on 16 January 2011
I came to this book soon after reading Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and the common purpose was striking; to help us all become more compassionate, to ourselves and others, so that we may then build a better more compassionate world and become happier, kinder and healthier individuals in the process.
The book is built around "compassionate mind training" and the idea, now with some scientific evidence, is that we have the wiring in our brain for compassion, and that we have evolved to thrive on caring behaviour, on kindness and compassion. The problem is that too often our "old brain" reptilian instincts of the four F's (feeding, fighting, fleeing and ...reproduction) take control of our lives. The very good news for humanity is that our propensity for compassion not only reflects the genes we are born with, but also to some extent is a result of the effect of early upbringing, and very significantly can be developed with the right exercises and practices - "physiotherapy for the brain."
Part One, in 6 chapters over c. 250 pages shares the science - how our minds and brains work and why compassion is a powerful healing process. This understanding, he stresses, is important for us in being able to most effectively develop that compassionate mind. He explains ten life challenges that we will meet along the way, such as competitive business efficiency that threatens our need for interconnectedness, (business efficiency he says is "crippling our hearts"), and the tragedies of life that can send us to despair and depression rather than compassion. He also writes of the three basic emotion regulation systems that evolution has given us: threat and self- protection, incentive and resource seeking, and our soothing and contentment system. The balance between these systems plays an essential role in our day -to- day feelings and our mental health. Compassion is our potential antidote for these getting out of balance. And he reminds us of the responsibility we can take on board to train our minds in this way for a better world for us all. Compassion is a "multivitamin for the mind," he writes.
Part Two - over 7 chapters and another c. 250 pages brings us the skills and exercises, for building the compassionate self, based on mindfulness, meditation, breathing, imagery, directed thoughts, self compassion, coping with anxiety and anger, addressing our own tendency towards tribalism and cruelty, our imagination and fantasies, our curiosity, moving from self criticism to self shame, compassionate writing and much more besides. Some exercises are physical, some written, with or without set worksheets, and he invites the reader to open a journal for recording feelings, progress, set backs, poems, whatever becomes relevant through the training process. Bringing the compassion we learn into our own lives and into society will create a more fun world, with better lifestyles. "Our competitive edge economics is driving us all slightly crazy!" he writes.
The final chapter reflects on the social significance of compassionate mind training and is an essential message of the book. There are final worksheets to support and guide us as we continue our compassion training. It is a life long process. But training compassionate minds to build compassionate societies is vital and responsible work. He calls for a review of child education, and the need to introduce compassion, empathy and conflict resolution training for example into the classroom. There is the need for better more compassionate support for our children "in care." We need a more focused mature and compassionate politics, a return to compassionate care in the National Health Service, a change of business style from aggressive competition to compassionate cooperation. And he calls for us to support causes that promote a more compassionate world, locally and globally, including ethical investment, compassionate education, support and care for marginalised youth, Compassion in World Farming. These are just a few of his ideas and they follow such closely similar lines of thought to those in my own recent book, Healing this Wounded Earth: with Compassion, Spirit and the Power of Hope, that I find myself in total agreement with most if not all of what he says in this regard.
In the sheer depth and breadth of material covered, in its logical sequencing and detail of compassion training provided, this is a very good book. It is also well referenced and indexed and I liked the "Find Out More" list at the end of the book with useful books, websites, DVDs and CDs. But the book is too long. It was to say the least an arduous read, in spite of the easy engaging style employed. This style I think has sacrificed brevity.
I appreciate that Part One provides the understanding to support the training in Part Two, and that this training is a life long practice, to be taken step by step as gently and compassionately as necessary. But the sheer volume of material confronting the reader will very likely daunt those who are coming to this book from a position of depression or anxiety or self- criticism, hoping for healing. Gilbert does point out, well into the book at p. 347, that some will need to obtain further professional help and support. For those already in therapy, and for their therapists, it will doubtless be a very valuable tool.
