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Mind how you go

24 March 2016


THERE is plenty in the news at the moment to make you squirm, but the award for creating the most uncomfortable moment on radio last week goes to Jolyon Jenkins. The occasion was an interview with a transcendental meditation (TM) “spokesperson”, David Hughes, featured in Mindfulness and Madness (Radio 4, Wednesday).

TM has made many claims over the years about its effectiveness in relieving stress in the public as well as the private arena; its most extravagant in recent times being that a TM team was able to lower the crime rate in Washington D.C. during a six-week stint of meditation.

Jenkins confronted Mr Hughes with the Washington homicide statistics over that period, which showed not only no beneficial effect, but included a 36-hour homicide spike. The listener then had to endure seemingly endless seconds of silence as Hughes fumbled for an answer.

The dangers of meditation are, Jenkins said, much worse than just some dodgy stats. He interviewed two individuals for whom an intensive course of meditation had led to serious mental-health issues: psychosis, characterised by personality dissociation; and depression. Both are now on heavy medication — just the sort of treatment that meditation is supposed to circumvent.

The key word here, though, is surely “intensive”. We are talking here about a ten-day course where nobody says anything, eye contact is not allowed, and movement is minimal. It is not entirely surprising that people come away from such episodes disturbed.

Yet even the more moderate forms of meditation may do little to bring down stress levels: as one of the experts presented here explained, cortisol levels in those who actively meditate, as against those who just sit around thinking of nothing, are generally higher — perhaps because they are stressing over whether they are meditating correctly.

A bit of time to slow down and reflect was exactly what was needed when it came to Easter Rising (Radio 4, Friday). And I am not talking so much about the participants in the rebellion, whose anniversary falls at this time; rather, about the programme makers, who raced us through 30 minutes of well-researched material at a speed which made it almost unintelligible.

I wonder whether this was originally pitched as a 40-minute show which was squeezed by the scheduler. Certainly, the interviewees were introduced with such alacrity, and their words edited with such economy, that it sounded like a documentary-length version of Just a Minute.

What I caught was the story of a quasi-sacrificial endeavour, led by a man — Patrick Pearse — who had an unhealthily intense spiritual connection with the legendary Republican failures of old, and whose deeds might almost be read as a kind of tragic-heroic theatre.

According to this reading, it is entirely appropriate that the first fatal shot of the uprising was delivered by an actor from the Abbey Theatre, and that it killed not a colonial Englishman, but a fellow Irishman.

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