How To Practice Mindfulness at Every Age, with Niall Breslin
Practical tips abound in this phenomenal episode for kids and parents alike! Bestselling author, podcaster, and mental health advocate Niall Breslin strips away the woo-woo-ness of mindfulness and teaches us how we can actually use it to improve quality of life for ourselves and our kids, especially in today’s world. Niall draws from practical, scientific, and spiritual methods to explain that we can’t keep going at the pace we’ve been going because we’ve got “an old brain for a new world and our brain is consistently overwhelmed.” What’s the greatest defense mechanism for that? Mindfulness.
Here are some of the things Niall mentions in the show:
- To get a copy of his mindfulness books for kids and more, visit https://www.niallbreslin.com/books
- To listen to Spotify’s Wake Up / Wind Down podcast, visit https://spoti.fi/3e8bBYq
[01:06] I’m Niall Breslin and I am an author, a podcaster and a musician, and you’re listening to Good Kids. Well, I think the really important place to start is amazing research in Ireland over the last few years called My World Survey, and it’s done in UCD, which is my university and by Jigsaw, which is a youth mental health charity here. And they did some pretty extensive research over, I think, with 25 or 30,000 young people. It was very well-funded, so there there’s very few holes in it, but it gives you really interesting information on young people and their mindset. And it came down to one thing that every young person needs, the most important thing in a young person’s life, and it’s a really powerful statement: it’s one good adult.
[01:53] And that’s a really, really big statement to make. One good adult. Because the other situation here is a lot of kids don’t have that, which brings this into the conversation, that equality is also a big conversation that comes to mental health. Some kids are in families that, you know, are struggling. There might be many, many different layers of issues within that family. And maybe that one good adult isn’t there. And that is a really standing core point foundation for youth mental health in Ireland. So I’m guessing it’s the same in America. But one thing I would say around kids, younger kids — and I did a lot of my research in younger kids within mindfulness-based interventions.
[02:35] I’ve written books about it and I really found that area very interesting because I have a nephew, you know, who I always kind of talk to like he’s an adult. And the one thing I realized is kids are a hell of a lot tougher than I think we give them credit for. And I also think we’ve been exposed to so much fear within the media that we always assume that our kids are, you know, something bad is gonna happen. You know, when I was six, seven, eight years of age, I was eating worms in the back garden. I was just covered in crap. It was my default setting, being present. I just sat there and the world did not exist outside my back garden. And now, unfortunately, kids know the world exists outside the back garden. And there’s a million other things going on and they’re exposed to it. That’s tough on their heads. But one thing we do know from a lot of the research is their brains are adapting a lot quicker than we thought they were. This is their normal.
[03:28] It’s not our normal, but it’s their normal. But when it comes to emotion, and here’s the crucial part — when I was growing up, my dad spent most of my life overseas. He was in the Irish Army — and I always had to make this definition when I speak in America — I did a few talks in America last year — is that he’s in the Irish Defense Forces. Your dad was in the IRA? No, the Irish Defense Forces. It’s the Irish Army. And he spent most of my life overseas with the United Nations. He lived in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, places like that. And he used to leave in the middle of the night. And anyone who’s got military in the states knows this feeling when their loved one just gets up and has to go and could be gone for a year to a country that might not be very safe. And I used to sit in there in the hall and I would be really upset. And my mom or dad would say, don’t cry. It’ll upset your dad. You know, don’t cry in front of your dad, it’ll upset him. And I was like, but I feel really sad. And then dad would leave and I’d hear my mother crying in a room. So I got very confused by that.
[04:31] And I was very confused by the fact that we have to repress emotions that might not be comfortable emotions, or emotions that we find difficult to express. And I’ve had that conversation with my parents. We’re very, very open, a very, very strong family. But that definitely confused me. So one of the areas that I’m very interested in mindfulness in kids is mindfulness is an amazing vehicle to let kids talk about emotion in a safe way that’s not too evasive, that isn’t too heavy, that isn’t too exposing to them. They can talk about sadness. They can talk about anxiety, worry. These are emotions kids are well able to talk about. We’re not going to start talking about clinical depression with children, like, come on, that’s a bit common sense here. But we have to address the fact that these are emotions they’re feeling and experiencing, so they should understand them. And we should talk to them about it. And that’s so important.
[05:21] To be fair to mindfulness, when I started to study it, I had more questions than I had answers, and I still do. I’m not a huge fan of that word, and it’s never really sat well for me, but I’ve not found a better one, so I keep using it. For me, what mindfulness is — in explaining to a parent, a really good way to explain it is get into an ice-cold shower. Just step into an ice-cold shower. And when that water hits you, it cuts the arse off you. Ask yourself, are you thinking about what happened yesterday or what you have to do tomorrow? You probably aren’t.
