Category Archives: Non-fiction

Thoughts on “Along the Road” by Aldous Huxley

As I continue working through the books that have been on my shelf way too long, I decided to read this one, which has been on my shelf for at about 25 years.

This book is a collection of travel essays which Huxley published in 1925. From an historical perspective, it is interesting to read about what things were like in Europe in the years between World War I and World War II. Also, travelling in a time before cell phones and GPS provided fodder for interesting stories.

Early in the book, Huxley asserts that most people do not like to travel and only do travel so that they can essentially have the bragging rights of having been somewhere cool.

The fact is that very few travellers really like travelling. If they go to the trouble and expense of travelling, it is not so much from curiosity, for fun or because they like to see things beautiful and strange, as out of a kind of snobbery. People travel for the same reason they collect works of art: because the best people do it. To have been to certain spots on the earth’s surface is socially correct; and having been there, one is superior to those who have not. Moreover, travelling gives one something to talk about when one gets home.

(pp. 9 – 10)

I confess chuckling when I read this. I considered times travelling with friends when I was younger. I was eager to go out, see and do things, and often my travel companions wanted to hang around the hotel room. I never understood this. For me, the whole point of travelling is to experience something new and to broaden my perspectives.

As an avid reader, I am guilty of always bringing books with me when I travel. As Huxley points out, I am not alone in this regard.

All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever completely cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading. They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never find time to read.

(p. 70)

I am reminded of my travels in the Lake District of England, carrying around my volumes of works by the English Romantic writers. I did read some, but mostly it was one or two poems in the evening before falling into sleep from exhaustion. I now choose my books strategically, something that is not too heavy, and which will likely get me through most if not all of the journey. The truth is, most places have interesting local bookstores, and it is really hard for me to visit a place like Paris and not schedule a trip to the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore. I can always buy another book if needed. And for those of use who have eReaders, there is always a veritable library at the fingertips.

Overall, I liked this book. Huxley provides some great descriptions of various places he visited, as well as some in-depth analyses of artwork and architecture native to the locations. Granted, much of what is included in these essays is outdated, but I still found the book interesting.

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Thoughts on “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman

After the list of Academy Award nominees came out, I made it a point to watch as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible, which included “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Since I really liked this film, I decided I ought to read Abbie Hoffman’s most famous book, which I purchased instead of stole.

The book is essentially a handbook for the hippie revolutionary. Although much of the material is dated (I completely skipped the last section which was just a list of resources in various cities which are all likely defunct), there were still some entertaining tidbits, and it does give insight into the thinking of one of the 60’s most prominent activists.

Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika. It preaches jailbreak. It shows you where and exactly how to place the dynamite that will destroy the walls.

(p. XXI)

As I said, most of what is in this book is dated and is only of interest from a socio-historical perspective. For example, Hoffman’s information regarding Guerrilla TV, which is made moot by social media, where anyone can create a YouTube channel and broadcast their political views to the masses.

Guerrilla TV is the vanguard of the communications revolution, rather than the avant-garde cellophane light shows and the weekend conferences. One pirate picture on the sets in Amerika’s living rooms is worth a thousand wasted words.

(p. 144)

In light of all the demonstrations we have witnessed over the last couple years, Abbie does offer some sound advice to those who choose non-violent demonstrations as a means of social change.

Numbers of people are only one of the many factors in an effective demonstration. The timing, choice of target and tactics to be employed are equally important. There have been demonstrations of 400,000 that are hardly remembered and demonstrations of a few dozen that were remarkably effective. Often the critical element involved is the theater. Those who say a demonstration should be concerned with education rather than theater don’t understand either and will never organize a successful demonstration, or for that matter, a successful revolution.

(p. 147)

I will conclude by saying this book is definitely not for most people. Not only is it an anachronism, but Hoffman appears to advocate for violent behavior in parts of this book, going so far as to provide instructions for activities that I personally find abhorrent and have no place in a civilized society. But I will grant that Hoffman was writing at a time when individuals fighting for social change were subject to severe reprisal, as is evident in the film “Trial of the Chicago 7.” My recommendation, watch the movie and skip the book. Feels weird saying that.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 65” by Lao Tzu

In the old days, those who were well versed in the
practice of the Tao did not try to enlighten the
people, but rather to keep them in the state of simplicity.
For, why are the people hard to govern? Because they
are too clever! Therefore, he who governs his state
with cleverness is its malefactor; but he who governs
his state without resorting to cleverness is its
benefactor. To know these principles is to possess a
rule and a measure. To keep the rule and the measure
constantly in your mind is what we call Mystical
Virtue. Deep and far-reaching is Mystical Virtue! It
leads all things to return, till they come back to Great
Harmony!

