When embarking on a journey of personal discovery, there’s something powerful in reading an inspiring book and the story of someone who’s done the same before you.
By removing yourself from the stress that all too often accumulates through stagnancy, retreats can provide the perfect setting to gain grounding, clarity and a fresh perspective. We can turn to inspiring books for comfort, inspiration and as Arlo Bates once wrote; to realise ‘that our inmost emotions and experiences are shared.’
5 inspiring books that explore ideas of self-discovery
A Journey in Ladakh – Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey is one of the key mystic writers of our time and a personal favourite. This book was his earliest, published in 1983. At the age of just twenty-five, he abruptly dropped his PhD at Oxford to embark on a spiritually seeking journey that saw him end up in Ladakh.
Bordering Tibet, India, China and Pakistan – Ladakh is one of the few places on earth where a Tibetan Buddhist community survives.
Harvey explores the fragility of traditional Eastern culture in the midst of globalisation, as well as love, teachers and Buddhist concepts of life. He has a stunning ability to infuse poetry into even the simplest of scenes, creating a gorgeous and captivating read. Of many (many) examples, I find this best reflected in a chapter where Harvey spends five days in the mountains, in total solitude.
Here, his writing reflects a quietening of the mind and the realisations of divine beauty that tend to follow…
“There is a small white curved beach. A quiet purplish light is falling on it. Not a rock, not a grain of sand, not one short grass darkening in the wind, can be changed. Everything exists in its own perfection.”
This inspiring book has become a classic for readers interested in Tibetan Buddhism and for those who love to travel, both externally and internally – I highly recommend.
Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
It would be surprising if you hadn’t heard of Liz Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love,’ which was a New York Times Best Seller for 187 weeks, sold over ten million copies and was endorsed by Oprah. Usually, mass commercial success is by no means reflective of a book’s value, but this case is an exception.
There is something just so wonderfully relatable about Liz Gilbert’s honest, anecdotal sharing of her year’s travels. This came about after a lengthy and dark divorce, descent into depression, insomnia and sickness – all of which through Gilbert stayed stubbornly intent on seeing the light on the other side. She offers guidance through her own experience and a fierce demonstration of radical self-love;
“I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. If you need the medication again, go ahead and take it—I will love you through that, as well. If you don’t need the medication, I will love you, too. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.”
Gilbert wears her enormous heart on her sleeve in this refreshingly light, humorously honest story of personal discovery, which I highly recommend for any retreat. She also has a great newsletter.
Meditation for the Love of it – Sally Kempton
To say that we’re lucky to have Sally Kempton as one of the most authentic spiritual teachers in our current times – would be an understatement. Originally a successful writer based in New York, Sally left that world behind to become a student of Swami Muktananda in India, for two decades. Well known for her talent in transmitting inner experience through shared practices and contemplations, she has been elegantly combined her writing talent and spiritual wisdom for forty years.
This inspiring book shares practical secrets on how to further our meditation practice and open ourselves to exploring the mysterious inner landscape of heart, body and mind. Drawing on ancient Eastern teachings, Kempton presents them in a light, personal, intuitive way.
This book is the perfect motivator for regular meditation, with Spirituality & Health calling it the ‘meditation book your heart wants to read.’
The Essential Rumi – Coleman Barks
Rumi was a 13th century Sufi poet, and is regarded now as one of the greatest spiritual masters and poets of all time. His deceivingly simple poetry has been described as being a doorway to the heart.
Coleman Barks has painstakingly translated over 200 of Rumi’s works, bringing this exquisite, spiritual literature to the Western world. This book is a collection of short poems.
It’s difficult to articulate the simple yet profound depth of Rumi’s poetry, but there is no question of its relevance in our modern crises. Rumi has been called the dissolver of religious boundaries, and as Barks states his poetry contains an ‘impulse to praise and recognise every being and every moment as sacred.’ An example of this would be here:
“Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being. If not, leave this gathering. Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.”
Brimming with wisdom, a poem or two from this inspiring book would make a welcome addition to your daily routine and any retreat.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
Published in 2005, this book is definitely a little hard to place in terms of genre. The Los Angeles Times called it ‘an intriguing amalgam of personal memoir, philosophical speculation, nature lore, cultural history, and art criticism,’ – and that’s closest I could ever come to summing it up.
Here’s a taste…
“When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe the desertion, the abduction, the accident. Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t–and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”
Solnit uses anecdotal stories, in-depth research and a beautifully lyrical writing style to explore ideas of how we navigate through the world. Her own deeply personal stories seamlessly connect with those of historical figures, in a unique and thought-provoking book of self-discovery that is an absolute pleasure to read and fitting for any retreat.
Nisha is a freelance writer and Vedic astrologer, based in the magical Byron Hinterlands. As well as running her candle business, her life and loves involve: yoga, gardening and all things esoteric. You’ll find her out in nature, or curled up at home with a good book. Happy Buddha is one of her most treasured places on earth (and indeed where she met her fiancé!).