One thing at a time, one day at a time


A Year of Living Mindfully: 9Making some time every day to be quiet, to drop into our breath and slowly re-inhabit our body is a good idea. That is, if we want to come home to ourselves and draw together the various threads of our experience. But it’s just the beginning.

Bills still need to be paid, dishes have to be washed and tricky moments in important relationships have to be managed sensitively.

The idea behind daily practice is to fine-tune our awareness so that we can be more aware and responsive to whatever life throws our way. But mindfulness doesn’t always go according to plan.

The other day I had to travel to Portlaoise for the opening of its new Youth Café – a wonderful venue and a rich resource for young people in that county. I forgot my phone.

When I arrived at Heuston Station, I couldn’t access my pre-booked ticket without the reference number that I had logged into my phone. And without a way to call someone for help and only five minutes to departure, I had to hurry to the ticket hall, wait in a queue and buy a new ticket.

I barely made the train, which of course departed from one of those remote platforms that are far enough away to justify a shuttle bus.

After boarding, I grabbed one of the few remaining seats. I had just settled in and caught my breath when a fellow passenger – wearing a look that could certainly not be mistaken for compassion – pointed out that I was occupying his reserved seat. Looking at the name in lights above me, I realised there was no point in trying to protest. I was busted. I gathered up my laptop and papers and shuffled off with my tail between my legs.

Kindness of a stranger

I arrived in Portlaoise with no idea where I was meant to go. If it weren’t for the kindness of a stranger, who noticed my general state of bewilderment, I’d probably still be standing on the platform in Portlaoise station.Things worked out, as they usually do, but I remained vaguely disoriented for the remainder of that afternoon.

I could blame my mental state on a dose of the DTs or low blood sugar. I was a week into my Lenten abstinence: no alcohol or chocolate. Hardly an original idea, but a long-standing family tradition that with each passing year requires greater effort.

But I don’t think that was it. The more likely explanation was that I had stumbled on a basic truth: the first thing that happens when we practice mindfulness is that we become aware of how mindless we all are most of the time.

Mindfulness isn’t some quick fix that changes you as a person; it is more likely to kindly rub your nose in some home truths about yourself. But it also shows us that while our shortcomings may bother us, they are just a small part of who we are, and that we can work with them.

In my case, I saw myself yet again becoming distracted by the busyness of my life. Not just because I have so many things to do, but because I was trying to do everything at the same time. I was getting so caught up in dreaming and worrying about the success or failure of each thing I had to do, I missed the fact that I can actually only ever do one thing at a time.


This practice invites us to experience what it’s like to bring our attention to the one thing we are doing right now, and let go our speculations about the other 10 things we need to do today. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges when I am present to the one thing that I am actually doing in this moment.

With continued practice and a large dollop of patience, I hope to remember to bring with me into each day what helps me to listen, what allows me to focus on one thing at a time, so that I can take my own seat in this world, rather than someone else’s.

Tony Bates is founder director of Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health

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