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Shambhala Sun | July 2011
You'll find this article on page 73 of the magazine.


Reading on the Mind

By Barry Boyce

There are plenty of good books these days on cultivating mindfulness, awareness, and compassion. Here are a few that have especially caught my eye since last year’s mindful living issue.

While it seems questionable that mindfulness can be learned and maintained solely through a book—a method one wag calls “shelf help”—a how-to guide can be a great aid to an existing practice. The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems (Guilford Press; click here) by Harvard psychotherapist Ronald Siegel offers one of the best available compendiums of tips and techniques for applying mindfulness actively in your life, rather than leaving it in your meditation room. Siegel travels through the full range of life difficulties that arrive at the therapist’s door, including, fear, sadness, depression, pain, stress, loss, compulsion, illness, aging, and dying. In each case, what’s appealing about this book is the voice. It encourages us to apply mindfulness using a gentle and often humorous tone, which we can adopt as our own. I suspect that those of us dealing with the difficulties covered in The Mindfulness Solution (and who isn’t?) need a little help and guidance from live human beings, but this book also lets us know that there is a lot we can do ourselves.

Many of us safely assume that a program of the “X Days to Lasting Y” variety—with Y being weight loss, financial freedom, or career success—is a gimmick. And Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-day Program (Workman Publishing Company; click here) by Sharon Salzberg would seem to fit that bill. Yet beyond the gimmicky title, this book has real depth. Salzberg has a feel for our minds and how they work—for good or ill—that comes from years of clocking in twenty-eight day stretches of mind training. Whether you follow the program step by step doesn’t really matter. You can open this digestible little book to any page at any time and find a valuable insight or useable practice. As a bonus, chapter 2 provides one of the clearest overviews of the current science on mindfulness I’ve seen.

Sometimes an analogy fits so well you forget it’s an analogy. Reading How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness (Shambhala Publications; click here), by Jan Chozen Bays, I truly see how my mind is an elephant in need of a worthy trainer. In India over the centuries, elephants have proven to be very useful companions, but they’re not born that way. A wild elephant runs away or goes on the attack. Such a large jittery animal can do a lot of damage and is not much fun to ride. Sound familiar? So, how do you train one? In short simple steps, Chozen Bays says. For developing mindfulness, she offers fifty-three concise training exercises—a year’s worth if you work with one per week as she suggests. They range from the profound (study suffering) to the deceptively simple (look up) to the habit-confounding (use your non-dominant hand). If you finish them all and your elephant is still a little restless, you can start all over again.

A lot of scientific research confirming the power of emotional intelligence and offering models for how it works has been done since Daniel Goleman released his landmark book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. In The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights (More than Sound; click here), Goleman offers an updated introduction and guide to emotional intelligence in a condensed e-book format. This new type of book offers many owners of e-readers and tablet computers (iPad, for example) a size of book that would be uneconomical in print. At fifty-six pages and with large colourful diagrams, this book is more like a pamphlet, and it does its job beautifully. To get a clear and yet nuanced understanding of emotional intelligence and how scientists currently talk about its operation in the brain, this electronic booklet fits the bill. I expect to see lots more in this format.

The category of mindfulness fiction has been wide open, and now with Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda (Wisdom Publications; click here), writer Lauren Alderfer and illustrator Kerry Lee MacLean (author of Peaceful Piggy Meditation) have made a serious entry into the field. It’s not all that serious, though, since it is intended for children. While I’m certain children will love it, adults are going to enjoy it nearly as much. It’s a page turner. I’ve read it five times myself, and intend to read it again. Suffice it to say that Monkey has issues. When he’s walking, he’s thinking about chores. When he’s doing chores, he’s thinking about reading. When he’s reading, he’s thinking about eating. We all can identify with Monkey. Fortunately, so can Panda, and he’s got some great advice. It’s also fortunate that his advice is straightforward, non-judgmental, and non-preachy. We all could use a little Panda.

Jonathan Kaplan is a psychotherapist with a practice in Manhattan who trained at UCLA, so it’s hardly surprising that he started a blog called Urban Mindfulness. In his new book, Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, & Purpose in the Middle of It All (New Harbinger Publications; click here), Kaplan’s goal is stress reduction, and his method is to turn the habitual thought of urban dwellers—that our surroundings are the main cause of our stress—on its head. In a crowded subway car, he sees the possibility of “a more mindful, compassionate society.”  He also asks whether there are ways for us to consistently cultivate awareness and presence without feeling the need to get away to a retreat or a meditation room. The fifty short exercises—designed not only for tight public spaces but also for home, work, and playtime with our children—may not create a radical transformation but they might just remind us to find the space that always exists even in close quarters.

We tend to think of childhood as a happy time and raising children as one of the most rewarding and joyful times in life, but the hard facts of modern school and family life often contradict that rosy view. Childhood obesity, neglect, domestic violence, bullying, substance abuse, and suicide are major national problems for educators and childhood development specialists. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Ballantine Books; click here) and a sociologist with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the science of happiness has lots to teach us about how to raise children who feel good about themselves. Carter’s core belief is that happiness is not an accident. It is a skill that must be developed from early childhood through adolescence. It begins, Carter tells us, with taking a little time to learn how children’s emotions develop and what role parents’ emotions play in the process.

Mindfulness can sometimes sound like a chore or a cure for what’s wrong with us. It’s refreshing then to see a book come along that celebrates our innate mindfulness and awareness so robustly. On one hand, The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (Shambhala Publications; click here) by Andy Karr and Michael Wood is an instructional book about how to take artful photographs using a digital camera and related digital techniques. At the same time, though, it’s about how at any time we can discover vivid perception that rivets us to the moment. The photographic practice in the book is meant primarily as a means of seeing our perceptions as a wide open door to a delightful and uncontrived awareness. If artful pictures result, so much the better.

From the July 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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