Understanding Your World, Your Brain, and Zen Philosophy

Here are nine books that can help you understand the modern world, make better decisions, be more creative, and control your emotions.

1. Don’t Bite the Hook – Pema Chodron

Pema, a Buddhist nun who converted later in life from American roots, is a great teacher. She is able to simply and clearly connect with listeners and readers about a few powerful insights. In this book she talks about shenpa, the cycle of anxiety we buy into whenever confronted with a stressful situation.

2. Awakening the Buddha Within – Lama Surya Das

There are countless books for Westerners in search of the simple insights of Buddhism. This book is quite detailed and serious.

3. Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity – Hugh MacLeod

There are a million books about creativity. There are very few books that challenge the resistance so directly and effectively. This book eliminates the excuses that have been holding you back from being creative.

4. Presentation Zen – Garr Reynolds

A collection of effective tactics that are available to anyone who has made the choice to be more productive using a Zen approach.

5. The Lonely Crowd – David Riesman

This is a great sociology book; the key argument is that fitting into a large group is a relatively new phenomenon and it has changed the way human beings interact.

6. The Managed Heart – Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hochschild was given significant access to stewardesses working at Delta Airlines in the 1960s. She chronicles the deadening pain they felt as they were forced to bring cheerfulness and emotion to work each day. This was a breakthrough on the study of human emotions.

7. Stone Age Economics – Marshall Sahlins

Despite the clever title, this book is actually about how primitive cultures worked. One key takeaway is that hunter-gatherers were the idle rich. They worked about three hours a day and spent the rest of the day resting.

8. Honest Signals – Alex Pentland

Pentland is a professor at MIT, and this is ostensibly a book about some amazing technology he’s putting together that measures the interactions people have all day. This is about the incredible power of nonverbal communication and tribal hierarchies in the way we interact.

9. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless.

Hat tip to Love My Life Right Now


6 Steps To Being More Creative

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Marc Lesser, CEO of SIYLI, Zen priest, and author of Know Yourself, Forget Yourself.marc-lesser-zen-priestFor most of my life I did not think of myself as creative at all. Then, many years ago, I started a greeting card company, despite that I had rarely purchased or sent greetings cards. My motivation was combining business with taking care of the environment, by making products from recycled paper. I found myself in a role where I needed to be very creative – in developing new products as well as how to distribute products. I also found that the act of leadership – my perspective about my role and the company’s strategy required tremendous creativity.

Creativity is important for many reasons. It is a path and process for not getting stuck in old habits and ineffective ways of seeing yourself and the world. Creativity can help with problem solving, with creating healthier relationships, and with having a healthier and happier life.

What I learned is that creativity isn’t something that you have or don’t have. It is something that you can nurture and develop. Most importantly, creativity can be a practice. This is especially true for me in my current role (as the CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute) of helping business leaders to be both more effective and happy.

Here are the 6 steps that I began using, and find I’m using every day, not only in my work but especially in my relationships and my life outside of work These practices can be used to support the changing of habits and creating new habits. I’d suggest making the practice of creativity a habit that can support other habits. Here are some guidelines:

  • Believe in your creativity – This is the first practice and probably most important. You might begin by thinking about or writing down three creative things you’ve done – something you have written or said or completed. Notice an area in which you feel creative; perhaps cooking, drawing, fixing things, gardening. Creativity can show itself in lots of small ways, such as the gifts we give, or the clothes we wear, or how we set the table. Just begin noticing and recognizing your own creativity.
  • Know your voice of judgment – Everyone I’ve ever known has an inner judge. It can be difficult to accept that having an inner critic is part of the human condition. The good news is that this inner voice just wants to protect us and keep us safe, and that you don’t need to be stuck with or thrown by these inner voices. Knowing this, try relaxing your inner judge. Give it a name. Be playful. Experiment. Despite your judgments, you have the ability to be creative.
  • Pay attention to details – By entering into the practice of creativity, you can begin to notice more of the details of everyday life. By paying more attention to details, you can become more present; your world can become more alive. It is in this presence and aliveness that creativity takes place. When you put your shoes on, which shoe do you put on first? What’s the color of your front door? How many emails do you receive and send each day? Or play with giving things different names. Look at a paper clip or a strawberry, as though seeing them for the first time. What might you call them? These types of details and experiments can open doors to seeing the world differently.
  • Ask dumb questions – Our desire to look good and smart can get in the way of creativity. Instead, ask questions, especially those that may seem obvious, or even dumb. Risk looking awkward. Be curious about your feelings and your motivations. Let yourself wonder how things work and why you and others talk and act the way you do. Let go of the need to look good, and allow yourself to be curious and at times awkward. This is another door to creativity. There are no dumb questions.
  • Practice Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a fancy word for paying attention and for being in the present moment – not ruminating about the past, nor worrying about the future. Mindfulness is a simple and powerful practice. Of course, reviewing the past and preparing for the future are important. And, being creative, happens in this moment. The practice of mindfulness is to over and over notice when your mind is wandering and to bring your attention back to the present. In this way we build our capacity for presence, and for creativity. Mindfulness can also mean to allow your attention to open, to consciously not focus on any one thing. This space, of intentionally expanding your attention can be a creative process.
  • Embrace Paradox – It seems that nearly everything about being a human being is a paradox. In my own life, I’m an introvert and I enjoy speaking in front of groups; I can be indecisive and make decisions quickly; I’m confident and vulnerable. What are some of your paradoxes? Instead of ignoring or pushing these contradictions away, try acknowledging them, and embracing them. An example of a paradox I find myself embracing and practicing with is – fight for change and accept what is. These appear to be completely opposed, yet, the starting point for changing habits is to notice the habits that we actually have.

Being more creative is a practice, a habit, and a process. A good way to begin is to notice how creative babies and young children are. Just the act of crawling, walking, and exploring can be enormously creative. Creativity is easy – just let yourself be more childlike, curious, open, and start by exploring any of the six practices I’ve outlined.

Marc Lesser is author of Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths To Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life. He is the CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) and leads a weekly meditation group in Mill Valley.

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Book review: Dead End Date

Adventures of  a Lightworker series mates chick lit and metaphysics

Adventures of a Lightworker Caroline A Shearer new age fiction metaphysical novel spiritualRating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dead End Date, the first book in the Adventures of a Lightworker series by Caroline A. Shearer, is an entertaining romp through metaphysics and relationships. The tone is light and fun, and the pairing of spiritual concepts and the narrator’s relationship challenges helps make the book both amusing and insightful.

Story: Dead End Date chronicles a woman’s mission to teach the world about love, one mystery and personal hang-up at a time. Faith’s dating disasters and personal angst have separated her from her purpose of being a lightworker, and she has only one year to prove she is capable of fulfilling her life purpose. The death of her blind date launches her first challenge. Working with angels, psychic abilities, and even the murder victim, Faith begins a personal journey to help heal those around her while proving she can fulfill her life purpose. (From book jacket)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Faith’s life purpose is to be a lightworker, which Shearer defines as an evolved soul sent to Earth to increase love. Metaphysical concepts such as trusting intuition, looking for signs, staying mindful, and connecting with guides (angels) are a substantial part of the book’s theme. For example, she demonstrates meditation fundamentals and energy work, including the real-world challenges of both. Practical advice includes energy work  such as how to do a space clearing and basic feng shui. An important theme she emphasizes is the interconnectedness of everyone and everything; the story line demonstrates how our smallest actions can have wide-reaching effects on everyone around us.

My take: I enjoyed this book. Using the popular chick lit genre, Shearer weaves basic metaphysical concepts such as mindfulness and energy awareness into her philosophical musings about whether men are worth the bother. Although some of the plot points are forced, the end result is a feel-good mystery that strives to both entertain and enlighten. Note that this is Shearer’s first book; I expect that the quality and consistency of the writing will improve over time. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Adventures of a Lightworker: Dead End Date, by Caroline A. Shearer
Absolute Love Publishing, 2009
Paperback, 230 pages

Book review: Reincarnation

Familiar story, but executed with skillReincarnation new age fiction novel by Suzanne Weyn metaphysical fiction spiritual

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
By Suzanne Weyn, a well-known Young Adult author, Reincarnation follows a pair of soul mates from the stone age to modern times. Weyn does a very good job of developing the complexities of reincarnation as the book progresses so that with each chapter, the reader gains more insight into the wheel of rebirth, as she terms it. One of the book’s more intriguing insights is a brief glimpse into the life of the soul between incarnations.

Story: From prehistory to the present, theirs was a love for the ages. It starts with a fight in a cave over an elusive green jewel . . . and then travels over time and lives to include Egyptian slaves, Greek temples, Massachusetts witch trials, Civil War battlefields, Paris on the eve of World War II, America in the 1960s . . . and a pair of modern-day teenagers. For readers who believe that love is stronger than time or death. (From Amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Very high. The book walks through the multiple phases of reincarnation as it follows a boy and a girl who first meet in prehistoric times. It draws consistent themes throughout the various lives, including demonstrating how not only soul mates tend to incarnate together but also family and friends who help them learn and grow over time. The plot employs enough variety to make the reincarnation theme plausible, such as shifting genders and occasionally misaligning time frames. In addition, the story demonstrates how certain weaknesses and talents also carry across multiple lifetimes. As the pair experience more lifetimes and become more spiritually and socially sophisticated, the book introduces more metaphysical themes. As each incarnation progresses, the couple learn to conquer their fears and recognize their love more readily. The reader gradually gleans more information about life between lives as well.

My take: I liked this book very much. Weyn does an excellent job of developing the complexities of reincarnation as the book progresses so that with each chapter, the reader gains more insight into the wheel of rebirth, as she terms it. Of course, it’s difficult for the story to be other than predictable, but Weyn is able to capture the lovers’ emotions across time so that the reader is drawn into the story. Her insight into various time periods, from Greek civilization to the Salem witch trials, also gives the book variety and spice. Several of the twentieth-century stories seemed particularly vibrant, including the tale of a young singer in Paris that echoes the Josephine Baker story and the challenges of racial integration in the mid-1960s. As new age fiction, this is one of the better contemporary novels I have come across, with a compelling story line and a strong grounding in metaphysics.

Reincarnation, by Suzanne Weyn
Published by Scholastic Press, 2008
Paperback, 293 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You

Meet my new favorite novel–“Ata” is new age fiction at its best

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

This is the book I’ve been longing to find: A gem of a story that’s been waiting for rediscovery as new age fiction. Dorothy Bryant’s 1971 novel, originally promoted as science fiction, is described as “part love story, part science fiction, and at once Jungian myth and utopian allegory.” But by today’s standards, it’s a straightforward exploration of connecting to the highest and best parts of ourselves and living according to that guidance.

Story: The kin of Ata live only for the dream. Their work, their art, their love are designed in and by their dreams, and their only aim is to dream higher dreams. Into the world of Ata comes a desparate man, who is first subdued and then led on the spiritual journey that, sooner or later, all of us must make (back cover).

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Very high. Berkley Monthly called the novel “a beautiful, symbolic journey of the soul,” but there’s very little about it that’s symbolic when read as new age fiction. Here’s my description of the story: When a famous writer hits bottom, he wakes up in what appears to be a simple commune from the Sixties that practices all the fundamental truths of most religious, spiritual, and self-help philosophies: Life in the moment. Connect with your higher self/guide/God for guidance. You cannot judge good or bad, right or wrong, true or false; truth is relative. You cannot heal the mind without also addressing the body and spirit,  and much more. In addition, the book is compatible with Christian beliefs (at least the more modern interpretations of the Bible).  As the man learns more about the kin of Ata, he realizes what a complex, spiritually advanced group they are despite–or perhaps because of–their seeming simplicity. The people of Ata live in a way that is free of sin, guilt, exclusion, worry, and pain, and yet is joyful, productive, and satisfying both in body and spirit.

My take: This is a well-written, lyrical novel that exemplifies new age fiction at perhaps its finest. Although the book is quite short, the plot is strong and compelling, and we come to love the characters and yearn for their success. Although clearly utopian, the story proposes an integrated vision of a future that is both functional and inspirational.

I loved this book. Part of its allure is its depth; it can be read at multiple levels: as an intriguing trifle of sci-fi/fantasy, an introduction to broader spiritual principles, or an insightful analysis of some of modern society’s ills and how new age/metaphysical thought can not only ease the many sufferings of our world but also provide a model of sustainable growth and development. Please don’t get me wrong–at heart, this is a relatively simple book, but it contains profound insights for spiritual growth. And best of all, it’s an easy, entertaining read. Entertain and educate–the perfect combination for new age fiction.

The title confounds me a bit because it sheds very little light on what the book is actually about; the back cover description suffers from this shortcoming as well. I suspect that it was a marketing decision in 1971 to promote a book that so clearly had literary value but fell into no recognizable genre (again, a case for the genre for new age fiction). In today’s market, the title does the reader a disservice by not indicating the spiritual depth of the novel. As with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that may have been the price for getting published nearly forty years ago. Interestingly, the book was originally published in 1971 under the title The Comforter, which again seems unrelated to what the book is actually about. I am researching Dorothy Bryant’s other novels for similar themes; Confessions of Madame Psyche looks interesting. Can anyone recommend her other works?

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for you, by Dorothy Bryant
Published by Random House and Moon Books, 1971
Paperback, 220 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Godfather of modern new-age fiction still packs a spiritual punch

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, new age fiction that explores Western philosophy and spirituality
g: 4 out of 5 stars

Robert M. Pirsig’s classic novel is a mix of engaging storytelling and an exploration of how classical Greek philosophy drove the growth of Western civilization; we have mastered the physical world but at the cost of spiritual growth. Those more knowledgeable in philosophy may quibble with his premise, but to me he seems to be one the first modern novelists to advocate taking God out of the temple and recognize that spiritual wholeness was inside us all along.

Story: The book intertwines three stories; the first follows a college professor struggling to become whole again after a devastating psychotic breakdown. His story provides structure and context for a lengthy introduction to the growth of Western philosophy and what we have gained and sacrificed as a result. The third story details his attempts to reconnect with his son after his breakdown shattered his family. The blend of engaging story, philosophical introduction, and spiritual journey is why the book has endured as a classic philosophical/new age novel for the last quarter-century (this is my overview).

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Pirsig’s theme explores Quality and Truth with a capital T.  Interestingly, he equates Quality to God only twice in the book (Chapters 21 and xx), and he implies that the reconciliation of Quality and Truth results in Zen but never explicitly states that point. However, in my opinion that’s the driving force behind the work—the need for Western civilization to get back to a state of spiritual wholeness, enlightenment, God, Zen, dharma—the words don’t matter. Perhaps it was necessary in the early 1970s to use the terms of classical philosophy in order to be taken seriously, but the core message of the book is clear: We a lost a part of our soul by embracing Western philosophy.  Western civilization has gained mastery over the world, but “lost the ability to be a part of the world and not an enemy of it.”

Although Pirsig sidesteps the effect of religion on Western development, I feel this fracturing of our world view was exacerbated by the spread of Christianity. People were encouraged to stop looking inside of themselves for truth and let the Church direct their spiritual growth and define their values and ethics. I’m not certain, but Pirsig may have been one of the first 20th-century American novelists to popularize the notionthat Western thought took a wrong turn more than 2,300 years ago and that exploring Eastern philosophy may help fill a spiritual void for many pe0ple.

My take:

I’ll admit, the rhetorical sections were a hard slog at times. I felt like I was reading a doctoral candidate’s dissertation without the footnotes. However, I learned a great deal about Western philosophy and how we got to where we are as a society.  Greek philosophers, primarily Aristotle, moved away from the idea of wholeness and individual excellence – Quality – toward dividing the way we see the world into mind and matter, which enabled Western cultures to master the realm of matter. However, spiritual growth was sacrificed to technological innovation; we a lost a part of our soul by embracing Western philosophy. Despite the dense philosophical sections, I loved the book 20 years ago, and after rereading it I still love it today. The blend of engaging story, great writing, philosophical exploration, and spiritual journey is why the book has endured as a classic new age novel for the last quarter-century.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig
Published by Harper Torch, 2006 (first published 1974)
Paperback, 560 pages
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Book review: Raven Stole the Moon

Alaskan story delivers great writing and spiritual depth

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Garth Stein, best-selling author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,”  explores the spiritual traditions of his Tlingit heritage in this story of grief, redemption, and mystery. Stein’s clean, crisp language, strong characterization, and mystical plot make Raven Stole the Moon both enjoyable and inspirational.

Story: When Jenna Rosen abandons her comfortable Seattle life to return to Wrangell, Alaska, it’s a wrenching return to her past. Long ago the home of her Native American grandmother, Wrangell is located near the Thunder Bay resort, where Jenna’s young son, Bobby, disappeared two years before. His body was never recovered, and Jenna is determined to lay to rest the aching mystery of his death. But the spectacular town provides little comfort beyond the steady and tender affections of Eddie, a local fisherman. And then whispers of ancient legends begin to suggest a frightening new possibility about Bobby’s fate. Soon, Jenna must sift through the beliefs of her ancestors, the Tlingit – who still tell of powerful, menacing forces at work in the Alaskan wilderness. (From goodreads.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. The story walks us through part of the Tlingit creation myth, including a mystical “between lives” state where a dead person’s soul can be trapped instead of entering the afterlife, and the kushtaka, physical beings who rule that state. Jenna must work with a shaman and spirit animals to release her son’s soul. Interesting exploration of native american spirituality, which parallels some Eastern beliefs. Treat the whole, not the parts. No such thing as good or evil. With practice, people can see beyond the physical world and glimpse the world of spirit: “Things exist and that is all. Nothing is surprising; nothing is startling. It is no more unusual for a bear to talk to a shaman than a twig to fall from a tree. . . . It is simply nature revealing a different side of itself to a shaman.”

Jenna grapples with the big issues that shape our personal philosophies, such as faith and belief: “Did Moses part the Red Sea? Did Christ heal the inform? Is there room for more than one religion, or is it all the same and people just interepret it differently? What makes is reasonable to believe that otter creatures steal souls? Is it the possibibility of salvation? If so, whose?

My take: Wonderful language, moving metaphors. Stein uses spare, direct prose to tell the story with great skill, occasionally using moving metaphors and parables to help the reader envision the incomprehensible. Some readers may find the story too abstract, since Jenna’s actions are driven by her need to find closure by choosing to believe that otter-like spirit creatures can steal a person’s soul.  The story blends the line between myth and reality. However, I felt that plot line added a fascinating spiritual depth to the story and I came to a better appreciation of Tlingit spiritual traditions. I was not necessarily persuaded to “willingly suspend disbelief,” but I found the story engaging and meaningful.

I was struck by the common threads that are woven through so many world myths and religions. as is typical of new age fiction. A few examples used in this book include the Great Flood; a River of Tears that separates the land of the living and the Land of Dead Souls; a mystical equivalent to Purgatory; a spirit guide to help the soul find the path to the other side, where family and friends await.

The story was a little less compelling than Stein’s later work, The Art of Racing in the Rain, but the clean, crisp language and strong characterization make Raven Stole the Moon both enjoyable and inspirational.

Raven Stole the Moon, by Garth Stein
Published by Harper Collins, 2010
Paperback, 445 pages
Buy at Amazon