Over the past few years, I’ve grown to become a spiritual person. For most of my life I was a proud atheist. I perceived people who were religious as uneducated and unimaginative.
The first time I ever went to church was with my grandmother. I was bored as hell as I sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair, wondering when the man at the front would ever stop talking. Then suddenly everyone rose from their seats. We were asked to eat a piece of stale bread and sip wine. I was shocked by this request and did not want to participate. But when everyone went one by one, I realised I had no choice. I left the church feeling somber and scared, it lacked any ounce of warmth or humour. I never wanted to go back and luckily for me, my parents wouldn’t make me. My parents aren’t religious and had no intention of forcing us to go to church. There was never any mention of religion or spirituality in our home. Both my parents had been forced to go to church when they were kids and made an agreement that they would not do that to us. They left the door of religion and spirituality so wide open that my sister and I didn’t even notice there was a door. The only time I got curious about life after death was when I saw the movie ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven.’ I remember asking my father what happens when we die and he simply said, “When we die, it’s over. Game over. Power off.”
By the time I was a teenager, I had no reference point. I was ignorant about the world’s religions and wasn’t interested in learning more. The only conclusion that made sense to me was that you are born randomly, forced to go about this obstacle course called life, and then at the end you die. No heaven, no reincarnation. As my father said, it’s game over. I understood that I was an atheist and it felt cool to be part of the ‘non-believer’ group. I was the girl who wasn’t affected by anything; the cool unemotional one who will point to science and facts to tear down any sparks of hope in an afterlife. I liked being part of that club. It was also pretty easy to be because at that point in my life nothing particularly tragic happened to force me to think deeper.
But then one day, it did. And once your world comes crashing in on you, religion or spirituality are like a life raft in the middle of a stormy, unforgiving ocean. My introduction to life beyond the confines of atheism was born the moment my sister died on October 13, 2013. The pain of her loss forced me to question what it means to live, and what it means to die. It broke open my yearning for understanding life beyond the physical because my mind simply could not make sense of her loss. I could not accept the meaninglessness of life. How could my sister, my sister, disappear like that? Where is she? It just did not make sense. How do you go from being ‘here’ to being ‘gone’? Where did she go?
This constant questioning forced me down new paths, ones I’d never been down before. Organised religion never appealed to me, but spirituality did.
“Spirituality is the belief that there is something greater than oneself, something more to being human than this sensory experience, and that the greater whole of which we are part is cosmic or divine in nature. Spirituality involves exploring certain universal themes — love, compassion, altruism, life after death, wisdom and truth, with the knowledge that some people such as saints or enlightened individuals have achieved and manifested higher levels of development than the ordinary persons.”
In other words, I now believe there is more to this life than just waking up, going to work and returning home to watch Netflix. There is more to this cycle of life: birth, life, death. It’s all on a continuum. So, as part of my quest to understand life beyond what is deemed ‘normal’ I have turned to some books that have played a huge role on my road to spirituality.
Other notable figures who’s talks I listen to regularly and deeply admire are Russel Brand, Dr Shefali Tsbary, Gabor Mate, Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and of course, Tara Brach.
This list will only continue to grow as I learn more. But these have been the most influential so far.
1. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose ~ Eckhart Tolle
I can’t speak more highly of this book. It sounds dramatic to say but it literally changed my life. I remember reading it while I was working in a job I hated and felt as though my soul was burning out. On my lunch break, I would find a quiet corner in a foodcourt and read a sentence that would lift my spirits for weeks, if not months. It reduced my suffering exponentially. I’m so grateful to Eckhart for bringing these ideas (that aren’t necessarily new) and making them accessible and super easy to understand. I will bring this book with me wherever I go. It’s like my bible!
“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”
2. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth ~ M. Scott Peck
I was first introduced to this book when I met my partner, who is now my husband. I could feel myself falling in love for the first time in a long time and wanted to tame myself. I’d been in love before and my heart was battered by it. I was trying to be cautious and not fall for the same traps I did before. This book helped me realise that feeling of falling of love is not love. It’s something anyone can do. It’s as easy and effortless as falling. Those initial feelings of being in love offer a glimpse of life when we were newborns. When we were so connected to our mother that we lived in our own blissful little world together. ‘Falling in love’ is actually a regression to our most childlike sense of self. When the feeling of falling in love fades, which it always does, we come to understand that we are two different people with different needs. It’s like we hit the bottom of a well and suddenly wake up. But it’s at this point when real love begins. When we realise we are two different beings and we can see love as playing a part in the betterment of another. We can see love as a form of evolution. This book really helped me to become more mature in relationships, even if it’s a work in progress!
