The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin

radind-consciousuniverseThis is the first book written by the senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. It was first published in the USA in 1997, but did not have a UK publication until 2009, where it bore the title The Noetic Universe (some UK readers, having already sourced Radin’s earlier work, mistook this for a new book). Both the US and UK editions, stylistically, contain huge marketing blunders. The US edition features an illustration of a levitating spoon, which, let’s face it, is not the sort of image that conveys legitimate psychic research. Meanwhile, the UK edition has a bewildering title and is styled like a Dan Brown novel – because psychic dabblers and Dan Brown fans constitute the same audience, apparently.

But that is where the criticisms end, because, quite frankly, this book is phenomenal. It is a painstakingly detailed critique of psychic research across the twentieth century. It’s a little harder to read than the book’s follow-up, Entangled Minds, but that’s only because the sheer attention to detail in the facts and figures makes the reading experience a little dry at times. Perseverance is well worth it.

The usual attitude of the armchair sceptic is that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena. Unfortunately, the person who says this has, more often than not, never looked for evidence. This is exactly the sort of book that is essential reading for a genuinely objective sceptic who wishes to become better informed. No serious sceptic could maintain a scornful attitude towards parapsychology, after digesting this volume.

The reality is that psychic phenomena are real, but subtle and hard to replicate. Radin’s main argument is through the technique of meta-analysis – by combining the results of all available psychic experiments, the failures and the victories (as well as taking into account the problem of selective reporting), to achieve an overall odds-against-chance figure.

After making a credible case for the existence of “psi,” Radin concludes the book with some philosophical discussion about the nature of reality. What do experiences of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis teach us about how the universe works? This section, for me, was the most rewarding. My own past interest in doing personal psi experiments stemmed from a philosophical conviction that the universe is non-dual – which is exactly the sort of model that Radin identifies as necessary for explaining how psi phenomena can be real.

Radin seems to care passionately about influencing his peers in the scientific community. I applaud him for daring to stand alone, in a poorly funded field that is often ridiculed. I feel that this is an extremely important book, ahead of its time. If you read one volume on psychic phenomena ever, make it this one.

No Man’s Land by Simon Watson

watsons-nomanslandThis obscure little children’s science fiction novel is another nostalgia trip for me. I recall reading it as part of the English curriculum in Junior High School. I recall that the main thought in my head, during the first read, was, “When do we get see the robot?” Action involving the robot, called Giant, was confined mostly to the closing chapters, and my twelve-year-old brain had little appreciation for the book’s subtler thematic content. Now, as an adult, I probably enjoyed the story far more, precisely because it dealt with real themes: the effects of over-population and industrialisation, where old people are forced into care homes, rural areas are transformed into urban, ancient landmarks are demolished to make room for housing. If anything, the presence of a gigantic semi-sentient construction robot that throws temper tantrums was a bit of a crude addition to an otherwise realistic story.

Alan, the protagonist, is a boy in his early teens, whose family is one of the last to move away from their countryside home. So ends a much-loved way of life for the boy, involving fun and games with other boys in an around the ruins of an old castle known as the Keep. Also brought to a close are Alan’s friendships with his best friend Ben and an old man known as the General. Alan reluctantly begins to adjust to his new life in the city, but when he obtains a motorcycle, the first thing he does is go back to his old home. He discovers that the General is still there; the man stubbornly hid himself when the authorities came to take all the old folks to a care home in the city. Later, the General discovers that there are plans to destroy the Keep, to make way for “progress.” Alan and the General will have none of it, and so they make a plan. But how can one boy and an old man thwart the might of a gigantic construction robot?

Some might criticise this novel for its slow pace and lack of dramatic action, especially when the front cover of many editions displays a robot. But I found it a very pleasant story, with realistic characters that I genuinely felt for. I’m glad I revisited this one.

