Experts’ Favorite Apps and Books for Learning Mindfulness Meditation

Portland Psychotherapy recently asked members of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science what they think are the best tools for learning about and practicing mindfulness meditation. Top experts from around the world chimed in to let us know about apps, recordings, books, and other resources they find to be the most useful, and we wanted to take the opportunity to pass their insights along to you.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation, sometimes referred to as present moment awareness training, builds skills that have been scientifically proven to improve psychological health. Dozens of scientific studies show that mindfulness training can increase well-being, reduce psychological suffering, enhance emotional processing, improve performance, and help people to focus their attention on who and what they care about the most.

Chances are that if you live in a large enough city there are probably a lot of community resources for learning about and practicing mindfulness (click here for mindfulness meditation resources in Portland, OR). For thousands of years, face-to-face interactions with professional teachers and fellow practitioners have been a reliable way to learn mindfulness meditation. Having a community of people who are supporting each other in practice is a great resource. However, there are also lots of other ways to learn to meditate. These include the options below.

We hope the following tools can be of help to you in building a kinder, more compassionate world for yourself and others.    

Apps:

Free/inexpensive apps

One-Moment Meditation This app has a great graphic and goes for a minute so it can also be used with children (Free)

Smiling Mind  is modern meditation for young people. It is a unique web and App-based program, designed to help bring balance to young lives. It is a not-for-profit initiative based on a process that provides a sense of clarity, calm and contentment. (Free)

Mindfulness:The Art of Being Human aims to help you: Explore insights into the human mind and behaviour; Step out of unhelpful thinking patterns; Gain a greater sense of connection to meaningful life experiences. Mindfulness practice can help you lead a more contented, happier and meaningful life. (Free, IOS, Google Play)

ACT Coach (only on iPhone for the present, intended shortly to on Android) is entirely free and was designed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs for Veterans, Service members and others who are in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with a mental health professional and want to use an ACT App in conjunction with their therapy. It offers exercises, tools, information, and tracking logs so you can practice what you’re learning in your daily life. (Free)

Conscious (Android only) This app suggests a different informal mindfulness task each day. You can set reminders to prompt you during the day and you are given the opportunity to report back on your progress each evening. An interesting aspect is that you get to see how many people have signed up to the task with you, creating a sense of community in using the app.

SuperBetter increases resilience – the ability to stay strong, motivated and optimistic even in the face of difficult obstacles. Playing SuperBetter makes you more capable of getting through tough situations—and more likely to achieve the goals that matter most to you.

Honest Meditation: (*if you’re okay with crude language in the service of humor, this app is a hilarious light take on mindfulness)  (Free)

Mind the Bump: is a free Mindfulness Meditation App to help individuals and couples support their mental and emotional wellbeing in preparation for having a baby and becoming a new parent. (Free)

Free but require subscription or in-app purchases

Pacifica This app includes daily mood tracking and relaxation and mindfulness tools. (Free download but require paid monthly/yearly subscription)

Petit Bambou (French language app) is the same as Headspace but for french speaking (Free but requires subscription)

Stop, Breathe & Think A great app for computer or smartphone.  Great intro and resources for going deeper.  Has a check-in that asks questions and suggests some useful types of mindfulness practice. (Free but requires subscription for unlimited features, web, IOS, Android)

Colorfy (mobile coloring book) Choose your favorite color and give your touch to beautiful drawings. Florals, animals, patterns, mandalas, cats, gardens, famous paintings, and more. ( Free but requires subscription, IOS, Android)

Headspace is meditation made simple. Learn online, when you want, wherever you are, in just 10 minutes a day. This is fairly expensive, with a monthly subscription, which will add up over time.

Habitica is a habit-building program which treats your life like a Role Playing Game. Level up as you succeed, lose HP as you fail, earn money to buy weapons and arm or, compete with your friends.

Apps requiring payment

SmartQuit uses ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to help people quit smoking. Developed at Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, SmartQuit is different. Smokers create a personal plan. They become very aware of their urges to smoke. Lastly they learn new ways to notice the urge to smoke, without acting on it. SmartQuit is the first smoking cessation “app” that has been tested in a randomized control trialwith quit rates 2-3 times better than quitting on one’s own. (Free but requires subscription)

The Sleep School App  helps you practice The Sleep School sleep tools & techniques until you have mastered them for life. The app delivers The Sleep School approach across its 5 core areas in a highly interactive audio-visual format ($3.99)

Mindfulness Daily This app supports quick, effective guided practices to reduce stress/anxiety, improve performance and enhance sleep ($1.99 plus in app purchases of audio)

What’s Up? Uses techniques from ACT and CBT, including mindfulness.

