William Bankes-Jones had spent the entire morning para-gliding above the Norfolk countryside. At one point he’d reached 1,000ft, held aloft by nothing more than powerful currents of rising air, but now he was sinking slowly back to earth. Anxious to fly for a little longer, he tried to catch a thermal rising from a nearby field, hoping it would lift him back towards the clouds. But as William turned towards it, he noticed a line of tall trees blocking his path. Too late. He smashed into the tallest tree, hung in mid-air for a few agonising moments, then plummeted to earth.
‘The pain was excruciating,’ says William. ‘It was so intense that I blacked out. Every time I regained consciousness, the pain would knock me out again. It was horrific.’
Doctors soon discovered that William had broken his back in three places and one of his vertebrae had burst wide open. But this was just the start of the 55-year-old’s ordeal.
‘In the weeks that followed, I was highly stressed and in severe pain. I was facing the possibility of paralysis,’ he recalls. ‘I couldn’t feed myself or go to the toilet without help. I knew I was going to spend the rest of my days in constant pain and my career as an NHS physiotherapist was probably over. It felt like my life was in ruins.
‘The hospital had given me a morphine drip to help me cope with the intense pain, but it had unpleasant side-effects, so I decided to try what’s called mindfulness meditation instead. I’d learned how to meditate many years before, but never expected to use it under such extreme circumstances.
‘After I started, within a few minutes the pain had reduced by about half. After about 20 minutes, it had reduced by around 90 per cent.’
Treating pain with meditation may seem like a desperate — and unlikely — measure but it is gaining widespread acceptance. A study published online this week in the prestigious online medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine claimed meditation can indeed be a powerful painkiller. Not only that, it also said that practising mindfulness for just half an hour a day can offer people with depression as much relief as popping a pill. This review of previous studies found regular meditation could alleviate symptoms of depression as well as conventional anti-depressants.
The same study also highlighted its power to help people cope with the after-effects of cancer treatment, such as exhaustion, nausea and systemic pain. It does this by dissolving anxiety and stress while also boosting the immune system.
Dr Madhav Goyal, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who led the team carrying out the research, says: ‘It was surprising to see that with so little training we were still seeing consistent effects.’
Another study published recently in the journal Neuroscience suggests mindfulness can reduce the ‘unpleasantness’ of pain by around 60 per cent. Experienced meditators can reduce it by 90 percent.
Dr Fadel Zeidan, lead researcher of the study, carried out at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina, says: ‘Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs.’
A typical meditation used in the studies involved focusing on the sensations the breath makes as it flows into and out of the body. This allows you to ‘see’ your mind in action, to observe difficult thoughts and painful sensations as they arise, and to let go of your struggles with them. This creates a relaxed state of mind that reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body. Such deep relaxation enhances healing and boosts mental and physical health. In the case of pain, it encourages the brain to turn down the ‘volume’ control on its suffering.
Don’t believe it? I can personally vouch for its effectiveness as a pain and stress reliever. Seven years ago, I also had a terrible paragliding accident that shattered my right leg. The impact drove the lower half of my leg up through the knee and into my thigh. I needed three major operations and intensive physiotherapy to repair the damage.
Throughout my ordeal, I used mindfulness to help me cope with the intense pain and stress, which was accompanied by more than a little anxiety. And it worked to an astonishing degree. My pain gradually subsided and I was able to reduce my intake of painkillers by two-thirds. I also developed a more contented outlook, seeing my injuries as temporary problems that would gradually subside, rather than as limb-threatening ones that might confine me to a wheelchair. Equally, it gave me the mental stamina and clarity of purpose to persevere with the more conventional treatments such as physiotherapy.
Mindfulness meditation is, I’m convinced, why I recovered in double-quick time. My leg actually healed in six months rather than the predicted 18. I became so convinced by the power of the technique that I began to train as a meditation teacher, and then co-wrote the bestselling book Mindfulness, with Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University.
This has now sold almost 200,000 copies in 19 languages and is currently America’s bestselling meditation book. One of the reasons for the book’s popularity is, I believe, because of its focus on sound science and medicine, rather than spirituality. Although mindfulness meditation has its origins in ancient Buddhism, it is now an entirely secular practice. It is no more religious than yoga. This allows people of all faiths, and atheists, to follow the simple practices with a clear conscience.
This secular approach was begun in the late Seventies by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. He saw the potential healing power of meditation and was determined to bring it into the medical mainstream. Professor Williams, and his colleagues in Cambridge and Toronto, then turned it into a powerful treatment for depression known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This is at least as effective as drugs or counselling for severe depression. It is so powerful that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
Professor Williams says: ‘Scientific studies have now shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability. This means that when distressing thoughts arise, they dissolve away again more easily.
‘Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster.’
Nor do you need to meditate for hours each day to gain these benefits. According to Professor Williams: ‘Just 10 to 20 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation can have a significant benefit on overall mental health and wellbeing.’
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these benefits is that you can actually see them taking root in the brain. Imaging studies show that the brain lays down extra connections and tissue in areas associated with attention, memory and empathy in proportion to the hours of meditation practised. You can also see stress reactions in the brain dissolve once people begin to meditate.
Variants of MBCT are proving to be effective for treating a wide range of other mental and physical health problems. Hospitals have now started prescribing it to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side-effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.
It is also now used for back problems, migraine, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and even multiple sclerosis. Mindfulness appears to help IBS sufferers by reducing inflammation. With MS, meditation seems to promote healing while reducing such distressing symptoms as pain, pins and needles, balance problems, anxiety and depression.
Professor Lance McCraken, clinical psychologist at King’s College, London, says: ‘It has now become a vital part of our treatment programme at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. Mindfulness infuses everything we do.
‘Our patients tend to become very keen on it. When they have a little taste of mindfulness, and see how it can transform their lives for the better, they become very committed to meditation.’
It’s not just beneficial to adults; when applied in schools, mindfulness increases both children’s self-esteem and performance in class. This is largely because it reduces stress and enhances clarity of thought.
With all of these benefits, it’s hardly surprising that many businesses have begun offering in-house mindfulness classes. Apple and Google are the most prominent. Apple’s co-founder the late Steve Jobs was a Zen Buddhist who encouraged his employees to take up meditation.
Google offers its employees a mindfulness-based training programme called Search Inside Yourself, that aims to enhance kindness, integrity and compassion. And it’s not all about the individual: the programme’s founder says these qualities are also beneficial to the corporate bottom line.
William Bankes-Jones has experienced all of these benefits first hand. He made a surprisingly good recovery from his 2010 para-gliding accident. When he returned to work, he began to teach mindfulness to his physiotherapy patients.
‘It can help them heal faster,’ he says simply. ‘The more at ease you are within yourself the better you heal.’
HOW TO DO IT IN FIVE EASY STEPS
Meditation can be simple and does not require any special equipment. This meditation demonstrates the basic technique and takes just a few minutes. It should leave you profoundly relaxed.
1 – Sit erect but relaxed in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Or you can lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.
2 – Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Feel the expansion and subsiding of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and out-breath. Observe them without trying to alter them in any way or expecting anything special to happen.
3 – When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered — and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath — is central to the practice of mindfulness.
4 – Your mind may or may not become calm. If it does, this may only be short-lived. It may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, observe without reacting or trying to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.
5 – After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.