ON the morning before we speak, Martin Stepek gets up before the rest of his family and spends 15 minutes sitting with his eyes closed, observing his thoughts. He does this every morning. One of his “weaknesses” is “a tendency to worry about the state of the world and politics”, so he tries to address this, noticing those thoughts then turning his mind on the immediate environment.

If he’s still in bed, he thinks about the mattress and how it feels good, about how millions of people don’t have mattresses or pillows, and how grateful he is to be living in a country where most people do. That thought has particular personal resonance because his Polish father, Jan Stepek, and other members of his family, endured 18 months in a Soviet Union labour camp in the early 1940s. From his own family history, Martin Stepek knows that, for some, life brings great hardship.

“Whatever’s going on with Donald Trump and Brexit,” the mindfulness expert says, “don’t forget that the vast majority of people are kind and thoughtful and that you and a lot of people have got an amazing life that has developed over generations, and that, fingers crossed will continue to be the case.”

Stepek, whose new Sunday Herald column begins today, is the founder of TenforZen, a company offering guided mindfulness sessions in short daily audio courses. He was first drawn to mindfulness as a 39-year-old married father of two and a director, along with nine siblings, of J Stepek, the once hugely successful electrical goods retailer.

The stress of being in business with all those siblings had begun to overwhelm him. “It was eating into home life,” he recalls. “It started to make me feel worn out, to lose the passion.” One day, when he was standing in a bookshop looking for a guide on building websites, he noticed a bright orange display for a book by the Dalai Lama. “I thought, why don’t I get a book on Buddhism? It’s meant to calm you down. I’ll take it on holiday and I’ll literally rip it apart, but I might find something practical in it.”

The book he bought was Buddhism: Plain And Simple by Steve Hagen, a guide he describes as “very modern and psychological”. He read it on holiday and decided that on his return he would try "this thing called meditation”.

It was a revelation. “I was doing it in a really bad way but, amazingly, it still worked. I thought, ‘Well if I’m doing it this badly and it still works, what if I do it properly?’” He particularly enjoyed the discipline's focus on breathing. “It's a nice feeling. And when you get into the rhythm of it and you’re able to let go of the things that would pop up in your mind, it’s almost like you’re worn out and someone plugged you into a socket – and you’re being recharged.”

From then on, Stepek practised it daily, often stealing a couple of minutes at work and finding it helped with de-stressing. He began attending classes run by a Motherwell-based Tibetan Buddhist group guided by a shaven-headed nun. “My first response was, ‘What am I letting myself in for here?” he says. “But the guidance was astonishing.”

The mindfulness he learned there was all about “paying attention on purpose to what is going on in the present moment”. It would be the beginning of a long and absorbing learning journey, involving monthly retreat weekends and the one month's intensive training it takes to become a Buddhist teacher.

Since then, he has studied the huge body of mindfulness research that has grown over the last decade, particularly in the field of neuroscience, and diverged from Buddhist practice to create his own approach, which “blends the ancient practice with the scientific findings”.

Studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can increase ability to focus and clarity of attention, reduce depression and anxiety, help combat eating disorders, and even boost resistance to disease.

Stepek has clearly felt the benefits of it in his own life. The year 2012 was “an awful year" for his family when, even as his father’s health was fading, he found himself visiting three other family members in one day, each on different wards at Hairmyres hospital: his wife, who had a mystery haemorrhage from which she recovered, his mother, dying of cancer, and his sister, “then thought to have terminal cancer”. Four years later, his sister Maria, is still alive, and, says Stepek, “she’s been using mindfulness and hypnotherapy to sustain her”, while being treated with experimental drugs.

Stepek also attributes mindfulness with helping him and his family make a key decision – to let go of the family business in 2002. J Stepek had been in financial trouble, but the bigger problem, in Martin’s view, was what it was doing to the 10 siblings. “The family issues were so entangled because there were so many of us.” From around 2000, he started to feel that “we could not heal as a family while the business was still enmeshing us and that we should definitely get rid of the business at some point”.

Mindfulness helped give them that clarity – “and the family healed after we got rid of the business”.

It also plays a creative role in his life. “It helps you get mental space,” he says. “You can’t be creative if you’re bogged down all the time.”

Six years ago, Stepek published a book of poems, For There Is Hope, about his family's experiences among the 1.7 million Polish citizens to be deported to labour camps in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Arctic Russia. His father was 17 years old and his two younger sisters, 14 and 12, when they were forcibly sent with their mother to the gulag. In the book's introduction, the author Neal Ascherson describes it as “an astonishing" work ... "at once a monument, a meditation, a prayer and an epic”.

Around 2001, Jan Stepek had suffered a series of strokes and Martin, not wanting to lose the chance of learning about his family’s experience, began interviewing him and his two sisters who survived the Gulag. At home later, he'd write up his emotions. “They came out,” he says, “in the form of poetry.”

The story his father and aunts told was one of intense hardship. They spent the Siberian winter working barefoot in snow, suffering severe malnutrition. When they were released, after 18 months, they had to walk all the way to Kazakhstan where they hoped to join the Polish army. It was a journey that would do irreparable damage to their mother Janina’s health. By the time she got to Kazakhstan, she could no longer stand, and six months later she was dead.

“I remember very clearly coming back from my dad’s house and in my head was just this one line, ‘Janina, I love you’. Dad had been telling me about the last time he saw her alive in Kazakhstan. He asked her, ‘Should I go and find the army? And enlist? Or should I stay and try to help you and my younger sisters?’ My grandmother said to my dad, ‘Go, whatever happens to us, happens.’”

Since Stepek read his first book on Buddhism there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness, among organisations and individuals, from primary schools to the NHS. “It’s astonishing to see how it’s grown,” says Stepek. Books, classes, apps and courses have proliferated and in mindfulness circles, people talk dismissively of "McMindfulness", referring to shallow or throwaway approaches to the practice. “I’m concerned about this,” he says, “Anything that eases stress is obviously a good thing – but it worries me that something that is very transformative of a human being’s sense of themselves and of others, could end up being not followed through by people because they just get the light version of it.”

Mindfulness isn’t just about calming a few worries, or shifting stress. Stepek observes it is a profoundly different way of living and of dealing with our own “volatile minds”.

“I help counsel families of people who have lost members through suicide and I’ve seem that you can help them regain a love of life despite what must be the most difficult stuff a person can imagine. Then you start to understand that mindfulness isn’t just a glossy, wee thing to make yourself feel better for half an hour. It’s completely life-changing.”