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My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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Religion

“The Book of Joy” His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

This one’s for you if… you struggle to find lasting contentment regardless of the situation you find yourself in, and particularly if awareness of the suffering in the world is a barrier to happiness.

This book is the result of a week spent in the company of these two inspirational spiritual leaders, asking poignant questions about their views on finding lasting happiness. It is immensely powerful, and I have found it’s words circling my heads in moments of anger/frustration/disappointment and sadness since reading it. At the end, the eight pillars of joy are described: humility, humour, acceptance, compassion, perspective, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity. I have found it to be very true that in each challenging situation, embracing one of these can stop it from getting to you. Take for example arriving at the airport to realise that when your flight time changed, it actually changed to the day before so that you had missed it and now had to pay a not insignificant sum to get to your destination. Previously I would have been angry, frustrated with myself, felt guilty for the extra expenditure and impatient at having to spend another 5 hours in the airport. But with the Dalai Lama’s wisdom swimming in my ears, I accepted that I couldn’t change the situation, and i was very grateful that my bank account had enough money for the new flight – talk about win win!

Dalai Lama “Sadly, many of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves. Often it comes from the negative tendencies of the mind, emotional reactivity, or from our inability to appreciate and utilise the resources that exist within us. The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can. We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy.” p14

Eighth century Buddhist master Shantideva “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” p36

“Often we hear about another’s tragedy, and it makes us feel better about our own situation…He [DL] was not contrasting his situation with others, but uniting his situation with others, enlarging his identity and seeing that he and the Tibetan people were not alone in their suffering. This recognition that we are all connected…is the birth of empathy and compassion.” p37

DT on Mandela “The suffering in prison helped him to become more magnanimous, willing to listen to the other side. To discover that the people he regarded as his enemy, they too were human beings who had fears and expectations. And they had been moulded by their society.” p44

DT “I could not speak as I am speaking without having learned it from other human beings. I could not walk as a human being. I could not think as a human being, except through learning it from other human beings. I learned to be a human from other human beings. We belong in this delicate network.” p60

DL “When anger develops, think, what is the cause? And then also think, what will be the result of my anger, my angry face, or my shouting? Then you will realise that anger is not helpful.” p103

Gordon Wheeler “grief is the reminder of the depth of our love. Without love, there is no grief.” p113

DT “Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.” p122

Tibetan Buddhist saying about the causes of suffering “Envy toward the above, competitiveness before the equal, and contempt toward the lower.” p135

“The latest brain scan research suggests that we have a rather binary understanding of self and other and that our empathy circuits do not activate unless we see the other person as part of our own group.” p183

DT “Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” p211

“wisdom is like rainwater- both gather in the low places.” p212

“Acceptance…is the opposite of resignation and defeat…Their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is. The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.” p223

“our responsibility is to pursue the goal with all the dedication we can muster, do the best we can but not become fixated on a preconceived notion of a result. Sometimes, actually quite often, our efforts lead to an unexpected outcome that might be even better than what we originally had in mind.” p227

DT “no one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable.” p231

“We often do not feel empathy or connection for those who we consider strangers…Imagine their life, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their disappointments and their suffering. Recognise that, just like you, they wish to achieve happiness and to avoid even the slightest suffering…you do not need an introduction because you already share a great bond- your humanity.” p321

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“The Untethered Soul” Michael Singer

This one’s for you if you want to be more consistently happy, at peace with your thoughts and in control of your emotions.

Have you ever realised how much sensory information you ignore in a day? How many different smells you don’t even notice? How often you throw your food down your gullet while you think of the million and one other things you need to do? Do you let what other people say dominate your thoughts for 5, 10, 15 minutes, or even the rest of the day? Do you notice how you stand up tall and walk with a spring in your step when the sun is out but hunch your shoulders and look down at the ground when it’s raining? Are you aware of the voice inside your head, and how it dominates your thought processes like a dogmatic dictator? No? Well you soon will be!

I imagine that the difference between a good self help book and a great one is how easy it is to incorporate the changes into your life. Well by that benchmark this one is AMAZING. It is genuinely LIFE CHANGING.

