What I'm Learning From My Meditation App
cognition | mood & emotion | stress
Alec Rogers wanted to see if there was a way to measure mindfulness after meditation, so he built his own simple, open-source meditation tracker.
What I’m Learning from My Meditation App
I was a software engineer professionally before that and continuing I had an interest in Psychology and philosophy. And when I decided to persue meditation and spirituality more full-time I wondered what I could bring to that field, because I personally found it so valuable. And writing software for meditation was sort of the result.
I’m going to present a tool that I wrote and a little bit of the journey of writing the tool in combination with my meditation.
So first of all, what I wanted to do was sort of answer a question which was, okay, if I’m sitting on a cushion, if I’m looking at a wall, am I actually making progress? Because sometimes it doesn’t feel that I am. But at the same time, I’m very inspired by some teachers and I value what they’re saying, so I have this dilemma basically and I wanted to quantify that in order to get an answer.
So my first step along that journey was basically writing a stopwatch. It’s sort of a sophisticated stopwatch in that it logs the data as events, which are uploaded optionally to a WordPress server, and you can upload the data in different categories. Basically, when it gets to WordPress, these tag it as a meditation session as a particular kind of meditation session.
So at this point I’m just logging time, but again that doesn’t really answer my question of is it making an improvement in my meditation, in my personal wellbeing.
So the next thing I added was verbal notes. As I was sitting a lot of insights occurred to me. I thought that would be a good thing to add. That’s qualitative. It’s not quantitative. So that was the second tool. Basically, at this point there are four tools in this meditation.
The third tool that I wrote was breath counting, and this starts to get quantifying what mindfulness I and what mindfulness isn’t. So quantifying mindfulness obviously is a very hard task. A lot of people try to do it by invasively looking or non-invasively looking at different physiological signals. But I don’t think any of us really know what are the physiological correlations of open mindedness, and there’s a lot of disagreement that actually there is any single underlying biological fingerprint. There are very good arguments in favor that.
So how do you quantify mindfulness? So one idea from Richie Davidson, who is at University of Madison in Wisconsin, is that you can just do breath counting. And basically breath counting is if you’re unable to keep the awareness of breath counting, and you lose track of a count of breaths, then your mind has wandered because it’s a very simple task. So if you can’t do that what were you thinking about.
So the way this works basically is there’s a couple of buttons and an app but it’s just a counter but you don’t see what the count is. So, let’s say every time I exhale, I press one button, and that was one. And then I exhale again, and that’s two. And then I get very nervous and I’m looking around in this hall at you and I forget. Was I on two or five, and there’s some target count which happens to be 10 but I forgot which count I was on. So I’ll say, okay, 10. I think I was on 10 so I’ll press the other button.
Now because I didn’t see what the actual count was, which is again, me registering my own breath, I don’t know if I was correctly at 10 of if I lost count and maybe I was at 11 or nine. So if I’m being mindful at least mindful of my own breath count I can correctly every time knowing that I hit that desired target breath count which is 10. If I can’t hit that then that’s basically a failed trial of mindfulness for that session.
But the third tool it’s a great idea. But unfortunately, you wind up spending your meditation session counting breaths and working with your cell phone. Very embarrassing in a Zen center, even although you’re sort of ticking away with your phone, which is antithetical to everything that they seem to be about. So how do you do that less intrusively which seems to be a big question. How do you gather data more passively without sort of making it about the measurement of the data.
So the next tool, actually partially inspired by Allan Langer, who was my teacher in college was well, what if we randomly queried the person instead of the person sort of keeping track of things. If you want to practice let’s say an open awareness meditation instead of focused on your phone. You could practice open awareness, but you would really want to then from your open awareness leave your open awareness to do something on your phone.
So what this does basically is that it pings you at a random time and with an optional audio gong or inspirational quote if you want. It pings you at a random time and says, hey, wee you mindful just now, like ding, were you mindful right then. And so that’s sort of eliminating having to be actively engaged in the task. So it’s more suited to a different kind of open awareness meditation, it’s different kinds of meditation.
Okay, so that’s the fourth tool that I developed, and let me talk a little bit more about what I observed.
So first of all, the stopwatch actually and the notes aren’t too relevant to discuss. Sometimes I meditate and sometimes I don’t, and that was apparent from the time logging. With respect to the counting tool, there were a couple of observations that I made. One, is initially I was very bad keeping track of count and then I was able to increase the target count to like 20, and I got almost perfect results. So, it kind of became boring after a while so I stopped doing it. But one thing that I did notice is that when I first sat down to meditate, I always – not always but I often missed a few trials, and then after that I was more successful at getting the trials right.
So that’s with respect to breath counting, but as I mentioned, breath counting became kind of a boring endeavor when I was meditating. So with respect to the random reminder basically of mindfulness and the random queries about are you being mindful, I was always not being mindful. Now, that’s just a sort of a sad fact of my meditation I guess. One thing though, that that leads me to think that maybe the binary question of are you mindful or not, isn’t really sufficient to get at my level of mindfulness. Because when the alarm went off and it said, hey, are you being mindful, you know okay maybe I didn’t have like a very sort of I don’t know, maybe I didn’t have a growth level of thinking, but I had a subtle level of thinking. And even for the subtle level of thinking and recording, yeah, I wasn’t mindful. I remember a thought that I had you know.
Anyway, so that’s my results and those are mostly qualitative results because I didn’t do a sort of a hard-core numerical analysis on. All of this data though is getting logged to a WordPress server. I incorporated that in the app so that you can basically see a graph of those four tools.
So, there’s a bar graph here that’s basically displaying the amount of time spent in meditation, a ratio of how many correct counts incorrect counts. And when the timer elapses, how many times again is the ratio were you mindful as opposed to not being mindful.
So I don’t have enough research, the statistics on that research are very meaningful at this point. The graph itself it serves as inspiration, which I’m sure many of you know or dis-inspiration depending on my mood, but it sort of keeps me on track if I have a target level of meditation per day.
And then because that’s on my phone, obviously, if I’m not using the app because I get tired or whatever it is that wasn’t sufficient, so I wrote a program that lives on the web server that will actually mail a screenshot of the application to me in an email so I kind of can’t ignore it if I’ve been not using the app for a while. So anyway, I’m reminded of the lack of my meditation, even if I don’t know the math.