7 Self-Improvement Books that are More than 400 Years Old
Thirty-five years ago, while filling out an application before a job interview, I was asked to write down a list of 7 self-improvement books that I had read. The list I wrote down was probably not what they were expecting, but it sure seemed to get their attention. And although I ended up turning down the job, I experienced a memorable interview.
Here, briefly, are some of my takeaways from each of these 7 books.
The Book of Five Rings — Miyamoto Musashi
Musashi lived in 16th century Japan. He was trained in swordsmanship by his father and uncle and fought his first duel at age 13, killing his opponent. He left home shortly after that and became a wandering ronin. In the process of engaging in more lethal contests, he earned the enmity of a powerful clan. For years they sent assassins to attempt to kill him. Without allies or a lord to protect him, Musashi became a hunted refugee. To make matters worse, he joined a fight against the Shogun, which failed. So, for a time, he had the government hunting him too.
But his reputation as a seemingly invincible swordsman grew. Before the age of thirty, he fought some 60 duels, sometimes out-numbered — and won them all. But perhaps even more extraordinary is that later in life, he learned to become a master painter. His watercolors are national treasures. Oh, and he wrote books.
The Book of Five Rings is ostensibly about a strategy for acquiring combat skills. But Musashi’s advice here, as he says, can be used for acquiring any skill.
The first thing he advises is to be focused and know what your intent is. You must have a clear goal. In combat, the goal, Musashi says, is to cut your opponent. That sounds simple, but it’s probably not. Likely if retreat is anywhere in the back of your mind, your opponent will cut you. What Musashi is saying is don’t be half-assed about anything you do.
The second thing he tells us is to practice your craft diligently. Practice with your full attention all the time because if you are lax with the easy exercises, you will fail when it gets hard. Understand the harm and benefit in everything. Be careful even in small matters. Do nothing which is of no use.
The third thing is the most difficult. After you have put in your thousands of hours at practicing your craft in the hope of becoming expert, you have to let it all go. Then when you pick up your sword or paintbrush, musical instrument, or whatever, you must enter a state of what Musashi calls “no mind.” For most of us, even after we have put in years of training, this “flow state” doesn’t always happen. I experience it sometimes when skiing or rock climbing, but for me, it’s transitory and fleeting. But when it happens it’s great. I guess I kinda live for it. Too infrequently, it occurs when I’m writing. Not being nearly as self-sufficient as Musashi, an advance from a publisher seems to help.
In 1612, Musashi fought a duel against the undefeated swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro. After taking Kojiro’s life, Musashi expressed deep regret. It is said he had a spiritual awakening. Musashi had sometimes faced opponents, including Kojiro, armed with a wooden stick against their swords, but one hit from Musashi’s stick could still be deadly. From this time on, he never again struck a lethal blow.
Musashi spent his last years, when he was in his sixties, meditating peacefully in a cave.
In one of his other books, he wrote: Consider yourself lightly, consider the world deeply.
Takeaway — You must practice diligently, in the hope that one day you can empty your mind of all you have learned.
The Tao Te Ching — Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu was a sage who lived in China in the 6th century BC and may have been a contemporary of Confucius. The oldest excavated portion of this text, housed in the British Museum, dates to the 4th century BC.
“Tao which can be spoken is not true Tao.”
Meaning that our conventional labels for the world prevent us from seeing the profound truth of the oneness of being. Lao Tzu also implies that a measure of detachment from the world can make one more effective in the world.
Takeaway — If you want to experience the Divine, shut up, contemplate the grandeur of nature, look, listen, be.
The Bhagavad Gita — Vyasa
The Gita is part of a much longer epic called the Mahabharata, written in India during likely the 2nd or 3rd century BC. However, it is almost certainly based on a much older oral tradition. The written text is usually credited to the legendary sage Vyasa.
The opening scene begins with a warrior, Arjuna, in his chariot between the ranks of two opposing armies that are about to engage. We find him agonizing over a terrible dilemma. On one side of the field are the troops, including close members of his family whom he is expected to lead into battle; on the other side are warriors who include some of his cousins, whom he has no wish to fight. He knows that this will be a bloody day, and he feels no stomach for it. However, if he leaves the field now, the troops counting on him for leadership will be slaughtered.
