Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

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

The Classic of Tea – Lu Yu

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It’s worth hunting for a copy of the 1974 translation of the eighth-century The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu if you are fascinated by tea lore. Lu Yu was an herbalist and tea master who wrote the first and the definitive manual about Chinese tea preparation. His chapters include explicit instructions for the utensils used in preparation and every step of the ceremony involved in brewing fresh tea. The best ladles should be made from pear wood. The best water is from mountain streams. River water may do but it should never be from a part of the river that is turbulent or cascades. Well water is “quite inferior.” 

Tea, according to Lu Yu, is best picked in the second, third and fourth moons, early in the morning when the dew is cool and only on a perfectly clear day. The finest tea leaves may “shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots…look like the dewlap of a wild ox…like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak…” Lu Yu was also a poet of some note and he waxes most eloquent about his favorite beverage.

Tea is a complex subject, the most common drink in the world beside water for thousands of years, and one that has elaborate rituals surrounding it in several cultures. The Chinese started the whole thing and Lu Yu’s “best seller” on tea spawned generations of competition to find and serve the most exquisite teas with the most extraordinary accessories. Tea is a culture and Lu Yu is its guru and he campaigned for purity in cultivation, roasting and brewing.

Not for Lu Yu were flavored teas with the base additions of spices or other herbs. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches…”  So, let’s just be really clear about that.

There is some great dish about royal and distinguished tea drinkers of the time and careful lists of the best tea-producing regions–some of those areas still grow the most sought-after teas.  I collected some rare teas on trips to China that are fun to brew and delicious to drink. I’m pleased that many of them would have met Lu Yu’s exacting standards. But his touchy spirit has infused the business of tea even today. I was able to find tiny-rosebud tea at a little shop in Hong Kong, along with some very fine white tea. The shopkeeper, however, made it plain that she was selling the rose tea to me under duress. I suppose ignorant foreigners get special dispensation. No true Chinese ch’a connoisseur would dream of polluting delicate taste buds with anything as fey as rosebud tea. Lu Yu, I’m reasonably certain, would be haughtily dismissive. 

The Classic of Tea   Lu Yu (translation by Francis Ross Carpenter) | Little, Brown and Company   1974

The Magic – Rhonda Byrne

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I never read bazillion-seller The Secret, although I did see lengthy excerpts from the movie. It seemed like a very cleverly packaged version of the Law of Attraction and other manifestation practices based on older traditions of being in harmony with what surrounds you. Interesting enough. So, as I reluctantly returned A. N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans (great book) to the library half-read–can’t renew it if someone else is waiting for it–I picked up Rhonda Byrne’s The Magic which was sitting on the new-book shelf. I believe in magic–a deep, pagan, animistic, astrophysical, inspiriting force that is omnipresent, innate and infrangible–and I am always happy to explore theories and thinking about it. This was not that book.

What The Magic is is a book-length reminder to practice gratitude, not a bad thing to consider. Real gratitude, the understanding and appreciation for what exists in our lives, is more or less trained out of us in this consumer culture. Gratitude requires reflection, focus, savoring the moment, recognizing a true gift, seeing with the intelligence of the heart. It is very positive and very powerful and can shift your mood, your behavior, your relationships, and your beliefs almost instantly. For me, at least, it’s a lesson to learn over and over again and has more to do with stepping outside the facade of this illusory world and into clear, spare being. Needs more work.

Byrne has produced a workbook with essays in the popular self-help format that targets a general audience. Some of the logic is, um, forced. It’s predictable. You could find several suggestions silly. But beneath the packaged lessons are a few good ideas and a basic premise that can open your eyes. Think about what is good and delightful and valuable for you. Be glad you know it/have it/enjoy it. Say so, if only to yourself. Gratitude can push back the veil that obscures the light we really live in.

I won’t take up Byrne’s 28-day chapter-by-chapter program to change my life–there are stronger ways for me to tap into magic.  But I do like the advice about the magic rock that you hold every night before you go to sleep as you conjure up the best thing that happened in your day. That’s a great idea. So much negativity batters us from all sides, all the time, that it’s easy to forget what blessings we have. I have just the rock, a smooth, palm-size chunk of white quartz that was sitting on the kitchen counter next to a jade plant that has stubbornly survived every possible kind of neglect. Pure magic.

