Category Archives: Spirit & Religion

The Great Work of Your Life – Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu Institute for extraordinary Living, undertakes the challenge of relating the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the tricky prospect of discovering–and embracing–your true dharma. The Great Work of Your Life is the result. It’s a very easy read, but a reflective one. Cope tells the tale of Arjuna the warrior at the moment of battle, collapsing to the floor of his chariot in despair. In front of him are lined up neighbors and kinsmen who will die at his hand or kill him. Yet it is his destiny as a great warrior to proceed. He is paralyzed and he begs his old friend and charioteer for advice. What he gets is full-bore Krishna (the charioteer) and a relentless instruction about surrender, action and detachment that Arjuna can’t quite grasp for a while.

Cope relates the Gita to the lives of celebrated and ordinary figures: Gandhi, Beethoven, Camille Corot, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, a priest caught in a mid-life identity crisis, a Jungian therapist facing her own mortality, a college friend who believed he was the reincarnation of John Keats, the poet Keats himself.  The stories illustrate the ways in which people encounter their dharma, deny it, accept it, live it. Jane Goodall was drawn to animals from the time she was a young child and had the good fortune to have a sympathetic and supportive mother. Thoreau tried his luck as a writer in greedy Gotham, was chewed up and spit out and repaired to light isolation at Walden Pond (his mother brought him sandwiches and cookies–not the wilds of Borneo) to figure out who he was and what he should do about that. Walt Whitman wrote and rewrote his genius work Leaves of Grass but was entering a period of serious aridity when the Civil War broke out and he found himself all over again caring for wounded soldiers. Robert Frost turned his back on the literary world and bought a farm so he could write poems after he repaired a few fences and gathered the apples.

They are wonderful teaching tales and Cope skillfully draws the heart of the message from each life. The task of discovering your dharma and turning it into the hours and days of your life is similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the invitation to enter the unknown, through initial hesitations, eventual trust, the loss of all familiar, fear, epiphany, the forging of a new identity, a re-entry to the known world and the integration of this richer new self and all it implies. Embrace your dharma, Cope asserts, and things unfold without much prodding. You can’t evade loss and pain but you encounter ecstasy and calm assurance. It sounds like mindfulness to the nth degree–you live in the now, fulfilled and contented and very present, fully alive, even when facing death.

I liked the book a lot. I’m going to haul out my Mahabharata and re-read the Bhagavad Gita as soon as I have time to think about it and take it slow. Some things really can’t be rushed (another teaching in The Great Work...). This book didn’t fall into my lap–I was looking for it when I found it. But it arrived at a convenient moment, as I sunset a business and way of working that’s no longer working for me and attempt to create something new and exhilarating in the ruins. If I don’t have to return The Great Work of Your Life to the library before next week, I might just read it again.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling   Stephen Cope | Bantam Books  2012

Holy the Firm – Annie Dillard

I’ve been a fan of Annie Dillard forever. She turns woods walking into a profoundly mystical experience. And her prose–her prose hovers always at the edge of poetry. In this slim collection of three connected essays, it slips over the edge. Holy the Firm is purely poetic. Every word seems chosen from a depth of meditation like some bit of mineral from the ocean floor. Dillard uses words as she imagines them, not as we remember them. She makes language into music and ideas into fragments of sky. And she is as ruthlessly brutal as the wonders and horrors she describes.

In Holy the Firm, Dillard watches a moth stick itself into the molten wax of a candle, burst into flame, curl, shrivel, ash apart until it is only a slender husk, a vertical wick for the flame. She reads by its light for two hours.  The metaphor is apt for an artist–a writer–and stunning. And terrible. Her cat brings gifts of dead birds. She tosses the cat out the door and a bird over the porch rail for whatever fate of consummation awaits it. And she writes: “Into this world fell a plane…It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed in the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face.”

Now let your breath out. This is a child, not a moth, and this, too, happened at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where Dillard was holed up in a one-room house with a glass wall facing West. The weight of words is no different for a view of the mountains, a spider behind the toilet, a human tragedy of unimaginable agony.  The writer tries to make sense of it, tries for the numinous in all of it, supposes the ruined child will be gifted with a wisdom far beyond her years. Better she should have a face. But how do we comprehend the unapproachable? Where in the sea or sky is there space to contain the unforgivable, the inexplicable?

A moth becomes a wick that contains the flame. The bright hope of a child’s life flames out. There are islands hidden behind islands in the mist. Dillard believes in a god who has something to do with all of it. She accepts the hardness of rock, the vulnerability of frailty. And she must wait, at the water’s edge, at the place where the land ends, for the exact word, the never-before-used-in-exactly-this-way word, to fit the puzzle of her observations precisely within the frame of a skinny book, page by page.