The deity Krishna, having taken human form as Arjuna’s charioteer, has come to give him advice. Krishna tells him that the world is in bondage to action, and he can’t escape it through inaction, but he has to try and do what is best with a pure heart. And he can only do that if he can transcend his fear, horror, and guilt by practicing his Yoga. Now by this, Krishna was not encouraging Arjuna to jump out of the chariot and practice some stretching. Many people in the West have a misconception of what classical Yoga is. The emphasis on the physical practice of the asanas is a relatively modern trend. Yoga is traditionally an integration of spirituality, philosophy, psychology, introspection, and self-discipline. Krishna also reminds Arjuna that he and all the entities on this field are more than their mortal coils. The Divine within them is inextinguishable no matter what happens on this day.
Because we have been for all time: I, and thou, and those kings of men. And we shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever.
So, get a grip Arjuna. Do your duty in this realm of existence, but don’t get so hung up on this world of illusion that you can’t do anything in it.
One of the pieces of practical wisdom in this work is the exhortation to let go of mental attachments to the imagined outcomes of our actions. As a rock climber, I know that dwelling on the consequences of falling, or lusting for the next big handhold’s relative security, can be a huge distraction from performance and even safety.
Takeaway — Practice your Yoga — more about what that means to come.
The Katha Upanishad — Unknown
This is the second oldest piece on my list. It was probably written down in the 5th century BC. Although the word Yoga appears in the much older Rig Veda, it is used here in a written document for the first time in explicit reference to a system of disciplining the mind and senses with the ultimate goal of joining the inner self to the Divine and eternal Atman. Sanskrit, like English, is descended from a common Indo-European proto-language. Yoga means to yoke or join, the same as our word yoke.
In this story, a young man, Nachiketas, is sent by his father to the threshold of Death. There Death, impressed with the young man, offers him three wishes. His first two wishes are not important here, but for the third, he asks for the knowledge of what is beyond death’s door. Death tries to bribe him off his quest by offering him kingdoms, power, riches, long life, women, horses, but the kid won’t budge from his wish for knowledge. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s reminiscent of Christ’s temptation in the desert and the Buddha’s trial under the Bodhi tree. But in this older variation of the story, Death/Satan/Yama is clearly the ally of the seeker. When Nachiketas passes the test, Death congratulates him and says, “You have not accepted the chain of possessions which bind men and beneath which they sink. “
Then he rewards the young man with a teaching, which is an exposition of the philosophy of Yoga.
Takeaway — The Katha Upanishad recognizes that wisdom isn’t easy. It is the source of the relatively well-known aphorism, “The path of the sage is as difficult as traversing the razor’s edge.”
The Yoga Sutras — Patanjali
In the West, the science of psychology is less than 200 years old. In India, it is ancient. Patanjali’s 196 terse aphorisms here express the heart of the philosophy and psychological science of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras are believed to have been written down in Sanskrit between the 2nd and 5th centuries BC.
They are usually published with a commentary, perhaps the earliest belonging to Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata.
Even with commentary, these short verses are hard nuts to crack and require some deep thought and self-examination. I had a go at this book during a 6-month hiatus that I spent wandering, mostly alone, in the Himalayas. Near the end of that time, I ran into a Westerner who had been studying Patanjali in India for ten years, with whom I was able to compare impressions.
Here I’m just going to try to unpack the beginning two sutras. The first is relatively straightforward. It translates basically as, And now for the science of Yoga. Simple, yes, but Patanjali always points to more than first meets the eye. He means that now you may be ready to look at Yoga after trying a lot of other things to find life satisfaction in the world. Now you may be prepared to look for inner truth.
For the second sutra, we will go to the original Sanskrit and examine each word’s interpretation in its context.
Yogas citta vritti nirodha.
Very roughly translated: Through Yoga, one stills the mind. This would not be incorrect, but it would not tell you the whole story.
Citta means mind. Vritti in the lexicon of Yoga refers to whirlpools in consciousness. They are the attachments to memories of pain and pleasure that continuously spin around in your head. They are the remembrances of acts you now regret, or the mental anguish you still suffer from pain inflicted on you in the past. They may also be the longing for pleasures recalled, or the aching lust for fulfillments imagined for the future. Nirodha implies letting go, dismissing, or overcoming, in this case, of junk thoughts, aversions, or cravings that pull you down. So instead of churning with rapids and maelstroms, your consciousness becomes still and reflective, like the waters of a smooth lake.
