This is part of a semi-regular section of The AQ Blog called ‘AQ Reviews.’ It primarily involves book and film reviews. Film will be rated out of 5 stars. Books will either be ‘recommended,’ ‘not recommended,’ or ‘recommended with reservations.’ I will attempt to review things that are readily available on the internet, Netflix, at libraries or bookstores and will provide links to what I can. There’s no sense in reviewing things that can’t be shared by all. Enjoy.
Over recent months I have become something of a fan of Thich Nhat Hanh and his books. In my exploration of Buddhist meditation, his books have been central to understanding the practice and how it works. While I have yet to put anything into firm practice, my thinking is already undergoing transformation. After reading You Are Here, I picked up two more of his books, one of which is Reconciliation Healing the Inner Child. While I am still in the process of reading the book, I want to highlight a few things that are consistent through Hanh’s work and which I have found particularly comforting.
The Comfort of Simplicity
Hanh’s books are not difficult to read. He does not use too much jargon or hard to pronounce Buddhist words. The ones that are there are contextualized with a Western counterpart so that no matter what background someone is coming from they can understand. There is something truly egalitarian in his style which makes the reader feel welcomed and included. You don’t have to be an expert in Buddhism to read and understand; you don’t have to be a devotee, a scholar, or even familiar with a thesaurus; you don’t have to be religious or even spiritual; all the reader has to do is read and be open to hearing what is being said.
One of the great strengths of Hanh’s books is the analogies he uses to help people understand. One that runs through many Buddhist texts and teaching is that of the seed. This passage from reconciliation is a good description:
“Mental formations like anger, sorrow, or joy, rest in the store consciousness in the form of seeds (bija). We have a seed of anger, despair, discrimination, fear, a seed of mindfulness, compassion, a seed of understanding, and so on. Store consciousness is made of the totality of the seeds, and it is also the soil that preserves and maintains all the seeds. The seeds stay there until we hear, see, read, or think of something that touches a seed and makes us feel the anger, joy, or sorrow. This is a seed coming up and manifesting on the level of mind consciousness, in our living room. Now we no longer call it a seed, but a mental formation.”
The seed analogy is similar to many sayings and stories in the Western tradition, like “Life is a garden.” For me it always makes me think of the Native American story where an old man tells his grandson of two wolves battling inside of every person. One is light, the other is dark, and they are locked in perpetual battle for control over the soul. When the grandson asks which one wins, the old man replies, “The one you feed.” For me, that story has informed a lot of my thinking about human nature and my own struggles with life and attitude.
But the seed analogy is different. We do not have complete control over what seeds flourish and which do not. In many ways, our seeds are influenced by outside factors. Our role is not just to feed and water our seeds, but to observe and cultivate the ones that grow without our help. This relates to the role of mindfulness which is to be aware but not to orchestrate. Hanh talks more about this in the book, but I will not go into detail about here.
One thing that Hanh discusses at length and which I have found particularly helpful is the concept of interbeing. Many cultures and belief systems have the idea of interbeing, of the connectedness of everyone and everything. As Hanh says in Reconciliation:
“If we look into one cell of our body or one cell of our consciousness, we recognize the presence of all the generations of ancestors in us. Our ancestors are not only human beings. Before human beings appeared, we were other species. We have been trees, plants, grasses, minerals, a squirrel, a deer, a monkey, and one-celled animals. All these generations of ancestors are present in each cell of our body and mind. We are the continuation of the stream of life. …
We’re not the same as, nor are we separate from, other living and non-living beings. We’re connected to everything, and everything is alive.”
Notice, Hanh is not talking about evolutionary theory or one-ness of existence. Instead, he is discussing interbeing, the fact that everything is interconnected. Because we interact with and gain benefit (an easy one to imagine is nutrition) everything that exists, we are connected by interbeing. For Reconciliation, this is important for understanding how reconciliation can be achieved through meditation and mindfulness.
Interbeing is a great concept. It wonderfully illustrates how we are connected through nature and nurture. The old joke that “I’m turning into my mother” (which is not a joke for me) becomes particularly poignant when you think of it as part of interbeing. Parts of us is our mother or father or any other relative. The problem with this fact is that sometimes that part of us is not a good part. We can get bad habits or beliefs or whatever from our family. This is a huge key to understanding reconciliation.
Take this quote from the book, for an example:
“We have inherited a lot. With mindfulness, we can become aware of the habit energy that has been passed down to us. We might see that our parents or grandparents were also very weak in ways similar to us. We can be aware without judgment that our negative habits come from these ansestral roots. We can smile at our shortcomings, at our habit energy. With awareness, we have a choice; we can act another way. We can end the cycle of suffering right now.”
Reconciliation in this book is not as much with another person but with that person inside ourselves. For me, this book has been helpful (and difficult) because I have a lot of things to reconcile inside myself. I am very much like my father in all the bad ways that made my mother irritated. Now in my own relationship, these habits are harmful and I need to reconcile them in order to create a better life and future for my partner and myself. It is difficult to do. It is not easy and it requires a lot of work. But there is comfort, too. Knowing that I am not exactly like my father by nature, but that it is something I can change through awareness helps me stay positive that I can affect the outcomes of my actions. I am not helpless; I am not doomed to repeat his mistakes.
The best thing about Reconciliation and other books by Thich Nhat Hanh is their overwhelming positivity. The message that you can do something to change, you are capable of improvement through your own efforts, that all you have to do is treat yourself with love and respect – this is comforting. Unlike Christianity and other religions that require a third party intermediary, mindfulness is from within. You have all the tools you need inside you. Thus, reconciliation is something you can do without a higher power’s influence. This does away with the feeling that we have to be perfect before we approach God or that we do not deserve help because we are sinful or whatever else. We do not need to be perfect to interact with ourselves. It is impossible to be on unequal footing with our own person.
As for reviewing Reconciliation, I cannot recommend it enough. This and every other book by Thich Nhat Hanh is well worth the short amount of time it takes to read them. It is easy to incorporate these teachings into any spiritual (or non-spiritual) tradition. What you bring into the reading is just as important as the reading itself. Because of this and because of the wonderful wisdom and love Hanh brings to the work, I rate this book five out of five stars (a rare occurrence because I never like anything that much).