My meditation app is stressing me out. Why is mindfulness so maddening?

I signed up to calm down, not get guilt-inducing reminders and lessons about accountability.
Woman with eyes closed doing prayer position exercise against clear sky
Cavan Images / Getty Images
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By Jamilah King, race and justice reporter, Mother Jones

I met Tamara in early January, when I’d resolved to do better at life.

The New Year seemed full of hope, and so was I. I’d stumbled my way across the finish line of 2018 with aspirational budgets and bullet-pointed lists of all the things that would finally make me feel like a fully functioning adult; I called it “visioning.”

I was going to use my phone less, go to the gym more, limit my Popeyes intake and feel rejuvenated every morning after a kale smoothie. My dog would finally learn how not to pee in my living room because I would teach my dog not to pee in my living room. I would not react to family members when they acted like my family members always act.

I planned to accomplish all of this by wading again into the mysterious world of mindfulness, that mystical state of being that seems more difficult than ever to attain.

After all, it was my lack of mindfulness that had me on edge: I was rushing through everything and getting nowhere. I was constantly needing to reschedule my wellness activities because I wasn’t doing well.

Forget the fact that I had never before in my life run five miles each morning, and there was very little probability that I would suddenly do so during a New York City winter. If I could just learn how to be still, maybe, just maybe, I could live in the realm of possibility. I would run and feel rejuvenated. I would never forget to make a calendar reminder for an event. I would actually use my Quip toothbrush for the full recommended 30 seconds in each quadrant of my mouth. I would be a better friend, a more productive worker and, in the process, make my dentist proud.

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But I needed someone to help guide me through the process of becoming a better person... and that’s when I met Tamara Levitt, a real person and mindfulness expert — known to me strictly as the disembodied voice that narrates the popular meditation app, Calm.

I was hoping she wouldn’t use my past against me.

I’m not new to meditation apps. The fiasco of 2016 had left me saddled with a failed marriage, a tweet-happy president and a new job for which I felt grateful but completely out of my depths. That’s when I had turned to Headspace, another popular meditation app. Its narrator is founder Andy Puddicombe, who is a real person and also an expert, but who mostly existed in my life as the disembodied voice guiding me through 10-minute daily lessons on things like “mindful eating” and “forgiveness.”

Sure, I’ve got a genetic predisposition toward depression and anxiety, and there’s the small issue of my intergenerational trauma rearing its ugly head every now and then, but my time with Andy was nothing if not a practice in practicality. He guided me through 2-minute animated videos that encouraged me to use techniques like “noting,” where I could touch negative thoughts, light as a feather, from a removed distance, but not dwell on them. He used vibrant colors like greens and oranges that signaled to my brain that cheerfulness was possible. Also, he was British. Listening to him made me feel smart.

With so much of my life seemingly spinning out of control, Andy gave me hope that there was at least one tangible thing that I could hold onto: My mindfulness metrics. I could measure my happiness —or at least my pursuit of it — by looking at how many consecutive days I had devoted to meditation. I once heard the real Andy say on a podcast that he had meditated for something like 500 consecutive days. I wanted to be like Andy.

But I wasn’t. Instead, I was hopelessly — predictably — me. For a $99 annual membership, I meditated for a total of 75 sessions totaling 12 hours. I knew I could do better; I decided that maybe Andy was the problem.

So I turned to Tamara. She had a low-pitched, almost gravely Hello. She sounded like she did yoga regularly, and I should do yoga regularly. Her colors were more muted than Andy’s: Navy blues and grays that seemed more in line with my reality. (I am not a particularly orange person.) At first, she also seemed less demanding than Andy, who would often cut into my 10 minutes of mindfulness with reminders to sit up straight and count my breaths. Tamara welcomed me, and then she let me be.

She told me to breathe in deeply. In. In. In. She’d round each session out with a useful anecdote about a person who did the things that I was trying to stop doing, and then she would offer up a quote from a smart person about how not to do those bad things anymore. She probably read a lot of books to get those quotes; I should read more, too. She was not British, but she still made me feel smarter.

I wanted to get a streak going — maybe just 10 days to start. And then, who knows? Maybe by day 35, I would really be a new person who slept through the night, mindfully ate my organic meals and never spent more money than necessary. By Day 50 my dog would pee on command in a place that was not my living room floor.

But then something happened. Don’t ask me what; I can’t remember. Maybe I traveled somewhere and the time difference got me. Maybe I meant to be mindful in the evening instead of the morning but fell asleep watching “Narcos Mexico” instead. What matters is that I missed my time with Tamara and it was only Day 7. When I came back, she greeted me with repressed but still steady algorithmic disappointment.

Her lesson that day was about accountability.

I inhaled deeply. I exhaled, too. Out. Out. Out. I knew it was only a matter of time before I failed her again — and myself in the process.

But at least I’m learning to fail my meditation app mindfully.