mindfulness in daily life

Kindness is not weakness

Recently I received a few questions about the relationship between lovingkindness and “toughness.”

1. When practicing lovingkindness, how do you respond if people around you warm to you, but misconstrue your kindness and friendliness, and then become disappointed that you don’t want a “relationship” with them?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose the short answer is “kindly.”

It’s great if people are noticing you becoming friendlier and are responding. But these things can be complicated, especially when people have strong emotional needs (because they’re lonely, for example) or where friendliness is being interpreted as an overture to romantic involvement.

And sometimes we may need to look at the signals we’re giving out. Are we just being friendly, or is there an element of flirtatiousness? It’s hard to say from the inside, sometimes, because we’re often not aware of all our motivations and habits. It may take a lot of internal scrutiny and perhaps feedback from friends before we can sort that out.

But assuming that you’re just being friendly, we just need to be kind and clear and to set appropriate boundaries. So you could thank the other person for their interest and say, kindly, that unfortunately you don’t have time in your social calendar to have coffee with them, or that you’re not interested in dating at the moment, or whatever seems appropriate for the circumstances.

Some people are not good at taking rejection, so the other person may be hurt or angry or become more persistent, so you may have to be very firm. But it’s still best to be gracious.

2. When practicing lovingkindness but still having to be part of the world work-wise, how do you reconcile others’ expectations that you must be “tough” to negotiate deals etc, that kind, gentle people are “pushovers” and should be taken advantage of, or treated with toughness?

There does seem to be a common assumption that if you’re friendly you can’t also be tough or firm, but that’s of course not the case. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Recently I had to lay someone off because of a financial crunch at work, which was a tough decision to make. But it needed to be done. I tried to do it as kindly as possible, and to give as much background information as possible so that she’d understand why I was doing what I was doing. The response was quite amazing: my former co-worker, when she heard about the financial difficulties we were going though said, “That’s terrible. What can I do to help?” This is not a testament to my communication skills and is more to do with the other person’s own kindness, but it shows that even a lay-off can be an affair free of bitterness.

Some business-people are tough to the point of being positively inhuman, because they are unable to empathize with others. One study reckoned that one in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths. In the long-term, business leaders like that are hugely destructive. They can make life hell for the people they work for. They can destroy trust with their own customers. They can bring their own companies down (Enron, anyone?). They can destroy entire economies.

There’s even a case for saying that corporations, which typically take returns to shareholders as the only meaningful benchmark of success, disregarding the welfare of their workers, clients, and the world generally, have psychopathic tendencies.

On the other hand, studies have shown that effective leaders are empathetic. One study showed that the most effective managers “consistently used the following four competencies: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.”

Being empathetic and kind is one set of skills. Being clear and tough is another. Having just one set of these skills makes you ineffective. But it’s possible to have both.

3. This all kind of rolls up to how much is it my responsibility to change my own behaviours based on what I perceive others expect of me? I know some people who do this unconsciously, and others who don’t do it at all a they have no consciousness of others perceptions. But once you are aware, how much is it my responsibility to change myself, and how much should I be “true to myself” and expect others to change around me – even knowing it may not get the response I seek?

If we confuse being kind with “getting people to like us” then we won’t be true to ourselves, and we’ll suffer. Being kind simply means recognizing that other people wish to be happy and don’t want to suffer. Being unkind means wanting others to suffer or not to experience happiness. Now we can be kind and still take actions that lead to other people being unhappy (you might need to lay someone off, and they probably won’t be happy about it) but it’s not our aim to make the other person unhappy, so we’re not being unkind. We recognize that the decisions we’re making are likely to evoke unhappiness, and so we try to take that into account in our speech and in other actions we take.

And being kind doesn’t mean negating your own well-being. If other people have expectations of you, you need to ask whether those expectations are right and reasonable. Your question’s rather abstract, so I’ve no idea what kind of expectations people have of you, or in what way they might want you to change. If they want you to fit in with some well-established and effective way of doing things, then yes, I think it’s reasonable for you to change to accommodate that. If they expect you to lose your sense of right and wrong, then you need to take a stand.

