The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problemsby Ronald D. Siegel
Mindfulness offers a path to well-being and tools for coping with life's inevitable hurdles. And though mindfulness may sound exotic, you can cultivate it--and reap its proven benefits--without special training or lots of spare time. Trusted therapist and mindfulness expert Dr. Ronald Siegel shows exactly how in this inviting guide. You'll get effective strategies
Mindfulness offers a path to well-being and tools for coping with life's inevitable hurdles. And though mindfulness may sound exotic, you can cultivate it--and reap its proven benefits--without special training or lots of spare time. Trusted therapist and mindfulness expert Dr. Ronald Siegel shows exactly how in this inviting guide. You'll get effective strategies to use while driving to work, walking the dog, or washing the dishes, plus tips on creating a formal practice routine in as little as 20 minutes a day. Flexible, step-by-step action plans will help you become more focused and efficient in daily life; cope with difficult feelings, such as anger and sadness; deepen your connection to your spouse or partner; feel more rested and less stressed; curb unhealthy habits; find relief from anxiety and depression; and resolve stress-related pain, insomnia, and other physical problems. Free audio downloads of the meditation exercises are available at the author's website: www.mindfulness-solution.com. Start living a more balanced life--today.
"Talk of 'mindfulness' brings up images of monks spending years on end doing something mysterious. But Dr. Siegel shows how to bring the simple wisdom of acceptance and mindfulness into the everyday actions of ordinary living. Gentle, genuine, and wise, this book coaxes, cajoles, and guides the reader into looking with clear eyes at how we humans get in our own way, and provides simple, powerful, step-by-step methods for learning how to live the kind of lives we want."Steven C. Hayes, PhD, author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life
"Down-to-earth and helpful, Dr. Siegel offers genuinely practical training in the transformative art of mindfulness."Jack Kornfield, PhD, author of The Wise Heart
"This clear and practical guide can help you discover your own potential to develop mindfulness. It offers guidance for building a formal meditation practice as well as tools for coping in everyday life."Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness
"In your hands is a readily accessible book that can walk you step by step to a better life. Being present in the moment with acceptance is more than just a practiceit is a key research-proven strategy that promotes health in the body, in the mind, and in our relationships with one another. Now is the timeand here is the invitationto step into a new way of being that can reduce anxiety, stress, and fear, and enhance joy, gratitude and well-being in your life."Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of Mindsight
"Mindfulness is an innate capacity that, when cultivated, can awaken us to true health and happiness. Dr. Siegel's book is a clear and comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to apply the power of mindful awareness to challenging emotions, physical pain, or relational difficulties. Filled with wisdom that is both practical and deep, this book is an invitation to live the real moments of our life with presence and heart."Tara Brach, PhD, author of Radical Acceptance
"Both accessible and persuasive in showing how mindful awareness can help us take care of ourselves and stay centered as we navigate life's inevitable challenges."Zindel V. Segal, PhD, coauthor of The Mindful Way through Depression
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The Mindfulness Solution
Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems
By Ronald D. Siegel
The Guilford PressCopyright © 2010 Ronald D. Siegel
All rights reserved.
Life is difficult, for everyone
Do you ever wonder, "Why is my life so difficult?" I wonder about this a lot. Compared to the vast majority of the six billion people on the planet, I've had it pretty easy. Good parents, no really serious diseases so far, plenty of food and shelter, a loving wife and children, caring friends, even an interesting career. Still, not a day goes by without my mind generating some sort of subtle or not-so-subtle emotional suffering:
"Am I starting to get a cold? I really don't want to be sick over the weekend."
"I hope my daughter does well on today's test—she was so upset after the last one."
"I wish this traffic would clear up; I can't be late again."
"If only I had ..."
"Getting old really sucks. Who knew?"
Why does my mind fill with thoughts like these all day long? Do I just have bad genes? Perhaps—but if so, I seem to have plenty of company.
Emotional suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. We might worry about the future, be angry or sad, feel guilty or ashamed, get upset about physical pain, or just feel bored or stressed. Sometimes it's pretty subtle—we "don't feel great" or are "out of sorts." Other times we can get so taken over by anxiety, depression, addictions, pain, or stress related symptoms that it's hard to even function. A remarkable amount of the time, being human isn't easy.