First off, I have to say it feels a little strange to hear someone referring to “the old days” in a text that was written around 400 BC. But what this says to me is that people are always nostalgic about the way things used to be. I think that says something about human nature.

In this passage, Lau Tzu encourages leaders to govern through simplicity and with “Mystical Virtue.” Doing so will return a nation to a state of “Great Harmony.” Clearly, this is advice that many of our modern leaders could benefit from. When I look at the world, it seems to me to be the antithesis of a Great Harmony.

There is really nothing that I can add to this short passage. I hope you found it as insightful as I did. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading.

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Thoughts on “Being Ram Dass” by Ram Dass

When I received an email from Sounds True announcing the publication of this book, I knew I would be reading it. I loved Be Here Now and could not pass up the opportunity to read a first-hand account of Ram Dass’s life, which ended on December 22, 2019.

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in 1932. The book covers his long and interesting life, from his childhood to his early days as an explorer of psychedelics with Timothy Leary, then his journey to India where he met Maharaj-ji and became a devotee, and finally, his later years following his debilitating stroke.

There are so many wonderful and insightful seeds of wisdom in this book, it seriously warrants reading by anyone who has even a sliver of interest in spirituality and service. I will share a couple quotes that stood out for me.

Service as a spiritual path lacks glamour. I liked moving in and out of planes of reality, esoteric teachings, secret mantras, meditation in caves, experiences of bliss. Those experiences of different planes originated in my use of psychedelics, and I’d grown attached to those experiences. It was another trap that I created for myself, another kind of spiritual ego.

I had romanticized and idealized my spiritual path—so much so that I distanced myself from the nitty-gritty of life. I wanted to transcend this earthly plane, with its imperfect humans caught in their greed and ambition and selfishness, including me. Serving God was an ideal. Serving God in the form of other people, with all their vagaries and flaws, politics and personality quirks, was a whole other kettle of fish.

(p. 280)

I confess, I am guilty of what Ram Dass describes. I know I have “spiritual ego.” In addition, I find myself constantly vexed by the attitudes and behaviors of my fellow humans. I make a conscious effort to practice empathy and acceptance, but it does not come easy for me. It is so much easier to “love and serve” those who I like, but those who anger me? That is hard. I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that I realize I still have a way to go along my path. There is hope for me yet.

This segues nicely into the next passage.

Gandhi said, “When you surrender completely to God as the only Truth worth having, you find yourself in the service of all that exists. It becomes your joy and recreation. You never tire of serving others.” Billions of acts create suffering in the world—acts of ignorance, greed, violence. But in the same way, each act of caring—the billion tiny ways that we offer compassion, wisdom, and joy to one another—serves to preserve and heal our world. When I help someone change their perspective on their individual problems, I also change society.

(p. 360)

I must confess, I have been seriously considering ending this blog. But it is the possibility that maybe something I share might help one person, the chance that I might help spread some small crumb of wisdom or insight or inspiration to another person, that brings me back to the keyboard to write yet another post.

If you are reading this, I hope you will consider the wise words of Ram Dass, and maybe pick up a copy of his book and read it. Thanks for stopping by, and may we all contribute to spreading some happiness in the world. The world desperately needs more happiness right now.

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Thoughts on “The Mystical Qabalah” by Dion Fortune

I finished reading this book several weeks ago, but I have been busy with work and not able to take time to write about this text. Additionally, the nature of this book and the complexity of the ideas conveyed posed a problem: How could I possibly cover such a deep book in a short blog post? The short answer is, I can’t.

When I read this book, I read it virtually with a close friend who is also a fellow traveler of spiritual paths. We would read a section and have a weekly call to discuss what we had read. This led to some deep conversations which were both enlightening and thought provoking.

Anyway, this book was originally published in 1935 and goes into deep analysis of the symbolism and occult meanings associated with the Jewish Qabalah (or Kabbalah). While the text primarily focuses of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, Ms. Fortune does provide correspondences to other mystical traditions. Because this text is so dense, I will only touch on a few general excerpts and leave the rest open for exploration by those who are moved to read the book themselves.

Since the Qabalah is a highly symbolic structure, Fortune offers some sound advice early in the book for how one should approach the study of Qabalah.

