Book Review: Siddhartha’s Brain by James Kingsland

sid-brainSiddhartha’s Brain, written by science journalist James Kingsland, opens with what would be a somewhat shocking quote from Ajahn Amaro, a Buddhist monastic in the UK.

We are all mentally ill.

While this should not quite raise the eyebrows of mental health professionals, it is a rather bald (apologies to Ajahn Amaro!) statement to make in public. However, it does set the tone of Kingsland’s book which takes, by turns, an unflinching look at the state of the mindfulness industry today and the roots of its conception in Buddhist teachings. Kingsland presents his work imaginatively. Using the development of the Buddha, Siddhartha, from pampered and protected prince to a teacher of the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering, he weaves what we know of Siddhartha’s quest and practice into what we know of the results of our current pursuit of liberation through mindfulness. And, it begins with acknowledging that we are all mentally ill.

In this insightful book interlacing the current findings of brain function, mental states, and mental health with the teachings of Buddhist psychology, Kingsland is a craftsman in making neuroscience accessible and presenting it through the lens of contemplative practices. Using the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s own journey to enlightenment, he draws a rich landscape of the merging of Eastern contemplative practice, Western psychology, and contemporary mindfulness.

As a device to introduce us to the roots of contemporary mindfulness and place the history and progress of the Western approach to knowing the mind in that historical context, Kingsland has done a much better job than most writers. Siddhartha’s Brain doesn’t fall into a polemic of modern science or a contemplative holier-than-thou pit; that is refreshing. The writing is crisp and clear, quiet and confident. It invites examination of concepts not by attempting to convince but by introducing perspectives that are easily testable by the reader. Of course, that is in essence the basic teaching of the Buddha: ehi passiko – come and see (for yourself).

Kingsland makes the important point – as have many Buddhist teachers – that one does not have to be Buddhist to meditate or benefit from the practice. In fact, one of the enjoyable aspects of Siddhartha’s Brain is a broader bandwidth than just a Buddhist social and political transmission of wisdom. Kingsland draws from evolution science, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, weaving them together  with ease. Most poignant for me was his examination of the early beginnings of meditation through the stories of Herbert Benson and the Transcendental Meditation practitioners of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Benson’s downfall in the community of psychology is a sad part of our collective history and Kingsland’s insight into Benson’s work – that the foundation of all meditation is the evocation of the relaxation response – is a validation of Benson’s valuable work.

I particularly recommend Chapters Three and Four for their lucid descriptions of the roots (The Cloud of Unknowing) and rationale (The Second Dart) for meditation and practice (and a more universal presentation than just a Buddhist one). It’s a bit more of a slog in Chapter Five (The Man Who Disappeared) only because the idea of a “self” that is not fixed in any one definition or role is still alien to our Western senses. Even in psychology today the discussion of identity is a confounding mess with terms like self-esteem, self-image, existential self, categorical self – all of which rests on a concept of a separate(d), individuated entity. Chapter Five will challenge your notions of these variegated and rarefied selves but also introduce you to the social neuroscience that actually supports the observation that there is no fixed unity called a “Self”. As Kingsland puts it:

Thus, from moment to moment, each of us is no more than a unique blend of spices, a homemade garam masala. (p. 101)

My favourite part of the book is the running theme of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a concept gaining much traction in the neuroscience of mindfulness to explain the fluid state of connection/disconnection that can lead to rumination as well as creativity. Kingsland’s description of how the DMN plays a role as our “Self app” that “(posts) repetitive messages of a personal nature on the screen” is a brilliant image of what happens when we wander down those “dark neighbourhoods” noted by the writer Anne Lamott as places she “never goes alone”.

