Western Buddhist Review

Metta for Everyman

On Mon, 21 August, 2017 - 11:36
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

We are pleased to present a review of a new book from Windhorse Publications on the therapeutic use of mettā or kindness by Paramabandhu and Jed Shamel – reviewed by Paul Wielgus, himself a mindfulness teacher.

Mindful Emotion: A Short Course in Kindness by Paramabandhu Groves and Jed Shamel, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2017.

review by Paul Wielgus

The first thing that struck me about Mindful Emotion – the book as well as the support on the accompanying website – was its simplicity and sheer accessibility. The book is well-structured and simple to understand. It is also simple to tactically apply the methods it describes, and the website likewise has a simple layout that does not scare you off. In fact, the website complements the flow and the content of the book. Even the short introduction film, which at first looks like it might be a bit cheesy, works well.

As the creators claim, this is a course that draws on techniques from positive psychology and ‘third wave’ therapies (for example, compassion-focused therapy), as well as taking inspiration from the Buddhist tradition; but Kindness Behaviour Training (KBT) is also a course that anyone can understand, participate in and gain benefit from. Indeed, it seems to be a course for Everyman (or woman), a course that takes practices like mettā-bhāvanā together with mental attitude like kindness, acceptance and forgiveness, and adapts both to deal with the modern epidemics of depression, addiction, and stress.

This is less a case of ‘move over mindfulness, here comes kindfulness’, and more a recognition that a mindful response to those modern epidemics involves teaming up the essence of mettā-bhāvanā with mindfulness of breathing in order to to help do battle. It is high time that mettā-bhāvanā shared the responsibility for driving with mindfulness of breathing, rather than always being a passenger on the journey to awakening (or even in pursuit of the easing of everyday suffering). As the website’s introductory video tells us, we need to respond with our hearts as well as our heads.

In order to review this book I would like to refer you to the story of my own engagement with mindfulness. When the book plopped onto the hall carpet and then the course pinged in my inbox, it seemed to be a time in my life when I was very much ready for engaging in KBT. Twenty-three years before, in 1994, I had reached the age of 40 and was in the throws of a classic mid-life crisis. Karmic winds ( something which I had no comprehension of whatsoever back then) had blown me into the Buddhafield meditation tent at the Glastonbury Festival, where, on a sunny Thursday in June, I sat down and was instructed by a long-haired Western Buddhist Order member, named Sanghaloka, in the mindfulness of breathing.

From that moment my life changed. The immediate impact was a dramatic waking up to the suppressed introvert side of my nature, and the immediate and subsequent discovery of the possibility of an inner peace that had been previously been sadly lacking in  my life. In subsequent months and years the mindfulness of breathing started to appear as a part of my corporate work in change and innovation. Eventually I found a Buddhist path, in the Tibetan tradition, and proceeded to study and practice for the next 15 years gaining a deeper general understanding and experience of the Dharma.[1]

However, after my morning awakening at the festival in 1994 my afternoon experience was somewhat different. I returned dreamy-eyed to the Buddhafield tent and experienced some gentle Qi Gong followed by an introduction to mettā-bhāvanā, delivered by another amazing FWBO order member, Karunāvīra. Whilst this was also satisfying, it did not have the impact of mindfulness of breathing, a response which began what many others seem to have experienced, which is the start of a preference for mindfulness of breathing over mettā-bhāvanā.

What has this to do with Mindful Emotion? Well, reading the book all these years later filled me with a feeling of encouragement that here was an approach that might perhaps correct a perceived imbalance in me between mindfulness of breathing and mettā-bhāvanā, a correction arriving synchrononistically for my personal as well as for my working life. This sense of importance was connected to a relatively recent teacher training experience  in MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), itself a powerful experience, and the KBT course now gave me a strong feeling that the balance between the two meditation practices might to some degree be redressed.

My journey since that Glastonbury Festival in 1994 had led me to get involved in ‘The Mindfulness Revolution’ and, having attended a Mindfulness in Society Conference with John Kabat-Zinn in 2010, I had actively started to bring mindfulness into my work, including training in MBSR, and also completing mindfulness training with Global Corporate Mindfulness organisation, Potential Project. The influence of mindfulness of breathing in these trainings is profound, and as the mindfulness movement has evolved the recognition of the additional necessity for kindness and compassion training has enriched the overall package, particularly in the context of leadership training.

In summary, the arrival of Mindful Emotion in my post seemed to come at a very appropriate and relevant time both for my own practice as well as the the training I do in the workplace. So how does it fare? Overall the book is simple and elegant and succeeds in integrating mettā-bhāvanā with the mindfulness of breathing. It builds a foundation of mettā using the core structure of mettā-bhāvanā to create a system that leads the reader/participant along a journey to gain a deeper experience of the nature and function of kindness, and a methodology to cultivate it. The concept of ‘cultivation’ (bhāvanā) is central to the structure of the course, and the use of a gardening metaphor serves it very well. In the section on ‘fruition’ the authors remind us of an ancient Chinese proverb:

If you want to be happy for an hour get drunk, for a day get married, if you want to be happy for life, plant a garden.

