Thursday, December 30, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness By Animals

Book Review: Random Acts of Kindness By Animals   by Stephanie Laland
( MJF Books 1997)

This book is an absolute gem and certainly one of my favorites. It is a collection of stories, some well-documented and others less so, of noble and heroic acts done by animals. If anyone harbors the idea that animals do not have the capacity for love and compassion then this book should convince them otherwise. Here one not only sees the nobility and caring of domesticated animals but of wild animals as well. Along with the wonderful and amazing stories there are wise quotes from famous people regarding the capacities and treatment of animals and various ideas and tips to help our animal friends.

Stories of intelligent and heroic elephants, monkeys, hippos, dogs, cats, geese, ducks, beavers, wolves, lions, dolphins, canaries, parakeets, pigeons, sea turtles, cows, pigs, seagulls, and more fill the pages of this great book. The awesome power of the maternal bond between mother and children is displayed flawlessly. The kinship that can develop between humans and animals is also demonstrated in these pages.

There are stories of wild animals protecting trapped humans and warming freezing humans, clearly acts of compassion and fearlessness. There are several stories which show various wild and domesticated animals desire to communicate danger to humans.
Some animals even died or were severely injured trying to save humans. Other stories show how the strong gather together to protect the weak. There are even stories of ants protecting and doctoring other ants.

These stories show both the love/compassion of animals and the intelligence of animals. There are even a few stories of psychic links between humans and animals. Other stories  are about animal heroes in war situations such as dogs delivering medicine in foxholes and carrier pigeons beating severe odds to deliver important messages that saved lives.

There is a story about a hippo that protected an antelope that was snatched by a crocodile and several stories about the compassionate nature of elephants. There is another story of a cat that attacked a burglar sending him scurrying off. Beavers came out of the water to warm a freezing child who lay asleep exhausted after his parents had drowned. There are other storiers of sea turtles saving drowning humans and protecting them from sharks.

There are some great quotes from wise animal lovers like: Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Chief Seattle, Leo Tolstoy, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Princess Grace of Monaco, Victor Hugo, Immanual Kant, the Emperor Asoka, St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin. Here is a good one from Darwin:

“The love for all living creatures is the most notable attribute of man.”

Here is another from Gandhi:

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated ... I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.

In the sections on – Ways to Return the Kindness  - I found the following tip to be practical:

“At weddings, throw birdseed instead of rice. When the wedding is over, birds arrive and peck at the rice. But uncooked rice swells in avian stomachs, killing them.”

She also warns against using hummingbird feeders unless they are cleaned often as the unfresh liquid can cause intestinal problems that kill them. Here is another quote of ver good advice that she gives:

‘Speak out against cruelty wherever you see it.”

The author even makes a startling confession in the book:

“At a very low point in her life, a woman saw no way out and decided to commit suicide. As she sat on her bed weeping and wondering what method to use, her cat jumped on her and began licking her tears away. Realizing that when another creature loves you there is always hope, the woman decided to live and ultimatey went on to write this book.”

And I for one feel blessed just to have read it!

One chapter is called, Senseless Acts of Beauty, referring as the title of the book does to the words of Anne Herbert – “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Here we have a few stories of animal artists: elephants who draw and paint with their trunks and chimps who draw and paint and show artistic awareness.

The last chapter is a few stories of things humans have done to protect animals. One is a story about northern Japanese villagers who built a platform above a hot spring so that freezing monkeys could be warmed up so instead of huddling and shivering they were seen to be playing around the warm waters.

This was a very thoughtful book – one I will cherish and pass on as a treasured heirloom.

In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India

Book Review: In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India
by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley  (Quest Books 1995, 2001)

This was a very good book that postulates a somewhat alternative history of India and the Vedic-Aryans. It is Indo-Centric at times and has perhaps helped a little to fuel the unhealthy current of Indian Nationalism – but it really is a well-done book that approaches Vedic history, and indeed human history and tradition from several angles.

Part One of the book focuses on the deep past of the Indus Valley culture (~3100-1900 BC), the Neolithic settlement of Mehrgarh (from 6500 BC), and comparisons of these cultures to that written about in the ancient Vedas. The authors make a good case that the Indus Valley culture and the Vedic culture are one and the same. The usual argument of scholars is that the Vedic Aryans invaded and/or migrated into the region around 1200-1500 BC or perhaps 500 yrs or so earlier – having subdued the Indus Valley culture. The arguments given by the authors are numerous and include archeological, textual, and astronomical-astrological arguments. The authors note the recent geological discovery of a buried river system in the region to be equated with the Sarasvati River mentioned in the Vedas. They postulate that the Indus Valley people left the region around 1900 BC due to climatic changes resulting in the drying of the rivers. Post-Vedic writings such as the Brahmanas and Puranas note repeatedly that the Sarasvati River disappeared into the desert. Before that in the Vedas there is no mention of the river having vanished. Also of interest are the writings known as the Aranyakas – or the writings of the Forest-Dwellers. The authors postulate that these writings refer to a time when the Indus Valley-Vedic Aryans moved eastward into more heavily forested regions after the climatic changes, toward the Ganges region where they would eventually re-settle. Also of interest are textual evidence (in Assyrian scripts) of Vedic-Aryans making a treaty among the Hittite-Mitanni in Anatolia circa 1400 BC and being present in Mesopotamia and ruling Babylonia for a time as the Kassites. They acknowledge as do others that Vedic-Aryan may not be a strictly ethnic connotation as these societies were thought to consist of very mixed ethnicities. They and others interpret Vedic-Aryan as more of a cultural model in terms of types of rulership and stratification of society. They seem to suggest that Indo-Aryan is the main or perhaps the most complete branch of Proto-Indo-European – which is more defined by language than strictly a cultural model. They seem to favor the ideas of Colin Renfrew a bit more than the other, more accepted, Indo-European historians. In any case they strongly dispute the Aryan Invasion theory of the take-over of India by the Aryan militaristic migrating pastoralists.