When we’re “being true to ourselves” we’re always being selective. In my opinion, we’re most true to ourselves when we’re true to the wisest and kindest parts of ourselves, rather than to the most rigid, grasping, or harsh parts. There’s inevitably conflict between these two sides. Pick a side.

But it’s a complex thing, this being human. Complex and difficult. There is a need for give and take, for compromise, for making concessions. But there’s also a need to be firm to your core values. If people don’t respect that, then sometimes the kindest thing you can do — for yourself — is to get the hell out of Dodge.

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No expectations

In practicing mindfulness in daily life, it’s worth watching out for small experiences that lead to tension, stress, or anger.

I noticed several months ago that I’d start feeling resentful as I walked toward a pedestrian crossing with the intention, of course, of crossing the road. The resentment is connected with the number of drivers who don’t stop when they see someone — well, me! — about to cross the road.

But I’d actually start getting resentful before I even reached the side of the road, long before drivers could possibly realize that it was my intention to cross in front of them.

What’s important is that I recognized that this was a source of suffering for me. It wasn’t one of these things that ruined my day, but it created an unpleasant experience that would color at least part of my day.

And it’s completely unnecessary. I was pushing my own stress buttons.

So I got into the habit of saying to myself, as I walked along the sidewalk toward the crossing, “No expectations.” It was just a little reminder that I couldn’t expect drivers to psychically know that it was my intention to cross, and that even once it should be clear that that was my intention, it was pointless having expectations that they would stop. After all, we all have times when we’re a little distracted and don’t respond promptly to things around us. What’s the point of taking these things personally?

The interesting thing is that saying “no expectations” has not just prevented frustration, tension, and anger from arising — when I say those words I find myself relaxing more deeply and enjoying my present-moment experience.

It’s a small thing, but then our lives are made out of the small things.

To apply this approach, we first have to notice that we’re causing ourselves frustration. Noticing this isn’t necessarily easy to do if our habits are longstanding. And in any event, we often tend to think of these petty frustrations as just a normal part of our experience.

And we often externalize our feelings, by which I mean that we blame the outside world for what we’re feeling. We might see it as those drivers are the problem and they’re making me frustrated rather than it’s my frustration toward those drivers that’s the problem. So we have to remember that people do not push our buttons. Our buttons are inside our heads, and we do our own button-pushing.

I can think of other circumstances in which this could be useful for me. When I log in to Wildmind’s Facebook page, for example, I often feel some disappointment when I see that an article we’ve posted a link to has received a small number of “likes.” The link to the article may have been viewed by 2,000 people (Facebook helpfully displays this information) and perhaps only 12 have clicked “like.” Now there’s a side to this where I can perhaps learn to craft better Facebook posts or to find the best times of day to post, but as long as I cling to expectations, I’m going to suffer.

I wonder what circumstances the mantra of “no expectations” could help you in your life?

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The power of “not doing”

Meditation students often ask me what will help them remember presence in the thick of things. My first response: “Just pause.” My second response: “Pause again, take a few conscious breaths, and relax.”

Our lives are constantly tumbling into the future, and the only way back to here and now is to stop doing and just be. Even a few moments of un-doing, of suspended activity, a mini-meditation of just being still, can reconnect you with a sense of aliveness and caring. That connection will deepen if, during those moments, you intentionally establish contact with your body, breathe, and relax.

A game I often play with myself is to see if I can spontaneously remember to pause in situations I usually charge right through. Washing the dishes. Walking from my office to the kitchen. Moving through e-mails. Eating popcorn.

Pausing is a wonderful and radical way of plucking myself out of virtual reality and discovering myself once again at the hub, awake, open, and here. A deliberate meditative pause helps us to savor the often-forgotten goodness and beauty that is within and around us.

