The Buddhist monks who pioneered meditation roughly 5,000 years ago as a way to connect with God (and themselves) never could have imagined how pervasive their practice would become in our frenetic Western world — once it got here. Meditation remained a largely Eastern practice until the 1960s, when free spirits discovered the existential pleasures of a meditative trance. Now, six decades later, meditation is a pastime of LA bros and a selling point for multi-thousand-dollar retreats that allow you to “get high on your breath ... or detox your hangover,” and “cleanse [your] bodies."
The meditation craze is a little silly. But that doesn't mean the practice itself is. While meditation may not be the emotional and medical cure-all that wellness enthusiasts occasionally make it out to be, it does appear to have science-backed benefits: Studies have linked it to better sleep, increased cortical thickness and enhanced creativity. At the very least, it's worth a shot, right?
That was my thinking a few months ago when I started exploring different ways get into meditation. I wanted to find the one — the ideal introductory experience for someone looking to test the meditative waters. But, after struggling to choose between a meditation app, a boutique class and an immersive retreat, I gave up and decided to try them all. And I realized that my search for the one contradicted everything meditation stands for.
1. Meditation App: Headspace
Where: Everywhere (on your phone)
Geared towards: The Optimizer
I never managed to make time for Headspace when I initially downloaded it last year. But Headspace and its ilk of mobile meditation platforms are undeniably easy to fit into your schedule. So, this time, I committed to giving it a real shot.
The good: Convenience and ample guidance
Meditation apps are everywhere. Many of them are free. And all of them offer short, on-demand meditation sessions — mental clarity in 3 minutes! — at your fingertips. So you can squeeze in meditation between meetings, on the subway or while waiting for your laundry.
Thanks to start-to-finish narration, I was never unsure of what I was supposed to be doing during my 10-minute sessions. And, while I can understand skepticism towards McMeditation, anecdotal evidence from meditation teachers suggests that 10 minutes a day is enough to reduce stress. Overall, Headspace struck me as an easy way for anyone, over-scheduled or not, to dip their toes in meditation.
The bad: Initiative
Unless you’re a highly proactive person, pulling out your phone and actually meditating can be hard, especially when you could fill idle time with Netflix or GoT recaps instead. To combat this issue, Headspace sends you reminders to meditate. Even then, since you don’t have a physical space to enter and say, “yep, I’m meditating now,” you have to be, well, mindful of carving out time in your day for meaningful mind-wandering.
2. Trendy Meditation Boutique: MNDFL
Where: Varies; I went to the Manhattan Greenwich Village location
Cost: $10 for first class
Geared towards: The Insta-Fiend
I booked my 45-minute class a few hours ahead of time, but a number of my fellow midday Monday meditators were walk-ins. Shortly before class began, the teacher invited us into the meditation studio, where I picked my cushion, assumed quazi-lotus position and started paying attention to my breath.
The good: A E S T H E T I C A F
One of the first things that stands out about MNDFL is its clean look. From the star-shaped glass lights on the ceiling to the plant wall and fresh-laundry-and-flowers aroma, MNDFL’s space embodies the mission listed on its site: “Our studios are meant to feel like home. Or, at least, the spacious home you’d love to have in New York.” And I did feel at home in the cozy waiting area, in a strangely aspirational way. As I lounged on the plush couch, sipping (free) tea and flipping through meditation coffee table books, the city seemed miles away.
But back to meditation: MNDFL offers an assortment of meditation classes, each with a different focus and goal. It's probably worth clarifying that mindfulness, which is a type of meditation, means being present in the moment. Meditation, however, is the broader practice of (gently) helping you tame your wild mind. And, as the name MNDFL suggests, mindfulness is integrated into all of its offerings. I signed up for a “heart” session, which, as the instructor explained, is supposed to "expand your heart" and create more love and compassion in your life.
