Sunday, October 08, 2006

Island (Aldous Huxley)

In his quasi utopian work Island, Aldous Huxley describes the functions and structures of a semi-enlightened society in the midst of an increasingly mad world riddled with greed and conflict. What makes the island's idealistic existence possible is the relative geographical isolation from outside influences. The island nation has evolved structures over a period of 150 years catalysed by a few semi-enlightened individuals, to support individual and social development into realms of higher consciousness. In fact, Pala is a forbidden island, a place no journalist has ever visited. However, as the madness of the outside world encroaches, these structures begin to be attacked, and the core values of this island nation fall into jeopardy. Nonetheless, by the end of the story, a broad panoramic portrait of an extraordinarily functional and enviable society is provided.

Interestingly, the ideological roots of this island society originate from a mix of Western and Eastern influences, in the persons of a Scottish doctor, Dr. Andrew, and a Palanese king, the Raja. An odd friendship between a Calvinist-Turned-Atheist and a pious Mahayana Buddhist. Dr. Andrew saved the life of the terminally ill Raja by using unorthodox techniques of Western medicine and hypnosis. They fast became friends, a pair of complimentary temperaments, talents, and philosophies, as well as complementary stocks of knowledge,

[...] each man supplying the other's deficiencies, each stimulating and fortifying the other's native capacities. The Raja's was an acute and subtle mind; but he knew nothing of the world beyond the confines of his island, nothing of physical science, nothing of European technology, European art, European ways of thinking. No less intelligent, Dr. Andrew knew nothing, of course, about Indian painting and poetry and philosophy. He also knew nothing, as he gradually discovered, about the science of the human mind and the art of living. In the month's that followed [...] each became the other's pupil and the other's teacher.

The story begins with Will Farnaby, a Westerner who is beached on the island of Pala after having failed to negotiate some difficult waters. Injured and traumatized, he is found by a young girl and her little brother. The young girl, cautious at first, applies some simple but powerful psychological first aid to get Will to confront the deep emotional pain surrounding the experience. The first aid consists simply in repeatedly reliving the traumatic experience until all blockages in the form of suppressed emotions have been palliated by finding a conscious avenue of expression and therefore release. After a cathartic episode, Will is able to enter into more normal interaction, having been freed from some of the psychological blockages caused by the traumatic experience. What is fascinating is the ease with which the technique is applied, even by a child. And even more, that all inhabitants of Pala have knowledge of such techniques at a very early age.

A recurring theme in Island is the use of hypnosis for dealing with pain in all its forms. The members of Palanese society are taught how to use self-hypnosis for relieving physical pain—and the women in particular employ this precise technique for painless childbirth. This same hypnotic procedure is also used to provide anaesthesia-less surgeries. The essence of the process is described when Susila hypnotizes Will after his traumatic ordeal, in order to speed physical recovery of his injuries. Susila later reveals in beautiful metaphor, that we must send our little "selves" into the garden to play, so the "grownups" can get to work on things. And it is at this moment that indirect suggestions can be made to great benefit. In the case of Will's injured knee, she makes some suggestions about his body image, making him imagine it much bigger than in everyday reality, and the knee much smaller. "There can't be any doubt as to who's going to win." Interestingly, this description of using hypnosis to treat injury and illness in general, was certainly influenced by Aldous Huxley's collaborations with renown psychiatrist and hypno-therapist Milton H. Erickson.

On a related note is the scathing commentary on the state of Western medicine. What transpires is a brilliant coup de grace in favour of holistic medicine, and treatment of the entire human being—with significant emphasis on prevention rather than cure. Will is speaking with the peppery little nurse Radha, who has brought him his afternoon meal.

     "So you think our medicine's pretty primitive?"
     "That's the wrong word. It isn't primitive. It's fifty percent terrific and fifty percent non-existent. Marvellous antibiotics—but absolutely no methods for increasing resistance, so that antibiotics won't be necessary. Fantastic operations—but when it comes to teaching people the way of going through life without having to be chopped up, absolutely nothing. And it's the same all along the line. Alpha Plus for patching you up when you've started to fall apart; but Delta Minus for keeping you healthy. Apart from sewerage systems and synthetic vitamins, you don't seem to do anything at all about prevention. And yet you've got a proverb: prevention is better than cure."
     "But cure," said Will, "is so much more dramatic than prevention. And for the doctors it's also a lot more profitable."
     "Maybe for your doctors," said the little nurse. "Not for ours. Ours get paid for keeping people well."
     "How is it to be done?"
     "We've been asking that question for a hundred years, and we've found a lot of answers. Chemical answers, psychological answers, answers in terms of what you eat, how you make love, what you see and hear, how you feel about being who you are in this kind of world."


     "So whether it's prevention or whether it's cure, we attack on all the fronts at once. All the fronts," she insisted, "from diet to autosuggestion, from negative ions to meditation."

Nurse Radha offers this telling little rhyme that every student nurse must commit to memory on the first day of training:

'I' am a crowd, obeying as many laws
As it has members. Chemically impure
Are all 'my' beings. There's no single cure
For what can never have a single cause.

On the issue of family and parenting, Island offers a refreshing alternative to conventional family structures. The centrepiece of Palanese family life revolves around the mutual adoption club or MAC. These are groups of about twenty families where children are raised in communities of mothers and fathers. Every member of society is a member of an MAC. Most children reside with their biological parents as with conventional family structures. However, in the event of family difficulties, children know they are free to leave their parents' home, and stay at one of their adoptive parents' homes until the difficulty passes or is resolved. The beauty of this approach is the exceedingly desirable side-effect of having children protected, to a large degree, from the repeated and extended exposure to the neurosis of a single set of parents. These children become the recipients of a number of diverse parenting styles, and derive tremendous benefit from a pool of role models. This dramatically curbs the passing of neurotic patterns from one generation to the next, as so often occurs in conventional parent-child relationships. Children are virtually guaranteed the love and attention they require at all stages of their development. Further, this care and attention is extended to every member of an MAC, from infants to centenarians. These communities are organic, fluid, and easily adapt to changing situations and circumstances of individuals.

So what does the educational process look like for a semi-enlightened society? In short, there is a great deal of attention given to the question of how to educate children on the conceptual level without killing their capacity for intense non-verbal experience. To begin with, education in Pala centres around a kind of practical semi-mystical deep psychology of mind and essence. First principles are discussed early on, the nature of being, mind, language, symbols, how language influences perception, and how the map is not the territory. Oddly, in our Western world we think these are high and flighty concepts, but only because most never encounter them until later in life. But if they are presented skilfully, these ideas can easily be grasped by children, and most importantly, could then inform all future learning, placing it in the correct context. But why is this so important? Well, briefly, when a human being sees the difference between language and the reality language attempts to approximate (albeit poorly), there is a marked reduction in one's identification with verbally expressed ideas, opinions, and views. And it's precisely this identification (and subsequent attachment) with the verbal expression of an idea, opinion, or view which is the cause of so much human conflict and suffering. Mr. Chandra Menon, the Under-Secretary of Education provides this explanation:

[Children] are taught to pay attention to what they see and hear, and at the same time they're asked to notice how their feelings and desires affect what they experience of the outer world, and how their language habits affect not only their feelings and desires but even their sensations. What my ears and my eyes record is one thing; what the words I use and the mood I'm in and the purposes I'm pursuing allow me to perceive, make sense of and act upon is something quite different. So you see it's all brought together into a single educational process. What we give the children is simultaneously a training in perceiving and imagining, a training in applied physiology and psychology, a training in practical ethics and practical religion, a training in the proper use of language, and a training in self-knowledge. In a word, a training of the whole mind-body in all its aspects.

Further, the point is made that a trained mind-body learns more quickly and more thoroughly than an untrained one. That it is more capable of relating facts to ideas, and both of them to life. And this includes wonderful visualization exercises, that bring to mind elements touched upon in the Harry Potter series, and techniques for dealing with powerful negative emotions. Some specific examples of teaching methodology include, how logic and structure are taught in the form of games and puzzles; children play and incredibly quickly catch the point, which can then be followed with practical applications. Children begin learning about ecology very early on; they are never given the chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. And what's especially important about this early teaching is the way in which it roots children in the development of an ecologically-based morality. The child isn't taught by way of constrictions and prohibitions, but rather indirectly through ecological investigations on the effects and repercussions of various actions in the environment. This gradually and naturally transforms itself into a higher Morality in relation to all things, a Morality that develops from clear understanding, rather than being imposed from without.

The morality to which a child goes on from the facts of ecology and the parables of erosion is a universal ethic. There are no Chosen People in nature, no Holy Lands, no Unique Historical Revelations. Conservation morality gives nobody an excuse for feeling superior, or claiming special privileges. 'Do as you would be done by' applies to our dealings with all kinds of life in every part of the world. We shall be permitted to live on this planet only for as long as we treat all nature with compassion and intelligence. Elementary ecology leads straight to elementary Buddhism.

