BOOK REVIEW: Awakening the Sleeping Buddha by The 12th Tai Situpa [Pema Donyo Nyinche]

Awakening the Sleeping BuddhaAwakening the Sleeping Buddha by Pema Donyo Nyinche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a concise overview of Buddhism from the Kagyu Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhist perspective. It’s a straightforward, just-the-facts look at the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, and doesn’t plumb the depths of the subject, but rather offers a readable broad-brush view. And yet the author managed to state ideas in such a way as to provoke thought and offer insight.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which takes on a major concept from Mahayana Buddhism: Buddha nature, bodhichitta (compassion,) reincarnation / karma, emptiness, Tantric science, transformation, Enlightenment, and Mahamudra (the core meditation of the Kagyu lineage.) The organization is informed by what concepts one needs to learn to move through greater levels of refinement towards Enlightenment, with the final chapter examining Buddhist teachings as presented in the Kagyu line.

I value books on Buddhist philosophy and psychology that keep things simple and don’t overly religify the topic. This book does a good job of it, and that says something when considering the great complexity and esoteric nature of Tibetan schools of Buddhism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on Buddhism from the Vajrayana perspective, this is an excellent book to read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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Enlightenment in Four Bits of Shakespearean Wisdom

If you’re looking to attain Enlightenment, you may have turned to someone like the Buddha or Epictetus for inspiration. But I’m here to tell you, if you can put these four pieces of Shakespearean wisdom into practice, you’ll have all you need to uplift your mind.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

william Shakespeare, Hamlet

Through Yoga, practitioners learn to cultivate their inner “dispassionate witness.” In our daily lives, we’re constantly attaching value judgements and labels to everything with which we come into contact (not to mention the things that we merely imagine.) As a result, we tend to see the world not as it is, but in an illusory form.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William shakespeare, julius caesar

In Psychology class, you may remember learning about the self-serving bias, a warped way of seeing the world in which one attributes difficulties and failures to external factors, while attributing successes and other positive outcomes to one’s own winning characteristics. Like Brutus, we need to learn to stop thinking of our experience of life as the sum of external events foisted upon us, and to realize that our experience is rooted in our minds and how we perceive and react to events.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

william shakespeare, as you like it

A quote from Hamlet also conveys the idea, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If you grasp this idea, you may become both humbler and more readily capable of discarding bad ideas in favor of good. It’s common to want to think of yourself as a master, but this leads only to arrogance and to being overly attached to ineffective ideas. Be like Socrates.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

william shakespeare, julius caesar

Fears and anxieties lead people into lopsided calculations in which a risky decision is rated all downside. Those who see the world this way may end up living a milquetoast existence that’s loaded with regrets. No one is saying one should ignore all risks and always throw caution to the wind, but our emotions make better servants than masters. One needs to realize that giving into one’s anxieties has a cost, and that that cost should be weighed against what one will get out of an experience.

There it is: Enlightenment in four bits of Shakespearean wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book challenges one to not just look at what’s in a picture, but to reflect upon the nature of seeing and what it tells one about the deeper meaning of a painting or photograph. For example, who is seeing – i.e. whose perspective would the picture be from and what might the artist be saying about such a person? Also, what are the subjects looking at, and what does that convey (e.g. come-hither, lost in thought, etc.)

The book’s seven chapters alternate text + picture chapters (the odd chapters) with ones that are only pictorial (i.e. the even chapters.) The first chapter lays out the concept of ways of seeing, and subsequent chapters consider how those ideas can be applied to specific questions. Chapter three, for example, discusses what the differences between how men and women are depicted says about inherent societal biases. Chapter five explores the relationship between possessing and seeing, and also how everyday people begin to be rendered in art. Chapter seven investigates what the author calls “publicity” and how pictures are used to evoke dissatisfaction with what is and desire to be something else. Here one sees how advertising and marketing exploits these concepts.

The picture-only chapters are intriguing. One can see the commonality in the pictures and practice discerning what the author is trying to convey. One of the book’s central ideas is that seeing precedes reading, and that we learned to extract information from images before we did so from words.

The book has strange formatting, employing bold text and thumbnail art. The font didn’t bother me. I don’t know whether it was used to raise the page count on a thin book, or what. I will say that the thumbnail art can be a little hard to make out, even in the Kindle edition where it can be magnified somewhat. Most of the paintings can be internet searched quite easily, but the advertisements that are used to show how art is applied to marketing, not so much.

I found this book to provide excellent food-for-thought, and would recommend seeing / reading it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll

Humour: A Very Short IntroductionHumour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As both Mark Twain and E.B. White made abundantly clear, humor is like a frog; dissection kills it and few are interested in watching that happen. Which isn’t to say that dissection isn’t useful. But it does mean that readers who are looking for a book that’s a laugh-riot are looking in the wrong place. Most of the example jokes were ancient when the book was first published eight years ago. (They’re good jokes. Bad jokes don’t become old jokes, they die ignominiously.) All that aside, this book provides an intriguing look into such questions as: 1.) why do we find things humorous in the first place? (We take humor for granted, but – think about it – there’s no rationale for things being funny that automatically springs to mind;) 2.) how, if at all, does humor relate to our broader emotional experience; and 3.) when, if ever, is humor unethical?

