Leadership Library Review: The Empathy Effect

December 2018

The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess, MD (Sounds True, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

In this comprehensive, scientific and complex yet very accessible study of empathy, Riess discusses why this form of emotional connection is critical to human survival. Empathy is both innate and can be learned and cultivated, for which Riess offers the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. model (Eye contact, Muscles of facial expression, Posture, Affect, Tone, Hearing the whole person, and Your response).  There is an entire chapter devoted to “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy,” which is the focus of this Leadership Library Review.

The leadership take-away (p. 148):

We often cite intelligence, instincts, and expertise when describing someone we consider to be a great leader, but great leaders are exquisitely attuned to others’ emotions and are experts at regulating their own.  CEOs and executives are often lauded for their fierce tenacity and decisive actions, politicians for their hard-line thinking, entrepreneurs for their innovative, competitive natures.  But these qualities are only part of the story of leadership.  Neurobiology seems to predispose us to a preference for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion. [Emphasis mine.]

Why do I like it?

I like that Riess is so strong and persuasive in arguing the case for empathy as central to effective leadership.  In easily understandable terms, Riess explains how, neurologically, emotional judgment and group coordination – two keys to transformational leadership – actually works chemically and structurally.  She also explores the psychology of workplace empathy in the context of attachment theory (i.e., how workplace leadership and power dynamics may be profoundly affected by individuals’ childhood experiences of authority), and her own research debunking the widespread belief that nice leaders are perceived as less competent.

For me, the most fascinating piece of the chapter on “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy” is Riess’s incisive take on the 2016 presidential election.  She convincingly contends that while Trump utilized a form of faux empathy to reach out to voters from some socio-economic groups whom he has a known record of actually exploiting, Clinton (to some extent, following on Obama’s notorious aloofness) demonstrated a total lack of empathy by using devastating language – such as “a basket of deplorables” – to describe her opponent’s followers.

In what situations would this be useful?

If you’re generally interested in the topics of empathy, compassion and self-compassion, I highly recommend this book.  For leaders, I especially recommend this book if you know for yourself – or if you are receiving feedback – that you have difficulty relating emotionally to, communicating with, or motivating other people.  This book is full of tips and techniques for developing and showing empathy, and for connecting authentically in person and via digital communication. And for those of you who need it, it’s all backed up with the latest in neuroscientific research.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

As regular readers of this blog know by now, my go-to resource on the topics of empathy, compassion, self-compassion, gratitude and other elements of wellness is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley. The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.

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Leadership Library Review: “The Business Case for Curiosity”

November 2018

“The Business Case for Curiosity” by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review,September/October 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

Two things struck me in this eye-opening article on the benefits to businesses and their leaders of intentionally fostering curiosity (defined here as “the impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities”).  First, as the author – behavioral scientist Francesca Gino – asserts, “curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought.” Second, Gino notes that “although leaders might saythey treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.”

Both of these findings rang true to me on experiential and intuitive levels but I am delighted that they are now beginning to be investigated and even measured scientifically.

Why do I like it?

Gino’s research is modest but compelling.  It demonstrates that:

cultivating [curiosity] at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.

I like that this is being proven out because, as a leadership development specialist (and as an entrepreneur myself, married to an artist), I can attest anecdotally to the role of curiosity in how organizations effectively engage with complexity and in how generative individuals take constructive risks.

I also like that the article discusses the specific benefits of curiosity (fewer decision-making errors, more innovation, reduced group conflict, and better communication including better team performance) while identifying two primary barriers to curiosity: leaders “have the wrong mindset” about exploration as more costly than it is, and they “seek efficiency to the detriment” of exploration, despite the lip-service they may pay to it.

In what situations would this be useful?

Gino’s research finds something that contains a somewhat counter-intuitive presumption: “when we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively.”  In other words, many of us know from our own life experiences that our curiosity often goes right out the window when we are under stress; the truth of this dynamic is so well- and widely-understood that it is regularly discussed in business periodicals articles like this one in Forbes.

However, there is more to it, according to Gino: i.e., if we can sustain our curiosity through a challenging time, we will be more creative.  What may seem counter-intuitive to many people in this finding is that curiosity can even exist in tough circumstances.  Gino describes a number of practices that leaders can adopt that will help them hire for curiosity, as well as intentionally cultivate it throughout an organization by embracing a learning mindset.  (The learning mindset is also known as the “growth mindset” popularized in recent years by Carol Dweck, whose work is explained elegantly by Maria Popova here in Brain Pickings.)

