My first encounter with meditation happened in college. I began college with a load of credits earned in high school, so even when I majored in film, I had a higher than average number of electives to fill. I responded by sort of drifting into subjects that vaguely interested me.
It was like every joke about ridiculous college courses ever. I took a class that included labs in which we dowsed for underground water all over campus. I took another class that required me to attend an astral projection session with a bunch of strangers as a middle-aged hippie dude talked us through projecting our consciousness out into the world while our corporeal bodies remained behind, lying on his living room floor, breathing in Nag Champa in his house in Cambridge. I took another class about the history of millennial apocalypse cults. I took yet another class in popular cultural approaches to death. We had to read an Ann Rice novel. There were a lot of goths in that lecture hall. I was one of them.
By my junior year, however, I’d started taking courses in eastern religions and philosophy, and ultimately I accrued more than enough credits for a minor in the subject, even without meaning to. One of these courses required students to attend meditation services at a couple of local centers, and on several occasions that semester I found my way to the open-to-the-public beginner meditation sessions at Cambridge Zen Center.
I made a lousy zen practitioner, but I relished the sitting. It was like everything I had ever enjoyed about Christian church -- which I had consciously walked away from as a teenager -- with almost none of the things I hated. It was communal without necessarily being social; there was ritual without dogma. At least, that was my early-20s, mid-1990s experience of it, as a decided outsider taking a tourist drive through the practice.
Since then, I have been a casual meditator, on and off, across my adult life. There have been times when I am extraordinarily mindful and times when I am so far from the moment I barely notice that I’ve had to pee for half an hour.
The benefits of meditation are well established; aside from helping us to de-stress, which is valuable enough, it can also cultivate greater patience, kindness, tolerance, and creativity. It can improve your memory and it can even slow the brain’s aging process.
So why aren’t you doing it? More to the point, why aren’t I doing it on a more consistent basis? Part of my problem is the admittedly ridiculous assumption that I need to be in a certain frame of mind to meditate effectively, that I need to be “receptive” to the process to start with for it to be worth the time to do it.
This is actually the opposite of the truth -- in fact, meditation often benefits me most when I feel LEAST equipped to sit down and and refocus. But sometimes it’s easy to tell myself that I shouldn’t bother tonight, because I’m tired/sad/stressed/distracted/aggravated/upset/angry. It’s because I don’t want to sit with those negative feelings, and would rather fruitlessly fight their influence, even though sitting with them makes managing them much easier.
Most of my life, I’ve done my own individual, silent sitting to quiet my mind. But recently I had cause to check the Apple App Store for a new white noise program, and discovered -- not all that surprisingly, in retrospect -- that there are approximately one zillion meditation apps on there. I’ve always resisted the idea of meditating with headphones on -- how is it helpful if I am tuning out the world around me, and therefore not able to experience and accept distraction without judgment? That has always been a big part of my practice, such as it is. And, I mean, GUIDED meditation? Can I really be in the moment with someone prattling on at me the whole time?
And then I thought, let’s not judge, let’s just try it.
So I downloaded over a dozen of the most popular meditation and relaxation apps on the App Store, and have spent the past couple weeks trying them all out. What follows are the seven I liked best.
Stop, Breathe & Think (Free)
Like the name suggests, this app takes you through a three-step process. First, it asks you to pause, take a deep breath, and check in with yourself. Next it asks you to rate how you’re feeling both mentally and physically on a scale of “great” to “rough.” Then it has you choose up to five emotions you’re experiencing, from a fairly complete list. Finally, it takes this data and provides you with a list of suggested guided meditations, usually ranging from three to ten minutes.
Stop, Breathe & Think was developed by Tools For Peace, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing compassion in people of all ages. The app itself is free, complete with 15 guided meditative recordings, although you can give them money for a bonus set of five meditations from k.d. lang (which I did ALMOST IMMEDIATELY). All of the funds go toward supporting the Tools For Peace organization.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the app is beautifully designed, with clever illustrations and transitions. The voices get that meditative drone right, but without being totally emotionless. And while the subjects of the meditations are on pretty well-trodden ground, they cover it well. (Also, you can use the whole app on the web instead of your phone if you want, which is a really nice option.)
Who is it good for? Meditation beginners looking for a cute app they can enjoy using. Although I think even vets can find something to like here. (k.d. lang!!).
Headspace (Free, optional monthly subscription)
Headspace is probably the best-known and most popular meditation app out there, and for good reason. Headspace challenges users to meditate for ten minutes across ten days, and sets this up as a linear timeline on the app in which each day is ticked as you complete the sequence. Unlike many apps, there is no list of meditation options, and you can’t jump ahead; subsequent sessions are locked until you complete the ones before.
This was probably my least favorite aspect of the app -- one of my personal faults is my tendency to chafe against being told I must do things in a certain order -- but for folks who are new to meditation and trying to establish the habit, I see how this could be enormously appealing, as it removes the overwhelming “what do I meditate on today” question from the process.
