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IT in Zen – How does the electronic mindfulness work?

Here Woo-Young Tetsugen Yang looks at some of the technology of meditation.  Smartphone apps have become very popular and widely used, especially by Mindfulness practitioners.  But can they also be useful in a more traditional style of Zen practice?  Here is Woo’s experience:

Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com) is a meditation app that I have used every single day for 98 days now. How do I know it has been 98 days? More on that later. Anyway, it is also very popular within the SWZ Sangha, so this piece might be more relevant for the last remaining few members who do not already use it.

Just before I started using Insight Timer, I had heard both John Suigen and Andy Tanzan talking about how they repeated the same ritualistic elements from zazen in the zendo – offering candle light and incense at the Butsudan, ringing a small bell, and reciting the verses – at home as much as possible, and how they felt those rituals helped their zazen. At that time, I had also just learnt from a few books that habits necessarily depend on being triggered by certain behavioural cues – rituals in our case. I was trying hard but not entirely successfully to make zazen a habit in my daily life (and I am still trying!), so it was only a logical conclusion that I went on a search for a meditation timer app with the sounds similar to that of the kesu bell at zendo rather than the alarming sound of… well, the mobile phone alarm. (Such an emphasis on logic somehow feels rather misplaced in a Zen group, but never mind.)

Insight Timer provides eight different Tibetan singing bowl sounds to choose from. To my ears, the closest sound to kesu belongs to dengze – but this only becomes available after an in-app purchase at £2.99. You can place the sounds at the beginning, the middle (if you are sitting for longer than the usual 30 minutes for instance), and the end of your zazen session at home in lieu of our friendly doans at zendo, to go off after chosen lengths of time. There are other functions such as guided meditation or ambient sound while the timer is running, but as I am so used to silent zazen, I have not even once attempted to use those.

Having read the above, one would be justified to think, ‘So he bought an app as a vanity item with some pretty sounds to abandon a perfectly functional mobile phone alarm.’ However, it turned out that an even more useful function of Insight Timer was its statistics page. As with many ‘self-feedback’ apps for running and cycling etc., Insight Timer logs all the meditation sessions for which you used the timer and neatly presents the data in bar charts, daily averages, frequencies and total time.  Sounds suffocating, or even a little too much like the Big Brother? Maybe. But a prime example of its usefulness for me personally is being able to see how the dosage of my daily zazen peaks on Wednesdays and Thursdays (obviously with the assistance of the zendo sittings), followed by a steady decrease to reach the weekly minimum on Tuesdays. Not being an obsessive sitter like Sarah Kokai, while I had a vague idea of my fluctuating daily meditation time, I had not known exactly when sloth was most likely to strike. In fact it made me laugh when I discovered this pattern, as it felt like being a lazy school kid who realises that he has to finish all his homework before the term starts again tomorrow. Awareness of this pattern reminds and motivates me to keep practising diligently, perhaps with an extra effort and willpower on Tuesdays. The occasional ‘stars’ that the machine dispenses for your achievements such as ’10 consecutive days’ are additional motivational boosters.

Insight Timer also has a ‘meditation reminder’ function which can alert you once every day. If you are a ‘twice daily’ user, using another ‘habit-forming app’ such as Productive might help. (http://productiveapp.io/ This one seems to be for iPhone only.) Finally, there is a SWZ group within the app community with 13 members so far, headed by Alasdair of the Northampton group (contact him here).