One of my clients, Frances, experienced first-hand how the power of pausing and relaxing in the midst of all the doing in her life could actually change her experience of it. It began with the hurt and disappointment she felt when her two daughters chose to spend a holiday with their father (her ex-husband) rather than going on a trip with her.

“You’re no fun, Mom, you don’t know how to relax,” one had said. When she protested, they pointed out that she was “all business” and was even grim about setting up vacation activities.

Frances recognized herself in their words. The oldest of five, she had prematurely become the caretaker of her siblings when her own mother had grown ill. “I don’t know how to play,” she confessed sadly. “I’m much more comfortable staying busy, getting things done.”

Shaken by what she felt to be her daughters’ rejection, Frances began a daily practice of meditation to learn how to relax. But when she met with me for guidance, her stiff posture and tightly knitted brows let me know that her approach to meditation was as grim as her approach to the rest of life.

I suggested that she find a beautiful place to walk and do some of her meditation practice there. Her assignment was still to wake up from thoughts when she became aware of them; but rather than the breath, her home base was all of her senses. She would become aware of the pressure of her feet on the earth, the images and smells and sounds of the natural world. I asked her to pause anytime something struck her as beautiful or interesting and to offer that experience her full attention.

When we met several months later, Frances gave me a meditation report: “Tara,” she said, “my walks are one long linger!” She went on to tell me about the pleasure she was finding in other parts of life — eating a peach slowly and savoring its texture and flavor, taking long hot showers, and increasingly, during sitting meditation, simply relaxing with the movement of her breath.

Most importantly, Frances was experiencing her daughters in a new way, appreciating one’s infectious laugh, the other’s grace. “I’m enjoying them,” she said smiling, “and they seem not to mind hanging out with me!” Frances was discovering the blessing of choosing presence—becoming intimate with the life that is right here, right now.

As Frances was discovering, all of our purposeful “doings” in meditation (naming our experience, mindfully scanning through the body, or focusing on the breath) can help us to pause and open ourselves to the life of the moment. Yet, because we can get so hooked by the need to do something more, we can help ourselves most deeply by our intention to let go.

For me, I sometimes remind myself of a line from poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Let everything happen to you, the beauty, the terror . . .

Feel free to experiment with your own self-reminders. What word or phrase helps you to stop pedaling, to relax your habitual doing, and simply be?

Hindu teacher Swami Satchidananda was once asked by a student if he needed to become a Hindu to go deeply into the practice of yoga. Satchidananda’s response was, “I am not a Hindu, I am an undo.”

Just so, when meditation frees us, it does not turn us into something better or different, nor does it get us somewhere. Rather, meditation allows for an undoing of our controlling behavior, an undoing of limiting beliefs, an undoing of habitual physical tensing, an undoing of defensive armoring, and ultimately, an undoing of our identification with a small and threatened self.

By undoing all the doings, we discover the vast heart and awareness that is beyond any small-self identity; the heart and awareness that gives us refuge in the face of any life situation. This is the gift of meditation practice—we find we can trust who we most deeply are.

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Full-screen living

Leo Babauta has a great post at Zen Habits (a site I must remember to visit more often) on Full-Screen Living.

Many of us who write, he points out, use tools that simplify our computer screens. My last book, and most of my blog posts, were written in an application called WriteRoom, which presents me with a black screen, green plain type, and no formatting options, toolbars, or any other distractions. When I’m reading news articles on the web I often use Readability, which is a browser plugin that reformats the screen to make reading an undistracted full-screen experience. Babauta mentions these options, and more, and this may be new to you, but it’s something I’m already deeply into. (Readability has announced since I wrote this post that it’s closing down, but here’s an alternative if you use the Chrome browser.)

But where he gets really interesting is when he takes “full-screen” as a metaphor for life. It’s a brilliant metaphor, and along with many other writers I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of it myself. Here’s the juicy part of his article:

That’s fine for computer work, but what about life in general? You can live exactly the same way.

