BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Meditation [also sold as Altered Traits] by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and BodyThe Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has been sold under the title listed above as well as the less prosaic title, “Altered Traits.” The switch may represent a lack of confidence that the coined term “altered traits” would catch on, and / or a desire to market the book as broadly as possible.

“Altered Traits” is a play on the more well-known term “altered states [of consciousness.]” The idea being that meditation (as well as many other activities from consuming psychoactive drugs to having a shamanistic drum rave) create a change from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, but what the authors wanted to focus more upon is the long-term and sustained changes that result from extended meditation practice. (Hence, coining the term “altered traits.”) These sustained changes are a prevalent theme through out the book. This makes sense as one of the co-authors, Richard Davidson, is well-known for investigating the brains and brain activity of monks and yogis with extremely advanced practices (tens of thousands of hours in meditation.) Still, the prosaic title, “The Science of Meditation,” may make more than marketing sense because the book does discuss the scientific research on meditation pretty broadly.

Both Goleman and Davidson are long time meditators as well as being subject matter experts in psychology and brain science. This is a major strength of the book. Some scientists are dismissive of practices that have origins in spiritual practices and have blindsides or are prone to oversimplifications because of that bias. On the other hand, that bias isn’t helped by the fact that meditation experts often oversell meditation as a practice that will do everything from spontaneously cure your cancer to allow you to levitate six feet in the air. The authors of this book aren’t afraid to call out such spurious claims, but aren’t dismissive of practices of religious or spiritual origin. The authors also spend a fair amount of time criticizing past scientific investigations of meditation (including their own) on the basis of naivete about the nature of the practices. A major problem has always been an “apples and oranges” grouping together of practices that are different in potentially important ways. There have also been all the problems that plague other disciplines as well (small sample size, poor methodology, etc.) These discussions won’t mean much to most readers, but are helpful to those who want a better idea which studies are gold standard and which are weak. That said, the book doesn’t get bogged down in technical issues.

The book opens by laying out some of the important differences between various meditation practices and trying to educate readers who may either not know much about meditation or may know it only from the perspective of a single discipline. Goleman and Davidson suggest one way of thinking about different kinds of meditation is in terms of “the deep and the wide.” The former being sectarian practitioners who practice specific ritualized practices in an intense way. The latter being more secular practitioners whose practices may borrow from different domains. They present a more extensive classification scheme than this simple bifurcation, making it more of a continuum. Later in the book, they consider ways in which practices might be categorized (e.g. Attentional, Constructive, and Deconstructive) but it’s emphasized that there isn’t currently an agreed upon schema.

Throughout the book, one gets stories of the authors experience in investigating this subject. This included trying to get monks to allow themselves to be studied, even with a letter from the Dalai Lama. It also covers the challenge of trying to build interest in the subject in an academic setting that once thought of meditation as little more than voodoo.

The middle portion of the book has a number of chapters that address particular types of practices and the specific effects they have (and haven’t) been found to have. These include developing a more compassionate outlook and behavior (ch. 6), improved attention (ch. 7), negation of pain and physical ailments (ch. 8 & 9), and meditation / mindfulness as part of a psychotherapeutic approach. The authors repeatedly point out that these practices were never intended for the purpose of treating ailments (mental or physical,) though they do seem to show benefits in a number of domains outside of what the spiritual seekers who brought them to prominence intended of them.

The chapters toward the book’s end focus heavily on investigations into advanced meditators, and the altered traits and brain changes seen in them.

There are few graphics in the book, but it’s annotated and has an “additional resources” section in the back.

I’d highly recommend this book. The authors’ mixed background gives them a good vantage point to provide an overview of the subject, and also allows them to tap into stories of their experiences which make the book more interesting than it otherwise would be.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Saraswati

Sure Ways to Self RealizationSure Ways to Self Realization by Satyananda Saraswati
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is one-stop shopping for the yogic meditator. The first half of the book explores many of the most common yogic practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in step-by-step detail. The second half of the book situates yogic meditation in a global context of meditation by introducing various techniques of meditation and mind science seen around the world. This allows the reader to compare and contrast the yogic approach to that of other systems — be they closely related systems such as Buddhism or Jainism or more remote ones such as hypnosis or moving meditations like dance or the martial arts.

I found this book to be incredibly useful. While there are mountains of books on yoga, there are relatively few that shine a light on the practices of the mind, and among those that do only very few are nonsectarian. Many books look at meditation solely as a spiritual practice and a few others present it exclusively as a secular scientifically grounded practice. This book skillfully bridges between, and does its level best to get the accounts of different systems right. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few oversimplifications or minor misunderstandings here and there, but the good overshadows them by far. It should be noted that even within the domain of yoga, many authors warp concepts such as jnana yoga and tantric yoga to fit their worldview or sect instead of reporting on how practitioners of those systems would see them. This book seemed to me to be much fairer than many in this regard.

