Two Free Books: Priceless

In the early-2010s, Crown Publishing Group regularly sent me free books in exchange for writing reviews on a now-defunct blog. Some of the books were terrible, while other were secret gems that few have ever read. There are two books that still echo through my psyche. One is on the topic of practicing compassion and the other on finding peace in the face of uncertainty.

Reflecting back, I find it fascinating that these life-altering books entering my life and influenced my behavior just a few short years before I would become chronically ill with a mysterious ailment. Those free books, in many ways, were priceless.

The blog had arisen out of boredom during my final year of college and evolved into a sounding board as I sought meaning and purpose during the turbulent transition from student to working adult. My readers were primarily middle-aged and better, offering sage advice and a sense of groundedness. Other young people reassured me that I was not alone in my aimlessness. The editor at the publishing house must have interpreted my self-exploratory spelunking as spiritual flailing because most of the books were philosophical in nature.

Christina, the redheaded editor at Crown Publishing, knew me better than I knew myself. Somehow, she realized that I needed to read Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last by Lee Lipsenthal and Open Heart, Open Mind: A Guide to Inner Transformation by Tsoknyi Rinpoche. The lessons from the books have stayed with me. Rereading both recently has felt like a spring breeze laced with the evocative scent of nostalgia.

Enjoy Every Sandwich

“Sometimes just going within, getting quiet, and listening is where we learn the most about life, or about death. We don’t need to run out and do the bucket list of seeing and doing new things. We just need to sit, listen, and learn.”

Lee Lipsenthal, Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last

I had just turned 21 when I first read these words. I was a broke college student, eager to start a career, earn some money, and the go out and explore the world. Life, in my mind, was about doing things. Stillness was for the yoga studio. Listening was for the classroom. I found myself reexamining my own bucket list, which included visiting Europe and hiking all the National Parks. I couldn’t wrap my head around how mediation could outshine world travel.

The author of the book had been diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer after many years of helping his own medical patients navigate their fear of pain and death. As he approached his own death and prepared to say goodbye to his wife and children, he wasn’t focused on what he had lost. Rather, he found small reasons to be grateful. Even the mundane sandwich his wife had prepared for his lunch was a source of nourishment and a symbol of familial love. He was thankful for what he had–even those cherished things which he knew he would soon lose.

My haphazard gratitude journal took on a new shape after that book. I was no longer just grateful for perfect grades, a free meal from the campus church, and visits home for the holiday. I began noting a smile from a kind stranger, a singing bird outside my window, and my health–which I too often took for granted. The seed had been planted: there is beauty everywhere if we just keep our eyes open.

Five years later, I would develop an unrelenting ailment. In the years that would follow, noticing joy would serve as a life raft through the treacherous rapids of uncertainty. I would learn, by necessity, to sit, listen, and learn.

Open Heart, Open Mind

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to teach anything. You just have to be who you are: a bright flame shining in the darkness of despair, a shining example of a person able to cross bridges by opening your heart and mind.”

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Open Heart, Open Mind: A Guide to Inner Transformation

Shortly after turning 22, I received this book in the mail. I had graduated in the midst of a recession and was working an odd-hours job at a bowling alley for minimum wage. I felt resentment toward those who had pushed college and those who told me to “pursue whatever degree interests you.” I’d read all the standard personal development books, but I still felt alone and misunderstood.

The author, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, explains how each of us longs for peace, for the ability to love and be loved openly and freely, and for the confidence and clarity to meet the various challenges we face in our daily lives. Within each of us, he claims, resides a spark of brilliance–an unlimited capacity for warmth, openness, and courage. This “essence love” is often layered over by patterns of behavior and belief that urge us to seek happiness in conditions or situations that fall short of our expectations.

I quickly realized that not only was I continually seeking out perfection in all areas of my life, but I had also crafted barricades around my heart and my mind to protect them from failure. Prior to reading the book, I hadn’t known I was walking around with a shield. All I had to do to improve my quality of life was lower that shield and stay true to myself. When I did so, everything shifted in my life. Everything became easier.

Four years later, I would be bedridden. I wouldn’t have anything to say or anything to teach, but I will have internalized the belief that nothing is required of me beyond being myself. Though frail, fatigued, and failing in every possible way, I was doing my best and that was enough.

