My friends and I have this game we play when we’re feeling unusually introspective (as in, after one or two glasses of Malbec). We go around the circle and ask each other, if time and money were not an object, what’s one thing you’d like to do daily? one thing you’d like to learn? one place you’d like to travel? and so on and so forth. My answers have become pretty fixed over the years — especially for the activity I’d like to do daily. My choice? I’d meditate.
Sound weird? It wouldn’t if you knew me. Hi, nice to meet you. Life-long, card-carrying nail-biter here. I tend to internalize garden-variety worries, and waking up in the middle of the night to type ideas or to-do lists into my Notepad app is not an uncommon occurrence. So, I’ve long suspected that I should try meditation.
The practice is known to provide a whole host of benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression, and pain, according to this Johns Hopkins study. You see, consistent meditation helps to decrease default mode network (DMN) in the brain, which is responsible for mind-wandering and self-focused thought (aka, “What should I watch on Netflix tonight?”). DMN activity, in turn, leads to ruminating, worrying, and stressing about the past and future, Harvard research shows. And if you’re feeling noncommittal, even a few days of meditation can improve your memory and focus.
But let’s be real for a minute: this isn’t about time and money. Of course I have ten minutes to spare every day. And meditation, by its essence, is free… or at least only $1.99 in the app store.
So I set out to conquer this task with the help of (you guessed it!) my iPhone. After testing a handful of guided meditation apps, I figured out which ones get the job done for meditation newbies like yours truly.
Simply Being ($1.99)
You’d be surprised how many meditation apps are on the market — and how pricey they can run (one even cost $399 for a “forever subscription”). So I was pleasantly surprised to discover this simple gem, which, as the name suggests, helps you to push thoughts aside and focus on the right now. A calming female voice and musical accompaniment (choices include “calm ocean shore” and “gentle forest brook”) set the tone without going overboard, and you can opt for general guided meditations between five to 30 minutes.
I zenned out with Simply Being during my lunch break in a nearby park, and also before bed. At the end of the session, the voice instructs you to open your eyes when you feel ready. I felt myself drifting for several more minutes, and came to feeling as if I just took a nap. Which, for anyone who has suffered through a 2pm post-lunch food coma knows, was downright luxurious.
This nifty platform was the easiest to incorporate into everyday life. Buddhify offers 16 scenarios, like eating, feeling stressed, being online, and waking up. Within each category, there are five or six options to focus on the specific area of your choice. And if you’re anything like me (I’m down to meditate, but my tolerance for wind chimes and mystical vibes only goes so far), you’ll appreciate the music-free tracks and inclusion of both male and female voices.
I queued up the traveling meditation during my evening commute, because being tired, hangry, and surrounded by people is definitely a time I could stand to chill the eff out. Since I commute on a ferry to work (a rarity, I know), the app instructed me to concentrate on the feeling of vibration and drifting, and how my body could feel so still while inside something moving so fast. The ten-minute ride flew by, and I felt noticeably less murderous towards the slow-walkers in front of me once the boat docked.
Other favorites included the session for walking through the city, in which I focused on the feeling of my steps and the surrounding sounds (a car horn has never sounded so melodic), and also the meditation for drifting to sleep. I’m the type of sleeper who only nods off after donning an eye mask, rubbing lavender essential oil all over my body, and popping a melatonin, so the effortless shut eye was a serious change of pace.
A bit of a change, this app focuses more on the physical body. Music-free meditations are offered in three- to 30-minute segments, and instruct you to zero in on sensations throughout your body as well as renew focus on your breathing. This was handy when waking up first thing in the morning — and also during a five-minute break at my desk during work, which reminded me to stop hunching over my keyboard. The five-minute “body scan” meditation, which guides you to concentrate on your scalp all the way down to your toes, was especially adept at making me feel less like a computer-bound mole person.
Overall, this experiment made me feel more centered and calm. But most importantly, I focused less on myself. Concentrating on general body awareness and breathing made me focus less on the nagging worries that weren’t doing me any favors. And I haven’t slept better since… maybe ever? Even my boyfriend, long accustomed to my nights of flip-flopping, commented that he’d never seen me pass out so hard. In short: the meditation is here to stay.
No, you won’t see me skipping through a field of dandelions reciting affirmations any time soon. But you might see me on the subway with my eyes closed… and my headphones on.