Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jane Dobisz' "The Wisdom of Solitude": Book Review

As I get older and my house gets more cluttered, I wonder what paring my life down to a bare minimum might look like. How large a dwelling, how many possessions, how much baggage? Jane Dobisz examines in short chapters her own approach towards radical simplicity. She stays a hundred days at a former health resort, a remote place in New England's woods known as Temenos, and as a Zen practitioner, she reports on her winter experience in a 150-square foot cabin with no running water, heated by a stove and whatever wood she can chop and stack.

Dividing her stay into forty vignettes, each prefaced by a Zen poem or saying, and arranged loosely by tens under headings of  "Arrival," "Rolling Up Sleeves," "Hard Training," and "Spring Comes," the results come as expected. My practical mind kept wondering how she could afford this stay away from whatever her work is, what her background was that allowed her this luxury amid privation, and as the book's dedicated to a daughter and Dobisz is not that old--how her family fared without her.

She chooses not to tell. While introducing her list of what she carried in and what her demanding schedule of mainly sitting and walking from 3:15 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. meant in terms of mental stability as well as the fitter and tougher physical benefits she acclaims, her 2004 account examines less of her surroundings or amenities and orients itself more towards spirituality. Unsurprisingly, the benefits, even if she accepts that "there is no safety net" in more ways than one, outweigh the burdens.

I preferred her reactions to the environment even if these remained often only asides. For instance, she notes her visual spectrum altered as the neons and garish tones seen on computers, in ads, and stores fade into the few shades of a sparer, snowy landscape. She also fits a poignant chapter on how the "Sipping green tea, I stop the war" teaching she brings excitedly to a Korean teacher is met--in the second clause-- with dismissal as "b.s." Dobisz ties this into her reminiscence of a section titled "Ten Years Dumb," about her father's death of natural causes in Saigon when she was six, eloquently.

Yet, many other chapters prefer a more enigmatic or suspended tone. This attitude's typical of a Zen student or teacher writing a book of teachings or lessons. It may not satisfy fully those without this training, but I reckon this title will appeal to precisely those who share Dobisz's outlook and standing. (Amazon US 3-24-13)

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