Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems - Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD

[Disclosure: I am reviewing a free ePub copy of this book provided by the publisher without the expectation of a review, good or bad.]

The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems

by Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, Harvard
Guilford Press, 2010
Hardcover: $35.00
Paperback: 14.95

Amazon: $28.00/$10.17

A couple of years ago, I was browsing the bookstore at a Psychotherapy Networker conference and found Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (Guilford Press, 2005), edited by Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton. I knew none of the editors and only one of the authors, but it had a cool cover (yes, I sometimes buy books based on the cover) with some good blurbs from names I recognized. While the book was written for therapists, I still found it useful at the time, even as a non-professional.

Part of my interest in the book was due to my being Buddhist and that mindfulness is an essential practice for many Buddhists. There was also a 20+ year interest in psychology that was then emerging again as a desire to become a therapist (which I am now in the process of doing). The book was a great introduction to the ways these two fields intersect in useful and important ways.

Since then I have read many other books on mindfulness in psychology as the cross-over has become one of the dominant paradigms in modern psychotherapy, seen in everything from Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and now including Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's MBSR). The acronyms can be daunting.

What ties all of these approaches together, however, is that they all embrace mindfulness practice as a way to help heal the psyche. In the preface to The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel (who is on the faculty at The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy) points out that mindfulness has proven useful for everything from anxiety and depression to stress-related physical disorders (insomnia, chronic pain) to addictions of all forms.

But on the everyday level (and mindfulness in Buddhism is meant to be an everyday practice), mindfulness can help us be more calm in traffic, less stressed at work, and better partners in our relationships. And this is what Siegel is offering the reader of his book.

For those, like me, who like to know what's in a book before buying it, here is the table of contents:

I. Why Mindfulness Matters
1. Life Is Difficult, for Everyone
2. Mindfulness: A Solution
3. Learning to Practice Mindfulness
4. Building a Mindful Life

II. Everyday Practices For Unruly Minds, Bodies, and Relationships
5. Befriending Fear: Working with Worry and Anxiety
6. Entering the Dark Places: Seeing Sadness and Depression in a New Light
7. Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems
8. Living the Full Catastrophe: Mindfulness for Romance, Parenting, and Other Intimate Relationships
9. Breaking Bad Habits: Learning to Make Good Choices
10. Growing Up Isn't Easy: Changing Your Relationship with Aging, Illness, and Death
11. What's Next? The Promise of Mindfulness

When You Need More Help: How to Find a Therapist
I'd like to quote some passages, as well, but the ePub format (Adobe Digital Editions) doesn't allow me to copy and paste text. So take my word for it, his writing style is engaging and entertaining. Each chapter is broken up into shorter sections with headers, making it easy to pick the book up and read for a while, returning to it later.

Buddhism and Mindfulness

In the Preface, Siegel points out that nearly all of our struggles and suffering in life are, at least in part, made worse by the fact that we seek comfort and avoid pain, only to discover that this avoidance generates even more suffering. In essence, this is what the Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Although Western psychology has been interested in Buddhism going all the way back to William James, and later Carl Jung, it has only been in the last 10-20 years that this interest has taken a useful form for both therapists and lay people (those who have not explicitly already adopted Buddhism).

Siegel's approach to mindfulness seems largely non-sectarian, acknowledging its sources in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, as well as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American traditions. For some Buddhists who adhere to a very formal mindfulness practice based in the early Pali teachings (see Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Mindfulness Defined) this might be seen as a misuse of the teachings.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers us the origin of the word mindfulness, but emphasizes its Pali roots.
T. H. Rhys‐Davids, the British scholar who coined the term “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word sati, was probably influenced by the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—in other words, to always keep their needs in mind. But even though the word “mindful” was probably drawn from a Christian context, the Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember, illustrating its function in meditation practice with the four satipatthanas, or establishings of mindfulness.
And these are the four foundations (establishings) of mindfulness:
He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves... the mind in & of itself... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”—SN 48:10
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is very clear in his article that many of the ways mindfulness is taught in the West run counter to the original intent of the Theravada tradition from which he comes. He is very precise about how the key phrases in mindfulness texts should be defined and understood. He likely would have some issues with Siegel's use of and presentation of mindfulness practice as it appears in The Mindfulness Solution.

Be that as it may, this book is written by a Western psychologist for the general population - it is not a dharma text for Buddhists in general or Buddhist scholars in particular. For those who want a more traditional take on mindfulness practice, I would suggest reading the article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (linked above) and also checking out Mindfulness in Plain English, by the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, which is available as a free PDF (follow the link).

The Mindfulness Solution

Siegel is very practical in his presentation, countering arguments that adding mindfulness practice - yet another thing to add to our already too busy lives - just is not doable. His reply is that if we will learn to be mindful on a daily basis, we will actually have more time in our lives because we will not waste time avoiding things or cleaning up messes we have made by acting in ways counter to our best interests. We also are more rested and less stressed.

Importantly, at least to me as a Buddhist, Siegel offers the reader a way to build a daily meditation practice as well as ways to become mindful on a moment-to-moment basis. Both are necessary in my mind - and in Siegel's as well. Too many Buddhists spend their time on the cushion each day and then go about their lives without any mindful awareness; similarly, a lot of people are adopting mindfulness practices but do not have any formal meditation practice. Both are necessary but not individually sufficient.

Throughout the book, Siegel offers inventories, exercises, and meditations designed to help us get in touch with our resistance to change, our negative thoughts, or the ways we rank ourselves (and that's just in the first chapter of the book). The exercises may seem simple or pointless for some, but if you do them, the cumulative impact in terms of self-awareness is considerable.

I was particularly drawn to the part of Chapter Two where Siegel outlines some of the science supporting mindfulness practice. This has been one of my interests for quite a while, beginning with reports in the popular press of Dr. Richard Davidson's work at the University of Wisconsin with Tibetan monks (which is covered here). The results showed that the more meditation experience a person has, the greater its positive impact on brain structure and function. He could have gone on for the whole chapter, but he presents enough science to convince although not overwhelm the average reader.

The third and fourth chapters offer a variety of ways in to mindfulness practice, which felt useful to me because everyone will have different needs and abilities in taking up a new discipline. Even the Buddha recognized that each student could potentially need a different teaching. Again, there are exercises and sample meditations for people to try out on their own.

I want to acknowledge that he offers one of my favorite techniques as a coach and future therapist, the body-scan meditation (pg. 72). I could go on and on about the science behind why this is such a useful approach, but I will simply say that the body is our immediate, first-person connection to the world of experience - if we can learn to hear it, sans intellectual filters (which is part of what mindfulness teaches), we could go a long way toward living healthier more balanced lives.

In the end, no matter which form of mindfulness practice you choose, Siegel is offering ways to be happier, healthier, and more balanced.

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