There’s an old story that turns up all over the world that goes something like this:
A young man (it’s an old story, so it’s almost always a man) travels miles over rough terrain and endures all kinds of hardships to reach a legendary temple or secret group of great spiritual masters. Often the climbing of forbidden mountains is involved. Eventually, the young aspirant gets to the gates of the place he’s seeking, knocks, talks politely to the doorkeeper, and gets the bum’s rush. “Go away,” he’s told rudely—if he’s lucky. Sometimes he’s left to sit outside for days until somebody will talk to him. In other versions, he’s given some kind of difficult, dangerous task to accomplish before the powers that be will deal with him.
Of course, because he’s the hero of the story, he aces these tests—because that’s what they are, tests of how serious his resolve to learn the great secrets really is—while others who aren’t important to the tale go flying off into the abyss like the unlucky knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eventually, his persistence is rewarded and he’s accepted into the sacred order of whatever-it-is.
It’s deliberately exaggerated for dramatic effect, of course, but in a lot of ways the bare bones of the story is how it was for spiritual seekers through most of human history. Either you were born with some extraordinary gifts that made gods or angels chase after you to offer you magic swords or a swift ticket to enlightenment, or you had to go through this kind of ordeal to be taught the meatier spiritual practices. At the least, you had to join a more mundane monastery and learn to sit without moving for eight to twelve hours a day and live on two skimpy meals of mostly rice and vegetables. That was the price of admission.
There are all kinds of reasons for this historically, but one of them was certainly the difficulty of preserving advanced knowledge in the ancient world. A great library could last for centuries and be burned to ashes in an hour if barbarians swung by. So those charged with preserving rare knowledge had to make sure that whoever they chose to pass it to was worthy.
Obviously, a lot has changed. The world can still be a dangerous place, but since the development of the printing press, automation, electricity, the computer and mass communication, it’s much harder to completely eliminate ideas than it used to be.
One of the effects of this has been to open the floodgates of ancient information where the spiritual traditions are concerned. Secrets that were passed down through families for generations are now shared openly on the Internet and available for download to your iPhone. To some extent, the ancient temples and monasteries now fit in your pocket.
Perhaps nowhere is this intersection of ancient wisdom and modern technology better illustrated than in the availability of apps for meditation and recovery. Healing practices and inspirational information can now travel with us. Whether we’re on the road or waiting for our sponsor to return our call, these apps arm us with tools that can better structure our day, bring us back to our sweet spot, and connect us with needed support, wherever we are.
I’m going to introduce three of these here, apps that are highly rated for their quality in offering mindfulness practices, but also for their value to those in recovery. These three turned up repeatedly on different lists and have received strong positive feedback.
The online source developgoodhabits.com featured all three in their “15 Best Meditation and Mindfulness Apps Selection for 2019” at the start of this year. As they point out,
There are actually hundreds of these mindful apps available, promising to help users combat their anxiety, get better sleep, increase their focus, manage their weight, and more. But how do you know which one is right for you, or the difference between the apps that have been designed by professionals in the field as opposed to those who are made up by someone who is new to the practice themselves?
I’ll try to answer some of those important questions as we take a look at these apps.
The first one, “Buddhify,” is a mindfulness app that organizes meditations by theme, depending on where you are in the course of your day. It can be personalized according to your schedule or needs, whether starting your day or at work, or for issues like having trouble sleeping. Developgoodhabits.com notes “It is widely known to be one of the best apps for anxiety,” an issue for many of those in recovery, and that “Some users have had this app for over three years and still consider it to be their favorite.”
“Buddhify” comes with over 80 guided meditations and features an easy-to-use interface, and allows you to rate aspects of your meditation and submit those ratings. It’s also worth noting that the app was created by experts in the field of meditation, who continue to upgrade it. While there is an up-front purchase requirement, there’s no subscription fee, and the cost is only $4.99.
Next up is the “Calm” app, which came in at Number Four with developgoodhabits.com and at Number Three with both mindful.org and The Cabin Group of recovery and rehabilitation specialists. Rated the 2017 App of the Year by Apple, “Calm” offers a wide variety of soothing meditations with different lengths and points of focus. These include “Seven Days of Calm,” a beginner’s meditation training course that teaches you “how to bounce back when the brain switches into ‘autopilot mode’,” according to mindful.org. “Calming Anxiety,” “Sleep Stories” to improve slumber, timed meditations, and over 100 free tracks of relaxing music are among this app’s offerings.
Developgoodhabits.com notes that “Users of this app say it is well worth the money. It gives you the desire to stay consistent with your meditation practice, and allows people to increase their focus during their everyday lives. People have found this app to have amazing results during these tumultuous times.”
