Friday, October 18, 2013

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 13 - Walter Mason interviews Stephanie Dowrick about her latest book 'Heaven on Earth'

Walter Mason interviews co-host Dr Stephanie Dowrick about her latest book Heaven on Earth:

You can purchase your own beautiful hardcover copy of Heaven on Earth via this link. You can buy any book you find here or elsewhere via our Bookstore links, above right. That brings back a small, vital % to support this Book Club. We would also love you to share your comments via the box immediately below.

Stephanie Dowrick shares the blessings of prayer in Heaven on Earth

Walter Mason reviews Stephanie Dowrick's Heaven on Earth
Prayer has always been an instinctual act for me. It is one of my earliest memories, and I even learned to do it in secret as a young boy when I discovered that it wasn't, perhaps, as socially acceptable at school as it was at my grandmother's house. And as I grew up I became increasingly sceptical about prayer and frustrated at its results - or lack thereof. And so I stopped, though frequently throughout my young adulthood I felt that great primal need to pray. But I resisted, and it took me years to come back to it and begin to study it.

Now I have a rich and blessed prayer life and books about prayer take up several shelves in my personal library. I am always interested to hear what the devout and the mystical have to say about this most mysterious act of devotion, but I am frequently frustrated because the manuals of prayer are so overtly sectarian, pushing one or another religious path that, more often than not, leaves me feeling as though I just don't measure up.

Stephanie Dowrick’s exquisite new book, Heaven on Earth, is the perfect foil to this narrow focus. It concentrates on the power and possibility of prayer taking into account all of the world's spiritual traditions, and even encompassing the potential of prayer to assist those who have no religious beliefs at all. It is a literate, inclusive and tremendously wise collection of some of the most moving and inspiring prayers and words about prayer, and I know I will use it for the rest of my life.

Stephanie, herself a fervent practitioner of prayer and exponent of its effects on people, says that in praying we are opened to inspiration and awakening. “Just praying,” she writes, “we become who and what we were born to be.” In a world that is increasingly busy and where we are increasingly drawn into distraction and endless chatter, this book reminds us that the age-old conventions of prayer are deeply therapeutic and soul-soothing. The very routine of prayer, and the conscious memorization of particular words of prayer is, Stephanie suggests, a source of very real comfort to the person willing to give this time.

In praying we comfort ourselves but we also offer the blessings of love, compassion and gratitude to all of the people we encounter. The act of blessing is itself an outwardly-focused prayer that is of immense value in a culture which elevates cynicism, and where people consistently close themselves to some of the deeper possibilities that prayer can remind us of.

The book is filled with passages of prayer from many of the world’s spiritual greats, organised thematically. It makes for inspirational browsing, occasional reading and a tremendous aid to prayer. It also provides many and varied possibilities for a way in to the mysteries of prayer. In a piece by the modern mystic Evelyn Underhill that Stephanie quotes in the book, we are urged not to seek perfection in prayer and so put it off till we are ourselves saintly. Instead, we owe it to ourselves to find a practice that suit us and our situation right now, however silly that may appear to other people in our lives.

This is what makes Heaven on Earth so valuable a resource and the reading of it such a thrill and wonder. We are reminded once more of the tremendous diversity of spiritual life, of the 84,000 Dharma Doors the Buddha spoke of. There is something in this book that will appeal to even the hardest of hearts and reading it from cover to cover I was reminded that I need not feel any shame about prayer or living the spiritual life. Stephanie tells us that we don’t have to justify our prayer life to anyone – it is between us and that which we pray to. It is the ultimate moment of privacy and sacred confidentiality. It is when we can be most utterly vulnerable and most perfectly human.

As well as many of the spiritual masters through the ages, Heaven on Earth contains some exquisite prayers written by Stephanie Dowrick herself. The first section of the book, Stephanie's own explication of prayer, is also one of the most remarkable and inspiring pieces on living the spiritual life that I have ever read and bears constant re-reading all on its own.

