Essential Reading for the Spiritual Explorer

shelved under Self-Help

It never fails to move me that a small object — a book — can take me across centuries, make time timeless, open doors to languages I have never learned and reveal intimacies from people I will never meet... all without leaving my chair! What could be more miraculous?!

When it comes to spiritual explorations, reading offers us something else just as priceless: an opportunity to move at our own pace and to bring ourselves and our own barely articulated questions to the reflective dialog that deep reading inevitably evokes.

What follows is a list of five of the countless books that have taken me far, thrown me in the air, dusted me down and reshaped me (at least somewhat) into the “work-in-progress” I am today.


Man's Search For Meaning

by Viktor E. Frankl

This book is a measuring stick for me. I re-read it every few years to check that my own understanding and appreciation of life is growing. I also use it often in my teaching and work with people to demonstrate that some exceptional lessons come from the hardest times — but only if we are open to that and don’t force it. Frankl’s insights were forged in the concentration camps of Europe. He came to see that what matters most in terms of the security of our inner world is to develop the capacity to bring meaning to our existence — to have something beyond ourselves to hope for and care about — even and especially in times of extreme adversity. A meaningless life is a wasted life and deriving meaning only from the usual temporary props of money, success, and power is scarcely better. This is a tough, challenging book. It is also brilliant and deeply humane.


Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

by Thich Nhat Hanh, edited by Arnold Kotler, foreword by H. H. the Dalai Lama

Thich Nhat Hanh is also someone whose wisdom was forged in extreme adversity. In his case, it was what the West calls the Vietnam War. Already a Zen Buddhist monk and poet, Thich came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a peace emissary with the specific mission of conveying to the American people the humanity of the Vietnamese people, both North and South; to bring the face of a friend rather than an enemy. In the 40-odd years since, he has remained a profound teacher of peace. There is great clarity and deceptive simplicity in all his work. It's the small moments of everyday life that he pays the most attention to — those moments that we almost always rush by on our way to somewhere else. Transform those, he teaches, by looking deeply into this present moment that will never come again, and you begin a true revolution: transforming and healing the world.


Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I'm currently completing a book on Rilke that I've been writing for some years... and I still find the work of this early 20th century German-language poet mesmerizing. But what's just as fascinating is the attraction he holds for 21st century readers in search of spiritual intensity, beauty and inwardness. There are many Rilke translations into English. (Only Rumi is a more popular English-language poet.) Those by Edward Snow are immensely fine and well worth seeking out, and Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy have combined forces on some elegant popular translations... but my love affair with Rilke began years ago when I read this book of translations by Robert Bly. Bly’s success as "translator" (very loose in some cases) is patchy. Some poems entirely miss the mark but when they are good, they are brilliant. There is a force and passion here that is captivating, not the least about the profound mysteriousness of the mysterious "God" who so preoccupies Rilke and, I suspect, many of his readers.


A Testament of Devotion

by Thomas R. Kelly

Warning: this small book could change your life. First published in 1941, the year of Kelly’s death, it invites the reader to live life from the center: that "place" of inwardness that is also where, in silence and reflection, we meet the divine, or God. Kelly’s vision is shaped by his Quaker beliefs that "God" is not something to be possessed by any one group at the expense of others, but "possessed" in the deeply spiritual sense of inner surrender. This also allows us to see one another quite differently: to see "that of God" — to use the Quaker phrase — in everyone, regardless of whether we like their views or understand their thinking. Given how highly conditional our love and respect for other people often is, this quiet book is also nakedly challenging. How far out of our comfort zone are we prepared to go to transform our spiritual ideals or ambitions into a way of life? I love the modesty of Kelly’s writing that coexists with his entirely apt erudition. It will appeal to those who also love Thomas Merton’s work, or William Johnston’s — two more writers whose vision of humanity is generous, realistic and inclusive, and whose vision of life is mystical, humble and inspiring.


For the Time Being

by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is someone I enthusiastically recommend and I am often surprised to find keen readers who have somehow missed out on discovering her. She won the Pulitzer some years ago for American Childhood but it’s her Writing Life and For the Time Being that I love best. Dillard's preoccupations are entirely with writing itself — that chillingly difficult art — and not with the darker art of being “a famous writer.” That detachment is not easily achieved. It's easy to take the magic of writing for granted, but that’s not possible here. Dillard draws our attention to what writing is and does; sparingly, accurately, she enchants us, yet without taking attention or passion away from whatever it is she is writing about. In For the Time Being we experience mindfulness of a most particular and enhanced kind. It's rather like experiencing reading as a mind-altering drug: the whole world looks different because it is seen differently and with astonishing intensity. Astonishment is what you feel often when reading Dillard. What’s more, rather like an impressionist painter, she manages to make a stone or a lizard, a city or a desert, a historical figure or someone standing in front of her, all equally singular and fascinating. She makes it intensely “itself.” My sense is strong that if we are to “wake up” spiritually we must learn to see the physical world around us - and all its life forms — not just more truthfully but with increasing commitment and engagement. We have to care more. For me, that kind of deep looking and deep caring is at the heart of creative journal writing — and living. For that, too, Dillard is an outstanding guide.


Bel Canto

by Ann Patchett

I know I said five books and this is the sixth, but I couldn’t resist noting how much I have learned about humanity, and myself, from reading novels. As a little girl my parents allowed my older sister and me to read everywhere — even during meals. Burying myself in a novel is perhaps the most consistent joy stretching through my entire life and my latest favorite is Ann Patchett’s astonishing and utterly engaging Bel Canto. It's a musical novel in every sense — not just because of its title or because several of its most compelling, unforgettable characters are musicians. It literally “plays” upon your inner ear, is full of surprises, has haunting “recitatives” and, when the end comes, you can only feel heartbreak that you cannot know more about every one of these people who have become so real to you that you can not only hear them, you can taste them. Isn’t it true that reading is a deeply, deeply sensual as well as intellectual and sometimes spiritual experience? This book utterly illuminates that.