10 Books Which Changed My Life
I am writing at the invitation of Jack Preston King at the end of his article I Am Made of Books: The Top Ten Books that Have Shaped My Long, Strange Trip (so far), where he asked me to do the same. He wrote his own article following another by Ann Litts, The Top 10 Books Which Have Helped Transform My Life.
Like Jack, books are an important part of my life. He says that he has read thousands; I own thousands, but haven’t read all of them, treating them more like a reference library. The following are not necessarily those that I consider absolutely the most important to me — although this list is close— but I have tried, as far as possible, to choose those, along with Ann Litts, that have literally changed my life.
I’ll begin with the most important, then continue in approximate chronological order.
- I Ching or Book of Changes, translated by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes, introduction by Carl Jung
There are other versions, but this one best captures the spirit of the original Chinese.
Apart from being a Taoist book of wisdom, it is frequently used as an oracle for divinatory purposes, yielding results described by Jung as consistently meaningful. To me this is an understatement; I would say extraordinary or mind-blowing. That was certainly what happened to me the first time I tried it. I could not believe the relevance of the written response in the book to my question, after randomly throwing three coins six times.
This took place towards the end of a period of six months of intense transformation. It provided me with convincing evidence that there are mysterious, magical, transcendental powers at work in the universe. (I have written about the I Ching and my divinatory experiences, especially with the Tarot, in an article on Medium, Divination.)
I have used the oracle several times since. I do not always have a question to ask; I sometimes intuitively know that the I Ching wants to speak to me, and at such times I merely throw the coins without asking anything. Here is one example: I was in a relationship with a woman. I had already had a dream instructing me to marry her. Soon afterwards I had the feeling that I should consult the I Ching. I was directed to hexagram 31, Hsien/ Influence (Wooing). Here are three significant extracts:
- “the universal mutual attraction between the sexes is represented. In courtship, the masculine principle must seize the initiative and place itself below the feminine principle”
- “the second part (of book 1) begins with the hexagrams of courtship and marriage, the foundation of all social relationships”
- “to take a maiden to wife brings good fortune”.
This shows how accurate and relevant the consultations are to the situation. Unsurprisingly, this hexagram was one of the readings at my wedding.
2. The Divided Self, by R. D. Laing
For the years when I was a student and the period immediately following, I suffered from depression. I now understand that this was a consequence of my having taken a wrong direction in the spiritual plan for my life, having chosen to go to university to study French, instead of pursuing my real love, music. I did not know that at the time, however.
I did not seek help, and suffered in silence; I was under the influence of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, who were all saying that life is meaningless, absurd, and so on. Depression obviously seemed to be the appropriate response. I’m also not sure I could have opened up to a therapist, as I was painfully introverted.
One day I was browsing in a bookshop, and accidentally came across the above book. The title fascinated me, so I bought it and read it. I was gripped. Laing was a brilliant man. For the first time there seemed to be someone who understood me. He seemed to be the therapist I should have been talking to!
Later I was privileged to meet Laing and was invited to a couple of his supervision sessions, where I could witness his work at first hand.
3. Analytical Psychology, its Theory and Practice, by C. G. Jung
Some time later I decided that I should try to sort myself out, and began to psychoanalyse myself. I started to read psychology books, including the above.
Even though I had had some powerful dreams in my life, which I felt sure meant something, I did not really have any way of understanding them. I was reading this book one evening, and came across a passage in which Jung analysed a dream containing the city of Toledo. He said among other things: “the city symbolizes the totality of man, an attitude of wholeness which cannot be dissolved”. I thought that this was interesting, and that it would be helpful, now that I was becoming acquainted with the meaning of some symbols, if I could have dreams with these symbols in them. That night I had a vivid dream with a city in it.
This made a powerful impression upon me. Some people say that dreams are meaningless, or at best incomprehensible. Here was evidence that there was an intelligence behind dreams, which knew what I was thinking, and was able to respond in a creative manner.
(book ref. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, p137)
4. Memories, Dreams and Reflections, by C. G. Jung
Carl Jung is my intellectual hero, therefore his autobiography is essential reading. His ideas were the key element in my process of self-healing, including my spiritual conversion, and this book figured in one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
At the time I was working in an office, and one day during my lunch break I was at my desk reading this. Suddenly I felt a strong pain in my index finger, which I can only compare to a wasp sting repeating itself several times. This was quite shocking; I wondered what was going on, and desperately wanted it to stop. Then the idea flashed through my mind that the index finger is used for pointing things out, and perhaps that I had just failed to notice something in the text. I looked back through the last few lines, and saw a highly significant insight for my self-analysis which I had missed. The moment I had understood that, the pain stopped.