The bad: The price (if you intend to go more than once)
I could have spent all afternoon refilling my tea mug in that that living room. And, overall, MNDFL made me realize how much ambience can elevate the practice of meditation — a calm environment might be the first step to a calm mind. But I also realized that the $10 price tag for MNDFL relaxation is a one-time thing. Subsequent classes start at $16 for 30-minute sessions, if you buy a package. Still, $16 isn’t terrible for 30 minutes of meditation + however many minutes you want to spend hanging out in the studio.
3. Day-Long Meditation Retreat, run by BuddhistInsights
Where: Varies; I went to Rockaway Beach in Queens
Cost: Free (donations appreciated)
Geared towards: The Enlightenment-seeker
If you’re looking to meet positive people, enjoy hyper-local plant-based delicacies (i.e., grown in the backyard) or have your chakras opened, then consider giving up one weekend day for a meditation retreat. The one I went to was completely donation-based and came with a Reiki session (a practice to unblock energy, akin to plunging the bathroom of your soul, as one Reiki healer put it).
The good: A chance to bond with (self-described) weirdos and get your brain juices flowing
You never know who you’ll meet at free retreats in New York City. In this case, I was relieved to find myself sitting up, as straight as possible, alongside 30 friendly and open-minded people. The vibe never felt stiff or formal — plenty of jokes were thrown around, and after someone introduced the moniker “weirdo,” other people embraced it too.
As in my MNDFL class, the retreat began with an introduction to a central pillar of meditation: Nothing is inherently good or bad. It’s all just a matter of perspective. "People argue about their perspectives and then get shot," explained Bhante Suddhaso, a wise and wonderfully dry monk who led the class. "That’s human history condensed into a few words."
Having a limited perspective, Suddhaso explained through an analogy, is like a blind person insisting they know what an elephant looks like solely by touching its trunk. Only someone who can see the elephant knows what it looks like. And, like many monks, Suddhaso's goal is to become the seer and develop a “clear understanding of absolute reality." To me, Suddhaso's lofty mission seemed roughly as achievable as hanging out with Usher on Mars. (I've lived in Atlanta for three years without a single Usher sighting! And I've put a lot of effort into making one happen.) But, meditators need not devote their lives to becoming seers. A more manageable goal of practice, I learned, is to develop more compassion, towards yourself and others, and realize the problems that stem from limited perspectives.
I can’t deny that I came out of the day with a lot to think about. Plus, the free food was restaurant-quality. Microgreens from Queens FTW.
The bad: Commitment
I spent over two hours in transit to spend most of a beautiful day indoors, concentrating on my thoughts. (I also spent about an hour weeding the backyard garden, unable to distinguish weeds from herbs — I wasn't alone.) But I still found the experience worthwhile. And I think that anyone who wants to understand meditation outside the realm of wellness trends and technology hacks would agree.
And my verdict is...
That you should try more than one meditation experience before you reach a verdict, because each experience adds another layer of understanding to the practice. The point of meditation is not to become a more productive, patient or well-slept version of yourself. Instead, meditation is about learning how to control your emotions and reactions to life events. The only way to get meditation wrong is to believe you can get it wrong, as seasoned meditators at my retreat assured me. To one Reiki healer, the preoccupation with getting the Eastern practice right is a very Western idea.
To give meditation a fair shot, you need to go into it without a specific outcome in mind. It took dabbling in an app, visiting a bougie boutique and spending a Sunday in Queens with a monk for me to internalize this. But I'm not finished. Next on my list is "a multi-platform meditation brand" called Inscape. Dubbed the "Soulcycle of Meditation," Inscape offers both in-person and phone-based meditation sessions.
I'm far from the only beginner who's struggled to abandon a right-vs-wrong, outcome-oriented mindset. Aki Baker, another Reiki healing teacher at the retreat, told me that she didn't love meditation until she stopped trying to force herself to become a meditation junkie and acknowledged that she hated it. “Once I hit that point, I didn’t hate it anymore, I just loved it," Baker told me. "Because it gave me permission to see [reality] as it is, and, I think my meditation [experience] probably became what meditation is [supposed to be].”
So give yourself the chance to hate and love meditation, too. And, if you need me, I'll be that girl on the subway breathing deeply and trying to see the entire elephant.