Sunday, 3 June 2018

12 calming books to help you take a deep breath and relax

Sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and relax – but it's not always that easy. Strangely enough, it can be difficult to recognise when you're most stressed out. But carving out reading time with a well-chosen book (even if you have to force yourself to sit still) can help you get back on track.

Note to self-improvement junkies: business books, most self-improvement books, and anything else that gets you all worked up isn't calming. I love these books, but I know they'll make me want to start a new project and feel bad about sitting doing nothing. They don't help me to wind down before bed and sleep soundly, so I save them for my morning reading time and any other breaks during the day.

When we need to chill out, including before bed, we can choose books to slow our heart rate down and help us to check in with ourselves. My selection below is a mix of fiction, memoir, non-fiction, and poetry. I hope you can find a greater sense of calm through them too.

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1. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World by Haemin Sunim

This was one of my most-recommended books in 2017. In this book (one that you'll want to return to again and again), Haemin Sunim, a Buddhist meditation teacher born in Korea and educated in the US, shares his advice for wellbeing, mindfulness and joy in eight areas, including love, friendship, work, and spirituality.

The book is beautiful, and not just for its writing: it contains over thirty full-page colourful and calming illustrations to help us slow down. To best enjoy these, get the little hardback edition if you can.

Haemin Sunim also has another book coming out in December 2018, Love for Imperfect Things: How to Be Kind and Forgiving Toward Yourself and Others, which I am very excited about.

2. The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson

I mention Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau a lot on this website. I had a lot of fun writing my article On living like Thoreau (or creating your modern version of Walden). Walden is easily on my shortlist of calming books to help me relax.

But what about other books that talk about escaping into the woods and leaving society for a while? My top vote is The Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson, "a meditation on escaping the chaos of modern life and rediscovering the luxury of solitude".

Sylvain Tesson takes it to the extreme: he exiles himself to a wooden cabin on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, a full day’s hike from any neighbour, with his thoughts, his books, a couple of dogs, and many bottles of vodka for company.

Writing from February to July, Sylvain Tesson celebrates the ultimate freedom of owning your own time, recording his impressions, struggles and joy in the face of silence.

As long as there is a cabin deep in the woods, nothing is completely lost.

3. Collected Poems by William Wordsworth

When you're feeling stressed, take a step into the world of the English Romantics. Join them in marvelling at the powerful natural world – and take a big deep breath. Alongside W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas, Wordsworth will always be one of my go-to poets; I find so much magic in his writing.

I've also memorised a few of his poems to mull over on train journeys, while beholding a beautiful view, or when I need a time out – I think there are far worse ways I could use up my mental space.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety

4. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hahn has a selection of these "Mindfulness Essentials" – also including How to RelaxHot to Sit, and How to Fight – and I think they're brilliant.

How to Relax would have been a more obvious choice to include in this list, but How to Love has got to be my favourite. I think Thich Nhat Hahn's writing will always be calming, and I especially enjoy when he's talking about our connections with others.

Our true home is inside, but it’s also in our loved ones around us. When you’re in a loving relationship, you and the other person can be a true home for each other. In Vietnamese, the nickname for a person’s life partner is “my home.” 

5. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

One of my favourite podcasts is On Being with Krista Tippett, and there is a lovely episode with poet Mary Oliver called "Listening to the World". I would recommend giving it a listen and then diving into the universe of her poems.

But in any case, I'd encourage you to get a copy of Mary Oliver's anthologies and head outside, find a lovely spot to sit, and take in her words.

I Go Down To The Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver

6. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed

Brave Enough is Cheryl Strayed's "mini instruction manual for the soul", compiling more than one hundred of her quotes and thoughts, each one on a single page.

Whether you have enjoyed her other books (most famously, Wild) or if you're new to her writing, I hope you too will enjoy flicking through this book. Pick it up when you need a moment to recentre, gather your thoughts, and replenish your capacity for love and forgiveness – both for yourself and for others.

7. The South by Colm Tóibín

This is my favourite Colm Tóibín novel. Like Brooklyn, it's a real self-discovery story. In 1950, Katherine Proctor leaves Ireland for Barcelona to reinvent herself as a painter. There she begins to build a life with Miguel, an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

Katherine begins to leave her past behind until she meets a fellow Irish émigré in Spain, Michael Graves, who forces her to reexamine her relationships: with Miguel, with her art, and with Ireland. If you have wondered whether you belong in a place, or about the line between love and freedom, The South might speak to you.

8. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy considered this book to be his most important contribution to humanity, a compilation of "daily thoughts to nourish the soul" with one page of wisdom per day.

Tolstoy gathered, translated, abbreviated and expanded on quotations from a huge range of sources, including the New Testament, the Koran, Greek philosophy, Lao-Tzu, Buddhist thought, and the poetry, novels, and essays of both ancient writers and contemporary thinkers. It's Tolstoy's spiritual guide and collection of the quotes that formed his mind, but it leaves enough space and variety to help us to form our own.

A Calendar of Wisdom is a superb book to have lying around ready to be picked up, instead of hidden away on a shelf.

9. Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki

"Fumio Sasaki is not an enlightened minimalism expert or organizing guru like Marie Kondo―he’s just a regular guy who was stressed out and constantly comparing himself to others, until one day he decided to change his life by saying goodbye to everything he didn’t absolutely need. The effects were remarkable: Sasaki gained true freedom, new focus, and a real sense of gratitude for everything around him". (From the publisher)

Want to know how to make yourself instantly unhappy? Compare yourself with someone else.

Goodbye, Things

10. Bashō: The Complete Haiku

There's just something about haikus to help you slow down and rest your mind. I keep a collection of Bashō's poetry near me when I'm working, and often read a haiku or two when I need a break.

Sitting quietly,
doing nothing,
Spring comes,
and the grass grows, by itself.

11. Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li

How much time do you spend in nature? Do you have a forest near you that you can escape to?

Written by Dr. Qung Li, who specialises in forest medicine, this is his definitive guide to the therapeutic Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing": the art and science of how trees can promote health and happiness.

Like The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, it's another book with lovely photographs, in this case showcasing the beauty of trees and the natural world.

Another tree-celebration: The Hidden Life of Trees: The International Bestseller – What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben.

12. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From the master of aviation writing, this is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's best-loved books – after, perhaps, The Little Prince. It's a great little book to take with you when travelling, or it can be the source of another adventure – sitting at home and leaping into a book.

I can't help but feel calm when I read his descriptions of the natural world:

When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me...

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