Donald Altman is a psychotherapist, a former Buddhist monk, and author of The Mindfulness Code. Another book he wrote, Meal by Meal: 365 Daily Meditations for Finding Balance through Mindful Eating, could easily be a precursor to his current effort, One Minute Mindfulness. Altman comes with impressive credentials and it does more than lend weight to his words. His familiarity with the core of practice shows in his presentation of the heart and soul of the work of mindfulness. It is a practice that must be engaged with intention and be continuous in our daily life.
There are many things I found attractive about this book. Despite the usual promise of finding peace and serenity in the subtitle, it is quiet and unassuming. It paces the practice evenly over 50 chapters. Altman keeps his promise about simplicity; over 50 short chapters, he delivers 1-minute stances we can take to our life that stop the runaway mental trains we hop onto regularly. The language is straightforward and unpretentious. No preaching. No measuring of self against the great gurus and no mention of gurus.
In fact, the chapters are filled with little examples of people who struggle with their lives, moment by moment. Altman brings them alive in a few words, sketching out their past and present, opening us to the poor decisions we can make when we live without intention, without paying attention, and with an attitude of negativity to ourselves and our situation. I found it easy to identify with these experts of Life, not as a psychologist who meets them daily but as a human whose suffering is no different. Altman’s offerings of practice shift our collective stance to our struggles and open new possibilities.
Technically, the book strikes a resounding chord with our approach to teaching mindfulness at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. At the intake sessions and in the first class, participants often ask how much homework time is expected of them. After we give the usual softening statements that reframe the concept to one of “home practice” and use the “class is like a gym,” one of us will add, “So that means practice is 24/7.” This comes as a surprise to them but is not unexpected in a culture that fosters the quick-fix or which values the intellectual process of problem-solving. We take courses, attend workshops, and register for programs that promise increase in skills, competence, and credentials. And often they do.
Living skillfully, however, requires more than logging time in the frontal lobe, collecting bits and bytes of information we can apply like salve to a wound. It requires dropping into a moment-by-moment awareness of what is unfolding in our experience. We teach this as a practice of “mindful bells”: events in our inner and outer environment that signal a return to the breath, to an awareness of what is unfolding right now. And sometimes that means noticing the pain, sorrow, loss, and all the arrows that strike us in the passage of our days. This is usually the part in the course where participants begin to question their wisdom in registering. Who wants to pay attention to the icky stuff? However, without awareness of how we create our suffering, there is no possibility of knowing which skills to transform – or, more importantly, how to cultivate a realistic acceptance of the ebb and flow of life. And then slowly through practice, minute by minute, we learn that joy is not in the momentary uplifting (although those are important to save to the hard drive of our brain). True Joy is in meeting our life with full appreciation of what it is in this moment.
Altman folds all these concepts neatly into the chapters. The one-minute practices are prefaced with an tidy explanation of the need to develop an intention to act and the practice becomes a natural outcome of that intention. I particularly like his focus on creating intention before acting because without that piece of practice, “mindfulness” is nothing more than a meaningless ricochet from one stimulus to another. I also appreciate that the opening chapter is mindfulness of the body – in its moment of awakening in the morning. What better metaphor and promise of deep practice!
There are innumerable quotables and insightful statements in the book. Here are some of my favourites:
Your breath is your intimate kiss with this moment.
Give some thought to the consequences of one or more of your routines.
If we’re not careful, routines can rob us of the experience of the next minute.
Where we walk, there moves our lives.
Perfectionism is unforgiving.
Patience makes mockery of expectations.
There is no small hello.
The body is the perfect traffic signal.
Silence is a process.
We know from follow-up research we conducted in the OMC that the practices most of our Alumni use are the 3-minute breathing exercise and the “mindful bells.” Altman’s book is lovely manual of these mindful bells with the advantage that we create these bells and enter into a partnership with the ones already in our inner and outer environment.