23 May 2009

Book Review: Emotional Alchemy, How the Mind can Heal the Heart

The troubles you now are facing
They are not greater than your will
For there is nothing under heaven
You cannot overcome

See the door that lies before you
And know this too shall pass
The confrontation of your fears
And strength drawn from the past

Where the silent voices whisper
Find the course that is your own
And however great the obstacle
You will never be alone -- The Eye of the Storm, by The Cruxshadows

In the name of Mordgud, Guardian of the Gate, may my barriers of darkness open to my hand. -- Raven Kaldera's Bead Prayer, from Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner

Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman (✭✭✭✭✭, 5/5, 2 May 2009)

Just as a note, this book has had a profound impact on me and came at a time in my life when I desperately needed it. First I am going to talk a bit about that experience so that you'll understand the context from which I found this book, and some of why I am one of the cheerleaders of Mindfulness for occultists.

In Need of Alchemy

Some time ago I dated a young woman who had a condition called Complex PTSD. C-PTSD has a few different meanings and manifestations, but the long and short of it is that past traumatic stress--severe and ongoing over years as she was growing up--shattered her mind. This can then manifest in several different ways. In her case, she had lost all sense of self, all sense of boundaries or borders between herself and others, and lived in constant fear of abandonment. It manifested as extremely severe Borderline Personality Disorder, characterized by the expression I hate you, don't leave me.

Part of the characteristic of this condition is that she had an iron certainty of her view of reality and any deviation from this in someone else's view was wrong. Most individuals have an internal set of filters that accept that someone else may perceive a situation differently from themselves, may remember things differently, or may simply be working off of a different set of facts or assumptions.

She lacked this capability. She didn't have the boundaries to understand--fundamentally--the difference between herself and others. She would transfer her own feelings, behaviors, or perceived traits on to me. She thinks she has something wrong with her, so she would accuse me of having something wrong with me.

Her view of reality was so certain, so inflexible, and so black-and-white that it could make one question their own sense of self and their own sense of reality. Especially if they were immersed in it, as I was.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the process of knowing her, I was destroyed. My carefully laid network of boundaries, my assumptions about reality, my sense of self, my self-esteem, even the foundations of my own sanity were not merely torn away: they were obliterated. My teacher described it on a metaphysical level as like seeing a smoking crater in me.

After I managed--thanks to spirits and friends--to break away, I had to do a great deal of self work. Walking on Eggshells is the best book out there for people in my situation, and helped me understand what had happened, and to take responsibility for 100% of my 50% of the relationship, and not take any responsibility for her 50%. To not cast blame, but to understand it from her perspective while at the same time understanding and validating my own experience. That wasn't enough, by itself, however: I needed a way to rebuild myself and to understand what had happened--not just within the relationship--but within me. I needed a way--internal to myself--to keep it from happening again.

Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman helped me do exactly this. Emotional Alchemy is about a form of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT). It combines a form of Western psychotherapy, called Schema Therapy, with Buddhist theories on Mindfulness: the art of paying attention. In this synthesis it creates something truly powerful.

The Book Itself

A schema is an emotional trigger reflex. Past experience builds a set of pathways in our brain so that we can get triggered by events or other parts of our psyche. To quote Emotional Alchemy:

These emotional habits are learned so thoroughly that they operate outside our awareness, and much of their power over our lives comesf rom the fact that they are largely unconscious. Just as we are unaware that they are being formed as they take shape, and we don't remember most of the specifics about how they became our preferred habits, we remain unaware of how they control us.

The premise of the book is to use Mindfulness to identify, understand, and move past the maladaptive schemata. It talks about the uses of Compassion, Equanimity, Mindfulness, and Schema Therapy, and while the goal of the book is geared toward synthesis it is emphasized that many of these things are beneficial in isolation as well.

Throughout the book examples are given from her own life and from clients on schemata and the effects of Mindfulness. The tone is conversational, and it frequently feels like the author is gently guiding you through the topic.

Each chapter ends with a small set of exercises or processes to go through as part of the process of Emotional Alchemy.


