This lightweight and practical introduction to mindfulness can get you started with mindfulness practice today. If you don’t mind a bit of extra wordiness, you may even enjoy it.
The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems
By Ronald D. Siegel, 2009. ISBN 9781606232941. The Guilford Press. 356 + xii pages.
Part I of The Mindfulness Solution, roughly 100 pages, is entitled Why Mindfulness Matters. Its four chapters introduce mindfulness specifically as “awareness of present experience with acceptance”, exploring it both as an informal moment-to-moment matter and as a formal meditation practice, while also placing it within a broader context of life and the challenges we make for ourselves. Part II, called Everyday Practices for Unruly Minds, Bodies, and Relationships, refines the practices introduced in Part I with a view to addressing specific problems with worry and anxiety, sadness and depression, pain and stress-related medical problems, relationships, bad habits, plus aging and illness and death (chapters 5 through 10, respectively). A final chapter touches briefly on research in mindfulness and positive psychology, while additional sections at the back offer tips on finding a therapist as well as further resource lists that include organisations, websites, and books. Fill-in-the-blank exercises, inventories and spaces to write your personal plans abound throughout the book.
If you’re looking for a lightweight and practical introduction to mindfulness, one that will help you actually begin practising mindfulness right now, today, this is great stuff. If you’re looking for pointers and concrete steps to connect mindfulness practice with the ‘everyday problems’ in the list above, you’ll find them here. And if you’d like to understand a little more of the ‘M’ in ‘MCBT’ (mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy), then here again, there is something for you. I certainly got something important from this book.
So why do I find myself feeling so unenthusiastic about it?
Picking up the book and flicking through 350+ pages of quite densely-set type, you might guess, as I did, that The Mindfulness Solution would be fairly heavy going and in-depth. Yet once I settled in for actual reading, I realised that the length is not at all a result of in-depth discussion. Relentlessly repetitive, it felt to me as if the book was roughly three to four times longer than what would have been a natural length, as if so much extra ‘lightening’ had been added in an attempt to make it easy to digest that it actually wound up being almost too much to swallow at all.
That is not to say that the ‘extra’ material in this book is not entertaining or not well written — it is, on the contrary, both nicely written and entertaining. Perhaps my reaction here is nothing more than a reflection of my own temperament and preferences. By analogy, I have over the years encountered martial arts instructors with three distinguishable approaches to teaching. The first are those who say very little during training, making just the occasional correction or issuing a direction now and then, and who seem for all intents and purposes as if they would be content to watch you simply keep beavering away for years until you finally grasp this or that element of the practice. Second are those who make much more frequent and direct contact with your learning process, drawing your attention to specific things you can do right now to improve. And third are those who, during the course of a training session, talk and talk and talk, without necessarily saying very much. Importantly, very fine and capable martial artists can be found in each of these three camps, and each can produce fine and capable students. But for me personally, it’s only those in the third camp who often leave me feeling something that could be summed up roughly as “stop talking and say something“. For me, those in the third camp suit my temperament the least.
Siegel’s style is very much in the third camp. So, while Siegel’s fluency in the material comes through clearly, and his approach seems nicely formulated to set the reader at ease, and there clearly is much I can learn from him, at the same time I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed reading his book. By the end of the book, I found it hard to remember how rapidly I had warmed to it in the first chapter and how personable I had found Siegel as a writer.
Sometimes, Siegel’s preference for length over depth left me downright frustrated. In the midst of the chapter on applying mindfulness practice to sadness and depression, for example, we’re told without any further explanation or exploration that “all emotions are actually sets of bodily sensations accompanied by thoughts and images” (p. 146). Thousands of years of philosophy and more than a century of modern psychology have come at the topic of emotions from innumerable distinct directions, both conceptual and experimental, and here we skim over all that like a stone across a pond. Later, in the context of intimate relationships, Siegel says that biologists have considered the question of what makes an organism and tells us “They conclude that our concepts of separate organisms are arbitrary” (p. 215). Siegel immediately goes on to mention ants and the importance of the ant as compared to the colony as a whole. Yet these few sentences entirely miss the point that neither ants nor ant colonies are in any sense “arbitrary” and pass up a beautiful segue into the rich interrelationships between different levels of structure in the same collection of ‘stuff’. This is, after all, a chapter about relationships, and this sense of structurally deep interrelationship — not mere arbitrariness — is meat and potatoes of the Buddhist tradition. In my view, this kind of quick pop science allusion (which would be described as flatly wrong by quite a few biologists out there) winds up actually detracting from the book’s discussion rather than merely not adding to it.
Importantly, in both of these examples, the substance underlying the skimming is not just tangential; it’s important. Even in the book’s first half, in which Siegel sets out basics of mindfulness practice, I have a sneaking suspicion that many readers will be left wanting once they begin engaging with mindfulness and discover that, for many people, it is simply hard. Siegel acknowledges this, of course, yet relative to the book’s significant size, very little space is dedicated to being alongside the reader with this fact. (Recalling my own first experience with meditation as an undergraduate in the 80s, I can say with near certainty that had I read something offering so little presence with the initial challenges I encountered, I would have set the book aside before ever finishing Part I.)
As I said at the outset, if you’re looking for a lightweight introduction, something that can help you get started with mindfulness today, this book will do the trick. And if you’ve already successfully made a start with mindfulness practice and want to begin applying it to address anxiety, depression, or other areas the book covers, great. But prepare for narrative that merrily skims along. I’m reminded not of Buddha or even of Lao Tzu, but rather of Suzanne Vega, who sang that “These words are too solid, they don’t move fast enough to catch the blur in the brain that flies by and is gone”.
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