“People talk about stress as something we have to learn to live with, particularly anxiety,” she says. “Actually we can do something about stress.” She believes we need to change our mindset around what she sees as one of the greatest causes of suffering today. There is no such thing as “good stress”, she says. “People are tired, exhausted and stressed. And they compensate for that by all sorts of behaviours and habits. I want to bring us into a normal state, a balanced state that is healthy.”
Lavender is the least guru-like guru you could hope to meet. A Kiwi by birth, she talks in the no-nonsense style of the publishing CEO she was – “Rest is the funding mechanism for everything you do” – before discovering Vedic mediation in Sydney in her late-20s. In 2008, she set up the London and New York Meditation Centre with her American partner, Michael Miller, who she met on a retreat in India. The couple, now in their 50s, live in Notting Hill with their young daughter. They emit the sort of glow usually reserved for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s not for nothing that they have built a following among burnt-out celebrities and stressed execs, with fees operating on a sliding scale from £400 to (you may need to sit quietly for a bit) £2,000 according to salary; their unwafty approach appealing to those who would run a square mile at the whiff of a joss stick.
“There’s nothing weird about us. We really love what we are doing. We are here to help people,” Lavender says. “It’s that simple.”
Since the London Meditation Centre began, meditation has gone mainstream, with subscriptions to apps like Headspace and Calm soaring during the pandemic. Lavender wrote Why Meditate? in lockdown (ironically she had been too busy teaching people to meditate before). The book is her attempt to redress the “sloppiness” and misunderstandings surrounding meditation, to distinguish it from all the buzz around mindfulness. She also wanted to reach a wider audience, “to get the message out wide and far, and do it in a way that is honest and clear and accessible”.
As she makes clear from the off, this book will not teach you to meditate. It is a why-to, not a how-to book – the clue is in the title. As anyone with a shelf-ful of unread meditation manuals will know, learning from a book is a non-starter (reading with your eyes closed can be tricky), and the prose style can usually be relied on to send you to sleep. We already know a lot of the Whys: meditation makes us happier, healthier and nicer to be around – broccoli for the brain. But Lavender follows the science to back it up: during meditation our metabolic rate drops far more quickly and deeply than in sleep, cortisol levels go down, serotonin levels rise. My favourite takeaway is that long-term meditators have been shown to have a biological age 12 years younger than their real one.
Most of us are getting through the day on what she calls “excitation chemistry”, stress hormones, sugar, coffee and alcohol. “Life is hectic. There’s no question about that,” especially over the last few years. In her work, she sees the burden falling heaviest on women, mothers in particular, for whom each day is often a caffeine-fuelled race from the school run to the evening when you find yourself trying to open a bottle of wine with a bit of Lego. “People are recognising they need a counterbalance to all this.” I’ll drink to that.
This is where Vedic meditation comes in, a mantra-based technique (very similar to transcendental meditation), which Lavender believes is nothing less than “an antidote to stress”. “Why is Vedic meditation so powerful?” she asks. “Because we de-excite so quickly, so efficiently and so deeply, much deeper than in a night’s sleep.” So what’s the catch? You can only learn it from a specially trained teacher, not a book or an app. As she says, you wouldn’t expect to learn to play the piano from watching YouTube videos.
Students on Lavender’s most recent course included a nurse, a mother of three and a former venture capitalist. People come to mediate for many reasons. “It might be that they are not sleeping, that they want to get off medication, that they are going through a tough time and everything is upside down,” she says. “People are desperate for change. They are desperate to feel better. And they want to do that in a way that is natural.” Learning is “a really life-changing moment. I don’t say that lightly. I see it in every person that I teach.”
