I can’t relax.
It’s not just me. Everyone is having a tough time relaxing, sleeping, and getting any sort of emotional relief from this endless pandemic. COVID-19, you’ve kicked the world’s butt.
That’s where meditation comes in. Mindfulness, chanting, being in the moment — whatever you call it, the meditative state is supposed to bring some solace to the situation.
The literature, what there is of it, would tend to agree. A 2016 meta-analysis found that mindfulness-based meditation worked very well in combating stress among college students. A mindfulness app, then, primed to poke and prod the reluctant practitioner into daily practice, might be a good plan. But what are the best meditation apps in 2021?
I decided to try out two different (and newer) apps, one free and one with a paywall. I also investigated a free app that’s supposed to control bedtime doom scrolling (guilty). Keep in mind, you have to use these apps for them to work.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer was given free access to the apps mentioned in the “Best Meditation Apps for 2021” article but that did not influence her opinions. Other apps she reviewed did not make the list.]
Waking Up is a relatively new app that grew out of meditation expert Sam Harris’s writings and practices. Harris is quite famous, indeed almost a guru, and has celebrity followers aplenty. The app itself is designed as a subscription; if you opt for the free version, you won’t have access to much. And Waking Up has loads to offer, from everyday prompts with Harris’s 30-second observations and advice, to a 28-day introductory course.
There’s also a ton of theoretical information here. In fact, it might be overkill for many. In most households, carving out five minutes locked in the bathroom for a fast meditation might be all that’s possible; an hour-long lecture is a laughable luxury (and also competes with, say, an hour of Netflix). Guess what wins?
According to Scott Hannan, Head of Growth, Marketing and Partnerships for Waking Up, the informative approach still works even for busy people.
“If one is willing to invest 10 minutess every other day in a mindfulness practice, wouldn’t they want to get everything possible from that time? We understand that not everyone is looking for that more in-depth understanding of how their minds work. For those who are, or realize they are during the introductory experience, the payoff of combining some theory with the same amount of practice time they would spend in another app can be profound,” Hannan tells Parentology.
One thing Harris makes clear in the introduction to the app: You shouldn’t meditate just because it “changes the brain.” His point is that lots of things, from what you had for breakfast to the CBD gummy you chewed last night, change the brain. Instead, Hannan suggests measuring it through eventual outcomes.
“Meditation can be paradoxical in the sense that our minds are already free, but we have to work to understand that. By connecting this ‘work’ to outcomes, we can reach more people. For example, helping people understand that with each practice, lesson, or guest conversation, they can accrue knowledge. They would find an antidote to distraction. They would be able to end their identification with every thought that flew into their head. They would be able to truly experience paying attention to what matters in the moment, be that their family, their friendships, their work — everything that they have already decided is worth their time but haven’t understood how to actually be there to reap the rewards of the investment,” Hannan says.
So, if you desire lots of educational opportunities, a ton of metaphysics, and a daily five to ten minute automatic meditation session waiting for you on the app, Waking Up is for you. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to pay for it, and it’s about $100 per year.
New and Free:
It’s one thing to have a free mind. It’s quite another to have a free mindfulness app that actually gives you choices. The very new Healthy Minds app is that very rare bird.
Healthy Minds Marketing VPJocelyn Harmon explains that, since the company is a non-profit, (connected to The Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin) it’s able to offer more for an (optional) donation. “It is a very busy space with a lot of exceptional offerings. We believe we offer something a little different that has the ability to democratize emotional well-being,” Harmon says to Parentology.
The app combines an appreciation for the science (again, such as it is), with utility. It’s based around four pillars the center deemed necessary for a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. Its modules are very easy to follow and blessedly brief. One six-minute mini-lecture on mindful awareness, for example, is then teamed with a 5-20 minute (your choice) meditation session. It’s arranged in a checklist fashion, which gave me a satisfying sense of accomplishing something, even if the goal was to actually transform into nothingness.
It’s also not as insistent in tone. Sure, the thing would like you to meditate every day, but it’s polite about it. And the instructor’s voices are soothing and friendly. There’s also a large selection of specific meditations, like dealing with holidays, getting to sleep, and even micro meditations that last for only a minute or two. All this variety is useful for the novice and veteran alike; again, the fact that it’s free is a bit staggering.
“First of all, give yourself some compassion because this is a very challenging time for everyone. Supporting your own well-being is an incredible gift to give yourself, but don’t make it another stressor. We always recommend starting small, with manageable goals to help form a habit. For example, can you listen to an active meditation every weekday morning while taking a shower? Make it 5 minutes. That’s all — five minutes a day,” Harmon said.
Stop Scrolling to Hell:
It’s just too easy to start scrolling through social media and news while in bed. And even though I have those dubious blue light-blocking glasses, I still get all rattled. The result is crummy sleep, leading to crabby days.
Scrollaby is a bedtime scrolling app. It’s not precisely meditation, although it offers some sessions. As I scrolled, I found white noise, peaceful images, meditation sections, “sleepy stories,” and other calming offerings. And each time I launched it, there were new things to lull me to sleep.
Scrollaby is soothing (the psychedelic occasional visuals aside; try it and you’ll see what I mean), peaceful, and sort of boring. Not bad boring, just more like sleep looks pretty good next to it. I mean, when choices are sounds from Tom’s Pond (all hail Tom and his merry band of frogs), a “sleepy history” story with a female narrator who already sounds halfway to dreamland, or a “forgiveness” meditation, it gets soporific pretty quickly.
If you find something you like, it’s easy to save it to favorites. There are no messages or reminders, no demands on your time. And, best of all, Scrollaby is free.
There are plenty of other, older meditation apps out there: Calm, 10% Happier, Headspace, Insight Timer, etc. All of them will probably garner good results if you use them on a regular basis. Some are free, some aren’t. All in all, the Healthy Minds app seems like the best “value.” It’s completely free and offers plenty of sessions and decent advice. And, if you’re not forced to do it (it’s not your job, for instance), odds are it’ll help you get through these challenging times.
So, peace out and namaste. Now, what’s on Netflix?
Best Meditation Apps for 2021 — Sources
Healthy Minds Innovations