You can access “7 Days of Calm” and a handful of other guided meditations for free. An annual subscription of $59.99 is required for long-term practice, which is one of the lower rates out there for this type of app.
The third and final of the three crossover apps I want to cover in this blog is “Headspace,” a very popular one that comes with spoken-word exercises that take up about 10 minutes a day. You can start with a 10-session pack, free with your initial download. One of the advantages here is that you can give the app a tryout before buying. Like many of these apps, “Headspace” features short meditations tailored for busy lifestyles. One of the more appealing features, I think, is the “S.O.S.” meditations intended for use in times of crisis.
“Headspace” offers 350 hours of guided meditations that include a “checking-in” routine in which you scan the state of your mind and body before moving further into the meditation. As developgoodhabits.com notes,
Headspace brands itself as being a gym membership for the mind. People note that they can feel the hard-to-quantify benefits from Headspace that have to do with their attention span, equanimity, sense of alertness, and the ability to deal with stressors in daily life. One user even claimed that this app cured his anxiety, even after using prescription drugs failed to do so.
“Headspace” was created by British author and meditation trainer and consultant Andy Puddicombe, who trained and lived as a Buddhist monk. He says his spiritual search was motivated in part to cope with the trauma of personal bereavement, and that his whole experience moved him to make “meditation and mindfulness accessible, relevant and beneficial to as many people as possible.” This background makes his focus particularly relevant to those dealing with the trauma of addiction. This is what led him to found the company Headspace with business partner Rich Pierson. The “Headspace” app is one of the outcomes of that work.
Puddicombe compares learning mindfulness meditation with learning to drive a car, and designed “Headspace” to duplicate the experience of having someone sitting next to you and helping you master the news skills involved. Users of the app emphasize the ease and clarity of the instructions.
The monthly premium for “Headspace” is $11.99. A yearly subscription reduces the cost to $7.99 a month.
It is worth noting that in order to be fully effective recovery involves a total lifestyle change. Meditation and mindfulness, and apps that deliver these types of support, can play an important part. Apps that focus on other aspects of our lives may also be helpful. Many of them are free or low cost. Some of them, such as “Sattva,” include options to link up with friends to meditate with, or to connect with people who are new to you to chat, share experiences, find support, and learn together, bringing the power and advantages of social media to the ancient disciplines of meditation.
“One-Moment Meditation” is a free app, cited as helping those in recovery get through “triggering incidents” without a relapse. “Stop, Breathe and Think” is described as especially helpful in dealing with difficult feelings.
In addition to such general apps, there are many that are linked to recovery from addiction. These include “Pear reSET,” which offers a 12-week program to help treat substance-use disorders. While free, the app is at present only available to those over the age of 17 who have a clinical prescription. “Sober Grid”, also free, is a recovery platform that resembles Facebook, has a GPS locator, and allows you to locate others in the recovery community. “Nomo – Sobriety Clocks” marks emotional turning points in recovery, and is designed as a tool for those supporting someone in recovery.
There are also apps tied to the Twelve Step programs, such as “AA Big Book Free,” “24 Hours a Day,” and “Came to Believe in Sobriety,” which provide core resources from Step literature, help set goals, and record progress. Some of these, such as “Came to Believe,” were designed by former addicts and alcoholics who know the territory well.
Meditation and recovery apps add valuable tools to the older, traditional ones, from the meditation cushion to meetings to sponsors. The apps can act as a kind of “electronic rosary” for our modern era, filling in the gaps at crucial moments when other forms of support may be unavailable.
One cautionary note, however. There is already a lot of media buzz about the addictive nature of smart phones and apps, and the problems this has created, including diminishing actual human contact and connection. Just in researching this blog, I couldn’t help but notice the constant interruptions of ads and links that came up, and remember that all meditation training teaches that “distraction” or splitting our focus is one of the conditions that can take our practice off track. Those in recovery, with addictive patterns in their past, need to evaluate themselves and whatever aids they use to make sure that technology intended to help doesn’t inadvertently add to their burden. There is no substitute for live human contact and support.
Evaluate your personality and style when it comes to the variety of choices available. Modern society pretty much assumes that shiny new objects are desirable, and our consumer culture is driven by that assumption. But all of the meditation traditions have historically seen meditation as a necessary pause in that, as simplifying things down to a focused encounter with the present moment and who we are, with nothing getting in the way. If you’re a natural multi-tasker, an app with 80 different meditation options might work great for you. If on the other hand you get to the end of your day and feel like your head is spinning from being pulled in too many directions, old-fashioned sitting on your cushion and following your breath for 20 minutes with your devices turned off might be a welcome breath of fresh air. Literally.