Book of the Heart
(Zoe White, Thousand Wing Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Lē Weaver
You probably haven’t heard of Zoe White, author of Book of the Heart: A Personal History of Seeing. She’s not been featured on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. She hasn’t been speaking at any big-deal progressive Christian conferences. She doesn’t have a TED talk.
And that’s a shame. I don’t know how all that stuff happens to people, but I wish it would happen to Zoe White. But I guess people who end up on SuperSoul Sunday, or speak at conferences, or get selected for a TED talk . . . those people have figured out how to concisely and clearly share a lesson they think people need to learn.
White has something important to share with us, too, but it’s something that is really hard to put into words. It can’t be broken down into a compelling 20-minute video or interview, or even a 45-minute talk. And it doesn’t really fit into the category of a lesson she thinks people need to learn. It’s something else entirely, and I’m amazed she was able to make it so clear using only 136 pages of words.
Zoe White has written a book-length illumination of contemplative spirituality. It’s not a book about getting somewhere. It’s not a book about figuring something out. It’s not a how-to book. It’s a book that simply illustrates the process of how practice and circumstance and relationship and thought all come together and create spiritual experience.
It’s a book about mindfulness, contemplation, incarnation, and being. And it’s a beautifully written book about one human, Zoe White, and her curiosity about being alive.
I read this book twice, something that is unusual for me. The first time I read it I just swam in the words and concepts and feeling of the book. I highlighted and highlighted because passage after passage said something that resonated with me, even though on the surface my experience has been very different from Whites’s.
I read it the second time to try to get my arms around the book in a way that would enable me to write a “good review.” I thought it would be important to be able to relay what happened in Whites’s life, how the book was organized, and what important threads wove through the narrative.
But I kept falling back, swimming in the words and concepts and feelings. I found even more to highlight.
Finally, I decided the stories and structure and themes are not the most important thing about the book, and I could leave all that for you to discover when you read it . . . because you simply must read it. What makes this book special is how clearly it reveals the contemplative experience.
Almost all of us walk around pretty deeply absorbed in the day-to-day events of our lives. Even our relationships with other beings tend to become a series of encounters, a series of events. These events that happen after we wake up each day are often blithely understood as the cause of the shifting comfort and discomfort that overlays our existence.
But should events have that much influence over how we experience our lives? Maybe this incarnation doesn’t have to hinge on our involvement with events; maybe it can focus on the gently shifting meaning we create from our experience.
Contemplatives of many different religious paths have claimed to find a type of comfort and satisfaction that blooms from being aware of something other than the events of their lives. Many historical contemplative figures stripped back their event experiences, isolating themselves or living very simple lives, intentionally limiting their exposure to the events that constantly assail and hypnotize the rest of us. Contemplatives seek to create (or perhaps a better word is “allow”) an experience of being that transcends the human tendency to become overly absorbed with events.
. . . when the mind is busy with its habitual occupations, this more subtle field of consciousness simply goes unnoticed (p. 100)
Zoe White is intent on noticing.
The subtitle states Book of the Heart is “a personal history of seeing.” While I can’t think of a better short phrase to describe what the book is about, the meaning of the word “seeing” did not initially conjure up the intended meaning for me. I didn’t understand what the author meant until I’d gotten well into the book. When White uses the word “seeing” she is actually referencing the concept I described in the paragraphs above—“seeing” means opening one’s eyes to the gently shifting experience of our lives that transcends our participation in events.
What makes this book so extraordinary is that the author is not only humble and patient and curious enough to allow herself to explore what lies beyond and within the events of her life, but she is also articulate enough to allow us, her readers, the opportunity to witness this internal process. Knowing that it’s different for everyone, she doesn’t tell her readers how to see, she simply invites us into the story of her experience with seeing. Thus, we are given space and permission to explore it on our own.
The lessons in this book don’t enter the reader’s consciousness through the eyes; they enter through the heart’s longing for connection with another’s experience.
There are so many beautiful concepts expressed in this book that I must share a few, and hopefully whet your appetite for more.
Prayer is what happens when I notice a gap in the universe and dive in. (p. 12)
I’ve never heard prayer described this way or been aware that I have experienced prayer in this way, but now I want to. Now I want to find one of those gaps and dive in, just to feel what she is talking about.
There was a time when I thought I was in the driver’s seat, driving, thinking I was going somewhere. Later I had to get in the back seat and let myself be driven. Later still I began to wonder if there was actually a driver. Now I begin to suspect there isn’t even a car. (p. 52)
As I experience middle age, I’ve been digging into what this incarnation is to me. What I’ve done, what I wish I had done, and what I hope I might still get to do. White seems to have thought about the same concept and come up with a cogent expression of how it feels.
Habits of suffering have established their pathways over many years, perhaps over generations. They are not going to go away overnight. But the thoughts which cause pain are now recognized as they arise. I acknowledge them and turn my attention to the larger life; the all-being with which I am one. (p. 97)
White’s reflections resonate with the influence of her lifelong diversity of religious experience. Writing of suffering and how she learned to tolerate that most fundamental element of the human condition, I hear clear Buddhist tones.
For those of us who are old enough to remember the world “before”—before computers, before the decline of objective truth, before 24/7 media demands on our attention, before everything changed—White’s words offer some hope.
Castes, creeds, cells and disciplines may no longer be relied upon to stay in place as they once did. Reference points, harbours, buoys and lighthouses may have been washed away, but is there a way of being at one with it all? Is there perhaps a kind of intelligence at work in the ebb and flow—another kind of knowing, which can help us swim with the swell and come to peace? (p. 2)
“This is a really special book,” Virginia Mollenkott said when she suggested to me that Christian Feminism Today review it. It’s not often that Virginia, CFT’s most prolific reviewer, calls a book “really special.”
Of course Virginia was right. Book of the Heart is really special, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This article was first pubished in Christian Feminism Today (eewc.com) © 2018