Book Reviews 1992

-




Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics & Radical Teachings of Crazy-Wise Adepts, Holy Fools, & Rascal Gurus by Georg Feuerstein

This super book came just in time to offset the simultaneous arrival of one of those New Age "transformational holistic" publications replete with ads from neither crazy nor wise, but noisily self-pro claimed gurus offering their fast shortcuts to Beatitude at a discount.

Feuerstein's book is invaluable as a guide for the guru-bedeviled. It is remarkably erudite, rich in wisdom, or rather: delightfully sane. It traces the succession of holy fools and nutty adepts through India, Tibet, the Far East, medieval Europe, all the way to contemporary California. Masterly capsulate d, finely balanced descriptions of gurus of various plum age make for fascinating reading. They include contemporary-not to be underestimated-"rascal-gurus" like Gurdjieff and Rajneesh, the gifted alcoholic and womanizer adept Chogyam Trungpa, and the multi-faced Da Love Ananda, formerly known as Da Free John.

The latter, at first sigh t, seemed to have been allotted a bit too much space, but on second thought he seems worth it. Feuerstein's own experiences as his one-time disciple throws light on the contradictory alloys of profound insight, bizarre game playing, irresponsible Tantra-styled genitality, and a taste for, or at least an extraordinary tolerance of, idolization by a gurucentric community.

My only experience with a rascal guru, a country cousin of Gurdjieff, who was the dernier cri of the London counterculture of the thirties, came to an early end when his experimentation with his faithful, his unpredictable alternation of flattery with assaults on the human dignity of his devotees and the sexual shenanigans that were part of the cult, inspired me to find the exit. Ever since, I have been destined to continue my loner's quest for Meaning with out entrusting myself to the often all too eclectic, all too flawed wholesalers and retailers in the enlightenment trade.

Feuerstein's evocations of Da Love Ananda's holy circus almost made me kneel down to thank heaven for having put my trust in a very small number of exceptional books, instead of risking to be forced, as a vegetarian, to eat kidney stew for my own good, or to watch my beloved being initiated to the spirit in the Master's bed. Of course, I have had to listen to choruses of true believers intoning "Ah, but you can't get IT from books!" They may be right, but I decided to gamble on it, and - unless I deceive myself - found that by reading D. T. Suzuki's Essence of Buddhism, the Platform Sutra, Bankei's Sermons and the prologue of St. John's Gospel a few hundred times and reflecting on these for a few decades what is the hurry?- one may catch a glimpse of the Guru Within without being befuddled by the trickeries of the empirical ego.

Could it be that this Guru With in is none other than that Specifically Human of which the Buddha spoke as that "Unborn," that "unconditioned Something (or No-thing) without which all that is born and conditioned in us could not be overcome"?

Ramakrishna and Aurobindo, as Feuerstein points out at the end of this extremely readable book, acknowledged and stimulated a sense of communication between themselves and their disciples, never hesitating to admit their own hum an shortcomings, conscientiously avoiding to violate anyone's integrity, talent, and dignity. Masters of their authenticity seem to be fully aware of the relatedness of the Self -the divine principle-with our finite nature in its process of becoming integrated, liberated from all the auto- deceptions the empirical ego is prone to.

Ramana Maharshi, like Bankei, was such a teacher despite himself; the spiritually starved flocked to him by the thousands for nurture, and found their own core of supreme sanity.

There is no doubt that those who have attained the ultimate realization can be of help to us confused mortals. That in their compassion they would refuse bestowing their blessings on those still suffering, still imprisoned in delusion, is as inconceivable as that they would seek to surround themselves with neurotic devotees.

A new approach to transcending the delusions of the individual and of the even more dangerous in-group ego, is obviously urgently needed. Beyond all doubt the first stirrings of a spirituality that is a radical thrust to the really Real, are becoming perceptible. The all too long ignored reality of the relatedness and interdependence of all beings is rising into our awareness, clarifying our actual place in the fabric of the cosmic Whole. There is nothing to realize but the Real…

In the immense political, ecological, demographic, and economic upheavals of our world the eccentricities of holy fools cavorting among us mortals appear curiously anachronistic. Feuerstein agrees that they are indeed "relics of an archaic spirituality" and that sooner or later they will be replaced by a more integrated approach to self-transcendence, "sustained by teachers who place their personal growth and integrity above the compulsion to teach others and who value compassion and humor above all histrionics." Holy Madness is one of those books "one cannot put down," but it is more than that: it belongs in a prominent spot on one's shelves for future reference.
-FREDERICK FRANCK

Spring 1992


BIOSPHERE POLITICS: A New Consciousness for a New Century, by Jeremy Rifkin; Crown Publishers, New York. 1991; paperback.

Lobbyist and lecturer Jeremy Rifkin , an articulate and aggressive advocate of environmental protection, described technology as a destroyer endangering the local, regional, and global ecosystems during decades when humanity has become severed from life-sustaining nature.

Forging a new environmental ethic upon the anvil of ecological necessity, Rifkin resounds with a righteous indignation when he complains quite correctly that senseless and unreasoned rapine has brought Planet Earth perilously close to irreparable disaster. His complaint emanates from his perceptive observation that has now become commonplace, an awareness that the industrialized West has severed itself from unsullied nature.

The author locates several specific causes for this impending catastrophe. Rifkin contends convincingly that the Roman Catholic Church's concept of purgatory legitimized and ultimately encouraged the development of usury. Without the threat of eternal damnation, moneylending became a thriving enterprise. Capitalism, he contends, ensued. Modernizing tendencies followed a characteristic modus operandi during the enclosure movement that commenced in England during the fifteenth century and persisted on the continent into the eighteenth century. Under this system, commons land became fenced in an attempt to pro vide pasture for grazing sheep; newly dispossessed peasants were forced onto the roads to congregate among the homeless. Rifkin argues that under such systems, land, sea, and air are relegated as marketable commodities. The author indicts John Locke, Rene Descartes, and Francis Bacon who "promised future generations that greater consumption-material progress-would mean greater personal security. Instead we find ourselves more isolated and less secure-at war with the environment, at odds with our fellow human beings, and without an alternative approach to securing ourselves in the world."

