Finding Clarity Series #3- Beginning a Meditation Practice for Clarity Using the Muse Meditation Headband

Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.

~Pema Chodron

That is my experience the past few weeks on my mission to live in greater clarity. I used to hear myself make the statement:

‘There are things that are blocking me, that’s why I can’t see clearly’.

No there aren’t. That’s an illusion. I know this because that belief is unraveling. I am chipping away at that illusion and I’m picking up steam. It’s been like opening Pandora’s Box. That statement doesn’t come out of my mouth anymore.

NOW I’m inspired to return to meditation and develop a new practice that expands my clarity capacity, in the following ways:

By inducing sense of calm- a calm mind is a clear mind.

By improving my observations of the world, inside and out.

By clearing the mind of confusion, like cleaning dust from a window.

By clearing the mind of noise so my attention can be strong and focused instead of fragmented and weak.

By creating the space to find centeredness- when centered we’re less triggered, less distracted by emotion and ‘story’.

By increasing receptivity- to listening to more deeply to myself.

So the greater our meditation practice, the more time we spend in a state of calm, the more often clarity is available to us? Yep.

Why the Neurofeedback Device Muse?

Because I know feedback works powerfully for me. My previous practice was driven by a past circumstance. For 10 years I practiced often while competing as a motorcycle road racer. I practiced my kind of meditation (there are as many kinds of meditation as there are practitioners), and for my specific intention at the time.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Off the track, I practiced a version of sitting meditation. Or I hiked alone for hours in moving meditation. It helped me move through my periods of self-doubt and occasional fear of failure (and sometimes fear of crashing). It improved my focus and allowed me to stay grounded before an event. But I didn’t meditate during the off-season. I had no such ‘in-my-face’ motivation in the off season.

It was astounding that on the track riding a motorcycle at speed, when you’re ‘on your game’, was itself a powerful meditation state. Time slowed down. And while traveling at triple digit speeds, there was brilliant stillness. Everything got still and quiet. The noisy, anxious mind took a back seat when input through the senses was happening too fast for the conscious brain to keep up. Even in the ‘heat of battle’ during a race, there were moments of ‘no thought.’ This state was of course, dependent on this very special circumstance. I t has been 8 years since then.

The intent to live in greater clarity, free from the illusion that ‘something is blocking me’ motivates me now. Now my purpose is to embrace a practice available to me anytime, anywhere, and keep stepping farther away from that illusion.

Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.

~Sharon Salzberg

To build this mediation practice, I knew needed an engaging assist.

Enter the Muse

The Muse is a Bluetooth headband that provides real-time feedback on your brain in action, during a timed meditation practice. It measures your brain signals (your brain waves) like a heart rate monitor senses your heart beat.

The attraction for me? I have a positive history with biofeedback devices. Many years ago I used it to pull myself out of a 3 year major clinical depression. It took time, but there is no question bio (neuro) feedback works for me.

My decision to invest in the Muse

I had read lots of user’s comments stating they ‘had tried meditation before and failed to continue with the practice but were able to develop a habit using of the Muse.’ That was persuasive.

And I believed that without a device like this, I might have gone several more years without embracing meditation again, if at all. The investment in this device served as a kind of forcing function for me. If a forcing function is any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result, then my ‘event’ was spending the money on it. If I bought it, I would use it. The Muse lists for $249, but I bought a unit Amazon described as having a ‘big scratch’, for $75 off. And by the way, there is no scratch or blemish anywhere.

On the Muse headband

The literature describes the Muse as:

‘a next-generation, state of the art EEG system that uses advanced algorithms to train beginner and intermediate meditators in controlling their focus.’ It teaches users how to manipulate their brain states and how to change the characteristics (the activity and response) of their brains.

The headband rests on the middle of your forehead and behind your ears and has 7 finely calibrated sensors — 2 on the forehead, 2 behind the ears and 3 ‘reference sensors’.

It senses and monitors your brain’s ‘externally available’ electrical activity and sends it to the Muse app on your smartphone or tablet. It then gives you immediate feedback about the level of ‘calmness’ or ‘noisiness’ of your brain activity. That feedback is first via nature ‘soundscapes’ such as Rain Forest (loud or quiet) that you hear through your headphones during meditation. The second level feedback you get is an EEG readout, an unbiased biomarker of your brain wave pattern created during, and of the entire meditation. Awesome.