Complementary Puzzle Pieces

Rereading these books back-to-back, I can’t help but notice their complementary nature. Both talk extensively about facing uncertainty and challenges in our lives with patience, confidence, and gratitude. Facing challenges, in turn, requires a level of self-compassion and grace, as well as appreciation for whatever circumstances we may face. Our journey is ours alone. We carry our burdens and our gifts, and we may develop the skills necessary to shape them into something new and useful.

An open mind and open heart, emerging from our meditative silence, equips us to cross those disquieting liminal spaces. From there, perhaps unknowingly, we may offer a spark of inspiration to others. We may become “a bright flame shining in the darkness of despair.” If life is filled with suffering, what a relief it is to know that others may benefit from our hardship.

I live a simple life. I work, I spill out my thoughts on the internet, and I try to help others. I’m not making waves in the world in the ways my younger self had aspired. However, I am reminded once more that it’s our intention that matters. These two books served as garden pavers, helping me to forge a path through the unfamiliar brambles and sludge. In my early twenties, I unexpectedly discovered what I consider to be the six tenants of a good life:

  1. Be true to yourself
  2. Keep your mind open to new ideas and perspectives
  3. Open your heart to love
  4. Help others wherever possible
  5. Practice gratitude daily
  6. Seek out joy continually

I’m curious now. Which books shifted your worldview or led to transformative behavioral changes? Were you ever gifted a book that felt like it had been written just for you?

You can find more from me on my personal blog:

36 thoughts on “Two Free Books: Priceless

  1. Thank you for this, Erin: “If life is filled with suffering, what a relief it is to know that others may benefit from our hardship.” And your ‘six tenants’? Perfection! xo! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A lovely essay, Esoterica. The following sentence captured me: “I’m not making waves in the world in the ways my younger self had aspired.” In my early ’30s, I found myself working in a psychiatric hospital among many other professionals who seemed driven to make money, own cool cars, and wear expensive clothes. I wondered why. I was sensitized to death early by my dad’s heart disease (he survived, thank goodness). If we recognize our mortality as fully as possible from distance, we will also contend with the fact that almost none of us will be long remembered. The waves you describe rise, crest, and fall away, undefined within the body of water.

    To me, your present aspirations, as represented in your six tenants, are very wise. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Dr. Stein. I’m so sorry to hear about your dad’s health trouble, and their effect on you; however, I do agree that sensitization to death helps put things into perspective. My mom’s father and brother died when she was a young child and I sometimes wonder if her traumas and fears left an imprint on me–an awareness from a young age that our days are not guaranteed. The visual of the waves rising and falling, indistinguishable within a great body of water, is so fitting–thank you for that.


  3. You asked about a book. Not surprisingly, the title is “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Many years ago it was mentioned by two different people as the greatest book they’d ever read.

    It is transformative, but takes more courage to read than most are capable of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the mention of The Denial of Death. It’s one I had not heard of before, but sounds like a thought-provoking and potentially paradigm-shifting read. I think I’ll be adding it to my to-read list.


  4. It’s very cool to learn about your life as a book blogger in your 20s. How fun that must’ve been and to receive review copies of books must’ve been very exciting too. I love that your editor seemed to know what you needed and would resonate with you too. The two books sounded awesome and will make a note to look into them further.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Ab! It was a lot of fun–the books, the reader, and all that jazz! Both books are great, though I may be biased, and relatively quick reads. If you pick them up, I hope you enjoy!


  5. Most books change my outlook in some way or another. Most of my character growth is observationally charged. The only self help books that ever helped my self were Financial Peace and Ancient Paths course books.

    Albion’s Seed of all bools helped me ground myself in my roots, and helped solidify my heritage in a way that was holistic, and not alternatively topical and contextual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate the observation that much of you character growth is observationally charged. I just had a conversation with my mom over the weekend about how I tend to learn through observing others, whereas my brother needs to go touch the hot stove to understand that it will burn him. The ability to learn from others’ successes and failures truly is an underrated skill.

