Book Reviews 2018
For forty years, New York Times–best-selling author and renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has been helping people learn the technique of mindfulness to focus the attention and deepen the experience of love. She is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of nine previous books.
In her newest book, Salzberg takes us on a guided tour of love’s inner landscape. With her affable and easygoing style, she brings the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness into everyday life, offering astute observations on how love enriches human behavior.
Salzberg emphasizes that in the heart of every human being is the innate but latent capacity to love without conditions or judgment. We are made to love and to be loved, whether we realize it or not. She puts it this way: “I believe there is only one kind of love—real love—trying to come alive in us despite our limiting assumptions, the distortions of our culture, and habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation that we tend to acquire just by living a life.”
The one “real love” Salzberg describes is not sentimental or romantic. It’s a love that reaches into the substratum of our being and takes many forms of expression. It may be kindness to a stranger; a friendly smile to a stressed cashier in a grocery store; serving food in a homeless shelter; rescuing a lost animal; showing unselfish love for a child; or feeling empathy for people trapped in a war zone. On a larger scale, the world’s mystics, sages, and poets have pointed to one underlying love at the root of the universe. In The Divine Comedy, Dante referred to it as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Salzberg brings this love down to earth by suggesting it is our birthright to experience the beauty of love in all of its forms.
Salzberg views the daily practice of lovingkindness as essential to living a joyful and fulfilling life. She skillfully explores how ordinary but authentic interactions with others can form relationships grounded in lovingkindness. The book is filled with mindfulness techniques and exercises that have been helpful to her and to those she has worked with.
Moreover, Salzberg is passionate about the necessity of expressing lovingkindness to oneself. To illustrate this point, she quotes the Buddha: “If you truly loved yourself, you’d never harm another.” Without the capacity to be kind and loving to oneself, the ability to sustain lasting loving relationships is constrained. Obstacles include discomforting memories of the past and a mind conditioned by race, culture, gender, religion, violence, abuse, or other factors that generate fear, anger, guilt, or resentment, and over which we have little or no control. She also devotes a great deal of attention to self-worth issues, which inhibit the expression of lovingkindness in many people.
Whatever the past may be, it is the story we tell ourselves about it that is often most important. In Salzberg’s view, this is where mindfulness practices and lovingkindness to oneself can be healing and liberating. “Living in a story of a limited self—to any degree—is not love . . . You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to prove that.” She makes it clear she is not advocating an egoic or narcissistic self-love. Rather she stresses that by having compassion for the entirety of our life experience, the pain and the joy, we can learn to integrate the disparate parts of our psyche and become whole. From within this interior wholeness, compassion flows naturally to all other beings, even in the midst of conflict and strife. It may not be a state of consciousness that is realized in every moment, but the daily practice of lovingkindness opens the heart to what is possible. Salzberg’s book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in living a fuller and more meaningful life.
Christopher Hill is an intelligent and insightful critic, and his enthusiasm for his subject tends to be infectious. In his eclectic survey, he characterizes sixties rock and roll as a Dionysiac tradition and likens rock and roll concerts to religious rituals. This tradition, he says, taking hold in an Apollonian power structure that is collapsing under its own neocolonialist weight, has transformed what he calls “the postwar American consensus.”
I suspect that in this case, he is attributing too much significance to the power of art. Whether you accept his thesis or not, he charts many hitherto little-traveled byways and offers up many intriguing theories. For starters, he suggests that “ecstatic” rock and roll has roots in the writings of the English Romantics, the French Symbolists, and especially “the black church liturgical tradition,” not to mention psychedelics. In his enthusiasm, however, he tends to stack the deck. For instance, in seeking to restore the historic influence of gospel music upon the formation of ecstatic rock and roll, he either downplays or ignores influences such as the jump blues practitioners, not to mention the electric-guitar influence of country and western and Western swing music.
Hill can be very persuasive, however, when he pinpoints the appeal of the Beatles, and the rest of the (admittedly often mushy and twee) British Invasion bands as in part a return to the “magical . . . history” of a fabled Albion. Hill states, “It was as if the new hip culture was finding a frequency which had been broadcasting for centuries . . . an alternative narrative.” In California, meanwhile, amid the Rosicrucians, the practitioners of yoga, and followers of the teachings of Manly P. Hall, a “transcendent” teen culture began to emerge, as epitomized by bands such as the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Hill claims that “while it was the culture of the East Coast . . . that in a sense thought up the sixties, when it came to putting it into practice the West was the only place that was still open enough.”
One can question such extravagant claims and still greatly enjoy Hill’s further forays into tracing the somewhat obscure and eclectic influences on the syncretic rock genre. Hill highlights the reemerging importance of the mystic concept of romantic love in songcraft by discussing, at great length, Michael Brown and his nearly forgotten “chamber rock” band the Left Banke. (But he omits any mention of the Jaynettes and their equally epically produced single “Sally Go Round the Roses.”) The author also offers a somewhat plausible explanation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as an acid-tinged “song suite” which follows the journey of everyman figure Billy Shears into a “visionary realm,” a “dreamscape” which “could contain the world.”
The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, supposedly represent, at the apex of their career, the old culture of a carnivalesque “festive perception of the world” (in the words of critic Mikhail Bakhtin). In Hill’s telling, they are the Lords of Misrule, “who spoke with a kind of dark merriment” in a world which “needed to be turned upside down.” And Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the “most profound meditation on suffering in pop music.” But Hill also claims that the album is also “a kind of rite of passage . . . the journey to the land of the dead and the return to tell the tale.” Hill also makes the controversial claim that the “perverse” Velvet Underground’s first four albums constitute a monomythic “full cycle” with “four phases”: “contention for the soul of the hero”; “the hero . . . descends into the demonic world”; “the hero’s purgation/purification”; “the hero is reintegrated into the world.” Maybe Hill is on to something. But I don’t see it. The explanation is simply too pat.
