11 Technologies That Support Meditation Practice
Updated: May 13
A list of my favorite meditation apps and technologies:
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. Meditation has been taught freely for millennia. Commoditizing it concerns me. Creating and sustaining apps, however, takes 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. 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.
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 measurable 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 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 another 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, with training, be improved.
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.
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.
8. Oculus: Virtual Reality Goggles
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. 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.
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.
10. 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.