Sunday, October 14, 2012
Books to read when feeling low
I have been needing books such as the ones I mention here like air and water. There are many more I could recommend - and will in future posts -, but these are the ones I have been reading or re-reading in the past few weeks. Books are a huge part of my life, and there have been times in the past when I was so depressed I was unable to concentrate sufficiently to read, and I just had to accept it and wait. I know what I am going through at the moment is mild in comparison and circumstantial, and luckily it hasn't affected my ability to absorb content via the written word (as I said, it's the non-verbal activities that have been difficult).
Eckhart Tolle - The Power of Now
This is the book that I would keep if I had to get rid of all my self-help books except one, and it is likely that it is the only one you really need to read in order to change your life.* I have found a lot of books life-changing (and not only self-help books, of course - some of the best insights have been within the pages of fiction and poetry), but this is the one that I think of every day without needing to be reminded.
I first read it years ago, and while I "got" it, theoretically, I didn't consciously apply Tolle's teachings - perhaps because I wasn't ready/willing, and maybe part of me enjoyed being miserable and embroiled in drama. I went back to it this summer, and it helped me enormously with what has been going on. My sister read it, too, and we keep checking in with each other and saying things like "what would Eckhart say/do?". Of course neither of us has turned into a beatific, serene and zen-like being (it doesn't happen overnight with everyone...), and we confess our -minor- relapses, but we are taking first steps.
Nothing Tolle says in this book is new or innovative as such, but he seems to have a unique gift for distilling the teachings of spiritual masters throughout time and making them accessible and concise. Whenever my mind wanders and I get caught in repetitive thoughts and start worrying, I remind myself to stay in the now - there are no problems in the present moment - and that I am not my mind/thoughts/ego. It makes everything so much easier. It takes practice and patience, and I still struggle with it, obviously, but I do get glimpses of how truly transformative it can be.
Lesley Garner - Everything I've Ever Done That Worked
This book's first private incarnation was as a folder Garner kept with things she had written down that helped her when life was tough. I have various lists like that myself and love reading those of other people. I knew Garner's writings from her magazine columns and always liked her writing voice - there is something warm and generous about her.
Each chapter is only a few pages long, so it is perfect for dipping into anytime you need comfort or ideas for finding ways to feel better. What worked for her were things like joining a choir or being primitive for a while every day (she mentions Carl Jung's observation that he would have no patients if everyone could experience being primitive for five minutes a day - this could be walking barefoot or swimming in the sea, activities children do all the time, but a lot of adults have forgotten or don't make time for). Described as an "emotional first-aid kit", it is far more than that and just as valuable in good times, as inspiration for enriching your life.
I also recently re-read Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest and just finished reading Sally Brampton's memoir Shoot the Damn Dog. It may seem counterintuitive to read memoirs about depression when you are low, and there is a lot in these two that is difficult and heartbreaking, but there is something to be said for being reminded that you are not alone (as Brampton writes, "The nature of depression is that it narrows our focus until we believe that our problems are insuperable and we are the only people who feel the way we do"), and ultimately these books offer hope (they are also beautifully written).
Another helpful and practical book I am reading (though not doing any of the exercises) is Embracing Uncertainty by Susan Jeffers. Even though I am not actively working with it, the ideas she presents in the exercises have stayed with me - simple things like the power of maybe - "Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm not right" - and how this attitude makes us more open and free. Ultimately we don't know anything, and accepting/surrendering to the fact that we cannot control anything can be very liberating. I also love the part about being excited and curious about what the future may hold and creating a "wondering life" instead of a "hoping life", replacing "I hope" with "I wonder" - it really does relieve the pressure. She touches on Buddhism a lot, and a core message is to let go of our need for things to be a certain way. I cannot say that I have successfully incorporated all this into my daily life, but at least I am aware of it, and I find even just reading this book calming, which is why it is and will remain by my bedside.
A few people have recommended Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart, and it is on my to-read list. I have only read excerpts of her work. Ditto Thich Nhat Hanh.
* I tend to use the term "life-changing" liberally, and there are various degrees of it, but this really is profoundly so.