[05:54] You’re probably literally going, this is absolutely freezing. That’s mindfulness. It’s being completely present, moment-orientated. Why is that important? What does that do? Like from a neuroscience perspective, without getting too heavy on — my interest in it was always Buddhism, but neuroscience was a huge part of it for me. We are in this mode of what they call the amygdala hijack all the time. When we’re exposed to all this information all the time and when we always believe or under threat, which a lot of us do, we are in this amygdala hijack. What does that mean? Our limbic system is just completely calling all the shots. Now, our limbic system is really fast. It’s really powerful, but it has no capacity for rational thought. It’s just there to keep you alive. It’s your fight or flight. And the problem with the limbic system, we then have the neocortex, which is the next part of the brain. And that part of the brain is the rational thinker. That’s the like, I’m probably overreacting here. It is the problem solving part of the brain.
[06:49] But by the time we get to the neocortex, we’ve completely and utterly tainted the information because the limbic system has made us freak out. And that is essentially why a lot of us are anxious all the time, because our limbic systems are just overriding all rational thinking. It’s just completely overriding us all the time. And what mindfulness does, from a scientific point of view, is it strengthens the bridge between the neocortex and limbic system. So it actually — it makes you, for that split second when something happens, stop, pause, rationally think and then react. And that to me is a crucial part of the modern world, because what’s happening now is we’re getting completely drowned in reacting, being overwhelmed all the time. Now there’s your science. From a mindfulness point of view, the definition of mindfulness is it’s paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. Now, that doesn’t mean a lot to a lot of people. But when you think about it, what most of us do on any given day is consistently think — if we have 60 to 70,000 thoughts a day. Sometimes those thoughts are anxious. Sometimes they’re ones of what we have to do tomorrow, what happened yesterday. They are rumination.
[07:53] And we’re in this constant flux of unease because we’re not in the present moment. And what mindfulness does is it teaches you to get there. And in that present moment, you’re perfectly safe. Your body is aware that you’re in the present moment and it isn’t having this complete physiological response all the time.
[08:10] Now, that’s quite heavy stuff around mindfulness. Why is it important? Because this world’s moving too fast for everybody now. It really is. I’ve long believed this, my background — sociology and culture and how our culture works — I don’t believe this is sustainable anymore. And I believe this pandemic, as terrible and horrible as it’s been, is the biggest wake up call we will ever get. We cannot keep going at the pace that we’re going at because we have an old brain for a new world and our brain is consistently overwhelmed. And the greatest defense mechanism for that for me is mindfulness, because it makes you aware of what’s doing that overwhelming. Because most of us are moving so fast we can’t even tell anymore. I’ve become quite a natural optimist. I wasn’t always one. And over the last few years, my own journey, I kind of found a more habitual way of appreciating things that I may not have appreciated in the past.
[09:05] And that’s opened doors for me in many, many different ways for my own mental health. But yeah, I suppose one of the things that I’m doing now is this daily Spotify podcast called Wake Up / Wind Down. And it’s like you wake the person up in the morning, you frame their day for them. You kind of give them some kind of lead to their day. And then in the evening, the idea is to kind of calm them down a little bit, get them a bit rested, get their mind settling. And in a pandemic framework is so essential, giving somebody some form of framework to actually approach their day with is so crucial. And also not trying to dance around the fact that we are in a pandemic. I don’t want to just be trolling these vacuous, you know, inspirational quotes of people that really don’t mean anything sometimes. I want to give people the insight, the idea that we’re all struggling with this, this isn’t meant to be easy. This is tough stuff. This is the very definition of resilience. And I suppose that’s my take on wellness. I think often with wellness, we can just gloss over the negativity. And the negativity is really important. We have to understand it. And that’s what I try to do with the podcast is say, listen, I’m not trying to give you Care Bears and unicorns and inspirational quotes here. I’m trying to explain the human condition, how the fact that this is meant to be tough and we’re doing just fine. And I’m trying to help people frame their day a bit. And then there’s days I don’t feel that way.
[10:28] But, you know, you’ve two options here. You’re both a professional, but you’re also a person. So if there’s days that you’re not feeling particularly amazing yourself, it’s OK to say that. That to me is being professional in the wellness space. If you’re trying to be positive all the time, for me that’s just not true. And it’s not something someone’s able to do all the time, and actually if you were positive all the time, you’d be dead. Being negative is quite important to the human condition. It’s kept us alive this amount of time. So it’s about being honest. And I think in the wellness space, there is often this element of slight gaslighting with people, you know, just pretend this isn’t happening. This is happening and it’s tough. And if you accept that it’s tough when you have those bad days, you don’t punch the head off yourself first. You actually accept that I’m meant to have these bad days because this is tough.
