Detox Your Heart by Valerie Mason-John. (Windhorse Publications, 2005. Paperback, $13.95).
According to the brief biography at the front of her book, Valerie Mason-John is a British journalist, author, Buddhist practitioner, and trainer in anger management and conflict resolution. Detox Your Heart is her own unusual story woven into a practical manual of advice for dealing with the negative emotions of anger, hatred, and fear. To write it, Ms. Mason-John has drawn upon her experiences with Buddhist meditation, the work of several Buddhist teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron, and techniques she uses in her work in anger management and conflict resolution.
She describes her adult life as a process of recovery from a background of severe neglect and abuse by her mother and in foster homes, leading to a history of seeking solace in alcohol, drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. Her purpose is to use her experience and training to help others make the same discovery she did: that negative emotions cannot be pacified by suppression, distraction, or acting out, but only by a willingness to slow down, recognize and acknowledge our emotions honestly and fully, and then sit with them, feel them, and let them go.
Detox Your Heart consists of nine chapters, of which six are devoted to extensive explorations of the basic emotions of anger, hate and fear, ending with a chapter on cultivating happiness. Each of the negative emotions merits two chapters, one on recognizing and understanding the emotion, and the next on transforming it. In addition to personal anecdotes, analysis of each emotion is interspersed with lists of practical suggestions (“watch your thoughts; write down a trigger when you notice it; breathe; say a positive phrase to yourself every day”), suggestions for meditation and reflection (“read the following and put this book down”) and imaginary dialogues between the mind and the heart, which the author calls “fables.” Though the fables are generally insightful, I did not find that particular format inspiring, but rather a bit contrived for my taste; other readers might enjoy hearing the mind and heart explain themselves to one another and occasionally call each other names.
One of the main, and most helpful, theses of the book is that the biggest obstacle to dealing with our disturbing emotions is the inability to identify them accurately. “The chain of events is, first, the facts of what actually happens, then our feelings about it, then our thoughts. If the thoughts are toxic, judgment swiftly follows, normally in the form of a critical voice inside our heads. Then we interpret what we believe caused the vulnerable feelings negatively, losing all sight of the initial feeling. Before we know it, the toxic stories we tell ourselves contaminate our hearts with anger, hatred or fear…and we act them out aggressively, verbally or physically, or we seethe inside, causing ourselves more harm than good.”
In the practical spirit of the book, this observation is followed shortly by a list of possible “feelings” to contrast with a similar list of “judgments and interpretations,” to help us sort out the difference and connect with the deeper feeling underlying a particular interpretive thought. While I found the principle and certain of the specific distinctions helpful, I did not understand in some cases how the author arrived at her classifications. For instance, it’s easy to see why “happy” is a feeling and “cornered” a judgment; but why are “irritated, alienated and disgusted” listed as feelings, while “irked, apathetic, and discouraged” are categorized as interpretations?
I enjoyed reading Detox the Heart and found it illuminating in its analysis of the negative emotions, helpful in its practical suggestions for relating to and beginning to tame them, and often compelling in its personal narrative. However, I also felt that it was somewhat marred by inadequate editing, which might have helped with the sometimes imprecise and repetitious quality of the writing, and avoided a number of typos and grammatical errors.
All in all, Detox the Heart is a helpful, practical, personal compendium of observations and techniques for identifying and making peace with some of the powerful negative emotions that form the basis of our suffering and lead us to engage in words and actions that harm others. For further exploration of this topic, I recommend Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh, Working with Anger by Thubten Chodron, and Destructive Emotions by Daniel Goleman.
– Linda Jordan has been a student of Lama Norlha Rinpoche since 1980 and is the coordinator of Kagyu Samten Chöling Tibetan Buddhist Center: www.nhkagyu.org.