I love my iPhone. I’m endlessly grateful for all the ways it makes my life more efficient. Tasks that would take minutes or hours now take seconds: banking, making dinner reservations, getting directions, and on and on.
But what happens to all that “saved” time?
I find that what the iPhone giveth, the iPhone taketh away. Sure, I can order takeout in a mere moment instead of spending five painful minutes talking to an actual person. But what happens to those five minutes? Do I put them in the great time bank in the sky, to be spent on all the meaningful, productive things I should be doing? No. I put them right back into the phone, continually checking email and texts and social media, shopping, consuming information I’m sure to forget, watching silly videos, and yes, swiping (almost always left).
Therefore, my constant iPhone use not only does not save me time, but it takes me out of the most important—and the only—time I have: the present moment.
Still, the iPhone is not evil. Like most things in life, it’s neither good nor bad, but our actions make it so. Thanks to an array of mindfulness apps, smartphones aren’t just sources of endless distraction—they’re powerful mindfulness tools. They can help us clear away mental clutter, tune out distractions, reconnect with the now and rediscover our true selves.
Many mindfulness apps fall into one of two categories: meditation and self-hypnosis. I suggest you try both, but first it’s important to understand the nature of these practices.
“Hypnosis is an altered psychological state of awareness, where the role of creative thinking and imagination (often with a human guide or app) play an important role,” explains Los Angeles-based spiritual teacher Colin Kim. “Meditation on the other hand, is a practiced state of induced consciousness—an intersection with the soul as opposed to the psyche.”
Practitioners of meditation and self-hypnosis often report similar effects and benefits, such as “feeling relaxed, perceiving images, slowing of the heart rate and lowering of one’s blood pressure, deep healing, revelations and time lapses,” Kim explains.
In fact, when it comes to depression, which is notoriously difficult to treat, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine indicates that meditation is roughly as effective as antidepressant medications. Even better, it has no harmful side effects.
But meditation and self-hypnosis (or just hypnosis) are substantively different.
“Hypnosis is widely accepted as a tool to ‘reprogram’ the mind for desired behavior changes in the physical body, and while non-medicated self-hypnosis is a wonderful tool for many reasons, it is second to meditation,” Kim says. “Meditation umbrellas hypnosis because it is a force of the soul not the brain. The brain is material. The soul is infinite. Hypnosis ‘tricks’ the brain into new thoughts, patterns and rhythms, while meditation evolves the experiencer’s infinite and divine existence to the same end. Hypnosis requires outside influence. Meditation requires inside brilliance.”
The medical community has not reached a consensus on hypnosis. Scientists have been unable to produce objective evidence of a so-called trance state, but many acknowledge its effects.
Hypnosis has been successfully used to facilitate weight loss, to take the place of anesthesia during painful medical procedures and to treat addictions, phobias and even warts. Its use on warts is especially remarkable, since warts are a virus. How does hypnosis make warts disappear? No one knows for sure. (For more information on hypnosis, check out this article in Psychology Today.)
For those curious about these practices, Kim sounds a note of caution: “The brain and the soul are very powerful instruments and should only be tuned and handled by caring professionals, teachers and healers. When we are in an altered state of consciousness (perhaps more vulnerable in hypnosis than meditation, because of the fact that you are conscious-suppressed as opposed to divinely conscious), we are highly programmable.”
Kim believes that with a “steady, disciplined practice,” meditation and self-hypnosis apps can be wonderful tools to help people achieve numerous positive effects.
“I would encourage my students and others to use reputable, known and trusted sources for their electronic temple needs,” Kim says.
In other words, when it comes to mindfulness practices, be mindful.
To that end, below is a sampling of mindfulness apps that I’ve tried and found beneficial. So get out that smartphone and reconnect with the sweet here and now.
