Books & Articles
Beyond American Daoism:
Books to Supplement a North American Practice
By Kai Dailey
Western books on Daoism contain abundant guidance on the particulars of Daoist practice (e.g. physical exercises, philosophy, living in harmony with nature, diet, visualizations, medicine, and the microcosm that is the basis of Daoist cosmology). Yet they say little about how to handle difficult childhood memories or recent traumas or conundrums related to livelihood or conflicts around the Protestant ethic of work and personal responsibility and the absorbing demands of spiritual practice. Also absent are the psychological tools to deal with and understand spiritual transformation, a way to make sense of the changing inner life as we practice. Authors rarely write or interpret from the lived experience of North American born students. Of the guide books written by American masters, mostly men, these texts lack personal stories of the inner life, and in fact disregard the inner turmoil of transformation all together. In other words, the American masculine ideal of stoicism and silence can be found woven into most American Daoist texts, leaving the inner journey of Western students unacknowledged and unmapped⎯⎯with the very fine, and notable, exception of the 2013 memoir by Lindsey Wei titled The Valley Spirit: A Female Story of Daoist Cultivation.
Even North American students studying with great masters often require ideas and tools from other traditions to supplement an underdeveloped Western Daoism that does not yet adequately address the problems of the inner life that accompany spiritual practice. This omission is all the more difficult for independent practitioners who work without the personal guidance of a master.
As Daoist students and practitioners, we take up the task of making meaning and finding purpose in our spiritual lives. In this section, the resources highlighted below offer additional tools and perspectives about inner change, healing, and spiritual transitions. Some are traditionally Daoist while others draw from Buddhist, Hindu, archetypal psychology, and religious studies perspectives, among others.
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Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chödrön
Many forms of Eastern spirituality promoted in the West advise us to accept ourselves just as we are. But, if we do that, how then do we reach our spiritual goals for self-improvement? Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön dissolves this paradox in her relatable book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. In this collection of warmhearted talks Pema recommends cultivating self-understanding and self-compassion to soften our rough spots and to foster our compassion for others. The book is organized around two themes: the common human experience of being uncomfortable and wanting to find a remedy, and the use of Buddhist slogans and practices to change our relationship with discomfort. You'll find basic meditation instruction clearly explained and Buddhist inspired practices that you can use in the moment when you need them most. Pema's candor, charm and plain language make you feel welcome and right at home among the pages of this book. Highly recommended for anyone working with persistent feelings of unworthiness, guilt or loss.
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by Pema Chödrön
Visit pemachodronfoundation.org/ to learn more about her work.
Beads of Faith by Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott
Beads of Faith offers readers a general exploration of the use of prayer beads among the adherents of many of the world's religions and mystic traditions (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sufi, Native American, and Secular Spiritualists). The authors provide context more readily understood by Christian readers, for example, when they write in their introduction, "Rosaries [used as a general term for prayer beads] are not just a sacrament, but a most important means of grace," or when they include a reference to Thessalonians 5:17, "pray without ceasing." However their book provides both universal and comparative examples of religious and spiritual bead use in an unbiased, if not interfaith tone. It is both a survey and a primer on the worshipful use of beads, including basic practices as well as prayers and chants representative of each religion included in the book.
Beads of Faith, by Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott
The dust jacket for the 2002 hardbound edition defines rosary in a broad sense, "strings of beads employed for counting prayers" and through this lens suggests that the commonalities of symbols used by various religions are archetypal, thus universal. The authors relied heavily on entomology as evidence of the shared origin of symbolic and ritual features, without scholarly citations or reference. The limitation with this approach, when not expanded to include historical detail, is a false impression of spontaneous universality rather than shared cultural evolution across place and time. Without anthropological and religious studies grounding, the migration and transcultural flows of religious traditions and their assimilation by receiving cultures is missing from a larger picture of how these symbols came to be used by many cultures. Despite this understandable omission, as the book is written for the lay reader, those with a Christian background and/or those who are curious about bead use, will enjoy this book as a wonderfully illustrated and inclusive way to begin learning about and incorporating beads into daily spiritual practice.
Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter
In 1989, Porter, a Buddhist monk and scholar from Taiwan, journeyed in search of hermits shortly after Taiwan lifted its travel ban to mainland China. He details his struggles to locate hermits in the mountains of China and shares the rare conversations he had with them. The book reads like a travel journal and exposes more perhaps about the author's initial understanding of hermits than it reveals secrets of spiritual masters. But in following Porters quest, we can't help but learn something about our own assumptions about spiritual mastery and the real struggles and sacrifices it demands.
In one example encounter, Porter asked a hermit named Master Yang, who lived on a mountain in seclusion, "What books on Taoism did you like most?" Master Yang explained that when he was young he had wanted an education but his family was too poor to afford instruction for him, so he learned to read in his 20s. He then read with difficulty but collected a trunk full of books and kept journals. When the Red Guard came through, they burned all of his books. But he persisted and again accumulated another trunk full but then lost his eye sight. Included in this section is a photo Porter took of Master Yang, whose bright countenance appears to evidence his decades of long effort and spiritual accomplishment.
Encounters with Chinese Hermits, by Bill Porter
Returning to the question of what Taoist books he liked most, Master Yang replied,
"Of course, the Taoteching.... After that came Huang-ti's Yinfuching, which is even briefer than the Taoteching in explaining the essentials of Taoist philosophy and practice. But the most important, the most precious of all Taoist books is the Jade Emperor's Hsinyiching, which is the most essential part of the Huangching.... It's the teaching transmitted by the Jade Emperor.... It explains how we're all miniature universes, how we all have the sun, the moon, the stars, and space inside of us. It's about how to use our ch'i to nourish and protect our mortal body and how to concentrate our ch'i to create an immortal body. If our ch'i only comes from the outside, we're easily exhausted. It teaches us how to cultivate our inner ch'i. Cultivating the Tao isn't easy. Some people cultivate all their lives without success. The key is to concentrate your ch'i. Once you concentrate your ch'i, your wisdom will arise naturally, as easily as a flame rises and rain falls."
