“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”
~ Nelson Mandela
For many of us, the last days of traditional schooling are perhaps a distant memory. And yet, even though we no longer live our days according to the cycles of the syllabus, nevertheless we continue to learn. We learn from the jobs we take and the relationships we make. We learn from our failures and the unexpected events that accompany our accomplishments. We learn and grow from every life experience that slaps up against the rigidities that tend to form when we live life habitually.
Indeed, habitual living is fertile soil wherein mindlessness and a sense of “stuckness” begin to grow. The best education we can hope for, then, after the A-B-C days are over, is a continuous process and practice that pulls us out of the deadening grooves of habit and into the pulsating vibrancy of presence.
The philosophies of the “East” and their respective practices are roadmaps to an expanded sense of self, and, thus, a deeper connection to that sacred presence. In the spirit of that connection and this “back to school” time of year, we’ve put together a short list of wisdom books to enhance your studies this Autumn in yoga philosophy, meditation and contemplative practice.
Obviously, none of the books we can recommend should supplant the task of putting these philosophies to practice in your life. So our hope is that this reading list will inspire you to take action and will deepen the insights of your own yoga, meditation, or other contemplative journey.
Sustainable Happiness: The Mind Science of Well-Being, Altruism, and Inspiration
by Dr. Joe Loizzo
History/ Contemplative Science/ Everyone
This book is both timely and profound. Dr. Joe Loizzo, founder of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, explores the timeless practices of contemplative science as they arose out of ancient India. He compellingly encourages his readers to seek out these practices as roads out of much of the unnecessary suffering that has been characteristic of modern life.
Loizzo masterfully critiques the atomistic worldview that conditions our prevailing cultural inability to grasp the profound implications of contemplative science. He in turn supports his alternative (yet ancient) worldview with the recent revelations of quantum physics, neuroscience and biology.
Joe Loizzo doesn’t just explore history and philosophy, however, but offers us practical maps and tools that will contribute to a sea change toward greater conscious presence in self and society.
The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami
by Radhanath Swami
There has been no book in recent memory that has captivated my adventurous spirit as deeply as this one. The story of Radhanath Swami’s path to devotion is full of adventure, insight and inspiration. This book will make you want to pack your bags today and set out on a vision quest tomorrow.
We all need these jewels of spiritual adventure when things feel stagnant. Personal stories of evolution and realization are important reads, as they balance out the more purely philosophical texts that we might engage with as a part of our practice and wisdom studies. Necessary reading for anyone on a spiritual or contemplative path.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Addition, Translation, and Commentary
by Edwin Bryant
Psychology/ Philosophy/ Scholarly
Rightly or wrongly, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has been adopted by the modern yoga community as the seminal text of the tradition. While many scholars claim that the asana-yoga (postural yoga) so popular today is really more reflective of a kind of Tantrik path and that the classical meditation-yoga espoused in the Sutras is a different animal, nonetheless a neo-Vedantic and sometimes Tantrik message is often read into Patanjai's Sutras.
This shouldn't be too much cause for alarm, however, because the life of any text is determined by the conditions of its use, and the Sutras, perhaps more than any other yogic text, is most certainly in use today. What we do with it is what matters.
My sense is that this text will be more carefully received when it is honored not so much as a text of asana-yoga but as a handbook for meditation and the many psychological principles that matter to meditation practice. Asana-yoga practice will in turn be deepened by such a careful engagement.
Its metaphysics, admittedly, is not so easily adaptable to modern life, unless one modifies the manner in which he or she reads or understands the utility of the text.
Professor Edwin Bryant, translator and commentator of this edition of the Sutras, said in a recent interview for our podcast CHITHEADS that the Sutras was the text relevant to the first two hours of his day, when he is engaged in his personal meditation practice (or sadhana). Its call to extract pure consciousness (purusha) from the objects of consciousness (prakriti) makes perfectly good sense as a mode of meditation. It is when we leave our cushion and go out into the world that this extraction is less useful, as in our worldly life we are called to engage and to respond to objects and situations. For the latter, Bryant goes to the Bhagavad Gita (see next book).
This text is challenging, but worth the effort, and Bryant's commentary is a reading experience for anyone with an interest in deepening their understanding of classical yoga philosophy and practice.
-->> ACCESS Edwin Bryant's recent video lecture, "Astanga Yoga: A Comparison" here. Bryant gave this talk at our recent online conference, "Radical Practice: Living the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita", all 11 VIDEOS of which are now available for DOWNLOAD.
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
by Mircea Eliade
Scholarly/ History/ Comprehensive
I’ve included this book, because it is a classic of Western yoga research and scholarship. Mircea Eliade was an absolute trailblazer in this arena, and, indeed, much later work by other explorers and researchers might be considered a footnote to his contribution.
First published in English in 1958 (in French in 1954), this book is a comprehensive overview of the theory and practice of yoga as it extends from the Vedic period and on into Bhahmanism, alchemy, Buddhism, Tantra, and the aboriginal devotion of India.
