Books

The Power of Now

The Power of Now

The Power of Now is a straightforward introduction to what we in the western world refer to as “eastern philosophy,” or what I've come to recognize as a set of basic truths we can experience firsthand that nobody ever told us about. If you've never encountered the concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, or the thought that we might be something other than an individual brain or soul separate from all else, this book is a great place to start.

Sapiens

Sapiens

The subtitle “A Brief History of Humankind” describes the subject of this book quite well. However, it doesn't convey the fascination, philosophy, and impact contained in this bird’s eye view of human history. Rather than focus on what happened, Sapiens is about how and why our history unfolded the way it did. Armed with ingenious metaphors, wit, and an eye for the big picture, Yuval Noah Harari delivers what I’m tempted to call a ‘masterpiece’ with unparalleled clarity.

When Breath Becomes Air

By: Paul Kalanithi

At sixteen, I nearly died from a mosquito bite that resulted in this profound realization of time's value and the fragility of life. No event echoes louder through my days. Yet, I still often get caught up in trivial and lose sight of the remarkable opportunity of being. Reading When Breath Becomes Air is like going through that realization for the first time all over again.

The book's written by cancer-ridden neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, a gifted thinker and wordsmith dying as the medical career he put a decade of devoted preparation into is about to begin. It's a gift, wholeheartedly cast back to the living, from a dying man.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

 

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?
— Paul Kalanithi
I spent the next year in classrooms in the English countryside, where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realize that I was confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.
— Paul Kalanithi
Indeed this is how 99% of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job—not a calling.
— Paul Kalanithi
Had the confirmation of my fears—the CT scan, in the lab results, both showing not merely cancer but a body overwhelmed, nearing death—released me from the duty to serve, from my duty to patients, to neurosurgery, to the pursuit of goodness? Yes, I thought, and therein was the paradox: like a runner crossing the finish line only to collapse, without that duty to care for the ill pushing me forward, I became an invalid.
— Paul Kalanithi
“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering. Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best.
— Paul Kalanithi
During the pastor’s scripture reading, I suddenly found myself chuckling. It featured a frustrated Jesus whose metaphorical language receives little interpretation from his followers.
— Paul Kalanithi
We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena to manageable units. Science is based upon reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
— Paul Kalanithi
In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient sees another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and is still never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.
— Paul Kalanithi
… two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.
— Paul Kalanithi
Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
— Paul Kalanithi

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The Snow Leopard

By: Peter Matthiessen

The true account of a biological excursion into the Himalayas, outwardly searching for the illusive snow leopard, which becomes an overarching metaphor for the author's inward search for enlightenment. It's an adventure in the high mountains of philosophy—the outer and inner journey of a curious spirit interspersed with explanations of the most profound perceptions of the eastern religions.

The Snow Leopard deepened my awe for life, stoked my love of wandering through wilderness for both the external and internal experience, and reinforced my understanding of how little we need to be perfectly content.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Compare the wild, free paintings of the child with the stiff, pinched “pictures” these become as the painter notices the painting and tries to portray “reality” as others see it; self-conscious now, he steps out of his own painting and, finding himself apart from things, notices the silence all around and becomes alarmed by the vast significations of Creation. The armor of the “I” begins to form, the construction and desperate assertion of separate identity, the loneliness: “Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— Peter Matthiessen
The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing… He must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new wonderful paths… There are not a few who are called awake by the summons of the voice, whereupon they are at once set apart from the others, feeling themselves confronted with a problem about which the others know nothing. In most cases it is impossible to explain to the others what has happened, for any understanding is walled off by impenetrable prejudices. “You are no different from anybody else,” they will chorus, or “there’s no such thing,” and even if there is such a thing, it is immediately branded as “morbid.” … He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. “His own law!” everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is the law… The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization—absolute and unconditional—of its own particular law… To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being… he has failed to realize his life’s meaning.
The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way “Tao,” and likens it to the flow of water that moves irresistibly to one’s goal. To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one’s destination reached, one’s mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things.
— Carl Jung
Do note imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long… One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.
— Sufi Fable
As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of every day: the religious ceremony is life itself.
— Peter Matthiessen
And it is true that everywhere dangers and difficulties are exaggerated by the local people, if only as a good excuse for extortion or malingering: one must go oneself to know the truth.
— Peter Matthiessen
Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure interpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we come.
— Peter Matthiessen
But the courage-to-be, right here and now and nowhere else, is precisely what Zen, at least, demands: eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep! Zen has no patience with “mysticism,” far less the occult although its emphasis on the enlightenment experience (called kensho or satori) is what sets it apart from other regions and philosophies.
— Peter Matthiessen
You never enjoy the world alright, till the Sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
— Thomas Traherne
The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
— Peter Mathiessen
GS murmurs, “Unless it moves, we are not going to see it, not even on the snow—these creatures are really something.” With our binoculars, we study the barren ridge face, foot by foot. Then he says, “You know something? We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things we don’t see.” He seems startled by his own remark, and I wonder if he means this as I take it—that we have been spared the desolation of success, the doubt: is this really what we came so far to see? When I say, “That was the haiku—writer speaking,” he knows just what I mean, and we both laugh. GS strikes me as much less dogmatic, more open to the unexplained then he was two months ago. In Kathmandu, he might have been suspicious of this haiku, written on our journey by himself:

Cloud-men beneath loads.
A dark line of tracks in the snow.
Suddenly nothing.
— Peter Matthiessen

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Yes, the title is gimmicky. But there's a reason there's 25 million copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in circulation—the book is clock-full of profound, actionable wisdom. Approaching from an academic angle, Stephen Covey focused his studies on success literature of the past 200 years, looking for parallels and common practices, and wrote this book about his discoveries.

Walden

Walden

Walden is the account of Thoreau's two-year experiment in simple living on Walden Pond. One could do no better in describing its intent than he: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Desert Solitaire

By: Edward Abbey

One doesn't read Desert Solitaire for the tales of Edward Abbey's experiences in the American Southwest (though riveting), but rather for the insights and ideas that stemmed from two years as a ranger in Arches National Park and his journeys throughout the harsh desert.

Among story, humor, and descriptive prose, veins of philosophy are often encountered and run deep throughout the book. If you seek profound wilderness experiences, enjoy questioning cultural assumptions, or share Abbey's rebellious distaste for the number-obsessed system, you'll relish in these pages the way I did.

I'm living just a mile outside of Yellowstone National Park as I write this and would love to hand copies out at the entrance gate to the millions of confused tourists trying to experience wilderness from the inside of car, gift shops, and camera of their phone.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of that goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something maybe. Probably not.
A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
Unburdened by the necessity of devoting most of their lives to the production, distribution, sale and servicing of labor saving machinery, lacking proper recreational facilities, these primitive savages were free to do that which comes as naturally to men as making love...
What for? ‘In anticipation of future needs, in order to provide for the continued industrial and population growth of the Southwest.’ And in such an answer we see that it’s only the old numbers game again, the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession. They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque are doubled again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.
Protest alone will not halt the iron glacier moving upon us.
If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss.
If man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernatural. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of ancient dreams.
Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.
All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity.
In trying to isolate this peculiarity, if it exists at all and is not simply an illusion, we must beware of a danger well known to explorers of both micro—and the macrocosmic—that of confusing the thing observed with the mind of the observer, of constructing not a picture of external reality but simply a mirror of the thinker. Can this danger be avoided without falling into an opposite but related error, that of separating too deeply the observer and the thing observed, subject and object, and again falsifying our view of the world? There is no way out of these difficulties—you might as well try running Cataract Canyon without hitting a rock. Best to launch forth boldly, with or without life jackets, keep your matches dry, and prey for the best.

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