by Joan Duncan Oliver
Life's major passages, like whitewater rafting adventures, sometimes require the help of a skilled navigator. For the ancient passages of marriage, career, childraising, old age, and dying, there are plenty of guidebooks on the self-help shelves. But for those encountering the relatively unexplored shoals of choosing a spiritual tradition outside one's childhood faith, help is finally on the way.
The restless spiritual seeking of the past several decades has given birth to a group of experts with a working knowledge of Buddhism, Yoga, Sufism, Hinduism, mystical Christianity and Judaism. Among them is Joan Duncan Oliver, a journalist who has written about spiritual practice in many different forms. Her "Contemplative Living" is a guidebook to the contemporary spiritual landscape, specifically designed to answer the needs of seekers coming upon Eastern or Western mysticism for the first time.
Oliver gently instructs the reader in the art of assembling a contemplative life. In sweet and graceful language, Oliver explains the basics of timeless practices such as Buddhist mindfulness, Christian centering prayer, the Sufi devotional practice of dhikr, and Hindu chanting. Oliver focuses not only on centuries-old techniques, but on modern expressions, like dancer Gabrielle Roth's ecstatic dance and radical theologian Mathew Fox's Techno Cosmic Mass.
Realizing perhaps that first-time seekers, faced with such an eclectic list, may give up in confusion, Oliver includes a discussion of different soul "personality types." The more intellectually minded, for example, may be drawn toward the study of sacred scripture, physically active types may resonate with yoga or walking as a form of meditation. Oliver writes thoughtfully on the delicate art of finding a spiritual teacher and community, and offers clear guidelines to help newcomers recognize sexual and financial abuses that mar the spiritual community today.
What's lacking in Oliver's treatment is an examination of the intersection of psychological and spiritual work. Because long-buried emotional issues so often arise during contemplation, the book could have benefited from a more thorough explanation of the intersection between psychology and spirituality, along with appropriate books and resources. The hallmark of modern Western spirituality is its embrace-not denial-of the unconscious psyche.
Writing an esoteric book on esoteric themes is a difficult task, at which Oliver has succeeded admirably. It should be noted that seekers who have done a fair amount of research already and want to deepen their knowledge of a particular discipline may find this book too broad. The book also has a distinctively American Buddhist slant, relying too much on contemporary writers discussing the increasingly popular Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness. I found myself hungry to read more from classical Buddhist texts on the topic. Oliver also slights lesser-known groups like the Siddha Yoga Foundation and women's spirituality groups. Women's "sacred circles," shamanism, and the pagan practice of Wicca surely have their own contemplative methods worth including.
Still, anyone who helps guide a person through the turbulence of everyday life to the inner harbor of their own soul provides an invaluable service.