The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra

choprad-bookofsecretsHaving already read many authors who teach non-dual philosophy, I thought it was about time I sampled Deepak Chopra. This short book is basically non-dualism and its implications presented to the reader in the form of fifteen secrets (which is basically a fancy way of saying fifteen chapters). There aren’t really fifteen special things you need to learn and then you’re awakened, but I guess Chopra likes to be overly dramatic. These secrets are:

  1. The Mystery of Life Is Real
  2. The World Is in You
  3. Four Paths Lead to Unity
  4. What You Seek, You Already Are
  5. The Cause of Suffering Is Unreality
  6. Freedom Tames the Mind
  7. Every Life Is Spiritual
  8. Evil Is Not Your Enemy
  9. You Live in Multidimensions
  10. Death Makes Life Possible
  11. The Universe Thinks Through You
  12. There Is No Time But Now
  13. You Are Truly Free When You Are Not a Person
  14. The Meaning of Life Is Everything
  15. Everything Is Pure Essence

The problem with having already worked my way through non-dual philosophy is that I’m now finding that I have very little to learn from books on the subject. But that’s hardly a criticism of this book. If I had discovered this one several years ago, I think it would have been an eye-opener. As it stands, I’m already familiar with much of the material, so this really becomes an exerise in revision. The highlight of the book was an insightful section dealing with Jung’s idea of the “shadow” – coping with one’s own personal dark side.

My main criticism of the book is that it tends to get too caught up becoming a self-help manual, and some of the advice struck me as verbose, convoluted, and lacking in genuine insight.

Chopra, who hails from India, brings an interested balance of science and Eastern philosophy to the table. It’s mostly good material, but for me personally, I felt he wasn’t really saying anything new, and it’s unlikely I’ll read another of his books. Still, The Book of Secrets serves as a useful primer for the newcomer to esoteric thinking.

Psyber Magick by Peter J. Carroll

carrollpj-psybermagickThis modern grimoire is written as a series of single-page chapters, each with an accompanying commentary page. Some chapters are so short that they consist of one paragraph and an illustration. There are only about 150 pages in total. But don’t be put off by the book’s brevity; it is more than made up for by a complete absence of hand-holding. The author goes straight to the point, without apology to any newcomers in magical thinking – and Chaos Magic in particular. In other words, this is not the book to read if it’s your first foray into the occult. You will likely be confused and disappointed. As for me, I was happy to be able to sink my intellectual teeth into something of substance without wading through reams of introductory material.

The author is skilled at communicating deep insights in a highly confined space, often with humour. The illustrations are not simply meaningless additions to the text; often a striking image can imprint an idea on the mind for more effectively than words. Sometimes Carroll would communicate something that I would instantly understand, while I could also see that it was something many others would find irrational. But while I often felt like an “insider”, it’s equally true that parts of this book baffled me. Maybe that means aspects of Carroll’s philosophy are weak, or maybe it means there’s something I’m not seeing yet. Hard to tell.

Carroll makes some striking cosmological claims, which he attempts to back up with equations pertaining to his own theory of three-dimensional time, i.e. time has three dimensions, just like space. I can’t quite wrap my head around what 3D time “looks” like. He comes very close to claiming that this theoretical framework gives him a theory of everything – the holy grail of science. Carroll does not believe that the universe originated with a singularity, nor will it end with one. The universe has always existed; it is finite but unbounded. In other words, it has no edge, in a similar sense to how one can travel around the world without ever reaching the “edge” of the world. Of course, the world has no edge, and we realised that once we transcended the flat-earth model. Similarly, our notions about an edge of the universe will be dispelled once we transcend the current view of the universe. Fascinating, mind-bending, unothodox stuff. True? Well, given my personal interest parapsychology, I’m not the sort of person who sides with a prevailing scientific orthodoxy on strength of numbers, but I do detect what appears to be a serious flaw in Carroll’s model. If the universe has no edge, but doubles back upon itself, why do we see blackness in space? Wouldn’t the light of all the stars reflect infinitely, causing us to see a fully lit night sky with no gaps. Imagine yourself standing in a dark featureless room that is mirrored on all sides, including the floor and ceiling, then you light a candle. All the darkness would be banished. Similarly, space would not be black if the universe has no edge. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it appears to me. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time used a similar argument against the view that the universe extends infinitely in all directions.

The most memorable idea in the book, for me personally, was the notion of multiple selfs – not in the sense of everything being one consciousness, but the view that our personality is just role we play, an accumulation of habits that now come naturally. Given that personality is fluid and changeable, why settle for just one? Why not play many roles? To an extent, we all do this already. For example, there are probably some people you are willing to say cusswords in the presence of, and others you won’t. We tailor our personalities to suit our audiences. So why go for half measures? Why not really exploit this ability and create multiple selfs – a sort of consciously governed Dissociative Identity Disorder? Carroll has the quirk of constantly referring to himself as “ourselfs” throughout the book.

