Jon Kabat-Zinn writes the foreword and does a lovely job of setting the stage for Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. In the foreword, as in the rest of the book, everything is stated in a clear and friendly manner, explaining the organization and intention of the book as well as giving a small preview to the idea of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn uses the term “embodied engagement” to help explain mindfulness and how it is essentially a new type of awareness. He writes that Williams and Penman think of mindfulness as a “practice” in order to remind us that it is “a way of being” and not a fad.
As in the entire book, the science and the stature of the authors is only a backdrop; the focus is on the method and practice of mindfulness itself. Kabat-Zinn only seems to mention the authors’ qualifications to show that this methodology is both practiced and proven. Additionally, Kabat-Zinn is the most appropriate man for the job of writing this foreword, as he was the inspiration for mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which the basis for this book.
Mark Williams is a cofounder of MBCT and his coauthor for this book is Danny Penman, who is a journalist at the UK’s Daily Mail. Together, Williams and Penman, with their varied backgrounds, created this “very practical and pragmatic guide to mindfulness and its cultivation,” as Kabat-Zinn says. MBCT is centered around mindfulness meditation and in this book they give a detailed description of an eight-week program to help get you centered. This method has been proven in people with diagnosed depressive disorders, but this book is written for anyone to make use of and enjoy.
After this opening, the book slides in to a further introduction of MBCT, combining both an individual’s personal story and the explanation of a meditation technique. This meditation is the first one of the book and they are sure to begin lightly with only a one-minute meditation. The writers fully anticipate the skeptic reader here and to counteract this, they explain and express understanding for the many obstacles of meditation.
At the end of the first chapter, Williams and Penman explain that if you want to jump right into the eight-week program, you can, and they instruct you to skip (but hopefully return to later) the next two chapters. They are conscious of their audience: members of a hectic society who don’t want further complication. Because of this, the book is highly organized and straightforward. If you choose to skip, you will find a small chapter that introduces the program and explains the rhythm of it, then each week in the eight-week program has its own chapter.
While I understand the urge to skip to the meat of the book, the optional chapters are gracefully written and are realistic guides to the world of meditation. I would suggest them, especially if you are new to meditation. Here, Williams and Penman highlight one individual’s story to show how we doubt ourselves and fight ourselves constantly. They explain that emotions are “bundles” of things—and even use the word ‘constellation’ to explain how interconnected emotions are with our past, our bodies, and our thoughts. Also in this section, they list the proven benefits of MBCT, ranging from helping your mood to improving physical health. By far the most exciting part of this section is the Chocolate Meditation. They show you how to draw your focus to one specific thing and release your mind from its infinite daily worries. Most of all, how can you refuse a book that instructs you to eat chocolate?
When Williams and Penman enter the breakdown of their eight-week program, they remind us again of the “countless philosophers” have traveled down this same path and offer some guidance to help readers maneuver through the steps of MBCT. They explain that each week will have two parts to it: a meditation exercise and “Habit Breakers,” which are meant to free readers from their everyday, cyclical thinking.
Williams and Penman are careful to explain that the program is malleable, reminding you not to feel defeated if you miss a meditation or you cannot complete the program in eight prompt weeks. They explain how your mind may react as well, that sometimes you may feel like you’ve failed, but to continue nonetheless. Simply be aware of what you can and cannot do, and be sure to (eventually) complete the entire program for best results.
The eight chapters that break down the weeks of the program are both creative and methodical. The program constantly asks you to try new forms of meditation, to change your habits, and to become aware of the things that you deem ordinary. They use diagrams and charts to section out each week’s specific focus, so it is easy to stay organized, but the program itself is quite creative. One week they ask that you pick one habit and simply be aware of it, such as drinking tea, walking between rooms, etc. It is subtle, but transformative. They also begin each chapter with an individual example to remind readers that you are in good company if you find yourself struggling.
I found the writers really engaging because they explained complex, sometimes uncomfortable, ideas in a relaxed and approachable manner. They are careful and deliberate, but without being overly assertive. I have not yet done the program, but I am a believer. I experimented with some parts of it and am excited to continue. I also appreciated the ending to the book because Williams and Penman were respectful of the fact that everything continues. Though this program can be completed in eight weeks, there is still a long journey ahead and they offer a poem by Roger Keyes about the Japanese painter Hokusai as something for you to take with you on the road. The last line of the poem reads, “let life live through you.”
Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World
By Mark Williams, PhD and Danny Penman, PhD
Rodale Press: October 25, 2011
Hardcover, 288 pages