Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 22 July 2018

Being kind to yourself is therapy for the soul

Compassion for others doesn't always translate into generosity to yourself, but Padraig O'Morain has 'kindfulness' for that

Padraig O'Morain photographed by David Conachy
Padraig O'Morain photographed by David Conachy

Sarah Caden

'I've a theory that confession was the brightest idea that the Catholic church ever had," says Padraig O'Morain, "because you could go in there as the imperfect person, the sinner, and walk out perfect again."

"Of course," he adds with a laugh, "it didn't always last."

O'Morain believes that a great liberating moment in his life was the realisation that nothing is perfect. He says it's what convinced him, when still a boy, that God did not exist, and from an awareness of imperfection and fallibility, he drew comfort rather than concern.

"I went to school in the era when you were told that if you had a bad thought and you got knocked down by a bus, it was to hell for eternity," O'Morain says, "The idea then was that when you reach the end of your life, you had to be in credit, you had to be perfect. That was a heavy burden."

Born and raised on a farm in Ladytown, Co Kildare, O'Morain had a very conventional, Irish-Catholic childhood. At school, one Christian Brother, in particular, would challenge the class to pitch doubting questions at him, so that he could "prove" to them the existence of God. O'Morain struggled with the absolute nature of it all.

After a certain age, having come to the conclusion that certainty isn't part of the human condition, O'Morain became what you might call a searcher. It wasn't until the 1980s, however, that he found what he seemed to have been searching for.

"I was working on The Irish Times," he recalls, "and I would go off out of the office every day, looking purposeful, but really wandering around bookshops. You could get away with that then, but I'm not sure it works in newsrooms any more.

"I came across a book in Easons called The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, which I wasn't that interested in, but it was an unusual book to see at the time, so I opened it and it happened to open at the page about mindfulness and I read it. It talked about almost witnessing your thoughts and not being so caught up in them, and I tried it there and then and I liked it."

Without doubt, O'Morain thinks that he was looking for something when he happened upon that book and the mindfulness movement that has shaped the rest of his life.

"I must have been seeking something," he says. "I think that's probably why I was walking around those bookshops. I was spending a lot of time down psychology and self-help shelves of bookshops. I felt I'd always had a feeling of being an outsider and being on the outside of things, you know."

Being into mindfulness in the 1980s didn't necessarily make O'Morain an insider in the classic sense. Back then, he says, those who were interested in mindfulness and its Buddhist origins would have been regarded as almost cult-like, but he has seen a massive change of attitude to it in the decades since.

"You looked around one day and everyone was talking about it," O'Morain says of a shift that occurred in this century.

The shedding of conventional religion, which he had shed early in life, played its part in moving people towards mindfulness, he believes.

"It could be that the adherence to religion and organised religion collapsed and left a void," O'Morain says. "It served a purpose and I think that people got more comfort out of it than we think now because we focus on all the places where it went wrong, where it was very harsh."

The ritual, the reassurance and even the prayers and mantras had a purpose, though, and perhaps we seek now something to replace those. And, perhaps, a lot of people find the same comfort and peace now in the practice of mindfulness, with its rituals and routines.

The jettisoning of traditional religion hasn't freed us from that pressure to be perfect and get things right, however, O'Morain says. In fact, in the absence of faith, we have floundered somewhat, he believes, to replace it. And we have found new ways to put pressure on ourselves.

"We put huge demands on ourselves," O'Morain says, explaining what brought him to his latest book, Kindfulness. "If I have 700 unanswered emails, it's as though that makes me a bad person. It doesn't. It just means you have 700 unanswered emails. And on the day you die, you might have 7,000, but nobody's going to care that much. The emails are an expression of a wider thing. We have this ideal of a perfection that we must meet.

"If you look around the world," he goes on, "you can see how imperfect we really are. I mean, we are so imperfect, but individually we put this demand on ourselves to be perfect. There's no rationale, so it must be an instinctive thing. It's something we evolved to be but it's not all that helpful really."

He doesn't believe that we are harder on ourselves than our grandparents or parents, or that we necessarily live more stressful lives, but they are more frenetic lives, which doesn't help. And, he adds, there is a pressure that comes from being able to do so much with our time.

"Because we can do so much," he says, "we feel we have to do so much. People give themselves an awfully hard time because they think they ought to be able to do everything."

