Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

kings-fulldarknostarsHere we have another volume from King in the tradition of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight – a collection of four short novels under one roof.

We open with 1922, a tale about a man who plans to murder his wife over an inheritance dispute. In order to make it work, he has to involve his teenage son in the matter. This slant gives a rather common theme a unique flavour.

Big Driver is reminiscent of the movie I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a revenge story about a woman who is raped and left for dead. Highly derivative, but superior to the film in terms of the realism of the protagonist’s actions. And it has its original moments. My personal favourite of the pack.

Fair Extension is the only tale in the volume that has a supernatural element. It’s the old “pact with the devil” scenario. A dying man gets to extend his life, only the price he has to pay is something other than his soul.

Imagine a wife discovering that she never really knew her husband. In A Good Marriage, the accidental discovery of a hardcore porn mag is only the tip of the iceberg.

These are all stories of domestic life gone awry, where circumstance has forced good people into impossible situations, where the choices they are forced to make are difficult, and in some cases unconscionable. This is the dark side of the white picket fence. King is on form.

Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku

tulkut-timespaceknowledgeThis book was recommended to me as a means of getting to grips with the philosophy non-duality. The author, a Tibetan lama living in California, approaches it from the Buddhist perspective, although he does not use any Buddhist terminology.

The book places a heavy emphasis on visualisation exercises as a means of getting past our conditioned understanding of the world. For the most part I didn’t pause to try these out, as I’m already accustomed to viewing life in non-dual terms, but the exercises did strike me as useful to newcomers. I’ve even developed a few of my own in the course of writing my own book on esoteric matters.

Tulku suggests a model of reality that views it as consisting of three fundamentals: space, time, and knowledge. These are not really separate, as each cannot exist without the others. Scientifically minded readers will already be familiar with the term space-time and will know that we cannot properly consider time without space, nor space without time. Tulku suggests a “trinity” of inseparable elements: space-time-knowledge. This is very similar to my own personal view of reality as mind-space-time.

The real drawback of the book is in how technical it becomes. It is very easy to become confused when reading. And yet I would not accuse the author of being pretentious. There were sufficient cues in the text that let me know he a man of considerable insight. As an effective communicator, however, he fails. Alan Watts, for instance, has communicated similarly stunning insights with far more straightforward argumentation and vocabulary. If Space, Time, and Knowledge had been my first step into non-dual philosophy, I think I would have given up in frustration.

In the end, Tulku also commits the great error of so many spiritual teachers: a lack of realism about life. He asserts that life can be lived with a drastically different sense of awareness from what is common. While that is true to an extent, I always like to remind myself that one day I might find myself being chased down an alley by an assailant. In such a situation, does the philosophy of this book help me in any way? No. That’s the real acid test. So all this talk about every experience being an unending feast of beauty is mere talk.

Overall, Tarthang Tulku communicates much less fluff than Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Time, Space, and Knowledge is a deep but unnecessarily difficult book. It has its moments, but I would not consider it essential reading.

The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

fallonj-psychopathinsideIs anyone born evil? Okay, “evil” is a very religious term; let me put it another way. Is anyone born with a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic behaviour? A few years ago, before I knew much about neuroscience, I would have answered that question with a confident no. In my naivety, I thought that equality existed in nature – that we were all born with the same ability to be good or bad. I started to rethink that when I read Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and now, after reading James Fallon’s The Psychopath Inside, my original stance is convincingly refuted.

The typical human being feels empathy. When we see a suffering child, for instance, we instinctually feel compassion for him. It’s not a choice we make, but an automatic response. The mind of a psychopath works differently. There are particular areas of the brain that are switched off or deficient. This can lead to an emotional disconnectedness, and an ability to do harmful acts without the pangs of conscience.

Psychologist James Fallon once performed an experiment to see whether he could identify convicted murderers, purely by examining scans of their brains. The test group featured a fifty-fifty split of murderers and ordinary individuals. Alarmingly, Fallon was able to separate the murderers from the others with one hundred percent accuracy. Clearly, despite what we would like to believe about equality and freedom of choice, some of us have a genetic predisposition towards murder, and some of us don’t.

