Book Reviews

The Life We Are Given

'The Life We Are Given is a synthesis and culmination of seventy years' combined experience by two of the wisest and most pioneering explorers and teachers of the possibilities of human transformation. I recommend it highly.' '  Dean Ornish, MD, President and Director, Preventive Medicine Research Institute

The first thing that fascinated me about The Life We Are Given is the authors themselves: George Leonard and Michael Murphy. 

I have always loved George Leonard in a special way ever since I read his beautiful book The Ultimate Athlete. The book has remained an obsession with me and ideas from it have enriched a large number of my training programmes for corporate executives, to whom I invariably recommend the book. The ultimate athlete Leonard speaks about is not really an athlete in the normal sense of the term, though it can include athletes too. He means by the term every person who performs at his best in any field ' in athletics, in other sports, in singing, in dancing, public speaking, mountain climbing, brain surgery, leading a team or an organization or even such plain ordinary areas as a desk job in a nine-to-five office. In The Ultimate Athlete Leonardstudies the physical and psychological state that makes peak performance possible in any walk of life. Associating Leonard's ideas with ideas from the Bhagavad-Gita Gita and other Indian texts has enriched my insights into how we can transform work through karma yoga to achieve self-transcendence and experience timelessness. It is through Leonard that I gathered my first western insights into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later call the flow state ' the peak performing state in which excellence is effortless. 

George Leonard is one of the founders of the human potential movement in the west and was a senior editor of Look for seventeen years. He is also an aikido teacher of great repute who has introduced the martial art to tens of thousands of people across the world. He is currently president of the Board of Esalen Institute and a past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. 

Michael Murphy, the other author of the book, is the co founder of Esalen Institute whose work has been of great interest to me, particularly what relates to human consciousness and altered states of consciousness. He is also a member of the International Advisory Council of Auroville Foundation, Pondicherry. 

Murphy's introduction to Sri Aurobindo was through Frederic Spiegelberg, who also introduced him to Sri Ramana Maharshi [my grandteacher ' two of my teachers were the maharshi's direct disciples]. Murphy was a student at Stanford University doing his premed when he attended a lecture by Spiegelberg who had just returned from India where he had met both Ramana Maharshi and Aurobindo. Inspired, Michael Murphy gave up his studies for premed and switched to philosophy. He began reading widely, with special focus on Indian wisdom and also started practicing meditation. Soon he was in India where he visited Ramana Ashram in Tiruannamalai and spent a year and half at Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Back in the states, he founded with his friend Richard Price Esalen Institute, which soon drew world attention and became the world's new spirituo-intellectual capital in an age when humanity was breaking off chains of traditions that have been binding it for thousands of years and casting off blinds that kept it on the 'straight path'. Those who led programs at Esalen included such intellectual celebrities as historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich, psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and BF Skinner, mythologist Joseph Campbell, gestalt therapist Fritz Perls and family counsellor Virginia Satir. 

The Life We Are Given, described as 'A Long-Term Program for Realizing the Potential of Body, Mind, Heart, and Soul,' is a manual for personal growth based on what the authors call Integral Transformative Practice [ITP]. It is based on certain principles from Leonard's book on long-term practice, Mastery, some of which are: Lasting transformation requires long-term practice; the most effective transformative practices involve the whole person ' body, mind, heart, and soul; transformative principles in this age are best guided by several mentors rather than a single, all-powerful guru; and, though practitioners at times must surrender creatively to mentors, community and transformative agencies beyond ordinary functioning, the final authority always remains with the individual. Much of the book is also based on Murphy's The Future of the Body

The book also owes its existence to the first ITP programme, called Cycle 92, that began in January '92 and continued for eleven months with one two-hour session every week. Cycle 92 is discussed at some length in the first part of the book, called Vision and Practice. The programme seems to have been quite effective. As the programme began, one of the participants, a thirty-nine-year-old psychologist, wrote describing her condition: 'I am frequently in conflict over finances, writing ability, and my relationships with [a former teacher].' At the end of the programme she wrote: 'This has been my most startling result. My financial situation has tripled as a result of my not plotting how it would resolve. My most serious interpersonal conflict has completely resolved'. There has been an almost total shift in my attitude. From former attempts to 'make' things happen to an acceptance of whatever is presented and an acceptance of whatever I am feeling. I truly feel more flowing and internally without the former obstacles that caused me sadness. I no longer feel stuck.'

