This review was first published in Private Practice, Spring 2016 issue, published by BACP. ©
Meditation, and mindfulness in particular, is now an accepted and ever-popular tool for wellbeing and mental health. Simon Cole has great experience in running retreats in mindfulness and meditation (he seems to draw a distinction between the two), alongside a background as a counsellor and psychological therapist. The complementary nature of meditation and therapy as routes to personal growth partly motivated him to crystallise his thinking around both into this book. It’s an ambitious aim for a small book. It seeks to introduce mindfulness, expound upon its potential to deepen an understanding of one’s internal process, and also to introduce his own ‘Clear Space Meditation Path’, which fuses his ideas into a protocol of sorts.
Cole sees contemporary approaches to mindfulness as ‘becoming intellectualised on one level and trivialised by phone apps... on another’. Many steeped in Buddhist psychology would agree with him, but Cole parts ways with this ancient philosophy to rely upon his own way of synthesising his thoughts. So, he opts for another way of talking about mindfulness, rather than rehearsing now well-trodden definitions and explanations. He introduces it as a skill at ‘not being distracted’ before looking at how we inevitably bring distortions into our experiences, and then unpacking how it can be used to illuminate our experiences of our feelings and emotions.
These ideas are clearly useful for therapy but also foundational for the following of his path, which ‘adopts a Western therapeutic approach, in order to hold the link with day-to-day living’. This Clear Space Meditation Path is introduced in two chunks, with its application in the biggest middle chapter to the bearing of a number of difficult feelings, including disappointment, sadness, regret, remorse, guilt, jealousy, anger, anxiety and stress. Attachment is discussed as it is in the Buddhist literature: as the psychological process that lies at the heart of most human suffering.
Cole explains things further through a case study and example ‘meditation conversation’ that imagines a possible internal experiencing in words. This is a teaching technique familiar to counselling books, but not one I have come across in meditation instruction books before. He also offers four themed meditations to contemplate and enrich your practice – including ‘Meditation on Being Alive’ and ‘Meditation on the Experience of Peace’. There’s a lot to consider.
For therapists, Cole’s references to Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ relating, Rogers’ relational work and Gendlin's felt-sense will be of interest. Otherwise, this book would be a useful companion for any client interested in accompanying their therapeutic journey with meditation.
Julia Bueno is an integrative psychotherapist in private practice and co-founder of the London Psychotherapy Network
Peter Hughes: "In 1978 I bought a copy of Lawrence LeShan’s now-classic How to Meditate (Sphere, 1978), from which I gained knowledge and understanding about meditation, but not as much as I had wished about the how-to-do-it. Simon Cole’s book redresses that balance with detailed instructions to guide the novice. It is a manual for the person who is attracted to making use of mindfulness; it is discursive about what is going on in and around the experience of mindfulness; and it is a guide for personal development in the practice of meditation. The instruction given in the techniques appears to be deeply grounded in the experience of the writer both as a meditator himself, and as a facilitator of mindfulness. Consequently he is also able to anticipate many of the uncertainties and difficulties that a novice might experience. The text talks about mindfulness and meditation as a journey, in terms both of developing competence, and also into oneself. However, the journey is necessarily one’s own. The book is not a drover, intent on directing the reader along a designated path to a specific destination. Instead, it is more like an experienced companion able to help the reader to meet the challenges of the journey.
The text is easy to read, using everyday language, and it explains difficult concepts well. Yet, like some of the anecdotes it includes, the text is infused with hidden depths that reveal themselves only on subsequent readings. To me, this shows that the writer not only knows what he is writing about (as would, say, a competent journalist), but also that he inhabits the material. The tone is respectful yet light.
Simon Cole is also a counsellor / therapist, and is able to make strong connections between mindfulness and some aspects of humanistic psychotherapy, considering such concepts as ‘felt-sense’ (Eugene Gendlin), ‘empathic understanding’ (Carl Rogers) and ‘I-thou’ (Martin Buber). Each concept is carefully explained in lay terms. In a short appendix, brief biographies are given of Gendlin, Rogers and Buber. That important parts of the text are based on ideas from these three people would have been enough to excite my interest.
A central chapter entitled ‘Being Ourselves and Visiting Our Pain’ works through a list of difficult feelings and identifies how meditation through mindfulness can help us. Starting with ‘attachment’ as the root process, the chapter goes on to consider disappointment, sadness, regret, remorse, guilt, jealousy, anger, anxiety and stress. The chapter concludes with some thoughts about meditation and pain. I should have liked this chapter, lengthy though it is, to have been even longer.
