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.

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.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Logan’s Run: Last Day by Paul J. Salamoff

salamoffpj-lastdayThis comic adaptation of Logan’s Run is much more faithful to William F. Nolan’s original novel than the 1970s movie and television series. Gone is the City of Domes, along with the Carrousel ritual. The whole world is run by a computer called the Thinker. After a global apocalypse, this computer brings humanity back from practical extinction, but with a particular set of rules to ensure a balanced population. Everyone is scheduled for termination at age 21. Go quietly, or you will be hunted down by an elite police force equipped with high-tech weaponry able to deal out extremely painful death. These are the Deep Sleep Operatives, or DS-Men for short. Logan-6 is one of these.

The story delves into Logan’s childhood training, and some earlier back story about how the world ended. Familiar characters make an appearance: Francis (Logan’s friend who is forced to hunt him down after he runs) and Jessica (Logan’s runner companion). Like the original novel, I was pleased to see Logan remain the villain for the larger part of the story – something that was dispensed with in the movie and TV series. Where this adaptation differs substantially from both the novel and movie is the conclusion, where it treads new ground (which I won’t spoil). I actually have a soft spot for the oft criticised movie version of Logan’s Run. I liked the religious overtones of Carrousel – a population blindly believing in “renewal” through death simply because that’s the only viewpoint on offer – one they’ve been indoctrinated with from youth. In truth, I like the book, the movie, the TV series, and this new adaptation. All bring something slightly different to table, but the overall theme of a brainwashed society is central to each. Do you dare to question the norms of the world you grew up in?

This is a beautifully written and illustrated adaptation of Logan’s Run that will delight existing fans and possibly make a few new ones. It had a run as a six-issue comic from Bluewater Productions. These are now available as a graphic novel. Even better, there is a follow-up series entitled Aftermath, which examines Logan and Jessica’s life after the collapse of civilisation left in the wake of the Thinker’s destruction. I’ve read a couple of issues of this so far, and I’ve been really excited by the direction of the story. I wish I had the full set.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner

warnerb-sexsinzenHuman sexuality is a fascinating subject for study, mainly because there is so much bad information available about it. For that we can thank our Christian heritage, which made us view this instinct as something sinful and dirty, leading us to repress aspects of ourselves. Here in the West, we all grew up with that mindset, whether we were overtly Christian or not; the Christian value system permeates our culture.

Two things attracted me to this book in particular. (1) Although I’m not a Zen Buddhist, large parts of that philosophy are compatible with my worldview. (2) Having previously read Warner’s book Hardcore Zen (and especially the chapter “Personal Demons”), I was captivated by his raw honesty; I thought, “If anyone can write a useful book about sex, it’s him.”

Sex, Sin, and Zen does not disappoint. It covers such topics as masturbation, celibacy, polyamory, pornography, BDSM (yes, you heard that right!), marriage and dating. It’s all angled towards the Zen practitioner, so there are many side-issues covered such as meditation, the nececssity (or otherwise) of a priest being celibate, and a frank chapter called “When Good Spiritual Masters Go Bad.” None of that detracts from the book one bit, but simply makes it more fascinating.

Five years ago I painfully detached myself from an 18-year stretch as a born-again Christian. As I pursured my own individual spiritual path, so began a slow process of sexual healing – both from the repression, and the obsession that it inevitably generates. I would hazard a guess that the reason the modern world is sex-crazed is due to all the repression we’ve lived under. We’ve never been allowed to integrate our sexual natures into our lives in a balanced and healthy way. One of the main things I took from this book was the perspective that the sex-saturated society we live in is just as unbalanced as the extreme sexual repression of the past. Overall, I didn’t learn a great deal that I didn’t already know, but that’s no criticism. It just means I’ve already come a long way myself. I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of the author’s assertions, and I could have done with a book like this five years ago. One of the most gripping sections of the book is a lengthy interview that Warner held with ex-porn star Nina Hartley – an actress who, curiously, is also a Zen Buddhist. This is a seriously open and self-realised woman.

Sex, Sin, and Zen is written in Warner’s characteristically rambling, friendly, down-to-earth style, laced with much humour. This is not a spiritual teacher who has any interest in appearing superior to his audience, which is a real breath of fresh air for this type of book. Highly recommended for those struggling to come to terms with the sexual side of their lives, whatever their predicament.

The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection by John Wagner & Alan Grant

wagnerj-batmanjudgedreddWay back in the mists of time (around 1990, maybe), I recall the Aliens vs. Predator comic. I think this may have been first to begin the trend of combining two well known movies or iconic characters. Since then we’ve had all sorts of combinations, involving Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Superman, Batman, and now Judge Dredd. Normally, my cynical side would question this publishing strategy as a crude attempt to extend a fanbase, but I have to say I really enjoyed the Judge Dredd vs. Aliens story Incubus that I read earlier this year.

So how do Dredd and Batman fare in the same story? Both characters are concerned with justice, but approach it from vastly different perspectives. Batman operates above the law, reaching where the law cannot. Judge Dredd is more of a by-the-book police-state lawman who has no tolerance for vigilantes. As you can suspect, the two characters do not get along. In the first story, Judgement on Gotham, Dredd finds himself in Gotham City as a result of Judge Death’s antics. The Dark Judge has used his dimension gate technology to open a portal to Batman’s world, where he proceeds, characteristically, to wreak havoc on Gotham. Batman ends up in Mega-City One, Dredd arrests him, and the two eventually wind up back in Gotham to fight Death. It’s a good story, marred slightly by a tendency to go for laughs more than scares – which harms the impact of Judge Death’s presence somewhat. Judge Anderson and Mean Machine Angel also feature in the story.

“Vendetta in Gotham” sees Dredd return to Gotham City, to pick a fight with Batman – seemingly for evading his fascistic brand of justice back on Mega-City One. Dredd’s actions initially felt out of character, but there’s a twist in the tail.

“The Ultimate Riddle” is a story in a similar vein to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. Dredd finds himself mysteriously transported into a cage, in a room full of cages. Batman is in another cage. The rest of the cages are filled with weird and bizarre beings from other dimensions, representing the most fearsome warriors of each culture. A battle to the death commences. And who is the adversary who orchestrated all this? The clue’s in the title.

Lastly, in “Die Laughing” we have the Joker teaming up with the Judge Death, willingly becoming a Dark Judge himself. On Mega-City One, a biodome devoted to hedonism is getting ready to close its gates forever. Once it is sealed, the citizens within it will be permanently locked away forever from the rest of the city, their lives devoting to pleasure-seeking within its confines. Except the Dark Judges get locked in with them.

Not nearly the best Judge Dredd stories I’ve read, but good fun nevertheless.