Book Review – Mindfulness

By Atiya Kazi

“Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world”

Authors: Mark Williams and Danny Penman

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”                                                                                                        Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn

Chances are most of us have come across the term mindfulness, and some of us may be cognizant of its meaning as defined above. My own interest and curiosity was piqued a few months ago when I heard about mindfulness sweeping across Pakistan. Huffington Post reported on it (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/05/mindfulness-in-pakistan_n_5269272.html), my family and friends talked about it and my alumnus professor, Max Babri, taught it. In order to not feel left out, on one of my usual haunts to Kinokuniya, I picked up Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world.

At a pricey SG$30, I wondered if I had been wise. But as soon as I started reading, I could relate to everything the writers had to say about our frantic lifestyles. Who can honestly deny waking up on some or most days “exhausted, bad tempered…and wanting to be awake through the day but could hardly stop yawning?” Sound familiar? Reading further, I realized I was guilty of what the authors call mental time travel“We re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-plan future disasters and so pre-feel their impact.” Our mind has a natural tendency to over-think, over-analyze and over-judge. So far, everything seemed to hit home!

And then came the chocolate meditation and I knew I had a winner in this book… For everyone who has never tried meditation before, or tried but failed to see any benefit, the chocolate meditation in this book is a must! Not only is it an extremely enjoyable exercise, it also explains mindfulness brilliantly; about being in the moment and using all five senses to be aware of each and every experience. 

Mindfulness, as repeatedly mentioned in the book, is not about resignation or turning a blind eye to issues.  It is about putting things in perspective and not jumping to the usual ‘doing’ mode of the brain, which prompts the fight-or-flight response when facing a negative stimulus. Using an analytical approach to answer the question ‘Why am I unhappy?’ is actually detrimental. It catches us in a vicious circle of negative thinking and stress, called The Exhaustion Funnel. Mindfulness tells us to bring a gentle, compassionate         awareness to all our thoughts and activities. Mindfulness through meditation gives us more time and space to respond.

The authors provide compelling evidence of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with research findings such as a 30% decrease in cardiovascular mortality and a 49% in cancer mortality in the meditation group versus the control group in a 19-year period study conducted by National Institute of Health (NIH) in US. Another study in Toronto showed people who came off anti-depressants and did the 8-week course on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) did as well, or better, than those continuing with anti-depressants; which means that mindfulness works at least as well if not better than anti-depressants!

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world follows a logical structure.  The first three chapters are devoted to explaining the concept of mindfulness and its benefits, with evidence-based research. Chapter 4 is a summary of the 8-week program, preparing the reader for what is to come next. The next 8 chapters are the weekly program guides, explaining in great detail the meditation practices and exercises. For those who prefer a tutorial to a book, there is an accompanying CD, with 8 tracks to lead you through the meditation practice.

The best thing about these simple 10- to 20-minute meditations is that you can incorporate them easily into daily routine to help break the cycle of anxiety, stress and mental exhaustion that permeates so much of modern life. The authors are mindful (no pun intended) of chattering minds and the tendency for thoughts to wander during meditation. The book recommends letting thoughts be, and not turning away from them. The aim of meditation is not to control the mind or clear it; instead, let the breath anchor us and shift focus inwards.

Apart from the meditation practices, the book recommends some highly interesting exercises called habit releasers, which are designed to break monotony and rigid patterns of thinking such as going to the cinema without knowing which movie you will watch.

I found the chapter on Nourishing Activities particularly useful. All too often, hobbies and pleasurable activities are given up to make way for work tasks without a realization of the detrimental effect on wellbeing. This chapter asks the important question ‘When did you stop dancing?’ and then makes you list down your daily activities, write an N (Nourishing) or D (Depleting) against each, and resolve to do something about the unsurprisingly skewed result.

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world is written in clear, simple language and is a fairly quick read.  While there is plenty of research cited, only the gist of the studies is presented, with details relegated to the bibliography. This makes for easy and free-flowing reading. Helpful analogies (think of unhappy thoughts as dark clouds observing with “friendly curiosity as they drift past”) and scenario visualization helps to put the theory in perspective. Anecdotes and stories are plentiful, driving the message home. Even Rumi has been engaged to tell us how to treat dark thoughts. 

This self-help book is aimed not only at people who are depressed, or recovering from clinical depression but anyone who feels overwrought and wonders why they aren’t feeling happy given they have no obvious issues. For the times we feel we are always on our way to something, but never quite getting there; or when a disaster or tragedy strikes and we need a coping mechanism. 

If you are still skeptical about the credibility of the concepts and techniques in this guide, attention to the authors’ profiles might change that. Mark Williams, professor at Oxford University and the director of Oxford Mindfulness Centre, is co-founder of the MBCT program, and the relevant authority on mindfulness. Co-author, Dr. Danny Penman is a well-known journalist and author who joined this project as he experienced the power of mindfulness firsthand after a life threatening paragliding accident. A foreword by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School 35 years ago seals the credibility deal on this one.

After reading this book, you may be so inspired that you decide to make mindfulness a way of life and take up the practices prescribed religiously, or you may enroll in a mindfulness course to further understand the concept. At the very least, some elements of mindfulness are sure to seep into your way of thinking and behavior, consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

Here’s to wishing you an enriching, meaningful and mindful life. Cheers!

For further information please check the book’s website:

www.franticworld.com

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Mindfulness Programs in Singapore:

In addition to almost all the government hospitals offering some form of mindfulness therapy, and local support groups like “Meet up” (http://www.meetup.com) mindfulness courses can be taken up institutes such as: 

Life Steps                              http://lifesteps.com.sg

The Potential Project           http://potentialproject.com

The Minding Centre             http://themindingcentre.org/wp/

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