A favorite book of mine is Ellen Langer's "Mindfulness." Happily still in print though it is nearly twenty years old. With it, Ellen, an eminent academic at Harvard introduced the psychological community to something that lies at the core of many religious, spiritual and contemplative practices.
This marvelous book by the co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Center is a next step. To give you a flavor of the book, let me quote from the Preface,
"Welcome to a journey into the heart of our lives. Being mindfully aware, attending to the richness of our here-and-now experiences, creates scientifically recognized enhancements in out physiology, our mental functions, and our inter-personal relationships. Being fully present in out awareness opens our lives to new possibilities of well-being.
Almost all cultures have practices that help people develop awareness of the moment. Each of the major religions of the world utilizes some method to enable individuals to focus their attention, from meditation to prayer, yoga to t'ai chi."
For Daniel Siegel, being "mindful: means being aware, of being conscientious, with kindness and care." He uses a helpful acronym: COAL, for curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.
As Daniel points out, we are in desperate need of finding a new way of being, not just in ourselves, but in our relationships, schools and in society as a whole. Professionals constantly see the terrible consequences for people who feel social isolation, dislocation and alienation. Yet until the advent of the Positive Psychology movement, academic psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry had all focused almost exclusively on the sick mind. To this day, most people working in these fields have been taught little if anything about mental health, ad even fewer are engaged in practices that can keep them healthy and resilient. It is no coincidence that people working in psychology and psychiatry have some of the highest burnout rates of any of the major professions.
The burgeoning evidence of the extraordinary plasticity of the human brain also has another side to it: if we are not mindful, if we are in unhealthy relationships, and if we are without any kind of inspiration or moral compass, our brains get wired in ways that they should not. And the earlier in life that it happens, the more difficult it is to unravel later. This is the reason why abuse in childhood can have effects that last decades.
This book is an attempt to redress the balance. The book is divided into four sections, fourteen chapters and three appendices:
PART I MIND, BRAIN, AND AWARENESS
1. A Mindful Awareness
2. Brain Basics
PART II IMMERSION IN DIRECT EXPERIENCE
3. A Week of Silence
4. Suffering and the Streams of Awareness
PART III FACETS OF THE MINDFUL BRAIN
5. Subjectivity and Science
6. Harnessing the Hub: Attention and the Wheel of Awareness
7. Jettisoning Judgments: Dissolving Top-Down Constraints
8. Internal Attunement: Mirror Neurons, Resonance, and Attention to Intention
9. Reflective Coherence: Neural Integration and Middle Prefrontal Function
10. Flexibility of Feeling: Affective Style and an Approach Mindset
11. Reflective Thinking: Imagery and the Cognitive Style of Mindful Learning
PART IV REFLECTIONS ON THE MINDFUL BRAIN
12. Educating the Mind: The Fourth ``R'' and the Wisdom of Reflection
13. Reflection in Clinical Practice: Being Present and Cultivating the Hub
14. The Mindful Brain in Psychotherapy: Promoting Neural Integration
Afterword: Reflections on Reflection
Appendix I Reflection and Mindfulness Resources
Appendix II Glossary and Terms
Appendix III Neural Notes
The book is well referenced and there is a good index.
As you will see from the chapter headings, the book is rooted in neuroscience and reviews the empirical evidence that our minds can not only control our brains, but also grow and develop them. Healthy experiences can help us cultivate our brains, our minds and our sense of well-being. What he has done in this book is to provide a theoretical foundation for the neuropsychology and consequences of mindfulness. As a neuroscientist, I thought that his models made extremely good sense. He writes well, and I do not think that what he has to say would be difficult for anyone with a high school education.
Why is this important? Because it shows that there are ways of maintaining and perhaps restoring mental health without medications or other external interventions. Of course there are times when medicines can be the only option, and literally life saving. But they are not always necessary. This brain-based approach is also very helpful for people who re already engaged in meditation, prayer or other forms of mindfulness training. It can be very helpful to know something about what is going on inside your head, without having to rely on experience alone.
Daniel shows that mindfulness is something that can easily be taught and learned, and that the consequences of using the techniques can be extraordinary, not only for ourselves, but also for our families and friends.
Though not, strictly speaking, a "how to" book on achieving mindfulness, there are ample descriptions of the keys that we need to attain it. He also provides details of some organizations that offer mindfulness training.
Very highly recommended.