ACT Companion – the Happiness Trap app: (most highly recommended) The new edition of ACT Companion features loads of new content – guided mindfulness, written and experiential exercises – from none other than Russ Harris, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Trap. Simple defusion and acceptance techniques, easy values-clarification and goal-setting tools, powerful ‘observing self’ and self-compassion exercises – you’ll find it all here. In total, the app features over three-dozen exercises and tools, including two-and-a-half hours of guided mindfulness audio tracks, many of them featuring Russ’s voice.

Salute The Desk helps you stretch and relax, right at your desk. Improve your posture and release tension through yoga poses. Feel calm and refreshed with guided relaxations. Plan your sessions and set reminders to practice. Developed by a qualified yoga, tai chi and qigong instructor. ($2.99)

buddhify states it is “the most convenient, best value and most beautiful meditation app available today. Helping people around the world reduce stress, sleep better & be present in the midst of it all.” Certainly is the best looking mindfulness app! ($4.99)

Insight Timer Free for iPhone and Android with option of purchasing upgrades, $2.99 for iPad. Worth it for the Tibetan bells alone, now expanded with many meditation practices of varying lengths.

Websites:

Books:

For kids and teens:

Mindful parenting:

Audio:

Videos:

Evaluating Self Help: The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

There’s no shortage of self-help books on the market. There is, however, a paucity of research on whether those self-help books are actually helpful to the people who use them. In an ideal world, every self-help book would be submitted to scientific scrutiny to determine if people actually benefit from using them. Unfortunately, this happens only rarely.

Even a self-help book that is based on well-researched cognitive behavioral principles and written by leaders in the field is not guaranteed to be effective.  For example, one recent study found that college students with greater rumination exhibited more depressive symptoms after using Greenberger & Padesky’s Mind over Mood, a well-respected cognitive behavioral self-help book for depression. These findings suggest that evidence-based psychotherapy interventions don’t always translate into effective self-guided techniques that people can use on their own, and in some instances can actually be harmful.

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

Over 5 years ago, I wrote a few blogs posts about Forsyth & Eifert’s The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety in 2 prior blogs for which I used to contribute. The first, on my blog Scientific Mindfulness, reported on pre-publication research I heard about at a conference. (Unfortunately, it appears the other post has been taken down.) The first author of the workbook, SUNY-Albany professor John Forsyth, PhD, conducted 2 studies on his ACT-based self-help book. He gave copies of the book to people for free, and had them complete online self-report measures at various intervals.

Dr. Forsyth recently posted a summary of this research on his personal blog in anticipation of the upcoming 2nd edition of The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety that will be released April 1, 2016. One paragraph in his blog post caught my attention:

Reductions in anxiety and fear did not happen by going after anxiety and fear directly. It was just the opposite. By first focusing on the skills needed to live a more valued life, readers then experienced a decline in their anxiety, fears, and depression, and ultimate improvements in their lives. This is an important message––one that supports the approach we offer in this workbook.

The workbook emphasizes ACT skills to help people engage in meaningful living, and it appears that those skills—rather than interventions aimed at alleviating anxiety and worry—appear the most effective.  Said another way, the findings suggest that people using the workbook improved more from doing things that were important to them than from any particular technique. This is quite profound, if you think about it, and very different from how many people approach anxiety. Attempting to directly suppress or control anxiety-related thoughts and feelings can often backfire.

Because it’s one of the rare self-help books that has been researched specifically as a self-help book, I find myself recommending The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety more than any other self-help books, and I was excited to hear there’s an updated edition coming out. I encourage readers to check it out.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

Top 5 Mindfulness Resources

The science of mindfulness is a very hot topic these days.  In agreement with the research, we find mindfulness to be a very helpful skill to have that is effective for a variety of problems that come with everyday life, such as distractibility, emotional reactivity, and impulsive decision making.

If you’d like to learn this skill, we have one one simple piece of advice – practice!  Any skill that you want to get better at (gardening, sports, playing an instrument) requires practice, and plenty of it.

In order to help you to learn how to train your mind in this way, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 resources for learning mindfulness. Some of these applications and websites are also helpful for providing a sense of community around mindfulness, which helps with both accountability and feelings of connection. For example, the insight timer shows you how many other people across the world are using the insight timer at the same time.

2 Minute Beginner’s Guide Animation

Free

Why We Like It: Having a very quick, to-the-point, and accurate explanation can often be more helpful than a big, comprehensive tool.  We also like this explanation because it clarifies some of the common misperceptions of what mindfulness practice is.