Also, training in receptivity becomes the complement and antidote to training in analysis and symbol manipulation:

If one chooses to [...] one can always substitute a bad ready-made notion for the best insights of receptivity. The question is, why should one want to make that kind of choice? Why shouldn't one choose to listen to both parties and harmonize their views? The analysing tradition-bound concept maker and the alertly passive insight receiver—neither is infallible; but both together can do a reasonably good job.

As we move forward in our discovery of the infrastructure of a semi-enlightened society, we approach the hallowed realms of economics, politics, and media influence. These three areas are examined more-or-less simultaneously, as they are all directly to do with one grand over-arching idea: power. As Will Farnaby is given a tour of the productive resources of Pala, and the efficiency with which the society produces goods and services, he asks his guide on where ownership lies. His guide describes a co-operative system that lends itself to streamlined co-operative techniques for buying and selling and profit sharing and financing, without the need for commercial banks.

[...] Most of the time we're co-operators. Palanese agriculture has always been an affair of terracing and irrigation. But terracing and irrigation call for pooled efforts and friendly agreements. Cut-throat competition isn't compatible with rice-growing in a mountainous country. Our people found it quite easy to pass from mutual aid in a village community to streamlined co-operative techniques for buying and selling and profit sharing and financing. [...] No commercial banks [as] in your Western style. Our borrowing and lending system was modelled on those credit unions that Wilhelm Raiffeisen set up more than a century ago in Germany. Dr. Andrew persuaded the Raja to invite one of Raiffeisen's young men to come here and organize a co-operative banking system.

And to the question of what is used for money or the means of exchange, Will's guide indicates a paper currency that is 100% backed by physical gold, silver, and copper. The benefits of this approach is at first somewhat unclear, but with persistence of examination its power becomes painfully obvious; such an approach prevents excesses in government spending (the welfare state); it also prevents inflation and hyper-inflation, by way of terminating the virtually endless supply of unbacked paper (or electronic) currency, which dilutes the money supply and dramatically reduces purchasing power, the diseases of most modern Western economies.

There is a very interesting relationship presented in the effects of overpopulation, and the attendant inability to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, and education, and the subsequent rise of megalomaniacal demagogues due to civil unrest and discontent. The point is made that solving ones economic problems is not possible until the issue of overpopulation and its immediate side effects are adequately dealt with.

Solving [our economic problems] wasn't difficult. To begin with, we never allowed ourselves to produce more children than we could feed, clothe, house, and educate into something like full humanity. Not being overpopulated, we have plenty. But, although we have plenty, we've managed to resist the temptation that the West has now succumbed to—the temptation to overconsume. [...] Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you'd collapse. And while you people are overconsuming the rest of the world sinks more and more deeply into chronic disaster. Ignorance, militarism and breeding, these three—and the greatest of these is breeding. No hope, not the slightest possibility, of solving the economic problems until that's under control. As population rushes up, prosperity goes down. [...] And as prosperity goes down, discontent and rebellion, [...] political ruthlessness and one-party rule, nationalism and bellicosity begin to rise. Another ten or fifteen years of uninhibited breeding, and the whole world, from China to Peru via Africa and the Middle East, will be fairly crawling with Great Leaders, all dedicated to the suppression of freedom, all armed to the teeth by Russia or America or, better still, by both at once, all waving flags, all screaming for Lebensraum.

Further examination reveals the deep connection between economics and politics. Will questions how the people of Pala prevent the arising of so-called "Great Leaders." His guide responds that they don't engage in warfare and therefore have no need for military hierarchies, or a centralized government. And this lack of centralized power structure is further supported by virtue of Pala's policy preventing anyone from becoming more than four or five times as wealthy as the average. The result, of course, is to prevent the arising of centralized power structures that are economically-based. A related premise is presented in Buckminster Fuller's The Grunch of Giants where he maintains that large multinational corporations have become the worlds true (but hidden) governing elite, due to the economic power they possess to influence everything from public opinion (through mass media), education, religion, commerce, and the body politic.

Well, to begin with we don't fight wars or prepare for them. Consequently, we have no need for conscription, or military hierarchies, or a unified command. Then there's our economic system: it doesn't permit anybody to become more than four or five times as rich as the average. That means that we don't have any captains of industry or omnipotent financiers. Better still, we have no omnipotent politicians or bureaucrats. Pala's a federation of self-governing units, geographical units, professional units, economic units—so there's plenty of scope for small-scale initiative and democratic leaders, but no place for any kind of dictator at the head of a centralized government. Another point: we have no established church, and our religion stresses immediate experience and deplores belief in unverifiable dogmas and the emotions which that belief inspires. So we're preserved from the plagues of popery, on the one hand, and fundamentalist revivalism, on the other. And along with transcendental experience we systematically cultivate skepticism. Discouraging children from taking words too seriously, teaching them to analyse whatever they hear or read—this is an integral part of the school curriculum. Result: the eloquent rabble-rouser, like Hitler or our neighbour across the Strait, Colonel Dipa, just doesn't have a chance here in Pala.

The key to achieving this hegemony of power lies in the control of mass media. When a centralized power structure controls mass media, it controls public opinion, and has complete autonomy over that society's decision-making process in the guise of a functioning democracy. Through television, radio, newspaper, etc., the populace is gradually conditioned to take on the views inculcated by these centralized power structures. Noam Chomsky's paraphrased remark is quite apropos, that violence is to dictatorship what propaganda is to democracy. When Will Farnaby discovers that their is only one newspaper in Pala, he enquires on who enjoys the monopoly:

"Nobody enjoys a monopoly," Dr. Robert assured him. "There's a panel of editors representing half a dozen different parties and interests. Each of them gets his allotted space for comment and criticism. The reader's in a position to compare their arguments and make up his own mind. I remember how shocked I was the first time I read one of your big-circulation newspapers. The bias of the headlines, the systematic one-sidedness of the reporting and the commentaries, the catchwords and slogans instead of argument. No serious appeal to reason. Instead, a systematic effort to install conditioned reflexes in the minds of the voters—and, for the rest, crime, divorce, anecdotes, twaddle, anything to keep them distracted, anything to prevent them from thinking."

Turning our attention towards less secular matters, perhaps most controversial is the approach towards spirituality and the religious impulse in Palanese society. Here, society consists of an admixture of religious philosophies, and adherents can best be described as "Buddhist Shivaites and Tantrik agnostics with Mahayana trimmings." However, deeply connected with the more theoretical aspects of religious philosophy, is an intensely practical, experiential aspect that is strongly emphasized. Virtually all Palanese participate in a deeply transformative initiation ceremony when they enter adulthood. It involves ingesting what is called the moksha-medicine in a very special context. This so-called "medicine" is a mescaline-like substance in the form of a mushroom, which plunges one into an altered state. However, this isn't just a wild ride down hallucination lane. Quite contrary, a great deal of attention is given to mind-set and environmental setting, and the entire process is ritualized so that the experience revolves around a spiritual core, where participants are encouraged to point their heightened and altered perceptions back onto themselves developing a realization of who and what they really are. The word moksha is borrowed from the Sanskrit and can be translated as "liberation." And this is precisely what the medicine is intended to convey: a brief taste of the experience of liberation or enlightenment, and also what's possible in terms of other modes of human consciousness. Once the experience is complete, the idea is then to continue the spiritual, psychological, emotional, and mental work necessary that prepares the ground for arriving at this heightened state in a completely natural way. The moksha-medicine is subsequently used only as a periodic aid, perhaps once or twice a year, to provide deeper insight in the course of one's personal development.

     "Another thing we're just beginning to understand," said Vijaya, "is the neurological correlate of these experiences. What's happening in the brain when you're having a vision? And what's happening when you pass from a premystical to a genuinely mystical state of mind?"
     "Do you know?" Will asked.
     "'Know' is a big word. Let's say we're in a position to make some plausible guesses. Angels and New Jerusalems and Madonnas and Future Buddhas—they're all related to some kind of unusual stimulation of the brain areas of primary projection—the visual cortex, for example. Just how the moksha-medicine produces those unusual stimuli we haven't yet found out. The important fact is that, somehow or other, it does produce them. And somehow or other, it also does something unusual to the silent areas of the brain, the areas not specifically concerned with perceiving, or moving, or feeling."
     "And how do the silent areas respond?" Will enquired.
     "Let's start with what they don't respond with. They don't respond with visions or auditions, they don't respond with telepathy or clairvoyance or any other kind of parapsychological performance. None of that amusing premystical stuff. Their response is the full-blown mystical experience. You know—One in all and All in one. The basic experience with its corollaries—boundless compassion, fathomless mystery and meaning."
     "Not to mention joy," said Dr. Robert, "inexpressible joy."
     "And the whole caboodle is inside your skull," said Will. "Strictly private. No reference to any external fact except a toadstool."