Much of the archaeology of the Indus Valley/Harrapan towns of Mohenjo Daro, Dholavira, Harappa, and others is discussed. Many of these town sites have yet to be excavated. The Indus script has yet to be deciphered. I have read in other books where it was thought to be related to an Elamite-Dravidian language but others think it is closer to Sanskrit. Those who favor its relation to Sanskrit point out a few similarities to the bahmi script used in the time of King Ashoka’s edicts. I guess we won’t know for sure unless it is deciphered. Apparently, one problem relating to its decipherability is that the inscriptions are all very short and typically, longer inscriptions are needed to break the codes. Another interesting thing about the Indus people is that they were known to have traded with Sumerians as early as 3000 BC. It is also thought that they traded by sea as outposts have been found along the Indian Ocean and on the Arabian peninsula. There are also Indus artifacts found in the Maldives off of South India which substantiate this capacity for sea travel. The Vedas mention the Pani as a people often at odds with them. The Pani are thought to be the Phoenicians. The Indus-Sarasvati peoples had an intricate system of weights and measures, kept food and grain in storage, had a rather sophisticated sewage removal system, and mostly lived in cities with buildings and streets made of bricks. People in favor of the Aryan Invasion theory will often point out that the Vedics were pastoral nomads that did not live in cities but the authors point out several passages from the Rig Veda mentioning cities. The authors also conclude that rectangular Vedic fire altars are part of the archaeological discoveries although some archaeologists apparently are not so sure. In Harappa, however, there is no doubt. There is a rather famous clay seal called the Pashupati seal which shows a seated figure possibly in a crossed legged yoga-like pose with horns atop his head and surrounded by various animals. He has been equated with Rudra-Shiva (as lord of yoga) in his aspect as Pashupati  - lord of animals. This seal has also been compared to the shamanic horned god (as Cernnunos) depicted on the Gundestrip cauldron discovered in a bog in Denmark that was thought to have been made by or for a Celtic tribe in the first or 2nd century AD.  The Pashupati seal would be at least 2000 years older. Other Indus art does indeed show some continuity to later Indian art. Perhaps future archaeological excavations will yield more answers to all these intriguing questions. The peepal tree (bo tree/Bodhi Tree) is depicted in much art and is indeed a sacred tree today to both Hindus and Buddhists.

The discovery of Mehrgarh is very significant in that it is a very large urban center for Neolithic times – perhaps up to 20,000 people lived there so it is thought to be maybe 4 or 5 times the size of contemporaneous Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. This is about 2/3 of the entire population of Egypt in 6000 BC – so this was a very large city for that time period. Domestication of cattle, pottery from a potter’s wheels, and drilling tools with urban workers were known in Merhgarh. These are new discoveries that defy soem of the older models of early India. Another interesting observation is that in both Merhgarh and Catal Huyuk it was determined through DNA studies of human remains that both of these cultures were surprisingly multi-racial.

The authors do make a strong case that the Vedic-Aryans did not come from outside India but were there at least from the early Indus-Sarasvati period around 3000 BC and they would like to think that the culture was rather continuous from the early Neolithic (circa 8000 BC) onward. Most scholars would disagree and put the proto-Indo-European homeland to the north on the Eurasian steppes around 4500 BC and beginning to spread out from then and there over the next few thousand years and invading/migrating to India from about 1500 to 1200 BC.

There are some very interesting astronomical arguments from the Vedas which indicate star configurations and solstice/equinox situations that suggest time periods extending back to 7000 BC or earlier. Apparently there are several of these suggestions – only now beginning to be taken seriously by more modern archaeo-astronomical studies. In the early part of the 20th century the Vedic researcher Tilak came up with some interesting but very controversial notions for dating the Vedas and placing the people at latitudes within the arctic circle by astronomical methods. Scholars summarily dismissed his findings. However, other researchers have definitively placed astrological events in the time range of 2500-4500 BC suggesting that the Vedas are in this age range at a minimum. Unfortunately, the Vedas consist mainly of hymns and can be cryptic at times. There is very little data that is historical. Apparently, one can sort of cross-reference information given in the Brahmanas and Puranas with that in the Vedas to arrive at some historical data.

Part Two of the book is about the cultural and spiritual legacy of India. Here we encounter topics such as the origins of yoga, Vedic spirituality and the teachings of the Upanishads that many think were concurrent but written down only later. Some of the IE scholars who keep to the Aryan Invasion theory have suggested that the Upanishads derive from the conquered Dravidians ( their Indus Valley peoples) while the Vedas are attributed to the nomadic pastoralist invaders. 