My Introductory Sessions

First, I downloaded the Muse app for my iPhone. I plugged my headphones into my phone and into my ears. I followed the directions on the app to connect Muse and my iPhone via Bluetooth.

Muse Website

Once connected I put the headband on my head. The app took me through a simple audio tutorial for properly adjusting it to fit my head and ensure ‘conductivity’ of the signals coming from my brain.

Muse first took a ‘snapshot’ of my brain activity in my natural (non-meditative) state, walking me through the process. This ‘snapshot’ is the reference my device would use to interpret my brain waves. And because our brains are different day to day, it calibrates itself before each session. This took a little time the first time, but in subsequent sessions it only took seconds.

There is an audio cue that your calibration was successful. I was ready for my first official session to start. Sessions are pre-set at 5 minutes, which was fine with me. The app will start you out with the Muse Essentials that provide training in things like; ways to pay attention to breath, way to managing discomfort, finding and changing your preferred feedback ‘soundscape’, and more. The first few sessions take you through these Essentials, but you can bypass them if you like.

Muse gave me moment to moment feedback about my brain activity (in real-time) in the Rain Forest soundscape. The goal is to let me know the moment my mind wanders by increasing the intensity and sound volume of the rain. This way I knew the moment it wandered and I could quickly bring it back. Most of the time we don’t even notice the point at which the mind wanders, so we can’t refocus until we do notice. Learning to be diligent about ‘mind drift’ takes longer without this immediate feedback.

When my mind was active, the rain was loud. When my mind was calmer, the rain quieted down. My first session it rained almost the whole time. That was surprising to me. I had no idea how active my mind was when I didn’t want it to be. Oh, and you will want to sit still, as movement creates ‘noise.’

In my second session my brain was mostly in neutral, still with some rain but overall much calmer (zero rain noise). I can see this looking at the EEG graph at the end of my session when I am directed to the EEG data, organized on the graph in bands of “calm”, “neutral”, or “active”. The app also numerically records the amount of time spent in the “calm” range by giving me 1 point for every second that my brain was in a neutral state and 3 points for every second that my mind was calm. The points weren’t as captivating for me as the graph itself. Which again surprised me at how busy my brain was.

And Then There are the Birds

The app is gamified by associating those points with certain awards (complete with badges) and positive feedback. But my favorite part by far are the birds. When you’re able to quiet the rain for longer periods, you start to hear the chirping of birds. This is the cue your mind is really calm.

The birds are addicting. In session 3, I earned 18 birds and in session 4, zero birds. I was disappointed. This gamification grabbed me. I was immediately looking forward to session 5 to redeem myself by getting my bird count up.

Apparently after 5,000 points I will unlock more data such as “timeline view” and “insights about you” (which tells me things such as what time of the day my sessions are calmer or when I can “earn more birds”). It didn’t take me long to learn that meditating too late in the day meant my sessions were generally less calm.

Meditation length can be preset in 5-minute intervals, from 5 minutes to 45 minutes, or you can use the timer in the app to set your own time to the minute; from 1 minute to as long as 3 hours and 59 minutes. I have only about 120 minutes in so far and have increased my sit time to 10 minutes for now. This is so that in no way can I tell myself I don’t have time each day.

Going Forward

In the short time I had to get jumpstarted with the Muse, I had some surprises. In the first few sessions the gains were quick. Until I followed the directions for one of the Muse Essentials, adding counting to the focus on my breath. This tanked my progress. But now I know, that doesn’t work for me, so I just don’t do it.

I was quickly hooked. After just one session I was into this technology. And that means I will keep going with it and be able to build a habit. Knowing the experience of stillness is cumulative I know the more I sit, the more time I will spend in a quiet mind, and the more clarity I will experience.

I have continued two of the strategies that got me this far in my quest. The timed free writing (#1) and floating in the sensory deprivation tank whenever possible (#2). I recently tried a session of Holotropic Breathing, but I can’t write about that yet. I didn’t get what i could have. I discovered you need to go to the right practitioner to have the experiences Holotropic Breathing can truly offer regarding clarity.

What’s Next?

I’m not sure of the order, but up next are Ecstatic Dance, Kundalini Yoga, and the Wim Hoff breathing method with cold showers. I don’t know which of these will stick long term, but I’m kind of hoping it will be Wim Hoff’s breathing process to become cold adapted. I have been wanting to get into cold thermogenesis for a couple of years now. The thought of that one taps into a little resistance!