Review: Headspace

Mindfulness is all the rage right now. Well, I suppose ‘rage’ isn’t the right word. Mindfulness is all the calm right now. (Eugh, I’d delete that sentence if it wasn’t the best opening I could come up with).

From colouring books to origami, it seems like everybody wants in on it.

And I’m a pretty big advocate myself. I first heard about it in a counselling session for anxiety/depression, where I was told it’s being increasingly prescribed as a treatment option by the NHS. At first I was sceptical. If all my years of philosophy had taught me anything, it was that you can’t think your way out of problems. But I gave it a go, and it worked. But how?

There’s a great section in Infinite Jest where one of the characters is going through Alcoholics Anonymous, and reflecting on the mantras they use to help people through recovery. Chief of these is the simple refrain: “keep coming back.” Even if it doesn’t seem to be working, the very act of returning again and again seems to have some therapeutic value. And so it seems to be with mindfulness. It’s a bit like a magic trick. I’m not sure how it works, I’m just sure it does work. But you have to stick it out.

But what is mindfulness, anyway? The best definition I can jumble together is that it’s the practice of having a ‘conscious experience’ of your life. Like imagine you’re sitting on a bus or something. Maybe you’re thinking about where you’re going, who you’re seeing. Boom, that’s an open door for anxiety (are the people on the bus looking at me? / am i going to be late? / what if the bus breaks down? / what if i miss my stop?). Imagine instead that you simply do a mental inventory of what you’re actually experiencing: I’m sitting on a bus, this seat is uncomfortable, that man over there smells bad, there’s a nice view out the window.

Sounds lame, right? But it’s actually a very grounding experience. Extended further, you can start looking even further inward to catalogue your own thoughts. There’s a worry, there’s some anxiety, there’s a pain in my foot. It’s not really about judging these thoughts, or trying to overcome them. It’s just observing. And somehow (it’s really a mystery, to me) they start melting away.

But you do need to practice. And that’s where apps come in.

Yes, mindfulness has apps. Lots of them. Chief among them: Headspace.

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What does the app do? Well, it gives you little mindfulness sessions. These consist of your mindfulness guide (a chap called Andy, who we’ll get to in a bit) taking you on a little tour of your body and mind. These all follow more or less the same structure:

  • Sitting down comfortably
  • Focussing on your breathing
  • Closing your eyes
  • ‘Scanning’ up and down your body, focussing on the sensations
  • Counting your breaths
  • Allowing yourself to get distracted, but turning your attention back to the breathing
  • A few moments of nothingness (no thoughts, no counting)
  • Then all of the above in reverse again

Yes, it’s that simple. At first glance it feels pretty light on content – and that’s sort of right.

The app begins with a 10-session intro that you can try for free. I’d actually highly recommend it if you’re at all interested. At least try the one session if you’re curious, or even sceptical. Beyond that, the app offers you a couple of different courses. These include a focus on your health – for example – or relationships. Then there’s some other simple add-ons like one-off emergency sessions, sessions for walking, and so on.

I tried the health course and picked some things that claimed to be specifically geared towards anxiety. I found that beyond a few different bits of narration in the sessions, they weren’t drastically different to what was in the initial course of ten. They were, however, a bit longer, creeping towards 20 minutes. Now, of course, we can all surely spare 20 minutes out of our days – probably a good idea to re-evaluate your life in general if you can’t. But man, that 20 minutes can drag.

So many times I wanted to do something really badly, like playing that video game or something. And I’ll admit that a few times I cracked and just put the app on in the background while I did other stuff. It’s just kinda boring. But I did stick with it.

At least until I figured out that I had more or less memorised the entire sequence of meditation. The student had become the master, and I no longer needed the app. Also, each session is downloaded onto your phone (rather than streamed for some reason) and each has to be manually deleted – so it ended up consuming loads of space.

Would I recommend it? Well, maybe. The app itself is quite lovely and well-designed. But you can get the same features pretty much with any other mindfulness app. I mean, all you really need is someone to say “think about this… ok now think about this” and once you get the hang of it you don’t even need that. Sure, you don’t get Andy’s lovely soothing voice (think Iwan Rheon), but that’s by-the-by. I use another app at the moment called Calm which is pretty sweet. And it doesn’t cost you £4.99 a month.

Which brings me to my last point. The thing feels a bit like a cash-in.

I mean, it’s pretty expensive. For a fiver a month, I can almost get all the films and TV I want on Netflix. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but paying a fiver a month (or £249.85 for ‘forever’ access) feels steep. Especially since it’s meant to be a resource to help people with their mental health. It’s this weird mix of lovely helpful wonderful natural therapy and hardline business. And don’t think it’s not about business.

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This is Andy, chief Headspace person. Here’s what the website says about him:

In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.

After said monking about, he ended up founding Headspace. He then became a millionaire. Ah yes, the classic monk-to-riches success story. Doesn’t quite sit right, does it?

I’m not saying the brand should be a charity, of course. Capitalism is the force that drives innovation, etc. etc. And they do run a ‘get some / give some‘ program that gives out Headspace subscriptions to those in need… leveraged on the number they sell to paying subscribers. But.. just.. hmm…

I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel about the ethical standing of all this.

In short:

  • Mindfulness is good and seems to work.
  • Headspace have a very attractive package for the first-time mindfull-er.
  • You can get what you need from it just out of the free offering.
  • There’s equally solid offerings out there, without the fancy branding.

Annndddd, breathe.

4 thoughts on “Review: Headspace

  1. Thanks for a well rounded analysis of this app. I’ve used it. It’s good. However It’s too expensive and I can’t help feeling that if the company were really interested in improving global wellbeing, they would not be charging such extortionate prices. Maybe the profits are being used for good purposes but I would expect them to explain what they are doing in more detail if this were the case. It reeks of “cash in” mentality which is unfortunate for a practice that should be focusing on global accessibility.

  2. I think I’m nearing the same conclusion as you with regards to Headspace. I like it for getting me into meditation, but boy does Andy ramble on at the most inappropriate times. What annoys me most, however, is that these ‘packs’ are essentially the same content as the free 10-day trial, albeit with some stuff tacked on at the beginning. They’re not very enlightening or meaningful, and 99% of the time I forget what he said anyway!

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