No discussion of the transformative psychedelia of the sixties can be considered complete without mention of the Incredible String Band. Hill claims that the faithful listener will be “rewarded by moments of strange loveliness, mad invention, [and] dark magic that do not exactly have a useful comparison elsewhere in pop music.” He also links their appeal to that of the Victorian children’s literature exemplified by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (somewhat treacly) novel The Secret Garden. Like a great many of Hill’s theories and suggestions, this seems more than a bit overdetermined.
Hill concludes by asserting that the MC5, the hippie agitprop band from Detroit, were actually avatars of “the ecstatic rock and roll moment,” who worked their “enthusiastic” stage magic by drawing upon the Holiness church convention of “testifying,” while at the same time their “acid-Marxist” rhetoric offered “experiential confirmation of a type of energy and consciousness that would require a new society to embody it.” In his afterword, Hill argues that the “development of vision” that took place among certain select British and American rockers may, over time, provide “political ramifications [which] can be earthshaking.” He unabashedly hopes that this music might ultimately provide “a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of the two worlds, inner and outer.”
To quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.
Intuition involves living from the deeper self rather than just from surface experiences. Will Tuttle, who is a dharma master in the Zen tradition, has been leading workshops to help people develop intuition since 1990, and offers us a seemingly simple method for bringing forth our natural intuition so that it helps us evolve into our higher selves—our true nature.
Tuttle defines intuition as “tuition from within”—tuition being teaching or instruction—that differs from “conventional rational forms of knowing . . . and a basic separation between the knower and what is known” or, in the Hindu tradition, between purusha and prakriti respectively. While we all have this ability, most of us live on the surface of the material world, which results in the usual problems of separation, delusions, anger, and ignorance of the wholeness.
Our “inner islands”—of which there are six—are the source of this evolution, according to Tuttle, which he describes as crossing a vast ocean, making stops along the way and learning the lessons until we reach the other shore—“our fully awakened potential.” Crossing a body of water is a Buddhist metaphor for going beyond the world of separateness, ignorance, and attachment, where we stand now, to the world of pure nondual awareness—emptiness. The boat and the oars symbolize the methods of getting us across this divide.
After many days of travel we come upon the first, the Island of Understanding. There we encounter a sign containing words from a Zen koan, “The ox, trying to go through the gate, is stuck; only his tail won’t go through.” This gate leads us into the “realm of intuition,” which is our “own true nature.” It is our inner voice; the ox is the true self; and the ox’s tail is the ego, which is an obstacle to spiritual growth. It is “the belief that you are a separate thing,”but it is also all the delusions that we have about our stories and our attachments, which we are called to release so that we can take responsibility for our awakening.
We come next to the Island of Energy, where the spiritual energy is so strong that, “like music, we just let it move us and follow its promptings.” On this island we learn to raise our level of spiritual energy to a higher vibration “through cultivating inner receptivity through prayer and meditation.” Through this higher level of vibration, we learn to follow our inner guidance, and more importantly to trust it—perhaps the most challenging thing.
On the Island of Meditation we learn the practice of “looking more deeply” to begin to see the oneness of all things. Words and concepts, the Island of Understanding tells us, “can limit our awareness” and “can become distortions that distance us and distract us from awareness of the deeper process unfolding around and within us.”We thencan move beyond the “conditioned consciousness” of samsara’s illusions.
“The most beneficial teachings tend to come from within, when the mind is clarified and abides in witnessing awareness,” the island tells us. It is here we learn to “expand beyond thinking and beyond being anyone or anything.”
The Island of Imagination is where we learn that the outer world is a manifestation of our inner world. “The world appears as a dream of mind to remind you that as you imagine the world, so it is, and as you imagine yourself, so you are as well.”
The fifth island is the Island of Relationship. Because we have learned the lessons of the previous four islands, we can now allow our relationships to “heighten” our intuitive abilities, and our “intuition to deepen our relationships.” In this chapter Tuttle explores the ideal utopian society. While there have been many experiments in utopian societies, especially during the Second Great Awakening in the United States (c.1795–1840), none seemed to have been successful over the long term. But it has long been an ideal to which humans have sought in their efforts to create the perfect society—or at least one to their own liking.
Surprisingly, the last island—the Island of Compassion—turns out to be the place from which our journey began. Samsara and nirvana are not separate places but are one and the same—states of mind that depend upon how our mind perceives the here and now.“Everything contains everything else and perhaps nothing is ever separate from anything,” andall of our life’s experiences contain the seeds for awakening to wisdom and compassion, Tuttle tells us.
Tuttle, an accomplished pianist, created a CD of beautiful music to accompany each island for an auditory experience on our journey. His wife, Madeleine, an artist, has painted six panels, each depicting the islands, to provide beautiful visuals for the reader to help in this exploration.
Ultimately, truth is a pathless land, as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, and the journey to the other shore—beyond thought, beyond attachments and beyond the perceived self—is one that each of us must take on the path to enlightenment. In an age when we live more and more from Internet searches and Facebook commentary, Your Inner Islands is a thoughtful guide to connecting us with our inner self, that place where our intuition—and ultimately our truth—resides.
Clare Goldsberry is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth, available on Amazon.