- THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY (530 pages)
- WAYS OF ATTENDING (30 pages!)
These books are nothing short of extraordinary. And perhaps most extraordinary is that there are now two versions of the same basic material, one 500+ pages and the other, mercifully, just 30. So you can take your pick. I have read most of the former but all of the latter, twice.
Essentially they both explore new research on the difference between left and right brain in humans and other animals. But this does not reveal different functions associated with each hemisphere as used to be thought, but different ‘ways of attending’ or of paying attention. And broadly they relate to the two kinds of awareness I was exploring in my blog which is why they came to mind as I was writing.
In McGilchrist’s scheme, the left brain is associated with the more narrow cognitive awareness associated with the tasks related to keeping myself safe and alive. But the right brain awareness is more holistic, to do with stepping back and seeing the whole picture. He argues that the right brain should take precedence, delegating specific tasks to the left. But that somehow we have allowed the left (which does not perceive the whole picture) to take over, leading to a task orientated society which has forgotten why it is doing what it seems compelled to do.
The longer book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (title taken from an ancient folk tale of the same name – hence the unfortunately gendered language) gives the full picture of both the scientific research and the philosophical and literary out-workings. It also reflects, in an equally comprehensive second half, on how the lack of appropriate integration between these two sides of the brain has shaped the whole of western society. The shorter version ‘Ways of attending’ summarises the core thesis for the sake of a much wider audience.
To me these books give the scientific underpinnings of the whole of the mindfulness endeavour – the work of cultivating a certain kind of awareness as the wider space in which all awareness should find its proper place.
Zen mind, beginner’s mind – Shunryu Suzuki.
This Suzuki (there appear to be several) was one of the earliest Zen teachers who came over to the west from Japan to start teaching westerners the way of Zen Buddhism.
He taught mainly in America from the late fifties until he died in 1971 and this book is made up of transcripts of his talks and constitutes his basic teaching.
I have found it simple, beautiful and very gentle. It will take you beyond what is taught in most mindfulness courses these days but is never far from the theme and offers some underlying principles and ideas for healthy on-going practice.
The passages on non-duality are particularly challenging and at times (as I approach with a largely dualistic mind) confusing. But this is probably just the point and I have found even these passages strangely nourishing. In other words, they may make no sense to me but I sense there is something important and enriching here.
The chapters are short so this has become part of my morning ritual – wake up, tea, Suzuki, then meditate.
Many of my meditating friends read this book decades ago so it may well be familiar to you. But if not I highly recommend it as an excellent basic Zen text.
Trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David Treleaven.
This book would seem to me a must-read for anyone teaching mindfulness and a really valuable read for any of us seeking to practice mindfulness. The reason for this is that mindfulness seems to work differently for those who have experienced trauma. And even if we have experienced only moderate trauma it is helpful to understand something more of how our brains and nervous systems work in stressful situations.
Treleaven is a very experienced therapist who has had an interest in Mindfulness for 20 years and is trying to make a considered response to those who have rightly noticed the adverse reactions to mindfulness of some who have suffered trauma. He still feels mindfulness can be supportive but that there is a danger of doing harm if we don’t fully understand the territory.
The book is not a technical book but deals appropriately with technical issues in two parts: the foundations and then the principles of trauma sensitive mindfulness.
The added bonus of Treleaven’s work is that he has a particular interest in social context and so refers considerably to this often undervalued aspect of trauma particularly for women and people from ethnic minorities.
In love with the world – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
This is such a warm, humble and honest book by a Buddhist teacher which will resonate with so many of the things we teach in mindfulness – and indeed has a forward by mindfulness’ Mark Williams.
Yongey Mingyur was a world renowned Buddhist teacher living in some degree of seclusion from most of the hard realities and stresses of the world when he decided set off secretly on a three year homeless wandering retreat – a little practised but much venerated aspect of his own tradition.