Jo, a city lawyer and mother of two young girls in her mid-30s, learned to meditate with Lavender back in 2017. She had recently lost her father and was recovering from surgery for breast cancer. “I was absolutely wrecked. It would take me a few hours to get up and get dressed and start functioning properly,” she says. But when she started meditating she felt better almost immediately. “I was able to get up in the morning. It was just incredible.” Clara still meditates religiously every day, as it makes her feel more in control and that “nothing is impossible”. She has just sent a friend on a course who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“People think it is going to be hard work. They say, ‘I couldn’t sit still,’ ‘I couldn’t silence my mind,’ ‘I don’t have time to meditate,’” Lavender says. “You can! If you are curious and are willing to sit down and follow instructions, you can do this!”
Over the years I have held my breath in yoga studios all over London, chanted in a love circle on Ibiza and taken part in a moonlit meditation in the Austrian Alps (the moon was a no-show). And I subscribe to so many mindfulness apps my phone should be on permanent snooze. None of them have stuck. I still have the excitation levels of a small child at a birthday party which, as we all know, only ends in tears.
And so I find myself on a late November afternoon in a chilly Unitarian Church in west London, sitting with my eyes closed with a room full of strangers wearing masks and woolly scarves. The course spans four days over a long weekend, each session no longer than two hours. It opens with a brief ceremony, which, as Miller informed us in the free introductory Zoom talk, “you will like if you like that sort of thing, and is very short if you don’t”. Nobody runs for the door. Then we get down to business, each of us called individually into an even chillier room, to be given our mantra, a meaningless sound, our key to Vedic meditation and lasting serenity. We are so far in now, we all return to our seats like children who have just met Santa.
As Lavender promises, the instructions are few and seemingly straightforward. One of them is: “Don’t try.” As one of life’s pathological over-triers, this is up there with, “Don’t breathe.” And you must practise for 20 minutes twice a day – obviously, if anyone had 40 minutes to spare, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. But one of Lavender’s aims is to help people find ways to fit meditation into busy lives. If the nurse working 12-hour shifts is going to do it, then so can I. We begin to meditate.
The first thing to say about Vedic mediation is that you do not have to stop your thoughts. Purifying my head is a bit like emptying out my handbag. The stuff that comes up (gritty lip balms, pebbles, headless toys) is messy, pointless and odd. I try not to try. Really hard. I repeat my mantra silently over and over. I’m not sure I’ve remembered it right. A few minutes in and my head starts moving weirdly, all on its own, like one of those nodding dogs you see in the back of car windows. All of the knotty bits in my neck and shoulders magically unravel. It must be working! I wonder if the same thing is happening to everyone else, if we are all sitting there swaying as if listening to music on invisible headphones. I don’t open my eyes. Then, eventually, there is a strange sort of quiet. Really, really quiet – like the floaty sensation before you come round from an anaesthetic. It works! Damn, the moment bursts like a bubble when you poke it. I leave the church feeling lighter, taller and more rested than I have for years – joyful, even. Later that evening a friend says I look well – official confirmation that I have indeed begun to glow.
It is still early days, but I haven’t missed a session. My kids are delighted, not only because I am less shouty, but because they get 20 minutes TV before tea, when I sneak off for my afternoon meditation. It has become my secret superpower. That nice swimming feeling (and the nodding-head thing) comes more quickly and I get better at not chasing it away. I hope the benefits are incremental and by the time you read this, I will be well on my way to enlightenment – and a little younger, biologically speaking. If you are looking to “upgrade” – Lavender’s word – your life this year, you might start by doing nothing.
Do Lavender and her partner ever have a moment over emptying the bins, or who has been putting in the most hours? Lavender hesitates. “No. There’s a kind of smoothness,” she admits. “We’ve both been meditating for a long time. Do I not get pissed off at some things? Sure. But not in a way that sticks.” And this is why she wants more people meditating: “Because I know the benefits of this for those individuals and I know the spreading effect that it has on families, on workplaces, on society,” she says. “It is why I do what I do.”
Why Meditate? Because it Works by Jillian Lavender (Yellow Kite Books, £14.99) is available from guardianbookshop.com for £13.04. London Meditation Centre fees start from £400 with a free online introductory talk (londonmeditationcentre.com)