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.

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Revival by Stephen King

kings-revivalI don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out (because he’s too prolific for his own good), but this one attracted me because religion is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I consider myself a survivor of the brainwashing exercise of my youth and early adulthood.

The book starts in the mid twentieth century and charts the lifetime of a young boy, Jamie Morton, who is befriended by the new pastor in his hometown, a young man called Charles Jacobs. Pleasantly, this is not a tale of sexual scandal – which makes a change in stories of this type. The friendship is genuine. The real story begins when Jacobs preaches what local folks would later refer to as the Terrible Sermon. The pastor is forced to confront head-on the veracity of his religion’s claims; the placebo pill about God taking care of us no longer works for him, and he is determined to make everyone face the stark truth behind the comforting lies we tell each other. Unsurprisingly, he quits his job and leaves town. But this is not the last time Jamie sees him. Their paths are destined to cross in the future, more than once.

I don’t want to say too much about where this story weaves, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Suffice it to say, yes it is about a revival tent, as you may have guessed. Does Pastor Jacobs become one of those fraudulent faith healers? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

The best part of the novel, for me, was the conflict between the assertions of faith and the realities of experience. I became very involved with the lives of the characters, and King is his usual masterful self at bringing them to life. Some may consider this story too humdrum, but I think that depends on what topics you find interesting. Things get very dark at the end, tapping into our religious superstitions. King likes to dig his claws into the reader’s head as far as he possibly can. Unfortunately, in my case, this isn’t a place where I possess a button to be pushed. If I weren’t so self-assured, the ending would have disturbed me a lot.

Overall, an above average Stephen King story. It works for one read, but suffers from being too gloomy to ever revisit.

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.

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.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.