Book Review: The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

I was given The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo, and perhaps this is a book that is helping some people somewhere.  If so, stop reading and enjoy.

I want to say my piece on this book, which I think is poorly written, and digress a bit into the New Age movement — or a portion of it, that does as Nepo does — though there are some very good “New Age” teachers.

The book is formatted into a daily meditation guide to awaken you, using quotes, and many spiritual precepts as the jumping off points. Day-books have been the rage in the last decade, and frankly, most are a bit like FaceBook, allowing you to feel like you are having a brief respite when in fact, like the thousand friends you’ve collected, real friends need to be cultivated and spent time with, listening and understanding and celebrating.  I postulate that while they may be nice as part of a calendar, if you want to have any kind of spiritual awakening, you  need to pick a spiritual path and stay with it like you would a good friend, and get to know its depths.

While I was so-so on some of the quotes and his commentary about them, I had a great deal of trouble with several of the religious precepts I perused.  If you are going to use religious quotes and precepts, then know them.  OR, tell your readers you are a dabbler and going loosey-goosey on everyone, throwing your shallow interpretation on the wall to see if it sticks.  OR, say you like this quote, saw it as graffiti on a bathroom wall, what it means to you, and that you’ve not spent much time on it.  OR, don’t interpret a quote at all and just write what you want to say.  A quote doesn’t validate you, but to a reader, it might make them think you know what you are talking about.

I was gifted with the book.  It is poorly written.  While it is true, everyone has the right to take a word and reinterpret it anyway one likes, language and culture are based on the dialogue between the differences and similarities of thought.  And it may be true that I know more than your average bear about a lot of religious ideas, going deeply into four of them.  Still, Nepo has taken many precepts, religious quotes, and has not bothered to really understand them.  He has given a platitude version of a quote for the ages.  While this may have helped someone, somewhere, I have a problem with what the man robs a reader of the opportunity for, and that he holds himself out as a meditation instructor who is guiding you to a deeper and more awakened life, when it is really a Hallmark day-book.  I postulate he wastes your time for 15 minutes over 365 days (roughly 90 hours) when in that same time you might get to some sort of awakening by picking up a Buddhist, Jewish, Shamanic, Catholic — insert your faith here — book and going deeply into the pages, thinking about what they mean with a really good highlighter!  (Ooh, there’s a good quote for my own daily book!)

Granted I didn’t read the whole book — I read from the back (this is a weird thing I do unless it is a book of fiction) and was unimpressed.  Then this morning, I went to page one, Jan 1, and decided to give this a chance.  I read, “Precious Human Birth.  Of all things that exist, we breath and wake and turn it into song.”  He began to incorrectly describe what that precept is all about (and in any scholarly — not spiritual — Buddhist 101 book they’d give it to you accurately) then took off on his own digression. He even threw in a chop-wood-carry-water reference — just to let you know he knew a bit about Zen/Taoism/Eastern thought!

Okay, it is a good thing to contemplate what he said — to marvel at how great it is to be human and give thanks to be able to reflect and be conscious (and he implies other forms of life do not do this) — BUT BUT BUT, this is not the preliminary.  There is so much more to it.  The preliminary of “Precious Human Birth” is not just about being grateful for the gift of a human body, it is also to contemplate that you have a gift in that you have heard good teachings, truths that you can use toward consciousness, compassion, openheartedness.  It is a contemplation you do at the beginning of every Buddhist prayer — in any branch of Buddhism — so understand that it is core to a mind-set toward all the practices and meditation, from the most difficult or elaborate to the simple act of zazen.  You contemplate four thoughts:

  1. having this precious moment free of tyranny or fear, perhaps;
  2. of the fact that you can die at any time;
  3. of karma, (what you do — thinking too, if we are honest — whether virtuous or nat, traps you into cause and effect;
  4. and of the suffering of others.

The last one eventually leads many on to the Bodhisattva vow, to not rest until all are released from suffering (Reader’s Digest explanation.)  These are four preliminaries are words, and in the beginning of my path I thought them a bit mundane and boring.  Then I wondered, “Why do they all yak on and on about these obvious things?”  Wondering why teachers I respected yakked on about them, and trusting them a bit to guide me, led to contemplation.  I committed to my practice and went deeply with them, discovering in the gratitude beyond the wonder of blue sky, into the synchronicity of my precious life and its more painful moments as well.  And to look for the consciousness in all things.

When Nepo reduces this to more than the statement of “contemplate your Precious Human Birth,” and begins to reduce it to you meditating on how you are different than the rock and the bench, he takes your practice away from you.  He leads you into a sense of false security that you are pretty hot stuff, and your life is pretty damn good.  Then during the day you may wonder why that feeling doesn’t last.

Real practice, any real practice (although I think there are better practices and worst practices if you want to awaken), will not just make you feel good for a few minutes, or make you think you have 4,678 friends.  It will make you feel the discomfort you have, and offer a way to seriously cope and grow through the discomfort, just as an awake person may enjoy their FaceBook friends but also know that most are not “real” friends but acquaintances or less, and in that number there are a few good friends who must be tended, spoken to, cried for, cared about, shared with, and celebrated.

I have a gratitude practice, on top of my lojong practices.  In it I look, day and night, at what brings joy and well-being.  In mine, there might be some surprises, because I value many tough lessons, but overall there is a theme.  Husband, Cats, Foods, Weather, Warm Bed, Sleep (I am an insomniac), AND work, struggles with creativity, my often uncomfortable practice or my husband’s sometimes uncomfortable truths about my behavior.

Now I will tell you the secret of the really good New Age teachers:  They’ve actually done the work, deep work on a path, to get to truth-telling, not just platitudes.  Most have done this work on more than one path.  They assimilate and bring this forth because they like to teach, and they borrow from their own paths.  They don’t just give you happy thoughts.  They nail your ass when nailing is what is needed, albeit respectfully.   Good friends do that too.


©D. Katie Powell.  My images/blog posts may be reposted; please link back to zenkatwrites.  Art (unless stated) is also by me; please link to dkatiepowellart.

About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
This entry was posted in buddhism, courage, journal, meditation, mind, prayer, rant, spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

  1. macjam47 says:

    One of my biggest pet peeves is when a book is poorly researched. If it is to have any credibility, the author MUST do due diligence to research.

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