App-ing in to the power of a present mind
Casi Ragsdale started meditating at age 19 after picking up a book on Buddhism from an airport bookstore on a whim. Today, 12 years later, she credits that impulse buy with leading her to a happier, healthier and less conflicted life.
“If someone is confrontational with me, I used to be confrontational right back,” she said. “But now I have more space to think about where returning that confrontation might lead. I have the space to think about what’s actually happening rather than how we tend to perceive things personally, and can respond to it rather than just react.”
Ragsdale is a speech-communication pathologist and vice president of the Sky Creek Dharma Center’s board of directors. She says she’s personally benefited from mindfulness—a mental state focused on the mind and body at the present moment, achieved through meditative breathing and relaxation techniques.
The advantages of mindfulness and meditation have been well-studied and -documented in recent decades. Local psychotherapist Steve Flowers says he’s seen its efficacy firsthand in pain management and the treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, high blood pressure, and many more ailments in his 20 years of teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs through Enloe Medical Center. He also noted several cases in which he’s seen mindfulness supplant the need for expensive—and toxic—prescription medications, and said it can even be effective in helping alleviate the mental crises many people are experiencing over the state of American politics.
“A lot of things happening now cause us to move our minds toward the future and imagine the worst,” Flowers said. “But if we focus on the present, we can come to terms with the way things are. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying our best to improve this world and circumstances around us, but by staying in the present we can avoid a lot of anxiety and terror, and focus on acting rather than reacting, and not judging and condemning.”
Despite the known benefits and a wide interest in meditation and mindfulness, many people don’t take the first steps. That can partly be attributed to assumptions that meditation requires rigid discipline, and Ragsdale noted a fear of the unknown can also intimidate people, particularly in the case of meditation centers like Sky Creek.
“Since most [centers] are not Christian-based, there’s a fear of the culture shock,” she said. “People think, ‘Are there going to be people there all dressed up in robes? Will they make me stand around holding a candle?’ They might also be worried that they don’t know the customs, so they decide to save themselves the discomfort and embarrassment rather than try it out.”
Addressing both of those hurdles are hundreds of mobile apps designed to teach first-timers basic mindfulness skills at their convenience. These range in quality, price and reputation. A British app called Headspace has been leading the pack and is used in a half-dozen published scientific studies showing positive correlations between use of the app and stress reduction and job happiness, among other benefits.
Headspace was founded in 2010 by Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson. Pierson is a marketing whiz, but Headspace’s content is developed largely by Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk with a degree in circus arts. (In a 2012 TED Talk, he juggles to illustrate how our minds are easily distracted and the benefits of focus.)
The app’s mindfulness training begins with a free program called Take 10, a series of 10 guided meditation exercises and supplementary animation sequences narrated by Puddicombe’s cheery but soothing voice. (“Hi, my name’s Andy, and over the next 10 days I’m going to show you a really simple way of getting some more headspace in your life,” the program begins.)
Take 10 emphasizes basic concepts like breathing, focusing on the here and now, and mentally scanning one’s body to be more aware of physical issues. It also dispels common misconceptions, such as the belief that meditation and mindfulness are about silencing one’s thoughts and blocking out surroundings to transform the mind into a blank slate. Mindfulness, it teaches, is actually about awareness and acceptance of these distractions, then learning to focus through them.
Beyond Take 10, users can subscribe to Headspace by the month, year, or lifetime (beginning at $12.95 per month) or buy batches of sessions targeting certain goals (improving athletic ability, health, relationships, etc.).
Apps can be a good start, Ragsdale said, cautioning that “I’m sure there’s some crappy ones out there.
“Everybody has their own personal connection point with meditation and mindfulness, but some people never utilize it,” she said. “That connection might be someone they know who meditates or a group they hear about, but if that first point of contact happens to be an app, I think that’s great. Maybe they’ll continue to develop an interest to touch on other places with meditation and maybe they won’t, but I think any point of contact is a positive one.”
She also encouraged people with a deeper interest to find a group to meditate with, noting she practiced alone for years, but that her own development increased exponentially when she started visiting Sky Creek.
“The most important thing is to do it,” she said. “Because you can read about meditation, you can write about meditation, you can listen to instructions about meditation, but until you give it an earnest effort you have no idea what it will mean to you.”