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How mindfulness can stop you from sleepwalking through life

Padraig O'Morain says it's time for you to wake up

Let's begin with three questions: First, are you breathing? Second, what's your posture: sitting, lying or standing? 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 practising mindfulness.

Mindfulness has been practised 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.

Actress Goldie Hawn founded and funds The Hawn Foundation which teaches the technique to schoolchildren.

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 recurs – 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. 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. You recognise that something unpleasant happened, but you don't torment yourself with endless stories about the incident after you've done a reasonable amount of cursing and lamenting. 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 practise 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".

Eileen Beamish: 'It grounds my life'

Belfast businesswoman Eileen Beamish (49) was recovering from a personal trauma and a failed relationship when she was referred to mindfulness courses run by Queen's University through its open learning programme.

"I had no idea what it was, but I trusted the counsellor who mentioned it to me," she says.

"That was two years ago, and I never anticipated that this practice would be so useful or such a powerful tool in my everyday life.

"It enables me to ground my life on many levels from an emotional point of view".

As well as taking part in the courses, she also attends a weekly session with other people who use mindfulness.

Eileen, who is married to David, says: "These are people who have struggled with various stresses in their lives and the support from them is invaluable. We may all have different reasons for being there, but we want the same outcomes.

"To my mind this community – and our teacher – are vital in getting the full benefit of the programme."

She adds: "Some people imagine we sit around like yoga practitioners blotting out the world, but it is not like that. What I do – and I can do it while chopping the vegetables for the evening meal – is just be aware of what is happening at that precise moment. It could be the smell of the carrots or the crackling of the fire.

"I am in the moment and not carrying baggage from past grievances or worries about what might happen in the future. I am at peace with myself.

"If someone says something hurtful to us, for example, it produces an automatic reaction in the body. We can become stressed, maybe get a headache or feel our stomach knotting. Those are physical signs which we should be aware of. Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to soothe the body and not to store up hostile or spiteful responses."

Mindfulness, she says, is something that must be ongoing, not just practised at a couple of courses and then forgotten.

And its benefits are not just personal, she argues.

"If we are able to be a peace with ourselves, it leaves us open to be more attentive to others around us. We are not distracted by other concerns and can listen to those of our friends.

"And I have also found that once I achieved a level of personal peace, I was motivated to help others find it also".

Four steps to mindfulness

But how do you do mindfulness? It will help if you have a few practices to use now and then – I call them practises because mindfulness is something you practise. 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

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.

Where to study it

Frank Liddy, who studied mindfulness at the University of Wales, runs mindfulness courses through the life long learning programme at Queen's University, Belfast

Frank has worked in the community care voluntary mental health sector for more than years.

Frank was the co-founding Director of the Belfast Mindfulness Centre

To contact him, tel 07976 559958 or email

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