At the tail end of the 90s, with Blair in power, a host of celebrities flocking to Downing Street and the press labelling the period as the start of ‘cool Britannia’, Ed was deputy editor of men’s magazine FHM. Along with Loaded, owned by a rival publisher, the rivalry between the two did much to define the ‘lad’, a man who embraced everything that this bright, new world had to offer, with a pint in one hand, a girl in the other and a gleam in his eye. Casual misogyny was woven through the lad’s world view, but the people it was aimed at were not listening to anyone’s protestations. Several issues of FHM sold more than a million copies, an unprecedented figure for a British men’s title, but for Ed, this is a detail that belongs to another age.
There was this superficial idea I was living the dream and everything was going really well
‘It seemed from the outside I had hit the jackpot,’ he explains, with a smile. ‘I was a young guy in my 20s being invited to parties every night and working for a title which sold a lot of copies. We worked hard, often staying in the office until 10 or 11 o’clock every night. I was very driven.’
He pauses, before returning to a phrase which he has used in other interviews, perhaps because it comes closest to summing up the subterranean nature of the 20-something Ed Halliwell’s uncertainties. ‘And then there was this rumbling under the floorboards, a sense that something was wrong.’
He holds eye contact and you get the sense that, for all this story has been told a hundred times before, to interested journalists who come down from London to meet the man who turned his back on them, it still feels significant.
‘There was this superficial idea I was living the dream and everything was going really well,’ he continues, ‘and that pleasure and hedonism were the most important things in my life, but I was actually pretty lonely. Relationships didn’t work out and last very long and I was always looking for the next hit of something or other and always seeking more. As I was deputy editor, the expectation was that I would be next, but I really didn’t enjoy it much when the editor was away and I think I was starting to realise that wasn’t what I really wanted. And then there was the issue of my persona.’
For nearly three years, I was depressed and in a state of high anxiety all day, every day
Even in the middle of the partying and late nights at the magazine, Ed had realised that he was pretending to be someone he knew he wasn’t. He carries on: ‘It was partly a defence and partly a caricature of who I thought I was supposed to be,’ he says. ‘You get into the habit of pretending to be someone and then you ask yourself “if I’m not this person, then who am I?” a question that has implications for every area of your life. I couldn’t keep up the pretence and I knew it was just a matter of
time, but I wasn’t prepared for change. So in the end, it came to me.’ And the change when it came was both dramatic and has echoes that continue to last to this day.
‘I’d experienced a number of episodes of depression and anxiety through my 20s,” Ed says, simply. ‘This was probably the third time I had had a collapse and I knew this time I couldn’t keep going. I had the sense I didn’t really want to continue in this career and that it wasn’t something I could hold onto, so it felt like everything had fallen apart. For about a month I was crying in the toilets at the office and trying to keep up the facade everything was okay, but finding it impossible. After about a month of doing that I rang up my editor and said I couldn’t come in. And I never went back.’
As this was in the early years of this century, Ed could not walk out of the offices of FHM and into one of the eight-week mindfulness courses he now runs in Sussex, London and for any organisations who are sufficiently interested. For a man who had read history at Cambridge and who was making a living by articulating himself or, at least, by writing persuasively as a persona, his first recourse was to try to study his way out of it and to read what he describes as ‘hundreds of books’. There was therapy, medication and, in the end, the final admission of defeat.
‘For nearly three years, I was depressed and in a state of high anxiety all day, every day,’ he remembers. ‘I look back on it now and I’m not quite sure how I survived. I certainly wasn’t coping, but I survived. The problem was that I was constantly searching for ways out, whether that was through medication or psychotherapy. But I was always striving and always thinking “how can I get out of this?” and I think I reached a point where I just gave up. And then 10 days after, I started feeling better.’
The books he had been reading suggested meditation might prove to be helpful, and he had already started attending a Buddhist centre near to where he lived in Clapham where he learned the technique that would help him most. Mindfulness contends that our stresses are partly caused by a perception that we want to be in a particular state and then drive ourselves to get to this state. An ability to reach it reminds us of the disparity between present and future, and further exacerbates our sense of failure, a state labelled as ‘conceptual mode’, in which we have what Ed and numerous other mindfulness experts have labelled as ‘discrepancy mode’. For Ed, stepping away from conceptual mode and the discrepancy between wellness and mental ill health proved to be the answer to a question he had not known he needed to ask.
You can’t just decide not to be stressed. You wake up with that anxiety
‘The meditation proved to be a revelation,’ Ed says, in his measured way. ‘Everything else I had tried to do had the purpose of making me better, but meditation short-circuits that, because as soon as you think about being better in the future, you’ve moved out of the present moment and are trying to get to a future state.
‘I learned about mindfulness of the breath which brings you back into your body and away from thinking about the future. When your mind wanders away, which it inevitably does, you gently bring it back. With that, I started to see all of my struggling, all of my “I don’t want to feel like this, maybe I should do this instead”, as a waste of energy. Although at the start I had wanted meditation to make me better, every time I tried to do that, the invitation would be “just notice and come back to the breath”. I started small, with five or 10 minutes a day and over the next year or two expanded that practice and went deeper into it. I started to do meditation programmes and retreats, and then to think about how I was earning my living.’
