I’ve read what could be called a lot of books in my 32 years, but only a few have shifted my worldview so radically that they would set me on an entirely new course in life. Of course, everything we read has the potential to change us in some way, but some changes are bigger than others.
These are my big change books, in some semblance of chronological order.
Family devotional times were a big part of my childhood. We read from a devotional book for kids, which was, of course, based on the Bible. I got my first Bible as a gift from my parents around age six or seven. I tried to read at least a chapter every day, and would continue studying the Bible throughout my Fundamentalist Christian university time and beyond. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of the Bible and Christianity on my thought.
Even though I now harbor no belief in God, the patterns of thought laid down over decades are still there. My mind is still thoroughly Christian in many ways. It has been an enormous effort to start overhauling my thinking, to transform it, to bend it in more secular directions. You could say the Bible has caused me a lot of grief, but it, and the Christian tradition that treasures it, has also been a source of wisdom and inspiration for me. I have a post-Christian mind, which is truly a weird thing to experience.
To fundamentally shift one’s perspective on reality, to make the leap from Evangelical Christian to atheist, tends to open some doors that wouldn’t otherwise have been thrown open. I think my worldview is more solid than it ever has been, yet I continue to remain open to new ideas, and eagerly soak them in, while keeping in mind how all too easy it is to be duped into believing horse shit.
Losing My Religion – William Lobdell
I read many important books that ushered me out the doors of Christianity, but this one is special. Losing My Religion is so personal and well–written that is simply grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. If you want to read a book that really grapples with the process of first becoming a person of faith, and then finding that world of belief crumbling around you, this is it. Magnificent.
Constructive Living – David K. Reynolds
Constructive Living is about a way of life based on a Japanese psychotherapy called Morita Therapy. It’s a very no–nonsense approach that recognizes how neurotic we can all be at times. We can’t seem to do the things that really need to be done in life because we’re so stuck in patterns of thought and belief that keep us in bondage. In Constructive Living, the focus is on taking action. Emotions are seen as swiftly–changing feeling states that come and go, and often follow behavior. By changing our behavior, we start to feel differently.
As a very confused, somewhat depressed, and perpetually stuck young man, this book had an enormous positive impact on me. I started seeing my thoughts and feelings differently, as less weighty. I realized how important action is, that acting is the only thing that’s going to really change your life. If you don’t do the behaviors that will make your life better, you will remain stuck in the morass of thought, and never go anywhere in particular.
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life – Steven C. Hayes
In parallel to Constructive Living, this book is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a third–wave Cognitive–Behavioral psychotherapy that emphasizes mindful acceptance of your experience, and values–based action to do what needs to be done. I read Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life at a time when I was struggling to overcome obesity and depression. While reading it, I realized that I didn’t need more willpower to be able to take action, I just needed to cultivate greater acceptance of the negative feelings that often came up when trying to change habits.
When preparing to go for a run, my mind would be screaming about why that’s a terrible idea and it will end in certain doom. My body would ache and remind me of every reason imaginable why I shouldn’t go for a run. But remembering the ACT concept of willingness, I could see that it was important for me to run, and that I could be willing to accept whatever came my way as I went out for my run. That changed my sense of self-control forever. I became more able to handle “suffering” for the sake of my values–based goals.
Waking Up – Sam Harris
You would be hard–pressed to find a bigger fan of Sam Harris than I am. I could listen to his keen mind and eloquent speech for hours on end, and often do in the form of the Waking Up podcast (which I highly recommend you check out). The book Waking Up is about Sam’s spiritual search and neuroscientific studies, which led him to very similar conclusions about the nature of consciousness.
His ideas take a lot from Buddhist and Hindu spiritual traditions. In particular, the Buddhist idea of No Self, the self as an illusion, is emphasized. The idea that there is someone behind our foreheads, running the show in our brains, is not true. We have the illusion of being in control, of being unified, and of being the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our actions, as Sam says. All this is an illusion, and it’s important to recognize it as such because of its impact on the quality of our experience.
When we believe we are or have a self, we latch onto our thoughts and feelings, believing them to be important messages from our unconscious, or seeing them as key parts of ourselves, even the stuff we are made of. This belief has the unfortunate consequence of having us see our thoughts and feelings as somehow true, and helplessly acting on them. These are extraordinarily difficult concepts to explain in a few paragraphs, but I really can’t recommend this eye–opening book enough, especially if you’re more of a rational, skeptical type. Waking Up started me on a journey of spiritual exploration that continues even now, and has given a troubled mind a much-needed respite.
The Deepest Acceptance – Jeff Foster
Reading The Deepest Acceptance was one of the strongest deprogramming experiences of my life. Having grown up in a strict religious environment, I had absorbed all kinds of negative messages about myself. For a long time, I was full of shame, regret and guilt about all the things I had done and would probably do tomorrow to disobey God and make myself impure.
Jeff’s words are like a stream of constant affirmation that I am loved, that I am deeply, deeply OK, and that all is and shall be well. It’s the message I thought Jesus was about, but that you never hear from conservative Christians. In fact, I had taken the very opposite message, that I was most naturally a sinner, and couldn’t do anything about that. My righteousness was like filthy rags to a holy God. Jesus had to die for me because I was such a stain on this earth. In retrospect, it’s such a horrifying message of self-loathing.
For me, Jeff’s books are the antidote to those long years of shame and self-hatred. Jeff is a spiritual teacher in the most sincere sense of those words. He lightens the spirit and finds hope in the darkest of places. I often cried, even sobbed with relief and joy as I read.
I could probably make another whole list of books that shaped me, and I very well might, but these are some of the most important and relevant ones to who I am now. If you read any of them, do let me know. What books have shaped you? I’d love to hear from you.