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are two other illuminating articles in the same HBR “package” with Gino’s that are of course, great pairings (“From Curious to Competent” by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Aramaki; and “The Five Dimensions of Curiosity” by Todd B. Kashdan, David J. Disabato, Fallon R. Goodman and Carl Naughton).

Over the years I have recommended several other resources about curiosity in my Leadership Library blog, including posts reviewing Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, Ad Reinhardt’s abstract painting, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, and Design Thinking in general.  Speaking of the Leadership Library, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the primary force that energizes this blog itself and defines my process for choosing resources to review in it is…(tum-ta-da-dum)…curiosity!

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Leadership Library Review: The Senegalese “Thinker”

October 2018

The Senegalese “Thinker”

Senegalese Thinker (1)What are the big take-aways?

Here is a photo of the little wooden “Thinker” carving that my husband Chris and I brought back from our trip to Senegal last month:

Why do I like it?

I was in Senegal for the second week of September to facilitate a two-day leadership training for the West Africa regional team (photo here) of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization.  Before the training began, Chris and I had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of days of sight-seeing and to learn a bit about Senegalese history, culture and art.

In addition to the ubiquitous renderings of the baobab trees that serve as a national symbol of Senegal (and whose plight was just covered in thisNew York Timesarticle), another common representation of the country is its unique stylization of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”  (The inspiration from Robin is unsurprising, as Senegal was colonized by the French from the middle of the last millennium until it gained independence in 1960.)  I was immediately drawn to the Senegalese “Thinker” carving’s elegant meditative pose, but what I like most about it is that the figure is variously described as a king engaged in an internal struggle, a grandfather ruminating upon the fate of his ancestors and their offspring in the diaspora, and as an embodiment of the West African ideal of leadership: deliberative, mindful and non-reactive.

In what situations would this be useful?

I find the “Thinker’s” calmness in the face of difficulty (s/he looks deeply torn to me) reassuring and provocative.  How refreshing it is in this grim era of hyper-partisan hysteria in the West – with no dearth of prominent leaders exemplifying the mayhem caused by greedy, reactive and self-serving rushes to judgment – to see leadership excellence construed as mindful contemplation!  How ironic and perfect, it seems to me, that I found this representation in Africa. Time means something different on that continent, where all of humanity originated millions of years ago.

I will use my “Thinker” as a continual reminder of the value of ripening to ethical leadership and decision-making.  By ripening, I mean the flow of wisdom that only emerges from the passage of time in a state of paradoxically active receptivity.  Personally, I work on developing active receptivity in my mindfulness practice.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

It’s impossible to summarize the dazzling array of resources arising from the efflorescence of research on mindfulness and related forms of moment-to-moment awareness.  (I’ve written about some of them previously in the Leadership Library, most recently last March.) My favorite hub for information in this overall area is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley, which focuses on the scientific exploration of well-being.  The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.  I recommend signing up for the GGSC’s weekly news magazine, which recently featured an article on “The Myths of Mindfulness.”

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Leadership Library Review: Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose

September 2018

Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose

by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro (Berrett- Koehler, 2004)

What are the big take-aways?

In many ways a leadership book for readers of all ages, Claiming Your Place at the Fireprovides structured inquiries for exploring, (re-)identifying and owning what I sometimes refer to as your “Big-O Offer” to the world: your life purpose.

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s open-hearted and down-to-earth manner of encouraging the reader to take a fear-free approach to the powerful types of growth that can only occur around “mid-life.” My sense is that the authors loosely define mid-life as the age when a person becomes self-authoring, which is often in the late thirties and beyond, but they also cite some very young exceptions. Leider and Shapiro’s basic philosophy is this:

In the second half of life, the same questions that drive our conception of the good life during the first half inevitably return.  Who am I?  Where do I belong? What do I care about? What is my life’s purpose?  [Authors’ emphases.]  Only now, in the second half, we have a unique opportunity to be the author of our own story.  We have a chance to rewrite it, rather than simply replicate the first half.

Through relatable profiles featuring (younger and older) “elders,” coaching questions, and thoughtful discussion of “four flames of vital aging” (i.e. the flames of identity, community, passion and meaning), Claiming Your Place at the Fireprovides a roadmap for holding healthy conversations about how to become a more sage human being on this planet.

I like that the book is designed to be utilized in a circle of conversation with your tribe of friends, family or colleagues.  I’m using it as the primary resource for a Leadership Book Group this fall on “The Power of Leading at Midlife.”  Eight of us – who happen to be mostly in our fifties – will soon be gathering in person and over the phone for three monthly meetings to play with questions such as: What distinguishes leaders at “midlife” from younger counterparts?  How does leadership purpose evolve with life purpose?  What are some racial, gender and cultural implications of this co-evolution?

