These are some of my favorite books. While you’ll find them in different sections of the bookstore, they all potentially fall under the heading of “self-help” in that they offer interesting insights and perspectives and challenge you to examine your own preconceived notions and discover more conscious ways of thinking.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Victor E. Frankl
This is a beautiful book. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist from Vienna and a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. The first half is a memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps that shaped his theories, and the second half is a description of his philosophy of logotherapy. The basic tenet of logotherapy is that the primary pursuit of mankind is not to chase pleasure and avoid pain, but to find meaning in our lives. He quotes Nietzschee throughout the book; “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” He states, “That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that he suffering has a meaning.” He explains that pain is unavoidable, but that we can choose how we confront that pain to transform it into meaningful insight and growth. He states, “…each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” He goes on to say, “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.” His motto is truly one of engaging an internal locus of control and taking personal responsibility for one’s perspective and attitude. Frankl’s masterpiece is example of how great wisdom and discovery can come out of terrible circumstances.
The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology
Jack Kornfield is one of my favorite authors. Few people can so well translate often esoteric Eastern ideas and apply them to Western life in a way that is both practical and tremendously profound. This is not his first book, but it is probably the most accessible to those who are interested in Eastern ideas and Buddhist philosophy and want to understand how those concepts apply to Western psychology and psychotherapy. He covers many central Buddhist themes, such as mindfulness, compassion, desire and letting go. I’ve always felt Western psychology and psychiatry do an adequate job of describing mental afflictions, but stop short of explaining the meaning behind why the mind does what it does. Kornfield’s description of Buddhist psychology takes over where traditional psychology leaves off, giving a universal perspective to the mind’s behavior and explaining how we can free ourselves from destructive states such as grasping, aversion and delusion. Each chapter ends with a meditation to help the reader put into practice the concepts he introduces. I’ve read this book cover-to-cover at least five times. It’s worth taking a look at.
The 4-Hour Work Week
I usually avoid hyped-up nonfiction with titles that sounds like scams, but this book actually has the content to live up to the hype. I recently came across this book and it’s already wildly changed my perspective on what’s possible with work and life. Ferriss describes his philosophy of working less (minimizing email, negotiating remote work agreements, outsourcing your busywork to India) so you can live more (take mini-retirements, travel the world, spend more time with family and friends). The book resonated with me because too often I see people underselling what they think is possible with their lives, and therefore never trying to achieve anything better than what they already have. Hate to break it to you, but no one ever achieved anything great by listening to their own demons telling them what is and isn’t possible. If you’re disillusioned by the traditional “American Dream” of getting a secure job, buying a big house, being forced to continuously work to pay your huge mortgage, and squirreling away small amounts each month with the dream of eventually retiring and enjoying your life in 30-40 years, then this book is for you. It was originally published in 2007, but a new expanded version came out in 2009 with more content, including case studies, updated resources, and templates for negotiating remote work agreements and eliminating email. Highly recommended.
Daniel Goleman, with the Dalai Lama
This is less a book and more a narrative written by Goleman of the meetings of the Mind and Life Institute that occurred in March of 2000. In attendance were several Eastern religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, as well as Western leaders in psychology, psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience and anthropology. These individuals from diverse backgrounds came together to initiate a dialogue on a common challenge of humanity: how to understand and counter destructive emotions. There is a fascinating discussion of destructive emotions as they are viewed from an Eastern and Western perspective; in the East, the main mental afflictions are considered to be 1) Attachment, 2) Anger, 3) Pridefulness, 4) Delusion, 5) Afflictive doubt (doubt that does not conform with reality) and 6) Afflictive views, whereas in the West we see 1) Low self-esteen, 2) Overconfidence, 3) Harboring negative emotions, and 4) Jealousy/envy as being the most damaging mental states. Most interesting to me, Goleman describes some of the first functional MRI studies done on Buddhist monks, demonstrating the astonishing transformative power of meditation on not just the mind, but the functional neurochemistry of the brain. It’s truly amazing. I believe that as more such research is done on the efficacy of mindfulness techniques, the more accepted and integrated these techniques will become in the traditional Western therapy model. As the Dalai Lama states in his introduction, “Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approached to the same end: seeking the truth.”
Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway
Susan Jeffers, PhD
This is another book that sounds lame on first read of the title, but is actually insightful and empowering. What Jeffers describes, which mirrors what I’ve found in my own life, is that venturing into new territory will inevitably bring up feelings of fear and doubt. The key, she points out, isn’t to eliminate fear, but rather to become aware of our internal fearful narrative and act in spite of it. By ignoring the negative narration, we become free to act and explore without being confined by fear of failure or disappointment. She does a good job of explaining how to more healthfully frame goals, so that instead of striving for external success (and therefore feeling let down when we don’t achieve what we thought we should) we can enjoy the process and opportunity for self-discovery and growth. If you are facing a difficult situation, such as the loss of a relationship or job, this book will offer a new perspective for coping with the fear and pain that arises. As Jeffers states in the forward, “…no matter what we are experiencing in life, we all feel fear, but fear doesn’t need to hold us back from living a rich and beautiful life.”