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E2: Learning Mindfulness from Meditation Apps versus a Meditation Teacher


Jacob Derossett

Today, we're here with Sarah Vallely, a mindfulness teacher, coach and author Sarah has been teaching meditation and mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness as well. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled tame Sue dwell the 55 teachings of TSD. Mindfulness. On today's episode, we are going to be discussing the pros and cons of meditation apps, we will be addressing questions such as is getting an app enough for your meditation practice? Are you going to get everything out of a meditation app that you could get out of a teacher, and much, much more? Hello, Sarah, how are you?



Sarah Vallely

Hi, Jacob, I'm great. If you go onto your iPhone, and you go to the app store and search for mindfulness, there are hundreds of apps that will teach you how to meditate. Some of the popular ones are headspace and calm. And these apps focus on the breath; they focus on becoming aware of your thoughts and your feelings and your sensations. And the people using these apps usually go and download them because they want to reduce their anxiety or they want to maintain better focus, or they want to heal from trauma. This is a $130 million industry and it's actually a controversial subject. If you Google "the problem with meditation apps", you will see tons and tons of articles about why it's maybe not ideal to use a meditation app. But there are so many benefits that we can't ignore either. I personally have never used a meditation app, I'm not going to be able to speak completely intelligently about these apps. Those of us who started meditating 20 years ago, like I have, we started meditating before apps--we started meditating before YouTube. YouTube came out in 2005 and I probably started my serious meditation practice in about 1999. We learned how to meditate without that so it's hard for us to fathom learning how to meditate through an app. But we've got Jacob DeRossett here. Jacob has lots of experience with meditation apps. I'd love to hear your your thoughts on this subject.


Jacob Derossett

I think of back when the Buddha was walking around--I heard a teacher say that there was a lot of types of meditation happening in his time, people would do corpse meditation, walking meditation, movement meditation, a sitting meditation, and the Buddha agreed with all of them. I don't think he had an opinion about the specific type, but it's really more or less the turning of attention. Whatever is going get you meditating and start you meditating and keep you meditating is probably the best thing for you.


Sarah Vallely

What would you say are some of the pros of a meditation app?


Jacob Derossett

Well, accessibility to other teachers. I have the ability now to listen to Henry Shipman from Mountain Clouds and David Whyte, This Amazing Poet. Douglas Harding's work through Richard Lang on The Headless Way. These are some of the best meditation teachers in the entire world. I have essentially unlimited access to them and their teachings. So that's amazing.


Sarah Vallely

I've heard when you go into certain apps, you can search for meditations that address certain issues. For example, heartbreak, certain fears, sleep issues--you can find a specific meditation that will lead you through to overcome some of those issues. Has this been your experience?


Jacob Derossett

calm is geared specifically towards sleep. That's the their big sell. Headspace--they have a lot of “mindfulness of” meditation, such as mindfulness of exercise and movement and eating. And I know that headspace had a series on flying that I listened to because I have a big fear of flying.


Sarah Vallely

I've been teaching meditation and mindfulness for 20 years--you will not find me on any meditation apps. I am also hesitant to post any guided meditations. I think that that conversation piece, which is lacking in an app is so important to your meditation journey to learn how to practice mindfulness For example, I'll be in a class with students and they might say, “I'm meditating with my eyes open. I'm looking at a plant and when I look at the plant, it makes me think of all the gardening I have to do. What should I do in that situation?” And I'm right there, it's during the class, and I can address that issue. Or they might say, “I have this terrible ache in my shoulder today, while I'm meditating, how do I deal with that? It's so distracting.” Or student might say, “I usually meditate after breakfast, and I'm noticing, I have some discomfort in my belly area. What do you think? Do you meditate before you eat? Do you meditate after you eat?” All of these questions can be addressed in a back and forth conversation that personalizes the experience for my students. And that's a big piece I don't think you can get from a meditation app.


Jacob Derossett

You don't get that. I've spent many hours in my car driving around wondering if I'm understanding what they're saying, hoping that they address certain questions that I have, I would prefer to have a teacher in front of me and the ability to ask questions to them--that's second to none. And I'll even go a step farther and say there is a thing I've heard about, I haven't experienced, but it's a “dark night of the soul”. This is uncomfortable thoughts and experiences in meditation, I think having somebody you check in with regularly to pose questions to is paramount. Yeah.


Sarah Vallely

The “dark night of the soul” is a real thing. And there's lots of different reasons for it. One of the reasons is when we practice mindfulness, and we get into a good practice, we move into healing. When we move into healing, it means that there are things in our life that are going to shift on a deep level. This can feel uneasy. And another reason for the dark night of the soul, or these kind of fears that come up, is when you are in your practice, you don't need your ego There's no operation that you're doing that requires to have an ego All you're doing is sitting and noticing. You're not making any decisions, you're not projecting anything into the future, you're not making any judgments about things that happened, the past, which are all things that your ego is involved with. When the part of you, that is your ego, starts to realize it has no purpose, it can be really daunting and a bit scary. It can bring up some discomfort and having a teacher there to validate your experience--explain to you what's happening, and then give some suggestions for how to move through it, can be invaluable.


Jacob Derossett

It’s just like psychedelics. You shouldn't say “Okay, I know that psilocybin helps with trauma--I'm going to go buy a bunch of mushrooms and lay down in the forest and figure that out, not safe. As strange as that may be to people from the outside of the meditation community, meditation can actually be very similar to that it can be very unsettling. Some of the things that come up, can be terrifying and agonizing. I think the reason meditation apps have to play it so safe and water down their content is because of these challenging experiences that can come up. Eastern meditation teachers are more pure and give you a profound awakening experience.


