Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stephen Bodian's "Meditation for Dummies": Book Review

I approached this with admitted skepticism. However, as I liked "Buddhism for Dummies" despite its title, with Stephan Bodian as one of its co-authors (see my Aug. 2011 review of that 2nd ed.), I figured I'd give this 3rd ed. of "Meditation for Dummies" a try. I'm not sure what has been updated in this newest version, but it follows the same pattern as "BfD."

That is, chapters on Getting Acquainted and Getting Started introduce the topic. First, the scientific-stress reduction connection, and then how-to examples. This precedes a nod to a Zen context (Bodian began in that tradition before expanding into yoga), before impacts attributed to health and the brain receive coverage. Finally, exercises are given for love and compassion generation. A CD offers ten guided instructions to "the most powerful and effective" types of experiential meditations. I tend to be cautious about such claims, and about transcendent assertions. Yet, this is Bodian's orientation. All the same, eating an orange can also lead as a sidebar shows here to greater awareness, for those of us less transported!

Apropos, attitude adjustment, dealing with anxiety and tension, mindfulness, posture, routines, time, self-discipline certainly make up the heart (as in love and compassion, too) of the message. Chapters for each center the bulk of the core material as part 2. Part 3 looks at troubleshooting. That is, unraveling "habitual patterns," dealing with anger and sadness and grief, therapy, and roadblocks such as boredom, doubt, attachment, "hypervigilance," and excuses. Side effects, often claimed by those in the uplifting stages into bliss, gain brief coverage: wisely, Bodian reminds readers "Side effects are just that." Treatment of motivations, and solitary as well as group retreats and workshops, end this part.

Part 4 puts meditation into action. It takes the Hindu "yoga" path of devotion and the Vipassana one of Buddhist insight, and other devotional practices. It looks also at finding a teacher. Happiness is next considered, and this elaborated treatment nods to the Buddhist understanding as opposed to popular conceptions--taking the cultivation of compassionate action. For more on this, Bodian's companion volume on Buddhism is recommended by me.

Families, children, partners: they can be included, and love and work too. Part 4 wraps it up in the Dummies format with "The Part of Tens," reducing the material to ten FAQs and then ten all-purpose meditations. These aren't the same, by the way, as the ten selections on the audio CD--see its own Table of Contents. So are some books, websites, and centers listed. I was curious if many Jewish or Christian resources or approaches would be given, but even if a few are listed in the appendices, this book leans East and New Age. That is a minor drawback for those wanting a more comprehensive compendium drawing on Western schools. For readers open to eclecticism, therapeutic and a more syncretic, psychologically favorable, generally Hindu-Buddhist-insight perspective, perhaps unsurprisingly, constitutes the gist of this self-improvement guide.  (Amazon US 10/2/12)


Anonymous said...

As both student and teacher of meditation in my youth, a pop culture treatment of this rather strenuous discipline would interest me.
I have a built in bias against most New Age fluffery, having sampled a fair amount of it over the years. Ultimately, it seemed the height of self obsession and a welcome arena for modern day snake oil salesmen.
We all process thought differently, there is no right or wrong way, and for some, a new path to a more giving life may be found. But in contemporary society, most seem too self absorbed to have the capacity for the true surrender needed for fulfillment in Eastern practices.
I found that meditation helped some of my students who were multiple amputees as a result of being Viet Nam era veterans. In real sense, some were open to anything that made them feel better, even if only momentarily.
Anyone raised Catholic has the concept of Helping the Unfortunate in their DNA, no matter where our personal segues take us. Since the unfortunate grow daily, this is pretty much a zero sum game, but we keep Trying anyway. I think we have the hardest time with Eastern philosophies, which may lead a practioner to the same place, we tend to prefer the direct and more efficient route, through Catholic Charities, the Collection basket or simply helping those near and dear when we can. My Catholicism made my studies of meditation a contradicton and a struggle, but the practice of Hahta yoga at least kept me in good shape through the childbearing years and beyond. So while that destination was not what I had in mind at the beginning, the arduous journey was beneficial. I am fairly calm and centered to this day, but so were my parents, so that may be genetic.
If there is a point to this ramble, it may be that meditation can be a useful tool even in practical matters of health and well being. I still use it at the dentist, and somewhat unconsiously in life in general,especially in traffic.
The idea that there may be a simpler, more pared down version of a path to meditation, seems to have a bit of a Cliffs Notes aura about it. However years of study and practice only leading to relaxation in the dentist's chair does seem a fairly small return on a concerted effort. I can only hope some of my students have fared better.
Some of us are born as 'seekers', like alcoholics, we may have to allow for the possibility that we are seeking to self medicate our inherent depression, lack of confidence, whatever. Realizing this, should not discourage our curiosity, it may,in fact, enhance our search. I have a sense that the day I acknowledged this, was the first day of my life as a grown up.
I selfishly regret that JWS seems on a different path these days, I miss your posts, along with Tamer's. When I saw "Blogtrotter" on John's site, I knew it must be your blog.. I have enjoyed your reviews, and hope I haven't been a wet blanket on this one.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Wise words, Sophie--from your name I'd expect no less. I agree with both the "helping the unfortunate" gene being embedded in a Catholic upbringing. Despite my own ingrained skepticism, that motivation instilled so early by my family and mentors surely directed me towards the teaching I've done for decades. And my low income...

I also concur that such a childhood does inoculate many of us so raised against what pagans today call "fluffy bunnies." The connection I see between Catholicism, Judaism, and Buddhism (and come to think of it, some forms of neo-paganism) is the ethical component and the realization we're in it for the long haul. The sudden turnaround, the before/after, or the saved/damned dichotomy does not "take" so easily by comparison to these approaches demanding less drama (sometimes!) and more steady toughening it out from their ranks.

Yes, I hope Tamerlane returns with some religious fact-checking, and while I welcome JWS' own creative endeavors on his blog, it does leave his loyal cadre wondering what else to talk about besides politics. While I second or third the consensus that by now the game's rigged, I find that site a useful stimulus to keep my own thinking alert and my own b.s. detector energized. Even if it's not as calming as meditation. Cheers and thanks for the note.

The Equation book said...

This is an excellent book. It gives plenty of information for both beginners and more experienced meditators. I has information for those interested in the health aspects as well as the spiritual aspects of meditating. I like it very much.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, the whole saved or non-saved views have always struck me as impossible to swallow. Viewing life as as a jouney while letting the destination reveal itself when the time comes, seems a better fit for me. Meditation is such a useful practice,but yoga is increasingly respected as an aid to a healthier life, this in turn, makes the journey a whole lot simpler. I think the two work hand in hand. My late mother was able to get a fair amount of relief from migraines after coming to a few of my classes.
I agree about JWS, it was a great site to stimulate thought and learn from others.
I can only share personal experience as to the Catholic and Jewish forms of meditation. I have attended retreats where there was almost no speaking,for me,it amounted to something probably like drug withdrawal,if a spiritual awakening was expected, I missed it.Still, at the time 5 of our 6 children were still at home, so the retreats were a relief, in that sense. On Yom Kippur, my husband used to sit outside or in a quiet room most of the day. He later admitted that reflecting on his 'errors' had only the effect of reminding him how hungry he was on that day of fasting
I recall, though that my studies all those years ago, did mention various forms of Catholic and Jewish mysticism, the details now elude me. Both groups tend to be very social people, not to mention clannish, so it is not surprising that there is not much mysticism practiced by either sect today,at least in America, so far as I know.
I wish John would raise subjects related to finding meaning and substance, they really matter more than politics.
I will continue to enjoy your wonderful reviews.
thanks for the kind words.