Headspace

iPhone

Android

10 day free trial, subscription following trial

Why We Like It: This is a great app because the creators paid lots of attention to the interface.  This is the current industry leader, and it shows in the quality.  When you first begin to use it, the app has you watch a series of short and fun animations to quickly orient you to what mindfulness is and what it is not (the videos are worth watching).

Another reason why this app made our list is because the developers made it in a way that will have a higher likelihood of keeping you engaged over time.  Instead of moving on to something else once the initial motivation has passed, there is a greater chance you’ll stick with Headspace because each day has a different guided file, it gives you clear goals, and you get to choose to practice on specific issues (a series on anxiety, depression, pain, etc).

Insight Timer

iPhone

Android

iPad

Free for iPhone and Android with option of purchasing upgrades, $2.99 for iPad

Why We Like It: This app is worth acquiring for the Tibetan bells alone, but in the past year or so, the app has expanded to include a wide variety of meditation practices of varying lengths.

Stop, Breathe & Think

Web

iPhone

Android

Free

Why We Like It: This is a great app that works either on the computer or a smartphone.  It provides a great introduction and resources for taking your practice deeper, as well.  One thing it also does that the others don’t do is offer a check-in that will ask you questions about how you are feeling in order to suggest some useful types of mindfulness practice.

Tara Brach’s Guided Meditations

Free

Why We Like It: Tara Brach is most widely known for her book Radical Acceptance.  On her website she regularly posts guided meditations to follow along with.  Every meditation instructor has their own style, and Tara has an easy style that many people tend to like.  Additionally, we’d highly recommend listening to her her 2-part introduction to meditation talk:

Part 1 – Do You Make Regular Visits to Yourself (57 min)

Part 2 – Do You Make Regular Visits to Yourself? (55 min)

If you’d like to see our full list, please visit

Resources for Learning Mindfulness Meditation in Portland, Oregon

How to Read Your Emotions Part I: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Sometimes when you first start having a feeling, your brain will very quickly make up its mind that the emotion is somehow dangerous or bad. Then it tries to escape from the emotion or control the emotion by turning your attention elsewhere and getting you to do something that makes the emotion go away. Because our brains are trying to protect us from harm, this well-intentioned judgment about our feelings comes from a good place. However, somewhere along the way our brains got a little confused about what is actually harmful. Emotions themselves are not harmful, our brain just says they are. 

Doing something that makes fear go away can work to keep you safe, but it’s only a stand-in for the real solution, which is to get away from the actual danger. Put another way, fear isn’t ever harmful, but masked figures holding knives often are. It’s much more important to get away from any danger in the world than to get away from any fear you are experiencing. In fact, when you are attuned to your environment, fear is just awareness of danger. In that sense, fear is probably a handy thing to experience – if you aren’t aware of real danger, you are less likely to respond and more likely to get hurt. The lesson is — don’t be so quick to judge fear. It may be your friend.

The same goes for other emotions: Sadness isn’t bad, it’s just awareness of loss, and loss is bad. Anger isn’t bad, it’s just awareness of conflict, and conflict isn’t great for relationships. Anxiety isn’t bad, it’s just awareness that something is important to you, and caring about things is good. For that matter, joy isn’t good, it’s just awareness that something wonderful is happening, and wonderful things are good. Emotions are there to be felt because they say something about the world in which you are living. Don’t leave your emotions on the shelf – check them out!

You can’t really blame your brain too harshly for making snap judgments – that’s what it evolved to do. Go ahead and thank your brain for its noble intentions of keeping you safe. But when it comes to your emotions, remember that they’re meant to be an open book.
For more on how to observe emotions without getting caught up in judgments, see How to Read Your Emotions Part II: Put on Your Spec’s.

Riding the Wave: Using Mindfulness to Help Cope with Urges

Changing a habit is hard. Anyone who has tried to change their eating habits, quit smoking, start an exercise program, or stop drinking or using drugs can tell you how difficult it can be at times to change old habits. In my last post I discussed how slipping (i.e., falling back into an old habit) can sometimes set us up for a relapse (i.e., continuing a habit beyond the initial slip) due to a phenomenon known as the Abstinence Violation Effect. In this post, I’d like to talk about a technique that can help you before you slip, a technique called “urge surfing.”

What is Urge Surfing?

Urge surfing is a technique attributed to the late psychologist Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of addictions treatment. We can think of an urge as an impulse to engage in an old habit, such as drinking or using, and they are often experienced as physical sensations in the body. Urges are like waves in that they rise in intensity, peak, and eventually crash.

Here’s a brief exercise you can do to explore this technique: Stop for a moment and think about an urge that you recently experienced. As you think about this urge, see if you can notice all the sensations that come up as you think about it; see if you notice how these sensations shift across time. Use your breath to help you ride out the waves (i.e., the urge); like a surfboard, you can simply observe your breath as you ride out each wave that arises. Congratulations! You just successfully surfed your first urge!