     "You're assuming," said Dr. Robert, "That the brain produces consciousness. I'm assuming that it transmits consciousness. And my explanation is no more farfetched than yours. How on earth can a set of events belonging to one order be experienced as a set of events belonging to an entirely different and incommensurable order? Nobody has the faintest idea. All one can do is to accept the facts and concoct hypotheses. And one hypothesis is just about as good, philosophically speaking, as another. You say that the moksha-medicine does something to the silent areas of the brain which cause them to produce a set of subjective events to which people have given the name 'mystical experience.' I say that the moksha-medicine does something to the silent areas of the brain which opens some kind of neurological sluice and so allows a larger volume of Mind with a large 'M' to flow into your mind with a small 'm.' You can't demonstrate the truth of your hypothesis, and I can't demonstrate the truth of mine. And even if you could prove that I'm wrong, would it make any practical difference?"
     "I'd have thought it would make all the difference," said Will.
     "Do you like music?" Dr. Robert asked.
     "More than most things."
     "And what, may I ask, does Mozart's G-Minor Quintet refer to? Does it refer to Allah? Or Tao? Or the second person of the Trinity? Or the Atman-Brahman?"
     Will laughed. "Let's hope not."
     "But that doesn't make the experience of the G-Minor Quintet any less rewarding. Well, it's the same with the kind of experience that you get with the moksha-medicine, or through prayer and fasting and spiritual exercises. Even if it doesn't refer to anything outside itself, it's still the most important thing that ever happened to you. Like music, only incomparably more so. And if you give the experience a chance, if you're prepared to go along with it, the results are incomparably more therapeutic and transforming. So maybe the whole thing does happen inside one's skull. Maybe it is private and there's no unitive knowledge of anything but one's own physiology. Who cares? The fact remains that the experience can open one's eyes and make one blessed and transform one's whole life."

Another important aspect of Palanese spirituality involves the use of tantrik mysticism through the practice of maithuna, or the yoga of love. Although the view is expressed, that most tantra is silliness and superstition, there is a hard core of sense. The technique employs the use of male sexual restraint. The practice revolves around bringing great attention to the act of sexual union, in all its many details, its sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, etc., and to delay the male orgasm indefinitely. The essence of maithuna is movement from the purely physical, to all at once the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms. The simple act of exercising male restraint, coupled to a particular kind of intention and focus, is enough to bring both partners to an heightened state of awareness due to the deep attention given to intensely pleasurable sensations over an extended period of time.

In short, the essence of Palanese society revolves around a single text that was written by its greatest king the Old Raja, some 150 years ago. Pursuant to this text, the king had hundreds of mynah birds trained to regularly call out "attention" and "karuna" in an effort to remind Palanese citizens to bring their awareness to the two most important qualities of being present, and exercising compassion. The text is entitled, Notes on What's What. The content of the text is mainly concerned with what we really are on the level that's beyond individuality. It contains the essence of what Aldous Huxley wished to communicate in Island. And so we conclude with this extended quote, taken from the mouth of the great visionary himself:

     Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there.
     If I only knew who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.
     What in fact I am, if only the Manichee I think I am would allow me to know it, is the reconciliation of yes and no lived out in total acceptance and the blessed experience of Not-Two.
     In religion all words are dirty words. Anybody who gets eloquent about Buddha, or God, or Christ, ought to have his mouth washed out with carbolic soap.
     Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the "yes" in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.
     Conflicts and frustrations—the theme of all history and almost all biography. "I show you sorrow," said the Buddha realistically. But he also showed the ending of sorrow—self-knowledge, total acceptance, the blessed experience of Not-Two.


     Knowing who in fact we are results in Good Being, and Good Being results in the most appropriate kind of good doing. But good doing does not of itself result in Good Being. We can be virtuous without knowing who in fact we are. The beings who are merely good are not Good Beings; they are just pillars of society.
     Most pillars are their own Samsons. They hold up, but sooner or later they pull down. There has never been a society in which most good doing was the product of Good Being and therefore constantly appropriate. This does not mean that there will never be such a society or that we in Pala are fools for trying to call it into existence.


     The Yogin and the Stoic—two righteous egos who achieve their very considerable results by pretending, systematically, to be somebody else. But it is not by pretending to be somebody else, even somebody supremely good and wise, that we can pass from insulated Manichee-hood to Good Being.
     Good Being is knowing who in fact we are; and in order to know who in fact we are, we must first know, moment by moment, who we think we are and what this bad habit of thought compels us to feel and do. A moment of clear and complete knowledge of what we think we are, but in fact are not, puts a stop, for the moment, to the Manichean charade. If we renew, until they become a continuity, these moments of the knowledge of what we are not, we may find ourselves, all of a sudden, knowing who in fact we are.
     Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.
     The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God. Translating Spinoza's language into ours, we can say: The more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is—or rather Who (capital W) in Fact (capital F) "he" (between quotation marks) Is (capital I).
     St. John was right. In a blessedly speechless universe, the Word was not only with God; it was God. As a something to be believed in. God is a projected symbol, a reified name. God = "God."
     Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words—people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history—sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.


     Me as I think I am and me as I am in fact—sorrow, in other words, and the ending of sorrow. One third, more or less, of all the sorrow that the person I think I am must endure is unavoidable. It is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death. The remaining two thirds of all sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.


     'Patriotism is not enough.' But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.


     We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is to learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.
     In Pala, after three generations of Reform, there are no sheeplike flocks and no ecclesiastical Good Shepherds to shear and castrate; there are no bovine or swinish herds and no licensed drovers, royal or military, capitalistic or revolutionary, to brand, confine and butcher. There are only voluntary associations of men and women on the road to full humanity.
     Tunes or pebbles, processes or substantial things? "Tunes," answer Buddhism and modern science. "Pebbles," say the classical philosophers of the West. Buddhism and modern science think of the world in terms of music. The image that comes to mind when one reads the philosophers of the West is a figure in a Byzantine mosaic, rigid, symmetrical, made up of millions of little squares of some stony material and firmly cemented to the walls of a windowless basilica.
     The dancer's grace and, forty years on, her arthritis—both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.
     A century of research on the moksha-medicine has clearly shown that quite ordinary people are perfectly capable of having visionary or even fully liberating experiences. In this respect the men and women who make and enjoy high culture are no better off than the lowbrows. High experience is perfectly compatible with low symbolic expression.
     The expressive symbols created by Palanese artists are no better than the expressive symbols created by artists elsewhere. Being the products of happiness and a sense of fulfillment, they are probably less moving, perhaps less satisfying aesthetically, than the tragic or compensatory symbols created by victims of frustration and ignorance, of tyranny, war and guilt-fostering, crime-inciting superstitions. Palanese superiority does not lie in symbolic expression but in an art which, though higher and far more valuable than all the rest, can yet be practised by everyone—the art of adequately experiencing, the art of becoming more intimately acquainted with all the worlds that, as human beings, we find ourselves inhabiting. Palanese culture is not to be judged as (for lack of any better criterion) we judge other cultures. It is not to be judged by the accomplishments of a few gifted manipulators of artistic or philosophical symbols. No, it is to be judged by what all the members of the community, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, can and do experience in every contingency and at each successive intersection of time and eternity.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Only Dance There Is (Ram Dass)

The story of Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert) is a tragic one to some, and a testimony of the exquisite beauty, unpredictability and serendipity of life. After having received his doctoral degree, Richard Alpert was offered a prestigious post at Harvard University, where he eventually held appointments in four departments—the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service where he was a therapist. After some years of research and teaching, he met with Dr. Timothy Leary, who introduced him to LSD and it's effects on consciousness. Intrigued, they began conducting experiments on the psychotropic, administering the drug to individuals in double blind studies, and gradually began to draw a great deal of media attention to their work. The work placed the psychology department at Harvard and the University as a whole in an unfavorable light, and they were pressured by the conservative right to terminate the research. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were subsequently dismissed from Harvard in 1963, and here began a new chapter in psychedelic research and consciousness exploration.

The depth of insights offered by this man are truly phenomenal. He moves along his descriptions of consciousness, experience, and phenomena so fluidly and effortlessly, that one wonders where it is all coming from. In fact, he often says, that "he" isn't speaking, but that there "is" simply speaking. That there is a certain stepping aside of the egoic self so that truth can flow according to the circumstances and needs of the moment.

Ram Dass makes some important allusions to spirituality and its relation to entheogens, particularly LSD, in its ability to give individuals a brief taste of what's possible. He draws a great deal from his own experiences, but makes it very clear that these are only temporary states, and once one comes down from the experience, one is left with the dilemma of how to proceed. One has been metaphorically admitted to the "wedding banquet," but cannot stay. And this is the essence of esoteric Eastern spirituality, to enter into these expanded states of awareness, and there remain, through a gradual process of mind development, and consciousness unfolding. However, the use of entheogens can be useful for many as a kind of initiation or periodic pointer, alerting one to the possibility of what's available to human consciousness. This is particularly apropos for the West, where philosophical materialism makes it extremely difficult to accept something unless there is strong material or experimental evidence.

