March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.
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Meditation, to paraphrase Thomas Edison’s famous quote about genius, is one percent instruction to 99 percent perspiration. That is the joy and the pain of this most simple practice. Even those who have never formally meditated have the skill set. You’re a pro at sitting down; you’re breathing all the time; you know how to close your eyes if you want to; you are aware of having thoughts and feelings. And you have probably observed yourself having at least one thought or feeling that you didn’t cling onto or judge. You just have to keep doing that, over and over and over.
So how many times do you need someone else’s voice interrupting your progress with some variation on the above instructions? And how much are you paying for-profit companies every month for the privilege of this repetition?
Look, I get it. We all need a teacher of some sort when we start meditating. The mind, with all its chattering loops and constant self-criticism, can be a scary place to venture into alone. Anxiety is real. The danger of reliving past trauma is real. It’s natural to seek support from guided meditation apps, especially during a pandemic. The comfort of a human voice in our headphones can help us feel a little less alone.
But when it comes to meditation practice, the voice can also be a crutch. If you’re listening to guided meditations every time for months on end, there’s a chance you’re not actually doing the work of observing thoughts — you’re just vaguely listening to someone talk about observing thoughts, calling that meditation, and congratulating yourself for being so mindful. In fact, zoning out without awareness, the way you might to a too-familiar song or a boring podcast, is the opposite of mindfulness.
“Guided meditations are like training wheels on a bike,” writes Nickolas Grabovac, a meditation teacher who created a “30 Days of Mindfulness” program. (Unlike those apps, his course of guidance ends after a month.) “You can get into this kind of comfortable, slightly spaced-out complacency, where it feels like you’re doing the meditation pretty well, but you’re not really fully engaged. And that often leads to a stagnation in your practice.”
Trouble is, meditation app giants like Headspace and Calm have a vested interest in not telling you that. I love both companies — Headspace’s new Netflix series is a really useful, accessible introduction to meditation, and Calm was a willing participant in our meditation contest. Nevertheless, their business models rely on you finding enough value in guided meditation to come back to it, spending $13 a month (for Headspace) or $15 a month (for Calm).
Meditation app revenue ballooned to $195 million in 2019. If we all took the training wheels off, much of that money would evaporate. (Perhaps sensing this, many of the apps are moving towards a similar business model: talking us to sleep.)
Increasingly, I have found guided meditation to be a hindrance rather than a help in my own practice. The more you listen, the more you realize their toolbox is limited. I’ve had enough “body check” guided meditations to last a lifetime, and am perfectly capable of feeling sensation in my toes and slowly working my way up to the top of my head without someone slowly name-checking all the parts in between like a second-grade teacher. Or telling me to imagine a ball of light in my body, a training wheel of a step on the way to simply observing it.
To make matters worse, most guided meditation teachers will adopt a certain voice: an overly serious, overly calm drone, almost a kind of hypnosis. (One of the reasons for Headspace’s success is that the voice of Headspace, the effortlessly artless Andy Puddicombe, doesn’t do this so much.) I love Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering work on mindfulness in western medicine and gave his MasterClass in mindfulness a positive review, but even he adopts the voice in his lengthy guided meditations — including an hourlong body check.
So what’s the alternative? Well, for starters, recognizing this essential truth: You don’t need an app to meditate. And if sitting and focusing on your breath without a guide is too daunting, you don’t have to do that either. We’ve listed an array of alternatives here, including five-finger breathing, which involves tracing your fingers and taking deep breaths. Using the Muse headband, I’ve been able to quantify the fact that focused finger-to-finger touching occupies more of my mind — and thus calms it — more than almost any other kind of practice.
Having learned that, I don’t need a Muse to do five-finger-breathing anymore. (Muse’s makers are also, sadly, transitioning to a guided meditation business model; it’s increasingly hard to get away from subscriptions to voices in the meditation app world.) After all, fingers are even more readily available than smartphones. You can focus on them, or any part of you, or your breath, literally anywhere.
The only really useful piece of meditation technology is a timer, so you can relax in the knowledge that you’re only practicing for a certain length of time and won’t miss your next meeting. But any watch will do that. I like the Insight Timer app and the Breathe app on my Apple Watch, but only because they help me keep track (via Apple Health) of how much meditation I’ve done in any given week. You could do the same with a pen and paper.
Another effective low-tech tool is mantra-based meditation, where you simply repeat the same word or phrase in your head over and over — the more meaningless the better. You don’t even need to pay thousands of dollars to receive your personalized mantra at a Transcendental Meditation workshop; you can learn what you would have been given from former teachers. Or you can just rely on the one ancient Sanskrit mantra that is so simple it has become a cliche: Om.
Meditation can be an oasis of quiet on an increasingly chattering planet. Why would you want to add more chatter to the mix?
Meditation as a practice has been around for thousands of years without a teacher telling you how to do it every minute. Vipassana meditation, which involves simply paying attention to sensation in your body, is 2,500 years old and may have originated with the Buddha himself. It is often taught in exhausting multi-day retreats that involve sitting and body-scanning yourself for hours and hours, in total silence, without moving an inch, starting before dawn. The teacher doesn’t talk during sessions, and you don’t even get a “great job!” at the end.
I’m not pretending to have anything like the level of Zen monk-like calm required for Vipassana. Like most of us, I get antsy after a quarter-hour of sitting and doing nothing. I am as much a member of the modern tech world, with all its colorful distractions and insistent notifications, as the next person. But it’s for that reason that I have come to relish moments of deliberate silence.
Meditation can be an oasis of quiet on an increasingly chattering planet. Why would you want to add more chatter to the mix? To quote Alanis Morissette: Why are you so petrified of silence? There is legitimate reason to fear all the thoughts that crowd in, but that just makes it all the more important that we pay attention to them on our own. Feel the fear and do it anyway (unless, of course, you have a mental health condition that could make it too aggravating). Without this hard and utterly boring aspect of meditation, we don’t get the reward of a healthier brain. (Not necessarily happier, but probably healthier, and more tolerant of pain.)
These days, when I do a guided meditation, it’s more of a quick pep talk before the real deal. For this I like Buddhify, one of the few apps that doesn’t rely on a monthly subscription (you pay $4 once). The app presents a colorful wheel that corresponds to various parts of your day, and you pick a meditation that matches your current circumstance: waking up, commuting, being unable to sleep, and perhaps most helpfully, staring at your phone.
WATCH: What even is meditation anyway?
It was from Buddhify that I learned my favorite analogy for meditation: Thought fishing, or the notion that you’re simply sitting by a mental lake trying to catch thoughts before they swim away. Expect to find them, and try to catch them before they swim away. Label them as thoughts, then throw them back in the waters of your mind.
As with fishing, the best moments come in the calm between catches — a calm that is not necessarily improved by someone yammering in your ear at the exact moment when you’d just found some peace.
So by all means, if you’re new to meditation, use a guide. Guides are useful in museums and at tourist sites, after all; they help you get your bearings and have wisdom to impart. Just remember that the best moments of a vacation can often happen when you slip away from the tour group and wander off on your own. You know how to sit. You know how to breathe. You know how to observe thoughts. Now go do it.
Read more about mindfulness
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