About seven years ago, I was in a burger joint with a few friends from school (presumably stuffing food into my mouth as un-mindfully as is humanly possible). Conversation was flowing nicely. But in my case, contributions were limited to the brief gaps when my mouth wasn’t completely stuffed with chips and burger sauce. A dear friend of mine – Justin Hast – started talking about meditation. A little concerned that Justin was about to reveal his exit from Western society and full indoctrination into the cultish world of New Age spirituality, I leaned in to hear more.
I was intrigued. Justin didn’t fit my highly prejudicial stereotype of what meditators should look like, or how they should act. He dressed normally. He was a rugby player. He didn’t wear tie-dye T-shirts. I’d never heard him say “namaste” before. What the hell was going on?
As I learned, my good friend had started using a meditation app: Headspace. This was seven years ago, at a time when these kinds of apps were fairly new. And they hadn’t been around long enough yet to break down (some) of the stigma surrounding people who wanted to train their minds to improve their mental wellbeing and performance. He talked about how using the app for as little as ten minutes a day was improving his sleep, lowering his anxiety and stress levels, and making him more productive. Click here for some more science on the benefits of practising. My interest was pricked that day. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Had it not been for that conversation, I wouldn’t have picked up meditation. Or become a meditation coach. Frankly, I’d be a far less happy human being as a result. And one so constantly distracted I’d still eat food without realising what was even going in my mouth. The Headspace app didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But using it was the single most important decision I’ve ever made in my life. And I know now that many other people feel the same way.
Meditation apps have exploded in popularity in recent years. The biggest meditation app is Calm. It has over 80 million users, is valued at over US$1 billion, and was Apple’s App of the Year in 2017. Headspace – where I cut my teeth – has around 70 million users and is valued at over US$320 million. There are tens of other meditation apps to choose from. And for me, it’s no surprise that some analysts see the meditation app market reaching US$4.2 billion by 2027. The sector is set for spectacular growth as global awareness of the importance of mental health issues continues to increase.
Which App To Choose?
Before you ask, I haven’t been paid to plug any of these apps; this is just my genuine view on each of them. There’s a hell of a lot of choice out there. Each app has its own benefits and limitations. For the absolute beginner, Headspace is your best bet. It’s simple, easy to use, and has cute little animations. These animations can help you cope with the realisation that your thoughts are completely out of your control, one of the first steps on anyone’s meditation journey. I used Headspace for a year or so when I started, and it worked a treat.
For those who’ve progressed a little further, I’d suggest Waking Up by Sam Harris. Harris is a suit-wearing neuroscientist and prominent atheist philosopher (he’s pally with Richard Dawkins and was close to Christopher Hitchens). Hearing him speak and looking at him, he’s the antithesis of what a stereotypical meditator should look like. Harris is an incredible orator. And he also brings a lot of neuroscience and philosophical arguments onto the app, which can be very helpful indeed for people who want to make the most of their meditation practice in their wider life. And, ultimately, to try to become slightly better human beings.
Calm is great, and has lots of different content and output to choose from. Ten Percent Happier by Dan Harris (no relation to Sam Harris) is also a great one for people new to meditation who are allergic to wishy washy, New Age mumbo jumbo, as I was. And still am. Insight Timer is a great free app with meditation recordings from global celebrities like Russell Brand, and even a few from global non-celebrities like me. There’s a hell of a lot of choice, and something for everyone.
The Next Step
So, meditation apps have been a game changer. They’ve normalised meditation all over the world, and have helped literally millions of people improve their mental wellbeing and ability to enjoy their lives. In my view, few things in recent decades have had as profound an impact on global mental wellbeing as the spread of these apps has. So, to all of those involved, well done indeed. And, thanks to you, I can now tell people that I meditate without them immediately changing the subject or pulling a facial expression which screams, “Christ, Mike’s lost it. Wonder when he’ll stop wearing shoes and shave his head?” Not always, but most of the time.
After a couple of years of practice, I found myself moving away from the apps. What many people find is that once you get more skilled at meditating (following your breath and bringing your attention back when the mind wanders), the guided meditations can actually start to interrupt your flow. You might find that rather than helping you keep your mind on the meditation object, the instructions become distracting. Your mind hadn’t wandered. But you hear a voice telling you to bring your “attention back to the breath”. If this is you, well done. You’ve gained a modicum of control over the unruly collection of 86 billion brain cells located in your skull. Ultimately, the next step in your practice is to get to a stage where you can meditate without any instruction at all. There are four benefits of going it alone with your practice, when you feel ready:
- You can meditate whenever and wherever, without needing to grab your phone.
- It becomes easier for you to remain present in daily life.
- Meditating without instruction trains your mind to notice mind wandering all by itself, rather than relying on an app to tell you.
- Having even a few moments in our busy lives when we aren’t reliant on technology is really very liberating.
You shouldn’t run before you can walk. And trying to meditate without an app when you aren’t ready will probably result in frustration. But for those who are ready, meditation lessons might help you take the next step. While the apps are great, there’s no real substitute to one-to-one instruction. A meditation teacher can point out your blind spots and give you the tips and tricks needed to take your practice to the next level. It certainly was the case when I wanted to improve. And spoiler alert: this is something that I offer too.