Before I get into this review, I’d like to point out that everybody is at a different stage in the process of meditation. In the same way that a doctor prescribes different medication for different ailments, we need to find the tools, techniques, and approaches that work best for us as we are. With that in mind, the Headspace app is an appealing option to anybody from complete beginners to seasoned practitioners because of its wide range of practices. I myself used it for about a year, and got to know its functions and limitations fairly well. The question is, is it worthwhile to upgrade it and receive the full package? The answer, as in most things in life, is “it depends.”
To start off, let’s look at what Headspace can and can’t do. Headspace is primarily a guided meditation app that features a selection of prerecorded tracks, with a few bells and whistles such as an achievement system and targeted cognitive programs to reduce things like anxiety or insomnia. It is not a live support line for meditation, nor is it a one-on-one program intended to sharpen your meditation based on your personal progress. It is, instead, a gentle and often effective introduction into basic meditation techniques that are secular but clearly influenced by Buddhist practices.
Now, onto the nitty-gritty—what does it excel at, and why did I eventually give it up?
Pros of the Headspace app
In general, the meditation “leader,” Andy, is quite good at what he does. The guided meditations are really what you’re paying for, and I think his narrations are often worth the price of admission. They’re concise, well-spoken, and tailored toward those who need that extra dose of reassurance when first establishing a practice. Andy provides convenient “guiding nudges” throughout the various tracks, such as offering feedback on when to return to the breath, how to feel the body in more subtle ways, how to sharpen and expand attention, et cetera. He clearly knows what he’s talking about and has a gentle, welcoming tone that makes meditation far less daunting.
Another bonus for beginning meditators is the wide variety of choice in meditation types and a streak system. In essence, it doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do in a day—whether it’s creativity-stoking practice or anger reduction—as long as you actually meditate. You’re rewarded for your sits with an adorable little brain avatar that seems more and more enthused with each session you complete.
When we begin meditating, we often need these extrinsic reminders of success. Tangible cognitive benefits can seem few and far between in those opening weeks. So to that end, the Headspace app does an admirable job of keeping beginners glued to the cushion day after day. The variety in the meditation tracks also covers everything from concentration-based meditation to body scans to metta practices, though all of these are presented in a secular manner in accordance with Andy’s neutral views.
Some may seem the secular approach as a bonus, others may not. The meat of the experience, however, is robust, at least on a surface level. The meditations have various durations, allowing you to squeeze in a quick session on the bus or while waiting for your dinner to heat up. They also seem focused on different skill sets, and can genuinely help to round out your arsenal of tools for meditation techniques.
So, why did I leave?
Cons of the headspace app
Cliche as it sounds, you will and should reach a point at which you feel “I am the master now,” thus succeeding the app as your own teacher (or at least, allowing you to find a flesh-and-blood teacher). The Headspace app has plenty of content to chew on, but after a while, you’ll start to realize two things about the huge amount of choices.
First off, choice is not always good. There’s a reason we’re often encouraged by spiritual teachers to dig one hole a hundred feet deep rather than digging a hundred one-foot holes. When we have access to unlimited varieties of meditation lengths, styles, themes, and practices, we never really dig into the heart of the experience and get our footing. We need to master a technique to reap the truly deep benefits of the practice. It is, in fact, a part of the mind itself that loves to play new games and go after shiny objects. We need to train this aspect of ourselves, not continually feed it.
The second realization is that the variety is fairly superficial. Once you’ve learned one concentration-based practice, you’ve learned them all. They may be labeled “creativity” or “fitness” meditations, but at their core, they’re breath meditation tracks with a few sentences about visualization thrown in. When you develop your own practice long enough, you’ll be able to effectively focus your attention on what matters to you without needing verbal prompting. The same can be said for the gratitude practices or metta techniques in the app. They are mostly re-skinned versions of one another.
Another issue I had with the app was the focus on “streaks.” While it is definitely important to meditate on a daily basis, we need to find intrinsic motivation for doing so. Relying on another (whether it’s a person, app, or community) to keep you accountable for meditation is building up a faulty foundation. If we’re too focused on our streak, we might start to do shorter and shorter meditations just to get our daily point. But as we all know, meditation is an inward, non-goal-oriented practice. It is about the absence of striving. Therefore, we should cultivate a mind that seeks meditation because it wants to rest in its own nature, not achieve something through the act.
In line with this, the app itself seems to be leading its users toward a state of non-use. What I mean by this, effectively, is that the more “advanced” tracks actively rely on continually lengthening the periods of time in which you meditate in silence. By the time you’ve “mastered” the higher-level tracks, you are essentially meditating with no training wheels, and the app becomes a glorified timer. It’s wonderful that Andy and his program can help people reach that stage and feel comfortable in it, but it calls the usefulness of the app into question after a certain point.
I have to make two separate recommendations on this point. If you’re an experienced meditator who has been fortunate enough to attend a retreat or otherwise achieve insights in your practice, there’s little to gain from Headspace. If you feel grounded and confident in your practice, you are probably also fine without it. Additionally, I feel that even if you want to follow guided meditations for one reason or another, there are better options that have far more utility in their free versions, such as Insight Timer or even Youtube videos. At $70.00 for a one-year subscription, it’s not the most expensive program out there, but it’s also not worth the price if you won’t be using all of its features consistently.
If you’re a total beginner, the Headspace app can be a game-changer for helping you to establish a routine and keep your practice consistent. It’s also an excellent gift for somebody else if you want to help them get their feet wet with meditation. That being said, ultimately you’ll need to remove your reliance on the app’s back-clapping and cornucopia-like approach if you want to make deep and meaningful progress. You’ll need to replace Andy’s voice with your own inner wisdom.
The Buddha once used the analogy of a raft to describe our dependence on views and beliefs. He said, in a paraphrased way, that we would do well to use a raft to cross a river and reach the other side. But we must abandon the raft when we find ourselves carrying it on our backs for no reason. The same can be said of the Headspace app. Use it as a raft to reach the other side, and once you arrive, know when to find your own way.