Drawing naked people did more for my mental health than meditation

It was while listening to one of my favourite podcasts, The High Low, that I had an epiphany: trying to meditate is probably a complete waste of my time.

The podcast’s host, Pandora Sykes, was recommending an article she’d read in The Times that week. As my attention drifted between the podcast, cleaning my bedroom, and participating in three different WhatsApp conversations, I heard a term that stopped me in my tracks: mindfullness. I didn’t need to see the extra ‘l’ to get the gist of it straight away.

The concept of the article in question was that, rather than trying to empty our minds through meditation, we should fill them with art and literature. Retreating into ourselves and seeking to totally obliterate our thoughts is not the only answer to our growing anxieties; looking out into the fascinating world around us, and fueling constructive, creative thought, is.

Without realising it, I’d been working towards this conclusion for several months. I’m fortunate never to have suffered from any serious, long-term mental health issues. However, a combination of my age (early twenties), a breakup, technology messing with our brains, and the existence of Donald Trump/Brexit has forced me to become more attuned to my emotional and mental wellbeing overthe past couple of years.

So, like every other millennial with a tendency towards navel-gazing and access to the Headspace app, I tried to meditate. It soon became apparent that I was absolutely crap at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware of the incredible benefits of meditation (this episode of Oprah’s podcast with Deepak Chokra almost made me try again) and I really, really wish I could do it. But when my yoga teacher tells me to take deep breaths and ‘acknowledge my thoughts like passing cars’, it will only make me scrunch up my face, start thinking of all my problems, and resent said teacher. Also, please tell me I’m not the only one who finds Andy Puddicombe intensely irritating?

As you can tell, none of this makes me feel very zen — and, like most of us, I need more zen in my life. I’ve always had an active mind, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It means I’m good at getting shit done, but I struggle to find the ‘off’ button. This has only intensified as I’ve grown up and we, as a species, have ‘evolved’ to be totally dependent on our devices.

Since I work in social media, I spend my days glued to my laptop and phone. This might be fine were I able to tear myself away from my screens once the working day was over. Instead, I find myself simply switching from business to personal account on Instagram, in order to catch up on Cardi B’s latest video posts and chillblinton memes.

Being so immersed in the online world all the time makes me feel one of two ways: my mind either goes on autopilot (a more depressive state) or feels like it’s being pulled in a thousand directions at once (a more anxious state). I want to make the most of it — explore it all, consume it all, create it all. Unfortunately, more often than not, I find myself doing bugger all.

I feel like my brain has changed. When I was a child, I was addicted to books instead of screens. In the mornings over my breakfast, before register at school, after school, before bed, all weekend, throughout the school holidays, I would read. Nothing was more exciting or absorbing than a good novel.

Yet now, I struggle to get halfway through a chapter before my eyes glaze over and my attention drifts. I read something in a Medium post recently that opened my eyes to what was going on here: we should manage our consumption of information like we manage our consumption of food.

I’ve always been good at eating healthily and nourishing my body, but I’m not nourishing my mind. My consumption of information (i.e. Tweets, Instagram Stories, Facebook posts) is the equivalent of a diet of Mars bars and skittles, temporarily boosting my energy levels and giving me a rush, only to send me crashing down in the opposite direction.

Back to the concept of mindfullness. What does nourishing our minds look like?

For me, the answer lies in drawing naked people. Every Monday, I go to a life drawing class at my local community cafe in Brixton. From 7–8.30, we sit there with our wooden boards in our laps, tracing figures and smudging charcoal as our teachers guide us through different exercises. My phone is safely zipped away in my handbag. Apart from when I’m working, it’s one of the only times I feel totally engrossed in the task at hand. I do yoga pretty much every day, but that doesn’t come close to how serene I feel after a life drawing class.

One of the things that makes life drawing a near-spiritual experience for me is that it’s not about producing a perfect final product. Each exercise will last between three and twenty minutes, so you rarely end up with a complete drawing. It’s about the process, allowing you to let go of the expectations, desires and insecurities that infiltrate most other areas of our lives.

So, if you don’t fancy spending hours of your life clenching your buttocks while you work out how to inhale and exhale in a ‘natural’ rhythm…maybe just do something else? Choose an activity that takes you out of yourself, that gently nudges your mind to be creative and inquisitive: watch a film, go to the theatre, see an art exhibition, read a poem, listen to a podcast (without doing ten other things at the same time!). Most importantly, don’t do something because everyone else is doing it; do something you enjoy.