O'Morain, a counsellor and psychotherapist, who writes widely on the subject of mindfulness, says he always felt something of an outsider. Through his youth and young adulthood, he sought some meaning and in mindfulness he found it. He has written books on the subject - Mindfulness on the Go and Mindfulness for Worriers - and runs training courses and workshops on the practice of being in the moment and, to coin a phrase that he cites, "not sweating on the small stuff". O'Morain is also a columnist with The Irish Times, where he was once staff, and now writes a weekly column, ostensibly for men, though most of his correspondence comes from women.

Out of his decades-long interest in mindfulness has come O'Morain's Kindfulness. It is not, as the title might suggest about being kinder at large, but kind to yourself. It's about being a friend to yourself.

"Being a friend to yourself, even when things go down in flames," he says. "Or especially when they go down in flames."

The origins of Kindfulness came from a project O'Morain was working on several years ago. He was being very tough on himself, imagining all sorts of failure and beating himself up about it in advance of it possibly happening. O'Morain realised that being mindful and being kind to yourself didn't necessarily go together. You could be very compassionate to the world at large, but very tough on yourself.

"I realised it's something I've encountered a lot over the years in therapy work," he says. "People's relationships with themselves is what determines what they are willing to put up with. Not just from others; but from themselves."

His book, which can be read through as a book but also used in bite-sized pieces, along with its 'Seven-day course in self-compassion', to basically train yourself to be more self-kindful.

The approach is very simple, and the exercises are such that I found myself sharing them with my 10-year-old, in the knowledge that they were within her reach, in understanding and practice. It is about awareness and gentle silencing of the inner critic, the little berating voice to which we all fall prey to greater or lesser degrees.

Awareness of that voice allows you to hear and silence it in yourself, but you also see and hear others fall victim to it, too. Going to meet O'Morain, I get waylaid by a phone call about my child's forgotten swimming gear and end up late for him. I phone and apologise, and apologise again on arrival, and then force myself to let it go, because it's not the end of the world; though I must not let it happen again.

Running to the cafe in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where we've arranged to meet, I see a group of visitors arrive and discover that they are 90 minutes too early for opening time. Their inner turmoil over how this happened, why they let it happen, is written on their faces. I want to tell them to focus attention on their inward breath, as Kindfulness instructs.

Some people are, of course, 'better' at beating themselves up than others. People raised by a very critical parent can set impossibly high standards for themselves, which they can never meet. These people, with the Kindfulness steps, can train themselves into better habits.

People raised by parents who told them bad things about themselves and built up a deep, abiding sense of shame for them, struggle more to be a friend to themselves, O'Morain says. They will have to work harder to be kindful.

I wonder if we have more of a struggle with kindfulness in this age than previously. O'Morain says not.

"But a problem we have now is that we are often comparing ourselves to something that doesn't exist," he says. "With Facebook and Instagram and so on, we compare constantly, and it makes us feel worse and down on ourselves and, in reality, we don't know what's happening with other people, really. We are so often promised perfection. Do this and never be late, have a better career, achieve all your goals. Goals."

He's clearly not impressed with goals. "We are encouraged to treat our lives like a project," O'Morain says. "But it isn't. We're human, we're messy, we make mistakes. We're not a project.

"People look at their lives and say, 'I did this and it worked out and therefore I'm great,' or, 'I did this and it was a disaster, so I'm a failure.' But a lot of what happens to us is just coincidence. You crossed the road and met a certain person and your life changes. There is an interplay between circumstances and the choices we make and one can be stronger than the other, but we look back as if we did it all through our decisions and it's not necessarily true.

In his own life, O'Morain thinks that discovering mindfulness did exactly what it promised. He discovered that initial book by chance, but it was the case that he was looking and looking, if subconsciously, for answers. He chose, then, to put mindfulness to work for him and it has paid off - it has given him a career and a life's focus, but he says it has made him less hard on himself, more able to shake off slights and mishaps and all shapes and sizes of good and bad fortune.

As a father to daughters, Niamh and Hannah, now both in their 20s, he feels that being aware of the moment and cherishing each one, was a gift. Both young women practice mindfulness, Niamh in her work at the Central Remedial Clinic and Hannah where she lives in Canada.

"The thing about mindfulness is that it's simple," Padraig O'Morain says, "it's just whether you do it or not. There isn't a higher level. You don't pay more and find out more. It's simple. And it's doable.

"But it's like exercise or going for a walk. It's easy to do, but do we actually do it? But when we actually do it," he laughs. "We never regret it."

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