If you’re going to spend time with your child, don’t switch between the child tab and the work tabs in the browser of your mind. Put your child into full-screen mode, and let him take up all your attention, and let work and everything else you need to do later fade into the background.

You’ll still get to the work, when you’re done with what you’re doing with your child, but for now, be fully in this one activity, with this one person. When you’re done with that, you can bring your work into full-screen mode, and let the rest of your life go into the background for the moment.

If you eat, let the food fill up the screen of your attention, not your thinking about other things. If you’re showering, let that fill your attention, instead of planning. When you’re brushing your teeth, let the “conversation” (read: argument) you had earlier fade away and just brush your teeth.

When you work, do one task at a time. And don’t just do one task at a time, but do that task with all your attention (or as much as possible), and don’t be thinking about the other tasks.

But how do we do this. Babauta has some advice on this too, but I’ll let you read that on Zen Habits.

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How to commute like a Buddhist

NY Daily News: If you’re wondering how to trek to work without losing your mind, Emmy Award-winner and New York City-based meditation teacher David Nichtern offers up a few pointers on curbing commuter stress.

“People think of spiritual practice as a tranquilizer,” Nichtern told fitness blog Well+Good NYC on September 3. “But I’m not from the school of ‘Let’s just chant something.’ My school is awareness. The more aware you are, the more likely you’re headed to a positive outcome.”

So, how to make your commute more mindful? He offers up a few ways to respond to common commute scenarios, as per his interview …

Read the original article »

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Be more mindful for a better workplace

Jen Weigel, Chicago Tribune: Can you be a success in the world of business and still be mindful? What exactly does it mean to be “mindful” anyway? According to Mirabai Bush, one of the creators of a mindfulness course developed for Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself,” you will be more productive and motivated if you use respect, compassion and generosity in the workplace.

“Mindfulness has to do with paying attention to what’s happening in the moment without judgment,” said Bush. “Sometimes people think being mindful means being slow — it’s not about being slow, it’s about being slow enough that you can …

Read the original article »

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Five tips for National Relaxation Day

In our fast-paced world it seems everyone’s stressed, hassled, and exhausted, so it’s a good thing that August 15, 2012 has been declared National Relaxation Day.

When they think about relaxing, most people would tend to hit upon rather conventional things, like soaking in the bath, having a glass of wine at the end of the evening, or watching a movie. But those things are temporary fixes that don’t lead to long-term change. Instead, I’d like to suggest five habits that can be cultivated and practiced every day. These are skills that can become a permanent part of the way you function in your daily life, and bring you long term benefits. And you can do them whether or not you have time for a long relaxing soak in the tub.

1. Take your time eating
We all have to eat, and we don’t generally do it very mindfully. We watch TV while we eat, or we read, or we’re caught up in a conversation, or we just space out. Sometimes, heaven help us, we even eat while we drive.

It’s very enriching, and deeply relaxing, to eat mindfully. It might not be feasible to eat every mouthful of food with complete attention, but what if we were to eat the first and last mouthful of a meal or snack mindfully? Whether you’re eating a gourmet meal or a candy bar, really notice the movements of your body as you transfer the food toward your mouth. Notice yourself receiving the food — how it feels, tastes. Eat slowly. Chew methodically. Savor the experience. If you find you’ve plowed into your food and are mindlessly scarfing it down, pause, and take the next bite with full awareness.

2. Give yourself short breathing breaks during the day
You may have heard of the three-minute breathing space, in which you spend a minute just tuning in to an awareness of your experience, a minute focusing on the sensations of the breathing in order to gather your attention, and a minute expanding your awareness so that you’re no longer noticing just the breathing, but also other sensations from the body, your mind and emotions, the sounds, light, and space around you. Even on the busiest of days it’s a good idea to take a few of these three minute breaks.

If that seems impossible, then just pause what you’re doing, take a few mindful breaths, and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.