This concise guide has three parts. In the first part, we learn the various theories of humor, and learn that the author favors Incongruity Theory (i.e. humor is – first and foremost – a recognition of and response to incongruities.) In the second, the author discusses the debate over whether humor is an emotional experience, or something else. Finally, we learn about the value of humor and, in particular, the ethics of humor. There’s a continuum from those who believe that humor – in and of itself – is always ethical to those who think that it’s virtually always unethical (unless one can find a joke without a butt,) with many nuanced variations, in between.

I found this to be an intriguing guide to the philosophy and psychology of humor, and – if that’s what you’re in search of – you should check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu by Jamie Marich & Anna Pirkl

Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied RecoveryTransforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied Recovery by Jamie Marich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 15, 2022

This book proposes that jiu-jitsu can be beneficial and therapeutic for those with trauma-related conditions (e.g. PTSD,) and it offers advice and insight to martial arts teachers, therapists, as well as trauma survivors considering jiu-jitsu. I’m curious to see how much merit these ideas prove to offer. By that, I mean neither to insult the bona fides of the authors, nor even to foreshadow skepticism. What I am saying is that this proposition isn’t one that’s been studied thoroughly and systematically. [The authors acknowledge as much. They’re at the vanguard of an idea here.] Therefore, the good news is that the book is bleeding edge, but the bad news is that it’s based largely on anecdotal evidence and the application of tried concepts to an untried (and quite unique) domain.

On one hand, few activities can teach one: breath control, now-centric living, command of emotions, and increased comfort with being in close proximity to people (who may seem physically intimidating) like the martial arts. Those all feel like positive features for a trauma survivor, and some of them (e.g. breath control) are addressed extensively in the book. On the other hand, the way martial arts teach one to keep one’s focus in the moment is via the pressure of an attacker – defender dynamic. If one is triggered by intense, seemingly aggressive activity, that’s hard to reconcile with the nature of the martial arts — which should always be safe but do necessitate a certain degree of intensity to mentally prepare students for a combative experience.

As I read through the panoply of challenges that might arise – from inability to train with someone who looks vaguely like one’s attacker to not being able to be experience a mount (one of the most fundamental jiu-jitsu positions) – I often had the feeling I’d have in response to a book entitled, “CrossFit for the Severely Arthritic” [i.e. not all fine objectives work together.] The authors do discuss alternatives like private lessons and specialized workshops / classes, but those are more realistic solutions in some cases others. (i.e. I feel that few of the dojos I’ve been in could afford to offer the range of classes for special demographics that are mentioned [workshops, probably.] But there’re only a few hours a day one can hold classes that people who can afford to attend aren’t working, and paying rent on a larger space on the amount that can be earned from those few hours a day is daunting enough.) If you can attend special trainings for trauma survivors, the book’s guidance all seems quite workable. But, otherwise, I had to wonder to what degree one could accommodate those with these needs without losing those who feel they benefit from the existing approach. [e.g. Many dojos I’ve been in used a rotation scheme so that everybody trained with everybody else, and in virtually all there was an expectation of a certain level of decorum and discipline of behavior on the mat — e.g. not wandering off in the middle of practice, not holding side conversations, and not picking / choosing what techniques one will / won’t practice. (All of which, were activities mentioned that could happen in the trauma-sensitive school, and all of which I feel I benefited from having trained out of me.)]

There was a tremendous amount of useful information in the book. How to recognize an individual has been triggered. How to best respond. It’s certainly worth reading for those reasons alone, and – maybe – they’re onto something.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa

Miracles: A Very Short IntroductionMiracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide to miracles is built around the intriguing observation that, according to polls, a majority of people believe in miracles, and yet we don’t witness supernatural events [at least not ones that can be confirmed by objective investigation.] There are coincidences (boosted in salience by selection bias and / or a lack of intuitive grasp of probability,) there are patterns that our minds turn into significant images (e.g. the Madonna on a taco shell,) and there are cases of spontaneous remission in which a serious medical condition disappears where treatments haven’t worked or weren’t tried (experienced by the devoutly religious, the marginally religious, the agnostic, and the atheistic, alike.) But those events can be explained more simply without resorting to the supernatural (i.e. probability, the human brain’s great skill at pattern recognition [re: which is so good that it often becomes pattern creation,] and the fact that under the right circumstances the human body’s immune system does a bang-up job of self-repair.)

