Review of MINDFULNESS: AN EIGHT-WEEK PLAN FOR FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD by MARK WILLIAMS and DANNY PENMAN
As someone who has struggled with stress and anxiety my whole life, mindfulness feels like my savior. I’m not a religious person, but upon discovering mindfulness I nevertheless felt I had discovered my spiritual side. The philosophies teach balance as well as compassion towards both yourself and others. I tend to frame my self-worth in terms of productivity and am always looking ahead to the next goal, making me someone who could benefit greatly from a more mindful mindset.
Endorsement aside, the more I read about mindfulness the more I think there’s an undercurrent of elitism. When books or teachers simply push the relaxation aspect, I can’t help wondering about people who really cannot afford any break: the single parent working three jobs, the full-time student juggling work to pay for their education, anyone growing up in complete poverty. Mindfulness is an incredible asset but not something we’re likely to crave until we have more basic essentials, such as food and safety and general financial stability.
That said, I particularly liked this book, because the authors do address how overworked, crazy busy people can realistically incorporate mindfulness practices in their lives. Take meditation as an example. A lot of us have a very narrow idea of meditation. The stereotypical image is that of an experienced monk living in seclusion and possessing an almost magical ability to entirely free her mind. We think that if we cannot clear half an hour from our day to retreat to a quiet place, sit crossed legged on the ground, close our eyes, and do nothing, well, we can’t meditate. These authors make the wonderful point that you can’t really do meditation wrong. If you’re trying and “failing,” research shows that your mental health still benefits greatly from the regular attempts. “The spirit in which you do something is often as important as the act itself.” People who try meditation already convinced that it’s dumb and won’t work for them usually find they’re right; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People more open to the experience, if still skeptical, often feel hesitant at first about whether they’re “doing it correctly” but start to find the effort extremely beneficial as they move past that typical insecurity. Also let’s do away with the all-or-nothing thinking; a minute-long meditation once a week is still better than nothing. And position doesn’t matter nearly as much as effort. Lying down’s not particularly recommended since a lot of people might just fall asleep, but sitting in a chair or even standing are perfectly valid choices for meditating. So is keeping your eyes open. The point is to find what works for you. I especially adore the authors’ suggestion of reclaiming “wasted” time. Take standing in line, for example. Your average overworked person might still stop regularly at a coffee shop and wait in line for their energy fix. Or maybe stand around in a break room waiting for the coffee to brew. Either way, take those moments of boredom and frustration and turn them into an opportunity for meditation. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about making an effort.
Disclaimer: I didn’t do their recommended meditation exercises, because I’m already pretty familiar with meditation and have even done several of these specific exercises before. Personally, I aim to meditate for five minutes every day. It’s enough to be a challenge for someone with such an overactive mind but to also leave me feeling more relaxed and unburdened. It’s also something I can realistically fit into a busy day. If I have more time, I sit on the ground and close my eyes, but on more frantic days I still attempt to spend five minutes somewhere, even while waiting in line, focusing on my breathing and/or clearing my mind. I would, of course, recommend the exercises for anyone new to meditation. There are lots of ways to meditate—clear your mind, repeat a mantra, focus on a physical object or a mental image, listen to guided audio meditations—and you’ll want to find which methods appeal most to you. I prefer repeating a mantra. While I still find entirely clearing my mind too hard, fixating on one helpful mantra for five minutes really helps me narrow my focus back to the present moment.
There are so many meditation exercises in this book that one might wonder at its worth to me if I didn’t do them. Practices like meditation gain power through repetition, so I’m mostly trying to keep myself exposed to mindfulness concepts until hopefully my brain starts to shift from primarily anxious to primarily calm. The very first time I read a mindfulness book, I felt like it changed my life only to find a week later that I had forgotten most of what I learned. As any therapist will tell you, changing how you think is no easy feat. If you’ve been a worrier for decades, no single book can change that permanently after one read. Continual, repeated exposure is the best way to make lessons, especially psychological lessons, stick longer-term.
I’ve already stretched out this review rambling about meditation, but let me pull out one other concept I really liked from this book: that we all need some sense of completion. Feeling trapped is one of the leading causes of depression and often happens from that “hamster wheel” sense: that we’re busting ourselves in a repetitive, exhausting routine…for what? People are more prone to this gnawing sense of pointlessness when they don’t focus on the present, when they’re always either looking ahead or behind. Finishing a task doesn’t really feel like finishing anything if you’re already thinking about the next one or even the next dozen after that. Instead only think about the current task and then allow yourself a moment of pride when it’s completed before moving onto something else. If you’re happy, enjoy it without worrying how long it’ll last. If you’re sad, don’t fight the bad feeling; negative emotions are a natural part of life and make our positive ones all the more meaningful.
Objectively, I understand why many people roll their eyes at mindfulness talk. It sounds corny and even cult-ish if you haven’t connected with the concepts personally. But I have. It’s no exaggeration to say that mindfulness has changed my life. It’s no magic pill—like anything worthwhile, it takes effort—but I’d highly recommend that anyone who values introspection and life-long personal growth read more about mindfulness. This particular book is a great starter for those new to the concepts but also a good refresher for those working to internalize mindful philosophies longer-term.