Everything I Tried To Finally Get Into Meditation – & What Worked

Photographed by Anna Jay.
I am diligent about many things that I know are good for my mental wellbeing. I have to clean my flat every weekend (if I don’t I feel crap and antsy on weekdays); I never forgo my skincare routine so as to stop me fixating on my PCOS-induced cystic acne; I cycle pretty much everywhere, for the exercise and for the planet. But there is nothing I am more diligent about than avoiding meditation.
I figure I have the same relationship to meditation that many people have to exercise – they know it will be good for them and in fact, if they tried, they could even come to enjoy it. But despite knowing this I feel myself fighting against trying it, procrastinating in every possible way to avoid it. It was my love of not meditating that actually led to me pitching this story in order to force a deadline on myself. I know it’s good for me, my therapist has told me it will be good for me, but it’s not until I have to do it for #content that I can make myself make the space for it.
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Meditation is in many ways more accessible than ever, with the rise in proponents of mindfulness coinciding with the rise in apps that aim to bring mindfulness within reach. That said, it is a confusing world to step into for the first time. I went into this assuming there are several types of meditation from different traditions and religions, so wanted to learn more about them. Disorientingly, Google throws up answers that range from six to 23 distinct types – so far, so intimidating. (Very) broadly speaking, while techniques and practices vary, meditation is either in the religious and spiritual camp or secular, and the techniques fall into two broad categories: focused (or concentrative) meditation and open monitoring (or mindfulness) meditation, which seems to be better for beginners.
We might assume that the way our brains work is fixed but there’s been more and more research into the potential of neuroplasticity. It is, in some ways, the best and worst thing about being human. We do have the capacity to change the way we think and it isn't inherent that we function in an anxious, stress-induced, hyperaware state. But we also live in a world where that state is encouraged – in order to be, or at least feel like we could be, a success by current standards, we must put more pressure on work to reflect our performance (and consequently our worth) than ever before. And while it is not impossible to radically change the way the entire world works, it is a much smaller change to find ways to work within that world and not let stress or anxiety or our deteriorating attention spans contort us into the most unhappy, disillusioned, even distraught versions of ourselves.
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This is where meditation can have a positive impact. It is by no means a catch-all (and I would be very sceptical of anyone who says meditation alone can cure mental health issues) but if you, like me, have been lucky enough already to access medical and psychological treatment for a mental health problem and now want to improve your normal state of mind, there are far worse things to try than meditation.
I have opted to try the most popular meditation apps to see if any can work for me. It might be worth noting that I tried these when I had fairly bad PMS, when I am way more prone to anxiety and emotional mood swings. Which basically means these could either not work at all or move me to tears. Turns out – both!

I started with Headspace, having read it is best for beginners through its series of 'guided meditations' – audio sessions where you’re led on a journey of contemplation. Immediately I can see the appeal of the app. Clearly a lot of work has gone into making sure the user experience is not intimidating for absolute newbies like me. After answering a series of questions about what I hope to gain from the app (I ticked sleep, focus and anxiety) and watching a soothingly animated video about the process of guided meditation, I was taken to the Basics course and sat through my first guided meditation. I opted for a three-minute meditation, thinking it was the bare minimum I could do. After finding a quiet space in the office and choosing a 'female voice' (side note: what does a 'female voice' even mean at this point?), I settled into my first journey into mindfulness.
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A few seconds in I realise that I actually had tried this once before, a while ago. That time, I couldn't focus on my breathing and feel my body – I was too sceptical and too skittish – but this time I slipped into it with a lot more ease. I'm happy to say my first attempt at meditation was a success and I genuinely did feel less hectic after just three minutes. This is probably in large part thanks to Headspace being built for beginners like me. That said, I've yet to return to the app as I want to see if there's another with a better fit, and a bit cheaper.
Headspace is free to download and has a free trial for two weeks, before charging either £9.99 a month or £49.99 annually.
I moved on to the other most popular meditation app, Calm. Unlike the cartoony, orange palette of Headspace, Calm focuses on its soothing appearance through blue tones and calm waters. Also unlike Headspace, Calm provides not only guided meditations but music mixes, sleep stories (read by celebs, natch), breathing exercises and masterclasses.
Once I've logged in I already hit a bump in the road. They ask me if I'm interested in meditation. I pick 'I don't know' seeing as that's the closest to 'I know I should be but I struggle with it'. This is followed by questions about sleep – 'I could sleep better' – and I am recommended a 34-minute sleep story narrated by Matthew McConaughey. Not exactly prime work time material (unfortunately). I scroll through the other options. They then suggest 7 days of focus, 7 days of calming anxiety or 7 days of managing stress. I opt for focus as I know my worst anxieties actually come from my inability to focus on the task at hand, instead fixating on irrational, anxious thoughts. The first video is 12 minutes long and is 'a mindfulness programme designed to improve focus in a daily life'. As the voiceover explains, anchoring our attention has become a daily challenge, with everything from social media to Netflix finding ways to capture our attention. However, attention is limited. This first video is meant to get you in the habit of noticing when you are distracted over a genuinely calming video of rippling water.
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It turns out, just as I suspected, it is much harder to focus for 10 minutes than it is for three. I found myself drifting several times – thinking about deadlines, unnecessary anxieties, my weekend plans. As a form of meditation though, I don't see my struggle to focus as the app's fault. I do think it's great to have an app that has so many diverse and specific offerings. It is very American though, and the daily mantras are lovely but honestly a little cringey. There is something for everyone here, which also means there is loads here that may well not be for you.
I move on to Beeja, which bills itself as 'meditation for everyone'. Built for beginners and seasoned meditators, your first option when you log in is to select whether you know how to meditate (no guide necessary), you want to be guided or you have no experience whatsoever. Having done a total of 15 minutes at this point, I confidently select 'Please guide me'. The next option is the first I've seen of this kind – whether I want it to be practical or spiritual. I opt for practical, knowing I'm not quite ready for any spiritual claims made through an app. The practical guidance offerings are divided into voice and vibes. Having done two voice-guided meditations and no longer wanting to give space to my anxieties at all, I opt for vibes and select Joy, something I always want more of in my life. Interestingly, the woman pictured for Joy is also the one pictured for Sadness and Grief on the other page...
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Unlike the first two apps the options are a minimum of 15 minutes for voice-led, and either 30 or 60 minutes for the music. I give the 30 minutes my best shot but find myself immediately struggling. Without a voice to anchor me I find this supposedly soothing, joyful music quite anxiety inducing because I’m not given anything specific to hold onto (not even a beat) and I have to opt out after only 10 minutes. I feel, frankly, like a failure, until I get to a spinning wheel of options where they ask how you're feeling. Upon selecting anxious there is then a space where you can write it down and burn it. There is a genuinely very satisfying experience to be had in watching your thoughts be crumpled up, hit by a baseball bat and knocked off the face of the Earth. While the meditation itself didn’t work for me (I clearly still need to be guided), the other parts of the app made up for it.
Beeja is free to download, with either a monthly subscription of £5.99 or an annual subscription of £41.99.
Smiling Mind
Smiling Mind is 100% not for profit with a vision to help every mind thrive. Once again they ask my ability level. The middle option is 'I've tried it and practised occasionally' which doesn't feel like it's overestimating my abilities. It didn't say I had to be good at it. They have a range of ages to select with the youngest being 12 and under, and oldest being 25 and over. Clearly geared towards kids (good). At first I think about starting with the Mindfulness Scan but after exploring the app a bit more I realise this may be an opportunity for me to work on how prone I am to berate and blame myself for things that happened long ago, a huge part of my anxieties. I'm also prone to be hypercritical of anything around self-compassion and dismiss it out of hand as wishy-washy and indulgent. These are both reasons I should definitely try this.
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I select the self-compassion programme, which is 10 minutes long, and am treated to an Australian accent talking me through this guided meditation. To my surprise, I found this one the most compelling, even moving. I'm known to self-flagellate at the best of times and even though I thought it would be trite or contrived, I had tears in my eyes when the lovely man said that 'being imperfect is a part of being human'. By the time it was finished I was feeling much more assured within myself. This is definitely my favourite so far.
Smiling Mind is free.
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What's your preference?