In what situations would this be useful?

Claiming Your Place at the Fireis useful for supporting productive soul-searching around work, vocation, meaning-making and being the leader of your own life during the midlife transition and beyond.  I highly recommend it if you’re a midlifer feeling stuck, and even if you’re not feeling stuck.  It’s a book about acknowledging and honoring your unique value to society in general, and to younger generations in particular.  Elevation of the wisest among us, as the authors point out, is an ancient tradition; they argue persuasively that it’s time to revive it in youth-obsessed contemporary Western culture.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

A couple of my leadership-oriented favorites that would pair particularly well with this book are Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader by Bill George, et al. (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library), and Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).  For an inclusive and thought-provoking exploration of midlife and self-authorship that draws on multiple spiritual traditions, I highly recommend Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

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Leadership Library Review: Leadership Lessons from Adopting a Shelter Dog

August 2018

What are the big take-aways?

On a cold day in early April, when there were still dribs and drabs of snow on the ground, my husband Chris and I decided to adopt our first-ever dog.  After months of multiple visits to local rescue agencies, we met Ella at North Country Animal League.  A “transport” from a New Jersey shelter serving the NYC metro area, Ella is a smart and resilient 2-plus-year-old mixed-breed who loves every person and every adventure she can get her paws on.  We chose her because she was both young and uncommonly self-possessed (the only dog who wasn’t barking in the kennel), because she was goofy with tennis balls (she wanted to play but, poignantly, didn’t seem to know how), and because she pressed earnestly against her chain-linked kennel door for maximum contact with us until the last moment, when we finally had to peel ourselves away from her warmth.  Chris and I knew at the time that we couldn’t imagine exactly what we were getting ourselves into by adopting a dog, and one of the most significant things we couldn’t have anticipated about Ella in particular – but has been evident since the beginning – is her intense motivation to learn.  Which therefore makes her a powerful teacher.

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Why do I like it?

I like that the process we’ve undertaken of training Ella (and vice versa), through “Good Manners” classes and private consults, has offered me an unexpected trove of leadership lessons from self-observation.  Here are four examples, along with  some questions they raise:

Focus.  Under the guidance of our phenomenal trainer Tay Margison, we are working with Ella on managing triggers (Ella can be suddenly and inexplicably aggressive with certain other dogs) and increasing her focus.  On walks, we try to spot distractions like chipmunks before Ella does so we can prevent derailments by redirecting her, and we ramp her down as swiftly as possible if she gets escalated.  Walking Ella in downtown Montpelier at busy times of day makes me notice how frequently my own attention drifts!  I need to maintain my situational awareness or else something bad, like a dogfight, could erupt with no warning.  Ella senses when I am well-grounded and concentrating because then I’m consistently rewarding desired behaviors with her favorite little freeze-dried duck treats.  Naturally, when I lose focus, so does Ella.  Self-observation questions: How far ahead – as well as up, down, behind and sideways – are you looking?  How do you know when your attention is drifting? What do you do to get your focus back? What’s at risk in the meantime?

Authenticity.  Ella can be sly and inventive when it comes to food and other opportunities, around the house and on the leash, to test boundaries.  (This is how Chris and I learn what our boundaries are!)  Watching our every move, Ella exposes our unconscious assumptions and reveals our lapses by not hesitating to exploit them.  She has a hound’s nose, a nearly prehensile knob on the end of her snout, and is easily sidetracked and stubborn when she smells something especially interesting (read: putrescent).  If I move toward her to call her away, Ella ignores me, sniffing harder.  And why should she heed my commands?  My feet are not facing in the direction I’m telling her we’re going!  It’s obvious to Ella when I’m literally not “walking the talk.”  To her, I mean business only when my actions speak louder than my words.  Self-observation questions: How authentic is your communication? Are your own feet pointed in the direction where you want everyone else to go?  How committed are you to the next steps you’ve deemed necessary to take?

Accepting “What Is.”  Unless she’s sacked out and having those mysterious dreams that curl her lips, twitch her legs or wag her tail, Ella lives fully in the present.  She accepts me and Chris and our imperfect ways, perhaps because she has an adaptable disposition and no choice but to deal with her current reality as best she can.  Ella’s embrace of her new circumstances is endearing and inspires me to practice more radical forms of acceptance, too.  Humor and perspectivizing are my go-to strategies for working on non-attachment when I feel reactive.  (I did not realize how ridiculously “Archie Bunker” I had become about my cherished TV chair until Ella chewed $500-worth of repairs out of it!)  Also, when it comes to Ella, Chris and I humbly acknowledge our ignorance and offset our limitations by seeking support from dog-savvy friends and professionals like Tay.  Self-observation questions:  In your current reality, what are you accepting and what are you resisting? What would more humor and perspective help you let go of?  Whom could you ask for assistance, if you need it?

