In It’s Easier Than You Think, Sylvia Boorstein does indeed make it sound simple. It I take to mean practicing Buddhism and, a little more broadly, living.
It’s easy because nothing is required. We’re already doing it, living it. Throughout this very readable book, Boorstein speaks in a friendly and cheerful way about her own experience. She reminds us that the point is “not doing anything to change experience, but rather discovering that experience itself is bearable.”
The book is written in bite-size anecdotes, like collected newspaper columns. Each chapter is just a page or two long, and they are grouped together into sections according to the basic teachings of Buddhism. This is a great introduction to—or review of—the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the five hindrances, the three marks, and the four divine abodes. Each of these lofty, abstract, impersonal concepts gets illustrated with a homey story to make it real. One of my favorites is a story she tells in the section on emptiness (one of the three marks):
When my father was dying, I remained at his bedside for his final days. The last few days he was primarily in a coma from which he would rouse himself from time to time. . . . I would hold his hand and say my prepared speech: “Go to the light,” and “Now is your chance to get out of this body.” I’m pleased that I did that; those are all the right things to say when someone is dying. (“You’ve done a good job in this lifetime.” “Everybody loved you.” “It’s time to move on. . . .”). . . . Very near the end, he began a siege of apnea, and I leaped to my feet, beginning my talk about “Go to the light.” He opened his eyes, and he looked at me and said quite clearly, “You know, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Some of the stories are funny, some are sad. Many are both. In speaking of impermanence, she says:
When I first met [Phyllis], ten years ago, she could manage the three flights up to my house easily. Now her body is frail and she needs a special chair in order to sit without discomfort. Last week, I adjusted the pillow behind her back and asked, “Does that feel better?”
“Yes,” she replied wistfully, “but nothing stays comfortable long.”
Boorstein’s teachers are everywhere: the sewing machine salesman, the van driver, the stranger sitting next to her on the plane, her father-in-law, her grandchildren, her oft-quoted friends. Boorstein’s description of her Buddhist practice is like a wonderful potluck dinner at her house, to which everybody she knows brings his or her own special dish.
Ronna’s grandmother practiced anger. During the last thirty years of her life, she carried on a nonspeaking feud with Ronna’s mother. The feud continued even as her memory dimmed. One day, very near her death, the old woman asked Ronna, “Do you recall what I am angry at your mother about?” Ronna did recall, but she decided it wouldn’t be helpful to bring it up again. “No,” she said, “I don’t remember.” “Neither do I,” said the grandmother, “but I remember that I am angry.”
The book is full of quotable aphorisms. Of the eightfold path, Boorstein says, “A path goes from here to there, and the nearer you are to there, the further you are from here. . . . There isn’t any there. . . . I guess it’s more like the Eightfold Dot.”
One of my favorites comes in the section on the Third Noble Truth (which says that the end of suffering is possible). The piece is called “The Third-and-a-Half Noble Truth.”
. . . the end of suffering hasn’t happened for me yet. . . . I struggle and I suffer. I suffer less than I used to, though, and I’m not as distraught about the suffering as I used to be.
So, I have added an extra half Noble Truth. . . . “Suffering is manageable.” Short of coming to the very end of suffering, which I absolutely have faith in as a possibility, I am content with managing my suffering better.
One of the reasons this book is so accessible is that Boorstein is not afraid to write of her own delusions. She confesses, for example, some of the desires she has experienced while on retreat in a monastery, including wishing for better breakfast cereal, a nicer wardrobe, a better meditation bench, or romance with “the most improbable people.” And because I can identify with her, I’m receptive to her counsel when she says, “The antidote for the hindrance of lust is restraint.”
The thing I like least about the book is its subtitle: The Buddhist Way to Happiness. Taken together with the title, it sounds like spiritual materialism, even like a promise of cheap gain, and makes me think of How to Win Friends and Influence People or Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. But maybe the title was the publisher’s idea—a title to sell books.
Once inside the covers, it turns out there’s no hidden treasure to dig for. We’ve already got it.
“Contented moments are the potential of every moment. Actually, all moments are contented. When they’re not, it’s because the mind has made a mess of them.”