“Augmenting, Not Replacing”: An Interview with Rohan Gunatillake about the New Meditation App buddhify

by Danny Fisher, The Buddhist Channel, Jan 15, 2012

Whether one pays close attention to Buddhism in the digital realm or not, it was difficult to miss the launch of the new mobile phone app buddhify this fall. (IT was even the subject of an article by the international news service Reuters.)

<< Buddhify - download from the Apple iStore

Designed for iPhone and Android, buddhify is described as a “revolutionary new urban meditation mobile app…playful yet practical, buddhify teaches you mindfulness-based meditation on the go.”

The founder and driving force behind buddhify is Rohan Gunatillake, who heads up the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, writes for heraldscotland.com, and is a fixture at Buddhist Geeks. He graciously made time to speak with Danny Fisher about the app, its features, and what it represents and can do for the Buddhist community widely.

For those who don't know, what is buddhify?

It's a mobile app for iPhone and Android phones which presents meditation to an urban audience in a fresh way.  And it's probably the most ambitious meditation app ever made to date.

While existing meditators may enjoy it, buddify’s refreshing look and invention is mainly for people who are looking for a way into meditation and its benefits that feel playful and relevant.

Would you tell us something about the "Two Player" meditation mode? Not being a game person myself, I might need some help wrapping my brain around the meaning and intention there.

Sure thing. “Two Player” mode is one of the most innovative aspects of buddhify. The way it works is that you listen to the guided meditation with a partner, and the instructions deliberately include the other person, thus making it a two-person experience. So if the meditation is all about body awareness, you use the other person’s body as a visual aid to supporting your own awareness. Or if it's the one about concentration, you support each other by saying it out loud when you realize your mind has left the meditation object. And then there are also some prompt questions to support the two people to have a conversation about their experience.

It's all fairly classic stuff, but with a twist and using the term “Two Player” brings some of the aesthetic of gaming to the app, which therefore makes it look and feel very different from all the other meditation apps out there.

You're very clear in the FAQs on the website that buddhify is not meant to be a comprehensive meditation system. Can you say something about your understanding of the limitations of format--like a mobile app? Also, are there things you think are not fully appreciated yet about what a format like an app can do?

As you say, buddhify is not a complete system since that is not what it has been designed to be. It is an accessible and different approach to teaching meditation to new audiences.

While some of the more tech-wary members of the practitioner community see digital as a threat to dharma practice, I think this fear is misplaced.  I'm a firm believer that technology can only augment, and not entirely replace, other forms of teaching and delivery.  Nothing beats face-to-face teaching from a qualified instructor, nor indeed the support of a local community you connect with. But the fact is that for many people, even if they do have a local community, it's not for them - that's certainly why I myself have found the community around Buddhist Geeks so valuable since even in London there wasn't really a scene I felt was speaking my language.  Digital tools can, of course, take meditation and so on to a scale never possible before and for many people.  This is especially true, I think, for Gen Y: to have an online community or a digital training tool can feel better and more relevant than a local one if it is designed well and the content is strong.  It might even feel worth the trade-off of it not being local or physical.

And when it comes to buddhify, I'm very clear: all it tries to do is introduce people to meditation, and says that if people want to explore more they should do that through deeper more personal modes of delivery such as more advanced courses, the great meditation literature we have, and also local teachers.  As meditation providers, we all need to know where we sit in the system and what our limits are - that's really important to me.

Something I'd also just like to add is that people underestimate the power of a mobile phone.  It is a very intimate device - with us pretty much all of the time - and very personal and tactile.  Therefore it is in a way much more suitable as a vehicle for teaching meditation as things like laptops.  How we relate to our mobile phones was part of the design thinking behind buddhify for sure.

"Urban" is an important adjective for you in much of the work that you do. Can you say something about what you mean "urban," and the importance of that distinction for you?

Yes, urban is perhaps the most important word when it comes to buddhify.  So much of the meditation tradition - especially in the Theravada/insight/vipassana school that I know the best - is designed for forest or remote or retreat environments. As such, many of the meditation delivery models we see are just taking systems designed for a rural or stylized environment and placing them in an urban one and expecting them to work perfectly.  They don’t.

buddhify started with the question of how do you design meditation for people who live in the city, and fully respects that as an environment for awareness and compassion…on its own terms.  That question led to the aesthetic, language, and delivery system that are now in buddhify. 

I think urban meditation is a new emerging genre of practice in the same way that hip-hop came out of other music styles in the 70s and 80's.  And like the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash back then in the early scene, not everyone's going to like it...but those that do are going to love it and it will define a new culture. 

The history of meditation is one of evolution and change and this is just another chapter in that.

At the Buddhist Geeks conference this past summer, your presentation was certainly a highlight. I think pretty much everyone who was there would agree: you rocked it. Among other things, you said, "We need Buddhist start-ups." Can you unpack that a little for our readers?

Yes I'd love to.

There is a big change coming for the Buddhist scene in that changing technology, demographics, and, most importantly, behavior will mean that we will need to be more innovative in how we present Buddhism, and how it reaches people and makes the important change it can.  We can see that already happening at the interface of neuroscience and secular mindfulness approaches in clinical practice.

For me, however, it is also a crisis - and a crisis of relevance because of the stuff I've already said about the need for an urban meditation. The existing Buddhist institutions and infrastructure and the people that run them are invariably out of step with the needs and behaviors of a new generation of practitioners or potential practitioners.  So while, yes, many young people will still attend existing classes and so on, they do so in spite of an outdated aesthetic and a limited set of delivery models.

The opportunity here is to unleash a whole new generation of people who can do what Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have done: translate meditation in an immensely valuable way for new audiences.  And because of its potential for innovation and scale and where our culture is right now, I see the opportunity to be mainly in digital.

But when I call for Buddhist start-ups I don't just mean a few good projects here and there, like buddhify and Buddhist Geeks.  To make a real difference we need a supported culture of innovation and a system of investment where resources can be allocated to best achieve the outcomes we all want - such as more awareness in the world.  At the Buddhist Geeks conference, I spoke about how so much money is spent on building maintenance over new types of programs and how I think this is a tragedy.

I've done buddhify off my own back - self-funding the build totally myself and I've made a pretty decent product that is changing how people are engaging with meditation.  If I had some real investment, though….imagine what I could make.  And not just me, there are some - not many, but enough - people out there right now who understand meditation and technology enough but need support.  If this sounds like a plea for cash that's because it is...but this is not about dana, it's about turning money into sustainable businesses which also create immense social and spiritual value.  That is the opportunity here and it won’t be around for too much longer.

Great start-ups don't happen by accident; they come out of a system of support, knowledge and well-placed financial resources.  And, critically for our context, it is absolutely imperative that start-up teams must have people who really understand the practice. So I also would like to see more of the established teachers and institutions actively engaging in this kind of conversation, or else the quality will be lower than it should be.  We cannot ignore where culture is, nor where it's going. The best we can do is look it in the eye and give it our gifts.

This is why I think that while most start-ups typically have two co-founders, a business founder and a technical founder, Buddhist start-ups need a third: a Chief Dharma Officer.

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