Ram Dass describes many of his experiences in detail, often times leaving the reader in a state of amazement and perhaps disbelief if s/he has never encountered such possibilities of experience before. But for the initiated, the territory covered is at least partially familiar. He does a wonderful job of connecting the various maps from different traditions, and presenting how they are all similar, and what it is they are accomplishing. He takes examples of some common practices, and examines the purpose and effects of these practices on consciousness. As things become clearer, one begins to develop an appreciation of the esoteric traditions in many cultures. At the very least, one begins to see the value of reproducible verifiable experiments on oneself. One begins to see oneself in the role of the consummate scientist, where one's entire being becomes a laboratory for experimentation.

The book originates from the recording of a series of talks given at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, and Spring Grove Hospital in 1972. The content can best be summarized by providing a topical list of the various ideas covered. There is simply too much breadth, and depth of insight to do justice in the form of a conventional summary of main ideas. However, the golden thread that unites all topics is clearly to do with consciousness expansion. Ram Dass really gets to the crux of issues, and most importantly, communicates them in a very accessible, low key, informal style, that makes for extremely entertaining reading. A series of section subtitles follows.

Part 1: The Path of Consciousness, The Four Component Design of Ashram, Consciousness as Freedom from Attachment, Higher Consciousness as State of Unity, Mantra, The Mandala Process, The Eternal Present, LSD, The "Book", Psychotherapy as a Path, Game Theory, Guide of Consciousness Journeys, Simple Rule of the Game, Chakra Centers, Levels of Consciousness, Krishna, Ram Story, The Issue of Social Responsibility, Increasing the Amount of Consciousness, Interchange of Methods, Modification of Group Consciousness, The Problem of the Experimenter, Limitations of Knowing, Evolving Consciousness

Part 2: Meher Baba and Bhakti Yoga, Edgar Cayce and Two States of Consciousness, Fear and Higher States of Consciousness, Love as a State of Being, The I Ching, Diet and Food, Perceptual Vantage Points and Psychosis, Another Karmic Relationship, Compassion without Pity, Attractions and Dangers of Powers, Need for a Guru, Gnostic Intermediary, The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chakras, Optimum Being, Transmutation of Energy, Centering, Distinctions Between English and Sanskrit, One-Pointedness of Mind, Teachers as Conveyors of the Universe

Part 3: "Miracle Stories", Nirvana, "Eastern" and "Western" Models of Man, Raising the Kundalini, Maharaj-ji. The Planes of Consciousness, Lawfulness of the Universe

Part 4: Karma and Reincarnation, Attachment, How Do We Know?, Deepest Desires Connected with Survival and Reproduction, Other Forms of Life, Comprehension, Desires, Beyond Dualism

Ram Dass, psychonaut extraordinaire, has given an incredible account of human potential and possibility. With his explorations of mind and consciousness, he has journeyed where few others have gone. And from these panoramic vistas and dizzying heights, he relates back to us that this exploration is truly the only dance there is.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sorcerers (Jacob NeedleMan)

This is an extremely absorbing tale involving visual magic, sleight of hand, and the psychology accompanying these visual phenomena. The central themes of this book revolve around the deep conflict between the compulsion to exercise power over others, and using one's personal power to master one's own nature. Of additional interest is the ingenious description of psycho-physical techniques for tapping into powerful states of mind that are usually outside the purview of the average person.

One of the more powerful ideas of the book is the idea of mental enslavement. Eliot has spuriously displayed the ability to know certain things about people that is conventionally believed to be beyond the limits of human ability. Wally asks Eliot if his abilities allow him to read his mind at will. Eliot pauses, and in that pause there is a world of possibility. Simply by saying yes, Eliot could have enslaved Wally to his whims and machinations. This notion of one believing another possesses the special ability to read their mind has the effect of that one giving away all their personal power, living in a state of perpetual fear or insecurity of the other, that the other knows everything about him or her—what he or she is feeling or thinking at every moment. It is like being bare, naked and vulnerable in front of someone fully clothed, protected and armoured.

     "Can I ask you something?" said Wally. "Do you know what I've been thinking? I mean, have you been sort of reading my mind while I've been sitting here? Does it work like that?"
     The answer, of course, was no, not in the slightest. But Wally's question produced an extraordinary picture in Eliot's mind. Without lifting a finger, he could make Wally Pound into his "slave," simply by letting him believe the answer was yes. Strangely enough, however, that prospect held absolutely no attraction for Eliot. And that fact interested him almost as much as everything else that was happening. He had never imagined himself as being an especially moral or truthful person. But, somehow, clearly seeing that impulse to "enslave" Wally made it powerless, as though such impulses could do harm only when they weren't fully seen.

This idea also seems to hint at more conventional areas of human endeavour, such as the application of charisma and persuasion, convincing others of one's point of view or beliefs, or simply using others to fulfill one's desires. If one can appear sufficiently confident, one can exercise control over one's fellow man. There is something of the actor or pretender in these endeavours, pretending to be what one is not. All towards an end of usurpation of power over our fellow man by means of deception and stratagem. "It's not what you do on stage that counts, it's what you are on the stage."

Another interesting idea is that surrounding the event of Eliot's first genuine telepathic experience. The way in which it manifested hints a great deal on the nature of mind, and the way of handling difficult situations through one's inner relationship with the situation. Just as things begin to go wrong with his magic trick, Eliot followed the advice of the seasoned and experienced Max Falkoner in such situations: "When something goes wrong, never apologize, never explain. When it goes wrong, make it really wrong." Eliot begins improvising in ways he has no idea how to resolve, digging himself deeper and deeper. The emotional turmoil that ensues is terrific, profound fear and anxiety of embarrassment, of being laughed at, of making a fool of oneself, but he prods on anyway. And this going forward in the face of such emotional turmoil, consciously and with full awareness, seems to act as a kind of key in opening a portal to another world—the world of mind communicating directly with mind. And lo! The answer appears suddenly before him, he reads the mind of his participant.

Yet another revealing idea in the book is the power of mind in what can be called psychic projection. There is the incident of Eliot in a store pining over a certain very attractive book. Behaving as if he had already bought the book, Eliot simply walks passed the cashier with the book under his arm. The implication is that his attitude creates the psychic field suggesting he is doing nothing wrong, and so the cashier does not suspect anything is wrong. Granted, this is aided with a bit of innocuous conversation that serves to win over the cashier and establish a certain rapport with her. These pieces come together in further hinting at the ways we can exercise control over our fellow man—not for encouraging such behaviour, but rather to alert us to the possibility of being the object of control and manipulation of the unscrupulous.

There is one particularly illuminating scene where Max Falkoner encourages Eliot to take one ring in each hand and point his arms and hands diagonally upwards, simply holding them there. Minutes pass, and Eliot begins to swell with agony, thoughts, images, rush before his eyes, and with his waning attention his arms begin to sink. Max encourages Eliot to try and not give up—to find those "special muscles." Those muscles that need to be exercised if he wishes to grow out of being a boy. What is Max referring to? Perhaps a combination of will and surrender that together act as gateways towards the activation of an alternate dimension within oneself. The will to do outwardly, coupled to an inner sense of surrender—surrender to the pain, and doing anyway. Eventually, Eliot's arms come down, and after the deep sense of failure of not having found the "muscles" he is directed to remain very still with eyes closed. A sense of subtle vitality flows down his spine. He is instructed to use his power and point it at himself—and he sees himself. He enters a temporary state of pseudo-enlightened clarity, and senses two currents within his body—one of pleasure in the front half of his body, and the subtle vitality in the back. He feels divided in two. Finally, after some moments pass, he is instructed to return to the mundane tasks of working with the rings:

"As though from somewhere behind himself, he watched in shock at how poorly he performed. At every crucial point, he helplessly witnessed his attention repeatedly being drawn away from his hands and the rings. But what startled him most was observing the part of himself that was completely satisfied with how he performed, like a separate personality that offered very favourable judgement on everything he did."

Max hurls a barrage of insults at Eliot as he continues the routine. Here Eliot experiences his usual impulse to cry or run away. This impulse appears to come from the same side of himself as the personality he observes that judges the poor work favourably. But for some reason this impulse does not engulf him, and he persists with the routine, absorbing the stream of insults. And then suddenly, Eliot begins to feel filled with light. The light he senses seems to pour into his shoulders and arms, and down into his fingers.

     [...] It was true: there were different muscles—or something like that! It was amazing! He was making no mistakes! And yet he wasn't doing anything. Those muscles, or whatever they were, were doing the routine.
     But no sooner did he have that thought, than he lost contact with the sense of light, and the routine started going sour again. At that point, Max spoke again, but now his voice had become calm once more—calm and even.
     "Attention," said Max, "pay attention to the light."
Startled that Max knew about the sensation of light, Eliot obeyed, again and again withdrawing his attention from his thoughts and, under Max's guidance, placing it on the sensation of light. Each time he did so, his hands performed the move with precision and exact timing. And each time his attention was pulled away from the light, he made mistakes.
     "Stop trying to do the trick," said Max. "Let your muscles do it. Just keep your attention on the light. The light needs your attention, it needs you. Nothing else will work!"
     As Eliot continued the routine, Max went on side-coaching. Each time Eliot made a mistake, Max brought him back: "Choose, Eliot, choose! Pay with your attention!"
     But Eliot—something in him—soon began to grow weary and heavy. Each time he willed his attention back toward the sensation of light, his hands performed the moves perfectly, but he was growing tired of willing.
     "You want to dream," said Max. "Don't give way to it. Fight, Eliot! [...]"
     Again and again, Eliot brought his attention back—back from the thoughts and images that were so alluring. [...]

