When Bill Harris turned 50, he was struck with a notion he’d never had before: He should start a meditation practice. A vice president at a small Chicago bank, he was having a hard time handling the stress and anxiousness of his job. He’d known about meditation since college, when a roommate introduced him to the austere practice of Zen Buddhism. But only recently, when he started reading more and more about different types of meditation did he consider that it might be a practical, helpful tool for a regular guy like himself.
One Saturday afternoon he decided to give it a shot: He plopped down in a living room chair, closed his eyes and tried to remember what his roommate had taught him about following and counting the breath and letting go of his thoughts. But like most untrained first-time meditators, as soon as he tried to think about nothing, he thought about everything: Am I doing this right? Is this a waste of time? What else could I be doing?
His wife, Adele, suggested he check the health and fitness section of their app store. The sheer volume was staggering. There was guided meditation set to music, with a timer, a voiceover, chanting, landscapes or fractal images — all claiming to bring the body and mind into a state of deep relaxation, improve memory, boost focus and increase happiness.
Harris picked one that featured Tibetan "singing bowls." When he closed his eyes, it was easy to let his thoughts dissolve into the soothing and etheric sounds of vibrating bowls, and he completely forgot about time. He felt so good afterward that he programmed it into his afternoon calendar. Much to Adele's delight, he now has a structured meditation practice five days a week, plus a virtual hand to hold when he feels unmotivated.
If the Buddha Had Had a Smart Phone …
Sitting quietly for seven to 15 minutes a day may not sound difficult, but try it and you’ll likely join the ranks of people who, over millennia, have struggled to quiet their minds. There are many different kinds of meditation (including Transcendental, where you repeat a mantra; "Sacred Passage," where you reflect on inspirational writings; and visual, where you focus on a flame, deity or sacred "mandala" painting), but many beginners start with "mindfulness," in which you follow the breath or use other techniques to escape the thinking brain.
Lucky for us, the tech revolution has caught up with this ancient practice, and today’s tools are highly effective at reining in a wandering mind. The process of sitting still, observing the breath — or counting it, feeling it, listening to it, even visualizing it — has become a lot easier thanks to both technology and advances in the understanding of brain science.
If you’re comfortable using a smart phone or tablet (or even your computer), you might find live streams, apps and DVDs to be ideal meditation teachers. These tools flatten the learning curve and reduce the amount of time (and potentially the cost) needed to invest to reach this peaceful state of self-awareness that transcends life's daily stresses. “Mediation is not very complicated — we make it complicated by adding a lot of mystical stuff to it,” says Amit Sood, a Mayo Clinic professor and creator of the popular DVD series and iPod app, Mayo Meditation. Challenging, yes, but meditation doesn’t have to be discouraging.
Entrain Your Brain With Technology
From a scientific perspective, what meditation does is alter brain activity: Brain wave frequencies change, neurochemicals are released and new pathways are created, leading to expanded cognitive and creative function. Neuroscience pioneers, like Dr. Andrew Newberg, began using brain-imaging technology in the last decade to observe what meditative states look like. What they see are shifts in the brain lobes that correspond with increased concentration, alertness and relaxation.
Throughout the day, brain waves move at different frequencies. Picture an EEG on a medical drama: normal states create gentle rises and dips; a coma produces a flat line; a seizure, a wild zigzag. The focusing that happens during meditation increases the frequency of relaxed brainwaves and begin to dominate, just as a guitar strum blends disparate notes into a chord. This is what triggers the release of feel-good chemicals (endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin) and sends messages from the nervous system to the rest of the body to promote calm, alert awareness and inner peace.
Brain Wave Cheat Sheet
Any app store offers a bounty of brainwave entrainment tools. Some can get a little technical, so it’s helpful to have a cheat sheet for various meditative states:
- Alpha waves create deeply restful, unfocused states, usually with the eyes closed. Thinking is slower but clearer. This state of heightened awareness and visualizations can aid memory and concentration.
