Many people know of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts because of the writings of its well-known founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn. His 1994 book, Wherever You Go There You Are, is still one of the best guides available about mindfulness. Now, Saki Santorelli, the clinic’s current director, has written his own guide to mindfulness, Heal Thy Self, based on his life experiences and those of the scores of people who have taken the clinic’s popular eight-week course.
Much of the book is structured around one eight-week session of the course. Santorelli relates dozens of anecdotes told by his students. People come to the Stress Reduction Clinic for many reasons. A surgeon is there because he wants to modify a lifetime of “habitual, workaholic behavior.” A woman comes because she feels severe anxiety, experiences episodes of panic, and wants to take back her life. A man says he fights with his kids, has high blood pressure, and worries that his life is like a pressure cooker.
Santorelli asks students simply to listen as others share their stories. “The most pronounced feeling in the room is not one of heaviness but one of deep acknowledgment,” he says. “We are revealing our wounds to one another. We are naming them, but we are not being decimated by them. . . . There is a spontaneous arising of mindfulness—of awareness cultivated by our willingness to hear one another, to sit together without judgment, without giving advice, without reaching for easy answers or invoking shallow affirmations.”
The sheer poetry of Santorelli’s graceful writing touches the heart and sheds light on the challenges of mindfulness. This is one of the book’s strengths. Santorelli describes, for example, his reaction after one student tells the group that she is HIV-positive:
I chose to console Rachel with neither words nor actions but instead to honor her truth by remaining still within the swirling waters crashing against the coastline of our hearts. There is a long silence. Eyes look her way, dart my way. Closing. Opening. Silently speaking. Filling.
Two of the book’s themes are breath awareness and acceptance. Santorelli’s description of breath awareness is not new; many others have written about the subject before. But the subject is so fundamental to mindfulness practice that his reminders are useful:
Notice sounds arising, thoughts arising, emotions arising and passing without the need for censorship. No need to reject any of this. No need to view any of this as a distraction from the awareness of the breath. Simply allowing whatever enters the field of awareness to be lightly touched and let go.
Santorelli returns again and again to the topic of acceptance. He asks readers to “explore the possibility that our grasping for the way we want the world to be, and our pushing away of what it actually is, is driving all of us crazy and is, at root, the primary source of our own and everyone else’s suffering.” He invites his students to consider how much of their time is spent in holding onto pleasure and pushing away pain. People, he says, often are shocked when they realize the degree to which this largely unconscious habit shapes their lives.
Throughout the book, we learn a great deal about mindfulness but surprisingly little about Santorelli and his own practice. In one story, he tells of visiting a former student, now dying. During their visit, something she said about her condition caused Santorelli to become suddenly gripped by fear, and he quickly left, feeling relieved yet ashamed and unsatisfied. In the book, he wonders what readers will think of his “confession” and concludes that mindfulness is about coming face to face with conflicting emotions and reactions. The story is powerful but too brief, illustrating both the book’s promise and its disappointment. We are left wishing Santorelli had revealed more about his own struggles and journey.
Even so, Heal Thy Self offers numerous nuggets of wisdom on themes such as connectedness, sacredness, listening and acceptance. These will resonate with many readers.