This was an extraordinary lesson about the nature of consciousness. This incident lasted about ten to fifteen seconds, and that short period of time completely disproved one of materialistic science’s central dogmas, that the brain generates consciousness. I had never read this book before, but something inside me knew its contents. This something, obviously without my being aware, was able to monitor my reading, exactly where I was in the text and what I was about to read, and then implicitly to criticise me for not noticing something. It was then instantaneously capable of producing strong pain, which is supposed to be caused by physical injury, or some internal problem, and then stopping it at will. This does not sound like any brain with which modern science is familiar, rather a hidden, powerful, helpful intelligence, which had access to my consciousness. You might call this the soul, the Higher Self, or a spirit-guide. Any of those are a more likely explanation than the brain.
(I have mentioned this incident in an article on Medium called The Paranormal as a Force for Positive Transformation, which is a transcript of a talk I gave a few years ago. It is long, but brings together many of my ideas in one article, should anyone be interested.)
5. The Four Gospels in the New Testament
This one requires some preamble.
The focal point in my conversion to spirituality was a powerful synchronistic event (which I have referred to in my article The Paranormal as a Force for Positive Transformation from which the following is extracted). It would take too long to give all the background details, so I’ll just say that the external part involved a church and a quotation from the Bible. By the standards of some synchronicities, the coincidence was middle-of-the-road, but its effect on me was extreme. I experienced what you might call an intense explosion inside my head; my ego-self shattered. For several hours I felt as though I was struggling in a strong current. Why did this one incident have such a strong effect? My only explanation is that it occurred in the middle of an intense, weird period, so one might say that there had been a build-up of energy, which needed release, and that I was being prepared for something. I have told only a couple of close friends about this. I describe it as “the moment I knew for certain that God existed”. Outsiders might wonder why I chose those words, but in any event it was a dramatic transformation of consciousness, a no-going-back moment, an initiation of some kind.
Because the central elements of the above were a church and a quote from the Bible, I subsequently decided to read the Gospels out of curiosity. Even though I had had some religious education at school, I don’t remember having read them from beginning to end before. As a former atheist, I came to them as a clean sheet, without preconceptions.
I was amazed by some of what I found. I had been reading lots of Jungian psychology, and here was Jesus talking in the same terms. I was reading: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3), a clear parallel to Jung’s idea of projecting one’s shadow onto others. I was reading: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23. 25–26). Jesus was again talking about the shadow, the repressed dark side, but also about inner transformation or purification, which is, or should be, the subject of all true religion; this sounded like Jung’s interpretation of alchemy, the transmutation of psychological lead into gold.
And much more!
This does not mean, however, that I am impressed by Christianity as most of us know it, or organised Christian churches. Nor do I believe the Bible is divinely inspired — I have read too much scholarly criticism. The Gospels are fascinating documents nevertheless.
6. The Spiritual Path, by Raynor C. Johnson
To summarise, I was ‘ordered’ by something inside me, which could be called the higher self, but which I also call the Spirit of Guidance, to discover an unknown book, which turned out to be the one above. By this I understood that it was being offered to me as a textbook for understanding life, religion and, as the title states, the Spiritual Path.
7. Realms of the Human Unconscious, by Stanislav Grof
I was introduced to this by the leaders of a course in Psychosynthesis that I was attending. This was my first acquaintance with Grof, and I have gone on to read many more of his books. He is my other intellectual hero alongside Jung. He began as a psychiatrist in Marxist (therefore atheistic) Czechoslovakia, where he became involved in an experimental programme using LSD for therapeutic purposes. Because this often induced spiritual experiences, he felt compelled not to reveal his results to the authorities there, and worked secretly. He later moved to the USA, where he continued this research, until LSD was made illegal. He then devised a system of intensive breathing to obtain the same results without using the drug. His patients explore their own personal unconscious, often go on to relive their birth, experience ego-death and rebirth, have past life memories, encounter archetypal beings (gods and goddesses), and much more besides.
Grof is someone who completely understands the world of spirit. On a series of audiocassettes called The Transpersonal Vision he talks about his life and work. I highly recommend this to anyone, should you have the opportunity. Two highlights:
- he took LSD himself, and during one of his sessions he encountered the Hindu god Shiva
- he had to deal on the spur of the moment with a case of demonic possession, in a session with a depressed woman.
