A review of Rick Hanson’s new book Just One Thing
by Steve Wasserman
Perhaps not surprisingly, out of the toolbox of meditation practices that are on offer to students engaged in mindfulness courses such as MBCT and MBSR, the most popular tool, and the one which most students are still using months if not years after finishing their 8-week course, is something called the Three Minute Breathing Space. The fact that it only takes three minutes to practice has a big part to play, I suspect, in its popularity.
If you’ve never done it before, why not give it a go right now. For sixty precious seconds of consciousness take a break from the screen by closing your eyes and “simply” becoming aware of :
a) sensations present in the body (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral)
b) thoughts sputtering, whizzing, or blasting through your mind
c) the general feeling-tone hum of You Here Now: harried, absorbed, numb, inspired, piqued, pooped, whatever.
Try it, for just one minute.
And now for the next minute, bringing the focus of attention to breath: just feeling into and staying with your breath wherever you notice yourself being breathed (chest, abdomen, nostrils).
Final minute: expanding the field of awareness around the whole body again, conscious of sound and space cradling us in this very moment. Breathing softly and kindly, with as much acceptance as possible, taking in the whole of your transient body-mind-environment: fully, flowingly.
Three minutes of conscious practice are sometimes all it takes to release us from some of those cunning little hooks and barbs of the mind, designed to drag you places you wouldn’t necessarily choose to visit: the abattoir of depression, the walls-closing-in claustrophobia of stress and anxiety, combat zones of jealousy, indignation, and bitterness.
This gem of a book by the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is a veritable treasure trove of similar “super-succinct” tools. Many of them harness Hanson’s particular talent in putting a neurobiological spin on traditional contemplative practices without scuzzing the beauty and integrity of the former, or dumbing down the sense-making science of the latter.
I’ve been carrying around a copy of Just One Thing on my e-Reader and mobile phone for the last few months (though it also comes in a truly pocket-sized paperback). A few times a week I browse through the index and select one of the 52 contemplative practices from five different categories (Be Good to Yourself, Enjoy Life, Build Strengths, Engage the World, Be at Peace), digesting the clear and lucid couple of pages on offer between one tube stop and the next. And then as more people enter the carriage, and the doors close, I give myself a few minutes of practising that Just One Thing.
Today was Chapter 14: ‘Take More Breaks’.
Between Kingsbury and Wembley Park, I read Rick’s riff on “Rest”: how for hundreds of millions of years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived (bar the odd plague or sabre-toothed tiger attack) a pretty chilled out existence: “life moved at the pace of the walk, in rhythm with the seasons, and with the rising and setting of the sun each day”. And if that sounds so wise as to almost seem like a banal truism, consider this: “that the human body and mind evolved to be in a state of rest or leisure – in other words, on a break – much of the time”.
Once Hanson’s convinced you that taking more breaks might actually be beneficial to your modus operandi, he rather helpfully, tells you how to do this. From the various suggestions he makes, I particularly like these (as challenging as I find it to walk the talk):
Renounce everything else—When it’s time for a break, drop everything else for that time. Truly “clock out.”
Take lots of microbreaks—Many times a day, step out of the stream of doingness for at least a few seconds: close your eyes for a moment; take a couple of deep breaths; shift your visual focus to the farthest point you can see; repeat a saying or prayer; stand up and move about.
Get out—Look out the window; go outside and stare up at the sky; find a reason to walk out of a meeting.
Unplug—If only for a few minutes, stop answering your phone(s); shut down e-mails; turn off the TV or radio; take off the earphones.
Make your body happy—Wash your face; eat a cookie; smell something good; stretch; lie down; rub your eyes or ears.
Keep your stress needle out of the red zone—If you find yourself getting increasingly frustrated or tense in some situation, disengage and take a break before your head explodes. Staying out of “red zone” stress is a serious priority for your long-term health and well-being.
Fueled with Just One Thingness, I then endeavour, at least until the next Metro headline catches my flitting attention, to give it a whirl. Or at least have the intention of giving it a whirl. And sometimes I even manage to do what I intend to do. That feels especially good.
If you are the sort of person (or know someone) who frequently claims that “they’d love to do some proper meditation practice, but just don’t have the time”, this book, which you can download onto their Kindle or slip into their purse might just nudge their lives a little more in the direction of peace and joy.
As everyone is at some level, or at different times, this sort of person, I expect we could all benefit from Just One Thing. Most of the practices in the book are already, very generously (Chapter 41: ‘Be Generous’) available on Rick’s website. and if you sign up to his mailing list, he’ll send you his new JOTs as he produces them. But it’s also great to have these collected in one paper or e-volume, particularly for those times when you really have “unplugged” and renounced life via broadband. That is to say: given yourself over, in the words of Mary Oliver, to letting “the soft animal of your body love what it loves”.
Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist. He teaches Mindfulness Based Writing and Cognitive Therapy Courses , and facilitates therapeutic reading groups. He also co-records a podcast called Read Me Something You Love with you (yes YOU, eyeballing-the-screen-at-this-very-moment London Insight reader, so get in touch via Twitter or readmesomethingyoulove AT gmail.com
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