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Essential Reading: 5 Life-changing books (01)

The external world is in constant flux. Things are always changing. There are instabilities. War. Political crisis. People are dying. Loved ones moving to a different country. Business not performing as well as expected. Economy taking a nosedive. Relationship challenges. Although we pretend, we understand what is happening in the world and that we are somehow in control, deep down we know we are not in control. Things can change at any moment. Businesses can fail. You can lose your job. Or you can get a promotion you did not expect. Your business can get new funding out of the blow. Anything can happen.

The instability of the external world gives us anxiety and worries. The only meaningful and sustainable way to address this challenge is to have internal calm. Your inner world is stable. You can remain grounded amid chaos and changes. Only then can you operate effectively in a world that is changing all the time. 

We always try to control the external world. We try to have a stable career, a stable relationship, a stable business, and so on. But we can’t control reality. But we can have some control over how we react to reality. We can respond to a loss by giving up or with patience. We can react to a disagreement by getting angry and withdrawing or by trying to understand the disagreement and by being compassionate and communicating. So we always have options to respond better to reality. But often we choose to react instead of respond. 

To have internal stability, the first step is to develop a deep understanding of the self, our inner workings, our flaws, and our limitations. Books in this list have helped me with understanding myself better and developing a personal operating method that works. I hope they will do the same for you. 

1. Already Free by Bruce Tift

"From this point of view, we can see that anxiety is actually a necessary part of our path. As we move in the direction of waking up, increasing our tolerance of more and more awareness or open mind, we will inevitably experience anxiety. At some point or another, anybody committed to a spiritual path may find it important to commit to the experience of anxiety as an approximation of an open state of mind. This is not because reality is itself anxiety producing but because the inevitable engagement of a “personal self” with nonpersonal reality will be experienced as a threat to this self—that is, as anxiety. When I say “committing to our anxiety,” I mean doing the difficult work—difficult because it goes against both our biology and our cultural conditioning—of training ourselves not to try to escape our anxious feelings. It even means to learn to appreciate them, explore them, feel them, and see for ourselves whether they are as much of a problem as we think they will be. If anxiety is not a problem and if we understand that it’s actually an essential part of our path of waking up, then we might want to practice this attitude of commitment.”

This is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding our common maladies and finding a better approach to dealing with reality. The book offers fascinating insights into dealing with our myriad difficulties such as dealing with relationships and psychological maladies from depression to addiction to anxieties to worries. The best thing about the book is that it is not prescriptive. Rather the author tries to render a deeper understanding of why we do certain things the way we do them. The author uses ample practical examples from his clinical practices that clarify things beautifully. 

All our psychological challenges arise from the fact that we try to avoid and run from discomfort. There could be many reasons for our avoidance mentality. One of the reasons of course is our childhood and early life conditioning. And many of our challenges can be managed if we can learn to live with our discomfort and our bodily experience of the moment. Often instead of trying to be present with our experience, we tend to interpret our feelings and make stories about them. 

For instance, anxiety is a result of our unwillingness to attend certain events. When we don’t want to attend the event, we create stories about the event and we react to those stories. These reactions can manifest in various forms. We can get angry with people. We can have extreme nervousness. We can give in to any other form of distraction. 

The author suggests we often react to events and their interpretation instead of developing a response. The author says instead of going for an interpretation and a reaction, if we can learn to live with the discomfort, we will be able to form a better response to our challenges. 

For instance, when we are anxious we have certain bodily responses such as shallow breathing, sweating palms, racing heart, etc. The first step is paying attention to these bodily sensations. Attending the racing heart, shallow breathing, sweating palms, and seeing whether there is anything wrong with them. Once we do that we find that these are mere bodily feelings and they are rarely harmful. Once we learn to accommodate and stay with these sensations, we can see the real reasons for our anxiety and form a response to it. 

2. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Reading Rilke is a form of meditation into the depth of our hearts. Letters to a Young Poet is such an exquisite read, inimitable Maria Popova calls the book “a foundational text of our civilization and a life-necessity for every human being with a firing mind and a beating heart“ in her blog Brainpickings. 

The beauty of the book lies in the fact that it offers timeless wisdom into essential human matters from vocation to love to marriage to personal growth to dealing with the difficult journey of building a creative career. 

3. Purification of Heart by Hamza Yusuf  

“We live in the age of Noah (a.s.) in the sense that a flood of distraction accosts us. It is a slow and subtle drowning. For those who notice it, they engage in the remembrance of God. The rites of worship and devotion to God's remembrance (dhikr) are planks of the ark. When Noah (a.s.) started to build his ark, his people mocked him and considered him a fool. But he kept building. He knew what was coming. And we know too.”

Hamza Yusuf is easily one of the most powerful intellectuals of our time. Yusuf’s takes on human life and our work transcend our limited views and understanding of the role of religion in our life. 

To that end, Purification of Heart is a defining text of our time that offers incredibly potent remedies for the discontents and darkness of the hearts in our time that almost everyone is suffering from. If you are looking for freedom from limitations and maladies of the heart, this book offers practical suggestions that work. 

4. The E-myth revisited by Michael E. Gerber

“The work we do is a reflection of who we are. If we’re sloppy at it, it’s because we’re sloppy inside. If we’re late at it, it’s because we’re late inside. If we’re bored by it, it’s because we’re bored inside, with ourselves, not with the work. The most menial work can be a piece of art when done by an artist. So the job here is not outside of ourselves, but inside of ourselves. How we do our work becomes a mirror of how we are inside.”

Most business books lack heart. Too tactical. Too limited views. Gerber is different. He not only provides an excellent template for building sustainable enterprises, but he also does so without reducing the importance of our work to merely about making money. The book has everything: practical and tactical tips, strategic directions, long-term thinking, and most importantly heart. If you are an early-stage entrepreneur, this is a must-read. 

5. Working: Researching, interviewing, writing by Robert A Caro

This book is a treatise on work ethic and doing good works that will last. 

Robert Caro does not tell, he shows. Working is not an advice book. It does not tell you how to write a good book or how Caro himself writes his books. Instead, it takes you on a journey into the inner workings of several of Caro’s incredible books and when you go through the journey, you realize what it takes to do good work. 

6. Disciplining the soul by Ibn Al Jawzi

“Know that part of the inner self is intellectual, the virtue of which is wisdom, the vice of which is ignorance, part of it is elicited, the virtue of which is poignancy, the vice of which is cowardice, part of it is lustful, the virtue of which is chastity and the vice of which is unrestrained hawa. Exhibiting patience in the face of vice is a merit of the inner self by which a person endures both goodness and evil. Therefore, whoever lacks patience and allows his hawa to lead his mind has then made the follower be followed and the led a leader. That said, it is expected that everything he desires will return to him and that he will be harmed from where he expected to benefit, he will be saddened by that which he expected happiness to come from.”

This one will cleanse your heart. This is a short book in pages because Jawzi does not waste words. Words are important. More is rarely better. Rather Jawzi goes straight to the point. The book offers essential remedies for dealing with our internal diseases. The book offers an excellent perspective on matters like anger, arrogance, envy, gluttony, lying, spitefulness, conceit, insincerity and pretentiousness, grief and worry, and a long list of important matters of the heart and our general wellbeing. 


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