Fallon’s book got especially interesting when he turned himself into one of the test subjects, discovering that his own brain had these same psychopathic traits. And yet he is not a murderer. This finding led Fallon on a journey into his own past, not just examining how he has lived his own life, but delving into his ancestry, where he discovered a succession of murderers residing up the family tree. Fallon came to accept that he had psychopathic traits. He fully admits to being manipulative of others and sensing an emotional disconnectedness from people, even his wife. His psychopathic tendencies appear to have been kept in check by the fortuitous circumstances of his life. Had he been born into an abusive family, he might have grown up into a very different individual. It appears that full-fledged psychopaths are both born and made – a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and circumstance.

A really interesting issue to contemplate in relation to psychopathy is responsibility. Imagine a murderer getting caught, being put on trial, and holding up his brain scan for the judge to consider. “How can you hold me accountable for what I did?” he argues. “I was born this way. This is who I am. How can you blame me for acting in accord with my own nature, just like the lion that tears apart its prey because that’s its nature?” We have a “diminished responsibility” legal category for crazy people. Should we also include psychopaths in this? I wish the book had delved into this matter, but it doesn’t.

This examination into the neural basis of psychopathy brings greater clarity to the observation that equality is an illusion, striking as that may sound to the ears of polite society. Nature is not fair, as observation of the animal kingdom attests. There are winners and losers, and the whole game of life ultimately boils down to power struggles. So, the prime reason why we would incarcerate psychopaths is because of Lex Talionis, the law of the claw. We do it because we’re in charge, because we can, because we want to – because the number of empathetic individuals outweighs the number of psychopaths. So we will use that advantage to shape the kind of world we want. Fairness to all isn’t a concept that the natural world recognises. Nature is based on power, and that is all the justification we need. A truly balanced human being is one who is capable of both hostility and empathy, as each situation demands.

The Psychopath Inside is a worthwhile addition to the library of any student of human nature. Part medical textbook, part memoir – the author not only provides a great deal of research data, but is prepared to be unabashedly frank about his own life experiences.

Standing in Two Circles: The Collected Works of Boyd Rice by Boyd Rice (edited by Brian M. Clark)

riceb-standingintwocirclesI’ve been curious about this Boyd Rice character for a few years, mainly because of his friendship with Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. Rice was apparently LaVey’s personal choice as successor after his death, but Rice declined the offer. I find LaVey’s philosophy fascinating, so I was eager to find out whether Rice was a man of similar depth and insight. The volume under review contains a sizeable illustrated biography of Rice’s life written by Brian M. Clark, a collection of essays written by Rice spanning several decades, photography by Rice, and lyrics to many of Rice’s songs.

The main section of interest to me was the essays. They were a mixed bag. Rice, like LaVey, is a student of human nature and a prankster at heart. He relates some humorous stories of the various pranks he has played upon people in the past, like breaking into a neighbour’s house to leave an open umbrella on his bed – not to steal anything. The real motivation behind Rice’s slightly criminal activities was to connect with life on a more primal level. There’s definitely something profound about that. Modern life is very safe and sanitised; the average 21st century human is a very dull creature in comparison to his hunter-gatherer ancestor.

Rice has a very interesting take on monism (which is my personal philosophy). He’s a monist, but unlike most monists he doesn’t preach “love and light” spirituality. The aggressive and predatory aspects of human behaviour as just as much a manifestion of the oneness as love. This is so true, but hardly any monists see it.

The most startling essay in the volume was themed around the moral justification of rape. I not sure how serious Rice is being here, because in other places in the book, he clearly has respect for women as more than mere objects to be used. Rice is infamous for wearing a black T-shirt with the word “RAPE” printed in bold across the front. He’s also infamous for flirting with Nazi symbolism. He is a Social Darwinist and views fascism as the form of government most in keeping with nature, since the whole animal kingdom is organised around power struggles: predator against prey. I’m not entirely convinced by all of Rice’s arguments, but he makes a real stab at articulating his personal philosophy rationally, which makes these essays stimulating reading.

