13 Technologies To Support Your Meditation Practice
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
More and more technologies are emerging that allow us to measure and monitor our physiological states. What we can measure, we can monitor; what we can monitor, we can change. Technologies that were once available only to researchers in well-funded laboratories are becoming more accessible and affordable. As Director of Academic Technology and a long-time meditator, I am interested in exploring the intersection where mindfulness, neuroscience/biology, psychology, and technology meet.
There are new and promising technologies emerging every year with the potential to transform lives. Below is an incomplete list of my favorite meditation apps and technologies. I stress that this list is incomplete. There are functional near infrared spectrometry headsets (FNIRS), heart rate variability monitors, transcranial magnetic stimulators, EEGs, pulse oximeters, and transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) devices to name a few. I purchased what I could afford on an educator's budget.
1. Insight Timer
Insight Timer is a free meditation app. That's the first reason I appreciate it. Other popular apps like Headspace and Calm require subscriptions whose costs may be prohibitive for some. As an IT guy, I understand that creating and sustaining apps takes a lot of money. DevOps and software engineers, cloud infrastructure, developers and analysts don't come cheap. Insight Timer has a donation based model, consistent with how meditation has been traditionally shared. Meditation has been taught freely for millennia. There are thousands of meditations from hundreds of traditions- secular to religious. This is the second reason I recommend the app. Many of the world's most renowned teachers have uploaded content to Insight Timer. Thirdly, the timer function is excellent. It is what I use daily. I've created over 140 presets for different practices. For example, if I want to train concentration, I use interval bells to remind me to reorient my attention should the mind wander from the primary object of focus. So, if I scheduled a 30 minute sit and, after taking inventory of my state, noted the mind as busy or agitated, I could choose a 30 minute bell with reminders at 2 minute intervals. If, on the other hand, I were rested and focused, I might choose a 30 minute bell with two 15-minute intervals. If I were circuit training, starting with pranayama, then focused attention, a body scan, a visualization, and closing with a loving kindness meditation, I could choose a 30 minute bell with 5 intervals. There is an active community on Insight Timer. A fourth reason I like the app. I've connected with many people I might not have otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.
A drawback is that anyone can upload meditations- charlatans and novices alike.
2. Wim Hof Method (WHM)
The WHM app is based on a protocol designed by Wim "the Iceman" Hof. Wim Hof is a 61 year old Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand extreme cold and for other superhuman feats. Not only has he shared his techniques with the world, he subjected himself to the rigors of scientific testing. The results are replicable. Those who train in this technique, as I have, enjoy many of the benefits.
3. Healthy Minds Program (HMP)
The Healthy Minds Program was developed by professor Richard Davidson, a giant in the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness. The program is structured and guided. Until I completed the program (which took several months), my morning meditation routine began with 15 minutes of WHM, 10-30 minutes of HMP, and the balance to attentional training, visualization, or some other technique. The program is free (as of the writing) and, like Insight Timer and the WHM apps) available on the App Store or Google Play.
4. Breathe Well
Breathe Well is a deep breathing app useful for evoking the relaxation response. With consistent training, we can dial down the stress response and return to a baseline of calm and equanimity. Breathe Well is a free app I use regularly, especially when driving. Before a commute, I set the timer to one of 3 levels- beginner, intermediate, or advanced. The intervals are as follows. For the beginner, the inhalation is 3 seconds, the hold 12 seconds, the exhalation 6 seconds for a rate of 2.9 breaths per minute; Intermediate: inhalation 4s, hold 16s, exhalation 8s, 2.1 breaths per minute; Advanced: inhalation 5s, hold 20s, exhalation 10s, 1.7 breaths per minute. In other words, we are intentionally and mindfully slowing our metabolic rate. Research suggests that a rate of 6 breaths or less induces a state of calm. When stressed, the body secretes stress hormones: glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin. With deep breathing, we can dial down the stress response. After several minutes, these begin to dissolve back into the body. To enhance the effect, I relax muscles on each exhalation.
5. Paced Breathing
Paced Breathing is another free deep breathing app that offers more control than Breathe Well. Users can control all 4 cycles of the breath and set the inhalation, hold, exhalation, and pause before the next breath. I use this app for exercises to build pulmonary control, techniques like boxed breathing and other pranayama exercises. Most of the presets I've created set breathing to a frequency of 6 per minute or less.
The Inner Balance Trainer is a biofeedback tool. The heart rate variability (hrv) sensor communicates with an app (available on the App Store or Google Play). HRV is a biomarker that measures both heart health and emotional balance. It offers a window into the "quality of communication between the heart and brain, which impacts how we feel and perform." The sensor attaches to a tablet or phone via Bluetooth or Lightning and provides real time feedback. "The Inner Balance technology trains us to self-generate a highly efficient physiological state called HRV coherence, which helps us increase emotional composure and clearer reasoning."
For the last 3 years, I ran an informal study with children and found a statistically significant correlation between hrv and affect (behavior, impulsivity, and anxiety). The lower the hrv score, the more anxious, distractible, or impulsive the child. HRV, I found, could, be improved with training.
I also experiment with different breathing techniques. In Breath, James Nestor describes the perfect breath as a 5.5 second inhalation and a 5.5 exhalation. That's 5.5 breaths per minute for a volume of 5.5 liters of air. Circulation increases; the strain on the heart decreases. My average coherence scores are high when I breathe at this rate.
