“Mindful of Race” by Ruth King

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Subtitle: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out

In the Introduction, Ruth King shares the effects of race on her own body and her own family as a Black woman living in the south of the US. Insight meditation has helped her manage the effects of racism, and she has created trainings that help others cure the heart disease of racism.

Part 1, Diagnosis, analyzes racism. Her writing is direct and clear. Here is how racism affects Black people. Here is how it affects white people. We have dominant and subordinated identities, like a white woman who is also chronically ill, or a Jewish person who passes as white. Here is how we can begin to get honest with ourselves and others about race.

Part 2, Heart Surgery, teaches the basics of mindfulness meditation. Here is how to invite the body to settle. Here are many specific phrases to say silently to ourselves or others in metta (kindness) meditation. For example, “When you feel deep sorrow, hopelessness, and despair, I will stay with you. I will breathe with you.”

Part 3, Recovery, gives tools for creating racial affinity discussion groups and making progress in dislodging racism from our hearts. Throughout the book, she gives examples of how listening deeply and making time for our emotional responses allows us to move through them and reach our vulnerable hearts.

Unlike The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee which moves very slowly and seems to be trying to convince skeptical white people, this book lays out the truth and assumes people will do the work to absorb it.

Highly recommended.

Ruth King’s website with more about her Mindful of Race training program.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Bodyfulness” by Christine Caldwell, PhD

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Subtitle: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life

Recommended to me by: Darryl C

“Bodyfulness” is the embodied version of mindfulness, presence without leaving the body behind. Caldwell brings in Tibetan Buddhism, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and her own experiences with movement and presence. The different modalities felt awkwardly pushed together in places, with superficial coverage of anatomy and neurology. Perhaps she came to the topic from an academic perspective and forgot to talk with bodyworkers and others who make a lifelong practice of body awareness.

There are practices to try out in each section to explore body awareness.

8 principles of bodyfulness:

  1. oscillation – movement through a range, with a preference to stay mostly in the middle of the range. Our cells, our organs, our whole body, all have oscillations.
  2. balance – pausing, like balancing on one leg, and also being centered, not getting stuck at the far end of an oscillation
  3. feedback loops – sensing and moving, trading information back and forth. Also cross-connections between different systems.
  4. energy conservation – habits conserve energy by not having to figure them out every time. Movement plans (such as reaching, or standing) do the same thing at a body level.
  5. discipline – practice leads to grace. “Use it or lose it.” This was a brief section and felt grafted on.
  6. change and challenge – our bodies change under the challenge of new needs or a new environment
  7. contrast through novelty – when something is new, it gets our attention and perhaps elicits change.
  8. associations and emotions – guide our actions, memories, experiences.

4 themes

  1. breathing – this book, about awareness of the body, says that gravity does the work of the outbreath. Which moves up. No. The diaphragm relaxing up into a dome shape lets the outbreath move without additional effort. This error alone made me lose all confidence in this book.
  2. sensing – add kinesthesia to the usual 5 senses. Balance the amount of sensory awareness, and the amount of attention inwardly or outwardly.
  3. moving – motor plans and motor development, probably from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Some basic exercises to address trauma held in the body.
  4. relating – borders, boundaries, and coregulation.

Bodyful Applications included material on oppression, activism, and bodily authority. It also explores the contrast of bodylessness: ignoring the body, seeing the body as a problem or project, hating the body, and making one’s own or other people’s bodies wrong.

Unfortunately there is an ongoing theme of “curb your addictions” and “fix your eating habits” in the examples. It seems strange to have judgmental examples in a book about body awareness and acceptance. Also there is a non-ironic positive use of “trickle-down economics.”

This is such a great topic, addressed in an oddly skewed way, as if it’s trying to match up modalities that don’t quite fit. It has interesting information, but I can’t trust any of it when basic facts about breathing are simply wrong. It would be a good start for someone who hasn’t thought about body awareness at all and needs a step by step introduction to the idea.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Subtitle: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Recommended to me by: Amy Bennett

A set of essays loosely tied together in chronological order, with themes of sweetgrass and braiding all the way through. Each essay braids together personal memoir, Native American (specifically Potawatomi) ways of living, and colonialist ways of living.

Potawatomi ways developed over generations as people saw what works to live in balance with nature, as a part of nature. Humans are considered the young ones, the newcomers, learning from their more experienced plant and animal family members.

Sweetgrass is harvested in specific ways. Not the first plant you find, because that might be the only one. Take only what you need, up to half of the plants there, either by cutting half of each bunch, or taking whole bunches. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Botany, and one of her PhD students showed in a set of careful experiments that sweetgrass thrives when harvested this way, and fails to propagate if it is left completely unharvested. Humans and sweetgrass have a cooperative, collaborative partnership.

White colonialists disastrously interrupted Native American ways of living by stealing Native Americans’ lands and pushing them into entirely different ecosystems, and by taking their children to residential schools and forcibly preventing them from speaking their own languages or practicing their spirituality. The Potawatomi people and other tribes are gathering together the fragments of what remains, and braiding them together anew.

The book ends on a hopeful note, that perhaps enough of us will turn toward collaborative, cooperative ways of living that we will not entirely destroy the ecosystems of this green earth. Fitting right in with that hope, the current Great Pause of this pandemic gives us time to consider what we want to add back in to our lives, and what we want to leave behind to allow cleaner skies, safer streets, and more sustainable lives.

I read this as an ebook, because that’s what I can get from the library in this time of pandemic. It’s an odd way to read a book so rooted in physical experience, and I would have much preferred to have a physical book in my hands. This is a long book that wants to be appreciated slowly, essay by essay, section by section, exploring how all the parts fit together to support each other.

Highly recommended!

Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’ interview by James Yeh, May 23, 2020

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Outside the Charmed Circle” by Misha Magdalene

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Subtitle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice

Recommended to me by: Sam L-G

Misha Magdalene (they/them pronouns) asserts that magic is queer. In writing by turns academic and conversational, they explore viewing magic through the lenses of gender and sexuality.

They describe their experience with growing up queer, as well as their gradual introduction to magical practice, including the whisper networks that say, “Avoid this established teacher, he’s creepy.” Of course Misha went and found out for themselves, fortunately without being harmed.

They talk about consent, and how important it is in matters both sexual and magical, and definitely in the mix of both. As a practitioner of the Feri tradition, they directly address some of the deep issues with consent in that tradition.

They list some gender-queer and non-heterosexual gods and goddesses in various flavors of paganism.

In the end, magic is queer because it is non-mainstream, not the default religion, outside a lot of people’s lived experiences.

The book includes practical writing and magical exercises to explore the covered topics.

Highly recommended as an interesting, eclectic, and principled exploration of gender, sexuality, and magical practice.

Misha Magdalene’s blog at Patheos, Outside the Charmed Circle explores some of the same ideas. There are posts that forthrightly challenge the pagan community to address its problems with racism, homophobia, and lack of consent, sexual predation and abuse.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“My Grandfather’s Blessings” by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

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Subtitle: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

Recommended to me by: Robyn Posin

Rachel Naomi Remen writes about wisdom, meaning, connection, grief, compassion, and how to live with authenticity in a series of vignettes from her life and the lives of her patients. She works with people dying of cancer, and their grieving survivors. Some stories are about her childhood conversations with her Orthodox Rabbi grandfather, a wise and gentle man. Some are about her own struggle with Crohn’s disease. She was a pioneer in medical school and in practice as a woman and someone living with chronic illness. She was a pioneer again talking about the mind/body connection and the need for healing rather than (or in addition to) curing people.

Many of the stories touched something in me and made me cry, perhaps out of longing for the kinds of connection and meaning she describes. I like that she says service is between equals, people recognizing and supporting the wholeness in each other, as opposed to helping or fixing, which requires one person to be less than another.

Recommended as a dose of wisdom and hope.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Belonging” by Toko-pa Turner

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Subtitle: Remembering Ourselves Home

The gorgeous, inclusive cover and introduction/dedication to this book grabbed me.

For the rebels and the misfits, the black sheep and the outsiders. For the refugees, the orphans, the scapegoats, and the weirdos. For the uprooted, the abandoned, the shunned and invisible ones.

May you recognize with increasing vividness that you know what you know.

May you give up your allegiances to self-doubt, meekness, and hesitation.

May you be willing to be unlikeable, and in the process be utterly loved.

May you be impervious to the wrongful projections of others, and may you deliver your disagreements with precision and grace.

May you see, with the consummate clarity of nature moving through you, that your voice is not only necessary, but desperately needed to sing us out of this muddle.

May you feel shored up, supported, entwined, and reassured as you offer yourself and your gifts to the world.

May you know for certain that even as you stand by yourself, you are not alone.

With poetic language and myths and Jungian dreamwork, Toko-pa Turner tells her own story of not-belonging and weaves a wider net of strategies to belong better. There is an Outcast archetype who can visit our dreams, and whose patterns we can follow. We can open our hearts to our own pain, and be willing to be more vulnerable (“woundable”) to others.

Her Black Sheep Gospel resonated for me. Adopt your rejected qualities. Venerate your too-muchness. Send out your signals of originality. Go it alone until you are alone with others.

In a lot of this book, I heard, “Try harder! Work harder! Get out of your own way!” While that may be valid advice, I’ve tried a lot of things it advises. It does also touch on fallow time and letting go of connections that no longer work well.

The author is writing from a place when things are going well for her, so she describes her steps in that direction and then prescribes them for others. While I’m glad she landed where she did, I’m not sure it’s so deterministic as all that. She talks both about divine guidance and about taking action on your own behalf. Yes, when things go well, it looks like a mix of those things led you there. A mix of those things can lead people to any number of places, not all of them positive.

The book was published in 2017, so she does acknowledge increasing environmental and political disaster throughout the book. She advises living closer to the earth, returning to more indigenous ways, without noting that all 7.6 billion of us can’t do that at the same time.

Her description of the problem resonated with me. Her solutions, not as much. Recommended especially if you already do dreamwork.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Choosing Gentleness” by Robyn L. Posin, Ph.D.

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Subtitle: Opening Our Hearts to All the Ways We Feel and Are in Every Moment

Recommended to me by: reading Robyn Posin’s website for the last 15+ years. Also I was an advance reviewer for this book.

This is a collection of line drawings and wise words that have appeared on Robyn Posin’s website over the years, along with some more recent essays. It was lovely to see the vibrant drawings of dancing, struggling, resting women and the encouraging words gathered in one place.

Robyn Posin’s work has been a big inspiration and support over the years. Most of her messages resonate powerfully for me. At the same time, I’m still arguing with a few of them.

The idea that our love-starved little ones inside can only get love from us, not from anyone outside us now that we are no longer children makes a lot of sense, and I still have a “Yes, but…” response. What about adult attachment? What about friendship, and care? I’m not saying she’s wrong, but something in me is still hoping.

I love the parts about accepting all our feelings, not just the warm fuzzy ones, and the firm rejection of the idea that acknowledging our anger just brings more of the same into our lives. Feelings are meant to live and move through, not be shoved down and frozen in place.

In this book, I found a message that I had remembered all this time, but not been able to find again on her website: “It does not matter whether how we are in the moment is born from our woundings or our wholeness.” What a revolutionary, liberating message! Even if we are “broken” in some way because of abuse or trauma, that’s how it is. We still have to exist in the world, with both our damage and our wholeness.

Living in the thinnest slice of now and trusting that my future self will be able to handle my future circumstances has also been a liberating idea.

Another idea I struggle with is that the Grandmothers (or other higher/deeper powers) are guiding my life. I’d love to feel so cherished and protected, but life seems too random, and too catastrophic for a lot of people, to believe that someone is in charge of what happens to each individual.

Highly recommended as a comforting and thought-provoking compilation of Robyn Posin’s many years of healing and helping others heal.

Available at Amazon.