Although Rifkin's causal reasoning becomes fuzzy and his causes might be simply symptoms for an even greater social dislocation, he paints a vivid and alarming picture describing ecological disaster. More than acting as a prophet pronouncing gloom and doom, he envisions a possible future in which humans attain a new developmental stage of consciousness and "reparticipate with nature out of an act of love and free will, rather than out of fear and despondency. "Rifkin imagines a time when nature becomes "resacralized" and humans discover themselves "secure in the fulness of their grounding inside the biosphere."

Biosphere Politics describes a new consciousness capable of bringing a beleaguered humanity into balance with nature and advances a much needed understanding of how homo sapiens can halt the mindless race toward disaster. Rifkin sketches a hope-imparting and inspiriting scenario in which the human community secures sufficient food, shelter, and comfort while simultaneously restoring a broken balance with the natural environment.
-DANIEL ROSS CHANDLER

Spring 1992


ON A SPACESHIP WITH BEELZEBUB By a Grandson of Gurdjieff, by David Kherdian; Globe Press. New York. 1991; paper.

Groups promoting psychological and spiritual development outside of conventional organizations have been the subject of media scrutiny for years. In groups often referred to as cults, the sometimes abusive methods and megalomaniacal behavior of the leaders of such groups make sensational news even up to the present day. Let the seeker beware is sound advice indeed to anyone looking for guidance on the spiritual path. A person embarking upon psychological development, however, should be prepared to work without a safety net. For almost everyone's inner world holds surprising, even shocking, revelations for one who studies himself in earnest.

Those who are gullible and psychologically shaky can be hurt because they tend to become victims of their own tendencies to be led and to seek security and reassurance from those robed in authority. When the Gurdjieff teaching is properly applied, blind faith is understood to be a liability; inner growth depend s upon taking responsibility for oneself.

The Gurdjieff work, called The Fourth Way, can be briefly described as a system of psychology used to study the mechanisms behind one's attitudes and behavior and the methods used to work free of automatic reaction s to stimuli, events, and fantasies by efforts to increase one's capacity for self-awareness and the exercise of will.

This system was introduced in the West in the early twentieth century by G. I. Gurdjieff. Fourth Way theory has been explained in Gurdjieff’s writings as well as those of his student. P. D. Ouspensky, and others. Ouspensky was an eminent journalist, mathematician, and cosmologist whose The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution remains the most concise and systematic exposition of the subject. Many Fourth Way groups are still to be found throughout the Americas and Europe. Whatever their differences, their adherents all claim to be grounded in the teachings of Gurdjieff.

In the first part of the book, David Kherdian describes the development of his poetic talent and his marriage to Nonny Hogrogian, his second wife, who immediately began to fill a large emotional void in his life. In spite of their fortunate lives, the couple felt an acute spiritual hunger. Their discovery of the Gurdjieff system initiated years of work, first in connection with the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York directed by Lord Pentland . After disenchantment with that group, they went to study under Annie Lou Staveley, who had set up a school on a farm in Oregon. Most of the book is devoted to their inner journey, emotional trials, and rewards over several years in the seventies with Ms. Staveley's group. The author demonstrates how his literary skills and insights unfolded together with increased self-awareness.

Kherdian refers to himself as "a grandson of Gurdjieff" in the sense that he is a generation removed from Gurdjieff’s direct teaching. In addition to describing the inner workings of a Fourth Way group, the book traces the footsteps of spiritual seekers into experimental group living situations in the seventies.

Kherdian’s contribution to the literature of contemporary spiritual endeavors is a courageously candid account of his own effort s to chart his weaknesses and build upon the potentials manifested in his being. He is as forthright about both the strengths and shortcomings of the teachers and fellow pupils as he is about his own. The reader is given a balanced account of Fourth Way methods because the writer maintained his own balance throughout his experiences.

The author describes how he benefited from his group because he took it as a school that prepared him to take an active part in life again and not as a safe haven for the world-weary. Persons who leave various esoteric and religious groups are often condemned in the eyes of their former brethren to wander the world like Cain. Ouspensky advised his pupils to take the meaning of a school simply: a place to learn something. To overcome not only anxiety about how to act in a group but also fear of leaving its shelter once one knows in one's heart that it has served its purpose -these together constitute for many one of the major lessons to be learned from a group situation. Courage, my heart, take leave and heal yourself (Hermann Hesse).

The Gurdjieff work has much to do with realigning one's ideas about suffering. Our attachments and negative attitudes bring us much unnecessary suffering, which we are strangely loathe to give up. A certain kind of suffering is required for conscious development, but most of us come to the work to escape at least one form of it, that is, we want to be free from whatever we find hard to accept about ourselves and thus to reach internal rest. We can find our way to the quiet place within in moments whenever we can detach our sense of identity from whatever may be stimulating us or weighing us down at the moment. As Kherdian realized, however, the self-knowledge that we achieve brings more suffering than we expected. By accepting our flaws without an undue sense of tragedy, we can come to recognize them as shoals, around which we must learn to pilot. Then we can get on with living with purpose and a better sense of who and where we are without the unnecessary burden of overweening self-preoccupation.

According to Kherdian, he and Nonny were among the few to realize that the farm in Oregon provided a means to practice the work and not to found a permanent community. Some members of the group saw the farm as a place to make their stand against the social and cultural values of their parents' generation. Mean s and ends are so often confused in group work. Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14) needs to be a constant reminder.

Kherdian build s dramatic tension as he tells his story with both substance and narrative skill. His book deserves to take its place among the most informative and even-handed accounts published by those who have journeyed on any of numerous branches of the path to inner growth and self-understanding.
-WALTER SCHEER

Spring 1992


Sacred Paths: Essays on Wisdom, Love and Mystical Realization by Georg Feuerstein; Larson Publications, Burdett, NY, 1991; paperback.

