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Book Review: A New Myth for America by James Hilgendorf

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I discovered A New Myth for America among my Google+ circles. The author, James Hilgendorf, mentioned it in a post, and I was immediately intrigued. The combination of Buddhist philosophy and pride in the potential of our country is unusual, despite the growth of mindfulness-based Buddhist-based practice in America. So, I requested a copy to review.

A series of interfering life events prevented me from reviewing it for a while. It turned out to be fateful then that I ended up reading the book precisely when I needed it the most. I brought it on the plane ride to a professional conference, expecting to begin a journey slogging through heady and obscure philosophical ruminations. I was completely unprepared for what I found.

A New Myth for America reads more like a poetry jam than a philosophical tome. The chapters are short and written in rhythmic sometimes half sentences. Each revolves around one small thought. Interspersed periodically are short passages quoted from others, such as Thomas Wolfe, Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman.

Continuing to read in my hotel room on the trip, I found that the text was often better illuminated when I read it out loud as I would a poem. The prose format though keeps the book accessible to those for whom poetry is either foreign or unpleasant. Still, if you have any kind of performance or poetry background I encourage you to try a read aloud of some of the chapters to see how it transforms the work.

Among my favorite chapters were “Upon the Battlements” with its metaphoric reference to the dragons of the past and current times and “The People Are Waiting” in its gentle nudge to remind us to appreciate the experiences life offers us while we are on this earth. A New Myth for America is an inspirational call to bring our most creative forces to the fore and apply them to bettering the world and the experience of all beings.

One can imagine then that the very strength of this book can at times be a weakness as well. Hilgendorf appears to be much more sanguine about the imminency of human transformation than I am. From that perspective certain sections have a Pollyanna-like quality that feels frustratingly naive to a person like myself who feels the tug of an inexorable spiral into worldwide spiritual parochialism.

Nonetheless, it is a testament to the author that he could make someone with my level of existential angst feel for even a few hours like anything is possible. Since my initial reading, I have periodically reread a number of chapters in order to capture that feeling again–however briefly.

I will leave you with a snippet:

” We need to re-connect individual human beings once again, in all their diversity, to the Law of Life that is at the core of everyone’s existence…In other words, what is needed is a new spiritual dimension, a dimension that transcends our smaller identities, and opens our lives to a truer identity at one with the life of the universe itself. Too long this has gone on, and now, after the passing of innumerable generations, the world, and America especially, is poised for a rebirth–precursor to a civilization that requires an entirely new spiritual orientation for the generations to come.”

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