What gets measured gets done.
The term “sousveillance” – the inverse of the more well-known term “surveillance” – describes the act of observing oneself. Whereas surveillance is the act of observation from outside or above, sousveillance is observation from within or below.
Like its counterpart, sousveillance typically involves a wide variety of recording gadgets and gizmos – cameras, audio recorders, sometimes even cybernetic prosthetics – though rather than record others, the observer instead turns these devices on him or herself. Yet also like surveillance, sousveillance sometimes need not require any equipment at all. Instead, one can simply note and observe. In this sense, you could say that meditation is sousveillance in its ultimate form.
The “quantified self” movement purports to provide “self-knowledge through numbers.” It is, at its heart, a movement in sousveillance. Using pedometers, heart rate monitors, electroencephalography, cameras, and various other devices, practitioners of self-quantification track biometrics and measure daily activity in order to both better understand themselves and, more often than not, attempt to change habits and behaviors. As the old saying goes, “what gets measured gets done.” Self-quantifiers believe this whole-heartedly. I’m starting to think I do too.
Perhaps it seems counter to the ethos of meditation to measure your practice. After all, it is the quality, not quantity of meditation, that counts. But you can’t have quality if you don’t have quantity, and measuring your practice turns out to be a great way of ensuring you have both.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve used an iPhone app designed specifically for measuring meditation every time I’ve sat on my cushion. The app is called Insight Timer. And I don’t intend to stop using it any time soon for one simple reason: statistics. Using charts and graphs, Insight Timer provides a detailed look at how often (or how little) you’ve been practicing in the last week, the last month, and the last year.
I still find the cognitive dissonance of statistics and Zen somewhat hard to reconcile. Certainly the Buddha did not measure a path to enlightenment. Certainly Bodhidharma did not count his days in the cave. But perhaps statistics and Zen need not be reconciled. Perhaps the dissonance is a kind of kōan in and of itself – its own path to awakening.
Nevertheless, measuring my practice has assured a consistency of daily meditation more than any other methodology I have tried. And with meditation, consistency is key. As I’ve quoted before, “only a constant drip of water will bore a hole through rock.” Now I can literally see the drips.
Meditation, after all, is ultimately about developing greater awareness, and metrics simply offer another path. Numbers deliver glaring truths we may otherwise easily ignore. Statistics shed light on phenomena we may otherwise never observe. Perhaps the great and ancient sages of Buddhist lore never recommended recording your daily practice down to the minute. But then again, they didn’t have iPhones.