It is not difficult for me to pick out my spiritual highlight of 2016. A good friend recommended that I look into Dot B mindfulness training during the summer holidays, and so I applied across Europe for a program. However, each was full, and so I gave up, assuming that I would remain in Hong Kong for the summer. Then at the last minute I stumbled across an Enneagram workshop in London, taught by Russ Hudson, arguably the premier teacher in the field, and his gifted co-teacher Robert Holden. They had a few remaining spots, so off I went to London, with the Brexit vote looming, trying to better understand this captivating personality typing system. My biggest underlying question that I carried to London with me, however, was how does the Enneagram fit into my understanding of the Wisdom Tradition, as taught by my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault.
What I came to realize in that week, to my great joy and relief, is that the belief system underpinning the Enneagram and that of my teacher Cynthia originate from the same philosophical page. Put in terms that Russ Hudson would use, while it’s lovely to become a higher functioning self of one’s personality type, the way forward is always the same: surrender to Divine Reality. This higher life of Being leads to a far more satisfying life than can ever be garnered in this visible, material, but finite plane of existence. The ultimate goal is to bring the two worlds into one – merging the small self with the Larger Self. Or, as the Chinese conceptualize, our human calling is to integrate heaven and earth within the self. It’s a bit embarrassing for me as a religion teacher to admit that I really hadn’t understood this until this point, but somehow these ideas that had circled for many years finally landed during the London workshop.
All of a sudden, I came to see that the Western world had a spiritual path after all, which, while complementary to the Hindu and Buddhist teachings that I have become so appreciative of in my many years in Asia, has its own distinctive insights and flavors. This Western Wisdom tradition, in its manifestation in the Enneagram teachings and Cynthia’s writings, looks to the work of G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), the enigmatic Armenian teacher, as its spiritual forbearer. His key teachings have deeply influenced both the Enneagram – where psychological health eventually leads to relinquishing of the ego – and Cynthia’s own reinterpretation of Christianity – in which the path of kenosis or “letting go” was Jesus’ core message – leading to a distinctive Western spiritual path that fits my cultural heritage. While I liberally borrow practices from many spiritual traditions in my teaching, it’s been liberating to realize that I can practice my home faith of Christianity as a wisdom path in the fullest sense of the term.
A good number of my blog entries this year emerged around this cluster of insights. I wrote an overview of this Wisdom Tradition, and taught this in the first unit of my World Religions class this year, concepts that were easily grasped by my 9th graders. Following this foundational understanding, the most important aspect of my teaching of religion has developed into training students in various spiritual practices, employing the concept of non-reactivity, and creating their own practices. As an example, I use the Tibetan Buddhist practice of creating and burning a mandala as a dramatic example of the Wisdom Tradition’s claim that even our talents and accomplishments need to be surrendered if we hope to transcend to the higher state that all religions hold as the more excellent way to live.
This “letting go” only makes sense if something greater – call it God, Presence, the Beyond Within, the Inner Light, Brahman – is accessible to the human heart. Personally, my growing intuitive sense is that “something” is happening, albeit slowly and subtly. As Jesus teaches, the farmer’s seeds grow, “though he does not know not how” (Mark 4:17). In imitation of this relaxed vigilance, I look forward to more growth in 2017.
With this as a backdrop to the year, here are my top reads of 2016, starting with books that relate most directly to this theme of Presence:
- In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff (1949) by P.D. OuspenskyAs I headed to London to learn about the Enneagram, I began reading Ouspensky’s classic to get a sense of the man that lay behind this Western spiritual path. I came to see his key concepts – being asleep; three centers of intelligence; personality vs. essence; identification; self-observation; the 4th way; the Enneagram – as the foundation stones upon which Russ Hudson and Cynthia Bourgeault have built their teachings. The reader gets a sense of this mysterious man through Ouspenky’s narrative re-telling of his lectures in a way that cannot be accessed through a mere summary of his teachings. The impression is a larger-than-life figure who explored every imaginable metaphysical question and came away with not only rich perspectives from the ancients but his own particular viewpoints. All of the teachings are in service of the fundamental human quest to wake up from the sleep of our lives.
