The Monk and the Scientist

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Title: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Date Completed: 2/26/10

Author(s): Matthieu Ricard

Copyright: 2003, Little, Brown and Company

# pages: 237

Genre: Self Improvement

ISBN: 978-0-316-05475-1

Over the last three-ish years, I’ve become very interested in learning more about the brain.  In the course of reading about new scientific lessons about how the brain works, I learned of a study using Buddhist Monks to understand the different ways the brain works.  I have also read a lot about Buddhism, so this really caught my eye.  So, when I saw this book, I was really excited to get my hands on it.

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist Monk who works with the Dalai Lama.  He is one of the monks who was hooked up to a big machine and studies while meditating.  Interesting enough, in-and-of itself.  But, wait!  There’s more!

Matthieu Ricard is also a scientist who mapped the genes on the chromosome of Escherichia coli bacteria at the Pasteur Institute.  There, he worked with Francois Jacob, a Nobel Prize winner.  I mean, come on.  This guy seems to always work with the greats.

So, the book is a combination of Buddhist philosophy on happiness mixed with the stark realities of the science that backs it up.  In the author’s words, ‘One goal of this book is to identify the inner conditions that favor happiness and those that hinder it.’  I think this is what makes the book interesting.  It is a mix of science, psychology, and spirituality that flows from topic to topic while keeping your interest.

I must say, and this is totally of subject, that there is one thing about the book that I won’t quickly forget.  Throughout the book, Richard describes people in ways that you would generally expect.  The great philosopher Aristotle.  Tibetan hermit Xu.  Eminent scientist Ekman. But, a line that made me laugh out loud was the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. I mean, who wants to be forever know as a great pessimist?  So, I looked him up on Wikipedia.  They call him a great pessimist too.  I suddenly feel much better about my accomplishments in life.  I may not be working along side a Nobel Prize winner, or the Dalai Lama.  But, I am confident that I will not have ‘the great pessimist’ on my tombstone.  And for that, I am grateful!

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Book 21 – Weekly Improvements

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Title: Life Makeovers

Date Completed: 1/9/2010

Author(s): Cheryl Richardson

Copyright: 2000, Broadway Books

# pages: 209

Genre: Personal Improvement

ISBN: 0-7679-0663-2

 This is at least the fourth time I’ve read this book.  I like to read it every so often to make sure that I’m staying on track and focusing on the right things.  Each chapter represents a week of the year, and gives you a different area to focus on improving.  The idea is that you take a year to read the book – implementing each idea each week.

 Because personal improvement is basically a hobby of mine, most of the 52 ideas are already things I’ve put into practice in my life.  However, I continue to re-read the book just to make sure I haven’t let something slip through the cracks.  We all know how easy it is to let life get in your way. 

 Each chapter starts with a discussion about the topic for that week.  This is where Cheryl explains the concept and gives her argument for why it is important for you to make this specific change in your life.  Then, there is an action step – where she gets to brass tacks and tells you what your assignment is.  Finally, there are resources that can help you with the specific topic being discussed.  Each chapter is only 3-4 pages long, so it is really an easy fast read when you are doing it one week at a time.

 The lesson for Week 6 is one that I am constantly struggling with, and I suspect a lot of you do too.  It is called ‘What’s Draining You?’ The concept behind this chapter is that there are a lot of things in our life that drain our energy, and if you would just take the time to deal with them once-and-for-all, you would have less stress and be more free to pursue the things that make you happy.  When you have something that you know needs to be done, but you put off doing it, you create a situation where you are constantly thinking about it and beating yourself up for not taking care of it.  These can be major life-altering things, but in more cases than not, they are just small things that grate at you.  You aren’t putting them off because they are going to change the course of your life.  Things like needing to organize your closet, making an appointment to have your cholesterol checked, taking your pants to the tailor to have the hem fixed, or reconciling your checkbook and cause an enormous amount of stress in your life.  When you take care of these energy-drainers, you free up the energy you were spending avoiding the task to put into other things that you want to do, but can’t ever find the time or energy to get to.

