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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 63” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Do the Non-Ado.
Strive for the effortless.
Savour the savourless.
Exalt the low.
Multiply the few.
Requite injury with kindness.

Nip troubles in the bud.
Sow the great in the small.

Difficult things of the world
Can only be tackled when they are easy.
Big things of the world
Can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings.
Thus, the Sage never has to grapple with big things,
Yet he alone is capable of achieving them!

He who promises lightly must be lacking in faith.
He who thinks everything easy will end by finding everything difficult.
Therefore, the Sage, who regards everything as difficult,
Meets with no difficulties in the end.

My interpretation of this passage is that when faced with any situation, the goal should be to maintain balance and equilibrium. This is sage advice. When faced with a large, daunting task, it is best to take a small step. When you have a small, simple task, take a swift and sure step, taking care of it quickly and easily.

Too often, in our current society, individuals attempt to fight fire with fire, to apply Herculean effort when confronted with a difficult challenge. As Lau Tzu shows, this is not the way of the Tao, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that our default way of responding often fails to achieve the desired outcome.

Regardless of where each of us stands on the socio-political spectrum, we can all agree that things are not really working well right now. It seems that it would be in our collective best interest to explore other ways of dealing with situations. I for one like Lau Tzu’s approach.

I hope this inspires you as much as it does me. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

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Thoughts on “The Peaceful Shepherd” by Robert Frost

Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.

2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.

We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.

I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.

May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.

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“Sonnet 39: O, how thy worth with manners may I sing” by William Shakespeare

O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring,
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this, let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly dost deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain
By praising him here who doth hence remain!

This seems to me a poignant poem considering what we are all dealing with in regard to the COVID pandemic. In this sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the pain of being separated from someone he deeply loves, loves to the point where they are as one when together. And yet, he acknowledges that it is only because of the separation that he is able to compose poetry praising his beloved, for then they are together, they are one and Shakespeare would not be able to differentiate himself from his love.

In the same way Shakespeare was reaching out to his beloved from a distance through poetry, we are also reaching out to those we love in creative ways, via Zoom, social distance outdoor gatherings, and yes, some of us have even gone back to writing letters.

There is an old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There is truth here. Not being able to spend time with those I love makes me painfully aware of the love I feel for those people. But at least it seems the end of this isolation is drawing near. We just need to hang on a little bit longer.

I hope this poem provides you with some light in the remainder of these dark days. Many blessings to you and your dear ones.

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“Uzumaki” by Junji Ito

This book marks an expansion in my reading, being the first manga book that I have read. I had tried reading one some years back but had a difficult time following the flow. The left-to-right was one thing, but what confused me was the text within the panels. Anyway, I ended up not reading it and just never tried again. But my daughter came to visit and brought this book along for me to read. She said it was a favorite of hers and she thought I would enjoy it. So I had her give me some basics on reading manga, and took the plunge. Once I got comfortable with the format, it moved nicely.

For those of you who are not familiar with the genre, here is a little background.

Manga are comics or graphic novels originating from Japan. Most manga conform to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century, though the art form has a long prehistory in earlier Japanese art. The term manga is used in Japan to refer to both comics and cartooning. Outside Japan, the word is typically used to refer to comics originally published in the country.

In Japan, people of all ages read manga. The medium includes works in a broad range of genres: action, adventure, business and commerce, comedy, detective, drama, historical, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, erotica (hentai), sports and games, and suspense, among others. Many manga are translated into other languages. Since the 1950s, manga has become an increasingly major part of the Japanese publishing industry.

(Source: Wikipedia)

This text falls into the horror sub-genre. It is the story of a coastal town in Japan contaminated with spirals. The spiral shapes that appear have bizarre effects upon physical reality within the town, as well as disturbing effects upon the collective and individual psyches of people within the town.

Early in the book, the spiral is identified as a mystical shape.

It fills me with a deep fascination…like nothing else in nature…no other shape…Mr. Goshima, I find the spiral to be very mystical.

(p. 20)

As the effects of the spiral increase within the town, it is discovered that spiral whirlwinds can be generated by the slightest of movements, which is then linked to the Butterfly Effect which is part of Chaos Theory in modern physics.

That’s what’s happening in this town. “The flapping of a single butterfly’s wings can create a hurricane on the other side of the world. This is like the “Butterfly Effect”…

(p. 447)

Finally, the spiral is revealed as a symbol of eternity and of cycles of creation, destruction, and rebirth, which both transcends and encapsulates time.

