The stress of being cooped up can manifest in many ways, from boredom and exhaustion, to loneliness and depression. Meditation, we’ve long been told, can be a cure for most of those ills. And since becoming hermits, increasing numbers of us are incorporating it into our new daily routines.
“Meditation can’t change what’s happening around us, or to us, but it can profoundly change our relationship with the experience,” explains Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, one of the world’s leading mindfulness and meditation apps.
Like so many of us, Puddicombe has quickly learnt the art of balancing home schooling with work. “I feel like we have all become a lot more understanding of each other in these circumstances, and so having the kids crash a meeting on Zoom, or even a live meditation on Instagram Live, is all fair game,” he says from his home in Santa Monica.
“I’m spending a lot of time on my own in a dark room – a recording studio to be more specific – so in some ways my schedule is not so different. I’ve also started doing a live chat every morning on Instagram, and with fewer meetings, I’m finding time for a lot more creative and development work, too.”
Headspace reports that since lockdown in the UK, its Calming meditation has been used 15 times as often; while 12 times as many people have been using the Reframing Anxiety workout.
“In hearing some of the heart-breaking stories emerging from this pandemic, in understanding the emotional toll it is taking, and in listening to the feedback from our members worldwide, it was clear that we needed to reach more people, beyond the Headspace community alone,” says Puddicombe, in the same West Country lilt that gently guides Headspace users through their meditations.
In response to the lockdown, he and the team developed Weathering the Storm, a collection of focused meditations for stress and anxiety, sleep, exercise, and even young children. The collection is available free of charge, while Headspace has joined a growing list of businesses offering their services to the NHS. All clinical and non-clinical staff can now access the entire app for free.
I gave it a go when my feet recently packed in (here’s a tip: don’t suddenly take up daily jogging in lockdown). I needed something to suppress the inordinate amount of pent-up energy I had, and sitting down for 10 minutes every morning has had a remarkable effect. Not only am I finding it a great replacement for exercise, when it comes to working, I’m hitting the ground running like never before.
How to reduce stress
“There is strong scientific evidence that meditation can help to reduce stress and anxiety, both of which tend to be heightened in isolation,” says Puddicombe. “It can also help us to relax and unwind, making a restful night’s sleep much more likely. Additionally, meditation has been shown to reduce irritability and frustration, while increasing compassion and empathy. At a time when many of us are living in such close proximity with our loved ones, these benefits are both significant and meaningful.”
Over the last 10 years, both Headspace, often known as ‘a gym membership for the mind’, and Puddicombe, a handsome Bristolian who spent 10 years living as a Buddhist monk before setting it up, have become household names within the meditation community. It’s estimated that as many as 500 million people meditate worldwide (the industry is expected to be worth $2 billion in the US alone by 2022), with a whopping 62 million using the Headspace app. Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Watson and Ryan Reynolds are among the app’s fans. A monthly subscription costs £7.99 (the yearly option is £29.99) and for that you get access to a vast library of meditations, including ones dedicated to Transforming Anger, Difficult Conversations, and soothing you After a Nightmare. In addition, there are dozens of animations and workouts to help with self-esteem, productivity and creativity.
I’ve been particularly enjoying the Waking Up meditation, designed to leave the mind feeling crisper and clearer.
Australian Jacqui Lewis also co-founded The Broad Place eight years ago, which promotes integrated meditation; a transcendental take on Headspace’s contemplation and concentration techniques. Instead of guiding you through every meditation, The Broad Place offers retreats, courses, and one-to-one sessions, teaching the skills needed to ‘discover your highest grade self’ (courses can now be accessed online).
Fight, flight or freeze
Where Headspace might prescribe a helpful three-minute meditation for when you need it, Lewis’s methodology builds you up to a point where you’re practising 20-minute meditations, twice a day. “We respond to stress in three ways,” explains Lewis. “Fight, flight or freeze. At the moment, when we hear the news, or talk to family and friends, those responses are often being triggered. When we use integrated meditation, the body goes into rest, digest and repair, at which point the nervous system releases stress and tension, allowing the body to become realigned.”
