Learning to live a life of genius: Karla Maclaren shows us how to work with our emotions {by Laura Fraser}

We live in really interesting times. Men are getting more in touch with their feelings and reconnecting to the domestic world and family life and women are venturing out and flourishing in the business world. But actually it's not just the men touching base with the emotional world: we all are.

Here's a awesome book to help guide us through....

Maya Angelou writes a letter to her daughter: advice for us all

Maya Angelou gave birth to one son, but this book is her letter to her daughters of the world. In it she speaks to women who are "Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut... (who) are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered..."

It is a book that reads much like a series of blog posts in a way. Each chapter being but a couple of pages, sometimes less. Quality, not quantity.

Angelou advice touches, inspires and fills you with the passion to live your best life, to try: "to be a rainbow in someone else's cloud... (to) not complain... (to) make every effort to change things you do not like...(or) if you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking...(and so may) find a new solution."

Angelou writes in a wonderfully unstated way. Describing often horrific events, such as when her boyfriend abducted, beat and starved her in such such simple undramatised language that it is a lesson in itself in a way. To have experienced horror is one thing, to then share it with others so that they may draw some wisdom or insight from it: such as the power of faith or the resilience of a mother determined to find her daughter is something else. Angelou never asks for the readers pity, she asks instead for us to rise up, keep living, "tell the truth," stand up for yourself where necessary, see every stranger as a friend, be humble and have faith.



dancing in the dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison {by Laura Fraser}

Despite the fact that U Ba Khin had personally taught her, many wouldn't recognise Ruth as a legitamate teacher of the Vipassana method because she was seen to be too eccentric. So that whereas S.N Goenka, the official head of the Vipassana empire advocated complete stillness of the body during retreats, along with the extraction of all outer distractions in order to cultivate focus of the mind. Ruth encouraged movement and dance in her retreats and also her canine friend who would sit beside her as she talked.

Dancing in dharma ("dharma" means the teaching of Buddha) chronicles an extraordinary life. Born in Germany, Ruth was 17 when the Nazis invaded Germany, as a result she experienced much suffering and violence first hand - being raped by Russian soldiers during the war - and yet she didn't sink, she survived. Because of this Denison's story is one where instead of kowtowing to the trauma she experienced she instead embraced her "big power for living" and lived. A living that took her in 1956 to LA where she first worked as a cleaner for a drunk and a "contradictory fellow." But because of her resourcefulness kept on surviving. In 1959 she met Henry Denison and it was to be this man who became her husband and who introduced her to Buddhism - and to U Ba Khin. An aspect of Ruth's life that some can relate to perhaps; our relationships being the catalyst for introducing us to many new things in life, meditation and dharma being but two examples.

The book provides inspiration and insight to anyone with a practice, or to those wondering: what's in it for me? In many way's she championed mindfulness and acceptance as paths to alleviate suffering but also in order to "renew our consciousness" and experience greater joy in life.

"You cannot capture me," she tells Sandy Boucher her biographer, "...even in a retreat...everything has greater depth for me now. It puts me more in wonderment. I see, number one, that everything that we call problem or dissatisfaction, it is having only one cause, and that is the absence of mindfulness, of attention. I don't see anymore bad people or great people, or (ask) how could they do this? It's just the unawareness actualising itself. There's always the absence of your higher faculty which is to be the ultimate authority, the only effective authority, when that comes through."

Denison passed away on the 26th February of this year and will be remembered in many ways as a free spirit who cared deeply about others and also dharma. 

Below is an excerpt from the book where Ruth talks how her practice helped her. Maybe it can serve as inspiration for the rest of us:

"...the mind, it has something to do with absorption, where the mind holds itself in the concentration, you don't concentrate anymore, and there is this knowing faculty coming in, so the mind knows itself where it is concentrated, where it is focused, and even that loses itself, it is more a spaciousness where you know you are the conduit for it, and you stay in that..."

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Donald Miller dropping the act, finding true intimacy and the work of getting Scary Close with the people in our lives

And so Miller explains how in order to get the praise he so craved, he would seclude himself in 'splendid isolation' each winter in a remote cabin far away from everyone he cared about so that he could write another best selling book. And then he meets Betsy a woman who because she is unimpressed by his success and money forces him to take a closer look at himself. If she is not interested in his wit and brilliance – what will it take for him to connect to her? As their relationship progresses, in a completely different fashion to his previous ones, i.e. it takes time for them to fall in love and come together, he finds himself looking at his life anew: what logic is there in taking himself so far away from the woman he loves in order to write a book whose success he believes will be the only “reason” she has to love him.

And so he decamps to Onsite a place that “provides therapeutic and personal growth workshops and intensives that address core, underlying issues, that keep individuals, couples and families stuck in dysfunctional patterns.”As well as snap shots of his time there the book is filled with encounters with some of Miller’s friends who show up along the way offering him guidance and wisdom which lends a parabalesque feeling to Scary Close. For Miller is a Christian and his faith is big and active and informs his every move and as a result the G word is mentioned liberally. 

Americans wear their faith loudly and proudly. In the UK people are much more resitent about sharing their religion; religion being an awfully private subject. But there is something interesting about the unabashed way that Miller talks about Jesus and God. The image conjured of Miller's God is of the all American hero - no task is too small, if it means it'll make a difference to another person's life. Support each other. Believe in each other. To this end there is a  All characters mentioned have wisdom to impart and Miller is the lone hero wondering through looking for redemption and finding it in Betsy. Or rather in her refusal to be swept away by everything that he has invested himself in believing counts.

Money... is it cut out to be all that we think?

Miller writes with honesty about the pressure of making money, quoting a Billy Joel song that resonates with him:

“Making money isn’t easy

And it sure won’t make you happy

So I think it’s funny

We’re so concerned with making money.”

And yet he can't quite come to believe, a belief that he probably has a fair bit of company in the rest of us, that those that love him, love him for more then his success. Which is a question we can all relate to perhaps: why is it so hard for to believe that when we take away the job titles and houses, and roles and success that we, naked and vulnerable, hearts beating are enough?  

The beauties...

Miller writes that the world of emotions is not a comfortable place for him to hang out and goes as far to say that he’s not sure it’s a place where men really should be hanging out and yet he writes with growing assurance and confidence about what he wants to share. Which is perhaps why I am more partial to the later part of the book, because it is where Miller gets more specific. He also gets braver.

Because despite the fact that throughout the book morals seem to be a dish best served up straight, Miller comes across as someone you’d like to meet and sit and chat with. There is something of the Kerouac spirit in him: an American writer marveling at the miracle of being, in all her glorious simplicity. But it is the final pages of the book where Miller emphasizes his most compelling points: 

1.   Our partners are not here to “complete” us


2.   We need to stop attempting “to squeeze the Jesus out of each other” and recognize that that longing that we all carry within ourselves can only be fulfilled through our relationship to God.

Miller’s final point is a powerful and rare one: we cannot and should not demand that our partner fill this God hole. According to Miller it is only when we die and are reunited with God that this wholeness happens. But if we look past the religious language used, he’s saying something that each of us can understand: our partners are not meant to fill our holes. Nor we theirs. (check out Jungian author Robert Johnson’s writing on this). The only person that can really take care of ourselves is ourselves. And if we can commit to the work, because it is damn hard work, of becoming whole ourselves, rather then seeking it through our relationships or careers, the fulfiment that we long for, may materialize more swiftly then we dreamed possible.  

Miller ends the book with a scene from the rehearsal dinner the night before his wedding to Betsy. He tells the crowd that he and his wife do not “believe that they complete each other.” He describes the confusion that is evident on their friends faces when they hear these words: are the couple breaking up? (Miller concedes that it had sounded better in his head). But he goes on to explain to their friends what he means. Which is something precious and not often talked about in our world: us humans are not meant to be completing each other. Nor sorting out each other’s pains. This task is ours and ours alone. All we can do in our partnerships is stand side by side as we offer “comfort” to our partners as they experience the full tilt of their “longings.” And we stand beside them “side by side.” This is intimacy Miller argues. Learning to give space to, without trampling on or prying into the inner world of our partners in order to find peace of mind for ourselves. It’s also freakin’ hard.

 If you are specific on style then maybe this book won’t be your thing - Miller's style is conversationally confessional. He is more interested, I'm guessing, in the content, the story, the message then getting lost on matters of style which makes the chapters of Scary Close read more like a series of blog excerpts. Which is not uncommon in our post ‘God is dead world,’ where in absence of a local priest to run to to confess our sins, we type them out to the world instead: Dear readers, forgive me for I have sinned…. 

Scary Close is Miller up close and personal, sharing his sins – his trampling and using of girlfriends along with his empty mentions of the M word even though he had no intention to marry them but just wanted to see where they were with him and so on. But there is something inspiring about the content. It’s a book I’ve been affected and no doubt influenced by. Reading the stories Miller shares makes me want to be a better person… And such is the way that he and his friends interpret the word of God that church increasingly doesn't seem like such a bad place after all. 

Is it for you?

There will be some who won’t like this book but then is there a book that everyone does agree on? Is there a human? But it’s the content – that we must find our wholeness within ourselves, rather then seek it through our relationships or work – that needs championing in our society. After all we mammals are not too dissimilar to one another: we all hold the same hopes to be loved and the same fears of being rejected. And as such it is so easy to shoot down someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and though there be other ways to expose the vision of your heart whether through a painting, sculptor, your family or small acts of kindness there’s something potent about a book served up straight and simple. As the father of a friend said whilst giving the eulogy at her funeral last week: “if we are not living on the edge, we are taking up too much space.” Maybe learning to share our hearts more with others may just be that edge…


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Having faulty ears, the written word is a relief for me. In fact if I had my way, we would all wear a digital subtitle necklace so that people like me whose ears don’t work that well, can actually hear more of what others say. Hence the appeal of a book: nothing need be missed.  Books teach me, inspire me and reassure me -  I am a great lover of them. In fact, if I go on a meditation retreat, along with laughing out loud and hugs, it is words that I miss most. Not the speaking of them, but the reading of them. For words have brought something to my world, that at times has been rather absent: clarity. Consequently, they have taught me much of what I don’t know. 

And whereas my ears can struggle to make sense of what people say, books give me a second chance at understanding. And so I am grateful to them and the writers that write them and their place in our world. The only challenge is that there being so many wonderful books to read – where to start? And so I tend to read about 3 or 4 books at the same time, leaving them throughout the house for some books seem to have a time of day when they come most alive. To this end, there are books by my bed to read before I fall asleep, books on the kitchen table where I write, a book in my handbag for when I use the tube and should a moment ever appear when I am with my daughter and have a moment or two, one that is placed rather wistfully in the pram, just in case... 

So, here’s a slice of my book shelf where a new book review will be added each week. And twice a year - a Read It Under The Sun list published in June for the summer and Best Books For Gifts published in December for Christmas. I hope you enjoy.