Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

Thank you to Noetic Books/New Harbinger Publications for the review copy.

On the back cover of this New York Times Bestseller is the question "who are you really?"  Before I read this book, I would have answered, "I am my thoughts, opinions, actions, experiences, and memories" or "I am a 39-year old wife, daughter, aunt, and friend." 

After reading The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself I realize that the answer is more philosophical and complex than all that.  Basically who I am and who you are exists in the seat of our consciousness.  We are the person who observes our thoughts, emotions, actions.

Why is this distinction of self important?  Because, according to author Michael A. Singer, "you not only have the ability to find yourself, you have the ability to free yourself."

I'm attracted to books on mindfulness because in the last few years I've realized that, like so many people, I'm in danger of losing myself in my thoughts.  It occurred to me that I was missing most of my life because my inner thoughts were loud and ceaseless, like some annoying passenger on a five-hour train ride who decides to pass the time by calling everyone she has ever known on her cell phone (which is why I try to get a seat in the Quiet Car as often as possible). I want to put these inner thoughts on mute so I don't miss the experience of being alive.

The Untethered Soul struck a chord in me because it encourages detachment from this never-ending feedback inside our brains.  "The best way to free yourself from this incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively," Singer writes. "There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind--you are the one who hears it."

Singer goes on to say,

If you watch it objectively, you will come to see that much of what the voice says is meaningless. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it.  In fact, your thoughts have far less impact on this world than you would like to think.  Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself.  It's the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.

The idea that we are not our thoughts is sometimes a difficult concept to get one's head around.  But if you can understand this you are poised to enjoy your life much more than you ever could when you were viewing life through the filter of your inner thoughts and perceptions.

I did take issue with some of the sweeping proclamations in the book, such as "Once you reach this state [of letting go] you will never have to worry about anything ever again."  That may be true, but if it is human to suffer, then are we really meant to transcend all our worries all the time?  Wouldn't that make us more like automatons than real people? 

Singer goes on to write, "No matter what happens, you can choose to enjoy the experience.  If they starve you and put you in solitary confinement, just have fun being like Gandhi."  This seems oversimplified and, frankly, kind of ridiculous.  There are certain situations where having fun with adversity would be a baffling response (Can you imagine the Staten Island woman who lost her two sons in Hurricane Sandy "having fun with it?")

But then even the concept of Death is given a positive spin in the book.  If it were not for Death, Singer reasons, we would not appreciate our life and the lives of others.  If you thought that this week was your last week on Earth (or the last time you would talk to your mother or best friend), wouldn't you want to enjoy it (and reach out to that loved one?)  If Death did not exist we would squander our time because there would be no end of it.  So in this regard Death -- or our knowledge of it coming at any time -- becomes a gift.

Overall I responded to Singer's words and how he is able to boil life down to one choice: do you want to be happy or do you not want to be happy?  I don't think he's asking readers to wholly discard our difficult thoughts, emotions, and experiences.  Instead he encourages us to transcend them, to see that who we are is in fact larger than all that.  Depending on your religious beliefs, we are all existing on this constantly-changing, spinning Earth for a short time.  Do you want to give up your one chance to fully appreciate the ride?

The Untethered Soul was not a quick read for me because there were many ideas I wanted to digest slowly.  Like with life I wanted to pay close attention to this book.

Recommended for anyone interested in books on happiness and/or personal/spiritual growth.

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