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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Book review: The Mindful Manifesto

My interest in meditation spans three decades but only now have I found so many resources for those interested in learning this ancient practice. When I began, urged on by a fellow college student, I was simply told to sit still and be quiet. Haven’t my parents and teachers been telling me that my whole life? But this kind of quiet was different: I was to try not to focus on any thoughts. Not that my thoughts were bad. The idea was to find increased expansiveness and less stress. I was clueless on how this worked, but it did.

At first I found it very difficult to banish my thoughts. I preferred the breathing exercises I learned in acting classes, where we counted our breaths for six beats, held them for six beats, exhaled for six and again, held our breaths again until all nervousness subsided.  Doing these exercises, I discovered my heartbeat, and that I could slow it down using my breath. But I saw little application for my life, outside of conquering stage fright.  Little did I know I was practicing mindfulness as a teenager.

For the last six years, I have embraced meditation and consider it a necessary part of my day. I try to begin and end each day with at least 15 minutes of meditation. Studying with Buddhist teachers, I’ve come to learn techniques that make the practice easier. I’ve also discovered books that have helped. None have been so comprehensive and encouraging as The Mindful Manifesto.

I think it’s important for a book that encourages mindfulness to cite scientific research. Otherwise, readers may feel like I did thirty years ago when I was told to sit down and shut up. The Mindful Manifesto is not only an easy book to read, but it engagingly reports on research on why meditation works.

One of the biggest surprises as a novice meditator was my new found ability to handle surprises. Raising a young boy means sometimes having said young boy try to scare the bejeebus out of you as you round a corner in your own home.  Before I started meditating regularly, I would literally jump and scream when startled.  As I meditated more, my son was impressed to see me turn calmly to him and smile sagely when he jumped out at me.  It may have ruined his fun, but I was stoked to have this superhero quality.

So reading why this happens, how the brain actually changes due to meditation, was an eye-opener. The authors cite studies that showed that after only eight weeks of practice, “grey matter in parts of the participants’ brains had increased in density by 1 to 3 percent, affecting areas known to be implicated in learning and memory, as well as self-awareness, compassion and introspection.”

The authors (Jonty Heaversedge is a medical doctor and Ed Halliwell is a writer/mindfulness teacher) share exercises and tips that help break down the steps necessary for a successful meditation session. I particularly enjoyed the ways of viewing thoughts. I know how difficult it is when you feel like you can’t think whilst meditating. That’s not the goal at all. Instead, the idea is to not latch onto your thoughts. Many people are taught to view them like passing clouds. But you may prefer to see your thoughts float by on a stream, or watch them pass by like trains at a station, or as an audience member watching a play. I had fun envisioning my thoughts form as bubbles being spoken on stage by Ian McKellen and floating up into the lights.

There are the standard exercises here too, like the one where you focus on a raisin (I must’ve read this exercise at least in three other books I’ve read recently) but this book is very good at encouraging the practice of mindfulness as it details the benefits gained from all the applications covered in each chapter. Their call to action is very persuasive. The authors have also set up a companion website and list other resources, in addition to comprehensive end-notes.

I’m certainly glad to have read The Mindful Manifesto; I just wish my college buddy was able to loan it me ages ago, instead of having to learn meditation “on the street” so to speak. My practice will be richer for it, and I feel better equipped to explain why everyone should “sit down and shut up” at least a few minutes a day.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Hay House Publishing for this review. The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.