Kingsland continues in Chapter Ten (Wonderful and Marvelous):

The marvel is that we can learn to control at will the signals that determine which track we take at any particular moment. By honing our powers of attention and emotion regulation through mindfulness practice, we can, if we wish, restrict the time we spend in self-focused, narrative mode of thinking that can lead to anxiety and depression. We can choose to take the scenic route, favouring a more experiential mode of being in which we are not held captive by our thoughts but rather treat them as transient mental events. (p. 235)

Now, I do have two quibbles – not with the book itself but the information offered from two sources. First, (p. 249) when inquiring into the frequently made claim that meditation can trigger unstable mind states, researcher Britta Hölzel is quoted as saying (somewhat flat-footedly) that “I (Hölzel) have never seen any major problems like that in our classes.” This is a common statement I hear from researchers and teachers of various mindfulness-based programs, which while true evades the question itself. In fact, we have, at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, had many applicants to our program who want to learn mindfulness and are fearful because previous experiences have resulted in intense mental distress, including dissociation, depersonalization, and profound anxiety. Whereas it is quite likely that in Hölzel’s experience there have not been such occurrences, it does not therefore mean this is not an area to be sensitive about as clinicians and to investigate further as researchers. Ottawa psychologist Nicola Wright and colleagues have written about adapting mindfulness for vulnerable populations and it does behoove us to acknowledge this as a necessary direction for future research and definitely for caution.

Second, Ajhan Amaro, who seems to have been a delightful guide and teacher for Kingsland, wrote an important response to our target article in Mindfulness (journal). He calls for a need to include ethics explicitly as a core component of mindfulness programs. I do respect the stance taken by MBSR developers that the cultivation of ethical action is inherent in its programming (see discussion on p. 269 of Siddhartha’s Brain). However, a statement of presumed fact is not a substantiated fact nor does it address whether the outcome is in the desired direction. Given that no therapeutic intervention is values-neutral, the examination of how mindfulness can become weaponized (see my earlier blog post) is important. After all, we are collectively responsible to examine if mindfulness training does give rise to skillful action and ultimately compassion for ourselves and all others.

Kingsland has done well in this book to translate complex concepts into accessible knowledge and convey ancient wisdom with a gentle, inviting voice. If you are at all fascinated by how and why our brains and being are the way they are, read this book. If you are curious about how meditation and mindfulness practices can help with the everyday struggles of just being human, read this book.

10 books that are good for your health: Mindfulness, Self-Compassion & Happiness

As we enter the New Year, let’s make 2015 a year of exploring the many gifts from skilled researchers and clinicians which can support our resolution to live better. The participants of the Mindfulness-Based Symptom Management, Burnout Resilience and Pain Management programs at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic have one wish in common: a desire to find a way to live their lives differently. In fact, this wish is not only that of the participants but also of everyone who works at the OMC. We share together the realization that despite our best intentions, we falter in caring for ourselves and others in a way that is kind, nourishing and supportive. We have strong values and tend to be committed to making ethically informed choices and yet we find ourselves wondering where all the wisdom went as we choose against those exact purposes.

If you’ve taken a mindfulness course, good start! You know over eight classes there can be shifts in your thoughts, actions and speech. You also know it’s not a quick fix and that the Ninth Class is the toughest! So to help with the rest of your practice life, here’s a collection of books that we recommend to support, boost and sustain your practice!

Mindfulness Starts Here: An eight-week guide to skillful living by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten. Now you didn’t think I would miss a chance to prop up our own book? If you’ve taken the 8-week program at the OMC, this is a great way to extend your practice. It also helps to come to the monthly Alumni groups! Nuff said. Let’s get on to the books you really need to get for yourself!

Leaves Falling Gently: Living fully with serious life-limiting illness through mindfulness, compassion & connectedness by Susan Bauer-Wu.  This is likely my all-time favourite. Bauer-Wu is an expert in the field of pain, oncology and mindfulness. The book is infused with compassion and an open-hearted approach to the vagaries of chronic pain. The exercises are easy and helpful, realistic and encouraging. The sections on the impact of chronic illness on memory, attention, emotions, etc. is invaluable. This book also is unstinting in its honesty about life-threatening illness and offers opportunities to change our rigid stance to the reality of living and dying.