In another fascinating essay, Rice talks about enjoyable times spent with LaVey. At one time, Rice also became fascinated with Charles Manson, to the point of arranging regular visits with him in prison. Rice retells snippets from these interviews, allowing the reader a rare snapshot in to the mind of one of America’s most notorious convicts.

On the downside, the volume contains some forgettable essays about Rice’s travels to famous places and his various drunken escapades with friends. Rice also expresses a longtime fascination with his own ancestry and the bloodline of Christ, which struck me as the least credible of his passions – bordering on the ridiculous.

While reading the book, I got hold of some of Rice’s music. He’s known as a noise musician. Personally, I don’t find much to like about the genre. On one record, he had the hole in the middle placed slightly off-centre, so that the speed of the record would fluctuate as it played. Profound or pretentious? You decide. I did enjoy one of his more melodious albums, entitled “Music, Martinis and Misanthropy.” He doesn’t really sing, but rather talks (usually in poetic verse) while the music is playing. It words quite well, actually.

The strangest thing about Boyd Rice is that he seems to thrive on being hated. And the more he can do to increase this kind of notoriety, the better – that seems to be his thinking. A fascinating oddity among us humans. Standing in Two Circles is a rare book and fetches quite a penny. It’s worth a read, but for me it’s not a “keeper.” My copy will be going back on eBay.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again by Brad Warner

warnerb-hardcorezenstrikesaBrad Warner has written several books since the publication of his excellent volume Hardcore Zen in 2003. If that book were a DVD, Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, would be the equivalent of the “Extras” menu. It’s about 150 pages consisting of seventeen chapters: some are essays from Warner’s early blogging days, others are chapters that the editor of Hardcore Zen deemed unworthy to include in the original book. Does that make the present volume a collection of inferior material? Not really. Most of the cuts were on the grounds of relavance, not quality. And I think the editor made the right choices. The chapter on vegetarianism was interesting, but comes across as a rather verbose side-issue. And the chapter on Warner’s career in the Japanese monster movie industry is really only of relevance to readers who are particularly interested in learning about the author.

Warner’s early writing was more brash than it is today, in keeping with his punk roots. But it’s no less effective. For example, this is how he desribes phoney spirituality:

All that peace and calm is a bit of a cheat, though. It’s a come-on, like a hooker flashing you a bit of leg. She’s not lying. Not exactly. That leg really is a lovely thing. And when it’s wrapped around your back it will feel very nice indeed. But it’s going to cost you. You might get caught by the cops or by your spouse, or catch some terrible disease. You’re risking a hell of a lot for that little bit of leg. Buddhist temples are like that. They show you a little taste of inner peace. But most of them won’t tell you how high a price you’re going to have to pay to make that peace your own. They sure won’t tell you it’s going to kill you.

The book doesn’t really have a distinct theme. The chapters are random, can be read in any order, and don’t build towards any sort of conclusion. They cover a variety of subjects, from a Zen Buddhist perspective: individuality, fake enlightenment, religion, the nature of reality, afterlife ideas, reincarnation, duality and non-duality, the nature of time, vegetarianism, and even writing tips. Most of it is really interesting, and Warner has a pithy way of stating matters that is very quotable. Here are a few gems that I took note particular note of:

Authority is the coward’s way of deferring responsibility for his actions.

Reality exists before our attempts to explain it as matter or as spirit. The truth exists before we give it a name.

It is only when people believe that something is above questioning, beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be.

Mystical types like to say that we have to realize we are God. I prefer the converse. God has to realize that He is just you and me.

You need both doubt and faith. Faith keeps you going forward. Doubt keeps you from going forward with a blindfold on.

You cannot be alone because you are always surrounded by you. You extend all the way out beyond the farthest stars. And you are as intimate as the air that embraces you and slips its way inside your body. There’s nothing here but you. Yet you’re never alone.