Holy the Firm   Annie Dillard | Harper Colophon  1984

Old Turtle – Douglas Wood

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Old Turtle is a philosophical picture book with astonishing, fabulous watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee and a message about open-mindedness and tolerance.  The concept is simple and profound. I have a pronounced “God” allergy but even that doesn’t obscure the beauty of the logic in the story. And the ideas are, sadly, all too relevant to our messed-up world.

In the beginning, all the flora, fauna, geology and elements exist in gorgeous harmony. (The art is divine.) Everything speaks the same language until one day there is a whisper of contention. It begins with the breeze, defining the sacred in an inflated version of its own image–a restless wind. A stone asserts that the heart of everything is an immovable rock. And so it goes. All the bits and beings of the earth have conflicting points of view, strong opinions and deaf ears. The clamor is thunderous until a deep voice calls, “STOP!” The voice belongs to the sage and silent Old Turtle and the long speech that follows describes the ineffable as all–all the winds and rocks and rivers and birds and sky and plants and marvels of the magical planet are one inseparable spirit.  (I am smudging the repeated use of the term God here because I’m not kidding about that allergy.)

Old Turtle calms everyone down and then predicts the arrival of an even more wondrous creation, a reflection of the divine and a blessed steward of the planet. You know how that turns out–hate, cross-bows, drones, environmental devastation, ignorance, righteousness, more hate. But the turtle has a few minimalist lectures left and she trains her powerful voice and vision on the squabbling people with hopeful results. We have yet to see how this turns out, although early indications are not promising.  Amazing art, wonderful message, a gentle fable to initiate conversations about Important Things with small children. And a nice reminder of what could be to adults.

Old Turtle   Douglas Wood |  Scholastic  2001

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains

And

Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind

indifferent   

Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Priestess of the Fire Temple – Ellen Evert Hopman

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Priestess of the Fire Temple is more of a primer than a novel. Ellen Evert Hopman, an American druid and master herbalist, has written several works of fiction that imagine what might have happened during the time when druidry was systematically obliterated by christianity. This book tells the story of Aislinn, a princess, druid-trained, whose father, the king, entrusts her education to the druids who have always worked with the spirits of his land. Aislinn’s mother pays her no attention–the child is as unruly as her bright red hair and the cool blond ice princess of a queen has eyes only for her son.

As soon as Aislinn turns fourteen, her father announces her marriage to the son of a neighboring ruler as a diplomatic effort to create peace betwen the warring tribes. And she is bundled up, away from all she knows and loves, and carried off to a cold country by a husband who has no use for her. Life quickly becomes complicated when the prince takes a concubine, the land falls into famine and the army is defeated. Aislinn knows the old ways will restore balance but no one is interested in her knowledge.

Aislinn becomes a prisoner of war and meets her soulmate, a fellow pagan who does his best to protect her and is killed in a battle as Aislinn hides nearby. She escapes alone, knowing that she will be a valuable prize to bring down a kingdom if she is captured–and her adventures shift into a mythical hero’s journey as she travels back to her home in disguise, goes to a druid settlement to study with the fire priestess, discovers a shocking truth about her mother, learns the secrets of honoring the land and communing with the elements, hunts for healing herbs and observes the seasonal celebrations and the astrological calculations that predict eclipses and events in the heavens. The passion for her slain lover haunts her, even as she envisions a new life for herself as a druid priestess. And then she receives word that her father is dying and has sent for her.

The book is written in plain language with plenty of Irish that, thankfully, is explained in a glossary. The vernacular seems a bit contemporary for the historical setting of the story but it is fairly easy to follow.  Aislinn is an intrepid soul but she is constantly manipulated throughout the story, which is somewhat jarring. I was fascinated by the information about druidry–there are few records of what actually occurred in those lost times and modern druids have sifted through fact, myth, and fable to reimagine practices, prayers and beliefs. So, I liked it because Hopman speaks with authority and the world she creates is logical and engaging. If you have no interest at all in druidry, I’m not sure what your reaction would be. Marion Zimmer Bradley weaves tales full of poetry and magic that captue the Merlins, Vivianes and Morgans in vivid detail. Hopkins writes educational stories, one of the traditional duties of the bard, if a lesser art form.  

Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid’s Tale   Ellen Evert Hopman | Llewellyn Publications   2012

Open Heart, Open Mind – Tsoknyi Rinpoche

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Open Heart, Open Mind is a how-to manual–how to prepare for and practice as a bodhisattva–one who lives to bring enlightenment to all people. In practical terms, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a very practical Buddhist, that means learning to access the deep wells of peace and knowing within us and sharing what we have achieved with gratitude and generosity. 

