When it comes to living a life less ordinary, few people have as many stories as Auckland-born meditation coach Monique Rhodes. There's the time she met the Dalai Lama, the visits with her death row prisoner pen pal, and the touring gigs with the late Chuck Berry. But among all the excitement, it's the topic of quiet reflection that really gets her talking.
Meditation has become something of a modern day buzzword. In recent years, the zeitgeist of health and wellness has plucked it from ancient wisdom and transplanted it into the digital age, where you can tune in via app, webinar or daily email, to learn the art of tuning out.
The irony isn't lost on Monique, who sends her meditation teachings straight to her followers' smart phones via her wildly successful online programme, The 10 Minute Mind. Sign up to the programme and you get an email delivered daily with a link to a series of mindfulness exercises, featuring Monique's dulcet tones.
A mere few years ago, it would have been the domain of hippies and alternative life-stylers, but in an age where high stress is a global epidemic, meditation is becoming 'the new black'.
"We live in a world now where it's almost a novel thing to take time out," Monique says. "Levels of anxiety are unprecedented, communities aren't as tight as they used to be, we're working longer hours. Women in particular are so busy with things at home, with the kids, and with careers, that to actually say 'I'm going to do something for myself, and I need quiet' – that's really tough."
For Monique, the meditation breakthrough came about 15 years ago, when friends asked her to come to a talk by an eccentric » British traveller who had been living as a recluse in the Himalayas.
"This woman had lived in a cave for 12 years, meditating. I just thought, 'oh, okay…'," she says drily. "I figured she would be completely crazy, and we would all be thoroughly entertained by her madness. But I was sitting on the edge of my seat for an hour and a half. It was the most sense I'd ever heard. She was phenomenal, extraordinary. She was basically talking about how working with your mind can change your life. That was my first introduction."
What followed wasn't exactly a cave-dwelling epiphany, but she soon noticed how the age-old Buddhist practice altered her brain.
"Everything started to calm down," she remembers. "Before, it was like my mind was an ocean that was sometimes calm and sometimes all over the place, and I was this little boat at the mercy of it. What I learned from practising mindfulness meditation was not to take those thought patterns so seriously. The hardest thing in the beginning was to do it consistently, but you don't have to do anything but the practice, and you'll start to see the effects of it. You find you're becoming calmer, nicer to be around, and just naturally a lot more stable."
Fast-forward to 2017, and Monique's meditation teaching techniques have been adopted as a stress-busting tool by top universities throughout the world, and eagerly soaked up by the Western travellers who would seek her out when she was based in India. There might be people from all walks of life in Monique's address book, but she's resolute when she says meditation works the same regardless of whether you're a CEO in a suit or a freewheeling backpacker.
"What I've discovered over the years is that happiness is in the mind. It's not about how big your house is. It's about, when something bad happens in life, where does your mind go? If your mind is healthy and well, you have a totally different experience of the world. And to have a mind that's happy, I don't know of anything that is as effective as mindfulness meditation. If there's another way, I'm open to being shown."
We all know mindfulness is going mainstream, but the usual clichés on the topic can still be too tempting to resist. On the way to meet the meditation master, in the leafy Waitakeres of West Auckland, I'm so busy conjuring up a picture of a guru with hip-length hair and flowing robes that I'm almost thrown when a normal-looking woman in jeans and a T-shirt opens the door.
When she politely requests I take my shoes off, I automatically assume it's for ease of cross-legged chanting – until she says she's house-sitting for a friend and is worried about the cream-coloured carpet.
Less mundane, however, is her status as a modern-day nomad. "I'm homeless," she says with a grin, "and I love it! I haven't had a home base for about eight years, I've got everything down to the absolute minimum, and it's so freeing. It's a great feeling to know you've only got about 25kg worth of stuff, plus a few guitars dotted around the world."
Most recently, she's been in California, helping a local university develop a meditation programme. It's a project that's come off the back of a successful trial in the UK, where University College London bought a licence to Monique's teachings, and offered students and staff access to classes via an online link.
