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Like Prince Harry, these Northern Ireland men meditate every day

 

Prince Harry has revealed that he meditates every day and has a Buddhist manual for life. Helen Carson talks to three NI men who also believe in the healing power of mindfulness.

'It's not a cure-all for anxieties, but it helps you get through'

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Encouraging signs: Jonny Nixon sees as many men as women at his retreat
 

Songwriter Jonny Nixon (47) lives in Derriaghy. He says:

Every day I try to meditate twice - in the morning and evening - and I go to the Zen Centre in Belfast on Saturday and Sunday for an hour. We sit in meditation for 25 minutes, then spend 10 minutes walking, with the remaining 25 minutes sitting again.

I also go on a six-day silent retreat twice a year.

About seven years ago I was sitting in Caffe Nero in Ann Street when a stranger approached me and said that I might benefit from meditation. Two days later a different person mentioned it to me, too.

Before that point I had been interested in mindfulness, but I didn't dip my toe in the water until I went to the Black Mountain Zen Centre. After going there I began to meditate at home because I didn't have the dedication to go to the centre every day - it would have meant a 5am start on the bus.

My half-hour practice can involve observing my emotions in a non-judgemental way and then I will focus on love and kindness. Sometimes I will start the day meditating for balance because it is calming.

I suffered an emotional breakdown following a trauma several years ago and tend to over-analyse things much more than necessary, such as insecurities. The interesting thing about meditation is that it helps you to see these things in a different way.

Many people take to meditation like a duck to water, but I found it quite hard to sit in silence. I spent a lot of time wondering 'am I doing this right?' - but there is no right or wrong way. I feel now I'm a lot less reactive to situations and am quicker at spotting my re-activity.

As a music lover I know that stars such as Mick Jagger and Thom Yorke have all talked about practising some sort of meditative process. When you're in your 30s or 40s this is the time when you start to contemplate things in life. You realise you can't continue to burn the candle at both ends.

Mental health is a big issue and, with so many people looking up to someone like Prince Harry, it can only be a good thing that he talks about having a meditative practice.

And it's interesting that so many more men are now taking part in meditation - at my practice on Saturday there were six men. On the retreat there were as many men as women, and not just creative people but those from all walks of life - they weren't all strumming guitars.

Meditation is not a cure-all for anxieties, but it helps you see through the bad thoughts and that you don't have to buy into them. You learn how to use those skills. It's not about flying on a magic carpet to Utopia.

It's really encouraging to know that men will talk about mental health. Ten to 20 years ago the idea that people would talk about their feelings, especially men, was unheard of."

Learn more about the Black Mountain Zen Centre, Belfast, at www.blackmountainzencentre.org

'I'm a typical guy and like my beer and football, but I also practice mindfulness'

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Outdoor mindfulness: Paul McCarroll believes getting out into nature can help focus the brain
 

Paul McCarroll (32) is a peer recovery trainer at the Northern Trust, and also a mindfulness coach and mental health support worker. He lives in Belfast with his partner Clare (37), a podiatrist. He says:

I 'm a normal type of guy - I like a beer on a Saturday night and I like my football, but mindfulness has helped me be a better person.

I practice mindfulness for 10 to 15 minutes every day. There are some airy-fairy ideas about meditation, with Prince Harry doing it now - but it's actually very simple. It won't make you amazingly happy but it can help you see that you don't have to believe everything your brain tells you.

I suffered from mental health issues in my teenage years, namely depression and OCD and, while I felt I was dealing with these issues well with medication and therapy, I still had negative thoughts. Difficult emotions still arose.

When I was a teenager I loved playing football but the school I went to offered rugby and hockey. The emphasis there was on academia - it was results-driven and I found the pressure very difficult to deal with.

At the time I didn't know anything about mental health issues and wondered what was wrong with me.

I left school at 16 due to my mental health issues with no qualifications.

As I recovered I went to college where I completed GCSEs, then a university access course followed by a degree in counselling.

While I worked in retail for a few years I'd always wanted to teach and support others because of my personal experience of mental health issues.

I started meditating in my 20s after taking part in a course. Meditation is becoming big news now, but there is the idea that it's just for Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged on a Himalayan mountain top chanting 'um'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I've always been a sceptical person about airy-fairy, esoteric ideas, but the biggest misconception about meditation is that it's about learning to relax.

There are times when you feel more relaxed but it's more about learning how to be aware and present so unhelpful thoughts aren't running the show.

It's liberating to know that when something is going on in your life you can get a distance from it - you have a choice how to respond. It was life-changing for me.

Meditation is about bringing your attention back to an object of focus.

I also go to the gym and play football, and research has shown that physical exercise is as effective as medication for mental health issues.

The serotonin rush and being outdoors in nature focuses your mind. Mindfulness works the same way - it's a bicep curl for your brain."

See more about Paul on Facebook: search for ACT Mindfully Coaching or Twitter @ACTMindfully86

'I was in a spiritual vacuum, then went on a retreat ... the benefits also resonate with your friends and family'

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Mindfulness practice: Michael McEvoy
 

Michael McEvoy (40), a nature-focused mindfulness teacher who is partner in Mindfulness Connected, lives in Belfast. He says:

I practice mindfulness daily - it's not about sitting on a chair or cushion - that's just one form of meditation.

Mindfulness or meditation - the words are interchangeable - is an awareness about being present in the moment. I can meditate anywhere - when I'm working, eating, at my laptop, being outside in nature. I go swimming in the sea at Helen's Bay where I'm aware of the coldness of the sea, so it's possible to be mindful there.

You can meditate anywhere, from having a quiet moment or on a bus commuting to work. If you are stuck in traffic, take that time to accept where you are, go into neutral and take a break and a few breaths. I was living in New Zealand in 2007 when a friend recommended I go to a retreat - I had no idea what mindfulness was then. I had been raised in the Catholic tradition in Northern Ireland but had left that behind. But I was in a spiritual vacuum and didn't know what I could do to fulfil it. I went to the retreat once a week and meditated outside. The centre had beautiful gardens and it was lovely and quiet.

It's good that Prince Harry is meditating and talking about it - he wouldn't be a role model for me, but so many other people look up to him. Meditating is a very empathetic thing to do for your wellbeing and the benefits for you will also resonate with your friends and family.

I like the way Prince Charles speaks out about protecting the countryside - I'm not a royalist, or a republican either - but more power to him for talking about it.

After leaving New Zealand I worked at Kew Gardens in London from 2008 until 2011, having been previously trained in horticulture by the National Trust at Mount Stewart. Kew was really beautiful but it was right under the flight path at Heathrow so every 90 seconds there was a jumbo jet flying over.

I then lived at Plum Village, an international Mindfulness Retreat Centre in France, for three and a half years, before returning to Northern Ireland. Now I have a practice in Belfast.

There has been a shift in attitudes to mental health, and there is a confidence with more people coming out, but we're still not really talking about depression or anxiety. And when it comes to issues such as suicide, which affects more young men, we know now this is a time bomb which needs to be addressed.

Eighty per cent of people in meditation classes are women and more see it as a way to empower themselves. It is beneficial for your wellbeing, although some feel stigmatised in terms of taking care of their mental health.

Fifty years ago when people started going jogging, others thought they were weird. In 10 years' time meditation will be normal and men will start to talk about their mental health, but there's still a long way to go.

Meditation is something men can do to empower themselves - don't push it away because it is transformative."

For more information, visit mindfulnessconnectedlearning.co.uk

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