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A beginner’s guide to mindfulness meditation, and the best apps for learning

Brendan Hesse
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Andriy Popov/123RF

“Mindfulness” is probably a word you’ve heard a lot of lately. It gets thrown around as a synonym for words like attention and concentration, often as a command or suggestion: “be mindful of the step,” or “be mindful of others’ emotions.” It’s also possible you’ve heard it said by those in the self-help crowds, often dressed in flowery, poetic cushioning. But meditation and mindfulness can have very real, measurable effects on your well being. That said, the practice is more than simply sitting calmly.

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What, exactly, is “mindfulness?”

Mindfulness is, essentially, being aware of your body and your mind; being aware of thoughts and emotions as they pass through your head, and sensations that occur in your body. In modern life, it’s easy to get lost in thought, as we often get distracted and become busy at almost all hours of the day. This makes it hard to recognize that subtle back pain or twinge of irritability, making it easier to act on impulse rather than calmly respond to it. It also makes us less likely to recognize our surroundings or positive emotions, and thus, we miss out on them. So how to do we fix this, and increase our mindfulness? The answer is meditation.

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Mindfulness Meditation is a form of meditation that incorporates aspects from Buddhist meditation styles, like Vipassana and Zazen, but is presented in basic terms divested of any religious or overtly spiritual/metaphysical vestiges and vocabulary. Traditionally, meditation was thought of as a way to “liberate” oneself of the cycles of life and rebirth, and reach enlightenment, or Nirvana. However, mindfulness meditation focuses purely on the benefits of meditation on your brain and body, and by extension, your relationships and daily life. There are many benefits, all backed up by science. Lots of science, in fact. Lower blood pressure, better focus and creativity, and a deeper sense of compassion and empathy are all within reach.

So what’s the best way to begin meditating? Believe it or not, but you can meditate anywhere, at any time, without a monastery. Here’s how:

  • Find a quiet spot, sit comfortably but with your back straight, and breathe.
  • Feel your breath going in and out. Make note of it as it does, or count each breath up to 10 before starting over.
  • Your mind will wander and be busy, but don’t fret. When you notice this, just gently bring your attention back to the breath.

That’s it — no altered states of mind, levitation, or communing with the universe. Simply breathe, and reset your attention when you notice your mind has wandered.

Ironically, by embracing one of the most egregious distractions we possess — our smartphones — we unlock the potential for more effective meditation. These seven apps will help you begin meditating, learn to stick to it, and practice. Furthermore, they’re all light on (or entirely devoid of) any references to Buddhism or new-age spirituality, and just focus on the facts. Within days, you’ll begin to notice the positive changes slowly taking place.

Seven great apps for meditation

10% Happier

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10% Happier was created by Dan Harris, a veteran ABC news reporter, alongside renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. Named after and inspired by Harris’ book on discovering meditation, 10% Happier is aimed at so-called “fidgety skeptics,” at least as far as the App Store is concerned. Harris, a skeptic himself, developed the app with the intention of removing the fluff and “woo-woo” from meditation and presenting the practice in a clinical-yet-approachable way.

The app provides easy-to-understand explanations of the various aspects of meditation and includes video interviews and discussions between Harris and notable meditation practitioners and teachers, each of which discusses the practice in frank terms. You’ll even have access to real meditation coaches who you can message for answers and guidance needed. These features are all available for a $10 subscription.

For those who are curious about the verifiable benefits of meditation, but struggle with reconciling the traditionally spiritual underpinnings of the practice, this is one of your best options.

Download now for:

iOS

Headspace

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Headspace is another great app for those looking for a simple and secular meditation experience, but who also want to try out various methods of meditation and mindfulness exercises that go beyond breathing.

Headspace is a subscription-based app that features a wide library of guided and unguided meditation sessions, but before you can access the entire catalog, you must first complete the Foundation Series, which introduces users to the basics of meditation. Once you’ve completed the intro packs, you’ll gain access to the entire library and exercise categories such as creativity, stress management, relationships, and an extensive “pro” series that’s designed to elevate your meditation practice. There are also many single-session exercises for specific situations like commuting, cooking, and even those “SOS” moments we sometimes face.

