It is rare to read manuscript that cuts through expectation and forces the calibrated critical eye to step aside. But that is precisely what Neil Hayes’s A View From a Lake did for me. Rarely have I been so moved — and, dare I say, inspired — by a book.
Hayes, who holds a doctorate in psychology from Oxford and who has meditated for many years and studied with Buddhist monks, offers up a buffet. He brings in philosophy, psychology, physics, theology, history, and even computer science. There are no quick fixes or marketed programs within this book that promise to lead the reader to equanimity and peace of mind.
What Hayes does offer is a robust look at Buddhist psychology and how it differs dramatically from the Western notion of the mind. He provides the historical framework of how our Western notions originated, how they have persisted through the years, and, most importantly, how they have led to pain, suffering, and general unhappiness. But his is a book that does not judge; it merely paints a picture and invites the reader to see for herself.
There are far too many important points to cover in such a short review, so I will focus, primarily, on Hayes’s suggestions for proper handling of low mood. The main research that he draws upon here is how rumination fans the fires of depression and anxiety, and how the simple act of smiling, whether genuine or not, can lead to a noticeable elevation of mood.
The rumination factor, sometimes referred to as brooding, is, Hayes writes, an example of how the thinking mind runs rampant and leads the experiencer toward the depths of despair. No one is served from obsessively focusing on the past, nor is anyone served by living for the future. The only moment we have is the present one, Hayes writes. Although there will be times of pain, sorrow, or other distressing emotion, the key to managing those feelings is to set aside attachment, resist the urge to ruminate and problem-solve, and simply view these feelings for what they are — sensations within the body.
Part of the flaw in Western thinking is the belief that our mental styles happen to us, Hayes writes, when, in reality, they are created by us. “When a feeling of, say, sadness enters your body,” he explains, “your mind will seize upon it and add a thought such as ‘I failed to achieve such-and-such,’ or ‘I am worthless.’ Before you know it, your thinking mind will have summoned up despair, or worse, and you cannot break the escalating cycle.”
The belief of happening to is so deeply engrained in our culture that our language tacitly supports it. For example, we say that we are “under stress” rather than that we are “doing stress.”
Instead, Hayes writes, we can choose to look at feelings as just feelings. And becoming aware that they are just that, and distancing ourselves from our emotions, “may even be sufficient to prevent you falling into the emotional state at all.” Not only are thoughts, and therefore emotional responses to those thoughts, within our control, he writes, but it is our responsibility to manage them. And it is only by managing them, through mindfulness, that we can liberate ourselves from the ego mind, harmful attachment to selfhood, and suffering.
The thinking mind, says Hayes, presents us with the conundrum of “constantly measuring the gap between how things are and how it desires them to be.” We compare and compare, and we are usually not happy with what we find. As Hayes puts it, “people suffer according to the extent to which they live their lives experiencing this gap.”
The solution is to cultivate mindfulness, or, if you like, the practice of being aware of how our emotions and thoughts directly influence our moods and therefore our response to the world.
Much has been written on the practice of mindfulness, and Hayes also offers guidance on the subject. His guidance, however, is not layered in jargon surrounding a proper technique; instead, his is a straightforward method of breath focus, awareness, and the art of simply letting go. The intent of A View From a Lake is not to instruct the reader on the fine points of meditation and Buddhist psychology, but to translate the inherent value of those practices into terms that are both understandable and perhaps palatable to our otherwise reductionist Cartesian-based approach. Hayes’s book is a practical glimpse, though a thorough one, into the history, science, philosophy, and psychology of mindfulness — and, indeed, a must-read for anyone interested in liberating the mind from suffering.
This is, by far, the most profound and important book that I’ve had the pleasure to review in many months. To call it self-help is absurd, especially since the point of the book is to release selfhood and find peace in the equanimity of no-self. That is a complicated concept, I know, but it is a concept that, after reading A View From a Lake, any serious reader will appreciate and, hopefully, put into practice.
A View From a Lake: Buddha, Mind and Future
Troubador Publishing, April 2015
Paperback, 408 pages