The beauty of Carroll’s writings is that they give the reader theoretical ideas to play with. They allow you to examine the universe (and oneself) in ways not often noticed. Unfortunately though, in comparison to Carroll’s first work, Liber Null & Psychonaut, I would not consider Psyber Magick essential reading. I’ve now read four Chaos Magic works, and the ground is definitely thinning at this point. I fear I may have mined Chaoist philosophy to the point where it has little more of substance to offer. Still, worth a look.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate by Brad Warner

warnerb-zenkarmachocolateThis book begins: “In 2007 my mom died and then my grandmother died, my wife decided she didn’t want to be my wife anymore, I lost my dream job, and people I thought were friends and colleague in Buddhist practice began attacking me in public over scandals that existed solely in their own minds.” This statement crystallises the underlying theme of the book: does Zen practice really help when your life turns into a shit sandwich? Unlike books that deal with suffering in purely theoretical terms, Warner’s take is autobiographical, which gives it an air of realism lacking in many spiritual self-help books.

Warner is refreshingly human for a “Zen master.” He eschews robes in favour of T-shirts with punk rock band decals; he cusses when he talks; he says “I don’t know” when he just doesn’t know; and he never projects a fake “enlightened” persona. A lot of spiritual teachers could take a large leaf from his book, instead of pretending they’re the guys with all the answers. Many spiritual tomes get bogged down in technical details that have the reader scratcing his head, but Warner has a real flair for being both easy to read and deep. As well as providing advice, from a Zen perspective, on matters like dealing with death, sex, divorce, and fame, he deals with such hot potatoes as the taboo of the spiritual teacher who sleeps with one of his students – and his example is … himself. The overarching agenda of the book is to dispell the hoax of the holier-than-thou spiritual celebrity, by giving an eye-poppingly honest account of his own recent life, warts and all. That alone possibly makes this a landmark book. So if you happen to be involved in any way with any sort of guru figure, either as a fan or a student, you need to read this.

My own spiritual path began about five years ago, after I made a decision to leave Christianity. But not all the jigsaw pieces clicked into place at once, and a big one that took years for me to come to terms with was the realisation that Christianity’s ideals of purity are not based on human nature, but on thin air. It was a long time before I stopped trying to live up to the ridiculous standards imposed by my culture’s religious heritage. I used to think, “I will achieve what Christianity was supposed to achieve in me without Christianity.” But I couldn’t. And the problem was exascerbated by the example of spiritual teachers who would dress in special robes and make religious gestures and pretend that they are above anything so crude as sexual desire. What a bunch of phoneys! Thankfully I never fell prey to any of these people, but their presence unconsciously maintained the fallacy of purity in my mind. Warner does the human race a service in giving these spiritual “supermen” a much deserved boot up the arse and off their thrones.

This is the third book by Warner that I’ve read, and I have to say that I simply can’t get enough of his honesty and insight (not forgetting his sense of humour). I’m not a Zen Buddhist; I’m, shall we say, a non-denominational non-dualist, if that makes any sense. But the basic sense of reality in Zen is identical to my own beliefs (at least the way Warner describes it), and so I find the author’s words extremely helpful. Up to now, I’ve never made meditation a part of my life, but Warner has got me giving zazen a try.

Warner is streets ahead of the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. Actually, all of my favourite teachers (particularly Alan Watts and Anton LaVey) are dead. So, long live Brad Warner! I will be following his career with great interest.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

pirsigrm-zenmotorcycleThis book uses a father and son motorcycle trip as the background for a philosophical discussion about the existence of what author calls “quality.” He notices first of all that there are two ways of looking at a motorcycle, and these are reflections of two ways of thinking – what he calls “classical” and “romantic.” To the classicist, reality is made up of functional bits and pieces; to the romanticist reality is an aesthetic whole. This is illustrated with a personal example of the vastly different manner that the author’s friend John views his motorcycle (and the task of motorcycle maintenance). The author sees the motorcycle as a collection of mechanisms, whereas John only sees the aesthetic whole and has a distaste for the technological side of things (and hence a frustration when things go wrong). There’s a funny example where the author suggests fixing a problem with John’s motorcycle using a slice of metal from a beer can. Classically speaking, it is the perfect solution, but romantically speaking, John is horrified to integrate such a thing into his beautiful, pristine BMW. And so begins the author’s journey from being a pure classicist towards an integration the two modes of thinking.