As I traveled enroute to London, I read this most intimate of Needleman’s books in which he retells his life-long exploration of life’s biggest questions. The opening chapter tells of the pivotal moment, sitting beneath the stars as a young boy with his usually distant father, where he first glimpsed his own sense of identity, concluding: “In that moment, sitting on the stone steps next to my silent father, I became two people: one thinking and questioning with all the information and logic at my disposal, and the other knowing and sensing and yearning within the depths of my embryonic and timeless Selfhood. And all the while there was no reconciling of these two human beings.” This anecdote sets the stage for Needleman’s personal and professional – the two cannot be separated – exploration of the esoteric in Judaism, Christianity, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Of particular interest to me was that he found his greatest insight from Gurdjieff, calling him “the sustaining inner companion of my adult life” (232), who helps him bring together these two aspects of his Self.
- The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types (1999) by Don Riso and Russ Hudson
My first exposure to the Enneagram came in the late 1990’s when I came across Riso-Hudson’s brilliant first book, Personality Types, in the Graduate Theological Union bookshop in Berkeley, California. For all its astonishing clarity, however, I wish that I had also seen the Wisdom of the Enneagram 17 years ago when it was published, for the core understandings about cultivating awareness of Presence and the three centers of intelligence, the life lessons I finally digested in 2016, were all laid out very clearly in chapters 3-5 of this excellent follow-up to their first book. In addition, this book also offers specific tips, mostly in the form of spiritual practices, how each type can move from personality to essence. My final plug for this book is that the opening statements in each chapter can be a great way to introduce the Enneagram to friends or students. (For an excellent introduction to the Enneagram, listen to this interview of Russ Hudson by Robert Holden. To learn more about the 9 Types, see Russ’ outstanding website from the Enneagram Institute.)
- The Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (1992) by Kabir Edmund Helminski
What drew me to Helminski’s work was that Cynthia referred more often to quotes in this book than any other single resource. Here are some examples that she mentions: “We are knee deep in a river, searching for water;” “make all your cares into a single care, the care for being present, and you will be relieved of all care by that Presence;” and “the Infinite One was a hidden treasure that longed to be known, and it created the seen and unseen worlds in order that its treasure may be discovered.” The main message of this gently and beautifully written book is that the key to life is letting go of the small self and finding satisfaction in the Living Presence of the Infinite One. Much of Cynthia’s teachings clearly emerge out of a Sufi sensibility, which is easily compatible with the inner work traditions across the globe.
For someone who has been impassioned about social justice issues and yet been increasingly and irresistibly drawn towards spiritual practices, I was intrigued to follow James O’Dea’s story. He is the rare organizational leader who has both explored changing the world – serving on the frontlines of justice work in Lebanon as well the director of Amnesty International – and understanding the self through meditation – heading the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He has had both dramatic activist experiences and intense mystical visions that have spoken deeply to him. Throughout the book he speaks eloquently of the interrelationship between the inner and outer dimensions of life: “The mystic and contemplative know that as the oppressor is to the world, ego is to the field of one’s own being” (160). The book moves easily from personal anecdotes to articulations of his integral worldview, culminating in love: “One seeks to unite with the source of all love, the other seeks to have love prevail on earth.” Get a taste of his insight in this five-minute clip, the “The Heart is a Phoenix.”
- The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (2015) by Lisa Miller
While I was initially turned off by Miller’s popularization of her research findings, my second take on the book proved far more rewarding. I came to see her loquacious style as a form of spiritual exuberance. Her infectious enthusiasm for teenage spirituality even caused me as a religion teacher to consider the possibility that I’ve underestimated its potential power in the lives of young people. Miller makes the case that the surge of energy that occurs in adolescence – intellectually, emotionally, biologically, sexually – also occurs with regard to spirituality, and that developing this faculty is the best guarantor of success in all domains of life. The risks of adolescence – depression, substance abuse, and risk-taking behavior – are greatly diminished by a young person’s spiritual growth. Her perspective on the epidemic of depression among teenagers is that the majority of cases are caused by spiritual yearnings – and that mild forms of melancholy are actually a sign that a young person is waking up to life’s big questions. Educators of the heart can only be encouraged that someone so down-to-earth as Miller heads up the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University, the first Ivy League graduate program combining study of spirituality and psychology. To get an introduction to her ideas and personal style, see this TEDx talk.