Sarah Vallely

And that's another controversy is: Do these meditation apps deepen your practice? Can you have a spiritual realization? Can you have a deep experience? People are saying that the meditation apps don't include a lot of the Buddhist philosophy such as impermanence, craving, life and death, skilled and unskilled thinking. Some of these concepts that really deepen your practice. And do meditation apps support you to get to states such as the no-self state and nirvana. In the classes that I teach through TSD Mindfulness, we call it “Integration: What the no-self state, nirvana another term for it, is when you get to a place where you don't have a concept that you are you. When I get there, I have no concept of “Sarah” as a person--I don't exist anymore. And when I'm listening to a fan that’s 10 feet away, I don't know that it's a fan. And I've gotten to such a deep place I don't know that it's 10 feet away. When you don't know it's a fan and you don't know that it's 10 feet away, then you are the fan and that's the oneness and the no-self experience. Can you get to that depth in your practice with a meditation app? I'm thinking no, but I'd love to hear your take on that.


Jacob Derossett

You can. But with that being said, I have been scratching my head for most of my time meditating, wondering if I am experiencing that. In Zen, you do tests. If you think you've had an awakening experience, you'll sit down with your teacher, and he will go through several probing questions to determine if you've actually had an awakening experience or not. Having your teacher tell you, you've had that experience--is second to none. You don't get that with an app. But I think you can have a good practice and have awakenings with an app. But it's a lot more difficult of a path. And I think that most apps are not going to provide that.


Sarah Vallely

What I understand from these meditation apps is you can get data on how many minutes you meditate. You can get data on how many days in a row you meditate and how many days during the month you meditate. Jacob, is that something that you found helpful?


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, you want to know my data?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah. What's your data?


Jacob Derossett

I have been mindful 720 days, 13,000 minutes, and I have done 1300 sessions on that app. I've been a member since 2018.


Sarah Vallely

I have heard sometimes the apps can actually cause stress. The idea of mindfulness is to become liberated from delusion, from your thoughts, from your cravings, from attachment. And so the question is, when we are learning mindfulness through an app, are we becoming attached to the app? Another way to look at it is if we are attached to our phone, is learning mindfulness through an app reinforcing that attachment to your phone? The same thing is true for a meditation teacher--not becoming completely reliant, attached to your meditation teacher There's a Buddhist term for this, “Kill the Buddha”. If you become too dependent on your teacher, on an ideology, on a concept-- you have to kill it—let it go.


Jacob Derossett

Mindfulness removes attachment--realizing the impermanence of everything. Everything comes and goes. Don’t hold on to things or you'll get rope burn. I was meditating exclusively with the app but now I meditate without it a lot. I use the timer still, because it has a bell that rings and reminds me I'm lost in thought. So that's nice. And it logs my minutes, which I am very passionate about. So that is an attachment. Yeah, for sure.


Sarah Vallely

Another thing is to not have a goal in mind--to not be striving to reach something. Do meditation apps make you feel like you're striving for some type of goal?


Jacob Derossett

They have an intent to get you to come back to it. And that is not what the practice is about.


Sarah Vallely

Didn't the waking up app address this?


Jacob Derossett

On that app, they stopped doing the streak, because people had streaks of up to 500 days meditating, which is insane. If you're focused on your streak, then you're not focused on the point, which is not being distracted every moment throughout the day.


Sarah Vallely

And we can't tiptoe around this huge benefit that the apps give us--if you are brand new to mindfulness, and you don't know where to start, and you're holding a phone, how accessible is it? Super accessible! You can just go on your phone, go to the App Store, find a mindfulness app, download it, and start within 60 seconds. That's probably the biggest benefit. It's bringing people into the practice who probably wouldn't enter it otherwise. They're getting a taste of the practice, they're getting a taste of the benefits. Maybe they are starting to see something shift in their daily life. And then hopefully, they get inspired enough to get online and start Googling mindfulness teachers. They find a mindfulness teacher so they can level up their practice.


Jacob Derossett

The more people we have meditating in the world today, the better. I think the more people we have examining their thoughts and behaviors, the better. So if that's because of an app, then that's better than nothing. But something you'll also notice is that everybody that is on these apps teaching had teachers. Obviously the best thing to do is have a teacher--you're going get the fastest results that way.


Sarah Vallely

Jacob, what do you think is the biggest benefit you've gained from using meditation apps,


Jacob Derossett

I feel more connected to my family, and I feel more connected to myself.


Sarah Vallely

That's great. But it sounds like you want to gain more support from a teacher and perhaps find a meditation community. As you know, one of the other big cons of a meditation app is the lack of community. When you find a meditation teacher, you also find a community. In my classes my students find support with each other. We share about our personal experiences with our mindfulness practice, whether it's our sitting practice, or just our mindfulness mindset during the day. And my students can learn from one another--they can feel motivated by one another. I also have an online forum, where we hold three discussions between each class. One discussion is on what came up during the class. The other discussion is on the readings. And then the third discussion is on their personal practice. It’s really helpful to for my students, because they're able to read and connect with their classmates and say, “They're struggling the same way that I am, I feel validated. This person had a similar challenge that I had and this is how they overcame it. Let me try that.” We will always have a human desire for connection and having connection over something that's mutual.


Jacob Derossett

I have a big hole in my practice--I haven't been able to talk about meditation with people. I read, in “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, that you should not talk about meditation to your friends and family, unless they ask about it. Don't talk about it, because you'll upset people--they don't want to hear about it. My family does not like it when I'm being a Buddhist. They like it when I'm being the Buddha. They don't want to hear how much Buddhism or meditation would impact their life. Instead, they want to hear me be more present and open for them. So that's something I've taken to heart. But I want to talk to people about meditation, I would love to connect with people about their experiences and talk about my own and learn. And I have not been able to do that.





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