By: Claire Locking
Meditation: The process of familiarising oneself with mindfulness; a way to train the mind to be calmer, clearer and kinder.
Mindfulness: The intention to be present in the here and now, fully engaged in whatever is happening, free from the distraction or judgement, with an open mind.
Walking to the school bus this morning, my five-year-old looked up at the sky and said, “Wow, birdies: thanks, for the great song!” Cute – but also thought provoking, as it made me wonder to myself when I last noticed a bird singing or the colour of the sky, apart from to worry if I should have packed an umbrella.
While he was very much living in and enjoying the moment, I was aware of nothing other than the email I’d forgotten to send and the length of my day’s “to-do list”. This lack of awareness of the here and now seems to be something of a modern-day disease. The pace of life and modern communications that lead us to feel a sense of obligation to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is resulting in many of us living in a constant state of worry and, for some, depression.
Peta McAuley is an occupational psychologist who has been offering courses in mindfulness training in Hong Kong since 2003. Back then, she ran a couple of classes a year with six to twelve students in a class. In the past three years, though, interest has been growing, reaching a crescendo in 2013. As we write she has just run three courses in a month at the YWCA, instructing over 60 students in the use of mindfulness to reduce stress, enhance physical and mental well-being, cultivate emotional balance and EQ, and improve interpersonal relationships, focus, concentration and productivity.
Peta, whose PhD research paper was on working adults in Hong Kong, is convinced that teaching mindfulness to more and more residents can only be a good thing. “The primary need for mindfulness training is the multi-media age. The information overload that we’re all experiencing is leading to chronic distractibility,” suggests Peta. “Attention deficit is now a trait in all of us; we’ve lost control of our attention. Most of us aren’t even aware that we’re checking our phones and emails constantly.”
At her class at the YWCA she sees the full spectrum of Hong Kong society; housewives, teachers, lawyers. “It’s not counselling; it’s not therapy. It’s working in a subtle way with the nature of the mind; training it to become aware of the capacity to control attention,” says Peta. “It allows you to become aware of your unhelpful and unhealthy thoughts. Many thoughts are automatic and they trigger unhealthy emotions. It’s good to be able to make choices.”
One recent graduate of the programme is British IT professional and Entrepreneur Kenny Li. Kenny had dabbled in meditation in the past and on coming to Asia decided to put his research into practice. “Hong Kong is an incredibly stimulating and fascinating place,” explains Kenny, “but the intensity of it is not really what we as humans are build for and is ultimately damaging. I feel here it’s easy for people to get lost as everyone is also riding that wave of intensity. I’ve long believed how fundamental mindfulness mediation is for everyone in everyday life, especially in modern life.”
Kenny signed up for Peta’s six-week course – eight hours a week of intense training, homework and meditation practice. “After completing the course, I’ve become much more aware of what’s really going on inside and around me. As a result, I’m able to make better decisions in day-to-day life.”
Although the practice is obviously gaining awareness, the challenge practitioners and teachers still face is how to persuade people to take the step from exploring the idea to actually training and then putting it into practice in their daily lives. Andy Puddicombe may have come up with the answer with his app, Headspace. Launched in 2010, the app is now the number-one download on iTunes Health and Fitness and boasts celebrity fans including Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Watson.
In his early twenties, midway through a sports science degree, Andy packed his bags and spent the next ten years in meditation training in Nepal, India, Burma, Thailand, Australia and Russia. In 2004 he returned to the UK, without his monk’s robes, and set out with one intention: to de-mystify meditation; or, in his words, “to teach people that it’s not all about sitting in the lotus position.”
His consultancy organised events and worked with everyone from politicians to multinational corporations before Headspace went digital in 2010. There are now 750,000 users in 145 countries worldwide. Its “Take 10” programme walks newcomers through the steps towards mindfulness with a simple ten-minute exercise every day. Everyone from Olympic gold medallists to CEOs have testified to the app’s healing powers, with The New York Times claiming Andy has “done for meditation what Jamie Oliver did for food”.
But surely teaching meditation through an app on a phone, iPad or computer is a contradiction in terms. “It’s true that most people associate devices with work,” says Andy, “but the onus is on each individual to learn to switch off and control their own use of technology. In my mind, using the most modern tools we have to communicate a discipline that’s 2,000 years old is, in a way, beautiful. When mobile phones were first invented we used them because we could – because being contactable anywhere was an amazing novelty. But now that we all have them, we value those that have the balance right and are able to ‘switch off’. I think the days of being on our phones and being contactable 24/7 are fading fast.”
Whether mindfulness meditation turns out to be a craze or a necessity, many agree with Andy that the days of worshipping modern technology are fading; in fact, Peta McAuley believes the digital age is going to suffer a backlash. “I genuinely feel that we will look back in 10 years time at technology and it will be viewed in the same way we view cigarettes today, and people will say: ‘What were we doing?’ Technology obviously has an important role to play in the modern world, but it’s definitely out of balance.”
Visit Headspace to trial the free Take 10 (ten minutes for ten days) programme.
For details of Peta’s Mindfulness courses at the YWCA on Garden Road, visit www.esmdywca.org.hk or call 3476 1340.