“The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, ‘In between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.’” (p. xi)
Dr. Elisha Goldstein, author of The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, clearly feels passionately about his subject and essentially forms the entirety of his book around the above quote. His central premise, that one can change life by embracing mindfulness, is not new to the psychology community; however, by focusing on the ‘spaces’ and the resulting techniques and insights, The Now Effect eases the reader into a fuller understanding of mindfulness.
Dr. Goldstein, a PhD in private practice as well as the author of the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog on Psych Central.com and a co-founder of the Mindfulness Center for Psychotherapy and Psychiatry, has written previously on these issues in the well-regarded A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.
He introduces the book with his personal journey, leading to the “Top Ten” benefits the reader can expect to gain. These include becoming more flexible, increasing emotional intelligence, and of course, changing your life. The chapters are then divided into sections. These include basic training in mindfulness; learning how the mind and body interact to affect our perceptions; and means to employ this information in difficult situations to expand quality of life.
The reader is introduced to many of the book’s concepts in Parts 1 and 2. Dr. Goldstein suggests finding what you value that is crucial to your happiness, then finding what motivates you. Intention is the starting point of the mindfulness path, which ultimately leads to positive life change:
Intention > Attention > Connection > Balance > Health > Happiness (p. 10)
He goes on to explain specific exercises and behavioral modifications that can put this “Now Effect” into action. Goals include turning resistance into acceptance by saying “Yes!,” stopping emotional autopilot with mindful checkins, and connecting with the physical. Dr. Goldstein posits that it is hard to maintain mindfulness without also maintaining awareness of our physical being, and in fact, “a flexible body can lead to a flexible mind (p. 37).”
The second section of The Now Effect begins with the concept of neuroplasticity, or how the brain has the ability to change itself. This is how we can consciously and anatomically change the narrative of our lives. Using this understanding, we can then recognize how our memories influence reactions and that the same event can be interpreted very differently based on our previous experiences with similar or earlier events. Dr. Goldstein summarizes: “The bottom line: thoughts aren’t facts; they are […] dependent on our mood, attitude, and beliefs;” therefore, “…we don’t need to believe everything we think (p. 78).” If we do, we fall into the “mind traps” of anxiety, guilt and blame, among others.
In fact, our brains are evolutionarily built to interpret incidents in a negative light. This was useful when we needed to avoid constant danger outside our caves, but it has become a hindrance. The lesson here is to be kind, even to oneself (often harder than being kind to others); be positive; and be grateful. By taking on these attitudes, we can make ourselves more resilient to the automatic negative.
Still, we are all imperfect. Dr. Goldstein insists that we can and should accept this. Pain is a conduit to learning and fear is “part of human experience. It is not good or bad (p. 173).” Sadness is necessary in order to reach joy (p. 183).
At this point, Dr. Goldstein expands his focus on connecting to others. The need for relationships also evolved throughout time. Although relationships can bring much good, emotional and behavioral “contagions” also can occur. Bad energy or behavior among your friends most likely will make its way to you. Contrarily, “…each additional person in your life who is feeling well boosts your chances of feeling well by 9 percent (p. 201).”
Parts 6 and 7 of The Now Effect — the final sections — offers ways to improve our connections. Dr. Goldstein emphasizes the difference between hearing and listening, bringing curiosity to the interaction. He also touches on mindful parenting as “stepping into the spaces of awareness (p. 215)” before continuing with an explanation of how being open and nonjudgmental can help diffuse arguments, deescalate bad situations, and help us remain empathetic in our closest relationships.
Dr. Goldstein presents his material in short, easily digestible chapters that include research from leaders in the scientific study of mindfulness. He writes well and uses relatable anecdotes and metaphors such as the Japanese martial art of aikido or “The Red Lights in Life” to expand upon his main points. He also supplements the text with literary inclusions from both historical and contemporary authors on the subject, most evocatively with Portia Nelson’s poem “Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters” on page 82.
By ending each chapter with a “Now Moment,” Dr. Goldstein encourages the reader to take the time to fully absorb what has just been explained by immediately employing the techniques therein. Similarly, he has included tags linking to YouTube videos of techniques, an online community, and CD and MP3 downloads at his website — all of which make actually understanding and using his methods on a daily basis much more realistic.
Dr. Goldstein does a wonderful job of bringing mindfulness to a reachable and practical level, noting its recent broader acceptance into new communities such as sports and politics: professional basketball coach Phil Jackson is known as “Zen master,” and Congressman Tim Ryan said that after practicing becoming more present to the moments of his life, he began to become more present with his constituents. Combined with Dr. Goldstein’s application of the “Now Effect” to specific life areas, including eating and the workplace (in Part 3), this approach makes mindfulness less of a mystery understood only by monks and gurus and more of a useful tool in navigating everyday life.
Some of the book’s exercises are repetitive, using different acronyms and techniques to present the same basic notions: breathe deeply and consciously, stop and notice your reactions before taking action, etc. It occurs to this reader, however, that perhaps repetition is exactly what’s needed when trying to absorb what can feel like an impossible task — that of staying in the moment, in the now.
To a similar point, there is a danger in seeking simple solutions to complex problems. The idea of having “Cheat Sheets” (found in the Appendices) seems to be antithetical to the very essence of mindfulness, but again, maybe these reminders, when placed in a wallet or on the refrigerator, are exactly what some readers need to fully embrace a permanent change.
The Now Effect is certainly not the first book to delve into this subject (there are nearly 3,000 books on Amazon.com with ‘mindfulness’ in the title), nor is it the first to focus in detail on the ‘Now’ (see Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh), but Dr. Goldstein brings a clarity and practicality to his subject matter that is sometimes lacking in the more mystical, spiritual takes on the practice.
We are all searching to alleviate the stress we feel in our fast-paced, often overwhelming world. Some readers find one perfect book that leads them to a mindful state of living; others require a collection that fills shelves. There is no right or wrong way, and The Now Effect could be extremely helpful when added to one’s journey. After all, the goal remains the same:
If…when we are entrapped by our unhealthy habits that keep us stuck in perpetual avoidance of what’s uncomfortable or foreign, we can drop into a space of awareness and stay with that discomfort, [we open] up to […] compassion and love.” (p. 222)
The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life
Atria Books: February 21, 2012
Hardcover, 269 pages