Each essay is accompanied by an introduction and afterword, where Warner talks about how he feels nowadays in comparison to how he felt at the time of writing. This struck me as a little odd. Wouldn’t it be better just to revise the content of the essays themselves? But I think the intention behind this book was more to provide a snapshot of the author’s life at a particular time. It feels like a “filler” book – an extra for the existing fans between the publication schedule of the “real” books. And that’s okay, because I’m a Warner fan. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this guy. I only wish a little more care had been taken with Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I notice it wasn’t put out by Warner’s usual publisher, and it shows. Clumsy typos abound, and for some reason the publishing company chose to use unjustified text throughout and a blank line between every paragraph. Nevertheless, there is nothing amateur about Warner’s mind. Well worth reading.

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

tollee-newearthI read Eckhart Tolle’s first book The Power of Now about four years ago. In fact, I read it twice. It was one of those books that had a profound ring of truth, at least in part. But something didn’t quite sit right. I had exactly the same experience with A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Here’s an example: “Fear, anxiety, expectation, regret, guilt, anger are the dysfunctions of the time-bound state of consciousness.” Tell that to the gazelle as it runs away from the lion. Fear, far from being a dysfunction, is the emotion that is keeping the gazelle alive. Fear floods the bloodstream with adrenaline, unlocking much needed additional energy for the desperate sprint to safety. Fear is an essential living reality for animals. And if you think humans are some kind of special case, exempt from the trials that “lesser” animals face, then just imagine a zookeeper who carelessly lets a lion out of its cage during public visiting hours. A marvelously “enlightened” public apparently wouldn’t feel the urge to scream or run, or perhaps they would pragmatically choose to run while not feeling any of that pesky dysfunctional fear. But here’s the most important observation: the person who is so terrified out of his wits that he manages to scale a seven-foot wall on pure adrenaline is the one least likely to end up as the lion’s lunch. All thanks to fear.

I will give Eckhart Tolle some credit for helping to raise awareness in the West of more Eastern ways of thinking. And I do think that East has always been way ahead of West in terms of metaphysical thinking. But Tolle’s philosophy reads like Buddhism Lite. Sometimes spiritual teachers, even those with large followings, can be profoundly naïve about life and profoundly short-sighted about ordinary avenues of knowledge that would inform them of so much – in this case biology. Tolle has little or no awareness of man’s place in the animal kingdom, or of the predicament that all organic life faces. He speaks from the false perspective that most religions speak from: man is not just an animal, man is special, and man needs saved from something that has gone wrong with him. But humans are basically animals, and they don’t need enlightenment any more than dogs do. The human ego (like the ego of any animal) is not dysfuncional; it is a demonstrably successful product of evolution. Tolle views human consciousness as some sort of special case, and he sees us on a verge of evolving into a new state of consciousness, where the ego is finally defeated. This is nonsense. As long as you are a body/mind, you are an ego. You will have to deal with a world outside yourself that doesn’t always have your best interests at heart, and you will have to steal energy from other forms of life in order to continue to survive.

It strikes me that Tolle’s philosophy is only of relevance to bored affluent people who feel vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. And he provides a labyrinth of overly technical abstractions for them to ponder over. But very little of what he says is relevant to someone who faces real conflict in life, or real suffering beyond what polite society generally tosses at us. The power of now all falls apart if you’re someone who is being brutally beaten by an assailant in a dark alley.

There are a few legitimate insights scattered here and there, but the whole message is poisoned by the false premises of the ego’s alleged dysfunctionality and man’s specialness. Tolle is playing the same game (perhaps unconsciously) that religions have played for millennia – convincing the human race that there is something inherently wrong with it then offering a unique fix. The reality is that nothing went wrong with the human race. Everything is as it’s supposed to be, including the “egoic mind.” The ego is the hero of the story, not the villain to be vanquished.

There isn’t a new Earth coming; there isn’t a new consciousness on the horizon. There is only the continued forward motion of evolution, including the evolution of consciousness (which is really the organic evolution of the brain). We don’t choose our own evolutionary path. It is caused by the pressures of a changing world and the ability of organic matter to randomly mutate. When a random mutation provides a better chance of survival, the mutation thrives, and eventually becomes dominant. Tolle, unsurprisingly, doesn’t understand evolution, because he doesn’t seem to be interested in real science; he prefers to wallow in a web of philosophical abstraction that is divorced from the observable world.

