Thursday, October 08, 2015

Nonfiction Review: How To Wake Up

Author Toni Bernhard is a good friend of mine. She and I share the same chronic illness and, even though we’ve never met in person, we’ve gotten to know each other well in the virtual world over the past twelve years. Her first book, How To Be Sick, was an inspiring guide about applying the principles of Buddhism to a life of chronic illness in order to find more peace and joy in your life. Her second book, How To Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, is not just for those who are ill but for anyone who faces challenges and wants to make the most of his or her life – oh, that’s everyone!

Once again, Toni applies the tenets of Buddhism to modern life in an accessible way, so that anyone can live a life more filled with peace and acceptance. She begins with some of the basics of Buddhism: that all lives contain unlimited joys and unlimited sorrows, that life is constantly changing, and that even people themselves are constantly shifting and changing. Toni explains how learning these basic truths about life – and truly accepting them – can lead to a more peaceful, happier life. Yes, accepting that life is filled with difficult experiences can help you to be happier. As she quotes in her book, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said, “Hell is just resistance to life” (I like that one!)

Then, she describes in detail just how to go about “waking up” to a more resilient, peaceful life. In separate chapters, she covers topics like mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and more, as well as obstacles to wellness, like dissatisfaction, anger, and worry. In every instance, Toni explains these concepts in easy-to-understand ways and applies them to our modern lives, using examples from her own life and from her friends and family. She also provides simple approaches for putting the principles into action.

I tabbed so many pages in my copy of the book that it’s hard to choose a single quote to share with you! With some concepts, I felt like I already had a good handle on them – living with chronic illness just naturally teaches you that suffering is a part of life, to accept what happens, and to find joy in small moments, for instance. Other sections – like mindfulness (I am a devoted multi-tasker!) or anger – really spoke to me because of particular issues I am dealing with or difficulties I have with certain people. Reading her sections on acceptance really helped me last month while I was enduring a lengthy and difficult period of infirmity.

In this brief passage, Toni introduces the concept of judging and why it hampers a life of peace:
“Judging is an obstacle to waking up because it’s hard to engage life as an awakened being – with kindness and friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity – if we’re always adding likes and dislikes, shoulds and shouldn’ts to our bare experience.”
She then goes on to explain exactly how judging creeps into our lives, often without our even realizing it, and practical, simple ways to overcome this bad habit. She does the same with each of the principles that she introduces.

This is a book for everyone. Toni does a wonderful job of explaining Buddhist principles in a simple, accessible way and provides ample examples of how to put them into practice in your own life. She has obviously worked hard over the course of many years to apply these concepts to her own life, and she uses her considerable talents as a writer to bring the reader along on that journey. How to Wake Up feels like having a good friend by your side, helping you to deal with your challenges and appreciate the joys in your life.

Toni has just this week published a third book, How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide, that I will be reading next and reviewing next month.

211 pages, Wisdom Publications

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.


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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


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  1. I have a colleague who is also living with a chronic and progressive illness. She spoke to me about a book that highlights Buddhists concepts which has been so helpful to her. I wonder if it was this one. She said, to be clear, that she is a Christian, but found sound principals in the Buddhist book that didn't feel like it was a problem.

    1. It might have been this one or Toni's previous book, How to Be Sick. In any case, Buddhism is less like a religion in the traditional sense and more just a way of living that promotes peace, kindness, and compassion. Its principles would not conflict with any religion. Glad your colleague found it helpful!