Book Reviews 2019

 

 

Living on the Inner Edge: A Practical Esoteric Tale
CYRUS RYAN
Alresford, Hampshire, U.K.: Axis Mundi, 2018. 219 pp., paper, $23.95.

What is an esoteric group? Often it consists of a collection of people sitting around and discussing a standard text like The Secret Doctrine. This can be a useful activity—at the worst it is harmless—but one wonders if esoteric groups have greater possibilities than this..

Cyrus Ryan’s Living on the Inner Edge provides a welcome perspective on this question. The book is about some esoteric practitioners who gathered initially at the TS lodge in Toronto. They began to pursue group work under a man named only as RN, whom the author first encountered as “a short, round oriental gentleman in a sports jacket and tie.” Ryan and a small collection of other students pursued work under RN’s direction for over thirty years until his death in 2011. Its sources were diverse: “Our Work follows the Sanatana Dharma, Ageless Wisdom, or the Esoteric Traditions that have existed for ages, only trimmed down and made applicable for the Western world. Along with the teachings of the Master D.K. as presented by Alice A. Bailey, we studied different schools of Hinduism and Buddhism, plus Kabala, Sufism, Western traditions and the teachings of Gurdjieff as given out and explained primarily through the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and Maurice Nicole [sic].”

The group had higher contacts as well: “We were contacted by one of the Masters to see what would happen to a group of Western aspirants subjected to various spiritual energies and events. We were contacted by one of the Masters in 1978. It was not at all as we would have imagined. . . . The Master didn’t magically send letters through space as they did with H.P. Blavatsky, nor did the Master appear and dictate lessons as in the case of Alice A. Bailey. . . . The contact was very short without any explanation. The Master gave  us a ‘word of power,’ a mantra with a particular tune, rhythm, and focus. . . . This word of power was like a seed and in time, through trial and error, grew into a tree of knowledge.”

RN focused on the Fourth Way approach of Gurdjieff, because it takes place in and through ordinary life, without retreat or isolation. Nevertheless, Gurdjieff’s teaching is skimpy on love and compassion, so the group turned to other teachings as well. Ryan says, “Our group was a blend of Theosophical knowledge and Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism.” The book features a number of esoteric diagrams which show the influence of Gurdjieff, the Kabbalah, yoga, and Buddhism.

Ryan’s account, both accessible and fascinating, takes us through the group’s adventures, including inner practices (“Our chanting was creating a ‘cone of fire’ which not only protected the group, but also allowed for the downpour of energy from the higher planes”); journeys to India and Tibet; and the dynamics of relations among the members. Ryan discusses “elemental” attachments to the sexual center by describing the relationship of one member, Samantha, to another, Frank. “They went out for some time and Samantha was definitely ready to settle down and hope for marriage. Frank . . . had an elemental in his 5th [sex] center. He liked to keep women hanging, he couldn’t make a commitment. RN gave him a special discipline so he could truly face the force of the center, learn to observe the thoughts and feelings it created and then counter it. But it was very powerful and one night we found him rolling on the floor yelling like he was in pain, but it was the elemental force causing this. This elemental, as all elementals, didn’t want to be made visible. Once it was seen, then the process of detaching from it and overcoming it was possible.”

As this suggests, the work was often laborious and painful. Finally, though, “by early 2000, the group had become very tight and close knit in an occult sense. Each individual knew what they had to do, both for themselves as aspiring souls and for the group. Each group member knew every other group member in an Essence intimacy, the beginning of true brotherhood, disciple relating to disciple. The Work became more esoteric and intense in discipline, to the point that we really couldn’t discuss what we were doing with outsiders, even other spiritual people.”

I myself don’t know any of the participants, so my only knowledge of this group comes from this book. Nevertheless, it has an authentic ring to it. It resembles certain esoteric groups that I have known: small; eclectic; led by one teacher who was, however, not a guru; willing to take knowledge where they could find it; and indifferent to publicity. I believe that groups of this sort represent the best possibility for spiritual development today.

This book also fills a real gap in esoteric literature, which has tended to pass over group work. Indeed the only other book I would recommend in this area is School of the Soul (originally published as School of Kabbalah) by the British Kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi. But Halevi’s work is a manual for practice: it does not describe the history of any particular group. Living on the Inner Edge is a fascinating, persuasive, and inspiring account of how collection of spiritual seekers have tried to lift themselves up by one another’s bootstraps.

Richard Smoley


 

 

          

Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy
By Roger Lipsey
Shambhala Publications

Surely there’s a great deal of ground covered in Roger Lipsey’s formidable new tome on the spiritual master Gurdjieff that has been well tracked over before. Yet the word reconsidered is well applied here. Armed with new information, only recently available, and many years deep involvement in the Gurdjieff Work, Lipsey has done some lapidary reconsidering, cutting more deeply, clarifying, and divulging buried gems in the mass of stories about G.I. Gurdjieff. It can’t have been easy, as there was so much to assimilate, to parse; so much to challenge objectivity. Gurdjieff’s metaphysical ontology, his powerful teachings about escaping the slavery of sleep, his redefinition of the human condition, his startling methods for liberation from our mechanical responses to the world, was counterbalanced by his colorful, enigmatic style, the historical uncertainties of his life, and his tendency to attract negative press.

Gurdjieff Reconsidered… offers us nine bulging chapters comprised of hefty paragraphs, which, despite a certain denseness of data, are entertainingly written. Perhaps the book’s considerable scope and depth will appeal mostly to fervid Gurdjieffians, but then again Lipsey frequently opens hidden doors between Gurdjieff and other traditions. Theosophists will be interested to learn, here, that Gurdjieff read most of Madame Blavatsky when young, and even tried, unsuccessfully, to confirm some of her claims in his quite arduous travels. Lipsey tells us that Australian scholar Joanna Petsche has initiated a detailed study of parallels between Gurdjieff’s ideas and Theosophy—the parallels are many, especially in Gurdjieff’s cosmology. Some of this is probably due to Blavatsky and Gurdjieff both having gathered input from the same esoteric traditions, including Christian mysticism, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Tibetan Buddhism, esoteric Hinduism, and quite possibly the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegistus. But when prominent student of the work Louise March asked Gurdjieff about Madame Blavatsky, he said she “was almost right.” Coming from Gurdjieff, that is a big admission.

Gurdjieff’s memoir, Meetings with Remarkable Men, tells of his early travels with the Seekers of Truth, a group which sought for an underlying esoteric revelation, a primal teaching, that would decrypt the secret of life. A sort of backroom controversy in Gurdjieff studies has been the question of his claim in Meetings… of having traveled extensively in Tibet. Did he or didn’t he? No record is found of his having been there—however, as westerners weren’t encouraged to visit Tibet seekers had to travel to its sacred places in disguise, and under false names. And Lipsey offers the indirect evidence of well-informed inferences: Gurdjieff’s knowledge of Tibetan cookery, the particulars of Tibetan tea, the extreme conditions of life in the Pamir mountains. He had bullet scars, visible in the sauna, that fit the accounts of woundings by stray bullets in his memoir, including one he received in Tibet. In his gigantic parable, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in which he tucked bits of real history, Gurdjieff’s description of massacres carried out by British soldiers under Younghusband concurs with historical fact. Lipsey quotes his casual descriptions to a group of students in Paris, elucidating his travails in Tibet, including arresting details:

He tells how he used to have to butter his whole body, then cover with rubber underdrawers (made in Germany), then over all about six inches of thickness of fur garments—and even then he was cold in Tibet—only part of body have satisfaction was face under hood, warmed by breath. Such cold you never can imagine. Also such smell after many week!