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10% Happier is, you guessed it, another meditation app. Their unique selling point is that the guidance comes from the best meditation teachers on the planet, and they have a special programme for sceptics. Since I am no longer a sceptic, I elect to try one of the short meditations that are designed for beginners but not necessarily bogged down with all the basics. One thing I've noticed so far is how often my brain flits and, especially when I'm at certain points in my cycle, attempts to hook on anxious, unhelpful thoughts. The meditations expose what I have learned through therapy but am yet to master. I'm not expecting to get a grip on it overnight but I'm curious if there's another angle I can go down, so I try the Partying With Your Neuroses meditation.
The concept of this is that you cannot control your neuroses or your thoughts but you can, slowly, start to change your reaction to them. Their suggested angle is to welcome your neuroses to the party, accept that they will turn up but not fight them and consequently not let them gain power over you. What I liked about this app is that there is a sense of humour about it all – their angle is that a zen state of totally blank meditation feels impossible for the majority of us, but surely we can find it in our day to work on becoming 10% happier? Given my experience with the app I'd say so.
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10% Happier is free to download with a one-week free trial, and then costs either £12.99 a month or £87.99 annually.
And so we come to the one I have been most excited, and most scared, to try. Muse is a brain-sensing headband designed to help you with your meditation practice, and is the exact kind of technology I am scornful of but secretly love. Despite my willingness to play, I immediately hit roadblocks. This app only works if you have the Muse brain-sensing headband which wraps across your forehead and behind the ears and through bluetooth. The actual set-up and connecting to my phone isn't that hard. What I do struggle to do is actually start meditating. Every time I try and select a session, headband firmly in place, I instead get guided through the signal quality check that explains how they read and interpret signals and how they work out if you have the right fit. It was fine the first time but after four attempts to go through even the introductory meditation, I'm at a loss.
There are several things I need to do to make sure the band works. You cannot have hair in the way! No makeup or natural grease on your forehead! But also, your skin can't be too dry! Despite my best efforts to access an actual meditation, I can't get beyond tracking my brain signals. All I gained was a sense of frustration and a hyperawareness of how greasy my forehead is. I am willing and able to try again, but for the expense of not only the headband but the app access too, I probably wouldn't buy all in.
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The Muse 2 Headband costs £239.99. The app is free to download and then costs £11.99 monthly or £86.99 annually.
Conclusion
Turns out, as I always sadly expected, meditation isn't as alien to me as it seemed and technology is for the most part making it easier than ever. That said, it really isn't a one size fits all. The best app for you depends on what you need (whether you want to focus on stress or sleep or emotional uncertainty) and they all have their positives. I would recommend Headspace and Smiling Mind for beginners, the former for being such a thoroughly easy starting place, and Smiling Mind for having so many specific avenues you can explore for the needs you have in that moment (and for free).
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