Sacred Paths consists of twenty-six essays of penetrating insight into the human condition, including practical guidance on perspectives, attitudes, and practices capable of effecting fundamental transformation of that condition. Georg Feuerstein is a longtime student of the ancient tradition of yoga who has tested and proven many of the principles and practices of yoga in his own life. Here is a book with considerable historical and theoretical information, thus providing a broad context for understanding the varied forms of yoga. Even more important, given the widespread anomie and degeneracy of our age, the book offers a variety of proven methods for not just improving the human condition but for transforming it into its most transcendent possibilities.

The author uses the word yoga to mean a spiritual discipline that aims at union between the lower or embodied self and the transcendental Self. The common Western use of the term to mean bodily postures or, even more mistakenly, physical exercise represents an extreme distortion of the great range and depth of yogic form s. After discussing briefly the common thrust of all forms of yoga and the philosophies that stand behind them, Feuerstein gives an overview of the channels by which yoga has been transmitted to the West. He then introduces several of the more important classic texts and presents some of the findings of modern science in its attempt to unravel the mysteries of yoga.

The heart of the book lies in its treatment of the spiritual disciplines that lead to union. Three chapters present the paths of wisdom, action, and loving devotion. Another three treat the contribution of Patanjali, the second-century author of the Yoga Sutra, one of the most important of all yoga texts. Here the author undertakes a fascinating, imaginary interview with Patanjali in which the latter clarifies and expands on the 195 aphorisms that make up his work. Hatha yoga is sometimes mistakenly limited to body postures (asanas), the topic of one chapter in the book. Feuerstein shows convincingly that Hatha yoga is essentially a spiritual tradition, with connections to tantra and kundalini yoga. The latter topic is developed more fully in an interview between the author and Lee Sannella, who recently published a book on the subject. Two additional chapters take up path s centering in light and geometric visualization.

In separate chapters Feuerstein addresses purification, meditation, silence, and nonharming (ahimsa). Two chapters present a refreshingly sane view of sexuality, focusing on what the author calls "sacramental sexuality." The relevance of yoga to ecology, death, immortality, and freedom is explored. The final chapter contrasts the Dark Age (Kali-yuga) of Hinduism with more optimistic Western interpretations. The author individualizes the sweeping theories by concluding: "We can embody either the dark actualities of our age or its luminous potential. The choice is always ours."

Feuerstein's flowing and lucid style makes Sacred Paths a joy to read. The exceptionally fine index encourages frequent return to the book for refreshing one's memory. In sum, this is a work of exceptional breadth and balance that reveals, by means of factual information, insightful interpretation, and practical counsel, the relevance of the thought and practice of India to the conditions of contemporary Westerns.
-JAMES E. ROYSTER. PH.D.

Summer 1992


Food for Solitude: Menus and Meditations to Heal Body, Mind and Soul by Francine Schill; Element, 1992; paper.

Have you ever wondered what the Dalai Lama would tell you about being alone? Are you curious about what David Spangler, Gloria Steinem, David Steindl-Rast, and Gloria Vanderbilt have in common while in solitude? Did you know that Joseph Campbell meditated on the Tarot while swimming? Do you want to know about Mother Serena's experience of the inner rainbow; interested in William Irwin Thompson's thoughts about eating Light; and what about Leonard Nimoy on "tapping the center" or Nancy Ross Wilson on "being breathed"?

These are just some of the savory interview tidbits from among the host of contemporary voices in Francine Schiff's Food for Solitude. Quickly scanned, the book is an afternoon's enchantment of personal conversation and spiritual comradery - an aperitif to stimulate the appetite for a nourishing solitude practice of one's own. Slowly savored, the book provides a feast , each chapter urging on the contemplative instinct for the creation of a soul-satisfying recipe of one's own.

The text rests on the principle that "Solitude is an attitude,"

an attitude of gratitude. It is a state of mind, a state of heart, a whole universe unto itself. The early contemplatives in all traditions knew this secret of happiness. The anchorites and hermits and saints and mystics always knew that being alone was the greatest gift. And whether or not we sit upon mountain tops or kitchen stools, whether we seek sacred ashrams or simply stir the soup, the message is the same. For what does it mean to be alone, if not to be all one. To be who you are already-in your deepest self, to be happy. (p. xv)

Best of all, Schiff, like a fine host, encourages us to enjoy ourselves, to eat heartily and drink deeply at solitude's banquet. And for those of us uninitiated or more timid in the practice, with personal anecdote and charming whimsy she cultivates an easy confidence in our capacity to be alone with ourselves.

The text is not meant to be a definitive exploration of solitude experiences, indeed her highly varied and eclectic cast of notables might be irksome to those more accustomed to lineage and precise metaphysics. Instead, in response to the query, "What is your food for solitude?" the simple and direct voices of the seekers interviewed by Schiff offer a rare opportunity to resonate with the variety of human preferences in, thro ugh, about, and around, what we choose as nourishment in times of solitude. Avoiding pedagogy and vegetarian polemics, and skirting the obvious "you are what you eat" platitudes, Food for Solitude provides personally revealing reflections and good practical advice from some very remarkable people on how to be "alone," but not alone.

Like good garnish, the inevitable word-plays and subtleties of metaphor possible around the language of food, feeding, spiritual growth and inner nourishment, provide a pleasing presentation for the solitude menus and musings Schiff culled from her many conversations. From recipes for basic soups and breads, and even hermit "treats," to more specialized advice for a "Dinner Party for One," to instructions for nurturing right-brain processes, the reflections by Schiff, et al., provide memorable menus for a balanced life. There are included meditations, table prayers, even a shopping list for the well-supplied hermitage, and best of all, the personal testimony of 45 diverse practitioners on the fruits of solitude, each a famous and well-fed mystic in their own right.

Like a good cookbook, the text is appealing in format, with an abundance of handsome mandalas and generous wide margins. Space aplenty for the accomplished practitioner to adjust the recipes to personal preference. It is the sort of book one buys in multiple copies. A copy to give to friends who have not yet cultivated a taste for solitude -in the hope they are inspired to try it. A copy to give to those who are already familiar with its beneficial properties-with new possibilities and fresh ideas for their practice. And of course, a copy to keep - in readiness for whatever it is that needs cooking in one's own kitchen.