Such an account has the redolence of reality. His “Movements”, an intricately choreographed series of dances (which were also exercises in developing inner harmony and consciousness), were partly drawn from temple dances and a sort of dance/yoga he’d seen in esoteric monasteries, and they too are recognizably connected to real traditions. All this is very reassuring to Gurdjieffians troubled by accusations of falsity--accusations coming from those who, as Ouspensky said, awarded Gurdjieff “his fair share of slander”. Some of the confusion arises from Gurdjieff’s tendency to try to create “legominisms”—works of art that symbolically express sacred truths. Art has its fanciful side, and Gurdjieff’s tendency to insert parables as part of his autobiography can make researchers frown.

Lipsey quotes a student in Paris, Alice Rohrer, who asked Gurdjieff if some of the more colorful imagery in Meetings with Remarkable Men was just fable. Gurdjieff replied that the book was true; “only ten per cent fantasy”. Thus he “owned” his tendency to weave fable and factuality.

 Gurdjieff Reconsidered offers us more detail than we had before on Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Osipovna; he gifts us new anecdotes about the famous Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Le Prieure, and he renders new spins on the already familiar stories. Lipsey’s chapter on Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson offers acute observations and fresh insight on that gargantuan work.

Toward the end of the book, with gratifying honesty, Lipsey recounts the turbulent 1930s, as Gurdjieff—having suffered a brutally injurious car accident, and the loss of his institute headquarters—struggles for steady progress toward the long-term goals he’d set for his work. The chapter is called Lux in Tenebris…light in darkness.

In the latterly chapters Lipsey explores Gurdjieff’s poignant years in Paris during World War II; he tells us of Gurdjieff’s final years, a tired, secretly ill elderly man working feverishly to finish revising his magnum opus, Beelzebub’s Tales… and his final, highly arduous work on his Movements, continuing to within days of his death. These are the efforts of a man who deeply believes in his life’s work.

In a chapter called Derision, Lipsey takes on Gurdjieff’s detractors, demonstrating that for the most part that these outside observers hadn’t a clue as to what Gurdjieff’s teaching was really about. Most of them seem inspired by a single book authored by Louis Pauwels in 1954. Pauwels’ malicious misinterpretations of Gurdjieff’s methods set in motion a concatenation of misunderstandings which duly echoed through the untutored proclamations of later detractors—for example, the much-repeated canard that Gurdjieff failed to sufficiently illuminate his students; that none of them became conscious. Anyone who has seriously investigated the life of his greatest student and the woman he set to carry on his work, Jeanne de Salzmann, knows that isn’t true. Numerous other spiritual powerhouses emerged from his school: Henry Tracol, Lord Pentland, Louise March, Paul Reynard, Michel de Salzmann, to name just a few; certainly Pyotr Ouspensky, A.R. Orage and John Bennett were profoundly altered. The Fourth Way vibrance passed on by such people brought us such luminaries as James George and Jacob Needleman.

Of course, you’ll find failings in Gurdjieff’s comportment, as you will in examining any man’s life. Great men and great women are still just men and women, and that goes for beloved spiritual teachers. Gurdjieff sometimes drank too much, and he produced children with the wives of some of his followers. Alan Watts had a drinking problem and a tendency to irresponsible relations with women, and so did Chogyam Trungpa; I could name many other potent spiritual teachers who stumbled on the steep path up Mount Analogue, and fell into the pit of their own vanity, or slid into the quicksand of self-indulgence. Gurdjieff seems to have had a somewhat erratic connection with the higher conscience that he extolled, but he at last settled down to the deadly serious business of transmitting his own dharma, and that transmission has had vast repercussions.

John Shirley

John Shirley is the author of Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas and numerous novels, including Doyle fter Death and the forthcoming Stormland.


 

 

 

         

Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication
OREN JAY SOFER
Boulder, Colo., Shambhala, 2018. 286 pp., paper, $16.95.

Words exist because of meaning.

Once you have gotten the meaning you can forget the words.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words

So I can have a word with him?

—Chuang Tzu

I grew up in a traditional Hindu household. Communication was a one-way road then. After a successful high-school graduation, the edict was “Thou shalt become an engineer,” and I did. Did I want to be a statistician? Well, after a detour of thirty years of career in U.S. industry, I finally did! Communication took on a different meaning for me as I practiced mindfulness and studied under Zen masters during the last forty years.

Oren Jay Sofer has written a wonderful book resulting out of his journey of over two decades of integrating Buddhist meditation and nonviolent communication (NVC). I could relate to the message. Sofer’s book is a “synthesis of three distinct streams of practice.” First is mindfulness; second is the NVC system, developed by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg; and the third is a therapeutic technique, called somatic experiencing, developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine for resolving trauma. Sofer’s book does not present individual treatises on these streams but rather a holistic integration.

What is “communication” then? Sofer’s framework for creating effective communication contains three steps:

  1. Lead with presence.
  2. Come from curiosity and care.
  3. Focus on what matters.

Presence involves being mindful. Curiosity and care requires awareness of intention. Focusing on what matters means sharpening our attention. Sofer explores each of these in great detail with “practical suggestions on how to implement the tools and concepts.” Each chapter contains principles (“The more aware we are, the more choice we have”), practices (instructions for mindfulness of breathing), and a section on questions and answers. It is a useful map as one navigates the complex journey that is human communication. A fourth part brings it all together.

I found leading with presence especially useful. Being present means being mindful. Mindfulness is communication with oneself first. One tip is taking a single breath between every sentence we speak. Would this slow down our conversation? Yes, but it would also add a profound quality of awareness in the words we speak. Sofer mentions an acronym: WAIT, which stands for “Why am I talking?” There is a space between speaking and listening. The mindfulness practice provides a pathway to this space that Sofer calls “a choice point.” It is a moment of awareness when we decide when to speak and when to listen. It is also a way to avoid unconscious or impulsive choices in our conversations.

Coming from curiosity and care means becoming aware of our intention. Intentions are conveyed both verbally and nonverbally. How we say something is as important as, if not more important than, what we say. Sofer draws our attention to how we handle conflicts. This is where we learn to nurture our compassionate nature. Dr. Rosenberg says, “I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart.” This is noble communication.

Focusing on what matters means that first we become aware of our needs, because needs motivate our actions. Sofer stresses understanding the difference between needs and strategies: it is a “doorway to compassion.” The principle here is, “Conflict generally occurs at the level of our strategies—what we want. The more deeply we are able to identify our needs—why we want what we want—the less conflict there is.” Mindfulness teaches us to observe clearly. Sofer hasn’t forgotten about challenging situations. The section on bringing it all together has a chapter on how to handle difficult conversations.

This is not a book that you read once and put away. One will come back to it again and again to integrate the lessons present in daily communications, external or internal. Zen master Seung Sahn used to tell us that human beings are confused for a reason: “In our body, eye has only one job, seeing. Ear has only one job, hearing. Nose has only one job, smelling. But the tongue has two jobs, tasting and talking. Very confusing!” Sofer’s book offers help.