Happiness is possible—but optional
The problem may be that we did not evolve to be happy. Natural selection, the process that guides evolution, favors adaptations that help us reproduce successfully. This means surviving long enough to mate, snag a partner, and then support our children's survival. Evolutionary forces don't particularly "care" whether we enjoy our life—unless this increases our survival or mating potential. And they really don't "care" about what happens to us after our childbearing and protecting years are over.
But we care. While most of us think the survival of humanity is a good idea, we would also like to be able to enjoy our lives while we're here. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask.
Yet we struggle. As a clinical psychologist, I've had a window into the lives of many other people, and they all find life to be difficult. Of course, my patients might be an unusual lot. After all, aren't people with problems the ones that seek psychotherapy? While there is some truth to this, I suspect that most of them are actually in no more distress than people who are not in therapy—they're just more motivated and able to do something about it. On top of this, every friend, colleague, and family member that I've ever known well—whether or not they've been in therapy—seems to find life emotionally challenging too.
What's wrong with us? Life is so remarkable. The natural world and human culture are astonishingly complex and interesting, and by historical standards almost everyone in developed countries lives privileged lives full of riches. Most of us never experience the tragedies that we see on the news, like losing a family in a natural disaster, being attacked by a hostile army, or barely surviving a horrible accident—and yet we all experience a surprising amount of stress and emotional pain.
Have we actually evolved to be un happy? In a sense, yes. What counts in natural selection is the survival of the species. Certain instincts and intellectual abilities that have helped our species prosper over the past few million years have created some pretty negative consequences for us as individuals. Let's look at an example from the past:
Fred and Wilma were early Homo sapiens living on the plains of East Africa about 40,000 years ago. They had evolved quite a bit from their Homo erectus ancestors, developing enormous brains. In fact they each needed to eat 400 calories a day—a fifth of their normal diet—just to keep these going. The couple used their brains to do all sorts of marvelous things that helped them survive: to think abstractly, plan for their future, find novel solutions to problems, and trade with their neighbors. They were even able to make cave paintings and stone jewelry in their spare time.
But all was not well on the savannah. Fred's and Wilma's brains also gave them trouble. They worried about rhinoceroses and lions, were envious of their neighbors who had a bigger cave, and got into arguments over who should haul the water on hot days. When it was cold and rainy, they both got irritable, remembering how much better they liked the sun. They noticed changes around them, fretting when there wasn't as much fruit on the trees, roots to eat, or insect larvae (a favorite treat) to snack on. When neighbors got sick or died, they were distressed to realize that this could happen to them too. Sometimes Wilma got upset when Fred looked at other women. Then she wouldn't have sex with him—which upset him. Sometimes they both thought about their dog that was eaten by the hyenas. And they felt terrible whenever their son was hurt by the bully from over the hill.
Even when everything was going well, they had thoughts about what had gone wrong in the past or what might befall them in the future. Fred and Wilma were surviving pretty well, and their son had a good chance of making it too, but they still had a lot on their minds.
In some regards, things haven't changed much over the last 40,000 years. Our brains—marvelous as they are—continue to give us trouble. Fortunately, though, some of the same abilities that helped our ancestors survive have also enabled us to develop effective practices to deal with our troublesome brains and enhance our happiness. Luckily these techniques have come a long way since Fred and Wilma's time.
Mindfulness: an antidote
Mindfulness is one of these practices. It developed through thousands of years of cultural evolution as an antidote to the natural habits of our hearts and minds that make life much more difficult than it needs to be. Mindfulness is a particular attitude toward experience, or way of relating to life, that holds the promise of both alleviating our suffering and making our lives rich and meaningful. It does this by attuning us to our moment-to-moment experience and giving us direct insight into how our minds create unnecessary anguish.
When our minds topple forward into worries about being attacked or running out of food, mindfulness practice helps bring us back to the relative safety of the present moment. When our minds make envious or competitive comparisons with our neighbor's husband, wife, or home, mindfulness practice helps us see that these are just symbols and no lasting victory is possible. When our minds protest against the heat or cold, mindfulness helps us notice that it is actually the protesting—not the temperature itself—that causes our suffering. Even when illness or death visits us or our loved ones, mindfulness helps us understand and accept the natural order. By helping us observe exactly how we create our own distress, mindfulness practices teach us how to let go of painful mental habits and replace them with more useful ones.
