One City

One City

What Book Would You Grab on a Sinking Ship?

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?

Comments read comments(5)
post a comment

posted October 6, 2009 at 10:57 am

1. The Book of Chuang Tzu
2. Frank O’Hara, Meditations in an Emergency
3. Spenser, The Mutabilitie Cantos
4. Saseki, Buddha is the Center of Gravity
5. Benjamin, Moscow Diary

report abuse

Louise (aka @ThoughtsHappen)

posted October 6, 2009 at 8:08 pm

As others have, I also turn to When Things Fall Apart, which was for me what Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book was for you. I found it originally as an audiobook, and as one commenter from last time noted, this format can be very powerful. A few others are: A Path With Heart, by Jack Kornfield, Anne Lamott’s spiritual trilogy Traveling Mercies, Plan B and Grace (Eventually), and a couple of kids books: Zen Shorts, by Jon Muth, and The Hermit and the Well, by Tich Nhat Hanh. They are picture books, but their simplicity cuts to the chase in a way that is very comforting.

report abuse


posted October 7, 2009 at 12:00 am

Mu – nice list, very sophisticated.
I’ve been thinking about trying the audiobook format, especially on my ipod. I can see any of my favorite teachers being pretty calming while packed on a morning rush subway car…

report abuse

bob knab

posted October 7, 2009 at 12:40 am

Greetings –
The Art of Swimming !!!

report abuse


posted October 29, 2009 at 8:27 am

1. The Case of the Midwife Toad
2. Betrayers of the Truth
3. Voodoo Science
4. The Patchwork Mouse
5. The Threat and the Glory

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting One City. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Most Recent Buddhist Story By Beliefnet Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading! ...

posted 2:29:05pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Mixing technology and practice
There were many more good sessions at the Wisdom 2.0 conference this weekend. The intention of the organizers is to post videos. I'll let you know when. Here are some of my notes from a second panel. How do we use modern, social media ...

posted 3:54:40pm May. 02, 2010 | read full post »

Wisdom 2.0
If a zen master were sitting next to the chief technical officer of Twitter, what would they talk about? That sounds like a hypothetical overheared at a bar in San Francisco. But this weekend I saw the very thing at Soren Gordhamer's Wisdom 2.0 ...

posted 1:43:19pm May. 01, 2010 | read full post »

The Buddha at Work - "All we are is dust in the wind, dude."
"The only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing." - Alex Winter, as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"That's us, dude!" - Keanu Reeves, as Ted "Theodore" LoganWhoa! Excellent! I've had ...

posted 2:20:00pm Jan. 28, 2010 | read full post »

Sometimes You Find Enlightenment by Punching People in the Face
This week I'm curating a guest post from Jonathan Mead, a friend who inspires by living life on his own terms and sharing what he can with others.  To quote from Jonathan's own site, Illuminated Mind: "The reason for everything: To create a ...

posted 12:32:23pm Jan. 27, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.