Take a Breath

Musings on neuroscience, meditation, and Muse.

Of Sound Mind: Finding Your Feedback Loop with Muse

mountain

People often try to use metaphors to explain meditation. Some stay pragmatic and compare it to physical exercise, while others get lofty and talk about ocean waves crashing on the side of a mountain.

These metaphors are aiming to make the practice more tangible, because the reality is, it’s quite a subtle thing. You’re trying to achieve a “meditative” state of mind, but what exactly does that mean? There’s no simple answer. No one other than you can experience your consciousness. It’s up to you to find your way.

Teachers can help point to techniques, share things they’ve learned, and support you through emotional discoveries, but ultimately the practice is yours to explore. Meditation is a process of personal experimentation and discovery. As you practice, trust your own experiences and insights – there’s no higher authority than your own experience.

Many find that a playful, curious approach helps a lot in the early stages. Being open and ready to try different techniques, positions, tools, lengths, and locations is key. When practicing with Muse, you may also learn from experimenting with your soundscape settings as you search for a feedback loop that feels right.

Here are some Muse soundscape settings to play with:

sound settings

To access these soundscape settings, connect your headband, start a session, and then tap the volume icon in the top right corner.

  1. Gentle and Soft

    Turn up the background volume while reducing both the feedback and birds volumes to make the soundscape much gentler. If you find the feedback too distracting, this can help a lot.

  2. Silence the Birds

    If you find the birds distract you too much, you can simply turn their volume down to zero. They’ll still be counted in your session report and data – you simply won’t hear them.

  3. Focus on Real-time Feedback

    The background sound helps ground the soundscape and prevents total silence from becoming a distraction when you’re calm. Turning up the feedback and birds and setting the background to zero can feel like a very different experience, so it’s worth exploring.

  4. Turning off the Sound

    It can also be instructive to explore having no sound feedback at all to see how different it feels. You’ll still get a full session report with all your data after the session.

When playing with your soundscape settings, try to find a feedback loop where Muse supports your focused attention on the breath without getting in the way. You’re looking for volume levels where your wandering mind is pulled back to the breath, but your focused mind is not pulled away from the breath.

Your preferred settings may be different from those of other Musers, and they may also change over time as your practice evolves. If you ever find yourself frustrated or unable to find settings that work for you, remember to bring back that playful curiosity and enjoy the process of exploration itself. Good luck!

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A University Student’s Story Of Academic Stress And Meditation With Muse

Student Stress

Student stress

Stress has been proven to impact student performance. In 2008, five researchers conducted a study to evaluate the impact on stress during two 8-week, 90-minutes per week training programs for college undergraduates using meditation-based stress-management programs. Their study concluded that, “Meditation-based stress-management practices reduce stress among college undergraduates.”

One student who has been impacted by stress is Christine. She’s a third year English and Creative Writing student at The University of Western Ontario, and she visited Student Services asking about ways to manage her stress. A psychology professor suggested that Christine try Muse since, as part of an ongoing program, they were being loaned out to students through Student Services for the purposes of stress management and meditation.

Before meditating with Muse, Christine thought that in order to meditate one had to think about absolutely nothing. She had dabbled and dropped into a few mindfulness-based meditation classes on campus, but never felt compelled to continue meditating on her own. Christine felt skeptical and unsure if meditation would really work for her.

“Meditation-based stress-management practices reduce stress among college undergraduates.” – Journal of American College Health

In her first Muse meditation session, and to her own surprise, she found herself focusing on her breath, body, posture, and the present moment. When asked about the experience and data that Muse provides Christine replied,“I thought it was pretty cool that it seems to pick up my brainwaves. At first I was frustrated at my mind being all over the place. But, it actually really worked for me over time by helping me take control of my own thoughts.”

Christine was so satisfied with her initial Muse experience that she later purchased, using a student discount, a headband through the university. After a few weeks of practice, she made Muse part of her daily routine. Once classes and day activities are over, Christine commits to at least 7 minutes of Muse meditation using the beach soundscape – her favorite. She believes the regularity of her practice has facilitated changes in her life and expressed enthusiastically,“I now notice when I feel myself get worked up, stressed out, or anxious… I just think okay… I will just think about what I do when I use Muse. I imitate that meditative state that I go into.. And now I find it’s easier to slip into that state and calm myself down.”

It’s like all of the bad feelings have been purged. I can think more clearly.”

The data is important to Christine. In the beginning she explained that her scores were variable, but over time they have been more consistent. Christine was asked if she uses Muse in moments of stress and anxiety and she responded, “Yes. Sometimes I use the Muse when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s like restarting or shutting off my brain and coming back refreshed. It’s like all of the bad feelings have been purged. I can think more clearly.”