Finally, there is an insightful lesson regarding the role of teachers—in the case of Eliot—Max and Blake. Max seems rather ordinary, while Blake has the visual appearance of grace, sophistication, and culture. As Eliot visits each teacher more and more he realizes that he cannot hide anything from Max, but he can keep secrets from Blake. More importantly, however, "by exercising his power under Max's sometimes fierce but also gentle guidance he saw aspects of himself that shocked and dismayed him." With Max he saw that the only real thing he had was the attention he could give his work. Everything else wreaked of childishness and automatism. Conversely, with Blake he was practically treated as a god, as a great magician, as an initiate in some mysterious inner circle, and at the same time as the honoured disciple of an even greater magician: Blake himself.

The last dialogues between the much respected and revered Irene Angel, the founder of the Sorcerer's Apprentices, and Eliot are quoted at length, as they are especially revealing.

     Eliot strongly felt the presence of Blake and Max on either side of him. Irene spoke directly to him, but seemed also to be speaking to all the Sorcerers standing behind him. He felt he was at another initiation, only this time far more real and serious.
     "What do you want?" she asked him. [...] "In fairy tales, you have three wishes," she said. "But in life you get only one wish. So, tell us, what do you want? Think carefully about it. Be sure of what you ask for."
     More thoughts and questions came to him—about his own life, what he should do, what career to follow. But these things did not seem so important now, certainly not enough to waste his one wish on them. But then what was the most important thing in his life, really? He had seen that by using the power, under Blake, he had been able to get whatever he wanted—money, sex, honors—and that it still wasn't enough. Guided by Max, he had touched something entirely different, something he never could have imagined wanting, and it was enough, more than enough. Yet it always cost him so much. It was always bought with a price. And he knew that he had barely scratched the surface of what Max had to offer him.
     Irene then spoke again. "Turn on your power, Eliot."
     He did—or tried to—and experienced nothing. He waited, and still nothing came. He tried with renewed effort, but it simply wasn't there.
     After another pause, Irene said, "Your power is gone, Eliot. It will come back only when you know what it is you want most out of life. For that to happen, you must now live without the power."

After Eliot stammers through what he thinks he wants—truth, helping others, knowing about the universe, about God, wanting not to die, etc., Irene interrupts him gently. She says something that Eliot does not understand or remember until many years later. She speaks of another power within him, a power far stronger than anything he had yet experienced. She tells him that he would have to struggle for many years in the midst of his ordinary life to develop this power and that both Max and Blake could help him, if he wished.

     "In choosing Max," she went on, "you chose well. But remember, it was Stephen Blake who first sent you to Max. Both are necessary. When you feel the truth of that, you will be ready to enter the brotherhood of adult magicians. Until then, take this back."
     Irene handed him the skull ring, after cupping it in her hands for a few seconds.
     "The skull is death," she said. "But what must die? Think carefully about that. There are two kinds of death: the death of the ego and death by the ego. You must either destroy the ego by confronting it, or it will destroy you." [...]
     Finally, without taking her eyes from him she continued. "Of all that you have experienced with us," she asked, "what has meant the most to you?"
     There was no question about that in Eliot's mind. But ought he even to speak about it? It was when Max had watched him from behind the mirrored wall at the shop, when Eliot had stolen the secrets of the tricks; when he had then confessed his intention to rifle the files and had experienced such overwhelming shame that he felt himself unworthy to continue with the work that Max was giving him; and when Max then stunned him by accepting it all so quickly—as though Eliot had passed, rather than failed, some pre-established test; as though what he had experienced was the main purpose of all the work, all the struggle, all the practice with attention and the rings, and with Blake, and with everything else; as though, or almost as though, the experience of remorse in seeing himself was even the central aim of life itself. [...]
     Eliot tried but was unable to speak about it even to her. [...]
     "You understand," said Irene finally, "that what you feel is the sacredness of something. Sacred and secret are the same word. You must keep it secret from the part of you that profanes everything it touches—until you discover what true speech is." [...]
     "Can you understand," she continued, "that this remorse is what we have given to Stephen? He has seen the black magician in himself, the ego that is symbolized by the death's head on the ring you have been given. This death must die." [...]
     "A teacher of magic such as Max creates conditions so that the pupil can experience both the force of the spirit and the force of the ego within himself and bring them together in his own being. Only when you can bear to see good and evil struggling within you can the transforming fire of remorse appear. This brings the peace that passes understanding, the marriage of two mutually opposing forces. Only then can a human being strive to serve that which calls to us from Above. No power of mind or heart can exist for long except under the rule of conscience..."

Deeply insightful reading on the interior struggle of mankind. A struggle with one's lower nature which inclines one towards exerting power, control, and influence over our fellow man, rather than over our lower selves.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Retreat: Time Apart for Silence & Solitude (Roger Housden)

Roger Housden has produced a beautiful book that is as much a work of art as it is informative. A great deal of attention has been given to layout and aesthetics—the photography alone speaks poignantly of silence and solitude. The book has as its main objective a survey of contemporary approaches to mind development, expanded consciousness, or spirituality, with emphasis on forms of retreat. Although not comprehensive, a sampling of major groups and organizations are given for each path outlined. The book is clearly organized into seven main approaches to expanding consciousness according to one's predisposition. These are:

1. The Way of Knowledge
2. The Way of the Heart
3. The Way of the Body
4. The Way of Art
5. The Way of Sound
6. The Way of the Wilderness
7. The Solitary Way

In the Way of Knowldege we have Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Raja Yoga and Shamanism. All these paths seek to transcend the egoic mind by way of knowledge and deep understanding.

All the difference schools of Buddhism have at their core the fundamental teachings of the Buddha—the 4 Noble Truths, and the 8-fold path that leads to the end of suffering and dissatisfaction. The ways in which they differ is the approach or technique used to realize their "Goal." Theravada Buddhism employs samatha (tranquility), sattipathana (mindful awareness) and vipassana (insight). Samatha involves bringing one's attention to a single object—usually the breath through the nostrils and the rise and fall of the abdomen, or sensations on the body. From this practice, the mind becomes quiet enough to move into the practice of Sattipathana, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are:

1. Bodily activity
2. Feelings
3. States of mind
4. Mental contents

The idea here is to develop a continuous "witness" consciousness in each of the four foundations of experience. Finally, the third stage (vipassana) is to see through phenomenal existence altogether—seeing everything that arises as dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self). Although Housden does not say so, it is considered central to the practice of vipassana to see these three key characteristics of phenomenal existence in the 5 skhandas or "heaps"—those collections of processes that make up what we think of as the human being—and to which ego identifies with resulting in a false sense of self. One common conception of these skhandas as taken from Buddhist Abhidamma are Body, Feelings/Sensations, Perception/Memory, Consciousness/Mind/Thought, and Will/Volition/Impulse.

In Zen, the experience of the true nature of existence can be had anywhere, anytime. There are two main schools: Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai centres around asking a question or koan which defies reason—and a solution can only be arrived at by being or experiencing the answer. In Soto there is no goal, nowhere to go other than where you are right now. There is no method, other than the non-effort of being here—the bare attention to what is. This has some parallels to Krishnamurti's "Choiceless Awareness."

Three schools of Tibetan Buddhism are described—Kagyu, Nyingma, and Gelug—although a fourth school known as Sakya also exists. The Kagyu and Nyingma schools are geared towards meditative practice, culminating in the teachings of Mahamudra or Dogzchen, respectively. Incidentally, these practice-oriented schools also have strong parallels with Hindu Advaita Vedanta or non-dual philosophy. The Gelug school, on the other hand, is of a scholarly orientation. The overall tantric approach to Buddhist practice that often characterizes Tibetan tradition is know as Vajrayana. Here is what Don Morreale had to say on the primary differences between the various forms of Buddhism:

"The principle distinction between Vajrayana and other forms of Mahayana is it's emphasis on transmutation—as opposed to destruction—of neurosis. Where other approaches to Buddhist meditation seek to destroy passion, aggression and ignorance so that the practitioner can be free from ego-clinging, Vajrayana seeks to transform the three poisons directly into wisdom, actually transmuting the constituents of the ego directly into principles of Buddhahood." (Don Morreale, Buddhist America)

Housden goes into some detail of the various Tibetan schools, but his attempt to describe the Kagyu school falls short, as he fails to mention all of the Six Yogas of Naropa forming the historical basis of the Kagyu school which traces its lineage back to the great Indian master Naropa. For completeness, these are:

1. Yoga of the Illusory Nature of Phenomenal Existence
2. Dream Yoga
3. Clear Light Yoga
4. Dumo (Kundalini Yoga)
5. Yoga of Psychic Projection
6. Bardo Yoga

Raja Yoga is an intricate system of practices whose philosophical source is the classical Sanskrit text, The Yoga Sutras, written by the great Indian sage Patanjali sometime in the first or second century CE. "Raja Yoga consists of a way of life designed to enable the practitioner to see through the illusion of created existence and to become established in his existential identity." A summary of the Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali begins with the first steps, (1) yama and (2) niyama, which require observance of various moralities, including non-violence and truthfulness. The next steps are (3) asana (right posture); the spinal column must be held straight, and the body firm in a comfortable position for meditation; (4) pranayama (control of prana, subtle life currents); and (5) pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from external objects). The last steps are forms of yoga proper: (6) dharana (concentration); holding the mind to one thought; (7) dhyana (meditation), and (8) samadhi (superconscious perception). This is the Eightfold Path of Yoga which leads one to the final goal of Kaivalya (Absoluteness), a term which might be more comprehensibly put as "realization of the Truth beyond all intellectual apprehension." Examples cited under Raja Yoga include The Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

The Shamanistic path replaces the solitude and silence of the yogi with "rituals which use repetitive sound and movement in order to generate trance states to propel him into the world of spirits, and power animals, gods and guardians." These rituals often involve drums, rattles, dance and sometimes psychoactive drugs. The Shaman's path has some parallels to the contemporary work of psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, and the writings and experiments of Aldous Huxley et al. with psychedelics.

The Way of the Heart involves seeking to transcend the egoic mind through devotional practices, contemplation and experiential union with the Divine Principle. Examples of the Way of the Heart include Christianity, Sufism, and Bhakti Yoga.

Housden rightly indicates that Christianity in recent decades has had to compete with the influx of traditions from the East which are rich in practices of meditation and self-inquiry. Particularly noteworthy are the books and lectures of three men in particular who brought the practices of Zen to the attention of the Christian public. Father William Johnston, Dom Aelred Graham and Thomas Merton. All three men pointed out the excess of dogma and reliance on belief present in the Church, and suggested there were lessons to be learned from Buddhism. Quoting from Thomas Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite,

"[Buddhism] seeks not to explain but to pay attention, to become aware... in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas—or by emotional excitement."

Dom Aelred indicates that as long Christ is conceived only as an historical person outside our own experiences, there is no framework to allow the existence of Christ living within our own hearts. He writes:

"In Mahayana Buddhism... the faithful are encouraged to believe that the Buddha's luminous state of consciousness, what is held to be his supreme degree of wisdom and compassion, is open to everyone. This is the prospect that is attracting so many in the West to Buddhism today—to which must be added its apparent harmony with much that is disclosed in the sciences of physics and psychology.

To achieve the 'mind of Christ' may well demand a profound re-thinking of Christianity's prayer life. Telling God, reverentially, what he should do and people, indirectly, how they ought to behave, together make up a good deal of the Church's vocal prayers. They are hardly enough for those who believe themselves to be sharers in the divine nature, who wish to realize experientially such a state and make it known to others."

Housden indicates that the early Desert Fathers continue to be the inspiration for the Orthodox Church which, unlike its Western counterpart, has never lost touch with its mystical roots. In recent decades, the heart of Orthodox teachings on interior prayer, known as The Philokalia, a collection of writings from the desert fathers of the early church, began to reach a much wider audience than the Orthodox community itself.

Several examples are given of individuals who have sought to revitalize the practice of individual contemplation from within the ancient traditions of the early Church itself, rather than by referring to the practices of other religions. These include Carlos Carretto, Thomas Keating, John Main, and Mathew Fox among others.

Keating developed the centering prayer, an adaptation of the Jesus Prayer, which helps to create the conditions that encourage the experience of gnosis—an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole man, not just the mind. You take a prayer word or image and keep your mind on it with a soft attention, thereby calming your mind and making it available to the deeper impulse of the true self.

Fox's Creation Spirtuality is a radical movement, aimed at replacing the fall/redemption model of Christianity with a theology of creation and creativity that celebrates the qualities of Eros, pleasure, play and delight. Needless to say, he was excommunicated for his views. Fox replaces the idea of original sin with original blessing, and instead of seeing sufferring as the cost of sin, Creation Spirituality sees it as the birth pangs of the individual and the universe. Housden summarizes,

"Humanity and the whole of creation is blessed perpetually by the presence of God and the natural response is joy and celebration. What deserves celebration is life itself in all its forms. This means an awareness of and response to nature; ecological necessities; and our inter-being with all other people. Creation-centered spirituality feels the deep pain of existence, yet remains passionate about the blessing that life is, communicating that passion through all forms of art and shared ritual."

And then there are the systems of universal spirituality within the Christian tradition. The great exemplar is Shantivanam, an ashram that is a unique expression of Christianity in Tamil Nadu, southern India. It was started in the 1950's by Father Bede Griffiths, who came to realize that there was as much to learn as there was to give. Hindu spirituality showed him above all that there was the need for interiority. Bede embarked on a careful study of the classical Indian texts and of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual tradition which characterizes the Upanishads. In the words of Housden, "He saw that in India, everyday life was imbued with a sense of the sacred; that devotion and a sense of awe before the mystery of life were part of the Hindu's ordinary experience."

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and traditional Sufism remains among the most secretive and elusive of all contemporary spiritual paths. Housden states that

"The essence of the Sufi path is known as the alchemy of the heart, a process which both requires and enables action, love and knowledge. Human perfection (enlightenment) is considered attainable through a gradual purification of the personality which enables the lower soul nature to be infused and led by the higher."

The specific practices are somewhat dependent on the school and personal inclinations of the Shaikh. Recitations of prayers and dikhirs (repetitive reciting of God's name) are sometimes made with movement or dance, like the renown whirling Mevlevi Dervishes. Chants are often synchronized to breathing patterns, and involve the body as well as the mind and heart. Individual retreats are also part of a disciple's practice and their nature and duration are determined by the Shaikh. The founder of the Mevlevi school was Jalal'ud-Din Rumi, the great Sufi saint of the thirteenth century.

Individuals that have adapted Sufi teachings to the West include renown George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and more recently, Oscar Ichazo, who founded the Arica School, and Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of The Sufi Order of the West. Housden provides more detail on the Sufi Order of the West which we summarize with the following quote:

"The Sufi Order of the West describes the transformation encouraged by their retreats in alchemical terms. The first half, consisting of three stages, is the 'solve,' or the dissolving period, the 'dark night of the soul' described by Saint John of the Cross. Psychologically, it is a recognition and consequent breaking down of the self-image, the ego sructure that builds up over time. The second half of the process, also consisting of three stages, is the 'coagule.' Central to this is the reconstitution of the person around a spiritual core."

Bhakti Yoga is usually understood as the way of devotion and surrender. The interpretation in Christianity is the surrender of the personal will to the will of God. In Hindu spirituality Christ is replaced by the guru. However, it is an impersonal kind of surrender, not to the person, but rather to the emanation of the Divine through the personal form:

"By holding their image in mind or by chanting their name, one is bringing the attention of the heart round to receive that impersonal love of which they are a living expression. As one's opennness expands, so does the faith in the guru and in one's own capacity to love. They will not ask you to believe anything, nor to make dramatic oaths of allegiance or discipleship. They will not try and hold on to you. Their grace is there; whether you avail yourself of it or not is up to you. This is the method of guru, or Bhakti Yoga."

Accounts of Bhakti Yoga retreats include those led by renown Western teacher Ram Dass—although he doesn't present himself as a guru, instead using expanded feeling and devotion towards God in all his various forms, and those of Mata Amritanandamayi, following in the lineage of the ecstatic devotional saints of southern India.

The Way of the Body touches on the methods of Tai Chi, Yoga, and body movement or dance. In the practice of Hatha yoga, for example, it has been shown that the practice can provide a great deal of tension and anxiety relief. It appears the repeated and complimentary actions of tensing, relaxing, stretching and holding in various postures, coupled to a calm and attentive mind, have the effect of re-programming the body-mind to reside in a calm and flexible state. Another aspect of the Way of the Body involves using physical movement and postures as keys unlocking certain states of mind. Quoting from Housden, this revealing passage summarizes what Jacob Needleman had to say in his book, Lost Christianity:

"I asked Metropolitan Anthony again about the work with the body, about the methods, the exercises I knew were in the Christian tradition—somewhere, in some time. Where did they come from? Where have they gone? I waited for him to continue. He said something about the Athonite Christians having this work with the body and then paused once again. Finally, he raised his eyebrows towards me. "You have been to our service. If you stand in the service with your hands down to the side, with your head slightly down—not too much—your weight evenly balanced... if one does this, one begins to see changes taking place in the body. The breathing changes, certain muscles relax, others become firm, not tense. All this comes from the religious impulse..." Again a pause. He continued, speaking softly and deliberately. "The excercises you ask about originated in this way: from the Fathers observing what happened to them when they were in a state of prayer."