And with the spiral complete, a strange thing happened. Just as time sped up when we were on the outskirts, in the center of the spiral it stood still. So the curse was over the same moment it began, the endless frozen moment I spent in Shuichi’s arms. And it will be the same moment when it ends again…when the next Kurouzu-Cho is built amidst the ruins of the old one. When the eternal spiral awakes once more.

(p. 610)

While this book seems formidable, weighing in at over 650 pages, it does not take a lot of commitment to read it, since the storyline is heavily driven through the use of graphic imagery. Which prompts me to say a few words about the artwork. In addition to writing this story, Mr. Ito also drew all the illustrations, which are stunning and intricate. To be gifted in either writing or the visual arts is a blessing, but to be gifted in both is highly unusual, and Junji Ito demonstrates that he is adept in both artistic fields.

I am grateful that my daughter brought this book along on her visit and encouraged me to read it. I really enjoyed it and feel that it expanded my reading horizons. I suspect I will be reading more manga in the future. If you have suggestions for other manga to read, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by, and keep broadening your horizons.

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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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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 62” by Lao Tzu

The Tao is the hidden Reservoir of all things.
A treasure to the honest, it is a safeguard to the erring.

A good word will find its own market.
A good deed may be used as a gift to another.
That a man is straying from the right path
Is no reason that he should be cast away.

Hence, at the Enthronement of an Emperor,
Or at the Installation of the Three Ministers,
Let others offer their discs of jade, following it up with teams of horses;
It is better for you to offer the Tao without moving your feet!

Why did the ancients prize the Tao?
Is it not because by virtue of it he who seeks finds,
And the guilty are forgiven?
That is why it is such a treasure to the world.

This passage begs the questions: What is treasure? What is it that is valuable in our lives? What are the things that are truly meaningful? What are the gifts that are worth giving?

Lao Tzu asserts that the answers to these questions are found within, and not through material wealth. What is worth more, a shiny trinket or expressions of love, compassion, and caring? For me, this hardly even seems a question worth asking. Yet, in our market-driven and status-obsessed culture, many of us can easily lose sight of this simple truth, that relationships matter more than material gain. When we reach the end of our roads, the only things we will still be carrying are the treasures within our hearts and souls.

I hope you found this passage as inspiring as I have, and that it reminds you of the importance of reaching out and doing something nice for another person. These are challenging times, and the best gift we can give to another is a moment of empathy and support.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you never stop reading and learning.

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“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“Liber Null” by Peter J. Carroll

Many years back, I picked up a copy of Peter Carroll’s introduction to Chaos Magic which includes two texts: Liber Null and Psychonaut. Since it is my goal to start reading the books that have been accumulating on my shelves, I figured I would read the first text in this book and then the subsequent one later on.

Carroll begins by offering a definition of magic (similar to Crowley’s) and states the importance of mental focus when performing magical work.

Magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will. The will can only be magically effective when the mind is focused and not interfering with the will. The mind must first discipline itself to focus its entire attention on some meaningless phenomenon. If an attempt is made to focus on some form of desire, the effect is short circuited by lust for result. Egotistical identification, fear of failure, and the reciprocal desire not to achieve desire, arising from our dual nature, destroy the result.

(p. 15)

By silencing the mind, one enters into an altered state of consciousness, which is requisite to successfully performing works of magic.

Altered states of consciousness are the key to magical powers. The particular state of mind required has a name in every tradition: No-mind. Stopping the internal dialogue, passing through the eye of the needle, ain or nothing, samadhi, or one-pointedness. In this book it will be known as Gnosis. It is an extension of the magical trance by other means.

(p. 31)

Having read James Gleick’s excellent book on the science of Chaos Theory many years ago, I found Carroll’s application of the scientific model to magical practice interesting.

Space, time, mass, and energy originate from Chaos, have their being in Chaos, and through the agency of the aether are moved by Chaos into the multiple forms of existence.

Some of the various densities of the aether have only a partial or probabilistic differentiation into existence, and are somewhat indeterminate in space and time. In the same way that mass exists as a curvature in space-time, extending with a gradually diminishing force to infinity that we recognize as gravity, so do all events, particularly events involving the human mind, send ripples through all creation.

(p. 52)

In conclusion, this is not a book for most readers. It’s very heady, demands a lot from the reader, and also includes some darker aspects of the mystical arts. But as with most books of this nature, there are some valuable insights to be gleaned.

Thanks for stopping by.

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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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