I knew that mindfulness, like green tea and sauerkraut, would be good for me, but I always found it a struggle. It would all start promisingly enough, with the honeyed tones of the guy on the tape telling me to concentrate on nothing at all, or my breathing, or both, or something. He would then tell me to forgive myself if my mind wandered and, without self-recrimination, to merely escort my thoughts back to my breathing.
That was such a sweet way of expressing it, and I would feel great peace as I reflected on the cleverness of his use of the word “escort”. I would turn the word over in my mind and remember my friend Lee’s Ford Escort XR2 and the time we drove to a pub in Chaddesley Corbett, and Jim said something funny, and one of us was sick, and so on. But then I would realise what I was doing and, without recrimination, escort this thought about an Escort back to my breathing.
And so it went on. The problem is that by the time the first minute had ticked by, I had already escorted my thoughts thousands of miles, back and forth through time and space. If I got as far as 10 minutes of this, it felt less like escorting than wrestling as I frantically tried to herd the cats of my thoughts back to my quickening breaths.
The one thing the nice man said that really did hit home was something like: “We take the view that as long as you’re still breathing, there’s more right with you than is wrong.” I love that. It is a short, simple, positive thought that we will all, literally until our dying moments, have at our disposal. And I have kind of built on it, realising that it’s no good banging on all the time about the importance of stillness without working out how to find any.
Happily, I have now chanced upon a method that does seem to work for me. I can only do it while walking, so I am not sure if it really counts, but it is a start. It grew out of a rather brilliant little attention-training exercise my pleasingly strict cognitive behavioural therapist commanded me to do. This involved identifying five noises around you and focusing on each of them for a minute, then shuffling rapidly between them for a total of three minutes, and finally trying to take them all in at once for two minutes. I generally went for the sounds of a clock ticking, an outside noise, tinnitus and some white noise effect on my phone. For the fifth sound, if nothing else suggested itself, I would choose my own breathing, running the risk that I would start thinking about Lee’s Ford Escort again, but I normally got away with it.
My walking version of this – which cannot be an original idea, I know – involves observing different things as I proceed. All urban walks present six things to be absorbed by and, for a minute each, I look at the ground; then trees and bushes; manufactured things such as buildings, bins and bollards; people and animals; road vehicles and trains; and, finally, the sky. There is always interest, if not beauty, in each category. I now do this all the time, and it is making me more mindful with every step.
Only yesterday, I can relate with Pooterish relish, I went to buy some gravel from a builders’ merchant to top-dress some potted plants; I went for the 20mm, since you ask. It looked most unpromising, all grey, brown and dirty in its thick plastic sack. But when I got home and washed them down, every stone in there turned out to be, upon even cursory examination, a thing of astonishing beauty. It will take me ages to appreciate every single one of them. So much mindful happiness in one £3.40 bag of gravel. Bargain.
• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist