A Monastery is a Commitment Device

Friday, June 29, 2018
By David Howell

A monastery on a hill

Huge thanks to David Howell (see also his impressive Beeminder gallery) for valiantly coming to our defense after we were ruthlessly (not very ruthlessly) mocked in the Wall Street Journal.

Two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, Ellen Gamerman investigated daily streak tracking among modern meditators. I was interviewed for the article, but I’m glad I wasn’t quoted now that I’ve seen her angle:

Type-A people are descending on the ancient practice of meditation and tweaking the quest for inner peace to suit their hard-charging needs — racking up streaks and broadcasting their running tallies to the world. The result, for some: Meditation has never been more stressful.

She blames self-tracking for defeating the point of meditation, but her examples seem like outliers. I suppose my needs are less “hard-charging”, but logging and setting goals has only improved my meditation practice. Gamerman didn’t discuss why her subjects meditate nor why self-tracking is part of their practice, but I find the why much more interesting.

From the outside, meditation looks relaxing, but the actual moment-to-moment experience is often frustrating (especially for beginners). Try to close your eyes for just one minute and concentrate on the physical feeling of your breath. You’ll see that your focus is hard to maintain, that your ongoing stream-of-consciousness fights for your attention.

The narrator in your head — the default mode network — distracts you from the present moment by imposing subjective meaning on your experience. Meditation trains you to experience the inner monologue of aversions and desires without accepting them uncritically. It can be literally uncomfortable. If an itch distracts me from my breath, I focus instead on the desire to scratch without acting on it. [1]

Meditation is like weightlifting for patience: a strenuous exercise that raises your baseline capacity for equanimity. Like all things that are difficult but good for me, I’m great at making excuses to not do it. That’s where Beeminder comes in.

I started meditating in 2009, but my practice was on-and-off for years. I’d have stretches of near daily meditation, but then travel or illness would get in the way and I’d forget to pick it back up for weeks. I joined Beeminder in late 2015 and set a meditation goal with a commitment of five minutes a day. Since then, I’ve done my daily meditation on six out of every ten days, which is profoundly more consistent than before.

Contrary to Gamerman’s caricature of the quantified meditator, I’m not bothered by missing a day. I meditate because it helps me live according to my values. [2] If I skip my morning meditation, it’s usually because my son needs me, I’m overdue for exercise, or I’m finishing up work on a commitment I’ve made [3]: activities that are direct expressions of my values and would be absurd to sacrifice in favor of some silly streak. I can make these trade-offs in peace, because I trust my Beeminder goals to get me back on the cushion within a few days.

Gamerman quoted a religious studies professor to contrast what we might call quantified dharma [4] with more traditional practice:

“I’m fairly certain that there is no precedent for this in traditional Buddhist practice,” said Benjamin Brose, associate professor of Chinese religions at the University of Michigan. “Many monks meditate every day for decades, and I have never heard of anyone keeping track.”

Life in a monastery is structured precisely to make its residents accountable for their spiritual practice — monastic vows are a commitment contract! If I was a monk, I wouldn’t need Beeminder to keep my practice on track. However, I have a family and an engaging job that occupy the bulk of my days. I have to carve out time from the margins for meditation, exercise, reading — all the things that keep me feeling whole.

Ellen Gamerman overlooked how apps like Beeminder and Headspace enable people like me to maintain their spiritual practice among the other demands of our lives. I’m grateful to Beeminder and the awesome community of users. They’ve been a huge help in crafting the life I want.



[1] This is pretty far from relaxing.

[2] Disidentifying with the default mode network is an excellent tool to fight akrasia and a good complement to commitment contracts.

[3] …like writing a guest blog post for Beeminder.

[4] How is this not a thing already?


David Howell is a software architect and normie suburb dad with an ambitious Instapaper queue. His background is in experimental nuclear physics and having interests too diverse to tolerate finishing a PhD. He is currently operating on the theory that good enterprise software development is a mix of logic puzzles, queuing theory, and business ethnography.

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