I received many gifts from reading Stephen Bachelor’s articulate reinterpretation of Buddhism, but here are the two more prominent ones. First, his attempt to recover the historical Buddha gave me an appreciation of the Gotama who lived in a complex political milieu, bringing his teachings down to earth. Like what studying the historical Jesus did for me in the 1990’s, Batchelor’s approach caused me to question the utility of ever teaching abstract concepts apart from their historical context. Most importantly, in light of this context, he reinterprets the Four Noble Truths as the Four Noble Tasks in a way that is useful to my teaching of Buddhism to high school students. Second, I gained a new concept in my vocabulary of the spiritual life, non-reactivity, which I now recognize as perhaps the supreme practice of daily life. His explanation that a commitment to non-reactivity is a personal turning point that allows nirvana to begin to be experienced in the present moment seems far more useful than this concept as an ideal end state. Of all the books on this year’s list, After Buddhism introduced me to the most novel ideas that I had not considered previously.
Last year I discovered the work of Belden Lane through his book The Solace of Fierce of Landscapes, written when his mother was in the last stages of a terminal illness. This book, too, comes at a life transition point, when Lane was retiring from his professorship at St. Louis University. In his masterful mix of personal narrative, wilderness description, and theological reflection, Lane sets out a four-stage “universal pattern of the spiritual journey . . . (1) the call to adventure and risk (2) the assumption of a necessary discipline (3) the descent into darkness and discipline (4) the return to a freer and more responsible life” (30). Once again, the Christian desert fathers and mothers of the 4th-5th century play a decisive role in Lane’s account. He quotes Jesuit Iraneer Hausherr, “Each time there is spiritual renewal in the Church, the Desert Fathers are present” (38). Lane’s writing is of an exceptionally high standard.
- The Heart-Mind Matrix: How the Heart Can teach the Mind New Ways to Think (2012) by Joseph Chilton Pearce
Although Pearce isn’t always as clear or transparent as I would like, he is undoubtedly a genius at work. Readers sense the yearning of a man who has sought for his more than 8 decades to find what it means to open one’s heart to life, ranging from the scientific to the mystical, but always including the personal as well. At any moment he is likely to drop in some unique way of seeing the world that I had never considered. There is a certain breathless quality to reading Pearce: what will he say, what has he discovered, can I see the world as he does? It’s inspiring to see such a brilliant man who cares far more about moment-by-moment heartfulness than anything else. It is with sadness that I discovered not long after finishing this, my first book by Pearce, that he passed away in August. RIP.
- In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (2015) by Yeonmi Park
with Maryanne Vollers
During our genocide unit in Humanities I in Action, students read memoirs of various modern conflicts. This story is a welcome addition to the other books we use, and well-liked by the student group who read it this year. This memoir describes the harrowing journey of thirteen-year-old Yeonmi Park and her mother from North Korea to China, where she became a victim of human trafficking, and then her escape to North Korea via Mongolia. In this easy-to-read and well-edited account, the reader experiences three distinct worldviews – the North Korean dictatorship, China’s underworld, and South Korea’s modernity – in quick succession. While adjusting to her new life in South Korea, at one point Yeonmi even wishes she could return to North Korea, if not for the hunger, so she wouldn’t have to always be thinking and making decisions every moment of the day. For all of the pain and suffering that she and her family experiences, she finds hope when the media embraces her story, giving her a platform to use her experiences for some greater good. At the young age of 21, she appears poised to have a long career of fighting for human rights. This is an excellent book for high school students.
Reflecting my own Gurdjieffian state of mind, what I found most memorable about the account by this soon-to-be top neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi- a brilliant career of achievement and distinction lay just beyond his coming graduation – was his transparency in admitting that his calling to help others was juxtaposed with a battle with his own ego when he became sick at the age of 35. Great acts of service that only a few would entertain still left an ego intact that would only be whittled away through his battle with cancer. Kalanithi was a genuine seeker who wanted to help others through the most traumatic moments of life, while still trying to make sense of the ultimate things. His account is raw in its honesty, even revealing marital tensions with his beloved Lucy, while always reaching for beauty, meaning and depth in all situations. Perhaps Lucy in the book’s epilogue makes the memoir’s most poignant remark in his stead, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love” (219). (This was on the N.Y. Times’ list of notable books of 2016.)
Other honorable mention books in 2016:
- Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others (2014) by Paul Gilbert and Choden
- Spirit, Soul, and Body: Towards an Integral Christian Spirituality (2015) by Cyprian Consiglio
- Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness (2006) by Robert Sardello.
- The Path of Centering Prayer: Deeping Your Experience with God (2012) by David Frenette.
- New Self New World: Recovering our Senses in the 21st Century (2010) by Philip Shepherd
To see my favorite books and videos of 2013, hit here.
To see my favorite books and resources of 2014, hit here.
To see my favorite books and resources of 2015, hit here.