Sitting in a neatly furnished room in a converted villa in Umm Suqeim, I have my eyes shut and I’m breathing in through my nose – in and out, in and out – while a voice with a lilting New Zealand accent speaks softly from the armchair next to me.
It is telling me, gently, to find my happy place. I wonder briefly if Ravi’s restaurant could be considered my happy place. I decide it can’t. I go with a landscape from the country of my birth instead. The voice is telling me to see it like it’s right here, to capture it in my mind, to experience it...
And then, gently again, the voice is bringing me back, telling me to listen to the sounds of this near silent room in this quiet villa in this sleepy neighbourhood. A clock ticks. Cars pass. Birds chirp. They all sound so... real. And then we’re moving on to smell and taste and I’m being told to hold out my hands and feel the energy within them.
‘Can you feel it?’ asks the voice. ‘Like pins and needles?’
I’m not sure I can but I nod anyway. And then the five minutes are up and the exercise is over, and I’m being told to open my eyes, and asked how I feel. ‘Sleepy,’ I say.
So, this, it seems, is the latest craze sweeping Dubai: mindfulness. This once little-known form of meditation is all about disengaging from distractions and living life focused entirely on the moment. By doing daily mind exercises like the one described above, advocates say we can train our brains to tune out everything but the task at hand – whatever that may be.
‘Think of a golfer at the exact point he’s about to make a winning putt,’ says Helen Williams, director of Dubai’s LifeWorks Personal Development Training Centre and the owner of that voice next to me. ‘His mind has to be completely clear of everything apart from that single action. Now think how much more we could all achieve if we could only apply that to every aspect of life.’
Research carried out in studies over more than 40 years suggests the benefits of mindfulness – apart from being able to sink a winner at the 18th – include reducing stress, improving concentration, combating insomnia, boosting our immune system and fighting depression. At work it has been found to increase productivity and attentiveness. There are even suggestions it could help tackle obesity.
Hollywood A-listers like Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan have long since advocated the practice, while some of the world’s biggest companies – Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs and Reebok among them – now offer sessions as part of their staff packages. The US Army has even funded research to see if it might benefit Marines in combat.
Now, evidence suggests Dubai is minded to get mindful. In a city where stress seems to be second nature to many, it appears we’re now looking within for answers to our anxiety.
Classes teaching the technique – which can be done anywhere and take as little as a few minutes – are seeing record numbers signing up. Helen says some 100 people booked in for her six courses earlier this year. Quite some leap from five years ago when she would offer just one course every three months ‘for a handful of people’.
More and more companies – including legal, financial and communications firms – are block booking entire days with LifeWorks.
‘I think in a city like this, which is very forward-thinking but is also packed with busy people leading stressful lives, there’s little wonder mindfulness is becoming popular,’ Helen says. ‘People come to us saying they have everything they’ve ever wanted – Dubai helped make their dreams come true – but, fundamentally, they still are looking for happiness. And they’ll spend time with us and realise “Hang on, the reason I’m not happy is because I’m never ‘present’ to enjoy what I have”.
‘When they’re with their children, they’re thinking about work. When they’re working on one project they’re worrying about the other 10 they need to complete. And when they’re supposed to be spending time with their partner they have their mobile phone constantly beeping at them. And they wonder why they’re not happy.
‘How can anyone expect to be content when they have so many things going on in their minds? They’ve lost their ability to value the moment.’
Mindfulness might just be the answer, Helen says. Whereas once people sought solutions in pills and prescriptions, today more of us seek natural remedies. And few natural remedies have been shown to be so effective at combatting a range of complaints as mindfulness.
The whole concept derives from Buddhist meditation stretching back thousands of years but these eastern principles were secularised by American clinical researchers in the Seventies. Scholars such as Jon Kabat-Zinn who ran the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that ‘inhabiting the moment’ for a set period of time had measurable and permanent health benefits.
Those who spent time being mindful were found to have reduced heart rates for a considerable time afterwards, meaning oxygen was distributed more effectively around the body. That results in reduced stress and better concentration, but also in improved digestion, a boosted immune system, reduced insomnia and a greater ability to deal with addictive cravings – such as alcohol or even food.
Later research, notably by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, found that meditation also physically altered the brain. Lazar used scans to show that the left side, which controls empathy and compassion, expanded.
Just last year, meanwhile, studies by the American journal Archives of General Psychiatry found mindfulness was as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression.
‘Of course I wouldn’t say this is a solution to all problems,’ says Helen. “But you get very few people who try this and don’t like it. Time and again I’ve had people come back to me and say that this has changed their lives.’
So – the big question – how exactly does one become mindful? While the ability to produce a clear brain at will only comes with time, practice and dedication, the actual exercises to try to achieve this state are surprisingly simple.
Helen insists new starters are best served by taking a beginners’ class to learn the basics. But the gist is that you should find three or four times a day to meditate – take a few minutes to focus your mind on a single thought (a place that makes you happy, perhaps); or on your surroundings (what can be heard when you really listen, for instance); or on your own body (feeling how your muscles move when you breathe).
By focusing as such, the mind empties of all other concerns, leaving you, the theory goes, refreshed and raring to go once you emerge.
‘The real beauty of these techniques is they can be done anywhere or any time,’ says Helen, a 66-year-old grandmother who has herself practised for 40 years.
‘Find five minutes in the morning before the rest of the house is up; or, if you’re in the car at a red traffic light, spend those few moments concentrating solely on your breathing; or go for a walk and really listen to the sounds around you – that’s all meditation.’
If the proof is in the practice, people who try it are rarely anything other than positive about the experience. Milana Stoichkov, a 20-year-old student who lives in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, has been doing this for two years – and doesn’t envisage ever stopping.
‘I don’t know how I’d have got through the stresses of university without it,’ she says. ‘It’s like a daily recharge of your batteries. Afterwards I feel like my mind has been wiped clean and I can fill it up once more.’
Indeed, even a cynic like me – a 32-year-old journalist always looking for flaws – enjoyed my (albeit, so far only brief) experience. During two hours with Helen we go through a variety of exercises. In one we spend 10 minutes listening to the way we breathe. Which is far more interesting than it sounds.
And after it all, yes, I do feel strangely and pleasantly sleepy. But once that’s shaken off it’s like my mind has been reset again and given a quick tidy up. Kind of like a power nap. Without the nap bit. I feel more prepared for the day.
‘Will you keep practising?’ asks Helen as I leave. My instinct, when asked such questions as a journalist, is to nod and smile and say without much conviction: ‘almost certainly’.
On this occasion I nod, and I genuinely mean it. ‘Certainly,’ I say.
Two basic mindfulness techniques
1. Notice the way your breath feels as it comes in and out of your nose.
2. Widen your awareness to include all the movements of your body – chest, shoulders, abdomen.
3. Widen once more so you become aware of the beat of your heart.
4. Finally, include in your awareness the sense of your muscles shifting and holding as you breathe.
Mindfulness of sense
1. With your eyes closed, focus on an image that makes you happy.
2. Move from sight to sound by deeply listening to all the noises that reach you.
3. Move to smell by immersing yourself in the odours that come to you.
4. Spend a few moments concentrating on the flavours of your mouth.
5. Finish with touch by holding your hands out – you should experience slight sensation of pins and needles.