Every session is guided by Andy Puddicombe, the app creator and an ex-Buddhist monk who continues to deliver TED talks on mindfulness and stress.

Download now for:

iOS Android

Stop, Breathe & Think

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Stop, Breathe & Think offers much of the same functionality as other apps on our list — meditation exercises at different lengths and focuses. However, Stop, Breathe & Think also has a quick and easy check-in tool that you can use to find the perfect session for you at that exact moment. Whether that means taking in your surroundings, appreciating the way something makes you feel, letting go of negative thoughts and emotions, or something else entirely. This is a handy tool, to be sure, but it also serves an important role in enhancing your mindfulness.

One aspect of mindfulness is observing how you feel and what you’re experiencing at the moment. This check-in tool creates an opportunity to cultivate that sort of awareness easily and interactively.

The app is available to download for free, but certain meditation sessions cost anywhere between $1 and $3.

Download now for:

iOS Android

Calm

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Like the other apps on this list, Calm includes various levels, with a free “7 Days of Calm” beginner course and an advanced “21 Days of Calm” course for subscribers. In addition to these multi-day lessons, there are also standalone, guided mindfulness meditation sessions that range between two and 30 minutes in length. These include a “7 Days of Sleep” course and 50 unique meditation lessons centered on everything from creativity and focus to confidence.

Calm also displays scenic visuals and serene nature sounds to help you find your happy place, however, this feature probably is best left ignored if you’re interested in cultivating mindfulness. While not necessarily anathema to meditation, the whole point is to be increasing focus and awareness of your surroundings, mood, and thoughts. Still, for relaxation exercises and setting a positive mood, such features are always welcome.

Download now for:

iOS Android

Omvana

best meditation apps

Omvana functions much like the Kindle store or iTunes for meditation. The app offers more than 1,000 different meditation lessons, relaxation exercises, self-help tracks, and yoga music — and that’s just the app’s audio component. Omvana also features visualization exercises written by various best-selling authors.

While the app is a little less guided than the others on this list, the sheer volume of content, styles, and goals makes it more than worthwhile. The app itself is free, but you’ll have to pay for any content you wish to download.

Download now for:

iOS Android

Timeless | Meditation

best meditation apps

Timeless has one of the simplest, most user-friendly interfaces of any meditation app. When you first open Timeless, it greets you with a simple timer that you can use to meditate by picking your countdown time from eight to 32 minutes. The bottom menu offers access to courses, guided meditations by meditation experts, and your progress. The app allows you to track your progress throughout the week and also set goals for yourself. Timeless prides itself on being the most authentic meditation app and is intended to help those who practice meditation seriously achieve inner peace, self-awareness, and be a positive influence on others.

Timeless has basic guided meditations and some free courses, but you will have to subscribe to unlock the more advanced guides. The free content within the app is excellent, and should be enough to help you decide if this is the meditation app for you. If you choose to dig deeper, and we don’t see why you wouldn’t, the subscription prices are $9 per month, $42 for six months, or $72 for the year. If you’re an Apple Watch owner, then you’ll be happy to know Timeless is compatible with Apple Watch.

Download now for:

iOS

Aura

best meditation apps

Aura Mindfulness is all about making the experience of using a meditation app more personal. As soon as you open the app, it greets you and asks you to answer a few simple questions, starting with your name and how you feel at that moment. The app will build a 3-minute session based on your answers. These 3-minute sessions are offered to you every day for free. Like other meditation apps, you can track your mood, but you can also write about your feelings by making notes within the app. This app is also compatible with the Apple Watch, and you can opt to have your data saved with Apple Health.

From writing your daily reflections to answering ‘How are you feeling?’ to start your meditation, Aura is without a doubt one of the most personal meditation apps available, driven by a smart AI. You will have to subscribe to get access to the premium content, and the subscriptions are $12 per month, $95 per year, or a one-time fee of $400 for a lifetime subscription.

Download now for:

iOS Android

This article was originally published on 5-14-2016 by Brendan Hesse, and was last updated on 4-10-2017 by Carlos Vega to add the Timeless Meditation and Aura apps.