This app helps me learn to chill like a true Zen Master

 Homescreen Heroes: The Way.
Homescreen Heroes: The Way.

Sometime in the year 2000, meditation was rebranded as 'Mindfulness', a recasting that somehow made the act more accessible. It was soon followed by the digitization of, which means we only needed an app and ten minutes at our desks during lunch.

The awareness created by mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm has brought meditation to the mainstream and has certainly helped millions focus their minds and calm their stress.

But it has all got a bit messy.

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This is part of a regular series of articles exploring the apps that we couldn't live without. Read them all here.

There are hundreds of meditation apps, audiobooks, podcasts and tracks on Spotify. The irony is that with all the mediation app noise, it can be hard to filter the good from the bad or even to know where to start.

This is where the new app, The Way, comes in.

Rather than have a list of meditations to solve each of life's problems, such as sleep, stress, empowerment, or anxiety, The Way provides a step-by-step course by one of the world's foremost experts, an actual Zen Master.

Henry Shukman is your guide on the course. This man has spent much of his adult life studying meditation in many different forms, notably in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen, where he has received Dharma Transmission. This sounds like something you would find on an ecologically sustainable car, but it actually makes him a Zen master with a lineage that can go back from master to master, theoretically all the way back to The Buddha himself.

It is probably important to note at this point that The Way isn't a religious app. Although Zen is rooted in Buddhism, the app and the course are agnostic; the focus is on meditation and there aren't other doctrines at play, so it should be suited to everyone.

For the last few months, The Way has been in beta, where I have been trying it, but it is now out in the wild and live on iOS and Android app stores.

I've been using The Way to get a little more from a meditation practice. If I'm feeling stressed or anxious, I'm pretty good at being self-aware and taking a moment to shut my eyes and breathe, even if just for a moment. But I want to take that a bit further so I can perhaps become more reflective and not get as stressed in the first place. To become more, er, Zen... if you pardon the perfectly appropriate pun.

A selection of screenshots from The Way meditation app
A selection of screenshots from The Way meditation app

More Than Mindfulness

What separates The Way from other meditation apps is that it is really a course or a journey - you follow The Way - a literal illustrated path in the app. Along the path, are different retreats, each one delving a little deeper into meditation with different sessions giving a step-by-side approach.

Each session is either a guided meditation or a brief talk by Henry, offering vital context as to what the approach or aim is from this particular part of the course. From experience, the voice of the narrator is critical to the success of a guided meditation. I've started too many guided mediations where the sound of a beautiful forest or harmonious bamboo wind chimes has been broken by someone with a voice that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. These moments instantly break the harmonious synergy between mind, body, and smartphone app.

Thankfully, there are no chimes or gongs, at least not where I am on The Way. Instead, there is silence and Henry's voice, which is very soothing. Think of Bob Ross, although, with his English accent, a better comparison would be to Monty Don (he does gardening programs on the BBC and is far cooler than he sounds).

I first came across Harry Shukman on an episode of the Tim Ferris Show podcast a few years back. I was instantly struck by how calm and laid back Harry was, which is obvious - the dude is a literal Zen Master. But he has a sense of humor; you can hear the smile on his face when he talks.

The audio is impeccably recorded, and one of the things that I like is that there are times when you will hear Henry 'um' or 'err' when giving an introduction or talking about a topic. I genuinely like that the tone and the message haven't been edited to death as it gives it a close feeling, like Henry is actually with you, guiding you, and not just reading from a script or, worse still, an AI-generated voice.

A screen grab of The Way website homepage
A screen grab of The Way website homepage

Finding Zen

I've been trying to use The Way every day, which more realistically has become 'when I remember,' but that is ok. At any point, you can go back and play a previous session, and you can even choose the meditation length, either 10 or 20 minutes.

Early sessions are very much in the 'mindfulness' mold: sitting comfortably, letting your thoughts wander, focusing on your breath, scanning and relaxing your body and noticing tension and how you feel, listening and observing sounds.

Henry explains the Four Zones of practice you work through during The Way - Mindfulness, Support, Flow, and Awakening. There are 110 sessions at the time of writing, and the plan is to build on this. As a guided course, there is a lot of information, including some Zen Koans, which are statements or questions that don't have a literal answer. Koans are like tools to make you reflect. You may already kind of a know one - 'Two hands clap, and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?'.

I'm not expecting to become enlightened from being guided through The Way, although who knows what will happen. All I know is that with all the research into the health benefits of meditation alone, spending a few minutes every day to appreciate the fact that I breathe without even trying can't be a bad thing. Taking time to appreciate life and everything in it will help keep me grounded daily.

Currently, there is an Early Supporter offer, which is £9.99 ($9.99) a month ( usually £19.99) or £69.99 ($74.99) for the year (usually £139.98). Like anything digital, there is an expectation that everything should be free, but to put it in perspective, a single group meditation class could cost £10-20, so to have access to an entire course at that price is good value if you think you will complete it and get something from it.

You can find The Way on iOS. Their Google Play link is currently missing.

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