Sitting isn’t easy, so setting a specific amount of time to meditate helps me maintain a consistent practice. I started off using a kitchen timer, but it ticked, so an audio-engineer friend created “songs” for my iPod with a gong at the beginning, silence for 10, 20, 30 or 45 minutes, and then a gong at the end. This was in 2006, a year before the first iPhone was released.
When I bought an iPhone in 2011, one of the first apps I downloaded was Insight Timer Light. I upgraded to the paid version later, for the advanced options. I can’t remember what it cost, maybe $9.99, but it seemed like a reasonable price to pay for an app I used almost every day.
I created the required profile, which consisted of a photo, my locale, and a tagline. Mine was Begin again, but then keep going. I was neutral about the social aspects of the app. After each session, a screen would show a map of the world with dots indicating where people were sitting. I could see a list of people currently meditating and, if I was feeling friendly, could send a set message, like Thanks for meditating with me.
As the new kid on the app, I was glad to get a few messages and some friend requests. I wasn’t sure what my criteria should be for accepting friends, so after I had a sociable number, I tended to ignore requests from the Friend Hoarders, those who already had hundreds or thousands.
Looking to be inspired, I accepted and sometimes sent requests to people who meditated longer and with more perseverance than me. You could tell a person’s consistency by the number and color of stars below their photo—the app’s version of a good attendance record.
I ended up with a few dozen friends, mostly people who meditated around the same time I did—my regulars. At the end of each session, while I waited for feeling to return to my feet, I sent and received a couple of Thanks for meditating with me messages.
More than once, the knowledge that the regular crew was sitting helped get me to the cushion. The social aspect of the app was a help, rather than a distraction. At other times, having my phone within easy reach was too much of a temptation. I ended up answering texts rather than watching my breath.
Mostly Insight Timer and I worked well together. The app kept me honest. It’s easy to think you meditate consistently until your stats page reveals you’ve sat for only four of the last seven days. The Timer won’t chastise you, but it does award you a gold star if you meditate ten days in a row. Sometimes the promise of a star emoji was enough to get me to the cushion.
In 2015, the app was sold and messages started appearing from the New Owners, two Australian brothers who promised to make improvements. Other messages followed. If there was a way to turn them off, I couldn’t find it. Yet it wasn’t all unwelcome intrusion. The New Owners made long-needed upgrades and added a tagline for the app, Peace in our Timer, which made me laugh.
Then a couple of creepy things happened. Shortly after logging my 500th session, I accepted a friend request from some random guy, who I quickly realized wasn’t some random guy, but a real-life guy whose attentions I didn’t want and had clearly told him so. I unfriended him and changed the settings to not allow new friend requests, something easily done.
The more creepy message was from the app itself, requesting access to my photos. Hell, no! Why does a meditation app need access to my photos? I emailed the app just that question and got back a dodge of a response, which sent me into full paranoia mode about just what information the New Owners were collecting and who they may eventually sell it to. The New Owners made the app free when they bought it and the number of users soared. What was their business plan for making a profit? When capitalism embraces meditation, it’s always an awkward hug.
Insight Timer today boasts over a million meditators. I’m all for encouraging people to meditate and for fostering community among those who do, yet I wonder if a valued tool isn’t being ruined—isn’t becoming one more social media time suck with meditation as the clickbait. Is the app becoming the antithesis of what it purports to be?
Meditating with the internet, what did I expect? Begin again, and then continue.