An article the The Ringer, Meditation in the Time of Disruption, brought Insight Timer into my awareness. I had not previously stumbled upon this app as the app is not available in the Google Play Store for Micronesia. [As of 06 November 2018 the app is now availablein the Google Play Store for Micronesia. Insight Timer responded to my query within 48 hours. Amazing!] Out here that meant side loading, a practice not recommended by Google among many others. That said, the idea of an organized and categorized library of over 12000 guided meditations without a paywall attracted the attention of this YouTube taught meditator. YouTube is perhaps the opposite of an organized collection of information. As Insight Timer notes, “At Insight Timer we believe everyone deserves access to a free meditation practice.”
Having encountered meditation only through random YouTube videos and meditation apps, I had realized that I probably needed to return to one of the ancient sources of the practice. I was increasingly aware of “McMindfulness” and the proliferation of modern practices that bear little resemblance to meditation. Through reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon and Nyanaponika Thera’s The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, I was aware of the obligation to show others the path to relief from suffering without charge. Meditation is a free gift given by a Boddhisattva, one who shows the path to others. Insight Timer echoed this core value in a way that mediation apps Calm and Headspace did not.
Both Calm and Headspace offered a very limited set of free features, with Headspace offering even less than Calm. That said, I found Calm’s scenes feature useful as a sound screen in a busy home. Plum Village released a meditation app that is fully free in all features and is perhaps the app most aligned with Buddhist philosophy, but lacked the sound masking scenes capability of Calm. Calm also tracked meditation streaks – a feature than appealed to the runner in me. Tracking runs – time, distance, pace – are the bread and butter of running apps. Calm taps into this attachment of mine to data.
Insight timer brings external sound masking, data tracking, along with guided meditations to your zafu on your zabuton. Insight timer, however, also brought one more element that echoed the call to community that Thích Nhất Hạnh often speaks of as being an important element in meditation. Just as Strava is the social running app, Insight Timer has social options as well. As with Strava, one can use Insight Timer in complete isolation. There is, however, the option to friend others which sets Insight Timer apart.
Lest one become concerned that if something is free, then you are the product, Insight Timer does have premium features available for a subscription, much as Strava is structured. The difference from other apps is that the paywall is not located immediately after an introductory seven or ten meditations, the paywall is located in advanced synchronization features, downloading content, and in being able to restart a guided meditation in the middle of the meditation.
Insight timer taps into both my attachment to data and to my runner’s sense of the value of consistency. Insight timer tracks number of sessions, total time, average time per session, consecutive days, longest session, with breakdown by timer versus guided. There is even a colored star system that indicates one’s progress, not unlike the color levels of the Nike Run Club App. A yellow star is earned for every 10 consecutive days and for every 50 days, an orange star is earned for every 5 milestones, a green star is earned for every 25 milestones. There is even a progress chart reminiscent of similar chart in Strava.
While statistics, tracking of consecutive days, charts, and stars are attachments that run contrary to the founding spirit of the practice, these are the types of elements that encourage me to get out and run, or to plop down and meditate.
And bells. Insight timer is the only app I have encountered that offers a choice of chime tones to go with one’s meditation. Beautiful bells.
The social side of Insight Timer also sets the timer aside from other apps.
Each dot is a location of a meditator, and indeed when I used the timer, my unique location appeared on the map. The location is no more specific than seen above, and not as revealing of my location as Strava’s heat map, or all of my social media for that matter. If privacy is a concern, then one must never use any social media, perhaps never use any Internet connected technology.
Thích Nhất Hạnh, among others, notes the power of meditating with others. Insight Timer seeks to create a sense of a virtual community of meditators meditating together.
The home screen tells you how many are meditating “with you” and how many have meditated today. Perhaps the most personal feature is a thanks feature.
This feature can be disabled and opted out of for those using the app privately or concerned about privacy, that said, there is something personalizing about seeing a message from an actual human being rather than some generic quote such as Calm offers post-meditation. More than anything else, this does bring home that one is part of a global meditative community. The numbers are just data, the thanks are an actual individual out there who meditated at the same time as you did. Takes the concept of bringing the world together to another level.
Once I shed my attachment to my streak in Calm, I am likely to shift to using Insight Timer as my primary timer. Insight timer includes a small selection of sound masking “scenes” that I can use when I need that functionality. And the social side appeals to me. If smartphones ultimately isolate each of us, which they tend to do at present, the solution may be socially connecting apps. Yes, one could hope that smartphones and their addictive apps had not been invented, one could attempt to go back to the past and never use them. The smartphone is out of Pandora’s box and wishing for a bygone era of small, connected real world communities is an option only for a few.
And perhaps the ultimate antidote to the exploitative behemoth that FaceBook has become with its 2.2 billion products (euphemistically called users) is socially connected apps that link smaller communities of practitioners – Strava, Insight Timer, apps with revenue models where the user is not the product.