Mindful Books to Refresh and Renew this Spring

From DIY wellness techniques to tips for unleashing your inner sloth, this month’s list is all about getting inspired by what’s around you. (Nature lovers and podcast listeners will approve, too.)

Ivan Kruk/Adobe Stock

Anthropocene
Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier Goose Lane Editions

It’s a museum exhibit, a movie, a podcast, and a book—all in service of a bold notion that shakes you into an appreciation for just what human life on this planet means. The Anthropocene, so the hypothesis goes, is our current geologic age, wherein the largest effects are not a result of natural events (such as volcanism or glaciation) but rather the outgrowth of human habitation, and it is the current passion of master photographer Edward Burtynsky and his colleagues. The book and the movie depict stunning landscapes and tell poignant stories that let us know the depth of the effect we’ve been having during our short history on this rock. It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to see pictures that put you in places you never would choose to go.

The book and the movie depict stunning landscapes and tell poignant stories that let us know the depth of the effect we’ve been having during our short history on this rock.

In 2017, the Garrison Institute honored Burtynsky as a contemplative—in the sense that his work causes you to pause and reflect. His enormous, sweeping, detail-rich pictures of “global industrial landscape”—mines, factory farms, and manufacturing plants, to name a few—convey a strange beauty, which is part of their allure. As in his acclaimed film and book Manufactured Landscapes, he invites us to linger on images not easily described as beautiful or ugly. They are simply striking. He is not a scold, telling us all that we’ve done wrong. He’s an artist and reporter, showing us the full spectrum of life on earth. If we admire the fine things the earth brings us, we ought also to appreciate what havoc may be wrought in places normally hidden. As Burtynsky’s colleague and collaborator Nicholas de Pencier said, “It is my responsibility to use my camera as a mirror, not a hammer: to invite viewers to witness these places and react in their own individual fashion.”

Anxiety, Stress, and Mindfulness: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Wellness
Andrew Safer 2nd Tier Publishing

Mindfulness is often popularly characterized as focusing on a kind of bliss-filled, exultant present moment, as if life were an endless series of stunning Instagram posts. Andrew Safer knows differently. He himself has known hardship, and he’s worked with lots of people in difficult circumstances: youth in crisis, prisoners, addicts, people struggling with mental illness. He teaches mindfulness in Newfoundland, a very earthy place, so he imbues Anxiety, Stress, and Mindfulness with a lot of heart and a celebration of the fact that mindfulness shines brightest when it helps us through our darkest hours.  

A Sloth’s Guide to Mindfulness 
Ton Mak Chronicle Books 

“Some days, everything is annoying,” observes author Ton Mak, a Shanghai-based artist and meditation enthusiast. “We forget the small happy things. Happy things that are already within us and around us.” Just such a small happy thing is the star of this book, a sloth—the most adorably lethargic critter out there—who in his “philoslothical” (arrrgh) relaxation represents a counterpoint to our hurried and harried lives. The sloth illustrates basic methods for mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, and guided visualization, while reflecting lightheartedly on how they help us move through life. Nothing comprehensive—but then, sometimes all we need is a gentle reminder to take it slow.  

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things
Peter Wohlleben Greystone

First with The Hidden Life of Trees, then The Inner Life of Animals, followed by The Weather Detective, and now The Secret Wisdom of Nature, Peter Wohlleben is on a roll. In each of these little books, released in rapid succession, Wohlleben presents scientific evidence with the exuberant wonder of your favorite high school teacher, the one who loved nothing better than a field trip to the woods.

The Secret Wisdom of Nature seeks to increase our empathy for the living things that surround us, including our fellow humans, and to take time to appreciate how important our home is—not the home that has walls, doors, windows, and a roof, but rather our bigger home. How easy it is to forget something so simple as the beauty and necessity of light, its life-giving power. When we see how vital the cycles of light and darkness are to the balance of nature, we can come to appreciate the consequences of our predilection to bathe the whole world in artificial light.

How easy it is to forget something so simple as the beauty and necessity of light, its life-giving power.

Wohlleben has been accused by fellow scientists of straying too far from science, of being too emotional, making trees and animals and even the weather seem human. In the epilogue, he defends his approach, asking whether “a language stripped of emotion” can “even be called a human language.” For Wohlleben, so long as we treat our natural world as just another machine, we will lack the empathy required to care for it as we would a beloved family member.

Podcast Review

CBC Radio
Episode: Wearables go beyond fitness tracking to help people with chronic health conditions

Rapidly evolving technologies are revolutionizing health science, a prime example being wearable health trackers—think the FitBit, but capable of feats like tracking the blood glucose of diabetics, or monitoring blood pressure, via a tiny patch on the skin. For people with chronic illness, this may take the constant vigilance and guesswork out of maintaining health. But for healthy people, these devices—like self-driving cars that “remember” the route for us—may tempt us to ignore the feedback we’re always getting from our body, rather than growing to better understand that feedback.

On Being with Krista Tippett
Episode: The Magic Shop of the Brain, with Dr. James Doty 

Most people don’t appreciate “the power of their intention to change everything,” says James Doty, a neurosurgeon who also directs Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. He’s talking about the scarcely understood potential of the human brain, but also about the equally miraculous power of compassion arising from it. Doty—for whom learning present-moment awareness as a teenager was transformative—considers our brains’ suppleness (that is, neuroplasticity) to hold the key to creating “an environment where we ultimately can flourish, and give those around us the opportunity to flourish.”

Freakonomics Radio
Episode: Think Like a Winner

When we say we’re “off our game,” it’s understood that there is a psychic aspect involved—a preoccupation, a case of the “blahs,” a nagging self-doubt. Whatever we’re seeking to improve at in life, being able to get back on our game is a crucial skill. In this episode, some well-known athletes describe how their mental game impacts their competitive edge. For many professional athletes, for example, game prep includes affirmative self-talk and visualization. If that sounds a bit woo-woo, just take it from baseball legend Bob Tewksbury: “Confidence is a choice. A lot of people think it’s a feeling. But if you wait for that feeling, it may never come.”

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