Category Archives: Book Reviews

Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through The Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh


Often, books find me when I need them most. They jump off book shelves into my arms, friends pass them on to me with raving reviews, or they stand out on library shelves and something inside me demands I pay attention. Recently, such a book, Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through The Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh, called to me from a garage-sale table, insisting it was meant for my eyes and would open my heart. It was a lovely hard covered edition costing only a dollar.

I’d just been laid off from my job of six years, and was starting to feel moments when fear bubbled beneath the surface of my confident and optimistic surface. “I trust the universe,” I told myself and my friends,” and I do, sort of, sometimes, except when I don’t, and become afraid.

So it seemed Zen Master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh had some wisdom and practical advice on how I could deal with that powerful and challenging human emotion that we all face on a daily basis – fear.

Whether we’re fearful of what is happening in the present or afraid of what could or will inevitably happen in our future, we all struggle with the demon of fear. We try to stuff it down and frighten it with our bravado. We try to ignore its demands for attention by eating Oreos, or watching mindless television, or shopping, or whatever drugs of choice temporarily distract us away from our disturbing feelings.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to start a practice of mindfulness by saying “hello” to our demon fear and inviting him in for a hug, for a gentle embrace along with a bit of non-judgmental chit chat: Hey fear, tell me more. Why is my sky falling? What am I really wound up about? Will death really kill me? Let’s get to the heart of the matter.

The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgment. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources. Understanding the origins of our anxieties and fears will help us let go of them. Is our fear coming from something that is happening right now or is it an old fear, a fear from when we were small that we’ve kept inside? When we practice inviting all our fears up, we become aware that we are still alive, that we still have many things to treasure and enjoy. If we are not pushing down and managing our fear, we can enjoy the sunshine, the fog, the air, and the water. If you can look deep into your fear and have a clear vision of it, then you really can live a life that is worthwhile.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

The book draws on the author’s years of spiritual practice of mindfulness in action, a practice that invites us to live in the present moment, acknowledge and embrace our fears, recognize their origins, and render them powerless. Never trite or simplistic, it offers a deep exploration of the facets and origins of numerous aspects of fear – from childhood abuse and psychological traumas to the universal and existential varieties.

I first learned of Tich Nhat Hanh a number of years ago when I stumbled upon his beautiful book, The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice. A Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and peace activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. he offers simple and powerful practices to move us into a more peaceful way of living in the world and facing our adversaries. All of us confront those adversaries, sometimes called human weaknesses, such as anger, hatred, and fear in unique ways often determined by our backgrounds and upbringing. This gentle, strong, and humble monk offers profound insight our potential to transform our pain, embrace fearlessness, and discover joy in living in the now.

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“Care of the Soul” by Thomas Moore: Reconciling the Past

A few years ago, a friend read me a passage from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life.

Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore

To care for the soul of the family, it is necessary to shift from casual thinking to an appreciation of story and character, to allow grandparents and uncles to be transformed into characters of myth…
Thomas Moore

I was so moved, I immediately went to our local used bookstore and restaurant, Revelations, to find a copy. A second home to many residents of Fairfield, Iowa, Revelations has become a community icon, offering both new and used books in all genres, and an especially diverse, eclectic selection of spiritual and self-help books. The bounty of fascinating books isn’t surprising considering Fairfield, a small town in the middle of cornfields, is abundant in spiritual seekers and avid readers. In fact, in 2012, Opera Winfrey flew into town on her private jet to meditate with other TM mediators on the MUM (Maharishi University of Management) campus.

The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

So I was delighted, but not surprised, to see several used copies of Care of the Soul on the shelves. I keep a copy of this book close at hand and refer to it often. A contemporary philosopher, activist, and intellectual, Thomas Moore lived as a monk in a Catholic religious order for twelve years, has degrees in theology , musicology , and philosophy, and has authored many extraordinary books.

“Disappointments in love, even betrayals and losses, serve the soul at the very moment they seem in life to be tragedies. The soul is partly in time and partly in eternity. We might remember the part that resides in eternity when we feel despair over the part that is in life.”
― Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

At the time, I was scheduled to fly to Washington state to visit my brother and his wife – my brother and I were in the process of mending many years of estrangement. Our relationship had been heavy baggage and I was releasing years of anger, resentment, and fear. I had even considered canceling my trip because I was concerned we would resume old patterns of behavior and our egos would become locked in battle. However, I was highly motivated to heal myself and to offer my brother the opportunity to heal as well. We’d had many phone calls and our talks held the promise we were on the brink of a breakthrough. I was feeling the need to come to terms with unresolved issues and find peace with the brother I’d demonized. I’d been preparing myself to experience forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. And, after years of meditation and talking the talk of love, it was time to transcend my attachment to my judgement and pain.

