Thursday, 24 November 2011

Meditation and a Long, (Long) Dark Night of the Soul?

You can't have a meditation diary without meditating. And this, therefore, has been my problem in adding to, or posting to this blog (or indeed, anywhere at all).

Traditionally, such a period of loss of inner senses, and the trust in them (that I'd always. maybe, taken for granted) was referred to as the, "long dark night of the soul". Have I been going through that? Or burnout? Or both?

To be honest, I'm not sure. But I am sure that for a pretty frightening period of about six months, my life unravelled. I couldn't sleep or eat properly. My business dwindled to nothing, whatever I did to try and increase it. In the end,  I could barely write a coherent sentence, let alone meditate. A lifelong talker, I felt like a shadow and could barely make it through a party, never mind a meditation recording.

There have been compensations. My husband has been stellar. I've discovered, and come to love, new activities I never thought I'd touch (like art). I've connected and reconnected with people and places long- neglected. And finally, I've come to realise how little any of us ever knows about our inner world, and where it might take us next.

So what?

If you're feeling busy, you might well think "Shame, but what's this got to do with me?". Fair question, and the answer's two-fold.

1) Having set up this meditation diary, it seems only fair to explain why my posts suddenly dried up.

2) A bit of gentle research among friends suggests that I'm not alone. Whilst this year may have affected different people in different way, many, if not most people, have been through the mill in 2011. And are still going through it. And/or find themselves in a weird kind of spiritual and economic limbo.

So I wanted to raise my hand,talk about what's been going on, and to start a debate about what's worked for all of us in getting through this phase. If you feel able to share what's helping you get through at the moment, please *do* share them. Your words will help everyone, in what could be a "long, dark night of the soul" for lots and lots of people.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Which Are the Best Meditation Timer Apps for Android?

Which are the best meditation timer apps for Android phones and devices? Today seems as good a day as any to answer this question, as it's the start of the long weekend. As well as time off, bank holidays are just made for messing about with your phone (and meditation, of course).

Also, I have a passion for bringing meditation into everyday life. And, at the moment, apps are beginning to do that in a remarkable way.

 "What about Apple?", I hear you cry?."They have loads more apps than Android! Why stick to just Android?"

That's an easy one. At the moment, I only have an Android phone. But if you are an Iphone, or Ipad devotee, I've indicated if another version is available for the various pieces of Apple kit.

Criteria for assessing the meditation apps

Anyway down to the main business of this post. Which are the best meditation apps for Android? Obviously any decisions of this kind are going to be subjective. But I've tried to make things a little more concrete by thinking about the following criteria in relation to each app.

Those criteria are:

1. Is the app closely  related to meditation ? (Obvious, but worth saying).

2. Is the free version of the app worth using in its own right?

3. Is the app easy to begin using straight away as a timer? (You might want to meditate slowly, but get to grips with your technology quickly enough to make this possible:-)

4. Does  the app have something that makes it stand out more than an ordinary download or mobile-enabled webpage? (In other words, is this a good app, rather than just an ad vehicle?)

5. Are they available via the Android market, as some guarantee of security, longevity and ease of installation for the app? (All apps in the list below *are* available in the Android market).

So, it's time for a drumroll.  This is just my opinion, and no-one's paid me a bean to say this, but...

As at April 21st 2011,  I feel that the...

Best Meditation Apps for Android are:

1. The Insight Meditation Timer/Insight Meditation Timer Lite (Also available via the Itunes App Store)

This is simple to use, and allows you to set a bell chime to ring at the beginning and end of a meditation period that you define. In the paid version, you can also define intervals during your meditation at which the bell can ring. What's more, I found it easy to figure all of that out in seconds.

This element of user control makes it an app well worthy of the name, and I particularly liked the quality of the bell chime. The chime sent me straight into a meditative state, and brought me out calmly again. (And that's even though I usually dislike meditation timers precisely because they encourage me to think about, "when the bell's going to ring" rather than meditating).

2. The Zazen Meditation Timer (Also available from the ITunes App store)

In many way, this is a similar idea to the insight timer. It allows you to program sessions of defined lengths. In fact, it even allows you to program sections of sessions in the free version, and to choose your bell chime, all within the free version. So why is this number two?

Well, this is where it gets subjective. Personally, I didn't find either of the bell sounds provided as meditative as the one given by Insight. I didn't have any custom bell sounds on hand to upload. And it took me so long to figure out how to program the intervals, that I gave up.

However, if you prefer different pitches to me, and have a need for free, detailed interval programming within your meditations, this could be a great choice.

3. JustSit Meditation Timer (Android only at the moment, so far as I can tell)

This is the simplest of the "true meditation timers". Like the Insight, it enables you to program one simple meditation session, with a sound at the beginning and the end. Like the Insight, it's easy to use. Unlike the Insight, I found the tone provided wasn't as meditative as the Insight's bell (and *very* quiet on its default setting). And again, I didn't have a meditative sound to hand on my phone to insert instead. But it's a good, free, basic meditation timer.