Finally, if there is a frustration. it is one common to most cookbooks – the more subtle ingredients take some searching out. Solitude in our prevailing American culture is a precious commodity requiring a dedicated practice. Food for Solitude provides an engaging resource. Francine Schiff is to be congratulated for finding this incredible diversity of solitude practitioners. Although the voices of the contemporary celebrities collected here are well annotated, the seasoned spice of older voices of other times and places generously sprinkled throughout the text are not so clearly referenced. But enough clues are given for the persistent practitioner to track down the essentials, and to realize that one and all, we are meant to relish solitude. Its food is our finest birthright and our deepest communion. As Francine her self quoted Nancy Wilson Ross:

We venerate all the great teachers
And we are thankful for this food
The works of many other people
And the suffering and sharing
of other forms of life. (p. 48)

-GABRIELE UHLEIN

Summer 1992


The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas; Harmony Books, New York, 1991; hardcover.

Where are we, Daddy? How did we get here? What are we to do?- our first profound questions, and, for most of us with interests in the transpersonal, questions we still earnestly ask. Richard Tarnas seeks answers to all of these and more in The Passion of the Western Mind, and, more often than not, succeeds spectacularly in providing a response that is at least provocative and hopeful if not an outright guide to salvation.

The "where we are," as Tarnas describes it, is in troubled postmodern times, caught in a cosmic double-bind between the inner craving for a life of meaning and the relentless attrition of existence in a cosmos that our rational scientific world view has assured us is empty, dead, devoid of all purpose. "How we got here" forms the body of Tarnas' work: a concise yet comprehensive account of the entire span of Western thought, from Plato and before, through early Christianity and the many permutations of the Christian-Hellenic synthesis of the Middle Ages, to the birth and transformation of the modern era through the world- shattering projects of Copernicus, Galilee, and Descartes, and, finally, to the postmodern apocalypse culminating in the systematic stripping away of certainty, soul, and sanity. This part of the book, which could have been as dry and debilitating as a sophomore seminar, is instead an exciting read, a page-burner of a mythic novel. Our history is, after all, the story of the Hero's Quest, with all that high drama – and with the inevitable Hero's tragic flaw. How that flaw is part of the solution as well as part of the problem is resolved in the exciting conclusion of Tarnas' story.

"What are we to do?" It is the great gift of this book that we are not left to sink in the postmodern morass, but are invited - indeed almost compelled by logical and visionary necessity-to recognize that there is an underlying pattern to all this, an archetypal pattern , and a method of archetypal analysis, synthesis, and above all experience, that points to the coming of a new world to which we are not alien but , rather, are fully inspired participants in its formation. Tarnas finds the clearest expression of this underlying archetypal world structure in the work of consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof, whose thirty years of investigation with psychedelics and other depth psychological techniques (i.e., holotropic breathwork) have revealed a four stage sequence of birth experience that has the most profound resonance on physical, psychological, religious, and physical levels. (In addition to his Harvard degree and Ph.D. in psychology, Tarnas was for ten years director of programs at Esalen Institute and Dr. Grof's next door neighbor, friend, and collaborator.) I will leave it to Rick's extended argument to prove to you the efficacy of the perinatal matrix as the "new paradigm" we have all been seeking. Convinced or not, you will surely add richness and complexity to your understanding of transpersonal issues.

Tarnas' conclusions will surely be criticized, misused - even abused. For example. they are subject to the lukewarm embrace of the reductivist: "Hmm, we all do go through a birth process; maybe he's right that coming through the birth canal preconditions human experience." or they may receive cavalier dismissal by scientific fundamentalists as "based on the ravings of the LSD-crazed." That the archetypal pattern revealed in the perinatal matrix underlies both mind and world, and thus unites them, requires an act of recognition that perhaps only the transpersonally experienced can accomplish with ease. However, on the whole Tarnas argues persuasively, and I urge you to encounter that argument. Particularly if you are somewhat new to these ideas, you must read this book to have any notion of what transpersonal psychology is truly about, and where it is destined to lead.

The Passion of the Western Mind is well placed to get a hearing in academic and professional circles as well as to become a hit with the educated public. It is a book that could truly make a difference. We in the transpersonal movement should , especially, take it to heart.

Note: I first heard the material that comprises the epilogue of The Passion of the Western Mind as a speech given at the 1990 "Cycles and Symbols" conference in San Francisco, where psychotherapists and professional astrologers gathered for the first time together to explore similarities in their disciplines and to jointly participate in presentations by Tarnas and Grof as well as other prominent astrologers and therapists. Tarnas brought the crowd roaring to its feet, both through the depth and breadth of his vision, and because he added to the written version an explicit encouragement to astrologers. (After all, if the "astrological premise"-that the movements of the heavens are correlated with human action-is verified, then the postmodern dilemma vanishes.) I for one am looking forward to further exciting developments from the Tarnas-Grof collaboration.
-BOB CRAFT

Summer 1992


Being-in-Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerer's World by Florinda Donner; Harper San Francisco. 1991; hardcover.


Lila: An Inquiry into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig; Bantam. 1991; hardcover.

Reading Donner and Pirsig is uncannily like slipping into a time warp and rematerializing back in the mid 19705 without the least thread of identity remaining from the 1990s. Pirsig, an unknown philosophical iconoclast, stamped the 1970s with his quirky, passionate Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. a desperate inquiry into the nature of Quality as father and son motorcycle across the country; then he lasped into public silence for 17 years with-- almost unprecedented in hyperbolic, celebrity-idolizing America --no sequel, no talk shows, no follow-up. Donner, a German woman born in Venezuela and author of two previous neo-shamanic narratives, took initiation from the legendary Carlos Castaneda (and his guru, Don Juan Matus) twenty years ago, and his presence looms powerfully if enigmatically in this dreaming-awake chronicle of life in a house of Sonoran “sorcerers and witches” way beyond the confines of consensual reality. We're virtually back with Castaneda and his ontologically elusive Mexican cabal of shape-shifters and wind-born shamans as if the Yuppie 1980s had never happened. It's not a rerun either; it's grippingly fresh, as if it never stopped and we're only now re-establishing our attention after a long distraction. But since most of Donner's narrative takes place in the dreamtime, which is an atemporal virtual reality in which perception is completely manipulable, it doesn't matter at all.

