I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SPIRITUAL. In the 1960s I read the works of Kahlil Gibran, devoured Autobiography of a Yogi, and during my adolescence in the early 70s, even studied Transcendental Meditation with Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi. I was given my own mantra, swore never to reveal it, and though someone recently told me that all of the Yogi's students were presented with the same mantra, I'm reluctant to believe it.
But my deepest religious roots lie in a suburban New York girlhood spent as the only child in a Jewish family that lived within walking distance of a synagogue. We celebrated the three major holidays— Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. My father occasionally took me to temple during the high holy days, he never made it through an entire service. For him it was more tradition than anything else. I don't think he believed anything the more zealous congregants said. My dad was what I call a "minimalist Jew," and had a certain distaste for Orthodox Jews whom he called "fanatics." My father had a general aversion to extreme activities, regardless of religious connection.
I'm not sure if this was just his personality or the result of having spent five years of his adolescence in the German concentration camp at Dachau. My father witnessed horrible events during that sojourn, but remarkably, always considered himself lucky. His father had owned a big lumberyard before the war and when the Nazis took over, they gave his sons a job in the facility's kitchen. The boys peeled potatoes and my father often shared his food with fellow Jews in their cold and stark wooden barracks.
Those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust all responded differently to their experience. Some turned to religion and some turned against it. Those who turned to religion wanted to thank God for sparing their lives. Those who turned away believed that if there were a God, he would not have let the Holocaust happen in the first place. My father's position was somewhere in between. Despite his skepticism of many around us who seemed more blindly devoted, he wanted to honor the religion of his ancestors. So each December we lit Hanukkah candles in the bay window that faced our street, and in the spring we celebrated Passover with a Seder dinner at Uncle Bob and Aunt Silva's house.
As it happened, my future husband, Simon, was also a child of Holocaust survivors. His parents had turned away from Judaism to the point of installing a Christmas tree in the middle of their living room every year. So when my husband and I married and had children, we were faced with the dilemma of choosing a religious standpoint from which to raise our kids. We ended up doing the minimalist Jewish thing, following only a few small traditions.
After my father died, my kids grew up, and the few traditions that we still observed appealed even less to my husband, I became more of a minimalist than my dad had been— only lighting candles for Hanukkah each year. Like my father, I came to believe that Judaism is more of a culture than a religion.
But this past year marked a significant spiritual turning point for me. I attended an event at USC Santa Barbara that featured His Holiness The Dalai Lama as the primary speaker, and during the day's sessions I found myself passionately moved by his words. The points he made resonated with me deeply. Some were simply common sense reminders of the importance of being a good person, but many were similar to the beliefs my father had instilled in me. The essence of what His Holiness said was:
Inspired, I scoured new age bookstores for ideas and researched spiritual communities in my neighborhood, finally learning of a Vedanta temple near my house. Vedanta is an ancient spiritual philosophy based on the Hindu holy Veda scriptures whose affirmations include the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of all religions. I attended a few Sunday morning sessions and found them inspiring and enlightening. One of the first lectures I attended was called "Detachment," a sure draw for me as someone who has a tendency to become easily attached, particularly to those I love and to specific incidents in my past.
What I learned at the lecture is that you can love someone or something and still retain a healthy detachment from the object of that love. This was something that came naturally to me during my years as a registered nurse when I would go home to my family after caring for patients all day. I have found, however, that it is much more difficult to apply this principle to my relationship with my mother who has always been a master at making me feel bad— not only about myself, but about her and her predicament. Reflecting on the message of the lecture, I realized that it is possible to love someone without being responsible for their life, and that they're also not responsible for mine. This combination of spiritual distance with love seems a valuable key to healthier relationships across the board.
In my ongoing search for more inspiration and education, I found myself haunting the Vedanta temple's bookstore. I have been particularly drawn to the section on Zen Buddhism which is where I found a tiny pocket guide that I now keep in my purse to read while in the waiting room at my doctor's office or for whenever I have an extra minute to myself. The lectures mentioned above, other books, and that tiny volume have served as the springboards for my decision to use this coming year to learn more about Buddhism— a New Year's resolution that I actually look forward to keeping. A selection of some of the books that have aided in my exploration to date can be found at right. They may deal with different takes on Buddhism and spirituality, but all of them offer wonderful insights into who we are and how to become even better people.
