"While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote." ~ Mason Cooley

Thursday, March 20, 2014

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon B. Kopp

"Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again...."'
Sheldon B. Kopp

A few months ago while culling my bookshelves for a library donation, I decided to devote one shelf to the non-fiction books that have inspired me most over the years, books I've reread and cherish and couldn't donate anyway  because they're underlined, highlighted, and contain questions and a few expletives. 

The first book I selected was If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients by Sheldon Kopp, psychotherapist and author.  I first read it in l978 (it was published in l972).  Still struggling with the aftermath of a painful divorce, I was weary of my whining and decided that it was time to quit the pity party.  I began reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. If you were around in the 70's, you know that was a slew of books.  Of all of them, only Kopp's book and The New Diary, by Tristine Rainer, remain on my shelf.

I have to admit that I struggled with The Buddha when I first read it.  Although Kopp's message of personal responsibility was exactly what I needed, he was uncompromising in his delivery.  "Using the myths of Gilgamesh, Siddhartha, The Wife of Bath, Don Quixote...the works of Buber, Ginsberg, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dante, and Jung" and concluding with personal stories, Kopp demanded that his reader be literate, reflective, and willing to surrender all excuses, reasons and alibis, any expectation that someone else has the answers, including him.  He presented himself, not as an expert, but a fellow pilgrim, another struggling human being.  

I almost quit the book...and would have missed what has proven to be the most impactful (and most quoted ) part of the book - an Eschatological Laundry List - a list of 43 statements at the end of the book that encapsulate Kopp's philosophy and continue to date to be quoted.  A few of these "eternal truths" that have meant the most to me...and continue to do so....
  • The world is not necessarily just.  Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
  • You have a responsibility to do your best anyway.
  • It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
  • All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
  • But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own-take-care-of-yourself-cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown up.
  • And...yes....learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again.
I have reread this book three times over the past 35 years, most recently within the last week.  And I still value and cherish it.  Obviously, it is dated in some of the vocabulary, examples and references- l972 right?!  This may turn off younger readers, but the message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.  Wisdom isn't easily dated.

It is important to note that Kopp wrote with a deep understanding of and appreciation for the courage and strength required to  "give up the master, without giving up the search." He lived with a brain tumor that doctors could not completely remove,  and each recurring operation over the remainder of his life left him increasingly impaired.  He wrote about this challenge in An End to Innocence: Facing Life without Illusions, published in l978.  He continued to write,  his final book a collection of daily meditations, The Blues Ain't Nothing but a Good Soul Feeling Bad, published in l992.  Sheldon Kopp died in l999.

And If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him is back on my shelf.

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