MEDITATION FOR FIDGETY SKEPTICS
Dan Harris • Spiegel & Grau
A few years ago, ABC News reporter Dan Harris wrote 10% Happier about his unlikely journey from professional skeptic to meditation “evangelist” following an on-air panic attack. A naturally witty, even acerbic, commentator, his take on mindfulness is in-your-face and gritty—with a large dose of mockery of syrupy language or lofty accounts of “finding oneself” through the practice. His latest book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, dishes up more “real” talk about meditation, packaged in the form of a travelogue from the 10% Happier Meditation Tour with Canadian mindfulness teacher Jeff Warren, his equal in sarcastic wit and aversion for fluff or naval gazing.
Harris aims to make mindfulness even more accessible to people like him, so the book, like the tour, takes its cue from real questions from real people along the way. We hear about not having the time to meditate, thinking you (and you alone) are no good at it, and more, peppered with practices that feel friendly and doable. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly candid about Harris’ and his entourage’s foibles, head trips, and frequent ego crashes.
“Just because you’ve started meditating—or even if you’ve written a whole book on the subject—your life is not going to become a nonstop parade of rainbows and unicorns,” Harris writes. “You will, as I do, get caught up in the mindless momentum of doing and getting, of being stingy or distracted. We’re all like schnauzers who soil the rug and need to have our snouts shoved into it.… The Game—and you truly can’t hear this enough—is just to start over, again and again.”
Alison Canavan • Gill Books
Former model Alison Canavan struggled with undiagnosed depression most of her life. But after her son, James, was born, the combination of hormones, lack of sleep, and worry for the future sent her spiraling into a postpartum state. It began a life-changing journey to gain control over her mental and emotional health, which culminated in studying nutrition and becoming a wellness consultant. In Minding Mum she offers straight talk about the difficulty of having a child (“I remember thinking how little I had been told about the reality of being a new mum,” she writes), and shares mindfulness practices, among other advice, to help new moms develop their own “happy living formula.”
F YOU VERY MUCH
Danny Wallace • TarcherPerigree
The title may be ironic, but Danny Wallace is quite serious in his concern that our rudeness levels have reached epidemic proportions. And this rudeness not only irritates, it also has weighty individual and social consequences. Case studies, anecdotes, and sociological research back up his argument. With equal parts humor and horror, Wallace delves into the heart of rudeness in society: from internet trolls to “manspreaders” on public transit, pundits to politicians. Is rudeness contagious? And are millennials exceptionally rude, as per their reputation? While the analysis occasionally seems to conflate other cultural problems (such as sheer idiocy or malice) with rudeness, this book packs an entertaining and disturbing punch.
WRITING TO AWAKEN
Mark Matousek • Reveal Press
An acclaimed journalist, author, and writing teacher, Matousek invites readers to know themselves more authentically through what he calls radical truth-telling. “Literary talent is irrelevant here,” he says. “The strengths you need are courage, transparency, commitment to the truth, and a sincere desire to transcend your story.” It’s common that we aren’t (or don’t want to be) aware that we have “stories” to transcend, which is part of what makes this book so thought provoking. Matousek offers both theory—including lessons from his life and former students—and practice, in the form of writing prompts. The exercises are intended to be challenging, leading us to reexamine ingrained beliefs about who we are and who we’re supposed to be.
HOW WE EAT WITH OUR EYES AND THINK WITH OUR STOMACH
Melanie Mühl and Diana von Kopp • The Experiment
We tend not to think about how much we think about food. According to authors Melanie Mühl and Diana von Kopp, we make over 200 food-related decisions every single day. Some choices are conscious and some are not, but all are shaped by factors within our environments—grocery store layouts, celebrities, plate color and size, and social norms are just a few examples.
With bite-sized chapters citing plenty of research and offering helpful tidbits of advice, this handy book points out many of the assumptions and mental habits that shape how we relate to food.
LEADING FROM WITHIN
Gretchen Ki Steidle • MIT
Mindfulness is often derided in popular opinion pieces as a selfish and self-involved project of the Me Generation, and perhaps at times and in some contexts, it degrades into that. But the premise that underlies the assertion is a false dichotomy: You can either look after yourself or care for other people; you are either inner-directed or outer-directed. And any inner focus comes at the expense of paying attention to the needs and concerns of the world around you.
In this detailed and impressive work, Gretchen Ki Steidle marches right into the middle of the inner–outer ping pong match to demonstrate how each informs the other: A concern for social justice can emerge from and be strengthened by a practice of paying attention to the workings of one’s own mind, and likewise working for the benefit of others can inspire one to further personal transformation.
Steidle is the founder and president of Global Grassroots, a nonprofit organization that works with women and girls to be leaders of conscious social change in their communities. Global Grassroots does a lot of work in post-conflict Africa, in Rwanda, Uganda, Darfur (in Sudan), and eastern Congo. Steidle’s work is informed by the view that when leaders make a personal investment in their own self-awareness, they become better leaders. They more readily inspire change in others rather than trying to impose change. They are good listeners who build deeper relationships. And they also draw on creativity in the face of seemingly intractable challenges. Leadership of this kind begins and is sustained through compassion, which leads to a more intimate understanding of the needs of all stakeholders.
