Ed Halliwell on how his journey to enlightenment began with a cup of tea

Ed Halliwell near his home in Cuckfield (www.jimholden.co.uk)

Ed Halliwell near his home in Cuckfield (www.jimholden.co.uk) - Credit: JIm Holden

As deputy editor of lads’ mag FHM, Ed Halliwell was working hard and playing harder. It was all great fun… until it wasn’t. Now a leading expert on mindfulness, Cuckfield-based Ed speaks to Jenny Mark-Bell

In his early 20s Ed Halliwell was living the Nineties dream. As deputy editor of the lads’ mag FHM he presided over a world of High Street Honeys and irreverent interviews. Britpop was in the ascendancy and hedonism was cool: there were lots of parties and a fair amount of excess.

But he was struggling. Ed had found himself in magazine publishing quite by accident: “I just followed where my automatic pilot was going. I was drawn to this world of pleasure and fun and excitement but I remember thinking there was always a niggling, nagging thought that I don’t really know how I got here and I don’t know where I’m going.

“My attempts at relationships didn’t work very well. My relationship with myself was non-existent and I found it very difficult to be still and on my own.”

Talking at his home in Cuckfield, where he moved with his wife and two sons seven years ago, 44-year-old Ed is a serene presence. He speaks eloquently, in well-mapped sentences and doesn’t falter or fall into verbal tics. Now a mindfulness teacher and author of three books on the subject, he is also a consultant for The Mindfulness Initiative and advises the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group.

But getting here wasn’t an easy journey. In his 20s Ed was attempting to mitigate a rising maelstrom of emotions by pushing it away – working and playing harder. “That worked for a while but it wasn’t very sustainable in the long run because that nagging sense of disquiet kept coming back.

“There was a sense of meaninglessness in my life. As a child I had sought meaning and I had a connection with the world which gave meaning and values. That had dissipated so I was left with my own experience. I was very shut off from myself and the world around me. I think that probably led to a lot of the problems that I had and the severity of the depression and anxiety: in shutting off the outer world I was also shutting off the inner world.”

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When Ed was 28 things reached crisis point. No longer able to cope with office life, he signed himself off sick and eventually quit his job. As the black dog bedded down the Cambridge history graduate took his habitual approach to a problem: reading hundreds of books in an attempt to stave off his illness with knowledge.

Finally he found himself reading about Buddhism and meditation: “It chimed with my experience. There was a method to explore reality and one that has been used for a very long time. It wasn’t just something that I had to believe, it was something to practise and I was really encouraged by that.” It took baby steps, at first – starting with enjoying a mindful cup of tea. “That was a way to drop me into the direct sensory mode when I was so up in my head, my mind scattered everywhere,” says Ed. “Ideas about meditation can seem daunting and where we need to start is just recognising that there is a way of learning which is experiential. One teacher that I had said: ‘Meditation doesn’t teach you the meaning of life, but it teaches you how to look.’ So we begin with the looking.”

He describes mindfulness as “the awareness and approach to life that comes from paying attention on purpose, fully present, with curiosity and kindness. It’s an awareness that’s already there that we can tap into”. He thinks the word is something of a misnomer because what is being exercised isn’t so much the mind – which tends in western thought to mean the head – but rather what we more nebulously call ‘heart’.

In his latest book he describes his first attempts to meditate in visceral detail: heart pounding, stomach churning. Eventually, however, came brief moments of respite – sitting on a bus, taking a bath – when the internal din diminished. Ed attended courses at his local Buddhist centre, then in 2006 spent a year at Dechen Choling, a Buddhist retreat in France.

As mindfulness became ever more important in his personal life, it became part of professional life too – he began writing about health and well-being and gained a counselling qualification. Over the past decade, as meditation has become more mainstream, Ed has become one of its most well-known and expert advocates.

In 2010 he proposed and co-authored the Be Mindful report for The Mental Health Foundation. The paper examined the evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapies and considered their application within the NHS and beyond, particularly with people vulnerable to depression. As co-director of The Mindfulness Initiative (he has since stepped down and become a consultant to the group) he supported the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness – co-chaired by Conservative MP for Worthing East and Shoreham, Tim Loughton. The group was set up to develop mindfulness-based policies for the UK in the areas of healthcare, education, criminal justice and the workplace. The resulting report – Mindful Nation UK – was published in October 2015.

While the strongest evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness-based therapies is for depression, there is also encouraging evidence in a number of areas, Ed says: “There was a UN survey a couple of years ago showing that UK children are way down the league table in terms of well-being, so any way we can help them to develop the skills to manage their well-being through the course of their life is likely to not just benefit them but society as a whole.”

Equally, he says, work being done in prisons has the potential to be far-reaching. “Many of the situations that lead to people being in prison are about impulse control so learning to self-regulate would be a hugely valuable skill for society and for individuals. There are some case studies of people who have been involved in the criminal justice system whose lives have been transformed by mindfulness training. The potential is great.”

It’s an exciting time to be part of the narrative: “There are more than 500 papers a year being published on mindfulness training in the scientific journals,” says Ed. Most of his time now is devoted to teaching – he runs eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction retreats in Cuckfield and in London and is a co-teacher on the Mental Health Foundation’s Be Mindful Online course, which has been taken by more than 10,000 people.

Although Ed’s own introduction to mindfulness came via Buddhism, he’s emphatic that the training should be secular. “It means that it’s available to anyone that wants it, whether you have your own faith or religious background, or none. Of course the practices that have been adopted are drawn from the Buddhist tradition but these practices are not religious, they are not about belief in anything that we can’t directly experience.

“Mindfulness isn’t owned by anyone and all through our history in contemplative Christian tradition and Judaism, in Islam, in Buddhism and in secular, experiential philosophy – look to the ancient Greeks – we have been asking: ‘What’s a good life? How do we live it?’ These are human concerns. There are different ways of coming at these questions but we are all human beings in a human life. Mindfulness training is about being human and discovering something about what that is.”

For more information on Ed’s mindfulness courses, writing and events, go to edhalliwell.com

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