Polly Vernon, The Telegraph: Happier, healthier and better rested: that’s what 20 minutes a day of meditation has done for one writer. And as a resolute sceptic, she couldn’t be more surprised.
It may be a little early for bold proclamations of this nature, but still: I would bet big money on “mindfulness” being the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2014. It was “selfie” in 2013, you’ll recall, and “omnishambles” the year before that. We will have to wait a couple of weeks for the OED to make its decision final, official and public, but still… I am confident.
The Buddhist discipline – which encourages focusing on the moment rather than being consumed by the pain of the past or anxiety over the future, a mental state achieved via regular meditation – is the most buzzed about and gushed over notion of the past 12 months…
It’s been celebrity endorsed and scientifically scrutinised, embraced by corporations (keen to improve productivity) and the US Marine Corps (keen to reduce suicide and PTSD rates). Newspaper supplements have run cover stories on it; the Huffington Post has declared it the new black. When addressing a business conference at Davos in January, Goldie Hawn raved about it; in her book Sane New World, Ruby Wax credited it with helping in her ongoing battle with depression. Sadie Frost swears by it as a vital crutch in her healthy, post-Primrose-Hill-party-set life (for further details, see her new book, Nourish). Hugh Jackman’s done it since forever (in the summer rumours emerged from the set of the latest X-Men film that Jackman needed a dedicated meditation trailer to support his mindfulness habit).
Schools are putting it on the timetable: in March Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, said he believed all schools should introduce daily “stillness” sessions (as he had) to improve pupils’ concentration levels. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has approved it for use in the treatment of depression. Earlier this year a report based on the analysis of 47 clinical trials involving 3,000 participants showed that mindfulness produces “measurable improvement of up to 20 per cent in symptoms of anxiety and depression… and can also help alleviate feelings of stress and enhance the quality of life”. And the NHS is embracing it as part of a more holistic approach to healing.
Mindfulness has come from nowhere (seriously – who’d even heard of it until, like, five minutes ago?) to become ubiquitous to the point of being quite annoying. I would be terribly annoyed by it (how tiresomely over-invoked it is, how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and pious its disciples!) if I weren’t a rabid convert to mindfulness myself. But I am.
No one is more surprised by this than me. I am a sceptic by tradition: an arched eyebrow, with an option on a rolled eyeball, is all very much part of my shtick. I believe in Nurofen for pain and rigorously tested psychotherapy for the demons, and really very little else. God, tarot, reiki and feng shui, exorcisms, life decluttering and feeling the fear and doing it anyway are all pretty much the same thing as far as I’m concerned. Specifically: nonsense.
I think that self-improvement programmes are for losers, snake oil for those who feel bewildered by life but don’t have the balls to risk formal therapies or organised religion, and that alternative therapies are placebos, assuming they work at all. (Admittedly, I took up with an acupuncturist about four years ago, but a) I’m in denial about that and b) I never let him use the word “Xi” in my presence. I’ve told him if he ever does I will get up and leave, even if there are needles in me.) I’ve never read a self-help book, never even made a New Year’s Resolution that wasn’t “have more fun”.
And yet somehow, here I am, as mindful as Ruby Wax crossed with Sadie Frost with top notes of Goldie Hawn, having not so much clambered on board the mindfulness bandwagon, as insisted I ride upfront, in the cab, so that I can see where we’re all going.
How does a sceptic turn mindful? In my case, with an app. Headspace is a neat, jazzy little download that sits on your smartphone and promises to change your life by leading you through 20-minute daily meditation practices voiced by a bouncy surfer from Somerset, a circus-trained ex-Buddhist monk called Andy Puddicombe. It’s become incredibly successful in the two and a bit years since it launched, scoring more than one and a half million downloads in more than 150 countries and turning Puddicombe into a poster-boy for mindfulness: Davina McCall, Arianna Huffington, Emma Watson and Millie from Made In Chelsea have all extolled his and Headspace’s virtues. At The Priory treatment centres the app is dished out as part of the welcome pack.
I first downloaded it in the summer of 2013, my interest piqued by… who knows what? Celeb patronage, the fact that the first 10 sessions are free, or possibly the buzz around the word mindfulness. I may be a sceptic, but I am also a lifestyle journalist, which means I have to be fully genned up on the thing everyone else is doing (ideally slightly before they realise they’re doing it), even if I suspect it for a load of crock.
I emerged from my first meditation session feeling very much like it was not a load of crock: within a week, I was hooked. Something about Puddicombe’s easy breezy, blokey, defiantly non-hippie delivery, or just the act of sitting quietly for a set period of time, resonated with me, sceptic or not. When my 10 freebie sessions had passed, I practically dropped my iPhone in my frenzy to pay for a year-long subscription.
I should say at this juncture that meditation is weird. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Not even Hugh Jackman. You sit upright (and, FYI, in mindfulness circles the verb “to sit” gains whole new levels of awed reverence, and probably a capital letter. “Did you Sit yet today?” the mindful will ask each other, meaning, “Have you meditated?”) in a position that is supposed to be relaxed yet alert, you pay attention to your breath, and you chant or stay silent, or, in the case of Headspace, listen to an ex-Buddhist monk surfer tell you a thing or two about the human condition. And, yeah, that is a weird thing to do. It’s nearly, but not quite, doing absolutely nothing, and who ever heard of such a thing? Particularly in this era of Tinder and WhatsApp and multi-channel television and hot-and-cold-running distraction? On top of being weird, it’s hard. Physically hard. I ached and also itched wildly when I started out. Even now, a year and a bit on, I have days when my back and shoulders – so used to either constant support, or the latitude to shift about at will – kick off in complaint.
