I set out to share some books that I've found valuable and important for a soulful journey. The books I return to and recommend often. But as I began to write, I realized that what I was bringing together and sharing were more than books: they were friends and teachers that have walked the path with me.
Each of these books is written by someone who touched me at a critical juncture on the path. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, for example, was one of the first books I ever read about spirituality. Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times was my companion when I was facing the pain of unrequited love. Ram Dass’ talks helped me transition back to university life after I took a year off to explore yoga in India.
While I don’t know any of these authors personally, I feel an intimacy with them and their words. I think that’s what makes these books so significant. I dare say that I love these authors. It is my sincere hope that you do, too.
Mastery: The Key to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard
This is a quick, easy read that taught me a simple truth about the soul’s journey, or indeed any journey toward mastery for that matter. He calls it hanging out in the plateau. Each of us experiences breakthroughs in a flash, so we tend to think that there’s some quick, magic trick we need to learn or fault in our thinking when we feel stuck or in a rut.
We forget that most breakthroughs happen after spending periods of time feeling plateaued. Instead of considering the plateau as a fault or a misstep, we might, instead, consider it the place where the breakthrough can come. In other words, it takes repetitively practicing the same thing over and over again without any apparent progress before something mysterious happens.
All of the sudden we can do or be something or someone we never thought was possible. Plateaus, then are something to appreciate as inevitable and necessary parts of the journey.
The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft
I love the plethora of spiritual practices and philosophies that I see all around these days. One thing I wonder about is how all of these newfangled perspectives hold up over a lifetime. That’s probably why I’ve been drawn to the Buddhist and Yoga Traditions.
If you think about it, they’ve been around forever. It’s not accidental that they’ve lasted the test of time. They work. They offer practical instruction that is applicable and useful, no matter what period in history. That’s why they’re part of the cannon known as the perennial philosophy. They work at any time, anywhere and with anyone.
Being a lifelong student of both traditions, particularly Yoga, I’m drawn to this translation of Patanjali’s Sutras. The translator, Chip Hartranft did something no other translator has yet done. He’s shown how the author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, was influenced by Buddhism.
Most translations spin the Sutras into a conversation about God, Like Christopher’s Isherwood’s translation, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. While Patanjali included faith as a path to enlightenment, he also included many others. In particular, he focused on sadhana or the practice of stilling the mind. This process of quieting down leads to the direct, practical experience of pure awareness, or as the Buddha would call it, our Buddha nature.
A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
I went to grammar school and high school with one of the author’s daughters. This book is beautifully written, more like a love letter than a science book about the human brain and its relationship to love and intimacy. That’s not to say that science is excluded.
On the contrary, the authors, three psychiatrists from Stanford and UCSF share a lot about human development, Attachment Theory and how psychotherapy works. It’s been a few years since I've read it, but one concept that has stuck with me (and sticks with most of my friends who have read it) is limbic resonance.
It’s this idea that portions of our brain link with one another when we experience intimacy. When we tune in to one another, we regulate not just one another's emotions, but nervous systems and endocrine systems, too.
This is a scientific way of saying that biologically we need one another for our very survival, and that our brains and bodies are not designed for the kind of loneliness and isolation we experience in post-modern societies. We’re designed to share and care, to love and be loved. Without those vital things, we suffer.
Jack Kornfield is a national treasure. No, he’s not recognized as such outside of the mindfulness tradition, but he should be.
He went to Thailand to study meditation in a forest monastery long before anyone else did, sometime around 1978. He had to learn Thai, shave his head, take up the robes and be subjected to quite a harsh path under his teacher, Ajahn Chah. Interesting enough, what came of that has been nothing but generosity and sweetness.
He co-founded arguably two of the most important Theravada meditation centers in the U.S., the Insight Meditation Society in Barry, MA and Spirit Rock in Marin County, CA. He also wrote one of the sweetest books on Buddhism ever written. Like Patanjali’s Sutras, it’s a guidebook about the path.
Particularly noteworthy about his approach, as far as I’m concerned, is the incredibly spacious and gentle perspective practice. When I learned yoga and meditation, I studied with some pretty harsh teachers who were particularly puritanical and harsh in their attitudes and approaches.
I particularly love Kornfield’s instruction that training the mind is like training a puppy: “Finding it difficult to concentrate, many people respond by forcing their attention on their breath or mantra or prayer with tense irritation and self-judgment, or worse. Is this the way you would train a puppy? Does it really help to beat it? Concentration is never a matter of force or coercion. You simply pick up the puppy again and return to reconnect with the present moment.”
In other words, we don’t beat our minds into submission by shaming ourselves or getting uptight when we have become distracted. Instead, we calmly and compassionately redirect our attention each time it’s drifted.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
This is a book I pick up and read again every few years. It can be read in a few hours if you’re a quick reader, but this is absolutely the stupidest way to read it. It’s to be read the way you’d drink the most exquisite wine you have in your cellar.
Hesse wrote this in 1922 and was way, way ahead of his time. His works became popular in the 1960s, but he was onto something very early. He even underwent psychotherapy with the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung.
Siddhartha loosely follows the life of Gautama Buddha, but his life eventually diverges from the Buddha’s in that instead of seeking only enlightenment, he also seeks after worldly things, wealth, power, emotional attachment and pleasure.
To me, Hesse's book is about the fact that while many of us can follow a prescribed path, like the path of the Buddha, some of us are cut from a different cloth. We need to find our own way. We can’t just explore light, but we also have to touch darkness. We have to experience the paradox of opposites, dark and light, worldly and transcendent, as a way to come to know ourselves and to know what life is.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This novel was all the rage when I first began what I consider my soul's journey. It was not long after my brother's passing in 1991 when I was looking for anything I could get my hands on that could frame the grief I was facing in a dignified light. Death of a close family member will knock the shit out of anyone. Suicide is an altogether different beast.
After Scott's burial and memorial, I quickly returned to university in hopes that things would go back to normal and I could be a college Freshman, again. One night I was invited to a sorority party, and my date asked me why I'd been missing from school over the last few weeks. When I told her the real answer, she immediately came back with, "Did your brother know that suicide was a sin?" That was the moment I realized I would never be "normal" again.
The Alchemist gave me the sense, though, of the destiny of my soul. As dark as this moment would be, this story showed me that this was only one leg of the soul's journey. It turned out to be the most influential one in this lifetime, for it would eventually lead to more beauty, love, connection and meaning than I could ever fathom before Scott's passing.
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
One more national treasure, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and professor. This book is based on interviews Bill Moyer had with Campbell in the late 80’s not long before his passing.
Campbell’s work on The Hero’s Journey has influenced every Star Wars film. Disney and Pixar base all their movies on this model. In 1949, he wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces and described what he called the monomyth, the basic structure of all myths. "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
What mainly sticks out of his works for me is his philosophy on life: "Follow your bliss.” He came across this notion while studying Hindu Upanishads, a set of text that primarily focused on the notion that individual soul and universal consciousness are the same:
"I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: sat-chit-ananda. The word 'Sat' means being. ‘Chit' means consciousness. ‘Ananda' means bliss or rapture. I thought, 'I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not, but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.’
What I love about this idea is that when we know what our purpose is and can align with it, everything follows.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
I don’t know what it is about her, but Pema herself is just good medicine. She’s honest, clear and gentle, a good, wise friend to keep close. Very few books are healers to me, but that’s what this is. I particularly love me some Pema when I’m feeling lost, and this is the first book I share when someone I know is going through a rough spell.
Her words cut straight to the heart: “Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
Her message is so on-point. Stop running. Stop diverting. Turn toward it. Face it. Feel it. Experience it. No other medicine is more potent than that…not that I know of, and she shares this wisdom with such heart.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari is in a league of his own. I don’t know anyone today who is think on his level. Can I say, F-ing genius?
He somehow took the history of our species and wrapped it into 700 pages, showing us who we are, how we got here, and maybe even where we might be headed, and he does it in a way that is entirely engrossing. His most basic argument is that our ability to think abstractly is what has enabled our species to be so successful in our 100,000-year history. Our stories give us the capacity to cooperate in large numbers.
Examples of such stories, abstractions and myths include things like currency, equality, liberty, the corporation. Paper money, for example, is empty of any value, but that many people agree that the US dollar has value deems that currency valuable. It is a collective agreement that enables ideas like Communism and Capitalism to go in and out of fashion.
Something interesting to note about Harari: he’s a pretty hard-core mindfulness practitioner. He’s a student of my teacher, S.N. Goenka, goes on one-month retreats once a year and credits the practice with his clarity, focus and capacity to see the big picture.
Promises and Pitfalls on the Spiritual Path by Ram Dass
When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I got my hands on this recording by Ram Dass. They buoyed me and gave me a wise perspective through a particularly chaotic and unsteady period of my life.
If you don’t know who this guy is, you’ve entirely missed the boat. He’s an icon. Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert to a reasonably wealthy East Coast Jewish family. He was initially known as one of those professors along with Timothy Leary who did some pretty intense research on themselves and others using psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD and other psychedelics at Harvard in the early 60’s.
But then Harvard had enough, and these guys were booted out. After a few more years of experimental research with Leary, Alpert ended up in India and met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. That chance meeting would completely alter the course of his life. He came back to the States describing his transformation, becoming a pivotal influence through his speaking and teaching.
What I’ve always loved about Ram Dass is his adventurous spirit, the depth of his wisdom, his humor and uncanny ability to weave a compelling story. While he can speak on subjects like the Bhagvad Gita, reincarnation, karma, dharma, etc., he teaches by sharing about his own life, his breakthroughs and pitfalls. I've always loved his humanity.
As a fellow yogi and psychonaught, I have particularly loved that he has explored psychedelics extensively, noting their benefits but also recognizing their inherent limitations.
When I reflected on my trips with LSD and other psychedelics, I saw that after a glimpse of the possibility of transcendence, I continued tripping only to reassure myself that the possibility was still there. Seeing the possibility is indeed different from being the possibility. Sooner or later you must purify and alter your mind, heart, and body so that the things which bring you down from your experiences lose their power over you.
In 1997, Ram Dass had a stroke, which vastly altered his ability to access language the way he previously could, but he still radiates something magnetic. Netflix recently came out with a short, beautiful film about him as he moves into the end of life titled, Ram Dass, Going Home.
Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell
I mustn’t forget Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Chinese classical text Tao Te Ching. This is the source text for Taoism and was written around the same time as the Buddha, about 500 BCE. It’s attributed to someone called Lao Tzu, which translates as Old Master.
I’ve explored multiple translations, but Mitchell’s is THE ONE that makes this text sing. The Tao Te Ching is all about living with wisdom. It’s about going with the flow, and it’s shared in such simple, clean, straight language. Check this out:
In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao (or wisdom),
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone. True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can't be gained by interfering.
This philosophy is so contrary to the way we think of things today. We think about our to do lists and rate ourselves on how well we’re doing with it. Lao Tzu is not saying that the point is to just be a lump on a log, to do nothing.
He’s saying that so much of our pushing gets us nowhere. It’s about learning to distinguish when it’s critical to take action and when we’re better off letting things go their own way. It’s about learning how to trust in the way of things. Instead of standing in the waves and resisting their flow, which we will never be able to do, we can learn to ride them.
When I first heard about Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy, I had to know more. I immediately went out and bought A Brief History of Everything But then when I attempted to read it, I was like, “Now what the fuck is he saying?” It was obvious that the guy was a friggin’ genius and that if I could just glean something from his writing, I might be one, too, but his writing style was way too heavy for me. Granted, I didn’t find him as impossible to read as Sri Aurobindo’s The Integral Yoga, but it took a real stick-to-iveness to even attempt to get through this book. I could muster enough for only a few hundred pages before I had to put it down.
That’s why I loved this 1999 interview Tammy Simon of Sounds True did with him, where he shares Integral Philosophy in a human, digestible way. Wilber has done something Herculean. He’s taken pre-modern, modern and postmodern models of human development and states of consciousness and woven them together into something that is not only digestible, but practical.
For example, I can look at the divide that our country’s facing in the current moment and diagnose it using his lenses. It gives me a vantage point on what’s happening in this time of apparent chaos.
But Wilber’s real treasure, as far as I’m concerned is not all of his highfalutin philosophy. It’s this easily overlooked love story he co-wrote with his wife, Treya, who battled with and eventually succumbed to cancer. I remember being glued to this book, tears streaming down my cheeks in a cafe in New York City in my early twenties. I had a ton of other school work to finish, but I couldn’t let go of this emotional story about the heroic way this couple deeply in love faced her life-threatening illness together. Their courage and commitment to truth deeply inspired me.
While it has been many years since I have read their story, it continues to resonate with me because like these two lovers, my wife and I are both deeply in love, seekers of truth and completely dependent on one another for each other's friendship and support.
Before we met one another, both of us had endured a great deal of aloneness. This seeking can be a lonely ride. However, our togetherness has been an oasis of belonging for each of us. Sadly, one of us will go before the other. My prayer is that it happens many years from now, but the truth of the matter is that we have no say over this. Whether it comes sooner or later, I hope that we can muster half-the-courage and wisdom and all the love that Ken and Treya had to carry us through.