Whereas Armstrong calls for bringing compassion back into the heart of moral and religious life, as set out in her Charter for Compassion, Gilbert does not believe in God as creator and clearly thinks that religions are at least potentially a part of our problem in the twenty first century world. Spiritual traditions over the centuries have tended to emphasise life as suffering from which we are trying to escape. But he demolishes ideas of religion and spirituality with, perhaps not surprisingly, a charm offensive, a gently persuasive logic that is a welcome departure from the strident, disdainful, even aggressive tones we hear from some militant atheist best sellers. Spirituality needs to be scientific and compassionate, he concludes.
Gilbert ends with a reminder that many millions of people across the world are working to make it a better place. He also refers to Barack Obama's inaugural speech that includes evidence of a "deep sense of compassion." These items together he believes can give us hope for a better more compassionate era, "maybe, just maybe."
Firstly, I'm very sorry this has vanished from the Kindle - I have just finished reading mine ON the Kindle, so at some point last month it was available on download.
In many ways, the book has two audiences, which Gilbert has condensed into one : those who are particularly interested in neurobiology, and an examination of society, spirituality and altruism from an evolutionary angle, and those who might be looking at a practical approach involving an enhanced fusion of CBT and compassionate mindful meditation in order to deal with anxiety, depression and anger. And I can quite clearly see that the magnificent laying out of the first half of the book, where Gilbert explains the evolution of the classic fight, flight, and seeking/reward activities of the the sympathetic nervous system, and the ameliorating/consolidating activities of the parasympathetic nervous system is going to be extremely helpful to those who are reading the book in order to engage with the practical and self help exercises.
However, it made for a very long (and very repetitious) read for someone interested in the former, who already uses aspects of the latter. On one level I was tempted to stop reading at the end of Part 1, - except that I realised that there was more interesting Part 1 type material buried within Part 2.
And I completely understand the value of the Part 2 material being endlessly repetitive about bringing the image of your compassionate person/self to mind, sitting with the smile, journalling etc etc. Except that this wasn't the book I wanted to read.
I do think that Gilbert has a great, warm, personal and good humoured writing style, cites his references well, backs up everything meticulously, but personally, so wished he had edited the book in such a way that all the neurobiology, ethics, philosophy and analysis had been condensed into one place in Part 1, and Part 2 been purely based on the practical aspects and exercises.
I fear that those who have picked up this book in order to get to the exercises may never have got there, if they were uninterested in the theoretical and scientific analysis, and those, like me, who were interested in the former, needing no exercises because of prior practice in some other way, may have missed much interesting Part 1 type info which is still being given in Part 2 because of speed-reading to find Part 1 nuggets in Part 2, and trying to avoid the repetition.
on 2 May 2011
As a Christian I hesitated for weeks before buying this book having read some of the reviews about the way this book deals with Christian topics. When I read this book I felt that it dealt very well with the spiritual aspect of our lifes. Bear in mind that very few self help books are even courageous enough to deal with the issue of religion. At no point does Paul Gilbert suggest that you should or should not take one point of view, he simply describes his interpretation of the holy books and the strong points and weak points of different religions from his point of view as a psychologist. Also the challenges that committing to a certain faith can present. He makes no secret of his position and makes it clear that it is his position.
In life we will always come across others of different faiths, as Christians we have to be strong enough to listen to other positions and yet stay strong in our own faith, just as anyone of any religion or of no religion does. I have found this book immensely helpful in understanding a loved one who has suffered from severe depression and with my own struggle to be truly compassionate. It also reminded me of the courage we are intstructed to have as Christians and also of how the bible is full of compassion for ourselves, our loved ones and our enemies. Luke 23:34 for example. Similarly I learned mindfulness, which many see as a Buddhist tradition only to discover that the Christian faith and many others are equally full of the tradition to be still and silent for some time each day.
If you are a Christian seeking help for you or a loved one I would not hesitate to buy this book as I did. I wish I'd bought it sooner. Keep your faith always at the centre of things and I'm certain you will find help both from God and from this book. If you are not a Christian, this book will certainly help you and you need not think that it has any emphasis on religion. It does not, I think it just sparks a debate precisely because it is bold enough to deal with the issues. Word of warning though, I would agree the first half is not for the faint hearted, it all comes good in the second though, which makes you realise it was worth the effort.