There is some fascinating material about the birth of science and measurement in the Vedic sacrificial rituals which called for mathematical proportionate fire altars and precise astronomical orientations. The idea of correspondences, or equivalence, in nature has always been important the ritualist. The Vedic sacrifice was a thread betwixt man and god, the body/mind and the cosmos, the earth and the sky. As above, so below is an apt maxim for the nature of these rites. Observations of the natural world yielded survival knowledge. Knowledge of time through astronomical observance improved agriculture. The authors posit that there was a metaphorical interpretation of the Vedas and of the sacrificial rites from the beginning. The cryptic nature of many of the hymns (riks) and some fairly obvious metaphorical-type references support this idea. Sri Aurobindo in more modern times has made commentaries incorporating his own metaphorical interpretations of Vedic meanings. Still, it seems likely that many of the keys to interpretation may be lost or yet to be re-discovered. The purport of many of the earlier scholars (Euro-centric as the authors say) that the gods of the Vedas are mere personifications of natural forces seems rather shallow. That may be true in the exoteric sense but clearly there seems to be a deeper psychological aspect to the Vedic cosmology and ritual.

The mathematical relationships between the way the Vedas are arranged and memorized, the construction of the fire altars, astronomy/astrology, and the time cycles are examined and show some interesting correspondences in terms of planetary and lunar cycles. Quite clearly, sophisticated naked-eye astronomical observation was in place among the Vedics before the texts were written down, long before the astro knowledge of the Babylonians and Greeks arrived. The authors suggest that an exodus of peoples from the ecologically troubled Indus-Sarasvati culture around 1900 BC brought some of these (as they believe) Indo-Aryans to Western Asia where it is possible that the Vedic astrology influenced the development of Babylonian astrology.

The authors examine some parallels of Vedic science notions with later yoga and the Ayurvedic medical system – aka. the fifth Veda.

“The Vedic theory of knowledge is based on a belief in the interconnectedness and unity of the whole universe. As mentioned before, according to the Vedas, the cosmos (adhideva), the individual living being (adhibhuta), and the Spirit (adhyatma) are intimately connected. It was for this reason that the Vedas were meant to be interpreted in three ways. Thus the Vedas speak of the seers in the sky as stars, on Earth as sages, and in the head as cognitive centers. Likewise, the Vedic texts know of the Ganges of the sky (the Milky Way), the Ganges River on our planet, and the Ganges of neural pathways of the brain. These mysteries of the universe were communicated to the people through the theater of ritual. As we have seen, cosmological knowledge was encoded in the design of the altars and in the Vedic ritual itself.”

Apparently, when Alexander made it to India he or his comrades  noted the similarities of Krishna and Shiva to Herakles and Dionysus. The ensuing Indo-Greek culture on the Bactrian frontier was syncretistic from the outset. Comparison of deities such as the Vedic Varuna, the Greek Ouranos, and the Egyptian Osiris can be fruitful according to the authors. The astrological basis of some of the Vedic myths given in various Indian texts and epics are given. Some are fairly clear and there is a significant amount of evidence that the precession of the equinox was known – and of course, reflected in the Vedic time cycles. Several plausible astronomical interpretations of Vedic myth are given in the book.

In the last section they explore the Indian knowledge as related to Western knowledge and the future of such. The authors suggest the Vedic knowledge as a sort of “perennial wisdom” to form the basis of a global spirituality. That makes sense to me but more in reference to the more philosophical notions present in the Upanishads. Our own western philosophical and knowledge frameworks are rooted in the Ancient Greek traditions overlain rather uncomfortably with the spiritual notions of Judeo-Christianity. I would agree that the Vedantic knowledge makes a better standard to measure against in terms of the spiritual.

Overall, this was a wonderful book, full of knowledge – although some of it surely will be dismissed by scholars in the field. But, I think these authors were armed with powerful and varied tools that other scholars often overlook or of which they may even be unware. For this reason, and many others, this is a potent and useful book.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Five Tibetans: Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy, and Personal Power

Book Review: The Five Tibetans: Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy, and Personal Power by Christopher S. Kilham (Healing Arts Pr/Inner Traditions 1994)

This is a nice little book describing five yogic exercises (among other things) first noted by a traveler in Tibet in the 1930’s. An author named peter Kelder first described them in a book called, “The Five Rites of Rejuvination” first published in 1939. Therein he said that he learned the exercises from a retired British Army Officer that learned them from some Tibetan lamas in a Himalayan monastery. According to that book the exercises were reputed energize, strengthen, and regenerate the body and slow down aging.

The author tells the story of his own yogic journey and gives off lots of interesting information along the way. His lists his main textual influences as coming from the following traditional yogic texts: Siva Samhita, Goraksa Sataka, Hatha Yoga Pradpika, and those given in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. He does seem to put his own slant on things but the book does have some useful verbage for practicing yogins.

Intoductory discussions are on typical topics like the energy body, chakras, kundalini, and breathing. Regarding kundalini I found the following words potentially useful:

“The idea that kundalini arousal will stir up mental muck is true. You may find as you get involved with kundalini meditation that things come up in your mind that are decidedly not pleasant. When this occurs, try to keep from being attached to the phenomena that arises. Instead, let the energy within you steadily increase, and let unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations pass away as if blown by the wind. This is what the Hindus refer to as burning up old karma, accumulated psychic dross that you may have dragged around with you for lifetimes. There is no way to go through a true awakening of kundalini without going through a mental quagmire. This is because we all have fears, distortions, perversions, and deeply buried mental convolutions that we must work through. Kundalini stirs these things up because it is an expression of pure consciousness and energy. It is like a strong light illuminating a dark cave. If there are bat droppings and old bones in the cave, they will come to light. Everybody has some mental muck to get rid of, and when kundalini activity increases, you will be confronted by yours.”

Now we come to the exercises. I first learned these exercises from a yoga class I used to take in the 90’s when the instructor would throw them in every so often. At the time I found them somewhat strenuous (mainly due to the amount of recommended repetitions) but useful. I encountered them again about 6 or 7 years ago in a book called Tibetan Ayurveda by Robert Svoboda and practiced them several times a week for a while until they were again forgotten. Just today after finishing the book I became yet again reacquainted with them.

