Andy Puddicombe

Mindfulness is something worse than just a smug middle-class trend

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Separating meditation from faith is a dubious business, morally and sometimes in its effects

Melanie McDonagh, The Spectator: The chances are that by now either you or someone you know well has begun to practise ‘mindfulness’ — a form of Buddhism lite, that focuses on meditation and ‘being in the now’. In the past year or so it’s gone from being an eccentric but harmless hobby practised by contemporary hippies to a new and wildly popular pseudo–religion; a religion tailor-made for the secular West.

Think how hostile an awful lot of companies are to organised religion; to any talk of ‘faith’. Now consider that in both America and the UK, it’s probably easier to count on your fingers the number of institutions that aren’t engaging in ‘mindfulness’ than those that are; giving ‘mindfulness’ teachers special spaces to have classes and encouraging staff to take part.

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The mindful include Google, Kensington and Chelsea council, the European Central Bank and the US Marines. The NHS is funding mindfulness sessions for depression as an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions. There’s an all-party mindfulness group in parliament, which Ruby Wax helped launch. Richard Layard, Britain’s ‘happiness guru’, is all for it. Madeleine Bunting has suggested in the Guardian that it should be mandatory in schools. Indeed, if you find yourself on a train with a fellow traveller gazing at you benevolently, it’s possible that they’re not insane but just radiating mindful compassion.

It’s been touted as a cure for pretty well everything, from depression, stress, anxiety and chronic pain to eczema. And for those who can’t manage the group sessions, there’s a handy app called HeadSpace which enables you to do mindfulness on the go from your smartphone and now offers a bespoke service. The app was invented by Andy Puddicombe, a fortysomething former Buddhist monk with a degree in circus arts. According to the New York Times,‘Puddicombe is doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food.’ Certainly mindfulness is doing for Puddicombe what food has done for Jamie Oliver, because he’s now worth about £25 million.

So what exactly is mindfulness? On the back of a week of sessions, I can assert with some confidence that it’s about being very much in the present moment. You’re encouraged to become aware of your breathing, your body and your surroundings. Plus you’re meant to view people and things in a compassionate, non-judgmental spirit. Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.

It’s ubiquitous, non-invasive and involves sitting quietly and not judging anyone. Guided, communal meditation, let’s say. Anyway, you may be thinking, what do you actually do when you’re being mindful? What actually happens? Well, normally you sit in a semi-circle in a group — anything from five or so to a couple of dozen of you, though some sessions led by the gurus of the movement can muster hundreds. It’ll be a nice quiet place, possibly with candles. Most sessions start off with an exploration of how stressed we all are. The teacher fills a chart with examples — your Tube journey? Your week at work? — and invites participants to stick up their hands if they’re stressed. Everyone does. Then there may be a bit of neurology with diagrams on the chart, showing how we’re all using the fight-or-flight bit of our brain inappropriately, as opposed to the new neurological pathways we can make by reprogramming our brains to chill out through meditation. Then there’s the conscious breathing. It may be preceded by contemplating a leaf or a glass of water before you start focusing on your breath coming in and going out. At which point, as Dorothy Parker would say, you find me and Morpheus in the corner, necking. But the routine varies. At one session, one girl, invited to imagine herself as a tree, plaintively cried: ‘Please can I not be a tree? I was dreading on the way here that I’d have to be a tree.’

Then we share our experiences. Finally we get round to compassion. In one slightly unsettling session, we were invited to pick a person to project compassion at. I selected the Turkish lady opposite; she looked a little uneasy. At another class we were invited to recite: ‘May I/you be well; be happy; be free from suffering’ — and we concluded by saying it for someone we dislike. I would have been fine, in a love-your-enemy way, if the teacher hadn’t declared that the person she really hated was Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary. Which was a bit rich in a practice meant to teach you to go easy on judgmentalism.

That’s the format, then, and the heart of it is sitting in silence, thinking about your breath going in and out. I must say I’m not very good at this sort of thing. I’m the most judgmental person I know. My mind hops about like a flea. I dropped off during every single one of my mindful breathing sessions. But that’s fine; apparently it just shows how tired we all are. As for the distracting thoughts, they’re fine too, so long as you let them go, possibly like little clouds.

