empathy

What kind of life would it be, never to rain on a parade?

Let’s say you’ve had an interesting idea or moment of inspiration, or thought of a new project, or felt some enthusiasm bubbling up inside you. Your notions are not fully formed and you’re not really committed to them yet, but they have promise and you like them and are trying them on for size. Then what?

If a family member or friend responds in a neutral or positive way, even if they also raise some practical questions, you likely feel good, supported, energized. But if that same person were to lead with a mainly negative response, focusing on problems, constraints, and risks – no matter how valid they are – you’d probably feel at least a little deflated, and maybe misunderstood, put down, or obstructed. Take a moment to reflect on how this may have happened to you, as a child or an adult.

This works the other way as well. If people come to you with an idea, passion, or aspiration, and you put their fire out with doubts and objections, they’re not going to feel good, period – and not good about opening up to you in the future. Take another moment to consider how this could have happened in some of your relationships.

And this works the same way inside your own head. If you pour cold water over your own hopes and dreams, you’ll live cautiously between the lines, sure, but you’ll never know what warmth and light might have spread if you’d let them catch fire. Do you back your own play, cheerlead your own parade? Or are you too quick with doubt, limitations, cost analyses, reasons why not?

What kind of life would it be, never to rain on a parade, your own or anyone else’s?

How?

The points here apply both to when you’re reacting to the (even harebrained) ideas of others, and when you’re responding to your own inspirations and enthusiasms; you can also use them to stick up for yourself if someone starts drizzling on your parade.

Notice any reflexive pulling back, naysaying, or buzz-killing when you or someone else gets happily excited about something. Be aware of any personal history with parents or others who got into an elevated mood or a bit of grandiosity that led to trouble later – and how that history could be shaping your reactions to people and situations today that are actually quite different.

Remember that you can always still say no. In other words, just because there’s some new scheme on the table doesn’t mean you’re locked into doing it. You can trust in your capacity to explore the idea fully – even if you or others are full of passion about it – while simultaneously knowing that you’re reserving your rights.

It’s OK to be quiet, spacious, even silent. OK to take some time to let things air out and take more shape before you respond. Even if your deep-down view is that this idea is insane, disastrous, or worse – often you don’t have to say anything at all and it will collapse on its own.

When you do communicate – to yourself or to another person – try to start with what’s true and useful in whatever is hatching. It’s often fine to stay with that theme.

If you have concerns, expressing them usually goes best if they’re both timely and wanted. (Ignore this suggestion if there’s a compelling reason to do so.) Keep them relevant to the matter at hand; for example, if the cost of an idea is a few hundred dollars, whatever problems it has don’t include the specter of poverty in old age.

Look at your family and friends. Look at yourself. What parades – what longings of the heart, big dreams, promises deferred, crazy ideas that just might really work – are eager to get started?

What could you do this year to open paths for them?

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Synesthesia may explain how some healers can see auras

Researchers in Spain have found that at least some of the individuals claiming to see the so-called aura of people actually have the neuropsychological phenomenon known as “synesthesia” (specifically, “emotional synesthesia”). This might be a scientific explanation of their alleged ability.

In synesthetes, the brain regions responsible for the processing of each type of sensory stimuli are intensely interconnected. Synesthetes can see or taste a sound, feel a taste, or associate people or letters with a particular color.

The study was conducted by the University of Granada Department of Experimental Psychology Oscar Iborra, Luis Pastor and Emilio Goez Milan, and has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

The case of the “Santon de Baza”

One of the University of Granada researchers remarked that “not all ‘healers’ are synesthetes, but there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon among them. The same occurs among painters and artists, for example.” To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a ‘healer’ from Granada, “Esteban Sanchez Casas,” known as “El Santon de Baza”.

Many local people attribute “paranormal powers” to El Santon, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people “but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,” the researchers explained. According to the researchers, El Santon has face-color synesthesia (the brain region responsible for face recognition is associated with the color-processing region); touch-mirror synesthesia (when the synesthete observes a person who is being touched or is experiencing pain, s/he experiences the same); high empathy (the ability to feel what other person is feeling), and schizotypy (certain personality traits in healthy people involving slight paranoia and delusions). “These capacities make synesthetes have the ability to make people feel understood, and provide them with special emotion and pain reading skills,” the researchers explain.

