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Shambhala Sun | January 2014

Books in Brief


THE TRAUMA OF EVERYDAY LIFE
By Mark Epstein
Penguin Press 2013; 225 pp., $25.95 (cloth)

Illness, old age, and death—the story is that Siddhartha Gautama first confronted these realities as an adult when he ventured out from the family palace. Psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein, however, points to an earlier source of trauma for the Buddha-to-be: seven days after he was born, his mother died. Though he wouldn’t have remembered her death, it’s reasonable to assume, says Epstein, that her absence permeated his life with the vague sense that something was wrong. “The presence of this early loss in his psyche,” he continues, “creates a motif that anyone who struggles with inexplicable feelings of estrangement or alienation can relate to. The traumas of everyday life can easily make us feel like a motherless child.” Trauma—from the minor to the catastrophic—is universal. But, as Epstein makes clear, it does not have to destroy us. It can, in fact, be channeled into wisdom and compassion. On the face of it, the subject matter of The Trauma of Everyday Life is somber. Nonetheless, this is an engaging read peppered with cultural tidbits and the personal experiences of both Epstein and his psychiatric clients.

 

THE HEALING POWER OF MEDITATION
Leading Experts on Buddhism, Psychology, and Medicine  Explore the Health Benefits of Contemplative Practice

Edited by Andy Fraser
Shambhala Publications 2013; 226 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Buddha has traditionally been known as the “Great Physician,” and the root word of meditate is etymologically connected with the word medicine. Now a plethora of scientific research is proving what meditators have known for millennia: meditation and mindfulness can be applied beneficially in health care. The Healing Power of Meditation is an anthology that details some of the groundbreaking new scientific research, maps out the history of how meditation became more mainstream, and explains how meditation is being integrated into hospice care, psychiatry, and other fields. Contributors include Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and the Buddhist teachers Khandro Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche. The foreword is by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence.

 

HAIKU IN ENGLISH
The First Hundred Years

Edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns
W.W. Norton & Company 2013; 424 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

Haiku in English is rich with variety. There is the poignant, such as David Cobb’s “filling the grave/more earth/than will go back in.” There is the flippant, such Allen Ginsberg’s “Mayan head in a/Pacific driftwood bole/—Someday I’ll live in N.Y.” And then there is the experimental, such as John Barlow’s one liner “a dusting of snow light on the apple skins.” In the introduction, former poet laureate Billy Collins points out that while simile and metaphor are common literary devices in Western poetic forms, in haiku they’re not. The moon is just the moon. It’s not compared to anything because that would distract from its “moonness.” The important element in haiku is positioning—setting up a startling contrast that leads the reader to see afresh. The mundane can be just a line away from the majestic, the synthetic from the natural. Collins states, “I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness. But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”

 

CLOSE TO THE GROUND
Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment
By Geri Larkin
Rodmell Press 2013; 178 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Pali canon lists the seven factors of enlightenment as: mindfulness, the investigation of phenomena, energetic effort, ease, joy, concentration, and equanimity. These factors are also, according to Geri Larkin, a clear and simple formula “for falling into a sweet juicy life no matter the situation we find ourselves swimming through.” To explain the ins and outs of each factor she mines a wide variety of sources, including her personal experiences, traditional stories from the Buddha’s life, tidbits from sutras, cooking instructions, and Zen koans. Larkin is the founder of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit and the author of Plant Seed, Pull Weed and The Chocolate Cake Sutra. With her warm and unpretentious voice, she manages to make profound Buddhist teachings something you could actually read at the beach or while soaking in the tub.

 

PICK YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga

By Meagan McCrary
New World Library 2013; 240 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Maybe you’ve been practicing yoga for years or maybe your first mat is still brand-spanking new. Either way, you most likely haven’t tried every school of yoga out there and you don’t completely grok the differences between them. My suggestion? Read Pick Your Yoga Practice. In this new release, Meagan McCrary unpacks the philosophy and practice of seven leading styles, and gives us tastes of an additional ten. From Kundalini to Kripalu, Anusara to Ananda, the variety is fascinating, but, as McCrary points out in the introduction, they’re more alike than they are different. Ultimately, yoga is always about promoting mindfulness and expanding self-awareness, and, according to McCrary, every style is valid. The important thing is finding the one that works for you.

 

EVOLVING DHARMA
Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment

By Jay Michaelson
Evolver Editions 2013; 256 pp., $14.99 (paper)

In giving his assessment of contemporary American Buddhism, Jay Michaelson shoots from the hip. He’s grateful to his teachers; he really is. Yet sometimes he feels like he’s the only non-baby-boomer psychotherapist in the meditation hall. In short, Evolving Dharma is Michaelson’s effort to broaden our dharma discourse and strip it of some of what he sees as its hippie-dippy fear of irony. He begins by clearly stating his own point of view as a self-identified (off) white, queer, Jewish male. Then he goes on to give the executive summary of the history of Buddhism in America, primarily focusing on the last three decades and their chocablock changes. These are some of the questions that he addresses: How has feminism informed dharma practice? What’s the outcome of ancient practices meeting modern science? And what does it mean when your sangha exists only online? Moreover, what’s next? Where’s American Buddhism going from here?

 

THE EMPTY CHAIR
By Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press 2013; 304 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

A framed narrative, The Empty Chair is two linked novellas. In the preface, a fictional version of author Bruce Wagner says he has spent fifteen years interviewing people about the pivotal events in their lives and that this book comprises two of these interviews in their entirety. The first interview/novella is the story of a gay sort-of Buddhist. (His ex-wife calls him a living master of couch-potato Zen, but he refers to his philosophy as “vanzen” because he lives in his van and can’t imagine life without “the ol’ Greater Vehicle.”) This character has a delightfully rambling voice, but his tale takes dark turns, culminating in his son’s suicide. The second interview/novella revolves around Queenie, who in her wild-child youth left no New Age stone unturned. Now midlife is hitting hard, and her grandfather’s penthouse with its infinity pool and view of Central Park is not enough to stave off the mother of all depressions. Then the phone rings. It’s Queenie’s ex-lover, Kura, a criminal mastermind with spiritual leanings, and he has a proposition. How about a trip to India in search of a long-lost guru?




From the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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