That 's precisely what Pirsig and Donner/Castaneda are on about in these new books: manipulating perception, breaking free of the somnambulant bonds of ordinary, physical reality, “expanding the limits of normal perception and breaking the agreement that has defined reality,” as Donner puts it. Their strategy is to dissolve consensus reality, to “break that frail blanket of human assumptions,” that “culturally determined construct” called reality, to gain self mastery, to dream-awake into the detachment of silent knowledge and intent, to finally walk into the vastness of unbounded freedom.

Pirsig has high goals, too. He's looking for the philosophical basis of morality and for the cutting edge of Dynamic Quality, the spontaneous, unpatterned response to life. Pirsig’s narrator, Phaedrus, has been about as far as the Western philosophical agreement about reality allows one: insanity and institutionalization. Insanity is freedom, a heresy, an illegal value pattern, the end of role playing, an uncorroborable culture of one, argues Pirsig. But if sanity is culturally defined as the ability to see reality in a set way, “a geography of religious beliefs shows that this external reality can be just about any damn thing.” After all, the Balinese definition of a madman is “someone who, like an American, smiles when there is nothing to smile at.”

That's a fair description for the perceptually inconclusive adventures beyond the reality principle in which Donner, Castaneda, and company spend most of their time in quest of the sorcerer's profound freedom: to be awake in dreaming. They're inconclusive because neither Donner nor the reader ever gets quite enough explanation, but that's probably part of the initiation. This is far more than lucid dreaming; there are no psychedelic drugs, no ETs speaking through channels -just self-mastery. It 's more akin to the Alcheringa, or Dreamtime, of the Australian Aborigines, an intensely fluid, creative, world-making energetic domain where consciousness and manifestation co-exist seamlessly.

The young Donner is an anthropology graduate student at UCLA when she meets her dream sisters and Castaneda somewhere in Sonora, Mexico in 1970. She'd heard of the hermitic, dangerous Castaneda, but maybe wasn't too well versed on his sorcery of philosophy. Her taste in reading was more likely Vanity Fair than Journey to Ixtlan, and anyway, Donner thinks she is a liberated, smart American woman who doesn't need magicians. She just wants her chronic nightmares to go away. Her female cohorts strenuously try to convince her that women a priori are the slaves of men and male culture, they're “befogged by sex,” wasting their true power which lies in the tremendous potency and organic disposition to dream from the womb.

Between the band of dreamers, stalkers, and naguals, they skillfully divest Donner of all her presumptions about femininity, time, space, linearity, identity, and consciousness. They deftly play on her emotional reactivity like an electric piano and toss her about from ordinary waking consciousness to dreaming-awake adventures with such facility that she never knows where she is, and usually gets it backwards when she tries to guess. Identity is a hall of mirrors; time-space is a mutable fiction. Her principal teacher, Zuleica, has two other distinct dream selves, one of each gender, Castaneda is also called Joe Cortez, Charlie Spider, and Isidor Balthazar; even Don Juan has a couple aliases. It's an utterly unreliable, unpredictable, unsettling magic show on the other side of the daily world, a metaphysical cartoon entertainment, a Gilbert and Sullivan romp on the astral plane. Paradoxically, it all usefully confuses, edifies, even agitates us with relevance and glimpses of “other possibilities” outside of time and culture, something that won't leave us alone until we attain it ourselves.

Philosophy and sorcery are metaphysical siblings, says Donner. They're both “highly sophisticated forms of abstract knowledge,” and philosophers are “intellectual sorcerers.” Except that the sorcerer goes one step further than the philosopher by acting on his findings, and except that philosophers on the whole uphold the social order even if they don't agree with it-in short, they are sorcerers manqué; they might have been, but missed it, says Donner. That's largely true of Pirsig, whose passionately, intelligently-reasoned inquiry into what he calls the Metaphysics of Dynamic Quality as an intellectual basis for twentieth-century morality is somewhat stale and uncarbonated after Donner's effervescent dream jinks.

Pirsig wisely copies the successful literary structure of personalized Platonic dialogue in the context of a vividly realized road trip that worked so marvelously in his first book. Now it's not motorcycles but a yacht sailboat which he plies in solitary contemplation from Lake Superior through inland waterways to the Hudson River and down to the “Giant” at its mouth, New York City. Pirsig interrupts his philosophical ruminations and nearly ruins his reclusive lifestyle when he picks up and beds a “ bar lady” named Lila. It' s a flamboyant mismatch: Sherlock Holmes and Mae West arguing about dinner and existence on the Hudson. She's sexy, hostile, broke, and on the edge of insanity -not his type, surely, yet the perfect living, suffering, perplexing question mark he needs to have tossed disruptively into his neat stacks of 11,000 index cards filled with his thoughts on Victorian morality, static quotidian patterns versus spontaneous dynamism, the dead -end of anthropology, culturally static immune systems, a Peyote sweat lodge in Wyoming, the dialectic of native American Indian mysticism and European formalism in the American psyche, and his twenty-year search for the Good.

Regrettably, Pirsig's philosophy is far less engaging than his passionate narrative presence. Phaedrus is a character from Plato's dialogues and maybe the issues of Platonism in general are a little boring today. Pirsig's prose is vigorous and taut his story-line innately compelling, but the long excursions into the Metaphysics of Quality are more often tedious, digressive, and inconsequential than vita l. His specific inquiry is less riveting than the sheer energy and presence he imparts through his inquiry. Pirsig's Phaedrus is inquiry incarnate and this is irresistibly exciting. That he asks, and invites us livingly into his asking, that the energy and persistence of his inquiry is so alive and precious - that's the dynamic quality of his metaphysics, not his final revelation that Good is a noun. And anyway, it's probably all made up, a fictional conceit to serve a philosophical purpose.