Rinpoche was born in Nepal to a Tibetan Buddhist family with a distinguished line of meditation teachers. At age eight, he was identified as a tulku, a reincarnation of an important teacher. By the time he was twelve, he had traveled from his family home in a small village in Nepal to Tashi Jong monastery for training. During his intensive studies, the boy discovered that his calling was not to monkhood but to the life of a householder and teacher of the Dharma. Today he is a highly-regarded international Buddhist teacher who uses prosaic examples to deliver esoteric knowledge that is accessible to both serious and curious seekers.

The book takes you through the simplest teachings about the mind and the heart and goes deeply into mindfulness practice and the ways to approach it. Rinpoche details the personal benefits from the growing mastery of mindfulness, a slowing down and a paying attention that makes space for inner peace and the discovery of who we really are. I particularly liked the examples that explained some of the workings of the mind. Anyone who has ever meditated knows that the chatter of our minds is relentless, filling our consciousness and sometimes our unconcious with thought after thought–most of it just junk messages and old tapes on an endless loop. Try to clear the mind, to make it perfectly still, and the thoughts rally like a third-rate street parade band, discordant, noisy and confusing.

But you can contemplate clouds scudding across a blue sky to put those thoughts in context. Different people may see clouds as a sign of impending rain that will flood a river or rescue parched crops. Clouds can give shade and they can soak you–when it is cold enough they can cover you in snow. But the sky is just empty space and it doesn’t change. Whatever you think of the clouds, the thoughts, the sky-mind stays the same.  Too often we fail to notice the sky and focus on the clouds.

The message in Open Heart… is that we can and must awaken the power of love to inform and illuminate our lives and Rinpoche gives pragmatic exercises to put the teachings into action. From listening to the wisdom of the body to connecting with our essential joyous nature, this is a compassionate primer that urges you to be kind to yourself as you begin the great work of uncovering the truth about life and your real purpose in this world. It is anecdotal, funny, historic, meticulous in its depiction of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and inspirational enough to send you to your meditation cushion and the beginning of a great bodhisattva adventure.   

Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love   Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson | Harmony Books   2012

Stone Soup – Jon J. Muth

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Stone Soup is an old folk tale that appears in many cultures and often features a trickster wanderer. I think of the purveyors of stone soup as bards, bringing the magic of imagination into the real world and changing what we perceive. In Jon J. Muth’s beautifully-illustrated version, the chefs are three Zen (Cha’an) monks in ancient China, searching for happiness in a poor village. The rich, traditional watercolors bely the impoverished hearts of the villagers and draw you through the pages. Muth has included a lot of symbolism in his art–from the color yellow which is typically reserved for the emperor to a stack of rounded stones that looks like a sitting Buddha.

The mendicant monks are traveling in the countryside when a young one asks the eldest to explain the meaning of happiness. Instead of a talk, the old monk shows him. They approach a picturesque village that has been through hard times. No one will speak to them, answer the door or offer them hospitality. So they collect a pile of twigs, set a tin pot on top and fill the pot with water. Then they light the fire and begin to scour the ground for stones. A small girl in a yellow dress runs out to ask what they are doing and helps them to find the perfect stones. Then she brings a much larger pot from her home to hold all the delicious soup. Soon people are slipping out of their shuttered houses to check out the disturbance.

The monks lament that they have no salt and pepper for the soup so a villager runs to get some. Then another villager brings a basketful of carrots. Soon everyone is getting in on the act–mushrooms, onions, spices, and dumplings all go in the enormous pot. Each household tries to outdo the others in what it contributes. And the monks do make a fragrant, hearty pot of stone soup–enough to feed the whole village. Naturally, the villagers set up a festive banquet and bring all the trimmings to enjoy with their stone soup and then vie to see who will host the distinguished monks in their homes.

Stone Soup is a charming story that shouldn’t be limited to very young bibliophiles. It’s a potent reminder that the power of imagination is limitless when it meets an open heart.  The big life lessons can be gentle ones, delivered as easily as the old monk planned his simple soup. Muth’s work is captivating and thoughtful and Stone Soup is a book worth collecting and keeping–a cookbook for the soul.

Stone Soup   Jon J. Muth | Scholastic Press   2003

Soul Retrieval – Sandra Ingerman

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Sandra Ingerman’s first book about shamanism, Soul Retrieval, is very explicit about journeying to find and restore soul parts that have split off due to trauma. Soul retrieval is at the heart of shamanic practice and involves a journey to the Upper, Middle or Lower World, often accompanied by a power animal and helping spirits. The book assumes you either accept the validity of shamanism or are curious enough to explore what it looks like and what you might expect if you consult a shaman.