When in doubt as to the explanation of some abstruse point, reference would be made to the sacred glyph, and meditation would unfold what generations of meditation had ensouled therein. It is well known to mystics that if a man meditates upon a symbol around which certain ideas have been associated by past meditation, he will obtain access to those ideas, even if the glyph has never been elucidated to him by those who have received the oral tradition “by mouth to ear.”

(p. 5)

Fortune is essentially stating that there is a kind of collective consciousness accessible through symbols, that the insights gained throughout ages by individuals meditating upon the symbol become joined to the symbol on a deeper level. These insights are then available to the seeker who meditates upon the symbol, most likely by the vibrational alignment with past meditators.

Fortune goes on to explain that, in addition to tapping into a collective knowledge, meditation upon Qabalistic symbols allows the mind to comprehend insights that are not available to those who primarily exist within our standard plane of consciousness.

The Qabalist goes to work in a different way. He does not attempt to make the mind rise up on the wings of metaphysics into the rarified air of abstract reality; he formulates a concrete symbol that the eye can see, and lets it represent the abstract reality that no untrained human mind can grasp.

(p. 14)

The last quote I want to share concerns what Fortune asserts is the ultimate goal of the occultist and the practitioner of the mystical arts, and this is nothing less than the union with God.

The Spiritual Experience assigned to Kether is said to be Union with God. This is the end and aim of all mystical experience, and if we look for any other goal we are as those who build a house in a world of illusion. Anything that holds him back from the straight path to this goal is felt by the mystic to be a bond that binds, and as such to be broken. All that holds consciousness to form, all desires other than the one desire—these are to him evils, and from the standpoint of his philosophy he is right, and to act otherwise would invalidate his technique.

(p. 120)

I feel that this book is a must-read for anyone who is seriously interested in learning about the Qabalah. While there are many more traditional texts by Hebrew scholars such as Gershom Scholem (a personal favorite) that explain the Qabalah from a more Jewish perspective, this book provides a wealth of insight into this rich and complex symbolic mystical tradition.

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“The Book of Thoth” by Aleister Crowley

I recently acquired the Thoth Tarot deck. The Thoth Tarot was designed by Aleister Crowley and the paintings for the cards were done by Lady Frieda Harris. The creation of the deck was completed in 1943, and in 1944, Crowley published The Book of Thoth which is contains in-depth explanations of the symbolism included in each of the tarot cards, as well as the correspondences between the Thoth deck and the kabbalistic Tree of Life.

Crowley begins the book with a basic description of the tarot deck.

The tarot is a pack of seventy-eight cards. There are four suits, as in modern playing cards, which are derived from it. But the Court cards number four instead of three. In addition, there are twenty-two cards called “Trumps”, each of which is a symbolic picture with a title to itself.

At first sight one would suppose this arrangement to be arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah.

(p. 3)

Because of its correspondences to the Universe and the Tree of Life, Crowley stresses that the study of the tarot is invaluable in magickal studies and should be started early and practiced regularly.

This fact is to be emphasized, because one must not take the Tree of Life as a dead fixed formula. It is in a sense an eternal pattern of the Universe, just because it is infinitely elastic; and it is to be used as an instrument in one’s researches into Nature and her forces. It is not to be made an excuse for Dogmatism. The Tarot should be learnt as early in life as possible; a fulcrum for memory and a schema for mind. It should be studied constantly, a daily exercise; for it is universally elastic, and grows in proportion to the use intelligently made of it. Thus it becomes a most ingenious and excellent method of appreciating the whole of Existence.

(p. 31)

Although there are many levels of correspondences and symbolism associated with the tarot, Crowley emphasizes the correspondence between the twenty-two trump cards and the twenty-two paths which are part of the Tree of Life according to the Holy Qabalah.

Twenty-two is the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the number of Paths of the Sepher Yetzirah. These paths are the paths which join the ten numbers on the figure called the Tree of Life.

Why are there twenty-two of them? Because that is the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and one letter goes to each path.

(p. 35)

The bulk of the book deals with the symbolism incorporated into each individual card within the Thoth Tarot deck. This information is extremely useful to anyone who wants to use this tarot deck, but is way too detailed to cover in a blog post. I will only say that if you have the Thoth Tarot or are thinking of acquiring the deck, you should also invest in this book.