The exercises are basic and very simple but do have recognizable effects. The first exercise is simply spinning while standing with the arms out, clockwise, and with the palms pointing down, similar to a whirling dervish dance. Info from another book states that this whirling can have the effect of re-setting ones chakric energy configuration to that of a younger age. The second exercise is a callisthenic-type motion that works the abs. Ab-work always seems to get a perceived pranic response. The third exercise is very similar to camel-pose in hatha yoga except that here one comes in and out of the pose while holding the hands on the uppermost part of the thighs. The fourth exercise is much like moving from staff pose (dandasana) to reverse table and back. I should note that each exercise is recommended to do 21 times with the breath, although it does not say how fast. I tend to do them slow which is likely a little more strenuous. The fifth exercise is basically moving from up-dog to down-dog while keeping the toes in the down-dog configuration. That is all there is to it. 21 reps of these exercises can be done in 10 minutes or even less. That is one reason why it is a good set for daily practice, or even 2 or 3 times a day. There is another exercise given which he calls the –sixth Tibetan- which is basically engaging the mula bandha (root lock) and the uddiyana bandha (abdominal pull up and lock) while exhaling and bending over holding the the hands on the knees. Then one rises slowly while holding the breath and locks, exhaling after a time. This one is only don ethree times. Basically that is it for the exercises for which the book was named.

There is an informative chapter on Yoga Nidra, sometimes known as conscious yogic sleep. After developing the ability to let the body relax into sleep, or asleep-like state, while keeping the mind conscious, one can then be in a better position to mentally effect self-healing by directing pranic energy to various ailing parts of the body.

The last chapter gives four meditations meant to be done in succession. They are basic but potentially very useful. The first is a simple chakra meditation. One is not visualizing here just noticing the area where the chakra is said to reside. One is instructed to do this for about 3 minutes for each chakra position, simply to place the mind in that area. Basically one here is using the chakric area as a dharani, or object of meditation focus. After one does this for a while, (he suggests one month) then the next meditatioj should be done which is a visualization of the central channel (shushumna) as a silver cord with a red interior. This meditation is said to come from the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra attributed to Siva. (I have this text and hope to read and review it in the future as well as practice some of the techniques. It is said to be about methods of dharana, or placement meditation). The next meditation is simple (but not easy to perfect). It is called nad yoga or nada yoga meditation. Hear one meditates on the inner sound first focusing around the ears and letting the sound build up and transform into myriad sonic appearances until it becomes a supreme and joyful focus. Here he gives a quote from the Siva Samhita:

“The first sound is like the hum of the honey-intoxicated bee. Next that of a flute, then a harp; after this, by the gradual practice of yoga, the destroyer of the darkness of the world, he hears the sounds of ringing bells; then sounds like the roar of thunder. When one fixes full his attention on this sound, being free from fear, he gets absorption, O my beloved!
     When the mind of the yogi is exceedingly engaged in this sound, he forgets all external things, and is absorbed by this sound.
     By this practice of yoga he conquers all the three qualities (ie. good, bad, and indifferent); and being free from all states, he is absorbed in chidakas (the ether of intelligence).”
First one meditates on the sound then on the source of the sound which is said to be the Infinite Universe itself. Then there is said to be mergence of self and sound, or Samadhi.

After this meditation one is instructed to combine the silver cord meditation with the nad yoga meditation as one whole and this becomes the main practice.

Anyway, a practical little book in terms of exercises that are do-able, simple in method, but potentially vast in scope. I hope to incorporate some of these into various routines and perhaps working in small groups.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine

Book Review: The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine  by Edward Tick, Ph.D.    ( Quest Books 2001)

This was an awesome and meaningful book from several different angles. The subject of the book is the great healing tradition of Asklepios – the Ancient Greek god of healing and medicine. The author is a psychotherapist and he traces the beginnings of psychotherapy to this tradition. Asklepios was one of the most popular of the Greek hero-gods with hundreds of temples and healing chambers – yet he is hardly known these days.

In the Asklepian tradition lie the roots of western medicine and psychology. Hippocrates and Galen were part of it. The tradition was active for nearly 2000 yrs – from around 1300 BC to around 600 CE. The name Asklepios means, “unceasingly gentle” and echoes the great love the ancients had for this kind hero-god. He was the son of Apollo and the mortal woman Koronis. After Apollo impregnated her she fell in love and married a mortal man. One of Apollo’s sacred animals, the crow reported this to him, after which in a fit of anger he blackened the formerly white crow. He then bid Artemis to kill the woman with her golden arrows. After this he felt remorse and pulled the child from the dead mother’s womb on the funeral pyre and sent him to the kentaur (centaur) Chiron to be brought up. The wild horse-man Chiron taught Asklepios all manner of healing with herbs, healing waters, and incantations. He also derived healing gifts from Apollo and Athena. His fame and skill in healing grew. When he was able to raise a man from the dead he was slain by Zeus with a thunderbolt. After this he was elevated to Olympian status as the god of healing, probably due to his popularity among humans.

