Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
Anyone who spends a year doing something then writes a book about it, risks being placed in the same genre as British expats who move to Provence or Tuscany and regale us with tales of French plumbers and Italian cooking classes. Despite some initial trepidation about My Year of Living Mindfully, it proved to be in an altogether different league.
Shannon Harvey’s book is firmly rooted in evidence, supplemented by direct experience. She sets out to examine the science around mindfulness – even describing it as a “self-experiment”. The method is not intended to have the legitimacy of a scientific trial, but her careful experimental design results in a credible assessment of the effects of mindfulness meditation on her body and mind.
‘Mindfulness’ is a modern term, but its origins can be traced to traditional Hindu practices, later taught by the Buddha: “mindfulness is essentially a 3500-year-old technique to teach me how my mind works” [p32]. The evidence-base for mindfulness is in its infancy, but that has not stopped it becoming the “fastest growing health trend in the US…a 1.2-billion-dollar industry” [p32].
Shannon is a young mother, documentary maker and journalist with a very busy life, so embarking on a year of mindfulness practice was a decision she did not take lightly. In fact, the book’s credibility as a legitimate investigation, rather than a marketing bandwagon, lies in her motivation. She was afflicted with insomnia and incurable chronic pain, and was concerned for the mental health of her children growing up amidst an “epidemic” of anxiety and depression. But despite growing use of the technique, she found very little evidence about whether and how mindfulness can help.
Following a period of research, her experiment was set up, using an array of experts and testing procedures, to track her progress and guide her for 365 days. The result is a refreshingly honest assembly of her thoughts – both positive and negative – and an objective assessment of the results. Early in the year, she admits that: “Based on my own meditation experiences so far, if not for the fact that I’ve been talking to experts, at this point in my mindful experiment I’d probably be calling it a day. Sticking to something this unpleasant just doesn’t seem worth it” [p44].
For anyone preparing to embark on mindfulness practice, it is a useful read about what to expect. Moreover, it examines a number of different techniques and reports on both positive and negative experiences. One study examined the negative effects of meditation: “Meditators reported everything from hypersensitivity to light or sound, insomnia, …. increased fear, anxiety and flashback trauma, and even losing a sense of self” [p42].
Particularly impressive is Shannon’s ability to describe her feelings, a good example being a 10 day guided meditation retreat. The process is fascinating, as is the change in her feelings over the period.
“I was eventually able to track my awareness with greater precision for extended periods of time. And then, like peering closely at a rainbow only to find that it’s actually a beautiful illusion of light dispersed in water droplets, my mind’s constructed reality was revealed” [p146].
The book avoids the feel of a self-help manual. For one thing, Shannon is too methodical to believe that her experiences are generic. For another, the experiment raises as many questions as it answers.
“I began this project believing in evidence…..But I’m starting to realise that I’m going to have to get comfortable with the incomplete, imperfect nature of our knowledge” [p48].
It is pretty clear from Shannon’s summary of current research and from her own investigation that mindfulness is an important tool – not just for therapy, but for well-being. It is also clear that embarking on this journey is not for the faint hearted. Shannon’s investigations and her personal immersion mean that her conclusions feel valid:
“With the help of good mindfulness teachers, depressed people can step back from their despondency, people with addictions can develop distance from craving and behaviours and chronic pain sufferers can disconnect their pain from its emotional overlay” [p217].
There are plenty of people, including this reviewer, who can personally attest to the benefits of professional mindfulness therapy. The value of this book is to deliver a highly readable analysis of our current state of knowledge and honest personal insights about the practicalities.
My Year of Living Mindfully is Shannon’s second book and she has produced a documentary of the same name.
By Shannon Harvey
218pp; $32.99 (paperback)