By Karl Saliter
Not Quite Nirvana, A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness by Rachel Neumann, is a walk with an awake, deep-thinking friend.
Rachel has had the skill, the intellect and the enormous good fortune to work as Tich Nhat Hahn’s editor for over 10 years. That’s added up to over 20 books, and a unique perspective. Tich tells us in the introduction that this book is a veritable peach, (not in so many words).
Love the title, and, for that matter, the subtitle. I’m a seeker, and enjoy a healthy skepticism. I’ve spent time in monasteries and retreat centers. But don’t even talk to me about levels in the heaven realms, dude. My flavor is “grounded,” and in “Not Quite Nirvana,” Neumann serves up chapter after chapter, just to that taste. Her stories are from her life, not from theory. Because it’s coming from the voice of a contemporary, not some Rinpoche or Llama, I can learn easily from this collection of lessons.
The book talks about interdependence. Community. Connectedness. And I need all of the above.
Read this: “Other people are inspirational, necessary, and sometimes irritating.” People drive me batshit crazy sometimes. I like it when a teacher’s thoughts reflect my own, maybe with a little tact. I don’t want to be told not to be irritated. Much like Pandit Tigunait in “Touched By Fire,” Neumann just tells you what happened, and what she learned from it. You’re never talked down to.
On a recent trip to Nepal, surrounded in the simple majesty of the Himalayan Mountains, something happened to me. Every day, I felt a bones-deep freeze. It was crazy high up, and snowy, in January, and I live in sunny Mexico. I needed warmth, and the charismatic Nepali were like medicine to me. I was newly vulnerable to the charms of our inane, frustratingly lovable race. Enter Not Quite Nirvana.
Her chapter on “Making Fewer Strangers” confronted me and made me see how standoffish I often am. There’s a vignette in there which encourages you to look at every being as if they were once your mom. (If only she knew my mom, but that’s another story). That particular idea gave me, at the very least, a pathway from me to the people around me. I found being less of a jerk was easy, after reading that.
It’s not a self-help book, and it ‘aint no guide. Between us girls, it’s just a no-bullshit story, told from a grounded viewpoint. Rachel uses the word “journey” in her title for a reason.
“To learn the art of creating happiness and to learn the art of handling our suffering are the same thing.” This from a gal who is 100% immersed in her fast-paced and hard-to-fathom life, like the rest of us. She grapples with being seriously out of her depth in the chapter called “A Revolting Monk,” and offers a little lotus blossom on intuition and listening, at the chapter’s finish.
She’s no idiot, on that score. I see too many well-intentioned spiritual types just reeling as they digest the positive mindset combo deal. Floating around like pink fiction clouds, bromides fairly wafting off them, they are quick to encourage themselves, even if it means discouraging others. I’ve been told: “Everything Happens for a Reason” almost as an admonition. As soon as someone tells me: “My abundance is so beyond financial,” I ask for a separate check—none of that crap from Rachel.
Distaste for the pseudo-spiritual also helped me appreciate this book’s delivery mechanism. It’s nice that the lessons don’t take place on the cushion in the meditation hall. We join Neumann as she tries to “fix something, without having to organize or call a meeting” and attempts to go a week without buying plastic. Sounds easy at first. The book lets us into the dirty underbelly of her life. Aware that she’s lucky and privileged, she nonetheless suffers. And suffering, learns.
Rachel does finally get to go to Deer Park, a meditation center in Southern California, late in the book. This trip is her first time there as a person, rather than a professional.
Remember Harold and Maude? When Maude tells the officer: “Oh, don’t be officious, you’re not yourself when you’re officious.” Rachel lets us experience that same transition during this one trip. Seeing familiar territory with fresh eyes—“unprofessional”eyes—she gets to come home to herself, as Thich has so often encouraged people to do.
Worth the price of admission.
If you’re reading and thinking “I could really go for a kale salad with kale chips, and a frosty mug of Kale Cooler,” this book is for you. Perspective is offered on our eating-as-morality obsessions. On the perniciousness of contemporary purchasing. Her position on the Kale habit is so eye-opening. It will not be a spoiler to tell you: can’t kale your way to Denver, much less Nirvana. Having said that, she does make a strong case for nettle tea, at the bitter end. (See what I did there?)
Rachel describes the shifts in consciousness, the powerlessness and uselessness of any action, in New York on September 11. She tells it with keen vision into people’s mindsets. I was in the towers the night of September 10, and Neumann describes the emotional landscape vividly and with truth.
Something happened there, in that sacrifice of innocence, and people’s responses to it provided Rachel with insights, into how we’ve allowed ourselves to be trained. Her emotionally intelligent view paves the way for an appreciation of our shared humanity, and of how much we, dammit, need each other.
Because we do. We need each other. So read up, and enjoy it.
Read it for the insight that to make a long-term relationship viable, you have to “give up listening as an activity that can be multi-tasked.” Read it for the many “Ah, me too,” moments. And read it for her unique invention: the coming of old-age ceremony.
Hope we’re all lucky enough to have one someday.
Karl Saliter is a juggler by trade, an occasional sculptor, and a daily writer. He lives in Mexico, and travels to Asia whenever he can manage it. His two as-of-yet unpublished novels, Breakfast In A Cloud and Compassion’s Bitch, will be available as soon as they are produced. Could be anytime now.
Feature Photo: Not Quite Nirvana
Editor: Dana Gornall