Christmas holidays allow time for reading. The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein was a thrilling ride, and I also enjoyed reviewing Chris Bache’s The Living Classroom, a paradigm-shifting book for me in 2013.
I’ve become increasingly concerned about the symptoms of disconnectedness in my own context: the inevitable self-focus that occurs as students progress through high school, pursuing a high grade point average and a resume of extracurricular activities that hollows out even those consciously aware of the game being played. Melancholy and even depression have surfaced in our community that mirrors the culture at large. Students rightly sense that the highly competitive system of college admissions is a preparation for the highly competitive business world that is awaiting them post-college graduation. While their bodies and souls protest in obvious and subtle ways, their minds push them on, driven by the cultural belief that their individual future survival depends on this present sacrifice.
Glancing at my list of favorite books and videos of 2013, it seems that I have sought solutions to these issues in a common direction: redefining the modern understanding of the self. Repeatedly, the writers below argue that the root of both our personal dis-ease as well as our planet-destroying ways is the “can’t-get-no-satisfaction” grasping of the egoic consciousness. While this diagnosis isn’t new, of course, the multi-disciplinary approaches taken in re-defining the self come across in fresh ways in these books.
Most fundamentally, they collectively question the assumption that survival should be conceived of as a battle line drawn between the individual self and the environment. Rather than grasping for survival, these writers advocate letting go and allowing a fuzzier boundary to exist between the individual, others, and the natural world. Whether from the perspective of quantum physics, ecology, psychology, or spirituality, these authors argue that the lonely, hard path of seeking to control a threatening, survival-of-the-fittest environment is a misreading of the natural world. This perspective should be replaced by a generous, mutually supportive interconnected biosphere in which we find ourselves embedded. Most strikingly, the primary exchange in a symbiotic world is not cut and thrust but one of giving gifts – providing sustenance, health, and companionship. This living system asks only one thing in return: keep the gift circulating.
This fits my more recent explorations of spiritual practices, especially the Christian practice of Centering Prayer. I have been quite taken by Cynthia Bourgeault’s suggestion that training oneself in a “non-grasping” posture is indeed the “mind of Christ.” Cynthia grounds this interpretation in Philippians 2:4-5, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:4-5). Relaxing the ego through contemplative prayer is a process of letting go at the root level of one’s thought patterns, which suspends the unconscious self-centered reflex and develops a more open inner space. Perhaps my practice of Centering Prayer has whetted my appetite for books that describe what is beyond the barrier of modern society’s constructed self of separation. The good news is that all of these books hold a vision of life beyond the barrier that is personally more gratifying and socially more enlivening than our present state. As Jon Haidt offers at the end of his Happiness Hypothesis, the secret to a happy life is “cross-level coherence.” The authors below subscribe to the belief that the path towards happiness, then, is a new definition of the self – one of interconnectedness at many levels.
With this introduction, here are my top ten books/videos that I read/viewed in 2013:
- Falling Upward: A Spirituality for Both Halves of Life (2011) by Richard Rohr
Last school year a small group of teachers at HKIS, all in the second half of life, collectively read Falling Upward as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Having perused these kinds of reading materials in the past and found them wanting, my/our experience with Rohr’s book, by comparison, was very satisfying. If the first half of life is about establishing boundary markers, creating an identity, and succeeding at the game of life, then the second half should be about being more inclusive, letting go of the egoic identity, and gaining wisdom on life’s journey. The book is filled with Rohr’s characteristic Merlinesque insights: the ladder of success may actually be leaning on the wrong wall (ix), sin is superficial thinking (95), and the cure for loneliness is solitude (143). As we continue further down the path of the second half of life, Falling Upward is a worthy companion on the journey.
2. The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness by Christopher Bache
This book by Professor Chris Bache of Youngstown State University opened up a whole new way of thinking about teaching for me. Bache explains how for many years he led a ‘double life’ – teaching philosophy and religious studies at a public university by day and exploring other dimensions of his own consciousness through spiritual practices in his “off” hours. He assumed that he was keeping these two spheres hermetically separate; however, contrary to his expectation, he slowly began to realize that his private and public lives were interacting at a subtle level. An aside that Bache would drop into a certain lecture would speak to a student in class in ways that seemed more than incidental. “It was as if their souls were slipping messages to me, giving me hints on how I might reach them – telling me where they were hiding, where they were hurting, and, most important, what ideas they needed to take the next step in their development” (22). These experiences caused Bache to question the “paradigm of the private mind” and to assert that the most powerful teaching assumes instead that the classroom involves interconnected and interpenetrating energy fields. Bache proposes that there are class fields, the classroom energy among students and a teacher, and course fields, energetic linkages between previous years’ classes and the present one. While some of the book relates Bache’s personal experiences with these resonant fields, he is also to be commended for courageously setting forth his own tentative theories about the nature of these phenomena.