      I had forgotten about Financial Peace, but that was a helpful one. I’ve heard good things about Albion’s Seed. Rereading the overview, this is one I think I’ll need to pick up this year. Thanks for the mention.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In my early 20’s I was doing nothing as profound as reading philosophical books on life Erin-far from it. I think you were given a gift experiencing some of those words and ideas that early in life- clearly to prepare you for a journey you never expected. Messages find us when we aren’t looking for them. You mentioned books and personal shifts: a favorite author over these past months is Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is an ethnobotanist/professor and has strong ties to indigenous culture in the eastern US but also is very familiar with my area of the west coast. It has been eye-opening to read her words as I have distant ties to native peoples as well. I am thinking very much to the future- not mine so much as that is limited, but to what my grandchildren will inherit and how I am impacting their earth and their future ability to thrive. Lovely and timely post today Erin!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it really was a gift to experience some life-changing wisdom so early in life. “Messages find us when we aren’t looking for them.” I love this, Deb, and it’s so true, isn’t it? I’m discovering so many wonderful new books and authors today. I’ll need to look into Robin Wall Kimmerer. I deeply appreciate your approach to world, considering how today’s actions may impact future generations, as I know many whose mindset is, “I’ll be dead anyways, and it will be your problem.” The world needs more people like you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh my Erin- more than one of me on this planet may indeed be a reason to pause and consider the consequences! Thank you though, sincerely as I appreciate your lovely and thoughtful meaning with that suggestion:) I do wish that it was easier for others to look beyond themselves sometimes- there is a bigger picture to consider.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I love your six tenants. Those are words to live by. I can’t point to a single book that was life changing for me but I’ve taken small nuggets of wisdom away from every book that I’ve read, even the ones I didn’t agree with. I recently read “Things That Matter” by Joshua Becker. Again, it didn’t change my life but definitely reinforced some of the decisions I’ve made in recent years and gave me some additional food for thought and inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Speaking of books—have you considered writing one yourself? Your story is quite compelling. That you somehow managed to come back from a life-threatening, debilitating illness with sanity and spirit in tact is nothing short of a miracle. Words of your experience may save the life of another. Or—you can simply do what you do every day to help others—shine your bright light into dark corners. Either way, others will benefit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Julia. In many ways, I feel like I’m still in the middle of my journey; however, when thinking about to the Hero’s Journey, perhaps I have final stage: return with an elixir. I may one day write a book–I’ve had to be my own advocate and do my own research and I’m sure that’s something many don’t have the background or bandwidth to tackle. For now, I’ll share what I can here… but I think I’ll begin considering the ways in which my experience can help others, because I think that would make the hardship worth it. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right—I think that we’re all in the middle of the journey, but it seems to be a never-ending one, no matter how close we think we come to the end. The closer I get, the more I realize how important it is to not sweat the small stuff and enjoy every moment of it along the way. Not always easy, but worth it! A+ for effort counts for a lot!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s so true, isn’t it? The journey never end… perhaps just pivots. Yes! I used to be get worked up over the smallest things, but have learned that life is too short for that. Life changes in spectacular ways where we’re able to let go of our need to control and simply enjoy the ride.

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  9. Wow wow wow, Erin. What a great post, fantastic writing, wonderful message. Amazing!! I love this sentence, “Rereading both recently has felt like a spring breeze laced with the evocative scent of nostalgia.”

    Like Deb, I wasn’t reading this kind of content in my 20’s either. Clearly you are a lifelong learner and so open to curiosity. That is so remarkable! I love that these messages came to you in the years before you fell ill and you were able to receive them and store them for when needed. Stunning!

    Amazing post – I feel smarter for just have reading it and your 6 tenets – brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for you kind words, Wynne! 🥰 We took pictures of our bookshelves before leaving our home and I now that I have them on an e-reader, I’ve been revisiting some old favorites. It really is remarkable that they came into my life when they did, and that they stuck me and stayed with me.

      I give my parents a lot the credit for my curiosity and being a lifelong learner. As a parents, keep books in the house–kids books, nonfiction books like encyclopedias or the story of the Titanic, adult books, everything! As a child, the world felt full of exciting information simply because my home was. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  10. When The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz first came out three different friends told me I had to read the book. So I did. Although the language is quite flowery and not my usual thing, I’ve never regretted absorbing the simple wisdom in the book. I don’t know that the book was written for me, but it resonated with me. Still does.

    Liked by 1 person

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