Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that he is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The main problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary mistake at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, then religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

warnerb-sitdownandshutupBrad Warner is a Zen Buddhist priest who runs a group called Dogen Sangha in Los Angeles. Dogen was a monk who lived in the 12th century and authored a Buddhist book called Shobogenzo. This work is Warner’s primary reference point for his own philosophy. And Sit Down and Shut Up is his attempt to write a commentary on excerpts from Shobogenzo.

Shobozgenzo should not be understood as a Buddhist equivalent of what the Bible is to Christians. There is nothing divinely inspired about a 12th century text (nor about the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself). It just so happens that Warner agrees with the bulk of Dogen’s philosophy, and so it becomes the main reference point for his life. He is also not averse to poking fun at some of the more culturally irrelevant aspects of the ancient book. Warner’s commentary is not dry and technical. He often defends Dogen’s insights by drawing from his own life experience – both as a priest and a punk rock musician.

Sit Down and Shut Up is the second book in Warner’s canon – a follow-up to his highly successful Hardcore Zen. Having read several later books by Warner, I can see that the volume under review here contains essays that are the genesis of themes that the author later expanded into whole books. The essay “Sex and Sin” provides the basis for his book Sex, Sin, and Zen. In the essay “Zazen by Alone,” Warner discusses the holier-than-thou personality that spiritual teachers have a tendency to project; this was destined to flower into his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. And although I have yet to read Warner’s book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, I have a feeling that his essay “God” is where that book germinated.

There isn’t really one overall theme to Sit Down and Shut Up. The book’s title is a reference to the importance that the author places upon the practice of zazen meditation – something that I don’t often practice and I’m not convinced is a necessity for my life. Although I will say that psychological health is certainly maintained by any practice where one sits down and shuts up. In other words, you stop busying yourself as a means of running away from yourself. Give your mind the breathing space it needs to sort itself out. Warner’s elaboration about zazen allowed me to see parallels in my own life, even in my past as a Christian where I would go off somewhere quiet to be alone with God. It didn’t matter that this “personal God” was a figment of my imagination. The practice itself had a healing effect of its own. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by zazen in particular, and I have a mind to try it out more seriously, to see what all the fuss is about.

In summary, this is an excellent book. In comparison to Warner’s other works, it’s hard to say where it ranks, because they’re all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking for diverse content, this is a particularly good one to read. But I would read everthing written by Warner (and I plan to), which is the highest praise I can give to an author.

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.

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.

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.

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.