Emergence.  North Country Animal League possessed no background information at all on Ella, including the circumstances under which she had arrived at the original shelter in New Jersey.  Ella is getting a fresh start with us.  This has meant that, for me, over the past four months there has been a sacred element to our tender time of mutual revelation, emergence and transformation while the three of us have been discovering who we are – separately and together – in this tiny newborn constellation.  I first became conscious of falling in love with Ella when, at some point early on, I noticed I couldn’t inhale enough of the sweet scent of her musky, vaguely floral scruff.  Now, when my head hits the pillow each night, I can’t wait for the morning when she’s allowed on the bed to cuddle with us.  My deepening gratitude for Ella is opening my heart, aligning me with a sharper sense of purpose, and inviting me to step into a bigger version of myself. Self-observation questions:  When you are most enlivened, aligned and spacious, what are you doing?  What does this tell you about your purpose?  Who or what invites you into your bigger or higher self?

In what situations would this be useful?

Self-observation exercises of any kind are always useful to leaders committed to increasing self-awareness.  (As John Whitmore wrote in Coaching for Performance, “I am able to control only that which I am aware of.  That which I am unaware of controls me.  Awareness empowers me.”)  A tool I typically use with clients who want to achieve a breakthrough is to co-design a self-observation experiment together.  I begin by asking the client, “What do you want to find out?  What assumptions are you consciously making?  How could you test those assumptions?”  (Obviously, training Ella has been doing this for me a lot, lately!) Then, the client and I co-create a simple, targeted experiment that is likely to yield the data s/he is seeking. In short, I encourage my clients to get super-curious, and then to observe themselves in action without judgment. Not judging, and just observing, is key. One client quit interrupting his co-workers in less than 48 hours by deciding he would make a hash-mark in his notebook every time he noticed himself speaking over others.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more on self-observation exercises for leaders, check out Marilee Adams’s engaging corporate fable and self-coaching tools in Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library, or Carol Dweck’s Mindset if you’re into neuroscience.  To learn more about the complexities of behavioral communication between primates and canines, I recommend Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book and blog by the same name, The Other End of the Leash.

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Leadership Library Review: The Leadership Circle Profile™

July 2018

The Leadership Circle Profile™

What are the big take-aways?

Last month I was in Washington, D.C. for a few days to take a certification course in the Leadership Circle Profile, a 360° leadership assessment tool.  (A 360 measures a person’s leadership effectiveness by soliciting feedback from various colleagues in her orbit, i.e. as in a circle drawn around her: herself, her boss, boss’s boss, peers, and direct reports.) Many leadership coaches and consultants, as well as in-house human resources professionals, offer 360’s as a service to clients who seek assessments of their current strengths and growth edges as a starting-place for leadership coaching engagements.

Of all the packaged 360° assessments out there, the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) was the first to intentionally integrate various adult development theories (with an emphasis on Robert Kegan’s “forms of mind” framework) while also being rooted in a dense philosophy that explicitly defines effective leadership as a creative and spiritual pursuit. This combination is what I like about the LCP and why I chose to get certified in it.

Why do I like it?

I also like the LCP because of what it measures.  As the brochure explains, the tool assesses 18 “creative competencies” which “measure key leadership behaviors and internal assumptions that lead to high fulfillment, high achievement leadership.”  It also assesses 13 “reactive tendencies” that “reflect inner beliefs and assumptions that limit effectiveness, authentic expression and empowering leadership.”  The LCP summary report shows how a leader’s creativity and reactivity are interrelated and in dynamic play with each other.

The measurement is done by self-assessment and by 10-20 raters (called “evaluators”) in the leader’s workplace, via user-friendly online surveys.  It is a compelling process and I can understand why LCP certification candidates are themselves required to experience the instrument, and a debrief with a practitioner, prior to taking the course.  What impressed me most was how complex and nuanced the tool is, which manifests in how well it provokes the kinds of questions in a leader that can propel meaningful coaching conversations.  One’s LCP report quickly surfaces interesting areas for productive inquiry.  In my opinion, the LCP’s power is further enhanced by the clarity, elegance and visual appeal of the report materials.

In what situations would this be useful?

