Jenny Southan reports on how meditation can make you smarter, happier, healthier and more successful.

Some of the most famous words ever written by a philosopher are “I think therefore I am”. On the face of it, most people would agree with Descartes that without their minds, there wouldn’t be much left of them – just a body. No personality, no ideas, no memory, no sense of identity, no comprehension of past or future.

But too much thinking can become destructive. For most of us, the constant whirring of the mind, jumping from to-do lists to worries about deadlines, is something that can become exhausting. Consider how much information you process throughout the day – be it via the internet, advertising, email or television – and then ask yourself how often you manage to “switch off”. Even a glass of wine at the end of the day, a trip to the gym or two weeks on a beach prove short-term answers.

It is modern man’s Achilles heel. And as studies continue to reveal connections between stress and a variety of psychological and physical health problems, there has never been a greater need for a solution.

Fortunately, Western medicine is now recognising the benefits of a simple approach that can be traced back many thousands of years to the early teachings of Jainism, Taoism and Buddhism – meditation.

Studies by Harvard Medical School show that meditation can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system and improve circulation. In January 2011, the Harvard Gazette reported that after taking MRI scans of participants who had meditated for 27 minutes a day over eight weeks, there was “increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection”.

The report’s senior author, Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology, is reported as saying: “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

The Meditation Foundation (, which has the support of the Department of Health, says the practice can help with everything from weight loss and ageing to addiction and depression. The American Heart Association’s journal Stroke published research in 2000 showing that 20 minutes of meditation twice a day had a measurable effect on the build-up of fatty deposits in arteries, helping to reduce the risk of heart attack by 11 per cent and stroke by 15 per cent.

In 2007, research by the US National Institutes of Health showed that it helped to make information processing in the brain more efficient. It can also contribute to better decision-making (Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience, March 2011), heightened concentration (Psychological Science, May 2010) and, as film director David Lynch has found, enhanced creativity.

Said to have never missed a day’s meditation since he started in the early 1970s, his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish describes the artistic benefits he has gained from practising transcendental meditation (TM) for more than 30 years. In 2005 he launched the David Lynch Foundation ( to fund stress-reducing programmes that incorporate TM for underprivileged children and war veterans with post-traumatic stress.

Firms such as Google, Yahoo, Apple, NASA and Nike have also started recognising the benefits and are encouraging their employees to meditate by organising free classes, retreats or dedicated quiet rooms. When you consider that in 2009-10, the Health and Safety Executive found that almost 10 million working days were lost through work-related stress in the UK – and that it is becoming more common to see executives in senior positions burning out (Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, recently announced he was taking time off because of “extreme fatigue”) – finding a way of tackling it at the source makes sense.

So what kind of meditation is best? There are numerous secular approaches out there and none that will have you sitting in the lotus position for hours on end. Transcendental meditation, for example, requires the use of a mantra that is repeated silently in the mind and acts as a vehicle to achieving a “natural state of deep rest; a silent, peaceful level of consciousness where thoughts are transcended”, according to a spokesman for the Maharishi Foundation (named after the founder of TM, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). The National Institutes of Health has granted more than US$24 million to studying its effects.

“TM is incredibly easy to do, and produces comprehensive benefits that have been scientifically verified,” the spokesman says. “Once you’ve learnt it you’re an expert and able to gain results immediately. It’s a skill you can use for life. You don’t need to join an organisation or keep seeing a teacher. It’s a powerful means of getting rid of stress and boosting personal performance, and it’s totally discreet – you can do it on a train or plane and no one will know.”

For those interested in learning TM, it’s best to sign up for a course as you need to be given your own personal mantra. “It is taught individually so the instructions can be tailored precisely to each person,” the spokesman says. “The course involves four two-hour classes on consecutive days, with recommended follow-up sessions. As the technique is taught in a standardised way all over the world, classes and follow-up checks can be taken in almost any major city.” (Course fees depend on income and range from £290 to £590. Corporate programmes are also available. Visit for details.)

