“Life Happens,” by Cheryl Rezek
Life Happens is the work of Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek, a UK-based clinical psychologist who teaches mindfulness as a way of helping her clients deal with often difficult life situations. It combines pithy insights in written form with excellent audio instructions that guide the listener through a variety of meditative exercises and even physical stretches. It’s aimed in particular at those who have problems with mental distress or physical pain, such as stress, depression, chronic pain, cancer, and addiction.
The recordings most clearly show Rezek’s strengths as a teacher. Her voice is very pleasant to listen to, and conveyed to me a sense of warmth and gentleness, combined with precision. Her instructions emphasize self-care, for example in learning to recognize when you’re trying too hard in stretching exercises. These audio guides, which span two CDs, introduce yoga-based movements that promote body awareness and also help to release tensions. They also include a number of meditation and mindfulness exercises of various lengths. The instructions are well-paced and clear.
Rezek’s work as a clinical psychologist deeply informs her writing, which shine light on the mental processes that create much of our suffering, and which recognize our complexity as human beings. For example, she points out that many of our problems are caused by coping mechanisms that have gone astray, such as defense strategies that lead to us cutting off from others in order to protect us from harm, but end up impoverishing our lives by isolating us and removing us from sources of love and support. The book is full of such analyses, and I suspect many people who are beginning a part of spiritual exploration in order to transcend their psychological suffering will have “aha!” moments of self-recognition, and will feel relieved to have put a finger on what has been hindering their happiness.
Implicit in Rezek’s approach is not giving ourselves a hard time for being imperfect. This is heartening, since for many people beginning meditation the tendency is to see parts of themselves (their unhelpful habits) as “the enemy,” to be vanquished. Rezek’s approach is based on lovingkindness and wisdom, seeing our unhelpful habits as simply strategies that don’t work very well at accomplishing the aim of bringing about our well-being.
Rezek repeatedly points out that there are limits to the change we can bring about: “We cannot change rocks into rivers or trees into streams: we cannot change the fundamentals of who we are so we cannot be who we are not.” She stresses however that we can exercise choice and make changes in our lives, and thus bring about more balance. At the same time, she also stresses that our unhelpful ways of relating to our experience — while they may have been with us since childhood — are not integral to who we are. We don’t, in other words, have the ability to change everything about ourselves, but we can change what really matters, which is our tendency to make ourselves unhappy.
I enjoyed the fact that the final chapter of the book is called “No conclusion,” suggesting that practice is a life-long task of learning. In keeping with the principles of lovingkindness, Rezek reminds us that we will inevitably make mistakes, and that we should accept this and simply keep on making an effort to learn from them.
“Life Happens” is not perfect, and the editing leaves much to be desired. Although Rezek is generally a good writer, she would, like all good writers, have benefited from having some occasional “clunkiness” smoothed out. And there were times I wished she’d had someone on hand to encourage her to write more, or sometimes less; certain passages are a bit too brief and pithy for their own good, while others seem padded. But I am (I confess) a very critical reader as regards style, and I suspect most people for whom this book would be useful will simply be focused on, and grateful for, the content. I’d regard the CDs not so much as being a complement to the book, but the book as being a complement to the CDs. Without the guided meditations, the written descriptions of practice would be interesting but not necessarily life-changing. The combination allows for both reflection, on reading the written word, and a living engagement with experience, through following the guided meditations that Rezek so skillfully leads. “Life Happens” (the book and CDs) could potentially benefit many people, and I hope Rezek’s work finds a wide audience.