This book is certainly more appropriate for the scholarly-inclined practitioner. But if the challenge suits you, what the text lacks in practical and personal application it makes up for in historical density and cultural analysis. For those interested in making sense of the multifaceted cultural milieu and history out of which yogic practice derived and flourished, this is a book not to be missed.
Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition
by Christopher D. Wallis
Philosophy/ History/ Introductory
Tantra Illuminated inspired me to study more deeply a tradition that has captured my curiosity for some time, and it ultimately led me to a meditation practice in the lineage of Shaivism. This book is the first and (as far as I know) the only of its kind, and therefore is a must-have for any yoga philosophy library. If you haven’t yet read it, get it today.
While I haven’t personally met Adyashanti or experienced his teachings in person, I can’t read his texts without the palpable resonance of someone who has experienced deep and profound insight through his spiritual practice.
In the inspiring and accessible essays that comprise Emptiness Dancing, Adyashanti discusses topics ranging from the first moments of realization to how we can best integrate this realization into the rest of our life. He explores many of the practical questions that arise during spiritual practice, including those of ego, spiritual addiction, illusion, compassion and letting go.
This book is a must have for anyone interested in the topics of awakening and realization.
Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
by Georg Feuerstein
Opinions about the Bhagavad Gita are nothing if not radically diverse, and it is for this reason that the book is such fruitful material for study. For some, this text is as holy as the Bible is to Christianity. For others, particularly those to whom a pacifist attitude appeals, the apparent rationalization of warfare in the text sits rather uncomfortably. Still others point to its recently politicized nature, as a symbol of Hindu nationalist agendas, as the leading rationale for the book’s dismissal.
Despite the wide range of celebrators and detractors, the Bhagavad Gita is a monument in our global spiritual literature. Reading it with devotional adoration or critical distance are both fruitful modes of inquiry. Both can bear insight.
The Bhagavad Gita is considered a text about “Bhakti yoga”. Bhakti is a kind of divine love for the source of existence, referred to as Krishna in the text. This love is expressed as the desire to serve and to act in accordance with one’s dharma, duty, or life-trajectory. Meditating on the notion of “duty” (dharma), a relatively unpopular concept at the moment in our modern societies of liberal individualism, is just one of the many considerations that the text inspires. Professor Edwin Bryant, as mentioned in the Sutras comments, mentioned in our recent podcast interview with him that he looks to the Gita as a handbook for worldly life (outside personal practice), as it offers much commentary on how one is to act and relate with the world.
-->> To access VIDEO LECTURES on the BHAGAVAD GITA and the YOGA SUTRAS (as well as those on the teachings of BUDDHISM), be sure to check out our MASTERCLASS COLLECTION, our digital library of wisdom teachings.
by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha is a fictional story (which parallels the life of the Buddha) about a seeker of truth, named Siddhartha, who leaves a life of material comfort for the contemplative life. He meets Gautama, the Buddha, on his journey, but ultimately finds the life of an ascetic bereft of that ethereal something he's looking for. He settles into a life of lust and greed, only to ultimately become disillusioned with this as well, leaving it behind to seek truth once again. What rises to the surface of this beautiful classic by Hermann Hesse is a moral we all learn something from: that, at the end of the day, truth cannot be taught. It arises mysteriously and subtly over the long arc of one's journey; and the highs and lows, the lessons and failures one experiences along the spiritual path are all kaleidoscopic parcels of truth's mandala.
The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety
by Alan W. Watts
Critique/ Philosophy/ Everyone
Any book by Alan Watts is an adventure of penetrating insights. Perhaps more than any other public intellectual in history, Alan Watts popularized the teachings of Eastern philosophy (and especially Zen) in the West. His intelligent, but accessible and captivating voice as a speaker and a writer made him one of the most iconic figures of the beat and 60s generations. His thoughts and cultural observations are as relevant today as they were in the 50s and 60s.
The Wisdom of Insecurity diagnoses our time as one of profound insecurity, when the loss of religious belief leaves our culture feeling unmoored and deeply anxious. Watts, in a way clearly inspired by Eastern teachings, prescribes a complete overhaul of how we relate to ourselves, our experiences, and our anxieties. He offers us a chance to embrace insecurity as an avenue to greater awareness and wonder in life, rather than an obstacle to be shunned or overcome.
An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Perspectives on Reality, Knowledge and Freedom
by Bina Gupta
This is a fascinating introduction to Indian thought, as it seeks to introduce the traditions of India as “philosophical”, rather than merely “spiritual” or “religious”. For those not familiar with this division, academic scholarship generally distinguishes between philosophical questions, on the one hand (often referring implicitly to the Western philosophical tradition), and those that can be crudely called “religious” or “spiritual”. This distinction, with regards to Indian thought, cannot be maintained, according to Bina Gupta.
This book provides a rigorous overview of the Indian philosophical schools, as well as how these teachings relate to modern life. You will be comprehensively introduced to all the concepts and terms relevant to an understanding of Indian philosophy, and Gupta also explores how Indian thought has contributed to conversations around epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language and ethics. For those seeking a thorough and well-respected scholarly introduction to what India has contributed to philosophy, this is it.