January 13 - Oh, no. Incense. There’s a juice bar in the lobby and bhangra music playing, too. It feels like I’ve stepped into some kind of space warp. Outside, London. Inside … well, it’s hard to describe. Because, as I step further into the Light Centre, a “natural health” studio offering everything from acupuncture to yoga, it becomes clear that its clientele is as far from the yogurt-knitting crowd as it’s possible to get.
They’re the kind of high-powered men and women you imagine spend weekends (with their BlackBerrys) at luxury spas. Which, come to think of it, is what the Light Centre feels like.
I’m here for my first session of mindfulness meditation, one of the centre’s most popular courses and a practice that made headlines last week. On Jan. 6, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the results of a ground-breaking study that found that meditation appears to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants. Dr. Madhav Goyal of the John Hopkins School of Medicine, who led the research, singled out mindfulness meditation as the most effective form.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that mindfulness performs as well as or better than medication,” says Adrian Wells, a professor of psychopathology at Manchester University and a clinical advisor to the charity Anxiety UK. The psychologist Katie Sparks agrees.
“In the group work that I’ve done with sufferers of anxiety or depression, I’ve found it very beneficial because it calms the mind. It’s not a new thing,” she adds.
That’s an understatement: Mindfulness is a meditation technique that has been advocated by Buddhism for 2,500 years. Paul Christelis, the Light Centre’s course leader and a clinical psychologist, defines it as “paying attention to your experience, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment or criticism.”
Its crossover into Western culture has been gradual. But in 2004, its use in preventing the relapse of depression was approved by the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice). It has rapidly gained traction since.
In the past few years, Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have declared themselves devotees.
OK, it’s not so surprising that a self-consciously cool company such as Facebook runs regular mindfulness sessions — but Goldman Sachs? Credit Suisse?
‘The bigger thing I took away from mindfulness is it teaches you to take the rough with the smooth’
General Mills, the Cheerios manufacturer, has a corporate mindfulness program with 700 members. In some business communities — notably Silicon Valley — it is so popular that you could argue that it has become a status symbol, a badge proving how busy and important your job is.
But its proponents swear by it. Ben, 32, a soccer-loving political advisor from Oxford, tries to set aside 15 minutes each day to meditate. “It definitely makes a difference when I do it,” he says. “It gives me more composure. I feel more clear-headed.” He was drawn to its promise of improved concentration — “my mind tends to wander” — but “the bigger thing I took away from it is it teaches you to take the rough with the smooth. Sometimes at work you feel, like, ’this is just a nightmare’. But then you think: ’It will be a nightmare for 10 days, then it will pass.’”
Kate, 34, works in fashion and has taken medication for many years to help manage her depression. “Medication was only going so far,” she says. “It wasn’t tackling me getting overwhelmed by my mind.” She’s been meditating for 20 minutes every morning for the past three years and says: “The emotion’s still there but instead of feeling, ’Oh my God, I’m feeling really awful or depressed’, or whatever, you take a step back and think: ’There’s that feeling. It will be there for a while and then it will go.’”
I’m a big believer in the benefits of quiet time
Paul believes mindfulness meditation “nurtures equanimity. It trains you to have an unshakeable balance of mind, so that you’re feeling everything but not getting swamped by it.”
Though I’ve never thought of it as “mindfulness,” I reckon I’m pretty good at appreciating the here and now. Many times a week I’ll note (just a little smugly) that I’m the only one looking up from my device and out of the window on my bus journeys to work. I’m a big believer in the benefits of quiet time, too: a few minutes now and then to acknowledge, and even indulge in, a little sadness, frustration or worry. So I arrive at the Light Centre thinking this will be a breeze.
The first surprise is that, aside from removing our shoes, we just sit in the clothes we came in, and on ordinary chairs. Paul rings a bell and guides us through a three-minute exercise called the “breathing space” (see box, below). It is immediately apparent that I have several newtons of tension in my shoulders. But just taking the time to actively notice how my body feels has an immensely relaxing effect.
I feel peculiar afterwards: hyper-alert, wide awake, almost high
It’s another story when we move on to observing our thoughts. We’re told to allow each thought in, approaching it with neutral curiosity. But my thoughts are a cacophony: fragments of the song I heard in the lobby, snatches of earlier conversation and lurches of panic about things I’ve got to get done later. And even though I’m usually able to let my feelings in, I normally only do it for just a moment before starting to think how I’m going to fix everything. Here it feels alien — and a little scary — just to feel things without doing anything about them.
We end the exercise by bringing our attention outwards again, tuning into sounds and smells and so on. I feel quite peculiar afterwards: hyper-alert, wide awake, almost high.
The popularity of mindfulness coincides with a spike in the incidence of depression and anxiety in Britain.
Prescriptions for antidepressants are up from 33.8 million in 2007 to 50.2 million in 2012. Job insecurity, financial pressures and attachment to technology all play their part. People work longer hours, worry more and sleep less.
Constant stimulation offered by mobile devices — the average person checks their phone every six-and-a-half minutes — keeps us permanently alert, affecting our ability to concentrate, form memories and relax.
If anxiety is the modern malaise, perhaps mindfulness is the cure.
CREATING A SPACE FOR MINDFULNESS
This technique can be used whenever you feel unbalanced, anxious, or simply would like to feel more present. It takes no more than three minutes and can be practised at home, in the office, on the train… anywhere.
1. With eyes closed, sit in a straight-backed chair, upright, alert but relaxed. Bring your attention to your feet. Notice how they feel resting on the floor. Then, notice physical sensations in the body – on your skin, in the muscles. Next, become aware of your thinking; notice thoughts as they come and go without getting involved with the content of the thought; and then turn attention to any emotions you may be feeling. Be curious about how you’re feeling – there’s no need to fix or change how you experience. Simply notice it.
2. Now, gather your attention into your breathing. Notice the sensation of air entering the nostrils and then exiting. Keep your awareness on the natural flow of your breath for a minute or so, being really interested in the quality of each breath: texture, temperature, length… If your mind becomes distracted, don’t worry: simply bring your attention back to your breathing.
3. Now, expand your attention outwards so that you feel your whole body breathing. Feel the breath flowing through all parts of the body. You can then extend your awareness beyond your body: become aware of sounds around you, layers of sound, different pitches, volumes, textures.