Zen there were none

October 2020

Grouchy London Underground riders are offered all kinds of stress-reducing therapies. From time immemorial, the tube’s fluorescent-lit carriages have been tiled by crystal clear oceans, comprehensive holiday packages, and sharp-suited individuals who swear by particular vitamin pills. But a more recent prescription is a very old one: meditation, a Buddhist practice dating back to the fourth century BC.

Meditation has not, historically, been a very lucrative industry. The practitioner’s biggest outlay might be for their Zafu, a round floor cushion. Past that, sitting quietly does not require a credit card.1 But startups are disrupting the age-old silence; the rise of podcasting and in-app subscription presents the would-be Sensei with a business opportunity. Mobile apps can now offer guided meditations, with a kindly voice from the listener’s phone encouraging focus on breathing and awareness of surroundings.

That approach is more consumer-friendly than hitting students with keisaku, the “encouragement sticks” used in silent Japanese monasteries. But it also opens the door to tailored sessions, for different levels of experience or lengths of time, for helping with relaxation, memory or self-esteem, or for falling asleep, waking up, power napping, and so on. Those anxious not to miss out can subscribe for a monthly fee, and finally enjoy freedom from their tedious inner monologue (albeit in favour of a tinnier outer one). Enlightened with this new business model, a recent crop of startups want to make meditation mainstream.

Koan Sharks

Modern brands are careful to appeal to rationalist tastes, and to clear any whiff of snake oil. Ten Percent Happier, a Boston-based startup and app, offers anyone who “had always assumed that meditation was bullshit” a modest-sounding boost to wellbeing with “no magical thinking required.” UK-founded Headspace, another digital liturgy, promises “scientific rigor” on its home page and employs a “Chief Scientific Officer”. Neither curriculum features other parts of Buddhist doctrine, such as reincarnation, karma, or riddle-like Zen koans.

Indeed, psychologists are positive about mindfulness meditation (though studies usually look at the cheap, unassisted kind). There is good evidence of its benefits for anxiety, depression and stress; a 2014 review2 found effects “comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities.” But experts are wary of hype, and suggest scepticism towards claims that contemplation can increase compassion, cure addiction, strengthen the immune system, lengthen telomeres, and so on. Some studies are hampered by self-selection of participants, absence of controls, or lack of attention to potential negative effects. Still, the benefits of mindfulness-based programs have made them a useful spanner in the shrink’s toolbox.

This is not the first time Eastern philosophy and Western clinical psychology have found a middle way. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking treatment prescribed for everything from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to tinnitus, has its roots in the Stoics of ancient Athens. Emphasising the need to live a fulfilled and balanced life, Stoicism brought westwards the tenets of self-reflection and observation without judgment, principles shared by modern CBT and mindfulness. Similarly, Zen practices found their way into programs like dialectical behavioural therapy, a treatment for borderline personality disorder.

Merely crotchety commuters, then, may find some tranquility in ten-minute hits of this ancient art. And the daily shuttle is an ideal time to practice – so long as you can grasp the essential oneness of the universe, and still remember the next stop.


One day in the monastery, a student approached the master doubtfully, asking how to navigate the long road to Enlightenment. After administering a sharp wack with the keisaku, the senior monk replied simply: “There’s an app for that.”

Notes

  1. Correct at the time of writing. 

  2. Goyal et al.