The net impact of this book, no matter how many encounters I have with it, is awakening. I’m not claiming it makes me “enlightened,” only that it accomplishes its purpose of teaching—or reminding—the reader how to be more fully alive and aware, moment by moment.
Kabat-Zinn is a gentle teacher, a master of the non-judgmental suggestion and the empathic anecdote. His writing style is accessible to his entire target audience—everyone who experiences stress. It’s a friendly, natural style, with some idiosyncrasies. He’s fond of exclamation points and often says things like “our body” and “our mind,” addressing his readers as a group and as individuals at the same time, while including himself in that group. Grammatically, this plural-singular is strange, but that’s his voice, his way of bringing readers into a conversation with him. Though the book is long, it’s low-stress. The themes are expanded gradually, each chapter building on the next, with steady reminders about the practices he’s teaching. I recommend reading it slowly, a little at a time, and letting it soak in. This turns the process of reading into a kind of meditation.
This was my first exploration of the revised edition. It grew by around 200 pages from the original. The updates were needed for two reasons. One is that the author and many other scholars in health psychology and the study of emotions and stress have accumulated decades of well-designed research on the effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is no longer an innovation at one Massachusetts hospital but an established, thoroughly studied program taught all over the world. The results of studies are integrated into the rest of the text. At first I wondered why he didn’t make those a separate chapter, a massive appendix, but a lot of readers might skip or skim this information if it was presented that way. When it flows as part of the story of coping with various stressors, it gets read, and adds substance and science where it’s needed. The other reason the book needed an update was the change in the nature of stress and distraction since its first publication. When it first came out, there was no such thing as texting while driving or feeling the need to sleep with a cell phone turned on and lurking under one’s pillow, no such thing as constantly sharing on social media. The stress-creating tendency he described in the first edition—to be in touch with everything except ourselves—has only grown over the past thirty years.
The chapters on coping with physical pain and emotional pain are especially profound. At one point in my progress through this book, I ended up reading it in the emergency room in the middle of the night. It helped me cope mindfully with a bizarre, ambiguous symptom and the decision to get it checked out, to sit with the not-knowing while I waited to be seen, to accept that I might have something serious that could require eye surgery, and to accept that if I didn’t need it, this was how I’d chosen to respond. I was even able to get a couple of hours’ sleep before seeing a specialist in the morning. (In case you wonder, no surgery was needed. I can now cope mindfully with a mere risk factor—and my insurance company.)
This recent experience with sleep deprivation made me relate strongly to the chapter on sleep stress. This chapter doesn’t seem to have been updated with research the way the others have. I agree with Kabat-Zinn that getting upset about being unable to sleep only compounds the problem. Making peace with the necessity of being awake reduces the suffering. It does not, however, reduce the need for sleep. Adapting to the stress of being tired is not the same thing as being able to maintain normal reflexes, attention or memory. I’ve found shortcomings with this chapter, but that doesn’t invalidate the whole book. In fact, the chapter stands out because the rest of it is so soundly supported.
I have one more critique: The material on the benefits of yoga is valuable but the drawings don’t provide good instruction. The little man in the pictures uses his back incorrectly in several forward bending poses, and uses no props. Using a strap to reach one’s foot in many poses makes a big difference in both benefit and safety. The selection of poses isn’t as balanced as it could be and there is one that I think should have been eliminated, a curled-up inversion that could stress the back and neck. Kabat-Zinn does mention approaching it with caution, but there are safer ways to relax and put your feet up in yoga, such as lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall. My suggestion would be to read the chapter but to study yoga with a qualified teacher who pays attention to each student and who understands anatomy and injury prevention. Don’t use the pictures as instruction.
There’s an option with this book to buy CDs or download guided meditations. I’ve never done that, having studied yoga and meditation with live teachers and developed a daily practice, but as one of my yoga students was saying after class the other evening, it reduces her stress to have someone else guide her. There are beautifully written instructions for meditation in this book, and some wonderful short experiments a reader can do to begin exploring the practice. I think other readers could do as I’ve done and not buy the CDs. It should work well either way. With or without guidance, it’s challenging to commit to daily practice at first. The book suggests forty minutes. (I prefer not timing it, just doing it.) Daily practice is one of the foundations of the stress reduction program in this book, whether one does the body scan (similar to Yoga Nidra), sitting meditation, walking mediation, or yoga, or alternates among these. Daily, one commits to taking time to be present in oneself. It is, as the author once said, both the simplest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And it can, through awakening, change your life.