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The Siren's Call: Stillness, where art thou?

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Isn't the quest for stillness hopeless? All those efforts to attain slowness -- what good are they, especially when the rest of the world isn't paying attention? Sure, you can achieve some meditative balance and create an island of serenity in yourself -- you'll also be in exile from the rest of the world. Not a good idea if you're working and trying to pay a mortgage. Keep up or else you'll fall behind, right? Isn't rest a liability? Didn't Marcus Aurelius say, "I can rest when I'm dead"? Or was that Warren Zevon?

Writers continually revisit this subject under many guises -- in biographies of spiritual figures, foodie books exhorting us to relish every taste (and thus every moment) and memoirs of personal searches like Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling "Eat Pray Love" or Judith Shulevitz's new book, "The Sabbath World." Each of them dismantles -- easily -- the straw man argument that begins this column for a simple reason.

In a review last Sunday of Shulevitz's book, for instance, my colleague David L. Ulin points out that stillness, in keeping a day of the week holy, is a human necessity. Why? Because it enables time for insights we otherwise wouldn't have -- ones necessary to our sanity, to our self-understanding. Such inner glimpses, Ulin writes, are "easy to lose sight of . . . in contemporary culture, where it often seems as if we exist outside of time, amid the 'pollutants of communications overload,' " as Shulevitz terms it.

Shulevitz's is hardly the only new release on the topic, however, and if you're trying to fill out a shelf with other books on this theme, you might turn to two by renowned author and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, "You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment" (Shambhala: 144 pp., $19.95) and (with co-author Lilian Cheung) "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life" (HarperOne: 292 pp., $25.99).

The day ahead of you, the next 24 hours, isn't something to just get through, it's "a tremendous gift to us," he reminds us in "You Are Here." "I begin my day by making an offering of incense while following my breath. I think to myself that this day is a day to live fully, and I make the vow to live each moment of it in a way that is beautiful, solid, and free."

This book, slender as a breviary, elegantly describes the very act of breathing as an art, and he shows us ways to apply our full concentration, our "mindfulness," to everything we do during the day -- walking, sitting, driving your car ("the red light is not your enemy," he assures), drinking a cup of tea. The point of all this, in the end, is to measure the depth of one's commitment to that moment. "When you are holding a cup of tea in your hand, do it while being 100 percent there," he advises.

Maybe if you did, you wouldn't spill so often.

The same is true of eating, which is discussed briefly in "You Are Here" while, in "Savor," Hanh and co-author Cheung extend the quality of mindfulness to our eating habits, cultural obsessions with weight and our sense of community. How did that apple get in your hand? Did you ever think about that? Where did that cup of coffee or even that Snickers bar come from? "When we eat with full awareness," the authors explain, "we become increasingly mindful of all the elements and effort needed to make our meals a reality."

In other words, eating isn't an activity apart from the world: It is a link to it. When you realize this, you achieve not just a full belly but also compassion.

Along these lines -- of merging the mystical with the everyday -- are two other helpful new guides, David Fontana's "The Meditation Handbook" (244 pp., $19.95 paper) and spiritual teacher Osho's "The Diamond Sutra" (250 pp., $19.95 paper), both published in Britain by Watkins Publishing. A fellow of the British Psychological Society, Fontana turns to many traditions -- not only those associated with Buddhism -- to explore in a scholarly but accessible way how words fail to grasp the quality of stillness. We don't even really know the principal terms very well. What does the word "I" mean, for instance, or "stillness"? Stillness, he points out, "may suggest tranquillity, but remember that tranquillity is a state achieved in meditation on the way towards insight. So stillness is something more than tranquillity; it is insight itself."

Words, then, fail to grasp what we're really after. Similarly, Osho explains in his book that "the word 'sea' is not the sea and the world 'sun' is not the sun and the word 'freshness' is not freshness." When you tell someone about your experience at the beach, he continues, you know "perfectly well that it cannot be brought into words, it cannot be reduced into words."

What these books suggest, to me anyway, isn't that attaining stillness equals zero brain activity. Instead, it means moving into a kind of mental space in which one's mind can operate in a more meaningful way.

That's the intent of the Ignatian practice of daily meditation described in "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life" by James Martin SJ (HarperOne: 420 pp., $26.99). Martin's book talks about the applicability of Jesuit practices to every aspect of life, especially "the examen" -- an examination of conscience, the author tells us, that enables one to appreciate all those meaningful little moments in our daily life that easily get forgotten. In the process, those small moments of goodness add up to stepping stones leading to an awareness of God's presence.

And yet, though the author is a Jesuit priest (and the culture editor of America magazine), he isn't trying to convert readers to Roman Catholicism. In fact, he says, the five steps of the examen -- expressing gratitude for the good things, reviewing the events of the day, recalling actions one is sorry for, asking for forgiveness, asking for grace for the next day -- can be "altered into a 'prayer of awareness' " that "seekers, agnostics and atheists" can use simply to help them appreciate what happens in their daily lives.

A SURPRISE CONVERSATION: I love it when two books develop an unexpected relationship. Take Don Lattin's "The Harvard Psychedelic Club," which has gotten good play not just from us but in other news outlets as well. It appeals not only because it's an accessibly-written group bio -- the title echoes Louis Menand's about an earlier Harvard group -- but also because it looks at how the lives of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith overlapped in the 1960s and fed into the mind-altering, mystical wave sweeping across America in that era.

Months prior to publication of Lattin's book, however, Huston Smith's "Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine" (HarperOne: 210 pp., $25.99), written with Jeffery Paine, appeared. It covered many of the same moments described by Lattin. Taken together, Smith's and Lattin's books form an enlightening complementary relationship.

Take, for instance, what Lattin writes about Smith's participation in Timothy Leary's drug research:

Huston's trip was awe inspiring, but it was not pleasurable . . .

Leary walked into his living room to check on his subject. He could tell Huston was not having a good time. He had lain here for hours in a comatose terror. At one point, he cried out to Leary.

"Tim," Huston yelled. "I hope you know what you are playing around with because if I mount one step higher the terror is just going to explode my body and you'll be left with a corpse on your divan."

Leary walked over to the couch to reassure him that everything was OK.

"You'll be fine, Huston," Leary said.

"I know," Smith replied. "I have a family and I do not want to leave this life at this point. But I know with every conviction that I could if I wanted and you would have a corpse here on your divan."

Leary, Lattin writes, felt the whole night had been a failure. But Smith tells us about this episode in his book and that he later understood what happened to him on that night. It wasn't a bad trip but one of those terrifying mystical experiences of looking "directly into the face of God":

"So, the big question: what was January 2 like? Overnight I had become a visionary, someone who not only believes in a larger world but has actually visited it. What the mystics had sung were not poetic metaphors but real experiences, I knew now. The Sufis say there are three ways to know fire -- by hearing it described, by seeing it, or by being burned. I was, in that analogy, now burned by the fire. But one must not be consumed but bring the fire -- or whatever name we give our experience of ultimate reality -- back home, to warm our hands and live by."

Doesn't sound like a failure, does it?

Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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