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
―M. Scott Peck
3. The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself ~ Michael Alan Singer
This book was on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time. For some reason I never really felt compelled to read it. To be honest I think it was because of the horse running free on the cover seemed too cliché for me. Yep, classic judging a book by its cover! Eventually though, I caved and got an audio version of the book. While Singer’s ideas are not new, they are good reminders. Essentially, what the book is saying is that you are not the voice of your mind — you are the one who hears it. The reason we suffer or are unhappy is because the outside world is not conforming to how we think it should be. The more time we observe our mind and its tendency towards judging, critiquing, complaining, the more we can let go and be free to enjoy life exactly as it is. This is a Buddhist concept and I remember learning about this when I was in my early 20’s. It profoundly changed my life. For the first time in my life I paid attention to my thoughts. I noticed there was one particular stressful thought kept circulating in my mind. It suddenly became clear that these thoughts were affecting my mood. This book basically takes this concept and puts it on loud speakers. He goes through, chapter by chapter, how we can easily destroy ourselves if we listen to every thought we have and react to it.
“You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You’re going to die anyway. Things are going to happen anyway. Why shouldn’t you be happy? You gain nothing by being bothered by life’s events. It doesn’t change the world; you just suffer. There’s always going to be something that can bother you, if you let it.”
―Michael A. Singer
4. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom ~ Miguel Ruiz
This was a super short, simple and easy read. I didn’t think something so short could be so impactful. If you are new to the self-help genre or turned off by too much spirituality jargon, this is the best book to read. It’s so simple, effective and true. The rules are simple:
- Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
- Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
- Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
- Always do your best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
While they are all so simple, they are difficult to implement every day. It’s interesting how often I find myself breaking an agreement. It’s just old belief patterns rising to the surface.
5. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” ~ Marianne Williamson
I got this book through an exchange with a friend from work. I wasn’t actively searching for it but I’m glad it came into my life. This is the only spiritual book I’ve ever read that is somewhat religious too but I powered through anyway. She reminds me a bit of Louise Hay but I resonated more with her writing and message. I did not know anything about the Course in Miracles, and you don’t really need to. The message of the book is simple: choose love. Don’t get caught up in judgements and criticism, after-all this is just fear in disguise. Let people be as they are, forgive them. It’s definitely easier in theory than in practice. After this book I ask myself: am I acting out of love or fear? Because there really is nothing else. Love and fear are the root of every emotion we have. If I’m anxious I’m fearful. If I’m excited, I’m in a state of love. Her writing helps you step outside of your ego and shine your light, there is simply no reason not to. I found it a really soft and gentle read.
“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”
6. Heal Your Life ~ Louise Hay
I wondered if I should keep this on my list because there are some things that I genuinely don’t agree with. However, I decided to leave it because I think it’s worth a read. Mostly because it’s been a bestseller for years and it’s good to read the books that have shaped generations. The key premise of the book is that the mind and body are connected and that all illnesses of the body have their root causes in emotional and spiritual issues. I definitely agree with her in that our health can be affected by our mental states. Years of unexpressed anger or guilt or sadness will find physical ways to manifest. I’m strong advocate for talk therapy for exactly this reason. I also recognise the importance of body based therapies like dancing, making art, yoga to help with this release. I also believe that some illnesses are entirely connected to our minds and emotions. But the book goes too far when it says that the people who got cancer didn’t love themselves enough. I find it the most cruelest thing to blame the person who got sick, especially with cancer. I don’t believe that every illness can be cured by positive thinking and self-love. Sometimes bad things happen and no amount of self-love can fix this. Overall the book has some interesting concepts that I found unique. For example there was a part that discussed financial prosperity and the ways in which we unconscious limit ourselves to financial wealth. It certainly gave me lots of food for thought, but there was a bad taste in my mouth when it came to judgement and blame towards cancer patients.
“The thoughts we choose to think are the tools we use to paint the canvas of our lives.”
7. Waking Up ~ Sam Harris
Sam Harris was my atheist icon as a teenager. I admired how rational, intelligent and unemotional he was (just the kind of person I wanted to be!) But over the years I lost interest in him because I found atheists in general to be depressing, hostile people. I was no longer interested in those who wanted to tear down religion and poke fun at spirituality in the name of being right. Instead, I wanted to hear from the people who were more focused on joy and love and had enthusiasm for life. However, this book stood out because I want to understand spirituality without all the fluff. There are some books that are so heavily drenched in new age spirituality that it makes my eyes roll. But Harris tackles spirituality like the rational neuroscientist that he is. It’s an important book to read if you are in the space of healing and wellness because a lot of people think that meditation is associated with religion. This book helps clearly peel the two apart. He focuses on the danger of an untrained mind, or as he says “your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.” Meditation is simply a tool used to train the mind to be in the present moment and essentially stop ourselves from needless suffering. He also speaks of the nature of consciousness and that the “I” that we believe ourselves to be does not exist. Our sense of ‘I’, the person in our head is simply a product of thought which comes and goes. He then goes on to discuss the importance of being weary of so called “gurus” and the profound impact that psychedelic drugs has had on him. I’ve never felt more inclined to try LSD in my life.
“That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.”