Book Reviews

mb63-Books1Ten Breaths to Happiness
Touching Life in Its Fullness

By Glen Schneider
Foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2013
Soft cover, 108 pages

Reviewed by Louise Dunlap,True Silent Teaching

“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world” (Francis of Assisi). So begins Glen Schneider’s chapter on the Ten Breaths Practice. We place our hands on our bellies. Our hands are like roots touching deeply into ourselves. And we use them to count ten breaths, completely bypassing words and brain. We do this practice at moments when something beautiful touches us—the moon shining through bare branches, a dear friend’s compassion and goodness. As we train our mindfulness on beauty for the span of ten breaths (thirty seconds), we open new neural pathways to happiness, which can—with practice—replace habitual negativity, pain, and even trauma.

While the Ten Breaths Practice is ancient, Schneider connects it to neuroscience with explanations that flow easily enough for beginners. As Einstein once said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This fifty-page book is like a poem in the sense that every word resonates, nothing is out of place, and the images carry us beyond our usual thinking.

For me, what’s especially beautiful is the way Schneider, a trained naturalist, helps me touch what seems “out there” in Mother Nature. For instance, he happened to look up at a 152-foot redwood tree that stands outside city hall in his home town, and he realized it was time to stop on the busy sidewalk, place his hands on his belly, and practice. “On the eighth breath,” he tells us, “a glowing feeling arose in my chest and spread to my face with a huge, blossoming smile. I felt a barrier in myself dissolve and the tree became alive.” As Thay tells us, Mother Earth is not just “out there” but also inside ourselves.

Ten Breaths to Happiness deepens one of my favorite themes in Thay’s teaching, his use of the word “touch.” When Thay urges us to “touch the wave, touch the water,” there is something beyond philosophy about this, something very much of the body. With hands on the belly for ten breaths, and those mysterious neural pathways actually opening up, I can feel my body at one with my mind.

Besides talking us through ten breaths, Schneider (a Dharma teacher ordained by Thay in 2011) offers appendices of other Earth-centered practices, including a beautiful Touching the Earth.

mb63-Books2The Green Boat
Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture

By Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books, 2013 Soft cover, 240 pages

Reviewed by Louise Dunlap, True Silent Teaching

Mary Pipher is widely known for her healing book, Reviving Ophelia, about teenage girls in crisis. Now—amidst extreme weather, disappearing species, and fouled water—she turns her attention as a skilled therapist to our relationship with Mother Earth. As climate change and related crises accelerate before our eyes, she hones in on some crucial questions: Why do so many humans seem frozen or indifferent, caught in cognitive dissonance? How can we move beyond our own shock and paralysis toward actions that shift the balance and avert suffering?

Pipher’s hallmark is real-life stories—wise teaching tales of young mothers, grocery clerks, ranchers, and artists—mostly from her beloved state of Nebraska. But the story at the heart of this book is Pipher’s own. After reading the truth about climate disaster in Bill McKibben’s Earth during a summer of record heat waves, this grandmother and longtime friend of Mother Earth was devastated. She recalls the night her grown daughter, a mother herself, asked point-blank: “Does this storm mean climate change?” Pipher had to gently tell the truth and watch the pain in her daughter’s face.

Afterwards, she called a small group together to begin a coalition that would temporarily stop the Keystone XL pipeline from promoting climate-threatening tar sands fossil fuel. This group worked hard but caringly, even joyfully. They shared meals, played with children, and walked out on a bit of remaining prairie under the stars. Through actions such as appearing at statewide festivals and carrying wildflowers into their State Capitol, they spoke truth in ways others could hear. Their movement created a common cause between conservative ranchers and environmentalists. Separation and discrimination melted away in shared concern for Mother Earth.

Thay’s teachings on interbeing and ecology permeate this book and are often quoted. When Pipher writes of how she deals with the painful feelings that come with full awareness of climate catastrophe, I hear Thay’s voice reminding us of the Pure Land available in the present moment. Pipher cultivates “the sparkling moment” and knows “how to step outdoors and look for the green heron or the redolent milkweed blossom.”