The Magic (The Secret)   Rhonda Byrne | Atria Books   2012

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success – Deepak Chopra

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I needed a skinny book and Deepak Chopra’s distillation of his tome on Creating Abundance was sitting there just waiting to be read. Success and abundance are desirable commodities in the post-apocalyptic urban dystopia we inhabit so I settled in for a quick perusal of ancient teachings. Not that quick, actually. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success is a pocket-size fusion of Eastern wisdom and Western affirmation. Chopra’s laws have been around for a while but he does have a knack for explaining the esoteric in accessible language and this book has plenty of both. So I contemplated it rather than plowed through it and it took longer to read. Which was okay as it was as calming as a meditation on intention and manifestation — a written guided meditation.

Here are the laws:

1. Pure Potentiality - we are pure consciousness and when we recognize this we can tap into the universal energy field and create anything. But, to reach that state of awareness, we have to transcend the ego, leaving behind fear, the need for external approval and personal control, and our “social masks”.  

2. Giving – in order to receive, give what you want to get–affection, support, money–life is about a dynamic exchange, the free flow of energy. 

 3. Karma, or Cause and Effect – every action generates an energetic response. You create your reality and your past shapes your present, your present designs your future. Tricky. But an optimistic way to view this is to find the opportunity in each challenge and transform your old, crummy karma into choices for positive–and rewarding–activity going forward. 

 4. Least Effort – don’t push the river. Put your intention out there and turn your attention to getting on with your life. The good stuff bubbles up in its own time. Type-A Westerners have a lot of trouble with this one.

 5. Intention and Desire – the quantum energy field is influenced by intention and desire. Yours, actually. Lavish your intention on something and it becomes more important in your life. Neglect it and the thing withers. Intention is pure desire without attachment and you can activate it to manifest whatever you want by stating an intention clearly and then infusing it with the stillness and pure potential you experience in meditation. Guaranteed to remove struggle. Someone should bottle this.

 6. Detachment – let go of your insecure, fear-based need to see the result you imagine. Note to control freaks: you will not be good at this. Attachment is scarcity-consciousness, implying no real belief in your own infinite self and your limitless potential to create. Detachment celebrates ambiguity and can tolerate insecurity. Detachment delivers, oh ye of little faith. 

 7.  Dharma, or Purpose in Life  – your talent is unique in all the world and no one but you can express it. Your purpose in life is not to run out of milk and socks; it is to soar. When you share what is yours to give, you are richly rewarded. The catch is, you don’t do it for the rewards. You do it to do it. The material rewards are a bonus.

I like these ideas. I suck at many of them. Probably why I am putting in so many hours as a hack writer that I have to find skinny books to read. Chopra adds step-by-step applications to each of the seven laws and, at the risk of spoiling things, I’ll share an observation. Meditation figures prominently in many of them. Clearing your cluttered mind on a daily basis makes space for what you imagine to live and breathe.  However you define success, you may get within striking distance of it by following the formula of these seven timeless spiritual laws. So, off to the meditation cushion and the world of infinite possibility I have yet to conquer.

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams   Deepak Chopra | New World Library   1994

Sacred Space – Denise Linn

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Denise Linn’s Sacred Space is a dense catalog of spiritual teachings and techniques for clearing the energies of your home and creating a place that nurtures and supports your daily life. It’s not encyclopedic but it comes pretty close. Linn, an American Indian, was run off the road and shot at the age of seventeen by some maniac bigot and had a near-death experience that changed her world. When she writes about what she saw and understood, the explanation sounds like a primer for quantum physics. But her instantaneous understanding of the interconnectedness of all things led her to study healing practices with a number of indigenous masters and that training is freely applied to this book about the presence and energies in a home.

The advice is very interesting and very good. Linn covers everything from setting an intention for clearing the space to what the numerology of your house means–mine indicates a large portion of abundance so I’m a little concerned about the numerology. But instructions for using fire to clear old stale energy, working with bells or drums, the use of color, purification with salt, ritual bathing and enlivening water with moonlight, sacred qualities in stones–all of it comes from traditional teachings in many cultures and it is fascinating.

Sacred Space is neither flaky nor hardcore. Linn shares what she knows but she doesn’t preach about it. She offers plenty of alternatives for each step of the practice and gentle advice about doing what speaks to you or feels comfortable. All the advice is environmentally sensitive–no surprise there–and there are even sections about calling on protective spirits, recognizing angels, discovering your power animal, and dealing with psycho-kinetic energy. To get all that this book packs in, I will have to read it again, this time with a highlighter and a handful of bookmarks.

