I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans, which documents the habits of highly successful people, and one of the many things they have in common (80% or so) is daily meditation. I meditated as a teenager when I dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but that was an increasingly long time ago. I decided if that many high-performing people were meditating, it was worth giving it another shot.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of meditation, including improved mental and physical health, lower blood pressure, and even improvements to your genes. Alas, sample sizes have been small or methodologies questionable, but it seems to be working for me. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed increased levels of focus and productivity and an improved ability to handle stressful situations. If I miss a day, I feel like I’m meandering through a fog.
The Elephants in the Room: Calm and Headspace
Both apps require an annual subscription fee, so I tested their free trials. They were fine, and I started seeing improvements in my focus and mental clarity in a few days. However, it felt silly paying an annual subscription fee to meditate—it’s just someone talking. What exactly are you paying for? As much as anything else, it seems to be celebrity meditations from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew McConaughey.
It turns out that I find celebrity voices distracting. I tried Calm’s meditation intended to help you get back to sleep, narrated by Jerome Flynn, who you may recognize as Bronn from Game of Thrones. So here I am at 4 AM, trying to get to sleep and thinking 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 make for doing these meditations?
- What part of the UK is he from?
Lovely voice but entirely too familiar. Needless to say, I didn’t get back to sleep.
I liked the guided meditations but didn’t see a compelling reason to pay. Eventually, I remembered why these apps rang a bell: Timothy Buck wrote about Headspace for TidBITS a few years ago (see “Headspace: A Guided Meditation Companion,” 14 October 2019).
I looked up that old article and saw that readers had suggested Oak as a free alternative. It’s now my only meditation app, and I think it’s all most people need.
What Oak Offers
Oak has a small set of both guided and unguided meditations:
- Mindful (a simple meditation to focus on your breath)
- Loving Kindness (in which you think of people and wish them happiness, health, and peace)
Along with a few short breathing exercises:
- Deep Calm
And a couple of routines to help you fall asleep:
- Relaxing Sounds
- Guided Breath
Each meditation has extensive customization options: duration, male or female instructor, background sounds, and whether or not you have a warmup.
As someone with three kids and thus a noisy house, I appreciate the large library of background sounds, which includes things like cave water, fireplace, rain, Tibetan “om,” and simple white noise. They’re also helpful when trying to fall asleep because they help drown out the noise of your brain. You can adjust the volume of the instructor’s voice and the background sound separately.
Finally, you can enable a setting to link Oak to Apple Health, which updates your Mindful Minutes metric in the Health app.
Once you’ve configured everything the way you want it—Oak remembers your choices for next time—tap Begin Meditation, and you’re off. There’s nothing more to it, nor should there be.
What Oak Lacks
Oak isn’t as full-featured as Calm and Headspace. The main thing you miss with Oak is variety. Calm and Headspace offer new meditations daily with different lessons or things to think about. I find those distracting. I just want a few minutes to clear my head, not be inundated with a message of the day. But if you need that novelty to keep you coming back, you may soon grow bored with Oak.
Calm and Headspace also offer meditations for specific situations, while Oak doesn’t. I found these situational meditations akin to the dozens of ketchup options that all taste the same. Fundamentally, meditation is about breathing and clearing your mind, not addressing specific problems.
And, of course, Oak doesn’t have any celebrity voices. Sorry, famous people, I just don’t find you relaxing.