4. Om Mani Padme Hung (Android only, though there is I think an  "Om mani padme hum" app from another app creator, at ITunes)

This isn't strictly a timer, so it comes further down the list. But it's worth mentioning, as the sound of this famous Tibetan mantrum being chanted, coupled with the spinning prayer-wheel image, makes it a great app, and very meditative. On the downside, the placement of the ads in the free version could feel very interruptive over time (which I guess, is the point-the makers want you to upgrade).

5. Phone Chime (Android only)

This isn't a timer at all, so comes way, way, down the list. But I felt I had to mention it as it's great fun, and would be a possible backdrop to meditation (if you're prepared to be brave, as the app creators suggest, and hang your phone up securely).

Even without hanging your phone up, swaying the phone turns it into one of several different windchimes (eg metal, shell etc) that play at random with each sway, as if in a breeze, complete with background nature sounds.

So there you have it. I hope this review has been helpful. And if I've missed out any other meditation timer apps for Android, please let me know.

Update 31/07/14: Two newer apps

Tslocom's comment below reminded me that it was probably time to update or add to this post. So, here are two more, newer apps worth a look, in no special order:

Meditation Assistant Free

This app definitely ticks the boxes above and is easy to use. The link to the calendar is also nifty if you're worried about fitting meditation into your day.

I personally found that the other apps on my devices didn't switch off when this was running, so I got alerted to email half-way through. But this could be due to something I was doing wrong.Update on August 1st 2014-Thanks to tslocum in the comments below, I can confirm that it's perfectly[ possible to switch off any other distractions on my device through this app, and the error was mine!]

In addition, on my device, the timer came out black and white, with, from memory, some grey. This may be exactly what you're looking for. As I like some colour and pictures, the black and white felt too stark and "businesslike" for me. But that's just a  personal preference. Meditation Assistant Free could very well be the simple, no-fuss, non-denominational reminder and timer that you need.

Lastly, I also like that you can come out of the meditation with this app via any sound on the device: a nice touch.

Buddhist Meditation Trainer

This app probably won't be to everyone's taste. It does, as the name suggests, slant heavily towards Buddhism. Nor is it just a simple timer: the idea is that you meditate on a particular quote and picture each day. So, if you're looking for a no-frills timer, this isn't it.

Having said all that, as a matter of personal preference, I *loved* this app, because:

-It doesn't seek any personal data or info from your phone at all (always a plus!)
-It has beautiful colours, and truly restful photos.
-The quotes go well with the pictures and give a simple, but very effective point of focus for meditation that (for me) worked deeply, fast and well.
- Choices of the sounds to end meditation are flexible, appropriate and calm.

There you have it. If the two latest apps illustrate anything, it's that one size does not fit all. Have fun trying things out and seeing what suits you. And please comment on your experience, or any other apps you find!

PS. There are now so many new Android meditation apps from which to choose that I plan to publish a new and greatly-expanded version of this post soon.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Is This The Most Powerful Reason to Meditate?

The reasons to meditate keep mounting up in research. It helps you keep calm. It may assist in alleviating depression, asthma, and a host of other conditions. For some, it's an essential spiritual connection. There is even evidence that meditation can help to cut crime.

And of course, in addition to all of the above, it helps you feel good.

However, there may be an even more powerful reason to meditate that includes all of the above, and it's this. For too long, meditation has been seen and portrayed by the media as a fringe, weird or "hokey", pursuit, that can't be part of the mainstream. Even those journalists now investigating it more fully approach it as something "other". And this is despite all of the solid benefits, and more evidence than I've space for here, in meditation's favour.

It's Time for Meditation to Become 100% "Mainstream"

Consider for a second the activities that have traditionally been acceptable, such as  high-risk banking, drilling for oil in beautiful environments, or waging war. They may be mainstream, but they haven't exactly put the world in the optimum place, have they? Isn't it time that all the old activities that have harmed individuals, society, and the planet, be marginalised, instead?

So if you've ever felt "weird" for being a meditator, or have wanted to meditate but thought it might be too "woo-woo," this is your moment. Help meditation become more mainstream, and turn the tide towards everything that best supports our world.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Finding Time to Meditate

Why can finding time to meditate be such an issue? And though a meditator for nearly 13 years, I can fall prey to this just as much as anyone else. So this really is an open question, discussing and seeking solutions, rather than proposing a whole raft of them.

Why can finding time to meditate be such an issue?

Finding time to meditate: toughest when busiest?

The deep irony of the whole "finding time to meditate," conundrum is that, for me at least, it pops up the most when I'm busiest, (and therefore of course, when I actually need to meditate more).