His experiences, including nearly dying, turn out to be more of a shock to his system than even he had anticipated and what we have in this book is a picture of the most ordinary of humans seeking to bring his extensive meditation training to bear on situations like sleeping on a hard station platform and being bustled about with little respect in the heat and stench on the floor of a third class train. He experiences all the difficult emotions we would all experience and is simply and deeply honest about how he copes (and hardly copes) and how this journey brings transformation in his life.
A beautiful book – with constant lessons for us all. I’m loving it.
MINDFULNESS AND NATURE:
Awake in the wild – mindfulness in nature as a path of self-discovery. Mark Coleman
Mindfulness and the natural world – bringing our awareness back to nature. Claire Thompson.
Both these books do a wonderful job of linking mindfulness practice with being in nature. Claire Thompson’s book is lighter and more general from the lovely Leaping Hare Press. And Mark Coleman’s is more serious, informed by a Buddhist background and takes you through four sections of gradual awakening to ourselves and to nature each with a number of reflections and practical nature connection exercises. I have used some of these personally and also used some while leading others in a group. I often think they work better when someone else is leading you and have had good response when I have used these. I have even adapted some of these exercises for my own book, See Love Be.
More generally, I do think that gently practising mindful awareness in nature or with nature is a wonderful way to broaden, if not deepen our practice. Hopefully it will also have the added affect of deepening our commitment to protecting our environment and responding with heart to the climate crisis we currently face.
Mindful holidays, mindful activities and Leaping Hare Press.
Leaping Hare Press has now published a whole series of mindfulness related books which are not basic courses so much as explorations of how you can bring a mindful approach to a huge range of different activities (and personal issues) in life.
Titles such as:
- Einstein and the art of mindful cycling
- Mindfulness and surfing
- The art of Mindful walking
- Mindful travelling
- The mindful art of wild swimming
- The art of mindful bird watching
- Mindfulness and the natural world
- The art of mindful baking
- Mindfulness in music
- The joy of mindful writing
I have no space to review individual books here but suffice to say that some are better than others. However I do recommend the series as a whole as a way of exploring how to bring mindful awareness to an activity you already love.
“The Body keeps the score – mind, brain & body in the transformation of trauma” – Bessel Van Der Kolk (Penguin)
This book is quite extraordinary and seems to me a must-read at least for anyone teaching mindfulness (or any body-based therapy) and an incredibly useful insight for anyone seeking to practice it.
In short, this is the story of Van Der Kolk’s 30 year journey of research and discovery as to what really causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the ways it can be treated. He is a psychologist and neuroscientist and is, from start to finish, a scientist (everything he looks at needs to be based on peer reviewed evidence), a sceptic (leading him to question established understandings and methods if the evidence is not solid) and an open and enquiring thinker (leading him to at least consider totally new ideas in terms of treatment).
It turns out, as the title suggests, that pathways to healing must involve a realistic account of the part body memory as well as changes in brain structure play in perpetuating the suffering of those who have experienced trauma – and that we will get nowhere unless we understand these processes and respond to them. Talking is good – but it is not enough. The body must be engaged with as well.
For a clinician in the field I would imagine this is nowadays one of the set texts – even though controversial for some. But what about the rest of us? Interestingly, although Van Der Kolk’s main work has been with the most severe forms of trauma, his definition of trauma includes experiences many of us may have had which seem milder. To be defined as trauma in Van Der Kolk’s reckoning an experience needs to include two things: 1. pain or distress and 2. the person was unable, at the time, to get away from it or look after themselves in the midst of it. Interestingly he suggests that the experience of boarding school from a very young age might even be included in this.
This, then, suggests to me that even many of our milder wounds and dysfunctional ways of being in the world need also to be understood much more in terms of the imprints these experiences have left in the body – and how the emphasis mindfulness places on body awareness can be such a support in this.
I feel huge gratitude to Van Der Kolk for the painstaking work he has done in this field. Do read it!
MEDITATION AND ACTIVISM
I am wracking my brains for books on Meditation and Activism and strangely am not sure if I have read any.