I have been using this product for about 8 years. I preferred the lightning sensor that connects directly into the iPad to the newer Bluetooth. Wearing both at the same time and running one from a phone and one from a tablet, I found results were dissimilar. The data from the Bluetooth sensor, moreover, did not match what I felt experientially.
Muse is a multichannel EEG headband that provides real-time feedback on brain activity. It works best with focused-attention styled meditations. Like the Inner Balance hrv sensor, the Muse headband is paired to a device which provides and collects data via the app. The soundscapes are my favorite feature. When the mind is calm and settled, the user hears calm, peaceful weather. When the mind is busy, the ambient sounds get louder.
I used the older Muse 2 and the original Muse. There were connectivity issues and frequent signal drops. User reviews suggest that the newer models perform more reliably.
8. Mind Monitor
I recently discovered Mind Monitor. Mind Monitor captures and interprets EEG data from the Muse headband. Muse is a 4-channel EEG. Many researchers and scientists on a budget have used the Muse headband. In a 2017 paper, Dr. Krigolson, a professor at the Centre for Biomedical Research, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, compared the headband with Actichamp, a pro grade EEG system. He found that the Muse headband was a valid tool and that the results were credible. These studies were replicated and were followed up with more robust studies which included more than 1,000 participants.
The Muse headband comes with its own proprietary software. For those who are interested in parsing out the EEG data, however, there is Mind Monitor. I use this tool to measure brainwave activity. Different meditation techniques influence different cognitive control states. With this tool, I can measure what I cannot see. There are techniques that accentuate alpha states. Others that promote more delta (slower, more restful states). In other techniques, gamma or theta waves may be pronounced or dominant. This tool allows me to practice more intelligently, in a more objective and empirical way.
Half of my sessions are unusable due to signal loss. Not sure if this is an issue with the Muse or the software.
9. Oculus: Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles
VR is an immersive and interactive experience. The American Psychological Association finds VR "particularly well suited to exposure therapy." We can work with triggers in a controlled environment. To introduce children to meditation, I won a grant and purchased VR goggles. There is a meditation app that immerses users in over 100 different environments. I feel like I'm on retreat. There is a 3D human anatomy app that I enjoy. While it is intended for students, I use it as a map before a body scan meditation. There are other science based apps that allow me to explore the cosmos, the atom, or the cell. This appreciation of creation (from the smallest particles to the largest galaxy clusters) enhances my meditation experiences. The Face Your Fears app provides unsettling simulations that I use to train the mind to remain calm.
BlipBlip is an interval timer. I set it to beep every 20 minutes. I use these reminders to cultivate habits of mind such as radical responsibility, presence, gratitude, or compassion. I am responsible for my thoughts. If the mind secretes a hurtful thought, I don't have to blend with it or validate it or assume it to be true. I can cut, ignore, question, challenge, externalize, observe or simply allow it to dissolve back into the formless void from which it emerged. I choose my response.
I begin by choosing an intention for 50 days, about the time it would take to establish a new habit or prune away an undesirable one. By dividing my waking hours into 20 minute intervals, I reinforce this habit 50 times a day. As of this writing, I am seeking to cultivate goodwill, and to correct the brain's negativity bias and interrupt the fundamental attribution error process. "Don't judge; bless" is a shorthand for this exercise.
Negativity bias refers to the mind's tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, interactions or traumatic events. This attentional focus affects our impressions, memory, decisions, and biochemistry. The negativity bias confers advantages (caution, prudence, and planning may stem from it), but when negativity becomes the dominant way of seeing, it can contribute to mental distress and physical dis-ease.
Fundamental attribution error is the brain's tendency to ascribe the actions or behaviors of others to character or personality, but our same actions or behaviors to situations beyond our control. For example, suppose my child is sick and I rush to the hospital. I speed and cut someone off. I excuse this action or behavior as circumstantial. If someone else cuts me off, however, I may judge them as reckless or selfish. They may be late to a meeting, trying to catch a flight, rushing to the hospital, or simply unaware that my vehicle was approaching.
Blip blip. I pause. I interrupt the narrative. If judging, I bless. I assume the best. For me, this is an intentional exercise that takes practice. BlipBlip helps reinforce it.
11. Note pad
There are many productivity hacks. I use Note pad to list the 1 must and 3 important tasks I want to accomplish.
I use Slides to digitize my vision board. My vision board includes specific, actionable goals that are both tangible (e.g. remodeling a bathroom) to intangible (e.g. cultivating goodwill). I've included meditation goals that are also measurable and specific (e.g. an hourlong attentional hold). For more on the stages of attention, click here.
13. Pulse oximeter
Pulse oximeters measure blood oxygen levels. When we breathe, oxygen enters the lungs. A gas exchange takes place and the oxygen molecule binds to hemoglobin. The blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells in the body. The pulse oximeter slides over the finger and uses infrared light refraction to measure how well oxygen is binding to the red blood cells. This is measured as peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, or SpO2. I wear this device when I practice breath work exercises such as the Wim Hof Method, breath holds, when taking a C02 tolerance test, or when taking a blood oxygen level test (BOLT). The BOLT score is an assessment used by Patrick McKeown to determine relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical exercise.