There have been many books over the years that have greatly influenced me, but I’ll keep it to a few that I think have some very powerful ideas. I’m glad to try to recommend anything people are looking for specifically. Many works about self-knowledge have the odd property that you may find them completely meaningless and then come back to them later in life and they may become quite important to you. Keep this in the back of your head!
Also, anyone interested in learning more about the evolutionary origins of art, I recently wrote a 15 page chapter about that. You can download it here.
This is the classic text from roughly 2500 years ago. A very short overview of Taoist wisdom, Lao Tzu has an amazing way of trying to speak about something that is, by definition, impossible to talk about. Translations by Stephen Mitchell are well-regarded and available in a pocket edition — the only book I always carry around with me.
I think of all the books about self-knowledge that I have found, this one is the most accessible and straightforward. The book opens: “In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have a voice inside my head!’ — that’s the voice we’re talking about.”
From there he goes into the exploration of why that voice exists, which takes us into an understanding of meditation, mindfulness, and enlightenment. A potentially very powerful work.
Andrew Newberg was one of the first neuroscientists to brain-scan people who either had deep meditative or religious/mystical experiences. He found definitive brain changes after people had spent several thousand hours introspecting. His book examines evolutionary theories of how religions started, and talks about the possibility that these brain changes might enable us to see deeper into reality.
Ken Wilber is one of the major thinkers of our time, who focuses on studying consciousness and its relationship to mysticism. A Brief History of Everything is a long but quick read, discussing theories on the nature of the universe around us, subjective experience, stages of consciousness, evolution, etc. — I especially enjoy how he made me think differently about the stages of consciousness that humanity has been through so far (reflected in your growing up, such as beliefs in magic as children, etc), and where they may lead in the future.
Eckhart Tolle was on the verge of suicide one night when he was about 30, and the thought occured to him “I can’t live with myself any longer.” Suddenly, he realized, if he was having this thought, then there must be two of him, and he finally became distinctly aware of the voice in his head. This changed his life deeply, instantaneously, and many years later he became a teacher for others looking to understand themselves better.
For those seeking an understanding of Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle is someone who writes in a way that will either affect you quite deeply, or be meaningless to you. I have found it (this, as well as his other major work “A New Earth”) very powerful and it hits on some things that at first you may completely ignore or deny, but that may eventually revolutionize the way you see around you.
Nisargadatta was an uneducated poor villager in Bombay, India, who in his thirties became enlightened, or ‘realized his true Nature,’ as he might say it. People around him could tell something about him was very special, and spent the next 50 years crowding his cigarette store asking him spiritual questions. He never wrote a word, but enough recordings were made of his conversations with spiritual seekers that they were transcribed into this book, “I Am That.”
In my personal journey with understanding the world and myself better, this book has affected me more deeply than any other. However, given the language and the depth of his direct understanding, it can be a very difficult and challenging work to read at first. I found that I needed about 80 pages to start understanding what he was talking about, but then the realizations became deeper and deeper.
I hope these books reach you, if you are searching. Please email me or leave a comment if you’re looking for anything specific — I spent a lot of time in a deep reading phase of this journey.