Dhananjay Joshi

Dhananjay Joshi, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.


 

 

 

Correspondence: 1927–87, Joseph Campbell
Edited by EVANS LANSING SMITH and DENNIS PATRICK SLATTERY
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2019. 429 pp., cloth, $26.95.

In addition to his impressive output of mythological studies, Joseph Campbell was a prodigious letter writer, corresponding over the years not only with fellow luminaries in the field but with friends, relatives, students and, at one point, even an American president. This volume draws together a broad selection of letters ranging from the start of his academic career to its end, in the process offering up a revealing portrait of a true American original. 

As the book’s introduction states, collections of personal letters like this make for valuable reading on several levels. For one, they provide important insights into the character and thought processes of an individual, since one finds an intimacy of expression not usually encountered in more scholarly contexts. But even in scholarly terms, letters like these can shed valuable light on the intellectual context in which the individual worked. 

When I was heavily immersed in Campbell’s work back in the 1980s, I was curious, even a little confused, by his relationship with other academic thinkers in the field, since I sometimes noticed him referred to in less than complimentary terms, almost as if he wasn’t a member of their club. When I interviewed mythologist Wendy Doniger for this magazine in 1990, for example, she was vaguely disparaging of his contribution, criticizing his “universalist” approach to mythology while also claiming (inaccurately, I later realized) that he never bothered to study texts in their original languages, when in fact he did. While the letters in this volume only touch briefly on that controversy, seeing it mentioned in the context of the entire book gave me fresh insight into what may have really been the source of that problem, in part anyway—sour grapes, or professional jealousy. As a religious scholar I knew once said to me, “Few things annoy one’s colleagues in academia more than becoming popular and successful.” Needless to say, Joseph Campbell became really popular and successful.

For that reason, it was something of a pleasant revelation for me to come across a glowing letter in this volume from Mircea Eliade—the mythological thinker probably most often regarded as Campbell’s chief rival during his lifetime. I’d always been curious what Eliade thought of Campbell, since I’d never come across anything regarding his opinion of the man or his work. In the letter included in this volume, he praises the copy of The Masks of God that Campbell sent to him, saying, “Your book is very beautiful, extremely stimulating, audacious, personal, and carries new views even when you present well-known theories. . . . I have already presented the book in my Fall seminar (Psychology and History of Religions) and I am going to use it in my Winter course (Mediterranean Religions).” Clearly Eliade felt a fondness for Campbell’s work that some of colleagues didn’t share, not publicly at any rate.

There were some real surprises for me in this book. One of those was learning about Campbell’s early friendship with Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he met on a steamboat to Europe in 1924. I was impressed by the almost devotional admiration he expressed for the teacher, since it hinted at a certain spiritual impulse in Campbell’s personality that wasn’t immediately obvious from his more intellectual writings. In a letter dated July17, 1928, when he was still in his mid-twenties, Campbell wrote: “I am thoroughly excited about the talk I had with Krishnamurti. He has helped me to select a star worth aiming at. What the star is named I don’t quite know—what it looks like I somehow feel. But Krishna is there—in the star—and he is beautiful. . . . Krishna more than anyone I know, is like the person I have wanted to be.”

Also fascinating is a set of exchanges Campbell carried on with Alan Watts, who at one point corrects him on a matter of astrological import (of all things). Having read an advance copy of the second volume of Campbell’s Masks of God: Vol. 2, Watts noticed an error in his discussion about precession of the equinoxes in relation to the doctrine of the Great Ages, for which Campbell profusely thanks him. 

On a more controversial front, Campbell came under attack after his death by some former colleagues and friends, such as New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, for being anti-Semitic. While some correspondents in this volume defend Campbell against such charges, it’s a controversy that likely won’t be settled by this book. I have to admit it reminded me of something I noticed while attending various seminars of Campbell’s back in the ’80s—his decidedly right-wing views. One only gets a hint of that in this volume, but it stands out noticeably in a 1970 letter by Campbell to President Richard Nixon, praising him for his bombing of Cambodia. Yowzer. (It’s unknown whether Nixon responded to or even read Campbell’s letter.) 

This naturally raises the question of how much we ought separate someone’s personal beliefs from their creative achievements, a problem that’s been grappled with since time immemorial. Ultimately, we all have to decide that for ourselves, but either way, this volume is sure to enhance your understanding of the man and his thinking on any number of fronts—perhaps including that one. 

Ray Grasse

Ray Grasse worked on the staff of Quest magazine during the 1990s and is author of several books, including The Waking Dream, An Infinity of Gods, and Under a Sacred Sky. His website is www.raygrasse.com.

 

 

 

 

Evolution of the Higher Consciousness: An In-Depth Study into H.P. Blavatsky’s Teachings
by PABLO SENDER
Ojai, Calif.: Fohat Productions, 2018. xxvi + 201 pp., hardcover $34.95; paperback $24.95.

Theosophists are often reproached for failing to put their somewhat abstruse teachings into practice. Many people believe that the principles of Theosophy are so abstract and lofty that they are of no practical use in the real world. In the present book, Theosophical teacher Pablo Sender rises above such criticism by presenting Theosophical theory as it was put forth by its original teachers (H.P. Blavatsky and the Mahatmas) and showing how it can be put to work on a practical, everyday level.

Following a brief preface and an introduction setting out the purpose, the book is divided into two parts appropriately labeled “Theory” and “Practice.” This is followed by a short but very complete glossary of Sanskrit and other technical terms commonly used in Theosophical texts.

The theoretical analysis is largely based on the unique Theosophical system of seven “principles” into which the human constitution and that of the universe can be divided. This system is grounded in the simple threefold division (spirit, soul, and body) presented in Isis Unveiled (1877), which evolved over the next few decades into a much more elaborate and complicated sevenfold division. This system, which is characteristic of modern Theosophy, is easily recognizable, even when it is presented by other writers using variant terminology.

The system was originally presented orally by H.P. Blavatsky to two English students, A.O. Hume and A.P. Sinnett, and was further elaborated by her trans-Himalayan collaborators. It was explained from many angles in later writings, including The Secret Doctrine. During the last years of her life, HPB added details and offered refinements. This early material, including some private teachings only recently made available to the public, forms the basis for the present book.

The first chapter explains the human constitution and the three “streams” of evolution explained in The Secret Doctrine: the spiritual stream, the physical stream, and the intellectual stream, which brings together the other two. The spiritual stream traces the journey of the Monad (atma-buddhi) through the kingdoms of life with the ultimate goal of establishing “spiritual self-consciousness.” We see the fruits of the physical stream in the human body and the other living organisms around us. The third or intellectual stream brings about the development of manas or mind, which becomes the “human soul” or “reincarnating Ego.” The goal of this Ego is, as Sender writes, “to become the master of the lower Principles and to merge with the spiritual monad.”

After this introduction, the author moves on to a detailed discussion in chapters entitled “Atman: The Higher Self”; “The Monad”; “Manas: The Ego”; and “Kama: The Animal Soul.” In these chapters, he describes the universal spirit and the three aspects of “soul”—spiritual, human, and animal. The explanations are clear and well-written, and they are supplemented with helpful quotations from the original literature of Theosophy. Useful tables and charts are sprinkled throughout the text to illustrate the points. For the most part, these are original with the author and offer new perspectives on several issues. The theoretical part of the book is completed by the chapters “Communication with the Higher Consciousness” and “Evolution of the Higher Ego.” These tell us what is to be accomplished in order to complete the course of human evolution and bring all three streams to fruition.

