Stillness in Mind

Stillness in Mind: A companion to mindfulness, meditation and living, Simon Cole, Changemakers Books, 2014, 117pp, ISBN 978-1-78279-739-5

In 1978 I bought a copy of Lawrence LeShan’s now-classic How to Mediate (Sphere, 1978), from which I gained knowledge and understanding about meditation, but not as much as I had wished about the how-to-do-it. Simon Cole’s book redresses that balance with detailed instructions to guide the novice. It is a manual for the person who is attracted to making use of mindfulness; it is discursive about what is going on in and around the experience of mindfulness; and it is a guide for personal development in the practice of meditation. The instruction given in the techniques appears to be deeply grounded in the experience of the writer both as a meditator himself, and as a facilitator of mindfulness. Consequently he is also able to anticipate many of the uncertainties and difficulties that a novice might experience. The text talks about mindfulness and meditation as a journey, in terms both of developing competence, and also into oneself. However, the journey is necessarily one’s own. The book is not a drover, intent on directing the reader along a designated path to a specific destination. Instead, it is more like an experienced companion able to help the reader to meet the challenges of the journey.
The text is easy to read, using everyday language, and it explains difficult concepts well. Yet, like some of the anecdotes it includes, the text is infused with hidden depths that reveal themselves only on subsequent readings. To me, this shows that the writer not only knows what he is writing about (as would, say, a competent journalist), but also that he inhabits the material. The tone is respectful yet light.
Simon Cole is also a counsellor / therapist, and is able to make strong connections between mindfulness and some aspects of humanistic psychotherapy, considering such concepts as ‘felt-sense’ (Eugene Gendlin), ‘empathic understanding’ (Carl Rogers) and ‘I-thou’ (Martin Buber). Each concept is carefully explained in lay terms. In a short appendix, brief biographies are given of Gendlin, Rogers and Buber. That important parts of the text are based on ideas from these three people would have been enough to excite my interest.
A central chapter entitled ‘Being Ourselves and Visiting Our Pain’ works through a list of difficult feelings and identifies how meditation through mindfulness can help us. Starting with ‘attachment’ as the root process, the chapter goes on to consider disappointment, sadness, regret, remorse, guilt, jealousy, anger, anxiety and stress. The chapter concludes with some thoughts about meditation and pain. I should have liked this chapter, lengthy though it is, to have been even longer.
The writer draws on some real case-material (an engaging format familiar to anyone who reads books about counselling). These sections are excellent for really understanding how to make meditation work, by breathing life and colour into the practice. The text also proposes and works through in detail several focused meditations. Counselling clients and their therapists could make much use of this book.
The book is aware of the relevance of Buddhism to the subject of mindfulness and meditation, although it is scrupulous in avoiding both Buddhist ideology and Buddhist terminology, which have the potential to be dauntingly off-putting. There may be many paths leading towards the practice of meditation. The path of mindfulness involves training one’s mind to watch one’s mind.
For a little while I was uncertain about the difference between ‘being still’ and ‘waiting’. However, I came to realise that the idea of, say, waiting (expectantly) for a bus, is very different from the Quaker practice of waiting, with which, in this context, I am most familiar, and which may be much more comparable with Simon Cole’s concept of ‘clear space’.
At whom is the book aimed? Several readerships appear immediately obvious. First, for anyone who wishes to learn to meditate, I would strongly recommend Stillness in Mind over How to Meditate. Second, counselling clients who are determined to make the fullest possible use of counselling may find this book of great value. Third, counsellors and psychotherapists may wish to learn this approach in order to teach mindfulness to their clients. Fourth, anyone keen to improve their self-development may be able to draw much from this book. Finally, and somewhat oddly perhaps, many universalist Quakers would feel entirely at home and receive positive encouragement from the text.
Peter Hughes, 24 March 2015