Just because Donner says she's a blond-haired, blue-eyed attractive, intelligent anthropology student at UCLA doesn't mean anything. She could be another dream self of Castaneda. He's so protean he may have ghost-written, or dictated it while dreaming-awake. Many readers think “Castaneda” himself was made up by another writer. In a recent interview Pirsig admitted that Phaedrus, Lila, Richard Rigel (an antagonist in Lila), even the yacht, “is really me.” Lila is blond-haired and blue-eyed, too, and if Richard Rigel hadn't whisked her off for institutionalization again, she could have taken just one more step and have been “out of hell forever,” free of the cultural straitjacket of static patterns and “the righteousness of the sane.”

So both Pirsig and Donner-whether they're sorcerer-manqué in a river-faring yacht or sorcerer-nagual in a white Chevy van- have crafted for us a plausible cover story for a profound philosophical intent: the existential domain of pure freedom and some signposts on reaching it along the way. And for voracious readers accustomed to disappointment in each year's harvest of new books, it's gratifying, even nourishing, to encounter Pirsig and Donner/ Castaneda again, emerging from that time warp absolutely untainted by the new age narcissistic excesses of the 1980s and the profound uncertainties of the 1990s and bearing messages worth heeding.
-RICHARD LEVITON

Autumn 1992


How Like an Angel Came I Down: Conversations with Children on the Gospels By A. Bronson Alcott, introduced and edited by Alice O. Howell; Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, NY, 1991; paperback.


The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles; Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1990; hardcover.

Gentle Reader (to begin as books often began in Bronson Alcott 's day), you are holding in your hands a most precious and extraordinary book, truly an America n heirloom, which has almost vanished from our ken. Yet, if its time to resurface is right, it may well affect you as profoundly as it did me when it fell into my hand s. I cannot imagine anyone 's attitude toward children not being altered by the perusal of this work. And I can imagine the child in us wishing wistfully, “Oh, that I might have had a teacher like Mr. Alcott!” Alice O. Howell, in the introduction to How like An Angel Came I Down.

This remarkable book of Bronson Alcott's “conversations with children on the gospels” is edited and abridged from two volumes originally published in 1836 and 1837. Nevertheless, it reveals Alcott as nothing less than a depth psychologist 150 years ahead of his time, a perennial philosopher par excellence.

Alcott was a Transcendentalist who contended that “besides the combative Catholic and Protestant elements in the Churches, there has always been a third element, with very honourable traditions, which came to life again at the Renaissance, but really reaches back to the Greek fathers, to St. Paul and St. John, and further back still.”

This “third element” is the ageless wisdom that lies often obscured at the center of all the great religious and philosophical traditions both Eastern and Western. It is the Theosophy re-presented by H. P. Blavatsky later in the nineteenth century, and re-presented again by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy. It comes to us in many garbs, in many times and places, but its core element remains always the same.

As Alcott wrote, this is


... a spiritual religion based on a firm belief in absolute and eternal values as the most real things in the universe –a confidence that these values are knowable by man– a belief that they can nevertheless be known only by wholehearted consecration of the intellect, will, and affect ions to the great quest –an entirely open mind towards the discoveries of science– a reverent and receptive attitude to the beauty , sublimity and wisdom of the creation, as a revelation of the mind and character of the Creator –a complete indifference to the current valuations of the worldling.

Alice O. Howell, an analytical astrologer and counselor who has taught Jungian analysts, has provided a splendid introduction to this book.

The free-ranging conversations in Alcott's class were not scripted; he said on the first day of his class that he did not know what he would say, nor the children what they would say, but that something wonderful, wise, new, and fresh may come up.  And many wonderful, wise, new, and fresh things did indeed come up. The depth of these children’s responses to their reading of the life of Christ is a marvel, evoked by Alcott's genuine interest in the children and his willingness not to impose an understanding on their reading of the life of Jesus and the values by which we seek to live our lives in response to that exemplary life.

The Alcott book is a wonderful companion to Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children. Coles, too, recounts his own conversations with children on spiritual matters, revealing a depth of insight by young people of which adults today are largely unaware. More than a century and a half after Alcott, Coles has, like Alcott, made himself a real friend of children, someone to whom they can truly express themselves, revealing the feelings and thoughts at the very center of their experience of life.
-WILLIAM METZGER

Autumn 1992


The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott; Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1991; paperback.

Susan Murcott turned to Buddhism in adulthood because, she says, the Christian tradition in which she had been raised did not affirm that women could attain the highest religious truth, nor did it give women equal opportunity to serve as priests and teachers. When Murcott came across a 1909 English translation of the Therigatha by Caroline Rhys Davids in the library at the University of Melbourne, she realized that she had found a feminist spiritual treasure. The Therigatha is a collection of seventy-three enlightenment poems written by Buddhist nuns of the sixth century 8.C.E., contemporaries of the historical Buddha. It demonstrates, Murcott says, “that women have the capacity to realize and understand the highest religious goals of their faith in the same roles and to the same degrees as men.”

Murcott's translation from Pali into contemporary English and her commentary on the Therigatha were clearly both, as she says, “a labor of love” and a powerful feminist statement. In Buddhism, Murcott notes, women have the right to form celibate communities, teach, be ordained and ordain, preach, and gather disciples. In the opening chapter, Murcott recounts that Ananda had to ask the Buddha three times to permit women to join the sangha. However, in granting them permission, Buddha affirmed that women as well as men can “realize perfection.” or attain supreme enlightenment. Thus from the beginning, Murcott says, the Buddhist tradition acknowledged that women and men were “spiritual equals.”

Murcott's study of the poems is not simply a translation of text from one language to another. Rather it is a transference -an attempt to communicate to Western readers the sense and the spirit of the poems. Unlike the original manuscript, in which the poems were arranged according to the number of stanzas (Murcott says this arrangement was probably a mnemonic aid when the poems were part of the oral tradition), the poems are grouped into chapters based on the roles and relationships of the women. Murcott surrounds the poems with biographies and stories about the women to whom the poems are attributed, drawn from a fifth-century commentary to the Therigatha.