Puddicombe agrees. “Much of our stress comes from wanting things to be different, so we might spend a lot of time reminiscing or worrying about the future. By embracing the present, we find ourselves less resistant and more accepting. In many ways, this is the essence of meditation. It has less to do with trying to be positive, and more to do with realising when we are indulging negativity, and giving that up.”
Puddicombe admits that even he sometimes struggles to practise what he preaches. “However, there are five elements that I strive to make part of my daily life, and that of my family’s life, no matter what’s going on,” he says.
“The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, is daily meditation. The second is some kind of mindful movement, typically running or cycling. The third is mindful eating, really focusing on what foods make me feel good and avoiding those foods that make me feel worse. The fourth is sleep.
“As days and nights begin to blend, it’s tempting to throw out our sleep routine, but a strong sleep pattern leaves you more restful.
The final aspect is play. Mostly this involves playing and being silly with the kids, but it might also be watching something that makes me laugh, or listening to some music with strong, positive memories attached.”
The Broad Place, meanwhile, has reacted to lockdown by offering The High Vibe Programme for Challenging Times. Many of its 12 Potent Steps echo Puddicombe’s advice, but others are less obvious (see Samurai breathwork). “Stay hydrated,” advises Lewis. “I’m trying to replace one or two of my many cups of tea with a litre of water. Keep a journal, and maybe start an online course. Being inside more presents an opportunity to draw, to paint, to sew, to literally create.”
Out: Multi-tasking. In: Unit tasking
Melli O’Brien – the brains behind the annual, month-long Mindfulness Summit – has managed to narrow her approach down to three key strategies. The first is powerful one-minute mini meditations, three to five times a day. Secondly, she says, “when we multitask, we’re not more productive, we’re just busier, both mentally and physically, exhausting ourselves needlessly. Try changing your focus to doing just one thing at a time. The official name for this is unit tasking. Take on each task with full awareness, one by one.
“Finally, try ‘deep listening’. Next time you’re speaking with a friend, don’t just hear their words; really listen to them. Give them your full, undivided attention. People notice and appreciate it when you truly listen to them like this. The extra benefit is, of course, that when it’s your turn to speak, it’s much more likely that you will also be fully heard in the same way.”
As much as being mindful, patient and considerate is about developing good habits, fending off the bad ones is just as important. “Try to avoid getting sucked into emails and social media as soon as you wake up, and instead give the mind time to adjust,” suggests Puddicombe.
“Being mindful of screen time and scheduling regular breaks – to stretch or get some exercise – can be incredibly helpful. When it comes to quality of sleep, we need a bedroom environment conducive for sleep. It’s all too easy to work from the bed, or binge-watch TV, but that won’t lead to a restful night’s sleep.”
Avoid toxic talk
Meanwhile, Lewis says that now more than ever we need to pay particular attention to how we communicate with one another. “Avoid any toxic talk: speculation, gossip, trauma bonding and competing stories, i.e. ‘My situation is worse than yours’. Instead, support each other. Ask others, ‘how can I help?’ And ask yourself, ‘what are the positives you’re taking away from this experience?’”
And then there’s marital conflict in lockdown. Sometimes it can require monk-like poise to stay Zen when freedom and space is in such short supply. I ask Puddicombe what we can do to avoid conflict with loved ones? He chuckles: “We even have a meditation for that. Many, in fact. We’ve seen courses such as Relationships, Kindness and Patience become increasingly popular in recent weeks.
“A recent study showed that using Headspace for three weeks can increase compassion by 21 per cent and reduce aggression by 57 per cent; something worth considering if these stay-at-home restrictions continue for much longer.”
Yet, while many of us have tried meditation in lockdown and enjoyed it, many of us give up on it. “It’s like exercise,” says Lewis. “If you really want to see results, you need to keep doing it. Of course, there are going to be days when you don’t want to, but you’ll feel so much better if you do.”
The Daily Telegraph
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