Next weekend...

TRY MEDITATION
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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU HAVE done everything excessive - and then some. You're sick of drink and rich food. You're tired of presents and pleasing people. Your face is wooden from attending grim parties. You're still not happy. This is the time for renewal and regeneration - but what?

Exercise is boring and punishing, and it doesn't necessarily cure mental exhaustion. Anyway, you read about some guy who died jogging. There is one answer: conscious inactivity or meditation.

It's good for the mind and body: health insurance companies have found that health benefits arise from meditation, and recently a group of doctors lobbied Virginia Bottomley in her former role as Secretary of State for Health to make it available on prescription. One cannot yet meditate on the NHS, needless to say, but the idea that it may be beneficial for sufferers of stress-related disorders is spreading in the public domain. In fact, these days many more people are motivated to meditate for stress management than for reasons of spiritual enlightenment - but you never know, the latter might be a by-product.

It is possible to start meditating by yourself: get a primer, such as The Meditation Handbook (by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications pounds 5.95) sit on the floor in a lotus position, don't think about anything apart from watching the breath, and observe any thoughts that come to mind. Anyone who has tried the DIY approach will realise that it is initially easier to take guidance, such as a class. Local groups can often be found through wholefood shops and other such repositories of virtue in your town, although there are a couple of national ones.

"There's always a big surge of interest in the New Year," says Vishvapani, spokesman for the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which runs meditation sessions at 30 centres throughout Britain. "Meditation has lodged in the mind as something that is a good way to get yourself together, and it seems that a lot of new year resolutions bring people here." About 20,000 people a year meditate under the auspices of the FWBO, and although quite a few drop off as the year progresses, they apparently tend to find it beneficial. "We say that they can take as much as they want," says Vishvapani. "They usually have a nice experience, even if they don't take it up." The first session is free; subsequent sessions cost about pounds 3 each (London Buddhist Centre, 0181- 981 1225, for details of your nearest centre).

Another route is transcendental meditation (TM), which has the most professional structure of all the meditation groups, and therefore tends often to be pitched, in secular spirit, as an antidote to stress. Coming from the Vedic tradition in India, TM promotes the benefits of deep rest and relaxation through meditation. "Many people think of meditation as being concentrated hard work," says David Fawcett, spokesman for the London Transcendental Meditation Centre. "This notion is counter-productive, and so we tell people that TM is an effortless way of meditating that promotes stress management and a feeling of being at ease." There are about 80 TM centres in Britain which offer a free introductory lecture followed by a series of sessions costing pounds 490 (pounds 290 for students); a fee which TM advocates suggest is an investment. "It's priceless knowledge," says Fawcett. Tel 0800 269303 for details and information pack.

Another option is the meditation retreat. Gaia House near Totnes, Devon, receives what a spokesman calls a "considerable number of refugees from consumerism" around this time, especially in its five-day residential retreat from 27 December to 2 January, which gets booked up as early as October. It costs pounds 15 a day inclusive of meals, and will soon have to acquire larger premises to cope with the increasing numbers of people wishing to be "in the silence". (Gaia House, Denbury, nr Newton Abbot, Devon TQ9 5TJ, tel 01803 813188.)

Gaia House works in the Buddhist tradition, as does the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre (Eskdale Muir, Langholm, Dumfriesshire DG13 OQ2, Scotland, tel 013873 73232), a retreat which offers the chance to "stabilise the mind". Again, it is remarkably cheap, between pounds 12 and pounds 18 a night including all (vegetarian) meals.

Meditation can assist personal transformation as well as relaxation, and many meditators remark on how it can help problem-solving, or aid the memory.

Some find that extraordinary things flit across the mind during meditiation: in his autobiography, Spalding Gray wrote of being fixated by porn imagery as he sat and meditated. Others become frightened by the void of the mind without its usual prattle, though a state of "egolessness" may be the goal of some meditators.

Whatever the outcome, time spent in meditation is never wasted, and it can be miraculously restorative.

OLIVER BENNETT

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