In a different, but related study, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service surveyed 9,931 students at 14 different schools. They matched grade point averages with health problems related to stress and other factors. Of the 69.9 percent of students who reported they were stressed, 32.9 percent said that stress was hurting their academic performance.

Studies such as these are causing college campuses to provide more resources such as Muse, for example, to students to help with mindfulness based stress reduction and other stress coping programs. University of Western Ontario is one of them.  Christine shared how meditating with Muse can help university students, “If someone is struggling with academic or personal stress, they need to give it a try. At first I thought this isn’t working for me, but I wasn’t really using it everyday. After a few weeks, once I worked Muse into my regular routine, I started to really notice a difference.”

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Meditation with Muse Helps Jessica Cope With Anxiety Like Symptoms

“If you have unproductive worries,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.”

One of Dr. Hoge’s recent studies found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped control anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder: a condition marked by excessive worrying, insomnia, and irritability.

Jessica, 31, a professional woman living in a North Carolina town influenced heavily by the local military base, was recommended Muse by her Psychiatrist, Thomas Mathew M.D., of the Trinity Wellness Center. Dr. Mathew takes an integrative approach to mental health and claims, “while I was intrigued by the idea that there were chemicals and electrical signals that formed the basis of our thoughts and feelings – I always felt that the change had to be more than just a prescription for a pill; it had to involve holistic and organic change in our thoughts and behaviors.”

Following a serious car accident years ago, symptoms of severe anxiety began to plague Jessica’s life. After 10 years of starting and stopping various prescription medications, Jessica took the advice of Dr. Mathew and began training her brain to have more positive thoughts. Jessica undertook 7 minutes of meditation per day for 101 consecutive days in order to help control her anxious thoughts.

Jessica committed to meditate daily at 8:05am. She started each day with a meditation at her desk before diving into work. Jessica described the first few days as a little awkward “because I was using technology to sense my brain and I, of course, never experienced that before!”.

“I’m now more aware of the words that want to come out of my mouth… I’m able to stop myself if it isnt going to be a good thought.”

Jessica wearing a Muse headband

Jessica wearing a Muse headband

When Jessica asked about any potential side effects. Dr. Mathew advised her that Muse would be, “as harmful as drinking water.”

After a few weeks of daily practice, Jessica shared, “I liked hitting the milestones. I like it because it’s like a game.” The milestones and challenges built into the Muse experience are designed to progress with you, at your own pace. Jessica knew that Muse was having a positive impact when she heard birds chirping in a simulated nature soundscape and felt like it was the result of a calm and focused moment. Birds chirping symbolize extended moments of calm during the Muse experience.

Jessica lives close to the ocean and finds the beach soundscape to provide more peaceful meditation experiences instead of the rainforest or city park options. Her best sessions occur while listening to headphones rather than speakers from her tablet or iPhone.

Jessica continues to practice with Muse daily, and has logged over 2,212 min and over 300 sessions to date. She describes the overall impact of Muse to her life now as, “there is a calmness, more times than not. It’s very calm. I’m now more aware of the words that want to come out of my mouth. I am able to stop myself sometimes if it isn’t going to be a good thought, or something worthwhile to say.”

Jessica

Jessica

Everyone experiences stress and some level of anxiety at some point in life. Dr. Hoge believes that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. She explains, “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power. You can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently.”

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Why Would Anyone Use Technology for Meditation?

An early brain sensing prototype.

I often get asked why someone would need an external tool for meditation. A brain sensing headband and smartphone seem out of place in a practice that’s supposed to be about doing less. Isn’t meditation something we do to simplify our lives and get away from technology?

“It takes motivation and effort to actually meditate regularly.”

Meditation is full of contradictions. On one hand, we’re taught that we’re perfect the way we are and that we should accept reality as it is. But on the other hand, the practice itself can feel like a lot of work. It takes motivation and effort to actually meditate regularly. Especially for beginners.

A Double-Edged Sword

Keeping a journal, documenting your meditations on a calendar, or using a tool like Muse can help you practice and reflect. But at the same time, you might end up looking back at these tools and feeling like you’re not good enough. Judging your performance like this is completely opposed to the core values of meditation.

At Muse, we are constantly researching people trying to start a new practice. What we’ve learned is that no matter what tools you use, a significant personal investment is always necessary. We’ve also learned that physiologically tracking your meditation using brain-sensing technology can successfully evoke motivation, curiosity and inspiration for many people in the modern world. For some people, the kind of support Muse provides makes a big difference.

“Making sure you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of self-judgment is critical to making this particular technique work.”

Making sure you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of self-judgment is critical to making this particular technique work. That’s why we work around the clock to find the balance between promoting a non-judgmental attitude and motivating habit formation.

