Calmer Than You Are, Dude: A Calm Meditation App Review
Post Written by Markus
I toed-into meditation kicking (not literally) and screaming (literally). I don’t remember the specific circumstances or what my exact frustration was, but I remember exactly where I was and how I felt. It was a few years ago and I was getting into my car in front of our house and I couldn’t contain how upset was. I felt beyond frustrated, beyond overwhelmed, beyond distraught.
Somehow, I managed to take out my phone, search for a meditation app, download it, open it, and do a 5-minute “Emergency Calm” session. That session was very weird to me, having never done this before. All I could think was “am I doing it right?” and “Is this even going to work?” and “What is the point of this even?” (well, throw in as many expletives as you can, and you’ve got it).
Amazingly – it did work. That first session was excruciating, even just to sit still and quiet that long - but it did keep me from throwing my phone against a brick wall. Whatever happened in those 5 minutes was enough to take me from redlined to just slightly-below-redlined. I would describe the experience as when a parent helps a child calm down by lovingly guiding them through deep breaths and honoring their emotion, whatever it is. “There might be something here,” I thought.
I had previously read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris and it made a lot of sense to me and I bought-in to the idea of meditation in principle – but I had no idea what it was (“Is that some kinda Eastern thing?”). I figured I’d keep the principle on-deck in case I ever got desperate enough to need it - which luckily I was on that day.
WHAT IS IT?
So what is the Daily Calm? In short, it’s an exercise in calming the mind that channels resilience and acceptance when done regularly over time. Really, there’s not much to it – the only things you need are:
Your phone with the Daily Calm app loaded (there are others, like Headspace that are great too)
A quiet place where you won’t be disturbed
Optional – headphones if that’s your preferred method of audio (it’s definitely mine, specifically these – the noise-cancelling function is incredible and makes me 3% calmer)
That’s it in terms of tangible ingredients. My favorite places to do a Calm session are:
On a yoga mat at the gym after a workout
On the sofa at home
In our wellness room at the office
In my car, especially since this is easy in terms of access, I know I won’t be disturbed, and audio is easy over Bluetooth. I keep a pair of sunglasses in my car to wear during sessions so it looks slightly less strange if someone walks by.
(I’ve been told that meditating in the car is not actually an ideal location from a Pavlovian standpoint. If possible, the goal from that perspective is to have one regular place where most meditation sessions are done. Ideally that would be a place that’s not used for anything else so the automatic mental association of that place is one of calm and “this is where I calm down and meditate” rather than “this is where I channel stress during rush hour traffic”.)
In terms of the best time to do a session:
The absolute best time without a doubt is the time that works best for you. Just like a diet or exercise plan, the “best” one is the one that you’ll actually stick to.
Within that context, the overwhelming consensus is that morning is best (or the beginning of your “day”, if you’re on a non-standard work schedule). Meditating in the morning sets the tone for the day as a tone of calm. By doing it in the morning, it’s a guarantee that the session actually happens before the changing schedule-landscape of the day begins.
So what actually happens during a Calm app session? As little as possible. From what’s observable – a person sits still with eyes closed for about ten minutes while listening to guidance (well, mostly quiet with some guidance) from the app. After the session, the person opens their eyes and is ostensibly – calmer. My app shows that I’ve logged 359 sessions so far and I can attest that without exception, this is the result every time. That said, across all those sessions, there have definitely been some sessions where I wasn’t “as calm as I should be or wanted to be” after the session, but definitely was still calmer than before doing the session.
Which brings up a great point – there is no “should” with meditation and there is no physical “goal.” The point is to listen, observe, accept, and be – and if it’s “there” today, the idea is to calm the river of thoughts in the mind. Usually that’s brought about through a focus on the natural breath (just breathing normally, not forcing deep breaths) and observing thoughts without attaching to them or following them. Whatever’s there in the mind today is what’s there – in terms of emotion, and especially in terms of thoughts. From a metaphysical perspective, the theory is that “we are not our thoughts” and that instead we are the person witnessing the thoughts.
The metaphor of standing behind a waterfall is a great way to illustrate this. The river is the flow of thoughts – endless, rushing, turbulent, deep. When the river goes over the waterfall, the observer watches the waterfall from an alcove behind the actual waterfall. Even though the stream of thoughts is so fast and powerful, the observe can see that “I am not my thoughts, I am the person hearing my thoughts.” Big deal, especially when you’re dealing with a tyrannical mind (my case) – which is a topic for another day.
Another of the most common metaphors used to describe meditation is that of watching clouds pass in the sky. The observer doesn’t identify with the clouds as “I am the clouds that I see” but only watches them as they pass, noting “Hey, there’s a cloud.” In the same way, the idea with meditation is to watch thoughts pass in the mind and not attaching to them as “these are my thoughts” or “these thoughts are me”, but instead noting “Hey, there’s a thought” – and honestly leaving it at that.
