New Books in Spiritual Practice and Mindfulness
Summary: Discussions with Spiritual Thinkers about Their New Books
[Cross-posted from New Books in Psychoanalysis] Being human, much of our energy goes into resisting the basic mess of life, but messy it is nonetheless. The trick (as psychoanalysts know) is to embrace it all anyway. "Trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one," so writes psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist Dr. Mark Epstein. Epstein illustrates this truth by offering a psychoanalytic reading of the life of the Buddha in his latest work, The Trauma of Everyday Life (Penguin Press, 2013). It's a brilliant psychobiographical single-case study. Think Erik Erikson's Ghandi's Truth or Young Man Luther. A little known detail of the Buddha's biography is that his mother died when he was just seven days old. The book investigates the nature and repercussions of this early loss as a foundation of the Buddha's life and salvation. Epstein writes that "primitive agony" (ala Winnicott) lay in the Buddha's implicit memory coloring his experience in ways he could feel but never know. The unmetabolized grief plays out into Buddha's young adulthood as he abandons his wife and own young child in renunciation of his cushy and privileged life. The ghosts and psychic ancestors that haunt the Buddha as well as his separation-individuation drama are familiar to modern day clinicians. Epstein describes a Buddha in the throes of repetition compulsion as well as enacting practices of starvation and self-harm – – dissociative defenses that serve to ward off potential fragmentation. Epstein writes that the rhythm of this early trauma and the defenses the Buddha employed run through Buddhism like a "great underground river." Buddha's salvation comes about via the discovery of mindfulness which ultimately infuse his life and spiritual teaching. Within the meditative practice of mindfulness, a holding environment is created in which unknown and unexamined aspects of the past can be experienced for the first time in the here and now. Like the psychoanalytic encounter, therein lies its transformative power. In his detailed depictions of the Buddha as a human subject in formation and borrowing from Winnicott's metapsychology, Epstein draws the parallel to the psychoanalytic space. Ultimately the book asks whether trauma itself can be transformational. According to Epstein, yes. Life itself is already broken and since we can't control the essential traumas of life (whether they be big "T" or little) we must transform our relationship to them to go on being.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Journalism] The Canadian author and scholar, Heather Menzies, has written a book about the journey she took to the highlands of Scotland in search of her ancestral roots. In Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A Memoir & Manifesto (New Society Publishers, 2014), Menzies outlines her discovery of a vanished way of life and argues that restoring it would help North Americans recover a deeper sense of self as well as more satisfying social relations with the people around them. It could also help them gain more control over political decisions that affect them in their communities, states and provinces and at the national level. "Commoning –cultivating community and livelihood together on the common land of the Earth," Menzies writes, "was a way of life for my ancestors and for many other newcomers to North America too. It was a way of understanding and pursuing economics as embedded in life and the labor, human and non-human, that is necessary to sustain it." She maintains that reclaiming the commons could also help us to heal an overheating planet and reconcile with the native peoples displaced by European settlers. Heather Menzies is an adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is the author of 10 books and has been awarded the Order of Canada for her contributions to public discourse.
Kathleen D. SinghView on AmazonThe process of dying has traditionally been fraught with anguish and despair in most Western societies, where letting go of our earthly existence is the last thing most of us want to do. Backed by her many years of working with the dying, psychotherapist and longtime spiritual practitioner Kathleen D. Singh opens up an alternative way to look at the process of leaving this existence and transitioning into another form of being. In her book The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation (HarperOne, 2013 [reprint]), Singh explains her spiritual views, which largely come out of the transpersonal philosophy of Ken Wilber and a number of Buddhist practices, and offers a message of hope and comfort not just to the dying but also to their loved ones, and everyone who wants to explore this stage of life. In this intelligent and engaging book, Singh not just describes her own journey but draws many parallels to other religious and spiritual practices, current as well as ancient ones.
Barbara BonnerView on Amazon"You can measure the depth of people's awakening by how they serve others." This quotation by Kobo Daishi, the ninth-century Japanese Buddhist monk, is only one of many observations that fill this small volume with words of wisdom and compassion. In her book Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications, 2014), philanthropy expert Barbara Bonner explores the stories of fourteen individuals and how they were inspired to start their personal journey to give and to dedicate their lives to the act of generosity.
Judith OrloffView on AmazonSurrender is a difficult concept for many people in Western societies, where everything seems to evolve around the desire for control, predictability and power. In our age of anxiety, certainty and control has become the number one tool to help us take charge of our lives so we can pursue the elusive goal of being happy. In her book The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life (Harmony Books, 2014), psychiatrist and author Judith Orloff points to all the ways we can let go of our need for control and be successful in the process, in our relationships and our environment. She paints a compelling picture of harmony and friendship while being able to keep destructively negative influences in check.
Lawrence J. FriedmanView on AmazonErich Fromm, one of the most widely known psychoanalysts of the previous century, was involved in the exploration of spirituality throughout his life. His landmark book The Art of Loving, which sold more than six million copies worldwide, is seen as a popular handbook on how to relate to others and how to overcome the narcissism ingrained in every human being. In his book The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love's Prophet (Columbia University Press, 2013), Harvard professor Lawrence J. Friedman explores the life of this towering figure of psychoanalytic thought, and his position in the humanistic movement, which he belonged to. He gives an overview of the religious thought Fromm was inspired by, from Judaism to the Old Testament to Buddhist philosophy. Fromm's credo was that true spirituality is expressed in how we relate to others, and how to bring joy and peace to the global community. His plea that love will be the vehicle to realize one's true purpose was the central message of his view on spirituality.