Compassion for Today’s Beginners

Building meditation into a contemporary lifestyle can be surprisingly difficult. Muse is full of compassion for those having trouble sticking to a meditation habit. The intention is to develop secular, science-based “training wheels” for new meditators.

A compassionate act.

The fact is, we live in a goal-directed and achievement-driven society. I see bringing motivation into a meditation program as a compassionate act to help with the early stages. Muse is a gateway to meditation which acknowledges the world we live in.

If you already have an established practice, you may find yourself resistant or opposed to the idea. This is natural, as this technology doesn’t solve a problem for existing meditators. If you already meditate, it’s simply a curiosity to experiment with. But for those having trouble creating a strong daily meditation routine, it can be a wonderful ally in the hard work of building a practice from scratch.

“Muse is a gateway to meditation which acknowledges the world we live in.”

Technology or Technique?

Many teachers will tell you that everything is perfect as it is, and they’re right. But the wise ones will also point out that it takes effort to accept and be with that perfection in this moment. Muse is less of a new technology, and more of a new technique to help you put in that effort. If you’re one of the millions trying to get a meditation habit going, it’s worth considering how Muse might help.

“Many teachers will tell you that everything is perfect as it is, and they’re right. But the wise ones will also point out that it takes effort to accept and be with that perfection in this moment.”

Muse is not about attaining some miraculous state of enlightenment decades from now. It’s about helping you start a practice today. It’s about motivating yourself to create a sustainable daily routine. It’s about learning to habitually give yourself an opportunity to exist within the perfection of presence every single day.

Our intention is to encourage people to see the wisdom in a daily meditation routine focused on attention and awareness in the here and now. We started this journey with a belief that this technology might truly help people start meditating. Now we’re even more sure.

Jay Vidyarthy


Jay Vidyarthi is the User Experience Lead for Muse. He helped conceptualize Muse and has directed all UX research, design and validation processes since. Follow him on Twitter @jayvidyarthi.

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“Shift” – Our Steve Dee Plots a New Course to Join The Center for Mindful Learning

Steven working

Steven working

Sometimes in life, as we go about our daily routines, we feel compelled by influences not immediately known, to explore new boundaries or broaden current ones. Today we feature the story of our very own Steven Dee, an integral developer here at Muse who’s decided to shift gears and move on to a life as a Modern Monastic at the Center for Mindful Learning. Today is Steve’s last day at Muse. Without further ado, here, in his own words, is his story:


Back on retreat in 2013, there was a day when I had, what I still consider, kind of a significant shift in my relationship to life and practice. I was biking up a hill to get back to the monastery from the coffee shop where I spent lots of my breaks. I was focusing on external sensations.

As I pedalled, my entire worldview crumbled. All of the projects I cared about would never come to fruition. My practice would never go anywhere. I’d never help anyone. There was no reason to keep going, or to not keep going. It was a feeling of deep hopelessness and pointlessness to my entire life and everything I was doing.

So I just kept going. There was no reason to pedal or to not pedal, so I pedalled. I couldn’t tell you why I did. My life kept happening, and I didn’t know why it was happening.

That basic not-knowing is still identifiably here right now. It doesn’t feel hopeless anymore. There’s a feeling in it that I struggle to give a name—I might call it peace or trust or love.

This is my last week at InteraXon. In April, I’m joining Center for Mindful Learning as a full-time modern monastic. I don’t know why I’m doing it. I can explain it, but I don’t believe any of the explanations. That’s not to say that they’re intentionally misleading—just incorrect or incomplete.

“My work is elsewhere.”

Steven meditating

Steven meditating

Every time I’ve left a job up until this one, no matter how amicable the parting has been, there’s been some sense in me of “my work is elsewhere.” Not so with InteraXon. I’m still pretty convinced that this is the best company and one of the most important projects in the world right now. I don’t think my work is done here.

But it’s undeniably shifting gears. I’m grateful to be leaving my projects—libmuse and the SDK tools—in some very capable hands and very kind hearts. Things are now at a point where I’m comfortable stepping away from the code a bit. So now I have a chance to dive into this inner work whole-heartedly, with nothing left out, with no distractions.

I have no end date in mind with CML. If you ask me how long I’ll be there, I’ll say “as long as it takes.”

In this next phase, I hope to stay connected to all of my coworkers here. You are all my family. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have met and worked with you. Let’s keep going.

Steven hanging out

Steven hanging out

And I hope to continue to serve this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime company in any capacity that I can. You’ll be able to find me on the developer forums soon enough. From here, maybe I write some third-party Muse apps; maybe one day I begin to contribute as a meditation teacher. But for now, gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā!


From all of us at InteraXon / Muse we wish Steve the very best on his new path and may his experiences be forever fruitful!

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