Buddhist traveler, former UM student to launch meditation app

A child drops coins into golden Buddha statues as a symbol of blessings on Vesak Day at the Thai Buddhist Chetawan Temple in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. A University of Montana student plans to apply his own Buddhist teachings and skills as a mindfulness coach to launch a new digital platform aim at helping others achieve meditative success. (Samsul Said/Reuters)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Justin Whitaker was a boy, his mother taught him visualization skills to help him sleep at night. It was his first foray into meditation, a skill he would later master, though that would come years later.

Not until he arrived at the University of Montana to study business did Whitaker rediscover his calling. It came in the form of a Buddhism class that offered a meditation lab as extra credit.

“As a business student, I had a lot of anxiety and unhappiness, but meditation stuck with me,” said Whitaker. “It got me out of my funk and angst, and it helped me relax.”

Now 36 and holding a doctorate in Buddhist ethics, Whitaker has teamed up with Bob Funk in Helena to launch a new meditation platform aimed at building a community of inward thinkers.

Part website and part app, the upstart platform will offer community support to those who pursue mindfulness and meditation. Users will also gain access to guided and live meditations, and find the positive support of teachers and mentors.

“Meditation can be even lonelier than trying to get in good physical shape,” said Whitaker. “You’ll be plumbing depths that are new to you, and if you don’t have people talking about that and going through the same thing, you’ll think it’s not for you and you’ll give up.”

Whitaker admits that pairing meditation with the chaos of the digital realm may seem an odd mix of pursuits. So many of his studies in philosophy and Buddhism have led him away from his computer and smart phone.

But in Buddhism, there is a term known as skillful means. In other words, Whitaker said, it’s important to meet people where they are, and in this day and age, most of them are on online, browsing social media, downloading videos and connecting with friends.

“It is a bit of a surprise that it has come around to this, but even the Dalai Lama has a Twitter account,” Whitaker said. “We try to get people where they are and bring them toward simplicity and mindfulness. We’re grabbing people who spend their lives staring at their cell phones, and hopefully we can harness that and connect and do some mindfulness work, and connect them with people through their computer.”

Whitaker’s own journey began in 2001 at UM under the tutelage of Bodhipaksa, who is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and runs Wildmind. He attended a 10-day retreat with a Vipassana group in 2003, and in 2005, he began practicing in the Tibetan tradition, including a sit-in with the Dalai Lama.

Justin Whitaker

The experience, he said, was powerful.

“I had an audience with him, though it wasn’t super exclusive,” Whitaker said. “It was still pretty incredible. He has an aura or gravitas about him, and when he walks into a room, the whole mood and feeling shifts. Whether you practice mindfulness or not, you’re totally absorbed in the teaching.”

Whitaker opened a private meditation practice in Helena in 2015 and began teaching mindfulness meditation through a friend’s yoga studio. The idea for a meditation and coaching app came about when Funk approached him.

While there are other apps devoted to the subject, Whitaker believes they miss the mark. Connecting with a community and those around you are paramount to meditative success, he said.

“I’ve done a little bit of looking at different apps and have played around with one or two,” he said. “You get on there and have that initial wave of interest and motivation, but then you go back to whatever your old habits are. I really emphasize the need for community and connecting with those around you.”

Their upstart platform, dubbed GuideFul, combines aspects of meditation apps with live and guided meditations, online forums and podcasts. Combined with access to experienced teachers from around the world, Whitaker believes the production will ensure those who participate will stay strong on their journey to a more meaningful life.

The app is currently in development and is set to go live this year. GuideFul has launched a Crowdfunding campaign, looking to raise $5,000 to launch its product.

“We already have a dozen great teachers, several of them who I befriended along the way,” said Whitaker. “We have others around the country and world who will be contributing. We have tiers of contributors, and advanced meditation guides to guide less advanced mediators. Getting to those face-to-face meetings and in-person connections is the goal.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com