 

We all know (or think we know) that we should live “in the moment”, that we should appreciate how precious life is, that we shouldn’t worry about things outside of our control, but the truth is that many of us do. So how do you change that? Read this book! But in the meantime, read its most powerful messages:

  1. Unconditional happiness. The book helps you to realise you have control over your happiness*. You let stupid things like a late bus, a traffic jam, tesco being out of stock of something you need, the lack of a reply to your text bring you down. Learn to ask yourself, do I really want to let my happiness to be conditional on this? No? So….
  2. Open your heart and let it go. Why would you let something hang over you? Does it actually matter?
  3. Appreciation that your breath is your oldest, most loyal and most supportive friend. It is LITERALLY always there for you. A deep breath has the power to help you get control of your nerves, slow your heart rate, help digestion and improve your circulation. So be aware of the times you stop breathing deeply, and turn to your breath when you feel unsettled.

*Without going into a full discussion of free will and its limitations, I want to touch on the fact that it would be incredibly damaging to assume that happiness is something that everybody can control. The sad truth is that that is clearly not the case. You don’t need to have experienced mental health problems for yourself to be able to appreciate that. I think the value of Singer’s idea of unconditional happiness is as a tool to change your thought process around how emotionally involved you can become in events that really don’t matter.

This is as close as I think I will ever get to the relationship of a Christian with the Bible, a Jew with the Torah, a Muslim with the Quran and so on. A book that grounds me, that gives advice for any and all situations. A book that I want to go out and tell the world about because I genuinely believe its message is universal. A book that has changed my thought process in a way that has quickly and vastly improved my life. I am kinder to people, my mood is more constant, I actually taste my food, I am more patient and I don’t let the little things drag me down so much. So thank you, Michael Singer, for clearing out my head of all its junk, and giving me the tools to keep it clean. (I now imagine my mind to be the brain equivalent of a simple, tidy, neutral scandi chic living room).

 

“you are not the voice of the mind- you are the one who hears it.” p10

“to attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problems instead of being lost in them.” p16

“You don’t fight the mind. In fact, you don’t even try to change it. You just make a game out of relaxing in the face of its melodrama.” p66

“No matter what it is, let it go. The bigger it is, the higher the reward of letting go and the worse the fall if you don’t. It’s pretty black-and-white. You either let go or you don’t. There really isn’t anything in between.” p79

“you don’t want the weakest part of you running your life. You want to be free of this. you want to talk to people because you find them interesting, not because you’re lonely. You want to have relationships with people because you genuinely like them, not because you need for them to like you. You want to love because you truly love, not because you need to avoid your inner problems.” p85

“when your mind starts telling you what you have to do to make everything inside okay, don’t buy into what it’s telling you. The truth is, everything will be okay as soon as you are okay with everything.” p95

“It’s not that your mind has to be quiet. You be quiet. You, the one inside watching the neurotic mind, just relax. You will then naturally fall behind the mind because you have always been there. You are not the thinking mind; you are aware of the thinking mind.” p95

“Most people can hardly imagine what it would be like to be at peace with inner disturbance. But if you do not learn to be comfortable with it, you will devote your life to avoiding it.” p103

“the events that happen in the moment belong to the moment. They don’t belong to you. They have nothing to do with you. You must stop defining yourself in relationship to them, and just let them come and go.” p134

“you’re generally using your will to resist one of two things: that which has already happened or that which hasn’t happened yet. You are sitting inside resisting impressions from the past or thoughts about the future. Think of how much energy is wasted resisting what has already happened.” p151

“Even if something terrible happens, view it as just another experience of life. Death has made you a great promise in which you can find deep peace. The promise is that all things are temporal; they are all just passing through time and space. If you have patience, this too will pass.” p163

“Don’t you understand that every minute you’re a step closer to death? This is how to live your life. You live it as though you were on the verge of death, because you are.” p164

 

 

“The Prophet” Kahlil Gibran

This one’s for you if you’re interested in what appears to be a non religious book of morals.

I was given this funny little book by my dad and I’m still not exactly sure how to describe it. Gibran is a poet and philosopher, but The Prophet is like its own wee holy book, and includes some of the most powerful quotes I have come across. Maybe it IS a holy book? So what makes a holy book a holy book? The association with an organised religion? But while we’re at it, what is religion? What makes a set of beliefs ‘qualify’ as a religion? Is it being part of a group? Is it how we identify with a set of beliefs? And isn’t it funny to think of how many people who may not formally identify with a religion live their lives by morals or ideals that are in fact the same principles that other people call religion? So what is the difference between these people and those that call themselves “religious”? Hmm…

Love. “And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.” p14

Marriage “Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” p17

Giving. “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?…Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?” p20

Work. “And all work is empty save when there is love…Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.” p29/30

Sorrow. “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” p33

Punishment. “And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone. Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone. And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts: the murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder, And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.” p44

Reason and Passion. “Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite…Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.” p55

Talking. “And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.” p66

Death. “If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide into the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of Spring.” p87

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.” p93

“That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined. Is it not your breath that has erected and hardened the structure of your bones?” p101

 

“The Book of the People” A.N.Wilson

This one’s for you if you’d like to understand more about the Bible.