A final word about this text. It demands a lot of the reader and expects that you have at least a basic understanding of kabbalah, tarot, and ancient mythology. I would not suggest this as a beginner’s guide.

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“Those Who Don’t Believe in God Believe in Everything” by Umberto Eco

We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.

Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.

Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.

. . .

When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)

If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).

(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)

Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.

I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.

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“Psychonaut” by Peter J. Carroll

Psychonaut is the second text in this book (click here to read my thoughts on Liber Null, the first text). While Liber Null primarily focuses on individual uses of Chaos Magic, Psychonaut focuses on group practices, or what Carroll calls shamanistic work.

Rather than examining the ritualistic practices described in this text, I decided to instead write about the connections and contrasts between the mystical arts and conventional science, as addressed by Carroll in his book. Carroll begins by asserting that science is returning to magic, in a sense.

After some centuries of neglect, advanced minds are turning their attention to magic once more. It used to be said that magic was what we had before science was properly organized. It now seems that magic is where science is actually heading. Enlightened anthropology has grudgingly admitted that beneath all the ritual and mumbo-jumbo of so-called primitive cultures there exists a very real and awesome power that cannot be explained away.  Higher psychics now suggest that the universe runs on something more akin to sorcery than clockwork.

(p. 111)

Carroll follows up by positing that the next leap forward in human evolution and understanding will be in the realm of the psyche, an idea that I agree with. The new frontier for humanity is that of consciousness.

Science has brought us power and ideas but not the wisdom or responsibility to handle them. The next great advance that humanity will make will be into the psychic domain. There are many encouraging signs that this is beginning to occur. In this new field of endeavor we shall rediscover much of the magical knowledge that the ancient shamans once possessed. Of course, we shall know it under different guises and will eventually expand on their knowledge immensely.

(p. 113)

When exploring consciousness, the scientific method essentially fails, since consciousness is linked to perception and therefore cannot be observed in the traditional manner in which scientific observations are made.

Many scientific disciplines begin by not observing any sort of vital spark or consciousness in material events and proceed to deny that these things exist in living beings, including themselves. Because consciousness does not fit into their mechanistic schemes they declare it illusory. Magicians make exactly the reverse argument. Observing consciousness in themselves and animals, they are magnanimous enough to extend it to all things to some degree – trees, amulets, planetary bodies, and all. This is a far more respectful and generous attitude than that of religions, most of whom won’t even give animals a soul.

(p. 151)

Since the time of Carroll’s writing of this book in 1987, science has made many advances in the exploration of consciousness. Researchers using MRI imaging of the brains of people who meditate shows that meditation affects brain function. There has also been discovery in quantum physics that perception and consciousness have a direct effect on subatomic particles. Where will all this lead? Not sure, but it is certainly food for thought.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 6 – At the Abbey of Thelema

As I have now finished reading all of Crowley’s autobiography, it’s probably time to address the question: Was Aleister Crowley the evil black magician that he was portrayed to be? The short answer is, I don’t know. To quote Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And I think this was Crowley’s take on magick, that there is no good or bad magick, there is just magick. He uses the metaphor of music as an example.

Imagine listening to Beethoven with the prepossession that C is a good note and F is a bad one; yet this is exactly the standpoint from which all uninitiates contemplate the universe. Obviously, they miss the music.

(p. 838)

In a manner that is very familiar in our current political climate, Crowley blames the news media of his time as spreading “fake news” about him and his practices, asserting that what was written about him amounted to nothing less than slander.

I replied ‘Allegations utterly absurd.’ My only annoyance was having to pay for the telegram. Presently copies of the Sunday papers for November 28th arrived. I read them with tireless amusement. I had read in my time a great deal of utter balderdash, but nothing quite so comprehensively ridiculous. It gave me the greatest joy to notice that practically every single detail was false. There was, for instance, a description of the abbey, without a single failure to misstate the facts. If a thing was white, they called it red, if square, circular, if stone, brick; and so for everything.

(p. 914)

To sum up, this is a long book, probably longer than it needed to be, but interesting in providing context for the development of the occult ideologies that have had a profound impact on the ideas and practices of those circles ever since. I also, personally, ended this book with the impression that some of Crowley’s stories were embellished, either to establish a cult of himself, or to convey symbolically some mystical information to the careful reader who could notice the subtleties of metaphor woven into the text.

I will close this series on The Confessions of Aleister Crowley with a quote that is most appropriate.

‘The mind is improved by reading.’

(p. 853)

Hope you enjoyed, and keep improving your mind.

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