For those of us called to revive Mother Earth, Mary Pipher re-minds us that reviving ourselves is part of the process, and that this practice is the essence of hope.

mb63-Books3Awakening Joy
10 Steps to Happiness

By James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander
Parallax Press, 2012 Soft cover, 294 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

In the words of author and teacher James Baraz, “Joy and happiness are more than just good ideas. They can be the baseline on which we live our lives. The purpose of this book is to show how to access that switch inside and live life with greater joy.” Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness is based on the wisdom gleaned from twenty years of teaching this ten-session course in person and online to thousands of participants. It emphasizes the key principle that our joy and happiness are up to us. This is not a workbook, but it is a self-led course that can be read individually and also used as a guide for leading the effective ten-week class in Sanghas, jails, prisons, schools, clinics, and book groups.

Each chapter focuses on one of the key steps for awakening joy, such as: “Inclining the Mind toward Joy,” “Mindfulness,” and “The Bliss of Blamelessness.” Each chapter contains a self-contained teaching on the selected topic in a readable format, offering practices that can be implemented one week at a time. The authors integrate a balanced and seamless use of anecdotes highlighting successes of past course participants, their own personal insights and transformations, current findings in neuroscience, and the teachings of the Buddha, along with modern-day applications for everyday life. The readings evoke the feeling of sharing an intimate conversation with a wise teacher over a cup of tea. They are gentle, personal, and helpful.

My favorite part of the book is the story of Baraz fathering a son when he was in his early twenties. He shares about his pain of being estranged from his son for over twenty years and then about their reunion and reconciliation using many of the principles shared in this book. It is a beautiful example of how we can use our own suffering as the impetus toward compassion, healing, and especially joy. In the introduction to the paperback edition, Baraz shares several letters he has received from past course participants. The best testimony for the healing power of joy is expressed in this excerpt: “Seeking joy after thirty-one years in prison can be a daunting endeavor, but your insights have helped.” The lessons offered in Awakening Joy are highly relevant for beginning and experienced practitioners of mindfulness because they bring a fresh and unique perspective to many of the core teachings and practices of the Buddha.

PDF of this article

Book Reviews

mb62-BookReviews2A Handful of Quiet
Happiness in our Pebbles

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Blossom Books, 2012
Hardcover, 62 pages

Reviewed by Elle Snow

Many years ago, on a meditation retreat in Santa Barbara, Thay and some children created Pebble Meditation. Like so many of Thay’s teachings, Pebble Meditation is both simple and profoundly deep. The practice invites the child to hold a pebble, breathe in and out, and visualize an aspect of nature and what it represents as a life-giving state of being.

Breathing in I see myself as a flower
Breathing out I feel fresh.
Breathing in I see myself as a mountain
Breathing out I feel solid.
Breathing in I see myself as calm water
Breathing out I reflect what truly is.
Breathing in I see myself as space
Breathing out I feel free.

Pebble Meditation gives the left brain a tangible object for a child/practitioner to focus on (the pebble) as the right brain is opened to the abstraction of possibility. The whole brain is engaged as the pebble and the abstract are unified through touching what is evoked of the four elements in their symbolic representation of flower, water, mountain, and space. Through the “touchstone” of each aspect of nature, we can open ourselves to the transcendent wisdom of their correlates: fresh, clear, solid, and free.

A Handful of Quiet is a sweet book that has a great deal to offer children of all ages. In accessible language and with gentle illustration, it provides a way for a caring adult to introduce meditation, mindfulness, and nature to a child. It offers sixty pages of activities and tools in which to develop a relationship with Pebble Meditation. There is a section with practice pages where a child can name the moments when she has felt quiet or free. Also, Thay walks a child through a drawing activity. And there are steps for how to make a pebble meditation bag. Perhaps my favorite are the series of pages that begin with one, then two, then three, then four small blue watercolor splotches for the child to set his pebbles on as he does each step of the meditation.

