With Michael Coates
As a former soldier, firefighter and rugby player, Michael Coates may not be the image that springs to mind when considering meditation. He formally discovered the practice in 2007, and yet—despite a background in high stress, masculine environments—he realised that mindfulness had always been central to his life.
“When I look back, being mindful has been a constant,” says the 37-year old. “Learning to control your heart rate with a mask on during a fire is a form of meditation. Even rifle practice can be mindful—you focus on breathing and get a sense of clarity. Meditation takes many different forms and is accessible to everyone.”
Read on for Michael’s incredible story, as well as expert tips and ideas on how to get started.
What is meditation?
For me, meditation involves three main processes: breathing exercises, allowing thoughts to come and go without attaching to them, and finding some clarity at the end. I normally meditate at home every day for between 10 and 20 minutes, but you could also meditate on a train journey or while cooking—it doesn’t have to involve sitting down cross-legged. The practice always leaves me with clarity, whether that’s a sense of peace, or simply understanding what I need to do.
What are the basics that everyone should know?
If you’re a complete beginner, the 7/11 breathing technique is great. You breathe in for seven seconds and out for 11 seconds. Two minutes of this makes you calmer so you can make rational decisions.
I also practise breath cycles, where I take 30 fast breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, then a big inhalation and exhalation, followed by a breath hold. I repeat this three times every day and often do it lying down—if I’m feeling overwhelmed or just need time to myself, this gives me a structured way to reground.
What are the health benefits?
Meditation can take you from the sympathetic (stressed out, fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic (calm, rest and digest) system. The psychological benefits are huge—it gives you mental clarity, keeps your ego in check and provides fuel in the tank for when things go wrong.
How is it different to mindfulness?
Meditation is a practice, whereas mindfulness is a state—of being in the moment and appreciating that moment. The habitual routine of practising meditation, whether that's breathwork, going for a walk or enjoying your garden, makes you more mindful, and helps you focus on day-to-day tasks. Mindfulness is being focused on that task and not worrying about the past or the future.
What’s your preferred method of meditation?
I go open-water swimming at a lake in Shepperton, near London. Being in the wild and doing an hour of swimming is the best form of meditation and gives me the most joy. I also use cold water as therapy. When you’re immersed in icy water, your sympathetic nervous system is triggered, and it makes you uncomfortable and want to get out. But you can breathe yourself into a calm state—essentially training yourself to be comfortable in stress. This is an effective technique that I use with army veterans suffering from PTSD and anyone can try it. Start by turning the cold water on for 30 seconds at the end of your shower, eventually building up to two minutes. It’s about accepting discomfort and finding perspective. After all, if that’s the most stressful thing in your day, then you’ve got a pretty good day!
How has meditation changed your life?
It’s changed my life massively. Meditation has helped me control my emotions, avoid making snap decisions, and accept my vulnerability. A good friend died last year, and I had to do a speech in front of 800 people at the funeral. I was very emotional during the service but getting up there and being a wreck would have been no good for anyone. I used the 7/11 breathing technique for five minutes before my speech. It settled me and allowed me to deliver what his family needed that day. Being able to share meditation with others has a wider impact. It gives me joy to work with military veterans and to practise breathing with my kids before bed. It’s a privilege to pass on.