The writer draws on some real case-material (an engaging format familiar to anyone who reads books about counselling). These sections are excellent for really understanding how to make meditation work, by breathing life and colour into the practice. The text also proposes and works through in detail several focused meditations. Counselling clients and their therapists could make much use of this book.
The book is aware of the relevance of Buddhism to the subject of mindfulness and meditation, although it is scrupulous in avoiding both Buddhist ideology and Buddhist terminology, which have the potential to be dauntingly off-putting. There may be many paths leading towards the practice of meditation. The path of mindfulness involves training one’s mind to watch one’s mind.
For a little while I was uncertain about the difference between ‘being still’ and ‘waiting’. However, I came to realise that the idea of, say, waiting (expectantly) for a bus, is very different from the Quaker practice of waiting, with which, in this context, I am most familiar, and which may be much more comparable with Simon Cole’s concept of ‘clear space’.
At whom is the book aimed? Several readerships appear immediately obvious. First, for anyone who wishes to learn to meditate, I would strongly recommend Stillness in Mind over How to Meditate. Second, counselling clients who are determined to make the fullest possible use of counselling may find this book of great value. Third, counsellors and psychotherapists may wish to learn this approach in order to teach mindfulness to their clients. Fourth, anyone keen to improve their self-development may be able to draw much from this book. Finally, and somewhat oddly perhaps, many universalist Quakers would feel entirely at home and receive positive encouragement from the text."
Peter Hughes, long-standing counsellor and counselling trainer: Durham University, Sunderland University (UK)
Dr. David Van Nuys: " There is so much talk and writing about mindfulness these days. It’s refreshing to encounter Simon Cole’s book, Stillness in Mind, which offers a fairly unique take on mindfulness. His approach is very down-to-earth and practical, having been honed for more than 30 years as a counselor and, more recently, in workshops and individual therapy work at his retreat center in the south of France. Essentially, he has created a guidebook about how to develop mindfulness and how to go onto to establish a mindfulness based meditation practice, if one decides they want to move on with it after a period of initial exploration. He does this without any of, what some might consider, the “mumbo-jumbo” of Buddhism. In fact, he comes right out and says that he is not a Buddhist, which is not to say that he has anything against Buddhism. It’s just no his personal path. This is in contrast to most mindfulness authors who seem to be strongly allied with the Buddhist tradition. Rather, both as a therapist and as a meditator, his primary inspirations have been Martin Buber, Carl Rogers, and Eugene Gendlin. I found it refreshing that he had to go the extra mile to really bring it down to an everyday sort of experience and conversation. One thing that stands out for me about his approach is that he recommends a period of reflection after meditation, a time to integrate the experience and any useful learnings, time to digest it both emotionally and cognitively. Often during meditation, there are insights that one has and if you take time to sit with those insights, which may be about personal issues or relationship issues, or even ideas for new projects, these can disappear like smoke without some period of acknowledgement and reflection, even though they arose during a period of empty-minded, non-reflective, nonjudgmental, non-evaluative meditation. I’m happy to recommend this book to anyone who is interested in exploring mindfulness."
Dr David Van Nuys, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Sonoma State University, California
Stafford Whiteaker: " Simon Cole is a counsellor, therapist and meditation teacher, he has brought all these skills into writing this very readable short book with deep understanding of his subject. He takes you on a journey to explain clearly the various levels of meditation and how it can heal the stressed and busy mind to move you into a much greater self-understanding, which leads to finding that wonderfully peaceful and joyful "clear space" within. A 'must read' for all that are interested in meditation. "
Stafford Whiteaker, The Good Retreat Guide 2014
Simon Carver: " I really enjoyed reading this book; it was refreshing to read about mindfulness and meditation from a Person-Centred/Counselling perspective… I found the descriptions and meditations accessible and informative and the idea of linking breathing meditations with different mind states was useful, reminding me of yoga pranayama… the description of self-actualisation was a breath of fresh air and clearer than other ideas about development I have come across in meditation and psychotherapy… the story of the Buddha listening to the wind was thought provoking, leading the reader to ponder a little more and in an unhurried way.
I would highly recommend the book to both introductory and more advanced mindfulness practitioners. "
Simon Carver MA, PMBACP, accredited counsellor and psychotherapist