The Essential Jung by Carl G. Jung (edited by Anthony Storr)

jungcg-essentialjungCarl Jung, who is known for an approach to psychology known as psychoanalysis, was a very prolific writer. It would be nearly impossible for the interested reader to collect every volume he wrote, so Anthony Storr has put together this 400-page compendium of excerpts in an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive overview of Jung’s concepts. Some of these are: the idea of the unconscious, archetypes, and dream analysis.

I won’t kid you; I found this a difficult book, so difficult that my reading time spanned several years. Many of Jung’s ideas seem wildly abstract and speculative. However, there is definitely something interesting here, at least in part.

Jung coined the term “unconscious,” recognising that our minds contain information that we are not always aware of. This is undoubtedly true from experience. He also uses the term “collective unconscious.” This is sometimes misunderstood as a unified consciousness (in a mystical, metaphysical sense), but what Jung really meant was that our minds contain inherited information from the past – such as our natural fear of fierce animals. The common childhood fear of monsters may have its roots in our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ very real conflicts with wild beasts. This fear is collective in the sense that we all inherited it. Jung intended nothing spiritual or paranormal by the term “collective unconscious.”

Related to the collective unconscious is the idea of “archetypes” – recurring images in dreams that can be spotted across a multiplicity of cultures, hinting again at the notion of a collective inheritance. Jung named certain archetypes as anima, animus and the shadow. I found a lot of this material confusing, because I can find very little correspondence in my own experience. I do like the idea of the shadow, as a way of identifying the unsavoury aspects of our personality that we try to repress because they’re socially unacceptable. I can relate to that. But it’s important to realise that the shadow is not a thing, not an entity – just an idea, a way of representing an aspect of human experience in language. In man’s more primal prehistory, he probably wouldn’t have had a shadow, because he would have been more at one with his natural instincts, without the pressure of civilisation’s often unnatural ideals on his head.

Jung puts a lot of stock on dream interpretation – in therapy, using dreams as signposts to the root of a personality problem. From personal experience, I would say this can sometimes be the case, but more often than not my dreams are full of playful nonsense. How does a therapist avoid placing massive significance in an aspect of a dream that might be completely random?

Jung is essentially a mythologist of the psyche, in the way that ancient man was a mythologist about the material world – inventing a pantheon of gods and goddesses behind the forces of nature. Some of the words invented by Jung (such as unconscious, introvert, extravert) are still in common use today, which is a testament to his insight. Although this is a useful book, for me personally it was one that I had to laboriously dig through to find the nuggets of gold.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

harrisd-10happierI was especially attracted by the title of this volume because I’ve noticed that spiritual teachers have an unfortunate tendency to promise a lot more than they can actually deliver – Eckhart Tolle with his Zen-like persona being a prime example. I don’t believe in total freedom from suffering; that’s just not realistic. But “ten percent happier” is a phrase I can work with, because it suggests that ordinary human consciousness can be improved rather than transformed.

Dan Harris is a news anchor. Some years ago he took a panic attack in front of the camera. This, and a number of other factors, conspired to lead him to take an active interest in the subject of meditation. 10% Happier charts this journey. It contains fascinating interviews with Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Harris’s personal struggles with meditation, his time at a retreat. What makes this book unique is that it is told from the perspective of a genuinely interested sceptic. If you’ve read a few volumes on meditation and struggled to understand the practice, Harris’s book will be a welcome relief.

I noticed that the author appears to be a very extraverted person. This might be part of the reason why he struggled so much with meditation. He was accustomed to paying attention to the world of his senses and not to the internal landscape of the mind. Meditation was a way of redirecting that focus. You take away the outside world and you are forced to pay attention to the mind. This helps you to see your own motivations. In short, meditation can show you what an asshole you are.

If the book lacks something, it’s metaphysics. Meditation without metaphysics is a bit of a half-empty sandwich, for me personally. It serves as a form of self-therapy, but you never really tackle the issue of the “self” – coming to terms with the non-existence of an entity sitting between your eyes, while undersanding that consciousness is real. But that’s another story.

Harris also never fully questions his own lifestyle – the whole notion of climbing the ladder of success. He’s looking for a way to maintain his game, but the game itself might be part of the problem. But Dan Harris is who he is. And this book is the most down-to-earth and objective examination of meditation that I have read. For me, it’s one of the more important reads of recent years.