The LCP is designed for growth-oriented emerging and veteran leaders in an entity large enough to provide a minimum of 10 (optimally 15-20) evaluators surrounding each participant. Its pricing is geared toward organizations that are committed to making, and able to make, a substantial investment in nurturing better leadership.  The competencies the LCP measures are universally applicable to leaders in any sector or industry.  For my clientele, I can imagine this assessment being useful at any time, and especially in the midst of an individual or organizational transition, because the LCP has the potential to reveal fresh perspectives and new narratives about who the leader is and who she is becoming.

Note:  The LCP is not a performance appraisal tool and should not be considered part of any performance-review process.  As the website explains, “[b]ecause this tool measures internal belief structures and therefore produces more powerful and vulnerable information, treating the results confidentially is of highest priority.” Of course, leaders who take the LCP are encouraged to share the results with their supervisors as part of – what ought to be, ideally – ongoing conversations about their growth.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

The LCP is presented beautifully, with superb graphics, on The Leadership Circle’s website. If you’re interested in a thorough discussion of the philosophy, theories and research behind the LCP, I highly recommend the book co-authored by its developer, Bob Anderson, entitled Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results.  I reviewed it in the Leadership Libraryshortly after it came out a couple of years ago. As I wrote then, I wholeheartedly agree with the authors’ fundamental premise, which is that “the inner game runs the outer game.”  In other words, a leader’s inner capacity for learning, adaptation and transformation directly affects her outer creativity and effectiveness.

For more about the neuroscience behind “leading your life” creatively in all dimensions – including as a parent – consider Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, splendidly reviewed here in Brain Pickings.

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Leadership Library Review: The Choice: Embrace the Possible

June 2018

The Choice: Embrace the Possibleby Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

The Choice is a memoir, a call-to-vocation and a how-to guide to freedom from self-limiting beliefs.  It describes Dr. Eger’s survival of the Holocaust as a teenage Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz and her life journey following that experience: marrying and starting a family, immigrating to the U.S., pursuing many years of education, and establishing her psychology practice (which she still maintains, in her nineties).

A mentee of Viktor Frankl’s, Dr. Eger consults for the U.S. Army and Navy on resilience and PTSD. Much of her autobiographical story in The Choice is bookended by a dramatic narrative about a particular encounter she has with an Army captain who – unbeknownst to her – carries a gun to his appointment at her office.  This incident illuminates the ultimate message of the book: freedom from “jail inside the mind” is a choice, and the choice is ours.

Why do I like it?

One of the things I admire most about The Choice is that it delivers a type of satisfaction I wasn’t expecting at all: it’s an enticingly suspenseful and deeply engaging page-turner.  I liked reading it.  I had a hard time putting it down, and when I did, I kept looking for the next opportunity to pick it up again.  Of course, as anticipated, the book is also terrifying, heart-breaking and grim.  Yet those aspects are strangely balanced by Dr. Eger’s vivid memory, clear voice and astounding ability to recount her brutal tale with an uncommon gentleness and generosity of spirit.  She holds herself and others with extraordinary care.  It is enlightening and reassuring to be enfolded in her compassionate presence, even as a reader.

I also liked The Choice as a book about leadership, which it is – in my opinion – because of its universally relevant emphasis on what Dr. Eger refers to as “the most important truth I know” (on page 271):

[T]he biggest prison is in your own mind, and in your pocket you already hold the key: the willingness to take responsibility for your life; the willingness to risk; the willingness to release yourself from judgment and reclaim your innocence, accepting and loving yourself for who you really are – human, imperfect, and whole.

In my formal leadership coaching and consulting practice, as well as in my informal quest to personally understand what it means “to lead my life,” I have come to view leadership quite simply as this willingness – this choice – to take responsibility.  Taking responsibility sounds so easy (can’t I just say, “I am responsible for…”?), but every full life requires extraordinary courage: to take risks, to learn from mistakes, to grow into larger perspectives of heart and mind, and to come to terms with events and ideas and parts of ourselves that we have deemed unacceptable.

In what situations would this be useful?

Lest you wonder whether this is a a maudlin survivor story or perhaps an over-simplified prescription for self-help, I assure you it is neither.  It is a refreshing, mind-expanding and graceful demonstration of what the leadership of “taking responsibility” – and especially taking responsibility for self-forgiveness – looks like in real people.  In that way, it is a beautiful and useful gift, no matter who you are or what situation you find yourself in, because each of us is at the very least the leader of our own life.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Many of the themes (e.g. liberation) and sensations (e.g. lengthy periods of equanimity) I noticed while absorbing The Choicereverberated among those I experienced when reading The Book of Joy, which I reviewed in this blog a couple of months ago.  I heartily recommend both books for the paradoxically elegant complexity they offer in role-modeling how to make meaning from some of the most disordered, mysterious and difficult truths about humanity.

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