Ultimately this is a book that filled me with hope and reminded me, via Lao Tzu’s advice, to cherish this world full of goodness, kindness and love. And, in the words of Stephanie Dowrick, each day when I pray I can ask simply to:

“Let me seek goodness. And find it.”

Many of you will be interested to go to this article by Stephanie Dowrick on writing Heaven on Earth. You can purchase your own beautiful hardcover copy of Heaven on Earth via this link. You can buy any book you find here or elsewhere via our Bookstore links, above right. That brings back a small, vital % to support this Book Club. We would also love you to share your comments via the box immediately below.

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 12 - Stephanie Dowrick interviews Walter Mason about his new book 'Destination Cambodia'

This month we have done something special and quite fun.
By some wonderful accident Universal Heart Book Club co-hosts Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason each have new books released at the same time.

So we decided to review each other's book and then to interview each other about the book and the experience of writing it.  First up is Stephanie's review of Walter's new release Destination Cambodia and, below, her interview with him.

If you have enjoyed this interview we would love it if you could share the link with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on social media. Your efforts support ours! You can buy Walter's wonderful book Destination Cambodia (FREE postage) via THIS LINK. Your comments - below - also always cherished by us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walter Mason wins again with Destination Cambodia

 Dr Stephanie Dowrick reviews - glowingly - Walter Mason's new, wholly successful travel book, Destination Cambodia.

At its best, travel writing is a glorious excuse to study human nature at close quarters, but from the outside in. When the culture or country that's being written about is sufficiently "foreign" to the likely readers, travel writing offers both the writer and his or her readers a kind of permission to stare intimately and not necessarily politely! What we are wanting, I suspect, is to discover what's specific, odd and admirable about a particular culture while also reassuring ourselves that however diverse we are within our vast human family, we also share some very recognizable passions, needs, emotions and values.

Monocultures - relatively speaking - make for the best travel writing. And "exotic" still pulls most of us in. Cambodia wins on both counts and in making that country his focus, Walter Mason has once again demonstrated his rare breadth as a writer. Readers of his earlier Destination Saigon will know that he is a master of noticing: small events that most of us would pass by or forget within hours become utterly memorable, often riotously funny but as often genuinely touching anecdotes in Walter's hands. He is a very funny writer - I laughed out loud many times - but he is also a compassionate one. What's more, he has an instinctive cultural fluency that means his books go way beyond entertainment, as delightful as that is. He never reduces complex human beings to mere ciphers on his pages. Each is allowed their vulnerability, depth and contradictions.

Outdoor Buddhist shrine, Cambodia
Walter likes to be surprised, and likes to surprise his readers also. He is fascinated by people and clearly they are more than fascinated by him; they trust him.  They trust him in part because of his quite exceptional familiarity with Asian life and diverse cultures, including languages. They also trust him because he is innately trustworthy. That's a quality that can't be bought or sold. And it means that the stories people share with him are worth hearing.

This is a writer, too, who is constantly aware of what he is receiving from the people he's living among and intimately alongside. And not from the people only: also from their culture including their religious and spiritual practices. He is amused by, occasionally appalled by and mostly intrigued by the rampant superstitions that run through life at every level. He's open to something far more subtle, though. Very late in the book, when he has left Cambodia and is in that quite different nearby country, Thailand, he writes: "After months in Cambodia, and a great deal of time spent in solitude, I found I had cultivated a type of silence that had never really been mine before.... I was accustomed to being almost invisible in Phnom Penh."

A shrine to the Lersi Hermit
As a large man who makes his size - and the disarmingly frank (rude?!) Asian responses to it - a particularly comedic feature of his travel reporting, this "invisibility" has a particular poignancy. He goes on: "For these past months in Cambodia I had learned to mask any extreme feelings, to return to myself for answers, comfort and solace instead of seeking explanations outside."

