Massage & relaxation guide: TV presenter Kathy Sykes on her quest for calm

Much of my life, I've been incredibly driven. Driven to "do". It's so easy in a society obsessed by the work ethic and driven by consumerism to feel that what matters is doing things: achieving, working, moving, consuming. We're less good at valuing, meandering, sitting still, dreaming, pottering. They seem lazy. But over the past five years, meditation and my own attempts at meandering have persuaded me that the better I get at "being" instead of "doing" the more relaxed I am. And, ironically, the better I get at doing things too.

When I was younger, to relax, I would stop working, and do different things at full pelt, whether clambering up mountains, lurching around squash courts, or learning scuba diving or salsa. I've always felt that our time on this planet is short, so making the most of it matters. And relaxing rarely felt a priority.

But, for some years now, I have been trying to dash about less and sit still more. Friends and family chuckle at my earnest explanations that I'm learning to inflict relaxation on myself better. I've found that if I can just manage to lie still, and do nothing for half-an-hour a day, it helps me with everything.

I don't call it meditation; I tried that as a student, in incense-filled rooms, but found it frustratingly impossible to not think. But I can lie down, listen to mellow music, drift about happily, and not think about much at all.

So, when I found myself going to Kathmandu, to be taught to meditate by the monk Matthieu Ricard, described as the "happiest man in the world", as part of a programme for BBC2 and the Open University on meditation, I was delighted.

What did I learn from him? He said concentrate on breathing and feeling your breath going in and out of your nose. "Don't worry about thoughts coming into your head ... Just observe them, and let them pass, like a bird flying across the sky." This, helpfully, makes you feel less frustrated at the inevitable thoughts that come.

Matthieu also explained that meditation is not about emptying the mind, but learning how to focus it, use it better as a tool. It helps us not to be at the mercy of our random and sometimes unhelpful thoughts, but helps us focus on what we choose.

He suggested, for example, unconditional love, or the impermanence, or the interconnectedness, of all things. Or, one can "sit with" emotions, even sadness or anger. Not be overwhelmed by them, but feel them properly and keep them in perspective.

"Meditation makes you a better human being, makes you more compassionate and better able to balance emotions," he added.

Being taught by Matthieu was a total privilege. But I have to come clean: attempting to learn meditation during just two frenzied days of filming didn't leave me feeling I'd given it my best shot. My time with Matthieu was shorter than I'd have liked.

Since then, Professor Herbert Benson in Boston has assured me that, in his view, many things count as meditation. Just saying the same word, such as "calm", on your out breath repeatedly can do it.

What's staggered me since though, is the number of people I've met who have discovered real benefits of meditating, and yet have stopped practising, or don't do it enough. When I ask why, they usually say they're too busy.

It's clearly really hard to keep meditating. Just as I struggle to inflict relaxation on myself, many struggle to keep finding the time to meditate.

So, what do I do now, a year on from meeting Matthieu? I still try to sit for 30 minutes a day, with music or in silence. Is it meditation? To be honest, I'm not sure. But I try to be mindful. I try to be in the moment, whatever I am doing. When I eat, I just eat. When I walk, I just walk. When I do the dishes, I just do them. It's not always easy, but I try.

And what difference does it make? I feel more content than I've ever been. More able to see things in perspective and deal with hard challenges. More able to be courageous and more intimate with people I love. I feel I get better at being in the moment - and it seems appalling not to manage to enjoy being in the present when we're on this beautiful planet so briefly. These things are important. But more important, as Matthieu said, I think it helps me be a better human being. And that's not bad.

· Kathy Sykes is a presenter for the BBC and Open University and professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol

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