After that, it’s a return to following the breath – in… and out. In… and… out… and… in… and.. out… Really the entire process boils down to that – maintaining a loose focus (in the Daily Calm, usually a focus on the breath – or in other practices, a focus on a mantra) by breathing naturally and redirecting. Redirecting is just that simple moment of noticing when the focus has shifted from the breath over to a thought, letting the thought sit where it is, and going back to the breath. In and out.
Thoughts are often “shiny objects” with a particular pull for the mind and focus - for me, normally it’s along the lines of “HEY THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT THING THAT YOU’RE GOING TO NEED TO REMEMBER SO YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT THIS THOUGHT RIGHT NOW INSTEAD OF FOCUSING ON THE CALM APP OR BREATHING OR ELSE YOU’RE NOT GOING TO REMEMBER THIS THOUGHT AFTER YOU’RE DONE AND THEN HOW WILL YOU EVER KNOW AND IS THIS CALM APP THING REALLY THAT IMPORTANT COME ON MAN YOU CAN JUST THINK ABOUT THIS OTHER THING FOR A LITTLE WHILE”.
That moment is where the rubber hits the road for me. Saying “whatever this thought is, I trust myself enough that if it’s really super important, I’ll remember again later.” In this moment, while I’m doing my Calm session – there’s nothing more important that I could possibly be doing, not even remembering a thought or idea that I have during the session. And I know that my marching orders are to just notice “hey, there’s a thought.” As a person who writes down almost everything “or else I won’t remember”, this has not come naturally to me - but has made all the difference.
AM I DOING IT RIGHT?
This has been tough for me to quantify because there is no directly measurable external metric (well, technically there is and you could even have meditation “contests” to see who’s “better” at meditating – but that flies directly in the face of the concept of non-attachment).
The ultimate test in my view is “am I leaning more toward Acceptance, Breathing, Presence, and Non-Attachment over time?” If the answer is yes, then it’s a clear indicator that you’re moving in the right direction. If the answer is no, but you’re enjoying the daily 10-minute session and feel like you’re getting something out of it – then I’d argue that yes, you’re still doing it right.
And you’re not limited to once per day (especially if you draw inspiration from comedy great Jerry Seinfeld who’s famously been a huge proponent of Transcendental Meditation – crediting much of his success in dealing with the stress of “Seinfeld” to taking two breaks each day for a 20-minute meditation session). Once a day is a great frequency to get rolling with meditation and makes it an “easy win” that doesn’t seem too daunting each new day. Where the Daily Calm shines is the daily meditation session that’s new each day and specific to that day. Serendipitous, kismet, The Universe Has Your Back, whatever you want to call it - it’s eerie how timely the daily topics can be. Beyond these there are also plenty of pre-loaded sessions that are available to listen to any time. These cover topics such as “Managing Stress”, “Calming Anxiety,” “Emergency Calm,” and “Emotions.”
Most days, I start my day with a Calm session. Not. Every. Day. #Blasphemy, I know! On a fair amount of the off days, I’ll work in a session later in the day. Plenty of days I don’t do a session at all – not intentionally but I’ll notice that’s how it shook out. I don’t see that as a problem – I just notice. The next day, I look to make it happen more intentionally since I missed a day already.
I’ve found that the times that I’m most consistent overall in life are when I’m doing the Calm app regularly. I’ve also found that that I’m most consistent with sitting still for a Calm moment when I do it first thing in the morning. It’s called “Daily Calm” and doing it daily is obviously the goal. That said, in the almost three years that I’ve been pausing for Daily Calm sessions, my longest streak is 12 days in a row – still shy of two consecutive weeks. As a dude who has a PhD in All-or-Nothing approaches, that’s humbling. And it’s OK. I notice it, and I let it sit. And then I breathe in. And I breathe out.
I also use the Calm app in other ways – the sleep stories and the Breathe bubble. Our daughter actually loves both. The sleep stories are usually about 30-minute stories read by soothing narrators (think Matthew McConaughey and Anna Acton). Stories include The Nutcracker, The Wind in the Willows, and even some by Bob Ross, the master of Happy Little Accidents. When our daughter goes to sleep, I’ll set a timer on the phone for 5 minutes and we’ll listen to a portion of whichever sleep story she chooses. Pro tip – if you’re using you phone as the timer, use the “Stop Playing” option instead of an actual alarm sound. The story just stopping keeps the “time to sleep” vibe going much more than a loud ringtone alert does.
The Breathe bubble is so simple but so profound in what it does. It has a few different options to set duration and type of breathing – my favorite is box breathing (made famous in part by the Navy Seals). At times when our daughter (or me, let’s be real) is overwhelmed, this is a great option to take a few minutes and seriously reset. Box breathing is no joke, and can take either of us from wound-up-real-tight to ahhhhhhh-relaxed in just that short duration of a few minutes.
If this sounds like something that might be useful to you, check out the Daily Calm app and give it a spin! The app allows each person to give out five 30-day guest passes - here’s my link for the first lucky five people! Calm also published a book that features many of the same principles as the app - and is great if you’re a very visual person (me, me, me). I hope this gets you one step closer to being “Calmer than you are, Dude.” Namaste, homies.