly borderline existence. In a way, we open the door. The likes of HeadSpace, Calm and Buddhify encouraged 10 million more people to try meditation, 1% of those people might go all the way through to doing a retreat, where they will engage with a traditional or a classical teacher. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a threat, it potentially supports traditional teachers. The challenge I have seen to teachers is that when people say come to their classes, they have to unlearn a lot of bad habits that they’ve learned throughout using technology. I have a friend in New York who teaches and he finds that when he allows for silence people struggle without the constant guidance they are so used to.  

Rohan Gunatillake

“So much of this debate around technology and mental health makes it sound like it’s the consumer’s fault”

TBE : What are your thoughts on the idea of the ‘digital detox’?

R: So much of this debate around technology and mental health makes it sound like it’s the consumer’s fault when it’s not. Products are being designed to be addictive and abusive of attention. The good news I think that the conversation around technology and ethics is expanding.

TBE: What can we as users to as users do to be more mindful in our use of technology?

R: Technology is just another part of life in which we see our habits, patterns and the things which trap our attention. There are actually hundreds of ways in which you can practice mindfulness or develop self-awareness while using your phone. Whether it’s like just watching your mind as you scroll through Instagram. Classic mindfulness is just being aware of your thoughts. As you’re scrolling down your feed, what are the posts that catch you and what doesn’t and why is that? Do that for two minutes and you learn a lot about your attention and your motivations. For me, that’s brilliant meditation practice. You’re recognising your patterns, learning them, observing them. The magic of mindfulness is that the more aware we are of our patterns the less control over us they command.

Rohan Gunatillake

“The future of mindfulness is that we don’t really see ‘mindfulness’ but that people embed the practices into other things”

TBE: Lastly, what do you think the future of mindfulness looks like?

R: My hopes for the future of mindfulness is that it takes a creative route rather than becoming about just making rich guys richer. If we can rebalance that and just assess what mindfulness actually is, introducing resilient skills and tools to the wider population, then that’s much more interesting than some business adding another couple of zeros to a bank account.

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BIOGRAPHY

Rohan Gunatillake is the author of Modern Mindfulness (This is Happening) and founder of best-selling meditation app Buddhify. Rohan combines twelve years’ experience of working in technology and innovation with an equally extensive background in mindfulness and through his company Mindfulness Everywhere, makes a range of creative and human-centred products which combine meditation, technology and design. With his emphasis on playfulness and digital culture, Rohan is recognised as one of the most creative yet authentic voices in modern mindfulness, he is a trustee of the British Council and was named by Wired magazine as one of 50 people who will change the world.