Ryan Nell is a meditation teacher and the founder of Levitate, a meditation and wellbeing centre in London, England. He originally used meditation as a means to deal with the stress of a career in advertising, and now aims to bring the power of community meditation to individuals and companies and to help address mental health issues. Clay Hamilton interviewed Ryan in autumn 2019.

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

I live in London, where I teach mindfulness-based meditation, along with gratitude and compassion practices, in studios and workplaces across the city. All services are developed and delivered through my startup, Levitate. I founded Levitate in spring 2018 with the mission to make meditation more accessible to the community – helping people to connect mind, body and soul by learning simple techniques in plain English, backed up by the latest scientific research.

I am a huge believer in the power of community as a way of reducing isolation and mental health issues, and my mantra is “let’s lift each other up”. To date I have taught over 500 students, who range from complete beginners to experienced meditation teachers. I primarily teach guided, drop-in, group classes to allow students to experience the benefits of meditating in a community. I also have taught 8-week, and 4-week mindfulness courses in corporate and public settings, and am often asked to give talks on the science of stress, the scientific benefits of mindfulness, and how to apply these skills to life “off the cushion”.

What types of meditations have you studied or practised, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?

I have primarily studied present moment awareness (also known as Vipassana / mindfulness), which forms my main practice and teaching. Although I major on the breath, within this I have been known to teach chocolate meditation (mindful eating), moving meditation (mindful walking), body scans, intention setting etc. I have also experimented with guided visualisation, pranayama (breathwork), Vedic and mantra-based meditation (using Sanskrit mantras and affirmations), gratitude meditation, metta (loving kindness / compassion), drishti and open-eye meditation, chakra meditations and many more. Diversity is the spice of life, but I tend to come back to mindfulness time and again as the most powerful tool within the toolbox.

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation? 

My friends and family have remarked on how I’m calmer in situations that previously would have seen me in meltdown. My self-preoccupation has reduced dramatically, I’m more comfortable with discomfort, and I am able to be much more present for the people in my life, and the community I’m trying to build with Levitate.

What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?

For the most part I practice mindfulness-based meditation, using my breath as a point of focus to keep on returning to. This keeps me grounded and present in my life, my conversations with others, and from moment to moment. However, recently I’ve been mixing in metta (otherwise known as loving kindness or compassion meditation), which never fails to make me feel hopeful about what we can achieve when we work together.

What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?

We’re all high-achievers and that means we’re often tempted to equate effort with reward and push ourselves very hard with great expectations of positive outcomes. However, meditation is about letting go of effort, and letting go of expectations. It sounds counter-intuitive, but by letting go, and sitting still, you might actually get somewhere.

Many folk, having had their first taste of meditation, or having engaged with the research, start with a huge spurt of enthusiasm, meditating twice a day for 30 minutes a session, only to find that some weeks in they have skipped more sessions than they’ve completed and meditation has joined the scrap heap of fads like that bread-maker you never turn on, your unused gym membership, and every new year’s resolution you’ve ever made.

So, as I teach my students, remember that it is a marathon not a sprint. Start small. One mindful breath a day is better than a well-intended and totally non-existent practice.

Are there any significant differences between group meditation and individual meditation, either in terms of techniques or the teaching/learning process or outcomes?  

For me, the foundation of meditation is connection. We meditate to become reconnected to the mind, body, spirit, and the world around us. Most of our issues tend to stem from this sense of being disconnected, lost, isolated, or somehow cut off – be that from the people around us, or from our own intuitions and emotions. This sense of connection is often buried under layers of conditioning, social constructs, limiting beliefs, experiences and so on, so it is a case of finding our way back. For this reason, I think it is more powerful to learn to meditate in a group.

I would be very interested to read studies comparing progress made following recorded guided and unguided meditations (practised alone) versus the same meditations when sat together in a group. My gut tells me that we’d get more powerful effects when meditating together, and anecdotally this is my experience to date, however this perceived difference may derive from the sense of community and shared purpose, rather than from any formal differences. Finally, belonging to a group creates bonding and accountability – we are more likely to practice if we have people who are counting on us to show up.