The five chapters of this book are built around five questions. First, what are miracles – i.e. what criteria should be used, and what events that people call miracles fail to meet these criteria? Second, what are the categories of miracles seen among the various religious traditions [note: the book uses examples from both Eastern and Western religions, though generally sticks to the major world religions?] Third, how can one explain the fact that so many believe despite a lack of evidence? This chapter presents hypotheses suggesting we’re neurologically wired to believe. Fourth, is it rational to believe? Here, philosophers’ arguments (most notably and extensively, that of Hume) are discussed and critiqued. The last chapter asks whether non-supernatural events can (or should) be regarded as miraculous, specifically acts of altruism in which someone sacrificed their life for strangers.

I found this book to be incredibly thought-provoking, and it changed my way of thinking about the subject. I’d highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jung: A Graphic Guide by Maggie Hyde

Introducing Jung: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jung: A Graphic Guide by Maggie Hyde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I find Jung’s ideas fascinating. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe most of said ideas have scholarly merit, but they’re brilliantly creative and eccentric. Some will say this would’ve been a radically different book if it’d been written by a psychologist or the like (rather than by an astrologer.) I don’t disagree. It’d likely have focused more on his work in personality types and on the unconscious mind (i.e. the work that people in psychology still talk about, whether they like it or not,) and also probably would’ve barely footnoted his ideas about “the uncanny,” synchronicity, and astrology. In short, its priorities would’ve been reversed, and it’d be a book that’s more boring but more relevant to those who are interested in Jung’s long-run influence on psychiatry / psychoanalysis.

For my purposes, I prefer the book as it is. I shouldn’t give the false impression that the author only addresses Jung’s mysticism, or that she completely avoids pointing out where Jung’s ideas were controversial and what critiques were leveled against him. The book comes across as a serious description of Jung’s work (albeit focusing relatively intensely on dream analysis, collective consciousness, and the more out-there aspects of his work.) I will say, I’ve read a few books from this series now, and Hyde does seem more a cheerleader (less a dispassionate scholar) than most of the other authors. It’s fascinating to read about Jung’s criticism of Freud. Don’t get me wrong, I’d agree that Freud was sex-obsessed, but Jung’s accusations of Freud being too concerned with one ill-supported idea does create a bit of a pot / kettle situation.

I enjoyed this book. I found the descriptions of Jung’s ideas compelling, if unpersuasive. However, I’d argue that if you specifically want to know about what ideas are still being talked about in classrooms (mainstream, not the New Age-y ones,) there’re probably better books. However, if you’re curious about Jung the mystic, this is a great place to start.


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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe! You are Alive [i.e. Anapanasati Sutta] Trans. & Commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of BreathingBreathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One evening at the end of a rainy season in Shravasti (present-day Uttar Pradesh near the Nepali border,) the Buddha taught a practice using awareness of breath to quiet the mind. This is a translation with commentary by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh [RIP, FYI – he passed away on January 22nd.] (To clarify: Annabel Laity translated the book from Vietnamese to English, Thich Nhat Hanh translated versions of the sutra from Pali and Chinese.) The teaching is called the Anapanasati Sutta (i.e. “Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.”) It consists of sixteen variations on the theme of “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

The sutra itself is only a few pages long, leaving commentaries and appendices to stretch the book to its barely one-hundred-pages. This isn’t a criticism; the commentary is beneficial because the sutra is bare bones. Even being somewhat aware of basic Buddhist concepts (e.g. impermanence, emptiness, liberation, etc.) I still found that the commentary offered some valuable insight about how to understand these ideas as well as how they relate to the practice. The Appendices consist of a variation on the practice and a translation of Chinese version of the sutra. The latter is a bit redundant, but one can also see little differences in translation that may be informative for some.

Besides presenting the practice, the book explains how it relates to (and is built around the principles from) the “Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.” This book outlines the Four Establishments clearly enough to see how the Anapanasati practice is shaped by them. However, it’s worth noting that Thich Nhat Hanh also produced a translation and commentary on the Four Establishments that is entitled “Transformation & Healing.”

As someone who has found breath practices to be among the most effective tools for improving the mind, I benefited from this book tremendously. Besides its discussion of the practice and variations, I learned a lot from the philosophical elaborations that were made. I’d highly recommend this book.

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On Intrusive Thoughts & Shoving Someone in Front of a Train

The other day I read that a man had pushed a person onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. 

The week before that, I'd read in a book by Robin Ince that a person who -- having had a baby thrust into his hands -- has intrusive thoughts of throwing said baby out of the nearest window is [believe it, or not] the best person to ask to hold one's baby.

The argument goes like this, the person having these intrusive thoughts is being intensely reminded by his or her unconscious mind that under no circumstances -- no matter what unexpected or unusual events should transpire -- is he to throw the baby out the window (or otherwise do anything injurious.)

I've heard that, at some point, virtually everyone has some type of awkward intrusive thought such as the thought of pushing a stranger in front of a train. 

Most never do it, nor truly want to do it.

Then this one time... someone did.