A. Ie, C.T. Ngnoumen, and E.J. Langer ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness’ – An East-West Balance

The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness (Wiley Clinical Psychology Handbooks) by Amanda Ie (Editor), Christelle T. Ngnoumen (Editor)The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness Edited by A. Ie, C.T. Ngnoumen, and E.J. Langer

 Reviewed by Dr Alison Armstrong

 This edited two volume handbook is written by academics, for academics. It is probably not very accessible to the lay reader, and it is presenting theoretical and empirical ideas and research, rather than being of practical support to a mindfulness practitioner or teacher.

Overall, what I like the most about the handbook is that is inclusive of Langer’s definition and conceptualisation of mindfulness. This is unsurprising given that Langer is one of the editors, but it is refreshing to have so much written about this “version” of mindfulness. Much less prevalent is the more standard definitions of mindfulness as put forward by Kabat-Zinn and Williams, and this is unusual in contemporary mindfulness writing. Whilst there is much common ground between the mindfulness perspectives, Langer’s is less commonly quoted, but in my opinion should be heard more. A key difference is that she writes about “mindfulness without meditation” rather than emphasising meditation as the means of increasing levels of mindfulness. Langer‘s work on mindfulness is based on social psychological theories that include:

  • Mindfulness as a universal human capacity
  • An orientation in the present
  • An openness to novelty, and an alertness to distinctions
  • A sensitivity to different contexts, and an awareness of multiple perspectives

The other overarching feature of this handbook is that it also explicitly includes, compares and contrasts Eastern and Western definitions and perspectives of mindfulness. It does occasionally feel though as though an author has a deep understanding in either an Eastern or Western framework, and shoe-horns in a perspective of the other to suit the particular stance of these volumes. This is not necessarily problematic, but does at times result in a lack of flowing narrative.

There is a strong thread throughout the handbook of mind-body connection. This is not new, but it is nice that it is so explicit and central to the discussion. This makes the book relevant to those far beyond the argument of which definition of mindfulness is “best”, or which intervention is “most effective”. This makes the book relevant to anyone interested in human functioning and reducing suffering.

Most chapters feel newly written or conceptualised for this volume, and this is a key selling point. Many other edited volumes seem to simply bring together in one place many papers that are available elsewhere, and regurgitate existing research and views. Some chapters feel like that here, such as the rather over-done writing on Self-Determination Theory (Ch. 12), but most feel fresh, and the handbook is a good showcase for views and perspectives that are possibly less well known in the mainstream.

There is virtually nothing in the book on methodology. This is not strictly a problem, as it is not a book claiming to cover that, but it would be nice to see at least a nod towards exploring methodology, since this is crucial for being able to accurately interpret empirical results, which can only be as good as the research design.

All of the editors are Harvard-based, and the high standard I expect from Harvard academics is reflected in the chapters. It is a slightly dominated by a North American perspective.

There are five sections in the handbook which I will take in turn.

Origins and Theory

This section is excellent, and definitely worth reading if you have been confused about the different approaches to mindfulness and its application in the contemporary context. It slightly feels like it is trying to justify the Langer approach, which is understandable given the dominance of the Kabat-Zinn/Williams approaches. But the core concepts are presented clearly and with an openness to being inclusive of different perspectives.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on psychological paradigms. As psychologist myself, I took pleasure in the dismantling of silos within psychology, and the clear siting of Langer’s perspective within the psychological field. It steps out of being entrapped in categories within the discipline (which itself would imply mindlessness!).

Consciousness, Cognition, and Emotion

There are some excellent chapters in this section, which is unashamedly psychological in focus. Some highlights include breaking down into psychological terms the reasons why one of the core mindfulness practices is breath awareness. This information could be of immense help to new-comers to mindfulness, and also to teachers faced with the difficulty of encouraging students to continue practicing something that has little inherent interest.

There are also chapters on how mindfulness works, drawing from a range of theoretical and empirical sources. In a rare moment of reductionism, deautomatisation is given in one as the key process, even though that itself is described as the combined effect of several other processes. There is a considerable amount written about the related concept of self-regulation. These are not new views, and much has previously been written on these, so it is perhaps a little disappointing that there is not more here that is novel.