In the light of the results obtained, the researchers remarked on the significant “placebo effect” that healers have on people, “though some healers really have the ability to see people’s ‘auras’ and feel the pain in others due to synesthesia.” Some healers “have abilities and attitudes that make them believe in their ability to heal other people, but it is actually a case of self-deception, as synesthesia is not an extrasensory power, but a subjective and ‘adorned’ perception of reality,” the researchers state.

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Mindfulness is good for doctors and their patients

Training physicians in mindfulness meditation and communication skills can improve the quality of primary care for both practitioners and their patients, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report in a study published online this week in the journal Academic Medicine.

As ways to improve primary care, the researchers also recommend promoting a sense of community among physicians and providing time to physicians for personal growth.

“Programs focused on personal awareness and self-development are only part of the solution,” the researchers stated. “Our health care delivery systems must implement systematic change at the practice level to create an environment that supports mindful practice, encourages transparent and clear communication among clinicians, staff, patients, and families, and reduces professional isolation.”

Medical education can better support self-awareness programs for trainees while also promoting role models — preceptors and attending physicians — who exemplify mindful practice in action, they wrote.

The Academic Medicine article, which will be published in the journal’s June print edition, is a follow-up to a study by the researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009. That study found that mindfulness meditation and communication training can alleviate the psychological distress and burnout experienced by many physicians and can improve their well-being.

Seventy physicians from the Rochester, N.Y., area were involved in the initial study. The physicians participated in training that involved eight intensive weekly sessions that were 2 ½ hours long, an all-day session and a maintenance phase of 10 monthly 2 ½-hour sessions. For the new report, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 of the physicians who participated in the mindfulness training program.

The findings in the new study include:

  • For 75 percent of the physicians, sharing personal experiences from medical practice with colleagues was one of the most meaningful outcomes of the program.
  • A nonjudgmental atmosphere helped participants feel emotionally safe enough to pause, reflect, and disclose their complex and profound experiences, which, in turn, provided reassurance that they were not alone in their feelings.
  • Sixty percent reported that learning mindfulness skills improved their capacity to listen more attentively and respond more effectively to others at work and home.
  • More than half of the participants acknowledged having increased self-awareness and better ability to respond non-judgmentally during personal or professional conversations.
  • Seventy percent placed a high value on the mindfulness course having an organized, structured, and well-defined curriculum that designated time and space to pause and reflect — not something they would ordinarily consider permissible.
  • Participants also described the personal struggles they have with devoting time and energy toward self-care despite acknowledging its importance.

The researchers have developed and implemented required mindful practice curricula for medical students and residents at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. They also are studying the effects of an intensive, four-day residential course for physicians.

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Entrepreneurs’ secret anti-stress weapon

Jessica Stillman, Inc.: A new study shows even small amounts of meditation relieve stress and boost health. No wonder many business bigwigs turn to it.

Science and religion are often at odds, but at least occasionally there is convergence. Buddhist monks and devoted yogis have long contended that meditation reduces stress. A recent study agrees, even if the practice is stripped of any particular spiritual belief.

The randomized, controlled study was carried about by a team including a Duke university psychologist and an Aetna executive among others and was recently published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The research assigned 239 employees to either weekly …

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How to see people, not just our reactions to them

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? In effect, they’ve thingified you, turned you into a kind of “it” to be managed or used or dismissed, and lost sight of you as a “thou.” What’s this feel like? Personally, I don’t like it much. Of course, it’s a two-way street: if we don’t like it when it’s done to us, that’s a good reason not to do it to others.

The practice I’m about to describe can get abstract or intellectual, so try to bring it down to earth and close to your experience.

When you encounter or talk with someone, instead of reacting to what their body looks like or is doing or what category it falls into:

  • Be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, schoolteacher, agnostic, retired, American, fisherman, politically conservative, cancer survivor, friendly, smart, donor to the YMCA, reader of detective novels, etc. etc.
  • Recognize some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.
  • Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later – see changes happening in the other person.
  • Feeling how things land on you, tune into the sense of things landing on the other person. There is an experiencing of things over there – pleasure and pain, ease and stress, joy and sorrow – just like there is in you. This inherent subjectivity to experience, this quality of be-ing, underlies and transcends any particular attribute, identity, or role a person might have.
  • Knowing that there is more to you than any label could ever encompass, and that there is a mystery at the heart of you – perhaps a sacred one at that – offer the other person the gift of knowing this about them as well.

At first, try this practice with someone who is neutral to you, that you don’t know well, like another driver in traffic or a person in line with you at the deli. Then try it both with people who are close to you – such as a friend, family member, or mate – and with people who are challenging for you, such as a critical relative, intimidating boss, or rebellious teenager.

