David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings

Please allow me to introduce you to Brother David, a Benedictine monk with close ties to Paul Tillich and Thomas Merton. I recently heard him speak, and he is both a brilliant philosopher (in the most intellectually rigorous sense) and a brilliant spiritual leader (in the most genuine and inspiring sense). His central concept is gratefulness – not in a glitter and unicorns way (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but in a deeply rooted, action-oriented way. I started my reading with his “Essential Writings”, a great place to begin. http://www.gratefulness.org/

The Red Book, by Carl Jung

There are several reasons to check out this (gigantic, costly) book. First, it is physically beautiful, resembling a 15th century illuminated Bible more than a philosopher’s journal. Second, it is a rare chance to see the source material of a great thinker’s work. Jung himself said of this period and these writings (1914-1930, when he was 38-54 years old): “The years of which I have spoken to you, when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life.  Everything else is to be derived from this... the later details hardly matter anymore.  My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream ad threatened to break me… everything later was merely the outer classification, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. BUT THE NUMINOUS BEGINNING, WHICH CONTAINED EVERYTHING, WAS THEN.”  Just in case you are an ‘executive summary’ kind of person, here is Jung’s own conclusion:  “I came to my self, a giddy and pitiful figure. My I! I didn’t want this fellow as my companion... I want to live with you, therefore I will carry you through an utterly medieval Hell, until you are capable of making living with you bearable. You should be the vessel and womb of life, therefore I shall purify you.  The touchstone is being alone with oneself. This is the way.”  Interestingly, though the entire book is thick with religious and spiritual discussion and imagery, Jung’s final words are about the self, alone. “My I” !  Isn’t that a beautiful expression, and haunting?  Caring and in opposition, all at once. There has been a lot of press coverage of this book, as it has never been published before, and it was the center of an exhibit at the Rubin Museum this fall – some of the better articles are bundled together at the NY Times link below.

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but Wallace is a bit Steinbeck-ian in his conclusions, that the capacity for independent thought is at the heart of all worthwhile human endeavor.  This tiny book is a transcript of the Commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College before his untimely death. (The full text is also widely available on the internet).

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Though it is hard to avoid generalizations with a topic like Cain’s (“introverts are good at…”), her work contains vital insights, such as the distinction between shyness (when social interaction can be painful) and introversion (when a person thrives with less social stimulation versus more). She had me thinking of how little we consider these differences when designing workspaces, for example. Once my team moved to new offices where the doors were all see-through, and within two days several colleagues had papered their clear doors over. The feeling of being constantly open to any and all interactions was unbearable for some! I love that Cain makes the case for contributions and leadership that are not so centered on being loud and gregarious. http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/

The Places that Scare You, by Pema Chodron

There are many helpful Buddhist teachings (and others) related to fear: I find Pema Chodron’s to be accessible, practical, helpful, and comforting.  Among the titles that might be of interest are The Places that Scare You, Comfortable with Uncertainty, and From Fear to Fearlessness.

Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

The non-fiction version of East of Eden. (Or vice-versa). “The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose...”

Just Enough, by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson

This book was recommended by Virgil Wood (colleague of MLK) and Harvey Cox (Harvard Divinity School legend) - that alone is enough reason to read it. And Nash and Stevenson are from HBS, so if you are usually very impatient with flaky 'improve your life' books this tone might be more familiar and helpful to you. They explore notions of success in a multi-dimensional way, highlighting that a successful life is not quite the same as success in just one arena. (I have to admit that book-length writings on these topics often seem a little wordy to me - if you concur, a short summary article can also be found (for a fee) through HBS at harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu.

Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love, by Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Speaking of fear, a complementary view on the subject is presented by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, whose new book contains a helpful categorization: “REAL BUT NOT TRUE”. Many fears, notes Rinpoche, fall into this category. This is not just clever wordsmithing – it gives us a helpful way to approach our fears. Instead of trying to brush fears aside or feeling helpless because they are irrational, we can acknowledge that they are indeed real, and then move on to recognizing that they are ALSO not true. Rinpoche gives a memorable example of standing on the edge of a glass walkway, paralyzed with fear. All around him people are walking across, perfectly safe: his fear was real (he could not move), but not true (conditions were safe). This distinction helps to approach fears with more calmness and compassion (see point #3 below), clearing the way for less fear and more joy.

Gratefulness, The Heart Of Prayer, by David Steindl-Rast

Several readers commented on the final words in our TED summary from Brother Steindl-Rast – “Stop. Look. Go.” His invocation inspired me to take another look at this book, which is both wonderfully simple and deeply profound. Brother David himself says that he could summarize this book in just two words: “Wake Up!” ...but it is worth reading all of the other words in here too.

Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin

Oh my!  This is not a happy-go-lucky book. But it IS a passion-filled account of one man’s experience with faith -- and without it.  The role that faith serves for each of the characters is a fascinating stew of need and want, of weakness and strength, of loss and (maybe) salvation. Even better when read in conjunction with Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. And while you’re at it, take another look at Richard Wright’s Native Son too.

Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar

“We need to escape the cult of the average.” We do not spend enough time studying outliers, and especially positive outliers. This book addresses this point in an abstract way (interesting) and also provides concrete suggestions for moving beyond average in your own life (helpful). If the advice seems straightforward, that is the point: there is no hidden secret to being more content, it is as much a matter of conditioning as anything else.

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