If December is the month of self-indulgence, January is the month of self-reproach. Gym memberships and diet programs are part of the traditional response, but so, increasingly, is mindfulness. We are exhorted to improve our health and outlook by growing more intimate with the present.
While many Americans added mindfulness to their portfolios long ago, others are wary. What if it’s boring? How can I tell if I’m doing it right? Will I lose my drive? Does this mean giving up potato chips? Still, beset by technological overload and runaway worries, almost everyone would like to feel more serene. For those who do not know where to begin, a few reading suggestions.
Though first published in 1990, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living — Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” remains an indispensable overview. Kabat-Zinn began developing his program in mindfulness-based stress reduction in the late 1970s. Based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, the Stress Reduction Clinic fleshed out the ideas found in “Full Catastrophe Living,” and numerous subsequent books. “Full Catastrophe Living” lays out the scientific argument for mindfulness as a healing strategy. It is also designed to give readers access to the clinic’s eight-week training program (simple yoga postures and meditation guides are included). Stories of patients who found relief have encouraged many readers to look further.
Kabat-Zinn might be thought of as our great adapter, a wholistic thinker who acknowledges his debt to Buddhism without getting lost in it. For readers intrigued by the religious roots of mindfulness, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has proven a congenial guide. (Also one of the most popular: He seems to have attached his name to even more books than Kabat-Zinn and in fact wrote the preface to the revised edition of “Full Catastrophe.’’) “The Miracle of Mindfulness — An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation” is an excellent short primer with a sampling of meditation guides. (For a challenge befitting these polarized times, try the one called “compassion for the person you hate or despise the most.”)
Goal-oriented readers might prefer cutting to the chase. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” takes aim at what many consider Job One in January: weight loss. Co-authored with Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist and lecturer at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Savor” outlines how Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths can be applied to over-eating. It offers guidance on understanding the roots of the problem; setting attainable goals; and staying on course. The bonus: Even if you stray, you might like yourself more than you did.
Those who wonder how much more might consult Dan Harris. An accomplished TV journalist, Harris grew up in the Boston area and rose to become co-anchor of “Nightline” at ABC News. His “10% Happier — How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-help that Actually Works: A True Story” is witty and informed. It’s also the perfect guide for the hard-charging professional who scoffs (as Harris once did) at the very idea of meditation.
Harris began his unlikely journey after experiencing a panic attack on air. A chance assignment to ABC’s religion beat helped shape his quest. Among others, Harris interviewed Eckhart Tolle, whose “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He also got to know spiritual guru and self-help author Deepak Chopra. It was a while before Harris realized that the best parts of Tolle’s thinking were repackaged Buddhism, but once he did, and after his resistance melted during a summer vacation, he finally gave meditation a try. Before long, he was sold.
Apart from telling his personal story, Harris trains a reporter’s eye on the growing body of scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of mindfulness. Perhaps inevitably, corporate America has taken notice. General Mills, Ford, and Google are among the many companies that have offered mindfulness training to employees. David Gelles, a New York Times business writer, provides a helpful summary of the criticisms that have emerged in “Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out.”
Himself an enthusiastic practitioner, Gelles nevertheless shines a thoughtful light on what he calls “McMindfulness” and the backlash against companies that appear to have found an ingenious way to improve productivity (and even, as Aetna has found, to lower health-care costs). Critics fear that mindfulness training only helps make stressed-out workers more compliant. Instead of, for instance, organizing to improve working conditions, they are primed to shoulder more. Yet as Harris notes, many adherents argue that mindfulness practices improve one’s capacity to take effective action. Right or wrong, this notion is what might be identified, in meditation, as a thought. For the moment, let it go. Just breathe.
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M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.