Head space apps, mindfulness weekends, Buddhist meditation retreats. What’s it all about, and why should we bother with meditation?
Caroline Sylger Jones reports
After more than 18 years of sampling spas, retreats and healthy holidays, meditation remains the single most useful tool I’ve come across to calm me down and set me back on track. It’s not for everyone – my king says it just irritates him and prefers to surf – but though I’ve wanted to flee many times on a meditation retreat, hanging in there has always paid off somehow.
Learning to be alive to every moment is to me the point of meditation, which is designed to help us tame our ‘monkey minds’ by concentrating on a symbol, a mantra or (usually) our in and out breath for set periods of time. This recreates the central Buddhist philosophy that the past has left us, the future has (always) yet to come, and this moment is all there ever is. The goal of meditation isn’t to stop thinking, but to enable us to become dispassionate observers of our thoughts. When we’re more detached from our worries and our fears, we develop a sense of ease, of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.
This process of ‘letting go’ is not only deeply relaxing, but has a direct healing effect on our physical health, reducing blood pressure, increasing our immunity, easing chronic pain, and even minimizing depression. It can also improve our concentration, memory and decision-making. Why? Put simply, it’s because meditation puts both halves of our brains to work, as British-Indian neuroscientist Shanida Nataraja explains in her book The Blissful Brain.
When we think too much, says Nataraja, we’re over-using the left halves of our brains, the part associated with analytical, rational processing. In turn we’re neglecting the right side, which is associated with abstract thought, visual-spatial perception and emotions. Meditation rebalances us because it encourages a shift from the left brain to the right brain. It also generates alpha brain waves, a sign that we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system and giving ourselves a rest from the more familiar ‘fight or flight’ responses of our sympathetic nervous system that stress us out and make us ill. This is why health care practitioners increasingly use meditation to treat everything from depression to degenerative diseases.
Meditation can also help us to detach from emotions such as anger, hate and jealousy – important if we are to believe the American neuroscientist Candace Pert, who found that negative emotions can cause biological changes in the body which in turn can cause diseases. The UK-based meditation teacher Guy Burgs takes this one step further. ‘The huge increase in degenerative conditions over the last 50 years is largely due to our obsessive minds and the lack of mindfulness that most people have in their bodies’, he told me. A scary thought.
It’s quite usual now for spas, health retreats and healthy holidays to offer private and group sessions of meditation. And there are an increasing number of secular meditation retreats on offer as well as Buddhist retreats. You’ll get a more instant feel-good result from a good massage, of course, while a meditation session can be frustrating and difficult, but if you have a good teacher, you’ll take home the tools you need to calm yourself down – and wake yourself up – for the rest of your life.
In a beginners meditation session, most teachers will begin with the simplest way of meditating, which is to concentrate on your in and out breath while sitting with a straight back on the floor, a meditation stool or a chair. As thoughts intrude, you acknowledge them rather than trying to forcibly replace or suppress them, but then gently return your attention to the breath. The eyes can be closed, though in Tibetan Buddhist meditation you keep your eyes open to remain more present. Other techniques include visualization, concentration on a symbol such as a candle, a flower or mandala, or repeating a mantra.
While in theory you should be able to meditate whatever your surroundings, quiet is important when you start out. I did a group meditation at a spa recently where the teacher played background music – this was really very irritating, as I just felt like I was sitting in a room being forced to listen to music that wasn’t very good. After 15 minutes of this I asked her to turn it off, but my concentration was gone. Don’t play music when you’re meditating – listening to it will keep your brain waves on a ‘busy’ frequency and thwart the process.
If you want to explore meditation on a deeper level, many Buddhist centres in cities run short courses, you can book a day or weekend at a bona fide Buddhist retreat near your home, or go further afield and explore it on a secular meditation retreat or mindfulness holiday. I attend a retreat at Gaia House in Devon at least once a year, and am increasingly attracted to all the meditation retreats and mindfulness breaks on offer out there in the world.
I find a silent retreat especially beneficial, when without daily chitchat and petty concerns my mind feels freer to learn to meditate. Sociologists have measured the silences in conversations between English speakers and concluded that we cannot bear a pause of longer than four seconds. So why not give yourself a break?
However you learn to meditate, once you’ve mastered it, just 15 minutes a day will make a difference, and you don’t have to do it sitting cross-legged. Activities such as yoga, qigong and tai chi are a form of meditation in motion, as are swimming and walking, but even being mindful of simple tasks such as washing up, walking across your garden or making a cup of tea are forms of meditation. I’m rather better at these types, because they fit more realistically into my lifestyle. The choice is yours.
Meditation retreats and mindfulness holidays
You can learn to meditate and be mindful quickly and effectively on a weekend retreat or longer healthy holiday. Combine meditation with mindful movement and periods of silence at Yobaba Lounge in France, or treat yourself to a week-long mindfulness holiday with Mindfulness Journeys in Morocco or Greece.