How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?

I recommend meditating twice a day. Once to “set the table” first thing in the morning, and once in the evening to “do the dishes” (as my teacher, Davidji would say). The duration of those sessions is up to the students. Some teachers recommend sitting for an hour, some, for example the Transcendental Meditation tradition, recommend two sets of 20 minutes, but I say do whatever works for you… Better the 1 minute you do meditate than the 30 minutes you don’t.

What do you think about guided meditation vs non-guided self-practice? Is one better or preferred, or does it depend on the individual, their goals and how much experience they have?

I think it is pretty easy to get very lost when solely relying on non-guided self practice. Whilst I like to practice in silence with only my breath, I recognise the power of having a teacher or narrator. In a sense, when you are self-guided you are having to narrate your own journey which can prove distracting. In my self-guided practice, I spent years getting the wrong end of the stick, namely waiting to get somewhere or feel something different, and I could have avoided that had I instead worked with experienced teachers.

However, once you have a strong foundation, it is wonderful to experiment with non-guided formal practice; and you should find that you are able to drop into that with greater ease and for longer periods of time as your practice develops.

What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture? 

Every now and then, I read an opinion piece arguing that mindfulness leads to passivity and a sapping of the motivation needed for capitalist/materialist productivity and progress. I couldn’t disagree more. Mindful inquiry is the first step in wise action, and we’d all do well to act in a more considered, less reactive way. To me, the original spirit of mindfulness might better be captured by the term mindful action (or moving from a point of stillness). It is true to say we’d get nothing done if we sat meditating all of our lives, however compassion is at the core of the mindfulness practice, and compassion necessitates action. Compassionate leaders make better leaders full stop. Thich Nhat Hahn’s Engaged Buddhism, based on the principles of non-violence and compassionate action, seems to capture this, as it encourages social activism as a way of righting wrongs and making progress.

The media and popular culture has the “ran off and joined an ashram” trope, and a lasting fascination with the prevalence of all-too-human gurus (for example the fabled rift between the Beatles and the Maharishi) may have contributed to this, along with more recent explorations of Osho’s Rajneeshpuram community on Netflix. The media also often conflates meditation with new age spirituality, and psychedelic exploration, and this picture is further muddied with criticism of the myriad spiritual Instagram influencers. However, it is entirely possible to meditate and to learn to be mindful without seeking to become a guru, and the best teachers will go out of their way to deny any aspirations of guru-hood.

Then there is the McMindfulness idea that the recent commercialisation of mindfulness has led to many spiritual aspects being lost to the newfound gold rush of opportunities to make money from it. I would say that with any broadening of appeal comes criticism of watering-down from the purists, and whilst I have some sympathy for that point of view, I’m also very actively trying to make meditation more accessible with my startup… In my opinion, getting more people meditating is a great thing, but the challenge to broaden its appeal without losing what makes it beautiful is a very real one to wrestle with.

What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?

I love Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic “Wherever You Go There You Are”, which reads as much as a work of poetry and a collection of stories as an instruction manual on how to meditate. As for the science, “Altered Traits” (published in the UK as “The Science of Meditation”) by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson is my bible when it comes to understanding the research.

I also frequently dip into and re-read “Waking Up” by Sam Harris, “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman, “10% Happier” by Dan Harris, “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert), “Unplug” by Suze Yalof Schwartz, and finally “Destressifying” by my teacher Davidji.

What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?

Alongside teaching drop-in classes in studios, events and offices across London, I also offer a 4-week introduction to mindfulness course, which I’m working to make available online. The Levitate website at www.levitate.london is a growing repository of knowledge and materials. Perhaps there will be a book in the future. I’m also about to publish the first few episodes of the Levitate podcast. This will contain interviews and informal conversations with luminaries in the meditation and wellbeing fields, along with people who have orientated their lives around making the world a better place; exploring their own journeys, motivations, challenges, and the benefits they see from finding connection and engaging deeply with a community.

How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?

Find us on the web at www.levitate.london or on Instagram or Twitter. Look out for the Levitate podcast in all the usual places.

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[This interview is an extract. You can read Ryan’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]