What Makes Padraig O’Morain Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Padraig O’Morain is an award-winning journalist, author, and mindfulness expert. He is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and also works as a teacher/trainer. He has previously worked as a journalist with RTE Radio One and The Irish Press, and as a health correspondent with The Irish Times.

“I did a degree in Psychology at The Open University when I was with The Times, and then I did a Counselling diploma. In 2002 there was an opportunity to leave The Times on a voluntary severance scheme, I did that to pursue counselling and get into freelance writing, which I was doing anyway at the start. That evolved into mindfulness teaching; so things do kind of add up when you look back on them, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. It certainly wasn’t part of a masterplan or anything, but these things happen.”

Although he has been based in the capital for many years, his roots lay in the countryside.

“I’m from a place called Ladytown, which is a small rural area between Naas and Newbridge in Co. Kildare. It’s a small rural parish and my relatives still live there; it’s good to be able to go back to your roots every now and then. I grew up on a farm, and come from a farming background.”

His published works include Mindfulness on the Go- Peace in Your Pocket; Light Mind- Mindfulness in Daily Living; and Like A Man- A Guide to Men’s Emotional Wellbeing. He also writes poetry and short stories, and his poetry collection, The Blue Guitar, is published by Salmon Poetry.

Padraig was kind enough to take the time to share some of his insights and experiences.

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

Introverted, no doubt about it; at a party or an event you’ll probably find me standing on my own a good bit of the time. I used to be extremely withdrawn when I was much younger, but a lot of that has died away because I can see now that it doesn’t really matter if you’re one or the other; I think the assumption years ago was that it was a bad thing to be introverted and shy, and that you shouldn’t be. I came to realise that actually a large percentage of the world’s population is introverted, it’s just the way we are. The introversion is still there and people will perhaps think that I’m extroverted if they see me working at an event or something like that, but when it comes to the personal world, if you could call it that, I probably would be one of the quieter people in the room.

What are your hobbies/interests?

Well I enjoy writing. I write poetry which is something I try to do every day. I’m very fond of reading and one of the good things about the internet is God knows there’s an endless amount of reading material on there; I like listening to audio books, walking, and I enjoy just sitting down with the family in the evenings, relaxing and watching Netflix or something like that.

Describe your typical morning routine.

Generally speaking I get up around 7 o’ clock. When I get out of bed and my feet are hitting the floor, I try to bring myself back to the present moment- start the day with a little mindfulness practice if you like. I have a daily mindfulness reminder that goes out to around ten thousand people every morning- Daily Bell’s as they’re called- the first thing I do every morning is to write one of the next Daily Bell’s, and again that brings me into a mindfulness mode, because I’m going over previous ones I’ve done, or going over new stuff, so that is a mindful start to the day.

I will do a bit of writing first, because I find if that’s not done early in the morning, it doesn’t get done; in the middle of the day you can find it hard to justify yourself sitting down and writing a poem, you know? It seems to be easier in the morning. Then just check out the diary, what’s coming up during the day, and check the calendar for the next week or so, that’s the kind of routine that I have, and maybe read up some stuff on mindfulness. I’m into whatever are the demands of the day.

Describe your perfect Sunday.

It might seem odd but I never liked Sundays. But anyway, a perfect day is when I’m going down to the train station and I’m getting on a train to somewhere, anywhere. When the train is pulling out of the station, it’s strange but it feels like there is something special happening; I’m on trains an awful lot and I go to the same places again and again, but there is always a sort of strange sense of adventure when I’m on the train.

I am happiest when…

I’m being creative. That could mean writing something, creating a new course, or a new group on social media, or reading up on stuff, sometimes it’s writing articles; whenever I’m being creative. I write a journal and I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s based on a book called The Artist’s Way, and you write freely for around 20 minutes every morning; it has a huge effect on how I organise my day, my thoughts and my feelings, and I find that to be a very creative process.

I’m most happy when I’m being creative.

Do you have a guilty pleasure? 

Sometimes I would go into town. I live in Kilmainham, so I could be in the city in about 25 minutes. I might take the DART up to Hoath or down to Dún Laoghaire, which are down by the sea. Maybe have a coffee or lunch and come back again, and because they’re by the sea it actually feels like I’ve been somewhere, you know? That I have gone to a place that’s different. And that’s a guilty pleasure I suppose, because it means you’ve gotten away from the things that you’re actually meant to be doing, so that’s something I like.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

I think the best book I’ve read, or at least the book that changed things most for me was a rather strange book- at least it seemed strange at the time- and it was called The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. It is a book about mindfulness- which I’d never heard of at the time- and it was based on a Burmese approach. I began to read it in the shop; I opened up the pages on mindfulness and I liked what I was reading; I started trying it straight away actually, and I’ve sort of been practicing it ever since.

