The Inconceivable Surprise of Living
Sustaining Wisdom for Spiritual Beings Trying to Be Human
CLB Press, softcover, 5.5. x 8.5, 266 pages. Copyright 2014 by Kevin Anderson
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The Inconceivable Surprise of Living gives you the power to find not just better thoughts to deal with life, but some of the best thoughts of all time. Being familiar with preserved wisdom allows us to benefit from our own self-administered "wisdom-infused cognitive therapy" or, if you prefer, cognitive therapy on steroids!
I spent a good deal of my time from 2010 to 2014 reviewing and writing reflective essays about the best wisdom quotations about being human I could find from throughout history. In The Inconceivable Surprise of Living (CLB Press, 2014), I present my picks for the top 225 pieces of preserved wisdom I think can lead us beyond depression and anxiety to mental health, purpose, love, spirituality, authenticity, and courage. Countless wise, creative, noble human beings have lived before us. When we’re stressed, we don’t have to rely just on our own familiar, tired, repetitious thought patterns. If we are familiar with the preserved words and ideas of great human beings, we can draw on the best of their insights into being human when we need them.
A 2015 review of research on cognitive therapy suggested that it might be losing some of its effectiveness, perhaps because we have all heard so often how it is important to manage our thoughts. Maybe we think it’s just an old idea, or maybe we long for something more dazzling to lift us out of the inevitable difficulties of being human. I suggest that it is time for cognitive therapy to get re-juiced by helping people find truly transformative ways to reframe their thinking. I think we need Wisdom-Infused Cognitive Therapy (WICT).
Cognitive therapy has been the subject of thousands of studies of depression, anxiety, and many other forms of human suffering since the 1960s. Its core idea is that if we want to change how we feel, we need to change how we think. It’s hard for me to keep from laughing when I read the 2600-year-old words of Buddha in the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” I think it’s funny that this modern, scientific, well-researched treatment modality we call cognitive therapy is right there in the first lines of such an ancient document.
Here’s one way to think about the value of being familiar with several hundred of the best thoughts about being human. Imagine a two-on-two basketball game. Both teams practice hard to develop as much conditioning and teamwork as they can. When the game comes, the final score is 102-9. Why so lopsided? One team is composed of Michael Jordan and Lebron James and the other is my son Jim and I. It doesn’t matter how much teamwork Jim and I develop—talent matters! In the same way, we can try cognitive therapy all day long, but if we’re just replacing negative thoughts with our own only slightly better thoughts, we’re not going to get maximal benefit. Imagine if, in life’s toughest tests, we could replace our thoughts with truly wise and inspiring thoughts. Now that would be cognitive therapy on steroids!
Each page of this book consists of a quotation chosen for its power to shift consciousness in the direction of greater awareness and an essay by the author. The essays do not attempt to explain the quotation; rather, they are the author's attempt to model how the preserved words of women and men across the ages can spur us to creative personal reflection.
Here's a sample quote/essay pairing from the book:
First the fish needs to say, “Something ain’t right about this camel ride, and I’m feeling so damn thirsty!” -Hafiz
Pause for a moment and enter into Hafiz’s playful image. Imagine a fish riding a camel in the middle of a desert, trying to make do, struggling to keep himself alive. What does he do? He can pray for rain. He can try to catch some of the mist produced by the camel spitting into the wind. He can attempt to burrow into the camel’s hump where there’s plenty of water. He can keep his eyes open for an oasis and be prepared to jump off into a watering hole at the right moment.
There is a part of every one of us that longs to be immersed in our essence, to do what we are here to do, to live authentically, to lose no time living a false life. But that fish often finds itself riding the camel of compromise, trying to make do with a life for which it is ill-suited. The camel is the part of us that is deluded into thinking life is about money, security, status, or success. The camel is so large and so consumed with plodding through the desert that it forgets all about the fish on its back.
It’s easy to look around at people you know and see lots of fish struggling with their version of the camel ride. It’s harder to look at our own lives and realize how we have kept our true essence subservient to other agendas. When the fish expresses its dream of immersion, the camel is the voice that keeps telling it, “Someday, but not now, it wouldn’t be practical—just hang on for the ride a while longer.”
Here’s a secret: The fish must jump off the camel for the oasis to appear.
Below, are just a few of the wisdom quotes from the book. Spending time with these sages from across the ages can help you develop what I call "an inner pantheon of wise advisors."
Every suﬀering is a seed, because suﬀering impels us to seek wisdom. BODHIDHARMA
Be kind, for everyone you meet is ﬁghting a hard battle. PLATO
One regret, dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough. HAFIZ
Answers divide, questions unite. ELIE WIESEL
You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.
Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. WILLIAM JAMES
The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise your sails.
The ﬁsh in water who is thirsty needs serious professional counseling. KABIR
Holiness is a greater ideal by far than happiness because it embraces struggle. DAVID WOLPE
You don’t need nine tenths of the things you scramble for. Don’t be afraid to have nothing. Happiness is not what you have, but who you are. DIOGENES
If the mind can get quiet enough, something sacred will be revealed. HELEN TWORKOV
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. VICTOR FRANKL
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a ﬁeld. I will meet you there. RUMI
You, as much as anyone in the entire universe, are deserving of your love and compassion.
Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.
ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The ﬁrst act of awe, when man was struck with the beauty or wonder of Nature, was the ﬁrst spiritual experience. HENRYK SKOLIMOWSKI
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. JOSEPH CAMPBELL
There is only one of you for all time. Fearlessly be yourself. ANTHONY RAPP
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? ROBERT H. SCHULLER
Success is not to be pursued. It is to be attracted by the person you become. JIM ROHN
More and more people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." The Inconceivable Surprise of Living explores wisdom sayings from throughout recorded human history on topics such as God, love, happiness, suffering, death, and authenticity. These preserved words spanning 2600 years make it plausible that, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "We are not human beings trying to be spiritual, we are spiritual beings trying to be human." This is the ideal book for those who want to deepen their awareness of spirituality even though they are uncertain about religion. For those steeped in a particular religious tradition, this book can strengthen an awareness that the common spiritual questions pervading the human experience are a persistent reminder of our essential oneness.