Five Short, Easy-to-Read Spiritual Classics That Will Help You Today
Each of the texts below is packed with essential, profound wisdom. They’re also short and easy to read. As such, if I were dictator of the world I’d make all five of them mandatory reading for all earthlings.
1. TAO TE CHING by Lao Tzu
Written 2,500 years ago in China, the Tao is, in my estimation, the wisest work ever written. I keep it on my desk at all times. Why is it so great? Here are a few of my greatest hits.
-Chapter 8: “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” If you have kids, cut this one out and put it on their bulletin boards!
-Chapter 30: “The Master understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.” This one is for you control freaks out there. Just think of life as like a river that you need to flow with rather than constantly wearing yourself down by fighting against the current, i.e., trying to control everything.
-Chapter 37: “When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” In other words, the simpler you live, the better off you’ll be. Cut down on how much you want and need and the anxiety will melt away.
Chapter 44: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” No words can improve on that.
Do yourself a favor and read the TAO. The Stephen Mitchell translation is best.
2. THE BHAGAVAD GITA — Author Unknown
The Gita, one of the main texts of Hinduism, was written roughly 2,200 years ago in India. It’s written as a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who is actually God incarnate. My favorites…
“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”
-Bottom line: When you’re constantly looking toward the riches at the finish line, your work not only suffers but you’re miserable to boot. Place all of your energy on the task at hand and your work will be the best it can be. You’ll also feel serene inside.
“Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires.”
-I know this one sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true. Serve others and you will be amply rewarded by God, the Universe, the Supreme Being…whoever you think is in charge of the cosmic show.
“The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction…Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.”
-Couldn’t have said it any better. Meditation is the most important thing you can do for yourself. And as it says, it takes time and repetition to achieve the profound benefits. Read on to the end and I’ll show you how you can develop a regular meditation practice.
I find the Eknath Easwaran translation to be the most readable.
3. ESSAY ON SELF-RELIANCE by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance, written in 1841, has had a greater influence on my life than anything I’ve ever read. I first read it when I was 18 and it has been at my fingertips ever since. Here’s why.
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or for worse as his portion.”
-Most of this essay comes down to Emerson insisting on being yourself. And that means accepting who you are, no matter what. Another great one for the kids.
“…The rose is perfect in every moment of its existence…But man does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.”
-A rose doesn’t know about past or future. It only exists in the now. We, on the other hand, are constantly stuck in thoughts worrying about what was or will be. If that’s you, try walking in nature and just looking at a flower. Or stand next to a tree and notice its stillness. It’ll bring you into the present moment.
“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”
-So do I. Whether it’s inside a church or inside ourselves, silence is where God/Jesus/Allah/The Supreme Being/The Genius of Nature (whoever floats your spiritual boat) resides.
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
-This is huge. So many people look out to the world for the answers to their problems. The answers are found by looking inside and listening to the stillness (aka yourself).
This one’s free. Just Google it.
4. SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse
Hesse, a German writer, wrote Siddhartha in 1922. I’m including it not because of any pithy, wise quotes, but rather for its central theme: The importance of blazing your own trail in your quest for spiritual development. This is so important in today’s world where spiritual seekers too often look outside to teachers for spiritual guidance and in doing so lose touch with their internal selves.
The book begins with young adult Siddhartha leaving his comfortable life in search of spiritual enlightenment. His best friend Govinda joins him. One day they meet the Buddha who tries to convince them to join his already large following. But Siddhartha tells the Buddha that while he believes his teachings to be supremely wise, it’s his firm belief that each individual must learn from his own experiences. Govinda decides to join the Buddha while Siddhartha declines. The rest of the novel is about Siddhartha’s circuitous journey through life. After years as a pious beggar he meets a beautiful woman who says she’ll only be with him if he has wealth. So he becomes a successful businessman, lives in the city and enjoys the high life. After many years he finds this life spiritually unsatisfying and devotes the rest of his days to being a lowly ferryman on a river. Using the river as a metaphor for life, Siddhartha becomes supremely enlightened. In their old age, he and Govinda have a chance encounter at the river. Govinda reveals that after several decades of following the Buddha he is still spiritually lost while Siddhartha has attained peace.
Such a powerful message. This doesn’t mean that you can’t read Eckhart Tolle’s books or watch Marianne Williamson’s lectures. Just don’t outsource your spiritual education to them or anybody. Be vigilant about never losing touch with your internal world.
5. THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle
I think The Power of Now is the most compelling spiritual book of the past fifty years.
Eckhart’s main point is that we are not our thoughts. So much human suffering comes from the constant, involuntary mind chatter our brains produce. “That was a shitty comment. I can’t believe she said that.” “If my business doesn’t pick up, I may have to sell my house.” “I wish I were thinner.” Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. Constantly racing around our heads. Tormenting us. Why do they torment us? Because we identify with them. We believe all those thoughts make up who we are. Eckhart’s point is that they don’t. So if we aren’t our thoughts, what/who are we? We’re the consciousness that is aware of those thoughts. There is you (the awareness) and the thoughts. Two entities. I know. Sounds nutty. But understanding and incorporating this distinction is literally the most important thing you can do for your mental, emotional and spiritual health. Read Eckhart’s book and you’ll find out why.
So Eckhart says that obsessive thinking is our most formidable adversary. Well, is there anything you can do about it? Yes. You can meditate. Meditation is just sitting quietly and placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when your mind grabs your attention and throws you into thought, you simply notice that that has happened and bring attention back to your breathing. When you do that over and over, day after day, month after month, and yes, year after year, your uncontrollable thoughts subside.
I know this from personal experience. I’ve been meditating regularly for the past six years and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. And you can do it, too. I’ve designed a simple, easy-to-follow eight-week program that starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then builds gradually from there. And it’s free. Access the plan at my website davidgerken.net. It’s a no-brainer. Do it!