Before I started traveling, I never read anything that caused me to confront my own mind. I didn’t really believe that my down times could be remedied by anything other than distraction. That’s part of the reason why I started traveling – I thought it would solve everything.
Then I realized that the problems I had at home showed up on the road, too. Usually, they were even more pronounced. It took a helpful suggestion from a friend to open a book that, quite honestly, changed my life. It led me on a voyage of self-discovery that has slowly but surely contributed a healthier mental state overall.
People spend their whole lives perfecting their careers or a golf swing, so why is it so rare to work on the most important piece of all – the self? If travel has taught me anything, it’s that there is always room for mind expansion and personal growth. Connecting with humanity and living purposefully are two of the most powerful gifts I ever gave myself.
I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but there are a few key things I’ve noticed about me that have changed for the better, thanks to the things I’ve read and the people I’ve met who have opened my mind and helped me understand how my brain functions, how to tackle destructive emotions, and how to utilize points of view from other cultures for my own personal growth.
Nowadays, every time I find a kindred spirit, I ask him/her, ‘what have you read that changed your life?’
Without further ado, here are the books and websites that changed my life and some of yours as well (some of the links below are affiliate links):
by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
I was in month four of my travels and things hit a rough patch. Constant stimulation had morphed into monotony, and the things that previously kept me engaged lost their luster. My friend, Stephanie, who is working on her PhD in cellular biology (and is a self-proclaimed atheist) recommended this book to me. I was surprised, why are you of all people recommending a religious text to me?
It turned out that What Makes You Not a Buddhist isn’t much of a religious text at all, but rather an innovative explanation of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to someone from a modern Western background.
Powerful passage: “Most of the time we are trying to make the good things last, or we are thinking about replacing them with something even better in the future, or we are sunk in the past, reminiscing about happier times. Ironically, we never truly appreciated the experience for which we are nostalgic because we were too busy clinging to our hopes and fears at the time.”
The takeaways: My biggest realizations came from early on in the book when Khysentse discussed impermanence. He asked tough questions about the value of possessions and good looks when these things always break down and disappear.
What is the point was of attaching value to things that don’t endure? He also talked about the nature of change, and that everything is in a state of flux. Once I realized that, I also realized that the down times would eventually vanish, and that I should accept that good times would, too. Once you can truly embrace change, it becomes much harder to rock you.
This is the book that changed my life the most, and the one that I suggest to any friends going through a transitionary period.
by Howard Cutler, M.D. and His Holiness the Dalai Lama
After learning about Buddhism, and the very difficult concept that “all emotions are pain,” I had to know why another Buddhist monk would discuss how to be happy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in this series of conversations between Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama, that the aim was to find inner peace by realizing that what happens is perception, and that compassion heals all.
One of the most powerful conversations dealt with how the Dalai Lama feels towards the Chinese after his exile from Tibet. He says that feels compassion towards them so that he doesn’t feel hatred. Each time he encounters someone new, he thinks about what they have in common and how he can find a positive connection. We all just want to be happy, loved, and at peace.
Powerful passage: “In general, if we carefully examine any given situation in a very unbiased and honest way, we will realize that to a large extent we are also responsible for the unfolding of events.”
My takeaways: Every time someone wrongs me or even cuts in front of me in line, I try to find a common ground, I think about why I shouldn’t take it personally, and how it’s not about me, it’s about them. I’m far from successful at this all the time, but just checking in and taking that step sometimes rids me of anger, an emotion that is poisonous only to me.
As the Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
By Gavin Aung
Zen Pencils is a comic website that my friend Chelsea told me about in Melbourne during month six of my travels. I was going through a tough breakup and she was missing Southeast Asia, where we’d met. Zen Pencils, also based in Melbourne, takes inspirational quotes and draws them into cartoons.
What sets Aung’s site apart from anything else inspirational that I’ve found is the quotes he chooses. Even though they can sometimes be controversial and almost always go against the status quo, they have had the power, time and time again, to change my thought process. I get goosebumps when I read some of them, and when I need to be reminded that I’m on the right path, I check in with Zen Pencils.