The second part of the book, “Practice,” was written in the stated hope that “the more these ‘abstractions’ become a reality to us, the more they will have a bearing on our actions.” The guiding principle in this discussion is the concept of manas taijasa, a Sanskrit term that can be translated as illumined mind. This term was introduced by Mme. Blavatsky, who explained it as “the human soul illuminated by the radiance of the divine soul, the human reason lit by the light of the spirit.” To achieve this state, it is necessary to abandon negative qualities or attitudes while cultivating positive ones. The exercises and meditative practices that follow are meant to enable the reader to carry out these goals.

The chapters “States of Consciousness” and “The ‘Thought-Producer’” are well worth studying, and the time invested in trying the exercises and thought experiments will be amply rewarded. This is not easy material, however, and the exercises require a serious commitment. The book closes with a chapter on “The Sense of Space,” which expands and elaborates upon HPB’s instructions in her diagram of meditation. Once again, the goal is practical realization, and serious effort is required.

Despite the author’s effort to make these teachings accessible and practical, some readers may still find this book to be abstract and hard to follow in places. This is inherent in the nature of the teachings themselves, which, as HPB explained, are not for the lazy or mentally obtuse.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It brings together a wealth of authentic Theosophical material from its original sources. Students familiar with this literature will find it stimulating, and those who have not been exposed to the early Theosophical writings will find it to be an excellent introduction.

Doss McDavid


 

 

 

An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation
MARTIN LAIRD
New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 232 pp., paper, $18.95.

There is a wonderful dialogue quoted in the preface to this book. It is from the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. When the Boy in the story starts loving any of his stuffed animals, they start to become real. The Rabbit, confused, asks the wise Skin Horse, “What is Real?” The Skin Horse tells him, “When a child REALLY loves you, then you become Real. . . . Sometimes pain is involved but then when you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt. . . . and it takes a long time.” Each of us can find a different meaning in this story, but the underlying truth is that love makes us real. Being real requires patience and endurance of hardship and struggles, but it can also smooth the jagged edges of life.

How do we find love that makes us real or, even more, makes those around us real? It is the faculty of loving that we reach through contemplation, which means that we stop clinging to thoughts (even though they may cling to us). Martin Laird’s book leads us through a journey within with a deep understanding of contemplative practice. It is our own unique conversation with the Skin Horse. Our predicaments are many—principally an inability to be aware of our thoughts. Such an awareness, if we develop it, allows us to choose what we give our attention to. The practice of contemplation is not only beneficial for us as individuals but also for the whole world. The fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing says that contemplation “is the work of the soul that pleases God most.”

Laird’s book is a companion volume to two preceding it: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. The first addressed a need in the literature on contemplation for the “intermediates”—those who had a well-established practice. The second one focused more on the challenges in our practice and the nature of awareness: it is not what we are aware of but the process of being aware that needs our attention.

Laird’s current volume explores the themes from previous volumes from a different angle. It is composed of three parts. Part 1 goes into the illusion of being separate from God. We allow the voice of contemplation in our life so we understand the intimate presence of God. God does not know how to be absent. Why do we not see it? It is simply that our “vision is heavily lumbered” and our minds are cluttered.

Part 2 uses this metaphor of cluttering and decluttering as a pathway into the practice of contemplation. Laird stresses that the mind is not something static; it is impermanent. Laird highlights three aspects of mind: the reactive, receptive, and luminous, and he goes into each one with the same four questions: What is practice like? What is ego like? What contemplative skills are developing? What are special challenges?

We all know what practice is like for the reactive mind. It is constantly distracted by events. Our attention is stolen by thoughts and feelings. The ego comes in only one size: extra-large. It desperately tries to cling to what it wants and discards what it does not. The challenge is to bring awareness into the picture.

It is awareness that turns the reactive mind into the receptive mind. The receptive mind is less cluttered. Like the sun breaking through clouds, it has always been there. Sitting in silence is more natural to the receptive mind, and practice becomes a way of life for it.

Is the luminous mind any different from the reactive and receptive mind? Not really. It is indeed the underlying foundation of clarity, devoid of all clutter. The “I” present in the reactive and receptive phases has disappeared. It is radiant, present, pure and simple. It is true contemplative living.

Part 3 of Laird’s book deals with the immensely important topic of depression. Laird uses the term to include anxiety, dark thoughts, and other ailments. He says that the key to coping with depression is understanding that one may never get relief from it; for some, it is there to stay. What do contemplatives do then? They accept depression as a companion: this “frequent pattern of inner weather” needs to be allowed to be present. Through contemplation, we discover an inner stillness that remains even in the presence of depression. Understanding this darkness brings about light! It is a wonderful paradox of contemplative life.

Laird’s book introduces us to many voices of saints and authors and resources that are too many to mention. Some are old friends, some we meet for the first time. It is time worth spending.

Is Laird telling us something new? Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). I remember my mother teaching me the same thing through a Marathi proverb. The underlying truth is profound and deep, no matter the language or religion or philosophy. A new expression always helps!

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.


 

 

 

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks
DIANA BUTLER BASS
San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018. 224 pp., hardcover, $17.70.

Are you grateful? I have read several books on gratitude and thought I was. After reading Grateful, I was struck with a new appreciation for the expansiveness of this topic. Grateful takes experiences from history, contemporary events, and the author’s life to help the reader become more aware of how gratitude occurs in life.

The author possesses a Ph.D. in religious studies, with an emphasis on American church history. She served as a college professor before becoming an independent scholar, and has written and published ten books.

I found Bass to use humor and sincerity in just the right proportions for me to comprehend her perspective. For example, while she was growing up, her mother insisted that she write thank-you notes for gifts. But like many children, she didn’t want to do it. One Christmas she received an etiquette book with a bookmark conspicuously placed at the beginning of a chapter on writing thank-you notes. She got the hint but still did not write them.

After becoming a mother herself, Bass tried to instill the importance of writing thank-you notes in her daughter. But she was not thrilled about the task either, instead responding with phone calls or emails. When those fizzled out, Bass began to wonder if ingratitude was part of their DNA. Realizing she knew little about this subject, she began conducting extensive research on gratitude in psychology and science.

The book was based on studies of the emotional complexity of the electorate going into the 2016 election. Americans were angry, fearful, and divided. Acts of violence occurred as a result of the intense rallies and speeches in the political arena. Today there seems to be a cultural argument about the nature of gratitude. Political candidates or elected officials can make donations or do favors in order to receive help later from the recipient. This can result in a corruption of gratitude: the ruler inevitably ends up sitting at the top of the organization’s pyramid, relegating the poor and those with little power to the bottom. But gratitude should not be a weapon or tool to control the masses or maintain power. The ultimate goal would be to have a politics where everyone is at the table of gratitude.

Rather than a debt or a duty, gratitude should be a gift of genuine thankfulness and goodwill. When expressed gracefully, it does not impose any obligations upon the recipient.