Most published commentaries would go into much more technical detail with just this one verse. I hope that I have done some justice by showing a glimpse of the key to Yoga.
There is some argument about whether the teachings of the Buddha influenced Patanjali or the other way around. But the core ideas of Yoga came much before the Buddha, and his teachings were deeply rooted in the Yogic traditions of thought and meditation. The big breakaway that the Buddha made from some of the Indian traditions was his teaching that there was no such thing as an individual imperishable soul, atman (not the same as Atman). Ironically many folks who call themselves Buddhists today seem unaware of this fundamental teaching of their master. But the Buddha always said, “Question everything, test everything, even what I tell you.”
Takeaway — Yoga is about more than getting flexible.
The Last Days of Socrates — Plato
This collection of 4 books exemplifies Socrates’s style of reasoning and his moral principles. Plato wrote various dialogues that consisted of philosophical arguments between his teacher Socrates and various citizens of Athens. Socrates, according to Plato, had a knack for dispelling people’s fatuous assumptions. He often claimed to be entirely ignorant, while coaxing his opponents to explain their facts and reasoning — ostensibly for his enlightenment. Then he would cunningly lead them to see how they were embracing illogical conclusions. Before presenting an opposing point of view, Socrates would first find some common ground with the other party, and then lead the discussion from there. “If we are agreed on this, doesn’t it then follow that…. you agree? And doesn’t it then follow further that…”
I taught my daughter to argue in a Socratic manner from an early age. We would sit down, pick a subject for a formal argument, and then pass a talking stick back and forth. Even day to day, I considered it her right to disagree with me as long as her logic was cogent and consistent.
This part of Plato’s writing includes Socrates’s trial for impiety and subsequent execution by drinking a cup of poison hemlock. It seems that Socrates’s accusers fully intended him to escape and go into exile. He refused to follow his friends’ urging to do so, arguing that he had a duty to obey the state’s laws even though he had criticized its government. Of course, Socrates was well aware that his death would be a powerful statement in itself. He made a memorable exit in following his principles to the letter. If only some of the craven politicians of our day had a smidgen of his character.
Takeaway — Examine your assumptions. Be steadfast in upholding your principles.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
One thing I learned in my time wandering around the Himalayas is that it’s easy to feel enlightened when meditating on a mountain peak. It’s hard to practice detachment and good judgment in the world. Anger, fear, greed; they all return.
Here’s a guy who was the real deal. He walked the talk. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor for 19 years in the 2nd century AD. He took his responsibility seriously — believing that it was the emperor’s job to serve the people and protect their liberty. During his reign, there were many challenges. There were plagues, and there was a famine, during which he sold his own wealth to feed his subjects. And there was constant pressure from barbarian tribes to push into the Empire. Aurelius spent much of his reign engaged in military campaigns, personally taking charge of defending the boundaries of the Empire. Like Arjuna, he was somewhat reluctant in this necessary duty of war, but his philosophy and self-discipline allowed him to maintain equanimity of mind.
The meditations are his personal notes, mostly written in his tent during various campaigns. These notes have been an inspiration and solace for many of us through the centuries since.
Aurelius subscribed to the Stoic school of philosophy. Like the Buddha, the Stoics taught that you should take responsibility for your feelings and master them.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts
When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love
He enjoins us to be tolerant of other’s faults and reminds us that each individual possesses a share of the Divine.
Aurelius died in 180 AD at the Roman Fort called Vindobona, now modern Vienna, during a military campaign to keep the Germans on their side of the Danube.
Plato would likely have approved of Marcus Aurelius as a living embodiment of his ideal of the philosopher ruler. And although a world away from India and Tibet, Aurelius exemplified the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of combining detachment from the causes of negative emotions while embracing empathy.
Takeaway — Character matters, and we have a choice over the person we become.
I have only skimmed the surface of these works here, but my wish is that I have given readers unfamiliar with any of them an idea of their flavor. And for those who have read some or all of them, I hope they might find my perspectives interesting.
Revisiting these books has reminded me of the common threads that run through them: the value of introspection, self-mastery, and moral integrity.