My takeaways: I read Aung’s work when I need to be encouraged. It often only takes five minutes, and I feel good again. If you’re just discovering his work for the first time, I recommend these (in this order): Alan Watts, What if Money was no Object?, Caitlin Moran, We’re all Dying, Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, James Rhodes, Is that not Worth Exploring?, Max Ehrmann, Desiderada.
by David Schnarch
I had a deep and meaningful conversation with my friend Michael during the long drive home from Burning Man after the first year of my travels wrapped up. We talked about the nature of relationships and he spoke about several theories with me, such as the truth that relationships ebb and flow and how much that can profoundly impact one’s self esteem. A few days later, he sent me a copy of this book as a gift.
While it’s mainly written for couples (regardless of sexual orientation) who are going through a rough patch, particularly sexually, I read this as a single girl with no romantic partner in mind (or even in sight) and it made a big impact. It was all about the importance of having a strong sense of self, and a purpose, which echoed the sentiments of the previous suggestions in this list.
Powerful passage: “A solid sense of self develops from confronting yourself, challenging yourself to do what’s right, and earning your own self-respect.”
My takeaways: I applied it not just to romantic relationships, but to every relationship in my life. I realized that if I draw my self esteem from other people, what happens when that relationship hits an ebb moment? I have to draw my self esteem from within, or I’m toast and so is that relationship.
by Nathaniel Branden
I discovered this book thanks to a blog post by Mark Manson (I really like his Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well). It’s the natural progression after reading Schnarch’s book (which, if you don’t feel is relevant to you, skip right to this one). This is Branden’s takeaways after a lifetime of clinical practice and study and, if you can get through it, has the potential to make a huge impact.
This book isn’t about becoming an egomaniac, it’s about taking healthy steps towards learning how to validate yourself rather than seeking it from external influences. It involves taking a hard look at yourself and to first love who you are, and then to be brutally honest about what you’re f*$king up, how to maintain integrity and assertiveness on a healthy level, and finally how to live with purpose and do things you can be proud of.
Powerful passage: “If I am unwilling to take responsibility for the attainment of my desires, they are not really desires—they are merely daydreams.”
My takeaways: This isn’t a ‘fun’ read. It’s more like the text book in college that you hated getting through but knew it was imparting tons of valuable information so you slogged through anyways. I would get through a chapter and just have to stop reading because my brain was buzzing. I felt like the words just weren’t getting through to me and it wasn’t sinking in. Then, I started to notice little changes in my day to day feelings and actions. I was checking in more. I was questioning my actions more. I was becoming more confident through self acceptance and confrontation.
Out of everything I’ve read apart from What Makes You Not a Buddhist, this book has had the greatest impact on me.
by Daniel Khanemann
My friend Maksim suggested this one to me after I told him about the Pillars. We’d been having a pretty deep conversation all night in a warm and dark whiskey bar just after this most recent Christmas in Berlin, and he told me this was the book that changed his life. So naturally, I had to read it.
Thinking is all about how the brain gets lazy and is quick to generalize so that it doesn’t have to work as hard at evaluating every little thing in life. This can be as easy as failing to recognize an optical illusion, or as hazardous as assigning values and beliefs to a person who we barely know.
Just imagine how many times you assumed something about someone only to find out that you were dead wrong after. How many friendships have been killed because someone was cold or shy at first and how many romances have died because that person wasn’t who you initially envisioned him or her to be?
Powerful passage: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
My takeaways: The most powerful passage for me was right at the end where Khanemann acknowledged that, even after a lifetime spent studying the brain and thought patterns, despite all that he knew, he still struggled to successfully apply it to everyday situations. It helped me let go of the frustration that I still make mistakes, but at least I’m moving towards understanding and positive change.
by Eckhart Tolle
You know those words on my sidebar that invite readers to let me know if they’re in the same place as I am so that we can grab a coffee? I actually meet up with readers all the time, and this recommendation came from Louise from San Francisco in a park last summer in Berlin.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tolle’s other work, The Power of Now. Both books are New York Times bestsellers and for good reason. They cut through all the BS and ask you to look critically at what is honestly, seriously important in life and how you can live more purposefully.
Powerful passage: “When you don’t cover up the world with words and labels, a sense of the miraculous returns to your life that was lost a long time ago when humanity, instead of using thought, became possessed by thought.”