An alternative is “pure” meditation (see panel overleaf). This is similar to TM but instead of aiming for a thoughtless state, looks to create one where thoughts are welcomed and then let go of with the help of focusing on breathing, or with the eyes open looking at an object such as a candle. Stuart Bold, founding director of the Meditation Foundation, says: “It’s about enhancing awareness, the clarity of your emotions and thought processes, and how you interact with the environment and people around you. It’s a cumulative process that goes on through the day, and the physiological benefits build over time.”

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation (, highlights a third approach, known as “mindfulness”. This involves “paying attention to your thoughts and feelings to become more aware of them and better able to manage them by combining elements of meditation, yoga and breathing”.

Dr Guy Meadows, sleep specialist and founder of London’s Sleep School ( is also an advocate of mindfulness, employing it not only in his everyday life but also to treat insomnia in his patients. He says: “There comes a point when we spend too much time in the past or future and lose all contact with the present. Mindfulness enables us to notice our thoughts, emotions, physical state and urges.

“The simple act of being able to notice them means we are able to respond to them in a helpful way. Most of my clients have racing minds so are always trying to block out thoughts, which, annoyingly, just promotes more thoughts. Allowing them in, watching them, letting them go and returning to your senses, and maybe focusing on your breathing, will quieten your mind down.”

Meadows offers private consultations, webinars and retreats both in the UK, such as at Rockliffe Hall hotel in County Durham, and overseas. The Mental Health Foundation offers online courses only. McCulloch says: “Our ‘Be Mindful’ course lasts four weeks and can be undertaken anywhere with internet access. It consists of ten online sessions featuring videos and interactive exercises led by expert mindfulness practitioners.” So there is no excuse not to be at your best.

Meditate away

A good way to kick-start a new life habit is to book a stay at a health resort. Wellbeing Escapes specialises in fitness holidays, detox breaks and meditation retreats, working with about 50 properties in destinations such as India, Thailand and Bhutan.

Stella Photi, who founded the company in 2005, says: “A high proportion of our clients are executives and high-flyers who know that they need to be at their best to cope with the challenges of today’s business world. These people are investing more of their time on holidays that will keep them at the top of their game – a well-being holiday will bring benefits long after their tan has faded.”

The luxurious Sha Wellness Clinic near Alicante in Spain is two hours by plane from London. It offers short stints such as the four-day “Executive Health” programme, which includes a medical check-up, therapeutic massages, stress management classes and health training. It is also one of the resorts to offer Wellbeing Escapes’ “Mind Unwind” package, which includes a meditation component.

During my four-day stay, I signed up for a one-hour consultation with on-site meditation and yoga specialist, Nieves Gonzalez. She sat me down in a bare, dimly lit room and talked me through the basic techniques of “pure” breath meditation: “Find a good position to sit in on the floor or on a chair. Stretch your back so it is straight. Feel your verticality and the sensations in your body, then focus on your breathing. When you become aware of thoughts entering your mind, return to focusing on your breathing and they will shrink away.”

Gonzalez resists advising clients how long to meditate for. “You need to listen to your body and do as much as you feel you need,” she says. “Ten minutes is good, 15 minutes, 20 minutes or one hour is good. Even one minute is healthy. When you feel ready, end with several deep inhalations and slowly open your eyes to come out of it.”

So how does meditation work? “Your brain is a machine – it never stops, even when you sleep,” Gonzalez says. “Pure meditation is not about stopping your thoughts, it is about helping you get some distance from them. Sometimes we get so close to them that we think we are our thoughts. It is about experiencing the present moment, listening to your body and your emotions.”

After about 30 minutes listening to Gonzalez talk, we begin a meditation. I find 20 minutes passes reasonably quickly, and although I seem to have a million thoughts passing through my mind, I find it easy to return to focusing on my breathing. After, I find that I feel calmer and more relaxed.

Over the rest of my stay at Sha, I complement a rigorous regime of physical activities – a one-hour hike before breakfast followed by swimming, yoga and workouts in the gym – with short sessions of meditation. This, combined with a somewhat extreme diet of macrobiotic food – no alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, meat, tomatoes or wheat – all contribute to a feeling of renewal when I get home. (Although I do rush out for a glass of wine and a pizza.)

  • Sha Wellness Clinic, Verderol 5 El Albir, Alicante; tel +34 966 811 199. A four-day full-board meditation package including flights and transfers for one person starts from £1,739. Visit,