I like Ingerman’s writing about her field–she isn’t all hung up in evil entities and the sorts of dark esoteric methods the few male shamans I have heard speak seem to focus on. Instead, she relates her knowledge to the work of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade and other cultural anthropologists who give traditional healing practices as much weight as contemporary science. Her view allows for a serious amount of environmental concern–Ingerman feels that we are out of balance and that causes the imbalances that threaten the planet. She spoke about those threats early and often–this book was first written in 1991 and updated in 1998. 

But the main game is the journey to recover soul pieces split off due to childhood or even infant abandonment, rejection, accident, abuse or other painful and damaging incidents. This happens when the incident is too painful to be faced head-on and is a protective measure, aimed at preserving the self in a threatening situation. Such a reaction can occur at any time–divorce is one occasion when the soul may fragment; daddy raging at you for some perceived teenage shortcoming might be another.  Serious illness or surgery can cause the soul to splinter. There are as many reasons to misplace some soul as there are people. The loss of those soul bits leaves an uncomfortable, confusing and derailing gap in a life and shamans have ceremonies to restore a person to wholeness and begin to repair the damage. It’s very interesting material and makes intuitive sense.

The book details (with composite characters to preserve privacy) individual journeys to find and bring back missing soul parts for clients who experience physical and emotional sensations when the soul is “blown” back into their hearts by the shaman. The significance of drumming and using crystals and rattles is explained and there are photographs of carved soul catchers–exquisite artifacts from Native American tribes–used to hold the retrieved soul pieces on the journey back to the present moment and the client.

As a writer, I find the concept and trappings of the shaman’s journey as compelling as those of the hero’s journey. The work seems to fill a void overlooked by left-brain science with something juicier and more alive. Healing a life is work nearly everyone can benefit from and understanding this alternative way to restore integrity is both useful and fascinating. Sandra Ingerman makes the subject accessibe for a wide audience of skeptics and believers with her straightforward narrative of her own experience as both subject and shaman, and her no-nonsense prose.

Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self   Sandra Ingerman | HarperCollins   1991-8

The Book – Alan Watts

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Reading Alan Watts always leaves me feeling like a tangled snarl of string. He begins with a compelling premise, elucidates his considerable thinking on the matter, amplifying his views with quotes from poets like William Blake and from various scriptures and sacred writings. And, by the end of the argument, I have followed him down into a place where the light is either too faint or too glaring for me to see properly. I can’t get to the end of the lesson. Mostly there doesn’t seem to be an end—which is probably what he meant anyway.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is typically brilliant, ahead of its time and infinitely frustrating. Watts examines the social conditioning that teaches us we are separate beings in a physical world of distinct objects and boundaries. He counters this assumption with a mash-up of Vedanta and contemporary physics to assert that our personal selves don’t actually exist. Well, they don’t actually exist as independent beings, disconnected from everything else. We are, in fact, entirely interconnected—as much to the city bus as to the irritating dolt in the next cubicle. And to Mother Theresa and Oprah and all of our friends and to every river, cucumber, butterfly and star.

If your life is a bowl of cherry pits, the collective unconscious, including your own unconscious, created that for your awareness. Or possibly you perceived those pits from the specific level of your own awareness. Sigh.

Some of the most fascinating ideas in Watts’ book (first published in 1966) are his evaluations of the limits of technology and the damage we are doing to the planet with extraordinary depletion of its resources—all because we don’t realize that we are both divine energy and the ground of the universe. We are the creators and to wander around deluded about that is to be unhappy and dissatisfied and to make a complete muck of life.

Nearly half a century ago, Watts was warning about the loss of privacy, technology creep, the eventual restriction of travel, artificially-created foods, the destruction of the environment and the standardization that transforms Waikiki Beach into any island beach anywhere—or maybe an especially theatrical resort pool area far from a real ocean. Wonder what he would have had to say about reality TV?

The monetization of work exhausts you and turns you and your product/service/labor/innovation into cheap commodities. This holds for burger jockeys as well as architects, scientists, housemaids and oil paint slingers (otherwise known as artists). The twin skills of attention and awareness can reveal glimpses of your true nature. We need to acknowledge the existence of magic in the world because, at its heart, all of this is a mystery and there are no words that can adequately capture it, no philosophy that can serve it up to us in neat digestible bits.

I wish I could get a solid handle on the brain of Alan Watts. I think he is right and intellectually dazzling but what the words represent is elusive. I agree we are deluded—I am deluded. But my simple soul would do cartwheels at some graspable notion of how to wake up. Clearly, I will have to read The Book again.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are   Alan Watts | Vintage Books  1989