Sunday, March 31, 2013

book description

Meditation isn’t for everyone. It’s true. As a neurologist who specializes in brain injury and stroke rehabilitation, I can assure you. Half of my patients are too confused or too disoriented to meditate. They’d forget the instructions as soon as I finished giving them. And the other half are too distractible. Their attention spans are so short they can’t sit still, much less sit still and meditate, for more than a few minutes at a time. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a formal meditation practice is beyond the reach of virtually every person I treat. It’s too complex. My patients need something simpler. That’s what this small book is about.

Five years ago I started a weekly group at a brain injury rehabilitation center in Texas. I wanted to see if I could stretch the idea of meditation to make it more accessible to the people I was treating. Drawing from the sacred traditions of Asia, and from the clinical literature on mindfulness, I developed a suite of exercises with brain-injured people in mind. I called it Peaceful Habits.

Simpler than meditation, simpler than yoga

The seven exercises are simple and tangible on purpose.
. . . breathe mindfully
. . . relax the body
. . . enjoy tea mindfully
. . . hear peaceful music
. . . walk mindfully
. . . be with wild birds
. . . meditate

Unlike traditional meditation, these practical exercises are less about sitting on a mat and more about plugging into the everyday world around you. It’s a learning-by-doing approach. A patient of mine, a stunt man who fell fourteen feet and crashed the back of his head against a concrete floor, said it better than I ever could, so I’m just going to quote him. We’d finished a mindful breathing exercise, and I was pouring him a cup of tea. He said, “Now I get it. It’s like taking meditation out into the real world.” I handed him the cup of tea and said, “Exactly.” 

These are not exotic exercises. They require no special equipment. And they’re easy to grasp, which makes them useful for anyone, with or without a brain injury. I designed them to be as accessible as possible to the largest number of people. I’ve taught the exercises to children with attention deficit disorder, and to the elderly, and to people who couldn’t tell me what day it was or the name of the first president. Anyone can learn to become more peaceful. Anyone. Anywhere.

Meditation Training Wheels 

Think of these mindfulness and awareness exercises as elementary stress management or relaxation techniques, coping strategies for anxiety and irritability. Or think of them as attention-training exercises. This down-to-earth approach takes the structure of a daily meditation practice and breaks it down into building blocks more suitable for beginners — how to notice the breath, how to relax the body, how to be grounded in your environment, how to be mindful of your senses. Practicing these exercises is like learning the ABCs of mind and body. Once you get the basics down, you can build a more formal daily practice from there.

Can Peacefulness Be Prescribed?

Mood disorders are common after a brain injury. I see a lot of anxiety and depression. For some of my patients, medications work wonders. For others, they don’t do anything, or they work but only a little. Whether or not I decide to use a medication, however, my advice is always the same. I tell them, “Medications can be helpful, but they’re not magic wands.” 

My goal is to inspire each of my patients to begin a daily practice of their own, to set aside some time every day, even if it’s only a minute or two, to devote to the cultivation of peacefulness. We do the exercises together. Then I tell them to practice, practice, practice. Of course, inspiration isn’t enough. Building new habits is hard, and people need practical tools. So to help them keep it up, I invented an electronic prescription in the form of a smartphone app. And now I can prescribe peacefulness as easily as I can prescribe a medication. That’s what this small book is about.