We can’t fix ourselves by reading books. In my experience, whatever we read can only resonate with the view of life we bring to it – what we already think and believe – and maybe lead us to peek over the next horizon.
That said, I do think that – in combination with other seeking – reading spiritual books can prime the pump for expanded insight. At some point, when shit hits the fan in our lives and we find ourselves at a crossroads of how to respond, the foundation laid by contemplating certain writers’ spiritual insights may help us to jump a little further toward god. Sometimes, if I read the same book twenty years later, I’m amazed at all the wisdom that whizzed over my head the previous time. Other times, what seemed brilliant in past years has faded to obvious.
Consciousness and Well-being
A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle talks about separating consciousness from thought, so that we’re aware of our essence and don’t buy into what our minds tell us – most of which is orchestrated by ego. A great discussion of wanting to be right. Two greatest revelations for me were that the brain churns out thoughts much as the stomach digests food, and that our emotions are fodder for what Tolle calls the Pain-body – a part of us addicted to emotional turmoil.
The Four Agreements, by Miguel Ruiz. I missed this little gem of a book (131 pages) when it first came out in 1997, despite praise from several friends. Basing his discussion on the ancient Mexican Toltecs’ teachings, Ruiz reveals the “dream of the planet” to which we have unwittingly succumbed due to the “domestication” process of our childhoods. We internalized many conflicting rules or “agreements” that clash in our minds such that our internalized Judge constantly denounces us as failing and our internal Victim constantly languishes in shame dealt by the Judge. This JV team forms an energy parasite that feeds on our turmoil – the spittin’ image of Tolle’s Pain-body! Ruiz presents the alternative of four simple “agreements” that can guide us toward a joy-filled life.
The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, Taking the Leap, and basically anything by Pema Chödrön. Everybody loves Pema, and with good reason. She writes sound spiritual advice from a place of simplicity and humility. Her books teach us how to use meditation to know ourselves compassionately and be gentle in trying to let go of the emotional habits that hook us into ego. FOR ALCOHOLICS/ADDICTS, however, I do think Pema overlooks a major piece of the puzzle, imagining that even addiction can be overcome by “natural intelligence.” Her beloved teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, died at 48 from liver failure brought on by acute alcoholism, despite possessing all the insight, discipline, and intelligence a Buddhist monk can cultivate.
The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan W. Watts. Written in 1951 when people were busy building bomb shelters and conventional religion had become an empty husk to which traditionalist families clung, this work is amazingly ahead of its time. Watts establishes a distinction between thoughts and essence similar to Tolle’s, although he frames our essence as a forgetting of self which frees us to act in the service of others. Lots of AA concepts – especially love and service – show up in this book. Sadly, however, self-knowledge doesn’t save us. After several decades of alcoholic drinking, Watts died in his sleep at 58.
A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson. This book is essentially a set of Cliff Notes for A Course in Miracles – a spiritual program that some may find creepy because it uses Christian terminology to talk about internal components of the spirit. Some may also be a little weirded out by the way the Course texts were channeled to the author by a voice outside herself. That said, this book was a lifesaver to me during a highly painful period of my life. Explicating quotations from the Course at length, Williams writes compellingly of how love can assuage pain in many aspects of life.
Anatomy of the Spirit, by Carolyn Myss. It’s been a long time since I read this, and I frickin’ loaned mine to some forgotten sponsee, but I do remember greatly appreciating it. Myss is a a medical intuitive who can diagnose illness over the phone just by hearing a person’s voice. Pretty woo-woo, I know, but she’s been right way too consistently to write off as just some quacky bitch. The book takes you through a review of all seven chakras and discusses the types of energy centered in each and the forms of illness that can result when one’s inner tensions put one out of balance. The lesson I took from it was about honesty with the self – to acknowledge what we’re really feeling rather than what we “ought” to feel – and the courage to act on what we find.
Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore. A protégé of James Hillman, Thomas Moore calls on Classical myth and philosophy, Renaissance theologians, Romantic poetry, and Jungian psychology to explore what, in 1992 at the time of publication, was fairly neglected turf. He situates the soul between the body and mind and speaks of its cultivation through every aspect of living. While he refers to his book as a self-help guide, a perspective that blends psychology and spirituality, in some ways, it’s more of a manifesto. Moore speaks of “imagination” and “magic” as cures for materialism (sometimes difficult to apply) and laments at length about the soullessness of contemporary culture – so much so that the reader can feel indicted. Still, the abundance of fodder for soulful thinking in this text leads me to recommend it.
Recovery and the 12 Steps
In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, by Gabor Maté. When I first started reading, I kept “othering” the addicts surrendered to a life of chasing highs. It took a while to see I’d been just a few socially acceptable steps from that chaos as I neared hitting bottom alcoholically. I also initially “othered” Maté’s self-professed addiction as trivial. But it’s in Part III – “A Different State of the Brain” – that the rubber really hits the road in this book. WOW!!! I’ve never read such an in-depth account of the mental malfunction that makes up the nuts and bolts of addiction – ALL forms of addiction! For me, this shit is FASCINATING! Maté comes damn close to pinpointing the “curious mental blank spot.” Part IV’s account of how the addicted brain develops is almost as enthralling. Part V’s vision for reform wanders into policy, and Part VI disappointed me a bit that Maté did not pursue the 12 Steps, himself. Those 5 steps based in self-knowledge that he proposes in their stead? My alcoholism could throw a freakin’ Bacchanalia on ’em! I appreciated his version of “To Wives” as well, which boils down to ‘stay or go, but you’ll never affect an addict’s addiction.’ The last chapter, on spirituality, makes for a strong closing. “When I detach from that which is eternal in me, I detach from the authentic source of my strength and lose my voice…. The very essence of [addiction] is the drive to take from the outside that which properly arises from within.”