Lastly, I’m going to indulge in a little ad homemin attack, but only because I think it’s relevant. I can’t stand the “holier than thou” image. I can’t stand the projection of politeness and meekness, like Tolle has transcended “ordinary” consciousness, and “Wouldn’t you like to be where I am?” It’s so phoney. Once you’ve experienced a truly down-to-earth esoteric book (and I thoroughly recommend the works of Zen Buddhist Brad Warner), actors like Tolle pale by comparison.

I’m a big supporter of monism (or non-duality), and Tolle is basically a monist. But when you take that profound truth about the universe and you mix in a bunch of faulty ideas about life, then you end up with a philosophy that’s going to do more harm than good.

Supernormal by Dean Radin

radind-supernormalDean Radin is the senior scientist at the institute of Noetic Sciences. This is his third book on psychic phenomena. His first two, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, concentrated on providing evidence for the reality of psi through statistical analysis of the wealth of experiments conducted over the past centrury or so. This new volume is largely concerned with why some people have a higher aptitude for psychic ability than others. The deciding factor that Radin attempts to identify as the culprit is meditation. The book is subtitled “Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities.” Psi phenomena are extremely slippery to prove in a lab setting, except by doing a huge meta-analysis. But what if we could demonstrate a measurable trend, such as an observation that long-term meditators outperform non-meditators? Using a wealth of experiments, Radin builds a very convincing case.

The one aspect of the book I’m not so sure about was the wisdom of using the “siddhis” of Buddhism as a credible blueprint for a modern discussion of psi. Siddhis are the alleged supernormal abilities of Buddhist masters, recorded in Buddhist scripture. Radin reckons there is more than a grain of truth in the old scriptures, although there is almost certainly a large amount of overdramatism.

Having read Radin’s previous books, I’ve noticed that any discussion of technique was absent. It’s all well and good to have evidence for psi, but what does an experimenter actually do to cause psychokinesis, telepathy, or precognition. This absence is finally addressed in the latest volume, albeit in a rather vague way. If you want to play with psi, learn how to meditate. Why? Presumably because meditators have the required mental discipline and are competent at holding prolonged “empty” states of mind, where the ordinary, incessant mental chatter is silenced. From my own past experimentation, I concur that it is indeed the state of “no thought” that provokes psi phenomena. And there really is no shortcut achieving an effect. It takes persistent practice. I could occasionally perform limited acts of PK, using a device called a psi wheel, but only when I was daily practising. And even then it was hard to figure out exactly what mental mechanism was causing the effect. The daily practice had the effect of making it easier to slip into a state of “no thought.” Now that I’ve been out of practice for years, it appears to be much more difficult when I decide to just give it a try once in a while.

Most psi effects are small, although Radin has a striking personal story to tell about his own experience at a “PK Party”, where he accidentally ended up bending a spoon. I was also delighted to see the humble psi wheel get a positive mention, as this was my own personal area of interest and where I had some legitimate success.

Supernormal is written in a much wittier and more conversational style than Radin’s previous books. It’s very accessible, but no less deep. Although I have to say I didn’t much like the accompanying illustrations of superhero characters striking yoga poses. I think this image cheapens the credibility of psi and alludes more to those fraudulent career psychics who tout their so-called “powers.” The philosophical territory that the book deals with in the closing chapters is particularly profound. Psi phenomena provide the best evidence for the kind of non-dual underpinnings to reality that mystics have talked about for thousands of years. The book is written as a standalone volume, so there is some necesssary overlap with the previous books, in order to give a complete picture. But a little revision does us veterans no harm. I’ve learned a lot from all of Radin’s books. He is a meticulous thinker and a true pioneer. If I might indulge in a little prediction: when psi is eventually integrated into science, Radin will be looked upon as a key figure who was well ahead of the game. He’s doing really important work, especially when you consider that he’s investigating a side of reality that pioneers such as Stephen Hawking are not prepared to acknowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had a legitimate paranormal experience might be ridculed, accused of fraud or self-delusion, but we know better. So does Dean Radin.