Feature writing


Meditation that is hip, not hippy

The Times

March 13, 2012


My vision of meditation is not immediately, um, embracing. I think of Absolutely Fabulous, in which Edina Monsoon, on a retreat, sits in a field, bored, flicking insects into the long grass. Silence not her forte, she demands that her hippy guru give her “the talking stick”, wailing “How much are they? I’ll buy my own”. So can meditation really be cool and marketed to drink-loving, drug-taking, sexed-up young professionals living “a busy urban lifestyle”?

In his book, The Buddha Walks Into A Bar… , the meditation teacher and practitioner Lodro Rinzler aims to take meditation away from the incense-burning stereotype and show its place in the fast, modern world. He’s less hippy, more hipster, I think as the 29-year-old Rinzler — he in his skinny suit and bow tie — and I sit on two meditation cushions at the Shambhala Centre in New York, one of 165 such meditation centres around the world. Rinzler is trying to get me to focus on breathing for ten minutes and all I can think of is my US tax return. Every time a thought hits me, I am to say “think”, to remind myself not to: my “thinks” come out like little, angry bullets. Then I start thinking about how rubbish I am at not thinking.

Whether it’s excessive boozing or one-night stands, his advice is: “Think before you act. Treat others with respect. Don’t be self-destructive.” If Rinzler’s book has struck a chord among New York’s professionals, in the UK the website, book publisher and events organiser Headspace is dedicated to “making meditation an indispensable tool for modern life”. Andy Puddicombe, one of its founders, says it is an “incredibly simple and cheap” way of finding a method to cope with stress: “In the past there was a tendency to think that if we couldn’t see it then it didn’t really matter — hence the obsession with physical fitness and the neglect of mental fitness. There was also the problem that meditation was seen as something very mystical, that we had to perhaps lead a different way of life, wear different clothes, eat different food and start burning incense in order to meditate.”

All that is changing, he says. Meditation, Rinzler concurs, is becoming “as mainstream as yoga. It feels like there is a yoga studio on every corner now like Starbucks; the same will be true of meditation in ten years.” With meditation programmes that start with as little as ten minutes a day, and available for free via smartphone apps, it is now an attractive option for people, Puddicombe says. “It is a unique skill, easy to learn, manageable to do, and yet which impacts every aspect of life. In many ways it is just like going to the gym and training a muscle to get stronger. When you sit to meditate — even for just ten minutes a day — you increase the blood flow to the parts of the brain that are responsible for feelings of happiness and emotional stability, effectively increasing the health and wellbeing of your brain.”

Sitting cross-legged on the cushions at the Shambhala Centre, Rinzler tells me to place my palms on my knees, to sit up straight, elongating my spine, feeling “the weight of the body in the Earth”. I am to tuck my chin in and not, as I immediately do, close my eyes: “If we’re trying to be present, blocking out one of our senses isn’t helpful,” he admonishes kindly. I am to keep my gaze “loose and unfocused”, so I gaze at the parquet. I am to concentrate on the act of breathing. “We stay with the breath, it anchors us in the present moment,” Rinzler intones. “The object of our attention is our breath. We don’t have to change or manufacture it. It will happen if we pay attention to it or not.”

Can just breathing really be so beneficial? “In some of the most exciting scientific research at Harvard, a process known as neuroplasticity has been shown to take place as a result of meditating,” Puddicombe says. “This is where the cortex associated with feelings of happiness and wellbeing actually gets thicker and stronger when people meditate, thanks to the increased blood flow to that area.”

Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk-turned-meditation guru, says he mostly sees people who suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia and compulsive or addictive behaviours.

“However, for many people it is about how not to get caught up in overpowering emotions. Simply being able to get a good night’s rest.”

He also sees “professional athletes who are looking to develop their focus; investment bankers who want to improve their performance; international aid workers who are struggling to cope with the intensity of war and famine; university students who are stressed out about their exams; and homeless teenagers who are looking for a sense of direction”.

Rinzler, who practises meditation in his Brooklyn apartment from between 30 minutes to an hour five times a week, was raised by his parents within the Shambhala tradition from the age of 11. Kids at school weren’t mean as he trotted off to retreats; the most he had to put up with was, “What are you doing at this party? Buddhists don’t drink”. In fact, when he went to college, “I partied all the time and smoked weed,” then “meditated all the time”, before realising “neither was getting the balance right, I had to find a middle way”. At the worst moment — he lost a number of people close to him at 18 — “instead of numbing out, I let myself be as present as possible, I learnt to accept the grief and let it wash over me”.

His book assumes its readers are exposed to drugs, drink and sex, and shows them “how to remain true to basic principles of mindfulness and compassion” while living it up. “The drink itself isn’t bad, but what is your intention behind it?” His British fiancée Victoria, he reveals, picked him up in a bar three and a half years ago. She isn’t a Buddhist and doesn’t meditate, “but we were both unconditionally open at that moment to meeting someone”, he says. “You don’t have to be Buddhist to practise openness, just as you don’t have to be Christian to experience a connection to God.”

Surely as soon as you’ve emptied your mind for ten minutes, you head back into daily life and, bam, your head’s full of crud again? Rinzler claims that meditation slows us down, forces us to be present in the moment, recommending that I stop on the edge of a sidewalk, and notice “the flowers in a windowbox, little moments of appreciation”. But that doesn’t help us to get over a break-up, the death of a loved one, sort out that thing at work? “Meditation cuts through all our negative, habitual responses to things,” Rinzler says. “We see them for what they are, we don’t react to them in the perhaps angry ways we used to.”

He is planning a book called The Buddha Walks Into An Office… , to enable us to function more happily, and effectively, at our desks. Before that, I ask, any chance of The Buddha Deals With My Tax Return…?