[13:42] Mindfulness is a skill, and like every skill, you need to practice it. But it’s important to point out with mindfulness — there is a form of mindfulness often referred to as meditation. There’s different types of meditation. And then there’s informal mindfulness, which is actually where I spend most of my time. Most of my time is informal. It is walking, it is eating, it is slowing down. It is paying attention to the present moment. When I’m with my nephew, I’m with my nephew. I’m in his arms. He’s in my arms. That’s mindfulness, that’s informal mindfulness. And that is just as important, if not more important, than the formal practice. You know, when you think it, what really hit home with me was when my nephew Billy — I came home one day, I was gone through quite a stressful couple of weeks, and I came home and he sprinted out of the house and he jumped on my leg, like a vise-grip hug, unconditional-love hug. And I missed it because I was on my phone, you know, I missed that moment. And that’s informal mindfulness.
[14:39] When you have a six-year-old running at you full-tilt for a hug, you give that kid a hug and you hold onto him. And that’s mindfulness. We’re missing too many of those moments because essentially that’s what our life is made up of, not of constantly doing, constantly chasing and constantly trying to achieve status. And that’s the culture we’ve created, a culture that rewards doing and looks down on being. And being is those moments when you hug your 6 year old nephew.
[15:12] It’s really important as well with kids, like telling a hyper child or a stressed child to calm down this most pointless thing you can say to them. You know, I get that. I am well aware of that. So what I’ve done is a lot of the work that I’ve done with kids is how do I find a place where they can actually engage with mindfulness? Just a few examples of the type of stuff I would have done, and I would’ve worked with some kids with attention-deficiency issues and stuff like that.
[15:34] The first thing I would say to them about their breath. So I’d say if you’re using your breath as an anchor of your attention, they’re like, but I can’t see my breath. And I’m like, good point. Give it a color. Give it a color. And they’re like, oh, my God, what’s your favorite color? Yellow. Oh, amazing. Breathe yellow in. Pretend you’re filling your body with that beautiful yellow color that you love, and they’re breathing and all of a sudden they have something to hold onto. They’re in. They’re up for it. The next thing I do is you say to them, you give them the language. There’s a technique I use called the magic moment technique. And I say to them, you know, did you ever get scared or worried? And they’re like, yeah, of course. And you ask them what scares you? Some of them might say the swimming pool or, you know, some of them might say loud noises, the dark. And I’d be like, oh, yeah, that scares me, too. All of a sudden they’re listening to me because they relate to me. And then I go, you want to hear a little cool trick that you can do to help you when you get worried? They’re like, absolutely. So the magic moment is to get their thumb and their index finger and both hands and they squeeze them together as tight as they can. And think of the happiest time that they can remember. Like the happiest moment in their life, getting their pet, Christmas, whatever.
[16:38] And really think about it and think that you’re there and breathe. And take ten deep breaths with that magic moment. And then you say to them, now, when you ever get scared or get worried now, all I wanted to do was do that. Grab your fingers. And they’re like, amazing. Does that work? Yeah, it works. So kids don’t question stuff. They’re perfect. They’re perfect clients for mindfulness. They have no cynicism. As we get older like adults, we get very cynical. We start to go this is — because we’ve been conditioned to move and be rewarded by achievement and status, and, oh, I got promoted. That’s how we’ve been conditioned to value our lives. So kids don’t value life like that. They have to gauge what is right and wrong. And they’re not cynical. So they’ll work with you on stuff. And another great way to talk to kids is one of the predominant emotions kids experience is jealousy. And we all know what that feels like. It is not a pleasant feeling. It’s a confusing feeling, because often you get jealous of people you love, which is even more confusing. So I would say to them, OK, you know, here’s a really brilliant trick in the space around gratitude. I want you to, on one hand, think of five things that you have in your life that you really love and you’re very thankful for. And I want you to grab, you know, each finger and I want you to think about, you know, 10 breaths. I want you to think about that thing and go through every finger. Then they go through the five fingers — it’s called take five. And they’re like, oh, my God, I don’t feel jealous anymore. I’m like, exactly. And it’s simple, practical tools. Give them a physical cue. Give them something to hold onto.
