Below are brief descriptions of my current three favorite books on meditation. Each one is written by psychologists who have been practicing psychotherapists and meditators for more than 25 years. I use them for reference, inspiration and companionship. I reread them and refer them to clients, friends, students and colleagues.
A client of mine told me about this book. It is a concrete example of how we get as much as we give in the therapeutic relationship. I approached it gingerly – as it would be my first reading on the subject of meditation since the 1960s when I encountered Philip Kapleau’s daunting tales of doing zazen in Japanese monasteries where, if your back sagged, the teachers or their aides would strike you with a large, flat stick.
Although Brach is a nationally known teacher, she shares many of her own anguishes and struggles. “On my way to understanding . . .I’ve stumbled around, fallen down and repeatedly found myself deluded…”
These kinds of statements and anecdotes of her struggles make her and therefore her ideas and practices endearing and approachable. The book is, however, heavy on Buddhist tales and references so if you’re looking for something more Western see the other two texts I discuss below.
The idea of radical acceptance is not new in psychology. Jung spoke at length about accepting one’s dark side, or one’s otherness – anima if you were male, animus if you were female. The behaviorists do graduated exposure therapy with fears and phobias which is a form of radical acceptance. Yet the actual phrase radical acceptance has a warm, contemporary tone, free of diagnostics or theology. Sitting with one’s own fears and shames in an attitude of friendly acceptance is easy to say but difficult to do. Brach’s chapters give credence to both the many difficulties and the many benefits.
Brach’s other key concept is the trance of unworthiness. This phrase is perhaps unique to her. To me it captures the precise texture of days I have spent mired in self-criticism. Because the phrase was so exact, it seemed like an illumination. A day of self-criticism is like a trance: No matter how hard you try to think your way out of it, you just plunge in deeper. “Habit,” the Buddhists would call this trance state. Neurons misfiring or firing too frequently, the brain scientists would declare. The phrase trance of unworthiness seemed more evocative than either of these the first few times I read it. Now, several years later, I might use ‘habit’ or ‘neurological loop’ to others but I use trance of unworthiness when I’m talking to or about myself.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (Guilford Press, 2005) edited by Christopher Germer, Ronald Siegel and Paul Fulton.
A few years ago I was talking to a meditation teacher I admire. I asked if she had read any of the current brain scan research concerning the benefits of meditation. She shook her head no then she laughed, “They’re just finding out what we’ve known for twenty-five hundred years.” However, in the past year in her talks this same teacher has taken to quoting bits of research articles. Which is one of the reasons I admire her. She grows, she changes.
The new science of brain imagery is impressive, inspiring and convincing. It makes concrete our subjective sense of how our moods move and how we get stuck in habits that do us no favors. This edited volume reviews the science in easily understood language. Mindfulness and meditation are placed within the last one hundred years of Western thinking. Western and Buddhist concepts of the self are contrasted and explored. There are chapters on the uses of mindfulness exercises and meditation with anxiety, depression, with children and with couples. You couldn’t find a better introduction to this subject with one caveat: Though this book cites many studies, the actual chapter on research findings, having been written before 2005, is dated. In the past seven years the research on mindfulness has exploded. If you want to keep track of some of the recent developments, I suggest Mindfulness Research Monthly which is published online; note that it’s monthly, which is an indication of the current excitement and interest in meditation and mindfulness.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (Guilford Press, 2009) by Christopher Germer
After I had been meditating for three years I started to understand that my mental chatter was frequently a litany of self-criticisms accompanied by an equally long list of self- improvement plans. Because the self-criticism made me feel depleted and anxious, I used promises of improvement to perk back up to normal. As I’ve been writing this I’ve tried and failed several times to describe this inner loop. So, instead, let me share a quote from Gretchen Rubin who, in her book The Happiness Project describes this chronic state of mind much better than I can: “I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations. One day I’d stop twisting my hair and wearing running shoes all the time and eating exactly the same food every day. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d learn Photoshop, I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d read Shakespeare. I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I’d be more polite, I’d visit museums more often, I wouldn’t be scared to drive.”
Though my list would have different specifics, it has the same terminal (as in by the time I die) and interminable (as in repetitive and never accomplished). You might wonder why, after so many years, I had not noticed the futility of this mental pattern. That’s because I always thought it was a genuine list and it was my genuine duty to address its demands. Enter lovingkindness meditation and also Christopher Germer’s book.
Lovingkindness meditation is a method for giving to ourselves the empathy we give to our psychotherapy clients. It is a verbal and feeling tone message of goodwill to little old me. Germer introduces it clearly, placing it in the context of modern mental anguish and Buddhist psychology. He offers a series of specific exercises to lead the reader toward self-compassion. Self-compassion is something which infants and toddlers have a lot of, self-hatred is something we learn. As adults self-compassion is difficult to re-contact because many of us have lived with self-criticism for so long it has become hard-wired. Similarly, it is currently hard-wired into American culture where we are continually urged to be more than we can be or, if all else fails, to at least buy more. One could say it’s part of the psychological engine that drives advanced capitalism. Yet, the new brain research and the ancient stories of meditators both agree that hard-wiring can be softened. But this takes persistence and, usually, support. Germer pays attention to both the difficulty and the pleasure of being “free of destructive thoughts and emotions,” the subtitle of the book. The reader is encouraged toward self-compassion but, failing that you can begin by bringing compassion to the feeling of not finding any.
However, without all the above reading, without any discussion of Buddhist psychology, I have offered versions of loving kindness meditation to my counseling clients and many of them have immediately found it to be beneficial: soothing of anxiety, supportive of small personal risks. This is the form I usually offer first:
Think of someone in your life who has complete goodwill toward you, who only wants the best for you. Once you’ve got a picture of this person in mind, imagine this person saying to you:
May you be safe and protected.
May you be happy and healthy.
May you have ease of mind.
When your mind wanders away from these words as it inevitably will because that’s what minds do, just bring your attention back, first to the person who only wants the best for you, then to the words the person speaks. Do this for five minutes.