It’s a Thursday night in Bayswater, and in a bid to tick off yet another box on my self-improvement wishlist, I am sitting in the West London Buddhist Centre about to take part in a meditation class. With seemingly every other school, hospital, bank, law firm and San Franciscan tech start-up offering meditation and mindfulness to its employees, and up to 18m Americans practising it, meditation has gone mainstream. As if further proof were needed that it’s having a zeitgeisty moment, two of my closest friends also happen to turn up to the class. A spontaneous, non-diarised meeting in London? We all know that never happens.
Meditation and I have been doing a steady seduction/avoidance dance for a while. Up until this point, my efforts to master or even begin to practise it, have been thwarted. I’ve never felt the time was right: even when I sat on a rock on a Greek holiday, with a view of the sea, and diligently tried to listen to Andy Puddicombe’s best-selling Headspace app, I was interrupted by the ring of the same smartphone. I’ve never found the right location or company in which to practise: actress Marisa Berenson once told me she learnt to meditate with The Beatles in India. That’s a pretty great introduction.
But mounting evidence suggests that meditation is worth our time. In 2003, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that experienced Buddhists who practised meditation regularly were less likely to be shocked, stressed or angry compared with other people. The Shamatha Project produced research in 2011 suggesting meditation may play a role in slowing down cellular ageing. And a study at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006 found the grey matter of 20 men and women who meditated for 40 minutes a day was thicker than those who did not. Studies also revealed meditation can reduce pain intensity by up to 40 per cent, without medication. No wonder the NHS has been prescribing cognitive behavioural therapy, based on mindfulness, since 2004.
Meditating in a group has extra benefits. “There’s something very special about the energy of being in a room where other people are trying to meditate too,” says Bodhilila, my teacher at the centre, who has been meditating for about 30 years. “When I started, I was always very scattered in my thinking. I had low self-esteem and a strong inner critic. Meditation allowed me to become less reactive, more resilient. I discovered that quiet space I could enter into regardless of what was going on in my life.”
I anticipate the session will involve sitting cross-legged and chanting, but the teaching is secular, and there’s no chanting. Even sitting cross-legged is optional — most people sit on a chair. Bodhilila guides us through two sessions. In the first, we focus on an awareness of the body, the second turns our attention to the breath. It’s extraordinarily hard, I find, to perform the simple act of mindful breathing without thinking of anything else.
What’s the goal — besides spiritual evolution, obviously? “Everyone brings their own goal,” says Bodhilila. “Just 10 minutes of practice has an effect on the brain because of the way the neurons work. More serotonin and oxytocin are released, so it’s helpful at making people feel more positive.”
We’ve spent the last 10 years focusing on our bodies. We’re going to spend the next 10 focusing on our minds
If the Buddhist Centre sounds a little too “spiritual” (rather than charge for drop-in classes, it asks for a donation), there are plenty of spas, apps and private courses that offer a more urban approach — part of a movement recently valued by the Global Wellness Institute at $3.7tn.
Puddicombe’s Headspace App (£7.95 a month), might have been founded on his experience as a Buddhist monk years ago, but its simple message of 10 minutes a day has seen it downloaded 11m times since its launch in 2010 — no mean feat when you consider there are now about 1,300 mindfulness apps available. My issue with meditation apps, however, is that they bind us back to our phones — surely the very thing we need to escape if we are to still the brain chatter?
“I often see clients who are so anxious, fidgeting with their phones, wanting instant-everything, that their treatments were almost a waste of time,” says ESPA founder Susan Harmsworth, who believes meditation needs to come back to its roots, with a more personal, less tech-dependent approach. “We’ve spent the last 10 years focusing on our bodies,” she adds. “We’re going to spend the next 10 years focusing on our minds.”
ESPA now offers a Mindful Massage, a 90-minute treatment (£190) at the Corinthia Hotel, where a therapist talks you through a short meditation before giving you a massage, on the basis the results will be longer-lasting. I tried it and loved it, finding it effective at quietening my mind, and making the massage afterwards more effective. I left feeling clear-headed, relaxed and somehow energised. For a hit of non-tech Zen, Puddicombe’s book Meditation & Mindfulness is available at Amazon for £10.
The beauty of a guided meditation is that instead of sitting still and finding an imaginary focal point such as a river — what to cook tonight or unpaid parking tickets — you’re focusing on the voice giving directions about breathing. This encourages you to take deep breaths and in so doing, still the mind. “It’s proving to be much more popular than we thought,” says Harmsworth.