As I sat on the airplane, I pulled out my copy of Care of the Soul and opened a page to these words:

“At a certain level, it doesn’t matter whether one’s family has been largely happy, comforting, and supportive, or if there has been abuse and neglect. I’m not saying that these failures are not significant and painful or that they do not leave horrifying scars…In my practice I’ve worked with many men and women whose families were intolerably violent and abusive, and yet all of that pain has been redeemable, able to become the source of much wisdom and transformation. When we encounter the family from the point of view of the soul, accepting its shadows and its failure to meet our idealistic expectations, we are faced with the mysteries that resist our moralism and sentimentality. We are taken down to the earth, where principal gives way to life in all its beauty and horror.”

In that moment, I experienced synchronicity – the certainty these words were a gift from the universe. I was being presented with the insight I needed to propel me forward on my “hero’s” journey. The journey wasn’t about finding a false experience of perfection. It wasn’t about righting past wrongs. It was about being open-hearted, trusting that an intelligent universe was guiding my soul, about my willingness to see myself and the characters in my life as evolving beings full of complexity. I understood, we’re not entitled to perfect sentimentalized versions of idyllic family life. It’s more common for families to express both a “facade of happiness and normality, and the behind the scenes reality of craziness and abuse.”

I was clear this was a path toward greater awareness and consciousness. I understood we’re all pilgrims on this earth playing many roles – we’ve all been perpetrators and victims, and none of us are without stain. We’re complicated composites of many archetypes – some roles we judge to be praiseworthy and others cause us shame. Our families are made up of flawed people born of other wounded people who also struggled with their demons and pass their pain on to us. We’re part of it all – the mess, the chaos, the guilt and also the opportunities for reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. My job was to be present, not a slave to history – to see we are all in this together.

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Apocalypse in Literature: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I’ve recently come upon a wonderful read I want to share with other bibliophiles. Lately, I’ve been so busy and focused on the details of my little world, I’ve not made time to blog. But, I love this book, so I’m dashing off a few words to inspire you to read it.

 

The Dog Stars takes place in the future after a viral flue epidemic wipes out most of the world’s population. Climate change has ravaged the balance of the earth’s ecosystems and the trees are dying, the rivers are drying up, and the earth is warming. Civilization as we know it, has been destroyed and human beings are reduced to life in survival mode. The values, ethics, and codes of honor that had sustained society have been replace by the brutal behaviors of the physically strong. Survival now depends upon people’s ability to scavenge for food, weapons, and resources. Killing and stealing, raping and terrorizing others is now the status quo.

The world has become a post apocalyptic hell where all demons have been unleashed.

Yet, Peter Heller’s main character and narrator, Hig, is moved by the sight of the earth’s remaining birds, and is still thrilled to see the remnants of beauty found in nature. He and another survivalist live in a deserted airport in Colorodo where he’s found a small plane he uses to scout his territory. Hig loves his dog, Jasper, a blue healer, who is his healer and best friend in the literal sense. Jasper offers Hig the loyalty, the camaraderie, and the deep connection of one sentient being to another. Hig has lost his wife, his friends and family, and Jasper is the one connection that remains of his previous incarnation. It is this connection that nourishes his soul and offers him relief from the prevailing brutality of daily life.

The real Jasper - Peter Heller's Blue Healer

The real Jasper – Peter Heller’s Blue Healer

Hig, once a star gazer who was mesmerized by constellations, continues to gaze at the night sky, making up his own constellations of animals – including Jasper. Yet, he has his feet on the ground and his heart in the sky. He continues to hunt far up in the Colorado mountains where he’s still able to find elk. He continues to fish even though the the once clear streams are now muddy and the trout are gone – only carp have survived the warming of the mountain streams.

I sometimes ask myself, “Who would I be if the world falls apart?”

I became hooked from the first page of The Dog Stars. I soon became invested in Hig’s inner life, inspired by the flame of love that failed to be extinguished in the face of the darkest night of his soul. Having read Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, also a great novel and fascinating read, it’s interesting to compare how each author tells his apocalyptic tale. This subject fascinates us because we’re invited to consider how we would be, who we would become should the world crumble and we are forced into a chaotic and unfamiliar abyss. Would we become victims or perpetrators? Is there a righteous middle ground? Could we still be capable of love, of the finer feelings that define humanity? Would we simply give up or continue the fight for life?

The end of this novel does not disappoint. There is an optimism, a reminder that the narrative of our lives, however bleak in the moment, can still offer new chances to find love, to discover friendship, and to find redemption.

