One City

By Stillman Brown

A quick Heartcore Dharma update: In case you missed it, last night Acharya Eric Spiegel rocked the Interdependence Project in New York with a guest lecture on the Bodhisattva vow. Be sure to check the ID Project website for upcoming guest lectures with other luminaries of American Buddhism. 

Last week I wrote about the comfort and usefulness of exercising mindfulness during a time of illness or crisis, and how John Kabat-Zinn’s classic text on meditation and Buddhism, Wherever You Go There You Are, helped me during a particularly hard year. Folks responded with kindness and stories of their own and I thought I’d continue that thread with a question: What text do you turn to in a time of crisis? What book would you grab if your boat was going down and you were about to spend a long time on one of those Tic-Tac orange survival rafts?

I’ve been thinking a lot about crisis because a close friend was diagnosed with cancer a month ago, another friend lost her job last week, and yet another friend fell suddenly and alarmingly ill this weekend. It’s crummy to be reminded that impermanence, which is easy to talk about with intellectual detachment in the comfort of a study group, is real and happening all the time. Health, wealth, wisdom, as the saying goes, are impermanent just like everything else. 

In moments like this, I find myself returning to a few of the same books. One of them is Kabat-Zinn’s classic, but there are a few others. My Top 5 for the last few years, which can always be found on my night stand, ready for duty:

1. Wherever You Go There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn – I often return to the book that inspired me to try meditation and read a chapter here and there, to get a bit of his calm and remind myself that things are certainly better than the first time I read it.

2. A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Classic coming-of-age tale about a wizard who tears a hole in the world and has to face terrible obstacles in order to close it. It inspires a sense of agency and power. It’s like Harry Potter, but dark and real and not full of silly creatures. Possibly my favorite book of all time. I re-read it every couple of years.

3. The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan translated by David Hinton – These ancient, atmospheric poems speak with lyricism and sadness and a keen eye that I’d not encountered before. Meng Hao-jan was a hermit and failed civil servant alive during the T’ang Dynasty in China. They’re full of open space, calming.

4. I Am Here: The Poems of Neil Molberger – I found this slim volume in a haphazard pile of discarded books in a back hallway of the NYU English Department faculty offices while waiting for a professor one evening. The title intrigued me. “I am here:” a statement that can be defiant and pleading and gently confident all at once. From what I’ve learned in the book and through Google, Neil Molberger was a doctoral student and a poet at NYU who committed suicide in 1998. His poems were published posthumously. Some are ok, most are good, and a few are truly wonderful. His work is sad, but uplifting – he was watchful in the world and wrote beautiful poems. I can’t think of a worthier way to live life.

5. The Calvin & Hobbes books by Bill Watterson – Comics, yes, but just for kids? Not in the least. Like Firefly or something by that guy Bill Shakspeare, Watterson has given us a flawless creative universe in Calvin & Hobbes. The gags are still funny and they grapple with all the Big Questions.

So that’s it, the books I grab in moments of stress or crisis. Looking at them in list form, they seem mostly about giving me a sense of space and connection with a more stable existence outside of the present, hectic moment. Many commentors on my last post liked Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart for difficult times. What is your Top 5?

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