And it’s emotionally hard. Meditation encourages you to observe your emotions, to hang out with them, to never avoid them or suppress them or run from them. And when what you’re feeling on a particular day is, I dunno, principally shame, or anxiety, or all-consuming sadness, or rage… Well, that’s an intense 20 minutes you’re looking at. I have cried a lot while meditating. I have sobbed. And then there are the days when you think, “This can’t really be doing anything, can it?” And the days when you think, “I’m doing it wrong. I must be the worst person in the world at meditating. Andy would be so disappointed in me!” And the days when you think, “BORING!”
And yet… in the midst of all that, every once in a while, you hit a sweet spot, which is when you find yourself feeling the way you do, say, three or four days into a holiday, when accumulated hours of lounging about doing nothing but reading novels or chatting idly finally make the myriad stresses of home and work seem distant to the point of irrelevance. Suddenly you are filled with the absolute knowledge that everything is all basically OK.
So that’s nice.
As an inevitable extension of which, meditation has altered the way I feel about life. It’s chilled me out. Taken the edge off, stilled the caffeinated stress flicker that once permanently inhabited my left eyelid, quieted the washing-machine churn of chat and ire – the fury at perceived slights and injustices, the revisiting of ancient sadnesses, the picking over of scabby old grudges – which used to run on high-spin cycle pretty much constantly in my head.
I sleep better, I laugh more, I am less prone to compulsive actions. Mindfulness makes self-destructive behaviour eminently avoidable. Meditate enough and you become less inclined to eat until you feel sick, drink coffee until you get a migraine, put off bedtime for another hour because you want to scour Facebook for evidence that an ex has moved on more quickly than you have and never mind that you are a knackered, drained husk, physically and emotionally. That sort of thing loses its appeal naturally, with minimum effort.
Of course, the concern is that I’ll become a boring a— (indeed, that I may have already become a boring a—) what with all the mindfulness. Being a little messy, a little edgy, a thrill-seeking, tricksy, contradictory, unpredictable sort of an article – isn’t that what makes people appealing? Particularly creative people (which I flatter myself I am)? A bit charming, exciting, sexy? Where’s the fun in being moderate? In being judicious and sensible? I hear other people talk about mindfulness, and about how meditation has changed their lives, and I think, “Oh, do f— off!” I hear myself talk about it and I’m not altogether thrilled.
And what of my trademark scepticism? Can I even still call myself a sceptic? Where might it end? Have I set myself on a rocky path that can only end with my taking a weekend course in feng shui, before publishing a self-help book?
That’s without considering how uneasily mindfulness co-exists with my life as a media trollop. My professional life depends on my not being mindful. On the raging, combative narcissism of a constantly updated Twitter feed. On New and Next and Cool and Scoop! This is the currency of all journalism to an extent – it’s certainly the dark pulse of lifestyle journalism. Being the first one To Know and to let others Know You Know, being perpetually In The Loop, making everyone else feel anxious about Not Knowing, about missing out, getting it wrong, being the last one languishing at the suddenly outmoded party… This is how my game functions, and never more so than now, when the internet has speeded up the lifecycle of trends to a giddying pace. But mindfulness is not about New. Mindfulness is about Now. Mindfulness stands in direct opposition to speculating over what next.
So that’s problematic.
On top of which, mindfulness is big on empathy, on relating properly to other people, while my gig is Nemeses, on long-standing, festering enmity, on flicking filthy looks at that chick just along from you on your fashion week row, on mindless ambition and hard-bitten competition. Mindfulness has relaxed my features, robbing me of my Bitchy Resting Face, which makes many professional engagements a trial. You try parading around like you’re definitively Power, when your face is open and soft and glowing like you’re fashion’s answer to the fairy godmother.
The thing is, I couldn’t go back to being not-mindful, even if I tried. Partly because I know something about living I didn’t know before, and I can’t not know it. Partly because it just feels better like this. Sweeter. Gentler. Lighter. Ultimately, what all this has brought me is a way of growing up. I live in a society and during a time that allows many of us to exist in a state of pseudo-youthfulness. The age distinctions have blurred for women like me, who never stop shopping in Topshop and who use the vernacular of girls 20 years younger (LOLZ, sick, FOMO etc) because we pick it up on Twitter and Facebook, where we’re active, or from our much younger boyfriends, or the daughters we think of as contemporaries.
We’re under pressure to keep up with the frenzy of trends, and to keep our bodies in tip-top condition, long into our forties and fifties. Knowing how to grow up under such conditions is challenging. But mindfulness is perhaps the closest I’ll get to it. This quieter, calmer, more considered, more sane, less heady approach to living: this feels something like being a grown-up.
So I’ll carry on. It’s not as if I have a choice, really – in the loveliest possible way. I’ll keep meditating, keep choosing Now over Next. Even when mindfulness stops being the sexiest, most-talked-about trend of Ever (which it will, probably within weeks of it being declared Word of the Year). Even if it makes me a non-sceptic, and a bit of a boring a—.