In the Christian tradition, Thomas Merton certainly wrote about it, Richard Rohr and his Centre for Contemplation and Action is also certainly in tune. I have read German theologian, Dorothee Soelle’s work including, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance which is wonderful but quite weighty. Her biography, Dorothee Soelle: Mystic and Rebel may be worth reading too.
So, it would be good to hear suggestions of specific books or other resources if anyone has read any which simply explore meditation and activism in their broadest sense. So, over to you!
DVD: A Celtic pilgrimage with John O Donohue.
This is a beautiful documentary film about the pilgrimages John O’Donohue used to lead amongst the huge spaciousness of the landscapes on the west coast of Ireland. John was a catholic priest for 20 years but left the church in part, as he says, because he felt the church had reduced spirituality to morality and lost its mystical tradition. Anything by him is good. This gives a beautiful sense of space.
21 lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape books, London)
This is the third of Harari’s trilogy of books about how the human race got here (‘Sapiens’), where we might be heading (‘Homo Deus’), and now this book which suggests what we need, therefore, to think very very carefully about as we shape our future. Harari is a meditator in the Vipassana tradition and, indeed, lesson 21 is meditation but the insights throughout are rich with references to what we become aware of through practice. Reading it gives me new impetus to persevere with both meditation and teaching meditation as he gives such a powerful sense of how important such things are for the future of the human race. Sapiens was also brilliant, though I have not read Homo Deus.
RESOURCES EXPLORING SILENCE
Silence is an intriguing thing in our noisy world. Here are two things I have read recently with different ways of engaging with it.
Silence in the age of noise – Erling Kagge
- This little book is written by a Norwegian explorer who was the first person to travel alone to all three ‘poles’ of the earth: North, South and Everest. And here are 33 reflections on the idea of silence many of which are inspired by his experience of very long periods of outer silence. I found it quietly inspiring.
Quiet 25 – a group journey into silence – Matt Freer & Tina Jeffries
- This booklet contains notes to lead a five week group course exploring silence. Written by key leaders in the Quiet Garden movement it is very practical and very gentle suggesting ways to build silence into your day starting with 5 minutes and building up to 25. Available through the Quiet Garden web-site: https://quietgarden.org/2017/quiet25-course/
MY FAVOURITE BOOK ON MINDFULNESS
There are rather a lot of books on Mindfulness these days, some good and some not so and some not even really about mindfulness. So far my all-time favourite is: Mindfulness – 25 ways to live in the moment through art by Christophe Andre.
Andre is a medical psychiatrist based in Paris who teaches mindfulness and who is also a deeply thoughtful man. This is not a systematic explanation of mindfulness or a course but, as it says on the cover, a series of beautiful reflections of living mindfully using 25 very different pieces of art as his starting point for each reflection. I found it a delight to read. It lifted my spirit and gave me hope each time I turned to it and I found myself thanking my wife for giving it to me for my birthday over and over again.
Mindfulness, of course, is seeking to release us from the kind of over-thinking which is no longer serving us but the irony is that we can so easily get caught up in over-thinking about mindfulness and then get bogged down again. This will always be a danger when anyone starts to write about mindfulness. But this is exactly why I loved this book so much – because it did not fall into this trap. There is a lightness and a sense of poetry throughout. And if you love art (or even if you don’t) it will be just the book to dip into regularly or from time to time to inspire your on-going practice.
Garn Farm, a.k.a. ‘Warmth and Wonder’
- A beautifully converted self-catering barn on the welsh borders
Garn farm is currently one of my favourite places to go for a short or long self-catering break. I have spent time here writing, in semi retreat, on a short weekend break and with groups. The owners, Matt & Polly who live in the farmhouse next door not only have a very simple gift for hospitality but a very strong sense of their connection with the land they own and its context. So when you come here for retreat or holiday everything speaks to you about this connection. Their dream is to create a space where people can come and not only be refreshed through ‘getting away’ but also be inspired through reconnecting with nature. The barn itself sits on the side of a hill with stunning views across the valley. You can take short walks all around their land and pass the various livestock they keep. Or you can take a short drive to any number of beautiful walking spots nearby. Highly recommended – do visit their web-site.