In my senior year of college, I took a course in Zen Buddhism. That’s a very “senior year of college” thing to do, as I suspected it would be an easy way to breeze through my last semester with the minimum of academic rigor and maximum of navel gazing/napping at the back of the class. Trouble is, I ended up learning something—a lot actually—and with all of the courses I took during my very liberal arts education, it’s one of the handful I remember and actually apply in my daily life years later. In addition to exposing me to the merits of Critical Thinking and stocking my bookshelf with Eastern Philosophy’s Greatest Hits, the class also introduced me to the concept of mindfulness and the practice of meditation.
While the popularity of meditation has ebbed and flowed since the spiritual awakening of the late 1960’s, the practice having an extra special moment as we speak. True, the granddaddy of them all, Transcendental Meditation (TM), has been a constant throughout those years (more on TM in a bit), but today’s variations on mindfulness/meditation practice have been embraced by not only the usual touchy-feely-trend-of-the-month-club suspects, but by everyone from moms, to the grown, unemployed children living in their basements, to our most successful thought leaders, cultural influencers, and industry mavericks.
"Meditation is a purposeful set of specific actions designed to relax, recharge and realign the mind, where mindfulness is the state of being where one tries to be more present in each moment of the day."
As lifestyle guru Tim Ferris relayed in his amazing book Tools of Titans, an overwhelming majority of the “titans” he interviewed employed some kind of mindfulness/meditation practice in their daily routines, so we should all get in on the action. And for the record, the reason for the “/” when discussing mindfulness and meditation is that, while they’re similar, there is a slight difference. There’s no hard and fast definitions here, but the generally accepted idea is that meditation is a purposeful set of specific actions designed to relax, recharge and realign the mind, where mindfulness is the state of being where one tries to be more present in each moment of the day. Is mindfulness a form of meditation? Yes. Is meditation a form of mindfulness? Sure thing. Should I move on before we O.D. on Zen nuances? Most definitely.
As with so much of contemporary life—the ever-growing Health and Fitness industries being an early adopter—apps for our smart devices make accomplishing goals not only simpler, but with a much higher probability of success. Sometimes we need basic instruction, other times we need a way to track progress, and almost always we need inspiration to keep us invested and accountable. The best apps help with all three, and here’s a look at some of the most popular and effective.
(Note—all the aps discussed here are secular in their approach. While there may be some Eastern, Buddhistish feeling to some language, imagery and music, there’s nothing that’s rooted in any organized theology.)
Chances are, you’ve at least heard of Headspace as it is the most visible, “mainstream” industry leader when it comes to meditation apps. To start, Headspace offers you ten 10-minute guided meditation sessions as a way of introduction and helping establish a daily practice, and they’re all free. If you’re motivated to start a practice, this is an easy and approachable way in. Should you choose to subscribe to Headspace ($12.95 for one month to $419.95 for a lifetime), you’ll get access to hundreds of hours of content…specific meditations for sleep, creativity, etc., “emergency” meditations for times of severe stress, and options to interact (social media-like) with other users. Headspace is efficient and to-the-point, and that’s what’s made them my favorite and the team to beat in this space.
While Calm is certainly cut from the same cloth at Headspace, they take a seven-day approach, in both their (free) introductory program and a number of more focused series aimed at managing stress, learning gratitude, etc. Additionally, Calm offers lots to read…articles and inspirational posts to their blog, as well as a homepage with daily features like What is ASMR? If you’re looking for more a mindfulness hub than meditation-specific app, this might be for you. Headspace is certainly more “corporate” in feeling than Calm, but there you don’t have to listen to nature sounds as you navigate the app (and Web site). Personally, unless I seek it out, the sounds of birds and a babbling brook drive me insane. To subscribe, it’ll cost you $12.99 for a month to $299 for a lifetime.
Aura is a bit more interactive than the two previous (and at the time of writing, these were the three most popular meditation apps in the Health and Fitness category of the iOS App Store), as it asks you to share your age, interest in mindfulness, and stress level. It then offers you the option to write, like in a journal, about your daily gratitude. When launching the Aura app, it proudly shares it’s driven by Artificial Intelligence, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. You can skip the journaling if you like and head straight into guided meditations (3-minutes), 30-second Mindful Breathers, Mood Tracking, Sounds of Nature, and, “Gamification: Level up as you learn; challenge yourself with daily streaks.” That’s very not my thing and not at all what I’m looking for from a meditation tool, but I can see where that could be the hook that keeps some interested, and to each their own. Aura is free, and will even sync with your iPhone Health app and schedule alarms for weekday and weekend meditation sessions, a feature I personally found helpful.
Tara Brach Smile Guided Meditation
While this isn’t an app, it’s a 25+ minute guided meditation mp3 that you can download for free and listen to wherever. I also heard about this from Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans, and when Tim discussed just how popular it was among his subjects, I thought I’d give it a try. I think it’s fair to say that this guided meditation feels the most like what you might expect from meditation if all you had to go on was how it’s represented in popular culture. From Tara’s Web site, “This meditation relaxes and opens our hearts with the image and felt sense of a smile. We then awaken all the senses and discover the vastness and full aliveness of presence.” See what I mean? And at nearly a half hour, this is the longest meditation of the bunch.
But from what I’ve read, it works, and if I can’t find 25 minutes in the course of my day, I’m likely doing something wrong that meditation could perhaps help me fix. I’ll likely mix this in on weekends when I have more time, or when the apps begin to feel a bit redundant.
If I can’t find 25 minutes in the course of my day, I’m likely doing something wrong that meditation could perhaps help me fix.
Lastly, I said I’d return to the subject of Transcendental Meditation, and being mindful. There’s no TM app, as it’s a technique founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India back in the 1950s…a technique taught to you by a real live teacher for a real live cost of $960 ($480 for full-time students). TM is wildly popular amongst celebrities from David Lynch to Ellen DeGeneres to Hugh Jackman to Jerry Seinfeld, and has active “members” estimated at north of 5 million worldwide. While celebrities + Indian guru + money can often = creepy cult, there’s not a trace of that here. I’ve heard and read nothing but good things about the TM practice and organization, but the cover charge is usually the barrier to entry for most (myself included). However, TM is mantra-based (mantra is a word or sound repeated to aid in concentration), and there are alternatives. For instance, Digg founder, angel investor, start-up adviser Kevin Rose is developing a meditation app that will reportedly be mantra-based, and he’s inviting folks to follow and participate in the process via a Facebook group. If you’re interested in apps, meditation, and, well, meditation apps, it could be a fun way to follow along and test drive the product when it’s done. Whether or not it will give traditional TM a run for its money remains to be seen, but given that Rose is a co-founder it will no doubt get lots of attention.
No matter which of these apps (or the host of others available) you use to start or maintain your meditation practice, it’s well-worth giving one a try. Unlike lots of other self-improvement options, with meditation there’s nothing to worry you…no need to consult your doctor beforehand or buy special gear. It’s funny how sitting quietly seems so simple, yet so few of us do it with any regularity. So be a rebel and give it a try—what do you have to lose (other than some stress)?
John Bobey is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles whose work includes The Today Show, Huffington Post, Saturday Night Live, and The Late Show with David Letterman. He can be reached at email@example.com.