Category Archives: Non-fiction

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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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 5 – The Magus

In the timeline of Crowley’s life, this section of his autobiography corresponds to a period when he spent a significant amount of time in the United States, and also began to sink into poverty.

During this period, Crowley became involved in Freemasonry and assumed a leadership position. He claims that one of the first things he set out to do was define Freemasonry.

I proposed to define freemasonry as a system of communicating truth – religious, philosophical, magical and mystical; and indicating the proper means of developing human faculty by means of a peculiar language whose alphabet is the symbolism of ritual. Universal brotherhood and the greater moral principles, independent of personal, racial, climactic and other prejudices, naturally formed a background which would assure individual security and social stability for each and all.

(p. 700)

While the Freemasonry stuff and his personal history were intriguing, what I found the most interesting in this section of the book is Crowley’s theory that there is a symbolic connection between Christ and the god Mercury. I have read plenty of texts comparing Christ with other manifestations of the divine (Mithras, Osiris, etc.), but this is the first time I heard of anyone attempting to establish a relationship between Christ and Mercury; and I must admit, Crowley makes a convincing argument.

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, who is Mercury, and is therefore to be identified with Christ. Both are messengers; their birth mysteries are similar; the pranks of their childhood are similar. In the Vision of the Universal Mercury, Hermes is seen descending upon the sea, which refers to Maria. The Crucifixion represents the caduceus; the two thieves, the two serpents; the cliff in the Vision of the Universal Mercury is Golgotha; Maria is simply Maia with the solar R in her womb.

. . .

To continue the identification, compare Christ’s descent into hell with the function of Hermes as guide of the dead. Also Hermes leading up Eurydice, and Christ raising up Jairus’s daughter. Christ is said to have risen on the third day, because it takes three days for the planet Mercury to become visible after separating from the orb of the sun. (It may be noted here that Mercury and Venus are the planets between us and the sun, as if the Mother and the Son were mediators between us and the Father.)

(pp. 720 – 721)

Crowley cites other similarities, but I think this is sufficient to demonstrate his assertion.

Crowley’s ideas are difficult to grasp and often misinterpreted. As he states in the text, “you’re not the first people to fail to understand Mr Aleister Crowley!” (p. 755) But this is the challenge when approaching a text of this type. Mystical and occult literature is difficult to understand and the symbolic nature of it makes it prone to myriad interpretations. It is always prudent to keep this in mind when reading books of this sort.

Thanks for stopping by, and always read critically.

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Thoughts on “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön

My wife recently bought and read this book and told me she thought I would like it. Since it is short (only 150 pages) I decided to squeeze it in between my other reading projects, and am very glad I did. The book provides practical, spiritual suggestions that are pertinent to coping with the stresses that we have all been dealing with during these chaotic times.

In her introduction, Ms. Chödrön encourages you to allow this book to help you to:

… settle down with your life and take these teachings on honesty, kindness, and bravery to heart. If your life is chaotic and stressful, there’s plenty of advice here for you. If you’re in transition, suffering from loss, or just fundamentally restless, these teachings are tailor made. The main point is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path.

(p. xii)

Pema eloquently reminds us that  these difficult times can actually impart important life lessons to us if we allow them to teach us.

Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors—people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

(p. 13)

And it’s not just difficult times that teach us. All of life’s experiences, all of our spiritual learning and seeking, ultimately help us to discover who we are and instruct us on how to navigate the world around us.

Listening to talks about the dharma, or the teachings of Buddha, or practicing meditation is nothing other than studying ourselves. Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves. In fact, it has been said that studying ourselves provides all the books we need.

(p. 73)

There is a wealth of wisdom in this small book, and it is written in a style that is easy and conversational. We can all benefit from the insights that Pema shares, and I encourage you to read this book if you even have the slightest bit of interest. I am sure that, like me, you will be glad you did.

Many blessings, and thanks for stopping by.

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