"At the beginning they said, 'If we get 50 students and 50 staff sign up, that would be superb'. Two weeks in, we had 870 people, and the feedback was so phenomenal I cried when I read it."
It's a business model that underpins The 10 Minute Mind, which was developed specifically for busy people riding high on the stress express. And Monique has an answer for those who say they don't have the time.
"Think about all the other things you do with 10 minutes, like watching something on Facebook. We find 10 minutes every day to have a shower, but if we're looking after our body that way, isn't it just as vital to look after our mind?"
With a ready smile and relaxed persona, there's a calm deliberateness to the way Monique speaks and moves. The meditation expert – who won't say her age – makes life look easy. But there's far more to her than breezy global traveller. Part entrepreneur, part highly driven self-starter, with just a hint of hippy on the side, the one-time marketing manager taught herself the skills she needed to build her business.
A uni dropout, the classically trained musician was barely out of her teens when she ditched study to chase the muso dream, performing in gigs around the country while she pondered her career path. Years later, the idea of putting "chill out music" as a backing track to ancient teachings led her to a partnership with a major alternative record label, as well as a meeting with the Dalai Lama. It's just one of those happy accidents that, she believes, tend to cross your path when you're open to life's possibilities.
"It was incredible, really emotional, and one of my favourite things I've ever done," Monique says of meeting His Holiness himself.
"His presence is like no one else I've ever been around. It certainly stirs you up a bit."
And when it comes to mixing with famous people, she's got more than a few tales to tell. Her favourites include touring through Europe twice with Chuck Berry, as the warmup act before his shows. Then there's the handwritten note from actress Susan Sarandon, who sent her a card to let her know how moved she was by a song Monique had penned.
Later, it was her interest in teaching meditation to a completely different kind of student that took her to the US.
"There are so many places meditation can be used, and working with prisoners is something I've always wanted to do," she says.
"I've been pen pals and visiting with a guy on death row in Florida for 13 years. I talk to him a lot about working with his mind, and I know the huge impact it's had on him."
Whether he's innocent or not isn't a concern for Monique. "It's more that he has a person in the world that's there for him. He's a very, very interesting character."
But almost a decade spent living out of suitcases surely has its downsides. Does she ever get lonely?
"Every so often," she says thoughtfully, gazing out the window as a fat tui crash lands in a nearby tree."
"A lot of my friends look at my life and go, 'Oh, but you never had kids!' So there's a payoff I guess. Sometimes I want to come home. I've been in and out of New Zealand for the past five months, as I just needed to be with family and friends and be around the extraordinary nature here."
From her vantage point of working with stressed-out people the world over, Monique sees a regular pattern of modern malaise, and she believes technology is a major cause.
"It's not just with young people, it's across the board," she says. "The advent of the iPhone 10 years ago has created a particular way of relating to the world that has changed us dramatically. We struggle to be alone. We struggle to sit with ourselves and just be. I've had young people tell me the only time they're off their phone is when they're in the shower."
And it's more than just limiting our amount of screen-gazing time, as even the presence of a phone on a table can change the quality of our interactions, Monique says.
"If a phone is visible, you're aware that you may be interrupted by it, so you don't go as deep into a conversation. Our focus levels have shifted dramatically and our ability to communicate with each other is changing. When there's a lull in activity or a difficult emotion, we pick up our phone. It's strange that we've got to that point, but it's addictive behaviour, and the flow-on effect of that is it causes us stress."
The flipside is we're now coming round to wellbeing ideas that were once considered woo- woo, but Monique believes it's partly because as a society with skyrocketing mental health issues, we simply have nowhere else to turn and nothing left to try.
"Mindfulness meditation – it's just meditation but people tend to feel more comfortable with the extra word at the front – is simply working with the mind so you can be happier. It's not about religion, it's not 'out there' or new age. It makes you less reactive to things, and that completely rewires your brain. Now it's just about showing people you don't have to have dreadlocks or chant!"
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