Peter Heller

Peter Heller

“Extraordinary. . . . One of those books that makes you happy for literature.” —Junot Díaz, The Wall Street Journal

“This end-of-the-world novel [is] more like a rapturous beginning. . . . Remarkable.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again. . . . Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” —Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf

“Heart-wrenching and richly written. . . . The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A dreamy, postapocalyptic love letter to things of beauty, big and small.” –Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl

“Heartbreaking” —The Seattle Times

“A brilliant success.” —The New Yorker

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Art Journals: A Spiritual Practice

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Art Journal Page: The Underworld by Kartika

…through writing we connect our journeys to the experience of a multitude of life travelers before and all around us. We can learn tremendously from these others and their writings, and still–we have to make our own way.
Christina Baldwin

Yesterday morning while grabbing a bagel with egg and cheese at Revelation’s, Fairfield’s used book store, coffee house, and restaurant, I found an inspiring book on art journaling as a spiritual practice – “Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest,” by Christina Baldwin. As usual, when something is on my mind or needs my attention, books on the subject tend to fall from the shelves of Revelations (like a revelation) into my hands. And, although the book was a bit tattered, it was a great deal at two dollars.

There comes a journey…and there also comes the urge to write it down, to bear witness to our experience, to share our questions and the insights that come from questioning. The spiritual journey is the one trip we are all taking together. You may be in a bookstore, a grocery store, at a restaurant, or home in bed. Whatever you think your doing, whatever else you identify as happening, you are also somewhere in the middle of your Spiritual quest.
Christina Baldwin

Christina Baldwin talks about the value of journal keeping in helping us to define and articulate our personal narrative as we take up pilgrimage and engage is the intimate dialog with self.

It took me a while to discover my tools for expressing and recording my journey toward more consciousness, or more self-awareness, on this mysterious and perplexing path of life. And even though I had meditated for many years, and had experiences of the quiet space of awareness within, I didn’t feel I had brought my inner experiences fully into the manifest world. So, I joined a fantastic writing group of wonderful, creative people who were dedicated to self-discover through creative writing. My insecurities were overridden by enthusiasm and the joy that comes from allowing oneself to free write and to keep a journal where I could record my thoughts and feelings.

Later, I took up the painting and collage – I had wonderful mentors who offered inspiration and guidance – and discovered the freedom of that wonderful medium – the art journal. The art journal gives everyone permission to be creative. The art journal invites us to think outside of the box, to be imperfect, to cross out mistakes, to use any medium we like, to experiment with the unknown. They can become our diaries where we express our thoughts, feelings, and stories in our own style, in a place we will not be judged. We never have to show anyone our pages, but we can share if we choose to. We can then find others, all over the world, who are enthusiastically engaged in a similar yet unique process of self-discovery. And, we can meet them on line or in our communities. We can find books on the subject that inspire us to move forward and become increasingly in touch with our creative muse. We can find and join in with art jounalers everywhere.

So, even if we have never thought of ourselves as creative or articulate, the truth is we can easily enter into a conscious journey of self-discovery. We can begin to explore that universal creative potential that resides within. We can pick up a pen or a simple pencil and begin. We can put pen to paper and reflect on our thoughts and feelings along the way. And, as we observe and articulate our human experiences, we get in touch with the what the author calls, The Watcher – the part of us that is separate from it all – the place of pure consciousness, the Observer.

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What Does Virginia Woolf Mean When She Says, “As a woman I have no country?”

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

― Virginia Woolf

As you know if you’ve read my recent blogs on “To The Lighthouse,” I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about Virginia Woolf and could use some help here – please let me know your thoughts on this quote. I would love to hear what you think she means. I find this quote fascinating and mysterious…

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To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – A Meditation On The Feminine Psyche

Virginia Woolf

If the ideal of manhood involves reaching destinations or conquering heights, and is a constant process of becoming, women by contrast are expected to impress by their qualities of being, by beauty rather than intellect, by serenity rather than achievement.
Introduction to “To The Lighthouse” by Julia Briggs

Well, I just finished reading “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Wolf, and was inspired to read a bit about the author’s take on life and about her own struggle with finding an identity apart from the expectations of women in Victorian society. Writing the novel, was a way for Woolf to confront her own struggle with her identity as a woman. It was also semi-autobiographical, as her characters represented parts of herself and the key players in her life – particularly her mother.

It seems Virginia Woolf’s mother was very much like Mrs. Ramsey, who is the archetype of Mother and whose role is to support and nurture her husband, children, and all those who fall into her circle. It is not an exaggeration that the life of the Mother as an archetype is dedicated to creating an atmosphere that restores, heals, supports growth, and provides the basis for the happiness and fulfillment of others, whatever the cost to the self. This expectation that women are designed to easily and willingly accept and embrace this role prevailed in Victorian times, as it has and continues to throughout history. It was considered the natural state of a natural woman to eventually become a wife and a mother and to support men to accomplish their greatness and fulfill their life purpose. Like the Madonna, this archetype offers compassion and unconditional love to others.