The author examines Asklepios’s mythic persona as a healer and a savior. He may have been specifically and strongly suppressed by the early Christians since he was a rival as savoir and healer. Animal totems of Asklepios are the dog, the serpent, and the cock. Dreaming of these animals or otherwise encountering them was considered an encounter with Asklepios, particularly when partaking in a healing regimen. Dogs are considered guides to the otherworld in several cultures and were sometimes sacrificed to the dead. The cock was the typical sacrifice to Asklepios and was only sacrificed to him. This may have had something to do with the rooster’s call at dawn awakening us from the dream state. The serpent was the foremost totem/symbol of Asklepian healing. Asklepios is depicted with a long staff about which a long serpent is wrapped. This was likely the original medical symbol before the caduceus, or the double-serpent wand of Hermes, was probably accidentally mixed up with the longer staff of Asklepios. The serpent may represent many things in relation to healing. One is likely the homeopathic principle that poison in small amounts may act as medicine. Priests and priestesses of the chthonic earth-goddess cults were thought to have taken small amounts of serpent venom in order to become immune to being bit so that they can work with the poisonous snakes all the more. Snake venom was also a small component of medicines.       

Regimens for Asklepian healing included dietary changes, fasting, exercise, ritual bathing, rest from duties, and contemplation of tragedy. Great theatres were built near Asklepian shrines where the tragedies were performed. Apparently this is still done at Epidauros, the most famous Asklepian shrine. After these regimens, the patient would enter the abaton, or dream chamber, in order to seek a dream of Asklepios, that would indicate the method of healing, or how best to deal with the illness or affliction. The idea is to return to the unconscious in order to find the source of the source of the affliction and to know whether it is truly healable or not. The physician-priests of the Asklepian healing chambers were considered guides, and assistants of the god himself. The healing was done by the patient in combination with the god. The inter-relationships of dream, myth, and ritual in the human psyche are emphasized in Asklepian healing. The healing complex may have functioned more like a resort or health spa than a hospital. The notion in Asklepian healing was not merely to treat symptoms but to discover the deeper roots of illness in the soul and to find the best course of action, whether that be total recovery or acceptance of the situation.

The author is a psychotherapist. He has worked extensively with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) as well as with people suffering from terminal illnesses and debilitating injuries. He has found success in utilizing myth, ritual, pilgrimage, and dream healing into his treatment programs.

The next several sections of the book trace Asklepian history as well as the author’s modern pilgrimages to the ruins of Asklepian healing complexes in Greece, islands in the Aegean, and in Western Turkey (Anatolia). Patients and others often traveled with the author and dream healing ritual practices were concocted in or near Asklepian complexes. Some interesting and remarkable occurrences were noted.

The traditional birthplace of Asklepios was at Trikka in Thessaly in central Greece. One legend is that he was half-god and half-human, being the son of Apollo and Koronis. Another is that he was born a prince in Thessaly and became noted as a healer. The third was that he was one of the chthonioi, or spirits, coming from within the Earth. These three themes are woven into his mythic history. In any case, he was known in 1300 BC in this area of Greece and there at Trikka became associated with healing. Asklepian dream practices typically took place in caves and crevices built into the earth to link to the god’s chthonic nature and his association with serpents who tend to inhabit such fissures. Asklepian shrines were often within or associated with the Temples of Apollo and one would be expected to honor and make sacrifice to Apollo before approaching Asklepios. The most famous Greek shrine to Asklepios was at Epidauros in the Argos peninsula of Southern Greece. Some legends say that he was born there and that his tomb is there. In any case it was arguably the largest and most famous of Asklepian healing complexes. At Epidauros the three daughters of Asklepios were also venerated. These are Hygieia, Panaceia, and Iaso – meaning Health, All-Curing, and Healer. Hygieia was the most famous, having a cult of her own. They are often depicted with their father in statuary. Asklepios himself is often depicted as a kindly bearded and robed Greek man with his long serpent-entwined staff. Hygieia and Panaceia were known before Epiodauros as titles of the Earth Mother goddess Rhea Koronis. They were the two breasts of the healing mother, giving the milk of kindness and healing. The author and his group next traveled to Korinth where they visited the Asklepion there and then to Troizen. These healing temples began in the 400’s BC. In Korinth there is a Greek Orthodox church near the Asklepion and the locals know the history and legends but at Troizen it is more or less abandoned. Next he goes to Athens and Kos, interweaving tales of Asklepian healings with Ancient Greek history. Hippokrates, famed as the father of medicine, lived and practiced at the Asklepian healing sanctuary at Kos. Although he was known as the bringer of medicine into the scientific realm he also had great confidence in the Asklepian method of sacred medicine. The author brings out some interesting ideas about the inter-weaving of scientific and sacred medicine and how healing can be enhanced when these two modes become complementary. The scientific observations made at Asklepions undoubtably led to the formulation of modern western medicine but also to modern psychology and psycho-therapy. Many case studies were documented at the healing temples but also many healings involving dreams, personal myth, and the miraculous. The return of the sacred component or the mythic component to medicine may have a great future in our modern world as we seek to bring the patient to discovery of his own destiny and sanity as well as to heal outward symptoms. The fault of modern allopathic medicine is that it tends to ignore the very real psychosomatic component of disease that has a tendency to defy the scientific method. Myth, dream, and ritual work more with psychosomatic energy than the physical.