In the chapter “Friends and Sisters,” for example, Murcott tells the story of Vijaya, a woman from a humble back ~ground who became a nun because her dear friend Khema had become one. In the poem attributed to her, Vijaya recounts a night during which she left her cell “four or five times,” unable to achieve “control over mind.” Finally she sought the help of another nun, who taught her “the faculties, the powers, the seven qualities of enlightenment and the eightfold way.” Following her sister-nun's advice, Vijaya returns to her meditation, until she achieves at last the “peace of mind” she had been seeking:

In the first watch of the night,
I remembered I had been born before.
In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night
I to re apart
the great dark.

Vijaya's poem is thus a testimony to both a woman's capacity to achieve enlightenment and to the importance of other women as teachers and helpers on the spiritual path.

Perhaps the most dramatic and arresting poems in the book are contained in the chapter “Prostitutes, Courtesans, & Beautiful Women.” In her introduction to the chapter, Murcott recalls the long tradition of tension between male celibate monks and beautiful, sensual women. Early Buddhist art, Murcott says, contains many images of women as temptresses, who represent the world of sexuality, birth, and rebirth, through which a renunciate monk must pass before reaching enlightenment. However, the poems collected in this chapter stand this cliché on its head. Here the beautiful women speak for themselves and recount their own struggles to transcend the realm of samsara and reach ultimate spiritual development.

One of the most powerful poems expressing this theme is attributed to a prostitute named Vimala. In it, she recounts her transformation from a stance of egoism and anger to one of renunciation and true freedom:

Young
intoxicated by my own
lovely skin…
I despised other women.
Dressed to kill…
I was a hunter
and spread my snare for fools…
Today'
head shaved,
robed,
alms-wanderer,
I, my same self,
sit at the tree's foot;
no thought.

Murcott's book will be appreciated by Buddhist women and, indeed, by all people on a spiritual path. The emotional clarity and intensity of these songs of enlightenment is truly timeless. Reading them is to feel an overwhelming sense of kinship and sister hood with women seekers who have gone before.
-BRENDA ROSEN

Autumn 1992


Unconditional Life: Mastering the Forces that Shape Personal Reality by Deepak Chopra, M.D.; Bantam, 1991.

Deepak Chopra, described in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly as one of the
most popular practitioners and authors in the “wholeness school of health,” assumes in Unconditional Life a positive attitude that does not discredit other approaches to the treatment of disease processes and patients' various health complaints.

Chopra's fields of medical practice are alternative medicine and endocrinology. He maintains that complete healing depends upon the individual's ability to “stop struggling.”  This is exemplified throughout the book, which in essence is a collection of narrative passages taken from case histories of his own patients and some of his colleagues' patients. One anecdote flows casually into another, frequently with dialogues on the mind-body approach which Chopra applies to his cancer patients, patients with so-called incurable diseases or injuries, and others suffering from personality problems.

Aside from his medical training, Chopra is a highly perceptive and not ably sensitive practitioner who feels the pain of his patient s and empathizes with their reactions to their own suffering. The reader gets the feeling that Chopra suffers along with his patients, yet exhibits control over each conference-room interaction. His writing is lightened and enhanced by frequent quotations from great literary figures of the past such as Tagore, Wordsworth, Thoreau, Tennyson, Frost, and Yeats.

Having grown up in New Delhi and having been educated in both India and the United States, Chopra is able to apply both Eastern and Western modes of healing and of interrelating the healing of the emotions and the spirit with the restoration of physical well-being or improvement of status.

Chopra recommends meditation to his patients, and he himself practices Transcendental Meditation. He states that in English the “classic description” of meditation is in the writings of William Wordsworth in poems such as “Tintern Abbey.” He attributes the healing of many patients to their having engaged in meditation over a period of years. He finds that in addition the showering of “loving attention” on a wound, even for muscle regeneration, can bring astonishingly favorable results.

Chopra devotes sufficient space to the Bhagavad-Gita to introduce the central dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna to Westerners unfamiliar with this classic, and to define significant Sanskrit terms. He devotes a passage to yoga as one means to search for the knower and to become liberated from pain and suffering. Chopra is cognizant of the problems that people in the Western world have in accepting such ideas as that there is life in everything. His own explanation is that the same stream of life once flowed through every thing. Thus, we should no t be skeptical about mysterious forces functioning in healing.

Always, to Chopra, the patient is capable of making a choice. Through exercises, patients can learn to control their thoughts of fear and anxiety, so that they concentrate on the space between thoughts and seeing past their problems. Early in his practice, Chopra began to observe in his office patients in whom physical and mental states had become severely “disjointed.” This fragmented state, says Chopra, seems to be best alleviated through the use of meditation. He continually accepts pain and suffering as real, stating that many of his patients have been to other doctors before being referred to him and have been subjected to negative approaches to health care.

Readers should find this book fascinating and will gain new insight into disease manifestations and the alleviation of pain and suffering. It is rare to find a book on the subject of disease written in lay person terms throughout that is also compelling from beginning to end.
-MARY JANE NEWCOMB

Winter 1992


Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth by Steven McFadden; Bear & Company, Santa Fe, NM, 1991; paper.

Coincident with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas, Time magazine lamented the loss of a vast wisdom tradition in a feature called “Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge.” It also noted the dearth of scholars willing to document the remaining cultures around the world, which are facing the destruction of their natural habitats as well as their tribal existence.

In synchronous concern, author Steven McFadden addresses the same causal forces, such as our separation from the earth and misuse of techno logy, but with a remedial approach. Profiles in Wisdom : Native Elders Speak About the Earth is a series of vignettes on indigenous America ns who speak about these issues and the spiritual influences in their lives.

McFadden distinguishes his subjects as “elders” by virtue of the unique use of their cultural wisdom in their own lives and its impact on those around them. Seventeen individuals from as many tribe s of North and South America speak about the present and coming age in a context all agree up on- survival based on cooperative effort and elevated consciousness.