One of the novel’s male protagonists, Charles Tansley, asserts,

“Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” He represents a prevailing mind-set that denies women’s capacity for achievement and self-realization outside of the role of mother.

And, Woolf’s mother, like Mrs. Ramsey, embodied these qualities of the Madonna, or of perfect motherhood, and earned the devotion of her children and husband. Yet, the author found herself longing to take a different path from her mother, an inner-directed journey much like Lily Briscoe’s path, the female character in the novel who chooses to be single and is devoted to her art. Lily is Mrs. Ramsey’s opposite. Like Woolf, Lily loves the iconic Mother archetype in the form of Mrs. Ramsey, and in Woolf’s case as represented by her own mother, while at the same time, both Woolf and her fictional character, find aspects of this ideal of selflessness and willingness to cater to the demands of the male ego abhorrent.

A modern woman often feels a similar pull of forces within her own psyche. Questions arise, “How do I juggle my career or my life’s passion with my desire to be a mother and a supportive partner to my husband?” Women may wonder if they can do justice to both worlds: can they follow their dreams to be artists, adventurers, writers, senators, and choose to marry?

As women, we are still questioning who we are apart from the expectations of others. We wonder if we can “have it all” – if we can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, have our cake and eat it too. And, do we really want it all – is society now telling us we should achieve like the classic male archetypes of doers and shakers? Are we after all missing out by neglecting home and hearth?

Women in today’s world are aware they have choices and must consider the consequences of their decisions. They are seeking to understand their genuine wants and needs, and men too are continuing to re-evaluate their expectations and what it means to enter into a mutually supportive relationship as a unit of separate individuals with needs of their own. We are in the midst of evolution and exploration on our journeys toward self-realization.

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To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Feminine Archetypes


Virginia Woolf describes Mrs. Ramsey’s state of transcendence

I’m slowly moving my way through Virginia Woolf’s novel, “To The Lighthouse,” and am happy to say I’m fascinated by Woolf’s ability to penetrate the inner lives of her characters. In particular, Mrs. Ramsey, a key figure in the novel, represents the archetype of “Mother.” She is a fertile and compassionate care taker, whose mission is to nurture others. Even as she struggles with her desire to be whole unto herself, she is pulled over and over again into the fray of life – to her duties to her husband, to the tasks of childcare, and to her habit of fixing the lives of everyone who becomes part of her inner circle. Here is a passage that takes us into Mrs. Ramsey’s mind when she experiences a respite from doing and busyness,

“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.”

As someone who has meditated for most of my life, I recognize the need for deep silence and non-doing. I also remember the pull I felt as a young mother myself when I wanted my time and my space but my child needed me. It was not always an effortless flow from self-absorption to self-sacrifice.

And then, as she continues describing to herself what I see as a kind of meditation,

“Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity;…”

And yes, I understand that shift from being in a hurry to relaxing into a state of effortless and rest.

Lily Briscoe achieves transcendence through art
So, the beautiful Mrs. Ramsey, mother of eight and wife to an insecure husband she feels obliged to adore, is a sharp contrast to Woolf’s character, Lily Briscoe, an artist and single woman. Lily refuses to assume the role that Victorian society assigns to women – it is women who are designed by providence to support the male dominated social structures by staying in their proper places, places that do not threaten men. The women of her time are expected to offer men assurance that their efforts produce products of worth and value, while woman are not expected to do the same and reassurance is not reciprocated.

Yet Lily paints without caring about the product. She is creative because the act of self-expression brings her immense joy and a sense of transcendence that she cannot find elsewhere. As a woman who has both raised a child and been married and is also one who must also be free to express my creativity and does not want to be involved in any career that involves the full time nurturing of others, I relate a bit more to Lily Briscoe than to Mrs. Ramsey. And like Lily, I adore Mrs. Ramsey – she is after all, the Madonna – an archetype that inspires awe and respect.

Both women are creative – Mrs. Ramsey has created eight children who are the recipients of a nurturing and attentive quality that I can only call love. Her creative acts include a kind of subtle orchestration of the people and events in her life that is designed to ensure that life itself continues to flourish in all the conventional ways. Her archetype is the force that ensures stability and continuity. Yet, once the play stops around her, she realizes the toll her role takes. Lily admires Mrs. Ramsey without envy – so far in my reading, she is firm in her sense of self and clear about the value of the path she follows.

I cannot wait to see how things unfold as I get more and more into heads and the hearts of these fascinating women, women we can all relate to as we see in them bits and pieces of ourselves.

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