October 23, 2012

Transcending Challenging Times

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January/February 2009 Issue | Volume 35 Number 1 | Page 16

Reading Minds

Transcending Challenging Times

A good book is a wonderful way to soothe a fretful mind. What book do you turn to in times of stress? That is the question we asked our four contributors for this edition. Their recommendations did not disappoint. Here are the provocative readings they consider survival manuals during challenging times.

Charles Halpern Recommends : Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey

Norman Fischer is a poet, author and Zen teacher. In his latest book, Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls (Free Press, 2008), Fischer brings the insights of a deep explorer of spiritual traditions to a classic text. He interprets the Odyssey as a metaphorical spiritual journey, drawing lessons from the trials of Odysseus that are directly relevant to the everyday challenges of modern life. As citizens and lawyers, we are living in a time of great uncertainty and disruption, full of stress and urgent demands. The meditative reflection that this book invites guides readers to look more deeply at the challenges of these difficult times and to live lives of meaning and generosity. I read the book during the past summer and I began rereading it as soon as I finished it. My heavily annotated copy is still on my bedside table.

Charles Halpern, a pioneer in the public interest law movement, was the Founding Dean of the City University of New York Law School at Queens College. He serves as Chair of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and is author of Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom.

Susan Kaiser Greenland Recommends: Four Quartet

There is a brand-new Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier, not far from where I live. Countless blogs, news reports and YouTube videos depict the rainbow of 160,000 solar-powered and wind-lit LED lights that hover above the Pacific ocean and sparkle in the night sky as the Ferris wheel spins. As artful as these descriptions might be, though, no amount of reading or thinking about this fantastic amusement park ride can compare to the visceral experience of taking it. For me, riding the Ferris wheel (residing in a nonconceptual experience) in addition to thinking about it (engaging in a conceptual experience) is a metaphor for an integrative approach to complex and challenging situations. But clearheadedly accessing an intuitive perspective under pressure isn’t always easy, especially for those with highly developed analytical skills. To achieve a balance, my “survival manuals” during tough times are poems. Reading poetry short-circuits my linear, goal-directed thinking just for a while, and opens up the mental space I need to also key into a more metaphorical and intuitive perspective. The most dog-eared book of poetry on my shelf is the paperback centenary edition of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Susan Kaiser Greenland practiced law for 20-plus years. She cofounded InnerKids Foundation and has developed a mindfulness-based program to help children and adults manage stress and integrate rational and intuitive approaches to problem solving.

Leslie A. Burton Recommends: A Plague of Scoundrels

In these days of erratic economies and caustic politics, escaping into a good novel soothes the soul. A Plague of Scoundrels by Jon Cory (Komenar, 2008) takes the reader far away to another time and place, on a fantastic adventure. The protagonist, Elliott Vail, is an unemployed stand-up comedian. His nightclub gigs are floundering and his pockets are empty, so he answers an intriguing ad for free rent. His odd new landlord parades around the apartment in full Robin Hood regalia. The next thing you know, Elliott is transported to London in 1665. Of course, with his poor comedic timing he arrives just before the outbreak of the Black Plague. Soon our hero is entangled in intrigue, pursued by rapscallions and dueling with thugs. He also manages to romance a comely serving wench who is more than just a one-dimensional character. Through it all, Elliott would rather quip than quit. His sly humor keeps him sane and gives the reader plenty of laughs. A Plague of Scoundrels is a quick read and is perfect for unwinding at the end of a long day.

Leslie A. Burton is a Professor of Legal Writing at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. She has taught classes ranging from bankruptcy law to United Nations law in three different countries.

Jill Breslau Recommends: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum

Every time I reread a page of it, I am humbled, awed and inspired by The Diaries of Etty Hillesum (Pocket, 1991). The pages chronicle two years in the life of a Jewish teacher and writer who lived in Amsterdam. Sent to a transit camp, then to Auschwitz concentration camp, Etty perished in November 1943. Her ability to see goodness in the midst of the Holocaust reflects the consciousness of a mystic. Etty was capable of both sensuality and spirituality, and her diaries describe relationships with friends, family, lovers and students that seem contemporary and real. She documents the personal impact of being compelled to wear a yellow star, forbidden travel by streetcar, excluded from shops and barred from parks. Most remarkable is how, as the pages of the diaries progress, her spiritual unfolding reveals itself. Etty writes from the transit camp: “Many feel that their love of mankind languishes at Westerbork because it receives no nourishment—meaning that people here don’t give you much occasion to love them…. But I keep discovering that there is no causal connection between people’s behavior and the love you feel for them. Love for one’s fellow man is like an elemental glow that sustains you … I myself feel so inexpressibly rich; I cannot explain it.” She writes this knowing that her death and that of her loved ones is imminent. When I reflect on her courage and capacity for embracing life in hellish conditions, my own complaints have nowhere to go. They simply have to dissolve into gratitude.

Jill Breslau is an attorney, mediator and psychotherapist, currently in the private practice of family law in Chevy Chase, MD. For the past 25 years, she has been engaged in exploring the relevance of spirituality to the practice of law and the happiness of lawyers.

About the Editor

Reading Minds editor Stephanie West Allen is a writer, speaker and mediator who presents seminars on harnessing brainpower for improved business development and conflict resolution. Formerly a lawyer, she blogs at idealawg.net and brainsonpurpose.com.

Reading Minds invites sage professionals to recommend favorite books on a chosen topic. If you have a book you’d like to share contact Stephanie West Allen via e-mail.