My takeaways: A New Earth echoes the sentiments of What Makes You Not a Buddhist and The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by challenging you to examine yourself and what is really important vs. what the advertising industry would have you believe is important. For someone who has never read anything about this thought process, it can lead to an awakening. For me, it reaffirmed other works I had read, reminding me of the important aspects that I had forgotten over time (and I can always use a reminder).
by Greg McKeown
Essentialism is yet another reader recommendation from the offer to meet up over coffee. Marshall emailed me over a year ago asking if I was him from the future. We graduated from the same university and he worked in the corporate world but had dreams of traveling. I was delighted when I received an email from him last September saying he was in Berlin, a city he meant to just have two days in, then decided to change his plans and stay for several months because it jived so well with him.
Given all those similarities, it was natural that I had to ask which book changed his life. This was his #1 and after reading I can see why. Essentialism is all about picking one direction and going for it wholeheartedly. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, it’s about doing one thing incredibly well, and not apologizing for focusing only on what is important and going to make a true impact. This is helpful on so many levels, from personal to professional.
Powerful passage: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
My takeaways: So many things in life are trivial and don’t make enough of a contribution to take up so much time and energy. For me, that was spending any time on social media that isn’t related to my work. It can be such a time drain and it toyed with my emotions way too much, forcing me to play the comparison game. Instead, every time I wanted to go online, I checked in and asked myself what I could do instead that would be good for me. If it doesn’t have to do with work, it’s reading, painting, or taking a walk. The more I do these things, the better I feel. This ties back into the Six Pillars of Self Esteem as well.
I discovered Sonia Sophia at Burning Man at my best friend and former college roommate’s urging. Sophia dresses up like a fairy and speaks incredibly gently. She conducts the sessions by asking you to tap on different pressure points on the body, not telling you how to feel or what to think, but instead asking questions, leading you into some serious introspection. They deal with ugly things in the past, making peace with things you can’t change, and letting yourself be imperfect while also achieving great things. I either ugly cry and/or make a personal breakthrough with nearly every session. As the week at Burning Man goes on, the sessions she leads grow exponentially in attendee numbers as word of mouth of her sessions spreads.
My old roommate had tried to talk me into it for years and I kept resisting, saying I didn’t need that sh*t (my words exactly). After my second year of traveling, though, I was more open and finally caved and attended the workshop with her. I mean, I am a free spirit type but I’m not one to drink the kool-aid either, and approached it all with a pretty hefty dose of skepticism but at the same time, an open heart.
My takeaways: This most recent (my fourth) Burning Man, I went again and couldn’t believe how much her session about discovering one’s life purpose positively impacted me. I finally signed up for the weekly sessions and they continue to contribute meaningfully to my life, even if those around me think I’m crazy for tapping on my wrist or face while a woman dressed like Glenda speaks to me. In time, I’ve found that it really does help me, much like therapy would.
For more travel related books, check out this comprehensive list of the best travel books – it’s got some great ones.
Ever since I started traveling and taking that time for myself to explore the world within, a lot has changed about how I approach sadness and my encounters with others. I am still learning and I wish I could say I’m completely enlightened, but I am closer than I ever was before. Here are some positive changes:
- I talk with myself, not at myself: I realized my internal voice was super harsh. I used to get in full-on arguments with myself (someone please tell me I’m not the only one who does that!). Then I was like, why am I doing this? The person in the world who is the meanest to me is me. Now, when my internal monologue turns negative I pause, check in, and change the tone
- I am honest with myself about my problems and flaws: Nobody is perfect, least of all me. I used to rationalize away the things I did that hurt other people. While I still do that from time to time, I’m more honest with myself these days. I admit the problem, forgive myself for it, then work on a solution.
- I realize I’m captain of the ship: If I’m feeling up or down, I know that’s because of my own brain. Nobody put me there, it’s just how I react to things. Life’s a ride, and I’m the driver. The perception is mine. I can steer it in any direction. That realization was incredibly freeing
- I let other people be human, too: If I’m fighting a hard battle, that must mean others are, too. Seeing that place in others that is weak or longing for acceptance allows me to have more patience when someone treats me in a way that I deem unfair. It helps me take it less personally
So what are the books and websites that have changed your lives? I want to add to this list, and reader and friend recommendations have been huge for me. Some of you have known me for a while, and some of you are brand new but a really beautiful and essential part of what has become an awesome community, and I have a feeling that we’re kindred spirits.
Leave your suggestions in the comments, and let me know what has changed YOUR life.
*Guys, some of these are affiliate links, so if you do make a purchase through a link on this post, I’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks, as always, for your support!