This is a very simple hypnosis app from Donald MacKinnon, a Scottish hypnotherapist. There is one session with one purpose: to free you from anxiety. Speaking in his incredibly soothing Scottish accent, MacKinnon begins by briefly explaining hypnosis and hypnotherapy. There’s an option to skip the intro, but his tone is so calming that sometimes I even listen to that all over again. After the intro, MacKinnon leads you on a mental journey to a tranquil garden, where your anxiety gradually abates. Although you’re meant to be sitting quietly during this session, I also find it effective while taking a walk. MacKinnon offers a few other I Can apps, for not drinking, losing weight, quitting smoking and alleviating insomnia, migraines and irritable bowel syndrome. Pros: The beauty of this app is its simplicity; it does one thing, and it does it well. Con: I wish there were just a couple more sessions of varying lengths. $2.99, available for iOS
Easy to use and elegantly designed, Buddhify 2 is one of my favorite meditation apps. (Even the menu page, laid out in the shape of a rainbow-colored wheel, is beautifully done.) Created with our busy modern lives in mind, it eliminates many of the roadblocks people often associate with meditation. With more than 80 meditations—more than 11 hours in all—it includes sessions for quiet moments of alone time, as well as for activities like walking in the city, taking a break from work or exercising. There are also sessions for stress relief and insomnia. The app keeps track of your progress and includes one timed, unguided session. Pro: There’s a handy option for skipping back 30 seconds. Con: Eighty sessions is a lot, but with only a few for each activity, I always wish there were even more to choose from. $2.99, available for iOS, coming soon to Android
This meditation app aims “to increase calm and mindfulness in an increasingly stressed-out world.” It’s a subscription service, but it also offers a free course, called “7 Steps of Calm,” which is great for beginners or anyone looking for a refresher, as well as a basic “Calm” body-scan meditation from two to 20 minutes in length. Paid content includes sessions on everything from positivity to forgiveness. It has a clean, simple interface and offers a timer (with background sounds option) for self-guided meditations. Pro: Unlike a lot of meditation apps, it also has a visual component. Choices include endlessly looped abstract or nature scenes (think waves crashing on a beach or golden specks dancing in rays of light), each with its own music or nature soundtrack. Con: When you open the app, it immediately starts playing the last background scene and sounds you accessed, which I find a little annoying. Yearly access, $0.83/month; six-month access, $1.16/month; three-month access, $1.66/month. Available for iOS and Android
Guided Mind is a collection of free and for-purchase meditation and hypnosis sessions. I wish it explicitly distinguished between meditation and hypnosis, but it doesn’t, and it lists both in its description on the AppStore. But many of the sessions rely heavily on imagery and creative thinking, which suggests an emphasis on hypnosis. You can sort the sessions by topic (subjects are wide-ranging, from anxiety, athletes and backaches to fear, immune system and inner peace) or guide (there are nine). Pro: With such an array of topics, there’s something for everybody. The entire app interface appears in one color, which you can choose to suit your mood. Con: You can’t sort the sessions based on whether they’re free or for-purchase. Free up to $4.99, available for iOS
Headspace describes itself as “your gym membership for the mind,” and like a gym, it’s a paid subscription service. However, this meditation app offers it a free 10-day Foundation Course of 10-minute guided meditation sessions; this is a great option for anyone entirely new to meditation. The subscription service offers unlimited access to hundreds of hours of content, including two additional Foundation Courses and series that focus on topics like health, performance and relationships. Headspace is beautifully designed and provides some well-done animated videos that explain how meditation works. Pros: Founder and former monk Andy Puddicombe is the guide, and his English accent is pleasant and calming. For every subscription purchased, Headspace donates a subscription to someone in need. Con: Monthly prices range from $6.24 to $12.95; it’s not a fortune, but it’s yet another monthly fee. If you want access forever, you can pay a lump sum of $419.95. Available for iOS and Android
I Can Be is a group of self-hypnosis apps, each with a theme such as I Can Be Fearless, I Can Be Healthy and I Can Be Confident. Each must be downloaded separately, and within each app, there are both free and for-purchase sessions for specific issues related to that theme. For example, within I Can Be Confident, there are sessions about inferiority, gratefulness and being unsure of yourself. I was surprised to find that some of the sessions—especially within I Can Be Fearless—brought up a lot of emotions; this app has definitely helped me address some issues I needed to work on. Pro: The guide speaks in an almost unidentifiable accent that is strangely warm and calming. Once you buy a session, you own it and can listen to it at any time. Cons: The interface is basic, and the app can be a little buggy overall. The guide’s scripts could use some editing; the sentence structure is occasionally awkward, which can take you out of the moment. The scripts also repurpose a lot of content for various sessions. Free and $2.99, depending on what you download, available for iOS and Android
