How to Wake Up: A Buddhist Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (Wisdom Publications, 2013), written by fellow blogger Toni Bernhard is the first book I’ve read about Buddhism. Yes, shame on me for not doing so sooner (I tend to spend most of my professional reading time focusing on scientific articles) but reading Toni Bernhard’s powerful articles on Psychology Today made me so curious about her new book (her first book How to Be Sick was an award winning success) I decided to put journal articles aside and settle in for a good read.
And a good read it was.
For me, How to Wake Up was not only a primer about Buddhism, it gave me a valuable glimpse of psychology as seen through the prism of a practicing Buddhist. I was delighted to find many areas of commonality in how Bernhard approaches the challenges life threw in her path and my own work with emotional wounds (unfortunately life threw some hefty obstacles in Bernhard's way, including a severely limiting and career ending chronic illness). Primary among these areas of overlap are the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion.
In her book, Bernhard gives numerous examples from her own life that illustrate a simple truth—painful emotional states are too easily made more painful by a negative mindset; such as a tendency toward self-blame, lamenting letdowns and disappointments, feeling self-pity, or feeling resentful or envious towards those who have what we do not. She illustrates how we need to and can Wake Up from our suffering in such moments by changing our internal narrative about the situation and by learning to accept our painful emotions in a non-judgmental way. She gives real life examples of the kind we all experience and suggests simple but powerful ways to change.
For example, Bernhard states that people who feel the ache of loneliness (read Why Loneliness is a Trap and How to Break Free here) might focus on thoughts of how they are, “Sitting here feeling unbearably lonely.” She points out that adding the descriptor unbearable only heightens emotional suffering in such moments. Instead one should remove the judgment from the thought and stick with the accurate but bare description, “Sitting here feeling lonely.”
For the unintiatied, such mindfulness practices might seem easy but they actually require constant awareness and practice, as changing habitual negative and judgmental mindsets is no easy task. However, making such changes can be extremely rewarding as by doing so we can profoundly alter how we think and feel about the realities of our lives, and reduce our self-imposed emotional suffering as a result.
Another tenet Bernhard and I share is the recognition that when it comes to emotional wounds, many of our injuries are self-imposed. For example, when we experience failure or rejection, we often heap additional emotional pain on ourselves by having an inner dialogue that is harsh and punitive. Bernhard describes how vital it is for us to develop and practice self-compassion—to treat ourselves as we would a loved one or friend who had the same experience. We would never think to tell that person they were at fault, deficient, or undeserving, yet we say those things to ourselves in such situations without blinking an eye. Bernhard urges her readers to replace their internal harsh voices with ones that are compassionate, nurturing, and loving, and to reduce their emotional suffering by doing so.
Another key to self-compassion involves becoming less judgmental towards those around us. By focusing on and accepting how things and people are, rather on how they should be or how we would like them to be, we can shed the negativity we bring to situations and relationships and ‘Wake up’ from our suffering to see what they and the world, have to offer us, despite the hardships we experience.
How to Wake Up is a powerful psychological guide as well as a Buddhist one. Bernhard’s personal disclosures about her own struggles and journey are touching and poignant, but more importantly, they provide wonderful illustrations of how Buddhist principles can be applied to even the small moments of our daily lives. I'm thankful to her for providing me such a rich perspective to add to my own.
For a different (non-Buddhist) take on self-compassion and mindfulness, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch