There are many books about Buddhism and why we should mediate, however, there are very few that describe the experience of those who meditate. This book helps fill that void. It gives insight into the daily struggles of monks in a Buddhist monastery and how they deal with the demands of monastic living as they try to free themselves of egoist conditioning.
Each of the twelve chapters is named after an aspect of the experience of monastic living, such as "Silence", "Intimate and Nonpersonal", "Compassion and the Paradox of No Escape", "Happiness", and "Solitude". The author begins each chapter by describing her own encounters with the aspect being discussed as she visited the monastery to interview the monks. Each chapter consists of one or two monks describing their experience in the monastery. These interview are mostly presented as a monologue.
The author has a pleasant writing style as evidenced as she warmly but succinctly reviews the subject of each chapter and how it relates to the goal of liberation. Below is part of her introduction to the chapter on "Solitude":
"Only when we look inward do we discover that we have what it takes to feel completely at home in the world, that we already are everything we need, that the sense of separation between us and the rest of existence is an illusion, with sad and destructive consequences."
My favorite passage on why we meditate comes from the Introduction:
"The blank expanse of wall in front of use is a reminder that the thoughts, emotions, memories, imaginary conversations, and that like that occupy us are enacted entirely upon the inner screen of the mind. Our task ... is to observe these phantasms ... long enough to see through their insubstantial nature. Once we cease to identify with our mental activity, cease to allow it to define who we are, we being to live from something that is true and deep and connected to all."
As someone who mediates every day (almost) I find that is it easy to forget why I actually sit on a cushion and stare at a wall for 30 minutes at a time. Its easy to get distracted with problems that occur in mediating instead of letting go of the problem and thus transcending it. By listening to each monk describe their daily struggles and triumphs in the monastery, I found comfort in the fact that I was experiencing the same problems that they were but also inspiration in that by working through these problems (not at them) they were able become both spiritually and mentally stronger.
I found this book a bit tough going at the beginning but it just got better and better! It tells about the experiences of Americans who practice with Cheri Huber, and they usually tell it like it is "under the skin." At first their comments seemed trivial and whiney until I realized how closely I identified with them. Then I realized what a gift they have to practice in that place with Cheri. Her own story comes last and it is definitely one of the highlights, but it helps to have seen her first through the students' eyes as almost a god-like being. She really isn't, at least in her own words.
The quality that I liked so much about this book is that it doesn't lecture AT you, telling you all the theory and the steps and the path, etc. It is much more subtle than that, much simpler yet extremely deep. What you get in the end is a feeling that a spiritual practice is not only possible but extremely beautiful and good. You almost feel as you though you've been given a kick-start into a good practice.