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What Really Matters --
Searching For Wisdom In America
by Tony Schwartz
reviewed by Jordan Gruber
Tony Schwartz's masterpiece should be read by everyone interested in healing, self-transformation, and consciousness work. By giving in-depth profiles of roughly twenty-five American consciousness luminaries, by weaving in his own personal and very frank story of transformation, and by bringing a consistently keen intellect and journalistic sensibility to his effort, Schwartz has provided us with an absolute treasure as edifying as it is entertaining.
By reading this book, you not only get the ideas, and even many of the techniques, of an incredible range of luminaries -- Ram Das (no introduction needed), Michael Murphy (co-founder of Esalen), Elmer Green (Mr. Biofeedback), Betty Edwards (drawing on the right side of the brain), Tim Gallwey (the inner game of tennis), Montague Ullman (dreamwork), Jack Kornfeld (Buddhist meditation), Ken Wilber (the "Einstein" of transpersonal psychology), and Helen Palmer (the Enneagram), to name a few -- you also get a clear sense of what it is like to be in their presence.
With the exception of "Perfect Masters" (let me know if you meet one), every individual has quirks. Schwartz, while not dwelling on his interviewees' foibles, certainly doesn't shy away from letting the reader know what he really thinks about them. In addition to having the salutary effect of making the interviewed stars more human, this relaxed and honest attitude lets the reader plant herself deeply in the furrows of Schwartz's mind. She is able to share his pain, his questioning, and his insights as he progresses through his personal journey.
And quite a journey it is! For all along the way, Tony Schwartz actively participates in almost all of the techniques and teachings that he describes. From learning how to draw with Betty Edwards to reaching deep understanding of his own personality type and fixations with the help of the Enneagram, we are exposed to the struggle of a man who is sincerely trying to figure out What Really Matters. As we go along, we are reminded of many things we once knew, and exposed to many things that we never did.
For example, we learn about Dr. John Sarno, who wrote a book called "Healing Back Pain." Sarno's thesis: most back pain is caused by repressed emotions, but not in the way you might think. It's not that the emotions are somehow leaking out or causing physiological tightness and restriction, but rather, the physiological tightness and restriction (actually, a mild form of oxygen deprivation in muscle tissue) serves to distract us so that we don't have to address our emotions.
The cure? Read Sarno's book, really "get it," and then 90% of the people (or so Sarno says) who sincerely try this method find their back pain is gone or much better. Sounds quirky and New Agey? Maybe. When I first read of Sarno in What Really Matters, a no-nonsense friend, a former venture capitalist, synchronistically announced that his brother had been to Dr. Sarno and had his back pain "miraculously cured." Then I happened to read some of Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Healing and, oddly enough, he happened to mention Sarno and had great praise for him. And then I finally tried it myself. The result? Take a guess -- my back felt much better.
Now, anecdotal evidence never proved anything to anyone who insists on empirical, experimental proof, and this is as it should be. Given the human tendencies towards trance, groupthink, mass hypnosis, and gullibility, this is a good thing. On the other hand, a solid anecdotal romp through the psycho-spiritual odyssey of a man like Tony Schwartz can't help but compel the reader to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Having finished this book, I find myself sitting in meditation more regularly than ever before, grappling with the Enneagram (am I a 6 with a 7 wing or a 7 with a 6 wing or maybe just a Ring-Ding on the way to a wing-ding ).
It seems quite doubtful that Schwartz would have produced such a superb book had he not had a very clear sense of direction from the very beginning:
During the past five years, I have spent much of my time detouring around New Age popularizes, self-promoting hucksters and charismatic demagogues posing as enlightened teachers. Theirs was not the story I wanted to tell. Instead I chose to focus on a much smaller group of people who I've come to believe an emerging American wisdom tradition.
What, then, are Schwartz's ultimate conclusions? He has found that "[r]eal discovery and change require sustained and committed practice," and that no single practice I encountered addresses the full spectrum of what it means to be a human being." The book ends on a hopeful note:
The flowering of more comprehensive approaches to wisdom, uniting the best of the East and the West, represent a historic first. Never before have we had access to so many technologies of transformation or to so much knowledge about the full spectrum of human possibility. It's not just that there is wisdom to be found in America, but that these comprehensive approaches are emerging primarily in America. Perhaps never before have they been so desperately needed.
In short, I'm grateful for Schwartz's book, and wouldn't hesitate for one second to feature it on the curriculum of a course on contemporary alternative American spirituality. The book is a long read -- 432 pages in hardcover (although the much less expensive softcover version is out now) -- and there are times when I put it down for a few days or even weeks. Ultimately, however, I persevered, and I am certainly glad that I did. It's hard to imagine that anyone who is serious about their human potential, spiritual development, or personal happiness would regret investing their time and thought on this exceptional narrative and interpretive guide to some of the very best of "what's out there" in America.
What really matters? Lots of things, and this book is one of them. Time spent with this book will be time well-spent.
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