The Practicing Happiness Workbook by Ruth Baer. This is a terrific book that brings together Dr. Baer’s skills as a clinician, methodical approach as a researcher and clear understanding as a mindfulness practitioner. I loved the set-up of the workbook because it … well, it works. Start with a nice pithy overview and then jump in at your own pace. The second section explores four very important traps that can derail our practice:  rumination, avoidance, emotion-driven behaviours and self-criticism. The section following on mindfulness skills is clearly written and I truly appreciate the inclusion of values and goals. The chapters are punctuated with stories about people with whom we can identify and the worksheets are very user-friendly. It makes me happy just to read it!

Hardwiring Happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence by Rick Hanson. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is well-known for his ability to pull together neuroscience and psychological mind states in a way that is immanently understandable by most of us non-neuroscientists. There are so many catch phrases used in the mindfulness circles that originate with his teachings and in his books! Velcro for bad/Teflon for good, HEAL yourself, metaphors for resilience and vulnerability, the list is endless. What is important though is his ability to explain why we act the way do and how this is hard-wired. The section “Paper Tiger Paranoia” is my favourite and has helped me out of many a flight reaction! Mostly, in this book, we get to practice the ways in which to make changes to those survival instincts and hard-wire responses to experiences that sustain and help us. If you find this book helpful (or if you’re curious), also try his new program called Foundations of Well-Being which is a year-long on-line program and worth taking.

Living Well with Pain & Illness: The mindful way to free yourself from suffering by Vidyamala Burch. This book is written by and is based on the Breathworks program developed by someone who truly understands the challenge of physical pain. Vidyamala Burch’s history is unlike anyone I’ve read about and her strength is apparent throughout the book. Chapter 2 explains what is pain and is one of the clearest and most useful descriptions available. The use of research-based information is well-placed and does not overwhelm the information in each chapter. I totally fell in love with the third chapter. It’s my favourite allegory of how we create our suffering out of pain. And Burch patiently tells the story in gentle sequences making it come alive. The exercises and case stories are accessible and very user-friendly. I prefer the book to the e-book simply because the text set up is more compelling.

Empathy: Why it matters and how to get it by Roman Krznaric. This is an important book to keep the practice of mindfulness from becoming a self-centered practice. While we start our practice because we suffer the effects of personal difficulties, it is important to see that we are created, and can be undone, in a social context of family, community and global events. Mindfulness brings our awareness to our suffering and we practice so that we don’t repeat the same cycles of interactions with ourselves and others. However the deeper intention of mindfulness is to create a compassionate world and that change can’t happen without seeing that others too want to be free of the same suffering we endure. Empathy is the capacity to walk in their shoes, to make choices that are informed by understanding that what others need is not what we think they need. The exercises and examples in the book are wonderful and challenge us to find a different way to know the world. Grow your connection with those you love and beyond!

Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert & Choden. Paul Gilbert is well-known and respected for his work on compassion and cultivating the compassionate mind. In this book, he teams with Choden, a Buddhist monk who helped develop the graduate program in mindfulness and compassion at Aberdeen University. I particularly like the way they organize the book so that the arising of compassion is a natural outcome of how we organize the world as we know it. Gilbert’s perspective of compassion as a social mentality which helps us negotiate through relationships and interactions is an important understanding. In other words, being compassionate is far from being soft and squidgy or a door mat. The exercises are nicely explained and inviting. The definitions of compassion clear up misconceptions. The development of a compassionate self (Chapter 10) is probably the most important part of the book. However, it rests on all that precedes it; I especially liked that the exercises in this chapter are also empathy cultivating ones. An important addition to your mindfulness practice!

The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-week program to free yourself from depression and emotional distress by John Teasdale, Mark Williams & Zindel Segal. This book is a user-format version of the previously published A Mindful Way through Depression. The first section lays out the foundations and the next section takes us through the eight weeks. I liked how the issue of traps and obstacles is re-framed as “another way of knowing” which opens up the thought patterns and is subtly a practice in cognitive flexibility. It is focused on addressing depression through mindfulness however, the various exercises also might be useful for anxiety and general stress. I had trouble with the layout of the book (too many boxes for a book that wants us to get out of our mental boxes) and the excessive number of balloon quotes are distracting (not cool for a mindfulness book). I have used it as a guidebook with individual patients and found it organizes the sessions well. Be patient when you use this but do try it!