Various cultures have developed their own ways to cultivate mindfulness, each shaped by particular philosophic or religious views. Despite differences in approach, all of these practices evolved to deal with psychological difficulties similar to those we face today. In the East, mindfulness developed in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions as a component of yoga and meditation practices, designed to free the mind of unwholesome habits. In the West, mindfulness is an element in many Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American practices designed for spiritual growth. Secular artists, athletes, writers, and others have also developed techniques involving mindfulness to "clear the mind" and facilitate their work. While some of these practices take exotic forms, others are very simple and practical.
Over the past decade or so, researchers and mental health professionals have been discovering that both ancient and modern mindfulness practices hold great promise for ameliorating virtually every kind of psychological suffering—from everyday worry, dissatisfaction, and neurotic habits to more serious problems with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and related conditions. They're even proving useful for enhancing romantic, parenting, and other interpersonal relationships and for fostering overall happiness. Research and clinical practice are beginning to demonstrate what ancient cultures have long proclaimed—that mindfulness provides insight into what causes our distress and offers effective ways to alleviate it. Lucky for us, it is a skill that can be learned by almost everyone.
Fortunately, too, there are ways to cultivate mindfulness without huge new time commitments. You can actually learn to develop mindfulness while engaged in normal, everyday activities such as walking, driving, showering, and doing dishes. But if you can also set aside regular times for formal mindfulness practice, you may end up actually feeling less pressured and better able to deal with obligations as your mind becomes clearer and your body becomes less stressed.
This book will show you how to cultivate mindfulness in the midst of your daily routines, as well as how to develop it through a step-by-step program of formal practices. Either way, learning mindfulness will help you enrich good times and work more effectively with bad ones.
To understand how mindfulness can be so worthwhile, you need to understand a bit more about why life as we normally live it can be so hard. Let's start with the obvious.
Our prognosis is terrible
In the workshops on mindfulness and psychotherapy that I conduct for mental health professionals, I sometimes ask the audience, "Who here is going to die?" No more than half the hands ever go up. Everything changes, and everything that is born dies. We know this, yet we don't like to think about it. A great Zen master renowned for his wisdom was once asked, "What's the most remarkable thing you've learned in all of your years of meditation and study?" He answered, "The most remarkable thing is that we're all going to die but we live each day as though it weren't so."
He was on to something important. In fact, we can understand much of our emotional suffering by looking at how we react when things change:
"I don't want to give up my pacifier."
"I don't want to use the potty—I like my diapers."
"I don't want to go to school."
Our resistance to change starts very early in life and continues with every subsequent transition—moving, losing friends and loved ones, changing life roles. Who really wants to grow up and drive a minivan? I cried when my twin daughters went off to college. After all that effort, and so many intimate moments together, why did they have to leave home? (My wife wisely pointed out that the alternative—not being emotionally or intellectually able to go off to college—might be even more upsetting.) Looking forward, something tells me I won't be too thrilled when it's time to enter an assisted living facility, or say good-bye to this world entirely.
Resisting these inevitable changes causes us considerable unhappiness. Judith Viorst wrote a groundbreaking book that many psychotherapists read in the 1980s called Necessary Losses, which points out that most of what makes us unhappy involves difficulty dealing with the inevitability of change. This certainly fits my experience—both personally and professionally. Could it be true for you too?
You may have noticed that your life has been full of unwelcome changes, both big and small. Perhaps you've run out of lines. Do the changes that came to mind have anything in common? Did similar emotions arise in response to each of them? Since we all find some changes easier than others, the answer to these questions may hold clues as to which you find most challenging, and which feelings arise most often.
You may have noticed that your life has been full of unwelcome changes, both big and small. Perhaps you've run out of lines. Do the changes that came to mind have anything in common? Did similar emotions arise in response to each of them? Since we all find some changes easier than others, the answer to these questions may hold clues as to which you find most challenging, and which feelings arise most often. These clues will help you later choose the mindfulness practices that are most suited to your needs.
Hooked on pleasure
Have you ever wondered why doughnuts are so irresistible? Nutritionists speculate that we are attracted to doughnuts—despite their deadly biological effects—because sweet and fatty tastes were associated with getting nutrients when food was both natural and scarce. It's no surprise that we're hardwired to enjoy those things that historically have helped us survive and reproduce. For the same reason that our cars just seem to steer themselves to the doughnut shop, we're fond of love, sex, and comfortable temperatures. And we typically do what we can to avoid pain and discomfort. These sensations, after all, are generally associated with harm to the body: putting a hand too close to a fire, being bitten by a saber-toothed tiger, and freezing in the snow are all both unpleasant and dangerous.