Urges usually peak between 20 – 30 minutes, if we let them. What I mean by this last phrase is this:  if we adopt an open and curious attitude about the urge and watch it without doing battle with it, then the urge will subside. However, if we go to battle with our urges (e.g., “I can’t stand this urge! I have to get rid of it right now!”), they will subside more slowly. Worse, by giving into urges we can actually strengthen them and we can lose confidence in our abilities to change our old habits.

How to Surf an Urge

There are slight variations of the urge surfing technique, but most include the following steps:

  1. Take a few moments to notice where you experience urges in your body. You can do this by taking some time to sit in a quiet place, and if you are comfortable doing so, closing your eyes, and just allowing your attention to go to the place(s) in your body where you tend to feel urges. For some people they notice that urges are most connected to sensations in their abdomens; for others, they notice urges in their mouth (e.g., their mouths water when experiencing an urge to drink). There is no right or wrong place for an urge to be located. What is most important is that you notice where in your body you most notice urges when they show up. If you are having trouble noticing urges, think back to a time when you experienced an urge to engage in an old habit. If you are concerned that thinking about a particular instance when you had an urge will lead to doing the habit, pick a situation where the urge was less strong or you successfully prevented yourself from acting on the urge. Picture the situation as clearly as you can in your imagination. Once the situation is clear in your mind notice where in your body you are experiencing the urge.
  2. Once you have noticed what part of your body is most connected to the urge, focus your attention on it (if you notice that more than 1 area of your body is connected to an urge, start with the place that you most intensely notice the urge). Take note of the sensations you are having in this body part. What do the sensations feel like? Does it feel like pressure, tingling, warmth, or coolness? How much space do these sensations take up in this place in your body? Try to draw an outline around the place where the sensations are felt. See if the sensations have any movement. Some people tend to associate sensations with colors or temperatures. Check to see if you notice any colors or temperature associated with these sensations. For some people it can be helpful to silently describe the sensations in an objective and non-judgmental manner (e.g., I notice warmth and tingling in my belly). If more than one part of your body is associated with an urge, go through this exercise with each body part.
  3. Bring your attention to your breath. You do not need to change your breathing at all. Notice your breath for the next 1-2 minutes. Some people find it helpful to bring their attention to a particular place in their body where they notice their breath (e.g., the abdomen); some find it helpful to say phrases like “breathe in,” “breathe out” as they inhale and exhale.
  4. Gently shift your attention back to the part(s) of your body where you notice the urge. Allow yourself to notice whatever sensations come up in these places. If it becomes overwhelming to notice the sensations, gently return your attention back to breath for a few moments and then go back to noticing the sensations connected to the urge. You may find it helpful to imagine sending your breath to the parts of your body that are associated with the urge (e.g., you can breathe into your shoulders and let your breath fill up that part of your body). Notice if and how the sensations change as you watch them. Be sure to practice this step for at least 1 minute, but longer is probably better.
  5. This next step is optional, but I have found it to be helpful in my own life and in working with people with addictions. Imagine that the sensations connected with your urge are a wave. Watch the wave rise and fall over and over again as the intensity of your sensations peak and subside. Your job is to use your breath as a surfboard to ride these waves. No matter how big the wave gets, no matter how much you feel as if the wave will consume you, you are a skilled surfer and you will use your breath to ride each wave as it comes. Practice this for at least 1 minute, but again, longer is probably better, particularly the first few times you practice this.
  6. As you’re riding the wave (or just noticing the sensations), you may find it helpful to silently describe the sensations in an objective and non-judgmental way (e.g., I notice warmth in my belly that is increasing…the warmth in my belly is decreasing and my belly feels cooler).
  7. When you are done surfing the urge, take a moment to thank yourself for taking the time and being willing to do something different with your urges. You can also use this time to set your intention for the next few minutes, hour, or day.

That’s it! With practice urge surfing gets easier and you may discover that you are an excellent surfer. You can practice this technique in two ways:

  1. You can start urge surfing whenever you notice yourself having an urge.  This can be a particularly useful technique when you notice urges to go back to old habit that you are trying to break.
  2. You can practice this on a regular basis by setting aside time to practice using the technique. Many people find that listening to an audio recording of the technique is useful at first.  Through this kind of formal practice, you can get better at urge surfing so that you’re better at it when you need it.

You’ll find that, with practice, urges will become easier to ride out. You may even start to feel a sense of pride or accomplishment as you successfully surf urges and act according to your values, instead of according to your urges.

If you would like to learn more about how to use techniques like urge surfing to cope with urges, the book below is a good option: