The best books on spiritual breakthrough

Jerome A. Miller Author Of Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality
By Jerome A. Miller

Who am I?

During my 37 years of teaching philosophy to undergraduate students, most of whom had no prior exposure to it, my purpose was to promote self-examination of the sort practiced and encouraged by Socrates. Such self-examination is upsetting, unsettling. It leads one to insights and realizations one would prefer not to have. But by undermining one’s assumptions, these insights break one open to a whole universe of which one had been oblivious. Breakdowns make possible breakthroughs. My students didn’t realize that, just as I was trying to provoke this kind of spiritual transformation in them, their questions, criticisms, challenges, and insights provoked it in me. 


I wrote...

Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality

By Jerome A. Miller (editor), Nicholas Plants (editor),

Book cover of Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality

What is my book about?

It is now widely recognized that Twelve-Step spirituality, originally developed by alcoholics for alcoholics, offers all of us neurotic, tormented controllers a pathway out of our addictions. This book of essays will help you understand why and how they are able to do this. Some of the essays are intensely personal, some academically flavored. Each of them brings an appreciative philosophical eye to the Twelve Steps and helps to illuminate their logic and transformative power. The essays explore many of the key themes on which the Twelve Steps focus, including powerlessness, freedom, vulnerability, the meaning of a “higher power,” gratitude, and fellowship. While they approach the Twelve Steps from many different philosophical perspectives—existentialism, Confucianism, Buddhism, atheism, pragmatism—the contributors to the book agree that the Steps provide invaluable insights into the spiritual infrastructure of all religious and spiritual traditions.

The books I picked & why

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The Death Of Ivan Ilych

By Leo Tolstoy,

Book cover of The Death Of Ivan Ilych

Why this book?

Though written 150 years ago, Tolstoy’s novella describes the life of an intensely goal-oriented person who is very much like many of our contemporaries—perhaps very much like us. Intent on marrying well, ascending to the top of social order, achieving wealth and power, he is marvelously successful—until he begins to have a pain in his side that turns out to be world-shattering. This may seem to be too dark for a “best book on spiritual breakthrough.” But perhaps such breakthroughs happen differently from how we imagine them.


Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life And Letters From Westerbork

By Etty Hillesum,

Book cover of Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life And Letters From Westerbork

Why this book?

Why include on this list the diaries of a secular Jewish woman who is in the grip of self-centered anxieties and an unusual, if not bizarre, relationship with her analyst? Because spiritual transformation begins and evolves in uncanny ways, leading one to find transcendence where one never would have expected it. Etty’s diaries and letters allow us to follow the process by which she became so profoundly lucid and open-hearted that she was able to see the humanity even in the Nazis organizing extermination.


The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

By Ernest Kurtz, Katherine Ketcham,

Book cover of The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

Why this book?

Drawing upon stories from all the great spiritual traditions, Kurtz and Ketcham keep shocking us out of our assumptions about the spiritual life, and inviting us to abandon the pursuit of perfection that many of us identify with it. They pull the rug out from under us, telling us what we don’t expect to hear. There’s something comical about embracing imperfection. But if they’re right, it’s the only real alternative to living tragically. I suggest watching Chaplin’s City Lights and Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box, as you make your way through the chapters of this book.


Praisesong for the Widow

By Paule Marshall,

Book cover of Praisesong for the Widow

Why this book?

A cruise ship is, perhaps, the least likely of all possible venues for the beginning of a spiritual breakthrough. But this is where spiritual transformation starts for Avey Johnson, the 64-year-old African American woman who is the central character in this Marshall novel. Breakthroughs are often set in motion deep down inside us, below the surface of our ordinary awareness. In fact, a real breakthrough can’t happen unless it goes all the way down in us. I know of no book that conveys this truth more effectively.


Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

By Jonathan Lear,

Book cover of Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

Why this book?

Because Lear is a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, his book has a more academic flavor than the others on my list. But because he’s a philosopher and psychoanalyst attentive to lived experience, his book draws us into the devastating loss suffered by the Crow Nation, and especially by Plenty Coups, their last great chief, when their culture was stripped from them. This was, of course, an irreparable trauma from which it was impossible to recover. But instead of trying to retrieve what was unrecoverable, Plenty Coups turned to the unknowable, unprecedented future with the “radical hope” that it could be charged with transcendent meaning for his people. Perhaps the spiritual life, especially in these crisis-ridden days, consists in learning how to practice such hope.


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