The author describes how many spiritual traditions avoid treating gratitude as quid pro quo or debt. For example, she uses the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–7 to explain her point. Jesus was always surrounded by big groups of people who wanted to hear his teachings and to see and experience his miracles. Zacchaeus, who was wealthy and the head tax collector of Jericho, was a short man. He climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowds.

Jesus called to Zacchaeus, told him to come down, and said he would go to his home for a meal. Zacchaeus obliged. They met at a place of common ground by sitting at the table. The presence of Jesus inspired Zacchaeus to give back half of his wealth and pay back the people he had defrauded. A miracle happened, and Zacchaeus reclaimed his gratefulness.

What I got the most out of this book was the author’s recommendation on how to be constantly aware of gratitude. It could be the appreciation of the sun shining, a lost pet returning home, or treating others with respect and compassion.

The author also mentions a gift her husband gave her. It was a hat with an inscription that seems to sum up her book. It reads: “Make America Grateful Again.”

Marie Otte

Marie Otte is a writer, meditation teacher, and astrologer. Her work has appeared in Quest, DreamNetWork.net and Satvidya.


 

 

 

The Gurdjieff Movements: A Communication of Ancient Wisdom
by WIM VAN DULLEMEN
Chino Valley, Calif.: Hohm Press, 2018. 286 pp., paper, $24.95.

Since his death in 1949, the life and work of the influential and enigmatic Greco-Armenian spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff has been the subject of many books, but few have focused on his extraordinary contribution to sacred dance, known to Gurdjieff students as the Movements. In his new book, Wim van Dullemen, a longtime student of the Gurdjieff teaching (known as the Gurdjieff Work), emphasizes the importance of the Movements to Gurdjieff’s spiritual legacy.

The book is divided in two parts. The first summarizes Gurdjieff’s background and his adventurous life, touching on his vision of an awakened consciousness in human beings. The precise date of his birth is unknown, but it was sometime between 1866 and 1877. He was born in Alexandropol, now Gyumri, Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire. From a young age, he sought to understand the mystery of human existence, traveling throughout Asia and perhaps to Tibet to find answers.

Gurdjieff’s teaching is embodied in what he called the Fourth Way, which stresses the urgency of overcoming the “sleep” or the deadening hypnosis of ordinary life. Dullemen summarizes Gurdjieff’s written work, as well as his relationships with noted students like P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, and J.G. Bennett. He highlights the various transmissions of Gurdjieff’s teaching after his death by leading students.

The second half of the book concentrates on Gurdjieff’s spiritual legacy through his music and especially the Movements, shedding new light on their history and early choreography. Although the Movements are considered a form of sacred dance, they do not fit into any traditional category of dance. Relying on his extensive travels through Central Asia and his study of its sacred dances, including dervish dancing, Gurdjieff created something original, unlike anything previously seen in the West. How they became known as Movements rather than a collection of sacred dances is unknown, but Gurdjieff introduced them to his students in the early 1920s, perhaps as early as 1919.

In short, the Movements are a repertoire of hundreds of rhythmic dances, poses, and exercises. When performed, they are accompanied by Gurdjieff’s unconventional and stirring piano music, composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff’s student, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. They became known to the general public in 1979, when British director Peter Brook included them in his film Meetings with Remarkable Men, based on Gurdjieff’s book of the same title. As Dullemen points out, the Movements shown in the film were chosen by Gurdjieff’s foremost student and Movements teacher, Jeanne de Salzmann.          

Broadly speaking, the aim of the Movements is to free certain energies in the body in order to experience unity and harmony within. This encounter with a greater level of awareness can even connect the dancer to the cosmos itself. Thus the Movements are said to embody a hidden language which transcends the spoken or written word. This idea is amplified by the subtitle of Dullemen’s book, A Communication of Ancient Wisdom, and he suggests that the Movements are a bridge to a higher state of consciousness, if only temporarily.

Dullemen is at his best when he explores how the practice of the Movements can integrate the body, the emotions, and the mind into a silent, unified whole, capable of receiving a more subtle energy. He elegantly describes what can happen when performing the Movements with sustained inner attention: “A silence occurs in the dancer’s inner self. . . . Each moment is lent a certain timelessness, and even the walls of the hall in which the work is taking place appear to dissolve into a space without boundaries—a space in which the past and future no longer exclude each other.” He doesn’t claim that this is a common occurrence, only that it is possible under the right conditions.

For those who are interested in a historical survey of the Movements, their mathematical underpinnings, and their ongoing importance to the Gurdjieff Work, this book is valuable and worthwhile. Dullemen is adept at presenting what the Movements can evoke in the human body, and he is unequivocal in his view that they are the living expression of an ancient wisdom that can lead to self-transformation.

Cynthia Overweg

Cynthia Overweg is an educator, writer, and retreat leader. She is a frequent contributor to Quest. Her website is www.cynthiaoverweg.com.


 

 

Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch over Human Destiny
MARK STAVISH
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018. xviii + 140 pp., paper, $16.99.

It is a basic Theosophical idea: thoughts are things. Although mental images have no physical substance, they are composed of a subtle mind-stuff sometimes called the astral light. Most of them are evanescent: they have no independent life or power. But if a certain kind of energy is directed toward them, they can gain power and cause effects in the physical world.

If this is true of individuals’ thoughts, it must be even more true of thoughts that are held by many people. Egregore is the name for these collective thought-forms. It comes from the Greek grēgoréō, to be awake or to watch. It appears to have been coined by the French author Victor Hugo, who uses it in the first part of his poem La légende des siècles (“The Legend of the Centuries”), published in 1859. Hugo describes one character who “knows the art of evoking demons, vampires, and egregores.”

As Mark Stavish points out in his new book, the term was popularized soon after by the occultist Éliphas Lévi, who connected it with the mysterious “watchers” mentioned in the pseudepigraphal text 1 Enoch. They were supposedly the sons of God who lusted after the daughters of men, cryptically mentioned in Genesis 6:2. From Lévi, the idea made its way into the French occult tradition called Martinism.

But it was Russian esotericism that brought the concept to the fore. Grigorii Osipovich Mebes (1861–1930), a Freemason and Martinist, is virtually unknown in the West, but he has been extraordinarily influential through the work of two of his disciples: Dymitr Sudowski (1898–1966), who, using the pen name Mouni Sadhu, wrote the widely read book The Tarot, and Valentin Tomberg (1900–73), author of the anonymously published but acclaimed Meditations on the Tarot. It is not quite clear how Mebes viewed egregores, but his disciples gave them a great deal of attention. Mouni Sadhu describes how they are created:

Imagine that an intelligent and well-disposed man, who is able to concentrate, is thinking about a good idea, giving it a certain form. He may then find others, who have the same or similar ideas, and so a circle of men may come into being, who are all thinking along the same lines but in a different form. It is as if every one of them is repeating the drawing of a plan, placing a pencil again and again along the same contours. The thing grows in strength, develops an astrosome [astral body] and becomes an “Egregor” or collective entity.

Mouni Sadhu believed that there could be both good and bad egregores, but Tomberg did not: to him, egregores were always bad. In fact he discusses them in his chapter on the Tarot trump of the Devil. For Tomberg, the meaning of the Devil card is (in Stavish’s words) “to illustrate how individuals can lose their freedom to an entity that they or others have generated—an entity that is an artificial being whose creator becomes its slave.” Mouni Sadhu cites as examples nations, states, religions, and “even minor human organizations.” We could add political parties and sports and celebrity fandom.