Offering both free and for-purchase meditation sessions, Mindfulness is straightforward and easy to use. Free sessions run from three to 30 minutes; there’s also an “Arriving & Centering” session and a quick body scan. What sets this app apart is its collection of sessions guided by some of the biggest names in mindfulness, from Eckhart Tolle to Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Each of those sessions is just $0.99 and once you purchase them, they’re yours to listen to at any time. Tolle’s session, “Beyond the Thinking Mind,” runs 36 minutes, while Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Lovingkindess Practice” runs just five minutes. Like most of these apps, Mindfulness lets you track your practice and set reminders. Free and $0.99, available for iOS and Android
This is a no-frills, down-to-business guided meditation app. You can choose from sessions that are five, 10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes in length, with or without background music or nature sounds. You can adjust the volume of both the guide’s voice and the music or sounds. Pro: You can tell the app to continue playing the background music or sounds for anywhere from a few seconds to “an endless loop”; that’s especially handy if you use this app to fall asleep or continue meditating on your own when the script concludes. Con: There are only a few music and sounds options. $1.99, available for iOS and Android
From Australia, this app is offered by a not-for-profit initiative of the same name that aims to impart “calm, clarity and contentment” via mindfulness meditation. Offering “modern meditation for young people,” it’s geared toward ages 7 and up and asks you to choose an age group when you sign in. I like its clean, bright interface and pre-meditation evaluation, which enables you to compare your states of mind before and after your session. It also lets you share your activity via email, text or social media. And for when you only have a quick minute to practice, there’s a selection of “Bite Sized” sessions. Pros: The cheerful Australian accent of the guides. Con: You have to sign in every time you open the app. Free, available for iOS
Proper breathing is crucial in meditation and in life. Normal, passive, mindless breathing is an involuntary action controlled by the autonomic nervous system; it’s involuntary because if it weren’t, we would die. Mindful deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, however, is a powerful intentional practice that can dramatically improve your health and life. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that means to control (yama) or extend the life force (prana). This app is a brilliant, simple tool for learning to control and deepen the breath—and simply focusing on the breath is itself a meditation, and often the first meditation people encounter. But the app doesn’t just have one session; it’s actually a breathing course that takes you from beginner to advanced. If you’re an auditory learner, you can use sounds—nature, classical, vedic, serenity or ambient—to guide your inhales and exhales. If you’re a visual learner, you can watch the screen, where three elements guide the breath: a progress bar, animation of human lungs expanding and contracting, and a segmented circle that gradually changes shades. Pro: This app is beautiful in its simplicity and functional in its design. Con: At least in the free version, if you hit your iPhone’s power button to shut off the screen, the app pauses, unlike other meditation apps that continue to play when the screen is shut off. Note: The app developer offers both a Pranayama app and a Health through Breathing app. Their function seems identical to me; the only difference appears to be the layout. Free or $6.99, available for iOS and Android
A departure from most other meditation apps, White Tara is a collection of 108 paintings by artist Lasha Mutual of the Bodhisattva (in Buddhism, an enlightened being) Arya Tara, regarded as the mother of liberation. The paintings appear as a slideshow, accompanied by the sounds of new age musician Deva Premal and the White Tara mantra chanted by the renowned Gyuto Monks of Tibet. The paintings are intricate and beautiful, and you can zoom in and examine every detail, as they’re optimized for iPad and iPhone retina displays. Each session begins with the sound of Tibetan chimes. Pros: This app organically melds gorgeous visual and audio elements for a unique Buddhist meditation experience. If you just want a slideshow, you can click on any White Tara painting and view the art without sound. Con: There isn’t one. $0.99, available for iOS