Books I’m reading: Stephen Cope, Thich Nhat Hanh

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

About a year ago, my yoga teacher Tanya Greve suggested I read Stephen Cope’s book.

A little digression about Tanya Greve: She is the Director of Shakta Teacher Training, owner of LA Yoga Garage, and has been teaching for over ten years. She teaches Kundalini yoga, Hatha yoga, Prenatal yoga, and Mommy and me yoga. She is also a yoga therapist. She is an inspiring teacher, person and one of the best mothers I know. Also, she just had her second child! I’m thrilled for her and her newborn son. He is so fortunate to have such a loving mother!

OK. I’m back.

“America’s love affair with yoga is just beginning,” Stephen Cope writes in the introduction of his book published in 1999. At that point, he notes that recent surveys showed eleven million Americans practice yoga. More than a decade later, Mark Stephen’s  Teaching Yoga notes, “Yoga is $5.7 billion industry, up eighty-seven percent since 2004 and shows no signs of slowing. More than sixteen million people are regularly practicing in the United States alone (another eighteen million have dabbled).” Cope was right.

Currently there are plenty of  narratives–yoga memoirs, personal essays–and they are widely available, online, in magazines, in libraries and bookstores.  I’m pretty sure this was not the case when Cope decided to write his book. He explains, “When I first began inquiring more deeply into yoga, I lamented that there were so few books about the real experience of the transformation wrought by the practice.” In Yoga and The Quest for the True Self, he writes the book he would’ve wanted to read.

I think his book is also the kind of book I would’ve wanted to read when I first began my practice. At that time I was not successful in finding a book on the subject. Which seems strange because many existed at the time. Since I could not locate (for whatever reason) books on the personal experience of yoga, I began to read Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peace is Every Step

A few years ago, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Power and Anger. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk who teaches about mindfulness practice. He’s also a bit of a badass as the introduction in Peace is Every Step reminded me.In 1964, he founded the School of Youth for Social Service, “in which teams of young people went into the countryside to establish schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild villages that had been bombed.” In 1966 Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize and he evidentially inspired King to come out against the Vietnam War. In 1969 he organized the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks. Peace Accords were signed and he was not allowed back into Vietnam.

Years ago, when I purchased his book, I did not realize that he was engaged in activism, rooted always in his commitment to nonviolence, his dedication to peace. Years ago, I only noticed I felt an internal shift that caused me to take interest in his books and what he wrote in his books made sense to me. I looked at the back of the book and realized he had founded Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. I felt so inspired by his writing and registered a weekend stay at the monastery with an acquaintance. I had never meditated before in my life and meditating for days in a monastic setting was challenging, among other things.

Years later, I’m returning to Deer Park for a solo five day, four night stay. In preparation, I decided to read Peace is Every Step, an older book  composed of tiny vignettes. They’re short and succinct and probably most enjoyable if you’re familiar with his teachings. I would not recommend the book to people who are interested in reading Thich Nhat Hanh for the first time. His more recently published books are broken down into chapters that clearly and fully develop his ideas, complete with analogies and anecdotes.

As someone who is feeling a little nervous about my long stay, I found this question in the book to hit home:

Are you frightened of solitude–the emptiness and the loneliness you may find when you face yourself alone?

I found that this paragraph affirming:

Often we tell ourselves, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something!’ But when we practice awareness, we discover something unusual. We discover that the opposite may be more helpful. ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.’ We must learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly…’Stopping’ is not only to stop the negative, but to allow positive healing to take place. That is the purpose of our practice–not to avoid life, but to experience and demonstrate that happiness in life is possible now and also in the future. 

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One Response to Books I’m reading: Stephen Cope, Thich Nhat Hanh

  1. Jeff says:

    I’ve just finished reading several of your posts, with interest, and feel a simmering need to write something–but what, I’m not sure. Firstly, I’ve never attended a yoga class in my life, never an ashram or retreat; my yoga and retreat has been behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer driving through the mountains of British Columbia. It has been a Western, continental as well as civilizational, experience–a not going off somewhere else to find or achieve a more integral relationship to self, but a remaining muleheadedly here, in the midst of our Western lostness.

    Whereas I now and then read the writings of individuals who have gone off and touched a deeper sense of self such as this Stephen Cope relates and of course Thich Nhat, I always question how it relates back to us in the here and now. Thich writes of the gnawing urge: “Don’t just sit there, do something!” To me the discomforting urge faced by all the teeming masses of yoga practitioners is more: “Can I afford the time (and, since yoga often also requires a monetary outlay, the money) required to sit here until such a time as I touch something true and genuine in myself again and from that moment on know what it is I want to DO with the rest of my life.”

    Several times, including reading a post of your’s, I’ve come across the notion of “impermanence.” Why, I ask myself, are people focusing, or are instructed to focus, on that which will not last, or will pass? It might serve to free us from fixation on the mind-constructed self, which is impermanent, but does it lead many to an understanding of the deeper, permanent reality of the Life that is flowing through each and every living creature this very moment on this planet and probably beyond?

    To me, a more affective and relevant teaching would be that Buddhahood is permanence, the permanence of the Life that is flowing through us all; not the impermanence of the form it has temporarily inspirited.

    Anyway, Best wishes. These words haven’t been criticism of anything I’ve found on your site, merely thoughts provoked or prodded into being by the reading of several of your posts.


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