A Healthy Approach to Emotions

“Hmm,” you might think. “Another book on mindfulness? Really?!” Please don’t let the popular buzzword in the subtitle keep you from reading this direct, soulful, and highly useful book. In Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation, former Buddhist monk Donald Altman has written a simple yet powerful manual that will help you rid yourself of old emotional clutter as well as staying clear of the stresses of everyday life.

I especially enjoyed the way Altman seamlessly weaves together neuroscience, personal anecdotes, and practical tools for applying the material in your own life. His “lifestyle tools,” included at the end of each chapter, are practical and easy to try, yet they have a powerful impact. Without a huge investment of time, the reader can begin to change the brain patterns that have been established over a lifetime. As Altman writes in the introduction, “neuroscience tells us that even a few minutes a day can rewire the brain to clear unwanted emotional clutter from your life.”

Altman clearly knows what he’s talking about. He’s not shy about using his personal life as an example, and shares plenty of anecdotes from the lives of people he’s helped (changing the names, of course). While he is very knowledgeable, he never sounds condescending - his tone is friendly and kind, and he makes it clear that he’s still learning along his own journey. Altman draws on quotes and wisdom from sources ranging from science to Buddhism to pop culture.

As someone who is very interested in spiritual practice and journaling, I appreciate that Altman’s lifestyle tools are unique while also being somewhat familiar. For example, the breathing exercises at the end of chapter five point the reader toward deep belly breaths, familiar from yoga and meditation classes. However, he also includes body postures and a “bellows breathing” technique that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. Altman’s journaling prompts and questions for reflection are helpful in guiding the reader to dig more deeply into the topic at hand and uncover the meaning of one’s personal experiences in that area.

The only thing I didn’t resonate with in this book, and it’s relatively minor, is the author’s penchant for creating acronyms for some of his key techniques. Personally, I’m unlikely to remember what “PAIR UP” or “HEAR” stand for, and would rather be simply given the steps, and look them up when I need a reminder. Others may find it a useful mnemonic tool, though.

This deceptively simple book reaches into all areas of life. Topics include reprogramming our mental chatter, cleansing emotional clutter you received from your family, the importance of friends and community, releasing stress, the power of spending time in nature, and awakening your compassion. The journey unfolds in a way that brings mindfulness into ever-deeper parts of your psyche. The final chapter, on connecting with your life’s purpose, leads you toward meaningful transformation and provides a powerful ending. “By aligning with purpose,” writes Altman, “everything in life becomes a little shinier, more alive, more exciting, and more meaningful.” This book will help you find your way to that clear and energized place.

~review by Nikki Starcat Shields

Author: Donald Altman
New World Library, 2016
pp.244, $15.95