Grof is a big fan of Jung, and was a friend of Joseph Campbell, until the latter died.
8. The Awakening Earth, by Peter Russell
Peter Russell was a friend of one of the tutors on my Psychosynthesis course. He gave a talk to us about this book of his. He takes further James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, declaring without hesitation that the Earth is a living organism in the process of awakening. This has been the inspiration for several of my articles on the theme of the Earth as a superorganism, where Russell and his book are mentioned frequently.
- The Role of the Citizen in a Spiritual Society. On Medium, or my website
- Is the Earth a Superorganism? On Medium, or on my website
- Humanity as Part of the Superorganism. On Medium, or on my website.
Peter Russell is alive and well, and still active. Check him out on Youtube.
9. Grist for the Mill, by Ram Dass with Stephen Levine
This book was recommended to me by someone on the Psychosynthesis course I was attending. That was fairly soon after my conversion to spirituality. I was enthused enough to use this passage from it as a reading at my wedding:
“You find your way through this incarnation, each of us has a different path through. No path is any better than any other path, they are just different. You must honor your own path. For some of you, you will feel like half a being until you form a connection with another half and then you will be able to go to God. Others of you will go alone on your journey to God. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. If you get over the value judgments you can listen to what it is you need to do without getting caught in all of the social pressures about marriage on non-marriage. The true marriage is with God. The reason that you form a conscious marriage on the physical plane with a partner is in order to do the work of coming to God together. That is the only reason for marrying when you’re conscious”.
The reading at the time continued a little longer, but that is the essence of the message. One of the guests was so bowled over by this reading that she spent the rest of the afternoon reading this book from cover to cover!
(Wildwood House, 1976, p27)
10. VII Sermones ad Mortuos, translated as The Seven Sermons to the Dead, by Carl Jung
The genesis of this book is extraordinary. Jung gives an account of it in chapter 6 of his autobiography (number 4 above). One Sunday afternoon “the front-door bell began ringing frantically… but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the door bell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me! … The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits… As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.’ That is the beginning of the Septem Sermones.
“Then it began to flow out of me, and in the course of three evenings the thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over”. (Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Collins Fount, 1977, pp215–216)
The subtitle of the book is very important. The full title is VII Sermones ad Mortuos: The Seven Sermons to the Dead Written by Basilides in Alexandria the City Where the East Toucheth the West. Jung appears to be saying that he is not the true author, that in effect he is channeling the thoughts of an ancient gnostic teacher. Or is he just being fanciful, and merely pouring out his own thoughts?
Whichever is the case, he was presumably writing what the spirits were demanding, and the book is extraordinary. Jung is often described as a ‘mystical’ psychologist, the implication being that his work is not scientific (so that we don’t have to take any notice of it). This is true up to a point. Jung was careful, however, in his Collected Works to publish only on subject matter that he considered observable and real, if not provable in a strict scientific sense. Therefore he resisted metaphysical speculation in those texts. In this book, however, he is let off the leash, and allows himself to write a complex, albeit short, metaphysical outpouring. For this reason he never wanted it to be made available to anyone outside his close circle during his lifetime, and regretted it when this happened without his permission. However, according to his leading disciple Marie-Louise von Franz, he never regretted the content.
So what is it all about? I am not going to go into detail, but will simply refer to the words of the chorus of spirits, demanding expression: “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought”. This expresses a profound disappointment with the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is perceived to be devoid of true spirituality, put into the mouth of an ancient gnostic teacher from Alexandria who would have been considered a heretic by the Church. In that context, I should point out that the ‘dead’ referred to in the title, means those people we normally think of as living, but who have become ‘dead’ through not having experienced spiritual awakening. This reminds me of a saying attributed to R. D. Laing: “Is there life before death?” If he didn’t actually say this, it’s still a great line.
I am lucky to own a simple, uncomplicated, edition of Jung’s original text (as in the photo above). However, there is a brilliant edition of this book, translation plus commentaries, by the gnostic scholar Stephan Hoeller, which is therefore more important to me than the original text. This is therefore book number 10.
Thanks for reading! I hope you will be inspired to read some of these books.
I have been asked to tag ten further people to take part in this piece of fun. So here goes, but please only do it if the idea appeals to you. No compulsion: John Wood, Jr, Ashutosh Jain, Cal Moore, Kaley Blades, Wendy Buchholz, Impractical Juggler, Jacqeline Vesey-Wells, Linda Moran, Mustapha Itani, Anna Rozwadowska.