Next we come to the installing of Asklepios, now Aesculapius, into the Roman pantheon around 291 BC when he was brought in as a god healer to deal with a plague. The legend was of Asklepios boarding a great ship in his serpent form and coming to Rome where he ended up on a great island in the Tiber River. The Asklepion was made to look like a great ship. This ritual establishment of the god may have helped in the healing of the plague as Aesculapius was accepted as the healing archetype. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned from 161-180 CE was a great devotee of Aesculapius. He and many others noted various pharmacological dreams where the proper medicines and combinations of medicines were given in dreams. Earlier in the Greek temples the dreams were noted to be more an interaction with the god or his totems where one was touched and healed. As the author notes, this change in dream styles may possibly reflect the growing prominence of the more scientific healing principles as the effects of more and more medicines became better documented. In the first few centuries CE the harmonization of the sacred and the scientific was taking place more and more. This basically ended when Christianity came and wiped out the rival savior-healer Asklepios, although in a few cases the subsequent Christians continued in some sense some of the local healing traditions with a Christian twist. At Pergamum on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in Turkey, then part of the Roman Empire from 150-175 CE lived the physician known as Galen. He continued the mixing of the scientific and the sacred, documenting many case histories and noting connections of the psychological and the medical that are well-known today. He is often known as the father of psychotherapy and psychiatry. Here also there was a temple to Telesphoros, a mysterious figure known as a son of Asklepios. He is seen, often in dreams, as the nocturnal hooded dwarf assistant to the healing god. Galen was known for his deep scientific insight into medicine and psychology and left many written works. Aelius Aristides was another famous personage at Pergamum. He was originally an orator but due to afflictions he found his way to the healing center there and remained using his communication skills to write poems, odes, and paeans to the healing gods and their festivals. He also documented some of the healing practices such as fasting, bathing, cleansing, dunking, vomiting, and drinking. He mentions pharmacological dreams and dream surgery. There was also a practice of surrogate healing where someone would go into the abaton to seek dream healing on behalf of someone else. Religious cures could be paradoxical, sometimes being interpreted by priests in the manner of interpreting oracles.

When Christianity gained power the Asklepian healing centers were gradually destroyed.  Aklepios was then deemed a great deceiver. The author notes some features of Christianity that made it more popular. For one it offered personal immortality, an eternal home with the divine, rather than mere communion with the gods. “And it offered a simple path, free of intellectualism and effort. As Paul said to the Korinthians, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” Christianity required only prayer, faith, and surrender. The poor and oppressed found this new faith attractive and flocked to it, slowly at first, then in droves.” Another interesting observation is that the pagan religions were tight with the Roman Empire – allegiance to the gods was allegiance to the Empire. Early Christians considered their allegiance to the future kingdom of God to be their primary and only loyalty. However, part of Church doctrine did acknowledge the healing powers of dreams and some aspects of Asklepios were given to Christ and so some of the local traditions continued on in a new form.

The rest of the book is devoted to modern forms of Asklepian dream healing. In the mountains of Krete near an Asklepian healing center they find a priest who restored a monastery built in 1000 CE where he is devoted to a miraculous healing tradition devoted to St Nicholas.

There is a discussion of dream healing and the use of imagery and myth in psychology. The Asklepian methods usually involved a period of preparation to make one more open to an encounter with the god in dream. “The altered state of consciousness engendered by Asklepian purification and preparation rituals changes our body chemistry, disrupts our sense of time and space, and shifts our understanding of who we are and how the universe is organized. This shift allows us to approach the divine powers open, undefended, and vulnerable. In other words, purification entails surrendering our usual ego boundaries. During the ritual, these boundaries will be realigned into a new pattern that better serves our overall health and functioning.” The author classes Asklepian method as – radical ritual – with which he includes such things as vision quests, sweat lodges, ecstatic dancing, sacred chanting, prolonged meditation, deep wilderness excursions, pilgrimages, and extreme athletic challenges. These are often oriented towards personal transformation. He notes that Freud discovered the personal nature of dreams and Jung discovered the transpersonal nature of dreams. Having an encounter with the Soul Doctor Asklepios in dream gives one a personal experience with a deity or an archetypal image-energy. The Asklepian method was used by Jung’s main disciple C. A. Meier. It has been used by psychologist Jean Houston and Gay Luce in Jean’s Mystery Schools. Stephen Larson, a psychotherapist and author also practices this healing mode.

The author gives the following – key elements of an Asklepian healing:

a call to relinquish the old self through radical ritual

a sense of having reached the limits of scientific healing and a desire to seek further healing through nonrational means

the willingness to sacrifice and surrender

beckoning dreams that announce that dreamer and cosmos are aligned

visits from animal representatives of divine powers

a descent into the underworld where dream work occurs

the sense of grappling with hidden forces revealed through the descent

the realignment of the body/mind into a new depth organization

the rebirth of a new unified, integrated, and aligned self

immersion in a community that supports the unfolding of radical ritual

Many examples are given of the experiences of the author and members of his pilgrimage groups. There are people seeking healing from grief, PTSD, and debilitating illnesses. Some situations are stabilized through dreams and others through the group experiences. The idea is that of a healing quest, a mythic journey in search of healing the soul. Sometimes meaningful dreams came during the dream incubations but at other times they came before or after. Sometimes the meanings of previous dreams were understood. Immersing oneself in the tradition through the pilgrimage was certainly a factor as well. Some life-changing effects were seen in the examples. The idea of catharsis and bringing it about is talked about in the book. Digging deep down in the manner of a crisis and finding the suppressed emotional pain and dealing with it first by merely accepting it as part of one’s experience is suggested as a beginning.

All in all, this is a great book, with vast implications for healing. Even if one is not suffering some great ill or trauma, the quest for meaningful dreams regarding one’s choices or destiny can be beneficial. To focus sincerely on these choices through dream questing can even be considered a spiritual practice. We dream meaningful dreams when we need to, but through dream practices we can better recall them and develop our own ways of cataloging and interpreting them. I would most highly recommend this book to anyone in the medical, healing, and/or psychological professions.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Sweat Lodge Is For Everyone: We Are All Related

Book Review: The Sweat Lodge Is For Everyone: We Are All Related   by Irene McGarvie  (Ancient Wisdom Publishing 2009)

This is a nice little book that shows how to make a sweat lodge, some history of sweating, some health benefits of sweating, and lore. Most particular is Native American lore. The author seems to be of a New Age-style and is a Spiritualist Minister. She is not Native American but she learned the Native-style sweat lodge among those in northern Canada.

Sweat Bathing facilities were built by many cultures of the past and present – typically with available materials with heat and moisture preferences related to the climate in which they lived. The Finns prefer a dry heat. The Islam Hammam baths made a cooler and steamier heat.   

Sweat Lodge is an experience of the power of fire and water. The rocks hold the energy of the fire at heat. When water is poured over them they give off the energy of water as steam. So the energy of fire is stored and them given off as the energy of water. The steam is the spirit breath. “The Finns call this vapor “loyly,” or “spirit of life”. Some American Indians call this spirit “Manitou”. In Native cultures the warm, dark, and moist environment of the Sweat Lodge represents the womb of Mother Earth.

Sweat has mythological properties as a magickal substance. “In some warrior societies young men would drink the sweat of renowned warriors so that they too might become strong and fearless.” “ Before a marriage, Russian peasants would sometimes concoct an aphrodisiac for the groom made with vodka and sweat from the bride-to-be.” There are several stories from mythology of beings created from sweat, sometimes the first beings.

There is some interesting info on the Russian form of sweat bath called the Bania. In the Russian form it is not uncommon to sip vodka, pour it on the rocks for an intoxicating steam, and poyr it on the body as an astringent. An unruly spirit called the Bannik is said to live in the Russian bath house. The bannik is appeased by keeping the bania clean and supplied with firewood, water, and birch twigs (for flogging massage). The custom is to greet the bannik when entering and leaving. The Russian Bania was utilized in rites of birth, marriage, and death. Babies were birthed in the Bania – thought to ward of disease and problems. In the Marriage Bania the groom and bride first bathed separately with friends, the grooms bania being more festive with alcohol and the brides being more solemn. A traditional engagement gift to the bride from the groom was soap and a birch whisk. Traditionally the groom would carry the bride over the threshold of the bania. Since children were born there and still-born children were buried there, this was thought to be preventative to that happening to the couple. The bania was also used to care for the dead: “To prepare a Russian soul for its next life, the body would be washed in the bania and placed in a coffin, a pillow would be stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin abundantly supplied with birch twigs.” Communal bathing after the burial was also practiced to help deal with grief. Another communal bath was convened after 40 days – the length of time for the soul to travel through the Otherworld and was celebrated with socializing and toasting. The Finns are known for their saunas. Since they lived off the land and had a short growing season the warm bath was useful to sooth and revitalize sore muscles. Children were born their and old people brought there to die. People would be a sauna and live in it while building their house.  Men, women, and children use the sauna together. As nudity is not taboo in these places people would socialize nude in the sauna. The Finns believe in the healing power of the sauna. An old saying was that the sauna is the poor man’s apothecary. High standards of social conduct were expected in the sauna – possibly influenced by Christian principles.

Sweat baths of the Mayans, Pacific Coast tribes, Swedes, Germans, Celts, Greeks, Romans, and Islamic peoples are also mentioned. The Greek baths were apparently mostly for men. Carvings of the Gorgon Medusa were found atop Greek baths. The Romans had steam rooms, dry heat, and hot baths. Roman bathing was a long process beginning with exercise to stimulate the circulation. Then one would proceed from cooler to hotter rooms and waters. Then one would scrape away dead skin with a metal tool called a strigil. Finally there was a dip in cold water and some relaxing with refreshments in an outer area.

The Islamic sweat bath, or Hammam, was first endorsed by Mohammed. “The Islamic form of sweat bathing is a five-step process. The first step of the process involves the preparation of the body with heat; the second step involves vigorous massage; the third step involves shaving and removing dead skin; the fourth step is a vigorous soaping; and the process ends with the fifth step, where the bather relaxes and cools off with refreshments while lounging on couches in a rest hall.” The Turkish Bath is one form of this and was likely influenced by the Roman Bath. At first women were not allowed to bath but then separate men’s and women’s baths were introduced. Socializing is a big function in the baths and in some places if a husband prevents his wife from visiting the hammam it is grounds for divorce.

The rest of the book is devoted to Native American sweat practices and spirituality. The Sweat Lodge was one of the ceremonies the Europeans suppressed and banned. A quick primer is given on common Native American symbology: the notion of balance and harmony with nature, inter-relatedness, the 7 sacred directions including the center of the Medicine Wheel, the idea that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, and the role of male and female. The correspondences for the directions given are: east = new beginnings; west = rest; south = warmth, growth, harmony, interrelatedness; north = courage, strength, patience, endurance; above = Father Sky; below = Mother Earth; the center is the heart of each being. Regarding gender it was thought that men are more adept in the physical world while women are more adept in the hidden or spiritual world. Women were said to have less need for the sweat lodge since they were purified by the monthly menstrual cycle. People with bi-gender qualities were often thought to be blessed. “Homosexuals and transsexuals were considered to be especially gifted. They were thought to be people who had two souls in one body and could therefore represent both sexes.”  Other well-known Native American rites are covered in the book such as the pipe ceremony, the sundance, the vision quest, the spirit calling ceremony, and the potlach (ritual gift exchange). The trees who give branches for the frame of the sweat lodge are the “standing people.” The stones are called, “the stone people.” It is said that the stones record all the thoughts, energy, and actions of a place throughout time.