One of the beautiful exercises described here reminded me of one line from a prayer from Rabindranath Tagore that I love very much: 'Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.'

Part II of the book, A Transformative Practice for Our time, where the authors discuss the ITP practice in detail, gives a large number of beautiful exercises. Exercises for developing balance and centre are named GRACE exercises, because they involve grounding [G], relaxation [R], awareness [A], Centering [C], and Energy [E]. The exercises in this group include several using water metaphors ' Drill for Water, Pump Water, Fountain, Finger Spray, Half Windmill, and Rowing. I was happy to find surya namaskar included here [which I find beautiful but do not practice] along with many exercises from Yoga. 

The instructions for deep relaxation exercises are thorough and include a relaxation visualization. I found the instructions [and the exercise] splendid. The instructions are practically identical with an exercise I have been using in some of my own training programmes for years and I have noticed they work beautifully every time. Those who are familiar with yoganidra would observe this is very close to the basic yoganidra practice. This could be a light meditation exercise in itself or could be the foundation exercise for numerous other practices, including a variety of meditations, NLP and regression. 

The book proceeds from the deep relaxation exercise to creating energy waves, affirmations, image work and so on. The image work includes imaging for improving vision, preventing /reversing coronary artery disease, opening our hearts to others and becoming more loving, for reshaping the body and improving physical performance, increasing creativity and so on. The book also describes a simple meditation per se and discusses the benefits of meditation at great length. A full chapter is devoted to physical exercises [The Exercise Factor] and another to food [Food for Transformation]. I loved the chapter titled The Body as a Teacher. Like the authors, I have always believed that there is profound wisdom in the body and taught that the body's wisdom is far superior to that of the mind. I totally agree with what the book says: the body is also a master teacher. 

The book's core vision has close affinity to what Sri Aurobindo said about the divinity within man and its unfoldment. With Aurobindo and several other masters since antiquity, eastern and western, the book believes that we enjoy 'a secret contact or kinship with the founding principle of the universe. The recognition of a reality ordinarily hidden but immediately apprehended as our true identity, our immortal soul, our 'original face,' our secret at-one-ness with God'. The idea that divinity is present in all things, manifesting itself through the immense adventure of evolution, helps account for the mystery of our great surplus capacities, our yearnings for God, our inextinguishable creativity, our sense of grace in human affairs. It helps explain our quest for self-transcendence and humanity's proliferation of transformative practices.'

The authors of the book are convinced that 'Every person on this planet can join the procession of transformative practice that began with our ancient ancestors. That is the guiding idea of this book. The ways of growth described here, which can be adopted by anyone, embrace our many parts. We call them integral to signify their inclusion of our entire human nature ' body, mind, heart, and soul.' [From the Preface to the book]

There is one point on which I disagree with the authors: when they say 'transformative principles in this age are best guided by several mentors rather than a single, all-powerful guru.' Certain things are not all that much influenced by social changes or lifestyle changes, and spirituality is one of these. Your growth happens not because of others, but from within yourself. It is not others who help you grow, but your own psychological and spiritual disposition. When you open yourself up completely, growth begins. To whom you open up is not as important as how completely you are open. In fact, as spiritual traditions all over the world have always believed, working with one master is better than working with several at a time. Working with several masters, in any age, modern or ancient, could even be detrimental to spiritual growth. Which is not to say that we cannot learn from several teachers. 

Apart from this, The Life We Are Given is a beautiful, compact package of integral growth exercises and insights that can transform us completely ' provided we are willing to give it time, dedication and commitment, a need the authors make sure we realize. They repeat it many times throughout the book. If you are willing to give these to the book, then it is for you, and a wonderful journey awaits you. If you just intend to browse through the book and then put it away, you might as well forget it. 

By the way, I loved the short collection of quotations from masters across the world, given in the chapter The Marriage of Theory and Practice. I liked best the one from St Catherine of Genoa, who said: 'My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God himself.' This proves for the millionth time that the highest experience of masters is the same all over the world. The ancient Indian rishis would cheer Catherine, and say, true, and they do not know 'any other God except the Me in myself.' This is the truth expressed by the Upanishads in such words as aham brahmasmi

The title of that chapter, The Marriage of Theory and Practice, is perhaps the best description of the book. For, it contains the highest wisdom with practices that will work beautifully for anyone who is sincere about them. This is a marriage that works as all marriages should but not all do. 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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