The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernest Kurtz . I’d recommend this to any alcoholic. Though it’s kind of a long-ass book with a number of “imperfections” itself, I personally didn’t want it to end. Much of it centers on the liberating power of humility – owning our imperfections. The early chapters review imperfection in the context of various spiritual traditions, gradually setting up the connection between compassion for self and for others as flawed. He’s 100 pages into it before – surprise! – Alcoholics Anonymous arises as the central focus of the book. Here we have an entire culture based on the freedom of acknowledging that addiction has us whupped! Kurtz goes on to examine components of spiritual fulfillment: Release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, and being-at-home. The book’s two-text format – setting off stories or narratives and then discussing them – strains a bit at times, especially when the guy in the story is clearly Kurtz. But I’m not even going to point that out.
Breathing Underwater, by Richard Rohr. A friend who quit drinking on his own gave me this book, which had bolstered his opinion of the 12 Steps considerably, as a gift. Rohr is a Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, but throughout this book he frequently expresses profound disappointment with the church as hypocritical. He aligns the 12 Steps with biblical passages, expounding on both to raise worthy insights and show the parallels of philosophy. While he’s clearly not an addict himself, he shows a great understanding of spiritual pain and the relief and growth spiritual seeking can bring.
The Sermon on the Mount, by Emmet Fox. Written in 1934, this text, as well as others by Fox, exerted a major influence on the founders of AA. Fox writes, “The Bible is really a textbook of metaphysics, a manual for the growth of the soul, and it looks at all questions from this point of view. For this reason… it uses many common terms is a far wider sense than that given to them in common use.” Basically, Fox breaks down the sermon symbolically one passage at a time and analyzes it as spiritual and psychological instruction. Many of his ‘translations’ of these spiritual principles found their way into the Big Book.
Near Death Experience
Evidence of the Afterlife, by Jeffrey Long, MD. This is by far my favorite NDE book. Long himself has never crossed over, but he has dedicated much of his life to gathering thousands of NDE accounts from all over the world, cataloged on his website (www.nderf.org). The book presents analysis of the data from these survey responses, the commonalities of which are – to me – far more compelling than any individual NDE account. Excerpts from thousands of surveys show both individual variation and recurring features, such as the tunnel, the boundary, and, for almost everyone, the indescribable bliss of the Light. As someone who has undergone an NDE, I found this book incredibly intriguing, as it highlighted the many ways in which my own journey was garden variety. I’ve also heard Dr. Long speak, and he is very much a scientist.
+/- Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, MD. There’s a bit of hubris in this bestseller. The cool part is that Alexander’s brain was so thoroughly infected that it could not possibly have dreamed or in any way physically entertained his experience – and he can explain why. But lurking under the text I felt a bit of snobbery. Alexander seems to distinguish his NDE as deeper and more significant than those of the thousands of people to have preceded him. As he says near the conclusion, “[M]y story…break[s] the back of the last efforts of reductive science to tell the world the material realm is all that exists…. I’m living proof.” And everybody else before him wasn’t?
Faith and Psychology
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung. Many years have passed since I read this, but it’s definitely on my re-read list. The intensity of Jung’s spiritual life and faith, and the extent of paranormal phenomena he recognized surprised me even years ago.
Stages of Faith, by James Fowler. I bought this book as a “spinoff” of another book that referenced it, not having realized it was deeply rooted in developmental psychology, about which I know little. Fowler gives the reader a crash course in the work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg before moving on to his own analysis of faith. The 6 levels are outlined in brief here. The vast majority of religious zealots – the ones who give faith a bad name – are stuck at stages 2 or 3. But I also know non-religious people who believe just as unquestioningly in the primacy of their own moral judgment.
Codependence Shit 🙂
The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner. Lerner looks to the primary relationships of family to see how relatives pretty much talk about each other behind their backs rather than to each other, or focus attention on a “problem” relative or spouse to avoid looking at their own issues. She has some good things to say about boundaries and claiming one’s power without imposing our will/judgment on others. I also read Dance of Intimacy, which basically recycled these ideas.
The Need to Please, by Micki Fine. Fine looks specifically at the codependence brought on by childhood wounds that lead us to go through life seeking approval and outer assurance that we are okay. Her solution is a combination of mindfulness and self-affirmation. I bought this in tandem with one of my codependent sponsees as a sort of workbook, and while we both really valued the words Fine put to our feelings, the solution is far easier grasped than practiced.
Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. The opening quote from Theodore Roosevelt alone is worth buying the book for. Brown expands on the idea of vulnerability – why we fear it and how richly it pays off. To show ourselves and share our experience is pretty much what we’re here for, but we can’t expect everyone to like it.