On a thin mattress on the floor.
But it’s not just any floor. It’s Brenda Shankey’s living room floor.
That’s Brenda Shankey, best known to me as a celebrity hairdresser. A personality whose name I would have encountered countless times in my long journalistic career.
Brenda Shankey, who styled Eamonn Holmes’ hair. Brenda Shankey who hung out with One Direction when they visited Belfast.
And now I’m lying on her wooden floor. Meditating.
I think it’s fair to say my life has travelled in an unexpected direction.
But then there’s been a lot of unexpected things in my life recently. Since I started writing about mental health issues on my blog, the unexpected has become commonplace.
Among the plethora of messages, offers and calls for help, Brenda reached out to me. She liked what I’d been saying, identified with much of it.
We had both suffered the trauma of breakdowns. We were both workaholics who left a business that we were closely identified with. We both see being a parent as the most important role in our lives. We quickly hit it off.
These days Brenda devotes much of her time to running her own business as a mindfulness and life coach. She invited me along to one of her classes to see what it was all about.
A year ago I would probably have dismissed it as a load of hippy nonsense, but, hey, I’m in a transitional period now and fully committed to trying new things. What the heck.
Mindfulness is a technique used by many to assist with mental wellbeing and to combat stress. It involves using breathing and meditation exercises to improve your awareness of the present moment – of your thoughts and feelings and the world around you.
I remember getting some tapes and trying it myself at home a few years back. But I never got very far. The truth is I just felt a little bit silly sitting there counting my breaths.
Also the meditation tapes I used were narrated by Mike Nesbitt, the former newsreader and political party leader. Every time I tried to empty my head of thoughts, Mike’s face would appear. This didn’t seem a likely path to serenity or enlightenment.
Brenda had told me to wear comfy clothes so I took this as adequate excuse to wear my tracksuit bottoms outside of the house. The pure unadulterated joy of trousers with an elasticated waistband! I could feel my mental wellbeing improving already.
Brenda introduced the students to the class by shaking a heart-shaped snow globe. The flakes represent our thoughts. Plentiful. Random. Always moving. It was simple, clever and effective.
She explained what she hoped we would learn over the coming weeks, how we could be taught to use skills to control our subconscious thoughts. To take a step back from the snap reactions which so often end up hurting us.
But how could this be achieved? Well we started by staring at a miniature fat Buddha statue. An introduction to learning how to focus on and control our breathing.
Breathing is the thing we do more of in life than anything else, yet we never give it a moment’s thought. Concentrating on the process itself helps to centre you. It’s also a technique to push the thoughts you don’t want right out of your head. Breathe in for two, breathe out for four. Count it out.
Then the part I struggle most with. Clearing my mind of redundant thoughts. The wasps in my head are never still. I can’t be reprogrammed as simply as the Arnold Schwarzenegger cyborg between the first and second Terminator films.
I tell Brenda I may be her greatest challenge. How to still this waterfall?
She wants to introduce us to the process of relaxation through deep breathing. We can do this sitting in the chair or lying down on the mattress. All the other students opt for the chair. I figure, there’s a mattress there, I’m in Brenda Shankey’s house and I’m going to use it.
So I’m lying on the floor. Brenda puts on some relaxing meditation music. A piano, a guitar and what sounds like someone playing the wobble board. I get it into my head that it must be Rolf Harris, which makes clearing my mind of exterior thoughts an even greater challenge.
But Brenda talks us though it. Calmly authoritative, the slight hint of a north west accent. I become aware of the sensation of each muscle in my own body relaxing, like liquid metal. Soon I can’t feel the mattress at all. I don’t feel anything other than myself.
I feel like I could lie here for a long, long time. On Brenda Shankey’s floor.
Then she says something which goes deep inside me.
‘What are the three things in your life that you are most grateful for?’
I think of my son. My wife. Myself. Our life together.
‘Remember to be grateful for what you have,’ she tells us.
Of course. It all makes perfect sense now, as I’m lying here on Brenda Shankey’s floor. Why am I worrying about what I don’t have? The person I won’t ever be? The decisions that I got wrong years ago? Why am I not spending every moment enjoying what I’ve got? Living in the moment.
Eventually I have to get up. Reluctantly.
Brenda hands out books for us to read, CDs to listen to. She gives us tasks as well. Be more compassionate to other people. Carry out an act of kindness every day. Practice the breathing for a minute 10 times each day. Wake up with a smile on your face.
Wake up with a smile on your face.
But you can’t keep that smile on your face all day. Life is like the small fishing boat tumbling on the seas. Nobody can totally calm that sea. But as I’m lying here floating on the floor, Brenda Shankey has calmed the ripples a little.
Does mindfulness work? For some people undoubtedly. Others may struggle with it. My sceptical mind will always work against me in processes like this.
I enjoyed my mindfulness session. And that’s probably the most important thing. It was fun. That’s enough to convince me to have another go.
: Book classes at firstname.lastname@example.org