The book offers ways to work on the ground of our mind, sowing the seeds of kindness. We are reminded that it is a lifetime’s work, though this is work that is very rewarding.

So the eight week course it introduces is just the beginning, albeit an impactful one, to this lifetime of work. Each chapter has a gardening theme, for example ‘preparing the earth’ with a foundation of mindfulness; dealing with the weeds (that is, with difficulties) by turning towards them; sowing the seeds of kindness and waiting for the first shoots. Also like gardening, there is much repetition and going over the same ground in the book. For example the core meditation in each section is based on the self, friend, neutral and difficult person structure of mettā-bhāvanā, which when encountered in the course of reading the book is repetitious and may for some readers become little tedious, but obviously performs an important function in practice, particularly in the essential construction of new neural pathways, when experienced within the framework of a weekly course.

The book takes the reader along a pathway that starts with the foundational breath and body practices, and guides them through a range of increasingly subtle mental states such as acceptance, gratitude, generosity, contentment and ultimately the delicate mind of forgiveness. As well as specifically focussing on the cultivation of kindness itself, all of these also constitute individual components for the development of kindness as well. Appreciative enquiry and positive psychology form an integral part of the programme which is also supplemented with research and science-based facts and stories. The format also provides the reader/practitioner with a simple study format to monitor progress week by week.

The course is satisfying in its overall structure and its system of evolution. I found two sections in particular very appealing. First, the chapter on ‘organic imagination’ extends the appreciative approach to include the use of the creative imagination to further cultivate kindness. It does this by extending the friend, neutral, difficult person process into a remembered or imagined place of beauty, and developing an attitude of contentment as a vehicle for kindness in the process. This session also addresses the enemies of rumination and worry head-on and encourages the reformulation of positive neural pathways, particularly through the appreciation of beauty through simplicity as the antidote. This works by gently bringing the mind back into the present moment to savour the beauty around us, and to halt the natural inclinations of our wandering mind.

Secondly, the adaption of the ‘breathing space’ process (which is central to MBSR training) and its transformation into the ‘kindness space’ is a stroke of genius. As my own practice and teaching of MBSR has evolved, I have become to realise the profundity of the ‘breathing space’ both within the training itself and as a cornerstone for the practitioner in helping to maintain their practice beyond the course. In KBT there is a very simple adaption of this MBSR breathing space. In its new form as the ‘Kindness Breathing Space’, I believe it can itself become a cornerstone of this particular program as it develops and evolves. Furthermore, it has inspired me to consider wider applications of this approach. Why not consider some of the other mental attitudes and create, for example, an ‘appreciation breathing space’, a ‘gratitude breathing space’, a ‘generosity breathing space’, even a ‘forgiveness breathing space’?

All in all, Mindful Emotion is a comprehensive and systematic approach to cultivating kindness. It is an elegant complement to MBSR with its core practice of mindfulness of breathing. Proof of its full value may only really be through actual immersion and participation in the programme, but the book does also provide encouraging stories and quotations from people who have already participated. My own feeling is that the core benefit of the course would be as a welcome refresher aimed at people who have already participated in an MBSR programme. This is a very real need in the world to help build on the undoubted impact that MBSR can have, and to provide a strong platform to meet people’s need for an additional structured programme to continue and evolve their practice. Kindness Behaviour Training does seem to offer a first class, robust opportunity to do this.

I also think it can also work as a ‘stand-alone’ course, but this would not necessarily impact people as profoundly as MBSR, particularly when that programme is delivered by experienced teachers who are able to harness its true holistic power. Still in a world desperate for means and methods to encourage and cultivate kindness and compassion KBT offers a powerful beacon of hope, and Mindful Emotion is a book that competently and inspiringly allows that beacon to shine.

In conclusion, Mindful Emotion is a book that details a system which has the power of mettā at its heart, and a methodology that has the potential to bring that power to people in the world of work, to business leaders, to people in education and health services; in fact, to everyone, to Everyman and to Everywoman.

Paul Wielgus (dragonfly-coachingforlife.co.uk) teaches mindfulness in his local community in Somerset as well as being a Mindfulness coach/facilitator  and trainer for leaders and organisations in the UK and beyond.

You can purchase Mindful Emotion direct from Windhorse Publications – this means more of the purchase price goes to the publisher.

[1] I have retold the story of my 1994 experience of the impact of mindfulness of breathing many times, even featuring it in a TED-style talk in 2014 available at  https://youtu.be/VGOlpOF_B24.

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