In 8 Keys to Practicing Mindfulness, part of the Norton 8 Keys series of self-help books on mental health, Manuela Mischke Reeds provides an excellent introduction to mindfulness for those who want to begin and grow a practice. Reeds teaches mindfulness-based and somatic psychology around the world and co-directs the Hakomi Institute of California, and also has her own private practice.
The very first step, or key, in mindfulness, Reeds explains, is to “meet the present moment.” She excels at teaching the reader about the integration of mind and body, which, really, are one and the same to begin with.
One exercise traditionally used in teaching relaxation is alternating tensing the body and then relaxing so we can tell the difference. Reeds has us, as readers, move our body into a position as if we had a big weight on our chest and take note of how we feel, then note the difference when we change posture and let that weight go. This is an exercise from the book that I have incorporated into my own practice and in my teaching.
Reeds also teaches posture and breathing and progressively leads the reader along the path of increasing awareness of each moment. Just changing posture and breathing can have an amazing effect on our emotions and sense of well-being. Other subtopics in the book include slowing down, befriending your body, and trusting your sensations. Reeds thoughtfully builds each section upon the one before it. And, because the solid research she enumerates is not enough — we need to actually develop a practice to feel the effects of mindfulness — Reeds also gives us a way to measure our baseline at the beginning, then follow our progress as we go.
Reeds gives examples of how mindfulness has helped her and her clients, with one especially nice story. Her son, she writes, is getting very frustrated trying to remember the name of a Roman emperor for an exam the next day. He is close to panic, or, as Reeds calls it, “the invasion of the body snatchers” when emotions “hijack reason and recall.”
In this situation, Reeds’s mantra is “cool head remembers, busy head forgets.” She leads her son through a body-awareness exercise that calms him. And then, the answer for the Roman emperor comes.
Other great examples in the book show how mindfulness and meditation can bring out an awareness of pain, and Reeds teaches us how to deal with that. We can use curiosity, she writes, and learn from fear, anxiety, trauma, and shame. And, she explains, there are physical aspects of emotional reactions. Reeds deftly describes what happens during fight-or-flight, and the role that our vagus nerve plays in emotional regulation.
We can choose how to act, Reeds emphasizes. We can change our lives and those we touch with kindness and by opening our hearts. We can be open to the world with a sense of curiosity and without judgment. To illustrate, Reeds relays the Taoist story of a man whose horse runs away. In the story, a neighbor says how unfortunate it is that the horse is gone. The man is not so sure. The horse returns with other horses. The neighbor says how fortunate that is. The man is not so sure. The man’s son is thrown from one of the new horses and breaks his leg. “How unfortunate!” says the neighbor. The man is not so sure. The army comes through and drafts all the young men except the man’s son with the broken leg.
You never know what life will hold, Reeds writes. What you do control is how you react to it. And although it is up to us to keep at it once we begin a mindfulness practice, Reeds provides a thoughtful, helpful guide.
8 Keys to Practicing Mindfulness: Practical Strategies for Emotional Health and Well-Being
W. W. Norton & Company, June 2015
Paperback, 256 pages