Sarah’s Health Notes: This Book Is Important – Please Read It
I don’t say that lightly. Over the course of my 30+ years writing about health and wellbeing I’ve huffled and puffled my way through skim-reading stacks of ‘personal development’ tomes promising to help us out of darkness into light. There’s a small handful that made the cut long term. Healing Without Freud or Prozac by David Servan-Schreiber. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Source by Tara Swart. And now, A Book for Life by Jo Bowlby, who – despite her fairly conventional appearance – works as a Shaman and spiritual coach.
As a teen, Bowlby could have been on a conventional ‘Home Counties’ course – Sloane ranger, wife, mother etc. But she rebelled (against most things, it seems), and by 19 was working as PA to rock star Adam Faith (where – extraordinarily - she and Jo Fairley crossed paths). Fast forward through Bowlby’s next job in publishing to her early thirties when she came across Cuban-born psychologist and medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo who has spent many years studying the shamanic healing practices of the Amazon and Andes. Impressed by his teachings and that he didn't have a beard to his knees, Bowlby studied with him for four years, with her final ritual on a Peruvian mountaintop in 2006.
In pre-Covid days, high-powered clients of all descriptions would come to her Battersea flat from all over the world for spiritual coaching. Over lockdown, she’s been skyping, whatsapping and leading free guided meditations on Facebook with Trinny Woodall, an old friend who says of the book that it’s ‘life changing on every level’.
I was alerted to A Book for Life recently when I read an interview with Jo Bowlby by Julia Llewellyn Smith, in The Times. A distinctly unwifty-wafty journalist, Julia described aborting an argument with her teenage daughter before giving into the temptation of yelling back – not with words but by practising the five senses meditation Bowlby had taught her.
Basically, when you’re on the verge of a potential row or stuck in a slough (mental or emotional), you take five through your senses. So if I were to check in now…
I can Hear – strimming in the next-door garden, a murmur of breeze, a slight hum from my computer. See – the green of my garden through the big window, with lime yellow froth of alchemilla, pink geraniums and violet campanula, the steady orange candle flame on my desk and, oh yes, my wide screen with lots of squiggles. Smell – the woody, spicy, leathery notes from the Von Norten candle. Taste – lingering ginger tea on my tongue. And Touch – the tap-tap of keys under my fingertips as I type.
I was recounting this to a young friend as a possible way of managing interaction with a stroppy relative. She got it immediately. It does start to shift your perspective within a few seconds. I find it wonderful when my brain is stuck in a negative groove, bellyaching about someone or something. Also because it makes you notice and connect with things you wouldn't otherwise.
A Book for Life is a very easy read; it’s interesting, fun and it’s relevant to all of us. Perhaps the key thing for me is the feeling that Jo is talking from her heart rather than writing from her brain. The subtitle is 10 steps to spiritual wisdom, a clear mind and lasting happiness so it is ‘prescriptive’ but with a feather light touch. It’s almost more ‘descriptive’ – laying out possibilities/scenarios for you to identify with or not and a raft of solutions. Essentially, it suggests ways in which we can find our real authentic selves – which I would call our souls.
In about 1998, I did the first interview for a British paper (The Daily Express) with Paulo Coelho. I was editing a section called Mind, Body, Spirit and I asked him what was the purpose of life. He sighed before replying sweetly, ‘ah… everyone asks this stupid question’ then, seeing my abashed face, he told me he’d spent much of his life asking spiritual teachers the same thing. Eventually, Paulo had concluded that the purpose of our lives is ‘to be in touch with the soul of the world’.
For Bowlby, the purpose is to learn how to fulfil our potential to have ‘a very happy life … by developing something innate within us all’, which can light your way through the best and the worst of human life. She terms this resource ‘spiritual intelligence’ – nothing to do with religion but an understanding of the nature of life. (It occurs to me that’s actually pretty near to what Paulo told me…)
She quotes the Dalai Lama whose response was simply that our purpose is ‘to be happy’. As Bowlby says, ‘His Holiness is not talking about the momentary happiness which comes from buying an ice cream or a Ferrari. Nor the happiness you get when you take a short break from the humdrum of daily life. He is referring to a deep and profound happiness; an inner peace, a strong sense of wellbeing that underpins all of your life, throughout your life, in good times and bad. This is true happiness.’
Sometimes, for me and I guess for most of us, it’s hard to imagine how on earth to get there. Even if we have felt that peace and wellbeing at stages through our lives. For me, it’s important to nudge the window ajar to the possibility, and then fling it wide open. By happenstance, I found myself last weekend with an old friend visiting a remote religious community near my home in west Dorset. (I’m not religious but this was to me much more about spirituality, with a principle of no proselytising.) Here, people with different problems can stay and live, grounded in nature, with the idea of dropping whatever masks they’ve adopted to survive and learning to be their true selves.
The experience was heart-warming and life-enhancing. They thanked me for coming but it was I who received the gift of seeing what really matters when life is/has been painful and dark – picking strawberries for lunch for one guest, doing routine maintenance to the ancient buildings for another, smiling at strangers.
And finally, back to A Book for Life by Jo Bowlby. I do hope you acquire it in some format. It’s important.