The company I work for recently instigated an ongoing wellness programme for all of its employees. At first this notion really made me chuckle. We work in PR, which is something of a late night industry, and the idea of ‘healthy living’ most often presents itself as a series of tactical and fashionable cures to mornings after the nights before, rather than credible and sustained prevention strategies.
Ashen faces with heavy set eyes can often be seen staring into the great orange hope that is an effervescing glass of slowly dissolving Berocca. The electrolytes found in raw pink coconut water imported from Thailand are touted as miracles that will cleanse the sin of donner meat infused tequila shots. You can hear a campaign being planned in the distance as a team plots to lobby the government to make turmeric lattes available on the NHS.
Wellness initiatives like this are becoming increasingly common in British business, though, as employers begin to recognise that burning staff out doesn’t make long term commercial sense.
For us this means that there’s fruit available around the office instead of gin. It means that long boozy client lunches are (mostly) a thing of the past. And it means that we’re now far more likely to offer seminars on health and wellbeing in our office than we are to put a card behind the bar in a local boozer.
These sessions cover everything from workplace nutrition to better time management. The ones that really caught my attention recently, though, were those focused on meditation and mindfulness. The thought of stepping out from a highly-charged office environment and into a temporary oasis of calm just down the corridor was too much to resist.
Before too long the lights were muted, all the eyes in the room were closed and we were all concentrating, not on our emails, but on our breathing.
I can understand why some people are cynical about meditation and I think much of the associated, and often cliched, paraphernalia is largely to blame. Buddhas, incense and mostly unnecessary eastern music only serve to depict an experience that is either religious or just a bit fucking irritating.
There’s one extremely levelling lesson that could help people better understand the basics of mediation, though: if you can breath, you can meditate. And even the most irritating people out there have to be able to breathe.
Cynics have a great opportunity to extend their pessimism when they learn this. Because, of course, we all already know how to breathe, don’t we? Naturally we do, but the act of breathing is so taken for granted that we sometimes forget – or perhaps never even learn – how to do it really effectively.
Picture a stressful workplace scenario, for instance. Imagine that moment when you receive an email that you know isn’t going to read well. Something has gone really wrong. It’s going to mess up your entire day, maybe even your whole week. It’s bad news. You’re holding your breath until you get to the end. You don’t know you’re doing it but you are. And you’re feeling more and more stressed, not just in your mind, but right through your body because you’re starving your brain and your blood of oxygen. You finally get to the last word and something kicks in. You breathe out and then take a huge breath in. It’s the start of you being able to deal with the issue. The other option is to just die, although your brain wouldn’t let you do that. And, anyway, few work emails are worth ending it all for – even if you are being chased to complete your time sheets at 6pm on a Friday.
If we can accept that oxygen is fundamental to life and that there are techniques for more effectively delivering oxygen to our bodies – techniques that can alleviate and diminish stress, that can help us deal with anxiety, and that can make us feel a little calmer at any point in time – then we can accept the idea of meditation.
I was converted some time ago, so I just went along to get away from my desk for a bit and for the opportunity to potentially learn something new about the practice.
‘Take breathing breaks,’ the teacher offered when running through her list of suggestions for how to incorporate mindfulness into the everyday.
I tried to picture this for a moment but the scene in my head made me feel uncomfortable. I saw myself at my desk, eyes closed, breathing in slowly and deeply through my nose and and then, heavily and noisily, out through my mouth (I’m not sure how enlightened I’ll need to be before I stop feeling embarrassed and self conscious). So I let my mind wander to a different place: I was standing in the spot outside the office where the smokers go – where they go, it occurred to me, for a ‘breathing break’.
Smokers, perhaps by habit rather than design, are near natural meditators. They regularly take time out of their days to focus on doing just one thing. They remove themselves from the near constant noise of life to consciously inhale and exhale. If left undisturbed by the conversation of other smokers they may even get to focus on little else other than their cigarettes, taking them into the territory of mindfulness, too.
How strange that smoking – to some the most antisocial of habits – is without doubt more widely embraced (accepted, even) than the idea of meditation. Two acts of breathing, one clinically proven to gradually diminish quality of life and the other to improve it, separated perhaps most significantly by attitudes that will no doubt change over time.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I do sometimes nip outside the office for a quick cigarette. I’m almost sure it’s not about the nicotine, though, because I can go weeks without even thinking about smoking again. I guess it’s always just been about taking a moment or two out for myself. A form of toxic meditation that’s probably good for the soul but inarguably bad for the body. A breathing meditation that I’m going to start practicing daily for free and without the need for a lighter.