Apr 15, 2020

Since we are all cooped up indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is no better time to to learn and expand our minds. I am finding much more time in the day after cutting out commuting, errands, and social gatherings. As we are forced to stay indoors and find tasks to occupy our minds, this can be an intensely creative time. The excuse we formerly had of, I don’t have time, has ceased to exist entirely and we now have nothing but time. So how are you spending your time in quarantine? This is indeed a collective trauma we are going through and I know we all have different coping skills. Anything goes as we find what feels good and expand our ability to withstand uncertainty. In the event you are a reader and enjoy non-fiction, I’ve selected a few of my favorites that I think are particularly relevant for what we are going through. In my spiritual practice, we refer to times of challenge as fertile ground for expanding perspective through finding new entry points to hope, love and joy. I hope you find something in this list that helps you persevere through the challenges of isolation, fear and grief.

  1. OSHO, Courage, The Joy of Living Dangerously

This is one of my favorite books by Osho. He begins with the disclaimer that this book is not about dogma, for dogma makes one certain. He makes the point that, to be here now is to embrace the uncertainty and danger that make life so unpredictable. Seeking certainty is to accept a beautiful imprisonment and to live without awareness. In actuality, there are millions of incomprehensible things going on in every moment. Ebbs and flows and the simultaneous birth and death of many creatures and situations. Acceptance of uncertainty allows life to unfold as the mystery that it is.

That brings us to why the book is called Courage. Courage is what is needed now in our world in the fight against the coronavirus. On an individual level, we can choose to go into the unknown despite our fears and eventually our fears will cease to exist. These days, I tell myself, no matter what happens, I know I will do whatever is in my power to help my loved ones and myself with a clear and focused mind. I will confront issues as they arise and not worry about them beforehand. I will never give up on my life’s purpose no matter what may come. Courage lives deep inside all of us, and I have found it’s the extraordinary experiences of life that draw it out.

The word courage is very interesting. It comes from the Latin root cor, which means “heart.” So to be courageous means to live with heart. […] It is to live in insecurity; it is to live in love, and trust; it is to move in the unknown. It is leaving the past and allowing the future to be. Courage is to move on dangerous paths. Life is dangerous, and only cowards avoid danger – but then, they are already dead. […] The heart is always ready to take the risk the heart is a gambler.” – Osho

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychotherapist wrote Man’s Search For Meaning in 1945 after surviving the Holocaust. As a longterm prisoner in the Auschwitz, he lost his father, mother, brother, and wife to the camps, suffered cold, hunger, and brutality, and all the while he began to build on his philosophy of logotherapy, a form of existential analysis. Dr. Frankl recalls losing his manuscript for a book he was in the process of writing when he arrived as a prisoner. He resigned to re-write it in his mind based on the psychological reactions he witnessed within himself and the prison population. If meaning could be found in the most horrid of life circumstances, there had to be meaning in existence itself unrelated to outward conditions. A meaning in existence itself.

Just like the Stoics and modern existentialists, Dr. Frankl’s logotherapy recognizes that what remains inside every human regardless of outward conditions is the ability “to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This represents a person’s ability to rise above their outward fate. If no other meaning can be found in difficult life situations, Frankl makes the case that to be “worthy of your suffering” or “enduring suffering in an honorable way” is enough. Although a person’s circumstances may be brutal, they do not need to become brutal in response. Furthermore, the way in which a person takes up his cross, gives them an opportunity to cultivate moral and spiritual virtues they would not have otherwise had. In this perspective, as long as there is life, there is an opportunity to find meaning in it. Our ability to do that will dictate whether we can go on to experience a sustained inner enjoyment of living no matter the unfoldment of our path. If we can do this, we will obtain membership in a club of a rare few.

Cultivating this attitude does not happen overnight. Dr. Frankl goes though the step-by-step process of coming to terms with his suffering. First there was shock, denial, then apathy. He acknowledges each step as a necessary self-defense mechanism, reconciling the loss of a previous life for a new one where survival was the primary object. He recalls how thoughts of love for his wife, art and humor helped him transcend his outward conditions and find moments of joy.

Depending on how deeply you’ve been affected by Covid-19, you may be suffering to varying degrees at this very moment. As of today, over 247,000 people have died to this disease globally and the numbers are increasing. How can we find meaning in all of this? You can trust…meaning can be found and it is unique to each one of us, and Dr. Frankl’s book can be a trusted companion in this aim and in these dark times.

3. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet

Letter to a Young Poet was written in 1934 and is a collections of Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters back to Franz Kappus during the years of 1903-1908. It was 1903 and Kappus was attending the same military academy as Rilke had fifteen years prior. He was training to enter a career where he had much reluctance and sought to find understanding from Rilke, someone who had also not paired well with convention. He took a chance and sent Rilke a cover letter expressing his desire to find out if he could also become a poet. To his surprise, he received a letter back and thus began five years and ten letters between the two.

In his letters, Rilke encourages Kappus on many topics related to the importance of solitude to finding one’s purpose in life. What I love most about this book is Rilke’s insistence on solitude as the vehicle for creativity. He encourages the aspiring poet to be patient with himself and his growth, experiencing all of life with keen observation. In order to share Rilke with you in his own words, this section is mostly quotations.

On whether one is an artist, “go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create (pg. 17).” “For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself (pg. 17).” In his first letter back, we see Rilke advising Kappus to find his inner knowing rather than being susceptible to the opinions of others. Rilke says, “keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer (pg. 18).” With that Rilke continues to humbly advise Kappus on how to develop this inner knowing.

On solitude, “love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you. And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars and very large; rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you (pg. 30).”

“And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to break out of it. This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it (pg. 41).”

On acceptance of painful emotions, “why do you want to shut out of your life an agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon in you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question whence all of this may be coming and whither it is bound? Since you know that you are in the midst of transitions and wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything morbid in your process, just remember that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of foreign matter; so one must just help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and break out with it, for that is progress (pg. 53).” “Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are moments when something new has entered us, something unknown (pg. 48).”

If you are sheltering alone during the quarantine, you are in a forced solitude. How are you navigating your solitude? Has it changed at all since it began and now moving into week six and beyond? This is a very impactful time to start journaling to see what the solitude is bringing up in you. It is a common human experience to fill our time with obligations so that we may never truly experience our solitude. And when we are home, it is easier than ever to escape into television or other forms of technology and entertainment, so that even when we are alone, we are not exploring our inner world. As we learn from Rilke, there is an immensity to what is inside us and when explored, can lead to all sorts of creative visions and sparks. We are all creatives and the world is waiting to see and hear from us. If you are feeling empty in your time of solitude, Letters From a Young Poet, is a great companion to start you on your inner journey of using your solitude to befriend yourself.

4. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Life After Death

I came across Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross while grieving the loss of my Dad. Her research and ideas on death helped to reduce my fear associated with death. The reason I chose it as one of my top five books of quarantine is because I think a lot of the fear and anxiety that is circulating now is regarding the fear of death. In American society, death is rarely discussed. Outside of our religious traditions, we are not offered any explanations or preparations for it. It is a very strange thing because death is something we will all experience and the only difference between us is when. Dr. Kubler-Ross has likely spent more time than anyone in history talking to the terminally ill in order to gain an understanding of what they are going through. She has come up with the Stages of Dying and the Stages of Grief and is perhaps most well-known for these. She was criticized by many for merging spirituality with science. Ultimately, she received credit for her work and became renowned for her contribution to subjects of death, dying, and grieving.

What I enjoyed most about this book is her study of people who have have near-death experiences. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but since we cannot know for sure what death will bring, I prefer to consider the ideas of a scientist who specialized in dying to understand what this process might entail. With more knowledge about death, the fear subsides and is replaced by an appreciation for the great mystery of life. Perhaps my most favorite part of this book is the part where Dr. Kubler-Ross describes the person dying as a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. She says

“Dying is only moving from a small house into a more beautiful one. […] As soon as the cocoon is in an irreparable condition, it doesn’t matter how it happened – it will release the butterfly, your soul so to speak.”

Dr. Kubler-Ross says that everyone will experience the same process of death no matter their belief system. “The dying experience is almost identical to the experience at birth. It is a birth into a different existence which can be proven quite simply.” Dr. Kubler-Ross goes on to recount story after story of the same process occurring for those who had a near death experience. They left their body, their bodies were made whole, they were greeted by saints, spirit guides and loved ones and they saw a tunnel and a bright light emanating unconditional love. It is at this point that you realize that dying is only a transition to a different form of life.

“In this presence, which many people compare with Christ or God, with love or light, you will come to know that all your life on earth was nothing but a school you had to go through in order to pass certain tests and learn special lessons. As soon as you have finished your school and mastered your lessons, you are allowed to go home, to graduate!”