 I’ve been really drawn to change our iconic brownstone shoebox (as in small) apartment in some fairly dramatic ways lately. At the same time, we could use some major changes in our depression-plagued personal economy. If we are not separate from everything in the universe, then clearing out and cleaning up the energy in here might just accomplish an aesthetic and a pragmatic transformation. Sacred Space could be my cost-effective way to tap into the guidance of a master for banishing our demons, clearing out the last of the clutter, making room for what’s important and finding just the right shade of sunflower yellow for a wall I am painting in homage to Matisse.

Sacred Space   Denise Linn | Ballantine   1995

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

The Shadow Effect – Chopra, Ford, Williamson

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The Shadow Effect is an interesting examination of the hidden side of the persona–the part we wish wasn’t. But, as surely as day is followed by night, the imperfect, angry, selfish, lonely, depressed bits are there, just waiting for the exact moment to interject some drama into our act. Uh oh. Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson, all bestselling purveyors of self-help and well-known workshop leaders, teamed up on a book that is divided into three sections, one per guru. Some parts are better than others but I suspect that each style appeals to a different reader and what bored me might just save you. There’s plenty of good stuff to go around.

Chopra brings his signature mix of ayurvedics, Eastern mysticism, Western science and psychology to section 1. He preaches unity–of your conscious and subconscious for starters. By accepting the shadow side, we integrate all parts of ourselves and can then recognize that our preference for seeing ourselves as separate and disconnected from all of life is the root of the problem. Nation at war? All of its citizens contributed–not just the jingoistic nationalists. Unrequited love? Look for the ways in which you reject yourself and then stop doing that. You will make healthier choices and you can give up your subconscious need for rejection. I oversimplify–his argument is much more nuanced.

Ford tells her own anguished story of losing sight of herself as a young teen and suffering years of increasing acting out and alienation, addictions, drug problems and unhappiness before she finally began to get it. I found her crystal clear examples of how what we repress emerges to haunt us to be the most elucidating treatment of the three. Ford uses real people and their very public train wrecks to show the simple flip side of the facade. Her account provides a non-threatening way to examine your own shadows–you do have them, despite your nearly perfect life.

Williamson gets into the nitty gritty, with stories about how tough it can be to release shadow bahaviors just by recognizing that they exist. I thought that was a tad discouraging, probably because I don’t subscribe to her default problem-solving prescription: ask God for help. That’s not my m.o. and I always feel that religion-as-solution is disempowering–but it may be the right approach for a lot of people. In any case, the subject is a downer but the variety of viewpoints and the pragmatic advice offered is positive. The Shadow Effect makes excellent sense and doesn’t quit until it offers you a way to make peace with your unfavorite traits and behaviors.

The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True Self   Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, Marianne Williamson | HarperOne   2010

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 Ultimate Happiness Prescription – Deepak Chopra

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The Ultimate Happiness Prescription was the thinnest book on the stack so it bumped the 400, 500 and 900+ page monsters aside. Deepak Chopra rides to the rescue on a day hijacked by too much real life. Good message for the frazzled, in any case. The book explores spiritual and neurological dispositions toward emotional equanimity and follows each of seven keys (Deepak Chopra likes to write self-help books in lists of seven) with some simple steps to move your happiness set point up on the scale.

It’s quite sensible, not very woo-woo at all. Body awareness provides clues to how you really feel about events, circumstances and decisions. Chopra examines the interrelatedness of matter, the energy field consisting of the entire universe and you in it, as he tells you to pay attention to what you feel and where in the body you feel it. Stress affects certain areas, anger and fear others—by bringing awareness to physical feelings you can mitigate and even heal what might be making you unhappy, or unwell.

There’s a very good section on being present in the moment. Nothing new about the teaching—it is thousands of years old—but it is a powerful catalyst for change. The point is that happiness can only exist in the moment because the past is over and the future does not yet exist. That seems obvious but we cart around so much baggage that we seldom devote full awareness and appreciation to the present. Chopra recommends a mindfulness practice to increase present-moment awareness. He emphasizes the benefits of meditation as well.

I tend to like Chopra’s audio and video lectures more than his books. Those events seem to treat subjects in greater depth than the slim, nicely laid-out books. But The Ultimate Happiness Prescription is worth the relatively short amount of time it takes to read it and probably worth a few re-reads, too. The activities Chopra suggests and the points he makes apply to every type of self-improvement effort. In the end, he delivers an introduction to the quest for enlightenment—not some exalted mystical state but a better, saner, more intelligent and, well, happier way to live in this world.

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment   Deepak Chopra | Harmony Books 2009