I consider it one of my greatest failures that I cannot seem to meditate. I’ve downloaded the apps, I’ve tried to find my inner calm during the lying down bit at the end of yoga. I’ve never actually taken a meditation class, but, much like playing an instrument or gymnastics, I’m pretty certain I’d be rubbish at it. Until this year, I’d come to the conclusion meditation was simply for other people. But if there was ever a time to give it a go, it’s 2020.
Anxiety levels have gone through the roof in lockdown, with Nuffield Health reporting in June that around 80 per cent of British people working from home now feel lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health, while a quarter said they were finding it difficult to cope with the emotional challenges of isolation. Meanwhile, research from the Centre for Population Change at Southampton University showed the number of Britons suffering from sleep loss rose from one in six to one in four after the restrictions began.
In the midst of the chaos, our interest in doing something to help ourselves has also been piqued. Meditation apps have seen a huge rise in downloads during lockdown. One of them, Calm, has been so successful the founders are now said to be exploring a new funding round that could more than double the company’s valuation. The app was downloaded 3.9 million times in April, while rival app Headspace saw 1.5 million downloads. Even Prince Harry is a fan. The Duke said this week he felt meditation was “key” to handling negativity, admitting it was something he “never thought I’d be the person to do” but had got a lot out of.
The Calm app aims to help its users relax, meditate and sleep better using a variety of techniques. Its “sleep stories” are supposed to help people drift off, with John McEnroe, Matthew McConaughey and LeBron James among the app’s narrators. But is this really the best place to start?
How to meditate: a quick fire guide
1. Do your research and work out why you want to meditate
For cynics, it may help to really understand what meditation could do for you. Meditation coach Shirley Zerf says meditation has been proven to have profound health benefits if practised regularly. “It can literally change the way we function,” she says. “It can take depressed people and make them well, it can make you clearer, it can make you more empathetic, it does all kinds of things physiologically to the chemicals within your body and your heart rate and your blood pressure.
“You have to say ‘I’m doing this because it releases stress and it makes your body function better’.”
Zerf, who runs meditation courses in west London and has seen a surge in interest during lockdown, says there is no one that couldn’t benefit from trying meditation right now. “People have run out of answers. Eventually it gets to the point where there’s nothing left to do but actually make peace with your mind. That’s what [meditation] is.”
2. Don’t get fixated on switching your thoughts off
Aiming for an empty brain is counterproductive. Jillian Lavender, who runs the London Meditation Centre, says this is one of the biggest misunderstandings. “A lot of people say ‘my mind’s just so busy and I could never sit down for 20 minutes’. If you’re sitting there trying not to think, it’s not going to work. Trying to force the mind into some sort of peaceful blissful inner state is a mistake.”
Zerf says rather than trying to achieve a “blank” mind, it’s about training yourself to notice your thoughts and bring yourself back to your breathing. “What people think is going wrong is that they keep losing themselves in their thoughts, but that’s how you do it,” she says. “It’s like training a dog. If you take a dog for a walk in the forest, it’s allowed to run off, but you just keep calling it back.”
3. Start very small
Zerf advocates starting with just three minutes. “You brush your teeth for three minutes a day and we wouldn’t dream of going without that. But meditation, which is our mental hygiene, we do nothing with,” she says.
All you are required to do is to sit with your eyes closed “observing your mind”. Consider it a three-minute treat for yourself, like having a cup of tea. “You’re not trying to fight something. It isn’t a chore; it’s about getting your mind on board,” says Zerf. “We’re not talking about going for a run at 6am in the middle of winter; we’re talking about sitting for three minutes and just letting everything settle.”
4. Play white noise in the background
Many meditation experts recommend playing music or a mantra during the meditation. Lavender says in her practice, a mantra is used “like a vehicle” to focus the mind. “It pulls the mind into these super subtle states. And then – as is the mind, so is the body. And the body gets to rest very deeply.”
Zerf says even a YouTube video playing white noise would do the trick. “Something you like – the sea or rain – so that if your mind wanders you have a sensory thing to come back to.”
5. Do it every day
Meditation works when you do it regularly. Zerf tells clients to stick Post-it notes everywhere, reminding them to meditate. “It’s much more important to make it a habit than to do it for a long time.
“People give it up because they think – well, what am I doing? I’m too busy for this, it doesn’t do anything. But I say to people we’re talking 100 days before any changes can be seen in your life.”
6. Do it wherever and whenever works for you
Lavender says the more you do it the easier it will become. “When you learn to work with the mind it is so natural you cannot wait to sit down and close your eyes,” she says. “You can do it on the train or on your sofa. It’s easy.”
Zerf says you don’t need a special setup. “Go into the bathroom, sit on the loo seat and close your eyes for three minutes. Do it at any time of day, but it is every day.”
Some may find it useful to meditate before bed. Lisa Sanfilippo, author of Sleep Recovery, says meditation can help us wind down and get better sleep. “It teaches you how to deal with agitation as you’re going from awake to asleep,” she says. “As human beings we expect ourselves to go from on to off like a machine, but we don’t actually function like that.
“Meditation teaches you to become aware and to move from very active brain states to lesser active brainwave states, into the time before sleep.”