[18:04] Don’t just tell them to sit there and breathe. It’s tough for kids to do that. It’s tough for adults to do that. So that’s the way I approach mindfulness in children. The book that kind of made me look at this differently was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is a book that everybody should read. And it’s about the capacity and importance of hope, and how important hope is in literally every person’s psychology. Hope is crucial and you should hold on to it. But there’s also a really important area of acceptance. We have to accept that right now we’re in a certain situation that is really difficult, and it’s really overwhelming, and it hurts. And accept that. Because when you accept it, it allows you to deal with it in a far more efficient way because you go, if I am having a crap day, of course I’m having a crap day. It’s OK to have a crap day. It’s fine. It’s part of this process. But then you go on Instagram and go, oh, my God, but my mate is having a great day and I’m having a crap day.
[19:10] So now all of a sudden I feel guilty, and I feel profoundly kind of, you know, not that you don’t have enough to be dealing with. You’re throwing that big cocktail of guilt into the equation. So for me, it’s really important if you go back to the Buddhist teachings, the Buddha says that most of our suffering comes from attachment and aversion. So being attached to having something a certain way all the time — even though the one guarantee in the world is change, it is the one common denominator to everything in the world — but we’re attached to having this perfect thing all the time. And when it isn’t perfect, we get overwhelmed that we get stressed or we get low, or we get all these other things. And the other thing that causes our suffering is the aversion. So we are averse to having negative feelings. We don’t want to have them, we push them away and we repress them. And when you push away negativity and difficult emotions, what happens is they’re gonna come out somewhere, and you cannot repress and you cannot outrun a negative emotion.
[20:04] But you can absolutely deal with it. And unfortunately an awful way a lot of us end up dealing with it is things like substance dependency, all these other issues, maladaptive coping. And this is what we’ve got to be careful of. And that’s why we shouldn’t repress negative emotion. And the reason we do is because we’ve stigmatized it, so people are forced to internalize it and then they internalize it, they have to deal with themselves. And that is tough and it’s not good for you.
[20:27] The Buddhist calls it the second arrow of suffering. The first arrow is the inevitable stuff that we all face, the tough days, the stress, the bad day at work, the grief, the break-ups — they are the inevitable suffering every human will deal with at some stage in their life. The second arrow of suffering is the one we tend to fire ourselves every time. And that’s like it’s my fault. I’m not good enough. I’m worthless. I’m this. I’m that. And you keep firing that second arrow, and it’s that arrow that does the damage. So what I always say to people is try your best not to fire that second arrow, because you have the ability to deal with the first one. That is a really important learning in mindfulness is being aware that you’re firing that arrow all the time. Being aware that you’re treating yourself like a punchbag. And in the middle of a pandemic, don’t do that.
[21:16] You know, we have enough to be dealing with than waking up in the morning and finding some way to blame yourself for something that is completely out of your control. And also the biggest guarantee of most of our issues is that they are completely impersonal. But we always believe they’re personal. We always believed that every bad thing that happens on earth is because of us. And that’s not true. And the world — and I don’t mean this in a negative way — does not revolve around us. The world is a complex place of layered different pings going on. And we’re very quick to blame ourselves for every wrong that happens. You know, as tough as this all has been, this is going to build a huge level of resilience in young people. We don’t need to constantly pad and hide this stuff from our children.
[22:09] There’s obviously stuff they shouldn’t see. Absolutely. But with difficult stuff, I really advocate the idea that, you know, finding a way to facilitate and support your children, do it and not try to pretend that it isn’t there, is a really good way for helping them build up their psychological flexibility to deal with the inevitable second arrows and first arrows that they’re gonna fire at themselves as they get older. And that’s really important. And, you know, as I said, cocooning your child from everything, and not letting them experience the good, the bad and the ugly of the world, it kind of lures it into a false sense of security. And I think it’s important that as tough as this pandemic is for your children, being there for them, letting them understand this is tough, in the long run. you can look back at this and go, you are the very definition of resilience. You’ve lived through the only pandemic of our lives, apart from Spanish flu was the last one. So I think that’s an important point to point out. Hopefully they’ll be armed with seriously strong tools to deal with adversities that they end up facing the rest of their lives.
[23:23] If you’re interested in what comes out of my mouth, I also have a podcast, Wake Up / Wind Down, which is the daily podcast on Spotify in the morning and the evening. And I also have another podcast called Where Is My Mind, which is coming out in June. And also I have a couple of children’s books out and called Magic Moment and Take Five. I have a third book coming out this year. And they’re all based around kids mindfulness techniques.
[23:52] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Andrew Steven is our producer, and the show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad. Westwood One is our ad sales and distribution partner. Like us, give us a five-star rating, and recommend us to a friend. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at email@example.com.