Next are instructions and ideas for building the sweat lodge. Typically a hole is dug for the stones and the earth from the hole is placed as an altar between the door of the lodge and the fire where the stones are heated. The lodge is typically made of willow and sometimes aspen. I have made them out of maple. For my current one I found a sugar maple tree that had been cut down but re-sprouted about 3 dozen new quarter-sized trunks. I could cut what I needed without destroying the tree. For covering I use tarps and blankets. It is sometimes hard to keep the light out during the day and sometimes hard to seal all the air leaks in cold weather. Small stones hold the covers to the ground. The door is placed so that one needs to crawl in. Hot rocks from the fire can be brought in with a pitchfork, antlers, or a grill top – as I use. Typically the ceremony involves some smudging with white sage, sweet grass, and cedar, Cedar is also used in the fire as a sacred wood. Often, as I have experienced, rocks will crack in the fire. It is recommended to use igneous rocks like granite, volcanic lava rocks, but also limestone is OK. Typically these are large rounded boulders – usually brought by glaciers from the Canadian Shield basement rocks. Typically, after the rocks are brought in, some of the aforementioned herbs are sprinkled onto the hot rocks as incense. If the rocks are well-heated one should see them glowing red in the darkness. When water is poured on them the steam begins along with its characteristic sound. If the lodge is well-sealed, the rocks are hot, and there is plenty of water poured, the lodge can get quite hot. A hot lodge is sometimes called a warrior’s sweat. I typically do the lodge alone and naked. One may lay branches an/or leaves on the floor of the lodge, or perhaps small pads of bamboo or some natural substance to keep from getting dirty. I usually bring my flute, rattles, and a big Remo drum that is not affected by the heat and moisture – so it keeps tone very well. Basically with 5 or 7 rocks to a session – in my small 2-3 person lodge it takes about 15-20 min per session. I usually end up doing 2 or 3 sessions – as that is all I have enough rocks for and time is often a factor as well – since it usually takes about two hours of a nice big fire with hot coals to heat up the rocks. Traditionally there are 4 sessions. What I do is to drum, flute, play shakers, chant, and meditate. If the lodge is hot you will sweat quite a bit. The first time I did a sweat lodge it was hot and I got a little light-headed. I have heard also of people getting sick and having to go out and vomit – maybe due to the smoke. Tobacco is also traditionally used – but I have not used it in my lodge. It is good to drink water and be hydrated before and between sessions. Fasting before the lodge is also traditional. Between sessions one may cool off by bathing in a stream or pouring water over oneself, or even rolling in the snow – I am looking forward to trying that one this year! The author recommends laying down for a minute or two after one comes out of the lodge to acclimate.

Next the author goes into the traditional meanings of totem animals including mammals, reptiles/amphibians, birds, and insects. Some people have visions during the lodge. I have not had any significant ones myself. It is thought that forming a strong intention to have a vision helps one to have one. I have experienced some success with this in dreams.

Next we come to sweating and health. Although the author states that they have been very few case s of someone harmed by a sweat lodge – soon after this book was published there was a the tragedy of people dying in a New Age sweat that was far too extended. Sweating at this level can mimic the actions of a fever which is the body’s way of reacting to remove biological invaders. Sweating is said to assist in removing toxins and is traditionally an activity of purification and healing. Sweating is thought to be good for the skin. It is estimated that a quart of sweat can be produced during a sweat lodge – although that seems a bit high to me. Sweating is known to help remove toxic heavy metals and excess salts. For these reasons it is often prescribed in Europe (as sauna) to assist those on kidney machines and those with hypertension (to help remove the salts). The artificial fever effect is also thought to help heal disease. There is also an increased metabolic rate in fever conditions. Sweating is also thought to regulate body temperature so that in cold weather it is warming and in hot weather it can be cooling. Sweat bathing is also considered to be good for stings and bites. I have read though in an older text about Native traditions written by European observers that sweating during certain diseases (such as the rampant smallpox among the Native populations several centuries ago) may have actually worsened the disease. The text was derogatory – suggesting that sweating was based on ignorance and had no healing qualities. Perhaps it did worsen smallpox – I do not know – but the positive health benefits of sweating are now very well established in the medical world.

Willow can be used in the sweat lodge. Sometimes it is put in the water and also drunk with water. Willow contains salicylic acid – very similar to aspirin and so has analgesic effects, blood-thinning effects, and topical anesthetic affects as well. Although women were not required to do sweat lodge,  there were and are traditional “moon lodges” when women sweat together during their menstruating time. Sweat bathing may also help to relieve discomforts associated with pregnancy and menopause. In Finland it was thought that the sauna helps the ability to make breast milk.

Another benefit of the sweat lodge is that it produces great quantities of negative ions. This is ensued by pouring the water on the hot rocks. Negative ion therapy has quite a bit of confirming research. Some other sources of negative ions are fire, waterfalls and fountains, salt – particularly heated salt lamps, and electronic machines that generate negative ions.

Finally, the author recounts some personal experiences and observations. For her, overcoming fear was one aspect of the lodge – as the heat can be intimidating. She notes three lessons that she learned from the Sweat Lodge:

1)      What you focus on grows
2)      Live in the moment
3)      You are stronger than you think

Overall – this is a nice, useful, practical, and easy-to-read little book.