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by Malcolm Huxter
Review by Lee David Perlman on Jun 28th 2016
Healing the Heart and Mind with Mindfulness seems intended to be a practical course of study, which applies the theory and practice of Buddhism to modern psychological dilemmas. It is meant, I think, not so much to be 'read' as to be employed. Itis a useful book. I found myself putting it to use almost immediately, and experienced changes in my own attitudes and approach to the world as I read through it and put it into practice. The book is inspiring, not so much in the writing style which, while it occasionally contains inspirational flourishes (especially in the guided meditations), is often straightforward and a little textbook-ish. But the immediate usefulness of much of the book is inspirational in itself.
The book is a bit of a hybrid. For the most part it takes the reader on an active journey of mindful attention to different aspects of personal experience. The journey is informed largely through a reading of the core Theravedic text, Satipatthana Sutta, but it does so with continuing reference to contemporary psychological treatment modalities, specifically Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). While providing a progressive practical course in mindfulness, the book also proposes particular approaches and exercises for specific psychological disturbances, such as depression and anxiety. In this lies the hybrid character of the book. In those instances it addresses specific audiences rather than the general reader. For me, this interrupted the flow of the book, and made it less of a 'read' and more of a resource. Those sections also read as if the primary purpose was to provide tools for the therapist for a variety of psychological conditions. Organizationally, I would have preferred to see these section consigned to an appendix. I also found the references to the particular treatment modalities, while often interesting and helpful, somewhat scattered and unsystematic.
The general theoretical stance of the book is that mindfulness is a 'technology' developed by the Buddha and within Buddhism, but that it stands on its own; as the algebra developed by Islamic thinkers need not be regarded as a Muslim art, so the teachings of Satipatthana Sutta and other Buddhist texts need not be treated as Buddhist religious doctrine (pg. 9). These teachings are truly psychological technologies which, employed correctly, will inventory our physical and psychological state on all levels. The result of that inventory is a return to 'freedom' and psychic health, suggesting that the human organism is psychologically homeostatic, not just in terms of survival, but we have a homeostatic impulse towards freedom from dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). Huxter never stakes that claim in theory, but his book presupposes it (perhaps most strongly in the guided meditation "Settling the mind in its natural state"). I was at first a little disappointed that studies and other evidence were not brought to bear on this central thesis, nor on the more particular claims that mindfulness exercises can dispel depression, anxiety and other psychological infirmities. But once I realized that this is not that kind of book – it is more a 'proof is in the pudding' approach – I set out to put his exercises into practice. Doing so I encountered substantial evidence in favor of this presumption. For instance, I have experienced that the simple mindfulness practice of 'noting' – of simply bringing to awareness and naming what is present in the body and the psyche can have an almost automatic equilibrating effect. Though Huxter eschews metaphysical and spiritual speculation, the claim that mere awareness of our unbalanced condition – without any evaluation or judgement of that condition – will dissolve destructive patterns, seems to point strongly to a harmony of the human organism with the cosmos that far exceeds evolutionary needs. That this claim is validated experientially, rather than theoretically, both supports it more strongly, and perhaps obviates the need for theoretical articulation.
But those less interested in philosophy (it's my job), will not need to entertain such questions. The book contains some interesting intellectual background, but again, this is a book that you don't simply read, but rather do. The path you are taken on proceeds from  exercises for mindfulness of body and body sensation ('bare awareness') through  mindfulness of feelings (not the equivalent of 'emotions' – but rather awareness of sensations with the addition of the hedonic evaluation pleasant/unpleasant/neutral), through  mindfulness of thoughts to  awareness of emotions, which, unlike feelings, are fully developed response patterns to external and internal stimuli, and then finally,  contemplation of the 'self' (pg. 184). This course has the feeling of a progression, though Huxter does not explicitly present it as such. I found the section on emotions most interesting. Huxter presents a convincing anatomy of emotion as a process response, and the isolation of the elements of the process is itself, for me, a tool of awareness. Based in this clarity of elements, Huxter gives specific strategies for inducing balance and dissolving destructive patterns at each stage of the process.
In addition he begins to describe a kind of dialectic of 'serenity meditation' and 'insight meditation'. I found this distinction helpful and the description of the interaction between these two types of meditation intriguing. I would have like to have seen this woven more throughout his progression of levels of mindfulness.
In conclusion, I found this book helpful and strong in its core. The strongest aspect was the very well formulated meditation exercises and guided meditations. As an extra bonus, these are all available as audio downloads at the author's website. There were a number of peripheral aspects that I found less helpful, but perhaps this will be untrue for other readers. For instance, his summaries of psychological maladies with accompanying catalogues of symptoms, found primarily in the first chapter but sprinkled throughout, seemed unnecessary and interrupted the flow of reading. Huxter also has a habit of throwing bits of information in that don't advance his argument. An example – at one point he notes that Buddha was not the only person in history to teach how to live a happy life – Aristotle did too! (pg. 158). Again, I found these kinds of extraneous detours distracting, and they made reading at times tedious. Last, he very occasionally gives a 'case study', seemingly as a piece of empirical evidence. I didn't find these helpful, and they obstructed my ability to appreciate the strength of the book. All of these distractions obscured the structure of the book for me. When I did pull that out, however, and put it into practice, I found a well-organized and practical path of personal discovery and equilibrium.
© 2016 Lee David Perlman
Lee David Perlman is Senior Lecturer in the Experimental Study Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology