Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Natural Brilliance, by Irini Rockwell

Natural Brilliance is a beautiful book. Its presentation, from the tastefully flowery cover to the layout of the pages is nicely done, with the tidy use of little boxes that contain useful information generously sprinkled through its pages. It looks a bit like a typical new age work, with its pastel shades and somewhat misty references to Buddhism. Nowadays, there are many such books about, or inspired by, Buddhist teachings. Many of these take the form of new agey feel-good works, uplifting if a little vague, and bearing only a smidgin of a resemblance to the teachings of the Buddha. But is Natural Brilliance such a work, or is there more to it than that? The answers, of course, are in the book itself, so we will first take a broad look at its claims and aims, and then delve a little deeper into its pages for a somewhat closer look.

The author of Natural Brilliance: A Buddhist System for Uncovering Your Strengths and Letting Them Shine is Irini Rockwell. She is a senior teacher in the lineage of the notorious Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, and is the director of the Five Wisdoms Institute, an organization involved in promoting the system described in the book. Indeed, Natural Brilliance and the institute that Rockwell directs seem intertwined, as if the one complements, or promotes, the other. Clearly, the author is committed to the subject of which she writes, and holds a belief that its claims are genuine. So, what exactly, are the claims of Natural Brilliance?

The book claims that it contains a system that leads to a self-understanding that involves a satisfying relationship to life. Rockwell states that she presents a 'Buddhist model' that helps the reader to identify her or his personality traits that comprise one's 'innate intelligence.' These five qualities are presence, clarity, richness, passion, and action; by cultivating them one can enhance relationships, work, and creativity. Moreover, ultimately, the system shows us the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. Some pretty big claims there!

It's worth noting here that from the Buddhist perspective, the claims of the book are in line with some of the objectives found in the major movements of traditional Buddhism found around the world today. For, although it can be claimed that nirvana or enlightenment is the true destination of the Buddhist path, there are plenty of teachings and practices centered around making us happier and more productive human beings. Natural Brilliance seems more focused on these latter aims, rather than a breakthrough into an experience of awakening to our true nature. And, these are worthwhile objectives, for whilst no Buddhist worth their salt would deny the ultimate importance of enlightenment, it ain't for everyone right now; some people are more focused on their personality and its relationships, and whilst this is the case, they will benefit from teachings and practices that make them happier and less harmful. So, does this book achieve this?

The question of the efficacy of the teachings and methods contained in the pages of Natural Brilliance is, in truth, impossible to answer unless one has read them thoroughly and put them into practice - neither of which this reviewer has done. What can be done is to present those teachings and explore them a little, before coming to a prediction on whether the claims made by Rockwell in the book are justified. So, rather than to continue to sum up her writings, it's time to quote a few passages from Natural Brilliance to allow the reader of this review to formulate their own opinions on its potential benefits.

"When we get right down to it, what most of us really want more than anything - more than the newest smartphone, job promotion, or getaway vacation - is inner peace. The radical message of the Buddhist tradition comes down to this: the peace and fulfillment we are seeking are present in us right now. They have never really left us - and can never leave us." 
(Natural Brilliance, p.1)
"When we accommodate the parts of ourselves that we like the least and energies in others that feel threatening, we are allowing the full spectrum of human experience to display itself. One of the essential lessons of the five wisdom energies is that in embracing our confusion, we discover that our wisdom is right there. When we are familiar with the characteristics of each energy style, we immediately know where the sanity is and where the neurosis is. We can align ourselves with the sanity, with the wisdom aspect. At that point we have discovered the best within us, our unique brand of brilliance. We discover we have great liberty to be who we are, and we can celebrate that."
(Ibid. pp.13-14)
"Bringing Out the Best of Who You Are
  • Recollect three times in your life when you felt the best of who you are.
  • What outer circumstances made that possible?
  • What qualities in you began to shine?"
(Ibid. p.14)
"We are affected by the energy around us whether we are aware of it or not. When we are unaware, energy has the upper hand and we feel tossed around by life's circumstances. When we are aware of the play of energy, we can ride it. With awareness, we can gauge our atmospheric condition in a given situation, sensing the energy of the moment, whether 'open' or 'closed.' We can begin to see that habitual patterns of closing take us out of the moment. We literally lose track of where we are."
(Ibid. p.70)
From the first of the extracts above, the link between the five energies system and Buddhism can be seen - albeit a somewhat tenuous one at first glance. Reading in-between the lines however, a slightly closer connection can be made, when noting references to "inner peace," "wisdom," and "awareness." That no more explicit Buddhist language and concepts are used much in the book can be taken two ways. In a positive light, the book can be seen to be communicating Buddhist teachings in modern English as a opposed to obscure Asian languages; a negative appraisal might conclude that in fact there's little genuine Buddhism in Natural Brilliance to begin with. 

The quotation above that is entitled "Bringing Out the Best of Who You Are" is included here for two reasons. The first is that is highlights a central theme of the book, which is the importance given to discovering and living from "who you are" - a loaded phrase if there ever was one in Buddhist thought. This isn't the unconditioned 'true nature' that Buddhism teaches lies at the heart of every sentient being, but more the essential ego or conditioned personality that each of us is conventionally said to possess. The second importance of this particular quote is that it is an example of the reflections that appear throughout the book. Here, Rockwell has assembled a useful collection of exercises that encourage her readers to explore their selves. A useful undertaking for sure.

The emphasis that Rockwell puts on awareness is certainly something she shares with Buddhists of whatever persuasion, including those of the Tibetan tradition from which she draws her primary influences for the five wisdom energies. In encouraging her readers to increase their levels of awareness she is doing them a great service, and with the many awareness-based exercises in Natural Brilliance she gives them the means to do so. For this alone, the book is worthy of some praise, as is the eloquent and clear manner in which the author communicates her message. Another laudable aspect to the book is the abundance of real-life examples that Rockwell has woven into its pages, which lend it a vibrancy that would otherwise be missing:

"Jane had a pattern of getting speeding tickets when driving home from visiting her family. We would often be in emotional turmoil and put her foot on the gas. Then one day she practiced simply paying attention to (being mindful of) the speedometer. This allowed her to relax. No speeding ticket."
(Ibid. p.86)
"Becoming single, I took up the tango. I joke that, living on the edge of mainstream society as I do, I have never made much money, which gives me great freedom to move from one thing to the next. Nothing to lose! At various times, my husband and son have said, 'Why don't you get a real job?' I simply cannot. I have been stubborn about sticking to my passions, which in turn allows me to give the world my best."
(Ibid. p.98)
"At the time my sister was put under the care of San Diego Hospice, Dr. Charles Lewis, a meditator, was on her team. He is the medical director of both the Inpatient Care Center and their Institute for Palliative Care. I was present at the intake interview. He radiated a calm presence and, from his questions,you felt that he was seeing a whole person. In the two hours he spent with her and later in my conversations with him, he was attentive to every nuance my sister displayed. He created a healing environment not only for my sister, but also her caregiver, Jenna, and myself."
(Ibid. p.174)

So, returning to the question posed at the top of this review, as to whether Natural Brilliance is just another wishy-washy new age book, or something more substantial, this reviewer has come to his conclusion: the latter. For, whilst the Buddhist elements in the book are more implicit than explicit, and many traditionalist Buddhists may find it not to their tastes at all, Natural Brilliance does have an integrity to it that is impressive, the motives of Irini Rockwell appearing to be wholly genuine. The actual details of the five wisdom energies themselves are too complicated to go into in this review, and are therefore left to those that choose to read the book itself and reflect upon them. But it is the conviction of this reviewer that if they do so, they will reap worthwhile rewards.

Title & Author : Natural Brilliance, by Irini Rockwell
Publisher        : Shambhala Publications
Page Count    : 208
Price               : $18:95
ISBN               : 9781590309322
Web Link        : Natural Brillance at Shambhala


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review of the kind of book that lives right on the line between Buddhism and something else. Still, it's worth noting that the Five Wisdom Energies are derived from the Five ~Nanas of late Yogacara philosophy (which later became the Tantric Buddha Families), and in a traditional context they could be seen as answers to the question, "What new potential in my life is born from seeing through each of the Five Hindrances and not believing their urgency?" When you don't believe your aversion and let negative feelings arise and pass, this body still got its shot of adrenaline and may have a potential for a more skillful kind of alertness, for example. The rest is a sometimes deeply subtle and sometimes baroque set of pointers and symbolic reminders of how these various reactions show up in the body, in emotions and in subtler aesthetic ways. Also to mention: Rockwell has some deep contemplative experience, and it appears to me that she plays a tricky game using "who you really are" in BOTH a conventional self-help way AND an anatta/tathata, beyond-subject-and-object way. That is a common teaching device used by Trungpa's former students, but it is not always recognized as such.

Again, this is only to add some perspective, because your review was deeply considered and spot-on.


G said...

Thank you, Michael - both for the kind words and for the extra information regarding the book.