This came into sharp focus yesterday, when attempting to move gracefully through a longish list of chores turned into a stressed circus of beta brain waves and shallow breathing by 4pm. Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. Did it give me a bit more insight into the mechanism of this situation? Absolutely.

The "can't find time to meditate" cycle

The unfortunate cycle seems to go something like this:

The "Can't Find Time to Meditate" Cycle


Possible ways to break the cycle

I said  at the beginning that I don't have any neat solutions to the problem. But one way forward seems to be anything (or a collection of "anythings") that break the cycle above and turn it into:

The "finding time to meditate" cycle

In general, I've had the most sucess in breaking the negative cycle with small actions rather than big ones. Telling myself that I can afford to take five minutes off, or even just a minute, to concentrate on the moment, is oh-so-much-more effective in the face of a deadline, and feels so much easier to allow, than 30 minutes of quiet in another room.

How does finding time to meditate work for you?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Meditation Really Can Change the "Shape" of Your Brain

Meditation really can change the "shape" of your brain. That's the conclusion of the latest in a raft of studies recently that have shown the benefits of meditation in plain terms. Only last week, there was the finding that meditation can be a more effective pain-killer than morphine for some people.

Now, a study of healthy women taught mindfulness shows that their brains really did change within weeks of beginning meditation, compared to a control group. You can find out more about the study here.

Meditation really can change the way your brain is wired. Image: Clare Walker

Of course, people have been meditating for millenia, quietly convinced of its benefits just because of the way it can make you feel. But it's always nice to have some scientific confirmation. too.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I just need to go away and change the shape of my brain just a tiny bit more...

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Free Meditation Download

If you're sharp-eyed, you may already have noticed that a free meditation is now available in the right-hand column.

But it's exciting, so here's how to grab your free meditation now

Click "Get it Now" on the image below, and in return for your email address, (I promise to keep it safe, and only to use it occasionally to let you know about GetMeditation offers) a full download will be yours.

Enjoy this free meditation-and pass the details on!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Meditating Before Sleep

Meditating before sleep. I know that there are mixed views about this, but personally, it's my favourite time to meditate, let go of the day and send intentions forward for the next.

The "received wisdom" against meditating at night is that you fall asleep whilst meditating. (Which let's face it, isn't (most of the time) the worst thing that can happen to a person in their lives. Even if it does tend to make the quality of dreams a little more psychedelic-for me, anyway).

Anyway, meditating last night before sleep, I broke the second supposed cardinal rule: don't meditate when you're lying down because (yep, you've guessed  it) you'll fall asleep.

The interesting thing about meditating before sleep like this...

The interesting thing is that whilst, yes, I did fall asleep,  I remained conscious as it happened. First there was a golf course in front of me (relating directly to that which my Long Suffering Spouse was listening to). Which turned into a field, though it was as if the front of me was in the field, and the back of me, still in the bed.

Finally, I felt that I was fully in the field and (unusually for me) lucidly in control of where I went next in the dream.

Whatever received wisdom might say, I'll be repeating this process again, on purpose next time.

Is this something that happens more regularly for you? What's your view on meditation and sleep generally, and meditating before sleep in particular?

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Life as Meditation

Sometimes it's easy to forget that meditation can be a part of everyday life, rather than something you take special time out to "do".

Photo: Jim Fernbank
I was reminded of this yesterday, when my Long Suffering Spouse and I went to our local woods to look at the trees, bursting into life after what seems like a very long winter.(These are his photos, taken on my phone).

Photo: Jim Fernbank

Just being in that place made it easy just to "be", within myself too, enjoying the sun, the wind, birdsong, and all those spring-green trees.

If you have an outside environment in which you can just "be", do you ever use it as a meditation aid by itself? (And yes, I'm thinking even without an iPod-even if there's a meditation download on it).

If you do that already, what's that like, and how would you rate it alongside anything else you already do to bring peace into your life?

If you don't, give it a go, and let us know what it was like.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Meditation Could Reduce Pain More Than Morphine

Meditation could reduce pain intensity and discomfort more than morphine, for some individuals. Just how surprising you find this news from doctors in North Carolina (and reported by the UK's Daily Telegraph here) probably depends on your experience of, and belief in, meditation in the first place.

Better yet, you don't need to be in pain to test out the principle behind it...

1. Pick any sensation in your body, (even just the slightest discomfort or itch) and give it 100% of your attention, just for a few moments.

2. As you give it all your attention, just allow the sensation to do whatever it wishes. Allow equally any thoughts, impressions, images (and/or none of these) to be in your mind as you concentrate, and then to let them go.

3. How does the sensation feel now, after this short period of full attention? It's likely that at the very least, it will have altered in some way. And that's the magic of this simple technique best practised *before* you need it.

(Short intermission for an obvious and necessary disclaimer here , and I know you know it, but as ever, none of this is meant to stand in place of advice from medics...Take all the professional advice you need as well).

Above all, let me know what you think about this idea, and if you tried it, what happened.