Award winning mental health blogger Seaneen Molloy sets out on a quest to meet people who have a different take on working with emotional distress. This month, Seaneen meets Valerie Mason-John, a writer and anger management coach who advocates ‘mindfulness’ practice for mental wellbeing.
With my feet firmly in the 21st century, I see Buddhism as something belonging to the past – irrelevant to the modern world, except perhaps to the most laid-back of hippies. As for meditation, I can’t even imagine assuming the lotus position, and humming, “Ommm…” without wanting to guffaw!
Mindfulness is said to encourage a calm awareness of, and connection to, the body and the world around us. Its practice has been used to help people suffering from depression, personality disorders, anxiety and eating disorders. I want to know if the techniques can help me, so I visit the London Buddhist Centre and meet experienced meditation teacher Valerie Mason-John.
She’s nothing like I imagined a Buddhist to be – casually dressed and with an authoritative, yet easy manner. But Valerie’s life wasn’t always so calm. She spent her childhood between an abusive home life and social care. It was a traumatic time and by her twenties she was living in the “fast lane”, clubbing and taking recreational drugs.
I ask Valerie how she made the transformation to ordained Buddhist. She says “I used to laugh at people who went on retreats and meditated. But in my late twenties, I knew I needed a change.”
Valerie recalls, “Transcendental meditation was a profound experience and after a month, I thought the world had changed. But I was changing and becoming more compassionate”.
I reflect that a lot of people with mental health problems often take anger out on themselves. But, I ask Valerie, does it always need to be destructive?
“Anger is an energy, but when we hold on to it it becomes this toxic luggage we carry”, she says, adding “mindfulness of anger allows us to be creative and constructive with it instead. When we become angry we lose mindfulness and the body sends us warnings. We need to be aware of our bodies to read these signs and realise the need to pause. Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to do something different.”
Seeing how peaceful and calm Valerie is, I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. This morning, I ate my breakfast while being beeped at by buses on the Holloway Road. Stress, for me, is a kicker into illness, but even Valerie’s story doesn’t make me want to go on a retreat to learn how to deal with it.
I want to see for myself how effective meditation is, so I ask Valerie to guide me through an exercise in body awareness. She stresses the importance of the sitting position. “You don’t have to sit in the lotus position”, she reassures me. Given that I’m short and relatively unbendy, I content myself with straddling a few cushions.
I’m self-conscious and have trouble sitting properly – I’m too tense. “Think of your body as an elastic band”, she advises. “You don’t want to be too taut, or too loose – you need that energy, and tension”.
I finally manage to get comfortable, and close my eyes. Under her hypnotically gentle instruction, I silently count one, then two, then three, breathing in and out, all the way to ten and back again. This is called mindfulness of the breath and I find it difficult not to respond to her voice. Occasionally she reminds me to, “explore quietness” – this isn’t something I’m used to doing.
I sit for a few minutes in silence, breathing in and out. Finally, Valerie tells me that if I’m ready, I can open my eyes. I do so, and it takes a moment for me to adjust to the room, even with its ambient, unthreatening lighting. I feel as though I’ve been asleep.
On my way out, I pass through the peaceful garden of the Buddhist Centre. I find myself back on the busy main road, feeling, if not transformed, then a little bit lighter. Part of me wants to rush home, to get back to work, but another part of me thinks, “What’s the hurry?”.
So I stop at a cafe, smile at the waitress and drink a cup of tea outside in the drizzle, leaving my laptop languishing in my bag. I feel like, oh dear, a bit of a hippy! The things that normally bother me, the roar of cars and the rain, don’t seem quite so important. I look at some of the leaflets I picked up and realise that I don’t need to be a Buddhist to meditate. It may not be a cure, but I did feel happier, if only for an hour.
About Valerie Mason-John
Valerie (also known as Queenie) won Mind Book of the Year award for her debut novel, The Banana Kid (previously entitled Borrowed Bodies). Besides being an ordained member of the Western Buddhist Order, she’s published a self-help book, Detox Your Heart which consists of meditation guides interspersed with her own personal stories.
Visit Valerie Mason-John’s personal blog explores issues around meditation, anger and identity.[via BBC “Ouch!”]