The subtitle speaks of “occult entities that watch over human destiny.” That is, egregores can be more than simple collective thought-forms. They can also be, in Stavish’s words, “the home or conduit for a specific psychic intelligence of a nonhuman nature connecting the invisible dimensions with the material world” (emphasis his). They are not necessarily mere creatures of imagination. They can serve as astral vehicles by which supernatural entities can interact with us.

Stavish gives a brief but engaging history of the concept in modern times, taking us from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, with his tales of the “Old Ones,” to the Italian esotericist Julius Evola, to the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), to Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich. An appendix from a 1929 Italian esoteric magazine edited by Evola even describes a ritual reviving the egregore of ancient Rome around the time of World War I. A message was conveyed to a Milanese newspaper publisher saying, “You will be Consul of Italy.” The publisher was Benito Mussolini. After Mussolini’s famous March on Rome in 1922, we are told, “a person clothed in red came forward and handed him a Fasces.” Thus was the fasces—originally the symbol of the Roman republic (it is still displayed in the U.S. House of Representatives)—transposed into a symbol of totalitarianism.

Stavish includes a useful chapter on freeing oneself from egregores. One technique, taken from Meditations on the Tarot, involves making the sign of the cross in the four directions and reciting Psalm 68:1–2: “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” Additionally, “one must spin three times to the left and cross oneself.” A less august method, discussed by scholar of esotericism Joscelyn Godwin, is “therapeutic blasphemy.” For those enslaved by degenerate forms of Christianity, Stavish writes, this might involve “a period of public denunciation of Christianity. . . . Otherwise they are doomed to remain perpetually under the thrall of the cult of the creed-making fishermen.”

The idea of egregores could inspire paranoia in a certain kind of personality, and of course that is unwise. But it is no doubt a good idea to remember that false idols can take the form of thoughts and ideas as well as objects. Stavish’s book is a timely, intelligent, and enjoyable reminder of this truth.

Richard Smoley 

 A Russian esotericist informs me that Mouni Sadhu’s book is based on Svyashchennaya kniga Tota: Velikiye arkany (“The Holy Book of Thoth: The Major Arcana”), by Vladimir Shmakov, published in Moscow in 1916. To my knowledge this work is not available in English, except in automatic translations.


 

 

Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators
GUY ARMSTRONG
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2017. 307 pp., paper, $17.95.

Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons
JAMES ISHMAEL FORD
Wisdom Publications, 2018. 248 pp., paper, $17.95.

Of course the bird we see and hear exists. It exists, but what I mean by that may not be exactly what you mean.

—Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

To come across one good book on a topic like emptiness is what I would call a blessing. To get two is a major blessing!

Emptiness is hard to understand, even though it is a central component of religious teaching. The computer mouse I use feels hard to touch, and my mindfulness training says to feel the hardness and the smooth surface. How do I know that it is empty?

Guy Armstrong, a guiding teacher at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, has written a book that is practical and easy to follow, especially for beginners, and includes several meditations. The book is in four parts: “Self,” “Phenomena,” “Awareness,” and “Compassion.” The first three parts are based on traditional Buddhist schools, mostly the Theravada Pali canon. The last part is more contemporary.

Emptiness, a translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata, can have a number of meanings. The Buddha discerned that human experience is empty of a self. A present-day interpretation points to a state of mind where we are “in touch with the present moment and not preoccupied with wants, needs, or issues of past or future.”

The section on “Self” is detailed and profoundly enlightening. When we say self, we are saying I, me, and mine. The Buddha said one can use these words, but one should not be confused. The world is empty of self, and the two understandings, absence of self and emptiness, are synonymous.

How do we relate this to our day-to-day experience? There are six ways: our body; ourselves as owners of our body; our emotions; ourselves as owner of our emotions; as an observer; and all of the above. How do these experiences align with the four basic assumptions associated with the self: continuity (we think self is permanent), control (we think self has control over body and mind), independence (we think “I” am seeing), and singleness (we believe we are one person and not two)? The self, as a combination of body, mind, owner, and observer, fails the test of the assumptions. Our experiences are changing moment to moment, and our notion of control is an illusion. What is real, then?

The Buddha said that what makes up a person is the six sense bases and the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness. The question again is, are these valid grounds for validation of self, or for some kind of ownership? This points us to a basic cycle: we own because we desire. We become attached because we desire. We suffer when things inevitably change or are broken or die. The great Thai forest master Ajahn Chah explained, referring to a glass of water he had: “You say, ‘don’t break my glass!’ Can you prevent something that is breakable from breaking? If it doesn’t break now, it will break later. If you don’t break it, someone else will. When someone else doesn’t, one of the chickens will. When you use this glass, you should reflect that it is already broken. . . . Develop this understanding. Use the glass, look after it, until one day, it slips out of your hand and breaks. . . . ‘Smash!’. . . no problem. Why is there no problem? Because you saw its brokenness before it broke.”

This is the key to understanding emptiness. How do we assimilate it? Armstrong helps us by giving practical instruction in vipassana, insight meditation. As Anagarika Munindra said, “If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.” We deconstruct our illusions and then see things as they are. Armstrong gives a profound description of how observing autopsies in a local hospital in Bangkok gave him a different insight into our experiences.

The final step in our understanding of emptiness or no-self is to go beyond self. We leave behind blind identifications and develop the three qualities that Armstrong says have the capacity to help us bear the burden of emptiness: compassion, patience, and faith. We practice wholesome action by becoming aware in six different ways: before we act; while we act; after we have acted; in our relationships; in habitual behaviors; and also in mysterious ways we don’t understand. We use karma to change karma and then to end karma! This is called “abiding in emptiness.”

The section “Phenomena” returns us to the realm of the objects of the six senses and asks: in what way do they exist? How do they arise and pass away? The Buddha gave a discourse called A Lump of Foam to address the emptiness of phenomena. Everything is void, hollow, and as insubstantial as a lump of foam on a river.

Armstrong also talks about the seeming paradox in emptiness. Things exist, but they don’t really exist. The Heart Sutra states, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

James Ishmael Ford’s Introduction to Zen Koans leads us to the land of paradox. The word koan is frequently translated as puzzle or riddle. I like Aitken Roshi’s meaning: “a matter to be cleared.” The language of koans is called the “language of the dragons” because it can be enlightening as well as terrifying at times. It is the language of the opposites. Zen Master Huineng had this advice: “If in questioning you, someone asks about being, answer with non-being. If he asks about non-being, answer with being. If she asks about the ordinary person, answer in terms of the sage. If she asks about the sage, answer in terms of the ordinary person. By this method of opposites mutually related there arises the understanding of the Middle way. For every question that you are asked, respond in terms of its opposite.”

Ford’s book is divided in three parts: “The Heart of Zen,” “The Practices of Zen,” and “Living Zen.” Ford is a great storyteller; he makes koan practice approachable and not so much like working with the dragons. He quotes Zen Master Seung Sahn’s example of what emptiness means: “Here is a wooden chair. It is brown. It is solid and heavy. It looks like it could last a long time. You sit in the chair and it holds up your weight. You can place things on it. But then you light the chair on fire and leave. When you come back later, the chair is no longer there! This thing that seemed so solid and strong and real is now just a pile of cinder and ash, which the wind blows around. This example shows how the chair is empty: it is not a permanent, abiding thing. It is always changing. It has no independent existence. Over a long or short time, the chair will eventually change and become something other than what it appears. So this brown chair is complete emptiness. But though it always has the quality of emptiness, this emptiness is form: you can sit in the chair, and it will still hold you up.”

Zen practice requires three things: great doubt, great faith, and great determination. The most famous koan is Zhaozhou’s mu. A student comes to Zhaozhou and asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replies, “Mu.” Mu means no, but that is not all. It is an invitation to delve into Great Emptiness. It means, “Although it is, it isn’t and although it isn’t, it is.”

I am tempted to ask: Ajahn Chah’s glass of water and Seung Sahn’s brown chair—are they the same or different? The two books would answer.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.


 

 

Physicians’ Untold Stories
SCOTT J. KOLBABA, M.D.
North Charleston, S.C., 2016. 225 pp., paper, $13.22.

Can surprising events occur that science can’t explain—events that could be called miracles? Before coming to a conclusion about this quandary, I suggest reading Physicians’ Untold Stories.

The book was written by Scott J. Kolbaba, an Illinois doctor specializing in internal medicine. Kolbaba, an occasional speaker at the TS headquarters in Wheaton, has been in the medical field for over thirty years. He has used his own experiences and those of other medical professionals to help reveal if there is more than medicine involved when it comes to healing patients.

Kolbaba interviewed twenty-six physicians about their unusual experiences that could not be medically explained. He transcribed his notes and then got together with each doctor to make sure that everything he had written was correct. Some patients agreed to having their names in the book. If they did not, he changed the names to protect their privacy. At the end of the book there is a short description of each doctor who collaborated in this project. The author gives their names, the type of medicine they practice, the schools they attended, and some funny anecdotes about their lives and personalities.

The book starts out with an introduction by the author, and the main part is divided into four main sections comprising short chapters. Each is a story in which the individual doctors described some of their unusual medical experiences and their impact. I found all of the stories to be heartwarming and would like to share a short synopsis of one from each section.

 In part 1, entitled “Divine Intervention,” is a chapter called “Music in the Emergency Department.” An emergency-department patient clinically died in a hospital. He was revived through a heroic measure. When he was able to speak again, he said he wanted to return to the white room with unfamiliar instruments that played beautiful music, because it was so peaceful there. The emergency department did not play music. Conceivably he had returned from a near-death experience.

In part 2, “Death and the Afterlife,” the story “Grandma O’Hanlon” describes a woman in a hospital delivery room who was about to give birth to her fifth child. She was in a lot of pain. The patient’s grandmother, a midwife, walked into the room and informed the patient that she should not take the relaxing medicine offered. The patient pushed the mask away and refused anesthesia. Declining it prevented complications that could have taken her life. The family connection was still strong, even though her grandmother had died twenty-two years before.

In part 3, “Healing,” there is a story called “The Dream.” A general surgeon had a dream about a friend who was lying dead in a funeral-home casket because of an acute heart attack. The doctor called his friend and told him to get a physical. It was found that two of three main arteries of his heart were 90 percent blocked. The friend had cardiac bypass surgery and is doing well fifteen years later. His life was prolonged with positive results because of a precognitive dream.

In “The Morning Miracle,” a story in part 4, “Prayer,” a doctor recalled his high-school days when he played soccer and was kicked in his flank. He went to the hospital in excruciating pain. The doctor thought about removing the ruptured kidney if things did not get better. The patient was in pain from Tuesday to Friday. On Friday, the pain vanished. After he was able to return to school, a teacher told him that the faculty had prayed for him that Friday.           

The book is easy to read and understand. No medical technical jargon is involved. It is not only for doctors but anyone interested in the medical field and the unusual things that can occur, including healing miracles. These stories can inspire a deeper understanding of mortality and the possibility of the existence of a higher power. It can arouse deep emotions and a tear or two from the reader.

Physicians’ Untold Stories is full of recollections of medical challenges, miraculous recoveries, and inspiration. It does not come to a conclusion about whether scientific or unexplained phenomena helped to resolve the medical dilemmas it describes. That is up to the reader.

Marie Otte

Marie Otte is a writer, meditation teacher, and astrologer. Her work has appeared in Quest, DreamNetWork.net, and Satvidya.



 

 

 

The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties: The Magic, Myth, and Music of the Decade That Changed the World
TOBIAS CHURTON
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018. 672 pp., paper, $40.

One can dispute the ultimate value of the ’60s as far as the quality of the decade’s art, music, or social mores go—and many have. What is harder to dispute is the seismic impact that it made on global culture. On any number of levels it was a period that witnessed profound changes convulsing society, and which continue reverberating in our lives up through the present day.

Author of such books as Occult Paris and Aleister Crowley in America, Tobias Churton turns his gaze toward that volatile decade and tackles the complex question of what spiritual lessons may be drawn from it.

As someone who came of age during that time and who closely followed many of its popular trends, I thought I already knew quite a bit about it. So I was pleasantly surprised by Churton’s encyclopedic overview, which ranges from discussions about developments not only in music, cinema, and television, but in religion, civil rights, and feminism, among many others. It’s a sprawling and kaleidoscopic work, and along the way he manages to sprinkle in a host of curious tidbits that will surprise even close students of the era. (Who knew the great pop composer Burt Bacharach had studied with the pioneering classical composer Darius Milhaud?) In the process he attempts to provide a sense of historical context to the decade, involving side trips into such areas as Gnosticism, medieval troubadours, and Hindu philosophy; he also digs down to mine the deeper import of many seemingly secular manifestations of the time, including the movie Easy Rider or the TV series I Love Lucy.

The book is over 600 pages long, so I sometimes feared the essential thread of his argument was in danger of getting lost amidst the avalanche of facts, figures, and personalities he’s somehow able to marshal up with little effort. (Unfortunately, I suspect the book’s hefty length might also keep away some readers, especially younger ones, who are accustomed to consuming information in more sound-bite form.) But he’s an engaging writer and in the end manages to tie those diverse threads together in a way that reveals more ambiguity about the topic than I initially suspected he might bring to it. He doesn’t pretend to present the decade through the rose-colored glasses many now associate with that time, but neither does he give short shrift to its more profound and esoteric implications.

While the book is exhaustively researched, there are some areas I wish had been included that are mentioned only in passing. As an astrologer, I felt his book could have benefited from a discussion of the astrological dynamics at work at the time, since those are so critical to illumining the turbulent and creative manifestations of the decade. But that would have taken his book in a somewhat more arcane direction than he intended, and it would have expanded an already large book even more, so that’s more of a personal quibble than a damning criticism. For readers interested in adding just such a perspective to their understanding of this period, I recommend reading Richard Tarnas’s (equally hefty) volume Cosmos and Psyche alongside Churton’s, specifically its passages on the revolutionary interaction of Uranus and Pluto during the ’60s. Another useful resource complementing Churton’s would be Gary Lachman’s excellent volume Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, which focuses on the more turbulent and troubling elements at work during the decade without ignoring its more positive contributions. 

All in all, Churton has written a fascinating and important book, and it is a must-read for any reader with an interest in the ’60s or contemporary culture generally.

