Monday, June 22, 2015

Living Mindfully by Deborah Schoeberlain David

Title: Living Mindfully
Author: Deborah Schoeberlain David (no website found)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Rating: WARTY!

I'm always very wary of books where the author insists upon putting some academic string of letters after their name. Take a look at real books written by such people, and they never do this. Look at books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Jay Gould, Brian Greene, Steven Hawking, Steve Jones, and so on, and not a one of them does this. Not to comment upon this particular author, but just note in general, to beware of authors who do this.

This is the second in a pair of books I'm reviewing from Wisdom publications. The first tried to teach Buddhism in the light of the Star wars movie franchise and failed dismally. The second seemed initially much more practical in that the author is passing on what worked for her, but the questions I had as to whether what she's doing actually achieves anything, and even if it works for her will also work for you and me, remained woefully unanswered at the end.

She certainly seemed to have the right idea about how to dip your toes in the water and work up to full immersion from there. Her advice begins with taking a single breath, which seems innocuous and easy enough. She referred to this as a Mindful Breath and in what seemed to be a pattern here, offered three steps to heaven: breathe in, breathe out, pay attention to taking the breath. This technique is nothing new, and is definitely the approach taken by promoters of meditative breathing techniques, where paying attention to breathing and being focused on the breath as we take it in and exhale it, is always the rule.

Building on this, she added a new step or technique with each new chapter, which rather begged the question as to why we need such a large book for so simple a thing - if indeed it is that simple. The next step we were offered was called the Pause, whereby we focus attention on taking a single full breath, actually take the breath, and then return our focus to the task at hand, which in this case was reading this book. This is supposed to make us realize that out mind has a tendency to wander (as if we didn't know this!), and by consciously being attentive to the wandering, we can return our focus to the task at hand.

Frankly, this has never been a problem for me when I'm reading a book. I am all there all the time, and while my mind does go off at tangents on occasion, it's pretty much always as to how bad the book is or how good it is, or how can I leverage that idea into a story of my own and so on, so my mind is pretty much 100% on the novel 100% of the time. A non-fiction book is a different experience, and maintaining this focus when performing other pastimes, tasks, and chores is not always so easy.

Of course this isn't a guide on how to read books (there's already one out there, believe it or not!). It's about focusing our attention rather than letting our mind run riot as it usually does. This is an odd topic, because our brain is a multi-tasker. Were it not, we would certainly not be able to breathe, keep our heart pumping, drive to work, and keep an eye on the clock so we don't arrive late, as well as remember we have that package to drop into the first mailbox we see on our way.

So the real question here for most people, is not whether or not our mind is all over the place (it is, that's a given if you didn't know it already!), but what exactly the problem is with that, and what's to be gained by disciplining it in the way advocated by adherents of meditation and mindfulness. In this regard, this book fails dismally, because while the author repeatedly advises us as to what she had to gain in her particular circumstances, she failed for the rest of us to tell us anything that this would do except in the most vague and inutile terms imaginable.

One thing I can promise you is of value is good posture. There is an all-too-brief section on this which is related only to meditating, but good posture is vitally (and I use that word advisedly) important in all walks (and sits) of life. This doesn't mean you should start practicing walking around with a book on your head, but you should be aware of what evolution has done to us. The spine never was designed. Had it been, it would have been made from carbon fiber or something, instead of a salt of a brittle metal called calcium, stacked in donuts of rough bone around a delicate and tender central nervous system and padded only by flimsy cartilage!

Worse than that, it evolved for animals moving horizontally, and humans, who typically think they are better than any other living thing, decided to go vertical, which puts stresses on the spine for which it has never evolved. It's no wonder that back pain is such a pain. Your spine has your back, but only as long as you realize that it's operating out of its comfort zone and needs some pampering, especially when we sit and even more especially when we lift something heavy.

The progression towards meditation continues as we're advised that we can count mindfully. Mindful Counting means that we focus attention on counting full breaths as we take seven of them in and out. We observe what our attention is on, and refocus as necessary. After this we pretty much get mindful everything - feeling (parts one and two, no less!), listening, static sensation, stand with attention(!), dynamic sensation, sharing kindness, movement, and on and on. There was a veritable grocery list of mindful things, so much so that trying to keep track of all of them became a distraction from actually doing the thing!

I was intrigued by this author's anecdote about her teacher laughed at her and made an "astounding" point when she complained that her mind seemed to be on its way to greater chaos, not less, as she began practicing these techniques. He advised her that her mind wasn't becoming more chaotic, but that she was now noticing the chaos which already existed. I thought it poor teaching that her yogin or yogini had never thought to address this point during class!

