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Book Review: In Search of Wisdom

A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most

by Matthieu Ricard, Christophe André, and Alexandre JollienSounds True
reviewed by Gabriel Cohen
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IT SOUNDS LIKE A classic setup for a joke: a monk, a psychiatrist, and a philosopher walk into a cabin in the woods. But when these French thinkers got together for nine days, the result was serious and illuminating. The trio come from very different walks of life: Matthieu Ricard devoted years to meditative Buddhist retreat in Tibet; Christophe André specializes in the psychology of emotions; and Alexandre Jollien, a Christian philosopher living with cerebral palsy, spent 17 years in a home for the physically disabled. They met through an interest in one another’s writings, became friends, and then decided to write this book—a best-seller in France—by transcribing their conversations about how to alleviate suffering and develop as human beings.

Talk on topics such as compassion and forgiveness could easily slide into abstract homilies, but the three grounded their discussions with lively, specific anecdotes, frequently admitting their personal failings. If the conversation still sounded platitudinous, André often spiced it up by throwing in a thorny real-life challenge based on experiences with his patients. (The most thought-provoking stretches often happened when the thinkers did not quite agree.)

THE THREE GROUNDED THEIR DISCUSSIONS WITH LIVELY, SPECIFIC ANECDOTES, FREQUENTLY ADMITTING THEIR PERSONAL FAILINGS 

This volume is rich with interesting and unusual insights, such as André’s perception that aging may psychologically prepare us so that, “at the end, you don’t regret leaving the body,” or Jollien’s view that “throwing things away, abandoning them, is connected with death, with fear. That is why we are strongly tempted to hang on to things.” This last is part of a very useful discussion of how to free one’s life of clutter; another provides excellent advice about how to really listen to other people.

The trio are humble, describing themselves as seekers rather than sages, but the reader seeking helpful life wisdom will find many nuggets of it here. —GABRIEL COHEN


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