Book Reviews

Including Ten Zen Questions,The Cognitive Behaviour Counselling Primer, Personality Disorder: The Definitive Reader, Bodies, Vygotsky at Work and Play.

Ten Zen Questions
Susan Blackmore
Oneworld; 2009;
Hb £12.99 

Susan Blackmore is not a Buddhist, so she can enjoy the paradoxes of Zen without concerns of religious dogma. She is, however, a scientist, who has previously explored near-death experiences and hallucinogenic drug trips to enrich her understanding of consciousness; and in this book she aims for a method of inquiry that will allow her scientific understanding and her Zen practice to illuminate each other. Thinking is one of her favourite hobbies, and here she reports on a lifetime of meditation practice to investigate the nature of conscious experience.

Early in the book she elegantly outlines some of the key concepts used in studying consciousness: Cartesian dualism and nonduality, change-blindness, the illusion of continuity, and enactive theories of vision. She thoughtfully explores the limitations of the intuitive metaphors commonly used to illustrate what consciousness might be like: a stream, a theatre, and later in the book, a string of beads – leading her to an espousal of Dan Dennett’s theory of multiple drafts.

The book traces and contextualises her personal involvement with Zen, and the ways in which she came upon and began to systematically tackle questions ranging from ‘Am I conscious now?’ to ‘When are you?’ and ‘What happens next?’. Some come directly from scientific inquiries, some from traditional Tibetan Buddhism and inspirational Zen koans, and they are chattily and honestly explored. We hear about the frustrations and revelations of meditation retreats in a remote cottage in the Welsh valleys, and in the contemplative space she has created in her own garden shed. But to use consciousness to look into itself is tricky, and the prose she uses to describe her introspection is not always up to the job of capturing the profundity and mystery of the Zen experience, and occasionally ends up reminiscent of the ramblings of
a stoned student.

The description of how her experiments with mindfulness alter her day-to-day life by liberating her thinking is fascinating, although she does not link this to the third wave therapies currently gaining credence. And more crucially, she does not elaborate on how her understanding of the dramatic conclusions accumulated from her research influence her real life. How do you go about your work, making decisions, raising children, if you believe that experience is simply the by-product of a busy brain – ‘just complex interactions between a body and the rest of the world, arising and falling away for no reason’?

Her developing insights are not paralleled by a gradual accumulation of academic understanding throughout her career. Rather, the latter is presented as a fixed conclusion: there is no ‘self’ ghost in the brain machine, and free will cannot exist. But by the end of the book, subjective experience and theory do begin to cohere. She ends bravely with a response from her teacher, Zen master John Crook, who provides his own wise critique and encourages her to keep going in her search for enlightenment.

Peppered with her own delicate illustrations, this book is difficult to categorise. In the vein of The Tao of Pooh or Counselling for Toads, this would be a great book for those who have studied neither philosophy of mind nor the psychology of consciousness to begin to tackle these complicated and startling ideas. The main character here is Sue Blackmore herself, whose formidable intellect and clarity of approach is complemented by a warm and self-deprecating sense of humour – for example when she describes the meditative possibilities of cleaning out the composting toilets at the Welsh retreat. And also by an intrepid determination to de-mystify, to keep on thinking, and to keep on asking questions.

Reviewed by Jenny Doe
who is a consultant clinical psychologist with the Bedfordshire and Luton Mental Health and Social Care Partnership Trust


The Cognitive Behaviour Counselling Primer
Rhena Branch & Windy Dryden
PCCS Books; 2009; Pb £11.00

This is an excellent addition to the ‘Counselling Primers’ series; which is recognised as a new approach to learning counselling. The authors stress that the key word is counselling. The book is specifically aimed at people wanting to learn about a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) approach, with no previous experience or knowledge of counselling (or psychology).

The primer is packed with subject information to walk the learner through CBT basic concepts, theoretical underpinning of CBT, case conceptualisation and interventions; including relapse prevention and endings. There are several mini-studies dotted throughout the book to exemplify various points and a sample CBT transcript. There is also a chapter devoted to applications and research and a fairly comprehensive resource section.

If there is one complaint about this primer, it is that it appears too technical in large part (versus, for example, CBT for Dummies). A stricter adherence to plain English and recognition of the fact that many readers might not emanate from the therapy sector, would have made the book easier to understand from the point of view of the layperson.

Reviewed by Ian Clancy
who is with Orchard Counselling Practice


Personality Disorder:
The Definitive Reader
Gwen Adshead & Caroline Jacob (Eds.)
Jessica Kingsley; 2009; Pb £22.99

This book does exactly what its title promises on the brightly coloured cover. It is an eclectic mix of 16 classic and contemporary psycho-therapeutic papers that discuss key issues surrounding working with those with personality disorder. It is aimed at practitioners working in both secure and non-secure settings.

The book is in three parts: Part 1 looks at the theory of psychopathology; Part 2 presents clinical implications; and Part 3 addresses treatment and management. Papers are introduced with the editors’ contextual thoughts, and each part ends with points for reflective practice. This gave me fresh insight into the papers and interesting considerations for my working practice.  Here we have a valuable starting point for those whose everyday work involves dealing with personality disorder. It addresses a wide range of issues, including care-eliciting behaviours, counter-transference and group dynamics. The material may be well known amongst those experienced in the field, though the opportunity to have a quick resource to dip into as and when needed is both practical and thought-provoking. 

Reviewed by Hannah Nelson
who is an assistant psychologist with Greater Manchester West Intermediate Care


Susie Orbach
Profile Books; 2009; Pb £10.99

Susie Orbach’s background is particularly diverse. She is a psychotherapist, a columnist, a lecturer, convener of, advertising consultant and author of a number of books, including bestseller Fat is a Feminist Issue. Her latest book considers the crisis in
our relationships to our bodies.

Challenging the Freudian view that body disorders stem from the mind, Orbach uses case studies to link body fixations to unconscious anxieties being transferred from mothers to babies. The media has also overwhelmed us with images of an idealised, Western body, and to see digressions from this as problematic. Thus, we engage in self-mutilation, obesity, anorexia, and plastic surgery, in the belief that our general dissatisfaction can be relieved by change in our bodies.

You probably know by now if this is a book you would enjoy and agree with. A doctorate friend working in this area found it enlightening and saw value in the arguments. For me, the lack of references to peer-reviewed articles and the over-reliance on anecdotes, case studies and books written by her peers left this book as nothing more than a thought-provoking diatribe, although on issues of genuine importance.

Reviewed by Fidelma Butler
who is an occupational psychologist in training


Vygotsky at Work and Play
Lois Holzman
Routledge; 2009; Hb £29.95

The title of this publication summarises its focus. The author does not give an overview of the major theoretical frameworks of Lev Vygotsky, nor does she give an account of the differing interpretations and debates between academics surrounding the works of the Russian developmental psychologist. Instead, she applies his theories to everyday socio-educational practices, taking Vygotsky outside academia, to therapy, organisations, classrooms and playgrounds.

In each chapter, Vygotskian theories and methodologies are applied to a different social situation, with people of all backgrounds. Another original feature of this book is Holzman’s innovative approach to the interpretation of the Russian scholar's insights, drawing from her experience as a Vygotskian academic, working with and being influenced by her mentors, from developmental psychologist Lois Bloom to the philosopher Fred Newman. The first person account engages the reader from the preface.

Making Vygotsky a household word is only a partially fulfilled dream of the author, but this book is another step towards her goal. Anyone who has an interest in human learning and development should have this original piece of work on their shelves.

Reviewed by Tania Heap
who is an associate lecturer at the Open University

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