Can meditation apps snag skeptics?

PHILADELPHIA -- The woman's voice was calm, soothing even, as she told me to slowly breathe -- "drink in your breath," actually.

My eyes were shut, hands softly resting on my knees as I was listening to a 10-minute meditation about savoring the little things in life, my first time practicing mindfulness and being told to focus solely on breathing in and out. But solitary breath-drinking without thinking about other things wasn't going great.

Can I really breathe with this head cold? I couldn't help but wonder. How have only three minutes passed? Is my dog close to me right now? Because I can smell her. What jokes will I tell when I write this story about mindfulness? How have only six minutes passed? I have to sneeze.

Over the course of two weeks practicing mindfulness -- a mental state commonly associated with meditation that means being aware of the present moment -- I learned these racing thoughts are normal, especially for a person who has never practiced before (and, in my case, feels largely incapable of relaxing without a glass or two of liquid mindfulness).

Like lots of people, I've had my doubts about meditation. Isn't just sitting alone breathing for chumps? But it's not that I want to be this way: On the contrary, I would like to not feel that I'm doomed to a life of obsessing over my to-do list. I am very down to be more present, whatever that actually means.

So I asked for suggestions for the best meditation apps. While there are seemingly endless options for busy people trying to incorporate some Zen into their lives, I decided on two:

  1. Calm: This app includes daily 10-minute meditations to reduce stress, as well as longer mindfulness practice sessions meant to be completed just before bed. Calm is valued at $250 million, according to the Financial Times, and its founders want to establish the app as the "Nike of the mind." It has been downloaded some 30 million times, and a yearlong subscription costs $59.99.

  2. 10% Happier: This app, while seemingly not as ubiquitous as Calm, is geared specifically toward fidgety skeptics and brands itself as "no BS." Check and check. It features audio and video components that teach users how to meditate, as well as explains the potential benefits. You can subscribe for $9.99 a month.

I subscribed to free trials in order to experience both, because you're not made of money and neither is this newspaper. But before I got started on my journey to either fall in love with mindfulness or prove it's quackery, I sought out some advice from a professional who could offer tips for a first-timer. Jennifer Schelter is a Philadelphia-based mindfulness and meditation coach who has spent two decades helping people better understand their minds and bodies.

First off, she assured me that meditation doesn't have to be the cross-legged, retreat-in-a-dark-cave version you think it is. Schelter said it can be practiced as part of doing things you love the most, whether that's a quiet walk outside or time alone writing. But, she added, traditional meditation "is a great jumping off point."

It also helps to be around other people who practice mindfulness. You don't necessarily have to go to a paid class if you're interested in meditation, she said, but talking about it with others can help you let go of your ego. And practice is key. Like anything else, those who have found the most success with mindfulness and meditation have practiced it the most and found mentors who helped them along the way.

Over the course of two weeks, that last tip played out the most critically for me.

While that first day was rough going -- I spent most of the time during long breaks between directions just thinking about how bad I was at meditating -- I improved, even if only a little bit, over the course of the trial.

By the second week, I was feeling more comfortable allowing my thoughts to come and go, and was learning what strategies work best for me. In my case, counting my breaths more precisely helped me focus.

I also better liked meditations that had more stimuli and didn't take long breaks for silence. One of my favorites from the Calm app was about "breathing in three acts." I helped me physically slow down my own breathing by counting my natural breaths for a minute, then spending a minute intentionally breathing more slowly, then spending a third minute counting my natural breaths again. I was much less distracted because this meditation felt more like an exercise and less like a nap.

Of the two apps, though, I actually identified more with 10% Happier. I loved that the app had length options for each meditation, so I could elect any time from 1 minute to 30.

The first time I used the app for meditation, the narrator assured me that meditation isn't intuitive for type-A people, and that getting carried away in your own thoughts and starting over is a win, not an indication you're terrible at this. It helped me bring awareness to my body, notice my breath and sit still while letting my mind do its thing. I stopped scolding myself for thinking about my to-do list, and started seeing myself slowly letting go of those thoughts.

That said, I didn't become a meditation devotee. What I was missing was one of Schelter's major recommendations: a teacher, mentor, or a partner -- someone who could hold me accountable, help me check my ego, and be there to talk through what compelled me to end meditation early to peek at my email.

The apps claim to be a coach. They're mostly more of a guide -- a one-way street. But they did provide a starting point in my quest toward decreasing stress and anxiety in my life. They showed me I can sit and spend 10 minutes a day reflecting and calming myself.

I know a meditation app will absolutely come in handy on those days when stress levels are particularly high.

Now, back to my to-do list.

Style on 11/20/2018

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