And for some people, all this is to the good. It makes them less stressed, more usefully focused on the here and now. Dr Anthony Seldon has made mindfulness part of the way of life at Wellington College, where he is headmaster. ‘Properly done,’ he observes, ‘it’s the opposite of mindlessness. It helps people to be self-aware, to collect themselves, to be thoughtful before they decide what to do.’ So obviously handy during exams, though he says the benefits go way beyond that.

The evidence seems strong that mindfulness helps with depression, although some dissident psychiatrists suggest the method-ology behind the positive studies hasn’t been as rigorous as it might be. ‘Many of the studies are small, are pilot studies and are carried on those who are not very ill,’ says Professor Patricia Casey of University College Dublin. ‘So they would be at the mild end of the spectrum. Studies have not sufficiently frequently investigated how mindfulness compares with other therapies including pharmacological interventions. Neither have researchers paid much attention to what the active ingredient is — is it being looked after, or looking after oneself?’

I would suggest also that if mindfulness helps with mental health, then let’s not forget that so does organised religion. This ‘active ingredient’ isn’t some new miracle cure: it’s the same grounding effect that Christianity has, or Judaism, or any prayerful religion. We’ve all, over the years, seen studies show that religious people are happier, and that both meditation and prayer are beneficial to the brain. Mindfulness can join the queue. Seldon’s 21st-century boys may find it beneficial to meditate, but their 20th-century counterparts may have found it just as calming to sit in the chapel for morning prayers and just as bonding to sing hymns together. Mind you, at Wellington, they do both.

One of the difficulties mindfulness will face as it sweeps across the globe is that it quite clearly in fact is a religion, however much it might shy away from the word. It’s remarkable the number of classes advertised with the caveat ‘No religious content’, which of course makes it palatable to the growing number who shy away from religion. It’s ritual for those who don’t pray; communal practice for the individualist. It’s non–doctrinal, non-prescriptive, non-demanding in terms of conduct apart from an insistence on not being judgmental. It seems to be the perfect religion for a Britain which is in full flight from its state church. Most other religion substitutes — the Sunday Assembly gatherings for atheists, for example, which Andrew Watts wrote about in this magazine back in February — are self-consciously modelled on Christian services. But mindfulness is squarely based on Buddhism. In fact, from the focus on breathing to the insistence on compassion, it really is Buddhism. At one interesting class I attended in a Buddhist temple — gold images galore — the teacher declared cheerfully that this mindfulness session was going to be a cut above the rest because it got you to the fons et origo of the thing, viz. Buddhist teaching.

Taking an established religion — Buddhism in this case — and picking bits from it piecemeal can be a more dangerous business than it might seem. However much people may dislike the idea, the major world religions have developed incrementally over time to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning. Even the seemingly eccentric bits can serve a vital purpose, hidden from non-believers. One rejects ‘the boring bits’ of an established religion at one’s peril. Mindfulness, based as it is on meditation, is not simply a path that leads nowhere in particular. It can lead you to that dangerous place, the heart of yourself. And there you may find a great, scary emptiness, or worse, your own personal demons.

Not everyone is strong enough to confront their inner self: in that case, meditation can be an affliction, not a therapy. That phenomenon is being studied at the so-called ‘Dark Night Project’ at Brown University Medical School, where Dr Willoughby Britton deals with the psychic disturbance that meditation can sometimes cause. And that’s of a piece with Buddhist as well as Christian understanding of contemplation; that you can undergo what St John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. The contemplative life, in Christianity, isn’t for everyone. It is understood that only a few, those with a vocation for it, have the strength to take it on.

There are other aspects of mindfulness which strike me as problematic, not to say unchristian. An important element of the practice is to eschew judgmentalism; to observe and accept ourselves and our surroundings with compassion. Which sounds dandy, except that there are some things about ourselves and our situation which we jolly well shouldn’t be non-judgmental about, which we should be trying to change. One of the best things about the collective culture is that we have a strong moral sense; we consider selfish behaviour unacceptable and hold others to account. Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, to meditate inwardly, Christianity takes you out of yourself — to God and from there to others. Would a ‘mindful’ Britain have the same emphasis on helping others?