Robert K. C. FormanView on AmazonIn these times, when more and more people are looking for spiritual truth and engage in practices like meditation, it's hard to know what to expect from attaining a lofty goal like Enlightenment. What does Enlightenment look like? What happens when we attain it? What does it mean in terms of our relationships? Our families? Our jobs? In his book Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be (Changemakers Books, 2011), spiritual teacher and religious scholar Robert K. C. Forman explores the illusions we buy into when we enter and walk the spiritual path. "People so want a life that is easy, effortless, satisfying. And the promise [of enlightenment] itself becomes part of the problem. Because now you have a strong wish for that kind of perfection", he says in our interview. "And that gets in the way of recognizing the transformations that are actually taking place. The drive for a perfect marriage gets in the way of a good enough marriage. The drive for having a perfect life gets in the way of what we do have." Enlightenment is not about attaining some perfect state of mind, but to be honest to oneself and others.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Philosophy] Our moral lives are shot-through with concerns and even anxieties about the past. Only a lucky few, if anyone at all, can escape nagging and persistent regrets about actions and decisions in our past. But sometimes those very decisions that we now regret are the causal or conceptual antecedents of subsequent outcomes that we now affirm. That is, when we look back on our lives, we often find certain features of our past lamentable, even though without those features something of value in our present would not be. How is this mixture of regret and affirmation to be understood? In his new book, The View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret (Oxford University Press, 2013), R. Jay Wallace explores the complicated dynamic surrounding regret and affirmation. He develops a view that reconciles the apparent contradiction between regretting something that was a necessary antecedent to some attachment that one must now affirm. But in laying out this reconciliation, Wallace uncovers a pervasive and disconcerting truth about the human condition, namely that we must affirm aspects of our lives that are undeniably the products of highly objectionable features of the past.
[Crossposted from New Books in Buddhist Studies] Americanists have long employed a trope of regionalism to better understand American religions, beliefs, and practices. As many of us know, either by academic study or, more often, personal experience, the United States feels different in New England as compared to the Midwest, the West Coast, or the Deep South. Regional variations on culture play an important role in shaping our identities and informing our religious practices. Scholars of American Buddhism, however, have been slow to recognize the importance of this trope in how they study Buddhism in the United States. In his new book, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Jeff Wilson approaches his subject with just this sort of regional gaze. How is Buddhism fundamentally different in the American South as opposed to the West Coast where the majority of ethnographic surveys to date have been done? How do Buddhist negotiate their minority religious status in an overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian culture? How does the physical environment affect their practices? How do they engage with the South's specific racial history? The focus of his work is one particular community, the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha in Richmond, Virginia. Housed under one roof are five different Buddhist communities who must, first out of necessity and later out of friendship, share space and practice together. Apart from his use of regionalism as a methodological tool, it is this ethnographic survey that makes Wilson's book truly engaging. Dixie Dharma is the first book to focus on Buddhism as practiced in the American South, making it an important contribution to an emerging field of study.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Buddhist Studies] There is a lot of ritual involved in Buddhist practice. As more and more North Americans are discovering Buddhism, they are engaging in more and more Buddhist ritual, despite a general aversion many North Americans have to ritualized behavior. Dr. Patricia Campbell's new book, Knowing Body, Moving Mind: Ritualizing and Learning at Two Buddhist Centers (Oxford University Press, 2011), presents an ethnographic survey of two Toronto-based meditation centers and explores the ways in which Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers engage in Buddhist ritual. Obviously, ritual theory plays an important role in her book as a methodology for analyzing these Buddhist communities; but Dr. Campbell also takes note of the process of embodied learning and how engaging in ritualized behavior affectively changes practitioners. How we come to learn about Buddhism happens not only through the cognitive acquisition of knowledge, but through the process of ritualized practiced.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Buddhist Studies] Charles Prebish is among the most prominent scholars of American Buddhism. He has been a pioneer in studying the forms that Buddhist tradition has taken in the United States. Now retired, he has written this unusual new book, An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer (Sumeru Press, 2011). The book tells the story of Prebish's role in bringing the field of American Buddhism to prominence. The difficulties he faced in establishing American Buddhism as a legitimate field of study, and in trying to be recognized as a "scholar-practitioner," will resonate with up-and-coming scholars trying to carve out a new niche for their scholarship. The book is filled with anecdotes about recognized authorities in Buddhist studies, providing a uniquely personal window into the development of the field in the late 20th century and beyond.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Buddhist Studies] For many Asian and Western Buddhists today, Buddhism means meditation and an embrace of the world's interdependence. But that's not what it meant to Buddhists in the past; most of them never meditated and often saw interdependence (or dependent origination) as something fearful to be escaped. Many scholars, especially recently, have told this story of the transition from pre-modern to modern Buddhism, but often with no other purpose than to dismiss modern Buddhism as inauthentic, a departure from the "real" Buddhism of ritual chanting and sacred relics. David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008) tells the story of Buddhist modernism in a balanced way, one that acknowledges its novelty yet remains sympathetic to its concerns and interests. McMahan, who is a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, theorizes not only Buddhism but also modernity. Using Charles Taylor's account of modern life, he explores the forces that changed Buddhism in recent centuries. McMahan discusses typically cited factors (e.g., the emphasis on meditation, the belief in science), but also seldom mentioned (though important) elements of Buddhist modernism like affirmations of nature, interdependence, and everyday life.