Starting to Dance Again

Book review: Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams & Danny Penman

Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is a book that you want on your side.  You want it in your back pocket, in your knapsack, in your briefcase.  You may not want it on your iPad – although I have it on mine.  Nor might you want it in any form that prevents you from having a full-embodied experience of the lessons it offers to wade through this crazy, harried, frantic world.  Pick it up, turn the pages, dog-ear it, breathe in the possibility of change it offers.

Professor Mark Williams is well-known as one of the co-developers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – a treatment protocol to prevent relapse into depression.  He is the Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Center and the co-author of two books on MBCT which have offered rich wisdom to therapists treating and those seeking relief from depression.  In this book, Williams takes us on a different journey addressing the issues of daily living that tie us in knots and prevent us from living a fulfilled life.  From the very first chapter, Chasing your tail, the book sets a compassionate and understanding tone that invites us to explore these sticky points in our life.  The eternal question of “Why can’t I be rid of anxiety and sadness so I can be happy?” is addressed directly: these are not problems to be solved so we don’t need to feel bad about “failing” to do so.  The issue is not how to fix our emotional state but rather to see that we often use the wrong tool to manage the problem.  Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to step back and choose the best tool for the situation.

Mindfulness does not negate the brain’s natural desire to solve problems.  It simply gives us the time and space to choose the best ways of solving them.  Some problems are best dealt with emotionally – we select the solution that “feels” best.  Others need to be slogged through logically.  Many are best left alone for now. (p.12)

This capacity of mindfulness to open space around us is often overlooked in the typical wish we have to get to the outcome or to attain a state of understanding of our difficulties.  The practice of mindfulness doesn’t change the fact of having a problem; it offers an opportunity to meet it in a way different from our typical habitual reactions.

The first four chapters of what I refer to as my “de-frantic book” are clear and lucid explanations of the process of cultivating mindfulness, unhampered by theoretical or technical references.  The sections are filled with wonderful phrases that help us remember ourselves back into our life plan.  “Mental time travel” refers to the way “we re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-live future disasters and so pre-feel their impact. (p. 42)”  The subsequent chapters that form the 8-week self-directed program put practices into context with the theme of the chapter; the overall themes are a quiet saunter through our ways of meeting body sensations, emotions and thinking.  The imagery of our role in this practice as one of being a naturalist patiently waiting for a shy animal to appear is lovely; it gives us a perspective of of ourselves as curious, interested, and open to being surprised.

Even when current research is used to introduce a topic or support a concept, the language is inviting and the insights are allowed to form independent of the authors’ own pre-knowledge.  There isn’t a sense of being offered grist for our intellectual mill but rather a mutual discovery, a quiet “oh, now that makes sense.”  In the section on dealing with our thoughts, I particularly liked the idea that our mental running commentary is like a rumour.  There may be an element of truth in it but the fictional component is powerful and resistant to logic or positive thinking.  Taking that perspective, I wonder how much of our rumour mills are driven by our fear of uncertainty.  Perhaps a seductive, juicy piece of fiction feels “safer” than simply not knowing and the mind, our ever-willing story-generator, is only too pleased to fill in the gaps in its misguided attempt to ease anxiety.

Along with the various insights the book offers, the most useful features of Mindfulness are the Habit Releasers and the PIT-falls.  The Habit Releasers are habits we pick for the week’s practice that are diametrically opposed to our autopilot tendencies: sitting in a different place in your office, watching television with a specific intention about time and shows, planting seeds, going to a movie regardless of the thoughts that form about what is available or whether it will be what we want.  PIT-falls follow from this last tendency to engage in “Practice-Interfering Thoughts.”  These are the “what-if’s” and “I can’t imagine’s” – undermining stances which derail our intention and divert our attention to the moment.

Mindfulness, from to start to finish, is a process of learning to dance with life again.  It sets out the steps carefully and then orchestrates the moves with generous attention to what is possible.  It avoids the worn platitudes about attaining bliss, peace, and serenity while pointing to ways in which we are in full charge of these experiences.  In fact, it subtly teaches that we are responsible for our own happiness but that it is only possible if we are willing to engage intimately and truthfully with ourselves, others, and the world around us.

I highly recommend this book and it is now part of our professional training required reading because it also offers a fresh perspective from which to teach mindfulness skills.

Resources

Oxford Mindfulness Center

Oxford Mindfulness Center (another OMC!) – Facebook Page

Frantic World – website for the book

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