Let's begin with three questions: First, are you breathing? Second, what's your posture: sitting, lying or standing? (I am assuming you are not reading your newspaper as you run or walk.) Third, where are you and what's going on around you? If you answered those questions, then while you were answering them you were being mindful. In other words you were practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been practiced in the East for more than 2,000 years but it has only become a hot topic in the West in the past five to 10 years. Why? Because people in all sorts of situations have found that the practice of mindfulness lowers stress and increases their sense of well-being. I have taught mindfulness to nurses, accountants, counsellors, dentists, doctors, search and rescue workers, unemployed people, chaplains, trade union officials, HR managers, retired people, teachers, students and others – that's how widespread the interest in mindfulness has become.
But what is it and how do you do it? Essentially, mindfulness involves returning your attention again and again to whatever is going on right now – whether that's just breathing, walking, listening to another person or eating. That's why I asked at the start if you were breathing, what your posture was, where you were and what was going on around you. To answer these questions you have to step out of your imagination, your memories and your worries and bring your attention to these activities. Much of our stress occurs in memory, imagination and so on. A work colleague makes a cutting remark and we replay it hundreds of times in imagination, fantasising about what we should have said in reply and re-experiencing our anger again and again. The cutting remark was made only once: the re-runs could occur a thousand times.
In mindfulness you would be encouraged to notice your feeling of anger whenever it reoccurs – just notice it – and then return your attention to whatever else is going on for you. If you do this, the memory will fade over time: if you don't, you could keep it alive for years.
Equally, if you were listening to music you would be encouraged to bring your attention back to that music every time it drifted off into what you're having for dinner tonight. Or if you were planning what to do for Christmas (sorry!) you would bring your attention back to your planning every time you drifted off into mental dramas about how your mother-in-law never really liked you.
So mindfulness is returning. In doing that returning you avoid generating unnecessary stress for yourself and you learn to accept reality.
Acceptance is also a big part of mindfulness. All this means is that you don't go off into an elaborate story in your head about how bad things are. You recognise that something unpleasant happened, for instance, that you don't like – Ryanair extracted lots of dosh from you because your suitcase was one-and-a-half centimetres too big for their cage, say – but you don't torment yourself with endless stories about the incident after you've done a reasonable amount of cursing and lamenting. You can hurt yourself all you like by going over and over it, but they've got your money anyway.
As Ruby Wax, author of the best-selling 'Sane New World' put it: "Once you stand back, you don't try to make things different, it's not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever's going on without the usual critical commentary."
It's not all about coping with the unpleasant though. Sometimes we sleepwalk through life, barely noticing what's going on around us while we drift around in our heads. We might only start to pay attention to the world if something shocks us into it – Hayley in 'Coronation Street' only noticed the brightness of the painted sign over the cafe when she came home with a diagnosis of terminal illness. But mindfulness encourages us to notice our lives without waiting for the shock.
As Ruby Wax put it, if you practice paying attention to your life, "then even if a doctor told you you only had six months to live, if you were awake to every minute, it would be longer than if you had 100 years to live in an unconscious state."
But how do you do mindfulness? Must you shave your head, put on a saffron robe and sit on a cushion for hours, meditating? I wouldn't, if I were you, unless you're a Tibetan monk.
Instead, let me tell you about Easons, a strange book, a pint of lager and a cricket match. One day about 25 years ago I abandoned my desk in the newsroom where I worked and went wandering around bookshops, a common enough occurrence which I can admit to because it's too late to fire me now. I ended up in Easons where I found myself staring at a book on Buddhist meditation.
I have absolutely no idea why I took it off the shelf it or why it opened at the chapter on mindfulness. It was a short chapter. I read it and started trying mindfulness straight away. I liked the feeling very much. I bought the book and walked mindfully over to Trinity College where I bought a pint in the Pavilion Bar and stood mindfully sipping lager and watching a cricket match in the afternoon sun.
Since then I have been practicing mindfulness, though not usually with a pint in hand, and I still haven't a clue what goes on in cricket. But notice that I was able to start practicing mindfulness after reading a few pages of the book. I didn't need to spend ages meditating and neither do you.
If you are interested in what you have read so far, you are probably using mindfulness right now and you will probably go on doing so after you finish reading.
But it will help if you have a few practices to use now and then – I call them practices because mindfulness is something you practice. Here are some I use and like:
Follow your outbreath: Just put your attention on your outbreath and allow it to go all the way out. Notice how there's a tiny little pause at the end of the outbreath before you breathe in again. Now notice the next outbreath. When your mind drifts away (and it will, even in so short a time) return your attention gently to your breath.
Check in with your senses: Notice your breathing. Now notice your posture. Now notice sounds. Now notice your breathing again. Again, return your attention to what you're doing whenever your mind drifts away.
Do a body scan: Bring your attention to your forehead. Now expand your attention to your face, your shoulders, your chest and tummy, your legs. If you have time, do this nice and slowly. If you notice any tension just imagine you're breathing into the centre of it and then move on. The body scan can help you rest at night if you're lying awake in bed.
Choose a mindfulness cue: Pick a daily occurrence such as brushing your teeth, showering, drinking tea, turning on the engine in the car, going up or down stairs and so on and decide you will carry out that activity mindfully. In this way a daily routine helps you to remember to be mindful.
Can children use mindfulness? Yes they can. Small children can place a favourite toy on their tummy and notice it going up and down as they breathe. Older children can use the 7/11 practice: count to seven while you breathe in and to 11 as your breathe out (the longer out-breath is relaxing). For an Irish take on mindfulness for children, go to www.mindfulnessmatters.ie and check out the resources section.
Mindfulness practice has been used in the East, where it became an integral part of the Buddhist way of life, for more than 2,000 years. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his mindfulness-based stress reduction clinics in Massachusetts, has been the main driver behind the expansion of interest in mindfulness in the West.
The Buddha used to say that people should try out his methods for themselves: if they worked they worked, if they didn't they didn't.
Try mindfulness for yourself now and I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Padraig O'Morain is a writer, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher.