It’s a bit funny to be taking advice on romance from a monk, but let’s keep an open mind! Here are my take-aways:

True love

The word “love” gets used so much, in so many ways in our culture. It’s confusing! It’s helpful to differentiate “true love” from all the other usages of the word.

The “ingredients” of true love are:

  • understanding – the earnest desire to clearly see the reality of your lover
  • joy – the earnest desire to bring joy to your lover
  • compassion – the earnest desire to alleviate suffering in your lover

I find the above breakdown super-useful. “Love yourself” has become such a common phrase these days, but what do we mean by that? Well, we can look at the “ingredients” above and apply them to ourselves. What if we had a commitment to giving ourselves understanding (e.g. through mindfulness, journaling, conversations with supportive folks), joy (through activities that make us come alive), and compassion. Then we would love ourselves. When we know how to do this for ourselves, it’s easier to do this for others.

Once you can deal with your emotions and handle the difficulties of your daily life, then you have something to offer to another person. The other person has to do the same thing. Both people have to heal on their own so they feel at ease in themselves; then they can become a home for each other. Otherwise, all that we share in physical intimacy is our loneliness and suffering.

Three types of intimacy

There are three types of intimacy: emotional, spiritual, and physical. They are inter-related.

We shouldn’t be against sex, but we also shouldn’t confuse it with love. True love doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex. We can love perfectly without sex and we can have sex without love.

I just finished The Overstory, an incredible book. It resonated with me deeply. And the writing was so beautiful that it made me proud to be a human being.

Here are few of my take-aways (spoiler alert):

Humans need a sense of purpose greater than themselves for energy, meaning, courage and direction.

The character Olivia is initially purposeless. She is barely passing her actuarial studies major, and her life is one of instant gratification: sex, drugs and rock and roll. A near-death experience reveals to her “beings of light” who inform her of her purpose. She goes from aimlessness to being:

…someone who’s sure that life has a need for her.

She looks at her college roommates, aimless just as she was, with new eyes:

Incredibly, they still believe in safety. They live as if shim and duct tape might hold them together. They become vulnerable in her eyes, and infinitely dear.

Purpose can be a healthy immortality project: even though you know you will die, there is solace in knowing your life has value in being part of a something bigger. For example, the character Dorothy wants children. For some time, this is her purpose. But when she is unable to conceive, she loses her purpose, and fills her time with distractions: first hobbies, then affairs.

Towards the end of the book, her husband suffers a severe stroke. As she takes care of him, they both develop a love of nature, a sense of purpose that is ever-accessible, and this brings her joy:

She flushes with excitement. More than excitement: purpose…She was just lost for a little while. All she needs to do is find herself. Find a cause. Something bigger than she is.

Another character, Neelay, creates a super-addictive online videogame. He becomes disillusioned with the game after a while, and decides to start building another game: Game B, if you will:

Imagine: a game with the goal of growing the world, instead of yourself.

Neelay tells his team. This notion of “growing the world instead of yourself” is the best definition of purpose that I’ve ever encountered.

Pain for the right reasons is better than pleasure for the wrong ones.

This quote, originally from Mark Manson, is embodied in the character Adam, who voluntarily goes to prison for life rather than ratting out his friends. Mark Manson talked about maturity happening when your value hierarchy becomes more focused on pursuing virtues, rather than chasing pleasure and avoiding pain.

When he is arrested by the FBI in his middle age for crimes he committed decades ago, Adam chooses loyalty, honor, and truth over his own self-interest. His perspective transcends his own ego:

The court sentences Adam Appich to two consecutive terms of seventy years each. The lenience shocks him. He thinks: seventy plus seventy is nothing. A black willow plus a wild cherry. He was thinking oak. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew.

The whole tree of life is valuable, not just the human branch.

The default wiring in human brains is to prioritize our own survival, reproduction and social dynamics above all else. Michael Pollan says that The Overstory “decenters the human as the source of all meaning and value.” It’s sort of a narrative antidote to our default wiring.

Take this quote, from the perspective of Adam:

Since his arrest — since beginning to think objectively again…he has begun to see that the dead woman was right: the world is full of welfares that must come even before your own kind.

Though initially you could think of the characters in the Overstory as environmentalists, the environmentalist/humanist dichotomy breaks down when you realize that humans are deeply dependent on all the other branches on the tree of life.

The problem begins with that word “world.” It means two such opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we can’t escape.

It’s easier think and feel for yourself when by yourself.

As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it in The Four Agreements, humans “cast spells on each other.” We all dream, at one point or another, of being free from these spells of shame and approval. There are entire books that try to help us in this, with titles like “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” and “What do YOU care what other people think?”

Adam makes his career as an academic psychologist out of studying the ways that other people keep us from seeing the truth. “Beliefs should not be considered delusional if they keep within societal norms,” is a sentence he reads, which inspires him to study a group of environmentalists who he initially thinks are delusional. Ironically, when he is removes himself from mainstream society to live atop a redwood tree with Olivia and her lover, he adopts their worldview: that all of life has value, not just human life.

Another character, Patricia, seems to have a natural ability to “not care what people think.” As she walks in the forest alone, she takes a break from marveling at the trees and thinks:

…Her frantic fellow mammals do make her smile: miracles on all sides, and still they need compliments to keep them happy.

Yet, when the scientific community rejects her theories about tree communication, and publicly shames her, she nearly commits suicide by toxic mushroom ingestion. No matter how independent-minded we are, we are also fundamentally impressionable.

True wealth, spiritual richness, comes from presence, the ability to appreciate life’s simple things in “the holy moment.”

A meditation teacher of mine recently shared his view that presence should be cherished above all else in life: presence isn’t just some “nice” state, it is the major thing to value in life, more important than any excitement, task or project.

Richard Powers agrees:

You have a right to be present. A right to attend. A right to be astonished.

…Real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in the breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.

Stories, not reason, are what can change people’s beliefs.

Richard Powers is conscious of the fact that most everything we do these days, whether it’s travelling by plane to attend climate change conferences, or printing novels about trees on paper, has an environmental cost. However, he realizes that sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, as the saying goes.

What omelet is he making? The omelet of a more ecologically-attuned humanity. And how can this omelet be made? Through the telling of better stories:

The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

What do all good stories do? They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.

Thank you, Richard Powers, for killing my human-centered-ness a little. You are making the trees proud.

Ursula LeGuin is awesome at world building. She layers so many interesting details into a pastiche that really makes you think. My main takeaway from The Disposessed is that utopia doesn’t exist. There will always be some kind of problems that crop up, due to human nature. The types of problems will be different in different societies, but there will always be problems.

To me, this is a helpful worldview, because I think comparing the present world to a utopia is psychologically unhealthy. It’s a form of perfectionism. Perfect doesn’t exist.

We can still work to make the world a better place AND laugh to ourselves and say, “Of course human society is imperfect. Always was and always will be.”

In the book, there are two planets, each with its own society:

  • Urras is capitalistic and very unequal, with a large underclass that does the menial labor. In this world, you can fly to great heights, but can also reach very low lows.
  • Anarres is anarcho-communistic and equal, but with the side effect of suppressing individual achievement. There is a stultifying groupthink where if you are not down with the mainstream ideology, you are shamed as a “propertarian.”

My family immigrated to the USA from the USSR, kind of like the main character in the book immigrated (for a time) from Anarres to Urras.

My favorite quote:

To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is like saying if I pull a weight on this pulley, it will lift a weight on that one.

Two Brothers was the first book I read in a book club with my grandma! I enjoyed the way Ben Elton showed, through ample historical detail, how the Nazis turned up the temperature gradually, and like the story of the frog in the pot of water, many Jews did not leave. Also, I enjoyed the way the character of Stone was stuck in his past love that was not reciprocal. It was only when he found this out that he could move on with his life. Reminds me of the title story in Yalom’s Love’s Executioner.

Top 2 takeaways (spoiler alert):

  1. There is no hierarchy to suffering. All beings suffer: remembering this helps to open your heart. Eger tells of two patients she saw, back to back. The first is a woman crying because her new Cadillac is the wrong color. The second is a single mother, struggling with raising children and working full-time. Both are suffering. Eger states that even though the first lady might seem to be ridiculous, she in fact didn’t do the things she wanted to in life (she lived the privileged life her family wanted, marrying rich and starting a family instead of pursuing her own education) and the tears that are seemingly about the Cadillac are in fact tears of deep regret. In another part of the book, Eger sees a kid who is in a Neo-Nazi group. She tells herself: “Find your inner bigot.” In this way, she does not wall off from him, and is able to access her own compassion. It would be very easy for Eger to identify with her past as an Auschwitz survivor and say: “F— these people, this spoiled rich lady and this neo-Nazi.” She doesn’t. I found that to be very inspiring.
  2. Awareness of of our own subconscious patterns is the first step in healing. Eventually, this awareness can help us make new choices our lives. Eger goes through decades of her life carrying a massive psychological burden: she feels guilty that she killed her mother. Eger depicts a scene that determined her entire life: she stood with her sister and mother in the Auschwitz sorting line. When Dr. Mengele pointed to her mother and asked her who that was, she said, truthfully, that this was her mother. This choice led the swift murder of her mother, because, unbeknownst to Eger, older women were sent immediately to the gas chambers. In the end of the book, Eger, travels back to Auschwitz and becomes aware of this guilt she has been unconsciously carrying her entire life. She forgives herself for the choice she made, when she was a young, stressed prisoner. She makes the choice to let go of this guilt, so that she can live her life with more vibrancy. She likens much of her life to a prison of guilt: even though she was no longer in the camp, she still lived in this prison of her own construction. Her life’s work has been to help free her clients of similar such mental prisons, and help them live the way they want to live, with with more active choosing and freedom in their lives.