The book consists of an Introduction and seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss tools and aids used in meditation. The primary difference between the two chapters is that the first looks at traditional aids such as mantra, mandalas, and symbology, and the second discusses more modern scientific aids such as biofeedback, drugs, and sensory deprivation tanks.

Chapter 3 is one of the largest (more than a quarter of the book) and it explores the many yogic meditation techniques, including: antar mouna, japa, ajapa japa, chidakasha dharana, yoga nidra, prana vidya, trataka, nada meditation, jnana yogi meditations, kriya yoga techniques, and tantric techniques. While the later discussion of non-yogic approaches generally includes instructions for basic exercises, the descriptions in this section are much more detailed, and some include variations on the primary practice.

Chapter 4 is about the same length as chapter 3, and it investigates many of the other systems of meditation from around the world. These include religious systems such as those in: Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, various sects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the mystical branches of Christianity and Islam (Sufi,) and Native American animist traditions. It also includes secular systems such as hypnosis and autogenic therapy.

Chapter 5 delves into how movement of the body is used as an anchor point in meditation in yoga, on pilgrimage, in Tibetan Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism, in the martial arts, in dance, and in sports. This is where I saw those few of the aforementioned minor oversimplifications and misunderstandings (e.g. referring to all martial arts under the rubric “karate.”) However, I greatly appreciated that the authors included discussion of this important topic, and so I can’t say that there was anything that detracted from my enjoyment of coverage of the topic.

The penultimate chapter is a catch-all for miscellany not covered earlier in the book. It includes meditations for kids (who require a very special approach, I can attest.) It also has a section on meditation on death, which I believe to be an immensely important topic for helping people shed their fear so they can get the most out of their lives. The other two sections are on nature and sensory meditations, respectively. The last chapter is short and discusses samadhi as the goal of meditative practice.

There are only a few graphics in the book, mostly symbology, but there is a glossary and a bibliography.

I would highly recommend this book for yoga practitioners and those who have a broad interest in meditative and mind science practices.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel

Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids by Eline Snel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever taught children mindfulness, concentration, or relaxation knows that one can’t use the same tried and tired approach one does with adults. One must recognize the strengths and weaknesses that children’s level of cognitive development brings. [That said, I’ve found myself in front of a room full of kids who sat with the unflinching stillness of bronze Buddha statues, but that’s because regular practice was part of their school experience.] This is the twin premise of Snel’s book: that one needs to tailor one’s approach to teaching children to be mindful, and that their practice needs to be integrated into their life on the whole.

It should be pointed out that the book isn’t just a collection of exercise for children. It’s also a book for parents to help them align their approach to parenting to the mindfulness that the child is developing. It’s also a book of application. That is, it’s not about practicing mindfulness meditation in the abstract; it’s about using the understanding that arises from that practice to improve behavior and emotional coping.

Chapter 1 introduces the topic of mindfulness and sets up the book’s approach as well as explaining the use of the audio exercise that go along with the book. The second chapter explains a mindful approach to parenting by which parents can adopt a calmer and less emotionally charged approach to interacting with their child. Chapter 3 explains how and why breath is used as the basic anchor point to life in the here and now. Chapter 4 suggests how attention can be improved, and mindful eating is used as a tool to advance this objective. The next chapter explores how mindfulness can be practiced using the body as a means to anchor one’s awareness while simultaneously being more aware of what’s going on with one physically. There is discussion of mindful walking, but most of the chapter is about teaching children to be more cognizant of what they feel as a precursor to being more emotionally aware.

The next several chapters cover emotional awareness and how to improve response to emotional situations (both for the child and for the parent.) Chapter 6 uses the analogy of a weather report as a means for children to evaluate their emotional state. Chapter 7 expands on the topic by considering how one can manage one’s response to emotions. The crucial topic of witnessing the changing nature of emotional states is the subject of Chapter 8.

The last two chapters examine how to cultivated desirable character traits in children. The penultimate chapter describes how kindness can be fostered as a skill in children. The last chapter is entitled “Patience, Trust, and Letting Go” and that probably adequately describes the gist of the topics covered. The concept of an “inner movie theater” is discussed as a tool to facilitate building the desired characteristics.

There’s a single page bibliography and a table of audio exercises at the end. As far as graphics are concerned, they are mostly whimsical drawings of frogs.

I found this book to be concise, informative, and designed to appeal to the child’s need for concrete–as opposed to abstract—conceptualization of this, otherwise cerebral, topic.

I’d recommend this book for parents, teachers, and others who interact with children.

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