Like many people with anxiety, I've tried lots of different things to relax.
I go to therapy, exercise frequently, sleep well, eat mostly healthily, and have a small prescription for Xanax in case I have a particularly bad anxious episode. But day to day, I often wonder if there's more I could be doing to manage my anxiety, and to keep some (if not all) of those bad episodes from happening.
That's where meditation comes in.
After reading a list of meditation apps on this very website, I decided to choose a few and test them out.
Not knowing what might (or might not) work for me personally, I tried to choose apps that were distinct in approach and time commitment required. I also preferred apps that were free or inexpensive.
I came up with a list of five apps, and decided to try each of them for three days apiece. Here are the results.
I start this experiment on a horrible day, which, I guess, is good. My morning is stressful, and I feel inexplicably down. I also burn the roof of my mouth on my egg sandwich. At lunch, I almost murder someone who blocks my entry to a restaurant just so he could point to the line I didn’t even need to be in because I ordered ahead of time. I planned to meditate in the morning, but I put it off until the afternoon, because I didn't want to take the time to just sit doing nothing. This is probably part of the problem.
Around 1:45, I open Headspace, and start the Level 1 “Take 10” segment.
A British man says, “Hi. My name’s Andy, and welcome to Headspace.” I watch an animation of a cartoon man making his way through a day, biking and sitting on the ground and walking around. Andy tells me to find a creative, relaxing place. I find him irritating. He says to do the meditation at the same time and place everyday, so I guess I will do this at 1:45 tomorrow, at my desk.
I pause the intro about seven times to answer text messages and emails. I have Twitter open, which DEFINITELY goes against the goal. When, after I finish, Andy asks if I feel a little calmer and more relaxed, the answer is definitely no.
The morning after my first attempt at meditation, I wake up at 5:00 in the morning and can't fall back asleep before my alarm goes off at 6:15. My 7:00 am yoga class is, so far, much more restorative to my mental well-being, and puts me in a great mood despite my tiredness.
I dread the moment when my calendar reminder to meditate pops up — not a good sign. This time I try to find a little more privacy, and head into a conference room. This helps a little, but then I open my eyes and see a coworker walking past the glass-paneled room, looking at me curiously. For the rest of the session, I keep opening my eyes to look for people walking by, which definitely takes away from the experience. Mid-meditation, I also remember I have to feed my cats in Neko Atsume. I will say, though, that on second listen, I find Andy's voice more soothing. This installment also features a breath-counting exercise I like.
Today, like Goldilocks, I finally have my situation just right — a warm conference room, without windows, all to myself. This time I do feel genuinely relaxed, and also very angry when it’s over. I still dread the process when I see the notification pop up in my calendar, but I am hoping that by the end of this experiment I will feel differently.
I have the “day off,” though I end up doing a lot of work anyway — emails, editing, checking in. But because I use mostly my phone/personal laptop, and don't have my work one, I don't get the calendar reminder to meditate at 2:00 pm, and thus completely forget about it until 6:00 pm, immediately after venting to my girlfriend about how stressed I was. On first attempt, I really like Buddhify. There are several specialized guided meditations for whatever category you feel most applies, which is great (though maybe hard if you you're too stressed to make a decision). I choose Feeling Stressed, and then “Space,” somewhat at random. SPACE turns out to be an acronym, which is somewhat disappointing. It stands for Stop, Posture, Allow, Center, Expand. After I'm done, I feel mostly the same: stressed. I like the woman’s voice, though.
Today on Buddhify I again choose “Feeling Stressed,” but instead of SPACE I select “Flip,” in which yet another British man tells me what to do. His suggestion is this: each time I am feeling stressed out, I should, instead of focusing on my thoughts, focus on the physical sensations my anxiety is causing me to feel. I get what he is going for, but I am a hypochondriac, and this does not seem like a good idea to me.
For my final day with this app, I choose "Just Meditation 1," mostly to try something different, but also because I like the slightly salty bluntness of its name. I then choose "Now," because it's only five minutes long. I tend to avoid meditations over six minutes long, I've noticed. In this one, a woman with a pleasing voice (possibly the same woman from Day One), tells me that she won't give me many instructions apart from bringing my thoughts back to my breath. It's pretty standard stuff, but in a nice way. I'm almost sorry to be trying a new app the next day, and I will be even sorrier when I actually see what it's like.