Ray Grasse

Ray Grasse worked on the editorial staffs of Quest Books and Quest magazine from 1989 to 1999. He is author of several books, including Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), which includes an astrological discussion of the ’60s and their relevance to the emerging Aquarian Age. His website is www.raygrasse.com.


 

 

 

The Miracle Club: How Thoughts Become Reality
MITCH HOROWITZ
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018. 182 pp., paper, $16.99.

Mitch Horowitz, a writer, speaker, and TS member, is steeped in the philosophy of New Thought, which holds that thoughts create form; as Horowitz says, “thoughts are causative.” His latest book, The Miracle Club, is what he calls a “guidebook” to New Thought and metaphysics and why it works for those who know how to perform its practices. Horowitz’s book pays “homage” to his New Thought heroes, particularly the mid–twentieth century author and speaker Neville Goddard.

“Thinking in a direct, highly focused, and emotively charged manner expands our capacity to perceive and concretize events,” Horowitz says, “and relates us to the non-tactile field of existence that surpasses ordinarily perceived boundaries of time and thought.”

Thought is “generative” and “must be supplemented by courageous action. Never omit that,” Horowitz emphasizes, adding in a later chapter that “thoughts/ideas must be acted upon or they weaken and die,” which is “tragic.”

Because thoughts are causative, Horowitz tells us that the “true nature of life is to be generative—to be happy, human beings must exercise their fullest range of abilities—including the exertions of outer achievement” (emphasis here and in other quotes his). Again we encounter the “doing” that Horowitz believes is essential to creating our life and fulfilling our wants and desires. “Thought without labor is like faith without works: dead,” writes Horowitz, encouraging the use of the “force” of an “overlooked energy: The power of one deeply felt wish. One finely honed, exclusively focused, deeply felt and passionately felt desire.” You must want it “with your whole soul,” because “what you want is what you get.”

Horowitz explores New Thought’s version of “prosperity theology,” noting that “your creative agency, and the thoughts with which you impress it contribute to the actualized events of your existence—including money.” He questions the Eastern idea of nonattachment and says that no matter what profession or trade we are in, we should want wealth: “You must see wealth as a necessary and vital facet of your life,” he writes. Many modern-day spiritual writers (he names Eckhart Tolle and Michael A. Singer as two of them) “have not provided Westerners with a satisfying response to materialism because it seems to divert the individual from the very direction in which he may find meaning, which is toward the compass point of achievement.”

Horowitz does not define any other types of wealth or achievement other than financial and material, although he does encourage us toward “simplicity of habit and reduction of wants,” noting that “abundance can be a kind of slavery insofar as it feeds and foments . . . the lowest self within us that feeds on habit, consumption, and routine.”

“Methods in Mind Power” is a chapter that teaches us how to create miracles in our lives, and Horowitz give us four practices: affirmation; visualizations, which might attract someone who can help us get what we want (he offers the caveat is that “wanting” some achievement often “breeds impatience”); praying (Horowitz believes in “petitionary” prayer—“asking, even demanding, something specific from God”); and meditation—a practice he says is “vital to any spiritual journey.” But that journey also requires “impassioned commitment” (doing) as well.

Horowitz criticizes what he believes are New Thought’s shortcomings, including its failure to provide a viable “theology of suffering.” But perhaps the real problem with New Thought is that it needs to recover its roots in the Eastern philosophies—Hinduism, Buddhism, the Tao—in order to provide a way for people to live more effortlessly, without the struggle of achieving and gaining material wealth when “do what you love and the money will follow” might be a better path. The strain of forcing the world out there into a mold of what we want it to be is the source of our suffering, said the Buddha.

Horowitz’s guidebook gives us plenty of doing, even though the stillness of nonaction is often the better way. Both, however, can serve us well when used with what the Buddha called “right intention” to serve the higher good.

 Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Center, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth. Her article “A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism” appeared in the fall 2018 Quest.


 

 

 

Effortless Living: Wu-Wei and the Spontaneous State of Natural Harmony
JASON GREGORY
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018, xxii + 187 pp., paper, $16.99.

We believe we know what we want, but do we know what we need? One of my mantras, created from personal experience, has long been: want nothing, and the universe will give you all needful things. From an Eastern viewpoint, the metaphysics of thought is more than just wanting something and expecting it to manifest. A danger in wanting is that we will get what we want rather than what the universe knows we need, which can pull us away from our true spiritual path.

Wanting generally comes from the ego, which “thinks it knows best for you. But your ego does not know what is best for you,” writes Jason Gregory in his beautifully written book, Effortless Living, which takes us down another path—that of the Tao and the practice of wu-wei, “the natural state of our consciousness.” As Gregory says, the teaching of Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism, is one of “naturalness”: no forcing, no striving to control life and outcomes. Wu-wei means nondoing, nonaction, or effortless action. It is, he says, an “effortless psychological experience” of “‘allowing’ a state of ‘intelligent spontaneity.’”

That is similar to what we find in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which defines flow as “the ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it” and “is a very rare gift.” People who can go with the flow have “unselfconscious self-assurance . . . their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously,” writes Csikszentmihalyi.

Trust is an important element in going with the flow and allowing natural harmony to exist. “To trust the universe means to let life be without trying to impose our will over it in any way,” Gregory says. “When we trust completely, our physical, mental, and spiritual planes of consciousness harmonize with the heartbeat of the Earth.” In that way we can experience the harmony of nature and learn a way of “being” rather than constant “doing.”

Gregory addresses synchronicity, explaining that fate “takes into account the relationship between our inner and outer worlds” and “is diametrically opposed to chance.” Wu-wei involves the harmonization of our inner and outer worlds, trusting in the “unfolding of fate in our lives” and becoming “aware of synchronicity.”

It is this harmony that Gregory discusses in teaching about wu-wei; when we have gone beyond thought and beyond doing to no-thinking and nondoing, we are free to live spontaneously and with grace. In India, he notes, “this grace comes about because of the ability to see that everything is done when left undone.”

Another way of looking at this, from Alexandria David-Neel’s book The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, is “nothing to be done.” Something might be done or could be done, but using the art of nondoing, there is nothing to be done because everything is already perfect as it is in the zone or the flow of the experience. Inserting our will, our wants, desires, and wishes into the world disrupts the harmony of nature. Gregory reminds us that “human life is an intrinsic part of nature because a human being is nature.” Remembering that is important because “the human being corresponds to nature by allowing all aspects of universal life to take their natural course without conscious interference.”

Can there be a harmonization between doing and nondoing? Gregory looks to the Indian sage Patanjali for understanding that “the ‘doing’ of practice is in alignment with the evolutionary unfolding while the ‘non-doing’ of stillness brings one in resonance with the Eternal Self, which is the source of Tao within us.”

Doing is more valued in today’s world than nondoing, “yet the act of leaving things alone allows the Tao to bring harmony into the world without our personal interference,” Gregory says. “Working against the nature of Tao . . . leaves humanity in a place of desperate survival. . . . Disharmony on all fronts is the outcome.”

Gregory’s book gives us the gift and the freedom of no striving and no struggle, and teaches us that often nondoing—seeking the stillness of nonaction—is the better way.

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Center, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth. Her article “A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism” appeared in the fall 2018 Quest.

 


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