Walter Mason on location in Cambodia
This also means he refuses easy "explanations" or analysis of the extreme paradoxes within the culture of Cambodia itself. Here is a nation of mainly Buddhists who are capable of great sweetness, hospitality and almost super-human endurance, yet the years of the Khmer Rouge were as cruelly gruesome as any nation has had to bear. Walter gives many examples of the repugnant  commodification of Cambodia's "horrific past" - including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - yet it is in Cambodia he learns to "bless what is - not what should be, or what I wanted to be".

There continues to be a great deal of hardship in countless Cambodian lives. "Gambling and drinking [are] the overweening sins of Cambodia..." There are also many - far too many - who have grown to adulthood without parents: their parents are dead, lost or were forced to abandon them. Despite those hardships or perhaps because of them, "Cambodians are constantly romantic about most things," and Walter frequently found himself the focus of their fascinated questions about his own twenty-some years' partnership, as well as about his freedom to travel.

This last point is stark. Walter is free to travel in Cambodia and bring his experience of that country back to us in his marvelous book. His Cambodian friends, though, are not free to travel. Poverty is one impediment; so is the unavailability of tourist visas to countries like our own Australia, except for the extremely rich. No trust there.

A little like Cambodia itself, Destination Cambodia can be read at many levels. This book is witty, clever, and vastly entertaining. But I also admire its author's humility and patience. A man who has studied and lived in several Asian countries, who speaks at least three or four Asian languages well or "passably", who is deeply interested in Eastern spirituality in its diverse forms, is well-equipped to resist making any Asian country, or its people, a mere passing parade. He is also quick to resist any false homogenization of Asia in Western eyes: some of his most acute observations arise out of showing how different Cambodia is from its neighbours, as well as where there is perhaps more common ground than they - or we - might immediately recognize.

Do you need me to say buy Destination Cambodia, read it, love it?! If you do, then I will. Buy it! Read it. Love it! And let us know in the comments box below what you enjoyed most. We always love to hear from you - and especially on this. You can buy your books with FREE POSTAGE using the bookstore link, above right. This is one to buy in multiple copies: for yourself, and for all the armchair travelers in your life.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A reader's glowing report on Choosing Happiness

Universal Heart Book Club co-host Dr Stephanie Dowrick writes: 

Like most writers, I absolutely love seeing well-worn editions of my books. Often at readings or workshops people will show me books that are heavily marked, sometimes with a note of apology in their voice. But I am invariably thrilled! I write the books to be used, argued with, wept over, laughed with out loud, hugged...and read again. There is nothing passive about writing, nor about good readers and good reading.

That means when Sarah Artist told me that she had literally rubbed off the gold on her original edition of Choosing Happiness to reveal the green beneath, I asked her to send me a copy so that I could share it on Facebook. And encourage others, too, to engage with any of my books with even less inhibition. This is how Sarah replied: 'I promised you today that I'd post a picture of my book onto your facebook site, however I'm not sure I can do that - I can't find the facility. Anyway, I'll repeat my expression of gratitude. I have several of your books but Choosing Happiness has been a sanity-saver over many years. It has supported me through many of life's changes and challenges, and has hopefully made me a more resilient and good humoured person - and, of course, happier.

You may not know that when the gold rubs off, it's patchy at first and then when more rubs off it's pea-green and smooth underneath :-) Thankyou, and peace be with you. Sarah.'

Thank you, too, Sarah. And do please post your comments below if you want to share some stories about your own loved, worn and treasured books. We'd be delighted to hear.

Use the comments box immediately below, choosing "anonymous" for ease if you don't have a google email address. Sorry about "captcha"; without it we can be spammed. Just note, two "collections" of words, letters with a space between. Oh and do buy the books you discover here! You can no longer find the gold edition of Choosing Happiness in Australia, alas. You can, however, find the exact same contents in the later (also very handsome) edition of Choosing Happiness. This link takes you to our new affiliate bookstore where you can buy this or any other book, benefit us as well as yourself, and enjoy free postage!  Here's to happiness. And thank you again to Sarah.