That was in the early 80’s, which was quite a while ago. The book itself is a pretty hard read; if I hadn’t have opened the pages on mindfulness I probably wouldn’t have continued reading, and I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was only the year before last when I finished reading it; I took it up and said to myself, “I had better finish this book”. So I read a page a day to get through it. That would have been the most influential one, definitely.

What is your passion? 

I suppose again it’s the creativity. I like to be creative in whatever I do, like lots of creative people I have quite an untidy office space; it might seem like a contradiction but I suppose when you’re being creative you like there to be an order to things. The family is also my passion, and the place where I spend most of my time. Reading also is a passion, and I tend to find listening to books is something that I’m really fond of; I would have a couple on the go at any one time.

How do you measure success?

I think success is kind of a feeling that things are more or less OK; a feeling that I’ve got enough going on to support the family and keep the show on the road; a feeling that I don’t really feel the need to expand for the sake of expansion. I’m not seeking world domination with my work in mindfulness, or anything like that. It’s having enough to ensure that the basic necessities are looked after, so I guess in a way it’s a feeling, but I also know that if I can pay the bills when they come in, that’s important. I’m kind of oriented towards ensuring the roof over your head, and everything else, is taken care of. I suppose this comes from growing up on a farm, where you’re at the mercy of things like the weather, various pests, and of course the marketplace; there was always that concern that you’ve got to get things right, so that’s always stayed with me, you know.

Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?

In terms of people, there was a teacher when I was in secondary school in Naas, and his name was Mr. Murray. One day when I was in first year- I was a very shy sort of person at that time- Mr. Murray took an essay that I’d written and read it out for the class; that was the first time I’d sort of shone at something, you know. And I think that sort of put me on the road towards writing and journalism; that was a major pivotal moment in my life. I always regret that I never got to go back and say that to him. That had a big effect, and I’m sure he’d have no reason to remember it, but I guess it’s an example of how teachers sometimes change people’s lives without even knowing that they’re doing it. I would definitely say that he made a huge difference.

My wife influences me hugely. When I met her she was doing an open university degree, and I sort of imitated her and did one myself in Psychology. That sort of set me off on this path, later on into counselling, and then into mindfulness. She’s been a big influence obviously in many ways, but that’s one of them.

Then there are many other people who have helped along the way, and I’m sure if I was to write a list it would be a very long list; nobody gets to where they are by themselves that’s for sure. There’s always something that led you to where you are; usually it’s the people you’ve met and the things they do.

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?

This might seem strange. When I was about 20 I worked for Cumann na Gaeilge, and I was very shy of course. We used to go down to the old Sinnot’s pub off Stephen’s Green, and one evening we were talking about people from the office; we were talking about people who showed their feelings very easily, or something like this, people who were emotional in some way, and a colleague turned to me and said, “Of course, you’re as cool as a cucumber.”

To me it was an incredible revelation, because I thought that people could see right through me, as to how shy and scared I felt, but I suddenly realised that people didn’t see that, they thought that I was actually quiet because I was calm and cool.

Funny enough, that made it much easier for me to move out in the world, and to move out amongst people, because I now knew that they couldn’t see through me; it’s hard to over-estimate the effect that’s had on me. You can say that it’s not necessarily a good thing, the fact that people can’t see through you, but in the case where a person is very shy, I think it’s a blessing. I often feel that people who are introverted can benefit from knowing that; that people might not necessarily see things how you see them.

How do you deal with adversity or self-doubt?

Self-doubt is something that, yes, I’d be very familiar with. Over the years I’ve had this feeling that maybe I’m not doing as well as I ought to, that I’m failing rather than succeeding. These are feelings that would have been with me until quite recently I suppose. I then got into the whole area of self-compassion, which is being kind to yourself, and being able to see yourself as sharing the faults and virtues of millions of others. Through that, I just came to see that the whole self-doubt thing is something that everyone feels. It’s something that you should not let rule your life, or ruin your life.

I think that self-doubt is quite different to stepping back and assessing what’s working and what’s not, it’s a kind of all-pervasive thing, and I think that replacing it with self-compassion is a really powerful way to exist in the world. And as it happens, the self compassionate people tend to take on more challenges than those who are less kind to themsleves- the research has shown this to be the case- and one of the reasons is that they’re not going to be giving themselves a tough time if something doesn’t work out, so they’re more willing to try.

So that’s my take on self-doubt, to replace it with self-compassion.

What are some moments to remember or defining moments from doing what you do? 

From the work in mindfulness, and in my experience of practicing mindfulness, I do recall something that happened one day in particular, as I was going to collect my daughter from school. I was listening to the radio; Joe Duffy was on, and people were phoning in to talk about accidents that happen very easily, specifically car accidents.