 For me, it is making phone calls.  Anything that requires me to make a phone call usually gets put-off and then becomes a stressor.  I can’t explain my adversity to the phone…it just is what it is (and I’m not willing to spend the money for therapy to determine why).  I always dread making a phone call.  And then, I stress out about the fact that something is on my ‘to-do’ list for weeks at a time, when all it would take to get it off the list is to pick up the phone.  Now, I can tell you that when I actually make the call, it is never as bad as I think it is going to be.  And the energy boost I get when the task is complete is great.  Now, excuse me, I need to get going.  I’ve got a phone call to make!

Book 20 – Psych 101

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Title: Do One Thing Different

Date Completed: 1/3/2010

Author(s): Bill O’Hanlon

Copyright: 1999, William Morrow and Company

# pages: 198

Genre: Personal Improvement

 I haven’t read anything as close to a psychology book as this since Psychology 101 in college.  Based on the title, I didn’t expect it to be a book based on psychology, but it was interesting nonetheless. 

 This book is based on the branch of psychology called ‘solution-oriented therapy.’  The type of psychology you see on t.v. most, where the person sits on the couch and talks while the psychologist says ‘and how did that make you feel?’ is not solution-oriented therapy.  The traditional types of therapy have you analyze your past and why it may be making you do the things you do.  Solution-oriented therapy basically says: what difference does it make why you do the things you do.  Just do something different and you won’t do the things you do anymore.

 The idea is to look at the circumstances surrounding the thing that you do that you want to change.  Then, once you are conscious of what you do, you can change something about it.  Once you change something about it, the outcome will also change.  Everyone is familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over and expecting different outcomes.  Well – solution-based therapy says ‘hey dummy, stop doing the same thing over and over!’

 So, for example, if you are the type of person who can eat a whole bag of cookies in one sitting…next time you start to eat the cookies, walk out to your driveway and eat them out there.   Or, if you can’t bring yourself to do that…eat them with the opposite hand of the one that you naturally eat with.  The idea is to disrupt your natural pattern. 

 I thought this was a really interesting book with a lot of good examples of how to overcome issues (both big and small).  I think it will be fun to put some of them to use in my own life.  The good thing about this book and the approach that it outlines is that it isn’t just for big, hairy, life-altering issues.  It applies to even small things that are just really annoyances in your life.

Book 17 – Building Relationships

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Title: Click: Ten Truths for Building Extraordinary Relationships

Date Completed: 12/20/09

Author(s): George C. Fraser

Copyright: 2008, McGraw-Hill

# pages: 200

Genre: Self Improvement

 This book caught my eye because starting a charity means building relationships and asking people for things that you wouldn’t normally ask.  I thought it might give me some magical tips that would make me at ease in asking people for things.  I’m sure you are surprised to find out that it didn’t – as with everything in life, you’ve got to work at it to be good at it!

 As the book’s title suggests, the author has ten truths about building and maintaining relationships.  Each truth has a chapter dedicated to it.  The book is an easy read because he uses examples from his own life to explain how the truth is applied.  Some of the truths are: be authentic, communicate with your heart, trust first, and tailor your relationships for the perfect fit.  All of the truths seem obvious when you read them – like, duh – if you want to make friends you need to be yourself and trust them – but it is funny how we really do need to be reminded of these things on a regular basis.

 These ten truths are also grouped into three categories that Fraser feels must be present in order for a relationship to bloom.  They are chemistry, fit, and timing.  Essentially, the idea is that you will never develop deep relationships with everyone you meet.  There are some people that you click with (hence the title!), and these relationships are naturally going to grow deeper.  In order for you to click with someone, you must have chemistry, fit and the right timing. 

 Of the ten truths, none of them were really very earth-shattering for me.  Nothing I haven’t heard (or read about) before.  Of course, I read more than the average person, so that probably has something to do with it.  But, it is always nice to be reminded of these things because when you get into your daily routine, sometimes you can forget these things.