By Mark Williams and Danny Penman
In the book’s opening chapter, given the title ‘Chasing Your Tail’, the authors write: Can you remember the last time you lay in bed wrestling with your thoughts? You desperately wanted your mind to become calm, to just be quiet, so that you could get some sleep. But whatever you tried seemed to fail. Every time you forced yourself not to think, your thoughts exploded into life with renewed strength. You told yourself not to worry, but suddenly discovered countless new things to worry about. You tried fluffing up the pillow and rolling over to get more comfortable, but soon enough, you began thinking again. As the night ground ever onwards, your strength progressively drained away, leaving you feeling fragile and broken. By the time the alarm went off, you were exhausted, bad tempered, and thoroughly miserable.
Throughout the next day, you had the opposite problem – you wanted to be wide awake, but could hardly stop yawning. You stumbled into work, but weren’t really present. You couldn’t concentrate. Your eyes were red and puffy. Your whole body ached, and your mind felt empty. You’d stare at the pile of papers on your desk for ages, hoping something, anything, would turn up so that you could gather enough momentum to do a day’s work. In meetings. You could barely keep your eyes open, let alone contribute anything intelligent. It seemed as though your life had begun to slip through your fingers… you felt ever-more anxious, stressed and exhausted.
This is a book about how you can find peace and contentment in such troubled and frantic times as these.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
Everyone experiences periods of pain and suffering and it’s naïve and dangerous to pretend otherwise.
Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average.
In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.
Finding Peace in a Frantic World
The authors assert that finding peace and contentment is actually a rediscovery, stating that all of us, no matter how stressed we might feel, already have these things within us. They believe this to be true after studying anxiety, stress, and depression for more than 30 years, discovering what they describe as the secret to sustained happiness in the process. The secret is something they feel Western culture has forgotten, leading to many of us missing what’s really important in life. They write: We wrote this book to help you understand where true happiness, peace and contentment can be found and how you can rediscover them for yourself. it will teach you how to free yourself progressively from anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. We’re not promising eternal bliss; everyone experiences periods of pain and suffering and it’s naïve and dangerous to pretend otherwise. And yet, it is possible to taste an alternative to the relentless struggle that pervades much of our daily lives.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
The author’s write: Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster.
Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.
Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.
Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.
Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.
Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence.
Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.
Despite these proven benefits, however, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word ‘meditation’. So before we proceed, it might be helpful to dispel some myths:
Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are keen meditators too.
You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor and chant.
The Eight-week Mindfulness Programme
The mindfulness-based cognitive therapy programme (MBCT) is a series of simple practices designed to be incorporated into daily life. It’s a technique that revolves around a form of meditation which, although commonly practiced in some other cultures, was relatively unknown in the West until recently. They write: A typical meditation involves focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. when unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.
Week One: Waking Up to the Autopilot
In the first week of the programme, the authors introduce an 8-minute meditation that they believe brings an awareness of the body and breath. They point out that we rarely give any thought to breathing, yet it’s something we can’t live without, so we should all be more attuned to it. In learning to focus on your breathing pattern, you learn to bring your attention into the here and now, thereby you become fully present in the moment. It also serves as a reminder that breath is life, and breathing is at the core of your being – irrespective of who you are or what you want to achieve.
Week Two: Keeping the Body in Mind
In the second week, a 14-minute body scan meditation is introduced. This ties in to the mind-body connection, and it offers an opportunity to shift from thinking to sensing. One way to put this into practise is to focus on being aware of all five senses when you take a walk outdoors. Smell and/or taste the air, feel the breeze, hear the sound of your footsteps, and really take a conscious look at your surroundings. Every day and every season has something new to offer, and the authors point out that being fully present in these moments of focused awareness is a way of looking at familiar things with fresh eyes.
Week Three: The Mouse in the Maze
In the third week, yoga stretches and further breathing exercises are introduced. The authors note that most of us, when things are not going the way we want them to, will work hard at pushing and pulling in whatever way we can to get things going our way. They suggest it’s often better to pause for a moment and just let things unfold. This is because continuing to push and pull may not be helping, and it may even be making things worse by getting in the way of creative thinking that could help to get around problems.
The yoga stretches and breathing exercises provide a greater sense of awareness. With greater awareness, it becomes easier to spot opportunities as they arise. The authors point out that the mental attitude you bring to a task is just as important as any actions taken, and an anxious or exhausted mind is likely to remain blinkered to finding another way.
Week Four: Moving Beyond the Rumour Mill
In the fourth week, the authors ask readers to consider how truthful their thoughts are, describing thoughts as rumours in the mind. The way we react to things is hugely influenced by the way we’ve interpreted those things in our thoughts, and while some rumours may be true, many times they’re simply not. When we’re stressed, negative thoughts can feel like absolute truths, but very often it’s just our minds filling in the blanks and our imagination working overtime.
The sound and thought meditation introduced in this week is a way of stepping back from thoughts and taking a moment to observe rather than get caught up and dragged into them. With practise, it becomes easier to recognise when thoughts are spiralling into negativity and becoming self-sabotaging. The authors point out that we may have no control over the arrival of thoughts in our minds, but we can learn how to manage them when we’re aware of them being there.
Week Five: Turning Towards Difficulties
In week five, meditations designed to help us become more aware of what’s troubling us are introduced. The authors note that most of us find it hard to go easy on ourselves when we’re facing tough times, and the natural reaction is to keep pushing back, or pretend nothing is wrong. The message in this chapter is that acceptance is a better way forward. They explain that acceptance should not be seen as giving up, or being detached, it’s simply allowing ourselves to take a short pause to get clear on the best course of action – to be responsive rather than reactive. The suggested meditations provide time and space to become fully aware of what the difficulties in life are, and to consider how best to deal with them. The brief pause they create is a moment of mindfulness that can offer choice.
Week Six: Trapped in the Past or Living in the Present?
In week six, one of the topics discussed is how to slow down in a chaotic world. The authors consider ways of making better choices in life, and they invite the reader to focus on kindness, compassion, and empathy. One suggestion is to do more good deeds for others, including random acts of kindness for complete strangers as well as family and friends. The important thing is that these acts mustn’t be done to receive recognition or praise, they need to be selfless, and as such, they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing.
Week Seven: When Did You Stop Dancing?
In week seven, the authors ask readers to consider when they stopped dancing. In asking this question, they are really asking the reader to question when they stopped doing activities that brought them joy. They make the point that most of us start to side-line enjoyable activities when our days fill up with work pressures and other responsibilities. However, these tasks won’t nourish the body and soul in the way taking part in something pleasurable will. It may not be dancing, it may simply be relaxing in a bubble bath, or enjoying a cup of tea while reading a book, but these pleasurable activities can go a long way towards lifting your mood.
Week Eight: Your Wild and Precious Life
The key message in week eight is that living a fulfilled life requires being honest with yourself about what’s most important and what really matters. The authors suggest ways to bring the mindfulness meditations and practices together to begin a long-term routine that’s easy and sustainable. In so doing, you have all you need to begin each day with renewed awareness, techniques to bring calm to chaotic moments in your day, and a reminder to take time in life for the things you enjoy.
The contents of the book promote the many benefits of mindfulness, and the information provided by the authors not only makes it possible to see a way to bring calm into a frantic life, but also to begin right away. The insights and in-depth knowledge shared set out a clear path to living a happier and less anxious life.
The week by week presentation of the mindfulness programme helps the reader to not only begin their mindfulness journey, but also stay motivated to make changes for the better in life. It’s not about chanting, it’s about learning to live a life of greater awareness in each moment.
Bio of the Authors
Professor Mark Williams is Professor of Clinical Psychology and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at Oxford University. He also co-developed mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Dr Danny Penman is a feature and comment writer for the Daily Mail, and he has also worked for the Independent and the BBC. He has a PhD in biochemistry.