Scientifically oriented people tend to be classicists, but Pirsig came to the realisation that classical thinking alone was not enough to explain all of reality. The turning point was when he asked himself the question “What is quality?” and couldn’t come up with an answer. He was a teacher at the time, and he put the question to his students as a homework assignment, because he genuinely wanted to know what they thought. They were as unable to answer the question as he was. As he follows this thread, it leads him ultimately to a confrontation with his bosses, a nervous breakdown, and a stay at a mental hospital which changes his personality forever. I realise that’s quite an A-Z to lump in one sentence, and I’m not entirely sure how the author ended up at Z, other than some unhealthy obsessional tendencies – including a strange need to convince his peers about the reality of “quality.”

Much of the story consists of the author trying to put together the memories of who he used to be, referring to his past self in the third person as Phaedrus. The book shifts wildly from easy-to-read autobiographal passages, to massively deep philosophical discussions – back and forth. As a reader, I couldn’t make up my mind about whether I liked the book. I appreciated that it was teaching me something useful about how to think more clearly, and at times the author’s experiences were moving. But at other times I found myself feeling frustrated at the author’s long-windedness, and sometimes I simply couldn’t follow his train of thought.

Regarding the father and son relationship, I found it irritating the way the author would constantly make silent judgements about his son Chris. For instance, there’s a passage where they’re climbing a mountain together, and Chris is pushing himself like something he really wants to accomplish. Pirsig silently makes a big deal about his son’s “ego.” And yet he makes no condemnation of his own egotism in the intellectual fencing matches he engages in with his university peers.

I got something out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s streets ahead of many books that masquerade as “spirituality.” But I think the author came to grasp the existence of “quality” via a route that was far longer and more technical than it needed to be. Then again, this is his story, not mine. The primary value of the book is that it makes a case (albeit a rather complicated one) for the view that reality consists of something more than the material stuff of classical thinking.

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-mythstolivebyJoseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, takes the reader on a journey through the various myths that mankind has used to make sense of his place in the universe through the ages. Of particular note are the differences between Eastern and Western religious ideas, and the impact of science on myth. The importance of myth is something that is largely alien to science, but if you can accept that there is an impenetrable mystery at the heart of existence, myth is the use of stories to hint at the nature of that mystery and our relation to it. Of particular note towards the end of the book is the mythological significance of Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and also man’s first journey to the moon, which Campbell sees as a paradigm changing moment watched by all humanity. He notes, with disappointment, that the astronaut’s words were a reading of the Genesis creation account, while his very actions were a deathblow to the Bible’s earth-centred cosmology. Incredible shortsightedness, showing how stuck people can become in outdated myths. Myths are supposed to change, in keeping with man’s evolving awareness of the universe.

It’s difficult to pin down in a few sentences what I got from reading this book, but it was a lot. From the standpoint of my own personal interests, the book was filled with interesting information. One item that stands out in particular was an examination of the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism and Christianity, from which came our ideas about hell, Satan, a saviour figure, and Armageddon. The book’s title alludes more to outdated myths that were once held, rather than myths that we should embrace in the present. In its concluding chapter, importance is placed on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and on what Huxley referred to as “Mind at Large.” Individual minds are not like little pilots riding in bodies. There is only one Mind, which is focused into an experience of many through the aperture of individual brains, which are filters for Mind at Large. This is a model of consciousness that I very much resonate with, and which finds a parallel in some ancient mythologies of the East.

Myths to Live By originated as a series of lectures that Campbell gave at the Cooper Union Forum. He later edited these into this book of twelve chapters. Because the book’s content is so diverse, I will list these, to whet your appetite:

  • The Impact of Science on Myth (1961)
  • The Emergence of Mankind (1966)
  • The Importance of Rites (1964)
  • The Separation of East and West (1961)
  • The Confrontation of East and West in Religion (1970)
  • The Inspiration of Oriental Art (1958)
  • Zen (1969)
  • The Mythology of Love (1967)
  • Mythologies of War and Peace (1967)
  • Schizophrenia – the Inward Journey (1970)
  • The Moon Walk- The Outer Journey (1970)
  • Envoy: No More Horizons (1971)

Essential reading for anyone who is not bound by the one-dimentional reasoning of scientific materialism. Campbell’s work is unique; I know of no other parallel in literature.