Lion’s Roar January 2024 Book Reviews

How do we embrace life with equanimity and skillful means? Jessica Little recommends new books that are helping to show the way.

Jessica Little
2 January 2024

Unshakeable: Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Collective Awakening (Parallax) is a guide to cultivating stability of mind and resiliency. Author Jo-Ann Rosen is a mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist who worked for thirty years in marginalized communities in the U.S., Israel, and the West Bank. She asserts that Buddhist practice, as it’s understood in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, offers us a firm foundation to face the challenges of our times, be it individually, in communities, or in the world at large. Rosen provides many neuro-informed exercises, including practices to help with self-regulation, coregulation, and forming and fostering a sangha, or community. Rosen also provides a section with tips for those who run or hope to run a sangha.

The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life brings dukkha, suffering. In Embodied Self-Awakening: Somatic Practices for Trauma Healing and Spiritual Evolution (W. W. Norton & Company), trauma therapist Nityda Gessel asserts that all human beings are affected by trauma, a fundamental form of suffering. A former dancer, Gessel uses somatic embodiment exercises to help readers work through their trauma. She encourages readers to face their pain rather than turn away from it. If we do not learn how to sit with our personal suffering, she says, the pain stays with us; trauma is held in the body and can make us sick. The book draws on Buddhist meditation techniques, the indigenous African wisdom of the author’s ancestors, somatic psychotherapy, and modern neuroscience.

When Sojun Mel Weitsman was a young man, studying with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, he asked what nirvana was. “Seeing one thing through to the end,” Roshi answered. For many years, as an important figure in the West Coast Buddhist movement of the sixties and seventies, Weitsman was regularly asked to write a book, but not until he came close to the end of his life did he start to jot down memories and collect his lectures in book form. As he put it, he was finally “in that kind of stage,” ready to see his life’s work through to the end. Seeing One Thing Through: The Zen Life and Teachings of Sojun Mel Weitsman (Counterpoint) was edited by his successor at the Berkeley Zen Center, Hozan Alan Senauke. Weitsman died peacefully at home in 2021. He left behind thirty dharma heirs and hundreds of students. 

In A Fire Runs Through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis (Shambhala), Susan Murphy uses koans to help readers explore their feelings about climate change and find ways to respond to this crisis with both equanimity and skillful means. “The sharp, arresting crises of the mind that lie within Zen koans have something of great value to bring to the impasse we are all now facing in the loss of climate settings to which life and civilization is currently adapted,” writes Murphy. “The not-knowing mind that is needed to open up koans also opens a treasury of resources for facing the climate crisis.” Murphy, who spent her early childhood near the Great Barrier Reef and the Gondwana Rainforests in Australia, integrates Australian Aboriginal wisdom into her text, and draws parallels between Zen teachings and the Australian Aboriginal concepts of country, dreaming, and songline.

Reality and Wisdom: Exploring the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Heart Sutra (Wisdom) is by Harvard University’s Buddhist chaplain Lama Migmar Tseten. While the book is highly detailed, it’s based on transcripts of talks, so the tone is relatively informal and accessible. The first half of the book presents the four noble truths, Buddhism’s central teaching. Many of us are already familiar with them, but by repeatedly studying them and their corresponding aspects, our practice deepens and becomes truly transformative, says Migmar Tseten. The second half of the book delves into the Heart Sutra, a beloved Mahayana Buddhist text that Tseten says is primarily about right, or wise, view. “The more we study and practice,” explains Migmar Tseten, “the more we begin to see with our inner wisdom eye.”

How much of our lives do we spend feeling like there’s something wrong with us, and trying to fix our fundamentally flawed selves? Meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach teaches us how to break this “trance of unworthiness” and cultivate compassion for oneself and the world. Twenty years ago, her seminal book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Random House) was released. Now, there’s an updated anniversary edition. Brach addresses issues such as workaholism, addiction, loneliness, and trauma, providing a rich collection of case studies, personal stories, and pithy quotes from poets and philosophers. New to this edition is a discussion of the RAIN technique (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nurture), which fosters both mindfulness and compassion. Brach also presents a “light RAIN” technique, to be employed when time is scarce, as well as various collaborative meditation practices. 

Tara, a female buddha, is an ancient tantric deity whose origins lie in both Buddhist and Hindu goddess traditions. She has twenty-one different manifestations, each associated with a specific color, facial expression, symbol, mantra, and so forth. These manifestations include the Swift Heroine, who removes obstacles, and the Melodious One, who’s associated with music, art, science, and eloquence. Scholar Chandra Easton’s Embodying Tara: Twenty-One Manifestations to Awaken Your Innate Wisdom (Shambhala) unpacks the various Tara manifestations and offers examples of how they’re embodied by real-life women. Harriet Tubman, for example, represents Tara the Swift Heroine, who’s described as protecting beings from fear and liberating them from suffering, and Greta Thunberg represents Tara Who Brings About Auspiciousness, who’s said to pacify natural disasters and bring the five elements into balance. The book includes a deity yoga practice for each manifestation of Tara, allowing readers to access their own enlightened nature.

True story: while convalescing, a writer by the name of Elisabeth Tova Bailey was given a potted plant, only to discover that there was a snail living in the flowerpot. She spent her time in bed, listening to the creature nibble leaves, and this kept her spirit alive during her illness. This is one of the many evocative anecdotes from In Praise of Listening (Bauhan). The book is a meandering, meditative exploration of the act of listening by Lion’s Roar contributor Christian McEwen. She seamlessly weaves together stories and wisdom from her own life, literature, Buddhism, and various other fields. The takeaway is that listening is at the heart of mindful living. In a world that’s growing noisier each day, McEwen reminds us that listening deeply is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed.

Jessica Little

Jessica Little is an English teacher and freelance writer who lives in Nova Scotia.