by Matt Mumber and Heather Reed
Subtitled 'An Integrative Approach to Transform Your Mind, Body and Spirit'
2012, New Page Books
This gentle book aims to support the reader as they strive to improve their health and well-being. It's written by a doctor and yoga practitioner and therefore incorporates a wealth of advice across a diverse spectrum of activities. Where most books might focus upon the aspects of someone's life that are causing harm - poor diet, cigarettes, alcohol, lack of exercise, drug abuse, stress, poor environment - this one is a positive, motivating book aimed at self-improvement through a succession of small, achievable steps. The support offered extends beyond the book through a website, network and access to group work for those seeking "better health, stress reduction, or a good sense of inner peace." (p32)
That last desire is one of the dominant themes of the book. The quest for spiritual enlightenment relies upon many strands, say the authors. The best foundation is self-awareness, and from that one builds towards the pinnacle of spiritual well-being through improvements in diet, stress management and physical activity. This builds upon a classic hierarchy of needs as described by Maslow. Yoga and similar disciplines can play a large part towards the top of this hierarchy, as well as meditation techniques. Many of the philosophical anecdotes sprinkled through the initial stages of the book allude to adepts seeking wisdom from spiritual Masters on how to attain enlightenment. Other anecdotes are more personal stories shared by the authors to illustrate their discussion points, which help to lend the narrative a sense of shared experience.
In fact, sometimes the book borders on the esoteric. It's advocacy of the use of Enneagrams (p74) in group sessions reminds me of Gurdjieff, especially in the context of raising one's awareness to reality. It's at this point, tellingly, that the book gets really intense. The Enneagram provides a structure for a series of personality types. I took the test provided to discover that I am a 'helper', which was not too surprising. What I really liked about this analysis was not the description of one's good points so much as a raising awareness of how that creates a 'shadow' side within one's personality that requires some recognition and work. The authors return to this theme later in the book:
"We catch glimpses of our shadow as it's represented in the thoughts, ideas, or people outside of us. For example, someone who is taught to "never do anything half-baked" will be very diligent. The shadow of this statement makes it difficult for this person to let go and be free-spirited... Our shadow presents an opportunity to learn from a both/and perspective and include all of our self while broadening our range of possible responses." (p200)
In my own case as a 'helper', my shadow side would be ingratiation, or an over-tendency to flatter other people. This is certainly a fault of mine and comes out almost like a reflex response in certain situations, which I need to work on. So, I'd better not flatter the authors too much on this book, then! 'Sustainable Wellness' contains long lists of questions to probe our natures and behaviours, and advocates writing down pretty much everything. I'm not sure a self-reflective process requires this much diary-keeping... except perhaps in the case of dieting and raising one's awareness of what food (or pretend-food) one is ingesting. The section of the book on nutrition is really good. The authors break certain food-stuffs down for us in terms of their glycemic index and load (p124). Given that something like 80% of food offered in American supermarkets contains sugar, we all need more of this kind of awareness-building.
"Much of our society's problem with obesity and chronic disease focuses on the effects of high-fructose corn syrup and trans fatty acids, though there are many other types of compounds around. Take a look at a commercial box of cookies or a bag of chips. Go down to the ingredients section and see how many words you find that aren't food...These are either chemicals derived from food or preservatives to keep the food-derived elements from spoiling on the shelf. How exactly do these foreign products affect the body?" (p123)
The authors then explore the problems processed food creates, particularly to do with inflammatory disease. I guess most people recognise these issues, but are they sufficiently motivated to change ingrained habits? This is one of the main challenges this books confronts.
The practical side of the book continues with a very helpful section on exercise, and another on stress management. Again, our sedentary lives, combined with the comfort-eating used to counter-balance stress, are central features of the deteriorating picture of health in Western societies. The healthiest generation was the war generation, I think - they had plenty of stress to contend with, but stacks of exercise compared to us, and a comparatively healthy, if austere diet. We have a lot to learn from them. "Eat less, exercise more" is the modern refrain for those tackling obesity - the war generation had no choice, whereas we do and, given human nature, that's largely our problem.
So, I think this book went some of the way towards this, but could have been more scathing of our modern lifestyles and the food industry in particular. It also could have tackled smoking which, quite frankly, is the number one health issue on any doctor's list of dos and don'ts. Another area for attention would have been sexual health. These aspects of our lives can have a considerable impact on our well-being, particularly in terms of sustainable health in the long-term. The gaps these health issues left were filled in the book by plenty of discussions about yoga, meditation and spiritual guidance, including a look at the various stages of spiritual growth. There's a whole section on how to hold group sessions, and plenty of lists to help you to structure your ascendance to the next level.
All in all, the book felt like a supportive chat with a well-meaning friend. No self-help book can really reflect back the personal issues that an individual reader brings to it, although the authors did point the reader in the direction of the resources available to supply that feedback and personalised support. The balance of the content steered too much towards spiritual growth to my own tastes, but the well-meaning mission of the authors shines through.
Book review by Andy Lloyd, 2nd February 2013
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