Author Q&A: Jillian Lavender

Elena Bowes talked to Jillian Lavender, one of the most experienced and in-demand meditation teachers in the world, about her book Why Meditate? Because It Works. Jillian and her American partner in life and work Michael Miller co-founded the London Meditation Centre and New York Meditation Center in 2008. They have taught thousands of students over the years through their courses in London and Manhattan, as well as at retreats all over the world (from the Yorkshire dales to the banks of the Ganga River).

Full disclosure: Elena took Jillian’s meditation course 15 years ago and believes that meditation has helped her in a myriad of ways, including as a writer. This interview has been edited for brevity. 

Jillian, can you tell us how you got into meditation and decided to become a Vedic meditation teacher? 

About 27 years ago I was living in Sydney, Australia. I’d finished my university studies and was working, responsible for setting up the Australasian division of a global publishing company. I was thrown in the deep end and was just keeping my head above water. I was doing a lot of long-haul flying, constantly on a plane. I was always feeling tired. My friend’s father, who had been a business mentor to me and suffered from insomnia until he started meditating, suggested I try it. So, I thought, I’ll go and check this out. 

My soon-to-be teacher looked normal. Everybody else in the room looked normal. And there was a lot of science behind what happens when you sit down and close your eyes and practice this ancient technique. (Once I started) I noticed the changes really quickly. I started waking up before my alarm clock. I felt less anxious. I was way more productive. I was better at saying no. And I was clearer about what I wanted to say yes to – not just at work, but in everything. And so, it was just this thing I started doing. 

There was a fork in the road moment. I got to a point in my business career where I wasn’t enjoying it that much. I decided to step out of it for a bit. And like many Kiwis, I put a backpack on and went travelling. That’s where I met my meditation teacher, who was American and had moved back to Arizona. I ended up studying to be a Vedic meditation teacher in Arizona for a year and a half. And then in 2003 I came back to London and started teaching. 

In your book you debunk some of the popular myths about meditation. In brief, can you tell us what they are? 

That’s part of why I wrote the book. More and more people know about meditation, which is fantastic. But with that comes confusion. The thing I hear time and again, ‘oh, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t sit down and stop thinking. I couldn’t shut down the thoughts. My mind is crazy busy.’ And in fact, that’s not what we want to do when we meditate, control the thoughts.

Another (myth) is that ‘I don’t have time to meditate.’ What I found when I started meditating, 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the late afternoon, was that I actually had more time. I was more productive and was able to let go of things that shouldn’t have been on my to do list. Meditation really changed my relationship to time.

Other myths: that I have to stop drinking wine or change my diet or follow a certain belief system. 

And what are the positive effects meditating can have on peoples’ lives?

It’s a very long list. Meditation affects every aspect of our mental and physical functioning. When you sit down for 20 minutes you’re resting your nervous system many times deeper than sleep. Your body can then rebalance, heal, purify rapidly. We can release stress. Stress undermines our immune system. In Vedic meditation, the meditator is moving away from fight or flight reactivity, hyper excitation in the nervous system and blood stream. The body is moving towards a more alkaline state. And that means we’re going to be more resilient. 

You say in your book that there’s no such thing as a stressful situation, there are only stressful responses to given situations. Can you expand on that?

I’m not into managing stress. I want to get rid of it. And we can by de-exciting the body through meditation. We deliver an antidote to stress by delivering a level of rest that is very profound. You’ll hear people say, ‘I’m stressed, I’m anxious.’ Their whole identity is bound up in stress. There’s this word in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, called samskara. It’s where we get the English word scar. It’s like someone has taken a steel crowbar and drawn a line in granite. It’s etched in our system. I am the anxiety. That is my whole identity. 

Meditation erases those impressions, those grooves that have been etched into our consciousness over time. So, we start to lighten the load. We lose stress faster than we’re gaining it. Meditation gets rid of the old stuff that we’ve been storing in our system and creates more capacity to be more available for what comes next. 

Does meditation help with creativity?

When someone sits down and meditates, their brain gets increased oxygen flow, particularly to the front part of the brain, the CEO of the brain. There was a study done on American college students. They were put under a high degree of stress and the prefrontal cortex, that front part of the brain, just went offline. 

Meditation helps coherence between the left and right hemispheres, which is associated with peak moments of creativity and insight, those lightbulb moments of insight. Meditators report an ability to tune in at a more subtle level because they don’t have a lot of noise in their nervous system. It’s a bit like when a transistor radio has a lot of static, it’s difficult to get a clear signal. But take away the noise in the system… The universe is sending you good ideas all the time. The question is are you awake? Can you catch them? Are you available for them? Our brains are malleable. What you do with your brain changes it. And Vedic meditators experience improvements in memory, learning ability, concentration and focus. 

(Photo by Windows on Unsplash)

Your book also touches on the serious health benefits to meditating?

There is no chronic illness that’s going to be made better by you being chronically stressed and tired. Those aren’t the conditions by which we can heal. There was a study in the States that looked at 17 different categories of illness and overall meditators went to hospital 50% less than the matched control group. 

You have a chapter in your book on something dear to my heart, ageing. How does meditation help us stay youthful. I know that you and your partner Michael don’t look like you’ve aged at all since I met you 15 years ago. 

Meditation can have a big impact on the aging process. We get a bit hooked on how many birthdays we’ve had. But it’s not a very effective means of looking at how somebody is ageing. There was a study looking at people who had been meditating for five years plus. They had a biological age which was on average 12 years less than the matched control group. Long-term practitioners age more slowly.

How does one know if they’re practicing the correct form of meditation? 

That’s another reason why I wrote the book. Not all meditations are the same. They’re not all delivering the same psychophysiological changes that I’ve been describing. There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t very effective. Learning the correct technique is important. Vedic meditation is many thousands of years old. It’s the oldest technique that we have on the planet, and it’s also the most researched. So, there’s a lot of science behind what happens when you sit down and close your eyes for twenty minutes.

Meditation should be something you look forward to doing. Do you enjoy it? Do you find it easy? Do you feel a difference? Do you feel a difference if you don’t do it? That’s the acid test. 

What’s the most important thing you’ve gained from meditation?

The ability to trust myself. All the important decisions that one makes in one’s life don’t come from working it out in one’s head. They come from something deeper, an intuitive sense, that sixth sense, whatever you want to call it. Mediation helps us to tune into that.

Thank you so much Jillian.  

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.