By Kellie Schorr
Are you looking for a self-helpish, inspirational book with a cover that pops, short paragraphs, handy bulleted lists, subtitles, and chapters like, “The 4 Steps to <whatever>” that balances amazing life changes with a “lighter than air” approach and can be read over a weekend?
Then go to the store and take your pick of countless other offerings—because this book is not that genre.
The Magnanimous Heart by Narayan Helen Liebenson isn’t a spiritual fast-food pick-me-up. It’s a work set out like an elegantly prepared five course meal, each layer more careful and rich than the next. The topics, listed as a subtitle, explain the reason for such considered care: Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation. It’s not so much that these concepts can’t be treated lightly, but that she takes them (and us) so very seriously she chose instead to write deeply.
It’s a wide-ranging book written in a classic prosaic style that flows over painful realities and points to much needed sunlight. She discusses loss in examples personal and universal, providing perspectives on how walking the path in practice helps us through the dark parts.
Although all beings feel loss and could benefit from her wisdom, the book is particularly written for people with some experience in mindfulness and Buddhism.
It’s not a book you should recommend to someone going through grief who has no groundwork in concepts like practice, meditation, dukkha, metta, etc. When you think about it, as we learn more about grief in our culture, we need to realize that lobbing books at grieving people because we feel helpless in the face of their sorrow is not a best practice in the first place.
What grieving people need, Liebenson teaches, is true compassion, kindness and space to be heard—not to be talked to. We don’t need to “let go” of our grief or overcome it, she posits. We need to attend to it. There is a well of ancient truth in her instruction (and make no mistake—this is a teaching, not a memoir) that shines with her use of modern examples, quotes and poetry.
Toward the end of the book her theme shifts from the pain of loss to the practices that lead to liberation.
She’s careful to note that the path to enlightenment is not going to stop loss from happening; in fact, it may sometimes make loss seem worse as you begin to renounce the need for concepts (such as hope) to embrace the reality of liberation. She ends with an exploration of nirvana as simply a state of “enough.”
There are some light moments through the book—particularly when she ponders such questions as: since practice isn’t just meditation but our whole lives, why don’t we ever see a statue of the Buddha vacuuming? Most of the work, however, is a solid and thoughtful exposition of the big challenges and tough questions we face along the road of life, and death, with the most fervent answer being found in a compassionate heart.
Narayan Liebenson reminds us meditation isn’t about stress reduction or achieving some kind of happy perfection. It is mind training that progressively guides us to let go of the conditions and concepts we cling to and walk confidently on the path. She leaves the reader with a compassionate invitation.
“The point of the practice is to train the mind to discover the deathless, the sacred, enough. Let us keep practicing together with great dedication until we all know this for ourselves.”
Photo: Wisdom Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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