August 12, 2010

(+++) DO YOU MIND?

Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. By Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., and Diana Winston. Da Capo. $16.95.

The Joy of Mindful Sex: Be in the Moment and Enrich Your Lovemaking. By Claudia Blake. Da Capo. $18.95.

     It is not difficult to define mindfulness, but it can be very difficult to practice it. Mindfulness is simply the state of being fully “in” the present moment, uninvolved in anything other than what is happening at a particular instant. It ties closely to certain Buddhist principles and less closely to New Age thinking in general, and is supposed to confer multiple benefits on those who practice it successfully: reduced levels of stress and pain, better focus and concentration, a non-drug approach to treating anxiety and depression, and much more. But the mere fact that books must be written purporting to say how one becomes mindful indicates that this is not a natural way of interacting with the world (or, for that matter, failing to interact with it) for most people, certainly within Western cultures. What Susan Smalley (founder and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA) and Diana Winston (mindfulness teacher and former Buddhist nun) try to do in Fully Present is, first, to explain what mindfulness is and what benefits it can confer; and, second, to teach readers how to practice it. It is tempting to go into Zen mode about this: “It is only by not practicing mindfulness that one can attain mindfulness,” or something along those lines. But Smalley and Winston argue that, in fact, mindfulness can be taught through a series of exercises in which one gets more closely in touch with one’s body and (for want of a better word) spirit. The word “meditation” crops up frequently in Fully Present, and is crucial to “learning” mindfulness. So Smalley and Winston constantly tell readers how to meditate. For “mindfulness of breathing,” for instance, they counsel comfort and relaxation, but with boundaries that it may be difficult for many people to attain: “Feel your back remaining upright, but not too tense; try to stay relaxed. Keep your eyes closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable, and rest your hands on your knees or lap. You can then notice your body sitting: the weight, the posture, and the shape of your body.” Or, for “mindfulness of emotions,” you should “feel your body present. Notice any pressure, movement, or places where your body makes contact with the floor or the chair. Find a place in your body that feels relaxed, pleasant, or neutral.” It can certainly be argued that anyone with sufficient time for daily meditation, and sufficient inclination to follow these instructions carefully, is well along the road toward mindfulness already – but it is the people who are stressed, anxious, time-pressed and unable to focus on elements of relaxation who most need mindfulness and are least likely to be capable of it. To deal with this issue, Smalley and Winston tend to fall back on simplistic ideas or clichés: “Stop for a moment and reexamine how your thoughts my cause you pain. …You can learn, in the midst of your thinking, to be mindful of thinking without getting caught up in the thought.” Or “don’t believe everything you think,” a statement that sounds like something from a bumper sticker and that the authors in fact attribute to one. Smalley and Winston appear to believe strongly in the power of mindfulness: it is hard to doubt their sincerity when they write, “The ability to find peace and ease within yourself, no matter what the conditions, may be the greatest gift you can give yourself.” But the notion that mindfulness is universally appropriate and universally learnable (and teachable) remains at best an overstatement driven by enthusiasm. And the authors’ attempts to explain away potential doubts about the efficacy of mindfulness amount to circular reasoning: “Learning something new involves a period of doubt. So it is important not to get discouraged as you learn meditation, but to recognize doubt for what it is – just doubt.” Those who want to try to learn mindfulness in the hope that it will deliver benefits to them should by all means experiment with the approaches in Fully Present – but should not feel like failures if they are unable to attain great heights (or depths) through this book, and if they do not really accept the scientific underpinning of mindfulness that the authors are at pains to try introducing repeatedly.

     If mindfulness does have benefits, though, it would certainly make sense for it to have them in sex. Being mindful – fully in the moment – with a sex partner would seem, both logically and intuitively, to heighten each person’s awareness of the other and make the sexual experience more complete. And that is in fact the argument that Claudia Blake – a British writer about popular culture who has a special interest in meditation – makes in The Joy of Mindful Sex. This is not exactly a sex manual: it is filled with artistic sepia photos of the sort that look as if they are showing things that they are not in fact showing, with the result that the book has a curiously old-fashioned and even prudish feeling about it. And some of the text has an old-fashioned feel to it as well: “If sexual discovery is a journey, committed relationships are the best way of ensuring you and your partner are traveling in the right direction.” On the other hand, Blake is scarcely naïve, noting nonjudgmentally that “for some people monogamy simply does not feel like the right answer for them.” Yet readers may find some of her formulations about interpersonal intimacy a touch odd: “What we must remember is that we are not only in a relationship with a partner, but with humanity. Both need to be treated with respect.” Blake takes pains to indicate that mindfulness can incorporate all aspects of sexuality, even such potential distractions as fantasies: “Whether we are sitting on our cushions or meditating while walking through the streets, a sexual fantasy drifting into our heads would certainly be a thought we would strive to let go of, a distraction from the mindful moment. …[But] our fantasies are a rich and deep source of information about the core of our sexual selves. …This does not mean you need to act on all of them, of course.” Blake urges readers to forgo perfectionism, to appreciate one’s partner for who and what he or she is instead of comparing him or her to some imagined ideal, and to use mindfulness to deal with such issues as male performance anxiety and female arousal difficulty. She urges readers to try “helping each other to love ourselves,” which is surely a laudable goal, if not one that is easily taught. And she recommends a variety of techniques, from sensual massage to gazing into a partner’s eyes, to increase mindfulness and involve both people as fully in the moment as possible. Many of these suggestions are unexceptionable and partake only incidentally of mindfulness teachings. The key to whether readers will enjoy this book and find it useful is how they respond to Blake’s descriptive methods. Before lovemaking, for example, she writes, “Begin by making your sacred space ready and bathing together. When you enter your sacred space, do a short meditation together, settling into your bodies and clearing your minds. …[Later] perform some sensual massage, adding words of appreciation and devotion, praising the other’s femininity or virility, pouring your attention into honoring her sexual self in all its glory.” This is pretty much Blake’s style throughout, and while some readers will no doubt find it tender and loving, others may deem it overdone or just plain silly. Page through the book a bit before buying it – it will not take long to decide to which group you are more likely to belong.

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