What Really Helps is both a great introduction to mindfulness and a practical application of its benefits to relationships, especially helping relationships.
I don’t hide that my approach to relationships and morality is heavily Buddhist-influenced. And when I develop my counselling practice, it will also be based on Buddhist principles: compassion, mindfulness, awareness.
It all started last summer at an impromptu visit at the local used bookstore. They apparently had a sale on a bunch of mindfulness-based books, including the one I’m reviewing here, and Mark Epstein’s Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart. I read that one last year, and wasn’t really interested in writing book reviews back then. (It’s worth a read though.)
I finally got around to reading Wegela’s What Really Helps in the past few months. A good thing I did, because I absolutely loved it.
One of the main issues with suffering from mental illness is that usually, people don’t really know what to do to help. They think telling us “snap out of it” or “you should just… (insert whatever advice they usually give)” is going to somehow magically solve our issues. (Hint: it doesn’t.)
Personally, when I go in a depressive relapse, I need someone who will sit in the dark with me, hold my hand, feel with me. I need someone who’s capable of quiet compassion, not discomfort-fueled unhelpful advice. What do I mean by that? Think of the last time you were in the presence of someone crying. You probably wanted them to stop crying, not because they were sad, but because you felt uncomfortable. A lot of our mindless helpful behaviours come from this feeling of discomfort that we try to soothe with whatever we can find: “[filling] up every possible minute by talking about something or presenting an idea and going on and on and on like that” (p.119); denying the person’s feelings or gaslighting them (“it’s not that bad, stop crying!”), or plain abandoning them.
The fact is, most of the book is aimed at developing personal skills for the helpers, rather than discussing specific ways to help. The first three sections are about the helper themself: how to become more open, compassionate, and aware. Then, and only then, can we start expressing genuine relationship (section 4) and acting in helpful ways (section 5).
The entire book is underpinned by the three principles of brilliant sanity, a basic Buddhist teaching that tells us that we are all sane and whole already, no matter what we do or how we think. “Brilliant sanity describes our nature, who we most basically are. We are not always in touch with our brilliant sanity, but it is always there and available for us to tap into,” Wegela writes.
Thankfully, the book isn’t too Buddhist in its contents: you won’t really hear about the Dharma in there. The teachings are accessible to lay people who just want to cultivate mindfulness. Wegela gives basic mindfulness exercises and instruction throughout, which makes the book both a great practical AND theoretical read.
But in the end, you can’t theorize mindfulness forever. You need to practice it, by doing the boring work of sitting. Mindfulness is a cultivation, a garden that needs constant tending and attention. Without mindfulness, we cannot be effective helpers, Wegela argues; I tend to agree. You don’t have to come from a Buddhist background to understand that helping with ulterior motives, or helping from a place of fear or discomfort, isn’t effective.
What Really Helps is a short, readable book that reminded me why I feel attracted to Buddhism so much: because Buddhism holds that we are all sane, whole, and worthy. There is no judgement there, no fire and brimstone, no condemnation, no “chosen people”. Awakening is in our very nature, and is accessible to absolutely everyone, no matter how evil, broken, or lost.
If you are interested in developing your listening and helping skills, considering a career in helping professions, or just want to learn how to be a better support presence for your loved ones, this book is a must. Be ready to put in the work, though: this isn’t a “read and be done with it” book. The skills require patience, practice, and awareness.
I really need to resume my sitting practice…