The result is compelling, and one of the most paradigm-shifting books on education I’ve ever read. As a result, I now need to consider the possibility that my spiritual practices may interact directly with the consciousness of my students. Bache’s book has caused me to consider a whole new dimension of what it means to powerfully impact students.
3. The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self (2007, 2013) by Charles Eisenstein
In the second semester of “Humanities I in Action,” we turn our attention from why humans struggle to get along to the question of why are we as a civilization are rapidly consuming our only habitat in this age of globalization. According to Eisenstein, culture is the human solution for getting along, and technology is the means by which we shape the environment to our benefit. However, the emergence of two corresponding terms in the last one hundred years, genocide and ecocide, has become a clarion call for us to re-consider the underpinnings of the whole modernization program. The fundamental error, Eisenstein argues, is that “we have defined ourselves . . . as discrete subjects separate from each other and separate from the world around us” (p. xvii). Drawing on the Tower of Babel imagery, The Ascent of Humanity explains how in a myriad of ways from the birth of agriculture onward civilization has moved further away from an original harmony into an Age of Separation, currently at its apogee. A new definition of self needs to be re-born in order for us to create cultures and institutions that can once again live compatibly with the cosmos.
A leitmotif running through the book is that civilization has progressively removed the concept of God over the millennia from human culture: from being in every part of the creation, to the sky, then to a watchmaker setting the world in motion, and finally to a totally desacralized world. The solution leading to an Age of Reunion is to question this essential dualism that defines the self in opposition to all else, including the distancing of God, and thus re-envision self, society, and the sacred in holistic terms. The Ascent of Humanity is a passionately and personally argued polemic that is similar in content and in tone to our second semester curriculum in Humanities I in Action, and one of the most engaging ‘big-picture’ books I’ve read over the years.
4. Many Lives, Many Masters (1988) by Brian Weiss
Even though I have taught World Religions for a number of years, I had never seriously considered the possibility that reincarnation might be a metaphysical reality, despite being the default belief for a vast swathe of humanity here in Asia where I live. So, when I received this book from an Indian friend, I initially didn’t take it terribly seriously. However, once I picked it up and starting reading, I found it irresistible. Written in the late 1980’s by Brian Weiss, an accomplished Ivy League-trained psychiatrist, the book shares how the author’s worldview was turned upside down when he met Catherine, a young woman with severe psychological issues. While under hypnosis Catherine began re-telling key moments in vivid detail of her 86 lives, oftentimes focusing on how ‘she’ died. Most intriguingly, in the space between death and rebirth, Catherine’s voice changed into a deeper, more mature resonance, and she began to speak of universal truths from the “Masters,” wiser beings that inhabit another plane of existence. Brian’s life was deeply impacted by meeting Catherine, eventually risking his highly successful career in order to share their conversations through this book. Brian has spent the last 25 years doing past-life regression therapy for patients. This book prompted me to read Chris Bache’s Lifecycles, an outstanding follow-up which approaches the question of reincarnation from multiple vantage points.
This year I started my World Religions class with a project based on Weiss’ book. The goal of the project was to help students explore a credible alternative to the perceived worldview assumption of most students (YOLO- “you only live once”) and consider another possibility (YALA – “you always live again”). The project was a success, and I will repeat this project in the coming semester.
5. “Disconnect” (2013)
To start off my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this year, I decided to use the movie “Disconnect” as a way to begin discussing the challenge of living deeply in contemporary society. I was a bit nervous since it is rated R, but seeing it for a second time convinced me that the dramatic, intelligent, and professionally directed story would prompt a great deal of reflection about the role of technology in students’ lives. The film succeeded far beyond my expectations. Students were spellbound by the film, and the conversations and blog comments that resulted were among the best I’ve had in my years of teaching. Students felt that the movie accurately portrayed the disconnectedness of family relationships and the subsequent quest for intimacy and validation in the pseudo-authentic world of cyberspace. While some critics found fault with the film’s supposedly predictable outcomes, students by contrast found the stories hit very close to home. As a follow-up to the movie, I used Sherry Turkle’s provocative TED talk. Overall, “Disconnect” was an excellent set-up for reading the book Living Deeply. (To read more about teaching “Disconnect,” hit here.)
6. Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation (2007) by Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, Cassandra Vieten, and Tina Amorak
Researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences surveyed more than 900 people and interviewed 50 teachers, scholars, and practitioners who have had experiences of transformation and/or regularly participate in transformative practices. The research results are shared in a highly engaging way through clear prose and engaging excerpts from the interviews. The aim is practical: to describe the transformation process, and to offer practices that make such change likely. The themes explored in this book are quite consistent with the tenor of this blog. Such common themes include: seeing with new eyes, transformation of consciousness, shift in worldview, sacredness of daily life, introspection, ego purification, and spiritual practices. I first came across co-author Marilyn Schlitz in the highly recommended documentary, “The Living Matrix,” where she spoke in an authoritative and grounded way about the process of healing through accessing energy fields. This book was the key text in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this past semester, and the term “living deeply” became a handy short-hand phrase for the goal of our semester class.
7. “Searching for Sugarman” (2012)
Watching “Searching for Sugarman” was a personal highlight of the year for me, as I experienced the unbelievable story of Sixto Rodriguez, one of the most talented rock musicians of the 1970’s whose poor record sales led him to obscurity in the US, while his music became a powerful catalyst of dissent in apartheid-ridden South Africa. Because the audience believes that the mysterious Rodriguez died in an apparent on-stage suicide in the early 1970’s, the discovery that the musician actually was still alive in Detroit comes as a joyous, even spiritual surprise to the unsuspecting audience. The film’s power is illustrated during poignant interviews with the new-found Rodriguez, who remains palpably and almost painfully self-effacing, despite having every reason to be angry, regretful, or bitter about a corrupt music agent or just his bad dumb luck. Like the story of Jesus’ resurrection or the Buddha’s enlightenment, by film’s end viewers are swept away by the joyous conclusion that a remarkably gifted man, who gave his life over to working class employment to provide for his three children in Detroit, is rewarded with not only public recognition of his considerable talents, but also an understanding that he played a role in the defeat of South African apartheid. (To read more about my experience watching “Searching for Sugarman,” hit here.)
8. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal (2010) by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc
Whereas Palmer’s The Courage to Teach has become an inspirational text for a generation of teachers who want to re-enchant their teaching with soulfulness, this book, written with physicist Arthur Zajonc, takes a more philosophical approach, establishing an education of the heart on the foundation of new discoveries in physics. If the Newtonian approach towards education focused on an objective world devoid of inner purpose, quantum theories consider the atom not as a discrete entity, but as a nexus of relationships (26). The authors believe that our most humane qualities – compassion, purpose, emotion, subjectivity – have been excised out of the modern university education. Early on Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard, is quoted, “The students are not soulless, but their university is” (3). If as Whitehead argues, “every intellectual revolution is a protest against inert ideas” (58), then this book asserts its transformative pedagogies as an antidote to the soullessness of 21st century university. Rather than technical mastery, the goal of higher education should be wholeness, which needs to be intentional and systemic rather than accidental and piecemeal (56). Zajonc, as the director of the Center of the Contemplative Mind in Society, gives special attention to the role of contemplative pedagogy as a means by which to offer students a purposeful, holistic education.
9. Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies (2013) by Otto Schwarmer and Katrin Kaufer
Leading from the Emerging Future builds on the previous work of Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and co-author of Presence, and his associates at MIT. This book can be summarized by a quote that arose in an interview with W. Brian Arthur in Presence: “Every profound innovation is based on an inward-bound journey.” In order to solve the three great divides of our day – ecological, socioeconomic, and spiritual-cultural – the greatest need is to develop the ability to “presence,” which “combines sensing (feeling the future possibility) with presence (the state of being in the present moment)” (p. 19). The book unpacks the importance of individuals changing their primary state of awareness in order to effect change on the broader institutional/social level. While sweeping in its scope, the authors keep it readable through mixing precise prose with practical examples.
10. Science and Faith: A New Introduction (2013) by John Haught
My students’ biggest questions in religion class usually revolve around the relationship of science and religion. However, it’s difficult for me as a non-scientist to feel confident that I am providing responsible perspectives on this vital but oftentimes contentious topic. Recently, I came across the writings of John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown, and found him to be highly credible, intelligent, and balanced about science as well as his primary area of theology. In this his latest book, Haught takes his decades-long study and summarizes the debate between science and faith in responses to twelve questions, such as, do miracles really happen, is there life after death, etc? Responses to each question are written in the voices of three perspectives: conflict (scientists who oppose faith perspectives), contrast (usually people of faith who see science and religion as separate spheres of inquiry), and convergence (Haught’s own perspective that opens a dialogue between science and faith). Convergence emphasizes that the universe’s 14 billion-year history should be conceived as a drama rather than a static design in which human intelligence plays a special role in this unfolding story. As a religion teacher, this book provides me with confidence that I can approach students’ big questions with an orientation that responsibly frames these issues, and with hope that there are thoughtful perspectives available which are working towards fruitful dialogue between the oft-polarized camps of science and religion.