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions by Christopher Germer AND Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself by Kristin Neff. These two books come as a perfectly balanced pair. Germer approaches self-compassion with a clinical understanding of the emotional impact of our often harsh inner critic. Neff comes from the perspective of a research-based understanding of what self-compassion means and how it works. With both the experiential practice and the knowledge base to ground it, I find the practice of self-compassion inviting and easy to integrate into my life. As both Neff and Germer remind us in their workshops: don’t chose a practice that sets off an argument in your mind about it. Folded into both books is also the much-needed practice of forgiving ourselves for not being that superhuman being we think we need to be.

The Mindful Way to Study: Dancing with your books by Jake Gibbs & Roddy Gibbs. For all you students out there and those of us who are perennial students, this is a terrific guide to setting down and getting the work done. And more. I like the way this book addresses the various obstacles we encounter (traps) by setting the perspective of “gumption”. Just do what needs to be done! Well, it’s not that easy and Gibbs & Gibbs walk us through a number of gumption traps. The first one was ego (but I figure I already know how that works so I skipped it… no, not really). Check out the section on procrastination though; it’s not just about boredom or priorities! Gibbs & Gibbs’ focus on Right Effort (the last section) is helpful and has a nice balance of meditative practice with insight to our actions.


Book giveaway on blog by Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold, is offering a copy of our book, Mindfulness Starts Here! Maezen is well-known for her no-nonsense teachings in Zen and more for her direct connection with the everyday-ness of our experiences.

For a chance to get a copy of our book, go to her blog and leave a comment! (Then go to Amazon and leave a review for us!)

Thanks, Maezen!

Advance Praise for “Mindfulness Starts Here” – Steve Flowers

UoOHS-12NOV19Whether you have been practicing mindfulness for many years or for you  Mindfulness Starts Here is where your introduction to mindfulness begins – you have found a treasure here that you will probably read again and again. This lovely book from Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten is a beautiful tapestry of wisdom and love that can guide you through life’s hardships and awaken in your life greater joy, loving-kindness and well-being.

Steve Flowers, MS, MFT, has been a mindfulness teacher for 16 years and is the author of The Mindful Path through Shyness and co-author (with Bob Stahl) Living with your Heart Wide Open.

We love to tell the story of sitting in a cozy nook with Steve during the busy Center of Mindfulness (UMass) conference in 2012 discussing the ups and downs of publishing a book. We commiserated on how hard it was to choose a good title and Steve asked about our book. As we dithered about what to call it, he said, in true MB Teacher mode, “What do you want to call it?”

“Mindfulness starts here! Right here. Right now!” we responded.



“Well then?”

And so ended the quest to find a suitable title for our book. Thanks, Steve!

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.

Continue reading

Simple Practices for the Ordinary Life

Book Review: How to train a wild elephant and other adventures in mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays

by Guest Reviewer Aarathi Selvan

My day began with racing thoughts.  I had so much to do and the to-do lists kept showing up at the speed of light.  Almost.  Every time I became aware of them, I would try to calm myself, calm my mind.  As the day rolled by, I became gentler toward this noise in my head.  I became more aware of the restlessness I was feeling.  I began to watch my hands move- towards my little one, towards the bowl of rice I was feeding her, towards the food I was cooking, and the wheel I was clutching.

I then watched my hands relax as I let my little one take her afternoon nap on my arms.  I felt my hands melt into the couch I was resting on as I joined her in an afternoon siesta.  Mindfulness practices of using “loving touch” and “resting my hands” had become me.

How to train a wild elephant and other adventures in mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays  is a treasure trove of mindfulness practices  that one can practice week after week for the rest of their lives.  Chozen Bays invites you to practice mindfulness by providing some simple truths about what mindfulness is.

“Mindfulness practice reminds us not to fritter our mental energy away in trips to past and future, but to keep returning to this very place, to rest in what is happening in this very time.”

