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by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston
Da Capo Lifelong, 2010
Review by Mary Hrovat on Nov 30th 2010
The concept of mindfulness originated in Buddhism; in the past 30 years or so, Western psychology has adapted it to a variety of contexts (stress management, pain management, positive psychology). The idea has certainly caught on; a search on Amazon turns up quite a number of books on mindfulness. What distinguishes this one, co-written by a scientist and a teacher of mindfulness, is its synthesis of current science and practical applications. The tone is gentle, encouraging, and nonjudgmental, and the book urges readers to take a scientific, pragmatic approach to mindfulness, trying the techniques described in the book and seeing for themselves what works for them.
The book comes across as sort of an owner’s manual for consciousness. By learning to engage in what is actually happening in the moment, particularly the immediate physical sensations, readers can create a space between this felt experience and the thoughts and emotional reactions that accompany it, separating the inevitable pains of life from the added suffering that arises from often-unexamined beliefs about the pain (for example, the pain of a breakup turns into suffering if we assume that it means that we are not lovable and will always be alone). Mindfulness is described as a tool for viewing our thoughts, feelings, and habitual patterns more clearly, which gives us the opportunity to change them, sometimes simply by acknowledging them and then learning to let them go. In school, we’re generally not taught how to handle emotions (other than perhaps being told how not to express them) or how to cultivate focused attention or to shift between focus and the more open awareness needed for creative activity. This book provides some training in these skills.
The first few chapters introduce the concept of mindfulness and describe how to begin a mindfulness meditation practice. Most of the remainder of the book explores how the concept can be applied to different situations: dealing with physical or emotional pain, improving the ability to focus the attention, coping with stress, increasing the capacity for joy and compassion. The book closes with a chapter on dealing with obstacles in the practice of mindfulness and a more speculative chapter on the broader implications for society if more people were to apply the techniques of mindfulness in their everyday lives.
Most of the chapters follow a specific structure. The first section presents information on what science has discovered so far about mindfulness and its effects on the body, brain, and behavior. Footnotes provide links to relevant brain imaging, psychological, and genetic studies. The second section, on the art of mindfulness, provides a more typical self-help approach, with discussions of how mindfulness affects the way people live their lives and brief quotes from meditators that describe how meditation has been helpful in particular situations. Buddhism is sometimes mentioned, but the material is accessible to those who follow other religious traditions or none at all; readers are not asked to accept any particular belief system and are encouraged to test their new knowledge by applying it and seeing how it works. The final section of each chapter offers an activity that readers can use to explore mindfulness further.
Mindfulness is useful in a wide range of circumstances, but the authors do not present it as a panacea; they sometimes mention cases where another therapy or treatment might be necessary or where mindfulness is useful only as an adjunct. The science sections are also quite honest and informative. In addition to noting the many documented positive results of mindfulness training, they also point out cases where the results are inconclusive and explain why (e.g., the lack of a control group or possible confounding factors) and how such studies might be improved in the future. Attentive readers will learn not just about the science behind mindfulness but also a bit about how science is done.
The book has some confusing lapses; for example, the first activity tells you to assume your meditation posture, but the information on meditation, including finding a comfortable posture, is not given until the next chapter. Occasionally the language is a bit unclear, and the references to other chapters are not always correct, which can be mildly confusing. On the whole, though, this is a good introduction for those who are not familiar with mindfulness and who would like a practical introduction to how it works, what it offers, and how to apply it in their lives.
© 2010 Mary Hrovat
Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer and editor; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project [http://www.thinkingmeat.com/], which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics