Book Review: Heal Thyself – Saki Santorelli

Heal Thy Self

My response to this book is completely different, rereading it for the second time – I first read it several years ago after attending a “Breathworks” mindfulness course, and I gave my copy away because I “didn’t need it”.

Now I realise that the book is written mainly from the teacher perspective rather than the participant journey: using poetry and metaphor, Santorelli urges us to face our shadows and fears, avoiding the seductive draw of numbness or melancholy that might be our natural response to being in the company of human suffering; recounting the story of the solder who meets the devil, he says our shadows might be converted to radiance or gold. Halfway through the book he goes further, likening the hospital environment to the traditional graveyard meditation on mortality, and equates working in a hospital to a long retreat.

Saki emphasises the primacy of empathy during the course, saying that he does not console, but stays present to both patients and himself – he also asks participants to refrain from offering advice or smoothing over suffering and so very early on, they begin to find community by listening to each other’s stories. Also in the first meeting he checks that people are there voluntarily, pointing out that they are free to leave if they wish. Later in the book he casually relates how 3 people have left, because of the travelling or time commitment for home practice.

He underlines the collaborative and symbiotic nature of relationship between the “wounded healer” and the patient’s powerful “inner healer”. He urges the trainer to look at their own wounds, pointing out that this work is “not the stuff of résumés”. In the chapter entitled “Namaste!” (the divine in me bows down to the divine in you) we are reminded that the trainer is not “more than” nor the patient “less than”, that patients want to be seen in their wholeness and not as an illness or disability. He uses Michelangelo’s “there is nothing in the mind of men that is not already in a block of stone” to remind us that we have unimaginable inner resources and to trust the alchemy of the individual and group.

I especially enjoy Saki’s phrase “postural options” for meditation because it says a lot about the context of mindfulness for pain and illness, where many of us may struggle to sit on the floor or even in an upright posture if we have a spinal injury for example. Also, that “walking meditation” might be transmuted to “rolling meditation” for a wheelchair user.

After reading Rumi’s poem The Guest House to participants, he remembers how a bereaved mother asks how she’s supposed to “laugh in the face of the arrival” of the memory of her son or of the grief or pain that she feels and he talks about the possibility of approaching what seems to be impossible perhaps just for a second or two, “working the edges” – this reminded me of many such occasions in Breathworks mindfulness courses where participants are encouraged to gradually and kindly “turn towards” their suffering.

I’m inspired by Saki’s description of “collegial sangha” at UMMS (University of Massachusetts Medical School), where mindfulness trainers share responsibility and commit to assisting in one another’s unfolding journey, attending each other’s classes, listening to one another’s meditation recordings, discussing strengths and weaknesses. Their decision to work together in this way is to discourage psychological cleverness and stay in the world of openness and curiosity or “not knowing” – I recently had a similarly supportive experience in a Breathworks teacher training retreat and resolve to stay in touch with my peer group.

Overall, reading this book reminded me that we are all in it together, this one “wild and precious life” and to show up and be present.

Want to find out more about Mindfulness? Feel free to browse my top mindfulness books or like me on Facebook to keep up with future updates.

Book Review: The Joy of Living – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness

It was inspiring to read a book written by an apparently joyful monk, to discover that he’d suffered years of constant anxiety and panic attacks as a child, even though he was the son of a renowned meditation master: this simple fact humanised him, and he’s a great “leveler” – encouraging those of us who feel that meditation is for more enlightened and disciplined people than ourselves.

Early in the book, Rinpoche describes the direct experience of the nature of mind (objectless practice, an exercise in “non-meditation” just resting in awareness of whatever is passing through your mind or “bare awareness”). In my limited experience, this type of broad awareness practice seems to be overlooked in some mindfulness programmes with the emphasis on focused meditation on an object such as breath, body or sounds, and I’m curious to know why that might be. Later I enjoy his description of a simple exercise in experiencing “emptiness” – watching thoughts emotions and sensations arising, momentarily appearing and then dissolving back “into emptiness” like waves.

Throughout the book, Rinpoche emphasises how easy meditation is – for example by telling the story of the poverty-stricken man who suffered terribly until he discovered that the walls and floor of his shack contained precious jewels. Also, the metaphor of the mother bird that leaves her nest, only to be pulled back to the nest time and time again. He says that no matter what perfect experiences we have (perfect job,relationship etc.) we yearn to return to ourselves – the state of complete happiness – we are homesick for our true nature.

Your perceptions are only crude approximations of the true nature of things, and the frequent references to quantum physics, e.g. how space and time start to jitter and kink at increased magnification (subatomic level) a state called “space-time foam” underline this. Reference to the observer effect in scientific experiments emphasizes the fact that we operate from a conditioned mind-set filled with many unconscious concepts that have the effect of conveying an illusion of solidity onto impermanence, including the concept of “I” and “me”.

I appreciated the descriptions of the structure and function of the brain, for example the role of the thalamus and the left prefrontal lobe; e.g. that the thalamus sends signals about perceived objects to both the neocortex (rational analytical brain) and the amygdala, but that the signal arrives at the amygdala first, hence our naturally reactive nature. This seems to explain one way that meditation affects the brain, enabling us to pause and choose our response.

I found his meditation instructions eminently practical, including his story about the man he met in Paris who’d misunderstood the instruction to “hold your arms like a vulture” – this is very useful advice and reminded me of a respiratory physiologist I know whose hobby is hill-walking – to support the most efficient expansion of the rib cage, she puts her hands on her hips when striding uphill. It also reminded me of the various ways I’ve seen people achieve this arm position in meditation – here’s an example image from the Manchester Buddhist Centre in the UK: 

The suggestion that meditation be practised little and often, possibly using a tally counter and building up reps is very convincing. However, I’d say that this book is more about the “why” of meditation rather than “how”, and if you’re looking for a practical manual you might be better to consider other books on my list.

I’ve heard many of the stories, scientific theories and concepts before, but the book is so well written, kind and encouraging, it changed me as I read it and I plan to-revisit it at some point in the future.

Want to find out more about Mindful meditation? Feel free to browse my top mindfulness books or like me on Facebook to keep up with future updates.

Mindful self-compassion

Self Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind

Easy-to-read introduction, with useful exercises; complemented by some great free resources on her website here. If I had to recommend one book on mindful self-compassion, it would be this one!

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

Christopher Germer has worked with Kristen Neff to develop the 8-week Mindful Self Compassion course (MSC, similar in structure to MBSR), they are currently writing the MSC trainer’s manual, due out in 2014. See his website for free meditations, handouts and other resources:

The Compassionate Mind

Professor Paul Gilbert has spent years researching and developing compassion-based approaches: to help advance scientific understanding & application of compassion he’s established a charity called the Compassionate Mind Foundation. I found this book extremely useful, if a little long.

Why Kindness is Good For You

Very easy read, Dr Hamilton has reviewed and summarised the scientific evidence for why kindness is good for you – I (kindly) lent the book to a friend, so I can’t say much more right now.

Mindful Compassion

Due out in February 2013

Self-Care Cards (Large Card Decks)

Not a book, but a set of cards. All of the images on the cards are of women, so I guess that they may not appeal to everybody – nonetheless a beautiful reminder of how compassion might be stimulated by visual imagery. Why not make your own set of images? Any format will do, such as little cards and/or family photos in your wallet, or images set as a background on your smart phone, or how about a digital photo frame on your desk or somewhere prominent at home, set to change the images at intervals?

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You are

See next book below.

I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST ME (BUT IT ISN’T): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power

Both of these books by Brene Brown were very interesting, and you may well find the very act of reading them transformational – however I do remember thinking that the content of both books overlaps considerably and you really only need to read one of them to get the main idea. Unfortunately I lent one of the books to a friend so I can’t say with confidence which one I’d recommend. I’ll update this when I have both books side by side!.

A Path with Heart

Wonderful read, predating all of the others on my list; still a favourite. More of an enjoyable read than a practical manual.

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

Mindfulness in the workplace

The Mindful Workplace: Developing Resilient Individuals and Resonant Organizations with MBSR

A practical guide to running MBSR courses in the workplace.

Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness

Describes Chade-Meng Tan’s course in mindfulness and emotional intelligence for staff at Google.

Working with Mindfulness

Useful audio guide to workplace mindfulness, contains examples of eminently practical mindfulness exercises (Mirabai Bush was one of the contributors to Google’s “Search inside yourself” employee mindfulness programme.

Awake at Work classic guide to becoming more mindful at work.

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world

A useful and affordable resource for running mindfulness-based courses in the workplace. I also listed this in my top 10 books for beginners, as it’s actually a self-help book, but so well structured, with CD of guided practices it would be difficult to do better than this unless you develop your own in-house manual.

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

Applying the lessons of his famous book “Flow” this is a guide to creating optimal conditions for the flow state, strictly speaking not a mindfulness book and this kind of information is summarised free on the internet, if you look around.

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long

More about the conditions for experiencing mindfulness at work

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is deceptively simple, and anyone familiar with mindfulness will recognise this as a very mindful approach to your “to do” list. The Book and various supporting resources are free. Here is a free ebook describing the Pomodoro Technique.  You can find more free tools for implementing the technique here.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

Interesting and informative guide to the Pomodoro Technique.

Assessing Mindfulness and Acceptance: Illuminating the Theory and Practice of Change

Chapter 11 by Paul Flaxman and Frank Bond, describing the introduction of acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. As this is only one chapter in a fairly expensive book, I recommend you look at this website if you’re interested in ACT in the workplace.
There are some useful free resources and lists of resources here.


Teaching mindfulness

Starting to teach mindfulness to others can feel daunting. Here are the resources that I’ve found most helpful:

Mindfulness Scotland Mindfulness Approaches 8 Week Programme Course Handbook (FREE)
(if link doesn’t work, just Google mindfulness Scotland workbook). Lovely resource, lots of useful content.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) Implementation (FREE)

A generous collaborative offering gathered and edited by Prof Willem Kuyken (Exeter University), Rebecca Crane (Bangor University) and Prof Mark Williams (Oxford University) from materials developed at the mindfulness centres at Exeter, Bangor and Oxford Universities in the United Kingdom.  This pack contains much practical and procedural material, including sample handouts and proformas; although it’s aimed at MBCT, it’s a useful reference point for other structured mindfulness interventions.

Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators

Fantastic resource, and I can’t find any comparable offering – the Publisher’s description says it’s “the first academic text on teaching mindfulness across a broad range of professional clinical settings”. However, I delayed buying this book for months as it was expensive, especially in hardback, and I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. I bought the book just before a teacher training week where I was required to deliver a guided meditation for the first time in public, and it was invaluable. What finally convinced me to buy it (apart from wanting to be well-prepared) was the thought that I didn’t want to get into “bad habits” that might be difficult to unlearn later on. Careful choice of language and skillful scripting is extremely important to support learning meditators and this book gives lucid and clearly laid out examples of guided meditation scripts which you can adapt to suit. I believe that the advice in this book raised my standard from average/okay to surprisingly effective. So many thanks to the authors for sharing their expertise.

Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation

Contemplation Nation: How Ancient Practices Are Changing the Way We Live

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression

Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world Although this is also in my “learning mindfulness” list, it’s also worthwhile listing here because it’s an affordable evidence-based approach that is increasingly being used to support workplace mindfulness programmes.

A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook [With CD (Audio)]

Heal Thy Self

See full review here.

Mindfulness in healthcare

Mindfulness practices are becoming more and more widespread in healthcare. For those of you that are interested in this area, here are the best books I know about mindfulness applied to the health sector.

Living Well With Pain And Illness: Using mindfulness to free yourself from suffering

Medicine and Compassion: A Tibetan Lama’s Guidance for Caregivers

Minding the Bedside: Nursing from the Heart of the Awakened Mind

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression

Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation

A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit

Leaves Falling Gently: Mindfulness and Compassion in the Face of Life-Limiting Illness

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Cancer: Gently Turning Towards

TIME to CARE: How to love your patients and your job

Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare

Top 10 books for learning mindfulness

So how can you get started? I have bought many books over the years on the topic of mindfulness. Here are my top 10 books for learning mindfulness for beginners, plus an extra “wild card” at the end!

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world Self-help version of the evidence-based Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) approach; extremely good value with a CD of guided meditations. Here is a helpful account of a sequence of ten blog posts written by James Hawkins, an Edinburgh-based medical doctor & psychotherapist; Dr Hawkins wrote the series to support people working their way through the book and he also generously provides free supporting resources such as practice record sheets, self-assessments and so on.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness

An encouraging introduction to mindfulness. Full review here.

A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook

The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life

Get Some Headspace: 10 Minutes Can Make All the Difference

Meditation Without Gurus: A Guide to the Heart of Practice

The Mindful Manifesto: How doing less and noticing more can help us thrive in a stressed-out world

Mindfulness For Dummies

Teach Yourself To Meditate: Over 20 simple exercises for peace, health & clarity of mind

The Happiness Trap

This book is not about classic mindful practices per se, but is highly insightful and useful. It would make an extremely powerful combination with any one of the above books.