Waking Up by Sam Harris

harriss-wakingupA couple of years ago I was listening to a debate by Sam Harris, when he made a remark about consciousness being the one thing that you absolutely cannot declare is an illusion, because consciousness is the very ground from which you come to know everything else. This was not the sort of thing you hear from a typical atheist; atheists tend to be materialists who do their best to ignore the profound mystery of consciousness.

I was similarly delighted to learn about the publication of this book, subtitled “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Sounds right up my street. Harris has been a long-term meditator. He has spent time studying under eastern gurus in the past, and has also dabbled in psychoactive drugs. The book is part memoir, part science (neuroscience in particular), and part how-to manual on meditation and its benefits. The one thing it lacks (by Harris’s own admission) is metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, because it means that the kind of “spirituality” Harris refers to is rather weak, little more than the use of altered states of consciousness to improve psychological wellbeing. Harris, like most atheists, subscribes to materialism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge that materialism is also metaphysical speculation. A little inductive thinking is more than called for when attempting to discern whether the prime reality consists of matter or mind (or indeed something else).

The book will no doubt prove to be divisive among his main audience (atheists), but it will hopefully get many of them thinking seriously about consciousness. As a result of our Christian heritage, we’re all mind-body dualists, but few of us realise this. Instead, we blindly think of ourselves as literal psyches inhabiting bodies. While consciousness is not an illusion, the view of consciousness as an entity sitting between the eyes most definitely is. This is difficult conditioning to overcome, and many are not even aware of it as an issue.

Harris is mostly clear and accurate in his writing, but I did find myself confused in places by the language he chose to employ. When he talks about “the illusion of the self,” it almost seemed like he was denying the reality of consciousness itself. Then I learned to interpret his use of the word “self” to mean “self as a distinct mind/soul” rather than “self in the abstract” (if that makes any sense).

The book tackles some related side-issues, such as the moral failures of guru figures, why Buddhism is better than monotheistic religions, the value and danger of psychedelics, the validity of near-death experiences. All interesting material. There are better books on meditation and spirituality, such as the work of Alan Watts. Harris, I feel, falls for the trap of using meditation as a technique to escape from ordinary consciousness into a state of blissful wellbeing. This is based on the faulty understanding that ordinary states of consciousness are somehow broken. And this is a close cousin to the religious notion that mankind must be repaired from a metaphysical fall from grace. This is a connection that Harris doesn’t see. Without relying on meditation at all, I’ve come to a much more profound realisation that consciousness, in its natural state, is not broken in any way. And so, I don’t experience any of the striving that Harris’s book is preoccupied with.

Nevertheless, Waking Up is a most welcome addition to a growing body of literature on esoteric spirituality, not because it’s especially brilliant, but because of who Harris is and who he has the power to influence.

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

beringj-pervPsychologist Jesse Bering first hit my radar in 2012, when I saw an interview with him conducted at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2012 (see below). In this he talks about the case of an unfortunate young teenager who discovered his father’s medical textbook. This book featured nude photographs of women, which the boy used to aid his first attempts at masturbation. However, these women also happened to be amputees. One can understand how the boy may have been able to feel excitement at witnessing the forbidden areas of a woman’s body while also being able to disregard the missing limbs. However, if you know something about the unconscious mind, it tends to forge associations without us being aware of it. This is how the boy ended up with what is termed paraphilia – a sexual attraction towards something outside of the bounds of what is usually considered sexual. And he was seemingly stuck with it for life. Odd as it sounds, amputees turned him on more than full-bodied women.

This is a prime example of how sexual “deviancy” can occur quite accidentally, and have nothing to do with anything immoral or evil. Most teenagers do discover masturbation, except most of them aren’t so unlucky in their choice of erotic stimulation. The question is: how much of what we consider sexually immoral really stems from something that is genuinely morally unacceptable? Unfortunately, the values of polite society tend to view all paraphilia as cause for ethical concern, when they are usually harmless.

