Think of meditation and images of robed monks or hippies sitting in a pall of incense smoke spring to mind. But finding your inner peace doesn't have to involve contorting your legs into the lotus position. If you're a bit busy to spend years at a mountaintop monastery, there's help at hand.
"With only 15 or 20 minutes use of a meditation machine, you can start to achieve the same deep mental state as a Zen monk." Really? That's the claim made by Meditation UK, which sells an American machine called the MindSpa. The company's website claims the MindSpa can improve memory, creativity, sleep patterns and emotional stability, lower blood pressure and increase brain function. I decide to put it to the test.
My £175 MindSpa Deluxe Package arrives the next day. After a quick flick through the manual, I don the sci-fi glasses and theadphones, and switch on the console. The first of the MindSpa's 12 programmes, called alpha recharge, lasts just 10 minutes. "Try it in place of caffeine for a quick boost," says the manual. I should come out of this feeling "calmer, more focused, and mentally recharged". On a grey Thursday morning after a night on the wine, that sounds appealing.
The programme starts with a 10-second countdown that's supposed to give me time to get comfortable, but instead makes me nervous. Three... two... one... suddenly 12 white LEDs in the glasses start flashing maniacally, while at the same time my ears are bombarded with a rhythmic electronic drone. I feel like I've been locked inside the engine room of the Starship Enterprise. Never mind Zen-like calmness – I fear the MindSpa is going to induce an epileptic fit. I try to relax and focus on my breathing but five minutes in I start feeling queasy. It's time for a break.
According to Dr Ruth Olmstead, a psychologist and expert in "Auditory and Visual Stimulation" (AVS), I've experienced a "guardian response". Olmstead, who developed the MindSpa programs for Californian firm A/V Stim, says: "The first time people try it they're often too busy thinking about it to relax." But she claims a 100 per cent success rate.
Students of electroencephalography have known for decades that our grey matter runs at different electronic frequencies depending on what it's doing. When we're sleeping, for example, the neurones, axons and synapses in our brains slow down to below eight hertz, or cycles per second. When we're engaged in conversation, this shoots up to 50Hz and higher. By using rhythmic light and sound set at different frequencies, systems like MindSpa are designed to "entrain" the brain – to slow it down if you can't sleep, say, or to kick start it when you're having trouble focusing at work.
Dr Olmstead found AVS when she was searching for a solution to her own attention deficit disorder. A test she conducted while studying for her PhD involved using an early version of the MindSpa to treat 30 children who had attention problems and scored very low on intelligence tests. Over a six-week period the children had twelve 35-minute sessions designed to regulate their erratic brain activity.
"These were children who didn't like school, weren't successful and had very low self-esteem," says Olmstead, "but when I re-tested them after the treatment, every single child showed a significant improvement."
My cynicism beginning to fade, I decide to give my MindSpa another go. I select programme four, called deep alpha relaxation II, which promises to slow my brain down to a tranquil 7Hz. Straight away my brain begins to rebel. Images of childhood holidays make their way from the recesses of my memory as I start subconsciously to look for anything else to think about. I come out of the session feeling considerably less calm than when I started.
Can this really be the best way to meditate? Kyrin Hall, a London-based meditation teacher, is sceptical. "I'm not sure how effective a machine like this can be," she says. "I'd find it intrusive. Sitting comfortably and counting your breaths is one of the easiest things you can do to get started."
But I'm not ready to give up on my machine just yet and go in search of inspiration. Before he got his MindSpa, Stephen Anderson, an electrical engineer from Lancashire, was desperate. For years he had suffered severe insomnia, until he came across the MindSpa on the internet. "I wasn't expecting miracles," says Anderson. "I thought maybe there'd be a slight improvement over three or four months."
On the day it arrived, Anderson, 43, gave it a trial run. An hour he woke up. "I never even catnap!" he says. Anderson has been using the MindSpa for six weeks now. "I've slept every night and can even lie in at weekends. And where I used to hit a brick wall at work, I can now reach solutions much more clearly."
I've never suffered from insomnia but it often takes me a while to nod off so, spurred on by Stephen's story, I take the machine to bed and give it a third and final chance. Selecting programme four again, I lie back, close my eyes and take a deep breath.
Before I know it I'm awake and my alarm clock has advanced an hour and a half. Okay, I was pretty tired anyway, but the next morning when I get up at 7am, I jump out of bed and feel unusually awake. Is this the first step on the path to enlightenment?
Many have dismissed it as pseudo-medicine but for thousands of years Eastern religions have sworn by the healing effects of meditation. More recently, Western medics have begun to investigate its range of supposed benefits. In a US study in 1972, meditation was shown to lower the chemical by-products of stress, and in 2003, the meditating participants in one study showed greater resistance to flu. Adherents insist that meditation improves general wellbeing. Kyrin Hall says: "It de-stresses the body, and gives us time to connect with ourselves."
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