Teaching a cherished child the skill of mindful awareness is one of the greatest gifts we can give. A Handful of Quiet is not only a lovely book; it is a way to engage a child though story, activity, and relationship. It is a bridge between a wise adult and an innocent child. It is a way to plant seeds through pebbles!

mb62-BookReviews2Fear
Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Harper One, 2012
Softcover, 156 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

It has been said that all of our negative emotions boil down to fear. So it’s no surprise that our beloved teacher has written a book that serves as an antidote to fear. As I write this review, just before the national elections on November 6, a fierce hurricane is slowly descending upon the East Coast of the U.S. The news media is shouting and magnifying our worst fears, and is even turning them into tools for political gain. This type of fear-mongering is actually a storm in itself, for it creates a culture of fear, which Thay teaches us, in this small but potent book, to counteract with mindful living.

The Buddha taught that while there is suffering, through mindfulness we can transform our suffering into peace, stability, and joy. In the Introduction, Thay discusses how we cannot make our fears go away by ignoring them, and that to bury our fears is to give them even more dominion over us. He offers specific methods for how to live fully in the here and now, so that we are no longer battered by the modern storm of fear and anxiety. In reading Thay’s book we learn that we can, indeed, transform the roots of fear from within.

Nowadays we often use shopping, alcohol, drugs, TV, films, books, and even conversations to distract ourselves from fear. By acting in this way, we unwittingly feed the storm. “If you stop running after the object of your craving,” writes the author, “—whether it’s a person, a thing or an idea—your fear will dissipate.” This notion reminds me of an old saying by the hippie philosopher Thaddeus Golas: “If you can’t find it where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?”

Thay points out that when we act out of fear, we actually foster a culture of fear, and that the antidote to this oppressive cycle is mindful living. He encourages us to drop our isolated egos in favor of our communities and the world at large. When we remain in regular contact with our spiritual community and walk in peace with our Sangha, we help break the cycle of fear and provide a balm for all beings.

mb62-BookReviews3Deep Relaxation
Coming Home to Your Body

By Sister Chan Khong
Parallax Press, 2013
Hardcover, 40 pages, with CD

Reviewed by Gary Gach, True Platform of Light

Whether you are new to our practice or a long-term beginner, you might agree how marvelous is its integration of body, feelings, and mind as one. We start with our bodies, return to our bodies. Even when our minds wander, our bodies are always here, fully present (with a lifetime guarantee on that fact). Our bodies can be wise teachers, messengers of the entire universe. After hundreds of years of their evolution, it’s nice to enjoy a little guidance in their everyday manners of operation.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a retreat with Thay Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village monastics, you’ve already experienced deep relaxation, taught perhaps by a bodhisattva.Yes, I’m watering flowers in Sister Chan Khong’s window garden. How vividly (and bodily) I still remember the greatly pleasurable surprise in first learning deep relaxation from her. How important it is to bring the nonverbal wisdom of our body from the background into the foreground of our awareness. Our body’s generosity to us, immeasurable, ceaseless, and selfless, can be reciprocated with gratitude. How marvelous! And so deeply relaxing, renewing, and refreshing.

That was only my own initial response; you may find it for yourself. It may be one of the most ancient human rituals, visualizing ourselves bodily in a sequence (“toe bone connected to the foot bone,” etc.). Our practice, sometimes known as the body scan, originates with the Buddha. As our Sangha publishing practice group, Parallax Press, offers this precious jewel to the world, it now ripples out like rings of a tree trunk. Don’t you wish all the world could know, enjoy, and share total relaxation? May it be so.

This book with CD makes deep relaxation easily and widely available, like a broad river flowing out to sea. Following an apt introduction by our teacher, the guided meditation is presented in both short and long forms. On the CD, the meditations are read by Sister Chan Khong, Thay, Joseph Emet, Jean-Pierre Maradan, and Sister Doan Nghiem. The CD includes lovely songs sung by Sister Chan Khong in English, French, and Vietnamese.

