When I was thirty-seven, I was too busy recovering and forging a new life to think much about the spiritual questions that come up after a bereavement.
However today, I’ve nearly always got something on this subject on the go. Here are seven examples from my goodreads feed, if you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m reading—both for work and pleasure—please follow me on the site or send a friend request.
The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Alborn (Rating: 3/5 stars)
After a recent bereavement, I found this book immensely comforting. I had picked it up several times before in book shops, intrigued to discover who Albom thinks we are going to meet in heaven, but I’ve always worried that this would be too saccharine and American for my taste.
It’s a short book but tackles a big subject: what happens after we die? I was right it is very American. The hero worked a fair ground at the end of the pier and he dies in heroic circumstances. So yes, it is sentimental. However, he has some interesting ideas. Everybody gets a version of heaven that speaks to them – rather than sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp. The five people are there to explain what our life meant, how we touched other people and to teach us important lessons. We in turn will help other people understand the meaning of their lives.
I finished with a couple of tears in my eyes. It is good, in an era where politicians are trying to exploit the differences between us, to be reminded that we all inter-connected and that love is stronger than hate. Now I sound sentimental! But perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with that from time-to-time…
The Mystery Experience: A Revolutionary Approach to Spiritual Awakening by Tim Freke (Rating: 5/5 stars)
Unlike a lot of spiritual books where the author assumes a level of knowledge from the reader about their faith or that he or she is already committed believer, Freke starts at the very beginning and takes you step by step from general curiosity to belief (or at the very least open to it). Even better, he creates a character – who he calls Dick (as in clever dick) – who comes up with the average reader’s objections so he can explain some of the science that underpins his mystery experience.
The book is full of exercises to try at home and it is obviously based on the workshops he’s given taking people through this process. Perhaps, as I write a similar kind of book – but about relationships – I found Freke was on my wave length. However, I loved the way he has one foot in the everyday world of bills and family and the other in a spiritual world (that he calls being deep awake). I was so impressed that I’m thinking of doing the workshop myself.
Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris (Rating: 3/5 stars)
A very American book that is informed by their cultural war – between believers and non-believers. It means that Harris is rather antagonist towards organised religions and puts a lot of faith in science. However if, all around you, they are constantly engaged in pitched battles with each, you’re bound to be drawn into the debate (and feel the need to take sides). With this proviso, I would recommend this book to anyone, from anywhere, looking for spiritual awakening but unsure if they believe in a deity.
Harris is an interesting author, he has spent years with contemplative religions looking at mystery of consciousness. He marries this with his knowledge as a neuroscience and some teenager / student experiments with mind altering drugs.
At the heart of the book is the idea that our conventional sense of self is an illusion – and that spirituality consists of realising this from moment-to-moment. I am not a stranger to this idea having read books by Alan Watts and Ken Wilber. While previous authors have tackled this complex and difficult thought from a philosophical viewpoint, Harris draws on scientific experiments – for example – where the two halves of the brain have been severed (for medical reasons) and looks at how that impacts on what we think of ‘I’.
Perhaps I’m beginning to get my head round the concept of self-transcendence and I was ready to reap the rewards of previous reading but I found this the most straight-forward explanation so far. Therefore I would recommend this is a great place to start your search spirituality for both non-believers and believers.
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan W. Watts (Rating: 3/5 stars)
This book takes six fictions that are so deeply ingrained, according to Watts, that they seem like ‘common sense’.
- The world is composed of separate bits and things
- That things are differing forms of some basic stuff
- Individual organisms are inhabited and partially controlled by independent egos
- That opposite poles such as light/darkness are in conflict which may result in the permanent victory of one of the poles
- Death is evil and life must be a constant war against it
- Man, individually and collectively, should aspire to be top species and put himself in control of nature
This is a good basic introduction to Vedanta – one of the six orthodox Hindu schools – and along the way Alan Watts, who introduced Eastern philosophy and Buddhist teaching to the west in the sixties, puts lots of deep ideas into pithy quotes. I particularly liked ‘unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax’. At times, he gets side-tracked into a dated rant but overall, the book remains incredibly fresh.
Reading this book follows on from ‘No Boundaries’ and I have more books on the same theme beside my bed ready to go but I’m still having trouble getting my head round the central ideas and what to make of them.
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Kornfield (Rating: 5/5 stars)
During an incredibly tough time, this book has been a tower of strength and wisdom. Time after time, it came up with just the nugget I needed. The book centres around interviews with practitioners in many traditions (monks, nuns, Zen masters, rabbis, swamis). Good to discovered that it’s not just me, even the most enlightened people still struggle. More for someone already on a spiritual path than setting off. I will read more from Jack. Thank you.
No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth by Ken Wilber (Rating: 5/5 stars)
It will probably take a life time to fully understand this book. It starts with ideas that I am familiar with – like our tendency to categorise events / feelings / things into good and bad (and try and banish what we don’t like). I’m also familiar with lots of the psychological divisions – like disowning parts of ourselves that we don’t like (by putting them into our shadow and projecting them onto others).
I found the chapter about removing the boundary between mind and body helpful. I particularly liked the image of our mind being a rider on a horse (our body) rather than one unified creature – like the mythical creature of the centaur which is man and horse combined. I’m not sure how, just yet, but I think there is a lot to feed into my writing and work with clients.
However when he starts to go onto the trans-personal level and breaks down the boundary between each of us, I start to struggle. It’s nothing about the quality of his writing or the validity of what he’s got to say – just that it’s hard to understand something that’s further ahead on your personal, psychological or spiritual development. But that’s fine, I can always come back to this book. In the meantime, I’ve had a very nutritious meal and it’s going to take a while to digest everything.
The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Rating: 4/5 stars)
Terrible title but it expands on an idea that Rohr has touched on before: the difference between comparative and contemplative thinking. Basically, comparative is what we do all the time, it puts everything into two categories: right and wrong, good and bad etc.
While contemplative thinking – which is what the mystics apparently do – is about accepting the complexity of life, paradoxical thoughts and opening ourselves up for holding contradictory ideas – at least for a while – in the search of a deeper truth.
Rohr is talking about spiritual matters but I’ve found it really useful for couples dealing with the big questions – like love, death, recovery from infidelity – where simple black and white (comparative) approach pushes them further apart.