I’ve been doing Pilates on and off for almost four years, and have recently started meditation (it’s been branded as “Mindfulness”, but they’re basically the same thing). The health benefits of these have been widely discussed. Both NICE and the NHS recommend them as part of the treatment of various physical and mental disabilities. Pilates is useful for my dyspraxia as it helps with body awareness and coordination. And I’ve been recommended meditation by a mentor to help with particularly bad and life-limiting anxiety attacks during the past year. Sadly, occasionally someone in the media decides to mock these exercises as a frivolous celebrity/hipster lifestyle fad. If it’s some silly tedious trollumnist, I’m not too arsed about it. I expect tedious, silly trollumists to say tedious, silly things. But yesterday on Twitter it was someone I would’ve assumed to have known better, which I found particularly sad and tiresome. She’d been retweeted into my timeline, and was apparently, responding to a radio programme about mindfulness, but taking umbrage at the whole concept as self-obsessed and indulgent.
The simultaneous shaming of “unhealthiness” or “unhappiness”, and mockery of people trying to improve their health and wellbeing is one of the things I find ugliest about Britain. No doubt it has a lot to do with our access to a good education and healthy lifestyle being so wealth-driven, but we tend to mock people for having the tools for good health and self-care more than we ask why others don’t. The irony of those who think yoga or meditation are indulgences for pampered rich hipster people is it seems to say a lot about their own charmed lives. If this is your belief, can I suggest you put down your glossy magazines and turn off Radio 4 for a minute and go and talk to some people who are sick, disabled or in distress and would do anything to try to help themselves. An older lady in my Pilates class has Parkinson’s disease. How very self-involved of her! A sympathetic Pilates teacher helped me feel comfortable exercising in public after the years of humiliation I went through at school as dyspraxic and undiagnosed. I don’t think I’d be running the London Marathon next year if it wasn’t partly for him.
Meditation is not “thinking about yourself” – or believing that chanting or positive thinking can cure clinical illnesses. It derives from Buddhism (Those vain Buddhists, eh? Only ever thinks of himself, that Dalai Lama.) It’s about body awareness, and focusing your mind and body on the present. This helps those with anxiety disorders because they tend to fixate too heavily on the past and future, driving the anxiety. I’m not claiming mindfulness is a quick-fix. I’m not denying there is a great deal of unqualified and dangerous diet and lifestyle advice coming from New Age-y gurus and “wellness bloggers”, or that health and lifestyle practitioners can rip people off, but that doesn’t mean any popular health treatment is negative or dangerous. I bet astrologers and faith healers take aspirin sometimes. Does that make aspirin bad? Does that make not taking painkillers a virtue? (as someone magnificently once said “Just because Jeremy Clarkson says it’s sunny outside, doesn’t mean it’s raining.”)
The other irony (aside from belittling people with different interests or experiences to you as self-obsessed) is that this particular comment came from a writer and academic interested in history and the arts. The sort of people who normally make comments like it are exactly those who think arts and humanities are a rich person’s game and the rest of us should all be down coal mines and scrubbing floors. (Note: astonishingly, I do still find the time for some cleaning amid all my self-indulgent exercising. That’s when I’m not sitting in a train station with a paramedic for four hours after an anxiety attack…).
Bizarrely, the commenter followed this up by telling someone she had no time for this sort of nonsense because she’d recently had a bereavement. It’s a pity she felt she need to mock something that might offer some comfort to others going through similar. As it happens, bereavement counsellors often recommend meditation to help with grief anxiety – I should know, I’ve been to two of them for separate reasons in the last four years. And even if people who aren’t ill or grieving are into it, so what? So long as they aren’t having a go at other people for not partaking, what’s the problem?
My greatest worry is that sneering and snarking could put vulnerable people, especially younger people, off things that might help them. I haven’t named names here; I’m not interested in performative callouts or pile-ons, just in debunking glib and thoughtless arguments. Well done to the doctors and other qualified people who responded with more grace and patience than I could muster first thing in the morning.