In this belief system, we cannot know the soul contracts of others or what they have come to earth to learn. Therefore, when children die or others we perceive to be unfair, we can rest assured that their soul contract was fulfilled, they learned their lessons, and now they have gone home. It is extremely comforting to know we will see our loved ones again and we have a totally new experience of life within the death process. There is no hurry to arrive, but hopefully by studying the work of Dr. Kubler-Ross you will have a little less fear about death and dying and embrace your life and all its lessons.

Dr. Kubler-Ross’s research and writings have confirmed something I was already feeling intuitively. We are not our bodies, we are bodies inside a soul and a soul cannot cease to exist. The catch is, we cannot know everything about why and how the earth was created or why people live or die, but we can resign ourselves to the mystery and trust there is something greater at work. After many years of studying religions and seeking the truth, I now find that being part of a mystery is more exciting than knowing the truth. On these matters of life and death, what feels right and true on an individual level is ultimately what will serve each person in the best way. My only hope is that our belief systems bring out the virtues in ourselves and others.

5. Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome – Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

The Buddhist tradition can teach us a lot about how to handle the present moment. Just let go. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows letting go is easier said than done. Pema Chodron, a buddhist nun in the Shambhala lineage of Mahayana Buddhism, has written many books in the spirit of bodhichitta – helping others awaken. She maintains that in order to help others, we must first awaken ourselves and in order to do that, we have to stick around for along time and apply a tremendous amount of effort and patience to the practice of repeatedly and tenderly letting go of the storylines of the mind. In Welcoming the Unwelcome, she advises the reader to begin with a broken heart which is generally an experience most humans try to avoid. It is the pain of negative emotion which, if allowed and observed, can break down the walls that protect our hearts and cut us off from empathy from ourselves and others.

“Putting so much effort into protecting our hearts from pain hurts us over and over again. Even when we realize it’s unhelpful, it’s a hard habit to break. It’s a natural human tendency. But when we generate bodhichitta, we go against the grain of this tendency. Instead of shying away, we arose the bravery to take a direct look at ourselves and the world.”

The idea is that through meditation we can come into contact with our own feelings without getting lost in our thoughts about them. This involves putting aside time to stop with the busyness and avoidance, to sit and watch the mind. When we diligently do this, we begin to become less fearful of the painful emotions and get more curious about where they come from. We can slowly, over time, begin to let go of the emotions underneath the thoughts and heal from age old stories that have polarized our thinking. When we allow the emotions to surface, they have less power over our habitual actions and reactions. At some point we realize, all emotions are what make us human and the more difficult ones are what drive us to continue diligently seeking and learning how to manage the mind for the health of oneself and society at large. Pema teaches us, meditation is not an attempt to escape the mind or merely let go of our personality, but to come into greater awareness of the fundamental goodness underneath all the junk we’ve piled on top of our psyche.

What I like about reading Pema at a time like this is, it is very easy to tap into suffering right now in the time of coronavirus. If you yourself are not sick and do not know anyone who is, you can see that over 250,000 people around the world have died so far and you can image each of them has family members who miss them. You can imagine the life of ER doctors and nurses and other essential workers and the various juggling they are doing to serve humanity with their gifts and protect their loved ones at home. Maybe they are staying outside the home and have not seen their loved ones in weeks. It is easy to tap into the collective anxiety in the air and all the stories of suffering whether health-related or financial.

So why tap into suffering? I have found through my meditation practice and from learning from teachers like Pema, that through allowing and accepting ourselves at the most fundamental level, which requires a high degree of awareness, we have a higher capacity to genuinely feel. And this manifests itself in a purer expression of our unique human qualities that is felt by all who we encounter. Helping others can be something very simple. It can be simply showing up, 100% present, with no ego needs of our own, to listen to another person with an open heart. Being in the presence of an awakened soul is something you feel at a cellular level and this encounter alone can cause you to ask the question, what do they know? They are a joy to encounter and spread positivity everywhere they go. How can it be that by embracing suffering we can come to spread joy? Read Pema, begin your meditation practice and let’s awaken together.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my top five books for quarantine and found it helpful in some way. I benefited from the process of re-reading and writing this blog so much as it has helped me reacquaint myself with these great teachings at a time when I needed them most. Please share your top five books for quarantine in the comments section below so we can learn from each other. Sending my blessings to you on your journey.