I have always been drawn to understanding the human condition, as if pulling a part the realities of the human experience could somehow help me to heal the pain that comes with having to live through the tragedy of loss. Even as a young woman I was somewhat obsessed with why people do the things that they do, wanting so desperately to understand better, to be able to heal (myself) and to be able to grow. It’s always lovely to know that when you are sitting in a personal hell of your own, that perhaps there is a way out, that reading someone else experiences can help you find a path of your own.
At the end of last year I wrote a little post about kids books and some of the books that Bo and I were loving at the beginning of summer, some of you asked for a post on adult books – books that have inspired me, books that have changed me, in my adult life. The list is long, so I’ll give my grown ups book recommendations in a few posts over the next few months. I’ve started here, with five books that have undoubtedly changed me. I was a different person when I put down each of these books. None of them are traditional ‘self help’ books but each and every one of them helped me to grow as a person and each of them changed my approach to the world in one way or another. They are all non-fiction yet somehow absolutely delicate works of art in their own right. Each book filled with lessons about love and life and forgiveness, stories about healing and humanity, guiding us through the most difficult parts of our lives.
I buy most of my books from op shops or online second hand stores when I can find them. Sometimes they come with added wisdom, like the above image. On the inside cover of this book is a letter, penned in scrawled blue ink. It is unclear if the letter is to a friend (who is being given the book) or if it is a letter to the authors self – either way it was almost embarrassing to read at first, it was harsh and judgemental, but at the same time full of hope for change and growth. Whoever wrote those words was on a crusade of their own, trying to save the heart of the person to whom they were writing, hoping perhaps that the words would break through, and together they could find love once more.
Aren’t people beautiful and shocking creatures? That obsession of mine will never end, the desire to understand, to find compassion for, and to accept the beautiful and painful truth of what is the human experience, the light and the dark and everything in between.
These are (a few of) the books that have changed me.
‘Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.’
For anyone who was reading my blog around the time that my marriage was splitting up, it will come as no surprise to you that Pema Chodron features heavily in this list. Her words allowed me to find incredible peace and compassionate understanding for myself in a time of great upheaval in my life. Her words inspired me to treat myself, and my crumbling relationship, with a great amount of kindness and clarity. Pema Chodron’s books are buddhist teachings written from the heart of an incredible woman who has experienced much and made many mistakes in her own life before finding her own peace. It’s lovely to be reminded that our pain can be cultivated to provide us with an incredible source of wisdom, compassion and courage, if only we are willing to be honest with ourselves and to stop running from our truth.
Start Where you Are: A guide for Compassionate Living
‘If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…’
If you ever felt the need to have a book jump start your heart, this is the one you should reach for. It’s like a defibrillator straight to the chest – it’s life saving, but also exceptionally painful. It is at times an exceptionally uncomfortable book to read because whilst it is a buddhist teaching, it is also really brutally honest about how shit we can be as people some times and about how crappy we treat ourselves (and the people around us) and how if we keep going to way we are we will never be at peace in our own hearts – it’s also funny and charming and light in parts (thank god). There were passages in this book that became voices that sit in the back of my mind (much like the quote above) that I repeat to myself on an almost daily rotation. Reminders at work, reminders at home, reminders in the landscape of my own mind – how to be compassionate, how to be kind, how to be honest. It saved me from myself, and still to this day, it makes me a better person.
“In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels”
I took this exact copy of this book of my mothers bookshelf when I was about fifteen. In amongst my mothers sea of ‘self help’ books, I’m not sure why this one stood out to me. When I cracked it open, I don’t think I’d ever read anything like it before. I was much more of a fiction reader as a teenager, trying to understand my own life by falling headfirst into the fantasy world of characters that felt more like home than the physical world around me. Maybe it’s the series of tragedies I experienced in my early teens, or the fact that I was often on stage playing different characters, but I was fascinated by the human experience even then. I remember getting half way through this book and putting it down because I felt so full all of a sudden. I understood myself better. I had a lot more compassion for myself and for my family. It’s as if when I looked up, I saw the world completely differently. It terrified me and amazed me all at once. I’ve revisited this book many times as an adult. Reading passages through different eras of my life, reminding myself that I have the power to change the way I am in the world, by harnessing my own emotions. If you have never read anything on emotional intelligence before, I urge you to pick something up. If you have read this, Daniel Goleman also writes on Social Intelligence (which I also found fascinating).
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in going nowhere.
‘Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasise for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world: it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply’
I’m not sure how many of you have watched Pico Iyer’s TED talk, but this little gem of a book is an extended version his lovely talk (that you should all go and watch right now). A little book about what it is to be still, what it is to go nowhere, in a world obsessed with going everywhere. Ironically enough I actually read this book while Bo and I were backpacking around Indonesia last year. I often sat in the balmy tropical air at night time, a cup of hot tea balanced between my knees and this book, devouring it word for word, each section full of spectacular prose, gentle recounts of personal experience and deep modern philosophy – all equally balanced. As a writer it was a true inspiration, giving me the permission to slow down, to step back, to allow myself to be moved. In an era where people need to be reminded to slow down, this book carefully balances the answers to so many necessary questions of our modern world.
‘Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.’
This was my summer read over the past few weeks. I bought it for myself for Christmas after I became obsessed with Cheryl Strayed and her general outlook on life (which developed strongly after discovering her on the Dear Sugar podcast). This book reminded me of the importance of radical empathy, not only with the world (I practice this in work every day with my clients) but also to oneself. I went through a period of great letting go at the end of last year, when I realised that my only choice; in the landscape of the difficulties I was facing; was radical acceptance (of the things I cannot change). Somehow I picked up this book at the right time and although it is a series of letters and responses to people worlds away from me and my life, it felt as if the words were also for me. Cheryl Strayed is a beautiful writer, a wise woman and somehow makes her stories, her words and her life so relatable that somehow they inspire healing. Just like magic. Let her into your life and be prepared to cry and laugh and have new life breathed into your compassionate heart.