Friday, April 29, 2016

Higher: Book Review

Its Friday and I will end the week with some deep thoughts in this book review.

I did not have high hopes for this book, ha ha! A book about living a more fulfilling life by a millionaire CEO? Was this going to be about which champagne goes with what type of caviar?

Okay, I'm kidding sort of, but I did wonder what this guy, a Canadian named Charles Hanna, would have to say in his new book, Higher, which describes his spiritual epiphany.

But I agreed to read it because I am all about figuring how to live a more fulfilling life.  It perplexes and frustrates me to no end that so many of us, living extremely privileged lives are so miserable and full of existential angst.  The more I read and research, the longer I work as a therapist and the older I get in is all starting to make more sense, but still, there is always more to learn.

Hanna starts by explaining his origins - he is a Christian Egyptian who emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was young.  Two of his 3 sisters died in childhood, losses that forever affected his family and their relationships.  Despite the hardships, he was ambitious and successful and eventually founded a tech company that has grown and flourished.  He has achieved great financial success.  Nevertheless, just a few years after he started his company he fell into habitual drug use, which led to an addiction that almost killed him.  He got clean but relapsed and he explains what led to his "lightbulb" moment that enabled him to fully recover.

The beginning of the book includes a lot of biographical information about Hanna, including stuff about his wife and first child.  Then, following the part about his recovery, the middle focuses more on his spiritual transformation.  In a nutshell, its about how searching for personal fulfillment through wealth, material items and professional success is fruitless.  If you find it hard to believe that a life of luxury will not magically make you feel happy, Hanna does a good job of explaining why this is the case.  I believe this is an incredibly important thing for most North Americans to understand, because most of us have bought into that myth, hook, line and sinker.  I know I have to keep reminding myself that this is not the case, but we are surrounded by media promising us joy if we own/buy/eat/drink x, y, or z.  Its hard not to get brainwashed by our culture of consumption.

Essentially, he explains, whatever you have, whether its a beat up Honda or a brand new Bentley, you get used to it and it no longer seems special.  You end up always wanting more, no matter how much you have.

What's the secret to true fulfillment and happiness?  Hanna says surrendering to the idea of a Higher Power.  He refers to this as God, but is careful to explain that this can mean whatever you want to and is a non-denominational concept. Its really about recognizing that we are just a small part of an infinite universe, and one that we have no control over.  The other key is connecting with others.  Being less narcissistic and instead of focusing on our own suffering, which we tend to assume is unique, recognizing that we are far more alike than not and that suffering in its various forms, is what actually unites us all.

I agree with all of this but there is one area where we see things differently.  Hanna sees the universe and everything that happens within it as being perfect.  In other words, everything happens for a reason.  I do not believe this.  I believe the universe, like everything, is imperfect.  Frankly, I believe perfection, like unicorns, does not exist.  In addition, as I have stated before, I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I think lots of things happen randomly.  Or, if there is a reason, we will never find it.

In my practice I see how fatalism can be harmful.  So many of my clients who subscribe to the belief that everything happens for a reason spend months or years agonizing about why misfortune struck them.  This almost always leads to self-blame, where they conclude it must be because they are cursed, defective, evil, bad, damaged goods, etc. and are being punished for it.  The only time I see fatalism be protective is when clients who are religious, believe that what happened is God's Will, but: (1) can accept that they will never know the reason, (2) continue to see this Higher Power as benevolent and, therefore, do not turn to self-blame.  I do suspect this is Hanna's philosophy, in which case I can appreciate this perspective.  But I still don't think I would ever call the universe perfect nor would I dare to tell someone who just lost a child or faced some other unspeakable loss that this is the case.

Probably the most significant thing I learned from the book was about the state of mind of addicts.  I don't work in the area of addiction and have never had an addiction issue (except maybe to exercise?). I always assumed that addicts become addicts and relapse because of a sense of hopelessness.  Perhaps this is sometimes the case.  But Hanna explained that, actually, for him, it was just the opposite. He refused to believe everyone - loved ones and health professionals - that he was in crisis and kept convincing himself that he could trust his own judgement.  The epiphany he had was that he had to accept that he could not trust his own perception and must give up complete control in order to recover.  This makes complete sense to me and I think it is a concept that can be used for recovery from things like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders too!

I didn't find the latter part of the book, where he talks more about applying his spiritual approach into everyday life as useful or interesting, but I was also disappointing that he didn't continue with his own personal story with as much detail.  There seem to be some major omissions, namely, he apparently has 3 children but only 2 are mentioned in the book, his oldest and his youngest, and his wife is never mentioned again after he gets to the point of his crisis-state.  I think its important for readers to know how all this turned out given that his family features so prominently in the first part of the book.

So do I recommend this book?

I do. I don't think its for everyone, but I think there are some really fascinating and valuable lessons in it. I think men may relate to it even better than women, and I think it may be very helpful for those struggling with addiction issues or other mental health challenges.

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book but all opinions on this blog are my own.

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