3. Notice what your thinking is doing to you
A Harvard study of 250,000 people found that they spent almost 50% of their waking time thinking about something other than they were doing. What’s more, they found that the people who were most distracted were more likely to report feelings of unhappiness. Much of our thinking promotes unhappiness.

So develop the skill of checking in from time to time to see what your thoughts are doing to you. Notice whether you’re relaxed or tense, whether your overall experience is pleasant or unpleasant, whether you’re happy or distressed. Notice this without making any judgements about yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure” for harboring thoughts that make you feel bad. But see if you can just notice those thoughts, and let them pass away. Actually, just to notice how you’re feeling you have to let go of some of the compulsion around these inner dramas.

4. Reduce input channels
One thing that really stresses us is being interrupted. So give yourself a chance to focus. If you’re writing a report, shut off your email program, turn your phone off (don’t just switch it to vibrate). Close any programs you don’t need to have open. It’s just you, and the task. You’ll find that when your concentration isn’t interrupted, you’re not only more relaxed and happy, but you get more done.

5. Give yourself a break from the news
We get really hooked on the news, and we stress about it. That politician and his lies! Those criminals! That tragic accident two cities away! It seems like it’s vital to keep in touch with what’s happening. What if a war were to break out and nobody told you? Well, I remember times I went abroad on vacation and didn’t have access to English-language news media. And you know what? When I got back, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the news is the same old yadda-yadda, and the TV companies are trying to built it up so that you’ll get mad, be scared, and pay attention (and by the way, here’s an ad for a new wonder-drug).

Try unplugging from the news entirely for just a day. Or maybe for a week, go on a news fast and do nothing more than glance at the headlines in the newspapers. The world will go on, and you’ll be happier.

I’m not suggesting that you abstain from news for life, but at least for a while give yourself a break so that reading or watching the news is a choice and not a compulsion. And you’ll realize how much your own habits stop you from being relaxed.

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The sacred pause

In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on a retreat or to spend time in nature or to take a sabbatical. We may pause in a conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart. In a pause we simply discontinue whatever we are doing—thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating—and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still.

A pause is, by nature, time limited. We resume our activities, but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices. In the pause before sinking our teeth into a chocolate bar, for instance, we might recognize the excited tingle of anticipation, and perhaps a background cloud of guilt and self-judgment. We may then choose to eat the chocolate, fully savoring the taste sensations, or we might decide to skip the chocolate and instead go out for a run. When we pause, we don’t know what will happen next. But by disrupting our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears.

Of course there are times when it is not appropriate to pause. If our child is running towards a busy street, we don’t pause. If someone is about to strike us, we don’t just stand there, resting in the moment—rather, we quickly find a way to defend ourselves. If we are about to miss a flight, we race toward the gate. But much of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough. Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss or even death, our instinctive tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.

Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.

Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Pausing in a fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do. Pausing can feel like falling helplessly through space—we have no idea of what will happen. We fear we might be engulfed by the rawness of our rage or grief or desire. Yet without opening to the actual experience of the moment, Radical Acceptance is not possible.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Ten tips for setting up a meditation practice

The benefits of meditation come with regular practice, and that means making it part of your life. That’s one of the great challenges of learning meditation, so here are ten tips for establishing a meditation practice.

1. Get some instruction

You can learn the techniques of meditation from books and CDs: there are some good ones around (check out our shop). There are also meditation apps. But it helps a lot to learn from a live class if you can make it to one. Take a course – or go to a class where you can ask questions about the issues. In time, it helps to have friends or teachers who are more experienced meditators than you are.

2. Settle on a practice that suits you

On an meditation course there are three main practices – the mindfulness of breathing, the body scan and mindful movement, and there are many others out there. It’s worth experimenting a bit and then settling on the practice, or combination of practices, that work for you.

3. Find a regular time for practice

You might start off thinking you’ll just try fitting meditation into your day somehow or other, but establishing a practice means finding a time that works for you. For many people, first thing in the morning before the day starts up is a good time; others prefer the evening. There are pros and cons with either so you’ll need to experiment.