The author has reserved his personal opinions in the interviews, which allows a natural focus to emerge. Despite the geographic diversity of his Native American subjects, the message for today's world is essentially the same. The warrior woman Oh Shinnah whose ancestors come from both Apache and Mohawk traditions says that “There has to be a revolution in this country. I think it has to be a spiritually political revolution.”

All agree that changing our fundamental thinking is essential. “Human consciousness has to evolve and expand,” says Sun Bear of the Chippewa-Ojibwa, who revealed the prophecy and mission of the modern-day Rainbow Warriors. And the Seneca prophetess Grandmother Twylah Nitsch reminds us that “Nothing works with out the focus on truth, wisdom, and faith.”

For many of these earth-spirit representatives, the proper use of innate natural forces as their own elders taught is still a viable solution to our myriad problems. A state civil service administrator, J. T. Garrett of the Cherokee says “… that’s how I see our role in the nineties: to modify the energy and bring it back to a level of harmony and balance.” The men and women of Profiles in Wisdom articulate well-known dilemmas, yet each is distinguished by a commitment to solving the concern as well as pursuing a personal quest. This marvelous balance of individuality and collective participation shines clearly through each facet of McFadden's collection of Native American gems.
-ROSEMARY CLARK

Winter 1992


A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell by Stephen and Robin Larsen; Doubleday, 1992; hardcover.

A Fire in the Mind is an unusually subjective, several-sided biography that was written with authorization from Joseph Campbell's widow by two well-intentioned students. The abundant admiration that sometimes obscures solid scholars hip is illustrated with the authors' abandon in picturing their teacher like the Indian god Vishnu dreaming the universe into existence; this is evident when they report that Campbell “entered a timeless time, the active world revolving around him at a dreamlike remove.” In a commendable attempt at comprehensiveness, the writers trace their hero's birth in New York City in 1904, his studies at Columbia University, his travels through Europe and Asia , his professional teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College, and finally his death in Hawaii in 1987.

Like Alan W. Watts, Campbell emerges not as a serious scholar but a celebrated popularizer. Campbell wrote his master's thesis under Roger Sherman Loomis, whom the Larsens describe humorously as “a traditional scholar [who] did not approve of his pupils ranging too far from the given materials.” Neither was Campbell prompted to sacrifice conventionality for academic respectability. The biographers conclude: “Campbell had bitten into the juiciest piece of medieval mythic stew, containing fragments of the Dionysian mystery traditions, shamanic lore, the Goddess religion, Celtic magic and Christian mysteries. It was contact with materials like this that convinced him that he could never simply stay within the bounds of academia.” Campbell should be congratulated for following his interests as an independent inquirer, even when such unregimented intelligence inspires suspicion from supposed scholars!

Substantive scholarship sometimes cast no measurable influence or impact upon Campbell's personal development. Because his publications abound with numerous references drawn from Indian sources, his demeaning attitude toward Indian culture is especially revealing. Campbell confided to a colleague: “In the Madurai temple [India], watching all those people, finally something cracked in me and I couldn't take it any longer; I sat down and laughed. People, I thought, will worship anything -absolutely anything- and so what?” In a simplistic and superficial manner, his “trenchant appraisal” of India is that Indians embrace a “romantical interest in renunciation as well as a lazy (heat-inspired) interest in doing nothing (retirement at the age of 55).” In a summary he suggested: “Nothing is quite as good as the India Invented at Waverly Place, New York.”

Campbell's conclusion is that since “I found that all the great religions were saying eventually the same thing in various ways, I was unable and unwilling to commit myself to anyone.” Uncommitted, he floundered, or simply slid across a slippery surface. His conviction is that happiness constitutes an illusion, “absorption in a cause which in the end is but illusion.” More than elitism or narcissism reverberates through his revealing remark: “The perfected man's mere existence does more for the world than all the petty labors of lesser people.”

Campbell appears, as all humans appear, as flawed. And part of the tragedy is that his biographers remember him predominantly by his superficialities rather than his substance. The Larsens' writing is pervaded with the awareness that Campbell was not simply born physically beautiful, but that he worked hard to maintain that beauty, struggling to save his hand some shape, always practicing discipline required and expected of a professional athlete. Surprising for some, a preoccupation with physical beauty never culminated in excessive sexuality. The authors describe his relationship with women: “Campbell was a devotee not so much of a particular woman at this time as of an archetype, des Ewig Weibliche, the eternal feminine.” Yet there was a touch of great ness, however temporary or transient. Campbell's glowing charm attracted countless enthusiasts who regarded him highly as a popular man who taught multitudes to enjoy his versions of the world's enduring myths, even when Campbell failed to comprehend the myths that he popularized successfully. He remained a hippie hero who never degenerated with psychedelic drugs or free sex, but glowed ceaselessly with “a fire in the mind.”

Perhaps the highest compliment that a critic can give these biographers is that they unintentionally and inadvertently succeed in removing their hero from a pedestal.
-DANIEL ROSS CHANDLER

Winter 1992


Matter and Mind: Imaginative Participation in Science by Stephen Edelglass, Georg Maier, Hans Gebert, and John Davy; Lindisfame Press, 1992; paperback.

In this slim book of 136 pages, the authors question the traditional assumption that the observer is detached from experimental results in scientific research. A number of examples of a phenomenological approach are given. The fact that all four auth ors are scientist s gives authority to their discussion.

As stated in the promotional blurb, the authors do the following:

First, they show that the elements of reality incorporated in the usual physical world view are grounded in physiology…Secondly, they present a new view of why classical science was founded in the bringing together of mathematics with knowledge of the behavior of physical things -a view incorporating the idea of the development of human freedom and individuality. Thirdly, they present detailed examples of their phenomenological approach that, by including an awareness of the role of the human knower in the development of scientific concepts, place human beings fir


Image
Theosophical Society PoliciesTerms & Conditions • © 2019 The Theosophical Society in America