Can meditation really transform men’s health and happiness?

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Most people start with mindfulness, because it’s so simple. John Purkiss, who  first turned to meditation 25 years ago when he was “stuck in Paris with no money and a relationship ending”, says “the principle of mindfulness is unbelievably simple: just return to the present. Eastern philosophy says that your mind is a stream of thoughts. Let them go past. A lot of people in the West are all over the place, always looking for solutions outside themselves. In the West we think that when we get stuck we need to sort things out and make them happen. Eastern traditions believe that the cosmos will show us: that a primal consciousness is running everything.”

But equally, Purkiss adds, “a lot of people get stuck on mindfulness. To me, it’s the door to something else”: in his case, transcendental meditation (TM). “We’re all used to three states of consciousness – waking, sleeping and dreaming. Transcendence is the fourth. If you imagine normal life as the ground floor, and clinical depression as the basement, transcendence is the top floor of a skyscraper, and as you ascend things change in your life.” 

Matt Johnson, founder member and lead vocalist of The The, has been doing TM since the late Eighties. “When I’m going through an especially deep phase of meditation practice, day-to-day problems tend to shrink to very manageable proportions. The ego seems to softly dissolve, to be replaced with an overwhelming sense of connection with something benign, warm and loving. It’s not always like that, of course, but it’s extremely comforting to know ‘something’ so positive is out there, surrounding us, if and when we choose to tap into it.”

Practitioners at all levels speak of positive effects and varied benefits to their mental and physical health: reduced stress and aggression, increased focus and empathy, better sleep and overall mood. Studies have shown links between meditation and the reduction of ageing-related cognitive decline. David Cox, chief medical officer at Headspace, says: “There’s evidence that mindfulness can have a beneficial impact on psoriasis, fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic lower back pain, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and insomnia.” And the NHS last month suggested for the first time that meditation rather than medication should be the default treatment for mild depression. 

Tom, a Dorset web designer, turned to Headspace “when I was made redundant and a relationship ended in the same week. I’d always thought of meditation as hippie stuff, and I didn’t want to go to a retreat and sit on a spike for two days, but I was ruminating, thinking about all the things I could have said and done, and I needed something to help me break that. A basic 10 minutes’ meditation a day was the answer.”

Adam, a London-based venture capitalist, meditates five days a week before going to work. “My wife and children say I’m calmer and less frenetic than I was before, and I feel I don’t get pulled into drama as quickly as I once did. At work I don’t feel the need to vocalise all the time. If I can’t add value then I keep quiet rather than trying to justify my presence by saying something. I think that if everyone sat and listened more, that would solve a lot of the world’s problems.”

Daniel, a writer and property developer who lives in Catalonia, has been meditating for almost 30 years. “Meditation has helped build a sense of equanimity inside me, a forcefield which goes through life with me. Everyone wants to be inside your head now – there’s so much information and data flying around – and it’s important to have that integral to you rather than co-opted out to other people.”

So how should you start? Try to meditate at the same time and in the same place every day. Doing it early may help “set you up” for the day, whereas sessions scheduled for late afternoon or evening may get binned if other activities overrun or fatigue has set in. Start low – even three minutes is better than nothing – and gradually build up to the length of time you feel best. Little and often is better than one or two long sessions a week. Make yourself physically comfortable to minimise the chances of aches and pains taking you out of your headspace. And think of it as exercise rather than magic or religion: a specific activity that will make you feel better in every way. Headspace bills itself as a “gym membership for the mind”.

The parallels with exercise also come through with the easiest focus of concentration: breathing. It’s essential, it’s natural, it’s rhythmic and it’s a very obvious physiological marker for one’s own mental state. I run marathons and ultramarathons, and when out training I find that calmness comes from about 15 minutes into the run, when my body has adjusted to the demands being made of it and my breathing has settled.

But, unlike many forms of exercise, meditation is not competitive, and it’s crucial to remember this. It’s not a battle, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if it comes easier on some days than others or if your mind wanders. “One may experience especially profound and transcendent meditation for several weeks yet the following month the experience may be shallow and less satisfying,” Johnson says. “Life is full of ebbs and flows, and meditation is no different.”

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