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Posts Tagged ‘The Antidote’

When I drove to Vermont to collect Teen the Elder (in less than two months I have to call him something else!) from college, I caught up on some podcasts, including Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust interview with Jacqueline Winspear. I’d heard of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, but mostly avoid mysteries. I’m a wimp when it comes to blood and guts and I hate thinking about crimes and criminal intent.

But I love history, and Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist and I watched The Bletchley Circle on PBS recently. The series is about four women friends who were code breakers at Bletchley Park who work together to nab a serial killer in London a few years after the war. The murders made me squeamish, but the period details were terrific and I enjoyed the brilliant female characters.

So when I heard Winspear’s conversation with Nancy Pearl I was intrigued. Last weekend the Computer Scientist and I visited an inn on the southern Maine coast, and a mystery seemed perfect to take along. I loved it! Maisie is a very compelling character, a working class girl who goes into service and can’t resist her employers’ library. When she’s catches Maisie reading in the wee hours, Lady Rowan Compton realizes the girl’s remarkable intellect deserves developing, and she asks her friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, to tutor Maisie.

When the first book in the series opens, Maisie has opened her own office as a “psychologist  and investigator” in London, and Dr. Blanche is retired. As the book unfolds we learn about her life thus far and the training, study, and experiences that have shaped her, including studying “moral sciences” at Cambridge and serving as a nurse in Frace during WWI. Under Dr. Blanche’s careful tutelage, Maisie learned to take careful notes, think deeply, and meditate regularly. This combination of awareness and contemplation really struck me.

That’s what I’ve been working on myself — mindfulness and lately, contemplative prayer. I’ve tried meditation for years and have had mixed results. In a small group discussion of Jerry Aaker’s A Spirituality of Service and a Lenten series on types of prayer, contemplative or centering prayer appealed to me as a practice similar to meditation but less focused on breathing. Phil Fox Rose offers a nice “how to” on this kind of meditation. Contemplative awareness in Maisie Dobb’s world and our own is about compassionate insight into the messy, the broken, and the beautiful alike.

Why bother with this? Why not say a quick prayer if you pray, and get on with the day? Well, Maisie meditates for mental clarity. Regular practitioners swear by that, and as I mentioned in my review of Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, meditation  helps strengthen our “negative capability” as Keats called it, the capacity to live comfortably with uncertainty. Or to grasp a mystery, fictional or real. Such as trying to take in catastrophes like bombings or murders or natural disasters, or to be a witness to injustice (plenty of opportunity to do that lately, as our state argued about whether to fund essential services via casino gambling and a judge decides soon whether our town’s homeless people have a right to camp when there’s no shelter space).

I’m not sure if those skills will help me figure out what Maisie Dobbs is solving as I read the rest of Jacqueline Winspear’s series, but I plan to do that, as well as to hone my own contemplative and mindful awareness. 

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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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