“The Wild Edge of Sorrow” by Francis Weller

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Subtitle: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Recommended to me by: Kristin

This is a wise, kind, perceptive, affirming, healing book about grief. It warmly includes childhood triggering, shame, and shared grief for the planet among the burdens that we all carry. It emphasizes the importance of both a village to share our grief, and the capacity to turn toward our grief with compassion when we are alone.

“Turning toward the suffering and into the marrow of our grief with the attention and attunement of a caring adult helps to dilute and transmute the trauma and shame into the kind of sensitivity that can inform our compassion for others.”

The writing is lyrical, poetic, and includes well-chosen poems sprinkled through the book.

Francis Weller recommends group rituals, or perhaps solitary ones, as an anodyne for grief. One simple one is to put a small stone for each grief into a large bowl of water. When everyone is done, the water is given to a plant for nourishment, and the stones are returned to a river or lake or ocean, or buried in the earth, to be washed clean again.

A central part of grief work is to have a daily practice in meditation or something similar that allows us to hold space with ourselves rather than becoming overwhelmed.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist” by Sylvia Boorstein

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Subtitle: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist

Recommended to me by: a friend

Sylvia Boorstein is a Buddhist meditation teacher who grew up Jewish and who came to keep kosher and belong to a synagogue as an adult in addition to her Buddhist practice. As a secular Jew who meditates every morning, I was very interested to see how she mixes the two paths. The book shares how she came to each aspect of her faiths, and how they nourish her.

She likes Buddhism for its practical tools to manage anxiety and grief. She says repeatedly that a calm mind is a compassionate one, and greed and anger melt away. She likes Judaism for its ties to her roots, for community, and for the comfort she finds in its forms of prayer. She ties them together by interpreting Jewish scripture as carrying the same messages as Buddhist thought.

She addresses one of my main objections to Jewish services – the patriarchy embedded in the stories of the Torah – by saying it doesn’t bother her. She just reads around it. Glad that works for her.

Overall, an interesting overview of Buddhism, Judaism, and Sylvia Boorstein’s journey with both.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Active Hope” by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone

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Subtitle: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy

This book, published in 2012, is a practical manual on how to live in challenging times. It has only become more necessary since it first came out.

It starts with three stories of our times, Business As Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Great Turning. The book is written to those with enough privilege to choose Business As Usual, with encouragement to avoid the despair of staying in the Great Unraveling of runaway climate change, and choose the Great Turning toward sustainable lifestyles instead. Oddly, the book does not address privilege directly at all. It does look like they’re moving toward more awareness of oppression.

Joanna Macy leads workshops in the Work That Reconnects, a four step process. It is rooted in gratitude, grows into honoring our pain, blooms into seeing with new eyes, and creates seeds of going forth, taking action. These steps can happen in the span of a lifetime, and in the span of a few minutes. We go around the steps repeatedly, in a spiral. More about the spiral, with a great image.

Gratitude reconnects us with the web of life that supports us, and reminds us that we do not live in isolation. We are part of that interconnected web, part of the living Earth.

Honoring our pain and the pain of the earth allows that energy to move through us, and to move us toward action. It also gives permission to those around us to acknowledge their own pain, and connects us with each other in witnessing and giving/receiving support.

When we shift into gratitude and acknowledge our pain, we can shift to a larger perspective and connect both with our inner witness self, and with the voice of our community and the earth. We can start to see our power-within and power-with, instead of staying in hopelessness or power-over.

The seeds of action come from that wider perspective, and from opening to visions of how we want to live and how we can get there. We ask what wants to move through us. We move in the direction of our strengths, and treat our enthusiasm as a renewable resource that needs maintenance. We reach out for support.

We live with uncertainty. We don’t know whether things will turn toward being better or worse, so we lean our small weight in the direction of better. We gradually (or suddenly) move toward living more sustainably and happily.

Recommended for finding a way forward in these difficult times. This book is based in environmental activism, but is more generally applicable. It does point out that anyone living in the story of the Great Turning is an activist, whether we go to protests or not. No matter what the ultimate outcome is, I’d rather live day to day incrementally supporting the world I want to see, rather than contributing to the disaster by ignoring it or despairing.

Available at Powell’s Books.