Jesse Bering has written a book that tackles paraphilia head on. It is written in a conversational style, with plenty of humour, but also succeeds in being informative. If there is one overall message, it is “Lighten up.” Paraphilias are really not that big a deal, for the most part. The one exception to this might be paedophilia, but even here Bering takes the daring stance of refusing to mimic the demonising stance of the mass media. There is no doubt that actual child abuse is horrific and unacceptable. But one side of this story that is not often heard is the testimony of the closet paedophile, who feels attracted to children but who also feels disturbed about this attraction, who doesn’t understand why he is the way he is, and who goes through life harbouring this dark secret and harming no one. If you’re willing to be dispassionate and objective about hot topics, this book will definitely challenge your preconceptions.

Sexuality is a part of human nature that we’ve only recently started coming to terms with. Over the past century or so, there has definitely been a gradual movement away from repression towards a more balanced and scientific understanding of this part of our lives. The first thirty-five years of my life were filled with a great deal of confusion about sex, thanks to unrealistic Christian ideals. In retrospect, I think a healthy outlook on sexuality is measured by how effectively you manage to ignore the prevailing cultural norms. Thankfully, we now have a growing body of literature to help us navigate these dangerous waters, to get us to the place where we can integrate our sexuality into our lives in a sane, healthy way. Jesse Bering’s Perv comes highly recommended in that regard.

The assumption of the book is that there is a sexual deviant in all of us. This is a statement about the malleability and diversity of sexuality, not a condemnation of the entire human race. How about you? Are you ready to face up to the aspects of your own sexuality that have surprised or disturbed you? With the help of this book, you might actually end up laughing about it.

The attitude of the Christian masses towards sexual minorities has tended to be one of condemnation and a lack of empathy. As rational people come to understand sexually better, instead of relying on the outdated dogmas of a two-thousand-year-old religious text from the near east, then I think we’re going to see a gradual shift towards greater compassion and tolerance. The sooner, the better.

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.

Letters from the Devil by Anton Szandor LaVey

laveyas-lettersfromthedevilAnton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote five books over the course of his life, expounding his philosophy of essentially atheistic Satanism – where the mythical character Satan is used as a potent and meaningful symbol for individualism and rebellion against common religion. I’ve read and reviewed all of LaVey’s works on this blog, and I found parts of his philosophy very useful for my own life. I consider him something of a visionary, having a penetrating insight on what it means to be human. Sadly, he died in 1997, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Satan Speaks! (an essay collection published posthumously, not long after his death) would be the last words of Anton LaVey.

Not quite! In the very early days of the Church of Satan (the late 1960s and early 1970s), LaVey wrote a weekly column for the newspaper The National Insider and later The Exploiter. It was called Letters from the Devil. The public was invited to write letters to the infamous Black Pope. The most interesting ones were published, accompanied by LaVey’s responses.

Despite the dubious reputations of these tabloid publications, it appears that LaVey took his job seriously. His responses have all the insight and wit of his books. Some of the letters are hilarious, often assuming LaVey to be a devil worshipper, or treating him like a genie in a bottle, able to dispense wishes. LaVey’s responses were equally funny, as he exposes the letter writers’ shortcomings to them. There are also more serious letters, genuinely asking for advice with a difficult life situation. LaVey gives respect where it is due and provides his unique perspective.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was surprised to see that it was roughly A4 in size. This is because the editor has chosen to reproduce scanned images of the original newspaper pages, rather than reformat the text to suit a typical paperback book. I like the authenticity of this approach. The only drawback is that A4 is smaller than the original newspapers, and the originals have had to be shrunk to fit. The text is extremely small. It didn’t irritate me too much, because I wasn’t intending to read for extended periods (I wanted to draw out the experience of having new Anton LaVey material), but I think some readers might find it annoying.

There are just under 70 articles in the volume. They are chronologically organised, but sadly there are gaps. Since most people throw newspapers out, I imagine this small collection took a lot of time and effort to compile. It’s nice to think that some more gems from the mind of Anton LaVey might still be waiting out there, stored away in someone’s attic. One small gripe: most of the pages in the volume feature the name and date of the newspaper, but some do not. This makes life slightly difficult for anyone wishing to track down missing issues on eBay.

My thanks to Kevin Slaughter (and Chris X, who collected the issues) for putting this volume together. It was a most welcome surprise.

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.

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.

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.