A Meditation on Mindfulness
As we meander through the days hunkered down (with some exceptions) in our forts, finding pleasure from things long overlooked—a stroll down the block, fresh air, eye contact—we rely on our devices to text, call, work, exercise, not out of choice, but from lack thereof. A workout or yoga class that was once an opportunity to disengage from our devices is now a one-on-one Instagram Live experience, a virtual calisthenic reality perched against the coffee table in a makeshift gym studio that shortly before this served as an office desk and shortly after will serve as a bar top.
We’re more synchronized with tech right now maybe than ever before, turning to our devices for telecommunication as we work from home, and then for mindfulness applications to bring us relief from a wired day. Even then, we’re inundated with in-our-face apps with similar motives whose quality and usefulness is indistinguishable. That’s where I come in. While I’ve been cooped up in the apartment I’ve trialed three popular, competing mindfulness apps to determine which one can guide me towards health, happiness, increased focus, emotional control, and levelheadedness, all essential skills for a seemingly endless confinement with my boyfriend who hasn’t left my line of
vision for more than a month—I’ve lost count.
It’s been about three weeks of the experiment and I’m undecided about the result. Such a short trial run isn’t enough to master a meditative practice, but I’ve dipped my toes in a skillset that, as I learned, requires incredible patience, trust, courage, and perhaps most challenging of all—doing absolutely nothing. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that not thinking is nearly impossible. Each app assigned me the same task of quieting my mind. If a thought entered my brain (they never left my brain) I was instructed to acknowledge it, then let it go. During 8 AM sessions I’d desperately try to focus on not focusing on anything, but I’d end up in an Inception of thoughts, thoughts within thoughts, thoughts of thinking about how well I’m doing at not thinking.
Juggling three different mindfulness applications initially seemed doable, but it quickly became difficult to give each application a fair shot. I established a practice with each of the programs, but soon developed a preference for one and found myself gravitating toward it more than to the others. One app trial, Calm, expired after a week, immediately disqualifying itself from the running because I felt gypped. I was left with Waking Up with Sam Harris and Headspace.
The former, created by neuroscientist, philosopher, and author Sam Harris who you might know from his podcast Making Sense, was impressive, though I expected nothing less given Harriss’s personal experience with meditation and his expertise in most fields of study. The app was simple to navigate and had plenty of resources in addition to a fresh daily meditation. There’s an introductory course with 50 lessons, expansive meditative libraries narrated by different hosts, lessons on theories of meditation like “The Logic of Practice” and “The Social Self,” and long recordings of conversations with professionals in the field like psychologist and cognitive scientist Laurie R. Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University.
After a few intro lessons it was obvious that this app is the real deal. Harris guides you through sessions with the ease and assuredness that comes from a deep personal experience with the practice. I felt calm and connected post-session, more mindful of the power of my thoughts and of my ability to (eventually) let them go. This app is insightful and intelligent and will leave you more aware of yourself and of the complexity and beauty of meditation itself. It’s a great choice for those who are looking for an elevated practice with expert guidance.
Headspace was the inverse. It’s straightforward and relatable, enticing users to dedicate just a few minutes of their day to meditation. The app’s goal is clear—deliver meditation to people in the simplest, most accommodating form; there are options to meditate for as little as three minutes. The platform is interactive, playful, innocent, and encouraging. Cute doodle characters are the app’s mascot, inviting the user in, reassuring us with a lovable smile that we can all meditate. There are featured meditations, quick basics or lengthy, mini-meditations, sleep sounds, video techniques starring a member of the cute doodle clan, and guides on overcoming common obstacles like impatience and bad posture. This app balances simplicity and sweetness, it radiates positivity and community. Plus, I’m a sucker for a doodle.
The principles of the practice are the same throughout all apps. The fundamentals are taught by different instructors, for different stretches of time, under different titles, but the root is indistinguishable. As a meditative practice develops, it should become easier to let go of resistance, doubt, and fear and to find yourself living in the moment, at peace with any thoughts that may enter your wandering mind. With regular practice comes increased confidence, improved self-esteem, and a greater sense of fulfillment. I’m nowhere near enlightenment. I’m not sure I even feel a discernible difference other than taking a deep breath and feeling present before I snap at my boyfriend for leaving all of the lids off of all of the jars of everything. I’ve skimmed the surface, but I’m keeping an opening mind as I continue to practice. I suggest you do the same. Namaste