The book itself is divided into four primary sections, each with its own chapters:

  1. Emotional Alchemy

    1. An Inner Alchemy
    2. A Wise Compassion
    3. The Healing Qualities of Mindfulness
    4. A Model of the Mind

  2. Things as They Seem

    1. Emotional Habit
    2. Schemas in the Larger World
    3. How Schemas Work

  3. A Mindful Therapy

    1. The Many Uses of Mindfulness
    2. Breaking the Chain
    3. Changing Habits
    4. Working with Emotions
    5. You Don't Have to Believe Your Thoughts
    6. Relationships
    7. The Circle of Life
    8. Stages of Healing

  4. Spiritual Alchemy

    1. Perceptual Shifts
    2. Investigating the Mind
    3. Reframing Suffering
    4. May Confusion Dawn As Wisdom

Section I: Emotional Alchemy

The first section on Emotional Alchemy involves a basic set of definitions and talks about the need for the synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches. It goes on to build a foundation on topics such as Mindfulness, Equanimity, Loving-Kindness, and Compassion and gives basic meditative techniques for building on these. It talks about the need for Mindfulness in our day-to-day lives, defining Mindfulness as: seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself.

The section gives multiple mindfulness exercises which, while fairly standard, are excellent. It then closes with a chapter about how the mind works, how it avoids topics that it finds uncomfortable, and the nature of schemata.

Section II: Things as They Seem

The second section turns its attention to maladaptive habits, modes of perception, and we get a more thorough introduction to the concept of a schema. The author lays out ten different maladaptive schemata, going into their origins and a few possible manifestations, along with how they can be triggered. It talks about the neurological basis for these schemata, and how to start understanding and finding our own schemata.

It concludes that:

Once schemas are recognized and empathized with, we can begin the work of changing them.

Exactly how to do this we get in to in the next section.

Section III: A Mindful Therapy

Whereas the first part of the book focused on Mindfulness and the second part focused on Schema Therapy, the third section of the book talks about building a synthesis. It discusses techniques for noticing that your schemata have been primed and what to do about it when in a schema attack. It also goes into how schemata come into play in relationships, both romantic and with your family.

Section IV: Spiritual Alchemy

The final section of the book takes the techniques in Section III and moves them one step farther, integrating them more heavily with Buddhist perceptions and modes of thought. This section is almost entirely about the Buddhist model of the mind, the nature of suffering, and how mindfulness and schemata fit into this.

This section is mostly unnecessary after you have gotten through the rest of the book, if you were reading it for the purpose of learning the basic techniques and are uninterested in Buddhism or the philosophy underlying these techniques. That said, the material is still interesting and it is nice to see some of the origins of these techniques, along with a perspective on where the theories themselves come from. It is also good at showing some of the potential next steps as an individual continues to use these techniques.


Recently I commented to a friend that it felt like Elizabeth Vongvisith and I were becoming the cheerleaders for Mindfulness in the Heathen community (M - I - N - D - F - U - L - N - E - S - S what's that spell!? Mindfulness! Ra!). I have worked with several books on the subject, and I have found none that are better at working with it from a western context than this one.

I do have some minor quibbles with the content of this book. First, the descriptions of the schemata all seem somewhat limiting, and I wish there had been a more in-depth discussion of manifestations. The author also often chooses to give examples for the schemata by starting with the circumstances that lead to the schemata for an individual, followed by it's consequences. This lead me to reject a schema because my circumstances were different and the manifestation wasn't the same, when in truth I definitely had a different form of the same schema.

We also see that a lot of the book focuses on the nature of Mindfulness and how it has helped people dealing with everything from anxiety disorders to mild schemata, rather than focusing on the actual practice of Mindfulness. This is a fairly indirect approach, which suites my own preferences well for this sort of book, but may frustrate some readers. Especially since this is more of a process than a product.

These are, in truth, fairly minor issues and do not really detract from the power of the book.

To close with a quote from the Dalai Lama, writing the foreword to this book:

I offer my prayers that readers of the book may indeed be able to transform their minds, overcome their disturbing emotions, and achieve a sense of inner peace.

Further Reading

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