It’s 4.00pm in the UK, but only 8.00am in California when I sit down with Stephan Bodian to Skype. Talking from his sunny surroundings, I can hear birdsong in the background and am instantly feeling more relaxed; kind of fitting when meditation is the subject of our interview. An expert in mindfulness meditation, Stephan’s story is extraordinary. Spending ten years in a monastery doing intensive Zen meditation, he led workshops and taught others before writing his first book, ‘Meditation for Dummies.’ Keen to find out more from a man who has dedicated his life to being mindful, Stephan was everything you expect a meditation master to be. Softly spoken and brilliantly clever, whatever you are hoping to gain from your private meditation, this is a good place to start.
So Stephan, how did you get to where you are today?
Where am I?
Err, well I’d say you were a bit of an expert in meditation wouldn’t you?
Well I began meditating in college – I had read mostly about Zen Buddhism and had studied Asian culture, so decided to actually start meditating, which back in the seventies was relatively new. I began meditating using Zen meditation and then at a certain point I decided that I wanted to go to a monastery and really make it my life’s work. I spent almost ten years doing intensive mediation in a monastic setting and I was pretty much an expert. I used to lead workshops teaching people to meditate then eventually I studied other forms of meditation as well and then eventually wrote my first book, which primarily discusses mindfulness meditation.
So why should we be meditating?
I would never use the word should, it’s up to everyone to choose to meditate or not – once we get into ‘should’ we create difficulties because it’s an idea you are trying to impose on other people. The benefits of meditation; right now there are hundreds of studies on the benefits of mindfulness meditation at every level, from focus and concentration to emotional intelligence, better relationships and health and stress reduction – we can go on! The benefits of mindfulness are extremely well documented, with very well researched studies; if you could do one thing a day for 20 minutes and get maximum benefit, it would be doing mindfulness meditation.
What would your top tips be for someone learning to meditate?
The first thing I would say is that the point of meditation is not to turn off the thoughts in your mind – that’s a mistaken impression. I think it’s good to set aside all your all your preconceptions about meditation and just go in there afresh. Don’t push yourself, don’t have high perfectionist expectations, don’t think you are going to stop your mind, just pay attention to your breathing, sit quietly and when your mind wanders off just come back to your breath. Then just get up and go about your day and don’t think about it or worry about it. It will have its affects on its own – you don’t have to do anything.
How long until you start to feel different?
What’s interesting is that you may meditate for six months say and may not think much is going on, but the people around you – your wife, your husband, your kids, your friends, they’ll say wow you seem a lot calmer.
At the moment, especially in the UK, there seems to be a growing awareness when it comes to mindfulness...
Yeah I just want to congratulate the UK! I think the UK is actually in the forefront of bringing mindfulness into mainstream life – it’s great!
I’d definitely say I’ve noticed it a lot more recently. Do you think attitudes towards meditation are changing?
Yes absolutely! For some reason the UK seems to be in the forefront but America is coming along. You incorporate it into the National Health Service which is so remarkable. I think it’s great, but even here it was on the cover of TIME magazine about six months ago, which is a major step forward for mindfulness.
So you’ve mentioned your books – what made you decide to share your skills?
Well I wrote ‘Meditation for Dummies’ in 1998 because there wasn’t a book like it and I thought it was really necessary. Subsequently my own path has been more about spiritual awakening, meditation in a way was my focus years ago, so my books ‘Wake Up Now’ and ‘Beyond Mindfulness’ focus on this. I have also written and narrated several apps, called ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ and ‘Freedom from Stress’.
Do you believe anyone can meditate or do you think some age groups or personalities find it more difficult?
It’s possible that some people find it more difficult but I think anyone can meditate. There are certain types of people, for example schizophrenics, who might find it more difficult as it’s hard to stay in the reality of your sensations when you are not in your right mind. Or people with ADHD, because it’s hard to sit still – there are certain types of issues that make it more difficult. In terms of personality types someone who feels like they have to be constantly moving and doing or those who are complete perfectionists might find it harder, but then these are the people who need meditation the most. It may be more difficult, but I certainly have no doubt that everyone can quite readily learn to meditate and follow a schedule.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Well to follow in my footsteps you have to be really passionate about it – you don’t go off to a monastery unless you are a little bit crazy, or a little bit desperate or obsessed! But I think the main thing is to be patient and regular about it. In other words, you can’t really get the benefits of meditation if you do it sporadically or haphazardly or even just once a week. It’s kind of like a sport, if you wanted to run you don’t go out and run ten miles once a week, you go and run a mile every day and you build it up gradually. It’s the same with meditation, you have to be devoted, persistent and patient – I think that’s the key. So just keep doing it, even when you don’t want to!
Last question then, as I know you’ve got to get on with your day! How would you sum up how important mediation is to your life?
Well for me, because I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s sort of incorporated into my life in that I’m pretty much mindful all of the time. I do feel drawn to sit quietly from time to time, usually in the morning or in the evenings, but I don’t have a regular schedule of meditation. I am a completely different person to who I was 30 years ago, in so many wonderful ways; so I would say mindfulness has transformed my life and I can pretty much guarantee it will do it to you if you practise regularly and wholeheartedly.
If you feel ready to take your first steps on a journey of mindfulness, why not look at the meditation courses listed on our site? To find out more about Stephan’s work, or to get in touch, take a look at his website. Good luck!