The term “conscious social change” in the title, Steidle writes, “represents a departure from conventional change.” It works, she goes on to say, “at the root and systemic levels of an issue rather than applying a Band-Aid to the symptoms.” She illustrates how the same kind of exploration of one’s own mind that occurs in mindfulness practice can lead to considering the deep causes of the problem at hand, such as malnutrition or food deserts, so real transformation can take place.
In addition to sharing insights from her work, Steidle includes mindfulness practices for individuals and groups and stories of the kind of mindfulness-in-action she advocates for.
RAISE YOUR INNER GAME
David Levin • Minneapolis Press
The best selling book QBQ!: The Question behind the Question, which Levin wrote with coauthor David Miller, explored how stopping the habit of looking for someone to blame and taking personal responsibility can make you more effective and life more workable. In this very pithy book, Levin turns his focus to how we manage the inner resources at our disposal—physical, emotional, and intellectual. He asks us to take stock of how well we’re doing at managing these different “selves” within us and offers skills and tools we can use to get out of our own way.
MINDFUL TEACHER, MINDFUL SCHOOL
Kevin Hawkins • Sage
As a longtime educator and mindfulness practitioner, Kevin Hawkins views mindfulness as one way to achieve greater balance in our education systems. The book itself is well balanced: He takes the reader through an introduction to some history and modern use of mindfulness, moving into how this practice can help a create a healthier, happier environment for both students and teachers, even rippling out to positively effect their families and communities. Hawkins blends emergent research with stories from fellow teachers, as well as many small exercises and an impressive resources list that will serve curious parents and teachers. The chapters on social-emotional learning programs and changing school culture are particularly striking, linking the individual practice of mindfulness with broader societal changes.
Mackenzie L. Havey • Bloomsbury
Reporter Mackenzie Havey’s beat is competitive sports, with a focus on running. She’s also a competitive runner herself, and a USA Track & Field-certified coach. The access she has to the influencers in the running world, whose stories and thoughts pepper this easy-to-read and useful book, is impressive. And perhaps it’s not surprising that so many of them, from international Olympians and “ultra marathon man” Dean Karnazes to professors of sports psychology and the engineers who design running shoes, credit mindfulness in large part for their enduring love for the sport.
We go inside the minds of athletes like Timothy Olson, who in 2012 at mile 80 of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run shifted into mindfulness: “I focused on each step and every breath even if they were a little worn. I arrived at the point in the race that I live for, the simple moments when you’ve reached down to your core and all you can do is keep running.” He won.
While most of the anecdotes come from professional athletes, they serve as inspiration, not the message. Havey fully believes that mindfulness can benefit any level of runner, from beginning joggers, to someone training for their first 10K, all the way up through the elite field.
She came to mindfulness as a way to manage stress. She studied Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and began applying it to her runs. The result? Her stress disappeared, she stopped getting injured, and she actually began to enjoy running more. “Perhaps best of all, many of the calming and focusing effects of my mindful running practice spilled over into the rest of my life,” she writes. “I don’t get so easily pulled in to my own neurotic misadventures, ruminating about the past or obsessing about the future. Most runs I’m able to simply focus on my breathing and the rhythm of stride and accept the fact that there will be moments of discomfort and suffering. This has made me a happier and healthier runner, but also a more switched-on human being in general.”
Havey also provides a research-backed argument for the “symbiotic pairing” of mindfulness and aerobic exercise, and in particular, running. Rounding out the reporting and anecdotes are how-to mindfulness practices, such as a body scan and how to engage your senses, as well as tips for improving both your performance and your enjoyment of the sport.
Episode: The King of Tears
In this series, Malcolm Gladwell’s prodigious talents as both a free thinker and a storyteller are on display. Gladwell likes to look at things from oblique angles, the better to break us out of fixed ways of thinking and shed new light. A superb journalist, he explores and investigates by talking with people. In Episode 6, season 2, he travels to Nashville in a fascinating quest to account for the difficulties we have in bridging the cultural divide in America by contrasting country music and rock and roll: one pulls at the heartstrings, the other doesn’t go there much.
THE EDUCHANGE PODCAST
Episode: Ashanti Branch
In this episode, Ever Forward Club founder Ashanti Branch relates how neither excelling in school nor showing your emotions are considered cool for American boys. He also talks about his 100k Mask Challenge, which encourages young people and teachers to communicate with one another more authentically. An educator himself, Branch emphasizes the role of empathy in teachers to build constructive relationships with students: “If you care more about the subjects you’re teaching than the subjects who you’re teaching, there’s going to be a disconnect…. Connect a little bit more with your heart.” (For more on Branch’s work, see our feature “Is Your Life Designed For You?”)
QUIRKS & QUARKS
Episode: Neuroscience says it’s good to daydream
When we daydream, science finds, our brains are in the zone for problem-solving and creativity. Neuroscience professor emeritus Dr. Daniel Levitin had Sting compose music inside a brain scanner, and Sting’s brain activity shifted into “daydreaming mode,” the default mode network. This area of the brain, describes psychology professor Dr. Kalina Kristoff, shows “the sweet spot between order and chaos.” She says the ability to flexibly switch between a daydreaming mental mode and more constrained and analytical modes of thought can indicate a highly creative mind.