The Spire: Not Quite Zen in Your Pocket
Throughout my life, I haven’t been very good at identifying how I’m feeling in a given moment, unless that feeling is “nervous.” I’ll think I’m doing just fine, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, I’m irritated or upset. So when I heard about the mood-sensing device Spire — which emerged with an iPhone-compatible version last year and an Android variant this summer — I was excited. Finally, something that could warn me about how I’m feeling before I get into the red zone.
The Spire is a little stone-shaped device that clips onto your bra or waistband and measures your breathing. It can alert you when you start breathing more quickly and shallowly — suggesting tension — as well as when you’re taking slow, calm breaths or moderate breaths that suggest you’re super focused on a task. These “alerts” come in two forms: the Spire device vibrates, and you get a pop-up notification from the app on your phone. The device also includes a pedometer and will tell you roughly how many steps you’ve taken in a day.
It’s a great idea, at least in theory. And indeed, it picked up on several incidents in which I started to get tense but hadn’t really noticed. For example, it went off one day when I was riding the bus in San Francisco and someone was being rude. At a concert one night, when a woman kept putting her beer on my table, standing in front of my seat so I couldn’t see and generally being obnoxious, the Spire buzzed a couple of times. It vibrated repeatedly one afternoon when I’d been working too long; I was getting tired and, in fact, wasn’t breathing very well at all. I probably wouldn’t have noticed any of these on my own.
There were other days, though, when I was definitely off kilter but the Spire didn’t recognize it, suggesting that respiration rate isn’t the only sign that someone’s tensing up. And there were times I’d get a pop-up on my phone telling me I’d been tense for at least two minutes, but hadn’t felt the Spire vibrate. Either the vibration wasn’t always working, or there were times when I was too focused on something else to notice a buzzing sensation in my bra — which is kind of surprising if you think about it.
The Spire also buzzed often when I was riding my bicycle. The pedometer didn’t recognize that I was exercising, since I wasn’t making that hallmark up-and-down motion that comes with walking, so it had no way of knowing why I was breathing so fast. That was kind of annoying.
Spire also comes with some extra mindfulness tools, including guided meditations by famed Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh and New Age figurehead Deepak Chopra. I didn’t try any of those, mainly because I already have some other mindfulness apps I like, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The Spire isn’t perfect — nothing that attempts to measure internal states based on external information is likely to be. But it does provide useful feedback for those of us who tend to be stressed out, and who tend to be oblivious about how stressed out we are in a given moment.
Here are a few other apps I’ve found useful for creating a calmer state of mind:
Headspace: (iPhone/Android) Co-created by meditation and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe, Headspace is an app that offers a series of guided meditations that train you to meditate more successfully. The app offers a free series of introductory meditation lessons, and then offers a number of series targeted at specific issues, including anxiety, self-esteem, relationships, productivity or anything else you’d like to improve. Those targeted sessions cost money, though. Puddicombe’s British accent makes listening to these sessions a treat, and the beginner series is especially helpful. However, the issue-specific series often teach the same techniques, making you wonder why you paid extra to learn to apply that skill to yet another part of your meditation practice.
The Mindfulness App: (iPhone/Android) This underwhelmingly named app is available free for Android and iPhone, and offers both guided meditations and (I kid you not) pre-set periods of silence that are marked by occasional bells to let you know when to start, when you’re partway through and when you’re finished. The silent meditations are especially nice once you have some basic meditation skills under your belt. Another thing I really liked about this app is that you can set reminders throughout the day that pop up, nudging you to focus on your breath, to notice your environment or to engage in a moment of gratitude.
Pause: (iPhone/Android) This odd little app/game is based in principles of tai chi and focused, slow movement. It invites you to touch your fingertip to a blob of color on your phone’s touchscreen, and slowly follow it around as it floats from place to place. As you continue to follow the blob, it grows larger and larger, and eventually you’re directing the flow of movement on your own, rather than following its lead. The beauty of the game, combined with the slow-motion interaction, forces your brain to quiet down and focus. It’s kind of brilliant.