Finally, I have to agree with the Dalai Lama's belief that the world can do without religions, but not without spirituality. I truly believe this and see the reality of it in my own life, which has always been more spiritual than religious. And although the Dalai Lama's specific practice has many facets, the basic tenet for him, and I hope for many of us, is that of caring for and acting out of concern for others.
DIANA M. RAAB, is an award-winning essayist, memoirist and poet whose work has been widely published and anthologized. Her memoir, Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal won the 2009 Mom's Choice Award for Best Adult Nonfiction, and her second memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey will be released in June 2010. In addition to publishing three collections of poetry, Raab is editor of the anthology Writers and Their Notebooks that includes submissions from well-published writers about their journaling habits as well as an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Raab also teaches in the UCLA Extension Writer's program, lectures, and conducts workshops around the country. Please visit her website at: www.DianaRaab.com and her blog at www.DianaRaab.Wordpress.com
WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT by Walpola Rahula There may actually be more types of Buddhist practice than there are flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Wading through the specifics of the varied approaches can be daunting for anyone, especially for beginners. Happily, Buddhist monk and scholar, Walpola Rahula, identifies not only the basics from which all Buddhist thought flows, but clearly and fully charts what might otherwise feel like an ocean of spiritual information. A standard in many college theology departments, some consider this book the essential Buddhist primer. —Julie Mihaly
$10.08 at Amazon.com.
AWAKENING THE BUDDHA WITHIN: TIBETAN WISDOM FOR THE WESTERN WORLD by Lama Surya Das Writing with a lightness and sense of humor that winningly communicate the basics of Buddhism in a markedly Western way, Lama Surya Das serves up a hip and Tibetan-tradition-based intro to "The Middle Path." A native New Yorker whose mother has nicknamed him the "Deli Lama," Das intertwines personal tales of growth with lessons on Buddhist fundamentals. More fun, and possibly less informative, than many "introduction-to" books, the meat of the message is nicely served. —JM
$10.85 at Amazon.com.
THE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO ZEN BUDDHISM by Jean Smith A gem of a book, this well-written and easy to understand guide provides helpful insights into America's most popular form of Buddhism. From tips on the best posture for meditation to definitions of Zen terms ranging from acariya (teacher) to zazen (sitting meditation), Smith provides a broad sweep of information as well as answers to questions about Zen practice centers and why a powerful relationship between teacher and student is considered essential. —JM
$6.02 from Buy.com.
THE ART OF HAPPINESS IN A TROUBLED WORLD by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. In a time when natural disasters, war, economic hardship, and fanaticism of all kinds abound, this latest in a series of collaborations between the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard Cutler maps the way to the quiet eye at the center of the storm. Through stories, exchanges, and exposition, both men reveal the ways in which we not only help or hinder ourselves as we move through this world, but how reexamining our view of what "happiness" actually is has the potential to shift us toward richer, fuller lives of grace and compassion. —JM
$17.16 at Amazon.com.
BEING PEACE by Thich Nhat Hanh The author of many wonderful books on varied aspects of life and Buddhist practice, Hanh's writing style is charming, simple, warm, and inspiring. This particular collection of teachings by the Vietnamese-born monk acquaint us once again with his loving exhortations to live every day to the fullest, breathe life in deeply— literally and figuratively— to smile, and to foster peace in our hearts and in our world. We are reminded again that any suffering we may see or endure never preclude the ever-accessible joys that surround us each day. — Diana Raab & JM
$7.47 at Amazon.com.
THE POCKET BUDDHA READER by Anne Bancroft Filled with snippets of scripture and quotes from the Buddha, this tiny volume is the perfect take-along for instant inspiration and reminders of what it means to choose a life of loving mindfulness. — DR
$4.50 from Walmart.