Updated: Mar 4, 2020
One motivation for mediation is to train your mind to become more aware, present, and focused. For comparison think about your mind as a biceps that when trained in the gym will grow stronger. Similarly with meditation you can train your mind to grow stronger. In addition, research has proven many health benefits (e.g. more focus, healthier body, more resistant to stress, improved emotional well-being) and higher emotional intelligence (EQ).
When asked why people have then not established a regular formal mediation practice, I often hear
It‘s hard to find time in my busy schedule
I can‘t sit still for more than a few minutes
I‘m not sure if I'm doing it right and whether I’m progressing or
I tried it a few times but it didn‘t work out.
There are plenty of books on meditation and a plethora of guided meditation apps available, but so far it has been hard to measure real progress and obtain reliable feedback on how well one is doing. This can be discouraging and therefore many discontinue their mediation practice.
When you start a meditation practice it can therefore be helpful to have access to a meditation teacher or a community (e.g. participate in a meditation class) where you can obtain feedback and ask questions. This may help you to make faster and more consistent progress.
As we’re talking about progress, I need to point out that mediation is not a sport where you compete, and is not about the „doing it right.“ It is all about „being“, and the fact that you “just” sit in silence with closed eyes focusing on your breath for a few minutes per day doing nothing else. The benefits are huge and can make a big difference in training your mind and raising your overall level of consciousness and well being.
Still, for the mind, especially for the more rational mind, the central question comes up how was the quality of my meditation, and how do I progress? Wouldn’t it be great to obtain data similar to a fitness band or watch, that obtains data of your workouts, to measure your mediation progress and show you some data of your daily practice and progress?
In the past years there were only very expensive methods for measuring the brain waves during meditation available that were not affordable for the typical consumer (e.g. more than 10,000 Euros to participate in a weekly program). The deeper your mediation the more relaxed your brain, reaching very low frequency brain waves (e.g. delta or theta waves) whereas in the standard awake time the brain operates at higher beta frequencies. “What are Brainwaves” is a good background primer that explains those different brain states.
A few months back I discovered a device called „Muse“ that caught my attention. It looks like a modern headphone, and reminded me a bit of the “Borg” in Star Trek when first looking at some pictures (but not as bad). This device provides an affordable way to measure your brain activity during mediation and provides real-time feedback. It comes with the Muse app that you can install on your smartphone. Once installed, you sign up for a free user account and you are ready to go. The setup is easy and well explained. There are also a few other devices on the market, but I picked this one as it seemed the most mature.
I was skeptical about this technical gadget initially, but my scientific mind likes numbers and so I decided to give it a try. I got excited after the first try, as I realized it enables me now to have a systematic way of progressing my meditation practice, which I refer to as a „Data-driven Meditation Practise“. The term “data-driven decision making” is typically used in business to make decisions based on data instead of gut feelings. For example, you learn when comparing the number of clicks a button has on a web site is twice as high when you change its color from blue to orange. Based on that you decide to keep the orange button instead of the blue one. Similarly here with Muse you obtain data about each of your meditation sessions and can use that to improve the quality of your meditation practice. What’s even cooler, you also obtain real-time feedback that allows you notice when your mind drifts away, so you can redirect your focus back to your breadth.
After signup and setup, which worked flawless, I explored the Muse App. Basically it contains a a dashboard that shows you the history and stats of your mediation sessions, including „calm points“ you earned, as well as milestones you reached. The App basically uses some gamification concepts to motivate the mind to reach certain milestones and accomplishments, which works well for many of us.
The actual mediation session then contains different training programs to provide the initial guidance that is helpful especially when you are just embarking on a formal mediation practice. I recommend to get started with a short 3 minute meditation using the standard introduction to Muse program. First it helps you to calibrate Muse to ensure proper reading of your brain activity. A setup assistant is showing you how to wear it properly and provides guidance in case of no signals are received or poor signal quality. This calibration process usually takes less than 30 seconds.
Based on the selected training you will receive some guiding instructions for the session. In the simplest case the instruction is to close your eyes, relax and focus on your breath. If you get distracted by thoughts or emotions simply return your focus gently back to your breath. After the typically short instruction phase the mediation starts and now Muse is actively listening to your brain waves.
This is where the fun comes in. Muse in real-time now plays some weather sounds, which you can adapt to rainforest, beach or some other sound theme. If your mind is calm you hear silence or a gentle breeze. If your mind is (very) active a storm is coming. So it mimics your state of mind using weather sounds, which is very helpful real-time feedback. If you‘re really calm and reach deep meditative states you may hear even birds singing. Whatever you hear, don‘t attach your mind to it. Simply listen to it and if you get distracted focus back on your breadth.
Towards the end you hear a gong and then possibly a recommendation to think back how you experienced the mediation. After that you are encouraged to (finally) look at your data. This is the interesting part for your mind. You‘ll see a graph that shows how your mind was doing over time in terms of active, neutral, or calm states. Don‘t worry about the result, as again there is nothing to achieve here. All it is about the feedback to visualize and confirm what you probably already knew. However, the data can be saved and so you can build up a history and see how your progressing. For example, if you practice regularly you typically will see an increase of calm state over time, which confirms that the regular practice indeed has some impact on your mind training.
After using it for more than a month, here is some guidance and tips:
Don‘t get discouraged when during a session your mind was very active. This can happen, and depends on what your thoughts were, time of the day, and activities prior or after. The only thing important is that you actually spent the time meditating. It is the effort that counts.
I recommend to start with short durations of 3-5 minutes, especially if you mind is usually very active and you can’t sit still for longer. You can gradually increase the duration once your mind becomes more focused as a result of the practice. At that point I recommend two sessions per day, each 20 minutes if you are eager to progress faster in your meditation practice.
pick regular times if possible over the week that work well with your schedule. For example, try to get up a half hour earlier as usual before work and use that time. This way you don‘t „lose“ time of your day (this is just an illusion to lose time as there is only the everlasting „now“, but this trick works well for the busy person‘s mind or achiever who thinks that idle time is wasted). In addition, after work is a good time, but stay away at least one hour prior to bedtime. The mediation clears your mind and relaxes you, but it may prevent you from falling to sleep in some cases. Therefore I recommend to keep some time between going to bed and meditating, but try it out and see what times work best for you. Now you have data to back it up and determine the best meditation times.
You may find it helpful to plan your week ahead and add your planned sessions to your calendar. This can help with establishing a regular practice and avoid excuses for your mind to skip a session because you’re “too busy.” Use reminders on your smartphone if needed.
Don’t assume there is continuous progress with your mediation practise. There will be better days where the mind is calm and others where a big storm is dominating. Similarly the time you spent each session in a “calm” state can vary a lot. For example, you are progressing to an average of 3 minutes calm state per session in on one week and the next week it is down to 1 minute. These fluctuations are perfectly normal and remind yourself you are in for the long-term benefits.
Finally, have fun with it. After a while once you have established a regular practice you may no longer need Muse. As it is simply a tool to assist you especially in the beginnings. Remember you can meditate anywhere and anytime without needing any devices. But for establishing a regular practice, getting real-time feedback when you drift away, and tracking progress over time Muse is a great tool that I can highly recommend.