I listened to Tim Ferriss audiobook Tools of the Titans, which documents the habits of highly successful people, and one of the many things they have in common (about 80%) is daily meditation. I meditated as a teenager when I dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but that was a long time ago. I decided that if so many high achievers were doing it, it was worth giving it another chance.
Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of meditation, including improved mental and physical health, lower blood pressure, and even improvements in your genes. Alas, the sample sizes have been small or the methodologies questionable, but it seems to work for me. Anecdotally, I noticed an increase in concentration and productivity levels and an improvement in the ability to handle stressful situations. If I miss a day, I feel like I’m walking through a fog.
The Elephants in the Room: Calmness and Headspace
Ferriss recommends apps calm and Headspace in the book. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. Both apps require an annual subscription, so I tested their free trials.
Both apps worked well and I started seeing improvements in my focus and mental clarity within days. However, it was silly to pay an annual subscription to meditate – it’s just someone talking. What are you paying exactly? As much as anything else, it seems to be meditations from celebrities like Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew McConaughey.
In fact, I find a celebrity’s voice entertaining. I tried Calm’s meditation to help you get back to sleep, told by Jerome Flynn, who you might recognize as Bronn from game of thrones. So here I am at 4am trying to fall asleep and thinking about questions like:
- What happened to his character in game of thrones?
- Is he really into meditation or is he struggling to find roles now?
- How much does an actor earn for doing these meditations?
- What part of the UK is he from?
Beautiful voice but all too familiar. Needless to say I didn’t fall back asleep.
I liked the guided meditations but didn’t see a compelling reason to pay. Eventually I remembered why these apps rang me: Timothy Buck wrote about Headspace for TidBITS in 2019 (see “Headspace: A Guided Meditation Companion,” October 14, 2019).
I searched for this old article and saw that readers suggested Oak as a free alternative. It’s now my only meditation app, and I think it’s all most people really need.
What oak offers
Oak has a small set of guided and unguided meditations:
- Mindful (simple meditation to focus on your breath)
- Benevolence (in which you think of people and wish them happiness, health and peace)
Accompanied by some short breathing exercises:
And some routines to help you fall asleep:
- Relaxing sounds
- Guided breathing
Each meditation has many customization options: duration, male or female instructor, background noises, and whether or not you have a warm-up.
As someone with three kids and therefore a noisy home, I appreciate the large library of background sounds, which includes things like cave water, fireplace, rain, Tibetan “om” and simple white noise. They are also helpful when trying to fall asleep, as they help drown out noise from your brain. You can independently adjust the volume of the instructor’s voice and the background sound.
Finally, you can enable a setting to link Oak to Apple Health, which updates your Mindful Minutes metric in the Health app.
Once you have everything set up the way you want (Oak remembers your choices for next time), hit Start Meditation and away you go. There’s nothing more, and there shouldn’t be, in my mind.
What the oak lacks
Oak is not as complete as Calm and Headspace. The main thing you miss with Oak is variety. Calm and Headspace offer new meditations every day with different lessons or things to think about. Personally, I find it distracting. I just want a few minutes to clear my head, not to be overwhelmed by a message of the day. But if you need that novelty to keep you coming back, you might soon be bored with Oak.
Calm and Headspace also offer meditations for specific situations, while Oak does not. I found these situational meditations to be like dozens of ketchup options that all taste the same, because basically meditation is about breathing and clearing your mind.
And, of course, Oak doesn’t have celebrity voices. Sorry, famous people, I don’t find you relaxing.