Mindfulness seems to be everywhere. Courses for students at university, for employees, for those dealing with depression or chronic pain. Tables in bookshops aim to entice the dissatisfied and struggling with attractive covers promising happiness in exchange for meditation. I’m dubious, but I succumb to a mindfulness book in the psychotherapy section. It turns out to be a good move.
Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology with the Open University. They (preferred pronoun) have lectured and researched on issues to do with gender, sexuality and relationships. And they are a good writer. I felt I was in the presence of someone who really knows what they are talking about and who has a deep integrity.
So why did I choose this book? Meditation and contemplation are familiar to me through the long and rich Christian mystical tradition. There have been times in my life when spending time in contemplation has been a fairly regular part of my daily life and I’ve been aware that this has been valuable. There have also been times when it has seemed boring and pointless and even worse, times when I felt it showed what a wonderful person I was and used it almost as a weapon. Hard to leave that last sentence on the screen but it’s true and it will stand.
I found it a bit annoying that most of these books on mindfulness seemed to present it as something completely new to Western culture which to me it wasn’t really, but on the other hand I figured it didn’t really matter how it was presented. The key thing was that quiet, stillness, attention, emptiness and other such counter cultural qualities were being positively presented. And I believe this is important.
Meg Barker summarises mindfulness like this:
Mindfulness is a way of being that we can bring to everything we do, and which we might explicitly cultivate through meditation and through mindfully engaging in simple everyday activities. It can be defined, roughly, as giving open, curious attention to the way that things are, rather than attempting to avoid or grasp hold of any aspect of experience, although it is worth being aware of the different ways it is defined in different contexts and not grasping too tightly onto any of these.
Mindfulness as a way of being, is then discussed as a way of practising counselling and psychotherapy. Barker first presents an overview of Buddhism as a key source of mindfulness and looks at how this approach can help us in our daily lives. The book also considers the counselling relationship, incorporating mindful approaches into different psychotherapeutic approaches and researching mindfulness. The second section of the book considers particular issues that clients might bring to therapy and how mindfulness might be useful in helping to work with these. These include depression, addiction and relationships amongst others. I found this section very useful both in terms of developing my understanding of the issues themselves and how one might work with them in therapy and in terms of developing my understanding of mindfulness.
One concept that was new to me was the ‘biopsychosocial understanding of human beings (Toates, 2010) that regards us as simultaneously embodied biological beings, psychological experiencers and inextricably located in out social worlds.’ (Barker, 2013:70) This seems to me to be a good way of moving towards a situation where more equal weight is given to all three aspects of our lives – our bodies, our minds and our communities.
I like the way that the book cites research and follows this up with very helpful further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter. It’s like having access to your own tutor who in the most helpful way suggest how you might usefully follow up things that have caught your interest or that you know you need to understand in more depth.
This is a book for counsellors and psychotherapists but I think the interested general reader will also appreciate it. Meg Barker writes on various topics on their blog and has also published several other books. I’m glad I discovered their work and hope that others will now do so as well.