Top Takeaway: Intentional deprivation can be a tool for gratitude. Thru-hiking is subtracting in a big way. Brian subtracts modern conveniences (cushy beds, nice food, reliable water, walls) and lowers the boundaries between himself and nature. In this way he opens himself up to gratitude for things most “civilized people” would not give a moment’s thought.

A hamburger meal to many Americans is mundane, but to vegetarian Brian who has been “eating dried food out of a bag for six months,” it is manna from heaven. Simple things, like shelter at the top of a mountain in a windstorm, are profoundly moving when delivered by “trail angels.”

If you spend all your time in modern civilization, you get used to its amenities and stop appreciating it. Spending half a year living out of of a backpack on trail is a way to profoundly rewire one’s brain.

Actionable point: Take a hike! Introduce deprivations into my life, to increase my gratitude.

Sweet Quotes:

“If you go through life telling yourself “I can’t” to everything that seems odd or out of the ordinary, you’re right…Find the balls within yourself to do something you did not think possible before. Give yourself a challenge and work towards it. These uneasy situations will give you the jitters and nervous sweats, but it is a hell of a lot more fun than sitting around, getting old, and wondering where the time went.”

“Thru-hikers can live happily in the woods and out of a backpack for six months, walking across our beautiful country, while some can’t escape into the backcountry without two horses to carry them, a hundred pounds of gear and two coolers packed with beer. They are afraid of doing without their things, afraid of listening to the silence and afraid of having downtime.”

“Time…should be evaluated by experiences and growth, not by the days of the week or the turn of a new year. The stiffness of a monotonous life ensures a stale existence.”

“There really is no hurry to get anywhere. If you are so worried about getting somewhere, then you are there and not here where you should be. Meanwhile, the mind finds consideration of the past and future an easy excuse to explore the trenches of memory or desire. It travels to different dimensions, timelines, and alternate universes of never-ending possibility while the body remains in the present. Force the mind to live in harmony with the body. Be where your body is and appreciate the beauty of the moment.”

“Whoever said that walking can’t solve everything is only partially wrong. When in doubt, just walk.”

“There is no point in trying to do something if you do not believe that you can.”

“My time on this trail is nothing more than moments just like now, when I can be in total awe of where I am, and how lucky I am to be here.”

“No hiker is on trail because they love where their life is at. If you loved where you were in life, you would still be there. We take to the trail because there is something missing, suspecting there is more to be discovered and learned.”

“I am humbled as always in the face of Nature.”

“I much prefer to spend my life watching the world turn than wasting my days staring at a clock and and counting the hours for which I am to be financially compensated while waiting for freedom. Why should I invest my time in something that holds indefinite importance, not only in my lifespan but in the wider scope of humanity and the even wider scope of the universe?”

“When hiking alone, there is no one around at the end of the day to tell you, ‘Good job!’ or ‘You’re doing great!’…No other voices existed apart from those inside my head…”

“If I am not happy, I will concern myself with doing something that encourages joy. Complete happiness is rare, and while I believe it can be achieved in moments, it is far more more difficult to consistently find and feel.”

“Proof to his family and friends that it is possible to live a life in the woods, jobbless, for six months. Proof that you do not need a high-paying job or white picket fence to be happy. Joy is found in the simplest places, joy is felt in the woods, joy is brotherhood, and joy is effortless with a pack on your back.”

“And I can only do this while I am young? Then what?…I’m doing this for as long as I can.”

“I spend a good amount of time on trail pondering my future: what I want out of life, what I want to accomplish, what challenges I want to face, what I want to look back on in twenty years and think, I am sure as hell glad I did that. This trail has already taught me that anything can be done, and all that is necessary to accomplish most things is time…Time is a gift…that must be spent right away, wisely, and willingly.”