Free your mind

I meet Andy Puddicombe, meditation guru to Premier League footballers, cabinet ministers and leading actors, in a sparsely decorated room in a London clinic. It’s the sort of place you go to discuss bunions, not the meaning of life. Yet Puddicombe is soon imparting wisdom gleaned from several years as a Buddhist monk, and guiding me through a meditation. The meditation lasts for only 10 minutes, and during it I find my mind meandering through my to-do lists, yet, when I open my eyes, I feel calm and focused – as if the insides of my head have been spring-cleaned.

Over the years, a body of research has built up extolling the many benefits of meditation. Most recently the Mental Health Foundation said the NHS should prescribe meditation routinely for depression (at the moment only 1 in 20 GPs do). Scientific studies have shown that meditation – specifically, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), an NHS-approved, secular version of Buddhist mind-training – is at least as effective as antidepressants. Regular meditation can enlarge the parts of the brain that control emotion and reach right into the mind and strengthen it.

Yet even though most of us are aware of the benefits, we’re often deterred by a myriad confusing options about where to learn meditation, as well as an inability actually to find the time to practise it. This is a situation Puddicombe is determined to change. “Outside of a religious or spiritual community there is not much available. Transcendental Meditation comes from a Hindu tradition and some are uncomfortable with that. Then there are Buddhist centres, which are great as you can get meditation for free or for a small donation, but a lot of people also find the religious context off-putting. Within the school of mindfulness there are places where people can do secular courses, yet these are presented in a therapeutic way – and not everybody is up for therapy.”

Yesterday Puddicombe held his first group meditation event for Headspace, a not-for-profit organisation he has set up. Its guiding principle is to provide simple meditation tools to as many people as possible. Puddicombe has also recorded 10 exclusive meditations for the Sunday Times website, each tailored to a specific problem, and now available to access for free. “In and of itself there is nothing religious about meditation. If I am able to present it as more of a life skill, then that will be more relevant to most people. My message is that meditation is not necessarily about sitting on the floor cross-legged and chanting for hours. I say to people, just take 10 minutes out of your day to do a simple breathing technique and you will see big results.” Puddicombe was a student when he left England, aged 22. “I had a number of difficult situations to deal with: my stepsister was killed in a car accident, my ex-girlfriend died having heart surgery, and I was involved in an accident where a couple of my friends were killed. It left me asking some big questions, the sort of questions that a pint of Tetley’s down the pub with my friends wasn’t going to answer.”

For the next few years he travelled between monasteries in Tibet and Thailand, often going into year-long retreats where he would rise at 2.30am and practise 15 to 18 hours a day of meditation. “I learnt how to have humility. A lot of people have a romantic view of going away and living in a monastery, but you crave those distractions, and all you are left with is yourself. It’s painful, it’s humbling, you see the madness and the difficulty that everyone is going through in life, but you come

to a greater acceptance. Rather than chasing after elusive happiness, I was able to sit back and see it’s actually already there.” When he was ordained, he was sent to teach at a Buddhist centre in Moscow. “I began to realise that the whole bald-headed, skirt-wearing thing didn’t work for everyone. You don’t necessarily take robes for life, and I decided it might be more effective to teach meditation as a lay person.”

Puddicombe, now 37, was taken under the wing of a vice-president of BP to whom he had taught meditation in Moscow, who gave him the means to set up Headspace in the UK. Since then he has built up an impressive roster of private and NHS clients, and there is now an eight-month waiting list to see him. He believes that meditation really helps with profound issues, and people come to him at the clinic with a huge variety of problems. “I see people with anxiety, depression, issues of anger, insomnia and addictive behaviour. The bottom line is that most of these things are driven by really strong habitual patterns of thought. Yes, of course they stem from difficult times in people’s lives, but what keeps them going is not being able to step out of that pattern.”

Meditation, says Puddicombe, allows you to become aware of those negative patterns and therefore step out of them. It can also ease milder complaints, increasing a general sense of wellbeing and reducing stress. As I leave his clinic with a smile on my face, I can well believe it.

[via Times Online]
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