For a lifetime of mindful living, this provides indispensable training and a beautiful gift. Total relaxation restores us to our organic integrity and our original nature. Recommended for every body.

mb62-BookReviews4Work
How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2012
Paperback, 120 pages

Reviewed by Natascha Bruckner

As practitioners, we know that mindfulness can happen only in the present moment and that every action can be a meditation. But sometimes, caught up in a busy schedule, we forget. Thay’s new book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day, shows us precisely how each daily activity can be a place to savor our life.

Thay shines a spotlight on all aspects of our day, beginning with waking up in the morning. Rather than hurrying to get up, we can set an intention about how we want to live today. What is our deepest desire? Will it bring nourishment? With each morning routine, we return to mindfulness, guided by the gathas (poems) in this book. Thay reminds us that every action, from brushing our teeth to leaving for work, may be a practice of freedom. “Every time we walk out the door, even if we’re just on the way to our car to go to work, we can take the time to notice that the great Earth bodhisattva is all around us, nourishing and sustaining us.”

Thay’s spotlight penetrates into places where we could practice more wholeheartedly, such as sitting at our desk at work. He asks, “What is the quality of our sitting? … Even if we have a rare moment of quiet at our desks, we talk on the phone or browse the internet. We are workaholics. We always need to be doing something.” Thay invites us to take breaks and sit without effort or purpose, to be happy, like a Buddha.

The book is also a guide for handling strong emotions at work. Thay gives specific instructions for dealing with anger, restoring good communication, and engaging in loving speech and deep listening. The chapter “A New Way of Working” shares alternatives to the culture of competition that is likely to destroy us. Thay presents the three kinds of power that can make us happy: understanding, love, and letting go. The final chapter, “Thirty Ways to Reduce Stress at Work,” offers jewels to help us deepen our joy every day.

Work shows us how to embody the truth that when we live mindfully, every activity of the day—whether answering the phone or cleaning the toilet—can liberate us. Our workday doesn’t need to oppress or restrict us. In fact, our livelihood can become a raft gently floating us to the shore of awakening.

mb62-BookReviews5The Road That Teaches
Lessons in Transformation through Travel

By Valerie Brown
Quakerbridge Media of Friends General Congress, 2012
Softcover, 152 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True of Peace

The rambling spirit of this well-organized pilgrim’s primer seems woven into the wind. This travel guide not only provides tips for exploring the sacred world on foot, but also includes tales of exquisite detail and the author’s own personal revelations from the road.

Each chapter contains a small gift in the form of a question to ask ourselves, which may equate to a Quaker query or a Zen koan. At one point, the traveler arrives at a place with two fields: “Two plots, side by side, one wild and one tamed, are much like two competing forces in my life. … How do I acknowledge the wild parts of me, that want to plant garlic in a high desert farm, to Mambo well, and to learn to weave from a Navajo woman? The questions are deeper than the answers.”

Following in Brown’s footsteps, we hear the echo of our teacher— “I have arrived, I am home”—wherever we go. We travel with Brown through the famous El Camino, the enchanted Irish Isle of Iona, the sacred temples of India, Japan’s traditional pilgrimage route through rocks and temples, Shikoku Island, and places closer to home. With each step we are treated to historical nuggets such as the history of Indian Kanchipuram temples, which are dedicated either to Shiva, the destroyer, or to Vishnu, the sustainer of life.

In the introduction, Brown suggests that we “[u]se this book as a prayer book and guide book for contemplation, discernment and reflection.” Her emphasis is on inspiration, whether she is mightily challenged by the weather or rough terrain, or taking a much-needed rest. The end of each chapter contains a practice lesson in mindfulness, and the book even includes a Sample Packing List and Traveler’s Resource Guide. Peppered throughout, like blossoms along the road, are illuminating quotations, like this Spanish proverb introducing the section on afternoon tea in Iona: “How wonderful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.”

PDF of this article