The Theosophical Society in America

Midsouth

Book Reviews 2014

Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan
Kenneth P. Lizzio
Wheaton: Quest, 2014. xi + 231 pp., paper, $18.95

Embattled Saints is a “must read” for anyone with the slightest interest in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The book is at once the author’s memoirs of his year as a disciple of Pir Saif ur-Rahman, a Naqshbandi shaikh (master), and a well-informed historical and social overview of Afghani Sufism. It is also an extremely helpful analysis of the complex tensions between traditional Sufism and various reformist and Islamist movements of central and southeast Asia.

The book’s subtitle is rather paradoxical, as Lizzio never actually sets foot in Afghanistan itself: his extended stay with the Pir and his numerous disciples takes place in the Khyber Agency, a district in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, to which the Pir had been forced to flee by the wars and conflicts in Afghanistan.

Lizzio first encounters the Pir while stationed in Peshawar in 1990 as a director of a U.S. project to help poppy farmers find viable alternative crops. Noting Lizzio’s interest in Sufism, a local colleague takes him on visits to several sheikhs, culminating in the visit to the Pir, who has a reputation as a powerful dispenser of baraka (reputedly the grace of Allah channeled through the Naqshbandi lineage and transmitted to aspirants as a mysterious kind of transformative energy). Shortly after their meeting at the shaikh’s compound, Lizzio’s project loses its congressional funding, and he is forced to leave Pakistan.

It is not until 1996 that Lizzio is able to return, this time with the aid of a Fulbright research grant. On his original visit, the Pir had bid Lizzio adieu with the invitation to return only if he was prepared to become a Naqshbandi initiate and aspirant. This is no trifling requirement, as the Naqshbandi order’s tradition is one of strict adherence to sharia (Islamic law) and sunnah (customs emulating the behavior and practices of the Prophet Muhammad). Lizzio, who has heretofore been a scholar of Islam and Near Eastern studies, makes the momentous decision to embrace Islam as a Muslim and an initiate in the Pir’s branch of the Naqshbandi.

And so the author’s journey begins. I will not steal his thunder by describing the remarkable phenomena ascribed to the Pir’s baraka, but suffice it to say that it defies a purely rational or scientific explanation. As a “you are there” account of the intense spiritual life in the Pir’s compound, Embattled Saints provides insights into traditional Sufism that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But just as valuably, Lizzio’s wider analysis of the competing interpretations and tendencies within Islam is an eye-opener. Western students of Sufism, particularly those under the influence of Hazrat Inayat Khan or Idris Shah (to name just two exponents), have tended to view Sufism as a liberal version of Islam or even a mystical stream preceding Islam itself. While both might be true in some fashion, the Sufism of Pir Saif ur-Rahman defies such easy descriptions.

As Lizzio makes clear, the Pir could be a nit-picking stickler for the fine points of sunnah — men’s beards and trousers must be of a certain length, women are strictly segregated, and so on — to a degree that would be hard to distinguish from fundamentalist Islam. Indeed, the Pir had initially supported the rise of the Taliban in the region, mistaking their Saudi- and Wahhabi-influenced rigor as akin to his own traditionalist approach. However, the Naqshbandi rigor is in the service of a discipline leading to mystical breakthroughs, while the Taliban and other Islamists turned out to be hostile to mysticism and Sufism.

Lizzio describes the almost comical scene of outdoor loudspeakers at both the Pir’s compound and a nearby hostile Islamic militant compound trying to drown out each other’s vituperative condemnations of their neighboring enemies. All of this is embedded within a complex social geography of competing tribal interests and a shared opposition to Western-influenced modernization. I couldn’t help wondering whether decades — indeed, centuries — of sustained warfare and conflict hasn’t encouraged a tendency to fanaticism and hysteria among all conflicting camps.

In the author’s prologue, he notes that he tries to “privilege the Naqshbandi worldview over the Western one,” which is to say that he resists making value judgments about the culture’s norms: if the traditional world the Pir struggles to preserve dictates women in burqas, so be it. But as becomes evident by the book’s conclusion, that traditional world is increasingly embattled, and with the Pir’s demise in 2010, his branch of the Naqshbandi order is an endangered species. If modernity doesn’t nail them, there are plenty of Islamic militants who would be delighted to do the job.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney, founder and publisher of the late Gnosis magazine, is the author of The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), which has been published in five languages. His article “Shhh! It’s a Secret: Grappling with the Puzzle of Freemasonry” appeared in Quest, Summer 2013.


Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)
Elone Snel
Boston: Shambhala, 2013. 106 pages + CD, paper, $17.95.

Thousands of years ago, the Buddha taught mindfulness to his monks through such texts as the Satipatthana Sutta (“The Foundations of Mindfulness”). Now comes Eline Snel with a “sutta” for kids titled Sitting Still Like a Frog.

For more than twenty years, Snel has been developing mindfulness training programs. A founder of the Academy of Mindful Teaching in the Netherlands, she began to teach mindfulness courses for adults, parents, and children in 2004. Sitting Still Like a Frog provides basic meditation techniques for kids from ages seven through twelve. In it, the author provides exercises for kids that are simple and direct and that parents can do along with their children. The exercises in this wonderful book are suitable for kids with ADHD, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorders. They are not a cure-all, but they do offer ways to cope and grow in the process.

Kids are curious and inquisitive. They are keen to learn and can be extremely attentive. At the same time, they can be easily distracted. There is too much going on. Practicing mindful presence and awareness, kids learn to catch their breath and be in the present moment. The way out of “automatic pilot” is through friendly attention to everything they do.

As Snell reminds us, there are things in life that we just have to deal with. The sea can be turbulent as well as peaceful. You cannot stop the waves. What you can do is to learn to surf, to ride the waves, seeing them as they are.

Snel also reminds parents about three fundamental qualities:

Presence: Presence enables you to simply be there.
Understanding: Understanding enables you to put yourself in your children’s shoes.
Acceptance: Acceptance is the inner willingness to understand your children as they are.

In this book, Snel has discovered a language that is as effective today as the one Buddha used in talking with his disciples. She talks about using the “Pause” button. She tells the kids about training their “Attention Muscle.” Her description of sitting still like a frog is stunning in its simplicity: “A frog is a remarkable creature. It is capable of enormous leaps, but it can also sit very, very still. Although it is aware of everything that happens in and around it, the frog tends not to react right away. The frog sits still and breathes, preserving its energy instead of getting carried away by all the ideas that keep popping into its head. The frog sits still, very still, while it breathes. Its frog tummy rises a bit and falls again.” It is a wonderful way to draw kids’ attention to the rising and falling of the abdomen as an object of focusing.

One key aspect of mindful awareness is how to be in touch with one’s feelings moment to moment. Snel has found a lovely way to relate to kids here. She asks them, “What is the weather like inside you? Do you feel relaxed and sunny inside? Or does it feel rainy or overcast?” This creates an instant relationship to what one is feeling without judging it as good or bad. We don’t resist the storm, we just acknowledge it. This allows kids to look at their emotions and say it is OK to have them. Accept the weather, and understand at the same time that it will change too.

The child in me related to Snel’s description of the conveyor belt of worries as a way of watching one’s thoughts. It also related to the technique of bringing worries and thoughts down from the head to the abdomen. The rising and falling of the abdomen has no place for thoughts! We need not get carried away by feelings, but is OK to have them. Also, she speaks of a “first aid box for worries” as a way of distancing oneself from one’s thoughts. Why not transfer the worries to the first aid box so we can watch them from a distance?

This book is a treasury of lessons and exercises that kids can relate to. It is accompanied by a CD with the exercises read by Myla Kabat-Zinn. This is homework for parents as well as kids, but this is homework that is far from agonizing. It has a liberating quality to it.

Dhananjay Joshi
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


Doyle after Death
John Shirley
New York: Witness Impulse, 2014. 340 pp., paper, $6.99.

Everyone who tries to imagine the afterlife faces the same problem. On the one hand, it is not life on earth. On the other hand, our minds can only conceive of things on the basis of earthly perception: even the innumerable heavens and hells of all cosmologies are framed in earthly images.

John Shirley, author of many science-fiction novels (and of the article “The Apocalypse of Consciousness” on page 140 of this issue), grapples with this dilemma in Doyle after Death, a murder mystery set, peculiarly, in the afterlife.

Nicholas Fogg, an unsuccessful private investigator, dies in a seedy Las Vegas hotel room. Upon waking, he finds himself in a netherworld settlement called Garden Rest, in an environment that is both like and unlike the earthly plane. There are apparently many such communities in the other world. People still have bodies, and they still have appetites (especially for tobacco, which for some reason this particular bardo cannot produce), but other things differ significantly. There is no need for food, for example, because nourishment comes from opening oneself up to this world’s sun, which not only gives sustenance but provides taste sensations that are at least as good as any on earth.

Fogg finds that one of his neighbors in this unassuming corner of the afterlife is Arthur Conan Doyle, best-known in real life for his Sherlock Holmes stories but also an avid investigator of spirits and mediums. Having been a detective on earth, Fogg joins Doyle in a hunt for a murderer who has inserted himself into Garden Rest. (Shirley does in fact explain how murder is possible in the afterlife.)

I don’t want to spoil the details of the plot, but apart from it there are several things worth noting in this book. “The afterlife described in the present novel,” Shirley says in an author’s note at the beginning, “has its own rules and peculiarities. I wish to assert that any conceivable afterlife would have consistent physics and biological principles.” He illustrates these both in the course of the novel and in an appendix, where he spells out some of the ideas behind his vision in the form of a dialogue between Doyle and Fogg. (I found this section especially interesting and wished it might have been longer.)

In this nether realm, as in ours, the mind has creative power, but the power of the mind is greater in Garden Rest than on earth. Houses, for example, are not built but “formulated.” They sprout up spontaneously through the directed use of the mind, the ground spewing out a kind of lava that soon solidifies into the desired shape. “Formulating here is rather like what we used to call apportment,” Doyle remarks. “The most curious items would materialize in séances — would apport right there and then” (emphasis in the original).

Of course we too can formulate houses, but here they require hard work. What emerges from this picture is a realm that is slightly, but only slightly, more yielding to the power of the mind than ours is. Shirley is suggesting that there many realms in the other world, some subtler, some denser; some pleasant, some less so. “There is no torturous hell, you know,” Doyle explains, “just an exclusion from light, a dark place where misery-inducing souls are left alone with one another. Here in Garden Rest we are in one — merely one! — of the outer rings of light.”

Souls do not stay in Garden Rest forever. At some point each resident will be given the “Summons” and will disappear. Where they go next is not spelled out, but Shirley implies that the soul moves on to higher and more rarefied realms, in a process that may be endless.

Doyle after Death is both highly original and evocative of many esoteric teachings, including Theosophy. Although it would be pointless to try to fit Shirley’s afterlife tidily into the Theosophical schema of kamaloka and devachan, in this vivid and well-told story, he presents a fresh and charming view of what may befall us after death.

Richard Smoley


Isis in America: The Classic Eyewitness Account of Mme. Blavatsky’s Journey to America and the Occult Revolution She Ignited
Henry Steel Olcott
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. 480 pp., paper, $15.95.

Isis in America is a new edition of one of the most fascinating books in Theosophical literature: the first volume of Henry Steel Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves, first published in 1895. Olcott began his work on Old Diary Leaves a few years previously as a series of articles in The Theosophist magazine. He wrote the articles, and later the six-volume edition of Old Diary Leaves, to present an eyewitness account of his work with H.P. Blavatsky and the formation of the Theosophical Society. He felt it was important to counteract false information already being circulated about the founders and the Society. He did a masterful job: the book is not only informative, but at times entertaining and in a few instances hilariously funny.

As early as 1895 Olcott noticed that there was a tendency among some to deify Mme. Blavatsky. He knew her better than anyone other than her teachers, and he knew full well that she was a human being with amazing abilities coupled with a difficult temperament and many faults. In his foreword, Olcott writes, “It was but too evident that unless I spoke out . . . the true history of our movement could never be written, nor the actual merit of my wonderful colleague become known.”

Olcott begins his narrative by telling us how he met Mme. Blavatsky. He goes on to report on her unfortunate marriage to a younger man in Philadelphia, a marriage that only lasted a few months. HPB claimed the union was the result of karma and was her punishment for “her awful pride and combativeness,” which impeded her spiritual development. We learn how the Theosophical Society came to be, and we are told about Olcott presiding over the first cremation in the U.S. Blavatsky did not take part in the funeral “service,” but she was heard from nonetheless, and in a most amusing way. The book goes on with the history through to the time when Blavatsky and Olcott left for India in 1878.

This new edition ends with a valuable timeline of Olcott’s life, compiled by Mitch Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin.

Ed Abdill

The reviewer is former vice-president of the TS and author of The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition (Quest Books). 


The Forbidden Book: A Novel
Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro
San Francisco: Disinformation Books, 2012. 282 pp.,
hardcover, $24.95.

The genre of occult and esoteric fiction has had a somewhat spotty history. Dion Fortune, Dennis Wheatley, Sax Rohmer, and Bram Stoker immediately come to mind as perennial favorites despite their limitations as writers. Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum marked a high point of style and erudition, though the author's cynicism indicated he had little sympathy for his chosen subject, secret societies. More recently, Dan Brown has hit the jackpot with page-turners such as The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, which in turn inspired a raft of imitators. With The Forbidden Book, one can imagine the authors Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro—both academics conversant with esoteric teachings—saying to themselves, "Surely we can do better than this tripe." And so they have.

The Forbidden Book is an engaging occult thriller, well-written and packed with esoteric lore, nearly all of it based on real-world sources. In both literary quality and depth of knowledge it beats Dan Brown at his own game. Thus it is singularly unfortunate that the book was released with so little fanfare and, presumably, a nonexistent promotional budget. If the novel had come out under Dan Brown's byline, it would likely have sold copies in the millions.

In a nod to Brown's formula, the novel's protagonist is a college professor, in this case Leo Kavenaugh of the Italian department at Georgetown University. Leo is invited to Italy by a former female intern with whom he'd fallen in love several years before, but to no avail, as Kavenaugh was a celibate member of the Franciscan Third Order. His former intern, Orsina, hails from a wealthy aristocratic family in the north of Italy and, despite her own love for Leo, has married a wealthy Scottish businessman. With ambiguous motives, she invites Leo to visit her family estate in Verona to help decipher a book of late Renaissance Hermeticism that has been presented to her by her uncle, the Baron Emanuele Riviera della Motta.

Rapidly Leo is drawn into intrigues and mysteries associated with the book and with the baron. A murder ensues, the rather hapless Italian police arrive, and matters get complicated. In the interest of not spoiling the plot, I will leave it at that. Suffice it to say that after a bit of a slow start, the book builds up a good head of steam and delivers a fascinating thriller replete with alchemical, magical, and contemporary political references.

What may not be obvious to most readers, however, is the novel’s subtext, a meditation on the work and life of Baron Julius Evola (1898–1974), the controversial Italian exponent of an esoteric and magical “Tradition” whose political implications captured the imagination of young Italian (and other European) post–World War II neofascists
from the 1950s up to the present.

The Forbidden Book’s Baron Emanuele Riviera della Motta is an Evola stand-in, complete with young black-shirted followers and a magical regimen modeled on one that Evola and his esoteric associates, a collection of occultists known as the UR group, began to expound in the 1920s. (For more on this, see Introduction to Magic by Julius Evola and the UR Group.)

What Godwin and Mina di Sispiro provide here is an imaginative rendering of the likely real-world impact of Evola’s doctrines brought into the present. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Another subtext is the personal and moral impact of subscribing to a path of transcendence that raises the seeker to a level above compassionate regard for others. Evola’s magical philosophy (like that of this novel’s baron) aims for a heroic victory over all downward-pulling forces, leading to the immortalization of one’s individual Self. The end result is to render oneself a god. Common sense might suggest that hoping to become a god is inviting the fate of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.

The Forbidden Book plays out all these possibilities, imbedded in the story of Leo and Orsina’s conflicted love for each other and their quest for the spiritual meaning behind their mutual attraction.

The achievement of The Forbidden Book is its melding of occult thriller, esoteric explication, and social critique, all at a level of intelligence higher than the genre’s norm. My main criticism would be that the characterization is rather sketchy, a weakness that also plagues Dan Brown’s books.

That aside, if you are interested in an occult thriller which provides genuine esoteric insights instead of muddled hokum, The Forbidden Book beckons.

Jay Kinney

The reviewer, founder and former publisher of Gnosis magazine, is the author of The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), which has been published in five languages. His article “Shhh! It’s a Secret: Grappling with the Puzzle of Free­masonry” appeared in Quest, Summer 2013.


God, Science and “The Secret Doctrine”: The Zero Point Metaphysics and Holographic Space of H.P. Blavatsky
Christopher P. Holmes
Kemptville, Ontario, Canada: Zero Point Institute for Mystical and Spiritual Science, 2010. xi + 330 pp., paper, $24.95.

In God, Science, and “The Secret Doctrine,” Christopher P. Holmes endeavors to show parallels between the cosmogenesis of H.P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine and the cosmology of today. He contends that scientific cosmology is catching up with the massive Theosophical work published in 1888. The parallels are often stunning. Consider lines like these:

“Matter is eternal,” says the Esoteric Doctrine. But the matter the Occultists conceive of in its laya, or zero state, is not the matter of modern science. . . for it is PRADHANA (“original base”), yet atoms are born at every new manvantara, or reconstruction of the universe . . . There is a difference between manifested and unmanifested matter. (The Secret Doctrine, 1:545; cf. Holmes, 115)

Or, as Blavatsky also wrote:

By “that which is and yet is not” [before the manifestation of the universe] is meant the Great Breath itself, which we can only speak of as absolute existence, but cannot picture to our imagination as any form of existence that we can distinguish from Nonexistence. (Secret Doctrine, 1:43)

For comparison, Holmes cites the 1985 book Perfect Symmetry by the distinguished physicist Heinz Pagels:

The nothingness “before” the creation of the universe is the most complete void that we can imagine—no space, time or matter existed. It is a world without place, without duration or eternity, without number—it is what the existence—a necessary consequence of physical laws. Where are these laws written into that void? What “tells” the void that it is pregnant with a possible universe? It would seem that even the void is subject to law, a logic that exists prior to space and time.

Holmes’s analysis deals not only with the laya or “zero point” state prior to what has more recently been called the Big Bang, but likewise with the curved space and time of Einsteinian relativity, holographic space, the space-time-matter-energy continuum, quantum phenomena, multiple universes, the formation of subatomic particles, atoms, and finally stars and galaxies in the post–Big Bang “inflation.” In all this, through extensive quotations from The Secret Doctrine and recent scientific writers like Pagels, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan, and others, Holmes illumines the convergences.

That the meetings of meaning are not always evident to those dipping into the Theosophical classic is, first of all, due to Blavatsky’s use of anthropomorphic or mythological language to describe what the scientists would phrase in more impersonal and objective terms. When Pagels asks, “What ‘tells’ the void that it is pregnant with a possible universe?” the answer is the Great Breath, and the “pregnancy” might be taken more literally than he intended. Blavatsky writes: “The last vibration of the seventh eternity thrills through infinitude. The Mother swells, expanding from within without, like the bud of the lotus” (Secret Doctrine, 1:62).

The Secret Doctrine uses this apparent anthropomorphism because it adds to the cosmological process the element of consciousness, or more precisely, the unimaginable cosmic levels of what is known in us as human consciousness. Granting that what is inside us may also be outside makes it acceptable, and often profoundly satisfying, to summon up correspondences between cosmic and human creativity, up to the mathematicians call “the empty set.” Yet this unthinkable void converts itself into the plenum of metaphorical, and perhaps more than metaphorical, evocation of giving birth. But long and bitter battles between science and religion have left many in the former camp exceedingly wary of “mysticism” about the cosmos, by which they mean any attempt to universalize consciousness beyond the human plane. In such a universe of thought, Blavatsky’s “Eternal Parent Wrapped in Her Ever-Invisible Robes,” “Radiant Child,” “Fohat” hardening the atoms, and conscious “Builders” working through stars and systems of stars, sound medieval or worse. “Science” may insist instead that the beginning of the universe was a mindless accident or a random incident.

Nonetheless, from several directions—the mysteries of quantum phenomena, the logic of mathematics, the quandary of the anthropic universe—consciousness, or its universal ground, seems waiting to come back in as a fifth cosmological constituent, along with space, time, matter, and energy. Some recent thought along this line has suggested that the universe resembles nothing so much as a computer simulation. Holmes’s study makes it evident that The Secret Doctrine provides a model for a consciousness-guided universe far removed from the theological bugbears that understandably annoy scientific thinkers, while allowing for an inside as well as an outside to the cosmos from the beginning.

God, Science, and The Secret Doctrine is not the only attempt to correlate Blavatsky and contemporary physics and cosmology. One could mention papers presented at the 1984 symposium on H.P. Blavatsky and at the 2007 United Lodge of Theosophists’ conference, “Theosophy and New Frontiers of Science.” But Holmes does us the service of bringing much of this thought together in a book broadly following the structure of The Secret Doctrine, updating, as it were, the scientific as well as esoteric commentary Blavatsky so ably provided in terms of the science of her day.

Holmes’s academic training is in clinical psychology, so professional physicists and astronomers, as well as scholars of The Secret Doctrine and its sources, may find issues to raise in his bold treatment of their material. But Holmes’s virtue is that he writes from the standpoint of an enthusiastic inquirer like most of us, communicating the remarkable new importance of  as a guidebook in the cosmic explorations of our day. As such, it is recommended, along with traditional commentaries, for Theosophical study.

Robert Ellwood

The reviewer is former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America.


Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times
Ji Hyang Padma
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 230 pp., paper, $14.95.

We live in challenging times. The landscape demands that we live with compassion not just for ourselves but for everything around us. It means transforming ourselves, which entails a journey that is unique for each of us. In Living the Season, Ji Hyang Padma tells us about her own journey and about the Zen practice that enriched her life. She shares practices that will bring awareness and compassion to full expression in this ever-changing world.

Padma’s own journey is fascinating. She went through a period of teenage restlessness. When she was fourteen, witnessing a car crash was a turning point for her. She worked as an emergency medical technician, which only deepened her spiritual quest, since it involved doing just what the moment demanded. Her questioning continued. In college, she took up aikido, the martial art of bringing energies into harmony. She discovered a sacred space within herself. Through aikido, she was introduced to Zen shiatsu, a traditional Japanese acupuncture-based form of bodywork that also brings together mind, body, and spirit. The transition to Zen meditation practice was inevitable. Meditation helped her find her core (known as hara in aikido) and respond from a place of centeredness.

Even this was not enough. A new question arose for Padma (and for us it is there as well): what is this for? After graduation from Wellesley College, she moved into a Zen center. She lived with and helped her Zen teacher with community building and also took up a job at an AIDS clinic.

Working with AIDS patients, Padma found that the same question continued to resurface: what is suffering and how do we alleviate it? She traveled to Korea, sat a ninety-day retreat, and was ordained as a nun, receiving her precepts from Seung Sahn, a great Korean Zen master. The practice wasn’t easy, but it confirmed her vow to awaken and help others. She was given the name Ji Hyang: Ji means “wisdom”; Hyang means “fragrance.” Bringing fragrance to the world through her wisdom was her path. She asked Seung Sahn for advice. He said, “Only do it!” She worked as a Zen center director, serving as abbot, but after five years, the desire for solitude opened a new path for her. She moved to Mountain Spirit Center in California to rekindle her love affair with meditation practice.

It is an amazing journey—learning that the sky is blue and the grass is green. We see clearly and hear clearly. Seung Sahn called this the correct function of life. Padma shares this journey with us through the cycle of four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. Each season opens a new aspect of Zen practice for us. Winter is the season of scarcity, requiring shelter. But even within winter there is life. The seeds are stirring. We come out of that stillness to see emerging life in spring. Spring gives way to beauty of summer. There is fullness around. Autumn bring a season of harvesting. We have learned skillful ways of living. This is the time to offer thanks for the gifts we have received. She quotes Zen master Wu-Men, who said:

Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon,
Summer with breeze, winter with snow.
When idle concerns don’t hang in your mind,
That is your best season.

Padma’s book helps us find our best season. Every chapter includes useful suggestions for practice. We learn impermanence through drawing sketches with water. We learn to work with a great question. As thoughts arise, we may ask, “Who is thinking?” Then we say, “I am thinking.” Then we ask the great question: “What am I?” And the answer is “Don’t know!” Zen practice means living in this “don’t know” state.

In her chapter entitled “Interpersonal Mindfulness: Zen and Relationships,” Padma gives us four simple elements of working with relationships: breathing, listening (both to what is said and to what is unsaid), finding our own place of presence (being authentic), and then meeting the others where they reside, joining them, and seeing through their eyes. This is true attunement. 

I loved her tips on compassion. If you are in the line at a drive-in and the person behind is getting impatient and honks at you, do you honk back and glare, or do you buy him a cup of coffee while you are at the window? I tried that the other day, and the look I got from the person behind me was priceless.

In the Indian tradition, seekers who have the same teacher are called brothers and sisters. Ji Hyang Padma and I share that great teacher, Seung Sahn. Well done, sister!

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea
Joan E. Taylor
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 418 + xix pp., hardcover, $55.

The Essenes have become a Rorschach blot. A Jewish sect that flourished around the time of Christ, they have been portrayed variously as mysterious adepts, fanatical separatists, and as the esoteric school that produced Jesus.

None of these images is accurate, according to Joan E. Taylor’s recent book The Essenes, The Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Using the testimonies of ancient authors as well as archaeological finds, she portrays the Essenes as an austere sect that was nonetheless much more a part of the Judaism of the time than many believe.

The Essenes (the meaning of whose name remains mysterious) flourished in Judaism from at least the second century BC until the second century AD In Taylor’s view, they were not separatists. Although they lived communally, they did not isolate themselves from the Jewish community at large, and they were widely respected. While they opposed the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled Judea from 140 to 37 BC, an Essene named Menahem predicted that Herod the Great would become king of Judea (as he did in 37 BC) and they thus won his favor.

This fact explains the apparent absence of the Essenes from the New Testament, according to Taylor. Although they were ranked by the contemporary historian Josephus as one of the three main Jewish sects of the time (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees), they do not seem to appear in the Gospels. Taylor says they do appear—under the pejorative name of the “Herodians,” so called because they had enjoyed such privilege from Herod. (See Matt. 22:16; Mark 3:6 and 12:13.) They are hostile to Jesus. This makes sense: the Essenes were stringent observers of the Mosaic Law, obeying it so rigorously that they may not have been allowed to relieve themselves on the Sabbath. Jesus’s casual attitude to the Law would not have squared with them. Thus he probably had not been taught by them—or if he had, he broke radically with them at some point.

The Essenes are also associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, found at Qumran between 1946 and 1956. Taylor argues that they did not hide these scrolls in response to the Roman invasion of Judea in AD 66, as many scholars believe. Rather she says that the Essenes used the site as a genizah—a repository for worn, damaged, and sometimes heterodox books. They also had a base at Qumran (given to them by Herod) for producing medicines, for which the Dead Sea region was and is famed.

Taylor’s portrait of the Essenes explains a great deal that was previously mysterious about them. Her account has its defects—it says little about the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls and what this tells us about the Essenes—but it is coherent and persuasive, and is likely to serve as a milestone in our understanding of this sect.

Richard Smoley


 

The Esoteric Tarot: Ancient Sources Rediscovered in Hermeticism and Cabala 
Ronald Decker
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 330 pp., paper, $23.95

There are many baseless occult theories about the origins of the Tarot: it came from ancient Egypt; it was created by Kabbalists who modeled it on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet; it is a hieroglyphic text created under the direction of the semilegendary magus Hermes Trismegistus; it is the oldest book in the world, created by the god Thoth, who invented writing.

Most of these can be traced to the eighth volume of Le monde primitif (“The Primitive World”), published in 1781. This encyclopedic ork, by the occultist and Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin, captured the imagination of his fellow occultists and focused their attention on the Tarot. This trend inspired numerous books that attempted to correlate the Tarot with all aspects of occult and Kabbalistic teachings, with little regard for facts or actual history. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tarot’s reputation as a tool for divination and as an ancient esoteric document was taken as gospel among occultists, at least in the English- and French-speaking worlds.

Later in the twentieth century, historians of playing cards and popular history began to bring out factual accounts that firmly rooted the Tarot’s creation in fifteenth-century northern Italy, where it was designed to play a trick-taking game that is the ancestor of bridge. The most influential of these works was The Game of Tarot by Michael Dummett, published in 1980. Dummett was an excellent historian who examined all available early examples, documentation, and related imagery and history. He firmly established the Tarot as a creation of the Renaissance. In 1996, he teamed up with French historian Thierry Depaulis and Ronald Decker, an art historian who was the curator of the collection of the United States Playing Card Company, to write A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. This book covered the contributions of the early occultists to Tarot literature and design and often uncovered the foolishness of their theories. In 2002, Dummett and Decker teamed up again to write A History of the Occult Tarot, in which they continued to follow the Tarot's development up to 1970.

Although Dummett, best known as an Oxford philosopher, was excellent on Tarot history, he avoided all but the most obvious explanations of the Tarot's iconography and denied any use of the Tarot in divination before the eighteenth century. This, combined with his periodic ridicule of nineteenth-century occultists, tended to infuriate modern occultists and Tarot practitioners. A gulf opened up, with historians on one side and practitioners, who found spiritual value in the Tarot's symbolism, on the other.

Unfortunately, at first New Age Tarotists thought of Decker as being on the wrong side of the gulf because of his association with Dummett. But as  an art historian and an artist himself, Decker recognized that a mystical allegory is illustrated in the Tarot, and he has spent the last forty years trying to uncover it. In fact, he was attempting to validate the underlying assumptions of the occultists and find Hermetic and Kabbalistic connections for the Tarot while maintaining a scrupulous respect for facts and history. Decker was one of the few who recognized that there should be no gulf between history and meaning and that the two can be mated. The Esoteric Tarot is the outcome of his quest.

The Esoteric Tarot is a work that Decker has been developing and publishing in tidbits in numerous articles over the years. I first became aware of Decker’s work when I read his article on the origins of the Tarot in Gnosis magazine in 1998. In that article, he related the Tarot trumps to the figures in an allegorical woodcut on the journey of life by Hans Holbein from 1525. Decker also related the Tarot’s Magician card to the figure of the Good Demon, a man with a wand and a broad-brimmed hat who is depicted handing out lots to babies entering life’s arena. Decker revisits that correlation in his introduction to The Esoteric Tarot.

Although the book is divided into six parts with chapters in each, it can really be thought of as having three parts, with the last four combined as one. In the first, Decker, like most historians, traces the origin of cards to China, where paper was invented in the first centuries of the Common Era. But while the standard theory holds that the Chinese money cards with four suits representing coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings of coins, and many myriads, were the first decks, Decker sees them as a later development that was influenced by a deck that originated in the West. Making use of new findings, he posits domino cards, based on the throws of dice, as the first deck. This deck traveled west  and gave rise to a four-suit deck that would eventually become the inspiration for the Tarot’s minor suits as well as traveling east to China to inspire the money cards.

Decker theorized that this deck originated in the city of Harran, in present day Turkey. This was a culture that was firmly entrenched in Hermetic mysticism and a pagan religious synthesis. Decker sees the suit symbols as having astrological and Hermetic significance, with the suit of swords being related to the god Mars, the suit of golden coins to the sun god Sol, the suit of cups to Venus, and the suit of staffs to the moon god Thoth. From here the deck traveled to Egypt, where it was adopted by the Muslim Mamelukes, who introduced it to Western Europe in fourteenth-century Spain. This part coincides with the standard theories about the intro-
duction of the cards to Europe.

In the second part, Decker tackles the origin and symbolism of the trumps. He theorizes that it was in Milan, circa 1440, that the trumps were first added to the four-suit deck, which retained the suit symbols invented in Harran. This first deck had fourteen trumps, but was later expanded with an additional seven to have twenty-one. Decker believes that this deck was influenced by the Renaissance interest in Hermetic symbolism and can be seen as a Hermetic allegory of the soul’s progress, with the trumps divided into three groups of seven. The first seven cards illustrate the soul’s descent into matter, the second seven, called the probation, illustrate the soul’s attempt to evolve through the trials of existence in the world. The last seven illustrate the ascent back to the celestial realm of the World Soul, depicted on the World card as Isis. This explanation of the trumps is satisfyingly harmonious with the imagery on the cards and does not feel forced in any way.

Commentators often criticize attempts to connect the trumps with Hermeticism by pointing out that the written by Joseph Gikatilla in the the principal source of Renaissance Hermeticism, the Corpus Hermeticum, only arrived in Italy in the 1460s, after the creation of the Tarot. But Decker, with his scrupulous attention to detail, lists numerous sources for Hermetic philosophy that were available in the early Renaissance, including the Latin translation of the Asclepius, one of the texts from the Corpus that was available throughout the Middle Ages. He also finds correlations for the trumps with astrological and numerical symbolism and the Egyptian hieroglyphs that were presented in the Hieroglyphica, a Hellenistic text that arrived in Italy in the early 1400s.

In last four parts, Decker takes on modern cartomancy. Although he has established that certain divination practices with cards can be traced back to the Renaissance, he champions the role of the eighteenth-century occultist Etteilla as the inspiration for modern cartomancy. This section starts with a biography of Etteilla that is the most complete and accurate one that I have read. It is probably the best one available in English, and is by itself worth the price of the book. Although almost all later occultists tended to diminish Etteilla’s role, he was the first professional card reader and the first occultist to have a deck designed solely for divination. Although his theories on the trumps have little modern influence, all modern divinatory interpretations for the pip and court cards are derived from Etteilla’s work. 

From the origin of the cards to their use by Etteilla, the Hermetic symbolism behind the Tarot has been established. But what about the Kabbalah? This is where Decker performs some brilliant detective work. He follows the thread back to Etteilla’s source for the meaning of the pips to his study of traditional French card readers, then back to earlier Italian readers, who derived numerical symbolism for the pips from a Kabbalistic text, The Gates of Light, teenth century and available in a Latin translation to Christian Kabbalists since 1516. 

This final revelation tends to turn the standard occult theories, which find Kabbalistic references in the trumps rather than in the pips, totally on their heads. Decker’s views may be surprising to many, but everything he has written is carefully researched and supported wherever possible with facts. I trust no other author more for insights into the Tarot history and symbolism.

Robert M. Place

The reviewer is author of The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, Alchemy and the Tarot, Astrology and Divination, and designer of The Alchemical Tarot, the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, and five other Tarot decks.

 

One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
Mitch Horowitz
New York: Random House, 2014. 338 pp., hardcover, $24.

Mitch Horowitz is the author of the excellent and informative historical work Occult America, and in his latest book he expands upon some of its themes, specifically the origins and ongoing influence of the positive thinking movement, also known as New Thought. What I find most compelling about One Simple Idea is how it unveils the hidden influences behind past and current New Thought. For example, Horowitz carefully explains the profound effect of Mary Baker Eddy's upscale, female-led Christian Science movement upon medical licensing, pastoral counseling, and the role of women in the clergy, as well as the influence of the New England healer Phineas P. Quimby upon her philosophy. Quimby, in turn, was influenced by the teachings of Franz Anton Mesmer, who  himself operated in the milieus of Freemasonry and the French Revolution.

Through this book march a panoply of unlikely characters and eminences, whose often surprising influences from New Thought are herein revealed. Many Elvis fans already know that Presley was a devotee of New Thought. But who would have suspected as much from Sherman Helmsley (TV’s George Jefferson), who doted upon The Kybalion? Or of Michael Jackson, who was very fond of James Allen’s book As a Man Thinketh? It is in these pages that we learn that black activist Marcus Garvey was an aficionado both of James Allen and of Robert Collier’s The Secret of the Ages, as well as of Émile Coué, one of the pioneers of positive thinking. Here we learn that the self-proclaimed deity Father Divine was influenced by both Elbert Hubbard and the poet Edna Wheeler Wilcox. And who knew that a Wall Street Journal self-help favorite such as The Science of Getting Rich had its roots in the Christian Socialist movement, or that Norman Vincent Peale was profoundly informed by Ernest Holmes, author of Science of Mind, who was himself influenced by the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Horowitz explores such esoteric ideas as quantum mechanics and the placebo effect, but he also traces how, for instance, Protestant ministries progressed from distrusting New Thought medical cures to actively embracing them in the form of Pentecostalism— giving us the now-familiar figure of the “faith healer,” who, Horowitz affirms, began fading from the scene in the late 1960s, concurrent with the triumph of “the prosperity gospel.” Indeed, how New Thought eventually shifted from an emphasis upon the blessings of God for health to the blessings of God for wealth is the central story of this enlightening and, in many measures, entertaining work.

Horowitz goes on to describe how, slipped from its occult moorings, the  mind-power teachings through Scrip- tenets of the New Thought movement became part of mainstream thought— and even politics—in the years following World War II. Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie are shown to be the two men who, as much as anyone, effected this change, beginning in the 1930s with their books Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Napoleon Hill was influenced by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose own thought was shaped by the “mysterious doctrines” of Emanuel Swedenborg. As for Dale Carnegie (né Carnagey), his mantra that “agreeable people win” had a profound influence upon the career of Ronald Reagan, who was also influenced by occult thinker Manly P. Hall.

Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking was itself based upon Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s 1946 bestseller Peace of Mind, now largely forgotten. By removing the punitive aspects of Protestantism and thereby further mainstreaming the positive thinking movement, Peale was as responsible as anyone for the present spate of motivational best sellers. It was with Peale that psychospirituality—the melding of psychoanalysis and religion—first gained great prominence with “a system that reprocessed  tural language and lessons.” Not widely known until recently was Peale’s anti– New Deal and anti–Roman Catholic leanings, as well as the influence of Ernest Holmes upon his thought.

The author has a knack for poking into hornet’s nests: he is not shy, for instance, in exposing the ties of Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, not only to William James and C.G. Jung but also to the Swedenborgians and Frank Buchman’s controversial Oxford Group—a group from which Wilson later disassociated himself, though not before adapting many of its key tenets to serve the cause of AA.

Moreover, Horowitz is far from gullible in his history of the New Thought movement; in fact, he is unable to overlook its internal contradictions and logical inconsistencies. He points out that popular and influential (and sometimes scandal-ridden) ministries such as those of Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Robert H. Schuller all borrowed from New Thought for their prosperity gospels, and that not all believers are completely on board with such belief, some going so far as to label it a “quasi-Christian heresy.”

Horowitz lands perhaps a more telling critique: “To call suffering an illusion, yet also demand that it bend to desired change, signals a core inconsistency in the mind-power perspective . . . New Thought and the mind-power philosophies seek to rise above the world and consume its bounty at the same time.” As for New Thought’s attempts to explain present-day sorrows by referring to past-life sins, Horowitz dismisses this explanation: “The person who justifies someone else’s suffering, in this case through collective fault, only casts a stone” (emphasis in the original). In that way, “a narrowly conceived New Thought can slam closed the doors of perception that it was once envisioned to open.” Horowitz thinks that the “Meaning Based School,” which teaches that “a higher\ perspective can rescue a person from an existence of aimlessness and undefined anxiety,” is the “most morally and spiritually convincing” approach to the use of the power of the imagination to alter reality.

One salutary effect of One Simple Idea is that, in tracing the history of the positive thinking movement in America, a great many of its tenets are also explicated. Horowitz’s understandably guarded enthusiasm for some of these techniques is nonetheless infectious. You’ll probably feel better just by reading this book—that is, if you wish it.

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist.

   

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean
Amruta Patil
New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 276 pp., hardcover, $64.75.

Epics form such a precious place in our lives. We grow up with them. In the beginning, they are stories that we go to sleep with. Then we grow older, and they become pathways for our lives, a beacon in our dilemmas and a guiding star in our dark nights.

The Mahabharata is one of the two major epics of ancient India, the Ramayana being the other. The story of a conflict between good and evil and of blessings and curses, the Mahabharata comprises eighteen parvas (chapters), of which Adi Parva is the first. The first thing I noticed about this book is that it says, “via Amruta Patil” and not “by Amruta Patil.” A unique depiction of the stories from the Adi Parva in the graphic medium, it is the first of a trilogy of graphic novels we will receive from her. “The conclave of creators is a crowded space,” she writes, and she too has entered the conclave of retellers of this epic story. 

Many versions exist of the Mahabharata (including a famous Indian TV series that brought all activities to a stop when it was shown). For those that grew up as children in India, the one that is most memorable is the one told at bedtime by our grandmothers. The amazing thing about the origin of Patil’s book is that she was not born in a traditional family. There was no storytelling granny whispering in her ear at bedtime, she says in one interview. So her journey into the Mahabharata was a solitary one, which she started at age twenty-one. Her discoveries were original ones and not tainted or colored by other views and impressions. “It was like taking off layers of wallpaper and seeing how the walls were like,” she says. She felt a connection with the tales of Mahabharata, and therein perhaps lies the seed for this work.

Is the Mahabharata a story to be read? Not really. It is a story to be heard, and now Patil has introduced us to a story that is to be experienced visually, to be seen through the eyes of a new observer. The graphic novel genre in India is in the hands of a niche readership (ages eighteen to thirty-five, English-speaking). It is new and not something readers have been brought up on. It is still experimental, with rules being formed as the writers go  along. Hence we have to drop our preconceived notions of the epic and see it fresh in this book.

Patil learned how to paint for this book. She worked on it as a part of residency at La Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême, France, through a grant from the French embassy in New Delhi. It was like a “room of her own” for her. “I wasn’t looking for a feat of friends. I needed safety, solitude, stability, and sanctuary . . . and had that for one charmed year,” she says. She did not throw away a single page, painting over as much as she could. The text and the paintings intermingle, the images effortlessly changing from watercolor to charcoal to pencil. It is a gorgeous work.

I am not sure how traditionalists will look at Patil’s work, but she is faithful to the essence of the story while being unencumbered by traditional expressions. Reading, or rather experiencing, this book, I felt that she has lived up to her responsibility. As a narrator in the book says, “In any case you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.” We find here in Adi Parva via Amruta Patil a tale that is alive and vibrant. It is a visual joy. Read it slowly. Don’t be in a hurry to turn the page.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


 

Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities
Dean Radin
New York: Deepak Chopra Books, 2013. 369 + xxiii pages, paper, $14.

Scientific explorations of human potential often focus on technological and chemical enhancements to the human body, leaving the cultivation of our natural capabilities as mere hints of what can be altered through artificial means. In Dean Radin’s latest offering, Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities, the veteran psychical researcher brings us back to the self as the starting point for investigation. He comes up with surprising evidence that a journey inward may reap more rewards than anything that conventional science can offer us.

Radin has three previous works under his belt, but this is his most provocative book yet, delving into the deeper implications of psychical research for self and society. Supernormal explores some of the exciting conclusions that can be drawn from the extensive peer-reviewed research and tears apart the misconceptions and misrepresentations that are common in the skeptical subculture. Radin doesn’t tease us with a weak-kneed appraisal of what can be understood from over a century’s worth of accumulated data. Instead he makes a full-scale assault on commonly held assumptions that limit us from embracing the radical possibilities of human existence.

While Radin’s previous books have covered similar ground, this work, framed around an exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist siddhis (extreme abilities and states of consciousness reported by advanced yogic practitioners), provides a unique connecting point to the cross-cultural dialogues that are being fostered by the Dalai Lama with Western scientists. As Radin points out, these powers are commonly reported in all major religions: “Tales of supernormal mental powers are not unique to the yogic tradition. Most of the same abilities are described in Catholicism as chrisms and in Islam as karamats. In Judaism, nahash or divination may be practiced by a zaddik [holy man] . . . All shamanistic traditions are saturated with such tales.” Experiences assigned by academics to the realm of legend, myth, and hagiography may in fact bring us closer to what we are at the very core of our reality.

Supernormal provides a solid starting point for bridging between ancient and contemporary understandings of the world and to evaluate the reality of esoteric and so-called “occult” doctrines. Telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis are all examined in light of their exposition in Eastern sutras as well as in scientific data. We are also treated to examinations of abilities such as bilocation, teleportation, manifestation of physical objects, and other feats that seem to stretch credibility to the utmost limit. While careful in his analysis of each claim, Radin emphasizes that in the traditional sutras, these abilities are not presented as wholly metaphorical but are given as literal powers that can be attained through advanced practice.

Balancing between his scientific examination and the incredible potentials described in works such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scriptures, Radin is able to evoke a wonderful sense of possibility without ever falling into fantasy or gross speculation. He maintains this delicate balance even when he takes us into evidence that the universe’s very structure may support something akin to the reality expressed in popular works such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Hence our participation in reality may go much deeper than crude manipulations of the material realm.

Readers familiar with esoteric doctrine will be delighted to find within Supernormal a well-organized apology (in the classic sense) that utilizes Western science to open up the reality of the hidden realms of human potential. Those whose interest lies in more scientific areas will find in the book a powerful means of taking their inquiries into the far-reaching realities that outshine popular materialism and skeptical mythmaking. At the time of writing for this review, Supernormal is currently ranked as the number one best-seller in its category for two weeks in a row by Nielsen BookScan, and is holding a high ranking on Amazon as well, showing that Radin has touched on a deep need within our culture. In doing so, he will hopefully provide one more key to understanding ourselves and our society in a way that can lead to greater growth and fulfillment of who and what we truly are.

David Metcalfe

David Metcalfe writes the “Psi in the News” column for the Reality Sandwich Web site. Dean Radin will be a featured speaker at the Theosophical Society’s Summer National Convention in July 2014.  


Finding the On-Ramp to Your Spiritual Path: A Road Map to Joy and Rejuvenation
Jan Phillips 
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 146 pages, hardcover, $14.95.

Jan Phillips, who has spent time in a Catholic religious community, now devotes her energies to writing and leading workshops on spiritual and evolutionary topics. In her sixth book, Finding the On-Ramp to Your Spiritual Path: A Road Map to Joy and Rejuvenation, she invites readers on a spiritual journey and offers tips on how to progress. Through the analogy of a road trip, Phillips describes an entry point, mentions likely pit stops, and warns readers of roadblocks they may encounter along the way to spiritual wholeness.

Titled with highway terminology, complete with authentic traffic signs, each chapter describes one such phase in the pilgrimage. Readers should not be put off by the “STOP” sign that graces the first chapter. It is a much needed warning that a spiritual stance requires us to stop, look, and listen before proceeding ahead.

Similarly, chapter 2, “Lane Ends,” may not sound like a good beginning for a journey to joy, but in fact most of us don’t recognize the need for this type of trip until something in the conventional world has failed to work for us.

The following chapters, “Yield,” “Curves Ahead,” “Divided Highway,” “End Divided Highway,” etc., each describe an important spiritual concept. Each includes at least one simple but poignant story to illustrate the main point.

My favorite was chapter 9, “Merge.” It expresses the importance of being attentive to and engaged with others— present to their experiences, whether they are feeling pain or joy. It also emphasizes the value of expressing ourselves authentically and truthfully to others. “We are mirrors to one another’s mission and meaning, for ultimately we have all come here to light up the world,” Phillips writes.

While the entire book is filled with spiritual gems, what struck me as the most immediately useful to someone needing a spiritual GPS appeared in chapter 10, “One Way”: “Joy is the compass point for this discernment [of our own ultimate concerns, and where we should place our commitments]. If you could solve any global problem in the world, which one would bring you the most joy to solve? Your answer to that is a clue to your next step on the spiritual path.”

The final chapters promote a bigger story than that offered by the typical traditional religion. Spiritual maturity is increasingly becoming understood as something broader than a particular belief system invested in some faraway transcendent deity and unduly concerned with personal salvation in the next life. Phillips would have us focus our efforts on things that are more immediate—on “this world, these crises, these choices,” which are in “our hands.” At her recommended destination, we derive our strength from a strong and rich power that comes from within when we follow our own true path.

Certainly Phillips speaks from a frontier not too many have reached, and she is in a position to advise readers from her advanced perspective. I hope telling readers about these steps is an effective way to help them get from point A to point B. Lest the book leave anyone in doubt about Phillips’ own spiritual point B, appendix 1, “An Apostle’s Creed” elucidates ten of her core beliefs.

Finding the On-Ramp provides yet another way to inspire readers to travel beyond the rules and structure of conventionality and organized religion that keep us powerless and dependent on external forces. Her prescribed route alerts us to our individual callings, and promises a destination where our true bliss can be found in following them— for the sake of our own fulfillment, and for a healthy society as well.

Phillips forecasts a quietly spreading, societywide grassroots revolution wherein many are leaving their churches behind to find the Divine within. If enough of us keep finding inventive ways of presenting this concept, perhaps one day conventional society will recognize the futility of its current divisive “small story” tactics and will come to support individuals in their journey to spiritual maturity.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).


Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships
John Amodeo
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 290 + xix pages, paper, $16.95.

John Amodeo’s book is a life-affirming work that expands traditional Buddhist practice to the social dimension. Filled with dozens of examples, personal anecdotes, and pithy quotes, Dancing with Fire is dedicated to expanding conscious awareness and mindfulness to increase personal, interpersonal, and cultural intimacy. This well-seasoned therapist draws from Buddha’s Eight Noble Truths to show how psychology can help those on the spiritual path.

Much of the book’s theme could be captured in a quote from Rumi: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Amodeo suggests using meditation and mindfulness as tools to remove these blocks to intimacy. In meditation retreats, he observed practitioners confusing the Buddhist notion of nonattachment (vairagya) with emotional detachment. Instead of forming more intimate relations, they tended to isolate themselves and withdraw from people while thinking this was the way to liberation. He believes that desire shouldn’t be denied or avoided, but rather fully experienced with joy and equanimity. It isn’t enough, he suggests, to simply “note” feelings and sensations and release them. Rather he advises people to “let in” emotions and allow “our inner processes to arise, incubate, unfold, and shift [so that] a new understanding or forward movement may emerge.”

Amodeo turns to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and Eugene Gendlin’s technique of Focusing to help avoid these pitfalls and expand the feeling dimension of meditative practice. He believes that greater intimacy occurs when we bring emotions to the surface of awareness, thus checking the mistaken idea that meditation should lead us out of this world into some kind of detached state of nirvana. He repeatedly stresses that meditative practice should improve the intimate quality of loving relations rather than isolating us from one another. Psychological methods can augment meditation by helping transform social relationship into sacred experience.

Becoming more aware of feelings and sensations, says Amodeo, makes for a “juicy” life. The clarity and solid sense of ego helped by meditation enables us to keep a firm grip on ourselves and interact with people while maintaining a healthy degree of equanimity. As an experienced therapist, he points out the many ways people undermine intimacy and often get tangled  up in self-defeating, dysfunctional relationships. The only problem in this argument is that Buddhists are more interested in dissolving or altogether eliminating ego than making it more functional!

While Amodeo’s sentiment is appealing, he doesn’t sufficiently take into account the differences between Eastern meditation and Western psychology. The latter aims to heal or at least improve relations (attachments) between people, while the former seeks to transcend desire through nonattachment. Psychological intimacy brings us closer to satisfying our ego desires—a better marriage, security, forgiveness. Buddhists, on the other hand, have their sights set on transcending life. I agree that meditators should not alienate themselves or avoid others using meditation, but augmenting a Buddhist practice with psychological techniques that emphasize somatic and emotional experience confuses spiritual and psychological paradigms by putting at odds their respective goals.

Buddhists use meditation as a means of dissolving the subject-object relationship to experience samadhi, a state of pure awareness. Using this spiritual method, they seek to be liberated from this world of suffering. By contrast, psychology teaches ways of dealing with suffering in this life by engaging the object. Without addressing these differences, it is difficult to reconcile the desire for intimacy with the nonattachment of Buddhist philosophy.

With chapters composed of many subheadings no longer than a few paragraphs, the book makes for an interesting, fast-paced read. But this format doesn’t leave room for deeper exploration; a number of critical subjects, like the one above, could have used more elaboration. Ironically, the reader isn’t able to delve deeper and become more intimate with the subject.

Nevertheless, in the West, where intimacy is often perverted into clinging and craving behaviors, a practical combination of spirituality and psychology is sorely needed. To this end, Dancing with Fire is more than a self help book. It seeks to adapt contemplative practice to the proclivities of the Western mind by teaching us how to “be in this world, but not of it.”

Thom F. Cavalli

Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist and author of Embodying Osiris: The Secrets of Alchemical Transformation (Quest) and Alchemical Psychology: Old Recipes for Living in a New World (Putnam). For more information about his work, visit CavalliBooks.com.


The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit 
New York: Viking, 2013. 259 pages, hardcover, $25.95.

Reading sometimes offers a chance to tag along on an author’s dark journey of the soul. As you proceed on a descent into the underworld, a straightforward and leisurely path all at once turns serpentine, then braids off into obscurity. You arrive in the midst of a shadowy wood and dismal night, no destination discernible. Panthers and wolves lurk in the gloom. You consider retracing your steps, starting over, but even this course leads to an impasse of doubt. Finally, you arrive at a sea of despair. Yet perseverance furthers. In the case of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, the reader is led into a literary labyrinth, only to discover “that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it.”

Solnit, an accomplished essayist in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne, describes this, her fourteenth book, as a “history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company.” She is drawn to reading fairy tales for the “impossible tasks” the heroes must perform. “Enchantment in these stories is the state of being disguised, displaced in an animal’s body or another’s identity. Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.” Over the course of the book, Solnit’s attention roams where it will—through the spacious fields of history, religion, politics, and literature—establishing a compelling tension between these borrowed truths and the direct truth of her own experience as a writer, a daughter, a medical patient, and a traveler in the wider world. Her license is the authority of her prose.

The Faraway Nearby opens with the arrival of a hundred pounds of apricots on the narrator’s doorstep—three big boxes of them delivered from a tree in her mother’s yard. The mother at this point has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her children—particularly the daughter-writer—are suffering the all-too-familiar trials of caregiving for an elderly parent, including finding her a new and secure home even as they prepare to sell the old one. “I thought of my mother as a book coming apart,” Solnit writes, “pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the page returning to pure white, a book disappearing from the back because the newest memories faded first, and nothing was being added.” As if the stress and strain of attending to a failing parent were not enough, Solnit herself receives a cancer diagnosis and he points out the many ways people undermine intimacy and often get tangled up in self-defeating, dysfunctional relationships. The only problem in this argument is that Buddhists are more interested in dissolving or altogether eliminating ego than making it more functional! While Amodeo’s sentiment is appealing, he doesn’t sufficiently take into account the differences between Eastern meditation and Western psychology. The latter aims to heal or at least improve relations (attachments) between people, while the former seeks to transcend desire through nonattachment. Psychological intimacy brings us closer to satisfying our ego desires—a better marriage, security, forgiveness. Buddhists, on the other hand, have their sights set on transcending life. I agree that meditators should not alienate themselves or avoid others using meditation, but augmenting a Buddhist practice with psychological techniques that emphasize somatic and emotional experience confuses spiritual and psychological paradigms by putting at odds their respective goals. Buddhists use meditation as a means of dissolving the subject-object relationship to experience samadhi, a state of pure awareness. Using this spiritual method, they seek to be liberated from this world of suffering. is suddenly propelled into what she laconically calls “my medical adventure.” The collapse of physical health long taken for granted lands her in “the country of the ill.”

The turning point in The Faraway Nearby comes with an unexpected invitation to visit Iceland. Yet the narrative takes considerable time in arriving there. Along the way, Solnit leads the reader across a wide range of subjects, including meditations on the nature of storytelling, the virtues of Buddhism, and the calamities now facing polar bears, just to name a few. Those readers who prefer that memoir take a less errant course in achieving its purposes may find these excursions distracting or even irrelevant. I for one did not, and as the author herself points out more than once, when it comes to the task of assaying one’s experience, “the route is seldom direct.”

Indeed, a kind of subterranean chapter runs across the bottom of the book’s pages, requiring the reader at the end to go back to the first page and follow this new thread across each of the book’s 259 pages. In both form and function, the essay that unfurls here serves as a poetic reprise of the book’s main themes.

As Solnit makes amply clear right from the start, “stories are compasses.” Our lives are guided by them, for good or for ill. Not only are happy endings unlikely, there may not be any endings at all, at least none that are clearcut. “Essayists too,” she reflects in the book’s closing pages, “face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea.” Again, some readers might find such open-endedness discomfiting. Others— and I include myself among this lot—take refuge in having a chance to try it all again, to bring the boat about toward open waters, and see what might be in the offing.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady is the author of Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature and Pilgrims to the Wild (both published by University of Utah Press). He lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.