Some chapters whilst interesting, have only marginal links to mindfulness, e.g. Ch. 20 on time, which would perhaps be better placed in another volume. And there is an interesting exploration of mindfulness and creativity, but that would sit more comfortably in the section on creativity.

Leadership and Organisational Behaviour

This is a relatively small section of the handbook, but nonetheless a valid and interesting one. I am not wholly convinced by the perspective on organisational (rather than individual) mindfulness, which feels like an approach to risk management, leadership, or resilience that has been called mindful to fit into the current popularity of mindfulness (Ch. 22). This in fact is backed up in the very next chapter, where Langer herself is quoted as defining organisational mindfulness in terms of individual leaders being mindful themselves, and in promoting and harnessing mindfulness among their staff in a form of distributed mindfulness, rather than claiming an organisation itself can be mindful. This highlights perhaps, a slightly more sociological and cultural stance, which makes a refreshing change from the dominance of psychology.

Possibly the best chapter in this section is titled Mindfulness at Work. A compelling case is made for bringing mindfulness into the workplace, which is possibly of most use and interest to mindfulness teachers who are trying to formulate the concrete benefits of mindfulness to individuals in language that might persuade HR staff to commission mindfulness interventions!

There is a great chapter on Mindfulness in Law, but sadly it does feel out of place here, and would possibly be better in a volume dedicated to mindfulness within specific work contexts.

Health, Well-Being, and Performance

This section is the largest in the book. There are some well-known contributors who do not really have anything new to share that is not written about in many other places (such as Kristeller on mindful eating). And there are some topics very familiar to anyone who has done some reading on mindfulness, such as mindfulness for trauma, PTSD, and anxiety. There is far less written on depression than is normal for a publication of this nature, but that is perhaps because it is a topic very widely covered already, and also might be a reflection of the US context, which has not embraced MBCT as widely as in the UK (MBCT/Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is an intervention specifically aimed at recurrent depression).

Probably most interesting in this section is the new areas discussed for applying mindfulness; diabetes, and female sexual dysfunction are two examples. There is also a new take on stress, and encouraging “The Art of Stressing Mindfully”, which seems much more realistic than suggestions that life can/should be stress-free. This chapter explores the effect of mind-set and the corresponding effect on stress, which opens to a discussion on employing a mindful strategy which includes acknowledging and welcoming stress.

I was glad to see that there were several chapters devoted to mindfulness for healthcare staff. This is particularly important as many will be working in highly stressful situations, and there is strong need for self-care. Mindfulness also offers a more active engagement in the provision of healthcare, by encouraging empathy, active listening, and not being bound by diagnoses.

Education, Creativity, and Coaching

This is a small section, and I would have loved to read more. I especially felt there was a missed opportunity here to give more space to reviewing the theories and empirical work around Langer’s popular and controversial book Mindful Learning, which is now nearly 20 years old. This book is as important in contemporary education as it was when first published, and I was left wanting more in this section that would build on and reflect on the perspectives on learning and education offered in the book.

Overall, I particularly recommend this handbook for anyone who is sceptical about mindfulness, or is fed up with it being cited as a cure for all ills. It is not a book trying to convince you to practice, or to convince you that mindfulness is a valid concept outside of its religious roots, or that it should be available in all workplaces and in all schools. Instead it is a balanced, well written and approachable presentation of a wide range of facets of mindfulness. It feels refreshingly inclusive of Eastern/Buddhist and Western/psychological views without the evangelising that can be so nauseating in mindfulness books.

Dr Alison Armstrong is a mindfulness facilitator and researcher. She offers mindfulness privately and to employees specifically for stress reduction, resilience, and greater well-being. She is currently writing a book on Coping and Resilience, based on her extensive research on the subject. Her PhD explored mindfulness in relation to sustainable consumption behaviours. Earlier in her career, she was an engineer working on fluid systems, and is a qualified yoga teacher.

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