- Beta waves trigger alert, wakeful states and are associated with logical, critical thinking. This is the state of our ordinary waking consciousness.
- Theta waves stimulate deep meditation and light sleep (including REM sleep). It’s a state for creativity, intuition and insight.
- Delta, the slowest frequency waves, bring us into in the deepest, dreamless sleep and some forms of meditation where awareness is detached.
Working With Recorded Meditation Tools
Unlike meditating in silence, when you’re using an app guide, you need to be your own DJ and choose the program before you start. It’s a good idea to sample various programs to determine which best suits your style and preferences: music, chants, tones, soothing voiceover (male or female), counting, nature videos, geometric patterns and so much more.
- Step 1: Make sure phone and computer alerts are silenced. Find a seat close to your tablet or smart phone — couch, cushion or even lawn chair — and get comfortable. Have a sense of how long you’ll be sitting. Best to start with a modest expectation, like 10 to 15 minutes.
- Step 2: Start breathing. You don’t have to clear your mind first: The app will help you, and the act of meditating will guide you to a single point of focus. Be aware, however, that even as you’re coached into concentration, your mind will wander and your body will resist the stillness. Continue anyway. Many starts, many reboots: This is the nature of meditation.
- Step 3: Repeat. It’s OK to stumble. Focus is cumulative. Though your mind will likely wander, don't worry. Once your mind gets a taste of stillness, the frustration of losing focus will be easier to tolerate. Starting over usually becomes a welcome habit. That’s when you know you’ve successfully started a meditation practice.
Apps or Streams: Where to Start?
There are thousands of live streams and apps for meditating. Some will energize you, others will calm you down and restore you. The following are a good place to start with breathing, focusing the mind and creating a habit that will have you meditating like a monk in much less than a decade.
- Tom Kenyon's Acoustic Brain Research Meditation CDs use sound, or “bio-pulse technology,” to induce the brain into alpha, delta and theta states. Tracks are fashioned to keep you focused while simultaneously chilling you out. They prolong attention span, restore energy and relax a busy mind. $5–$16.95.
- Gaiam TV offers live streams of Guided Meditation for Health and Wellness from morning breathwork to advanced meditation. For a monthly subscription price, users can watch streaming instructional videos and documentaries and take virtual classes in meditation and other areas of wellness. $9.95/month.
- Source Vibrations' MP3s and Live Stream Videos of Guided Meditations offer a bounty of creative meditations using ancient solfeggio music (think Gregorian chant) and visual stimulation that bring the mind into deep awareness and creative inspiration. $4–$19.
- Simply Being's app for Guided Meditation and Presence Support uses voice, music and mandala image control, making this meditation app easy for beginners. Loop options for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes. 99 cents.
- Tech 2000, Inc.'s Long Deep Breathing App is an easy introduction to meditative breath. The latest version offers several advanced options, including customizing the length of time for the inhale, the hold-in and the exhale. 99 cents.
- Pineal Gland Stimulation This live stream You-Tube video is a nine-minute introduction to the relaxation response via pineal gland (“third eye”) stimulation featuring beautiful colors and vibrational sound is an excellent first meditation experience. After two minutes, you’ll notice you almost can’t avoid breathing easier and feeling the love. Free.
- Take a Break for Meditation is a live stream video that combines the visual of a burning candle with narration that guides you in counting your breath. This two-minute video from the Mayo Clinic is hard to beat. Free.
- Banzai Labs, Apps' variety of entrainment apps stimulate brain wave frequencies into the various states of mind, ranging from deep sleep to intense focus and concentration. After a few minutes of listening, userss brains will start to synchronize with the perceived beat and enter their chosen state. 99 cents.
Chicago-based Suzanne Clores, author of Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider, has contributed to Chicago and Minnesota Public Radio, Public Television, Fit Yoga, Martha Stewart Living and Shambhala Sun.