Headspace is the work of Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, and his voice is a little more personality-filled than I usually like, but I found myself liking it anyway. Headspace is also filled with adorable illustrations and animations, if that matters to you. The first ten ten-minute meditations are free, but after that you’ll have to sign up for a subscription to gain access to additional content.
Who is it good for? Newbies, and people who benefit from following a fixed system to establish meditation habits.
Insight -- Guided Meditations (Free, optional upgrade available)
I’ve used the original free Insight Timer app as my go-to meditation helper for years, mostly because I like its flexibility -- you can set it to simply time your session, or include interval bells to mark points along the way. I also like that it employs a variety of Tibetan singing bowls for the sounds (although unlocking them all requires a $2.99 upgrade), which is a huge improvement over your iPhone shrieking a digital samba at you to let you know meditation time is over.
Anyhow, I was thrilled to discover that Insight also offers the free guided meditations app linked above, and that it includes 75 (!) free recordings from such excellent teachers as Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. Some of these sessions include a “sponsored by” bit at the beginning, but I can live with that since FREE.
Insight’s meditations tend to skew a bit more candidly Buddhist than some of the other apps designed to appeal to particularly Western audiences; I consider this a benefit myself, but it might not appeal to everyone. The app’s design is pretty abysmal and at best purely functional, although it does keep track of your meditation sessions, and I’ve always enjoyed the maps it shows you post-session, telling you how many people around the world you were just meditating with.
Who is it good for? People who want more variety than the more beginner-focused apps can provide. Also Buddhists.
Calm (Free, optional monthly subscription)
Calm is the app version of Calm.com, another web-based meditation tool. For the free download, you get a few guided meditations included and a list of 50 additional options available by a (pretty cheap) monthly subscription.
Calm’s main appeal is its lovely design; users can combine their chosen meditation with nature sounds, music and animated backgrounds, so if you want to gaze at a tiny rolling ocean while listening to waves and having a woman guide you to attend to your breathing, you can do that.
The woman who does the meditations has a voice that is a bit more overtly cheery and warm than I tend to like; as I’ve mentioned, I go in for more of a drone, and this lady sounds like she could be narrating a ride at Epcot. But even having said that, I’ve enjoyed this app more than I thought I would.
Who is it good for? People who like pretty things, or who are looking to meditation more as a means of being transported to a brain-spa for a bit.
Buddify 2 ($2.99)
I never used Buddify 1, but Buddify 2 is outstanding. This app focuses on what it calls “urban” meditations, insofar as it is designed to help busy citydwellers inject some mindfulness into every part of their lives, during all sorts of daily activities, from riding the bus to working online.
Yes, there is a guided meditation for using the internet mindfully, and it actually kind of works. There are also meditations for exercising, and I was overjoyed by this because walking meditation is one of my very favorite things, but most guided meditations are pointedly aimed at people sitting very still.
Buddify 2 employs a variety of voices, but I haven’t run across a bad one yet. The app first presents you with a color wheel of activities, and when you select, say, “Can’t Sleep,” it will then supply you with a few options to listen to that are appropriate to the task.
Who is it good for? Busy people, and people who struggle with finding time and a quiet spot to meditate, as meditation can actually happen anytime and anyplace.
Okay, so neither of these are guided meditation apps, but I found them in the process of testing and I’m so obsessed I couldn’t not bring them up. Instead of guided meditations, they contain "three-dimensional" sound recordings of nature sounds -- Thunderspace does thunderstorms, and Windy does, well, wind.
The 3D recording seems like a gimmick on the surface but, when used with headphones as suggested, it's actually remarkable. Winds, rain and thunder sound as though they are all around you. I am partial to Thunderspace, as the one thing I miss about living in South Florida is a glorious afternoon thunderstorm (and I am less fond of Windy for the same reason; my fear of hurricanes make winds one of the LEAST relaxing sounds I can hear, but even that is changing a little as I’ve used this app).
These apps also have a couple interesting additions: along with six included wind scenes, Windy comes with a story mode following the journey of a woman named Windy who, uh, really likes wind. There are also “achievements” to unlock, which gains you a bonus wind track.
Thunderspace comes with two storms, plus the ability to pay for more, and can use your phone’s LED flash in a dark room to simulate lightning. If that wasn’t bonkers enough, if you have a fan plugged into a wifi-enabled switch, it can actually synchronize your fan to match the wind sounds in the app.
Obviously, this is some near-holodeck realness, more transportive then meditative. But I was bound to mention it. Also, if there is a drawback, it’s that Thunderspace is kind of expensive -- it currently wants forty bucks to unlock nine additional storms (and all storms added in future), and as much as I love this app, that’s awfully steep.
Who is it good for? People who just want to tune out the world around them. Also people who want a holodeck. I’ve fallen asleep to Thunderspace several times and it’s been bizarrely enjoyable.
So those are my favorites, so far. Did I miss a meditation or relaxation app you love? Do let us know about your preferred apps in comments.