This brings me to what really annoys me about being mindful, which is that as far as I can gather, it’s Mostly About Me. Sitting concentrating on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbour in this practice of self-obsession? Given a toss up between going to church, where you rub shoulders with the old, the lonely, the poor, and anyone who cares to pitch up, and a mindfulness session where, for about 25 quid a pop, you can mingle silently with congenial souls in flight from stress, I know which seems more good and human to me. Mindfulness may be the new religion — but it’s no substitute for the old one.

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Man behind meditation app goes from monk to millionaire

wildmind meditation newsNilufer Atik, The Telegraph: How a meditation app brought mindfulness to the masses, and success to its creator.

“We all need to get a little head space” – it’s a catchphrase that has become ingrained into the psyches of more than a million people worldwide. And it’s all thanks to the quiet ambition of one man who wanted to help stressed-out executives achieve more calm. A few years on and the app to which the phrase belongs – Headspace – has not only transformed the lives of those who use it, but also that of its founder, Andy Puddicombe.

Bristol-born Andy set up …

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Headspace: meditation for the modern age

Meg Pruce, Time Out: In the daily hustle and bustle of London, it’s tough to find the time to stop, kick back and actually relax. It’s become almost impossible to put down our smartphones, tablets or any snazzy device which demands attention at all hours of the day. If we can’t escape our frenetic lifestyles, then ways to relax must come to us. Thankfully for our poor overloaded brains, the meditation gurus at Headspace have cannily acknowledged this gap in the market. The social enterprise project aims to bring meditation bang up-to-date, by offering short guided lessons in how to take a moment…

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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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Stress: Seven steps to an inner calm

The Times: (Andy Puddicombe) Just seven steps, implemented each day can help you find your way to peace and tranquility

Take 10 minutes out each day

This is a simple, basic meditation that is best done at the start of the day. Find a quiet place where you can sit without being disturbed.

Take a couple of deep breaths and close your eyes. Become aware of your senses: the feelings in the body, the sounds and the smells around you.

Don’t think about them, simply notice them.

Next become aware of the breath.

You don’t need to breathe in any special way, just notice how the rising and falling movement of the breath feels in the body. Each time the mind wanders, gently bring it back to that same point of focus — the rising and falling sensation of the breath.

Make it a daily exercise

A bit like learning any new skill, meditation works best when you do it regularly and often. It doesn’t have to be at the same time every day, but you may well find it easier to stick to this way.

Be conscious of what you’re doing

We live on auto-pilot, especially when we do things that we have done thousands of times before — brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of tea, for example.

Choose just one of these activities to be fully conscious of each day.

Rather than let the mind wander off into worrying, planning or thinking about things, notice what it feels like to actually drink a cup of tea. What does it taste, feel and smell like? It’s amazing how much we miss because we are simply lost in thought.

Resist the urge to control the mind

When we first become aware of the constant chatter of our thoughts, we try to “stop thinking”, which is impossible. Focus instead on being at ease with whatever is happening in the mind. If it’s busy, OK, it’s busy. Resist the temptation to try to control it. If you feel irritated or upset, that’s just how it is sometimes. Don’t fight it. Let thoughts come, acknowledge them and let them go. By allowing thoughts and feelings to flow in this way, they are usually much more short-lived.

Shift the focus from ‘me’ to ‘you’

Have you ever noticed that the more you focus on your own problems, the bigger they seem to get? Take a moment to reflect on those people close to you who might also be having a tough time with things right now. How are they feeling? This simple exercise helps to put your own difficulties into perspective and to develop empathy and understanding towards that other person.

Ease off the gas

If you look at the best sportsmen and women, they seem to play with a sublime lack of effort. Roger Federer, the tennis player, is one of the best examples of this. Trying harder does not mean performing better — often it’s just the opposite. By approaching everyday activities in a slightly more relaxed and measured way, things not only will become more enjoyable, but also will be done that much better.

Take practical steps

When life becomes so busy that you hardly have time to breathe, it’s unrealistic to expect a lot of headspace.

If it’s possible, try to simplify life a little. Look for ways to reduce the amount you’re doing, or ways of doing it more effectively. Similarly, if you have lots of thoughts racing around your mind, take a couple of minutes to write them down. This can help to free up the hard drive, and at least give a feeling of additional space in the mind.

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