The thing about listening to Niall "Bressie" Breslin talking about a range of subjects is you forget you're listening to a pop star or a Voice of Ireland coach or a podcaster or children’s books author. He has a way of making you zone in on what he’s saying, rather than who’s saying it. And when Brendan O’Connor asked him about his Buddhism and his deep interest in mindfulness, Bressie dropped the first of many compelling contemplations on life, mental health and connection:
"I think we, in the modern world, have become so busy chasing a life that we’ve ultimately missed living one. And all the good stuff is right in front of our eyes and we keep missing it... It’s human connection, whatever that is, that’s what drives me and I think really, if everyone was honest with each other, that’s what drives all of us but unfortunately we get distracted by so many other things."
One of Buddhism’s teachings involves what Brendan called the two arrows of suffering, the notion that every life will have suffering in it, but two arrows are more painful than one:
"The first arrow of suffering is the inevitable suffering that every human faces, like grief, like the absolute tragedy we saw last week, like relationship issues, stress issues, health issues. These are things every human being on Earth faces and whether you like it or not, that’s what we’ve signed up to, to be a human being. The second arrow of suffering is the one that we tend to fire at ourselves. Say, for example grief – the 'I should have spent more time with him,’ ‘I should have said that to them,’ ‘I should have done this.’ And that’s a really painful type of pain."
So the second arrow of suffering tends to be self-inflicted and, Bressie went on, the Buddha would say, ‘Don’t fire that one. The first one's painful enough.’ Which seems like pretty good advice. But, even if we accept the premise that suffering is part of life (and it’d be hard to argue against it, to be fair) when so many things that are beyond our control happen to us, as is the case over the last three years, should we just grit our teeth and be resilient? No, says Bressie:
"We shouldn’t be resilient to what’s going on in the world right now. It's not normal. It’s immensely overwhelming. We’ve had crisis after crisis after crisis. The problem with resilience is we keep telling individuals they need to be more resilient and we keep putting the onus on the person all the time and we don’t look at culture, we don’t look at society... Sometimes it’s ok that it hurts and you shouldn’t be resilient to it and you should let it hurt a little bit and understand that it’s not normal. And it’s not you that needs to be stronger, it’s the world that needs to be more empathetic."
When the conversation turned to social media, Bressie didn’t try to hide his distaste for the way in which the world has been polarised by various social media sites and their relentless drive for engagement:
"There’s two things with social media: generally, the currency of social media is division. It’s what they trade in, it’s what the algorithms trade in. We turn on each other, we rip each other apart. It’s also where context goes to die. You know, there’s no context and without context information is just, it’s just noise."
The polarisation of the world by social media has come at a particularly bad time for the human race, given all the challenges we’re facing:
"For me, it’s causing an awful lot of division in people at a time when we need to figure out how to come together because the big issues we face globally need a collective response, they don’t need division. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with people and have issues with them, but we need to find a better way. It’s not working, I think anyone can accept that."
Brendan asks Bressie a (presumably) tongue-in-cheek question - ‘Are you fixed now?’ It’s not a term mental health advocate likes:
"I’ve never used the word fixed and I never will. And I have learned over the years to stop giving this the power it had over me before and the best way I was able to do that was expression. And [Dr] Edith Eger says that expression is the opposite of depression. And I am very, very comfortable in my own skin now."
Bressie’s charity, A Lust for Life, has carried out a survey of parents post-pandemic that showed that the lockdowns had a huge effect on their children:
"Of course it did. Of course it did... But we gotta do something now, Brendan, this isn’t a sit-and-look-at-it policy and then write a policy and then look at the policy and then wonder whether it’s the right policy and then 10 years later we have these kids who went through quite a difficult period. And that’s what we’re trying to do with A Lust for Life. It’s now, right now. And that’s what we’re trying to do."
The new book, The Sleep Scan, his fourth book for children, is based on the body scan, which is a core practice of mindfulness. But calling it The Body Scan would be less interesting to children, he feels. The book is a remedy for the hyper-vigilance that kids developed during the pandemic and that aims to get them to sleep better:
"The Sleep Scan is just the body scan for kids so we can switch them off at night, so they don’t feel this hyper-vigilant state, so they can sleep and they can rest and then they can go out and do what kids do the next day, which is have a ball of energy to take on the world. That’s what I’m trying to do with these books. It’s not so much mindfulness, it’s the language of emotion. Teach kids the language of emotion, teach them how to express it, how to feel it."
To hear the full conversation between Brendan and Bressie – including more on his A Lust for Life charity and how the lakes of Westmeath saved his life during the pandemic – go here.
The Sleep Scan by Niall Breslin and Sheena Dempsey is published by Gill Books.