What she says about mindfulness resonates with me:

                “When we practice mindfulness, we learn to lift the mind up out of its habitual preoccupations and place it down in a place of our choosing in order to illuminate some aspect of our life.  We are training the mind to be light, powerful, and flexible but also able to concentrate on what we ask it to focus on.”

The book has fifty-three wonderful mindfulness practices, some simple like focusing on the breath while others are far more challenging like going on a week-long media fast.  Chozen Bays recommends joining a group to practice one exercise every week, placing reminders and discussing what worked and what didn’t as a way to glance at our habitual patterns, and as a way to bring us back into the present moment, because regardless of how you look at it, now is all there is.

This book has helped me move my mindfulness practice to everything I see, hear, feel, touch, and sense. The color blue brings me back to the present moment, my fingers typing away on the keyboard brings me back to the present moment, my hard stare at the computer screen brings me back to the present moment.  All of them willing me to soften my eyes, relax my fingers, ease my posture and widen my awareness.

This week, I am practicing saying “Yes.”  I am uncovering so many layers of defenses with this exercise.  Most poignant of all is the realization that a “no” is hiding in the most unlikely of corners. I have begun to acknowledge that every time I react in a certain way and become irritated, angry or indignant by what I receive as a response from the person or situation, it is because my mind was already defensive.  What followed was simple a result of my defensive stance.

I have this awful habit of pointing out mistakes in a long-winded, sarcastic manner.  My husband became the recipient of this, this evening.  He had made really little tea this evening (having lost touch with making it for four people at home he wasn’t sure about quantities, etc), and here I was, disappointed about having just 1/4th the amount of tea I usually drink in the evening.  I initiated this twisted conversation about how much water he put, how many teaspoons of tea leaves he had added, why he had made so little, and did he think he was making tea for Anika (our baby girl), etc., leaving both of  us exhausted after a debate of what I wanted originally and what had actually happened.  Yes, I could have just said, the tea was great (which it was), and leave the amount of tea to be made for the next time.  However, my mind was filled with finding out mistakes.  This is precisely where I lose energy, time and again.

With this week’s practice of saying yes, I am going to turn inward and become aware of what I am feeling every time I say a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no’.  I am going to find a helpful way of saying something (or better yet, just remaining quiet) to conserve my energy rather than exert it in this futile debate of “no” and the defenses it brings forth.  As I falter, I am going to enjoy and honor the defenses that come up as a part of this journey.

Chozen Bays’ book is full of discoveries I make every week that humbles me, tears me apart and fills me with immense gratitude, kindness and compassion.  I let myself momentarily ride the guilt train when I don’t practice, immediately after, I smile and gently bring myself back to my loving hands, my gentle gaze, my deep breath and the car I am driving.  I can already tell that I will be coming back to this book over, and over again.


Aarathi Selvan is the author of the blog Between Life’s Doing and a psychologist, a yoga practitioner, and a student in mindfulness. She also enjoys her roles as a mommy, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend.

Jan Chozen Bays is a physician, author of Mindful Eating, and a Zen teacher in Oregon.

A Celebration of 10-years and a new site!

The OMC began in 2003 with a class of 10 people drawn from our private practice.  We met in a conference room at the Riverside Hospital that barely fit 12 of us and a three-section oak conference table.  Each evening that table had to be stacked in the corner so we could do the Body Scan lying down.  The intercom would blare and the code alarms would sound.  Somehow we managed.

Now, ten years later, we practice in a lovely meditation room set next to our offices available for daily meditations, classes, and the Alumni sessions.  On this 10th series of sessions, we are offering four classes of MBSR and look forward to this ever-increasing spiral outward into society.  We continue with our professional training in Foundational Mindfulness-Based Interventions, a course we have conducted continuously since 2005.

In celebration, we have just published our new website and will move our blog there.  Please join us.  There are still a few tweaks on the blog page that need to be done and we hope that will be completed shortly.

The inaugural post will be a review of Mark Williams’ terrific book, Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world.

Thank you to all our participants whose enthusiasm and dedication made all this possible!  May your days be light and joyful.  May your practice bring you peace and love.