Friday 4 March 2011

Book Review: Living as a River

*For full disclosure I’ll mention that Bodhipaksa was my first meditation teacher, “way back in the day,” as they say (in the fall of 2000 in Missoula, MT). However, since he got his business degree and his website became wildly successful, he’s managed to avoid me well for quite some time and even waited for me to be safely in India before returning to Missoula on his recent book tour.

That said, his recent book, “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” is a marvelous piece of work. It is, in essence, a call to reflection for each of us, to reflect on our lives and our potential, and to reflect on the fact that we too often (nearly always) squander that potential by seeking happiness in all the wrong places.

The book unfolds as an offering (dāna). What is offered is an alternative to our unhappiness, our mere fleeting happiness, and our chasing of ever more happiness. The alternative is framed around the Buddhist Six Element Practice. But as Bodhipaksa says, this is not “a ‘Buddhist book.’” While the traditional Buddhist Six Element Practice forms the spine of the book, the heart is as fresh and modern as the many psychology experiments and quantum physics theories you will read about in its pages. It consists of fifteen chapters, plus an introduction, filled with philosophy, mythology, science, poetry, and the author’s own experiences, all winding a common path toward the destruction of our habitual, and false, idea that we have an unchanging self.

In fact “Living Like a River” begins with a psychology experiement in which a professor asked subjects to imagine the death of their partner. The result? The subjects, “reported feeling more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.” This makes the point that, more often than not, the things that we think will make us happy, do not – and the things that we think might make us unhappy – or be simply morbid, like imagining death – can actually improve our lives.

For the Buddhist, this can be an obvious fact. Most philosophers as well, East and West, have noted that human suffering is rooted in our incorrect understanding of ourselves and the world. But these days, neither Buddhist teachings nor philosophy have managed to penetrate deeply into the Western psyche. That is why Bodhipaksa’s use of psychology and other sciences so important. Science, especially the natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology (all discussed in the book), has a special place in the minds of educated Westeners as the major, if not final, arbiter of truth. So if science can “catch up,” so to speak, with these important truths of the Buddha and certain other philosophers, there’s a chance that the rest of us also might get it.

And so the book marches forth, beginning at times with a bit of poetry, a story from Bodhipaksa’s life, or an interesting fact from recent scientific research, all woven together around the key insights first elucidated by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, some 2500 years ago. The purpose of the book isn’t to be “about Buddhism” as the quote mentioned above makes clear. It is about a way of thinking, a way of seeing clearly (or cultivating “insight” as the Buddhist meditation vipassanā is commonly translated) ourselves and the world. For all readers, it should be a joyful jorney through a hand-picked series of scientific articles and discoveries, poetry, and anecdotes. It is lucidly written, and even consistently funny (a nice change of pace for some of us!).

As I re-skim it now to write this, I find quote after quote and story after story that I’d love to recount for their simple and direct teaching power. But alas, I’ll spare you all of that and just suggest you get the book yourself. You’ll be glad you did. (available at Soundstrue or Amazon)

Cross-posted at American Buddhist Perspective.