Overall this book provides an excellent snapshot of post Cultural Revolution China by capturing recollections of hermits who survived the terrible loss and upheaval of spiritual communities and yet remained devout in their spiritual disciplines. Porter dedicated his book to "those who walk the path of solitude." It is an absorbing and affirming book for anyone who strives to find solitude or who lives a solitary life of spiritual practice and discipline.
Work That Matters: Create a Livelihood That Reflects Your Core Intention by Maia Duerr
If you've held a lot of jobs (or if you've struggled to find work compatible with your spiritual practice) and maybe you feel alone in that, you'll be heartened to find that the author of this unique personal development book openly discusses her many jobs and her struggle to find a right livelihood. If you're looking for a way to make sense of and value an eclectic work history, this book offers a wholistic method and a path. It will guide you in finding the throughline from disparate work history to a coherent body of work when viewed across the course of your life, including your spiritual life. Duerr encourages her readers to ground their reading and reflection journey within their own contemplative practice.
One aspect that sets this book apart from others in the job search genre is the highly personal narrative the author uses to explain the tools for finding solutions to livelihood. The prose does not read like the typical big publishing house build up to canned step-by-step instructions. Instead the author shares how she personally used the tools she describes. Her essential humility and authenticity provides a greater sense of credibility to her offering.
Work That Matters by Maia Duerr
Maia Duerr's online courses https://maiaduerr.com/onlineprograms/
Additional Resources: maiaduerr.com/work-that-matters
What further distinguishes this book from self-help staples like What Color is Your Parachute is that the book's overall goal isn't to help you fit into the existing structure of the job market, but to instead help you break out and truly do your own thing. You won't find epic market overviews or insider knowledge about how to play the job search game. Instead, you'll find gentle guidance on how to pause the whole search entirely, get closer to your inner voice, and how to experiment and feel your way toward something authentic, sustainable and personally fulfilling that will also, eventually, pay the bills without compromising your spiritual work. And implied by the Six Keys she describes for working with our inner selves is that the process may take some time, and it may not lead to the conventionally perfect job or means of income, but instead toward something "perfect" for us nonetheless.
Perhaps most valuable, Work That Matters offers as much a key to decipher our own idiosyncratic paths as it does offer a roadmap forward to a uniquely personal destination. If this approach appeals, then experiment with this book. You may find that it fits neatly into your spiritual practice and deepens your understanding of what you truly value and how past work experiences fit into the larger narrative of your life.
As a side note, I've had over 100 work experiences, and I used to do with jobs what I imagine a womanizer does with romantic pursuits. I would in essence chase the job, seduce the potential employer and get a hit of ego-approval when hired. So when Duerr writes the following I could relate entirely, and bless her for being so completely honest. Until her book, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. She writes, "My search for "true love" in the form of work has sometimes felt like going through a series of one-night stands, with momentary fulfillment but an overall sense of dissatisfaction and confusion." And just as her meditation practice brought her a deeper awareness of what she was doing and what she really needed, my spiritual practice also over time put a stop to that kind of empty job-seeking. I eventually embraced the work I love, which had actually been a part of my life all along. Duerr's book helped to guide my deep reflection and through a period of inner exploration (and experimentation) the solution became entirely obvious.
Work That Matters and the companion course by the same name are based on the original online course developed by the author entitled: Fall in Love with Your Work. You can view the current version of the course on her website.
The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg
If you've ever attended a meditation or yoga retreat and were asked to refrain from writing or reading, you may find bestselling author Natalie Goldberg's recipe for meditative writing practice unconventional. In her book, The True Secret of Writing, she generously recounts her journey from Zen student to university professor to Zen writing retreat instructor. Goldberg shares how she fruitfully integrated meditation and writing, reassuring the traditional meditation practitioner and busy-minded writer alike that "Silence can be the door to listening, which is one of the great cornerstones to writing--and also to eventual peace and reconciliation within you and in this world."
Throughout the book Goldberg teaches a writing practice she calls "a priori writing--before novels, short stories, essays, memoir" used in her retreats. Designed to be combined with Zen meditation, a priori writing is writing in short bursts, unedited, drawn from raw observation or experience in the moment. Six-Word Memoirs, a 5-minute speed writing exercise, encourages quick impressions and associations. Here are three examples of student Six-Word Memoirs she shares in the book,
The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldbert
Fixer upper: don't inspect too closely
Barbed wire pricked my American blood
Married a rabbi; still a feminist.
In addition to useful writing exercises and reflections, Goldberg also details the structure of her weeklong silent writing retreats. She provides instructions (including a daily schedule) on how to fashion your own personal retreat or how to lead a retreat with others. There's also two fascinating chapters on haiku that will inspire you to learn more about Ikkyu, and try writing your own haikus.
Goldberg studied with a Zen master for six years. The stories of her life as householder and practitioner provide information and encouragement for developing writers and spiritual students at the beginning of their journeys. If you are looking for activities and ideas for building a retreat for your own students, you will find this book helpful, not only for its instructions but also for Goldberg's personal stories of trial and error during her many decades of teaching retreats. If you've been away from your spiritual practice for a while, you may find yourself reminded amidst her thoughtful prose of the daily peace you once experienced, and perhaps feel inspired to begin again.