The Newcastle Meditation Centre
Between 2016–2020, the Newcastle Meditation Centre, at the bottom of Westgate Road in Newcastle city centre, provided a safe, welcoming and ideologically neutral space, wholly dedicated to the learning and practice of mindfulness and meditation.
It was the first independent high street meditation centre in the UK, and it existed to make the benefits of meditation accessible, affordable and available to all.
During those four years, before the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close, the Meditation Centre offered weekly drop-in classes, as well as courses and workshops on a wide range of topics related to mindfulness and meditation, together with a variety of other activities, including research seminars, discussion groups and social events. The space was also hired by groups and individuals for their own meditation related activities.
It all began with a conversation between Nicholas and Ollie about religion, spirituality, addiction and recovery, that eventually grew into the idea of organising some sort of meditation workshop for a group of people they thought might be interested.
On 12 October 2013, Nicholas led a two-hour meditation workshop at the Recovery Centre on the quayside, attended by about a dozen people. Although it was only intended as a one-off event, when everyone started asking when the next session was going to be, they decided to make it a regular monthly meeting. Over the next three years, the group continued to grow and flourish, necessitating a move to larger premises. The meetings were never advertised – people just heard about them by word of mouth – but they were often over subscribed. Clearly there was something about what they were doing, and perhaps also the way they were doing it, that was hitting the spot for people.
In January 2014, Nicholas began to develop the concept of the independent high street meditation centre as a place wholly dedicated to the learning and practice of meditation, without requiring anyone to buy into any particular belief system. After a quick trawl of internet domain names, the idea of Just Meditation was born.
Of course, there are already lots of places to learn or practise meditation, such as Buddhist groups, retreat centres and even churches, but generally they are part of some other – usually religious – organisation. And whilst many of these are located in towns and cities, there is still a sense that to do it ‘properly’ you need to go away on retreat somewhere. This is all very well, but the fact is not everybody has the time or resources to do that.
Just meditation was therefore driven by two key principles. First, it had to be inclusive; that is, completely independent and ideologically neutral. Just Meditation neither belongs to nor promotes any particular tradition: it is just meditation. And secondly, it had to be accessible: on the high street and at the heart of everyday life.
By the time the Centre closed, there were daily courses and activities, a vibrant group of volunteers and a lot of committed participants. But it was still not financially viable, and simply didn’t recover from the period of extended shutdown caused by the 2020 pandemic.
The first incarnation of Just Meditation was an internet directory of places where people could go to learn or practice meditation, with a database that was searchable by postcode, region, tradition or activities, and the facility for people to leave reviews and comments.
It launched in August 2014 with about 200 entries. But it was hard to maintain, difficult to promote and fraught with technical issues. It never really took off, and a year later it was closed. But the idea of trying to set up an actual centre just wouldn’t go away.
Nicholas wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines and coming to similar conclusions. In April 2014, a place called Unplug, claiming to be the word’s first secular drop in meditation studio, opened in Los Angeles. The following year a similar venture called MNDFL opened in New York. Since then, secular meditation centres have mushroomed all over the United States.
Interestingly, they all tend to look and feel rather similar, like a Buddhist centre without the Buddhist bits – and to be very commercially oriented. Such places are also clearly aimed at a fairly narrow demographic – young, white, urban and professional – thus reinforcing all the prevailing stereotypes of yoga and meditation as middle class lifestyle choices. It was only a matter of time before something similar appeared in the UK, and sure enough, little over a year after the Newcastle Meditation Centre opened, London’s first meditation studio, called Re:Mind – almost a carbon-copy of the American model – opened on 19 February 2018.