Stepping away from the persona he had created with FHM also entailed stepping away from what commissioning editors might want him to write. While he was freelancing as a writer in the moments where meditation bought him respite from depression and anxiety, he would relapse after a few months and recovery became gradual, with slow progress marked by relapses. People who have mental health problems report that a graph of their recovery looks like a line which slowly extends upwards with the jagged profile of a toothed saw, each upward motion being followed by a relapse and then continued upward motion.
To listen to Ed, it becomes clear there was a time when he finally needed to stop seeing himself as a journalist.
‘I still do the occasional piece for The Guardian and the occasional piece for Mindfulness magazine,’ he says, ‘but I knew that my lifestyle had to shift, so I started looking at writing about different stuff. Some commissioning editors were receptive to that change and I remember writing a big piece abut depression for Arena, but I noticed that over time the commissions got less and I was having more conflict with editors about what I was writing. It started not to fit the mould, so the phone calls dried up and I stopped seeking it. But it was gradual.’
Was it frightening to contemplate the end of his career before another had started? ‘Yes,’ he replies immediately, but rejects any idea he was brave. ‘I just had to,’ he adds. ‘It didn’t feel like an act of bravery. It felt like an act of necessity. This was the only way that I could be well.’
He started working with the Mental Health Foundation, who he had done some work for previously, but after a period of what he readily describes as ‘ups and downs’ moved to France for a year to become part of the Buddhist meditation community near Limoges. Two years after his return, he started working on a report for the Foundation that looked at how what had become mindfulness could be offered more widely in the NHS. As part of writing the report, he completed an eight-week mindfulness training course that, in time, would lead to him becoming a teacher.
Stepping away from the persona of his FHM years made this more difficult than it might seem. You get the sense, talking to Ed, that his former self would have had no great problem positioning himself as a teacher or anything else he had decided could be neatly packaged into 1,500 words. The newer, more hard-won and authentic incarnation found the idea of teaching much harder to countenance.
‘I just didn’t see myself as a meditation teacher,’ he says. ‘I think I’d always known I wasn’t very confident, which is why the persona was developed as a projection, so that I appeared confident. When the report was being written I was already writing a book about mindfulness with a friend who was a GP I knew from the meditation centre, so I was developing that understanding of the field even more. That made it seem like more of a natural step to go and do the teacher training and then I started teaching.’
There is another element to the story. Someone whose long history of failed relationships in his ill-starred FHM career, in his own words, ‘tended to show the cracks,’ had started a relationship that, a year later, would become a marriage.
‘Vicky is a really important part of this,’ he asserts. ‘We met in 2009, and got married a year later and moved here. She is a great entrepreneur and sees possibilities, so she said “let’s set up a website and see if we can run a course at the Old School” and that wouldn’t have happened without her. So that was the beginnings of setting up Mindfulness Sussex.’ Was it scary to embark on a relationship, given his history? He laughs. ‘No. When we met, it felt very real, very genuine. I was no longer trying to be a persona in relationships and she had explored some similar paths.’
Today, the core programme is an eight-week course which is similar to one developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in the late 70s, although Mindfulness Sussex also offers a graduate programme for people who are continuing to train, workshops and retreats.
‘Meditation is the core skill,’ Ed says, ‘and a lot of the work is about paying attention to the body and recognising the signs of stress. Rather than fight or suppress them, it helps to work with them and to stay present with whatever difficulty it is.
‘You can’t just decide not to be stressed. You wake up with that anxiety, that low mood or that pain and can’t make it go away. You can’t escape from yourself. By trying to escape, you add layers of stress. If we work with the difficulty, we free ourselves from that stress of fighting. It’s challenging as it might be counter to the way we’ve learned to cope in our families and in our schools, but it’s important. I’ve been amazed at the transformations which happen in eight weeks. I often think of some of the people I work with that they’re clearly a whole lot more ready for this than I was when I first started out.’
He readily acknowledges that the course is not suitable for people who are in the depths of depression, but can be used by people with experience of past episodes, but who are now well, to help prevent any relapses. Far from belonging with the new age paraphernalia of dream catchers and crystals or being taught by shamans on remote hillsides, Ed insists that mindfulness is about a pragmatic engagement with the mind.
‘Kabat-Zinn was working in a healthcare setting, and it came out of dealing with people who have serious conditions. While mindfulness has been best expressed
by contemplative traditions such as Buddhism, it certainly isn’t exclusive to them and it’s accessible to everyone.
If you have a mind and a body, you’re a good candidate for mindfulness.’
Ed laughs when asked if his younger self, battling his persona and his very personal sense of darkness would have been a good candidate for one of his courses, and isn’t sure what the answer is. He would, he says, have been glad of the existence of mindfulness, but also if it had been another career path might, in his own words, ‘have turned it into another achievement to get to, and wonder what was next.’ And of course, he says, you can get the key concepts on an academic level, but to teach them you have to come from your own experience. That is what this most thoughtful and composed of men has taken from his own life experience and which he wants to share more widely. Perhaps we should listen.