I also felt it showed a marked lack of self-awareness that this student had never before realized how easily distracted and busy her mind actually was. Bad teacher, bad student! Has she never begun a conversation which has meandered through half-a-dozen topics in a very short time and then marveled at how adrift she and her fellow conversational participants were from where they started? It felt to me like the author had been so closed off to herself that what was astounding, startling, and revelatory to her would be nothing of the sort to most people with a modicum of self-awareness.

One thing to bear in mind is that this is a writer who is coming from a background of boredom and depression, and who therefore has a very different perspective than most people who fortunately are not clinically depressed and who hopefully have sufficient stimulation in their lives that they are not readily bored or lacking for something of value to do with their time. I found myself wondering frequently if such an author was indeed the best teacher of this topic, or if perhaps her message might have found more apt and fertile ground had it been sown on a more targeted audience.

When she went to a lama to discuss her depression instead of going to medical professional, I was disappointed. Fortunately this lama wasn't stupid and re-directed her to a qualified medical doctor. If you are depressed more than seems reasonable from everyday living, and especially if you're post-partum or have had a loss, do not seek out a lama! Find a medically qualified doctor who has time for you. If your doctor is doing you no good, find a new one.

Depression is something I am fortunate enough to never have suffered (not in a clinical sense anyway!). Boredom is something with which I am never afflicted because there is always something to do, something to think of, something to find wonder in, especially if you have children, or pets, or if you can get interested in a hobby, in art, in reading, in sports, in TV or movies, theater, or whatever. Boredom is never anything with which I have to contend, and mediation may not fix this problem for you, if this is something you find in your life. When you're engaged in something you love or with someone you love, your mind doesn't wander into the depths, and you don't get bored or depressed easily.

On this topic I had to take issue with this assertion by the author:

If you say "I am bored," you are literally defining your identity as boredom.

That's a horrible thing to tell a person. It's also a lie. You are neither literally defining nor metaphorically defining yourself as boredom, you're merely giving voice to a mental state which you're experiencing. While your entire collection of mental states is definitely you, one isolated mental state is not you and it's an awful thing to suggest otherwise.

I was a bit disturbed to read the section detailing where the author flew off to India to attend a conference on the role of contemplation in K-12 education (that's kindergarten to grade twelve - or primary school to graduation and hopefully heading off to college). It sure must be nice to be able to jet around the world to attend conferences! What I didn't get was why this author was all over the place on education instead of consulting more local - and/or more expert sources!

I mean, for example, there are lots of sources for how to best educate children. Why fly off the handle to India? Why not, if you want to find out how to direct attention, simply ask a magician or an illusionist, who are experts at this?! But more to the point, why ask about directing attention in the first place? Is it because we want them to learn to meditate, or we want them to simply learn? If the latter is the case, then why not seek examples from the best education systems such as Finland or South Korea? India is a very overcrowded and impoverished system which isn't known for being the best - far from it.

There is a chapter on mindful sex, which struck me as completely redundant! I know there are distractions during sex - if you're married and you have children, there's an obvious potential one! - and there can be other forms of distraction, like if you're not convinced that this was a good idea (in which case the answer should have been no, and still can be), or if your relationship is on the rocks (ditto), but aside from those obvious exceptions, I sincerely doubt that anyone isn't in the moment when it's happening. If you're not, then you probably have some sort of medical or relationship issue which ought to be addressed.

That was amusing but expected. What I was truly disappointed with was that even in the conclusion, we get no idea offered of what we've purportedly achieved or in what way this is supposed to change our lives, or at least deliver some sort of benefit! All we get is a recap of what we already read, and some advice about getting a real teacher to teach this because you can't really learn it from a book. What?!

When I began reading this, I felt like this one might actually have something to impart, but very quickly I came to see that it doesn't deliver any more than the other volume did. I thought that at least we might get some idea of what this is - ultimately - supposed to do for us that nothing else can do, and this was nowhere to be found.

In the final analysis, there was nothing on offer here that I cannot see a person getting from doing something else, such as taking up a martial art, or some sort of sport, or running a marathon, or pursuing some form of art, or writing a journal, or pursuing a hobby, taking your dog for a nice long walk, or for that matter, simply sitting out in the garden with a nice cup of tea and enjoying nature. Or even just falling in love! I can see if your mind is particularly troubled, then maybe there is something here for you, but I'd recommend seeking competent medical help first. As it is, I can't recommend this.

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