Mindfulness Meditation is often touted as a panacea for all manner of ailments from chronic pain to anxiety, stress and even depression. Like most sensible people, I've always taken such sweeping claims with a large pinch of salt.
Five years ago, however, I learned the power of meditation for myself after a flying accident left me critically injured and in constant pain.
My ordeal began when a freak gust of wind caught me off-guard as I was paragliding over the Cotswold hills in southern England. One moment my paraglider was flying normally, the next its wing had collapsed, sending me tumbling head over heels into the hillside thirty feet below. Almost immediately I was struck with the most agonizing pain imaginable. I soon realized why; the lower half of my right leg had been driven up through my knee and into my thigh. I could even see the outline of my fractured shin bone sticking through the cloth of my jeans. I quickly went into shock and my body was wracked with violent uncontrollable spasms.
As I lay there on the hillside, I remembered a form of meditation that I'd been taught in high school as a way of tackling exam nerves. Over the years I'd also used it off and on to deal with the usual stresses and strains of daily life, but never in times of real physical pain and suffering. I knew that meditation (and self hypnosis) had been used for pain relief, and as I lay on the hillside, in sheer desperation, I tried them both.
I began by forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply, to focus on the sensations the breath made as it flowed in and out of my body. I pictured myself in a beautiful garden, and imagined myself inhaling its peaceful and tranquil air as I did so. Gradually, breath by breath, the pain became more distant. It felt less ‘personal', almost as if I was watching it on TV - or through a thin mist - rather than experiencing it directly.
When I arrived in hospital it became apparent just how seriously injured I was - and just how effective a painkiller the meditation had been. The tibial plateau, or lower knee joint, had broken into six pieces and the tibia and fibula had shattered into six main chunks and a few smaller chips. There was also massive damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage.
"You've certainly done a good job on it," said one of the surgeons cheerfully.
Thankfully, I'd had my accident in a particularly good place. The Cotswold hills lie just to the north of the city of Bristol, which has one of Britain's main research and teaching hospitals. It also specializes in reconstructing hopelessly broken limbs.
It turned out that I would need three major operations to rebuild my leg. I also needed a newly invented device, a Taylor Spatial Frame, to be surgically attached to my leg for 6-18 months to repair the damage.
Consisting of four equally spaced rings that encircled my lower leg, the Frame looked like a cross between a Meccano set and a medieval torture device. Fourteen metal spokes and two bolts connected these rings to the shards of bone inside my leg. The spokes and rings of the frame can all move independently and allowed the surgeons to move bone fragments around inside my leg. In essence, the Taylor Spatial Frame replaces traditional hospital ‘traction' and the plates and screws currently used to fix severely broken bones. As a result, bones can be rebuilt or even progressively ‘stretched' to lengthen limbs pulverized and shortened in accidents.
As you can imagine, life with the frame was intolerable. Sleep was virtually impossible and the pain from my injuries was only controlled with powerful drugs that left me washed-out and jaded. I felt thoroughly wretched (not to mention anxious, irritable and highly stressed). It was clear that no amount of ‘positive thinking' could shift such a funk, so I decided to find an alternative way coping with the pain and of maximizing my chances of recovery.
Because of my earlier experiences, I latched onto meditation as a possible treatment.
I soon discovered the work of Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University in the UK. He and his co-workers at the Universities of Cambridge, Toronto, and Massachusetts had spent over twenty years studying the phenomenal power of meditation for treating anxiety, stress, pain, exhaustion, and even full-blown depression. They had turned it into a powerful therapy, known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), that was gaining the support of doctors and scientists around the world. It had been recently endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (which assesses the effectiveness of medical treatments in the UK). If NICE endorses a treatment, then it's generally considered to be one of the best available, and it's recommendations are often followed across Europe and in Commonwealth countries.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is based on a simple form of meditation, known as Mindfulness, in conjunction with Cognitive Therapy - a popular form of therapy for tackling negative thought patterns. A typical meditation consists of focusing on the breath and the sensations it creates. Such meditations, if practised regularly, can produce profoundly positive changes in the mind. This lessening of negative ways of thinking reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, which in turn enhances healing and boosts physical health.
Until then I'd assumed that meditation was a fringe ‘New Age' activity that was akin to a religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's simply a method of mental training that can be done more or less anywhere (so thankfully, you don't need to sit cross-legged on the floor).
Countless studies have now shown its benefits for relieving anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and even as a potent painkiller. For example, work published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology has shown that Mindfulness meditation brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing, while a major study in Psychological Science revealed that such changes help regular meditators live longer and healthier lives. And in April this year, the Journal of Neuroscience reported that Mindfulness meditation was more effective than many drugs, including morphine, for relieving pain.
Other scientific studies have shown that Mindfulness not only prevents mental health problems, but that it positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Regular meditators, it turns out, enjoy more fulfilling relationships, their memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster. But perhaps the most surprising thing about Mindfulness is that you can actually see such positive changes taking root in the brain. Recent evidence from scanners shows that the parts of the brain associated with such positive emotions as happiness, empathy and compassion become stronger and more active as people meditate.
How does MBCT do all this? It helps partly by teaching you to live in the present moment rather than worrying too much about the past or the future (and driving yourself to the brink of exhaustion and burnout). This, in turn, allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. This leads you to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life. And crucially, it also helps you learn to treat yourself with compassion, to accept your normal human failings rather than criticizing yourself for them.
Faced with this compelling body of evidence, I decided to try Mindfulness meditation to help me cope with the after-effects of my accident. I began each day with a ten minute breathing meditation to calm the mind and reduce my levels of anxiety and stress. At bedtime, I would meditate for 30 minutes while visualizing a warm, white, healing light sweeping up and down my leg.
This simple meditation programme worked to an astonishing degree. My pain gradually subsided and I slashed my intake of painkillers by two-thirds. I also developed a more contented outlook on life, seeing my injuries as temporary problems that would gradually subside rather than as limb-threatening ones that might leave me confined to a wheelchair.
I'm convinced that Mindfulness is the main reason why I recovered in double-quick time: the Taylor Spatial Frame was removed after just 17 weeks (rather than the normal 6 to 18 months). Certainly, my progress astonished my doctors. Shortly after my final operation I joked with my surgeon Mark Jackson, consultant at Bristol Royal Infirmary, that maybe my injuries hadn't been as bad as I'd thought.
He looked at me aghast and said: "Your leg was in the ‘top five' leg injuries I've treated with a Taylor Spatial Frame - and possibly higher."
My recovery continues apace. Two years ago, at the age of 42, I took up running and I'm currently hiking Britain's 630-mile South West Coast Path in 50 mile sections - astonishing given the severity of my injuries.
As you can imagine, I have become fascinated by the power of MBCT to improve people's lives. So much so that I teamed up with Professor Mark Williams to bring his academic work to a wider audience. In October Rodale will publish our book ‘Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World'. This reveals a set of simple yet powerful practices that you can incorporate into daily life to help break the cycle of anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and mental exhaustion that permeates so much of modern life. It promotes the kind of happiness that gets into your bones and seeps into everything you do.
Over the coming months Professor Mark Williams and I will be sharing with you through this blog much that we have learnt about MBCT and Mindfulness. Much of this information has been gathered by researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Toronto. This evidence clearly shows that Mindfulness can successfully treat many of the mental and physical problems that are afflicting ever greater numbers of people in America and around the world. But not only that, we're convinced that Mindfulness may also help improve society in general.
We hope you'll accompany us on this journey.