In the past year, one of my goals has been to meditate regularly. Every article I read and podcast I listened to seemed to so vehemently extol the amazing benefits of meditation that I just couldn’t ignore it.
Here’s an article interviewing a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School discussing how meditation can literally change your brain!
So I gave it a shot. I tried a couple of different guided meditation apps on my phone. My favorite was Headspace, which offers 10 free guided mediation sessions lasting 7-10 minutes each (more are available as in-app purchases).
I then spoke to some people who meditated regularly who advised me that while guided meditation is a great place to start, most of the benefits come from un-guided meditation. In fact just the action of sitting still in silence is beneficial.
Ok… so I tried to give this a shot too. It was definitely harder to keep my mind focused on my breath since there wasn’t a voice guiding my attention and awareness.
The main issue I ran into when doing both guided and un-guided meditation was whether or not I was ‘doing it right.’
Any experienced meditation practitioner will tell you that there is no ‘doing it right,’ rather the benefit comes with ‘just doing.’ It sounds pretty Zen doesn’t it? This was a little hard for my brain to accept. In my job there is a right way and a wrong way to practice medicine. In BJJ there is a right way and wrong way to perform a technique.
How could there not be a way to meditate correctly? Or at least optimally.
When I first heard about the Muse Headband in one of my podcasts and how it measures your brainwaves and provides gentle feedback when it detects your mind wandering, to redirect you to your breath, I knew I had to try it out.
Amazon has a pretty good return policy, so I reasoned that if I really didn’t like it I could return it to Amazon minus the shipping fee, and at worst I could sell it on Ebay.
With this contingency plan in place, I added it to my cart, and in two short days, found it in my mailbox (gotta love Amazon Prime).
As you can see in the picture above, the box it comes packaged in is pretty swanky.
A charging cable and two thin instruction booklets are included.
Setting the Muse Headband up was a cinch. I just had to turn on the bluetooth on my phone and follow the instructions to pair the device, and voila, I was up and running in less than a minute.
Once in the app, you’re prompted to create an account and click through the standard user agreements, and you’re off and running.
You place the headband across your forehead and around your ears so that the sensors are sitting flush with your skin. The headband is also adjustable so that you can make it tighter or looser.
The headband itself is very comfortable. It’s light weight and I frequently forget that I have it on. It also fits well over glasses including my Uvex Blue Blockers.
Here’s what it looks like on my grappling dummy!
The first screen that greets you allows you to select the two environments you want to use while meditating.
A beach with lapping waves, sea gulls, and blowing wind as the sound effects
Or a forest with raindrops, wind, and birds for sound.
I personally prefer the forest. For some reason it just brings me more peace as opposed to the beach scene. It might be because I find the cawing of seagulls obscene and annoying.
They recommend using headphones to get the most of the sounds which also helps to block out any distracting ambient noise.
You can also select the length of time of your session: 3 min, 7 min, 12 min, 20 min, and custom; and the exercise you want to perform: counting your breaths or focusing on the sensation of your breath.
Once the parameters are set, the app determines how well the sensors of the headband are detecting your brain waves and forces you to optimize the positioning of the headband before allowing you to proceed.
Before the beginning of each session you’re prompted to spend 1 minute calibrating the headband. The app instructs you to think of as many things as you can in 3 random categories like historical figures, toys, vegetables, colors, shapes, countries etc…
Unfortunately, this needs to be done each time before a session. There’s no way around it.
Once this is complete you’re ready to begin. The sound picks up and you start meditating.
At the end of your session the app shows you how calm you were during the session as a percentage, how many birds arrived (a measure of calmness), and how many points you earned (more calm = more points). It also shows what ‘awards’ received.
The app also offers Challenges to motivate you. Here are some of the ones I’ve completed:
And if you want to look back at your old sessions, you can do so through the app as well. I had a pretty good streak going in May!
Does it Work?
The first few sessions I tried to test it out. I went from consciously counting my breaths to thinking about other things and low and behold, the wind sounds started to get stronger and stronger! In the beach the winds go from gentle rustling to tropical storm levels in a flash! In the forest the gentle pitter patter of water dripping quickly becomes a torrential downpour!
I’d then have to really try to come back and focus on my breath and after a few seconds the intensity of the sounds would abate.
When I stopped experimenting with it and really tried to incorporate this into my meditation practice the headband really did a good job of letting me know when my mind was wandering. I’d be steadily counting my breaths and then all of a sudden I’d hear a monsoon in my ears and suddenly realize that my mind had wandered to a BJJ technique or previous sparring session.
It was great to get this feedback to remind me to come back to my breath.
I started with the 3 minute session and after awhile it felt too short so I moved on to the 7 minute session. I’ve been here for a while now but it’s probably time I graduate to 12 minutes since I don’t feel the urge to look down to see how much time is left anymore.
I really liked looking at the daily chart to see how long of a streak I can keep going, in fact, keeping the streak alive really motivated me to maintain my practice.
The achievements, points, and challenges part of the app didn’t really do much for me. I consider it a win if I can just get my ass to sit still, so I feel pretty satisfied with myself having just sitting for a session no matter what % calm I get.
What the BJJ Cavewife Didn’t Like
The BJJ Cavewife saw my shiny new toy and wanted to try it out for herself. After a few sessions she decided to stop using it because she found that the sound effects were too distracting for her.
When the intensity of the winds and rain would go up, it actually caused her to have a little anxiety, and she found herself thinking things like, “wtf is going on? I AM counting my breaths! WHY ARE YOU NOT SEEING THAT I’M CALM!!”
And instead of walking away with a sense of peace she was getting more aggravated with each session. I guess that’s how biofeedback works sometimes.
I liked this so much that I decided to keep it. I liked what the regular meditation practice was doing for me and the fact that this helped to motivate to motivate me so much was enough for me to swallow the $299, but I thought the benefits were worth it.
If you’re someone like me, who enjoys meditating but just can’t seem to get the motivation sometimes, then the quantification and gamification of the Muse Headband may be just the thing you need.
If you’re someone like the BJJ Cavewife who can get a little spun out by this sort of biofeedback then this definitely isn’t for you.
You can pick it up here: Muse Headband
And just for kicks, here is one of my favorite guided meditations: