Reviews written by Jude Bell
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The “gem” of this book is the authors’ desire to bring our days and nights back into their natural, harmonious relationship. Our glaring, revved-up society leads us to regard sleep as nothing more than what we do when we’re not awake. In contrast, the authors posit that sleep and dreaming exist in a realm of their own, and we must relearn the being states that contribute to a natural transition into that realm.
The Yin-Yang symbol on the book cover represents the overarching message of the book—that light and dark, intention and attention, acid and alkaline are contrasting elements but of equal value. Most of our lives are top-heavy with intention, emphasis on the mental, and we suffer in countless ways from this imbalance of body, mind and spirit.
The authors describe opening to sleep as “entering the Void.” I was surprised by the use of this specific term, because I have few positive associations with this word. Typical reactions range from “the lack of anything” to a full-blown panicky fear of death. Though the authors do succeed in conveying a rich geography of sleep, I believe that the prominence of this word in their paradigm might work against them.
The bulk of the book is carefully chosen exercises to assist the surrender to sleep. There are exercises using mental images, all aimed at distracting one from the stress of the day. There are also useful physiological exercises involving breath and others that focus on releasing physical tension. What I found especially informative were sections on the relationship between light and sleep as well as nutrition and sleep. Though the book stands best as a whole, it could also be used beneficially to explore areas of special interest to the reader.
Overall, I found the beginning chapters a bit wordy and repetitive, too much analysis of terminology that, in the end, isn’t absolutely necessary in order to seek richer sleep. The rest of the book, though, is an intriguing invitation to reweave sleep back into our lives, so we can enjoy the health, balance, inspiration and insight that it offers.
According to an article in the BBC News, recent research shows that people spend 50% of their waking hours daydreaming. After reading The Mindfulness Code by Donald Altman, I believe that an even more interesting question would be how much time each day people spend being fully present. 5%? 10%? None?
Altman posits from the beginning of the book that our habit of being “somewhere else” robs us of the true joys and rewards of life—gratitude, peace, creativity, and satisfying relationships. He offers ideas and practices for retraining our minds and spirits to fully experience the present moment.
The chapters can be read in any order, since the insights gained from any one practice contribute to understanding the next one. The text is organized under four key areas—mind, body, spirit, and relationships. Patient, consistent work with the practices brings about transformation.
At the beginning of this process, Altman asserts, is meditation that helps us observe and eventually disengage from our habitual fantasies, fears, and ego struggles. Quoted is Benjamin Libet who asserts that there is about one-half of a second between intention and action. This space of time is the home of our freedom. Mindfulness brings about awareness of this opportunity to choose compassionate actions over fearful, destructive ones.
I found the practices really engaging and productive. For example, after an experience that left me feeling a failure and unloved, I tried a practice in the chapter entitled, “Prime your mind for trust.” I brought to mind all the people who love me, including departed souls like Mother Theresa and Gandhi. I imagined them holding my hand. Taking deep breaths I breathed in the comfort of having their support. The practice finished with a Buddhist prayer for health, happiness, and peace for others and myself. The immediate effect was relaxation and a release of my self-condemnation. This practice, of course, is just one of the many offered, all of which apply to everyday situations.
With limits of time and space, I’ve only touched on certain points of the book, but it’s a rich collection of reflections ranging from the sacred nature of sound to how to overcome the effects of childhood traumas.
The author’s goals align him with such teachers as Eckhart Tolle who also believes that the next step in human evolution is a new level of compassion and interconnectedness. Altman concludes, “With enough practice, one can actually transform oneself into a human being dedicated to peace and kindness…This is perhaps the next great revolution and evolution of the human mind.” Why not join the revolution?
One thing I have come to believe: the most profound teachings often seem the simplest on the surface. Gratitude is one of these. My first reaction reading this book was a sense of quiet relief. Available to us any time, in any circumstance, is the power to transform our lives. In numerous investigations, gratitude has been shown to increase personal happiness, enhance health, and to help people move from fear to courage, isolation to belonging, and connect to “the flow of life beyond our personal concerns.”
Completely lacking is the sensationalism so pervasive in our culture. The perspective presented in Living Life as a Thank You focuses our attention on being grateful for even the smallest things and rewires our brains to see the glass half-full. In the process, the energy that squandered by living in the past or the future is for the first time available to us, resulting in profound changes in our own lives and those of others.
The radical change in perspective made possible by gratitude may be vital to surviving this period in which financial and natural disasters can destroy overnight the lives with which we identify. Going through these shocking losses and witnessing the suffering of others can leave us feeling abandoned and hopeless. Gratitude is a tool to guide us through the re-evaluation necessary to return to our core values.
Through vignettes from people's lives and practices to use ourselves, Living Life as a Thank You sets us on a profound journey that begins with just one step. As Meister Eckhart counseled, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank You,’ that would suffice.”
I feel obliged to begin these comments with the disclaimer that I am not a reader of romances. Because of that my remarks aren’t the same unalloyed praise as other reviewers’.
This story follows the experiences of a “green tea drinking, laptop-using, motorcycle-riding reporter,” Jayne Tate, who after her father’s death and being turned down for a major newspaper assignment, turns to Oregon’s Amish community in hopes of finding a story that will put her career back on the map. What she finds instead is a lifestyle that challenges her values and leads her back to her Christian roots. The catalyst for this transformation is an Amish man who has left his Amish family, but works in the community near them to stay in contact with them as best he can.
Jayne is invited to stay with his family in order to experience first-hand the strict sense of “Ordnung” that defines the Amish way of life. There are some interesting events that contrast Jayne’s typical urban values with the deeply Christian values of the family members. One of these events is the attempted theft of one of the family’s horses by local boys. Jayne, of course, assumes that the police will be called, while the father of the family asks with sincere concern if the boys need to borrow the horse for some reason. The sharp contrast between their reactions is makes one pause. Jayne’s is immediately judgmental, in fact, self-righteous. The family father, in contrast, takes the situation as it unfolds. He keeps an open mind, which allows him to feel concern for the boys. This situation highlights the gentleness of the Amish way of life.
Another example is the change in Jayne’s perceptions that come from learning to sew. Sewing is a common activity in the Amish household, but completely foreign to Jayne. It takes much coaxing before she’ll even try it, but over the course of time she comes to appreciate the peaceful, meditative quality of this simple activity. This is but one example of how Jayne’s perspectives changed slowly but surely from one of being captivated by fashion and a fast-paced life to gaining an appreciation of choices that increase connection to community.
I would have found these events more compelling and thought provoking except that my trust in the author’s research was shaken when she twice described the family members as speaking “Pennsylvania ‘Dutch.’” This is a common misconception that could have been avoided with a simple online search. The original “Pennsylvania Dutch” were Germanic people. The mistaken use of “Dutch” to describe their language came from its similarity to the words “Deutsch” and “Deitsch” which mean “German.” A mistake this grave clouded my enjoyment of the exploration of the family’s interactions, because I no longer felt confident of the accuracy of what I was reading.
Other details that didn’t become obvious to me until the end of the book further chipped away at my enjoyment. The first of these is that the man who Jayne eventually marries is a carpenter, and worse yet, when they marry, he is 33. I am willing to be corrected if my calculation is wrong, but even the man’s occupation as a carpenter was more than this
German-speaking reader who holds a degree in literature and psychology could bear.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 70 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s and by mid-century someone will develop it every 33 seconds. As prevalence increases we, as a compassionate society, are searching for more and better ways to deal with the day-to-day experiences of Alzheimer’s sufferers and those who care for them.
Dr. London’s book focuses on different forms and possibilities for communication in this context, thus, “Connecting the Dots.” I found her perspective inspiring and thought-provoking, because underlying her thorough exploration of current understanding of Alzheimer’s and a very rich offering of her experience working with patients, is a very intuitive and spiritual approach to interaction with Alzheimer’s sufferers.
At the heart of her method is the reminder, “You are the one who is capable of change.” She firmly reminds the reader that the Alzheimer’s sufferer is not capable of changing his/her behavior. It is we who must adapt. That understood, she opens a treasure chest of methods for reaching and communicating with patients starting from where they are. One of her tools reminds us to “remember that he lives in the present moment” and “view each time you meet as an entirely new occasion.”
Compassion and intuition are essential qualities for this approach. Compassion gives us the dedication and energy to commit to exploring a foreign landscape of seemingly chaos utterances and random physical expressions. Intuition enables us to puzzle out possible meanings behind unconnected utterances. Even though we can no longer communicate with our loved one as we once did, that doesn’t mean that communication has ended. Rather than mourning what’s been lost, she encourages the caregiver to work forward with what remains.
She details many non-verbal, non-linear ways of connecting with the person with Alzheimer’s. These include such things as art, music, movement, old photographs, familiar foods, and prayer. Massage and gentle touch can be a form of communication by themselves. To give a comforting structure to these efforts to contact, Dr. London describes how to create a consistent, familiar environment. She suggests that you introduce yourself each time you meet. Sit eye-to-eye to encourage engagement. Don’t agree or disagree with your loved one and be ready to repeat statements that aren’t understood or heard clearly.
The book closes with the critically important issue of care for the caregiver. First, London acknowledges how very difficult it is for people to add caregiving to lives already filled with work, family, and personal needs. Because this situation is often even more stressful than it may appear, London explores multiple ways in which the caregiver can nurture herself/himself, including the respite of adult daycare, exercise, internet chat groups, and community support.
What sets this book apart is the exquisite balance between facts and techniques on one side and a deep underlying spirituality on the other. “Connecting the Dots” is not just a book about dealing with Alzheimer’s, crucial as that topic is. It is also a guide to living gently and with appreciation of the day-to-day possibilities of our own lives.
The Challenge of the Soul, a Guide for the Spiritual Warrior, is written from a unique perspective. The author is both a rabbi and a martial arts expert, and he draws comparisons between the lessons and challenges each offers for the spiritual warrior. For example, he learned as a beginning martial arts student that he must enter into each lesson in a state of innocence. This innocence, he explains, is not an emptying out of ourselves, but rather an opening up essential to advancing in martial arts and to being open to the presence of the Spirit. Also directly applicable to his spiritual growth were the patience and endurance that he learned in martial arts, perseverance necessary to stay on the path of spiritual growth.
Rabbi Goldstein draws on many traditions to describe the growth of the spiritual warrior: going through the “Dark Night of the Soul,” learning to see evil as good in disguise, confronting the Shadow, and wrestling with inner demons and darkness. He asserts that we must engage with this fear, anger, and struggle in order to develop. What we may regard as random, negative events is then seen from a different perspective, part of a larger harmonious plan. We must have faith that, “There is no such thing as evil, there is only God.” This frightening “descent before ascent” starts the process of higher development. In contrast to our “I want it now” culture, the unfolding of the spiritual warrior is gradual and sometimes even imperceptible. The direction, though, is always toward harmony, wholeness, and peace. The qualities he sees as essential to the spiritual warrior are introspection, discipline, courage, creativity, stamina, restraint and perseverance, and each chapter expands on one of these qualities.
Goldstein offers events from the lives of many heroic men from Biblical times to the present, each exemplifying one or more of the qualities of the spiritual warrior. There are times, though, when the core message becomes bogged down in background detail, such as his description of the history of Judah, a region of the Israelite kingdom, including details of earlier occupying empires and the fate of the northern kingdom. I found detailed excursions such as this distracting and unhelpful. It seems that too often, the scholar takes precedence over the spiritual teacher, indulging in passages of meticulous scholarship that may not contribute to the primary focus of the book.
The other quality that made his approach less accessible to me is the glaring absence of women warriors. The only one mentioned is Esther, Queen of Persia, who put her own life at stake when she revealed her Jewish heritage in order to save the Jews in the land, but even then he questions her motives in a manner that sounds strangely like his praise of male heroes in similar situations. He praises her creativity in making use of what resources she had while at the same time questioning her morality, since those resources were sex and manipulation.
