The Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Cook once reflected: "I'm sure I've learned from my mistakes. I could repeat them exactly."
Most of us feel the same way. We see our emotional patterns but feel powerless to change them. Instead, we repeat our errors; our feelings loop into constant replays; we get stuck.
Tara Bennett-Goleman addresses this problem in her thoughtful treatise, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. In it, Bennett-Goleman proposes a new way to get unstuck. She explains: "I've found two methods to be especially potent for detecting and transforming emotional patterns: mindfulness meditation and a recent adaptation of cognitive therapy called schema therapy, which focuses on repairing maladaptive emotional habits." Through the conjunction of these two disciplines, ancient and modern, Bennett-Goleman promises that folks can learn from their mistakes -- and change.
Readers can begin, she suggests, by practicing mindfulness meditation to explore both thoughts and feelings. Bennett-Goleman hints: "Mindfulness lets us experience more directly, not through the clouded lens of assumptions and expectations but with an exploratory awareness." To achieve this delicate, clear gaze, Bennett-Goleman suggests: "Focus your attention on the place in your body where you experience your breath most clearly.... Use the breath as an anchor for your attention, a place to come home to whenever your mind wanders. Then gradually open your awareness to include your other senses, and finally, focus on whatever appears in your awareness." By practicing this technique over a long period, Bennett-Goleman assures us, we can become more conscious of our shifting patterns of thoughts and feelings. We can see thoughts and feelings dispassionately: not as parts of the self, but as habitual reactions.
Once we recognize our habitual reactions, we are able to challenge them. That's where schema therapy comes in. "A schema is a powerful set of negative thoughts and feelings," Bennett-Goleman explains. "Maladaptive schemas lead us to neurotic solutions." When people make the same mistakes time and again -- like quitting good jobs or pampering an unfaithful lover -- they may be unconsciously following the track of a bad schema. Many of us find ourselves repeatedly reacting to some emotional trigger: a fear of abandonment, perhaps, or a fear that we are unlovable at core. Bennett-Goleman summarizes the most common schemas for her readers and then suggests how mindfulness can help resolve them. "Mindfulness changes our relationship to the moments when we are most upset and distressed," Bennett-Goleman notes. "Mindfulness can be emotionally freeing: it brings an active awareness to our otherwise automatic emotional patterns, interposing a reflecting consciousness between emotional impulse and action. And that breaks the chain of emotional habit." By bringing mindfulness to our most frightening moments, she insists, we can quiet the fears that dog us.
Bennett-Goleman's process is not easy. But with time, she promises, mindfulness meditation can help us break emotional schemas. We can quit reacting to the same impulses and fears. We can learn from our mistakes -- and change.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
From the window of my London hotel room Big Ben displays itself, a prominent, elegant presence amid the vista of river, billowing clouds, and spreading jumble of skyline. Big Ben has a grandeur as a piece of architecture, but I find my eye drawn more to the broad, open expanse of sky and river.
The panorama above and below Big Ben's rounded bluntness includes a resplendence of steeples and bridges that occupy the central view from my window. I notice how my mind, at first glance, takes in the spaciousness of the cloud-filled sky and the soothing expanse of the river below like a regal oil painting by some turn-of-the-century landscape artist, or like a postcard-perfect snapshot.
But as I gaze more carefully, with a sustained attention, I notice that the still snapshot-like rendering of this scene dissolves into a whirl of constant motion, a continuing series of tiny movements that add up to a vastly altered picture. There are tiny successive changes in the shape of clouds as they glide across the sky, sometimes opening up patches of sky through which rays of sunlight spill along the landscape, illuminating shadows into patches of light. There's the translucent shine of buildings and roads and bright red buses as they momentarily bathe in the glow. The scene before me shimmers with kinetic energy.
And so it is with our inner landscapes. This shift in my perception mirrors how the mind works: the tendency to assume it has got the whole picture on first glance, to rush on without a closer look, and the sometimes startling fact that if one continues to look more carefully, there is always more to be discovered beyond those initial assumptions. Too often we take our first impressions, the conclusions from a first hasty glance, as the lasting truth of the moment. But if we keep looking and noticing, we become aware of greater detail and nuance, of changes and second thoughts, and much more. We can see things more as they actually are, rather than as they appear to be. We can bring a more precise understanding to the moment.
If we sustain our gaze within, sometimes our probe may detect pain behind the masks we wear. But if we continue to look, we can see how the patterns of pain hold that very mask in place, and as we investigate further we see even these patterns shift and rearrange themselves. We see how our reactions to our emotions can keep us at a distance from ourselves. And if we sustain our focus, allowing ourselves to open more honestly, our awareness penetrates further, unraveling and dissolving, peeling away the layers as we look still further. We begin to connect with more genuine parts of ourselves, at first in glimpses. Then, as we sustain our gaze, we connect with a source that breathes awareness into every layer of our being.
This book is about seeing ourselves as we genuinely are, not as we seem on first glance as viewed through the filters of our habitual assumptions and emotional patterns. We will explore how through the practice of mindfulness--a method for training the mind to expand the scope of awareness while refining its precision--we can reach beyond the limiting ways we see ourselves. We will see how to disengage from the emotional habits that undermine our lives and our relationships. We will discover how a precise mindfulness can investigate these emotional habits, bringing an insightful clarity to distinguish between the seeming and the actual.
From the Hardcover edition.