4. Set up a meditation place

You can meditate anywhere, but if you sit down amid clutter it has an effect. So set aside a space that evokes the feeling of meditation. Some flowers, a candle or an image on a table can be enough to encourage the feeling that you’re leaving aside the usual preoccupations. It also helps to set aside the cushions or chair that need for meditation, and it’s worth thinking about getting some meditation cushions or a stool.

5. Talk to your family or housemates

To avoid people barging in or turning up the music just as you start to get settled, talk to the people you live with and let them know what you are doing. Don’t worry if they thing you’re weird: if they notice you’re calmer and happier they’ll soon change.

6. Meditate with others

It’s hard to keep anything going on your own, at least to start with. We all need encouragement and guidance. Many people find a setting where they can meditate with others: Buddhist centres, sitting groups, and even virtual settings, like a videoconference or app.

7. Go on retreat

Retreats are a chance to get away from all the things that usually fill up our lives. They vary in length: you can find day retreats or residential retreats for a weekend or longer. Just being quiet and meditating several times a day lets everything settle down so your experience can go deeper. On an intensive retreat you don’t do much apart from meditate, but there are less demanding options as well.

8. Take your practice off the cushion

If you think of meditation as something that only happens in the formal practice time, it will be hard to maintain. So look for ways to keep the thread of mindfulness and meditation alive through the day. The Three Minute Breathing Space gives you time to stop and connect with mindfulness, and you can find many more, informal ways to do the same.

9. Reflect on your values

Most of us get enthusiastic, every so often, about a certain kind of exercise or studying a particular subject. But, looking back, we only maintain a few of these. They are the ones that touch on the values at the core of our lives. If you can make the connection between something that is a deep-seated drive like helping others or understanding the truth, or a pressing concern like not getting depressed or being more effective as a parent, then you’re much more likely to be able to sustain it.

10. Be patient … and persistent

Establishing a regular meditation practice is a long-term project. You may miss days, get discouraged or just forget about meditation for a while. The key thing is to keep going. If you force yourself to meditate when you really don’t feel like it, you’ll probably have a reaction to the whole idea; but if you wait until you do feel like it before you pick your practice up again, it may never happen. But with time, you figure out ways to make your practice happen.

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The Mindful Manifesto, by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell

The Mindful Manifesto presents — and represents — the continuing move of mindfulness practices into the mainstream of western culture. And mainstream it is. Almost daily, news articles appear highlighting the various ways that meditation is being taken up by ordinary people living ordinary lives, and used by veterans and trauma survivors, and adapted by clinicians to treat depression, stress, obesity, behavioral disorders in children, to give just a few examples. A constant stream of scientific papers appear from researchers, investigating — and confirming — meditation’s ability to do everything from slowing cellular aging to promoting growth in the brain, to improving our sex lives.

The authors are Ed Halliwell, a writer who has contributed columns on meditation for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, and Jonty Heaversedge, who is a family doctor who also presents on medical topics on television and radio. Halliwell is the main contributor, and his writing is clear and lively.

The Mindful Manifesto is both a guide — in very accessible language — to the practice of mindfulness, and a fascinating history of how the west has come to embrace meditation. The authors state their dual intensions in saying “we’d like to invite you to learn more about mindfulness, through an exploration of its history, philosophy, science, and practice. We’d like to invite you to see how it could make a difference — in your own life, and to our stressed-out world.”

Title: The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World
Author: Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell
Publisher: Hay House
ISBN: 978-1-4019-3536-8
Available from: Hay House, Amazon.co.uk and UK Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and US Kindle store.

The authors say that their book is not a “manifesto” in the traditional sense of a grand plan for overhauling society, but behind that denial is a plainly visible (and quite natural) yearning for meditation to be more widely adopted. They imagine how different the world might be if politicians, for example, sat down to connect with their inner wisdom and compassion before discussions, or how healthcare might be transformed if every patient had access to meditation instruction. But there’s no concrete plan. So in what sense is this book a manifesto? The word “manifesto” is used here more in the sense of “to make manifest” or “to show plainly” (the original meaning of the word) and stands for “an invitation to let go of doing, at least for a time, and learn how to be, right now, in the present moment.” It also makes for a very catchy title.

