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Oak is a great free meditation app (plus another great option)

Tim Minchin, in his beautiful Christmas song ‘White wine in the sun’, has a lovely verse about old ideas:

I don’t go in for ancient wisdom
I don’t believe just ‘cause ideas are tenacious
It means that they’re worthy

And he’s right. Some old ideas are more about controlling bodies than helping people. But some old ideas – those rare few – have persisted through time because they’re, well, very fucking helpful.

Meditation and mindfulness are among those few. Sometimes wrapped in mysticism, sometimes packaged with hustle culture, often smooshed full of irony-free commercialisation but, at their core, helpful. Simply helpful.

But, like a lot of helpful things, they’re hard to understand and inexplicably tough to practice. 

Sit and breath and attune yourself to the moment. It’s not as easy as it reads.

Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Some of them are even free.

An aside about the big guns

You can’t talk about mindfulness apps without mentioning the likes of Headspace or Calm. It’s the law.

They’re phenomenally popular - Calm even has a TV show.  But they’re not for everyone. And they’re expensive.

I like Headspace. I’ve used it; I’ve even paid for it. It has some great courses: the beginners track is helpful, the advanced classes build well and the thematic options (like ‘relationships’ and ‘creativity’) take the foundational principles of mindfulness and apply them in a clear way.

But it’s not necessary. It’s not even the best, or easiest, way to learn about meditation and mindfulness. 

Maybe, like me, you feel a need to spend money on something before you pursue it with gusto. If so, I’d recommend picking up The miracle of mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh instead of  buying a month of Headspace (or any other meditation app).

(We’ll talk about Hanh more in a bit. Remember the name.)

The book covers the basic principles of meditation and includes a few mantras you can run through while focusing on your breath. I’ve used one of them for years and it’s always been helpful:

Breathing in, I calm my body
Breathing out, I smile
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful

After a few cycles, I move to this:


It helps if you actually smile. Nothing huge. Just a cheeky little half smile.

I haven’t said much about Calm because, well, I’m not a fan. I bounce off its layout every time I download the app. But the same principles apply: guided meditations, courses, price tag. It just has a bunch of celebrity voice overs as well.

Oak is a fantastic app

I love Oak. I used it for about a year before deciding to try something new.

Josh Centers reminded me of it with his article on Tidbits. He captures the app’s simplicity well:

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.

Oak has the right amount of options for a meditation app: a few. There’s guided meditation (one for mindfulness, one for love & kindness), unguided timers and a couple of nice bells to mark the time.

There are also a few different breathing exercises. I loved these. I’m not sure if the ‘energising’ intervals really got me amped up and ready to face the day but, hey, it was nice to do.

Oak has some stat counting, if you’re into that sort of thing. Sessions completed, daily streaks. Not my jam, but they’re there.

Centers wrote a more thorough overview. Check it out if you want to know more. 

Here’s the gist: Oak is a great, simple meditation app. It won’t bombard you with option or primary colours. It won’t charge you $100 a year for the promise of a more measured life.

It’s just a good app. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Plum Village: another great option

Plum Village is the app I landed on after leaving Oak behind. It’s a bit more complicated options-wise, and it’s not the most intuitive, but it’s great.

It’s an extension of the Plum Village Monastery, which was established by Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese buddhist monk) and Chân Không (a Vietnamese buddhist nun). That makes it one of the few meditation apps that’s actually developed by buddhists (alongside The Centre for Applied Ethics).

Wild, I know.

It’s filled with guided mediations from practicing monks. There’s a section for newcomers, of course. And there are some fantastic sessions covering topics ranging from the ‘wonders of life’ to ‘impermanence’ to ‘connecting with our ancestors, aspiration and joy’.

There’s even a one hour long video called ‘Contemplating the lotus pond’. It’s delightful.

There are a few downsides, of course. 

The app can be tricky to navigate. I often forget what’s in the section called ‘Short meditations’ versus ‘Plum Village essentials’ versus ‘Deep relaxation’. And the menu icons that distinguish between ‘Resources’ (a book glyph), ‘Talks’ (a sun behind a cloud) and ‘Extras’ (a singing bowl) aren’t the most helpful. 

Then there’s the audio quality. It’s varied. Sometimes fine, sometimes echoy, sometimes grainy. But it’s all manageable. 

The sessions themselves are fantastic. And you know they come as a result of years of practice and consideration.

And, best of all, the app knows what it’s here for. Here’s the last thought on the app’s website: ‘Use it, until you don’t need it anymore.’

That’s the goal. Peace is within, after all.

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