The road out to my daughter’s school is very narrow, and it’s quite a crowded area. I decided then and there, that I had better go right into a mindfulness mode with kids around; as I brought my mind right into the present, and as I turned the corner there were two girls up ahead on the footpath, kind of pushing each other. I said to myself, “One of them is going to fall out in front of the car”, and sure enough she did, disappearing from view.

Luckily enough, I had already anticipated it, and had hit the brakes. She reappeared, got up off the road, dusted herself off and walked away laughing. If I hadn’t had been practicing mindfulness, that might not have worked out as well as it did, of that I’m certain. It obviously had a huge benefit on that occasion- for me and for her I guess- and I’m sure she doesn’t even remember it.

The thing about mindfulness is that the things you remember, or the things that hit you, tend to be very ordinary moments in your life; it could be just being with someone and being very aware of it, or it could be walking down the street and being right in the moment, the sound of a bird in the tress or the sound of a car engine idling, or walking in the park and tuning right in to what’s going on around you. It tends to be the small, seemingly insignificant moments that really stick with people when they practice mindfulness.

There are generally two things you do in mindfulness; one is you can concentrate on something, such as your breathing, and every single time your mind wanders, which it will do very often, you just bring it back. The other thing is something called open awareness, where you sort of open your mind to everything around you, without actually going down any particular trail of thought, you just keep coming back to the awareness. Of course with driving you can be aware of just the driving, but a lot of people drive without any awareness of the fact; I think we can all identify with that feeling of getting from point A to point B without knowing how. I suppose driving is one of those things that we should all be aware of while we’re doing it. So it could be your breathing that brings you back to present, or just being aware of having your feet on the ground, but you do need something to anchor you in the awareness, or else you just lose track of your thoughts.

The Buddists call it, going around in a trance. You could go on holiday to a beautiful place, but you could be in your head the entire time and not actually experience anything of the destination. Anthony de Mello- a renowned Jesuit priest and psychotherapist- once likened it to people going through a beautiful valley on a bus, but the windows of the bus are papered over so they don’t know they’re in a beautiful place. That’s what it’s like for us a lot of the time in life. People, when they begin to practice mindfulness, suddenly notice the extent to which they are lost in their own head, and of course as soon as you notice it, you’re out of it.

Another way of putting it, is that mindfulness is knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it, which sounds dead easy but in fact we seem to be built in such a way that our minds simply wander; whenever something happens to us it triggers memory, and we go into an act of planning, and that’s fine but sometimes this trail of thought takes us into old regrets and resentments and fears and so on, and mindfulness is being able to come out of that at will. It’s a resource and a great skill, in that sense.

On another occasion, which was significant for different reasons, came to pass when I was asked to do a presentation on mindfulness at the end of Listowel writing week one year in Co. Kerry. The week ends on the Saturday night, and the seminar was fixed for the Sunday afternoon. I had assumed that I would get maybe 12 or 15 people, a couple of hungover poets who had missed the last bus to Dublin, or something. It was held in Listowel Arms Hotel, and I remember my astonishment when I saw that every single one of the 500 seats were filled, and I gave a talk to my biggest ever audience in a venue.

I thought it was amazing that this number of people would turn up to a mindfulness event on a Sunday afternoon, from all different parts of the country. Yeah, that’s something that I look back on with amazement, and still wonder how did it happen. Listowel writers week have a great marketing and publicity machine, but it was still something I didn’t expect.

What advice would you give to the younger generation, who may find themselves at a crossroads in life, unsure of what path to pursue?

I think that in your life you will go down many paths, so I would say not to get too hung up on finding the exact right path. You yourself will change in ways that you don’t know right now, so I think to look on it almost as an adventure in that sense. If you feel there’s something you need to do and you’re not quite doing it, do something else that might help get you there, or if you can’t quite get there just try something else or go another route. There are a lot of different paths that you will take in your lifetime, and hopefully you will look back and think, wasn’t it great that there were all these changes in my life.

The second thing is that it does help to find out something- anything- that you want to do; sometimes people will have no particular idea as to what they want to do in their life, and it can be quite hard to know how to navigate from there. I would look at what you want to do, try to work that out first. Maybe there’s many things you want to do, so try and work something out from there; I always say that if you want to run off and join the circus but there’s no circus to join, or if you want to be an astronaut and you can’t do science, even the fact that you want these things helps you decide on what it is you want to do, and it helps to organise your life. So don’t be afraid of wanting things, and take comfort in the knowing that you, and the people around you, and the things you want, are going to change many times during your lifetime.

To find out more about Padraig and his work in mindfulness, you can check out his website, and you can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can also have a read of his column over on The Irish Times