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Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness    by Jon Kabat-Zinn order for
Coming to our Senses
by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Coming to our Senses, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (CFM) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, sets readers the challenge of 'living life as if it really mattered.' He explains to us in detail why 'meditation is not what you think'; how to be mindful in everything we do; the proven medical benefits of meditative practice; awareness of our senses and 'mindscape' and how to cultivate such awareness; how mindfulness can affect different aspects of daily life; its impact on politics and world 'health'; and mindfulness in context of our evolution as a species.

Poetry quotes are scattered throughout, adding insights to the author's points. I found one by R. D. Laing especially apt: 'The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.' Dr. Kabat-Zinn says that 'Our greatest poets engage in deep interior explorations of the mind and of words and of the intimate relationships between inner and outer landscapes, just as do the greatest yogis and teachers in the meditative traditions' and that 'poets articulate the inexpressible'. It seems to me that Coming to our Senses is an impressive attempt to articulate the inexpressible, and that the author does so in very many contexts and from a variety of different angles (through poetry, anecdotes, even jokes) to help the reader approach the concepts. But these ideas are very hard to grasp for those who haven't already had glimmerings of understanding through meditative practice or life lessons.

Why practice mindfulness? Kabat-Zinn quotes Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh that we should do so because 'most of the time we are unwittingly practicing its opposite' - we need to break the resulting 'automaticity' of our reactions. He speaks of the mind's capacity to observe its own state, so that our 'awareness of fear' is not afraid even though we are. He presents the challenges of first increasing our awareness of specific moments, and second learning to sustain that awareness. I enjoyed a fascinating discussion of how our sense of passing time slows and accelerates, and another about the bad habit we have of 'interrupting ourselves'. Different modes of meditation (lying down, sitting, standing, walking etc.) are covered as well as obstacles to the practice, and how to deal with them.

Coming to our Senses is not a fast or easy read, but a book to come back to, dipping into successive chapters (most of which can be read as independent essays) over time. One quote in particular will stay with me - 18th century Japanese poet Ryokan, a hermit, said 'I have nothing to report my friends. / If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.'

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