Next up is the “7 Second Meditation” app, which immediately appealed to me. I would not even have to find a place to go, because by the time I sat down in a new location, it would be over. So, I do this one at my desk too. When I open up the app, it prompts me to choose a time at which I typically become stressed. (There is no option for "constantly.") I choose one minute from then, and one minute later, it appears on my lock screen: “Take a deep breath. Reflect on 3 things you are grateful for. Smile :-)” I am aghast. Horrified. How can one “reflect” in five seconds, presuming it takes one to breath and one to smile???
My “7 second meditation” today is to “Take a deep breath. Send thoughts of gratitude to those that consistently bring you happiness. Smile.” I am sensing a theme. The reminder goes off when I am in the kitchen preparing dinner, so I stop in the middle of the floor, holding a knife, and close my eyes. I think of four people. There are probably more than four people who bring me happiness, and I would have thought of them if I had more than seven seconds.
The meditation reminder arrives when I am walking to dinner with friends. It is another platitude about being grateful or something similar. This time, when it tells me to smile, I deliberately refuse.
Next up I'm using “Nature Melodies,” which is less a meditation app than it is a white noise one. Still, both have similar goals — to quiet one's surroundings and allow one to focus. For an afternoon session, I select “Thunder & Light Rain." I immediately have the shit scared out of me by a giant, dangerous-sounding crack of thunder. I quickly change it to “Water Frogs,” but find the frogs equally aggressive. “Jungle River” proves too creepy — I can feel the gators lurking. And “Airplane,” are you joking???
I feel anxious for reasons I can’t totally pinpoint — though I’ve had a guest in my apartment for two days, and it’s my girlfriend’s birthday weekend, so maybe I just found the reasons — so I decide to listen to the “Twilight” track for about ten minutes in the middle of the afternoon. I again find the track mostly pleasant but oddly aggressive. Why are the birds SO noisy if it’s supposed to be twilight? Then, suddenly, around six minutes in, there is the unmistakable growl of a jaguar, and I am jolted back to reality. There is some relief, I suppose, in the fact that at least my reality does not include any jaguars.
I completely forget to listen to any nature melodies, and have a very relaxing and wonderful day. Correlation does not imply causation, I KNOW, but.
For Zenify, you choose a range of time you'd like your meditation reminders to appear, and to keep with my sort-of theme, I choose 1:00-2:00 PM. I get a notification around 1:30 in the afternoon, which states: “Whatever you are doing now, just freeze! Don’t move an inch. Don’t forget to breathe though :) Be totally present.” I am at my desk when this happens, and I try to freeze, but it is difficult. I stare off for a minute or two, taking deep breaths. This app creeps me out. It might be the drawing of the little boy.
Today's assignment is to look at an image (above) and “think about how I feel.” It is modernist, maybe — abstract streaks of turquoise and coral-red. It makes me feel nothing. I don’t like how this app refers to my meditation breaks as “assignments.” It makes me dread them even more.
For the final day of this app (and this experiment altogether), my Zenify assignment is as follows: “Take a deep breath. Feel your lungs expanding your chest, ribs and spine. Exhale abruptly, clearing everything that’s bothering you. Repeat a few times.” While breathing is a central and vital part of the meditation process, and I get that, really I do, I just sometimes wish there was more to it. Then again, this app was free.
When I first started this experiment, I hoped that 15 days' worth of meditation would bring some recognizable gain in inner peace to my life, even if I preferred certain apps over others. I hoped that a daily practice of even a few minutes might make such a difference that I'd be convinced to incorporate meditation into my life on a permanent basis.
In the end, though, I feel the same as before — occasionally anxious, often for no discernible reason. And to be fair, no meditation app (or group of meditation apps) could possibly eliminate all worrying in any amount of time, much less 15 days. Probably the best they can provide is a small respite, each day, from the noise of one's mind.
For me, the best app for that purpose was Buddhify. It's extremely comprehensive, with so many meditation possibilities that one could use it regularly for months with only minimal repetition. It's genuinely instructive, soothing, and also beautiful to look at.
The worst app I tried was 7 Second Meditation, the "KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON" poster of meditation apps. Ugly and overly saccharine, it's not worth the annoying pop-up notification you'll inevitably end up swiping aside on the daily.