By the time I’d gotten laid off from my cushy office job and lost my health insurance, my life was in shambles. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of three years, was living in a tiny apartment with no sunlight and had an energetic dog that barely got any exercise. I spent most of my time eating entire loaves of Panera Tomato Basil bread, binge watching King of the Hill on Netflix and drifting in and out of sleep on my bug-infested couch.
I wasn’t looking for a new job, I wasn’t writing my novelette, I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t training my dog, I spent no time with friends or family, I sometimes invited hook-ups over to my dingy apartment to have sex on my mattress covered in dog-hair on the bedroom floor.
I wasn’t suicidal, but I wasn’t exactly connected, thriving or fulfilled. I needed a change, but wasn’t sure what to do, especially since I was poor and had no health insurance. I couldn’t afford a psychiatrist or anti-depressants, and even when I could, I still felt lethargic, aimless and buried under a non-stop cycle of negative self-chatter reminding me of my own inherent worthlessness.
When I studied Eastern religion and philosophy as an undergrad, I daydreamed about being a clear-headed master of meditation: content, confident and grounded in the present rather than stuck in a neurotic mind-loop of insecurity and overcompensation.
But like Björk once said, “I’m no fucking Buddhist.” I believed in the self, and couldn’t imagine me dispassionately responding to emotional events let alone sitting quietly in the lotus position for 20 minutes while peacefully breathing in silence. It sounded like hell. But I needed to do something.
So after researching for a bit, I found two meditation apps that I’ve been using ever since.
I started with Smiling Mind, a free guided-meditation app that’s perfect for beginners. The app gradually introduces newcomers to different aspects of meditation — everything from scanning the body for stress to dealing with distracting thoughts — using a series of guided audio courses whose skills build upon one another.
It’s a great start for those who can’t imagine sitting and breathing for long periods of time because most of the courses only last somewhere between three and seven minutes. There’s even a “bite-sized” section with one to four-minute meditations that are so short you can do them on the bus or toilet, that is, if you need a quick way to calm down or chill out.
Also, the voice on the guided meditations is really sweet and encouraging. “Don’t worry if your mind drifts,” he says. “It’s quite normal. It’s what the mind is supposed to do. Simply acknowledge that your mind has drifted, and return to the sensation of breathing.”
Before too long, I felt more mindful during my daily activities and became more aware of the stress or mental chatter clouding my mind. I also started doing longer stretches of guided meditation, which lead me to the next app.
Headspace is hands-down the best meditation app for anyone who wants to make meditation a daily or lifetime practice. Like Smiling Mind, it starts gradually by introducing newcomers to 10-minute guided meditations with helpful (and adorable) animated videos that illustrate important concepts.
One of the early animated videos compares the mind to a blue sky and thoughts and feelings to clouds. Whenever there are lots of clouds, your mind is still a clear blue sky behind them. It’s comforting to remember, especially on days when your head feels like a storm.
Headspace’s guided meditations are also constantly reassuring which is great because when you first get started, it’s easy to feel frustrated, like a failure or to like you’re meditating incorrectly.
The first pack of 10 meditations is free. But after that, you have to subscribe (you can either pay $12.95 a month or $95.88 a year), but it’s completely worth it.
After progressing through two more packs of basic meditation (gently and successfully guiding you through a set of 15-minute and eventually 20-minute sessions), the app opens up to offer all sorts of meditation packs for issues like anxiety, stress, pain management, creativity, self-esteem, productivity, focus, motivation, relationships, communication and more.
There are even smaller meditation packs for activities like eating, walking, commuting and sleeping and SOS sessions for when you’re having an emotional meltdown.
I’ve now been meditating almost daily for about two years. Not only has it made me more aware of my mental habits and bodily stress — which helps me to stretch and de-stress whenever life gets difficult — but it has also made me more open to experiencing the world around me. I can now listen to people and watch events unfold, knowing that I can quietly observe, accept my thoughts and feelings as temporary (rather than permanent) and choose my actions thoughtfully rather than reactively out of fear or passion.
I also got a therapist, found a new job, scored a new apartment with a great roommate and became tidier and more self-loving. But all that took a combination of luck, good timing, lots of self-work, a great life coach and other types of self-care.
These days, I’m still no meditation master. I still get stressed sometimes. Thoughts and feelings can still cloud my judgement and I still get down on myself. Meditation doesn’t solve everything, but when you’re trying to improve your life (and change the world around you) calming your mind is a damned fine place to start.
Featured image by avemario via iStock