MIND YOUR HEAD

FAR REMOVED FROM THE UMMING AND ARRING SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS OF INTERNET HIPPIES, THE NEW MINDFULNESS MOVEMENT IS ALL ABOUT REAL RESULTS FOR REAL PEOPLE.

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What do LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan all have in common, apart from a 5 star rating on NBA 2k and a VIP discount at High and Mighty? They’ve all meditated it to the top of their game. LeBron has even done it courtside, in full view of the TV cameras: eyes closed, breathing deeply, with no purple robes or burning incense in sight. All three All-Stars used meditation to tune out distractions and get into the zone: that stage of “flow” where over-thinking stops and high-performing starts. (Whatever your sport, I highly recommend reading The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford, streetwise meditation coach to the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and disciple of both Buddha and Jedi-master Yoda)

Meditation is training to be more mindful:fully present in the here and now, instead of dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. The benefits for elite athletes are obvious: its harder to score that three-pointer if you’re not dialled into what you’re doing. The practice comes in various forms, from mindfulness meditation-the kind that I do-where you concentrate on physical sensations such as the rising and falling of your chest, to Transcendental Meditation (™), where you repeat a mantra. Arnold Schwarzenegger did TM for a year at the start of his career to develop his terminator-like laser focus.

If it helps you get over the hippy-dippy connotations, you can think of meditation like a bicep curl for your brain. The idea is not to try and empty your head of thoughts-just to notice when you’ve absent-mindedly disappeared down a mental rabbit hole, and bring your attention back to your breath or mantra. Meditation is also easy to do, especially if you download one of the many guided apps such as Headspace or Calm. Simply sit down on a chair (not cross-legged) in a quiet room for ten minutes, put in your headphones and follow the soothing voice prompts. The only hard bit, in my experience at least, is trying not to fall asleep.

Meditation is going from monastery to mainstream: Headspace has over five million users (including moi). That’s because it has scientifically proven benefits for the rest of us too: it can make you smarter, reduce daydreaming while increasing memory and reading comprehension. Zen mastery has become a popular “bio-hack” for Type-A personalities seeking to optimise their productivity, perhaps because that’s more palatable and less-girly than, say, admitting to being stressed or depressed. But meditation can  help with those too: research shows it promotes the growth of healthy new brain cells as much as exercise or antidepressants.With smartphones and social media, it’s never been harder to be present than right now. I find it particularly beneficial therefore to practise meditation first thing in the morning, before I start drowning in emails, schoolwork, fake news and other people’s artfully filtered lives (but after I empty my bladder).Another major key is to realise that meditation is just training for the play-off final of life. Anything can be more mindful, from a 5am morning jog (which curbs anxiety) to eating (which helps you consume less) and exercising (which improves your results).

I’ve recently gotten into rock-climbing, which can be an especially powerful form of mindfulness and, surprisingly, stress relief – nothing focuses you like the risk of falling. But so can yoga or even weight lifting: Arnie would visualise his bicep growing as he curled to maximise the muscle-building effect.

Call it brain gaining

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