His text is almost exclusively patriarchal, underlined by the language used. Examples include, “the lifelong battle between who we are and who we want to be” and “a spiritual warrior masters his soul.” The chapters are peppered with words such as struggle, adversaries, enemies, wrestling, and others. I felt that though there is much wisdom about the growth of spiritual life in his writing, it wasn’t worth the effort to read around and beyond the traditionally male, aggressive language.
In contrast, this book might appeal to and be useful for those whose path is that of strict discipline and overcoming of the self. There is a path for everyone, and even though his path didn’t speak to me, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be quite inspiring to a student with a different perspective.
At the center of Pema Chödrön’s book is something infinitesimal—a moment. But that moment, she explains, holds our peace of mind, the fate of our culture, and the future of our world.
That moment is the gap between our experience of an emotion and acting on it. She describes with compelling insight our habitual tendency to stay “asleep” and avoid discomfort. This tendency is expressed in creating stories to support our self-identity and addictive behaviors such as drug use, sex, and aggression. All of them end up being excuses to not change.
Her message, though, is not hopeless. Rather, she reveals the revolutionary changes that arise from staying present with our emotions, “good” or “bad.” The goal is to be able to be compassionately present with any emotion without getting “hooked.”
Chodron's deceptively simple techniques—sit, breathe in, breathe out, observe—form the core of a lifetime of spiritual development.
This handbook for creating a Magdalene Circle is organized around fourteen lessons each of which includes an essay by noted Magdalene researcher Margaret Starbird, reflections and sharing by Joan Norton, a meditation based on the lesson, and journal questions. Participants use the life and legends of Mary Magdalene as inspiration for integrating the Sacred Feminine in their lives and returning the Church to wholeness.
The essays by Starbird are rich in the esoteric beliefs supporting Mary Magdalene’s role as the Bride of Christ, the feminine face of God, and the preeminent woman of the Gospels. Fascinating in their depth and complexity, Starbird’s commentary would be more satisfying if supported by footnotes offering the possibility of further exploration. Stated as fact, topics such as sacred geometry, the calculation of sacred numbers, and the subtleties of translation from Hebrew can be confusing and even overwhelming to someone new to this field.
On the other hand, the broader discussion of the universal nature of the union of opposites and its role in our inner lives is compelling. From ancient myth to modern psychology, pairings such as the sacred couple, masculine-feminine, wave and particle, and energy and matter are explored, illuminating the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as one of countless archetypes that draw the heart and soul to wholeness.
"Die before you die." This Sufi mantra captures the central message of Living Fully, Dying Well, co-authored by Edward W. Bastian, Ph.D., a Buddhist scholar, and Tina Staley, Director of Pathfinders, a program that provides advocates for cancer patients and their families.
The authors gathered spiritual practitioners of several religions and doctors who acknowledge the spiritual needs of the dying to explore what it means to “live fully, die well.” Their starting point is to examine the current tendency in America to distance, sanitize, and deny death, and how this fear—and it is a from fear that we do this—closes off entire realms of deeper experience, wisdom, and joy. In contrast, living fully asks us to open to the awareness that death is a part of everyday life. When we make this shift, our normally armored self-images soften, relaxing the boundary between our outer lives and our vital, often neglected inner lives. Being present as “witness” to the deaths of loved ones and more accepting of the natural inevitability of our own deaths makes this inevitable passage less fearful; an opportunity to experience death as a rich summing-up, a completion.
Each subsequent chapter focuses on a different aspect of dying—changing our own views, how to allow loved ones to witness and support the process, exploring the "best case scenario" of what dying well means to us, and even how to care for the body of the deceased.
In a field crowded with outstanding publications encompassing every aspect of death and dying, the danger still exists that the subject can remain comfortably abstract. The second half of Living Fully, Dying Well gathers in one place the tools needed to bring into our own experience the various concepts presented. The "Life Review Exercise" itself is profoundly eye-opening. It is followed by exercises such as "Practices for Transforming Pain and Suffering" and "Meditations and Preparation for the Moment of Death."
These exercises and meditations bring the work of the book full-circle. Working with any of these brings us closer to understanding death as a part of our lives; as one more thread in an unending cloth rather than "the end." Living Fully, Dying Well offers a transformational experience to any reader willing to genuinely engage with it.
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