The more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.

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Re-Wiring your brain for happiness: Research shows how meditation can physically change the brain

Dan Harris & Erin Brady (ABC News): A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.

Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed — even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.

Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.

The U.S…

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Meditation and mindfulness may give your brain a boost

They are the simplest instructions in the world: Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, clear your mind and try to focus on the present moment. Yet I am confident that anyone who has tried meditation will agree with me that what seems so basic and easy on paper is often incredibly challenging in real life.

I’ve dabbled in mantras and mindfulness over the years but have never really been able to stick to a regular meditation practice. My mind always seems to wander from pressing concerns such as the grocery list to past blunders or lapses, then I get a backache or an itchy nose (or both) and start feeling bored, and eventually I end up so stressed out about de-stressing that I give up. But I keep coming back and trying again, every so often, because I honestly feel like a calmer, saner and more well-adjusted person when I meditate, even if it’s just for a few minutes in bed at the end of the day.

Now there’s even more reason to give it another go: New research from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston indicates that meditating regularly can actually change our brain structure for the better, and in just a few months.

The small study, published last month in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, tracked 16 people who took a course on mindfulness-based stress reduction – a type of meditation that, besides focusing your attention, includes guided relaxation exercises and easy stretching – and practiced for about 30 minutes a day. After eight weeks, MRI scans showed significant gray matter density growth in areas of the brain involved in…

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learning and memory, empathy and compassion, sense of self and emotional regulation, when compared with a control group. In addition, the researchers referred to an earlier study that found a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.

“This is really, clearly, where we can see, for the first time, that when people say, ‘Oh, I feel better, I’m not as stressed when I meditate,’ they’re not just saying that – that there is a biological reason why they’re feeling less stress,” says senior author Sara Lazar, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School. She notes that these findings build on prior research that has found positive brain changes in long-term meditators: “But this is proof that it’s really meditation that’s making the difference,” as opposed to other potential factors such as diet or lifestyle, she says. “And it doesn’t take long to get there.”

None of this comes as a surprise to dedicated meditators or to doctors who regularly prescribe the practice.

“The study shows that meditation induces certain physiological brain changes that are consistent with many of the health benefits we see clinically,” says family medicine and chronic pain specialist Gary Kaplan, director of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean, who recommends meditation as part of a treatment plan for every one of his patients. He reports that patients who follow this advice typically sleep better, have less pain, less anxiety and depression, and a better general sense of well-being. Kaplan adds that this admittedly anecdotal evidence comes on top of at least a decade’s worth of research showing that meditation can have a range of benefits such as reduced stress and blood pressure, migraine relief, an improved attention span and better immune function.

Given that meditation is readily accessible, cheap and portable and has few if any risks, there’s really no harm in giving it a try, says Kaplan, who suggests that getting a book or CD on the topic or taking a basic class is a good way to start.

He acknowledges that the practice is far from easy, at least in part because the mind is bound to wander. “We spend a whole bunch of time time-traveling – a lot of time in the future, worrying, and a lot in the past, dwelling on regrets and grief and loss – and we spend very little time in the present, focused on what’s going on at this moment,” he explains. “So allowing that chatter to quiet and becoming present in the moment, while being gentle with the thoughts that come in and out of the mind and any anxiety that’s there, that can be difficult.”

For those who are skeptical or who continue to struggle, Hugh Byrne, a senior teacher with the Insight Mediation Community of Washington, suggests some tips for getting going – and sticking with it:

Seek the right style. There are many forms of meditation, with different objectives, and it’s important to do some research and find the one that works best for you, whether it involves walking, chanting or deep-breathing exercises.

Practice, practice, practice. It’s essential to cultivate a regular, daily routine to get your mind in the habit of meditating, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes to start, says Byrne, who recommends slowly increasing that to 30 minutes or more every day.

Be mindful all day long. Meditation “isn’t just about bringing awareness to your experience while you’re sitting cross-legged with eyes closed,” says Byrne. “It’s also a practice that you can bring into the rest of your life: when you’re eating, sitting in a traffic jam, or relating to a partner, spouse, kids or colleagues at work.” He suggests finding a few minutes here and there to get centered.

Don’t be discouraged by a wandering mind. It’s totally normal. “The important thing is just to notice when you move into planning the future or ruminating on the past or daydreaming, just notice that and gently bring attention back to the present,” says Byrne. “And come back into the body, without judgment or criticism.”

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How meditation may change the brain (New York Times)

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

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“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.