The problem is that our wonderfully adaptive tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, while great for our collective survival, locks us into shopping for pleasure and running from pain all day long. The species thrives, but as individuals we live each day perpetually stressed. So on top of the inevitability of change and loss, we have here another built-in source of emotional pain.
Both ancient philosophers and modern psychologists have pondered our tendency to seek pleasure. Freud described it as the "pleasure principle" and pointed out that it explains a lot of our behavior. Later, behavioral psychologists observed that we continue to repeat those actions that are followed by rewards (which are generally experienced as pleasurable). These forces play a role in everything we do. Our whole economy revolves around producing and selling goods and services designed to bring us pleasure.
Unfortunately, the pleasure principle also makes it difficult for us to just be. In virtually every moment we're attempting to adjust our experience, trying to hold on to pleasant moments and avoid unpleasant ones. This makes it very difficult to relax fully and feel at ease or satisfied. We become like Goldilocks—reacting to almost everything as too hot, too cold, too large, too small, too hard, or too soft. Take a minute right now to review the past 24 hours. During how many moments were you truly content, appreciating the moment-to-moment unfolding of your life? For most of us these moments are the exceptions—they stand out in our memory. The rest of the time we're restlessly pursuing some goal or another, trying with limited success to maximize pleasure and minimize pain or discomfort. This difficulty really being content is then amplified considerably by another accident of our evolutionary heritage.
Too smart for our own good
As humans, we have other faculties besides the instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid pain that have helped us survive. It's a good thing, too. Magnificent as they are, our bodies are pathetic for life in the wild—no sharp claws, big teeth, or swift feet. Just imagine trying to frighten off a lion or tiger by baring your teeth and claws or to escape from one by running away. Our hide also offers virtually no protection, and our fur is truly comical—a few tufts on top, under arms, and around sexual organs. Our eyesight and hearing aren't great compared to other creatures either, and our sense of smell is absolutely pitiful (just ask a dog).
What we do have, of course, is an extraordinary capacity to reason and plan. This ability enabled us to survive in the wild by thinking. Fred, Wilma, and our other ancestors figured out how to hunt animals and avoid being eaten themselves. They learned how to gather and cultivate plants. They developed the culture and technology that have enriched our lives and brought us to the point of dominating (and, if we're not careful, destroying) the planet.
But here we find another adaptive mechanism—so well suited to our survival—that often makes us unhappy. Thinking and planning, wonderful and useful as they are, are at the heart of our daily emotional distress because, unlike other tools, we can't seem to put these down when we don't need them. They keep us worrying about the future, regretting the past, comparing ourselves to one another in thousands of ways, and forever scheming about how to make things better. This makes it very difficult to be truly satisfied for more than a brief time. Our constant thinking can make it impossible to wholeheartedly enjoy a meal or listen to a concert, to fully listen to our child, or to fall back asleep in the middle of the night. It can send our emotions on a nonstop roller coaster as our mood soars and sinks based on thoughts. One day we're smart, attractive, popular, or successful—the next we're dumb, ugly, unwanted, or a failure. Even a casual observation of our minds reveals that we are compulsive thinkers.
Excerpted from The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D. Siegel. Copyright © 2010 Ronald D. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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Meet the Author
Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology, part time, at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, where he has taught for over 25 years. He is a long-time student of mindfulness meditation and serves on the Board of Directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. He teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy and mind-body treatment, has worked for many years in community mental health with inner-city children and families, and maintains a private clinical practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Dr. Siegel is coauthor of the self-treatment guide Back Sense, which integrates Western and Eastern approaches for treating chronic back pain, and coeditor of an acclaimed book for professionals, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Dr. Siegel lives in Lincoln with his wife and daughters. He regularly uses the practices in this book to work with his own busy, unruly mind.
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Dr. Siegel is a wise man. In a world filled with the pursuit of trivia and cash windfall, Dr. Siegel's book stands above and away from the crowd. Based on Buddhist teachings, the author is a leader in modern day application of a logical and effective philosophy of life, which is, essentially, to be mindful and enjoy the moment, rather than to ruminate on events of the past or anticipated stresses of the future. Communicated convincingly, succinctly and methodically, and with easy readability, the reader can extract its lessons in order to deal with chronic pain issues as well as crises of identity and fulfillment. I highly recommend this book for teachers and students alike, for psychotherapists and all those who appreciate insight.