The Way of the Body is explored through the School of Tai Chi Chuan, the Kripalau Center for Yoga and Health, the Yasodhara Ashram Yoga Retreat and Study Center, and the free-form movement retreats of Suprato in Java.

In the Way of Art, the purpose of the art retreat is to provide a context and an art form through which individuals may know the deeper levels of life that exist in themselves and in all things. Housden aptly portrays the Way of Art from an Eastern perspective as follows:

"In the far East many arts and crafts are undertaken as specific ways to the Buddhist ideal of no-mind, the condition of unity in which there is no separation between subject and object. Almost any activity can be practiced in a way which encourages this condition of being; Zen Buddhists in China and Japan have over centuries developed the martial arts, calligraphy, haiku and music specifically for this purpose. The form of the art was less important than the state of mind it could engender. The form, then, was dispensable; a painting or a haiku would often be thrown away as soon as it was completed."

Contrast this to the view of art in the West from the Renaissance until now. John Lane suggests in his book, Art and the Sacred, that the real shift in the West is in the underlying concept we have of the arts themselves:

"... If poetry and painting, music and theatre, will have little more to give us as 'arts,' perhaps they will have much to give as modes of self-discovery, awareness and personal exploration; as aids to the rediscovery of being and existence. Expansion of awareness could become the final end of all creative work."

Housden explores the Way of Art through drawing retreats with Frederick Franck, and retreats exploring symbolic images with Caroline Mackenzie.

The Way of Sound involves the use of singing, chanting, and instruments in an effort to effect powerful changes in consciousness. Sound has a unique capacity to evoke various mental states, one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Buddhist tradition. However, certain mental states when maintained, act as keys towards the expansion of awareness. Housden describes this as follows:

"Sound has been used in every religious tradition since time immemorial. From the individual incantations of the tribal shaman through the chants and mantras of Hinduism and Buddhism, the early Christian plain song and Gregorian chant, the human family has developed a sophisticated awareness of sound which is being rediscovered and applied in new ways today. The Hindu yogi knows which "seed sound" to intone in order to awaken the power of any particular chakra and how to create different mental states and psychophysical energies by using the appropriate mantra. A Native American shaman knows which sounds to make for healing, while the low chanting of Japanese or Tibetan Buddhist monks generates primordial stillness in both practitioner and listener."

The Way of Sound is explored through Healing Voice retreats with Jill Purce, and Naked Voice retreats with Chloë Goodchild.

The Way of the Wilderness involves entering fully into relationship with Nature. And it is in this relationship that we have continual intimations of a deeper reality, one that is not dependent on man or his creations. In this environment of realness, over time we become more real ourselves. Nature serves as teacher and guide, keeper of hidden truths, giver of life. Housden aptly quotes the great Nature-lover Henry David Thoreau, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." Several different wilderness retreats are described, including Housden's personally led Sahara Walk, wilderness retreats run by the Upaya Foundation, and the Tracking Project.

Finally, the Solitary Way involves extended retreats in solitude and includes the renown three year Tibetan retreat, and the 40 day Halvet Sufi retreat in which participants eat just enough to sustain themselves—usually only a few dates each day (with the occassional apple and olives). Christ who is said to have spent 40 days in the desert is the original model for this form of retreat. As Housden says,

"It was and remains a work for the strong of heart and mind. There were many in the first few centuries after Christ who lost the good fight and ended up mad. This was so common that special monasteries were establised in the Sinai desert for those individuals whose minds had become unhinged."

In this book, Housden has provided an excellent starting point for those seeking a retreat from the world, for those wishing to spend some time apart for silence and solitude. An informative read, beautifully presented.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle)

Since ancient times, spiritual masters of all traditions have pointed to the Now as the key to the spiritual dimension. It is evident that Eckhart has a deep realization of this dimension, and the state of being that lies beyond the discursive mind. Virtually everything Eckhart says revolves around a single idea—the importance of being in the present moment. Briefly, this is a call to be present with the totality of one's being. This means refraining from living in past memories, or in future dreams and fantasies. It means bringing the mind to where the body is, and inhabiting this present moment where you are fully. This simple but profound teaching gradually effects an important change in the individual who applies it: the stilling of the discursive mind. One cannot be here totally and simultaneously relive some past experience or project into some fantasized future. And with this stillness, all energy that previously went into discursive thought becomes available to perceive more deeply the world around us without labels and judgements. The effect is a dramatic expansion in consciousness and therefore the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and understand things that would otherwise escape our notice. We begin to penetrate more deeply into persons, situations, ideas, things, and our insight into anything we point our attention to deepens.

According to Eckhart, the single greatest obstacle to a deeper, fuller experience of reality is identification with one's mind. Since we've identified with our discursive minds, we think the cessation of thought implies the cessation or death of our 'selves'. However, this is the great illusion, one that can be dispelled by removing ones identification with thought. One solution Eckhart says, is simply to observe the mind—that is, watch the thinker. Another powerful way is directing the focus of ones attention into the Now, becoming intensely conscious of the present moment. When one does so, thinking stops briefly—it is not possible to be present and at the same time be in the past or future. As one goes more deeply into this realm of no-thought, one realizes the state of pure consciousness.

Another important aspect of the teaching has to do with application of attention/consciousness towards one's pain-body. Eckhart defines the pain-body as the accumulated emotional pain that is lodged in the mind and body of every human being. The idea is to bring attention into the pain-body when it becomes active, by observing it directly, feeling it, experiencing it, allowing it—this breaks identification with it. The key is not to analyse it, but just to experience it fully as a passing phenomenon. As before with the mind, you are the witness or watcher—enter into the present moment and give attention to what is. As we practice this, pain is transmuted into consciousness, and gradually dissolves.

The key then in moving deeply into the Now is ending the delusion of time. Eckhart states that time and mind are inseparable. Time in this context is psychological time which is identification with the past and continuous projection into the future. We must learn to return to present moment awareness and make this our primary state of being. This means we enter into the practical aspects of life such as planning and scheduling, etc. only as required—but we don't live there. "To be free of time is to be free of the psychological need of past for your identity and future for your fulfillment." Eckhart indicates that there may be some oscillation between time and presence, unconsciousness and consciousness for a while, until one is firmly established in presence. "With increasing frequency, you choose to have the focus of your consciousness in the present moment rather than in the past or future, and whenever you realize that you had lost the Now, you are able to stay in it [...] for longer periods as perceived from the external perspective of clock time."

Another important aspect of the teaching is on what Eckhart calls the inner body. Eckhart talks of the inner body as a portal into presence. In other words, bringing our attention into the inner body takes it out of discursive thought. But what is the inner body? In brief it is a sense of vitality and aliveness within the body itself. Eckhart describes the inner body in the form of a kind of meditation:

"Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs, and feet--in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start thinking about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become. It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive [...]"

One of the underlying objectives of the book is to provide ways or 'portals' into what Eckhart calls the Unmanifest. As we have seen, the Now is the main portal--the portal to which all other portals are connected, as they all occur in presence. However each portal is a kind of focusing or tuning of presence into one of several subareas. And so we have seven primary portals: the Now, the pain-body, the inner-body, space, silence, surrender, and dreamless sleep.

Space refers to using the space that appears to separate things as a non-object of attention. The idea is to focus one's attention predominantly on the space instead of the objects within space. Similarly with silence: focus one's attention primarily on the silence out of which sounds manifest. Interestingly, this type of attention creates space and silence in the mind: as above so below.

The portal of surrender refers quite simply to the powerful practice of surrendering to what is. Other ways of putting this is allowing, accepting, or yielding to what is instead of opposing the flow of life--to relinquish inner resistance to what is. The action one takes in a surrendered inner state is much more effective than anything that comes out of a non-surrendered inner state. The action comes out of presence, is spontaneous, intuitive, and powerful.

And finally we have the portal of dreamless sleep, which is a portal we all enter into unconsciously when we fall into deep sleep. We draw from it the vital energy that sustains us for a while when we return to the manifest. In this state 'you' no longer exist.

Eckhart also speaks of the role of spirituality within the context of relationships. The key to practice in relationships is acceptance of your partner as he or she is. That unconditional acceptance serves to remove all resistance and conflict. In the case of difficult relationships, after acceptance one can then consciously choose whether to remain in the relationship, end the relationship (in love), or talk about the ways the relationship is creating pain, as a means for bringing into awareness the underlying dysfunctional patterns of the relationship. "The greatest catalyst for change in a relationship is complete acceptance of your partner as he or she is, without needing to judge or change them in any way."

There is an amusing quote of Carl Jung who tells of a conversation he had with a Native American chief who pointed out to him that most white people have tense faces, staring eyes, and a cruel demeanor. He said, "They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We don't know what they want. We think they are mad."

A timeless message in an uneasy and restless era gone mad over time. Time to lose my madness. Catch you in the Now.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

In the Dark Places of Wisdom (Peter Kingsley)

This book is about re-interpreting what has become commonly accepted as historical truth in western philosophy, and even more, re-discovering what has been ignored or deemed unimportant. This is a monumental achievement as it promises to unravel and refashion the fabric of the Western world. The book is about bringing to awareness the experience underlying the foundations of an ancient philosophy that has been lost in modern conceptions of what we now call 'Western philosophy'.