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Mindful meditation may strengthen certain brain regions

New research suggests meditation may improve certain brain regions and help them with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

The Massachusetts General Hospital researchers said in a statement that changes in brain structure in people who practiced eight weeks of mindful meditation suggest the practice goes beyond simply making people feel better because they are spending time relaxing.

Meditation has long been recommended by practitioners as a way to achieve peacefulness, physical relaxation and cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.

The researchers studied 16 participants two weeks before and after they took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. In addition to questionnaires, the participants were also analyzed by MRI images to observe changes in certain regions of the brain.

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Compared with a control group, images of the brains of participants who reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day meditating showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self awareness, compassion and introspection.

The researchers said their findings show how malleable the brain is and that meditation can go a long way in improving personal well being.

A report on the study will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

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Review – The Art and Science of Mindfulness

“Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions,”
by Susan Shapiro and Linda Carlson

Metapsychology Online Reviews: The integration and incorporation of mindfulness training into the mainstream of mental health may well turn out to be one of the most significant developments of the last ten or fifteen years. The literature has expanded exponentially and has moved in quite substantial ways from the use of Buddhist insights and techniques to a regular adjunct of CBT and especially DBT. This new text from Shapiro and Carlson takes us back to the origins of the concept, but also forward to the practical application of mindfulness in clinical settings. It is clearly and happily situated between the scientific paradigm of research evidence (and the authors show this) and the practical world of the individual experience.

The authors try to show the interweaving of Buddhist teachings that emphasize intentionality and focus on the knowable, and the scientific tradition that looks for evidence of efficacy and generalizability rather than particularity. It is clear from the outset that they want to consider what they call both the art and the science of mindfulness.

The authors detail three different ways in which mindfulness can be integrated into psychotherapy and how it can be applied to direct clinical work: the mindful therapist; mindfulness-informed therapy; and mindfulness-based psychotherapy. These different pathways, as the authors term them, show different ways to…

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integration of the basic precepts, and although there is a great deal of overlap, there are also distinct aspects. There may not, as the authors contend, be an awful lot of differences in the outcome, but the ways and directions of the approach bear some unpacking.

The mindful therapist emphasizes the skills of empathy and being present. The notion that these are skills is central for it assumes that techniques can be learnt and polished, that the doing is sometimes a separate question than the valuing. We may all agree that these qualities are good things, but how to show them in practice may be something else all together. The authors argue that mindfulness in the therapist can be taught and people can be trained, and they give a number of useful exercises that could be undertaken as n individual or as a group training program. Even if some of the reminders they scatter through the chapter, such as asking, “What is your intention? Why are you reading this book?”, could be used as handy prompts to even the most experienced therapist. What is your intention? Where is your attention? are questions that never go out of style and never lose their relevance.

Mindfulness-informed therapy is used to capture therapies that use insights from mindfulness and Buddhist teachings, but incorporate them into a more eclectic presentation rather than actually directly teaching meditation or other practices. This may well be the most influential aspect of the concept of mindfulness in current psychotherapy because although for many practitioners and many clients meditation may be difficult to access (both practically and conceptually), the informal practices refer to implementing and applying the ideas to everyday life and developing open, accepting and discerning attention, in a conscious and intentional manner can effect profound and lasting change.

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy is used to describe the explicit, perhaps pure application of principles to the therapeutic context. It is perhaps rarer and may even be, for some, pushing the argument a little too far. However, the explication of the techniques and programmes in the book are informative and thought-provoking.

There is a model of health that underpins the theorizing (as opposed to a model of ill-health). For the authors the intentional development of non-judgmental attention (focussing clearly on what is) leads, almost inevitably if applied clearly and rigorously, to self-awareness and self-regulation and equally inevitably to greater order and health — and all through internal loci of control rather than some external application of expertise. Mindfulness, in this way, is seen to promote self-efficacy alongside wellness.

It is a feature of the book that it reads as well from a therapist’s viewpoint as it does from a self-help position. Although it seems to have been written with practitioners in mind, it could easily be absorbed by anyone looking to understand themselves a little better. For some, it may appear to be too mystical or quasi-religious — there are certainly many references to Buddhist precepts and aphorisms, and there are meditation exercises which are not just thinking exercises — but for most the simple practices of reflection and action upon reflection may have a deep resonance.

It is a book that will appeal on many levels. It is approachable and not hard to digest. The authors should be congratulated for bringing out and explicating some of the most important and perhaps kindest trends in modern psychotherapy for the benefit of us all.

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