So, how well do the authors succeed in their invitation, both to communicate how to be mindful, and to communicate meditation’s history, philosophy, and science? I think they do remarkably well in both. As a long-time practitioner of meditation (thirty years this summer) I benefited from the freshness of the Manifesto’s approach. The writers successfully translate the sometimes clunky and unappealing language of meditation (“delusion,” “attachment”) into more contemporary and accessible language (“denial, “addiction”). They take traditional Buddhist teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and relate them to life as it’s lived in the west. This is a very approachable book.

The authors present numerous examples and case histories, showing how meditation has actually benefitted ordinary people. They in fact regularly slip into the first person to offer accounts of how meditation has helped them with their own personal difficulties. These examples will no doubt help many people to recognize that meditation can benefit people like them. The book offers clear instructions for eight meditation practices. Some of these are traditional, such as mindfulness of breathing, while others, like an ice-cube meditation and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s famous raisin experiment, are more contemporary. Of course it’s not really possible to follow detailed meditation instructions from a book, but the site for the Mindful Manifesto does offer audio downloads (for an extra fee). It would have been good if these were available in a streaming format, or if a CD had been included with the book. Practitioners who have an established practice will probably benefit more from the written guidance, because it’s easier to take on board “nuggets” and integrate them into what you already do than it is to read, digest, and remember whole paragraphs.

One omission that I think is unfortunate is that there’s no lovingkindness instruction given. It’s not that lovingkindness is absent from the book. Lovingkindness is mentioned in terms of having kindness and compassion to oneself, and is woven throughout every topic that’s considered, but it’s barely touched on in an explicit way. When it is mentioned by name, it’s in the language of “self-parenting” as a way of developing emotional security. While this language is both contemporary and very useful (thanks, guys, I’ll be stealing that phrase for use in my own teaching!) it’s very much to do with “self-metta,” which is only the first stage of lovingkindness practice. Lovingkindness techniques for enriching our connections with loved ones, developing more empathy for strangers, and overcoming antipathy — in other words the traditional format of lovingkindness meditation — would have made a valuable addition to The Mindful Manifesto.

The book is largely structured around a modified form of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which the authors render as mindfulness of body, mind, feelings, and life. These headings don’t really match with the traditional understandings of the satipatthanas, but practically speaking the schema works well as an instructional tool. The approach throughout these chapters is very much rooted in science, and in the clinical applications of mindfulness, so that mindfulness of the body, for example, is treated very much in terms of dealing with painful sensations in the body, using approaches made popular in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The history of the development of such approaches is woven through this material, and is, to my mind, fascinating. Although a book on practicing mindfulness technically doesn’t have to include the historical perspective, the techniques being explained are given an extra weight of authority when put in the context of their scientifically tested applications.

The section on the fourth foundation of mindfulness departs most from the traditional descriptions. Rather than “mindfulness of dhammas” (in my view best described as “a wise understanding of the workings of the mind”) Heaversedge and Halliwell discuss “mindfulness of life.” But although the treatment is non-traditional, it nevertheless performs a valuable service in showing how mindfulness, although it begins with a focus on our selves, can be applied to the way we interact with our world :”mindfulness takes us out of the limitations of self — by connecting us to a wider view, it shows us how we can fruitfully inter-relate with others.”

I found The Mindful Manifesto to be a fascinating and enriching read. While beginners to mindfulness and meditation will undoubtedly benefit from read the book, it’s probably even more valuable to the established practitioner, who will find the contemporary language to be helpful in seeing their practice with fresh eyes, and who will gain extra confidence from the reading about the many scientific studies that confirm in great detail the many ways in which meditation can help us be happier, healthier, and more engaged individuals.

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