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John Masterson: 'Buddhism-Lite? I'd rather go out for a long run'


Place a dustbin as far away as you can from your house. Photo: Getty

Place a dustbin as far away as you can from your house. Photo: Getty

Place a dustbin as far away as you can from your house. Photo: Getty

We live in a world of fashion and fads. There is a new wonderful diet every few weeks. Maybe they all work. Or maybe none of them work. The key thing is that they claim to and people swear by them. For a while. It is like going all Marie Kondo and still continuing to buy crap.

Then there are the food fads. I begin the day with porridge and chia seeds so I am fairly confident that I will live to 100 and run a marathon at 99. I have a nagging doubt that I should really be doing avocado on toast at the weekends as a further insurance policy. I also begin the day with coffee and, depending on the day of the week, coffee either lengthens or shortens your life, raises or lowers your blood pressure, makes you smarter or stupider, fatter or thinner, etc. And as for red wine. Don't start me. I have given up reading about it. The only thing I know is that I like it, am still alive, and it has a pleasant effect which means you should not, under any circumstances, drive a car.

I was pondering these things in the Pembroke Hotel in Kilkenny as I waited for my lunch to arrive having left my phone in the car. There I was, forced to rely on my own brain without anything to take my mind off the here and now. My poached salmon arrived dressed with a very tasty lemony sauce with capers, some new potatoes and sliced carrots and other odds and ends with a sweet sauce drizzled on the plate. For once I stopped and looked at what was on the plate. As I took my time and enjoyed the flavours an awful thought struck me. OMG. This is what mindfulness is all about.

Mindfulness is a psychological fashion or fad. It sprang up in the USA in the 1970s and slowly took over the world. It is a multi-billion industry selling books, giving training and talks. Mindfulness is about paying attention to whatever we are experiencing in the present moment without judgment. It is supposed to relieve stress and reduce anxiety. Given that I spend much of my head time in the past or the future, I am certainly a candidate for this cure-all fashion. But does it work?

From personal experience I can attest that it certainly helps you enjoy lunch if you happen to be alone. As I look through all the research on mindfulness, I find a striking lack of well-conducted studies with results that one could feel confident about. Big corporations love making it available to their employees because it makes them look like caring employers. It is Buddhism-Lite. It suits the sort of person who tells you they are driving an electric car within the first two minutes. It may not do any harm but does it do any good and does it live up to the huge claims? I could not find the evidence despite the suggestion that if you add in a dose of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy there are some benefits. The American Heart Association spoke of inconclusive results for lowering blood pressure. But guess what it says works? Yes. Exercise.

Funny thing about exercise is that you are likely to pay attention to the world around you. You have no difficulty paying attention to your breathing. You feel good and alive.

I suggest you take out your dustbin and place it as far away from your house as you can. Then take a mindfulness book off your shelf and walk to the bin and drop it in. Repeat this exercise gradually building up to a slow jog. By the time your books are gone you will be fit enough to go for a short jog which will lower your blood pressure, burn calories, reduce anxiety, stop you ruminating and generally contribute to all-round feeling good.

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