Kingsley maintains that what we haven't been told is that a spiritual tradition lies at the roots of Western civilization. A tradition that plunges one into an experience so powerful, but so elusive that people have tried for thousands of years to make sense of it, and have always failed. The essence of this truth tells us that if we want to grow up and become true men and women, we have to face death before we die. What Kingsley is referring to here is what we might call psychological death, where one passes through the death of the egoic mind to emerge on the other side.

There were a group of people, Kingsley points out, whose culture had evolved to encourage the experience of precisely this state of consciousness. They were the Phocaeans, the most daring adventurers among the ancient Greeks, called by some 'the Vikings of antiquity'. They were from Phocaea in the western coastal regions of Anatolia (or modern-day Turkey), and the nearby island of Samos, which was the home of Pythagoras (who later sailed west to south Italy in 530 BC). Ancient Greece maintained strong links with Persia, Babylonia, Egypt, and India. Greek culture was much less self-enclosed than we have been led to believe. There was a great deal of trade and travel, with the attendant exchange of ideas, philosophies, and religion. However, the people of Phocaea eventually were driven from their homes in the coastal regions of Anatolia by the Persians, for religious, economic, and political reasons. Many sailed westward and established colonies in Corsica, and later in southern Italy. The city they eventually founded in south Italy was called Velia, and here they remained for centuries.

Kingsley states that there is one man who influenced the western world in a way no one else did. To some specialists he's known as 'the central problem' in making sense of what happened to philosophy before Plato. He's said to have created the idea of metaphysics. It's said that he invented logic: the basis of our reasoning, the foundation of every single discipline that has come into existence in the West. His influence on Plato was immense, and Kingsley indicates that just as it is sometimes said that the whole of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, so Plato's philosophy in its developed form could be called a series of footnotes to this man: Parmenides of Velia.

Parmenides was, among other things, a poet, and Kingsley tells us that he wrote one work in particular, in the metre of the epic poems of the ancient past; poetry revealing what humans rarely see or know, describing the world of gods, the world of humans, and the meeting between gods and humans. The poem was written in three parts. The first part describes his journey to the goddess who has no name. The second describes what she taught him about reality. And the third part begins with the goddess saying she will now deceive him as she goes on to describe in detail the world we believe we live in.

Kingsley states that Parmenides in his poem was journeying down to the underworld in the regions of Hades, and Tartarus from where no one usually returns. He was consciously and willingly travelling in the direction of his own death. And the only way to describe this hero's journey is in the language of myth. We quote at length that part of Parmenides' poem that appears in Kingsley's book:

The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
road of the divinity that carries the man who knows
through the vast and dark unknown. And on I was carried
as the mares, aware just where to go, kept carrying me
straining at the chariot; and young women led the way.
And the axle in the hubs let out the sound of a pipe
blazing from the pressure of the two well-rounded wheels
at either side, as they rapidly led on: young women, girls,
daughters of the Sun who had left the mansions of Night
for the light and pushed back the veils from their faces
with their hands.
There are the gates of the pathways of Night and Day,
held fast in place between the lintel above and a threshold of stone;
and they reach up into the heavens, filled with gigantic doors.
And the keys—that now open, now lock—are held fast by
Justice: she who always demands exact returns. And with
soft seductive words the girls cunningly persuaded her to
push back immediately, just for them, the bar that bolts
the gates. And as the doors flew open, making the bronze
axles with their pegs and nails spin—now one, now the other—
in their pipes, they created a gaping chasm. Straight through and
on the girls held fast their course for the chariot and horses,
straight down the road.
And the goddess welcomed me kindly, and took
my right hand in hers and spoke these words as she addressed me:
'Welcome young man, partnered by immortal charioteers,
reaching our home with the mares that carry you. For it was
no hard fate that sent you travelling this road—so far away
from the beaten track of humans—but Rightness, and Justice.
And what's needed is for you to learn all things: both the unshaken
heart of persuasive Truth and the opinions of mortals,
in which there's nothing that can truthfully be trusted at all.
But even so, this too you will learn—how beliefs based on
appearance ought to be believable as they travel all through
all there is.'

Kingsley goes on to explain the symbolism in the poem substantiating his claims with recent archaeological evidence and many textual sources. He arrives, with insightful attention to detail, at the discovery of a process that was long ago understood, but whose knowledge has been virtually lost today. And that is the process of dying before one dies: entering into the underworld (or the collective unconscious in Jungian terms) while still living. This mind-shattering experience promises a deep knowledge and understanding that is based on a direct personal experience of who and what we really are.

A number of important key words were encountered in inscriptions on archaeological finds and through more careful examination of original Greek texts. These are, Phôlarchos, Ouliadês, Iatromantis, and Apollo. The meaning of these words, especially when taken in relationship, is quite revealing. Phôlarchos is translated as 'Lord of the Lair'; Ouliadês literally meant 'son of Oulios' or 'son of Apollo'; and Iatromantis is translated as 'prophet-healer'. Apollo originally meant 'deadly', 'destructive', and 'cruel', as every god or goddess has his or her destructive side, but the Greeks also explained it as, 'he who makes whole.' This more completely describes Apollo, "the destroyer who heals, the healer who destroys." In addition, Kingsley reports four vocations in this tradition that are said to give human beings a special closeness to the divine: prophet, poet, healer, and political leader or lawgiver. Interestingly, all of these activities are sacred to the same god: Apollo.

A golden thread connecting Apollo, healing, prophecy, and dark dwelling places becomes readily apparent. In this way, Kingsley shows that Apollo was in fact connected with the night, dark places, with the underworld and death. Apollo's temple was right above the cave leading down into the underworld, and this was the case at many famous oracle centres in Anatolia. These caves were entered by initiates and priests at the dead of night. Apollo was later associated with the sun, but this was a matter for initiates only. It is in the dark night that there is healing, which subsequently allows one to enter into the true light of day.

Today, Apollo is mistakenly rationalized to be the embodiment of reason. The gods are not 'rational' in the sense we know. Reason is a product of the mind, and to enter into conversation with the gods requires leaving the mind and reason behind. Kingsley tells us that light belongs in the underworld, that this is where its home is—that the source of light is at home in the darkness. This was well understood in southern Italy, as a whole mythology grew up around the figure of the sun god as he's driven in his chariot by the horses that carry him out of the underworld before they take him down again. This was true for Velia, and also certain men and women known as Pythagoreans—people who had gathered around Pythagoras when he came to southern Italy from the East. These were people intimately familiar with Orphic traditions. All these people understood that there is no heaven without going through hell. To them the fire in the underworld was purifying, transforming, and immortalizing. Everything had to be experienced, and to find clarity meant facing utter darkness. For these people it was all about going right through the darkness to what lies on the other side.

Kingsley recounts how the early Christians spoke of the 'depths' of the divine, and how the Jewish mystics spoke of 'descending' to the divine. These notions, however, were eventually silenced. As Kingsley states, "... the trouble is that when the divine is removed from the depths, we loose our depth, and start viewing the depths with fear and end up struggling, running from ourselves ..."

Through more impressive detective work, Kingsley reveals some of the details of the process that serves to take initiates into the experience of reality. He speaks of a process involving lying motionless in a cave in a state of 'incubation' sometimes for days on end. It is through these ritual practices of incubation that certain states of 'suspended animation' were achieved, through which, access to powerful healing abilities and esoteric knowledge was obtained. This suspended animation has parallels to various other religious traditions, specifically forms of meditation, where one enters into states of deep stillness, where the breath ceases, the action of the heart diminishes, and the mind stops.

Kingsley tells how ancient Greek accounts of incubation repeatedly mention certain signs that mark the point of entry into another world—into another state of awareness. One such sign involves becoming aware of a rapid spinning movement, and the other involves hearing a powerful vibration produced by a piping, whistling, hissing sound. In India, precisely the same signs are described as a prelude to entering samadhi. And this is also directly related to the process known as the awakening of kundalini, or the awakening of the serpent power.

This brings us to another aspect of Apollo that was relegated to darkness, namely, his affiliation with snakes. Kingsley states that in ritual art snakes were sacred to Apollo. His fight with the snake he killed at Delphi symbolized absorption of the prophetic powers that the snake represents. When he appeared in the middle of the night to those who visited his incubation shrine, he might assume the form of a snake, or a hissing sound would reveal his presence.

"The purpose of these techniques was to free peoples attention from distractions, to turn it in another direction so that awareness could start operating in a completely different way. The stillness had a point to it, and that was to create an opening into a world unlike anything we're used to: a world that can only be entered in deep meditation, ecstasies and dreams."

And it is precisely this stillness that allows us to make the hero's journey into another world, to the source of light in darkness, and bring back the timeless knowledge we encounter there.

A fascinating account of gods and goddesses, prophets and healers, and Western culture's true spiritual legacy—one that promises to infuse fresh vitality into the heart of a withering Western philosophy and science.