As humans, we live quite happily in the knowledge that we all have favourite colours that differ, favourite singers that differ, favourite clothes and shops that differ, hobbies and interests that differ, favourite foods and drinks that differ. I could go on but I think you get the gist. For some reason we just can’t quite accept that we have different tastes when it comes to faith. I read this book in an effort to deepen my understanding of the Christian faith. There was no particular reason for picking the Bible over the religious text of any other religion, it just so happened that this book caught my eye, partly because the author has gone through periods of being both religious and an atheist. Having come to the realisation that the Bible can mean very different things to different people within Christianity, I immediately felt ignorant that I had thought of people within a faith as uniform in some way. Which takes you back to my first sentence. Round and round in circles, appreciating the diversity of human culture. Something to celebrate. To rejoice in. To respect and have compassion for. Now more than ever before. Read these quotes to the end- the last two will reinforce this message.

“None of these documents [New Testament writings] provide more than fragmentary hints of what the actual historical Jesus did or said…They are gifts of an inherited tradition of faith. They are not ‘research materials’: they are the living words of an already existing tradition, which worships Christ as redeemer.” p20

Reading the New Testament “the understanding can never grow unless, as in the middle of a baffling foreign liturgy, we allow it to speak to us, rather than imposing our prejudices and presuppositions upon it.”p22

“No doubt the religiously based conflicts in the world originated for any number of psyschological, historical and sociological reasons…fought between people who entertained different views on the Bible. And these views were not based on reasonable difference. The bitterest wars, the bloodiest battles, were fought between people of near- total ignorance.”p29

On fundamentalists who take the Bible’s words literally. “Obscure bits of the Bible, perhaps scratched on a piece of papyrus in the second century BC, relating to some Bronze Age myth, were seriously produced, in the US and GB, as reasons for objecting to medical research, or liberalisation of certain laws. Questions about how we could teach our children science are also obscured by arcane twisting of the Bible, to make it a geological or a biological textbook, set up in competition against the discoveries of post- 1850 scientists.” p30

Religious fundamentalists:“they expect other people to live their lives in a particular way because of their crazy way of interpreting the Bible.” p40/1

“because they do not read the Bible, because they do not read it over and over again as their forebears did, and live in it, these anti Godders and secularists have forgotten, totally, what the experience of reading the Bible is actually like”p46

“One the one hand, the written- still more the engraved- word has authority. It conveys, and reflects, power. Write something down and we are beginning to move towards a time when it is unchangeable”. To provide some context, the author was discussing the effect of making the Bible into a book. While this made it accessible to everyone who could read, it did away with the religious authorities who guarded its metaphorical meaning. p77

“Those who regard it as mental poison blind themselves to the forcefulness of religion as a power for good against monstrous injustices.” p84

“the really disturbing thing about the Book of Job, as about the Bible as a whole, is its refusal to answer the questions which it so honestly and devastatingly puts.” p108

“Rather than allowing these words to infuse their imaginations, some human beings would prefer to read the Bible ‘literally’, deriving from it not just the false impressions but shutting themselves off, not merely from an understanding of the Bible, but an understanding of anything at all.” p120

“But are we going to throw away all our religious inheritance, and two and a half thousand year of shared reading of the Bible, because we can’t be bothered to read it imaginatively?” p122

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”p168

“Reading is always a two stage process, even if you are reading a newspaper or a cheap crime story: there is the process of you absorbing the text, and of the text itself working some performative act…making her or him a different person.” 183

“The Bible is the Book of the People, and we understand it by listening to what other people have made of it. Some of these people are so different from us that it is quite inconceivable that we shall ever think in exactly their way. This does not mean we have nothing to learn from them…they were human too, and some of their insights can help us.” p187

“It contains much that is puzzling, much that is repellant, much that is alarming, as does the human soul.” p191

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